This interview was originally published September 13th 2017 on the blog Please Kill Me. Instead of writing my own article, I felt this interview with Cynthia Ross (one of the women who started the band) says it all when it comes to just how important they were at the time and how influential they have been. Please go listen to the B-Girls and remember the women who deserve more credit than they are given!
In the 70’s and 80’s, the B-Girls toured with the Clash and played with Iggy Pop, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Sham 69, and many more. PKM interviews Cynthia Ross about her time in the all-girl band, her relationship with Stiv Bators, and the new B-Girls album, Bad Not Evil.
I met with quintessential cool chick and woman about town, Cynthia Ross, at a restaurant in Brooklyn. When I arrive, she’s dressed in all black with a shaggy ‘do of black-and-white dyed hair. She looks half her age and beams with youthful energy. Rock & roll is in her bloodstream.
She started the B-Girls in Toronto, bringing the all-girl band to New York City in the 70’s. The ambitious bass player toured with the Clash, had a long term relationship with Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys and was good friends with Johnny Thunders. Even though the B-Girls broke up in the early 80’s, she recently re-incarnated the group with one other original member. They just released their long awaited album, Bad Not Evil on Bomp Records. Cynthia shares some of her adventures, past and present, including driving around with an extremely high Iggy Pop.
PKM: How did you start playing music?
Cynthia: It was 1976 and the punk thing was starting to happen all around the world, but mainly in New York, Toronto, L.A. and London. There were many young guys forming bands and most of them couldn’t play. As a girl standing around watching this, I had an occurring thought that I could do this too, and why not? I was at a Thin Lizzy show and afterwards we went to a party in Phil Lynott’s hotel room. There was this other girl there that I used to see at all the shows. She was also hanging out at the punk clubs that we started and ran. She looked really good and we were in the bathroom putting on make-up, as girls do, and I just looked at her and said, “Have you ever thought about starting a band?” She looked at me and said, “Every day.” Her name was Lucasta Ross (no relation). I said to her, “Do you play anything?” She said, “No, but I can sing.” She asked, “Can you play anything?” I said, “I played piano as a kid, but I’m a bass player.” She said, “Oh, so you play bass?” I said, ”No, but I just know I’m a bass player.”
Cynthia: She said, “When are we starting this band?” I said, “Right now.” She said, “Okay, I’m in… but only if my best friend Xenia can be in the band.” I asked if she could play anything and she said, “No, but she looks really great, we’re inseparable and we have the same taste in music. You’ve seen us at the New York Dolls shows and Roxy Music. So I said, “Well then maybe my sister should be in the band. She’ll be the drummer, I’m the bass player, you’re the singer/ guitar player and Xenia will be the back-up singer/ guitar player.” She said, “How are we gonna do this?” I said, “I guess we’ll have to ask one of these guy bands to help us.” So we borrowed equipment from two other bands and rehearsed in my parents’ basement. We learned how to play “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and after that we started writing songs.
PKM: How old were you ladies? Did you find it easy to pick up bass?
Cynthia: They were all nineteen and I was twenty. I found the bass easy. I would just visualize the piano keyboard. The black notes and the white notes, the sharps and the flats. The dots are the white notes and the frets in-between the white notes are the flats. So I would just visualize that on bass.
PKM: So you would play around Toronto?
Cynthia: We played at a gay bar called David’s. I think we opened for the Viletones and we did the same three songs twice. We made mistakes, and would just stop and start again. It was cute because the audience was rooting for us. People just wanted us to succeed.
PKM: I think at a gay bar playing “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” works!
Cynthia: Well, there weren’t many gay guys. It was just like a punk club. We also realized when you write your own songs, nobody knows when you mess up. Our cover songs were of Fabian, Chuck Berry, Elvis… We had this rule that we would only play a cover once and each time we would play, we would learn a new cover the day before. Later on, when we toured with the Clash and it was Joe Strummer’s birthday, we played “Hey Joe.” We made him stand on the side of the stage.
PKM: Aww. Do you think that the movie The Fabulous Stains was based on your band?
