St. Paul native Jan Kuehnemund, who blazed the way for women in rock as the leader of the ‘80s pop-metal band Vixen, passed away on Thursday from cancer at the age of 59 [corrected from previous reports that said she was 51].
Considered the first established all-female rock act in the Twin Cities, Vixen formed locally in 1973 when Kuehnemund was still in high school and cut their teeth at venues including the Cabooze, Duffy's and the Union. She relocated the group to Los Angeles in 1981 on their way to a record deal with EMI and short-lived, glammed-up MTV rotation during the hair-band heyday.
Vixen’s Facebook page announced the sad news over the weekend:
“It is with profound sadness that we announce the sudden passing of Vixen founder and lead guitarist, Jan Kuehnemund, who lost a fierce battle with cancer on Thursday, October 10, 2013. Though most well known for her gifted guitar playing and other musical talents, Jan was a rare friend and beautiful in every sense of the word. Humble, thoughtful, loyal and kind, she was the most gracious of women, possessing the quiet strength of a true warrior. She genuinely loved and appreciated her friends and fans more than most could ever know. Those who were most fortunate to have known her and loved her are heartbroken at the loss of Jan, whose spirit will shine through her music eternally.”
In a Star Tribune profile by Jon Bream in 1989, Kuehnemund recounted the struggles her band endured simply to be taken seriously.
“It's been male dominated for so long that I think a lot of people have to see the band to believe that we really play (well),” she said. “By the comments, we can tell. They say, `Oh wow! We didn't expect you to be any good at all.' "
After landing its first big break in the 1984 teen-libido fest “Hardbodies,” Vixen signed with EMI and went on to earn a gold record (500,000 sales) with its self-titled 1988 album, buoyed by the Richard Marx co-penned single “Edge of a Broken Heart.” Tours with the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss and Bon Jovi followed, as did an appearance in the era's definitive documentary, Penelope Spheeris' “The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years.” By 1991, though, the popularity of hair metal had started petering out, and Vixen split up acrimoniously.
In 2004, VH1’s “Bands Reunited” series sparked a reunion of the heyday lineup, which only included one other Minnesotan, bassist Share Pederson. The band was reportedly planning another reunion outing this year, but the plans were put off when Kuehnemund got her cancer diagnosis in January.
Recounting the move to Los Angeles in an interview with the YouTube/Facebook channel 80s-gasm in August, Kuehnemund said, ““We didn’t even think of the possibility of not making it.”
Called “the best female guitarist around” back in the day – high praise, albeit a semi-dubious distinction – Kuehnemund still lived in Los Angeles. Her death was reported over the weekend everywhere from the Hollywood Reporter to the hipster music site Pitchfork.com.