In Search of The Untouchable

UPDATE AUGUST 2017: I have now been in touch with most of the ex-Untouchable members, and have learned a lot about them.  For one thing, it turns out that the band name is “The Untouchable” – singular, not plural.  With their help, I have written a very extended version of this story for Ugly Things magazine issue #45.  It includes the Stooges story in great detail, as well as other snapshots from the Untouchable’s brief but remarkable run.

I have uploaded a PDF of the completed story here.  However, I’m leaving this piece up as I originally wrote it, band name misspelling and all. 

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The Princeton, NJ 1960s All-Girl Band Who Met (And Possibly Played With) Iggy & The Stooges
by Mike Appelstein
November 2016

untouch

From Princeton Town Topics, January 5, 1967. Source: Larry DuPraz Digital Archives.

Recently I went to see Gimme Danger, the Jim Jarmusch-produced Iggy & the Stooges documentary.  Some have complained that it’s a little too sedate, but I liked it quite a bit.  Iggy Pop certainly has a clear memory given the amount of drugs and alcohol he imbibed in the 1960s and 1970s.  Early in the documentary, Iggy recalled one early experience, when he and the Asheton brothers drove out to New York from Detroit.  This was before the first album; they might not even have played out as the Psychedelic Stooges yet.  In Washington Square Park, they met a couple of attractive ladies and told them about their nascent band.

“They said they had a band, too,” Iggy recalled. “They said they had a show. So we ended up driving out to Princeton, and the show turned out to be their parents’ house. And they were better than us.”

Wait, Princeton?  I live in the Midwest now, but I spent my teens listening to WPRB and commuting to the Princeton Record Exchange from my nearby blue-collar New Jersey suburb.  Princeton’s a fairly upscale place, but it’s also a university town with an artistic undercurrent.  I knew that Joe Boyd – later Nick Drake’s producer and stage manager the night Dylan went electric – staged blues shows in Princeton living rooms with his brother Warwick and their friend Geoff Muldaur.  This, however, was the first I’d ever heard of an actual 1960s garage band in town.  I left the theater determined to find out more.

First of all, I needed to figure out their name, since Iggy didn’t mention it.  A quick Google search led me to an Iggy bio, also called Gimme Danger.  He told the same story there, but fortunately mentioned their name: The Untouchables.

“The Untouchables” is a common band name.  Many have used it, most notably the L.A. mod/soul band and the Washington, D.C. hardcore band.  Ultimately, through wprbhistory.org, I discovered the Larry DuPraz Digital Archives.  This included scans of Princeton newspapers dating back to 1876.  Only then did a picture begin to emerge.

The Untouchables’ beginnings are somewhat vague.  One article suggests they began in late 1965 or early 1966, but I found mentions of them in Princeton newspapers dating back to December 1963.  They attended Princeton High School and Princeton Day School, but one article states that the band started in a Greenwich Village cafe.  (Perhaps that is where they met Iggy and crew.)  Two of them, Dodie Pettit and Molly York, sang in a folk-rock group dating back to junior high school.  Once they got electric guitars, however, they switched up their sound.  Sheri Oman joined on drums, but ultimately switched to lead singer.  Kathy Pettit became the drummer.  Diana Mackie was also in the band, later replaced by Geri Lombardo.

In May of 1966, they were finalists in a battle of the bands as part of the Hospital Fete. Note that they competed in the Rock and Roll category, as opposed to Folk/Folk Rock.  Later that year, they began playing locally, mostly at Princeton University eating clubs, but also at nearby Rider College and University of Pennsylvania.   On October 14, 1966, the Republican Club of Princeton hired them as the entertainment for “GOP-A-Go-Go” at the Chambers Street Firehouse.  Hopefully they rocked the Nixon/Goldwater crowd.

