The Nuns' Jennifer Miro: An Appreciation By Jack Boulware

miro-hollywood-nuns.jpg
Jennifer 'Miro' Anderson, 1957-2011.

By JACK BOULWARE

[Editor's note: Jack Boulware is the co-author, with Silke Tudor, of Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day.]

If we're talking the birth of Bay Area punk, there are as many points of view as there were people in the clubs. This timeline is the one generally agreed upon: The city's first true punk club show -- The Ramones, Savoy Tivoli upstairs, August 1976. The first local punk act -- Former stripper Mary Monday, with her band the Bitches. The first punk single -- "Hot Wire My Heart" by Crime, 1976. The first band to play Mabuhay Gardens -- The Nuns, December 1976.

Punks don't necessarily have a long lifespan. Nearly all the Ramones are gone. Mary Monday moved to Alaska and died. Three members of Crime are dead. And last month, one of the scene's founding females, Nuns keyboardist Jennifer "Miro" Anderson, passed away from cancer in New York. She had been playing in a version of The Nuns more or less continuously since the age of 18.

Despite devoting her entire adult life to making music, Jennifer never achieved much success or notoriety. Few from the Bay Area punk scene had any idea of her whereabouts. She had no steady boyfriend, no children, no connection with her family back in California. But enigmatic and mysterious, and still gorgeous, to the end? Absolutely.

When Silke Tudor and I were assembling our Gimme Something Better oral history, we set out to interview the first wave of Bay Area punk. Members of Crime, The Avengers, Negative Trend, Flipper, The Mutants, Dead Kennedys, and many others agreed to speak with us. But The Nuns were another story.

In the mid-'70s, as the radio played dreck like Bee Gees and Peter Frampton and Barry Manilow, Bay Area kids were flocking to North Beach to see something chaotic and wild. Punk had not yet been codified. There was no dress code, no tats across the stomach, no Hot Topic stores, no guitars covered in stickers. Nobody had yet popularized the phrase, "Dude, that's so punk rock."

San Francisco's first homegrown punk rock stars were Crime and The Nuns. Crime quickly developed a well-coiffed deadpan performance shtick, four guys wearing police uniforms, zoot suits, or candy-striper dresses. The Nuns were very different. They appeared to throw everything against the wall to see what stuck, from quiet Weimar piano ditties to what later might be called New Wave pop, to fast and raunchy New York-style rock and roll.

Most bands are led by a single identifiable personality, standing front and center, anchoring the stage. The Nuns had three lead vocalists -- platinum-blonde teenage Jennifer, gravely-voiced gay New Yorker Richie Detrick, and band co-founder Jeff Olener, who would pop out his false teeth as a gross-out gag.

The Nuns and Crime both drew lines around the block at the Mabuhay, but The Nuns stood out thanks to mysterious investors, and a management team that would later include Bill Graham. Other bands in the scene watched helplessly as high-priced Nuns billboards and radio ads bombarded the city. Big-ticket shows like Bryan Ferry and The Ramones and The Dictators and Television and The Damned all featured The Nuns as opening act. Nuns members partied with David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Sid Vicious. They had meetings with Sire Records in Los Angeles, and played the infamous final Sex Pistols show at Winterland.

They sang songs about suicide, fat chicks, decadent Jews, child molesters, and World War III. It was a fabulous mess, sloppy and out of tune, but at least it wasn't the same old dinosaur rock like Steve fucking Miller. And like all the early S.F. punk bands, things ended abruptly, in a pile of drugs, finger-pointing, and bitterness.

The Nuns did not want to talk to us. Guitarist Alejandro Escovedo, now a respected solo artist in Texas, begged no interview. Bassist Mike Varney, founder and proprietor of Novato's Shrapnel Records metal label, didn't answer messages. Jeff Olener, who had started the band with Escovedo as a class project at College of Marin, hung up the phone. It seemed like a bad dream everyone was hoping to forget.

Finally, in 2008, the onetime Nuns manager Edwin Heaven put us in touch with Jennifer, who graciously agreed to chat with me in New York. I had no idea what to expect. I knew she had worked as a fetish model, under the name "Mistress Jennifer." She kept The Nuns going throughout the 2000s, but the videos bore zero resemblance to the Mabuhay era. Clips of half-naked vampire girls gyrating to Goth synth-rock seemed light-years away from the arty North Beach origins.

