When I was the horrible age of 13, I attended an after-school program with a batch of fellow 6th-grade girls held at a local theater that had once been a church, but was now entirely painted bubble-gum pink. “SING * DANCE * ACT said the star-shaped sign in front, and that is what we did - a dance class, a theater class, and a singing class, back to back, every day.
There are few things more miserable than a 13-year-old girl after school. They are surly, sarcastic, hungry and prickly. But the theater had a secret weapon in the pianist who was supposed to teach us the “sing” portion of the afternoon. Gillian Lovejoy was an eccentric black woman who always wore multiple layers of body-concealing clothing and a strange hat. (Coincidentally, Gillian’s sister Margot was my mother’s best friend and musical collaborator —and my Godmother. Margot and my mother had been in a band together in the seventies called “Vermillion,” which played in local bars.) Gillian, with her gentle, quirky manner and somewhat remedial piano skills, was somehow capable of taking a roomful of agitated, eye-rolling middle school white girls with braces on their teeth and violence in their hearts and getting them to successfully harmonize and even clap together while she plonked out serviceable renditions of songs like “Day By Day” from Godspell on a small electric piano. We even enjoyed it.
I had a lot of respect for Gillian, so I took it seriously a few years later, when I was 16 - when she asked me to join her New Wave outfit, called “Avatar: The All Skirt Band.” The core group of the band, Gillian and two other women, had been evolving together since the seventies, when they were known as The Woodnymph Fantasy Band. (Their poster featured the three women with hair down to their waists, running wild-eyed toward the fish-eye lens of the camera into a decorative circle with a lot of Art Nouveau lettering around it, in classic San Francisco psychedelic style.)
I had a fake ID at the time and had been hanging around a lot of illegal nightclubs in San Francisco with the fashion club kids, and calling myself Cintra Sinatra, which Gillian liked, since all of the women in Avatar had picked noms-du-guerre for themselves — our Asian drummer called herself Bo Ling. I was half the age of most of the other bandmates, except for one: the bass player, Joan Lom, was actually Margot and Gillian’s sixty-year-old mother.
I was mostly there to play the Farfisa organ, a clumsy beast shrouded in plywood which was schlepped around to our local gigs with great struggle. Margot, Gillian’s sister, designed and sewed all of our outfits — stiff triangular jackets of the Battlestar Galactica variety, which went with our robotic, DEVO-esque choreography. We always gave away a Liberace album at our concerts.
Gillian was a truly offbeat, inspired person. Though in her late thirties, people close to her believed she was still a virgin. Margot told my mother that she wore multiple pairs of pants every day to prevent rape. She had deep religious beliefs, and even converted to being a Jehovah’s Witness because she was so devoted to Michael Jackson.
In retrospect, Gillian was onto something with the name Avatar, a word which nobody had ever heard in 1986. The songs she wrote on her Gibson Flying V, with titles like “Eighties Lady,” were largely composed in an attempt to woo the local Modern Rock radio station.
I wanna buy me a fast car
280Z or a Jaguar
Buy an ID and IUD…HUH?
I wanna dress like a rock star
I wanna cut all my hair off
I wanna wear very short skirts
I wanna live in the fast lane (pronounced “fassah lane”)
No matter how hard the speed hurts
Something about Avatar actually worked — we actually had a pretty decent sound. With Margot’s help we were eventually signed to Holland-Dozier-Holland, an offshoot of the Motown label, and we were able to record with a legendary local sleazebag producer. We had multiple interviews on the local Modern Rock radio station, where they were actually playing a few of our songs. We even had the main billboard at San Francisco’s Tower Records (which was kind of pointless, because the cover art didn’t feature the band name anywhere, but it was thrilling to drive by it.)
Most of the Avatar experience was somewhat lost on me, being 16 and obsessed with city night life, but the thing I enjoyed the most was some of the weirder songs that we performed, like “Calling Planet Claytar,” which was written about an out-of-body experience that Gillian had, in which she encountered aliens from another dimension. Gillian was prone to out-of-body experiences; one which she discussed anecdotally involved her getting into a long bout of astral-travel, only to try to re-enter her body and being stuck between the walls of her and her mother’s low-income apartment. Gillian and her mother often became seized with anxiety about demons and would read the Bible out loud all night long. Their apartment was filled with Post-Its on the walls, saying things like “JESUS IS HERE IN THIS ROOM AND THERE WILL BE NO DEMONS ALLOWED.”
I eventually became too distracted and flakey for the band, and was replaced by a lumpy young woman in army pants. Gillian, for some reason, was eager for Avatar’s audiences to believe that the band had not changed its personnel, so she compelled the young lady to bleach her hair white-blond and change her name to Sinerah.
Avatar might have had more of a career trajectory, but Gillian, for reasons only beknownst to Gillian, refused to tour. Her family, however, always respected her strange rules and revered her as a genuine mystic. When Margot and Gillian’s other sister had a miracle baby - so-called because she managed to have a complete pregnancy despite the fact that she had supposedly undergone a complete hysterectomy years before — Gillian successfully compelled her sister to name the baby girl Fargo, insisting that because of this, she would “go far.”
Several years ago, Gillian became ill with ovarian cancer. Due to her belief in Jehovah’s Witness teachings, she refused what would have been a fairly routine surgery, because she would have needed a blood transfusion. A doctor could not be found locally who might perform the requisite “bloodless surgery” demanded by her beliefs, so Gillian, to the horror of her family, refused all treatment and began a rapid decline. During the time of her illness, Gillian’s mysticism became even more pronounced; she was rumored to have become wildly psychic. Margot reported that one day, Gillian looked out of her window at a neighbor passing by and loudly denounced the woman as a “fornicator.” (Gillian did not know that the woman was, actually, having an extramarital affair.) Gillian eventually died, laying on her side with a blissful smile on her face.
Avatar’s music never made the leap to digital; I was surprised to see that our album is still available in some specialized corners of the internet. Margot mutters occasionally about converting the songs into MP3s, but it has never happened.
Years after her death, I still occasionally think I see Gillian in airports. Nobody but Gillian has ever had that particular silhouette — her skinny frame in multiple layers of pants, a hasty ponytail sticking out from under a weird hat (“Gillian! Do something about your hair!” Margot used to yell at her. “It looks like a bear’s pussy!”) I always told Margot whenever I thought I saw Gillian, and Margot would sigh. “That was her,” Margot would say. “Sometimes I still see her too.”
About a year ago I thought I saw Gillian on a bicycle near my home, and I had to remind myself: she’s on Planet Claytar, now.
Artwork: 2 of 3 Ronettes, by Cintra Wilson
Cover of Avatar album by Margot Jones and Gillian Lovejoy