If you don’t know about Hilken Mancini, veteran Boston punk and director of Girls Rock Campaign Boston, then you may have run into her at her vintage shop, 40 South St. If you don’t know her from there, then you might have heard her play guitar in Fuzzy on MTV in the 90’s. If you didn’t hear her there, then maybe you’ve heard her in The Monsieurs or Shepherdess, or maybe you’ve been to Punk Rock Aerobics, either in its original incarnation or its revival. If you still don’t know her, then let me be the first to introduce you…
PT I: PUNK ROCK AEROBICS
Right now Somerville’s ONCE, with all its faded rugs and glory, is far from its usual dark den of sound. It’s just before noon and people – primarily women – in workout gear are streaming into the ballroom, which has heard its fair share of manic punk noise over the years. If those walls could shout… Today, the music is the same but the auspices are different: It’s the day of the (roughly) annual Punk Rock Aerobics class, the dreamchild of Hilken Mancini and legendary artist Maura Jasper. (You’ve seen her work if you’ve ever picked up a copy of Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me.)
These days, Melanie Bernier (of Boston Cream… and the Compass!) and Erin King (of The Monsieurs) do most of the sweating alongside Mancini, the three of them clad in as much punk regalia as you can fit over compression pants, which turns out to be a lot. Also, it’s frickin’ cold outside.
Mancini and the girls take their places onstage and introduce DJ Sit-And-Spin, who you may have seen at the Compass’s Confront Your Issues #2 show. They introduce Girls Rock Campaign, without which there would be no reason to thrash to the oldies on this bright, freezing Saturday afternoon. Then “What Do I Get” by The Buzzcocks starts blaring and folks are on their feet learning how to do Wack Jacks, which Mancini demonstrates as a jerky, hungover jumping jack. If jumping jacks are military camp, Wack Jacks are the Rathskeller. If aerobics are Jane Fonda, then PRA is Kathleen Hanna screaming “GIRLS TO THE FRONT!!”
PRA continues for an hour with DJ Sit-and-Spin cranking out tried-and-true classics like the Ramones’ “Chinese Rock.” Later, a very special dedication is made to Jonathan Richman with The Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner,” because this is Boston and that beautiful weirdo will forever make his presence known at all gatherings of the beautiful and weird. Hilken and her punx go through a regimen of punk planks, punk burpees, punk squats, and aerobic dance moves of no discernible origin.
In the back row, watching the fray, a woman whispers to me, “Y’know it’s harder than it looks,” and nods towards the rows of serious athletes in deep concentration, kicking and punching and elbowing the air.
She’s right; no time is spent giggling at the novelty of the moves’ names, or the hair-whipping frenzy they induce. Brows are knit in concentration, faces redden, perspiration undoubtedly occurs. It’s not a bedroom pop aerobics class, after all.
When it’s over, Mancini thanks a long list of people for helping her out and gets a roomful of applause. This is when smiles break out on the faces of the exercisers and they wipe their hair out of their faces, hug each other, and begin to roll up their mats. The funky little ballroom is suffused with giddiness, and laughter. PRA only comes once a year, after all, and when it comes, brunch follows.
PT II: PUNK BRUNCH
After leading aerobics, the first thing Mancini does is change out of her Riotgrrl Jazzercizer outfit. Then she grabs a bloody mary. We meet upstairs in the lounge for PRA’s post-workout brunch, and in between sips, she lets me ask her a few questions. I’m lucky, because she’s the type of person who answers questions in stories and, as far as stories go, she’s got plenty.
“We got a record deal from Atlantic in the 90’s, back when they gave record deals,” she says, of Fuzzy, which brought her, Chris Toppin (vox/guitar),Winston Braman (bass), and David Ryan from The Lemonheads (drums) all around the country at the tender young age of 20. They had a van, a bunch of free time, and zero supervision from the label.
“Their [Atlantic Records] back catalogue was Led Zeppelin,” Mancini explains. “So they didn’t give a shit… We were just a tax write-off for them.”
After neglecting to tell the label that they wouldn’t be finishing their tour in Europe, Mancini & Co. spent down their contract money one Salvation Army at a time, did magazine interviews from rest stop pay phones, and played small-town shows in the evening.
“It was a weird, cool time,” she says, and then immediately qualifies by saying, “I was really naive, and I didn’t know how lucky I was.”
Fuzzy was keeping company with other Boston punks from the 90’s like Letters to Cleo, Belly, Dinosaur Jr, and The Lemonheads.
“And then we got dropped from our label,” she says, and takes a sip of her drink.
Nirvana was the new big thing now, and labels were all scrambling to throw money into their three-piece male grunge acts, according to Mancini. She says it with the tiniest of shrugs.
