The punk rock sexual liberation of Skafish


  • Skafish

I must admit I froze up for a minute on hearing the news of NUVO's sex issue. I'm not adverse to writing about the subject, but Indiana's repressive attitudes toward sex haven't exactly created a well spring of material to work with.

It's not that Hoosiers dislike sex. I only need to look out my bedroom window for proof of that, as a non-stop parade of sex workers march past my East 10th Street residence night and day. And there's certainly no shortage of strip clubs and adult book stores strewn across the Indianapolis cityscape.

Despite this, many of our state's most powerful politicians and community leaders are doing their best to prevent progressive thinking on issues regarding sex - ahem, HJR 3.

These opposing cultural forces have created a strange sexual paradigm: a climate where it's easy to switch on the radio and hear songs containing graphic descriptions of sex acts, but nearly impossible to find a reasoned discourse on progressive sexual thought in the mainstream dialogue.

Considering these issues I was at a loss on how to approach this column. Until I remembered that Indiana had produced its own musical champion of sexual liberation: Jim Skafish, who emerged from Northwest Indiana in the '70s.

In 1976, Jim formed Skafish, a unique musical aggregation that blazed a trail for punk and new wave in the Midwest, while setting a new standard for gender and sex experimentation in rock and roll.

Building off of influences from The New York Dolls, David Bowie and The Sparks, the Skafish crafted a dynamic live show that quickly attracted attention in the international music press. In 1978 the influential British music magazine NME called Skafish "possibly the best new group in rock and roll." His fellow musicians took notice too - Skafish counted The Ramones and Cheap Trick among the early fans of his band.

Skafish in the 1981 film Urgh! A Music War

But the same elements that made Skafish's act distinct also prevented him from attaining mainstream success. Skafish's live show celebrated androgyny and transsexuality, as the singer frequently performed in various forms of female dress.His lyrics explored the psychological trauma incurred from the cruel bullying and marginalization endured by those who dared to transgress from mainstream American values.

His transgender style didn't sit well with conservative Midwest audiences.

"I have always challenged sexuality and gender norms as a performer, and was the first, or one of the first to do so in Chicago and Indiana," Skafish told NUVO. "It caused a lot of violent reactions from audiences, which I suppose was to be expected. That only fueled me more."

A particularly notorious incident occurred in Chicago during 1977, when Skafish nearly set off a riot while opening for '50s revival act Sha Na Na. A review of the show in Billboard described Skafish as someone "who appears to be in transition between man and woman," performing in a "fit of transsexual narcissism." The review goes on to note that the audience went into "revulsion" when Skafish stripped down to a women's bathing suit and began applying make-up.

"Mothers were covering their children's eyes, people were throwing things at the stage and the police stopped the show." Skafish remembers.

Skafish's greatest statement on sexual politics appeared on his self-titled 1980 debut LP for I.R.S. Records. Composed in 1976, "No Liberation Here" chronicles the shame and abuse forced on individuals society deems as sexually deviant.

We can't walk the streets

Our faces get beat

We will not pretend that we have real lives

Here prison doors don't need bars

Blood shed today and we know it will not change

We live in shame

We don't have a right

No liberation here

"It was an anthem that spoke to multiple levels of societal abuse," Skafish said. "Some take it as a gay anthem, which is part of its message, but it also speaks to those who are disenfranchised for being outside of societal norms. Sadly, its message of bullying is perhaps more relevant today than it was when originally written and performed."

This was all a bit too much for American audiences to digest, and Skafish's career failed to gain significant traction. After releasing Conversation, a heavily censored 1983 sophomore LP, Skafish slowly faded away from the music scene.

In the post-G.G. Allin world of punk rock, Skafish's lyrics and onstage antics may not seem as shocking as they did in 1977. But sadly the current political atmosphere in Indiana leads me to believe that Skafish's message still wouldn't find widespread acceptance in his sexually regressive home state.

I'm pleased that NUVO's sex issue has given me an opportunity to salute Jim Skafish - a Hoosier punk rock pioneer and one of Indiana's loudest voices for sexual liberation.

This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features selections from the Skafish discography.

1. Skafish - No Liberation Here (live)

2. Skafish - Sign of the Cross

3. Skafish - Joan Fan Club

4. Skafish - Executive Exhibitionist

5. Skafish - Knuckle Sandwich

6. Skafish - Wild Night Tonight

7. Skafish - Lover in Masquerade

8. Skafish - You Invited Me

9. Skafish - There's a World

10. Skafish - Disgracing the Family Name (single version)

11. Skafish - No Liberation Here (LP version)

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.