Land Of A Thousand Bridges: Island Girl In A Rock & Roll World
Where to begin?
Probably the classic “once upon a time” would be a good place to open what’s going to be a long look at one of the most extraordinary autobiographies I’ve ever come across. There are so many moments, so many starting places, in legendary rock guitarist June Millington’s look back on her life, and pioneering work across half a century and more than half the world, it’s tricky to know where to begin.
Let’s try it this way: once upon a time, there were no women rockers who were actually taken seriously. And then there was a band called Fanny, fronted by two Filipina-American sisters named June and Jean Millington, and because of them, Chrissie Hynde is not only possible, but is taken seriously, respected, acknowledged, in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. The Runaways. The Go-Gos. The Bangles. Joan Jett. Nancy Wilson of Heart (who, in the mid-seventies, was reportedly not allowed to be pictured on her own album covers holding an electric guitar, because girls were only supposed to play acoustics). How long is that list? Way the hell too long.
Mind you, there were killer women players out there before Fanny, hugely respected among their peers, and profound in the effect their participation had on popular music. Carol Kaye, for example, is one of the greatest bassists to ever rest her hands on the frets. But there’s a vital difference: Kaye was a session player, part of an elite of largely invisible consummate professionals. She never walked out onstage to wild applause in 1963, and brought down the house with her bass chops. The industry, and the popular culture it serviced, were not ready to let that happen.
I came across Fanny early in 1972, when a friend of a friend happened to be playing “Charity Ball”, their second album, while I was hanging out. Pissing down with rain, a couple of naked little kids running around, and there was this music.
Um yeah. Hello, transformative experience.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was around ten, and I’d never really even considered getting an electric to go with my funky old acoustic Washburn. Women just didn’t do it. I had zero, diddly, in the way of visible role models to look at and say, huh, I want to try that.
At that friend-of-a-friend’s in Marin County that afternoon, I was seventeen years old and a few months the wrong side of a catastrophic car accident. There was, at the time, some question of whether my hands would ever actually function again. And I remember just sitting there, looking at the album cover and thinking oh holy shit these are women playing, all of them, the WHOLE BAND, all women, who are these people, and who is playing that lead guitar?
Transformative is the word, all right. If these four women could make this incredible tough sharp-edged gorgeous fuck-you sound together, then damn it, so could I. My first introduction to what June Millington – one of the few musical icons I’ve ever had in my life – could do with a Les Paul or a 335 was, in its own way, as much a game-changer for me as June’s existence and talent would be for a lot of very visible women players who followed her.
I first got the chance to brush wings with this elder goddess of rock and roll (“brushing wings” is her phrase) recently, when I saw we had friends listed in common on Facebook. I waffled, said screw it, gathered my nerve, and sent her a backchannel message. It turned out to be one of the smartest and most nourishing things I’ve done in a long time.
We talked. And talked. And talked some more. Eventually, the conversation came around to the fact that June was putting together all the puzzle pieces in what would be her autobiography. She sent me snippets, parts of chapters to read, via email. And bloody hell, the woman can write. This is no heroin-addled ramble to a ghostwriter who will make it readable for the NY Times. She is not manufacturing a damned thing. This is memory, as it happened. This is the real deal:
“This is an estate in Manila, and I’m probably 3 or four.
Off to the left my aunt Cora’s room, the side of which faces a wall beyond one of the lawns (the house is surrounded by lawns and ponds) – the wall, lined with silent broken glass, separates us from a barrio just on the other side. I can see the tops of nipa huts on stilts just beyond. I know the ground is just dirt and mud, I know these people are very poor, but the walls put them so very far away – unreachable. Once a year, I hear a woman begin to wail, and a day or two later a procession with an impossibly small coffin passes by the front gate. Everyone in the barrio, it seems, is grieving. I see it through the tall, wrought-iron gate, remote in my uninvited attendance. Though I hear sounds, it feels like silence.”
There is nothing, not one word that I’ve found, anywhere between the covers of Land Of A Thousand Bridges, that is not honest, not luminous, not utterly and completely memorable. There is not one hint of gloss, of gel on the lens; neither is there demonising of the realities of touring, recording, playing, living as a group. Whether it’s matter of fact accounts of tripping in the Haight or elbowing Carlos Santana out of her way on the rail at Fillmore West to get the best view of what that show’s guitar player was doing, she seems as incapable of self-aggrandisation as she is of self-pity.
The book itself is monumental in more ways than one. For one thing, it’s visually stunning; this is a coffee table-sized trade paperback, 530 pages worth, and it’s got photos to make you laugh, cry, remember, and (for me, anyway) deal with sudden jolts to the soul as forgotten faces and names declare themselves. The photos are wondrous, all of them: black and white shots of June and Jean and her family in the Philippines as children, brightly lit concert posters from Fillmore West and Zellerbach Hall, photos from the period of the 1970s of long tours, June’s exhaustion a nearly visible smudge across the shots. There are hundreds of photos in here, each one of them a small stab of something, evoking a time, a feeling, a memory.
There are the people she brushed wings with and, in a few cases, the people she had no time or use for. Her memories of Harry Nilsson, of working with Harry’s producer Richard Perry, left me wandering down memory paths of my own. Lowell George runs through the book like a sweet happy phosphorescence, ghost lights on a country road late at night. Her memories of Dr. John took me back to an uproarious memory of my own, at a club called Ungano’s in New York. Bridge to bridge to bridge.
This book is important in a way that far outweighs and transcends basic entertainment, without ever losing its endless ability to entertain. In Land Of A Thousand Bridges, June is there to bear witness to history: the history she grew up with, the history she helped change, the history she helped make. This, as the title makes clear, is a look back over half a century of the evolution of popular culture, and not from a narrow niche, either. Land Of A Thousand Bridges is the chronicle of how women, onstage and visible with an SG or a Telecaster slung around our necks and plugged into a Marshall half stack, became that thing that it most certainly wasn’t when I heard “Charity Ball” for the first time.
Rock on, June. There are very few people I’ve ever wanted to thank for producing a book. One of those people, one of those books.
Land Of A Thousand Bridges: An Island Girl In A Rock & Roll World can be purchased at http://www.ima.org/millingtonautobiography.html