By Melody Berger for Tom Tom Magazine | Current Day Photos: Camilo Fuentealba
Paloma is on the cover of Tom Tom Magazine’s Religion/Spirituality Issue
Paloma Romero (now McLardy) grew up in a huge family of nine kids in Spain under Franco’s fascist regime. At the age of 17 she moved to London where she lived in a squat with her long term boyfriend Joe Strummer. When Clash bassist Paul Simonon couldn’t pronounce ‘Paloma’ he jokingly asked if she meant ‘Palmolive.’ In a move that reflects her impulsive nature at the time, Paloma made that her stage name.
At the forefront of the shift from hippie love to punk rock rage, Palmolive was an integral member of the newly burgeoning scene. After briefly playing drums with Sid Vicious in the short-lived band Flowers of Romance she created an all-girl band called the Slits. Known for their wild personalities and on stage fights, the Slits were poster girls for the anti-commercialism ideals of punk rock. They often supported the Clash, and also shared equipment and rehearsal space with them as well. Palmolive spent two years with the group, then went on to play in another all girl band, the Raincoats, for an action-packed six months. Then, after doing a great deal of soul-searching, she left the music scene altogether and went on a spiritual journey where she ultimately found peace and conviction in the Christian faith.
These days Paloma is a mother, grandmother and elementary school Spanish teacher living in Cape Cod. Tom Tom Photographer Camilo Fuentealba and I had the pleasure of taking a lovely day trip from NYC to visit her. She is a beautiful, down to earth treasure who is obviously much loved by everyone in her community, many of whom are unaware of her punk rock past.
Tom Tom: Most people have a spirit of rebellion in their early twenties but they don’t necessarily run off to London and help create the punk rock scene. I can see a need to rebel after growing up in fascist Spain under Franco’s regime.
Palmolive: My family was quite different though. We were more open, we could talk about things and disagree. Nice big family, it was good.
I kind of got the impression that you ran away.
There was definitely a rebellion, confrontation. My Dad didn’t want me to go and I kind of threatened him that I would just run away if he didn’t let me. Because he had to sign the passport. So I kind of pressured him. At that time I was seventeen and I was already getting in trouble. I felt like there was no freedom, which actually was true. To me, to live under a government that tells you what you should read, there’s just something wrong with that. You should not have to live under those conditions. But it wasn’t like I sat and pondered it, it was just fun to go somewhere else! I didn’t want to end up doing what my parents did: get married, have a family. I just felt like I didn’t know life, and I wanted to experience life myself.
When I first went to England I was like, oh, I’m free! Living in a commune.
A squat! Was it gross? Was there no running water?
No, there was running water.
Oh, that’s a nice squat.
Oh, yeah, it was nice! We had running water, we had lights. It was fun, it was just our age group and we could do whatever we wanted. We had no parents, I mean, come on! I remember watching the guys hooking up the lights from the main on the street. And we had a toilet where you had to connect it each time… we didn’t have water going in directly. To me it was beautiful. I came from a middle class Spanish family but I felt very much at home there. Materialism is not something I wanted.
It sounds like you were bouncing around a little. You went to England, then back to Spain for a bit and then off to Scotland?
Well, I was basically in London for six years. I just went on a trip to Scotland.
And while you were gone Joe Strummer created the Clash?
I had actually left him. I was kind of tired of the whole thing. I said I think it’s great that you’re doing the group, but I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life, I don’t feel fulfilled. Our relationship was the only thing I was doing that tied me somewhere, so I thought it must be the problem. And, you know, usually I lasted two years with a guy, and the two years were up! He didn’t want to split.
It was kind of timely when I came back. They were starting to play at the Roundhouse, which was a big place.
And it was a really new style, a departure from the rhythm and blues he was doing as Woody and the 101ers.
Right. So, he gets mesmerized by the punk scene. He wanted to get famous and it wasn’t going quick enough. He really had that ambition. To him, in his mind, that was being alive. Pursuing that dream was being alive. He just bought the whole shebang. How relationships were. And it was not cool to be a couple. So it wasn’t cool to appear to be too nice to each other.
It sounds like a pretty tumultuous relationship.
But it wasn’t up until that point! We were just two kids having fun and not caring about anything. It was nice and uncomplicated. He was funny, I liked that.
And all the while punk was just exploding. All our friends said no to punk because we were hippies, and punk felt like selling out. I was the only one who said no, I’m into it. I was kind of tired of the whole hippie thing. And I thought, playing an instrument? Oh, that would be fun!
And you thought drums were like dancing.
Right, thinking of a band I thought, what would I like? I like drums because I love dancing and I thought the drums were the closest.
So, when I came back Joe said, yeah, we should break up because I’m into this new scene. And I said well, I don’t have a problem with that. And if you want to break up we’ll break up. I was kind of shocked, but I was like, no, that’s ok. When I reacted like that he changed. No, no, I want to be together.
Then you were in the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious for like two seconds?
