Tributes to Vi Subversa and ‘an obituary for the writer I was’ by Vi Subversa
Vi Subversa 20th June 1935 – 19th February 2016
There are so many wonderful tributes to the late much-loved Vi Subversa ( real name Frances Sokolov) online that I decided to gather them together here, add some Youtube clips of Poison Girls best work and present them as our celebration of her life, art and beliefs.
Tributes on Facebook from fellow musicians and artists, included these from Michelle Brigandage : “the great Vi Subversa – who gave us the strength and the wisdom when we were just starting out… – she was the mother/warrior to us all.” The Hamsters Ian Moss “she was an inspirational figure of huge integrity and great humanitarianism”. The Cravats The Shend “RIP Vi. A very special person to so many and deservedly so. An utterly wonderful human being x x x”. Night of Treasons Pinky Wallis “RIP Vi Subversa ..helped make the underworld of punk worth listening to/watching/being part of ..” Hagar the Womb “a massive inspiration to us and countless others both then and now. A few of us were lucky to see her perform at her 80th birthday celebrations only a short while ago – that wonderful voice and spirit were undiminished.”
And here are some other great tributes whose authors have agreed we can share.
Richard Boon (former Buzzcocks manager)
I heard the news today. Oh boy. So sad to hear of the passing of one of the most challenging, brave, daring, loving, (com)passionate, often intimidating, argumentative, forthright, cuddly, delightful and utterly vibrant women I feel privileged to have shared time with on this sorry planet and to have had as a friend: Frances, perhaps better known to some as Vi Subversa of Poison Girls. RIP. Whole eras pass: beat chick, hippy, punk feminist icon, mother, lover, fighter, believer. I’m crying. She’s no longer, bless her:
The positive influence on the 18 year old boy that was me, of a woman who was the same age as my own mum, singing about ideas like anarchism, feminism, peace, etc, but that wasn’t sloganeering and always reflected her own authentic experience as a woman, and her pure rage in pieces like ‘Statement’ and of how boys and men were just as distorted and oppressed by ‘The System’ and how it was OK for boys and men to not be sexist and macho and live up to societies stereotypes yet still be male and strong yet not afraid to sometimes be frail and fragile and that that was OK – it’s hard to convey just how important Vi was to me….
It was The Mob’s huge privilege to play on the same stage as the Poison Girls, in particular on the Total Exposure tour where I would sit on the side of the stage and cry along with Vi at every show… I’m so glad we got to see you again recently in Brighton… In my humble opinion the brightest star in the Anarcho Punk world… Much love and huge respect… Mark Mob
Lesley Malone (taken from tangentialism.org with permission)
The Impossible Dream
I heard today that Vi Subversa of seminal anarcho-feminist-punk band Poison Girls has died, at the age of 80. I can’t overstate how much of an influence this band and this woman were on me.
Vi inspired a generation of musicians and activists with her political insight, lyrical brilliance, wit and charisma. She started Poison Girls in the late 70s as a single mother in her forties – a beautiful act of personal rebellion in itself – and became a uniquely inspiring figure from there on. For those of us growing up under the shadow of the cold war and what felt like an imminent nuclear holocaust, bands like Poison Girls helped us make sense of the incomprehensible. We felt less alone and powerless. As a teenager in the early 80s, she gave my isolation, despair and anger a voice, and a response. For me, these bands showed that there was another way, that we could try and change the world, and live differently. That we didn’t have to blindly follow the death march, sleepwalk into nuclear oblivion, shut off from ourselves and one another, live divided. I still believe this. The Impossible Dream, indeed.
She had many great gifts. As a songwriter, her effortlessly multi-faceted lyrics bring together the personal and political, from longing, tenderness and sensuality, to alienation and rage, woven together with an uncompromising feminism and heartfelt humanity that went beyond the one-dimensional protest sloganeering of the time, to a far deeper emotional level. Although their political colours were nailed firmly to the anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist anarchist mast, Vi’s feminism and warmth gave a human dimension to Poison Girls’ message. Tenderness, compassion and love permeate their message, alongside and inseparable from images of repression, loss, brutality, prostitution, rape, environmental destruction and nuclear annihilation.
And as a person she inspired such love as I have never seen before. At her 60th birthday celebration gig, and at what was to be her last performance at the Green Door in Brighton last December, everyone was there out of pure adoration for Vi. Bouquets, kisses and hugs at the end – not so much a gig as a collective outpouring of love for this beautiful woman. I have honestly never seen anything like it.
