Chrissie Dickinson was an award-winning country and rock ‘n’ roll multimedia artist and critic whose work has appeared in the Chicago Readerthe Chicago Grandstand, New citythe boston phoenixthe Washington Postand the Christian Science Monitor. She died on May 19, 2022 of heart failure. She is remembered here by her friend and creative partner Cynthia Hammond Jenkins.
It was Halloween 1980. I was 18 and a freshman at Indiana University.
I was dressed in a vintage pink mini dress with diagonal mirrors sewn all over and a pair of suede ankle boots, both of which my new friend Angi had lent me. She had just painted a colorful pop-art flower on my eye, transforming me into a 60s model, Twiggy. She went there as Elvira, Mistress of Darkness.
I had met Angi a few days before at the IU Student Union Grill, where she flipped burgers in an old-fashioned hairnet. In a southern Indiana twang, she asked me what my favorite band was. I told him it was a connection between the Stones and the Who. Angi immediately invited me to join her this Friday for my first off-campus party.
When we arrived at this art school party, the crowd was pouring out onto the porch and the sidewalk. The children smoked, drank beer and played English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom.” Some were dressed for Halloween, but others were just letting their freak flags fly. Angi pointed to a girl across the room – someone she said she couldn’t wait for me to meet.
Chris was talking to a friend. I watched her hands dance with a lit cigarette as she told a story. She threw her head back and burst out laughing.
She wore a black leather jacket, straight jeans and Beatle boots. Her hair was feathery and blond. She looked like Suzi Quatro, the rock bassist from Detroit who had played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days.
I smiled as she crossed the room towards me. Her first words were, “Why are you wearing my dress?” As I struggled to make sense of her question, she added, “Are those my boots too?”
I looked down at my outfit, embarrassed. “I didn’t know,” I said weakly.
She turned to Angi, who mumbled a long excuse – she thought it was another friend, Julie, who had left the clothes in Angi’s dorm. “No, Angi,” Chris replied. “That was me. It’s okay. Just send them back tomorrow. She left in a plume of cigarette smoke.
The following Sunday, Angi invited me to her room, knowing that most of the other kids in the dorm would be off campus for dinner. She also invited Chris over, saying she wanted to work things out with us because we were meant to be great friends.
Chris arrived with a smile and a milk crate full of albums. We laughed at the Twiggy dress fiasco.
She played us the Clash’s London calling and Never mind the bullshit, here come the Sex Pistols. She dropped the needle on Elvis Costello’s debut albums, U2 and The Police. She released Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five and the Temptations. She turned me on to Loretta, Dolly, Tammy and George. But it was Patti Smith’s punk poetics Horses who sealed the deal.
I had to pee and ran down the hall, where I discovered the primo acoustics of the bathroom in the old dorm. I could hear Smith’s “Elegie” playing from the stereo in Angi’s room, and I joined in her lament, my voice echoing from the tiled restroom down the empty hallway.
By the time I got back, Chris and Angi had decided that we were going to form a band. Chris on guitar, Angi on drums and me on bass. A powerful trio. No worries I had never picked up bass. We would find a solution.
We called ourselves the Altered Boys. Our first gig was in the spring of 1981. We released a set of four originals and two covers – “Not Fade Away” and a punk version of “Love Me Do”. Angi had a faded, hammered blonde Mohawk on a patched floor tom and an overturned metal sink. I was playing a borrowed Höfner bass. Chris rocked his 1965 Music Man. Our passion was infectious and the audience cheered and shouted for an encore. We were hooked.
We fell hand in hand into the leafy music scene of Bloomington, Indiana. Altered Boys morphed into Glass Factory, and by 1983 Chris and I had found a long-term musical home in the band Sally’s Dream, with Jenny Davis on keyboards and Emily Jackson on drums.
We toured the Midwest and South in Stella, our trusty van, playing the legendary rock ‘n’ roll dives of the day. The stories that Stella could tell. . .
At the same time, Chris began his career as a journalist in Bloomington, the country of Hoagy Carmichael and Ernie Pyle. She started writing about music in IU’s journal, the Indiana Daily Student.
Her editor there, Karla Fisk, remembers her well. “As a guitarist and songwriter, Chris understood rock and punk from the inside out,” says Fisk. “In 1982, Richard and Linda Thompson came to Bloomington. Chris’ review of this performance was one of his earliest reviews. She soared from there, becoming a musical writer of great perception and reach.
In 1987 Sally’s Dream packed up our instruments and moved to Boston to seek our fame in the grungy rock clubs that surrounded Fenway Park and Cambridge. After four years of adventures, Chris and I returned to the Midwest and settled in Chicago. We had sick and aging family members and wanted to be closer to home. Sally’s Dream never officially broke up; life just got in the way.
In the mid-1990s, Chris was recruited as a pop music critic at St. Louis Post-Dispatch, covering all genres of popular music. Then Nashville called his name.
In the 90s, the Country Music Hall of Fame was a funky little barn on Music Row, full of history. It also housed the office of the country music diary, an influential magazine for which Chris wrote and served as editor for five years. In 2000, the journal published its seminal article “Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music”.
“She was an absolutely fearless writer and ahead of her time in her groundbreaking coverage of female artists, people of color and LGBTQ+ people in country music,” says Lauren Bufferd, former director of Country Library and Collections. Music Hall of Fame. .
Chris returned to Chicago in September 2001 and began using the “Chrissie Dickinson” byline. She continued to write her intelligent and insightful articles for the Chicago Readerthe Chicago Grandstand, TONEAudio Magazineand the Washington Postamong others.
But most importantly, Chrissie was a passionate artist, constantly creating her own bold and brilliant music, haunting and evocative videos, and hilarious and heartbreaking characters. Some of his videos are available on YouTube. My favorite is “The Endless Summer (by Joni Mitchell)”.
In the midst of the pandemic, Chrissie and I started toying with an essay she had written called “The Far Side of Forty.” Using documents shared on the Internet, we wrote a novel called Reunion Rock Girl, about the long-standing friendships between former band members. We were on our final build when Chrissie’s illness set in.
Chrissie died of heart failure May 19 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with her two surviving sisters, Lore and Marie, by her side. She leaves behind hundreds of friends, colleagues and readers who yearn for what she could have yet created as a writer and artist.
I think of those early days and how lucky our circle was to have Chrissie for four decades of friendship, music and laughter. I had been madly in love with her since that first Halloween in 1980. I thought we would grow old together – two aging punk women, still rocking after all these years.