Vivien Goldman: An interview with the Punk Professor
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Vivien Goldman recalls with a laugh the day in 1984 when she saw her death, but the laugh fades as she becomes lost in the memory. She was in Nigeria staying in Fela Kuti's home; she had just arrived hours before and found people sleeping everywhere like house cats when Muhammadu Buhari's army showed up to haul everyone to jail. Kuti was an opponent of the government who was in jail, and they came to arrest his coterie of supporters. They grabbed Goldman and were about to throw her in a truck until Pascal Imbert, Kuti's manager, yelled out, "Leave her alone. She just arrived from Paris! She's my wife! She knows nothing! "
Goldman stops for a moment and then smiles plainly. "They thought I was just some stupid woman.... That time sexism worked in my favor."
Vivien Goldman has become a living, teaching testimony of the golden era of punk and reggae. She is an adjunct professor at New York University who has taught courses on the music scene she was thrust in the middle of as a young public relations representative for Island Records. She writes a column for the BBC called "Ask the Punk Professor" where she extols the wisdom she gained as a confidant of Bob Marley; as the person who first put Flava Flav in video; as Chrissie Hynde's former roommate; as the woman who worked with the The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Slits and The Raincoats.
As Wikinews reporter David Shankbone found out, Goldman is one of those individuals that when you sit in her presence you realize she simply can not tell you everything she knows or has seen, either to protect the living or to respect the dead.
DS: The first biography of Bob Marley, Soul Rebel, Natural Mystic, was written by you based upon your personal experiences with him, and you have recently written a book about Marley called The Book of Exodus. How difficult is it to continue to mine his life? Is it difficult to come up with new angles?
- VG: The original biography was written in a weekend and it was based upon my extensive interviews with him, whereas the Exodus book took two and a half years. I must have been a year past deadline, because it kept on growing. Even I had to acknowledge it was a more mature work. After I wrote the first one, all these other people came out with books. I read them, and they were all good in their different ways, but there was a story that had not been told but that I had lived so intensely, a deep story that had shaped my whole life. It demanded I write a book about it. Nobody else has the experience, and I still have that oompf.
DS: You were there with Marley through that time when he really caught on; was it obvious to you then that there was something amazing and unique happening?
- VG: It was really something, and it was huge, but I didn't examine it then. I believed in Bob with every fiber of my being, but it was hard to realize how everybody in the world would get it in the end, and just how towering a figure and enduring he would prove to be. He deserves everything and more; the role that he occupies is so central. It would have been hard to envisage how huge he became, though.
DS: Warhol’s Factory photographer, Billy Name, once told me he knew that what was going on was amazing, but he never thought Warhol would become the entire fabric of the art world as he is now.
- VG: Especially in New York. Warhol was so associated with the punk scene.
DS: But Marley has become a fabric of sorts...
- VG: Oh, he’s beyond the fabric of reggae, he’s the fabric of the rebel spirit. Now everybody just puts on a little red, green and gold and they feel it identifies them as being there in the struggle. Even if it is someone flying to the Hamptons for the weekend, they bring out Marley to expresses the rebel aspect they don’t want to completely lose.
DS: How do you define punk?
- VG: There are two things. First, the aesthetic: harder, faster, louder. But the second thing is what interested me more, which was the rebel spirit and attitude. That free spirit of punk; that implicit sense of wanting to change a system that is always unfair wherever you are, except for maybe in the Netherlands. But it's become so commodified
DS: What is the commodified version of punk selling?
- VG: Edgy and dangerous. It is amazing: you open the New York Times and the free bits fall out and you get Urban Outfitters or Old Navy with lines of punk kiddie clothes. K-mart, even. I was trying to see what was so deeply punk about those clothes. They were maybe more colorful or something, but they weren’t punk. It's like the Swarovski crystal take on punk, I mean, please!
DS: That aesthetic is everywhere, as though if one spikes his hair he is punk.
- VG: Well, the punk is in the heart, to paraphrase Deee-Lite. I was writing about Good Charlotte and The Police. They adopted the trappings of punk. They aren’t bad groups, but the punk aspect is more manifested by somebody like Manu Chao. He’s one of the punkiest artists out there I can think of. It’s an inclusionary spirit that is punk.
DS: Your philosophy is that punk is not just musical, but also an aesthetic. That it can imbibe anything; that it stands for change and for changing a system. Let me give you a few names, and you to tell me how you think they are or are not punk. Britney Spears.
- VG: Oh, no she’s not punk. Punk is not just about wearing smeary black eyeliner, but some sense of engagement. That’s it in a nutshell. She doesn’t have that sense of engagement. She is society.
DS: Dick Cheney.
