Searching for Su Tissue

On the internet, bygone cultural figures like Su, the frontwoman of ’80s punk band the Suburban Lawns, can become cult icons, especially when their mystery remains unsolvable.

Searching for Su Tissue

On the internet, bygone cultural figures like Su, the frontwoman of ’80s punk band the Suburban Lawns, can become cult icons, especially when their mystery remains unsolvable.

In 2015, a Californian I’ll refer to as Paul found himself obsessed with the whereabouts of a woman called Su Tissue, the stage name of the frontwoman for cult New Wave band Suburban Lawns, who’d emerged in the early ’80s Southern California post-punk scene. Paul saw them play once in Malibu, before they broke up in 1983. As he wrote on his Facebook page “Whatever became of Su Tissue?”, he found them “fun...and different.” But they never recorded a classic, canonized album; nor had they reunited years later. Like much cultural effluvia before the internet, the Suburban Lawns and Su Tissue had simply faded away.

It wasn’t until more than 30 years later when Paul saw Su’s understated cameo as a former wild girl-turned-housewife in the 1986 obscure-ish Jonathan Demme film Something Wild that he felt compelled to “find” her (hence the Facebook page). According to a conversation we had over Messenger, “information started rolling in” as soon as he created the page, although he refused to elaborate on what that entailed. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one obsessed with this niche musician, now relegated to the waste bin of cultural consciousness. The band, and Su specifically, seemed to have a small cadre of devotees treating her “disappearance” as if it were a mystery to be solved, rather than the natural endpoint of a relatively insignificant cult figure. But why?

The Cult of Su Tissue, as I call it, exists because of the internet. Like CGI effects in movies, the internet makes the time separating us from the events it depicts appear weightless and insubstantial. The figures we see in images or videos seem liberated from narrative change. It’s the .gif version of history, de-contextualized and preserved to repeat itself in perpetuity, as if Su Tissue is always singing the Suburban Lawns’ “Gidget Goes to Hell” in a single eternal moment. The internet helps us remember, but it also reminds us of everything that we’ve lost, and suggests that each bit of cultural flotsam can somehow be recovered because it is right there in front of us.

My introduction to Su Tissue came by way of a random video YouTube suggested to me in 2014. The image was grainy, with analog heft and a sense of pixelated texture; it could have been any early ’80s VHS tape uploaded to the internet and viewed within the clean frame of MacBook Air. A hand drops a microphone and a quick cut to a grid of white dots on a black plane suddenly resolves into the sarcastic smile of a man in black sunglasses and a rain poncho. “We’re here with one of L.A.’s most exciting new music bands, made a great impression with ‘Gidget Goes to Hell’ and their recent national appearance on Saturday Night Live,” he announces. “I’m wearing this outfit to protect me from the sprinklers… SUBURBAN LAWNS! JANITOR!”

When the band, a Breakfast Club-looking mix of jock/nerd/depressive types, begins playing, it dives into an upbeat, almost goofy chord progression. A camera meanders above, wandering through oversaturated stage lighting before finally landing on the lead singer, an awkwardly serious young woman in what looks to be a Victorian-era blouse, intoning surreal and vaguely menacing lyrics with prim affectation:

“All action is reaction
Man the manipulator

Does it matter?
Nuclear reactor
Boom boom boom boom”

She clutches the microphone almost nervously, her muted Nancy Drew-style outfit accentuating her awkwardness. She channels Yoko Ono when delivering the chorus, squealing lyrics with the earnestly playful antagonism of a performance art project:

“I’m a janitor
Oh my genitals
I’m a janitor
Oh my genitals
Oh my genitals
I’m a janitor”

The clip stayed with me long after I watched it. It was strange, but more than that, conducive to a vague sensation of nostalgia for media immediately recognizable as pre-internet, but still occurring within my own lifetime. It felt like a memory of something that I’d never actually experienced. At the same time, that sense of connection was diluted by the knowledge that these experiences are entirely curated — first by the person uploading the video itself, by YouTube’s algorithm tailoring a bespoke consumption for me personally, and of course by the internet itself, which serves as a digital Bardo for cultural bric-a-brac.

Maybe this at least partially explains why some people have become obsessed with finding Su Tissue, the stage name of Sue McLane. This much we’re sure of: She joined the Suburban Lawns in 1978 and in 1979 they released their first single, the aforementioned “Gidget Goes To Hell,” for which Jonathan Demme filmed a video that first aired on Saturday Night Live in 1980. In 1981 I.R.S. Records released their self-titled debut album — the only record they’d make. They broke up the next year, leading Su to study piano at the Berklee College of Music. That same year, she released an album of solo piano songs called Salon de Musique. Her last public appearance was a bit role she played in Something Wild, acting opposite Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels.

