California Girls: The Bangles

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But no one counted on Susanna's very natural, coquettish, camera-ready poise attracting so much attention. No one considered that, poise aside, Susanna is almost a foot shorter than the other Bangles and would consequently appear in the foreground of nearly every photograph of the band. And no one, certainly, could have anticpated Prince's much-publicized affection for her or calculated that its effect would be to vault Susanna into beyond-Bangles celebrity status and alter the equal-party nature of the band.

Susanna calls Prince's attentions "very mysterious." A source close to Prince calls it a press-invented romance – the result of confusing Susnna with Prince's then steady, Susannah Melvoin. Nonetheless, they met in 1984 after the Bangles' first album, All Over the Place, was released and then struck up a relationship. He called Susanna often and traveled to hear the Bangles perform several times, occasionally joining the band onstage. He appeared at a Bangles performance in Los Angeles last December, and the band members joined him in the studio afterward. At his request, they played Bangles music with him. "He knew all our songs," says Susanna. "We sat until three in the morning just playing Bangles songs, and then he disappeared again, off into the sunset, and we haven't heard from him since." She just grins when asked whether he was really courting her, but there's no question that he'd singled her out.

Prince's interest in Susanna – which the other Bangles usually refer to as "the thing with Prince" – ultimately benefited the whole band even as it provoked tension: Prince wrote "Manic Monday" for Different Light, the Bangles' second album, and with Susanna singing lead, in her tremulous, reedy voice, it became their first Top Ten single. It was also guaranteed that from then on Susanna would be viewed by the public as a separate entity within the band.

"I think I can't change the way the world perceives the band," Susanna says. "There's someone in the Bangles for everybody. What we do is a collaboration. You can't take out any member of the band and still have the Bangles. I think there's room within the Bangles organization for everything."

How about a movie star? This March, Susanna's first major film will be released – a coming-of-age feature called The Allnighter, with Joan Cusack and Michael Ontkean. In it, according to her mother, Tamar, who co-wrote, directed and produced the film, Susanna is "the ultimate star."

"I almost felt like I hadn't been living for a while until I did the movie," Susanna says. She's fussing with a plate of vegetables, chosen as a healthy regimen before a photo session scheduled for the next day. Perched on the big banquette at Hamburger Hamlet, Susanna looks doll-like, somewhat lost behind an enormous plate of big boiled roots and squashes. She's dressed in tomboy jeans and a sweater that practically swamps her except for her gaze, which is direct and cunning, and her gestures, which are flirtatiously emphatic – head cocked and hair tugged here, hands fluttered there. She has the turns and poses of an actress, and talking about movies animates her even more than talking about music: she quotes extensively from a book by Uta Hagen on acting that she read while on the Bangles' recent tour and, in the course of three days, illustrates many of her stories by acting out scenes from Educating Rita and Gone with the Wind, both of which she saw recently. On the other hand, she rarely notes anything musical. "There are so many things I want to do in this life," she says, "and the Bangles is just one of them. I give it my all, but it's just something that I do." Does she prefer acting to making music? "It's like asking which of your children you like better, the boy or the girl," she says. "Acting and music are just different."

One thing that's different about them is that acting is part of her relationship with her mother – a relationship that she already describes as "so especially close" and that accounts for her living with her parents this year. Fact is, Susanna has played a role in everything her mother has directed or produced – a short called The Haircut, the feature Stony Island and the Bangles videos "Going Down to Liverpool" and "If She Knew What She Wants." "It's really neat," says Tamar Hoffs, "to have both of our careers taking off at the same time."

Prince's mash note to Susanna paved the way on the charts for "Walk Like an Egyptian," the galloping dance song that brought the Bangles everything they'd bargained for when they set out to hear a song of theirs on the radio.

But this success hasn't really been the satisfaction they wanted. The band didn't write the song – it's the work of Liam Sternberg, who put together the Stiff Records Akron compilation and produced Rachel Sweet's first album – and the arrangement, full of synthesized roars and the tattoo of a drum machine, is less a representative sample of Bangles music than a showcase for the producer of Different Light, David Kahne, who also produced All Over the Place.

