Her story: A conversation with L.A. journalist and musician Falling James
By Tom Reardon, May 2020 issue.
There is an alternate universe somewhere in which “Falling” James is currently the president of the United States.
Before we ponder quantum physics, though,
let’s ponder the universe in which we currently reside.
We are living at a time when it feels like
there are multiple roads all converging into one seemingly disastrous point.
Some of these roads are cultural, economic, pandemic and bizarro world
political. They all seem to have contradictory signs on them that say things
like: “Flee” or “Stay Where You Are.” Or, “Change is Coming” but “Please don’t
Change,” and, lastly, “Buy a shitload of toilet paper, rice, and beans.”
And, if we really stop and look at it good
and hard, the point where these roads all converge is one that we cannot yet
Right now is the time for truth and respect and empathy. What gift can we live by listening to each other? The days and nights are ripe for conversation, dialogue, and debate. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to cast doubt on things we were brought up to trust.
We chanted oaths nearly every day of our
youth to honor and obey, right?
It is okay to ask questions.
It is also the time to rise and be heard. It makes sense that if we look beyond the fear and embrace our identity, we can make better choices and find a voice for ourselves in these strange times.
It is the time to be strong even if we are
scared because when the going gets rough, the tough get weird and wild and
ready to rock.
Which brings us back to the idea of James as president. If not now, when would be a better time for a trans woman, punk rock guitar playing, poet, and journalist to be president?
Falling James, 58, is a lifetime resident of Los Angeles, and actually was a former candidate for president who first ran for office in 1988 on a platform solidly built around Native American rights, gender equality, and marijuana legalization. During our discussion, she did mention spending some time in the wilds of southern Oregon, growing up helping a family friend build a cabin which sounds like an essential part of any presidential biography.
She grew up moving around Los Angeles a
fair amount after her parents divorced and was a relatively early convert to
the city’s burgeoning and influential punk rock scene in the mid-1970s, which
would turn out to be formative in her life.
“My first show was the Ramones, (The) Runaways, and The Quicks sometime in January of 1978. In that sense of the early punk scene, which started roughly around ‘76 and, really, was bigger in 1977, so I already felt like a latecomer by the time I started going to clubs. That show led to seeing The Runaways in the clubs and seeing The Quick, who I was so amazed by them that it led to me going to all these club shows. For one thing, a lot of them were $3. Places like the Starwood and the Whisky (a Go Go) would have two bands a night, like The Go Go’s and The Alley Cats, and The Alley Cats would be headlining because The Go-Go’s were relatively new,” remembers James.
(It would not be bad to have a president
who went to shows like these.)
These shows had a profound effect on James' desire to be in a band herself. With some high school friends, he started a band called The Mongrels who were, as she readily admits, not quite ready to jump on any of the epic shows she was seeing as often as possible. Originally a drummer, James played a cardboard box that had once contained a television and a broken cymbal in the Mongrels and the band never got a chance to play live.
“I never took music classes; I had no idea. We never could afford that. It seemed like a bus I had missed when I was growing up as much as I loved music. I never thought it could happen to me or I could make it. I thought you had to be born to do it,” says James.
In 1980, though, James became the front person for The Leaving Trains who she often refers to as something of a more punk, yet sloppier version of the better-known Minneapolis band, The Replacements. With what would become, over the years, a revolving cast of co-conspirators and Falling James now on guitar, the Leaving Trains began to attack the LA scene with their unique blend of punk, psychedelia, and raucous power pop. There was also the occasional foray into the bluesy, druggie Doors-like sound, as well, making for a fine combination of sight and sound.
Over their career, The Leaving Trains built an impressive discography with albums like Kill Tunes (SST Records, 1986) and 1987’s Fuck (also SST) showing both primal energy and a growing sound that continued to evolve through the early 2000s. The song “What Cissy Said” off Fuck is a true masterpiece and a wonderful example of the band, and James, firing on all cylinders. While this may sound glamorous, the financial success that many of their peers may have tasted was not something The Leaving Trains ever found.
It helps that James is a truly wonderful and eloquent writer who has supported herself over the years as a journalist. This path was something that she started in high school after a fiery letter to the editor of the school paper resulted in a challenge from the school journalism teacher, Mrs. Clark, to be part of the solution, rather than just complain about the problem.
“I didn’t expect that. I was used to being an outsider and not being part of the school clubs and I was like, ‘Wow. Okay,’ so I did, and I loved it and I never really stopped. I’m more known for my band, but there was a period of time where I was mainly a news writer before I got into more music writing at The L.A. Weekly,” says James.