- VG: He is the essence of Babylonian, old structure capitalism, which is about greed and how much one can take for himself. I could see capitalism that is mutually beneficial, such as ‘I want a bigger customer base,’ but they don't. Take a place I know well like Jamaica. I don’t know if you have seen that documentary Life and Debt, about how the INF squeezed everything out of Jamaica, but that’s a typical thing that happens. Instead of building these people up and paying them a living wage for their work, where we could sell more to them, we just want to suck everything out of the place. Suck the sugar, suck the labor. And that is not very punk. It’s the opposite of punk. That’s what Dick Cheney represents to me. He tries to bring about change, but change that just fattens his pocket. It's not thinking of the community, and that's what punk is about.
DS: Kanye West.
- VG: He seems to be a positive force. In that sense, I would file him slightly under punk.
DS: Osama bin Laden.
- VG: He thinks he is a punk, but he's too destructive. If I was sitting in the madrassa in the desert chanting the Koran seven days a week, I'd think, yeah, he's a punk. But I'm not, so I don't.
- VG: Having said that, they would loathe punks, so I think we can safely say, not a punk.
DS: Pete Doherty.
- VG: Oh yeah, I think he's a punk. He's a punk and he engages with the system in terms of how a powerful a presence he's become. He is the Keith Richards of his day.
DS: If punk is about change, then why the maudlin sentimentality over the closing of CBGB's, which at times turned into demonizing a homeless shelter?
- VG: Yeah, and they had not paid their rent, had they? I sided with the homeless shelter in a way, except I thought the whole thing was ridiculous because somebody should have stepped in and bought it and paid it and fixed it up, in the sense there is no shrine. They don' think about the tourism, do they? I expect that of America now. Los Angeles just destroyed the Brown Derby, and the modernist architecture. That's the thing about America. There seems to be very little regard for legacy. I think they should have kept CBGBs, but I think that more cynically. My students had a huge debate about it.
DS: I felt it was what it was at a certain moment, but it wasn't that anymore. They were charging eight dollars for a beer. That's not very punk, and that wasn't attracting the punk crowds. It was like people who move to the Bowery because they think it's so edgy but it's really a boulevard of glittering condos.
- VG: Nostalgie pour la boue: nostalgia for the mud. Not all of them, though. Patti Smith. Anyway, the spirit had moved on to Williamsburg.
DS: Where do you think New York's culture is going? There are so few places on Earth with such a large concentration of creatives who meet and influence each other, but the city is becoming less affordable and cleansed of any grit. Is there a place for punk in the Manhattan of the future?
- VG: They are flushing out the artists. Manhattan is now a ghetto for the very rich. When punk started it was in weird places, places you broke into and that had never been used for shows. It was never in regular venues, but now every nook and cranny is a regular venue and it doesn't leave much space for the old punk spirit. ABC No Rio, I think they manage to work it in the system. And there are places like The Stone, John Zorn's place, which has avant-garde free form jazz. He subsidizes that place, so it remains a little haven. There are a few little pockets, but it has a lot do with the rent. Realistically, there's loads of stuff happening in places like Brooklyn, more than there seems to be in Manhattan. When I jammed with The Slits, that happened at some after-hours thing in Brooklyn in some warehouse. I remember loads of things in funny places. The first time I heard Public Enemy I was on the rooftop of a building.
DS: You're friends with Flava Flav, right?
- VG: Yes, although I haven't seen him in a very long time. I remember how I met him. I was doing this video for I Ain't No Joke with Erik B and Rakim, and they weren't very vibey in terms of the stagecraft, as it were. The projection. Not to diss anybody, but I needed someone to bring a bit more life into it; it was very low-budget, a vérité kind of shoot. We were in a playground in the projects and there were all these blokes hanging around, and there was one who was super-sprightly, like a live wire. I didn't know it was Flava Flav and I shouted out, Hey, you, will you come over and be groovy for us? and he did and a lot of the action in the video is Flava Flav spinning around, doing a Dervish in the middle of the playground.
DS: At the time he wasn't known?
- VG: Well, it turned out he was in a group called Public Enemy. The first time I heard them was at a rooftop party, and it's one of my great New York memories. It was a warehouse building that's still there behind Houston and Bowery and I remember it was amazing because you never heard music like that before. It was blaring. It was so hot and we were in the middle of the city with graffiti on the walls, people smoking spliffs. It was very free. You don't see that anymore. Everything is more heavily policed.
DS: Do you think apathy is a problem today?
- VG: There's less intelligent, critical content in general, and celebrity magazines pay the most and sell the most. It's the Lowest Common Denominator. Britney Spears is an unbelievable example. She's so young with no good guidance around her, and she is fodder for them to sell more magazines. There's a gladiator aspect of it: the worse off she is, the better for that industry. But I'm still looking for the people who have conscience. Michael Franti, he's one of the only ones I look to now. He had that band Spearhead. I'm looking around for conscious artists.
DS: What about G. G. Allin? He used to defecate on the stage to make a point.
- VG: That's quite extreme, and very unhygienic. I wouldn't need to see that. I don't think that's necessarily punk, it's just scatological. Some people might think it's punk, but I personally wouldn't dig it. It's outrageous, but not in the way I find interesting.