"'Walk' to me is a nice little novelty song kind of thing," says Debbi, "but I don't feel like it's us." More specifically, it's not like her: she neither sings nor plays drums on the song, which for her makes it an especially empty success. "I'm really happy it's Number One and all that," she says, not looking happy at all, "but I almost feel like a failure in some ways because I didn't do anything on the record." She's a drummer and a little sister, a little vulnerable and laconic, in a band whose other members are more visible and have more aggressive styles, whether they are unabashedly coquettish or dauntlessly willful or vigorously introverted. No wonder Debbi's so often overlooked, and no wonder that her fantasy is to do a record entirely on her own, writing, singing and playing everything all by herself.

While Debbi is the most unhappy – she says she "couldn't get along" with Kahne, argues with the songwriting credits he received on her songs and was outvoted when she first asked that they find a different producer for Different Light – all of the Bangles are ambivalent about the success of the album. They had hurried into the studio after many months of touring and didn't have enough strong songs of their own to make the album; as a result, they had to rely on music they didn't write and Kahne's gussied-up production to give the record depth. Although it's pretty, the record is also pretty distant from the band's spunky live sound and self-image.

Kahne says he "just found out one day" that he won't be producing the next Bangles album, which will be recorded sometime this spring; Don Gehman, who's produced John Mellencamp and R.E.M., is mentioned most often as Kahne's replacement. Kahne is disappointed that he won't be working on the next record, but he says that the friction between him and the band was unavoidable. "This was a very difficult record for them to make," Kahne says. "Whenever something good happens on a record, there's been some suffering. After going through that with someone, you don't always want to do it again. They were insecure, and learning can be very scary."

In the long run, what they may have learned is just how much running their own show means to them. "I like the record," says Vicki, "but I like it almost like I would like a Whitney Houston album." Decked out in riveted and studded black leather, she's an anomaly in the high-mellow ambiance of the Source, the ancient vegetarian outpost on Sunset Strip where Woody Allen orders mashed yeast and finally loses Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Poking at her vegetables as her leather creaks, she's an unlikely medley of images – The Wild One crossed with Greenpeace by way of Hullabaloo. Rangy and square shouldered, she has a blond Veronica Lake hairdo and an unflinching way of firing out opinions: on the subject of clothes for the band's photo session, for instance, she had issued such edicts as "No big hair," "Too Fifties, ugh," "Too glam," "Too Go-Go's," "Too cutesy," "Stupid" and just plain "No," and with a certainty that suggested not only that was she not going to change her mind but that she had great, unshakable reasons for her opinions. "I feel very detached from the record in a lot of ways," she says, "I want the new album to be a little more of what the Bangles are onstage – a little more rock & roll, a little more guitar oriented. I feel really strongly about using our songs."

She flicks back her bangs. "I'm perfectly willing," she says, "to accept the fact that it may not be a hit."

So the Bangles worry, not about having hits but about having control. They worry about getting along with each other but not about getting along with loved ones: it doesn't seem to daunt them that the attrition rate for Bangle boyfriends – all of them except Michael had been coupled up – was 100 percent this year, all lost in the course of their recent world tour. The male groupies who flock around them are hardly tempting. Vicki, for one, has noticed that her songwriting improves when she's single, and for the moment songwriting is the critical issue. "This sounds sort of stupid," says Susanna, "but we'd like to see what it's like to deal with life on our own."

They worry about having better songs but not about having babies: that will come during Bangle Baby Year, tentatively scheduled for 1995, when they'll have, Vicki says, a big party and all conceive on the same night.

They worry less about what they look like than about what people looking at them will see. Planning their apparel for a photo session becomes a sociopolitical debate – how to look like girls without looking girlie – as well as a moment when, for better or worse, they play out their roles as members of a partnership. Michael, with her abstracted air and economy of affect, listens silently and becomes animated only when the talk inexplicably turns to her favorite book, Madeleine L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time. Debbi cares less about their outfits than about not getting stuck, as usual, in back. Susanna, dressed only in underpants and a half fastened sweater, wanders through the studio in perpetual search of a mirror. "I think we should do it nude," she says. "Isn't that really what people want?"

Vicki is worried. She doesn't want them to look too cute or too tough or too Go-Go's or too much like someone told them how to look. It's a pain to spend so much time worrying about a picture, she says. They could do it just in jeans and T-shirts, very casual. To hell with all the worrying.

"But then you'll look at it tomorrow," she says, with certainty, "and you'll be sorry you didn't worry about it a little more."

This story is from the March 26, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.

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