I walked into a tea shop with tablecloths on Manhattan's Upper West Side, looking for a surgically enhanced blonde woman in black leather lingerie, smacking a riding crop. Instead, Jennifer was sitting by herself, wearing conservative clothing more appropriate for a law office, which is where she worked. She ordered pots of tea and a plate of scones for us to share, and seemed to enjoy reminiscing about her punk past. I had seen the late-'70s photos of her, taken by Mab scene photographers like James Stark and Chester Simpson. The beautiful porcelain-skin blonde, calculated and cold, smirking and wearing something couture, hyper-aware of her posture. She seemed to still be all that, but I also found her very warm and articulate, with an unexpected streak of humility.

"I grew up in Mill Valley, California and I think all my rebellious things started with men," she began. "I had a lot of anger towards men, because I was suddenly a teenage girl and I was sexy. Even my high school teacher was coming on to me, and would grab me, and he was always having sex with his students. He ended up marrying one of our students. It was kind of disgusting."

In the early '70s, I was a little monster. When I was 16, I had three different coke-dealer boyfriends that would pick me up at high school in leather-upholstered Jaguars. I would wear furs and makeup to school, and everybody hated me. I was a total snob. I would never date an actual high school boy. I had my rich boyfriends, they were all classy guys. The really scary thing is, I'm dating the same type of guy, but they're not coke dealers, unfortunately. I think it would be better if I was dating coke dealers. Anyway, so I grew up really fast, obviously."

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Joey Swails
Joey Swails

I was the Nuns sound engineer in their heyday (1976-1978) and Jennifer's comments and recollections are right on the money.

The early days were a wild and crazy mess, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. No rock band ever looked or sounded like the early Nuns, six completely unmatched people on the stage mashing together the music of German cabaret, Detroit metal, British glam, New York power punk and San Francisco psychedelia. It couldn't possibly work, but it did. Jeff and Alejandro told me they came up with The Nuns as an inside joke, a put-on, writing songs like "Decadent Jew" and "Stupid Chicks" as a parody of the rock music of the 70s.

The album they finally made doesn't do justice to The Nuns original music. Their first EP of Decadent Jew/My Savage/Suicide Child is the only recording to ever capture their sound; the only video that showed what they were really like live was the one made at the Pistols show.

Truth be told, Jennifer may have thought of herself as "snooty", but it was a put-on because her image demanded she play the part. But behind the image she was a warm, intelligent, decent person  (at least when I was around her, which was a lot.) She played the untouchable ice queen on stage, but I remember her kicking off her high heels and helping carry around her heavy Rhodes electric piano at the early gigs.

She's right about the rivalry between the bands in the early days - The Nuns and Crime in particular, though strangely Jennifer ended up dating Crime's drummer for quite a while, and I ended up joining Crime in 1979 playing bass, and later synthesizers. And yes, it all disintegrated in a mess of drugs, booze and overblown egos - but it was fun while it lasted!

I was very saddened to hear about her passing. I had not seen her since she left for New York, but we corresponded a fair bit over the years (after e-mail was invented!) She became a surrogate mother for Jeff Olener's daughter, and took care of Jeff when he was hospitalized some six months before she got sick herself. Not exactly the kind of things a snooty bitch would do.

Rest in peace, Jen.

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Sonof
Sonof

I always felt they were a New Wave band like Romeo Void.  I never saw them as a punk band at all since they had keyboards and slow tunes.

Sad that she died alone.

Joey Swails
Joey Swails

The Nuns were not a "punk band", not by the definition of "punk band" that had solidified by 1979. They weren't a "New Wave" band either. The Nuns were playing their music before anyone knew what "punk band" even meant, much less "New Wave." They were part of the outcast band scene of late 1976, which was not united by a style but by being an antithesis of the disco-pop-prog rock of the 70s. Put The Nuns, Crime, The Dils and Mary Monday in a club and not one of them sounded like the other. We were all united in what we were NOT, instead of what we were.

Trav
Trav

I saw Escovedo last year in San Diego and he mentioned The Nuns and said they had no listenable music nor hits.Which I thought was odd. He wrote "Chelsea Hotel '78" about his time with The Nuns. 

Joey Swails
Joey Swails

The Nuns had some very listenable music - they did the best goddamn version of "Search and Destroy" I've ever heard, and that includes hearing Iggy do it live. "Smokin' Heroin" could have been a genuine rock anthem, if it hadn't been about, well, smoking heroin on a beach in Bali. "My Savage" would have been a hit if Blondie had recorded it. They never got the full record company backing ($$$) to turn them from diamonds-in-the-rough into successful rock artists (the same fate suffered by Crime and The Avengers.)

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