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So Says

Phranc

April 06, 1986|MARGY ROCHLIN | Margy Rochlin is a Los Angeles writer.

1975, Susie Gottlieb, who calls herself the "basic, all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer," cut off all her hair and renamed herself Phranc. Now, her clear, tremulous voice and politically flavored folk songs--displayed on her debut album, "Folksinger" (Rhino), and heard in concert from London's Hammersmith Odeon to the Universal Amphitheatre--have earned her a devoted audience Q: When did you begin folk singing? A: My grandfather is a cantor. Every year when I was growing up we would celebrate Succot,the festival of the autumn harvest, at his home. It was a very big event, maybe 60 people, and he would always hire entertainment. When I was 14, he hired me. I sang "Zum Gali Gali" and other Jewish folk songs. And you could say it all started that Succot evening. Q: Why did you change your name to Phranc? A: When I was 17, I went to a Jewish lesbian history-exploration retreat, and while I was there I decided to change my name. I thought of it by doing word association with food. My real name--Sue--reminded me of sliced cucumbers. But Frank made me think of baked beans, so I went with that. When I got home from the retreat, I went to the barbershop next to the Safeway on Santa Monica Boulevard and said, "Cut it all off." My hair was long, past my shoulders. Afterward, I went to visit a friend, and I told her my new name. And she said, "Oh, perfect--I've got just the thing for you." She went into her bedroom and came back with a blue baseball cap with a "P" on it. She said, "Frank with a 'ph.' " Q: What did your parents think about the sudden change? A: They weren't too happy. I remember that I walked in, and they were in the kitchen fixing the stove. I was wearing a jacket and a tie, with my hair all gone, and I announced to them that I was Phranc. They just flipped out. They told me that they really couldn't accommodate my life style in their house. So basically, I walked in and just walked back out. But they've had 11 years to get used to it. Now we're very close, and they're very supportive of me. Q: Is there any part of Los Angeles where you feel uncomfortable about the way you look? A: I don't think anything is too weird for anyone anymore. I mean, women in Beverly Hills put pink streaks in their hair. There's no shock value; everyone's worn down like so much sandpaper. I guess the only place that's still a big issue is the women's bathroom at movie theaters. Q: Can you elaborate on that? A: Well, I'll be fixing my hair in the mirror or waiting in line, and a woman will walk in and see me. Then they'll walk back out and check the sign on the door and walk back in. Or if I'm alone, they sometimes just freak out and leave. But it's not always funny--maybe I just want to go to the bathroom and I don't feel like putting up with someone running out because I'm in there. Sometimes a woman will say to me, "This is the women's bathroom." And I stick out my chest and say, "I'm a woman." Sometimes breasts come in handy. Q: Can you speculate as to why your fans are so widely diversified? A: I make an effort to play for all different types of audiences. It's much more challenging, motivating and very inspiring. Q: You used to be in several punk bands. Why did you switch to folk? A: I was a member of three bands--Nervous Gender, Castration Squad and Catholic Discipline. During that period of time--around 1979--wearing swastikas was very popular with punks. Because I was Jewish, it really disturbed me. So I wrote this song, "Take Off Your Swastikas," and I performed it on acoustic guitar so the audience could hear the words. Q: Will you talk about the 10-year reunion that you recently attended at Venice High School? A: I dressed nice--black jeans, a new sweater, a nice white shirt. My hair was perfect. Anyway, it was pretty interesting there. There were no gay people there and not one new-wave haircut. Everyone looked very old, very adult. All these guys had nametags on with yearbook pictures on them showing them with really long hair and eyes like tiny slits because they were so stoned, and now they were yuppies. They gave out awards like Most Years Married and Most Kids. I felt like a kid who'd walked into the wrong place. Finally I saw these two girls running across the dance floor screaming, "Susie Gottlieb! Susie Gottlieb! We were hoping you'd be here." It was Danielle Keiser and Janet King from my Bluebird troop, girls that I had known since I was 7 or 8. They were both married and have children. They didn't have any idea about what I do now. They said, "What are you doing, Susie?" And I said, "Well, my name is Phranc now, and I sing. . . . " And they said, "You always did like to sing. I remember when you used to bring your guitar to school." And nothing surprised them about me, because I was always the big weirdo. I really felt with them it was more like, "What's so unusual about Susie Gottlieb having a flattop?"

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