Feisty, Flame-Haired Veteran Punkaroo Dottie Farrell Cuts Loose
Real rock & rollers know sometimes they have to let it bleed. Preventing bodily harm ranks a distant second to cutting loose in front of a souped-up audience. Dottie Farrell -- just Dottie, actually -- is a real rock & roller.
"I bashed myself really good a couple times at the Hole in the Wall recently," says the Punkaroos' feisty lead singer. "They were filming it, and they had lights in my eyes so I couldn't see. I walked offstage into the monitor and bashed my knee so hard I almost started crying. Right in the middle of a song."
Besides intermittently prowling the Hole stage with the Punkaroos, Dottie also works the door and practices mixology at the Drag-bound live-music bar, which made her realize just how well-worn those few square feet beneath the plate-glass window are.
"I had to take a TABC class there the next day, and I was up there in the daytime," she recalls. "And I hadn't ever really looked at the stage in the light. That stage is just disgusting. It's got splooge from 25 years of splooging on it."
It gets messier.
"It's got this metal coping that's caked with this thick, black, greasy-grimy crap," continues the singer. "We were playing up there and I did my thing where I drop to my knees. I slipped, hit my knees on the coping, then smashed into the floor, and bam!, landed on my elbows. Nobody knew I got hurt, but I was bleeding through the spandex that night."
Dottie's not one to be deterred by a little grease, a bruise or two, and some blood, or even some mysterious "splooge." When the Technicolor Yawns, her first group after moving to Austin in 1983, played at parties, skinheads would show up and shower them with urine. Dottie loved it.
"It was an all-out party band with a confetti cannon, a bubble machine, glitter flying through the air, door prizes," she remembers fondly. "It was really cheesy and really silly."
The Yawns were primarily a dance band, their repertoire including sock-hoppers like "My Boyfriend's Back" and "Tallahassee Lassie." Since they were from Austin, they also performed a number of originals about bowing to the porcelain god. Inhibitions were somewhat, shall we say, lowered. At least they came by their material honestly.
"Liquid courage," notes Dottie today. "We were all imbibing some substance or another to make you giddy and happy to start with."
For someone who works in a bar and plays self-proclaimed "drinkin' music," Dottie is hardly the adult beverage lobby's No. 1 spokeswoman, preferring instead to quote Homer Simpson's adage that alcohol is the "cause and solution to all of life's problems." She will admit, however, that booze helped ease her initiation into a townful of strangers.
"I saw the same people every night, but nobody was ever friendly," she laments. "One or two people were friendly, but for the most part, they'd just see you and say 'uhh.'"
All that changed when her friend Ralph, a woman, met her at Club Foot and brought her to a Thanksgiving potluck party for "orphans" in the scene.
"It was sort of a potluck -- eat 'til you pop, drink till you drop -- for people who had no family in town," she says. "Biscuit brought this cake that was like Noah's Ark, all covered with the most ugly icing and animal crackers. That night I met everybody. Once I went to a party and had beer with people, then all of a sudden I knew everybody in Austin."
"We were some of the last people there, and she looked lonely," remembers former Big Boy Randy "Biscuit" Turner, who gave Dottie a ride home on his motorcycle that evening, and would go on to form Swine King with her some years after. "So I went over and talked to her. And I remember thinking, 'Wow! She's as crazy as I am!' She matches my insanity to a very positive degree."
Originally headed for San Francisco to fulfill her dream of seeing the Residents and Flipper, Dottie became an Austinite when an "ex-boyfriend" she escaped South Florida with decided this was as far as he was going, while the friend she was planning to move in with warned her of the Bay Area's high cost of living.
Austin in the mid-Eighties was precisely the kind of place a punk rock refugee from West Palm Beach could find cheap rent, cheap beer, and cheap bands. While downtown's ongoing reconfiguration into TechWorld tries to eliminate all vestiges of this earlier, looser time, there's a certain metal grate in the heart of the Warehouse District that holds quite a bit of sentimental value for Dottie. Once upon a time, it was the sole window of a pit known as Voltaire's Basement.
