Romeo Void's Debora Iyall: a timeless punk diva

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday April 11, 2023
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Debora Iyall in a Romeo Void concert aired on VH1
Debora Iyall in a Romeo Void concert aired on VH1

Recorded in 1980, Romeo Void's "Live From Mabuhay Gardens, November 14, 1980" (Liberation Hall) is finally seeing the light of day in 2023 as a Record Store Day (April 22) release. The previously unreleased 11-track live set, on opaque blue galaxy vinyl, features songs such as "Nothing For Me," "Confrontation," "White Sweater," and "Talk Dirty To Me," that would later make their way to the San Francisco-based band's exceptional 415 Records debut "It's A Condition."

Unquestionably, it was lead singer Debora Iyall's distinctive vocals, which alternated between impassioned and indifferent (remember later singles "Never Say Never" and "A Girl in Trouble"?), that set Romeo Void apart from other bands of the era.

Romeo Void in the 1980s  

Gregg Shapiro: Debora, I'd like to begin by asking you to confirm the story behind the band's name Romeo Void. Is it true that it's related to the shortage of eligible straight men in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
Debora Iyall: Yes. Actually, it was kind of inspired by the cover of a local magazine I think it was just called "San Francisco Magazine," and the headline was "Why Straight Women Can't Get Laid in San Francisco." A couple of band members and I were sitting around our kitchen table, and I had made lists of words to try to put together so we can come up with the name of the band.

We didn't want anything that had a "the" in it. I wanted something kind of poetic. I read a lot of Anais Nin and poets and things like that. I had gotten a bunch of words from her books that I had around. One of the words was "Romeo" and one was "void." When we put it together, with that magazine, it was like, "Okay, that's the name of our band!" I did write plenty of lyrics that were about failed or aborted or whatever romance issues. "Love is an illness." Thematically, we were in a good place.

By the late 1970s, when Romeo Void was formed, there were many notable women in punk rock, including Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Chrissie Hynde, and Poly Styrene, to name a few. Were any of these women ones you looked to for inspiration?
Those (women) were pretty pivotal, especially Patti Smith. I had seen her when she first came to San Francisco and did an in-store at a small record store, Rather Ripped Records. She did an acoustic set with John Cale at a club in Berkeley. It was really exciting to see her, and I think Lenny (Kaye) played guitar.

She did her poetry thing at both the record store and the John Cale evening.
I'd also seen her, around that time, where she played with a whole band at the College of Marin. Those were her first shows in the area. I also saw her a bunch of times at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco and smaller clubs. The Boarding House was one of her first big all band gigs.

My friend Joseph Brooks was an adamant fan of music. He used to run a lot of the clubs in L.A. like Club Fuck! and stuff like that. He had a record store, Vinyl Fetish. He was a fanatical rock and roller who always got the first tickets (to shows). We had a table right in front. She was a huge influence. But records-wise, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Exene (of X), and definitely X-Ray Spex. "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" Yes! I loved all of that. Chrissie Hynde (of Pretenders) -- I had that 45, "Stop Your Sobbing."

Romeo Void's 'Live From Mabuhay Gardens, November 14, 1980'  

I was fortunate to have moved to Boston in 1980 to attend (Emerson) college. I arrived at a time when what would become known as college radio was in its infancy, and even some of the other stations, such as WBCN, were playing cool music, including "Myself to Myself" from Romeo Void's 1981 debut album "It's A Condition." Did you have an awareness that Romeo Void was getting airplay outside of San Francisco?
Not until we went on tour. But we went on tour pretty quickly once we put out a record. We were on 415 Records, an independent label. The guy who ran it was very hands-on with phone calls. He seemed to call and talk to everyone all the time. I remember going into his office and there was a highway map of the United States, and he had put pins in different routes for the tours for the bands that were on his label. It said, "All bands on tour at all times [laughs]."

