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For Dinah Cancer, becoming the front woman of 45 Grave in 1979 represented the scratching of multiple itches. Not only did it mean a chance to sing lead (making good use of her love for the Ramones, Kiss, Alice Cooper and the Runaways), but it also meant an excellent opportunity to play up her Suspiria-loving "gore hound" side by dressing in Halloween-ish outfits. For 45 Grave's inaugural show on Sept. 1 of that year at the now-defunct Hong Kong Cafe in Los Angeles, the vocalist born Mary Sims decked herself out as a dead schoolgirl. When the group noticed how the Damned's Dave Vanian asserted his horror-inspired look, they were seriously motivated to do the same. "We started out as a normal punk band, but then we started embracing the dark light, and everyone turned into vampires," says the especially genial and warm Cancer, laughing. "We kind of rolled with it. We were in our early 20s, so we were just having fun."
The band always did prefer to tiptoe the line between seriousness and kitsch without declaring outright allegiance to either. They identified with the burgeoning death-rock sound practiced by fellow SoCal acts T.S.O.L. and Christian Death; represented Goth rock and horror punk as those subcultures were in their infancy; and gleefully utilized heavy metal for "Party Time," one of their signature tracks, at a time when the genre could particularly grate their listenership. Sleep In Safety, 45 Grave's crackerjack 1983 debut, is loaded with sonically versatile, tongue-in-cheek West Coast punk gems.
The band's members lived in the same space, pouring their lives into the group's activities and typical rock & roll indulgences alike. "We were starting to really get out there in '84. Then, the band broke up because [my marriage to guitarist] Paul [Cutler] was over, so I decided to take a break and do these on-again, off-again reunion shows," Cancer says.
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The last show played by the original lineup was in late '89 in Costa Mesa. When bassist Rob Graves died from a drug overdose in 1990, they finally shut the book with a memorial show at the Whisky a Go Go. "That would be the last time I would talk to those guys for a really long time," she says.
From 1990 to 2004, Cancer mostly moved on. She dealt with a heroin habit, raised two daughters, ran an occult bookstore called Ragnarok (which she lost after the 1994 Northridge earthquake) and worked as a teacher in a preschool setting. After she started a new band called Penis Flytrap in 1997, requests for 45 Grave songs began to come in, which led her to cover some of her old tunes in Dinah Cancer and the Graverobbers starting in 2003. Then, around 2004, Cancer relaunched 45 Grave in a new incarnation containing no other original members. After several lineup shifts, they're now a five-piece that includes the Adolescents' Frank Agnew on guitar. Pick Your Poison, their first disc of fresh material in ages, came out last August.
Though 45 Grave never went on to enjoy national recognition, Cancer doesn't seem to have any regrets about the way things shook out. She never expected anything beyond what 45 Grave achieved in their first run and used the years after it to calm her life down and make some corrections. "I hear that I'm the grandmother of death rock and Gothic, and, as my drummer Tom [Coyne] always screams in the background, 'So when we do we get our Grammy?'" she says with another laugh. "I go, 'To me, it's another normal day.' It's not like I made a lot of money or anything. I just have fun doing what I do. Maybe eventually, I'll make money; maybe I won't, but I'm gonna keep going."
This article appeared in print as "Alive and Loving It: Death-rock pioneers 45 Grave rise, fall and rise again."