"It was this hellhole of a club, but the only place to be," she recalls. "You'd go in the door on the side of the building that's underneath the Lavaca Street Bar, go down this little rickety wooden staircase into this basement with no windows, no escape anywhere.
"The Hickoids would play under there and have bales of hay and chickens and stuff," she says. "I saw the Jackofficers in there, the Dicks played there, the Big Boys played there, all the touring bands that came through played there. I saw some really crazy, crazy shows in there. It was hot and smoky and horrible and wonderful."
One night at Voltaire's, Valentine's Day in fact, she met local guitarist Mark Kenyon, who she would not only date for a number of years, but also continue to work with in a series of musical associations that continues in today's Punkaroos.
"He's the most kick-ass, awesomest guitar player in Austin of all time -- forever," crows Dottie. "I'm sorry Stevie Ray, I'm sorry everybody else. Paul Leary, whoever. Let's not name names."
Dottie eventually replaced the lead singer in Kenyon's band Jaws of Life, which followed the lead of the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid by antagonizing and alienating their audience as much as possible. Unlike those two local music legends, however, Dottie says Jaws of Life was never the cool band to go see.
"We'd always joke about making a tape of crickets chirping to play between songs when it was quiet," she laughs. "We'd finish a song and there'd be this weird guitar part, and everybody would just be sitting there with their mouths hanging open."
On occasion, Jaws of Life provoked reaction that was a little more life-threatening, like the night one particular glue-addled patron decided he had to get in on the action. That was the same night Dottie's mom was witnessing her daughter's band for the first time.
"She hadn't ever been to Texas, she hadn't ever met my friends," explains Dottie. "This guy comes in and sits down, and he's got the Suicidal Tendencies bandanna thing going, just talking to himself and mumbling and wobbling in his seat. My mom's looking at me like, 'Do you know this guy?' and I'm like, 'No.'
"The show starts, and Jack has a neck appliance on Mark, and Mark's talking trash about Jack or something," continues Dottie. "Jack comes over and is like, 'I'll kill you!' and he pulls out a dull knife and hits the fake appliance on Mark's neck, and that guy in the audience just grabs a knife and comes rushing up to the stage. Darcee [Douglas] grabbed him, put him over her shoulder and carried him out the door -- threw him out in the street.
"My mom, the whole time she's like, 'Don't you think this [act] is gonna invoke violence from the audience? I'm worried about this.' I'm like, 'Oh mom, relax. That never happens.' Then of course she's sitting there and it does."
A born performer, Dottie also enjoys drawing, adding she's "too busy, lazy, or old" to do much of it lately. Besides exercising her thespian skills in Austin bon vivant Robbie Jacks' early-Nineties punk rock musical Boy Trouble, she found a way to combine her talents and share the stage with her old friend Biscuit, with whom she formed Swine King in the early part of last decade. Combining theatrical pageantry with bottom-scraping gut-rock, Swine King's lavish, over-the-top shows became local legend.
Recounting some of his favorite performance themes, Biscuit mentions the band's "Hello Dixie Mobile Home Park," wherein the band bedecked the Liberty Lunch stage in clotheslines, appliances, and hand-lettered signs. Then there was the prehistoric attire of the "Stoned Age," the sci-fi "Penetrating Uranus' Gaseous Rings," and the time he and Dottie stayed up all night making voodoo huts.
"We traded off so much fun in that band," he says. "She was my sounding board."
"It was probably the best experience of being in a band," enthuses Dottie, "because we got to play out of town, and there was so much love. We had the best fans, and we had the most fun at shows that any band could ever have."
Swine King eventually dissolved the way most headstrong artists' collectives do, and while she confesses that not having to scramble for props like 1,000 Bible pamphlets at the last minute was something of a relief, she remains proud of what the band managed to accomplish during its flamboyant, sometimes chaotic run.