Wow! He worked you.
Yes. We went to tons of college radio stations. That was where you met the greatest folks. I loved going to college radio. I have friends in San Francisco who had shows on San Francisco college radio stations, both the Berkeley one and the University of San Francisco. Commercial radio was harder. We were played by (DJ) Oedipus...

...on WBCN!
Yes! He was a huge supporter of Romeo Void. We got to go on his show when we were there. But there were not very many commercial stations (playing us). There was one out on Long Island, WLIR. We went on that. I'm not sure we really got airplay in New York City. Maybe not at first, but maybe later. The (California) stations that did play us, there was one in Long Beach that was a commercial station and, of course, KROC in L.A. But I don't think there was a commercial station in San Francisco that played us for years.

I remember hoping for a Debora Iyall sighting when Romeo Void was in Boston recording the "Never Say Never" EP at Ric Ocasek's Syncro Sound studio. What was that experience like for you?
Oh, it was pretty cool. It was on Newbury Street, so you could go down to the comics store, order out for sandwiches, and have somewhere to wander around. As I recall, it was walking distance to a bridge that went over to Cambridge.

Yes, the Mass. Avenue bridge.
And it was close to Spit.

Of course, the bar in Kenmore Square, near Fenway Park.
It was a great town to be recording in, because when you weren't needed, there were things to do right in the neighborhood. That was awesome. Plus the people around the studio were really friendly. Sometimes, some of The Cars would come by. They were like, "Oh, we're going next door for sushi, if anybody wants to join us." I think I ate sushi with a couple of The Cars a couple of different times.

The song "Never Say Never" not only became a hit, but also Romeo Void's trademark tune in a way. Did you have an inkling that the song would become something of an anthem?
Not in the slightest. Not even in our wildest dreams, especially when we were writing. Do you realize that we had recorded for a few days with Ric, and we haven't even played it for him? His engineer came to our gig at Spit, I think, the night before we were leaving.

You always had to have everything bumped up against some gigs so you could afford to have the band out. We had all our gear packed up out of the studio. We were leaving the next morning. As an encore at the gig, we played "Never Say Never."

Ian Taylor, the engineer on the record, who'd worked with AC/DC and was a really good engineer, saw us do it. He said, "Why didn't you guys ever play that song for us?"

We said, "We're not done with it. It doesn't have a form yet. It's kind of a jam."

He said, "Oh, my God, I've got to call Ric and we've got to load you back into the studio because we've got to record that!"

We said, "Okay, but it's still not really finished."

I was one of those writers who had a couple of pages with lyrics and I'd slowly find phrases that work together. Beat-poetry-style stream-of-consciousness. I had a lot of lyrics for "Never Say Never" and not really a chorus formed when we actually went into the studio. I kind of did, but then it was like, "No, that's the chorus: 'I might like you better if we slept together.' You're gonna repeat that a couple of different times throughout the song."

We were forming it by committee while we were hooked up to the studio [laughs]. The take that we have, that you hear on the final, was originally 13 minutes. It was cut down and edited to be, I think, almost seven minutes now.

The song was formed through the miracle of editing. Once we got it cut down, then I had to double my vocals, and we did more overdubs. There was an overdub drum line where the drummer played on his drum hardware to make a percussion sound. That always sounded really good in the clubs.

The new, forthcoming Record Store Day LP "Live From Mabuhay Gardens, November 14, 1980" is a live recording that pre-dates the release of "It's A Condition." Did you know the recording existed, was it in your possession, or did someone else have it for safekeeping?
Terry Hammer was the sound person at the Mabuhay Gardens, which is where almost all the bands in San Francisco were playing that were playing around that time. The Avengers, The Nuns, you name it. Lene Lovich and Patti Smith came through and played Mabuhay. Everybody played this one little club. He recorded tons of bands.

At some point, it might have been in the '90s, Terry approached and said, "I've got these great recordings of Romeo Void, would you like to hear them? I'll dub you some copies."

Debora Iyall in 2022 (photo: Instagram)  

So, I had heard them a long time ago. It was interesting because (sax player) Benjamin (Bossi) had joined the band like a matter of weeks before that was recorded. When I hear those recordings I can hear him starting to gel with the band and also starting to learn how to improvise with his jazz training with our sound. It's this formative picture of Romeo Void finding our sound a little bit.