I found two brief feature articles about them.  The first, from The Daily Princetonian, is dated December 12, 1966.  Titled “The Untouchable (sic): Guitars, Micro-Skirts,” it’s written in a period-specific sexist style.  The first paragraph: “When Dodie, Molly, Sheri, Kathy and Geri tune up and take off – it seems a tragedy they’re Untouchable.”  Described as “by far the most attractive package of rock and rollers currently blasting their guitars across Prospect Street,” the article notes that the band played most often at the Cap and Charter clubs.  The authors described their music as “somewhere between the Beach Boys and an all-girl church choir.”  One member of Cap noted, “If Wilson ever gets a hold of these girls, they could represent the greatest threat to the Bicker System ever produced.”  (Note: could one of my Princeton friends translate that quote for me?)

Only in the last two paragraphs does a band member get to speak.  Speaking about the eating clubs, Dodie Pettit said, “We think that they’re just unbelievably cool.  Of all the places we work, the clubs are where everybody has the most fun.”

A few weeks later, on January 5, 1967, Princeton Town Topics profiled the “five pretty Princetonians” (ugh) in their “People In The News” section.  The article quotes a publicity piece that explained the name origins.  “The Untouchables” had a double meaning: one, they had a unique playing style that they felt no one could match; and two, “simply because we’re girls.”  Geri Lombardo’s brother, a Rider student, had become the band’s manager.  Their songs included “I’m Sorry,” “You’re Mistaken,” “So Absolutely So” and “Shy.”  The band’s popularity was “growing week by week” at the time.

And that appears to have been the height of their local fame.  In the April 25, 1968 Princetonian classifieds, Dodie was selling her Fender 12-string guitar for $350, but noted that she would settle for $250.  On November 9, 1968, the Terrace Club held a dance for sophomores featuring a performance by “The Calliope (formerly The Untouchables).”  The November 29, 1969 Town Topics’ classifieds included an ad that read, “Ex-drummer of the Untouchables looking for a group.”  That’s where the trail goes cold.

Of the six-odd band members, Dodie Pettit was the only one I could find online.  She has had an extensive career in the arts, both as a dancer and singer/songwriter.  She was in the original companies of Cats and Phantom of The Opera, and helped start what eventually became the American Repertory Ballet Company.  She did continue to write and record music, including two solo albums in Nashville and a co-writer credit on Vickie Sue Robinson’s Turn The Beat Around album.  As of 2007, which is when the website was last updated, she was planning a new CD album with her husband Kevin Grey.  Sadly, Grey died in 2013.  As of 2014, when her Facebook page‘s public feed stops, she worked at a college in Hartford, CT.  (Dodie Pettit did not return my Facebook message or email.)

It doesn’t appear that Pettit has spoken on the record about the Untouchables or the Stooges.  I did find an article in which she briefly discussed her beginnings: “I actually started songwriting along with my ballet interest back in junior high school, picking up the guitar and falling in love with all the singer-songwriters early on. I really wanted to be a pop songwriter as early as high school. I put a band together and had aspirations of becoming Bonnie Raitt. I really wanted that, although I was good at ballet too. Like a split personality, I did both at the same time.”

And as for Iggy Pop?  He played City Gardens once in nearby Trenton, but there is no record of a Princeton gig, solo or with the Stooges.  He named one of his 1980s backing bands the Untouchables, and even wrote and performed a song called “Untouchable” in 1994.  Obviously, his brief time in Princeton had some small lasting effect.

So: more questions than answers.  If the band members are out there, could you contact me and shed some light?  That goes for anyone who saw or booked them.

1) Did the Stooges actually perform that night?  It’s unclear to me whether they just sat in on an Untouchables rehearsal, or actually played the few songs they’d written by that point.

2)  Did the Untouchables record anything?  If so, can I hear it?  The above descriptions, brief as they are, make them sound intriguing – like an actual 1960s version of the early Bangles, or perhaps a Northeast version of the Feminine Complex.

3)  Was there a concert circuit on Prospect Street in Princeton?   Or was it just eating clubs?  (EDIT: just eating clubs, says Ken Katkin.)

4)  Did Boyd or Muldaur ever see them?  Or had they long decamped to Harvard and London by then?

5)  Am I the only person who gets obsessed with minutiae like this?  (That’s rhetorical.  Don’t actually answer.)

 

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