Oh, and her voice. The raw feeling she conveyed, her voice cracking with passion, whether rage or longing. Bremen Song remains to this day a piece that affects me more than any other. Just listen to her voice breaking with emotion. ‘We burn, sisters, we burn, burn, burn’ – the carnage of the second world war, witch-hunting, the ages-old patriarchal repression of women, the crimes of the christian church – ‘In the name of the fatherland, in nomine patri, for the sake of his property. The smoke from the fire is still rising…’
Everyone who was affected by the music of Poison Girls will feel bereaved today, that they have lost someone dear, whether they knew Vi or not. I didn’t know her, but I gave her a kiss when she came off stage at the Green Door gig and thanked her. I cried during her rendition of Persons Unknown (as did many in the audience), I cried when I heard the news of her passing this morning and I’m crying again now as I write this. But how fortunate we were to have heard her – and that’s all that matters in the end, really.
So what now? Sadness passes, after all. I saw a post after David Bowie’s death saying that it is now up to everyone who was inspired by him to continue what he began – I feel the same about Vi. Poison Girls was a response to the climate of the late 70s and early 80s, a time of state-sponsored fear, repression and alienation. Many have commented that the times we now live in with the current UK government and wider global crises are not so very different, and that the current punk resurgence is no coincidence. This music gave us a lifeline and a voice and a sense of power during those times. Let’s use our rage and grief, and our compassion and humanity. We believed we could change the world for the better then – we need to believe it again now. And live it.
(From Sid Truelove and Zillah Minx Youtube account) These are clips of Vi Subversa’s interview. Originally filmed in Leytonstone in 1997 for the film/documentary ‘She’s a Punk Rocker U.K.’ directed by Zillah Minx and edited by Sid Truelove. who both lived with Vi and The Poison Girls at the infamous Burghley House in Epping. When Zillah showed the film to Vi she was very moved to have had been included and loved the film. We will both miss her as will so many others.
Helen McCookerybook (the Chefs / Helen and the Horns /solo artist)
I found it hard to call her Vi, because I first knew her as Frances. She had set up a promise by the Trustees at the Presbyterian Church just off North Street in Brighton, where there was a Community Resource Centre in the old church hall, to allow bands to rehearse and play gigs in the capacious vaults underneath the centre.
Before punk started up, I went to the occasional party down there in The Vault and sometimes saw bands playing. The partygoers were hippyish sometimes, sometimes transgender, always alternative and unusual. Everyone who was everyone in the impoverished non-mainstream used to drop in there; political activities were planned, arguments between different factions played out, and it genuinely was a centre for outlaws. Things hotted up after The Buzzcocks played there. Sadly, I missed the gig, but my then boyfriend had managed to get a job as a video director upstairs, where there were advice people, poster printing, constant cups of instant coffee and a two-bar electric fire.
Frances was a presence, and we knew that she played in band with her family: the early Poison Girls, with a woman called Sue who was one of a twin and who had very long hair, on semi-acoustic bass. When the band in the basement of our squat, The Molesters, had one deafening rehearsal too many, we got them a gig at The Vault so we could have an evening’s peace. They wouldn’t do it, so Steve, Nick and Joby decided to form a band. Steve and Nick decided to be guitarists and Joby decided he would be the singer, and they all decided that I would play bass guitar.
We went to tell Frances, and immediately she offered us her 14 year old son (who was Poison Girls’ drummer at the time) to stand in on drums, and Sue offered to lend me her bass which I was delighted to discover had once belonged to The Buzzcocks.
Frances was full of glee, because she wanted young people to make bands and say what we had to say through music. Unlike the rest of us, she was 40, but she was so open and easy to talk to that it was impossible not to trust her completely. An adult who didn’t judge? Extraordinary.
I don’t think she ever 100% agreed with Joby, who was exploring various abrasive avenues that punk was leading him to, but she supported his right to be himself whatever he said or did (or indeed anyone’s) – so long as he was happy to have a conversation about it. Frances was like that with everyone, and to have her support was a blessing. I had had a miserable time at Brighton Art College being alternately flirted with and insulted by my tutors (all apart from Stuart, but I’ve written about him before) and it was a genuine surprise to be able to talk wholeheartedly with an adult who treated me with respect and who seemed interested in what I had to say, rather than imposing their own ideas on me.
After that first gig, with songs written in an afternoon from copies of The Sun and The Mirror, we got more- that was the way with punk bands. Poison Girls continued to play, we continued to see them, until eventually they left Brighton for London and the anarcho punk scene.