Many readers may have seen the “Falling James” byline over the last three decades where she has described the sights, sounds, and occasionally the smells of the Los Angeles music scene. Most recently, James has kept her city in the know about the best shows in town to check out, but with the coronavirus shutting the music scene down everywhere and drastic cuts to many news source budgets impacting James and her peers around the country, at least for the time being, this has been put on hold.
Admittedly, Falling James can be a “caustic” voice as a writer, and maybe this is still part of the punk rocker coming out in her, but she has also evolved to seeing something nobler in her chosen profession.
“There is so much great music going on that I would much rather focus on some really cool new band like The Paranoyds or Egrets on Ergot, than explaining why the Eagles and Phil Collins, or in the case of The Police (the band), oppressive. There is plenty of terrible music that we still like anyway or music we just have as comfort food. I’ve tried not to waste as much time on people who are completely wrong in their taste in music and just be more accepting, but also trying to make people aware that there is some really great stuff going on and many times they are playing for free in your neighborhood,” says James.
(A journalist as president would be a nice
change of pace. Someone who likes to tell true stories?)
She is also hopeful that even with all the
uncertainty surround the music industry, of which she says she’s never really
felt a part of, that something positive will come of the change we see around
“Part of me wants to be optimistic and hope maybe this will help dismantle some of the corporate structure that has taken over, even the club scene, where creativity is starting to be affected by it. I think there is starting to be a bland normalcy to a lot of music when at least some music is supposed to be rebellious and inspire,” she says.
Rebelling against the norm is part of who James is, but it also must be authentic to the woman who lives with her kitties, as she refers to them.
During The Leaving Trains days, she began performing more and more in women’s clothing and this was something that caused issues for bandmates and fans, even though it was something she was more comfortable with.
“We lost a lot of fans when I started becoming trans in public all the time. (There were people) who felt that I was no longer my real self and I was being dishonest because, before that, I was being more honest because I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. But now that I’m wearing high heels and stockings, I’m suddenly dishonest. The real truth is that this how I’ve been dressing my whole life. Wearing pants was dishonest because I never liked that and when I realized I didn’t have to keep doing it or finally got brave enough to not care what people thought,” says James before continuing:
“This is a common thing for a lot of trans people. You lose a lot of people. If you come out and you’re trying to live your life the way you really are, you lose a lot of friends and it’s very hard for any romantic partner and for some family members. It’s so hard that many (trans) people go back or they give up and they kill themselves because you can very easily from your social network or support group. Some people can be that horrified by it or that unaccepting of it.”
The truth that James' fans know her for, and truly should be much more well-known for, is refreshing. She is well-versed in the bullshit-fantastica that is current U.S. politics and has a lot say about the state of our current and ongoing affairs. In conversation, she seems ready for another run at the Presidency, even if she didn’t quite come out and say it. For someone who was once married to Courtney Love and a guest on The Jerry Springer Show, she is an incredibly private person, at least from the information you can find on the internet.
Having said that, she is not about to shy away from standing up for what is right.
“The only thing I can do is just keep
complaining and making art and putting up mirrors and putting up roadblocks,
whatever is appropriate to draw attention to things and I think we all need to
take that attitude. We must start looking at changing things ourselves and we
have to realize that maybe we are going to be up against forces that aren’t
going to be democratic and aren’t going to change. We may have to do a lot more
than just write an angry opinion letter or voting for someone who is the lesser
of two evils.
There is going to be a point where we must start saving (people) and not letting our tax dollars go to funding these multi-national war corporations. It’s really about all of us considering ourselves to be our own presidents and our own parties and taking action in the neighborhoods we live in,” says James.
Maybe it’s time for a president who isn’t always spouting off about how great they are and, instead, maybe it is time for someone like Falling James to take over. (That wouldn’t be terrible at all.)
(Our print article above continues here with an additional Q&A with Falling James)
Times are a bit crazy right now, aren’t they? You
mentioned a botched food order the other day. How are you holding up?
Living in an earthquake area, I’ve always tried to plan to
have a few weeks of water and food, but sometimes I forget to update them.
This whole thing has played havoc on writing about live
music. What do you think is going to come of all this for the music industry,
especially the live (concert) part of it?