Cynthia: Yeah. How did you know that?
PKM: I love that movie! It’s a cult film.
Cynthia: Is Paul Simonon in that movie?
PKM: Yes, he’s in the band that the girl’s go on tour with. Paul Cook, Steve Jones, and Ray Winestone are also in the band.
Cynthia: What happened was, Paul Simonon called me and he said, “I was taking to Lou Adler and he’s doing this movie.” I didn’t know who Lou Adler was. I think he owned The Whiskey at the time, but he was also a record producer. Paul was telling me the story of the movie and I asked him, “Is this movie about the B-Girls? Paul said, “I don’t know if it’s consciously about the B-Girls, but it’s similar to your story and Lou said we have to have Cynthia audition.” I said, “Really?!” He said, “Yeah. Lou is going to call you tomorrow and have a casting director fly out to Toronto.” I had never read for a movie or been to an audition before. I was so nervous, so I phoned my friend who was an actress. She said, “Hopefully you will get the script before the audition,” but I didn’t. I just got there and they gave me the script, which was two pages long. I couldn’t figure out how to read and look at the camera at the same time. I was so stressed by it. In the end, he phoned me and said you did a really good job and Paul wanted you in the movie but we are going to go with an experienced actress. I believe it was Laura Dern.
PKM: She was a member of the band. The singer was played by Diane Lane.
Cynthia: Did she start the band?
PKM: Yeah, it was her and her sister who started the band and I think Laura Dern was her sister.
Cynthia: Okay, now I’m getting chills. That’s really interesting.
PKM: They all have black and blonde hair and they all wear the same outfits.
Cynthia: Yeah, we wore the same outfits.
PKM: There whole thing was that they were feminists.
Cynthia: We had a rule that you could never go home with a guy in the band that we were opening for. Then people could say that we only got the gig because we were sleeping with them.
PKM: That’s a good point.
Cynthia: Now that the band is reuniting, Lucasta just told me that she never really listened to my rules. Haha! She said, “You were like bloody Mother Teresa! I remember when I wanted to take a half a valium before a gig and you said no.”
PKM: That’s good though. You kept the band together. How was the tour with the Clash?
Cynthia: Joe and Mick came to CBGB’s one night when we were opening for the Dead Boys and the Ramones. We hadn’t moved to New York yet and I was seeing Stiv and that was okay because I was seeing him before the band started. Stiv came up to me after our set and he said, “There are two guys here from the Clash and they want to speak to the band’s manager. I told them that you are the manager. I’m not sure if they’re serious about wanting you guys to open for them. They probably just want your phone number.” I said, “No, they know I’m with you.” So I went over to them and Joe said, “We think you girls are great and we want you to open for us on our next tour in Europe.” I gave them my phone number. It was around 1978. I got a telegram from their manager in Toronto that said, “Against my best advice, the boys are insisting that they want to have you girls open for them on their next European tour. So get passports.”
PKM: What a dick!
Cynthia: Yeah, because we didn’t have tour support. He says, “Get everyone passports. You don’t have tour support which is why I don’t think it’s a good idea, but they are saying you can use their equipment. You won’t make much money but it will be fine.” I’m in a state of shock thinking this is the best thing in the world and then two days later I get another telegram from their manager, I believe his name was Bernard Rhodes. It says, “I’m sorry to let you know that the tour is cancelled. Topper fell off the drum riser and broke his wrist.” So I was heartbroken but then sometime later I get another telegram that says, “The boys want to make it up to you so you’ll do some dates in Canada and on their North American tour. I know it’s not Europe, but you’ll get to open for them.” It was called the Take The Fifth tour, like take the fifth amendment, they were very political. They had the Undertones on the bill in Toronto and we opened for them in New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Philadelphia. I think Detroit, but I’m not sure. Our first night was The Palladium and it was us, Mikey Dredd (a dub guy), and Lee Dorsey, who wrote, “Working In A Coal Mine.” They paid for our hotel rooms, let us use their equipment, and we were paid. I don’t think we realized at the time what a big deal it was. We just kinda did the same thing we always did. Before we played, all the people were there from Blondie, Johnny Thunders, and Wayne Kramer flew in from Detroit. The Ramones were backstage. We were just the same silly gang of girls that we always were. We had a plaster fish as our mascot that we took along on tour. The kind you see above a fireplace in a cottage. During the Clash’s set, we dangled it down on fishing line over Joe Strummer’s head during these political songs. We thought they would hate us, but they thought it was the greatest thing ever that we weren’t jaded.
