Interview with journalist/author Vivien Goldman | By Janelle Jones | Photo by David Shankbone

In her latest work, “Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History From Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot,” released in May via University Of Texas Press, pioneering journalist Vivien Goldman offers a retrospective of women in punk, creating a crucial timeline from the burgeoning scene she covered in 1970s England—and America—to the present day, highlighting diverse artists who continue to spiritedly carry on the legacy worldwide. In addition to her writing, Goldman also is a professor at NYU, delved into the performing realm for a time in the early ’80s—most notably, releasing the highly influential 1981 track “Launderette”—and has recently made a return to music, writing and recording new material for the first time in decades.

So, I got to read your great book and thought it was educational, enlightening, inspiring—so inspiring—and uplifting too.

Oh, I’m so happy.

You mention, kind of what ignited you to work on this book, you had contributed to a Pitchfork article.

They asked me to write a little something. Basically, what happened was I was a music journalist in the 1970s, and there was one other woman who’s now a fantastic political artist, Caroline Coon, but basically it was just me and her as females covering that exciting scene. It was really a boys’ club, and as I talk about it in the book, they were actually hostile to the idea of having women involved in music, and they tried to belittle you. I ended up being features editor there, but Caroline kind of encouraged me with how to be a little more aggressive, really because they had me as acting features editor, and then, when I was going to be features editor, I’d been doing the job for ages. In the end, I virtually pinned the editor to the wall and said, “Look around the office. Who else is really going to do it? I’ve been doing it. Give me the credit.”

I was able to do a lot of pushing for Rock Against Racism, and that was a very exciting time, because various things that happened to me gave me a belief that we could bring about social change using culture. I suppose that sort of became my lifetime’s commitment, and things like using punk like Rock Against Racism, which I think is happening again now in England. We’re seeing a rerun of this rise of fascism, the rise of the right. Even now, we’re getting these shocking attacks on women’s rights—like I say in the book, battles we thought were won, to be honest. It makes one realize, if you have certain beliefs in equal rights, things you think are fundamental, like they say, a luta continua [the struggle continues]. It seems like it’s a dynamic that keeps on recurring, that we have to fight again for things like basic rights. I think we’ve gotta use whatever we have. I’m not going to go out and be physical. If we can use culture to change people’s minds and try to make a difference, that’s the tools I personally have. It’s like what [Nigerian composer and musician] Fela Kuti used to say, “Music is the weapon,” and I have to believe in that. What else do I have to believe in? So, I’m happy to see you kind of agree with me.

You mention the present climate, and now it’s even worse. You think of [what’s happening with reproductive rights] in Alabama and Missouri, and it’s insane.

It is insane. I just did the reading for an audio book of this book that’s going to come out on Audible, and as I was reading it—it took quite a while to write, and one of the people [featured in the book], Lesley Woods from The Au Pairs, one of the political groups, and she’s now an immigration lawyer, and she’s very, very progressive. I was reading it aloud yesterday, and it just sort of really was a bit upsetting, because what she said two and a half or three years ago—she hadn’t known these rights would be under such terrible attacks. She was saying that compared to when we started out and women had no recourse, if their husband had beaten them up, there was nothing under the law to protect her, so she said she felt at that moment—now, she felt the frontline was more things like refugees and immigration. So, as I was reading that out loud yesterday, I was like, “Gosh, if I called Lesley now, in light of all that’s happening in Alabama, she also might agree that we have to fight all over again for rights we’d thought we’d won.” So, I’m very touched by your reaction.

[Due to abortion access being threatened], I felt I had maybe even more to say, because you know, so much going on you wanna channel. I felt a lot of roiling, boiling energy I wanted to say in song, which is different than when you’re writing an article. [It’s a] different mode of expression, so I was super glad to be called back to it after a gap of, virtually, since the ’80s. I just did a few things since the ’80s.

How is it going? Have you written?

Yeah! I was in London. I did it with [producer and founding Killing Joke bassist] Youth. We’ve known each other most of our lives. I was lucky when we did our old music, because I worked with such amazing producers. So, Adrian Sherwood—who I did that track, [“Launderette,” with] that Pitchfork used [in their article] that had an effect on this book—he’s such an amazing wizard of sound. He made everything really epic. I wrote the song and I sang it, but he had that sonic vision that, like I said, was an epic sound, and Youth does too; he’s a real visionary with sound. So, when I heard the songs back, it was so different from when I was just sitting writing them at home, and then, he applies his enormous concept and it becomes something so much bigger, to me at least. It’s nice doing music when you’ve been a writer. Like when I was doing the book, so much sitting alone, focusing, focusing, writing—you know what it’s like. Super disciplined. Then, when you’re doing music, you’re out there with other people. It’s really a nice change. [Laughs]

What got the flicker going [for “Revenge of the She-Punks”] was that one article, but it seems like such a huge idea to embark on.

