You've Got A Home: June Millington's Lifelong Journey In Rock
In East Nashville, right at the center of the neighborhood's musically-driven hubbub, a Victorian-style corner building houses a popular gathering place. Fanny's House of Music is homey, with a hand-painted sign out front and a porch for lounging. Inside, one alcove contains vintage clothing, local artists' paintings and kitschy knickknacks, stuff a tourist or causal browser would buy. But most customers come to Fanny's for the instruments — drum kits, dobros, keyboards and especially electric guitars. Some are there for lessons from the down-to-earth staff of gigging musicians. And a large percentage of Fanny's regulars, like those staff members, are female. Many are just kids, learning to play in the light of the smiles cast by the famous women instrumentalists pictured all over the store's walls.
Co-owner Pamela Cole chose to gather only women's portraits as a counterpoint to conventional music stores, where cocks of the walk strut with their customized manhood extensions on larger than life endorsement ads, enforcing the marginalization female shoppers have long felt in these "experts'" enclaves. Some of the photographs on the wall at Fanny's are historical, including gospel pioneer Rosetta Tharpe and soul great Barbara Lynn, some contemporary: Taylor Swift, a vocal Fanny's supporter, is there, holding her signature acoustic. One group in the frames stands out, however, not only because its members vibrate with life, but because, for many Fanny's visitors, they're oddly difficult to place, even though they gave the store its name.
This is Fanny, the classic rock ensemble that, for a moment in the early 1970s, was virtually unique as an all-woman, pop-friendly hard rock band. Pamela Cole and Leigh Maples named their shop after the group upon opening in 2009 because they loved its sound, and conveniently, the moniker also had a Southern twang. But Fanny was Californian through and through — in the photos guitarist June Millington sent Cole from her private collection, she and bass-playing sister Jean, keyboardist Nicki Barclay and drummer Alice de Buhr shine with West Coast openness and optimism, their long hippie hair reaching past the scooped necks of their t-shirts, their wide-legged jeans chosen because in them they could stand on a festival stage for an hour-long jam and feel completely comfortable. Fanny's members are beautiful, but they look like musicians, not models; they're just pausing to look badass for the camera because the record label demands it.
"We knew how to play, we knew how to please an audience, we knew how to get people to dance, we knew how to set up a PA. I knew how to back up a trailer full of equipment," June Millington said during a recent interview in a coffee shop not far from Fanny's, where she'd come for a reading and performance celebrating her self-published memoir, Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World. "You have those skills — they're very practical, they're aside from the music — and so we were confident when we got down. We were like, 'Yeah, catch up with us.'
The sound of Fanny is one that easily fits into the ever more eclectic 21st-century rock world. The band's glam hippie vibe, a little bit fantastic but not fussy, has something in common with popular touring acts like Lake Street Dive or Banditos. Its blend of pop and hard rock isn't too far from Haim's, and its multicultural make-up — June and her sister Jean are half-Filipina — recalls La Luz. Like the Scissor Sisters or the gently psychedelic California garage scene that spawned Ty Segall, Fanny played hard-hitting rock that had room for plenty of pop harmonies and theatrical flourishes. The band was funky in the way a lot of California bands were at the turn of the 1970s — loose, experimental, but with the intention of making fans dance. And there's room in their songs: room for every player to stand out, for voices to merge and then go their own way, for a June Millington guitar solo to reach a thrilling high point. The band's first four studio albums, especially, the ones recorded before June and Alice left the band, capture the excitement of women testing and supporting each other in a space no one had really even imagined before.
"I'm now old enough where I have become the subject of college dissertations," the 67-year-old Millington said. And her life has been documented by scholars and a few journalists, most recently in Pitchfork and the BBC documentary Girl In a Band. Yet the incredible richness of Millington's life remains largely unheralded, a fact that Millington hopes will be remedied by the new, enormous memoir detailing the life choices leading up to and encompassing Fanny's rise.
Why is June Millington still mostly unknown, especially now, when the Web is alight with interest in feminist rock and intersectional politics? Here is a virtuoso guitarist who's written myriad songs celebrating women's power; a biracial woman born in the Phillippines who helped pioneer West Coast garage rock and then went on to connect with glam and heavy metal and record at The Beatles' Abbey Road; to play on the best-selling women's music album of all time, The Changer and the Changed and to found a rock and roll camp for girls when the idea of doing so barely existed. Millington has everything it takes to be a mythologized rock hero. There are signs that the recognition due her may finally come, yet she still struggles to be recognized.