PKM: How were other people reacting to the B-Girls after going on tour with the Clash? Any jealousy?
Cynthia: It was a super supportive scene during that time. We would go back and forth between Max’s and CBGB’s. There was no cell phones back then, so you would just show up. Syl (Sylvain) would always be in the audience and Debbie (Harry) did our sound for a bunch of gigs. She disguised herself in a green jumpsuit and a frog mask one time at Club 80 to do our sound. I think people were very happy for us. I would say the only person that was somewhat jealous was Stiv.
PKM: How did you meet Stiv?
Cynthia: I met him in Toronto when the Ramones were playing and the Dead Boys were the opening act. It was 1976 and when I was thinking about starting a band. I saw this scrawny little guy walking up the street with big glasses. He came up to me and said, “What’s going on? Are you going to the Ramones show tonight?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’m going too. Would you like to go to dinner?” There was something about him. He was super funny and magnetic. After dinner he said, “I kind of have to get going because we’re playing and I have to go to sound check. I’ll put you on the list.” I told him that I didn’t need the list because I was friends with the promoter and already on the list. Then I went to the show and had no idea what they would be like. I think if I had seen them play before meeting Stiv, I wouldn’t have talked to him on the street. Because he was this perfect gentleman, old-fashioned and sweet and he just turned into this alter ego on stage. It was insane. Anyone that has seen the Dead Boys knows of Stiv’s antics onstage.
PKM: His food play…
Cynthia: Yeah. Bubblegum everywhere…
PKM: Did you like the Dead Boys?
Cynthia: Yeah, but it was a shock. He turned into a polite guy after the show again. One thing that people don’t realize is that Stiv was almost certifiably blind. Those sunglasses that he wore were as thick as coke bottles.
PKM: They were actually prescription?
Cynthia: Yeah. He would take them off and put them on the amp on the side of the stage so it would allow him…
PKM: To not be scared.
Cynthia: Yeah. He could do whatever and was oblivious to the audience. Right after the set was over he’d be reaching around… Haha!
PKM: How long did you date for?
Cynthia: 1976 to probably 1980/ 1981.
PKM: You moved to New York for Stiv then?
Cynthia: No. I moved to New York for the B-Girls. We were playing once a month at CBGB’s and just driving back and forth. I was the only one that drove. Finally, I just said, “Let’s quit our jobs and move to New York!”
PKM: You mentioned that Stiv was jealous. Did you have that issue with him? One of my friends that was close to him back in the day told me that every time he walked away, Stiv would be hanging all over his girlfriend.
Cynthia: I always say this thing about our relationship: ‘Me with my trust and him with his jealousy.’ I trusted him completely. I realized much later on that I was too naive and trusting. I thought because he was so jealous that he would never cheat on me. Now I know a little more about life and I realize that jealousy is usually an indicator of someone who isn’t trustworthy.
PKM: Any Johnny Thunders stories?