It really, really was. It’s been so many years of dealing with those sort of patriarchal attitudes from when I was young working on a rock magazine, but I feel there’s been a shift of the zeitgeist. That’s how even the women of Pitchfork managed to get that article in, and there was a likeminded individual sitting at the University Of Texas Press who picked up on it, and she found my email and wrote me. There is a societal struggle and a societal shift going on. It’s just, particularly in America, the way it is right now. Other countries in the rich world, they’re not having those particular struggles—not that they’re not having struggles, but [they’re] not trying to reverse the right to abortion. In Europe, they’ve got issues; I’m not saying it’s perfect, but this is one thing that seems to be very American at the moment. If I was a teenager in Alabama—whooo.

Not even just bodily autonomy, but like you mention in the book, equal pay is still not happening.

It’s just a way of trying to keep women powerless—but I’m not a separatist. I feel I always have to stress this, but it’s a very big system to try to shift. People don’t like to give up power.

This kind of fits in—reading your book, there were so many surprises. You think you know things, and then, you read about people in different parts of the world. One thing that surprised me was the Mo-Dettes having a contract that had a pregnancy policy.

Yes. That’s why it was so interesting to contrast that with Neneh Cherry’s experience, the little moment when she sits down with the label head, who I also knew, Ashley Newton—and his daughter became a DJ and, funny enough, a student of mine at NYU for a while. He’s a cool guy, really. He was shocked; he didn’t try to push to have an abortion, but that’s sort of one of the reasons why I think the setup they have in places in Scandinavia, where they factor in that we want women in the workforce and that, at some point, they may have to take some time off if the race is going to continue. [Laughs] Then, give males some time off to help with the nurturing and the change in the structure at home. These are really big shifts, a big shift in awareness. Women having the rights and power and strength that we absolutely deserve. We are half the world, aren’t we?

Another surprising thing was [Chinese punk] Gia Wang of Hang On The Box [being anti-abortion]. Reading about the song [“Kill Your Belly,”] because I’d never heard about them, and then reading her thoughts about [supporting] Trump, I was kind of floored.

I must admit, so was I. I’m not going to censor it. My idea with the book—when University Of Texas Press approached me and asked if I was interested in developing this little paragraph that I’d written into a book, I had to go and think about how to approach it and what I really wanted to say. I’m really glad they backed my ideas, because what I wanted to say is in the book. I didn’t know everything. It was the start of a journey and a lot of research. I had to go out and find it as a journalist. As a journalist, you have an instinct and an idea, something you want to pursue, and my whole feeling was I wanted to get a sense of what women artists were thinking and feeling and doing now, as well as just when I lived through it at the dawn of punk.

So, I did think about where I might find those voices. I wasn’t really a Chinese punk expert. I tracked down people and spoke to a lot of people. It took a lot of work to find Gia Wang. Then, I eventually did find her, and she had these views that we regard as very unconventional, almost subversive for female punks—but like she said, “I’m a bad bitch. You’re not going to like what I have to say.” I was like, “Nothing surprises me,” but then, sure enough, I was surprised. That’s just the way she personally feels. I was almost struggling to understand it, because it was so different from everything I’d ever thought and what all the other women around me had thought. Like I say in the book, I said to her, “Do you think it’s something to do with the fact that, in China, they were enforcing abortion as a way of keeping the population down?” and she was, “How dare you diminish my own autonomy?” Those are her sincere beliefs, and I put them in, and it shows that we’re not a monolith. Individual voices, even if we find them a little shocking.

I like that you added that it was a little confrontational. Well, not confrontational, but that she was like, “No, that’s not it. You can’t say anything if you haven’t lived here.” I’m happy you kept that.

It was confrontational, you’re not wrong. [Laughs]

You could’ve been like, “I’m not putting you in here,” but you did.

I thought it was important to see what people were thinking and feeling and saying. In fact, I reveled in showing the disparity of all of our voices and ways of thinking. I hoped it would be a dialogue and a dialectic, just a sort of rich collage or tapestry of many different thoughts. We contain multitudes as female artists. Having said that, the vast, vast majority would prefer to have access to abortion and contraception and [tampons] and pads.

Regarding the great title of the book, you kind of get into an explanation of it, because people might take it the wrong way. “In the case of punky females, revenge means getting the same access as your male peers, to make your own music, look and sound how you want, and to be able to draw enough people to ensure the continuation of the process.”