Was Fanny defiant, I asked the now 67-year-old Millington? Did she feel like a Riot Grrrrl-style punk feminist before her time? She laughed. "We were good, and we got better and better," she said. "So essentially [our message was] f*** you. But f*** you with a smile on our face because we want you to buy our records!"
People can buy some of Fanny's records now. A limited-edition Rhino Handmade boxed set of Fanny's Reprise recordings was issued in 2002, and more recently, the small California label Real Gone Records rereleased the band's first three albums with liner notes by the Millingtons and De Buhr. (Barclay long ago divorced herself from the band's legacy.) But the band's songs, which tend more toward jams and funk breakdowns than anthems, aren't often covered by younger artists or found on women-in-rock playlists. The story of Fanny as it's usually relayed now is of a group unjustly disregarded, mostly because of sexism. That message is conveyed so often that it sometimes seem Fanny existed just to be forgotten.
Why hasn't Fanny's music been truly resurrected? The reasons are complex. They reflect lingering generational divides, attitudes about different strains of feminism, and prejudices about what rebellious music should sound like. A few years after Fanny's moment, The Runaways would turn girls' rage into something saleable, and Joan Jett would leave that band to craft surly anthems like "Bad Reputation" and "I Love Rock and Roll." Then punk would further topple norms. The radical aspects of Fanny's idea of making it the mainstream, and its sweet-and-salty sound, would get lost in the new noise.
This is a shame, because the whole point of Fanny was for women who played music for each other first — not as a novelty or a fashion statement — to be heard and seen by a major, mainstream audience. Asked whether she felt threatened as a young woman in a nearly all-male rock milieu, Millington said that her worries had more to do with not being recognized. "I felt much more at risk being invisible because that's exactly the category we fell into," she continued. "Because we were biracial and bi-cultural. I wanted to make friends and be visible .... There was not a picture of girls [in bands] in people's minds whatsoever. We created our own frame and then we stepped into that frame and created our own picture and that's what I was really interested in. I wanted to be visible."
The visible invisible: Fanny and Millington have too often been relegated to that strange space. Held up as an example of how sexism excludes women in rock from the mainstream, Fanny suffers the strange consequence of still not being heard that much today. Today, no Fanny shows up on streaming services, and even YouTube videos are of middling technical quality. It's also due to the group's funky, popwise, ever-evolving sound, more in league with other turn-of-the-1970s bands like The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat and The James Gang — "we played before The James Gang in Denver," Millington recalled, "and their heads where hanging when they came on stage, they didn't want to play, because at that time apparently we were better than they were" — than with more clearly anti-authoritarian acts like Joan Jett or, later, Bikini Kill. Fanny's music is fun and irresistibly danceable, but like Millington's playing technique, it takes time to really grasp. Instead of easy slogans, it offers long jams, tricky interpolations, and a ton of interplay among women attempting to work as equals.
Fanny's categorical elusiveness — built into the band via its virtuosity, by the non-binary Asian identities of the Millington sisters ("people didn't know where the Philippines was, and they didn't have a context for a Filipina," Millington said), and a sound that was simultaneously aggressive, funky, defiant and sweet — worked against the group in its time and continues to render its music difficult to simplistically invoke. Millington remembers feeling that she and her bandmates were just too competent for their peers, and many rock fans, too accept.
"I think that what really unified us was that we were all individually and as a group so determined to not only prove that we were good, but that we were as good as anybody," she said. "We were just sick and tired of the way people talked about us and viewed us, and the sneering that we could see, and that we would always have to change people's minds just to get to level two, never mind the penthouse of opinion. Just level two was excruciating for us and we were pissed. In a word, we were pissed."
Millington's insistence on continuing to learn defined Fanny's eclecticism. The core group created song structures with room for much open exchange, reminiscent of, though not identical to, that of The Band. Some of their songs, like Barclay's takedown of male rockers, "Borrowed Time," are openly subversive; others, like Millington's tender ode to single motherhood, "You've Got a Home," are quite gentle, though revolutionary in their own way. The albums Fanny, Charity Balland Fanny Hill, produced by adult-pop kingpin Richard Perry, are boisterous and welcoming; Mother's Finest, helmed by Todd Rundgren, is weirder and more glam. Millington left Fanny, replaced by leather-suited star Suzi Quatro's sister Patti, before the band enjoyed its biggest Top 40 hit with the David Bowie-inspired " Butter Boy." In that phase the group was at its most theatrical, nodding toward both Bette Midler and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Veteran music critic Jim Farber became a Fanny fan as a kid. He loved the band's unusual sonic blend. "They had a rare sound, mixing crunching rock with a lot of harmonies, and a fillip of funk. Yet they still sounded clean," he wrote in an email. He speculates that other listeners couldn't get past the first, obvious question. "You can't underestimate the degree of sexism that greeted them," he noted. "There was no history of all-female rock bands. So even though the women clearly had chops, and didn't draw play as objects in any way, it was hard for many rock fans of the day to hear the music through their suspicions about whether chicks were cool."