Cynthia: The real Johnny was a conservative, Italian macho guy. He would say, “You girls belong in the kitchen.” Just to piss me off. He was a good friend. He was a serial monogamist. Very possessive of women. I met him when I was eighteen at a place called Nobodies on Bleecker Street. I didn’t know who he was. He was in the New York Dolls already. It was 1972 and their drummer had just died in England. I was on my first trip to New York with my pal Maria. We were all dressed up at nine o’clock, not realizing that people didn’t go out until later. I remember the record company man, Jimmy Iovine and Johnny were the only people in the bar. The bartender comes over and says, “That guy over there is sending you a drink.” I said, “Why would he send me a drink? Why wouldn’t he come over here and introduce himself. No, I don’t need a drink. That’s fine. I can buy my own drink.” Then the bartender said, “You’re gonna make me tell Johnny Thunders that you don’t want his drink?” I said, “I guess so. I really don’t know who that is.” Johnny came over and said, “Hi, I’m Johnny.” He was very shy. He gave me this line about how they tried out a drummer that day and he wanted to know what a girl that looked like me thought about him because he’s in a band where appearances are important. It was Jerry Nolan and he arrived in a red, velvet suit and Johnny said, “What do you think?” I said, “Uh, Yeah!” Then he said, “Well I didn’t want you to like him that much.” Haha!
PKM: Haha! So he was hitting on you.
Cynthia: Yeah, but it was always a friendship. I think it was a love relationship between friends. He put me on this pedestal and said when he cleans up he’d be good enough for me. No guy was good enough for me, and neither was he. He cried to me about a lot of things about his life. He was a really good person. He was my daughter’s godfather. I tell Suzanne and his daughter Jamie that I never saw him as happy as when he was with them. He loved her so much. It was just his inability to stay clean. He was more of a disappointment to himself than he was a disappointment to other people. He looked good in anything. We traded clothes all the time. He was a great songwriter too, but it was almost like how people didn’t like it when Bob Dylan went electric, people didn’t like when Johnny went acoustic either.
PKM: Wouldn’t you agree that the Dead Boys were great break-up music? Also they were very punk rock, where a lot of the other bands in that scene were pop.
Cynthia: Yeah. You don’t need anybody when listening to the Dead Boys. The Ramones were like the Beach Boys, Blondie was pop, Patti Smith was arty, and the Senders were R&B. The Dead Boys are the only New York punk band that I think really had the punk attitude. They earned their stripes. If you were walking down a back alley in those days, you would want a Dead Boy next to you, having your back. We were all part of the punk scene but we really weren’t punk. The B-Girls were pop and the Cramps were garage.
PKM: Where did Stiv get all the angst for the lyrics to his songs?
Cynthia: Anybody that knows Stiv, knows that he was really super intelligent. He was into quantum physics and conspiracy theories. He would talk about the Masons and how only three men really ruled the world. The politicians are just puppets and how the corporations ran the world, and low and behold look where we are now.
PKM: The Illuminati and all that.
Cynthia: A lot of police department and fire department members are Masons. He would talk about the power of money and how money runs everything. I think he was made fun of as a kid and that’s where the angst came from. This scrawny, little guy.
PKM: I stopped in Youngstown, Ohio and asked people on Facebook if they knew where Stiv Bators lived. Never got an answer. I just wanted to take a photo at his house.
Cynthia: His biggest influences were Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop. He always told me that he handed Iggy that jar of peanut butter at his show but I thought he was lying. So when I saw the film Gimme Danger, I started crying because I saw him with his long hair and glasses on the side of the stage. That movie made me angry to be honest because people can be made to look in a positive light when their friend is making the movie.
PKM: I was mad that Jimmy Recca was not allowed to attend the premiere for Gimme Danger.
Cynthia: The B-Girls opened for Iggy and Blondie in 1979 for The Idiot tour in Canada one date. When Bowie was with Iggy. One time David Johansen was playing in Long Island at a bar called My Father’s Place. Two B-Girls, John Browner, Jimmy Destri, and Jim Osterberg wound up driving all together. There were drugs in the car and Iggy was acting crazy. He snorted the entire vial in one shot and asked me to pull over so he could drive, but I refused. He kept insisting that he was a great driver. Everyone was thanking me when we got there.
PKM: Tell me about Debbie Harry’s influence on you?
Cynthia: She was one of the most influential women in my mind. She gave me a lot of advice. One thing she warned me about was to be very careful about who we signed with. ‘These record company guys are gonna see you as their fantasy and try to mold you. Maybe tell you one has to lose weight, send you to choreography, maybe say this girl can’t work on the record and use studio musicians. You’re not that and that’s what makes you different. You have to maintain creative control’. She said ‘it’s a boys club and very tough’ and she was right. The track that Debbie produced, she did little to change things, where on Mick Jones’ track, there are all these African instruments added to it and keyboards. Haha!