I cited Vi Subversa as a mentor when Women in Music asked for people to tell them about their mentors. I think it might usually mean a one-to-one relationship, but I would say that she mentored the entire early punk scene in Brighton. Everyone knew and trusted her, even bands from different strands of punk with their silly small-town stand-offs; she was good-natured and listened to immature ramblings and grand plans with the same attention and patience.
Years later, when I wrote The Lost Women of Rock Music, she sent me a lovely letter along with the questionnaire I’d sent to Spain, where she was a blueswoman (just changed to bluesman by autocorrect: what an extraordinary thing!) and I was able to fill in some gaps about her own experience of Brighton at that time. She had really stuck her neck out to protect us all from the Church Trustees (who ever paid rent for their rehearsal arches? Practically nobody- we had no money!) and often had to fight off unfair criticism. The Brighton Women’s Group, which was supposed to be a feminist support group, subjected her to a really unpleasant experience. That was the major reason why I wouldn’t touch 1970s feminism with barge-pole; what should have been an open-minded support group was horrifically ageist and nasty, and I am so sorry that they were like that.
We had been hoping to film her for our documentary, and now I know why she didn’t answer the phone when I was trying to contact her. It is tremendously sad not to be able to include her stories, but I feel so very lucky to have known her because she restored my faith in humanity at a very cruel time in my life, and made me realise that there are great ways of growing up and growing older, and that much of our power as human beings exists in the sphere of independent thought and positive action.
Frances deserved every good thing that life brought to her. Her kids had a fabulous Mum, we all had an amazing mentor in Brighton, and Vi Subversa was truly one of life’s great characters and loving beings; what an inspiration.
The last word goes to Vi Subversa herself …
“Off the Hook”, by Vi Subversa, 2014 for the book “The Truth of Revolution, Brother” (Situation Press)
This is an obituary for the writer I was, the writer who tried too hard and too long to be grown up, to understand, to know how things are and how to change the world. I’m tired of the world of war, and war weariness, of disillusionment and child abuse. I do not choose to write as a cynic, although I am aware that cynicism is what I often feel, along with disappointment. I’ve tried to find knowledge as an adult, and to find meaning, to piece it all together, with hope as the glue. I chased after fragments of meaning, like trying to catch snowflakes, running after bits of torn up paper with the story of it all, but the bits blew away in the wind.
But I wanted to know, to have a story, a narrative to live by, to make sense, and to heal the pain of the powerlessness I had experienced, as a woman, as a citizen, as a worker, and as a mother. But I confused information with knowledge. Knowledge, they say, is power, and that’s right. But now we have information overload, plenty of evidence of how it fits together − cheating bankers, fumbling politicians, corrupt media. On and on the stories break.
But we still know little of how to make change for a better world, fit to live in for people and our children, and I need to get off that hook. I’m sick of the information sold to us by those who profess to know. I applaud the whistle blowers. Sure, I am confused and dismayed by the continuing sense of powerlessness on behalf of the children born into this abusive world, and I believe the current epidemic of obesity and easting disorders is no more than a mass expression of hunger, a craving. But for what?
I can only answer for myself. For me, I crave release. I use that word instead of freedom, because freedom is a bit used up. I crave release from the futility of phony hunger, of compulsive consumption, from the disappointment of political posturing and manipulations, from promises of fraudulent progress. What I do want and pray for is the joy of making music, the magic and freedom of poetry, the beauty of flowers and fertility, and the miracle of growth. For the instant warmth and intimacy of kittens, and the glory of wildlife. So I will write for children. I will read, out loud, wearing a funny hat and glittery clothes. I will tell them about watching wasps suck sweetness from spotty foxgloves, about mischief and mystery and magic. I will call my first collection Daisies are Fried Eggs for Teddy Bears. I will write as a child, from the child in me, to the child in you.
RIP VI SUBVERSA/ FRANCES SOKOLOV
“The Truth of Revolution, Brother” (Situation Press) is available from here and includes a great interview with Vi Subversa among others. Thanks to them for permission to reproduce it here.
The older part of Poison Girls back catalogue is available from All the Madmen
Poison Girls Official Website is here.
Compiled by Ged Babey with huge thanks to all of those who gave permission for their words to be reproduced here. Our love goes to Pete, Gem and all of Vi’s family and close friends.
Photo montage taken from Facebook. If original photographers wish to be credited please contact us at Louder Than War.