Two or Three weeks.
Because Sid Vicious wanted to sleep with you and you weren’t into that so he decided you weren’t right for the band?
I mean, it’s not like I was a prude. If I liked him I would have, but I didn’t like him! He was hanging around and it wasn’t like he said, “do you want to sleep with me?” He was obviously trying to woo me. And I was like, I want him to leave. I was really upset. You know, I loved Joe!
So, now I’m in this group with this guy I don’t know and he’s so cool in the scene but the way he gets attention is to be a jerk to everyone around him. I was ready to break from my hippie background but not quite to that extreme.
And then you decided to start a girl group so you wouldn’t have to deal with all that?
It’s not like I hated men at all, but I just thought it would be easier.
You had a good go of it, you played with the Slits for two years.
At the beginning I was almost like a manager. Calling people, and writing quite a few of the songs. We had this girl Kate, she was in the group. Joe and Mick Jones (of the Clash) said she doesn’t look cool, you should have Vivian, Mick’s girlfriend. I went along with that and that’s one thing I regret. I mean, Vivian was great, but that was a mean thing to do to Kate.
You’ve said before that you found the punk rock scene to be a little superficial?
With punk rock, the initial thing was we don’t like the society we’re living in. We reject consumerism. We reject having to be nice like what the hippies were doing. We reject the parents of the hippies, we reject the hippies! We reject everyone! We reject working from 8-5…. Now I’m working from 8-8, but anyway. You see what I’m saying, we rejected how the society was run. We don’t think you’re doing a good job so we’re going to rebel against it and we don’t have any solution but we don’t really care whether we have a solution or not!
But it got to a point where, with relationships, it was very empty in many ways. At least I felt empty. To me friendship is very important, relationships are the most important thing. In my mind, can you be very spiritual and be all by yourself and never talk to anyone?
Like the religious hermits back in the day living alone in cabins in the woods and wearing shirts made of hair, etc?
You know what, I may be a little judgmental, but I think they’re nuts! I think we were meant for each other. Relationships are something that I value. Like friendships and being able to be yourself. And I think to begin with, with punk rock, we were going to be ourselves. But really like two months down the road everybody was checking out everybody else and seeing what was cool and what was not cool. That’s very superficial. And very immature in many ways. Malcolm McClaren (manager of the Sex Pistols) said what was cool…
You didn’t like him very much.
Can you tell? If I sat with him now and talked to him, he’s dead, but anyway. I’m sure I could enjoy him, even though we might disagree. I’m trying to say I do not have hate for him. But I just think many of the things we were supposed to do with punk rock didn’t happen. Like, we weren’t going to be commercialized. We were totally commercialized! We didn’t want to jump through hoops. The Slits, we had 8 managers because we wouldn’t jump through hoops. And we didn’t get a record deal when everyone else was.
You were turning down a lot of offers, right? Because you didn’t want to get commercialized?
Yeah, we’re different! We’re ourselves!
And Malcolm McClaren, when he wanted to manage the Slits, said something like ‘I hate music and I hate girls. I thrive off of hate.’
Yeah, he did that. I swear he said that.
Wow, I can’t wait to work with you! You hate me!
You know the funny thing was the other three girls were like (dreamy voice) ‘Malcolm!’
And I was like, um, nooo.
Do you think he was just trying to provoke you?
Yeah, I’m sure! He was a huge figure in the punk scene. He really stirred everything up. He had an idea, he had a vision, and he was successful with it. And so yeah, you might like that, but to me it’s like what is the point? What do people want in life? Just to be close to someone who is famous, someone who makes things happen? If you scratch the surface… to me, I do not want to work with someone who hates me. I just don’t like it!
How weird, Paloma, I don’t understand!
In that context, to go against that was more punk-ish than to accept him. The true punk says you know what? I don’t see that and I’m not going that way. So, we were punk rockers but within half a minute we were saying ‘yes, sir, yes, sir.’ And that can happen in any walk of life. It’s human nature to have a hierarchy and to have a boss say whether things are right or not. And that’s something that goes against freedom.
Then you were against the album cover for the Cut, the first Slits album, because they wanted to pose topless covered in mud. You were so wild, what about that made you draw the line?
I was not modest. I would wear no bra and plastic mini skirts with fishnets. But to me, if I do that because I want to do it and I go to the street and in your face, that was cool with me then. But to do it on the front of the album, that’s like selling your music with your body. I didn’t think that was us. I really felt like that was a good commercial idea to sell records. I wouldn’t do it today for different reasons. For one thing I’m a grandmother.
Is that my grandmother??
Why is she covered in mud?? So, The Slits kicked you out because of Malcolm and the picture… and you were growing a little disenchanted with the scene?
I remember going for a meal with someone who was not part of the punk scene. I kept friends from the hippies. And she asked me, well what are you doing to the people? How do they come out of your gigs? What are you giving to them? Whether you like it or not you have influence.
You’re a role model essentially.
