Do Everything Yourself: The Lessons Of Punk Renaissance Woman Vivien Goldman
On June 29, 64 years after the day she was born in London to Jewish parents who had fled Nazi Germany, Vivien Goldman was back in her hometown, on stage at Rough Trade East records store for her very first concert performance — a debut a long time coming. A posse of sisters, in shaved heads and bows, joined her for her birthday celebration: Gina Birch from The Raincoats, Andrea Oliver of Rip, Rig & Panic, Hollie Cook of The Slits and Helen McCookerybook of The Chefs augmented the event's historic air and collective vibe, offering an inclusive riposte to Brexit shock.
"I wanted that feeling of community support and strength that you see in the hiphop shows, when all the guys are wandering around the stage," Goldman says.
The punkette quintet sang songs that the birthday girl recorded more than three decades ago, including "Launderette," her 1981 punky reggae cult classic, coproduced with Public Image Ltd's John "Rotten" Lydon and Keith Levene. Grooving in a bright dress festooned with magazine images, the venerable music journalist sang this tale of sex amid spin cycles as if she wrote it yesterday — that's the assurance that comes with being decades ahead of your time.
"To get this attention, with people finding my music relevant to now, obviously it's gratifying," Goldman says at one point in a conversation that ranges across a few months and multiple formats, including phone, email and a late-night meetup in her flat in Jackson Heights, New York. "When I listen to my songs, I hear the sound of immigration, and of women tying to find new forms. I hear the influence of the melting pot, of people groping toward a peaceful coexistence in multicultural society."
Like a sort of dub-warrior version of Forrest Gump but with wits and talent, Vivien Goldman has been party to an enviable slew of historical musical moments. She was Bob Marley's publicist and biographer; she hung out with Fela Kuti at the Kalakuta Republic; she sang backup on reggae tracks for such artists as Prince Far I with mates including Neneh Cherry and The Slits' Ari Up; she roomed with Chrissie Hynde during the dawn of London punk; she made a music video for Erik B. and Rakim; she wrote a musical, Cherchez La Femme, with August Darnell, a.k.a. Kid Creole. Her song "Her Story" was sampled by The Roots. Her musical collaborators include Chicks on Speed, Massive Attack, Luscious Jackson and Ryuichi Sakamoto. As a writer and editor for the London music magazine Sounds during the 1970s, then as a TV producer for the BBC in the '80s and as a contributor to numerous media outlets for decades, including The Guardian, The New York Times and NPR, Goldman has traveled the world, interviewing reggae, rap, calypso, salsa, punk, dub, Afrobeat and pop stars. Spend some time with her — as I have often, during the 20 years I have gotten to know Vivien — and you'll hear endless stories of her adventures. She isn't engaging in idle name dropping; her attachments are real. Goldman is intensely loyal to those she chooses as allies. In romance she has never settled down, but with friends she mates for life.
Goldman is finally getting the recognition she deserves for her sharp ear for new sounds and her strong, feminist voice. In May the European label Staubgold released a collection of tracks she recorded with a who's who of avant luminaries in the late 1970s and early 1980s; Resolutionary: Songs 1979-1982 has been praised by Pitchfork as "searingly relevant" and LouderThanWar.com as "indispensable." Cherchez La Femme had a three-week run at La Mama in New York. And for the first time ever, the writer who has preferred to labor behind the scenes has taken the stage. Goldman says her experience during the past decade teaching classes on punk, Marley and Bowie at New York University and Rutgers gave her confidence. "Holding the attention of big classes as a professor has made me feel extra easy onstage, funnily enough," says the woman who formerly penned a BBC blog called Ask the Punk Professor.
Goldman lives a life without presets, grooving to her own beat. "[She] is a one-woman musical diaspora," Sukhdev Sandhu, Guardian writer and Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, writes in an email. "She's a joyous outernationalist whose life and singular sounds link London, Paris, Kingston, Jamaica and Queens, New York. She's a champion — in print and on vinyl — of roots, routes and revolution. Never staying still, always avoiding the dead paws of nostalgia, always experimenting, she's punk-era royalty whose sly, citric, rhythmically contagious records are still lionized by hipster DJs around the world. 'Launderette' is still one of the key tracks of its period, while, Indiscreet — her subversive photo-book biography of Kid Creole from 1984 — is feminist screwball in the spirit of a Carole Lombard comedy."