DS: Well, he's dead. Do you think people are afraid to speak out today?
- VG: I guess in Vietnam you did, but now the culture isn't nearly as organized.
DS: Is violence for the cause of social change punk?
- VG: Violence will occur in social change. Violence has always been associated with punk, although punk wants peace in a way. When you look at all the bands in punk, like No Future and Blank Generation, it has implicit an aspiration to a place where you don't have to be violent. Often it happens. The punk era was violent. Very, very violent. So many people were beaten up during those days. I'm very much a peacenik, but violence often happens, one observes, on the road to social change.
DS: Sandra Bernhard once did an homage to what she called the Big-Tittied Bitches of Rock n' Roll: Heart, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks. She mourned that there were no big-tittied bitches left. Who are the big-tittied bitches of Rock n' Roll today?
- VG: M.I.A. Tanya Stephens. Joan Jett, still. The Slits, who still suffer from the system and they are still brilliant. Male bands of that statute would have more deals. Big-tittied in terms of cojones, as opposed to cleavage as such.
DS: Do you have moments of extreme self-doubt where you wonder if anything you do matters to anyone?
- VG: I have a lot of moments of extreme self-doubt, but you have to be humble and listen to what people say. Although I was never top of the New York Times book chart, I know people have liked my stuff, and that keeps me going. The classes have been amazing. I had done a lot of television and media, but it was the first time I had done something one-on-one. It was the old cliche that a person learns as much as they teach. Loads of my old students keep in touch with me; one wrote to me to tell me he is free-lancing for XXL and some other rap magazines, and how the classes really have been useful and he always refers to them. Even just one person is gratifying and encourages me to continue my work.
- VG: I'm a freelancer. I go in, do my thing, and if they don't like it then I don't do it anymore. I stay true to myself, and if it doesn't work out then I guess 'fuck off' on both sides. I haven't had to compromise myself; nobody has asked me to. BBC America is a different animal than the BBC. As long as I can say what I want to say; I think people come to me because they know what they are getting.
DS: Have you ever been in a situation where you feared for your life, where you thought, this may be the way I go?
- VG: There was a lot of violence in the punk times and I got beaten up in street brawls. I particularly remember once in Nigeria... I was there to make a documentary for Channel 4 about Fela Kuti. He was in jail at that time and he wanted to draw attention to his plight to showcase what was going on in Nigeria. It was hard to get through customs because my guides weren't there to meet me. I found them hiding in the carpark because the police were after them.
- We went to Fela's house where I was going to stay; we went to the shrine and it was amazing. The whole house was covered in people sleeping. I was woken up by this little girl very early in the morning, only about two hours later. She was tapping me on the shoulder and when I looked around there was nobody there, whereas it had been covered in people. She said, "Come! Come! The army is here!"
- I went outside and there was the army arresting everyone. People were lined up against the wall. Pascal Imbert, a French guy who was managing Fela, was already on the truck and they were about to take him away. There were all these really serious, heavey Nigerian soldiers with machine guns around. Not friendly, more like stone-faced Belsen guards. It was like that Bob Marley song Ambush in the Night: there were four guns aiming at me. They all turned their guns on me and said, "What should we do with her?" From the truck Pascal shouts out, "Leave her alone! She's my wife! She's just arrived from Paris! She doesn't know anything!" The combination of the words "She's my wife, she doesn't' know anything" were enough. Of course, I had neither arrived from Paris nor was his wife. But they just left me alone; they thought I was just some stupid woman. That time sexism worked in my favor. [Laughs] She doesn't know anything! They were about to take Pascal away and I rushed up to the head guy very bravely—Pascal always gives me props for this—and I said, "Where are you taking my husband?!" They were actually taking him to a secret jail.
DS: What happened to him in the secret jail?
- VG: There's a documentary about it. He got very thin, he contracted dysentry and he got various diseases. No food, or terrible food. Luckily for him after some months there was an amnesty and he was amongst the prisoners who were released. That was a very heavy moment. I thought I would die, either right then or in a Nigerian jail.
DS: In Jamaica there was so much violence during the civil war.
- VG: I've seen a lot of death. Many of the people I knew in Jamaica are dead. I think of them a lot; like my very, very close friend Massive Dread. He did so much for the community. At Christmas he'd hold a big party for the kids, and all the rival gangs would come. He was trying to break up some of the coke runnings. They started to have crack dens in Trenchtown and he worked against those. He was opening a library called the Trenchtown Reading Center, in the middle of this broken down ghetto, where kids could sit down to do homework and read books in this nice courtyard. It was really worthwhile.
- Vivien Goldman's website
- New York University profile of Vivien Goldman
- Ask the Punk Professor, BBC America
- I Ain't No Joke video of Erik B. & Rakim, with Flava Flav
- Trenchtown Reading Centre in Jamaica
- Vivien Goldman with The Slits
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