How punk rock helped one woman find power in her blindness
"You must sing like an angel," a woman once said to Leona Godin when she was about to go onstage with her white cane.
The woman clearly had not seen me perform, Godin thought.
The Avant-Accordion Brain-Smash performance she prepared for the show was anything but angelic. It was loud and brash. Dark and complex.
From an early age, Godin embraced punk rock because it reveled in the messiness and complications of life.
"Fighting against the idea of the monolith of blindness [with punk rock] is kind of my raison d'être these days," she told Tapestry host Mary Hynes in an interview.
Not your typical blind singer
Like the woman Godin encountered backstage, many people jump to the assumption that a blind singer must sound angelic. They think of artists like Andrea Bocelli, whom Celine Dion praised as having the voice of God and Canadian record producer David Foster has described as having the most beautiful voice in the world.
But Godin, who was diagnosed with degenerative retinal disease as a child, wants us to ditch that stereotype.
Leona Godin singing and playing drums in her band Gutter & Spine's "Sludge" video (2007)
"There are just as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted," she pointed out. "There's all kinds of permutations for what it is to be a sighted person, and I want that for blind people too."
Godin, who's also a writer, describes her own music as being focused on ideas. It's not beautiful by any means — "there's a lot of chanting, bellowing and screaming," and it takes inspiration from dark themes she encountered in literature.
The strange symmetry between losing eyesight and discovering punk rock
Godin's passion for punk rock began at around the same time when she started losing her eyesight as a child. In the early '80s, less was known about degenerative retinal disease than today. So when her mother took her to see eye doctors, none of them could figure out what was going on, and instead blamed her for her condition.
The head of ophthalmology at the Letterman Army Hospital in the now-decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco scolded her mother: "maybe she can't see because you've been taking her to so many eye doctors." Other doctors told Godin that her eyes are growing too fast for her body, she recalled.
"It was things like that that primed me for a mistrust of authority, which I think is a very good place to be when you start to hear punk rock because it's all about that," said Godin.
As Godin's vision continued to deteriorate, she struggled to make out words and faces. By the time she was 15 years old, she could no longer read books. Godin began experimenting with LSD and delved deeper into the world of punk rock to help her cope.
The drugs, the punk music and the lashing out were Godin's way of venting her frustration at going blind and not being able to do anything about it, she shared.
Getting into trouble and defying authority helped Godin shatter the pity that people felt for her, which she despised.
The ugliness and beauty of punk rock
Punk rock in the '80s was new and edgy, anti-establishment and raw. It also came with a kind of cheap, do-it-yourself, anti-commercial aesthetic that some may find brutal, but Godin found beautiful.
"I remember wearing these fish bobbins as jewelry. That was very attractive to me."
There was a boy in her high school who had bright green hair, which was unusual at the time, and Godin was enamoured with him.
"He was so attractive and I think maybe part of the attraction was simply he was so noticeable," Godin recalled. "There's some part of me that wonders how much was it just a natural tendency to want to be a rebel as a kid, and how much of it was the eye disease and me just liking things that were extremely visually striking because I couldn't really notice subtlety."
Godin said her life-long obsession with things that are ugly and that push the limits of what's acceptable likely originated from her inability to fit in.
"A lot of people with disabilities want very badly to fit in, to try and be normal," said Godin. "But I realized at a certain point that I was never going to be normal. So you can either bang your head against the wall, or embrace the abnormality of seeing things differently or not seeing what other people see."
A cacophony of blind voices
Godin eventually took her love of punk rock music to the stage as a performer. But these days, she's working on a book focused on what she calls a "cacophony of blind voices."
"What I mean by that is there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted, and I want all those possibilities to exist and clash, because that's what being punk rock is about," she explained.
For Godin, punk is about more than loud music or a brutalist aesthetic; punk is an ethos. She said embracing the spirit of punk rock means reaching beyond stereotypes when we encounter someone who's different from us.
"It's realizing that what we don't understand is not necessarily simple or easy to put into a box, and it's okay to not understand it, but we shouldn't dismiss it," said Godin.
"The most punk rock spirit is really just tearing it up and making the whole story look a lot messier, a lot more raggedy. So open your ears to the cacophony of blind voices instead of the stereotypes we're used to, and let's hear it for the messiness."