I first met Viv at the Fez, a basement cabaret space in New York's liminal Noho area, in the early 1990s. I was reading a piece about the perils of being a woman music critic, at one of the spoken-word events that helped inspire MTV's Def Poetry Jam. This vivacious British redhead came up to me afterwards, saying she dug what I wrote because she was a rock scribe too. In fact, I was looking for Vivien, as I wanted to include her in the anthology Ann Powers and I were then compiling, Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap. Vivien had recently moved to New York, and we bonded quickly, as colleagues, mentors, and collaborators. I saw her as my Austin Powers-esque groovy older sister, and she dubbed me, "my American friend."
Goldman has a way of making strangers feel like family. She grew up in a musical household. Her father played violin, and the family used to sing around the piano together, Vivien harmonizing with her two sisters. Female bonding, improvising and vocalizing became part of her makeup. "People around me knew I sang because I would sing a lot. Even when on the road with Bob Marley, I would sing with him. It's just inside you."
After graduating from the University of Warwick, Goldman got her first journalism gig, writing for the quaintly named Cassettes and Cartridges. She then did marketing for artists including McCoy Tyner at TransAtlantic Records, before moving to Island for publicity. In 1976 she crossed back to the other side, becoming features editor at Sounds. While there were a few other women of note writing about music in England — including Hynde, Caroline Coon and Julie Burchill — she found the music press to generally be a disturbingly laddish world.
Thanks to the revolutionary infusion of punk, the world of music-making was more female friendly. The Slits, Raincoats, Au Pairs, The Pretenders, X-Ray Spex, The Selecter and others featured strong, creative women. Goldman moved from singing backup to front woman.
"I never thought of doing music myself until the girls in punk came along," she says. "I felt strongly feminist. I felt liberated by being part of that first generation. They inspired me to do in public what I did in private. There was a new energy that had not been experienced before that propelled me. "
Goldman was simultaneously drawn to London's growing Caribbean community. It was an incendiary time in England; coal miners were striking; skinheads warred with punks and blacks; bombs were going off. At late-night shebeen parties, she grooved to the bass-heavy electronic throb of dub.
"I always felt like an outsider, trying to find my way through," says Goldman, who remembers the existence of quotas on Jewish students when her elder sister was in school. "I think it's a good preparation for life, to have a paranoid outsider view. Our fractured society, with the class system broken down, was mirrored in the sound of dub. It captured that feeling of there's nothing solid."
Goldman owned a flat in Ladbroke Grove, a bohemian enclave where the borders between punk and reggae, journo and muso, black and white were fluid. Her flatmate Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade, turned his room into a crash pad for traveling musicians. Members of The Clash, The Fall, The Slits etc., flitted in and out. "I used to put my headphones on and write surrounded by people."
Vivien began recording with experimental artists such as Steve Beresford and The Flying Lizards. Their mix of jazz, noise and riddims — which can be heard on Resolutionary tracks "The Window" and "Her Story" — helped create a blueprint for what became known as postpunk. "The spirit of the time was what comes after punk," Goldman says. "There had been that primal howl of punk, now people wanted to play a little differently, we wanted to be experimental. Improvisation was a touchstone for that time. Everybody coming out of punk wanted something free and far-ranging, to stretch out."
It was a dub line by Aswad bassist George "Levi" Oban that set her off on the improvisatory tale of sexual dalliance in "Launderette."
"We were anti love songs," she says. "We were always trying to do something edgy. It's not very romantic; it details a passing shag. That was so common at the time. This was post '60s free love. We didn't have AIDS; we had the pill and penicillin."