I started going with ear plugs because it was so loud and it was kind of cool. It was like being high on drugs because you were detached. I just really started looking at things. I saw the people coming out of my shows and they were so wasted. I remember thinking, I’m doing this to them. I’m saying this is cool and they’re going after it. And they wanted me to sign my name. One person wanted me to sign my name with glass on his arm.
Ow! Ew! That’s a really long name to do in glass!
Yeah, it’s not like Suzie or something. So, it just started losing the glamour and initial fun.
Then you joined the Raincoats for six months and recorded on their first album.
When I was with the Raincoats I had this idea. I thought it would be so cool to have really raw drums and raw guitar with beautiful, uplifting violin on top. So I made an ad, and this girl Vicky took it. She took the whole ad so no one else would call. I was really excited about this idea. That would have kept me in the scene. But she totally listened to the producers who said, you should be screechy. And I was like, forget it, I’m tired of this. I couldn’t believe in the music and I wasn’t that into the scene.
After you left the music scene you went on a spiritual journey to India. You kind of pulled a Beatles… and like them you felt that the guru you went to see was a little fake. So you came back to Europe and returned to Christianity, but not the Catholicism of your youth?
I didn’t believe in the Catholic Church. I didn’t like the ritual, I found it boring. I accepted a lot about the Catholic Church, like they taught me about Jesus and he has been very central in my whole life. But to me it was a distant Jesus. I liked when we would read from the bible, like “love your enemies.” I was always like, how do you do that? But I hated the rituals.
You felt it was a little stodgy?
I just didn’t feel connected to it. I didn’t like the hierarchy. It just seemed like Jesus was something they talked about, and the church was something else. I really feel like religion is one thing, Protestant, Catholic or whatever. And Jesus is something different. Which is my view today. I really feel like something is lost.
Something is lost in organized religion?
I was talking to a friend and she said ‘well, you just don’t like organized religion.’ And I feel like, well it depends how you organize it! You can create a bandwagon and say organized religion is terrible, but then you have people not sharing something they find valuable. And not coming together, which is what a church should be really.
But with most institutionalized religions you have the problem of things getting political?
The connection between politics and the church has always been bad for the church. I think they should be totally separated. Like I don’t think you should run on a Christian ticket. I do believe life is sacred. But, as Christians, we should be there for the woman who has had an abortion, and we should be there for the mom who has decided to keep the baby. The church’s job is not to judge and moralize everyone around. I hate that. I think we have become like Pharisees in many ways.
You love Jesus, you give your heart to Jesus and He changes you. And that love should make something happen. It should be a visible thing. That you can get along with people, that you should be humble. That you should say the truth even if it hurts you or is not convenient.
God is Love, Jesus preaches love and peace. How do you feel about groups that claim to be Christian but operate on hate, like the Westboro Baptist Church for instance?
That’s not even Christianity. That’s ludicrous. How is picketing funerals really helping the kingdom of God? That’s helping us love our enemies? I mean, they’re talking about someone else. The spirit of Jesus is love and it’s potent. I do believe we have a loving creator. He created everything, but he gave us free will. Through that freedom I think his goal is to get close to his creation and have a loving relationship with humanity. He’s not going to force obedience in anybody. But because of that free will there is evil in the world.
Some Christians say, something horrible happens, a mother loses a child, well God wanted that. In a horrible way. Or a kid gets molested.
It all happens for a reason, the will of God.
Baloney! It’s so nuts! What about sexual trafficking, what about starving kids? What about kids working in a factory so we can afford cheap goods? Jesus always cared for the poor, he always went to the destitute.
When politicians are claiming to be Christian but they want to cut welfare or food stamps… you’re calling yourself Christian so people will vote for you.
Part of that comes from the idea that that should be a personal initiative. You might have someone well-meaning in politics who doesn’t like welfare but might be doing tons of stuff on the side. That’s questionable, whether they really do it or not. But I think we just need to do it regardless of the government. We need to feed the poor. We don’t need to wait for the government to do it.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City it seemed like many of the government institutions failed in some ways. The Red Cross was not on it. It was left to grassroots efforts to pick up the slack. I’m glad that groups like Occupy Sandy stepped up, but at the same time it’s like, why isn’t the government helping?
There’s a place for government. But I don’t think that at the grassroots level, where we live, is where it’s at. And I vote, I’m glad we’re in a society where we can vote and have freedom like other countries don’t. I’m grateful to be an American. And I appreciate that even more having been raised under Franco’s regime. But I think there’s corruption in both the Democrat and Republican parties. I cannot put my trust in that.
There aren’t enough choices.
No! But even if you had someone else, power corrupts many times. I’m good at pointing fingers, I think punk rock was very good at pointing fingers, and we were right in many ways. But, basically we need to point fingers and then do something. We need to be the society we want to be. If I think people should have water, I should do something about it. If I think I care and want to love my neighbor, well, today’s neighbors are all over the world.