R.I.P. Sarah Kirsch, Admired Bay Area Punk Musician and Activist
Update, 12/11/12: A memorial service for Sarah Kirsch has been planned for Sunday, Jan. 6, at 924 Gilman (time TBA). Her family is also requesting donations to help cover expenses; if you can help them out, even with $5, do so here.
Original post: Sarah Kirsch, a prolific Bay Area activist and punk musician in the groups Baader Brains, Fuel, Pinhead Gunpowder, and others, died on Wednesday, Dec. 5, after a lengthy battle with Fanconi Anemia. She was 42.
Kirsch's struggle with Fanconi Anemia, a rare genetic disorder that often causes leukemia or bone marrow failure, began shortly after she came out as a trans-gender woman in recent years. Previously she was known as Mike Kirsch. A grass roots effort to fund the mounting costs of healthcare expenses was in place for more than a year.
Steve Stevenson, owner of the record store and label 1-2-3-4 Go! Records, expressed his sadness at the news of her passing and his disappointment regarding a benefit gig scheduled for next season, at which high-profile acts were slated to reunite for Kirsch's aid.
The influence Kirsch left upon musicians and activists in the Bay Area and beyond is staggering. Appreciation for her life and accomplishments continues to mount, and an effort to fund her memorial is imminent. Kirsch had been an extremely active member of the Bay Area punk scene since the mid-'80s, performing in at least 15 groups including Fuel, Pinhead Gunpowder (with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong), and Baader Brains, many of them revolving around the early years of all-ages venue 924 Gilman St. in Berkeley. Her lyrics were marked by incisive political and personal ethics that were dutifully reflected in her life up to her passing.
Besides her prolific musical involvement, Kirsch was an active member of the collectively-run Suigetsukan Martial Arts Dojo in West Oakland since 1996. Mike E., Sensae of Suigetsukan, expressed his admiration for Kirsch's dizzying achievements as well as her humility. "In spite of her accomplishments... she was one of the most understated people I ever met," he said. "While her accomplishments could have put her in the limelight, she preferred to just quietly keep doing the work, effortlessly demonstrating the humility that many of us strive for, but fall short of." In addition to her involvement with the greater Dojo, Kirsch was a teacher at Girl Army, an Oakland collective offering affordable self-defense training for women and trans-people.
Kirsch helped politicize and inspire many people she knew. A sentiment expressed nearly universally by friends was that despite her unwavering conviction, Kirsch was able to be confrontational and effectively raise awareness of ethical issues in and outside of the music scene without passing judgment or belittling those she disagreed with. Punk is fraught with contentious political posturing, but it is rare to find a member of the community who addresses the issues with the grace, poise, and ascetic dedication that Kirsch did.
Jesse Townley, manager of the Alternative Tentacles label and member of East Bay punk groups Blatz, The Criminals and others, upon the mention of Kirsch, immediately recalled lyrics she wrote in the late 80's for a Fuel track called "The Name Is." "It's about screwed up jokes," Townley says. "It's such a concentrated blast of intelligence... It was blunt, sly and snide at the same time. Political and ethical considerations in our music scene would be further advanced if people were more like [her.]"
Kirsch's passion for radical politics was echoed by the memories of Jose Palafox, a member of Baader Brains with Kirsch. Palafox recalls first meeting her in the mid-'90s while on tour in San Francisco. Their initial meeting had a profound impact on his own political development. "She said, "Hey, the revolution is not some event over there where we get rid of these motherfuckers that we hate, the revolution is an everyday practice," Palafox remembers. He is now a professor and politically focused academic.
Spencer Rangitsch, a member of Kirsch's two most recent musical projects, Baader Brains and Mothercountry Motherfuckers, had the following to share in an obituary posted to the blog of punk zine Maximum Rocknroll:
"Sarah was ahead of her time, almost as if from another galaxy: her talent, vision, creativity, empathy, values, compassion, dedication, and unrelenting passion for life -- all were truly unsurpassable and there is no one who I could ever even imagine having just one of those qualities in greater quantity."
Many of Kirsch's friends contacted for this article were too distraught to offer their memories for remembrance at this time.
Palafox recalls his last memory of Kirsch two weeks ago at her partner's birthday party as one of hope and positivity. She was still making plans for the future, elaborating on artistic and educational ambitions. "She was visionary. She really embodied the idea that another world is possible. We have it on our shirts and our posters, but she really embodied it in her life."