It was well before we'd been on tour. Like you said, before we recorded "It's A Condition." What strikes me when I hear it is how lucky was I to have these musicians indulge me as a singer and writer, let me create with them and make these new things happen from nothing, from a jam. Because I had no musical training.

It's really touching to hear you say that.
It's true, though, and I have to tell you I'm getting a little choked up because Benjamin passed recently. Him joining the band created the glow, or the incandescence.

What does it mean to you to have these eleven songs available to Romeo Void fans?
I think it's really cool that Terry Hammer kept the tapes all these years, that he was able to find an outlet like Liberation Hall. A lot of good things had to happen that weren't on us. I just agreed to it when they put it together and I'm lucky for that, too.

I've had a couple other lifetimes since Romeo Void, doing other things. It's been a lot of long years. It's great to have our fans, who really understood Romeo Void, how it worked in their lives, to be behind that. Terry was obviously one of those people and Liberation Hall has to be those people, they put so much effort into making this happen. Honestly, getting signed to a major label was almost — I hate to say it because we put out a lot of great records after that — but it kind of pricked the hole in the balloon.

Because you probably went from being a name on a small label to a number at a big label.
Yes! Also, it wasn't our scene. In our scene, our fans were multiracial, multi-gender, San Francisco punk rock, post-punk kids, and our friends and artists.
People who still loved rock & roll, not corporate rock.

That kind of cool thing that punk rock did partly through the Ramones and groups like The Undertones, made that rock sound still important, how you're going to max out your energy and the audience is part of it. It always felt like record companies were the gatekeepers between you and your fans. They were thinking about this whole other audience that were kind of irrelevant to us.

All three of Romeo Void's full-length albums were initially released on vinyl, as was the "Never Say Never" EP. "Live From Mabuhay Gardens, November 14, 1980" is being released on "opaque galaxy blue vinyl."
It's so pretty. And each one is different.

What does the vinyl resurgence mean to you as an artist, and does it feel like you've come full-circle?
Vinyl is a catalyst for so many of us. Do you still play records? It's almost something that you ask when you meet people now. Do you still have your old albums? What albums do you still have that you didn't sell when you were broke when you were in your 20s? It's funny, when I don't have certain albums, I'm like, "Well, I must not have liked it when I was really broke right around x years when I went and sold a bunch of my records. But I never sold this one!"

And more importantly, do you have something to play it on?
Oh, yeah! My husband is an audio engineer. He loves the old sound of tape machines and tape reverb. His grandfather designed microphones, so he comes at it through his family. He and I have been married now about 14 years. It's my second marriage and a really happy wonderful one. We joined together over our love of music and songs. It's like we speak the same language.

After Romeo Void, you've worked for many years as a teacher. Have you encountered students who are familiar with your work in Romeo Void, and if so, how did they react to you being their instructor?
I would have to say not too much. But parents of students will tell them, "You need to ask her if this is her!" Or they'll come to back-to-school night to tell me, "I listened to all your records." Or even some grandparents, because some of the students' grandparents are the ones that listened to my music [laughs].

Finally, being a band with San Francisco roots, were you and the other members of Romeo Void aware of an LGBTQ following for the band, and if so, what did that fan base mean to you?
Oh, always! And they were some of our best friends. Our sound man Louie, who did the first recordings of us in the studio was learning how to become a sound engineer and we were his first project. He was my roommate.

Different people that we would connect with when we went to New York were gay, and that we knew back in San Francisco. When we went to New York, they came to our shows. You just embrace and love who you're around. There were a lot of gay people in the audience of punk rock band. Seeing Iggy Pop? Are you kidding me? There are not gay people at that? It was no big deal because it was San Francisco. People sought their people by coming to our town. We benefited from having that beautiful diversity and cultural awareness and outlaw outlook, not needing to conform in any way.

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