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Punk Pioneer Vivien Goldman on Bob Marley, Jewish Music, and How the Internet Challenged Creativity

As she takes the stage for her first-ever solo act, reflections on a storied past and an uncertain future

Armin Rosen
October 25, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Until September 16th, there was something missing from Vivien Goldman’s musical resume. She’d written a handful of classic songs, recorded with Robert Wyatt and Johnny Rotten, worked as Bob Marley’s publicist, penned books about the 80s punk scene, had her music sampled by Madlib and Massive Attack, and amassed a collection of reggae records of such historical import that it was acquired by NYU, where she also teaches classes on a history of punk and reggae that she witnessed and in some instances even created. In 2016, Pitchfork proclaimed that no one was more punk than her. Still Goldman apparently didn’t share a recurring fantasy common to say, a sometimes-music journalist like myself: Amazingly, her set opening the second day of Basilica Soundscape, a yearly glorification of noise staged under the industrial vaulting of a converted 19th-century factory in Hudson, New York, was her first-ever performance under her own name. “This is an experiment in the Basilica tradition,” she said, as rhomboid bolts of late-afternoon light beamed through the high windows. She performed with backing tracks and two musicians, set against the backdrop of billowing pink canvas hangs that resembled wrecked weather balloons, or swollen gums.

Goldman has worked as a journalist, historian, and television producer. Her late 70s and early 80s career as a recording artist amounts to a half-dozen songs, but nearly all of them are significant: “Laundrette” and “Her Story” are touchstones of punk’s amplification women’s voices and stories; the still-menacing “Private Armies” is a disquieting vision of cops and fascists stalking the streets. Onstage in Hudson, the red-headed and plaid-stockinged Goldman swayed, twirled her hands, and smiled as she hit a series of clean high notes on “Laundrette.” During the chorus to “Private Armies” she ululated and bellowed, throwing her arms out and scowling through the song’s descriptions of bloody streets. Not everything went perfectly; opening nights never do. But she won over a crowd that was primed for louder and heavier fare. After all, we were the first audience ever to experience the blunt hypnotic power of the line “if you can’t get a hard-on, get a gun” together, which Goldman shouted into a swelling and ironically militant chant.

The band rollicked through “It’s Only Money,” a lament about the miseries of the insolvent artist—“I had to make a little money so I stole all the equipment!” she shouted, evoking a still-popular temptation among musical strivers. The song ended, and she thanked the crowd for “helping me lose my virginity.” Afterwards, she described that first show to me as “very pleasant. A career is born!”

A few weeks later, I met Goldman at Rajbhog, a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, the Queens neighborhood where she’s lived for the past decade. It was glatt kosher, she’d promised back at Basilica, which was a happily unexpected place to find myself discussing the hechsher wars. Goldman was born in London in 1954 to German refugees—her father escaped from Nazi headquarters in Berlin during the war. She grew up in an orthodox Jewish family in the city’s northwest but couldn’t square a gathering sense of rebellion with the religious traditionalism she had grown up with. “I so didn’t fit the mold of what is desired for a woman whose price is above rubies, you know—Eshes chayyil, is it?” She’s embraced forms of Buddhist practice but never discarded Judaism: She helps organizes a reggae seder each year, and had fasted on Yom Kippur a few days before we met in Queens. She felt a deep connection between her Jewish identity and the fact she’d spent so much of her life in music. “One of my older cousins has a photo of one of my supposed great uncles sitting outside his little peasant hut in Poland… You couldn’t really see the house but he’s sitting on a stool, he’s got the long beard and he’s got on black robes, and he’s got his fiddle on his knee. And when I saw that it all kind of made sense,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to sound ridiculous but I felt like music was inside of me, and it would come out and I would find a way to express it.”