"Launderette" was released backed with "Private Armies," a Slits-esque slice of bristling militarist critique, as the Dirty Washing EP in 1981. Around this time, Vivien moved to Paris. She hooked up with another singer, Eve Blouin; as Chantage, they made music infused by the African sounds prevalent in Paris. They recorded their EP, It's Only Money, with legendary dub producer Adrian Sherwood.
"Adrian was a big part of my whole doing music," Goldman says. "He was our own Lee Perry. I learned from him to try and be bold. I was drawn to the originality and individuality of his sound."
All eight songs Goldman recorded during this period are included on Resolutionary, plus a 1981 interview with Vivien. She sings in a sweet, airy soprano, harmonizing with Blouin and others, over the loping bottom and proto-EDM of dub. From the creep in "The Window" to "Private Armies" critique of violence, these are very much songs written from a woman's perspective.
"One thing you can say about all of Vivien's music, it's all very original," says Goldman, speaking about herself in the third person. "I had my own musical concept that I wanted to pursue. You can see it sketched out in Flying Lizards. It reaches its fullness in [Chantage song] 'It's Only Money.' If you look at 'Launderette' and 'Money,' 'Money' is much more assured. 'Launderette' is more tentative, it's trying to charm. 'Money' is harder edged."
In the early 1980s, Goldman changed careers once again to make documentaries for the BBC's newly formed Channel Four. She developed and produced Big World Café, one of the first shows to explore music from around the globe. "It seemed like a good time to get into independent television, which was just starting and very open. I thought it was very exciting. I like telling stories. TV offered another way for me to tell stories."
But Goldman found production to be an even less conducive environment for women: "it was more laddish than Sounds." She eventually went back to writing, both journalistic and creative work, and moved to America.
"The advantage to being here was the dynamism of America," she says. "That is the big plus. I wouldn't have been able to jump around in England. They made me feel awkward for having done music. In America they made me feel more welcome. They're more open; they admire you for taking risks."
Goldman hasn't held a job since 1979, but she has written numerous articles, books (the most recent is The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century), a play and screenplays. She weaves together a living — sometimes barely — out of writing gigs, royalties, book advances, teaching stipends and honoraria. She has never married and has no children. It's at once an enviable and a perilous existence.
"You keep doing new things, don't you?" Goldman says of her approach to life. "What's interesting is the number of areas I've worked in with success, all of which I was untrained for, in that punk way — for good or ill. To me, the connective tissue with it all is rhythm. A good sense of rhythm underlies the writing, the teaching, the structure and the flow of how communication is shared."
Vivien has a way of being plugged into the zeitgeist that makes her a joy to be around, and her art ever timely. She returned to London for the Rough Trade gig just in time for the Brexit vote, and her songs "It's Only Money" and "Private Armies" rang with renewed significance. Two of her on-stage posse had already experienced first-hand the country's renewed intolerance, and suddenly it was anarchy in the U.K. all over again. Goldman remembered the lesson her father had told her growing up: Never get too comfortable, as race hate could raise its ugly head at any time.
"The timing made everything more intense, as the uncertainty around now really recalls the atmosphere which created punk," she says. "Me and most of my friends were still reeling after the Brexit referendum results. I know it was not always easy dealing with the Brussels bureaucracy, but many of those who voted Out may find themselves surprised at the impact of a sudden withdrawal of business and probably labor from Britain. The shock split open a fault line of class and age, and the young are generally pretty upset at being denied what they had expected to be their pan-European birthright. Anyone who doubted that xenophobia played a part was naive, as proven by the huge rise in racist attacks right after the results."
The self-employed never retire. Goldman is preparing to teach a new course at NYU on electronic dance music. She is hoping to finally get her novel, loosely based on her Ladbroke Grove postpunk days, published. And the producers of Cherchez are eagerly seeking funders to take the show to the next stage. Plus, after her London success, she may perform again under her own name, bringing the songs of Resolutionary to live audiences for the first time.
"I'm a cultural worker, whether I'm making a documentary, making music or writing," she says. "Like Bob [Marley] said to me, I still live in the world. I'm still finding my way between roles."
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