The lack of context for what Fanny tried was nearly total. June and Jean began their careers in high school, learning songs by playing them on the small turntable in June's bedroom. They always and only played with other women. As the Svelts and, briefly, Wild Honey, the band that would become Fanny did the high school gym circuit up and down the California coast while based in the sisters' hometown of Sacramento. There were a few other all-female bands, with names like The Freudian Slips and the Women, who, unlike the era's omnipresent girl groups, played instruments onstage. Though some of their fellow journeywomen actually ended up in one or two of Fanny's incarnations, Millington never even saw the bands play live. "The only reason we heard about them was because we met the girls who joined Wild Honey, that became Fanny. I only saw [the slightly later vintage all-female band] Birtha in L.A. once we moved down there." Birtha, whose sound was somewhat harder-edged, is even more forgotten than Fanny.
In this relative isolation, Fanny's members had each other, but offstage, their interplay did not fulfill a harmonious feminist ideal. For one thing, the group came into being before the women's movement fully emerged as a corrective to the male-dominated counterculture. For another, these women simply tussled a lot.
"We fought," Millington recalled, noting that her gentler sister hid from these conflicts by focusing on — no joke — knitting. "I mean until the second we got on stage, seriously. So really where we were cohesive was in our unity of knowing that we were important and how hard it was for us and how hard we worked. And we did it, in part, for the generations to come. Although they didn't really seem to appreciate it so much."
Millington left Fanny in 1974, exhausted by inter-band conflict and the group's lack of commercial success. During the course of her time with the group, she'd confronted sexism and racism directly, sometime being mistaken for a Mexican maid and dealing with an offer from Playboy for a nude Fanny centerfold — but only if the band showed its pubic hair. (Jean's response ran in Creem magazine, which labeled it a "wimpout": "We'll pose nude when Hugh Hefner poses for the centerfold with a hard-on. Let them show Mick Jagger's cock first or somebody cute.") The fights with bandmates, especially the equally willful and musically gifted Barclay, wore her out. She'd had an abortion. Her first serious love affair with a woman, the singer Tret Fure, occupied her and imploded. She did a lot of experimenting.
"People assume it was drugs," she says of her departure from the band. "It was sorrow. I was sorrowful. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be." Though Millington learned a lot from the guys with whom she regularly jammed, including Jeff "Skunk" Baxter from the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan soloist Elliott Randall, and Flying Burrito Brothers pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow, the dearth of other women in her position, beyond her own band, left her isolated even in the midst of the rock scene. "You know, there was no place — no one around me who was going to give me any information, any of the real information that I needed. The mirroring was one-dimensional. The questions I got — 'How does it feel like to be a girl guitar player?' Well, that's not going to take me to before the mountain, after the mountain."
Turning away from the quest for stardom, Millington immersed herself in spiritual pursuits. She also made playing among other women, for women, a priority. A new musical community was emerging within lesbian feminist circles, oriented around highly confessional, lush acoustic music by artists like Holly Near and Cris Williamson. The driving forces within women's music enlisted Millington as a key player.
Women's music is truly invisible within most histories of popular song, partly because it existed within a lesbian community with separatist leanings, and partly due to its folk- and world music-flavored sound, which seemed overly soft to the younger women who would forge a new link between feminism and rock in the 1990s Riot Grrrl years. Yet for Millington, the scene offered revelations.
"I saw bravery in action that was in itself invisible," she said. "Like — a woman whose house I was staying at, who had decided to go to college and her husband said, I want a divorce or she has to get a divorce in order to go to school. Or a woman who realizes she's a lesbian and now they're going to court and he's probably going to win because she's a lesbian. I mean, I just saw so many quiet acts of heroism that had to do with women salvaging their own lives, and I could not believe it." These experiences made Millington rethink Fanny. "That was what we had been doing. But we didn't know anybody else was doing it, because all of the girls that we saw were always — or let's say 99 percent — were with a boyfriend, and so they couldn't talk to us, they couldn't say anything. They would be looking at us admiringly, but they couldn't say anything to us with the boys around."
