Denise Kaufman can’t help smiling as she belts out her lyrics on stage. “There’s a whole lotta people tryin’ to mess with your mind,” she sings, in “Feel Good.” “When you were just a little child they filled you in with every sin they could find/Tellin’ you it’s wrong to want my good lovin’/One way for you to know for sure/Does it feel good baby? How does it feel?”
She nods in time as bass licks propel the song forward. As she bobs her head, her long, curly, gray hair moves around her face. Kaufman is 72 years old, on tour with her septuagenarian band mates. In November 2018, they released their self-titled, long-overdue first album, and they already have plans for a second. Kaufman is a joyful singer, an unstoppable rocker, a Jewish grandma.
The band is Ace of Cups, which Kaufman helped found in 1967, during the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. Deeply in the countercultural mix, Ace of Cups opened for Jimi Hendrix at Golden Gate Park and shared stages with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. But they had disbanded by 1972: No studio would offer a recording contract to an all-female group, and music gave way to the need to earn a living.
But Kaufman and Mary Simpson Mercy (vocals, electric and acoustic guitar), Mary Gannon Alfiler (vocals, ukulele, bass, percussion), and Diane Vitalich (vocals, drums) never stopped playing, though, all of them gigging over the years with other bands. Now, more than 50 years on, Ace of Cups has reunited, with their double album featuring such guest artists as Taj Mahal, Peter Coyote, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“What a debut it is,” Morgan Enos wrote in Billboard, “brimming over not only with great songs, but a formidable guest list … It’s the sound of four maximum-eclectic musical lifers, unfettered by old frustrations in the biz and purely ready to jam.” The band is touring, too, through Aug. 17, when they conclude with a benefit in San Francisco with headliner Jason Mraz. Next year, the band is slated to release another double album, three-fourths of which is already recorded.
It’s been a heady time for Kaufman, a guitar, bass, and harmonica player whose Judaism has “always been central” to her. Her father’s father founded a small synagogue in Boston. Her mother, Golda, born to a Jewish family in London, sailed to the U.S. to visit but ended up staying because England had entered WWII during her voyage, and London was being bombed. In her new country, Golda, a trained soprano, fell in love with Hank, a graduate of Harvard. They settled in San Francisco, where they enthusiastically supported their young daughter’s musical education. There were piano lessons and Pete Seeger concerts and years of Denise’s performances in a teen light-opera company. Golda and Hank were also social activists in Jewish and civic causes.
Kaufman drew upon that foundation of activism when she was arrested as a freshman at Berkeley as part of the Free Speech Movement. She spent the next year crossing the U.S. on the bus with the Merry Pranksters, a group of friends led by author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who some credit with launching the psychedelic era. The Pranksters would stop in a community, rent space, and create light shows and music events. “The Grateful Dead would play—that was our band,” Kaufman remembered. On hand were vats of “electric Kool-Aid and not-electric Kool-Aid,” the former seasoned with LSD. In Tom Wolfe’s book about that journey, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kaufman is “Mary Microgram.”
Kaufman says her ’60s experiments with then-legal LSD and psychedelics allowed her to reach an understanding of the oneness of all people and our common humanity: “It was a deeply spiritual opening for me. I felt like I had tapped into the divine.” The rest of her life, she added, “has been integrating and living from that.” Kaufman had returned to San Francisco by 1966 and recorded a single, “Boy, What’ll You Do Then.” At a New Year’s Eve party, she heard someone playing blues guitar in an upstairs bedroom. It was “this blond girl with shoulder-length hair”—Mary Simpson Mercy—and Kaufman pulled out her harmonica. Mercy soon invited Kaufman to join some female friends who jammed together.
So began Ace of Cups, their name inspired by a Tarot card. Kaufman sang, wrote songs, and played guitar and later sitar. The group’s sound merged “folk, jazz, rock-and-roll, pop and even early punk, all in the same stew,” Enos said in a recent interview. Jimi Hendrix was impressed enough back then to tell a British music magazine, “I heard some groovy sounds last time in the States, like this girl group, Ace of Cups, who write their own songs and the lead guitarist is hell, really great.” Hell or not, the Cups could not land a record deal, even as their male peers were getting scooped up by the labels. No recording contract meant no radio airplay, tour, or opportunity for anyone outside their own locale to hear them, Kaufman said: “There was no way to get known.”
