I lived in Las Vegas and was a total loner when Tower Records went out of business, which is the magical formula for ending up with a Holly & the Italians CD. Raiding the bins on closeout day, I found a band with a name that sounded unbalanced and amateurish, with art featuring some awkwardly hot tomboyish girl sporting a wanna-be rocker haircut that clearly had come from her own hand, probably trying to hit a Chrissie Hynde but ending up four inches closer to a mullet. Supposedly I'd scored a two-CD set, but there was only one in the case. It was 99 cents. So be it.
I lived close to the mountains in a master-planned subdivision in the southwestern-most part of town. Virgin land was being torn up for this monstrosity I called home, and it seemed the only time I was ever going back to it was at night. To get there was breathtaking, a car crash version of Russian roulette on a gravel shouldered, two-lane highway that dipped and turned through the pitch-black desert. While cruising, I could see the stars. Those miles between whatever smeary, cocaine-dusted place I was hanging out at and my bed—which was a deluxe air mattress, on the floor—was the best space for listening to tunes.
I’d roll down the windows, letting in the sharp cold air, and crank whatever I was listening to, aching for home, for friends, for sex, for a hug, for a body to be close to and share the scariness of leaving everything behind in the search of becoming a bigger person. I’d shiver and whip my hair, stomping up and down on the gas pedal to the beat, yelling whatever I thought were the lyrics, lonely and enormously electrified.
One record at a time I ran through my Tower loot. I was in a very “Black Ships Ate the Sky” Current 93 hammering drone phase, so it took me a few listens to really click with the late-70s romantic surf punk of Holly and the Italians.
This album has feathered hair and calls you baby. Its doo-wop-via-new-wave charming evasiveness is impossible to evaluate for sincerity. With lyrical phrasings and really shitty, shreddy surf guitar that’s entirely trustworthy in one moment, potentially vapid the next, these songs illuminate the reason why people say things at night and then leave in the morning. If only you would’ve taken off when the world was still… would your life be imploding in an unkempt Airstream outside of Taos? Or might you be concocting constellations out of pinholes with the love of your life forever?
One song in particular, “Unoriginal Sin,” I would listen to on a loop, hitting replay even before the guitar had taken its sweet-ass time on the final fadeout. This song is the first girl who haunts you forever: a little cheesy, having no gold in her reserves to back up her tough act, enthralling just the same. Holly pushes her voice out from somewhere urgent and confused, and when I discovered her, that was where I lived, both literally and internally.
Toward the end of the song Holly drawls, “Don’t touch the pavement,” a sort of warning and a taunting dare to defy the laws of gravity. It exactly encapsulates a suspended state of committing to leaving home behind and venturing out into the unknown, alone, but not to staying in it.
Only upon my most recent listen did I realize that this CD is a collection of demos, some of which eventually made Holly and the Italians’ first and only proper album. These are the raw recordings they made on their own because it was all they had, maybe in hopes of “landing a deal,” back when such was the process, or maybe not. Now I love it more than ever.
Holly did get that deal. It came not from these demos but from opening for Blondie in London, and while it led her to some success—a record on Virgin, a cover by Shirley Manson’s pre-Garbage grunge-goth band Angelfish, a short gig as the lead singer of the Waitresses, a recorded duet with Joey Ramone—none of it sounds as cocooned in the genius of ambitious naivety as this treasure from the bargain bin.
Try as I might, I can’t help but imagine some studio exec somewhere down the line told Holly that she was “great” but she needed to sound more like the Go-Gos. Which she did. And it wasn’t as good.
This song was their “hit” off The Right to Be Italian, the band’s only true record:
And a year later I’m guessing the advice was to smooth it out and slow it down, lean into adult contemporary. Perhaps she thought that would enhance her accessibility? It’s difficult to picture that’s just how she naturally evolved as a musician, after wearing motorcycle jackets, jacked-up haircuts, and violet streaks of blush on in the hollows beneath her cheekbones for years.
Here’s the version of “Unoriginal Sin” that made it to public consumption:
No one “helps” anyone be independent. Untrained and coltish don’t come with a bridle and stability. I am all for selling out and having some commercial success and being able to take care of your human needs and even wants. Material appreciation is inherent to the experience of being a person. But you have to make demos forever. FOREVER. That is where the soul is, feeding the Truly Important Work.
A demo is a release valve for the parts of the psyche that hopes it’s onto something and has the nerve to see if it’s right. It’s not a beta launch, nor invested in by some financial wizard bearing the heavenly honor of angel. It’s the pure energy of vision that doesn’t need its hand held; it just jumps and yells into to the world: I EXIST.