Where to begin with Goldman’s music? For the interviewer, this particular canvas is almost unfairly vast. “I guess the places where I used to hang out are now museums, like Hope Road and Kalakuta,” she said—referring to Bob Marley’s Kingston compound, where she had been a frequent guest during her time as his UK publicist, and Fela Kuti’s self-declared “republic” in Lagos, Nigeria, where she said she had once been robbed. “I do feel that he was my mentor in a way,” she said of the hard-working Marley. “He set a very very high bar for the professional and creative conduct of my life—you know, something to aspire to.”

She was in intimate proximity to a gaggle of other titans, including Robert Wyatt, who handled some of the percussion on her 1981 Johnny Rotten-produced EP “Dirty Washing,” reissued as part of a 2016 compilation of Goldman’s work. “I was sharing a house at the time with Jeff Travis who founded [record label] Rough Trade along socialistic lines that he’d learned in Israel on a kibbutz,” Goldman explained. Wyatt, an art-rock visionary and the former drummer for The Soft Machine, became paralyzed when he drunkenly tumbled from a fourth-story balcony in 1973 and hadn’t released an album since 1975. At some point in 1980, her friend Brian Eno wanted Goldman to “keep an eye” on Wyatt in distant Greenwich. Luckily, Travis had both a car and a record label whose lefty ethos made Wyatt feel comfortable enough to produce, which is how he ended up playing on Goldman’s EP. This story’s importance has less to do with Wyatt than with what it reveals about London in the early 80s. “I was part of a creative community with everybody living near everybody else. Brian Eno lived near the Clash, who lived near the Raincoats, who lived near The Slits, who lived near me.” It was “a little village of complimentary creative types, face-to-face, old-school.” The community endures, in some dispersed or diluted form. “I’m still friends with people I met where in the Hundred Club to this very day, you know. It created a tribe.”

Jackson Heights is pleasant, and the Patra rolls at Rajbhog delicious, but cities no longer resemble the London of Goldman’s memory. Thanks to high rent they can’t be the compact villages of art and culture that they once were, and Goldman wondered whether the Internet was actively hostile to the constant physical proximity that’s required for a creative scene to flourish. Attitudes have sharpened around identity, culture, markets, and a thousand other things, too. “We’re not living in a one-love culture. We’re living in a divisive dog-eat-mouse culture,” she fretted. But what remains—what’s innately human, and thus hopefully unkillable—is that timeless germ of radical inspiration, the wellspring of what Goldman referred to as “the rebel spirit,” namely, the experience of having one’s mind blown.

For Goldman and her generation of blossoming London punks, it was reggae that changed everything, and that “carried the spring of the time.” Dub, or the looping and manipulation of instrumental tracks pioneered in Jamaica, was nothing less than “a new way of thinking:” There was “the sparseness of dub, the surprise element,” the way songs were built out of “being able to strip things down, and switch them ‘round and be spontaneous.” For the first time, the studio became a musical instrument in its own right. The process of building something new out of existing music had post-modern trappings, although people understood dub in more visceral terms than that. “I think for a generation dub became a bit of a survival mechanism” she said.

The same was true of punk, a contemporaneous revolution with daunting artistic and philosophical stakes in play. Like dub and reggae, punk was organized around a simple, liberating concept: “If you’ve got something to say, find a way to bang it out so that other people will want to sing along with it or pogo to it,” as Goldman put it. This radical promise created a space for women that didn’t exist in other parts of rock universe, and Goldman is currently working on a book about female punk artists for the University of Texas Press. In her view, punk’s “greatest gift to the world” was giving women a voice in music, even if that part of the genre’s story is, in her view, “a narrative that was never allowed to be put together.”

In a way, the Hudson performance, in which a 36-year-old song like “Laundrette” could be shared as a communal event for the first time, was part of a larger effort to reclaim a history that’s been lost or neglected. The reclamation effort continued during our conversation, too. “You’ve ever listened to the Delta Five?.” No, I said, not realizing that “Mind Your Own Business” was one of theirs. “Or maybe you’ve heard of Gang of Four?” I had. In describing the subtle yet revealing injustice of my not being familiar the former, she opted for a reggae idiom. “See, you’ve heard of the guys but not the girls. That’s really how it is in Babylon.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.