At first, they were canceling concerts for two weeks, but I think there seemed to be a better consensus after they started listening to the medical professionals that this isn’t going to be done in a few weeks, but that depends on human behavior, and that is a scary thing to depend on.
It’s obviously weird for everyone involved. So many of the
artists and musicians, you wonder if you will ever see them again. Who is going
to survive is the more basic question. It’s very dizzying. A lot of clubs will
not be around (after the virus).
industry has to change, I think, now that people are going to be scared to
congregate for a while.
I’ve been making music for a long time, but I’ve never felt part of any industry. We were on some independent labels …
Now it is a different landscape where there is almost no
industry at all. Bands survive on what they get paid at shows and their
merchandise. There are no real sales of music. I don’t know how that will
change either. People are used to not paying for music. Even if you’re paying
for Spotify, that’s not really going to the artist.
People love making music so much, they may just give up on
the idea of getting paid for it. There are so many musicians who just love what
they are doing and many of us are used to not getting paid so maybe that will
keep it going.
These are definitely not times for the weak at heart.
Maybe some decent art will come out of it.
As much as I grew up on science fiction and fantasy and
speculative fiction, I never really liked quarantine or virus scenarios.
At heart, I’m an optimist, but people are so thoroughly
rotten as a group that it’s hard to just not sound cynical all the time. I
guess that’s my duality and then no one ever sees the innocent, idealistic part
because I am so remorselessly angry all the time. That’s punk rock.
I think you’re talking about punk rock, though, in its
earliest, truest sense, though, right?
Punk rock has now become so accepted that it’s like volleyball or a sports bar or something, in fact, it can happen in a sports bar, whereas in the old days, the jocks were the people trying to beat up the punks.
Later, you had this homoerotic revolution where all these
repressed men in the military and a lot of those same jocks suddenly were into
hardcore and the scene became exclusively male and violent. Unfortunately, it
didn’t lead to a revolution in sexuality and openness in expression. It was
just a lot of Marines beating each other up with music in the background.
There was a time when being a punk rock or even looking vaguely different, it meant that police would pull over and beat you up in LA. It was a risky thing. Now, everyone has a punk rock friend and it is just as common as everything else, but at the same time, a lot of punk is very happy-go-lucky, cheery, escapist music even though it’s not like these times are any different than with (former UK Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher and (President Ronald) Reagan.
True. Things haven’t really changed that much.
Human beings are still being controlled against their will. That has never really changed and the idea that punk is now an escapist, sports background music … it has no real danger or threat. In the early days of punk, there was no uniform. The fact that everyone started looking like the Ramones was a couple of years later. In the early days, it also meant Klaus Nomi and the Slits and people dressing garishly and wildly. There was a lot more color and variety before it became a monochromatic black thing.
A supposed contrarian, an underground scene should embrace people who look like whatever. I think any crowd that is easy to typify visually and has no diversity within it is a dying scene. I’m more interested in what’s upsetting punk rockers. There is so much great music being done by kids yet much of the old punks have stepped off the bus, whether it was when Darby (Crash of the Germs) died or grunge took over or hair metal, everyone retreated to their high school bunkers and are listening to the same reassuring things, and I’ve done that, too. There’s nothing more reassuring than listening to the music that turned you on.
I’m guilty of that a lot of the time but always amazed at what I find when I venture out a bit into what’s happening now. It’s not very punk rock to ignore what the kids are up to, is it?
To completely divorce yourself of an entire cultural
movement that is continuing, I think a lot of people are missing out. I think
that is one reason culture is so fractured. There are entire age groups that
won’t listen to other age groups.
They’re missing out. I have fond memories of seeing some
pretty famous bands when they were just coming up. I’m sure you know what I
It’s always great to see a band when they’re tiny than having to see them in a sports stadium. I think there should be more pride about that. People who see The (Rolling) Stones now and tell themselves it is a great show and how good they are because they are all standing up and playing the songs in the correct order, but actually it’s almost a completely different lineup than the band in 1973 when they actually sounded ferocious and dangerous.
Speaking of dangerous, what do you think about our
country these days?
I think we’re one of the few countries where people don’t
really believe in revolution. People will take to the streets and protest and
that in itself is a great thing, but we tend to give up when the police start
cracking down on everyone. In other countries, they understand things like
sustained economic strikes or sustained boycotts against the corporations that
are destroying things.
The consumer can have a lot to do with a revolution. You can
stop paying for things or use your money in other areas. That kind of
widespread action is the thing that the business elite and the government and
military actually pay attention to because it threatens them.