PKM: Haha! I can believe what a badass she is. She’s beautiful, cool, tough, and sweet. Somehow she was able to have all those qualities. Her voice maintained after all these years.
Cynthia: She was the older sister I never had.
PKM: It warms my heart that she took you girls under her wing. Because I hear that there were a lot of competitive women in music in NYC back then. Which is a bummer.
Cynthia: It’s true. In the punk scene, a lot of the girls, especially in New York City, were very tough and very hard and we weren’t like that. We were the good girls next door. The Ramones’ girlfriends, the other Dead Boys’ girlfriends. We were too nice and they didn’t respect that. We weren’t meek though. We were very motivated.
PKM: Girls in the punk scene would be mean to me for having long hair and looking like a girly girl. They would pull on my ponytail at shows. One punk girl called me, “A pretty punk rocker,” as a slur. I remember being furious for being called pretty. Haha!
Cynthia: We had long hair too. We weren’t aggressive and we wouldn’t threaten other girls. A lot of the other ones would say, ‘Don’t look at my boyfriend!’ Really the truth is the coolest and toughest thing you can do is be true to yourself. I would say I’m still the same nineteen-year-old girl I was back then. That’s what I carry with me when I’m onstage with the B-Girls. It’s not like there are two older girls and two younger girls.
PKM: Right. Nobody ever tells you that you are basically gonna be eighteen for the rest of your life. You grow up, but the bands, writers, and art that you worshipped back then usually remain the same! Tell me about some of the bands you used to play with…
Cynthia: The B-Girls slept on Sylvain Sylvain’s floor for four weeks when we first moved to New York. Unexpected people would get up and play with us. Girl bands were seen as a non-threatening opener. So we pretty much opened for any band that was really great. Elvis Costello, Blondie a bunch… We were part of the Heartbreakers’ and the poppy-sounding bands scene. Not the art bands like Patti Smith and Television. Our influences were bands from the ‘50s and ‘60s like the Shangri-Las, Chuck Berry and the Ronettes. We opened for the Stranglers, Sham 69, Sylvain Sylvain, the Records, Crowded House.
PKM: I feel like if you are in an all-girl band today, you are even more of a threat. It’s very powerful to be in an all-girl band that can play.
Cynthia: Yeah. There was a moment of time in 1977 when girls realized that we did have the power. We wanted to be good and not just fluff. Getting back to the rules: B-Girls did not wear short skirts or shorts on stage. No cleavage. We were going against the whole thing of being the sex object front person who didn’t play an instrument. So I think that was why we didn’t get signed.
PKM: Sex sells. What were the B-Girls lyrics mainly about?
Cynthia: They weren’t very serious. They were not political. They were like the Shangri-Las. Good girls like bad boys, fun at the beach, daddy’s car… I’m thinking of song titles. We were writing about what we were experiencing.
PKM: Did the B-Girls ever go to Europe?
Cynthia: No. We were popular in Japan but never got there. We played the Whiskey on the West Coast but that was as far as we got. We also sang back-ups on the Blondie album Autoamerican, and Stiv’s solo album Disconnected during that trip.
PKM: Were you all self-taught or did you have lessons?
Cynthia: All self-taught. We learned together and I think it was better that way. We had no idea what we were doing. Didn’t know about song structure.
PKM: Did you make your own merch?
Cynthia: Yes. There was a band called the Diodes in Toronto and one fella from that band, Johnny Catto actually came up with our name. B-Girls were girls after World War Two who were hustling drinks in bars. They had a deal with the bartender where they got men to buy them drinks and would drink ginger ale instead of champagne. Then they split the money with the bartender at the end of the night. The name had a great ring to it. It reminded me of fifties paperback books and B-movies. Johnny was an art student so he made our logo and the stencil for us. I painted all the t-shirts with spray paint. We ma