Finding inner strength within women's music, Millington also found herself exiled from the rock legacies she'd helped form. "June stopped being legible because she was not within the patriarchal system," said Sarah Dougher, a musician and author whose bands Cadallaca and the Crabs, and solo albums, played a key role in '90s feminist rock. "She was legible in Fanny, but then the women's music movement is almost completely illegible because of the problems it faced in actual reproduction. The Women's Music bin in record stores doesn't exist anymore, and it doesn't have any purchase in digital culture. It might be something people discover in five or ten years."
Dougher's observation that women's music is literally inaccessible in the digital age — as is much of Fanny's music outside of disorganized formats like YouTube — reminds us today, that history is in the hands of the electronically connected. Millington herself has worked to preserve her own work, but it's often only included as a footnote in playlists and other digital compendia. The generation of women rockers who followed her actively forged links with third wave feminist musicians, and their punk-rooted music was also closer aesthetically to what those younger rockers favored. Punk-inspired feminists tend to dutifully pay homage to Fanny in their writing or archival collections, but they gravitate toward a different sensibility, one that's rawer and more openly confrontational.
Millington noticed women like Jett and Deborah Harry, a decade younger than herself, whose 1970s output is now at the root of most feminist-rock canons. But she didn't hear anything new. "I really didn't pay that much attention to it because we really did start off with that garage band sound," she said. "It was exactly the same sound, but actually not even as well played." Her guitarist ears, she admits, may have lessened her absorption of such women's messages. "If I could've understood the words, I probably would've appreciated it more."
Women's music gave Millington a spiritual home, yet she found its self-imposed musical limitations frustrating. "I'd have people tell me to turn [the volume] down," she recalled. "Women who were maybe 10 years older than would me be very upset, they'd come to my show and tell me I was too loud. I'm like, too loud? What are you talking about? First of all, you have no idea who I am, really — which in a way was a vacation. I'd enjoyed that people didn't know, but the not so great part for me was people upset that I was turned up at all."
She kept trying new things. Under the name Millington, she made a disco-inflected album with Jean called Ladies on the Stage. In the 1980s she played with soft-rock and global music sounds on several solo albums. By 1987, however, she was focusing on a new venture: the Institute for Musical Arts, a women's retreat, studio, school and, eventually, summer camp, which she'd founded with her partner, activist Ann F. Hackler. It was first located in Bodega, California, in Sonoma County, and later found a permanent home near rural Goshen, Massachusetts. Millington and Hackler moved the IMA to Massachusetts in 2001, the same year the first punk-inspired Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls was established as a day camp in Portland.
Millington's approach to playing is summed up in a proverb: Don't play through your mistakes. Start again, because if you' don't, "essentially you're practicing your mistakes." She teaches this fundamental now at the IMA camps. "You have to integrate your right hand, your left hand, and you have to work slowly and get up to the place where now you can forget that you're playing. That's the goal. First you start, and it's agonizing and you're thinking about everything and you're actually criticizing yourself and what not, but then you forget, and that's the part that's the goal. That's the bonus ."
IMA also hosts workshops and residencies for adult women musicians, following the women's music model of developing a safe space in which to nurture female creativity. When the center began serving youth, its concept was an overnight camp stressing the importance of practice and technical skills. The IMA camps share much of the spirit of the better-known Rock Camps — "Girls in packs is a really good thing, that's why I encourage girls to form bands," Millington said — but it favors the spiritual and the introspective in more pronounced ways. The size of the IMA camps also contrasts to the yards full of girls singing Veruca Salt's "Seether" that characterize better-known, punk- and hip hop-focused rock camps.
"Eleven is the magic number, eleven or twelve," Millington said, describing each session of IMA's five annual camps. "We only make it fourteen because otherwise we'd lose money. The numbers don't look good, and that's partly why we don't get grants as much as we should, you know? But in order to affect inner change and to deal with the traumas and the issues that are coming up at that age, we have to have a small group."
As with other rock camps, IMA has educated a handful of girls who've grown up to become nationally touring musicians. Singer-songwriter Sonia Kitchell and Naia Kele, recently a contestant on The Voice, both attended IMA camps. Longtime rock innovator Toshi Reagon considers Millington "one of my three moms" along with her biological mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Nona Hendryx, and has frequently participated in IMA programming Ani DiFranco, and Lake Street Dive's Rachael Price are also active supporters.