"I went to a party with [boyfriend] Matt about a month ago, and I met all these people that play in this other circle of bands here in town, and everybody's like, 'Oh, I remember you! You're from Swine King!'" she says. "That band really did make a difference. That band gave me a lot of confidence. When you got onstage with that band, it was really easy. The hard part was getting everything together and getting it there, and then getting everybody to not throw pie at each other at the House of Pies."
Even though she jokingly wonders where her "superstardom" is, Dottie looks like she's having a pretty good time. She's known her calling since seeing the Ramones' cable classic Rock & Roll High School at age 14, turning to punk rock in order to abate the awkwardness she felt as a kid from rural New York marooned in sunny San Diego.
"I was so square, even the nerds wouldn't hang around me," she admits. "I wore stretch pants, had those big stupid plastic glasses, and wanted a Dorothy Hamill haircut so they cut my hair like a boy. For about six months, I really wanted to be cool, but then I just didn't care anymore if I was ever cool."
In the middle of high school, another move back across the country to Florida didn't help matters, but she did manage to find a couple of kindred spirits. One was a girl with tattoos and missing teeth by the name of Debbie Rage, who knocked Dottie up and down the dance floor at a Bad Brains show, calling her a "poser." The other was a British exchange student who insisted everyone call him "Sid."
"I met him on the bus," recounts Dottie. "He was setting the seat on fire, yelling 'Nuclear Meltdown! Nuclear Meltdown!' He would never bathe and just went out of his way to be ridiculous all the time. He had a really great album collection too."
Later, she hooked up with Tim Swingle of the Floridian punk band F, and on a stopover on her way to San Francisco, she decided to stay in the Texas state capital. (Swingle went on to his own barroom notoriety as part of storied local rabble-rousers Doctor's Mob.) This year has been rougher than most due to the sudden loss of her father, and while her mother passed away a few years ago, the latter at least got to witness a couple of local fans genuflecting Wayne-and-Garth-style at Dottie's feet in a Whole Foods aisle.
"If I won the Nobel Prize, I don't think she could have been prouder," she says.
Make no mistake, Dottie is a rare find: an old-school Austinite who'd still rather live here than anywhere else.
"For everybody who bitches about it," she insists, "the nicest people in the world have ended up here, if they aren't from here to start with."
Onstage, Dottie is part step-class instructor and part drill sergeant, barking out lyrics while remaining in constant motion. Admittedly, it's hard not to do a double take at her preferred attire of leopard minidresses, stockings, platform combat boots, and orange hair you can see with your eyes closed, but it's simply the raw kinetic force she transmits to audiences that's most irresistible. Even on the fairly cramped Flamingo Cantina stage, quite a bit deeper than it is wide, she still manages to do a good bit of writhing.
"You get good at dodging her," remarks awesomest guitar player in Austin Mark Kenyon.
Dottie freely admits she wouldn't be nearly as bad-ass without the Punkaroos behind her -- all four of them dear old friends. Besides Kenyon, the local punk concern boasts the Dicks rhythm section of bassist Buxf Parrott and drummer Pat Deason, as well as former Shoulders guitarist Todd Kassens. Heavily marinated in ass-kicking Dee-troit guitar, scowling CBGB attitude, and red-faced Texas "o'nry"-ness, the Punkaroos match Dottie's intensity with music that nails you to the floor. Then again, they've got the easy job.
"It's pretty much turn her loose and we play," chuckles Parrott. "Just let her do her thing."
"We don't have to worry about entertaining anybody," he says.
"Just wind her up and keep her from ..." Kassens searches for a choice ending to his sentence, but Parrott beats him to it.
"... hurting us."
"She knows the value of the stage, and she can really work that runway," says her old friend Biscuit.
"It's fun for me when we play at a place where I can get in the audience," explains Dottie. "Get off the stage and get in the audience -- mess around with people.
"I like people to come down front. People come and they stand and it's almost like there's electricity, an invisible fence they can't go through. It's like, 'I'm not gonna get anything on you!'
"Well, maybe some beer."