If you’ve got the skills, definitely. […] As I say in the book, I was keeping an eye on the news, as one does, and these reports kept popping up. OK, we’ve got Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, really big artists, a lot of money—where is it? Like I say in the book, we’ve just gotta keep pushing and keep doing the work, and hopefully, even the guys will understand the necessity. It’s just boring having only guys, guys, guys, and yet, a lot of them like to hang on to the past. The hipper ones who we love, who like us, they see the need. This is my thing: Even just an individual can make a difference. I think we’ve got to not be intimidated by this sort of institutional suppression. We’ve got to keep nibbling away at it. When I say “groups,” I don’t necessarily mean musical groups. I still feel individuals can have a power, especially when individuals can connect with other likeminded individuals and make something happen, even in your own community.

That’s part of what I was trying to get across in the book. When you look at those women in Germany, Malaria!, they—and with their male friends—they were the new generation as women; they’d go out and find a place and make things happen and create your own strength and shift the thinking in your community and then in your state. Just build up a pulse. There was nowhere to play and put on art exhibits, so they found a space and they made a space. They’re still working now and spreading ideas and art. When I came to New York, at first, there was a lot more of that. When you’re facing the forces of gentrification and mass capitalization, we can’t let ourselves be intimidated and stop. That’s what life’s all about, to keep trying to shift the debate. Eventually, as you say, there’s backlashes, and then, there’s backlashes to the backlashes, and it’s an endless dynamic process.

Now I’m a bit older, I’m seeing you can’t give up. […] That’s why I use that analogy at the end of the book, and I like it: to be like water. Water can wear down a mountain if it just keeps on flowing. In the end, nothing can withstand it.

One quote [from the book] is that “Patti Smith made the sound and told the stories she wanted to hear.” It’s so liberating.

Though I’m still quite friendly with [guitarist] Lenny Kaye, I don’t talk to Patti. I tried to get her to speak for the book, but I suppose she was too busy. I had those previous interviews with her, and I’d worked with her quite a bit. I didn’t run that by her, but it’s obvious that was the case, because she was an artist. She was always trying to express herself doing her own thing. You gotta stick with it, really. You gotta be tenacious. Those young ladies in Skinny Girl Diet, the youngest people in the book, they were finding the same thing. The trick is tenacity and not letting it get you down. If you get resistance, use it as a springboard.

That quote feels like it encompasses everything: Do what you want and what you want to hear. You mention a lot about the music industry and how, nowadays, it’s not as important anymore, because of the internet and all that. It’s [frustrating]—you think about age or how you look, and then to go from what you start out with, the great Poly Styrene [of X-Ray Spex], and that line was so great, “Unfuckable, so unmarketable.”

The entertainment business and music and art, attractiveness does play a part, but just the idea of what was attractive is so reductive. Regarding that part, the group ESG, they got so ripped off. They weren’t from a one-percent family with a lot of lawyers in the family. They were outsiders from the Bronx, and there’d never been a band like them before. That’s what’s so important about these artists. Even people like The Clash and [Sex] Pistols, they’re hugely important, but the fact is they were building on an established tradition. They could be the anti-Beatles because we had The Beatles, but we never had anything for women. So, these pioneer people had it really tough as pioneers. You had your few likeminded blokes in your musical domain, like, say, The Clash supported The Slits. In the outer world, it was all the guys, so you had to have a lot of chutzpah and just be determined.

To be honest, when I think back on it now, when there were no other women writers, there were no other women musicians. That’s why I wanted to make the point in this book and say, “Yes, punk was our liberator and shifted everything,” because prior to that, even a musical talent like, say, Dusty Springfield—she had such an incredible voice that she did, to a comparative extent, make the music she wanted. They cut her some slack. But coming back to that word, “reductive,” there was a very reductive view of which women had the right to make a record and [how] that record had to sound, and they had to look the way the cultural gatekeepers, who were mostly male, felt was appropriate and commercial—but that was a very, very, very narrow view.

Sometimes, I get sad—like the section I write on Jamaica, because I have a very long history with Jamaica—when I think I had to deal with a lot of sexism there, obviously, but not only that, I was so in love with that music at that time and I still am. I was so lucky to get to be around what the reggae critic Roger Steffens says is the “golden age of conscious reggae.” For me, it was overwhelming. I just lived it. Why? Because it meshed with my perspective of the music I liked to hear with a lot of harmonies and the melodic richness yet, at the same time, the fantastically strong rhythms and the aspirational aspect and the revolutionary aspect. When I think about all those guys who I adored and still do, master singers like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Jacob Miller, even now, I get a thrill thinking of their talent. They had just as many girls, actually, who were as good singers, but we never got to hear them. When I think of that, I can’t let that terrible wave of sadness that engulfs me overwhelm me. I have to use it to try to encourage more women to get their voices out now, because think of all we lost and never got to hear. It’s poignant. That’s why I quote that woman Tillie Olsen and her book “Silences” that had a big effect on me when I was in my 20s. It shows how women have been systematically silenced.