“At that point I was disgusted with the music industry cuz I realized I wasn’t gonna get another record deal,” she says. “So I created Punk Rock Aerobics.”
Before Punk Rock Aerobics, before Girls Rock Campaign Boston, and before Fuzzy, Hilken Mancini, a recent transplant from Syracuse, NY, was going to the Boston Conservatory on a dance scholarship.
“I studied dance like, seriously,” she says, in a subdued tone that, in spite of itself, can’t help but look back and laugh, “I thought I’d be a professional dancer.”
At 18, she went to Boston to audition at the Conservatory and happened to catch The Neighborhoods playing at the Rathskeller. At 20, after further investigation into that white hot Boston sound, Mancini dropped out of the Conservatory and started a goth band called Womb to Tomb. Then at 22, Fuzzy was born.
It was in her travels with Fuzzy that Mancini met Maura Jasper. The two stayed friends after Fuzzy got dropped from Atlantic for something more dude-centric. Jasper lived in New York and Mancini in Boston.
“We used to joke about it [PRA], but then we both got laid off on the same day,” she recalls. “It was this really weird coincidence. So that’s when I said to her, ‘Hey, let’s really do it.’”
Punk Rock Aerobics went live in 2000 and had a prolific 5-year run where it got featured in Newsweek and MTV, opened for both local and national acts, and got by with a little help from its friends.
“I had this old Chevy station wagon with a hole in the gas tank and I couldn’t find a way to fix it,” says Mancini. No car meant no transport to the Middle East Downstairs, which meant no PRA. “I thought ‘Oh well, I can’t do it. I can’t drive there, I can’t bring my boombox and my grips.’”
That’s when Billy Ruane, storied punk benefactor and guardian angel of the Middle East Nightclub, lent her a car.
“He came into my store one day and said, ‘I heard you can’t do PRA anymore, so I’m gonna give you a car for a while until you get yours fixed.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you’re gonna loan me a car?’”
Mancini’s eyes gleam as she tells me of how she wrote down her address and watched in disbelief as, that night, someone dropped a Jaguar off in her driveway. “I mean, granted, it was a piece of shit, but I drove that Jaguar for 3 months!”
Mancini laughs and then adds, wistfully: “There were people like Billy who really supported me, and I felt so supported by the community of Boston, that I thought, I don’t want to move to New York or LA, fuck that shit! I wanna stay here.”
In 2005, Mancini opened up a vintage shop called 40 South Street in JP, where you can find her today. Mancini put PRA to rest for a bit, but she wasn’t done forever. In 2010, after communicating with a Portland, OR organization called Girls Rock Campaign, which teaches young girls to play instruments and rock the fuck out, she and Nora Allen-Wiles started a chapter in our fair city. Now we see PRA in its current (but maybe not final?) iteration: As a annual fundraiser for Girls Rock Campaign.
Says Mancini: “Sometimes I explain this to the girls at [GRCB], ‘What do you think punk rock means?’ and they’re like ‘Weeeellll…’ I have to say to them, ‘It’s not about posing in a certain fashion or being a certain way, it’s about thinking for yourself and and following your own voice,” which Mancini believes ties in with a fundamental tenet of Punk Rock Aerobics: “To me, [PRA’s motto] Free Your Mind & Your Ass Would Follow means follow your gut, follow what you wanna do, and when you look at the status quo you can say, ‘No thanks.’”
Throughout 3 decades of punk experiences in Boston, Hilken Mancini doesn’t seem to be prone to hero worship. When I ask her who her female punk role models are, she at first lists Viv Albertine from The Slits and Penelope Spears, but then changes her tune.
“To me,” she says, after some thought, “In Boston there were lots of women playing music who were more influential than punk celebs. These women were sort of um… PEERS!” she decides, emphatically. “But they also were really supportive and talented, and they almost inspired me more than someone like Viv Albertine cuz they were real people.
“I wanted to be like Kate bush when I was 14,” she says with a rueful smile. “But then I moved to Boston and saw real women really playing music, like Mary Lou Lord playing in the street. You think to yourself, ‘I could do it too.’”
The hour is getting on, and our drinks are almost empty. In a corner of the bar, another young woman is gearing up for her turn with Mancini. I realize I’m not the only young punk she has to inspire today.
“Wait,” I ask, as we’re gathering our bags to leave. “I have one more question.” Mancini obligingly nods me on as I adjust my recorder.
“What do you think of today’s Boston punk?”
She meditates for a second. When she speaks, she’s resolute: “To me it’s sort of whatever you want it to be,” she says. “But I think it’s everywhere, and I think that women and gender-nonconforming youth are probably the next punk rock. We’re just waiting for that to happen.” And with that, Hilken Mancini is off to the next damn thing.