A Portrait of a Punk Rock Powerhouse

Photo: Naomi Park

Much like the late ‘70s in New York City, the early ‘80s LA hardcore scene and the emergence of the Straight Edge movement on the East Coast, the early ‘90s in Berkeley, California has become a special, and sometimes overly embellished, time in music history. The notorious all ages venue, 924 Gilman Street, served as the stomping ground for now-legendary bands like Rancid, Green Day and Operation Ivy. More than a mere venue, the space also served as a community. For Marian Anderson, lead singer of The Insaints and the subject of Lilly Scourtis Ayers’ upcoming documentary, Last Fast Ride, the creative community of Gilman offered temporary comfort, support and a place to play. “Marian was the most extreme example of a troubled kid who found a family through music. The band’s sound was definitely a product of its place and time,” says Ayers.

The Insaints were formed in approximately 1988 in Modesto, California by guitarist Daniel deLeon and lead singer Marian Anderson. In 1990 the two moved to San Francisco, enlisted a few new members and joined the Bay Area music scene. The Insaints had the classic sound of an angry female fronted punk band with lyrics that focused on female empowerment, feminism and overcoming sexual abuse. They called to mind groups like X and Naked Aggression and performers like Wendy O. Williams and Lydia Lunch.

The band split in 1994, but not before gaining a reputation as one of the wilder bands in the Berkeley scene. Anderson, who worked as a dominatrix in San Francisco, sometimes performed topless and eventually began incorporating sex acts and other lewd behavior into the band’s live shows.  In the film Dexter Holland of The Offspring describes the first time his band ever played with The Insaints. “She steps to the front of the stage and goes ‘I’ve got something for you’ and she pisses on the crowd,” Holland describes. “[It was] one of the finest punk rock moments I’ve ever experienced.” Tragically, Anderson died of a heroin overdose on November 4, 2001.

Although Ayers became familiar with The Insaints after high school and knew who Anderson was, she never had a chance to see the band live or become closely associated with Anderson before her death. The idea for Last Fast Ride actually came from Danielle Bernal, Anderson’s girlfriend for the last six years of her life. “[She] wanted to have someone make a small documentary about Marian. She spoke with Daniel deLeon about it and he recommended me. I had shot his music video for [Rezurex’s] ‘Devil Woman From Outer Space’ and we had been friends since I was about eighteen years old. I was still in film school [at Columbia] in New York when we first spoke about the project,” says Ayers.

Ayers admits that she didn’t know much about Anderson before beginning the project and was drawn in as she learned more about her life story. The documentary—Ayers’s first full-length film—is actually only the first step. Scourtis-Ayers is currently writing a script for a feature screenplay about Anderson’s life.  “Making the documentary [was] a great way for me to do research,” says Ayers.

Working closely with Bernal and deLeon, Ayers gathered old photographs of Anderson, video footage and music. She was also able to obtain interviews with Anderson’s friends, including Tim Armstrong of Rancid, who actually created The Insaints logo using White-Out in a Berkeley Kinko’s. “Tim usually doesn’t do interviews. We were very lucky to speak with him—he only did it because of his great affection for Marian,” says Ayers.  “I liked her from the very start, even before I knew she was in a band,” Armstrong says in the documentary. “She was one of those kids that was really intense. I’ll never forget her eyes.”

Ayers says that overall, when people learned what they were trying to do, they were happy to send her the material to make it happen. “I took this massive mountain of material and just kept distilling it down further and further into a tight little movie,” says Ayers. Five years later brings Last Fast Ride: The Life, Love and Death of a Punk Goddess.

The film is narrated by punk rock legend Henry Rollins, who the film’s producer Shannon Factor, contacted through a friend of a friend. “We sent him a screener and he said he really liked the film and was happy to do it. He said it really allows someone who didn’t know her to get to get a sense of how complex and special she was,” says Ayers

Although Last Fast Ride demonstrates that The Insaints wild stage antics often overshadowed their music, and even though they only released one official split double 7-inch during their existence, Anderson’s vocals were as strong as any of her contemporaries. “It’s really sad that Marian’s amazing vocal talent is now lost to the world,” says Ayers. “She could scream like a banshee or sing like an angel—in the same breath sometimes.”

The film focuses not only on Anderson’s relatively short time in The Insaints, but also on the alleged sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her father, her volatile teen years as a street kid, the struggles with mental illness and her life in LA after The Insaints had broken up. The portrait that emerges is one of a complex, yet tragic figure. Anderson was a brilliant and strong woman, who was severely damaged by her early experiences of sexual abuse. “I think the abuse definitely steered her in a certain direction. By taking control of her sexuality, she, in her own way, felt that she was working out her demons—she felt she was overcoming the victimization she had no control of as a child,” says Ayers.

Portions of the documentary focus heavily on Anderson’s history working in various areas of the sex industry, both formally and informally. Anderson first ran away when she was about 13 years old, splitting time between psych wards, group homes and San Francisco squats. “She had to live by her sexuality. She would tell me she would always hook up with the biggest guys in the squats because they would protect her,” Danielle Bernal says in the film. Anderson spent time as a prostitute, a dominatrix and a stripper during her life.

“I really agree with what Texas Terri says in the film, that you give away a little bit of your soul when you have sex with someone,” Ayers says. “I’ve done a great deal of research on sexual abuse and rape and I’ve learned that it is a very typical/normal part of recovering from sexual abuse to go through a period of promiscuous behavior or to put oneself in situations of control, but I don’t think it is healthy to remain in this world.”

The dots are never explicitly connected, but the overall sentiment seems to be that the early abuse, and later work in the sex industry were partially responsible for Anderson’s eventual demise. “This sounds sick, but some of the people that loved her are the kind of people that killed her. I feel like she was exploited by our system and she’s dead now because of it,” long time friend Selena Norris says in the documentary.

Although the film tackles a number of social issues, Ayers states that it was never her intention to make an issue film. “I wanted to make a film about a person, showing as much of her complexity as possible and by doing that, evoke compassion in the audience,” says Ayers.  “Marian was troubled, damaged, amazing and talented. I think that even though she was so extreme, a lot of people can relate to her.  Having gone through some incredibly horrible things, she was still an incredibly kind and giving person. ”

Last Fast Ride premiers at Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, UT during January 2011.

Screening Times:
Sat., Jan. 22 — 5:00 PM —Treasure Mountain Inn: Main Screening Room
Tues., Jan. 25 — 2:00 PM — Treasure Mountain Inn: Gallery Screening Room

Photo: Naomi Park Photo: Moon Trent Photo: Daniel DeLeon Photo: Lilly Ayer