It wasn’t the first time someone in the band had experienced sexism playing music. As a child, Vitalich, the drummer, had swooned over the drums after seeing a marching band perform. When she asked to learn to play, she heard the same refrain in elementary, middle, and high school: Drums are for boys. You can play the tambourine. Later, she said, dancing at a club, “I approached the drummer and asked, ‘Do you think you could show me a beat?’” He taught her and she got to play with his band. Watch her now and you’d think her first teething toy was a drum stick.
Beyond the “only boys are rockers” mentality, the band faced other obstacles getting signed. They weren’t easy to slot into a single genre. They took turns singing lead, which shifted the focus rather than creating a frontwoman for marketing. And they performed in an era when other women artists, from painters to poets, had to fight for recognition, too.
Kaufman had married jazz saxophonist Noel Jewkes in 1968, but they separated in 1971. When the band split up after that, she headed with her toddler to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. She expected to spend a few weeks but decided to stay, becoming a founding mother of Island School (today with a 40-acre campus) and a builder of Kauai’s and Hawaii’s Jewish community. She was active in the Jewish Federation; among other feats, she once prepared vegan matzo ball soup for 120 for Kauai’s community Seder. Kaufman moved to Los Angeles in 1983 and began a career as a yoga teacher, eventually attracting Madonna, Sting, Quincy Jones, and Jane Fonda as students.
Ace of Cups’ improbable renaissance began years later, in 2003, when a U.K. company released It’s Bad for You But Buy It!, a compilation of the band’s music from demos, rehearsal tapes, and gigs. George Wallace, the owner of High Moon Records, became a fan. Around 2010, he contacted the band to see if they had more archival material to release. Although they didn’t, he helped the three band members who lived in California get together to play and write. After a few years, he thought it was time to make the album they had never gotten to create. Dan Shea, who had worked with Santana, Jennifer Lopez, and other big-name artists, signed on as producer. Shea also understood the band’s roots as a native of the San Francisco area.
Ace of Cups’ first studio album is a mix of songs performed as they were originally, some reimagined, and some new, with three- and four-part harmonies. Everybody “has 50 years’ worth of other experiences musically. We bring all that to the band now,” Kaufman said. Case in point: Kaufman has played both Hawaiian music and kirtan, a call-and-response music from the yoga tradition, while bassist Mary Gannon Alfiler, who is involved in her Catholic church, had developed a passion for liturgical music.
Kaufman is the band’s “incredible wordsmith,” according to guitarist Mary Simpson Mercy. As a co-lyricist or editor, she helps “each one of us in different ways to put songs together so they have real impact.” Subjects range from relationships and family, to claiming independence and strength as women, to social anthems. Kaufman says Judaism has influenced her own lyrics. “The basic themes of freedom of ideas and the ability to question and debate and look deeply at issues,” she said, “that’s certainly a Jewish value.”
While some may dismiss Ace of Cups as a nostalgia act, they are relevant today for the fundamental reason that “they’re a hot-sounding band,” Enos says. It may have taken them 50 years to contribute to New York’s live music scene, but they did it in February at the Mercury Lounge. My brother was there, and he later introduced me to the music. I loved their energy, drive and spirit, not to mention their cool appearance.
We don’t hear older voices much in pop culture, I mused to Kaufman in a phone conversation. She was quick to disagree. Think of the Stones touring, and the Who. Paul McCartney. Paul Simon. There’s also Stevie Nicks and Madonna, but we mostly hear from older men. I mentioned the pressure for female musicians to be sexy in a business where aging isn’t welcomed, but Kaufman believes the issue extends beyond music. “Older women in every field have been regulated out to pasture pretty early,” she said. “That might be starting to change.”
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