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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Posted: September 2, 2014

Betsy Smith – rockstar

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she still managed to rock-n-roll for many years. Meet Betsy.

Written by: Greta Rybus
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When I first saw Betsy (formerly Betsy Mitchell), she had on enormous sunglasses, a striped T-shirt, black jeans, and boots. She had style. I stopped right there on the sidewalk, forgetting where I needed to go.

“Woah,” I said. “You look like a rockstar!”

“Well, I was,” she replied. “Until I got MS.”

For 17 years, Betsy played bass in an all-female garage rock band that was the wild darling of Geno’s and underground venues in New York City.  She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the 90s, but continued to play in the band for another decade. The degenerative neurological disease slows her down physically – she usually uses a wheelchair or scooter – but she’s still got the spirit of the rebel rocker.

 

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ROCKSTAR DAYS

I wasn’t really a star, but close enough. It was fun. I played bass in a band that was all female. We called ourselves “girls” and many people said, “’Girls’? How can you say that, it’s not politically correct?” and we said, “We didn’t call boy bands ‘male bands’ or ‘men bands!'” I played in an all-female band called The Brood. We were from Portland and we did 60s-style music. Sixties-style people all over the country and the world were listening to that stuff. So we got a pretty good audience.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO MUSIC?

I had a boyfriend who played bass and he taught me a couple of songs on the bass and so when this woman – girl – asked me “Do you want to play base for my band?” I said “Oh yeah!” and she taught me everything. I didn’t know a thing!

 

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WHAT ARE YOUR BEST MEMORIES FROM THOSE DAYS?

New York City was the best. We used to go play there for these big, huge get-togethers and they had real bands from the 60s like Question Mark and the Mysterians and The Chocolate Watchband, and The Standouts. All old bands and they were quite older gentlemen and they’d come play their music and they sounded as good as they ever did. And we’d get to play, the new bands would get to play.

TELL ME ABOUT WHEN YOU STOPPED MAKING MUSIC

We’d been together 13 years and we all liked each other and hated each other at the same time, so it wasn’t hard to break up, but the worst thing was we lost our drummer. She finally quit. She’d been with us since she was 15 years old. She ran away from home to play some shows when she was little but now she was older and “I just can’t do it any more” and that was that. We tried other drummers and they just weren’t her. She was a really good drummer. She was great. I’m still friends with her, she lives in New York now. She should still be drumming but she isn’t.

DO YOU MISS MAKING MUSIC?

Very much. But I like the whole thought of standing up playing bass and I wouldn’t want to sit in a chair and do it. It’s just a style thing. Like, I used like to wear the best pants. Hip hugger, straight-legged.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR SENSE OF STYLE

It was really silly. In the band, the guitar player and her boyfriend wanted to groom us, to dress properly and all that and we were all our own people. They wouldn’t have asked us to be in the band if we hadn’t caught their eye, so we all had our own sense of style and stuck with it. So it was very 60s influenced but a little different.

 

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TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS DIAGNOSIS

I got that in 1990. And it didn’t affect me, I played in a band for 10 years that traveled, I got married in ‘89, then I traveled to Bali and to Thailand and Honduras. I got to travel all over the place and have fun and about the MS, I’d say “Oh, I have MS” but it didn’t start affecting me until around ‘98 or so.

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO HAVE MS?

It’s not much fun. Because it just slows you down so much. Like here I am today in a wheelchair. That’s no fun. My scooter at least gets me around quicker! And I can walk but it’s not easy for me. I’ve got an ataxia right here, it’s called, in my back, which makes me shake. You could have it in your arm and you’d be shaking your arm but this is right in the middle of my back so everyone thinks, “Oh my god, she’s about to fall!” No.

WHAT DID YOU DO FOR WORK?

I worked as an LPN (licensed practical nurse) because when I first moved to Portland I was with a boyfriend, who was great, but I thought “I’ve got to do something.” And of course I didn’t go to school for my RN because my family didn’t value education like they should have, so I went to school for an LPN. I got that and I worked as that and it was great being in a band and working as an LPN because you always get time off to go play in Georgia or whatever. So I was an LPN.

WHAT DOES SCOOTER, YOUR DOG, MEAN FOR YOU? WHAT DOES HE ADD TO YOUR LIFE?

I’ve been made fun of for saying “Scooter, you’re the dog of my dreams!” He is though. I saw his picture on the internet and I just fell in love with his face. I just love him. So he means everything. He’s a good guy and he loves to meet people. He’s a doll.

SO YOU’VE LIVED A NON-TRADITIONAL LIFE

Kind of. I was married for a while, that wasn’t very traditional either! I think my childhood was very traditional, although my father died when I was seven so my mother raised me. So maybe it wasn’t that traditional. She was a very straight-laced woman, but I kind of think of her as an old hippie in a way. She was well past that stage but she was into weaving and traveling and stuff like that. She was really cool. She read a lot. And she had us live down at the camp, all through high school we lived at a camp. We used to have to cross-country ski down the dirt road in the winter. She was really cool.

HOW DO YOU KEEP A SIDE OF YOURSELF STILL A LITTLE BIT WILD?

You’ve got your brain, you can’t do much about that, can you, so your brain keeps going. Even if things get boring around you, your brain can still think, “Hmm, I’d like to go to Venice!” Which might not be that practical on a scooter, but hey, you can dream!

HOW IS LIFE DIFFERENT IN A WHEELCHAIR?

Well I hate wheelchairs. It’s hard. It’s time-consuming. Like, I’ll get to a place where I can’t push it over a bump in the sidewalk and I’ll just be stuck there. I like to use a scooter, but it just broke!

 

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WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE?

I suppose, with MS, dreaming whatever I want to dream that I can do is a great thing. And I do that. I really enjoy dreaming. And I suppose this little brat (the dog).

WHAT’S A LESSON THAT YOU’VE BEEN LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE RECENTLY?

Patience. You have to develop patience, which I’ve never been good at. But I think I’m slowly developing it. Because you can’t move fast, you can’t do things fast and so I can let things slide a little more easily. I kind of wish I’d always had that.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE?

MS, probably.

WHAT’S THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE?

Not MS! I guess it was the ability – my muscle tone was really good, I could play bass really easily and I could play it really fast if I wanted to, stuff like that. There were a lot of things I didn’t really even know I had ‘til I was forced to play. I didn’t turn around and face the audience for two years! I stood with my back completely to them but I eventually came around. It took two years but it worked out.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

I do like coffee in the morning. That’s kind of it I think. It’s such a great thing because it’s your moment, your time to drink your coffee.

IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I guess I get this from an old T.Rex song, Marc Bolan, “I ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair.” That’s what he said and I have hair like Marc Bolan.

 

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