I didn’t know how, in Jamaica, you had to be someone’s lover or…

It’s an island where everybody knows everybody. It’s not big like America, so there was just one woman producer, but it’s always been a bit like that. The ones who get the breaks are going out with producers. It’s just more noticeable there because we’re looking at a smaller community, so it stands out. After I wrote it, shaking with passion while I was writing, I thought, “Wow, pull back, Vivien. Am I exaggerating?” So, I sent it to a Jamaican girlfriend of mine and asked if I was over the top, “but this is how I feel and what I’ve seen,” and she was like, “No, Vivien, that’s the way it’s always been.”

What was interesting to me about punk was the revolutionary aspect. That was much more within the U.K. where I was at that punk time, where I’m from. That’s what I liked about it. That and the fact that women could get involved for the first time. That’s what’s interesting to me about it. Just simply only being louder, harder, faster, that’s not really what would give me a lifetime’s engagement with the ideas. So, [in the book, I included] unsung foremothers like Jayne Cortez, who—you couldn’t get more DIY than Jayne Cortez. She was so determined to get her own politics and feelings out, uncut, her way. The music she used, like I say in the book, that harmolodics, the free jazz, that’s punkier than punk.

When I mentioned the feelings I got out of [the book]—inspiring and uplifting—I really felt your section on her, [when] you said you got inspiration from her, that was really moving.

I’ll be honest with you: Sometimes when I was writing the book, I was actually crying because it meant so much to me, and Jayne Cortez, she was very significant in giving me the strength to continue. She was such an example, and the fact that she took me under her wing and would have a coffee with me and got to know what was going on with my work—I’m so glad you felt it, because why I wanted to write it was, yes, like a template [for] how we can encourage our sisters. If they’re younger, from different countries, from a different background—we can encourage each other. That’s what she did for me. Now, because of her strength and artistry and generosity, even after she’s no longer with us, I was able to plant that, maybe with you and your turn, you can go on and inspire somebody else. Yes, persist. Just find a way through. When people wouldn’t publish her, she found her own ways. Now, we use the internet; then, she had to find a printer.

Another quote that stuck out to me was, “But hopefully the diversity of these she-punks proves that punk belongs to everyone.”

That’s something I believe, so I’m so happy it resonates with you. I just sat on my own writing it for a long time, just pouring out of me, and I don’t care if people don’t agree with me, I just really want to get it out there. There have been so many institutionally enforced gaps that when the Riot Grrrls came out, they felt they had to start all over again, and that’s how we felt. We’d been sort of silenced by the big media. So, like I say in the book, I just hoped to help build a bridge so some person coming up now can see, “Yes, I have a heritage, a heritage, something to build on,” because even if you want to overthrow it and start something new, at least you know you have something to overthrow.

I wrote down a lot of quotes—“Punk was for and by outsiders and technical virtuosity was irrelevant.” That was the spirit.

We didn’t have the role models. Like I say, there was Heart, Fanny, then there was Suzi Quatro—she’s good, but she was just like one of the boys. When I think about it, it is quite poignant that I had to ask, if women got to make their sort of music their way, how could it possibly sound? We had no idea. It’s like Shakespeare’s Sister syndrome, all the women who’ve been silenced over the centuries.

And then, in authoritarian countries, like you mention in the former Czechoslovakia how men and women would unite…

I’m so glad you picked up on that point. That was a real noteworthy aspect of this concentrated period for me when I was researching and thinking about these matters. It’s something we really have to bear in mind. We should all try to be more like Nelson Mandela and find a way to work together, because these are just constructed gender wars. I don’t want to live in a world without men and stop collaborating with men. There are men who think the right way. A current example: I just made a record with Youth. He’s a guy, but he’s a guy who appreciates women’s voices. He did Poly Styrene’s last album before she passed, [2011’s Generation Indigo,] as well as having a band with Paul McCartney and that testosterone-fueled band Killing Joke. It was very visionary for me to realize that. We’re still stuck in the gender struggle, but it’s not really what it’s all about. We need all the help we can get to change these really dreadful circumstances facing us.

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