Even with this pandemic, with an authoritarian government really has very little control over anything. It isn’t even able to muster an emergency response to something that was predicted months ago. Imagine if it was a disaster like a volcano or a hurricane. There is a perception that no one is really in charge and the people who are in charge don’t know what they are doing.
This isn’t new to you, though, is it? You’ve been
passionate about these types of things for a long time and have long spoken up
for those who don’t have the attention of the masses.
The stuff going with the Native American Nations, for example, which is supposed to be separate nations, but whenever this country needs to steal or plunder their resources, suddenly all the treaties and rules go out the window. You see these real effects of it because the poverty in the Native nations is so oppressive and the way that the U.S. interferes or the tribal governments are set up, it’s a slow form of genocide.
I don’t have any nostalgia for what this country ever stood for because it is an ostensibly democratic country founded on the genocide and land theft from the people who were here who weren’t allowed to vote. That’s not really a democracy. It’s not freedom if the people who were here had no voting rights until three centuries later.
You’ve run for president many times. Are you a fan of the presidency?
I don’t think there has been a noble presidency in my lifetime. Even (former President Jimmy) Carter still did foolish things and tried perpetrating military invasions in countries where we had no right to be there. (Former President Barack) Obama, at one point, was invading ten countries at a time and was expanding (former President George W.) Bush’s war and everybody with a conscience hated what the two Bush’s had been doing.
I feel it is a very dark time. The democrats either seem to
want to lose or have been paid to lose. That’s my newest theory. They are not
even trying to win. They have already made a deal to be the Washington Generals
(the Harlem Globetrotters perennial foe). They are not even being somewhat
progressive. Unfortunately, we have a country that is run by the same
corporations regardless of which party or figurehead is in charge. I have no
illusions about (President Donald) Trump, but I also have no illusions about
(former Vice President Joe) Biden. I don’t think the people of Yemen or
Venezuela are going to notice a difference either way.
When you’re invading multiple countries at a time, you’re
not one of the good guys. You’re the Nazis at that point. A sovereign,
self-confident country doesn’t need to keep invading other countries in a state
of endless war.
So, what should we do? What can we do to help our country
Check on people who might not have the virus but are slipping away because of depression.
People like me who are transgender still have very high
suicide rates. Trans people of color, in particular, suffer really high murder
and assault rates. On top of that, we deal with authorities and police
departments who either don’t care or can be even more hostile than the abuse we
get out on the streets. There is a lot that needs to change.
Whatever the thing that you care about is, it all kind of
weaves together with other people having the right to be happy, too. That is at
the heart of what is wrong right now. There is very little sharing of the
planet’s resources. We shouldn’t be leaving people behind to move forward.
It’s still very difficult for Trans people to walk on the
streets of many cities without fear of violence or being harassed by people or
the authorities. Nobody has to give up their money or their own rights to just
simply be a little more accommodating to those of us who are struggling or
don’t really have the same rights.
This idea that rights are a small pie and giving up some rights means you lose yours is a dumb way of looking at it because rights are not limited. (Rights) expand when given out. Even the people who think they have the power, they are losing a lot by the weird society we are in. It might help the people in power if they would open up their minds to realize that they are human, too.
On a lighter note. I have to ask. What was it like to be on The Jerry Springer Show?
Jerry Springer was a mistake. I was running for president and had been doing a lot of speeches when we would play shows. I was getting attention, at the time, and I was in People magazine and Time. It was a way to get my message out there and (The Jerry Springer Show) hadn’t yet devolved into people brawling on TV.
I knew his past as a disgraced mayor and, to be honest, I was vain. Originally, I wanted to play with my whole band on the show, but they didn’t have the budget. I also didn’t realize they were going to be making fun of kind of joke candidates. It was a circus, but I knew that going in.
My (then) bandmate, Bobby Belltower, said don’t do that and I should have listened to him, but I got out of it a free trip to Chicago. I got upgraded to this beautiful, historic hotel.
Did anything else good come out of the experience?
The woman who did the styling on that show made me look
great. She gave me false eyelashes that were really thick and long, she styled
my hair the best it’s ever looked. The dress was my own, but she gave me a
really great, really thick makeup job, really lavish, really professional.
I’m used to really quickly scrawling my makeup right before
a show or in the van and I’m always the most precise or beautiful drag queen.
She made me look so great that it made up for the humiliation of being on such
a stupid show. I can’t watch the footage.