Dinah Cancer's beauty inspired the wet dreams of hundreds of miscreant teenage boys. She sang for 45 Grave, one of the bands birthed from the first wave of Los Angeles punk rock who put out albums titled Only the Good Die Young and songs called "Evil" and "Party Time," which helped launch Goth and death rock.
It's almost too ironic—the stage name (she was born with the rather ordinary tag of Mary Simms), the band name, the songs, the death shtick—because she really shouldn't be alive anymore. She was addicted to heroin, just like 45 Grave's guitarist and main songwriter, Rob Graves, who died of an overdose in 1991, effectively killing the band. Cancer should've been next, but she tricked the clich by kicking smack and becoming a mom. Eventually, she started a new band with a similarly ear-catching name, Penis Flytrap, who'll release their debut full-length, Dismemberment (you're imagining the cover art right now, aren't you?), in early 2002.
Cancer never soiled her legend by trading in on cheap 45 Grave nostalgia or joining those she once mocked by becoming a stockbroker or soccer mom. Still, success at living life on her own terms comes with a price. She's not rich and doesn't have a lot of financial security, and the unlikely site of her personal triumph is a humble Hollywood apartment crowded with Nightmare Before Christmas knickknacks; 11 cats; and two young daughters, Ilse and Eirika. She looks a bit like Jennifer Jason Leigh, albeit with some wear-and-tear from hard living. Yet she's satisfied, a single parent who happens to sing in a horror-rock band.
It almost didn't happen.
Penis Flytrap: Cock rock
"I wanted children. I wanted a house, but something was missing," Cancer says of her married days in the mid-1990s. Rob Graves' death made her want to move far from the punk scene. Domestic life was almost the answer to all of her problems.
She had the children—basically, close enough to every woman's hausfrau dreams. She and her husband ran their own business, a metaphysical bookstore in West Hollywood, making her post-punk life oh-so-very quaint. But without drugs and rock, she and her husband found they had little in common. They separated in 1996.
That year, some friends asked her to sing on Children of the Damned, a tribute album to the influential Brit punk outfit. It was the key to what she had been missing. "Performing makes me a full person," she says. But not just any performance. "I've always been against normal society. I wanted things to be more exciting."
So the timing felt right for Penis Flytrap, and Cancer gets all the excitement she wants. The quartet dresses like punk versions of the Addams family. Cancer softly shakes and sways her hips to the band's brutal mix of speed metal and old-school punk; their go-go dancers masturbate with crucifixes. There's a lot of blood, and the crowd lustily screams at the mayhem. "It's modern-day Grand Guignol theater," says guitarist Lucifer Fulci. "It's an Alice Cooper thing."
Not too different from a 45 Grave show, recalls Brendan Mullen, who chronicles the early days of LA punk in his new book, We Got the Neutron Bomb. Back then, Mullen says, Cancer's band always took the stage sounding like an out-of-control locomotive and looking like the undead.
"There's no question 45 Grave was a pioneering '80s Goth kind of band that never got their due credit," he says. "They were important because of their contributions to the essential Hell Comes to Your House compilation album, a very fascinating little document of a changing moment in LA music history, catching the suburban scene as it moved away from strictly punk into early Fullerton pop punk and Goth rock. 45 Grave was very much a part of that trend, even though most of the hardcore beach punks out of Huntington didn't get it."
It's possible 45 Grave never received their just props because it was so hard to categorize them. They were Gothic before Bauhaus made the music (and its requisite zombie posing) popular, products of the punk scene, but a band that flexed a distinctly unhip metal edge. Just to razz LA punks further, their music was a tad more sophisticated than that of the rest of the bands on that thrash-and-burn scene were producing. Rob Graves was a jazz-trained musician who wrote all of 45 Graves' songs in jazz chords, making the compositions sound like thoughtful tunes, something of a no-no in a scene suspicious of polished musicianship.
And there was the controversy. One of their biggest hits, "Party Time," was about the ritual rape and torture of a French girl in the 1970s, set to a loud, fast, brain-dead metal beat that made it appear the band endorsed child molestation. Cancer says she was—natch—misunderstood.
"I felt such pain for this girl, who never had a chance," she says. "My wish for her was to be in a happier state, away from those evil people. I wished she could be happy at a party surrounded by friends." Hence the ham-fisted lyric, "Do ya want to party?/It's party time."
And the riot. During a 1981 Whiskey-a-Go-Go show, Cancer made an inflammatory speech about how the cops had stomped on the punks' right of self-expression by closing shows. Her fans reacted by going outside and smashing police cars. Patrick Henry might have loved it; the authorities did not.
If Cancer appeared tough and out-of-control, she had another side, says her friend Superheroines guitarist Eva O. "She had a lot of charisma," says O. "She was strong, but at the same time, she looked so fragile onstage. But we know she isn't. She's lived this long; she's lived through all of that."
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Here's a little proof of that strength. After being a junkie for 12 years, she decided to kick the habit alone. "I did my own form of brainwashing," Cancer says. "Instead of going to get high, I would buy a piece of jewelry. So now I have this amazing jewelry drawer. Some days, I think I'd still love to get high, but then I realize I have responsibilities to my kids and my band."
The clean-living policies of Penis Flytrap mean no partying during practice or gigs. The band also bring several roughnecks to their shows, whose job it is to keep the druggies away from Cancer. "It's like Goodfellas, except they're Gorefellas," says Fulci. "We stick together, and we're wary of new people for a long time."
It's an unapologetic lifestyle, but not one that's scornful or contemptuous. The last words I hear after our interview from the woman who gave herself the caustic name Dinah Cancer? "Drive safely!" And she meant it.
Penis Flytrap perform at Repent at Sandraella's, 815 S. Brookhurst, Anaheim, (714) 635-8040; www.repentclub.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $7. 21+.