Carla Black, founder of ROCKRGRL, the first American magazine to devoted to women musicians, was a beneficiary of IMA's support when she decided to fold the publication in 2005. "June invited me to come out to IMA to put together a think tank for me to help figure out what my next project should be. Women like Rita Houston of WFUV, Susan Tanner from Righteous Babe Records, Leah Kunkel, artist manager Emily Lichter. It was the dream team. People and artists on this level have always been June's inner circle. I came up with the name MEOW (Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women) that weekend." Black went on to produce four conferences under the MEOW moniker.
The IMA summer camps are like those think tanks, with a focus on girls. The combination Millington offers is unique. "It's overnight, it's very small, and guess what — it focuses on musicianship," said Dougher. "Immediately, it's a whole different thing. The idea that women need to work their asses off in safe spaces — places where they won't be put down — that they need these places to develop, that's the heart of what June is doing."
That space — safe, but continually challenging — is what Millington craved in Fanny. For a time, the bandmates lived together in a Hollywood Hills house they dubbed Fanny Hill — a place that, Millington writes in her memoir, "was a stone's throw away from the action — being there was like living in the Wild West, only with a swimming pool." There, Millington was among women, spending day and night working at becoming a better musician. Yet Fanny Hill was no paradise. The external pressures exerted upon Fanny by the music industry, and the inter-band tensions that eventually led to its demise, were not ones Millington could overcome on her own. To get to the next place, she'd need a movement: the women's movement. Giving her heart, soul and chops to it allowed her to thrive. But it also pushed her beyond the borders of official rock history.
"It is horrendous and criminal the way people don't want to give women their props in music. It is tedious," Toshi Reagon wrote in an email. "June and Jean never were expected. They ... insisted that they exist. I think that is what June has done her whole life. The thing June, Nona and my Mom have in common is when the light came on for them they never turned it out. Each of them values the voices of the young- each of them is interested in what is new while not letting go of what is important about what they hold. They are some of the hardest working people I know and they are super generous. It makes them feel good to see and discover what is possible."
Though she's always kept going — Black calls her an "Energizer bunny" — it took Millington herself a while to get to the point where she could clearly articulate her and Fanny's place in history. "June never told me about Fanny," Reagon wrote. "I was surprised and I was like — That's f****** you and you need to talk about this."
With Land of a Thousand Bridges, Millington is hurling a 500-plus page brick at her own wall of silence, and at the conventional narrative that would render her a footnote. Despite its length, it's a joy to read, chock full of stories about her many famous friends and informal collaborators and, more importantly, her self-education as a musician and an independent woman in an often hostile environment. Though she's always making music, and released a 2011 album with Jean, Play Like a Girl, that sounds not unlike the ragged union of classic Fanny and a particularly jangly Riot Grrrl band, Millington spent many decades keeping Fanny's music in a bottom drawer. The visible invisibility of Fanny has been a frustration for her for decades, but only now, with this memoir, is she herself putting the group's importance front and center.
She still feels sadness about her contentious relationship with Barclay, who has been out of touch with her band members since the 1970s. But she and Jean worked with De Buhr on the Fanny reissues, and that process, among other things, led her to write.
"It was as if I were in a movie before, like an action movie, where they make everything dark. And now all of a sudden everything started to light up, and then at some point even the basement was filled with light, and then I started to find more rooms that were filled with light. So now I'm totally on the other side," she said. "Fanny Hill is filled with light for me."
There was a feeling of completion when, in Nashville, Millington entered Fanny's House of Music — the house that she built. There were the photographs that pique visitors' interest, now visibly connected to a living, guitar-playing woman. "June sent me those pictures when we first opened up," Cole recalled. "So for her to actually come here ... When she got out of the car Leigh met her at the steps, and she looked up and we looked down at her. It really was surreal, I think for both of us."
For Millington, it's a moment of fulfillment, but also of letting go. "I did the work of growing up," she said. "I'm a lot less, kind of, jealous, and I am so willing and accepting to see the [successes] that are coming up. I'm also willing to fight for the idea that we need feminism. Like when girls come in, especially college girls, these girls that'll come in to be interns or to work with us, and they say, oh, feminism, I don't really think that way — I go ballistic because not only do I know how important it was back then, I know how important it is now. And I feel like I'm one of those people ringing the bell going, hey, it's happening again. Wake up, wake up! We need to do this together. That's the best of my life, right there."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.