And then she was gone. Even the band lost contact with her. In a 2015 interview, drummer Chuck Roast said “I myself have not seen nor heard from Su since the Suburban Lawns split.” It was as if she’d vanished.

Besides Paul’s Facebook page, there are message boards are full of theories and emotionally intense online tributes. “Johnny L.A.” imagines her as a “suburban housewife.” There’s speculation that she’s a teacher in California. Someone on Reddit thinks she’s a lawyer in Boston or Los Angeles. A Tidal playlist dedicated to music of her era is called “Where Are You, Su Tissue?”. Claude Zachary uploaded a video clip of Su Tissue to Youtube along with the description “Su Tissue missing since the mid-80’s... WHERE RU GIRL?” People are invested in solving the mystery. And then there are the obsessive tributes in her honor, which are often a bit much but still easier to take than the creepy sexualization of her as an alt-dream girl which exists in almost every comment section. Reading about Su Tissue on the internet, it seems like her ghostly half-absence has become the work itself, not the music she made. It’s as if she exists in the negative, essentially lost and achingly unavailable.

There’s a name for having your online experience curated in such a way that you find yourself performing acts of ceremonial adoration towards an obscure internet persona. In his book Infinite Distraction, New School for Social Research professor Dominic Pettman calls this a “micro-experience.” The internet is generally thought of as a giant town hall where everyone can come together and engage in some sort of common conversation, but Pettman tells us that what actually happens is the exact opposite. He writes that the internet “deploys its resources and specifically tailored protocols, to synchronize our squirrel-like attention spans. At the same time, it is doing something less Orwellian, but perhaps even more sinister: tweaking and modulating our increasingly homogeneous gaze into staggered or delayed micro-experiences.”

The sense of exclusivity can go a long way in making people passionate about their obsessions. Yet you can’t help but wonder if all these micro-experiences accumulate into an alternative and parallel cultural micro-histories, in which no two people can agree about what actually mattered. The internet has a tendency to flatten the importance of things; a dog being rescued and global warming can be made to seem like equally consequential events when they’re right next to each other in a newsfeed.

In my history of music, Su Tissue looms large. In another person’s, perhaps its the esoteric folk-rock artist Bill Fox or the one-album soft rock wonder brothers Donnie & Joe Emerson. Other people only know The Beatles. This hyper-tribalization of the internet creates a new category of cultural icon, one which we don’t quite have a term for yet. They’re the ghostly fragments of minor figures, exalted out of proportion.

“I myself have not seen nor heard from Su since the Suburban Lawns split.”
Suburban Lawns drummer Chuck Roast

Paul claimed to have found Sue McLane. In our chat he referred me back to his Facebook page’s “About” section, where he writes that he wants to “...balance my (and presumably your) curiosity with whatever desire she may have simply to be left alone. If you read through the posts you’ll see I believe I’ve tracked her down and, after reaching out with no response, I have chosen not to reach out anymore. Nor do I have any interest in using this page, or having it used, to give out her whereabouts.”

I felt a journalistic obligation to see if I could find anything myself, but there were just rumors. She was a lawyer in California; she was a piano teacher in the Boston suburbs; she was a housewife. But none of these rumors were backed up by any hard evidence. I reached out to the band’s record label to get word of her, to no avail. I asked Paul, but he wouldn’t tell me, either. The people who might know weren’t talking, and the people who didn’t know remained obsessed with finding out. Not long ago I mentioned to some friends of mine, a couple who came up in the California punk scene, that I was writing this piece. “Do you know what happened to Su Tissue?” they asked. “No! Do you?” They didn’t, but they were curious.

Whoever the real Su Tissue is now, wherever Sue McLane is living and whatever she’s doing, isn’t so much an intriguing mystery as an obsessive exercise in intrusion. I believe Paul that he’s found her, and I respect his desire to respect her wishes to be left alone. But the basic truth is that no one can find out what Su Tissue is up to now, because Su Tissue no longer exists, and Sue McLane herself is more than our ideas. She’s an actual person, and I’m relieved that I don’t know anything else about her.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in Bookforum, The Paris Review Daily, and The Dublin Review of Books, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? will be published by Zero Books in January, 2020.