Thursday, August 14, 2008

This is a Sharon Cheslow interview I did a while back for Chimps/MRR

1-Where did you grow up and how do you think it affected what you do?

There are two parts because I grew up in two places: first in Los Angeles until I was 6 and then in the Washington, DC suburbs.
I was born in Los Angeles in 1961, and I was exposed to all the great folk and rock and roll that was happening in the '60s. It was in the air - on the car radios, in the stores. My parents liked folk and jazz and some rock and always had music around the house - my dad listened to records a lot and my mom liked to sing. I found out recently that my parents went to hootenannies while in LA and went to one in the late '50s in Idyllwild, CA with Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. They saw Dylan in '64 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. So their love of music was passed on to me, especially protest music.

We lived in a bunch of LA neighborhoods, but the one I remember most was an ethnic, artsy area near the Wilshire/Fairfax Jewish area. We lived there a couple of years. At that time, the Holocaust was still very fresh in peoples' minds and there were a lot of survivors in LA. I remember my mom took me to the Jewish grocery store and one of the clerk's arms had a number tattoo. I asked my mom about it and she explained that the woman had survived the concentration camps. You don't really see this outside of cities like LA and NY, and a lot of the survivors have died so it's not even that common anymore. It really had a deep affect on me. I heard the phrase "never again" a lot, which meant that each individual had a responsibility to make sure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happened again.

Because of the legacy of the Holocaust, my mother made sure I was raised within a Jewish community. So most of the people I knew in LA were Jews. I was very dark skinned, and one time at the beach a kid called me a nigger. When I asked my mom about it, she told me it was a racist word for blacks. My parents were pro-civil rights. My mother went to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at UCLA (where she'd graduated college), and took me with her. I was too young to remember it consciously, but it entered my mind. It would have been around '65.

We moved to the east coast in late '67 after both my mother's parents died and my father got a job with the Dept. of Transportation in DC. We lived in Silver Spring, Maryland for a year and then moved to Bethesda - both were suburbs right outside DC. It was a huge culture shock because Jews comprised only 3% of kids in my school. Someone called me a kike and once again I had to ask my mom what the word meant and once again she had to teach me about racism. It left me feeling that I didn't fit in. I simply withdrew and focused on being happy on my own - I was into art, music, math, science and nature. So I was never bored.

It was strange to go from a school with almost all Jewish kids to one with barely any. The kids thought I was weird enough being from LA and liking rock and roll! I couldn't find any kids in my elementary school that listened to rock until 5th grade, and by that time I was listening to David Bowie! I was Beatles fanatic and basically spent a lot of my free time in my bedroom listening to my Beatles records and playing Beatles songs on my guitar. I only found my rock friends after I performed in front of the entire 5th grade - singing and playing guitar - and a couple of people revealed they listened to rock too.

Looking back I don't know why it was so weird to like rock and roll, other than that most of the kids in my school were raised very conservatively and very Christian and perhaps it was considered devil's music. I think another reason is that rock became equated with being anti-war and also pro-black. For my parents to be against the Vietnam War in LA was not a big deal. But I think things were more divisive in DC. My parents went to the opening of the movie "Hair" and someone drove by and egged them as they stood in front of the theater. It was politically motivated. I went to the Human Kindness Day concert in '75 with Stevie Wonder and a race riot broke out. It was a really crazy atmosphere.

DC was just very, very conservative and paranoid and angry at that time. Nixon and Ford were presidents, and DC was dealing with the aftermath of Watergate, so that explains part of it.

2-How did you discover the underground/punk?

I found out about underground culture through reading about the Beatles in elementary school. I used to spend a lot of time in the neighborhood library, looking up articles on the Beatles in the reference room. I discovered Yoko Ono that way. She opened up this whole world of avant garde and experimental creativity to my young mind. Through her I discovered Fluxus and Warhol's Factory. A high school poetry teacher turned me on to the Beats.

I was an avid music magazine reader and found out about the NY punk/CBGB scene in Creem and Rock Scene in 1975. When Patti Smith's Horses came out, I read a write up in the Washington Post. In 1976 I started listening to WGTB - a free-form radio station out of Georgetown Univ. - and first heard NY Dolls and Patti Smith. That same year my family took a trip to NY to visit relatives and we walked around Greenwich Village. I saw all these punk looking people and was instantly captivated. What's funny is that a high school friend of mine played me the Ramones when their first record came out and I remember I didn't like them at all! I liked the artier stuff. The first NY punk band I saw live was Talking Heads in '78. Seeing Tina Weymouth play bass was magical - she was very reserved and petite on stage and it was the first time, except for seeing Linda McCartney perform with Wings, that I saw a woman playing in a band. I didn't like Talking Heads after their first couple of records. But that Talking Heads show is when I first started documenting what was going on through photography. I had a photography teacher in high school who encouraged my creative pursuits.

I'd have to say that it was the music magazines and fanzines that really exposed me to punk. They captured the ideas and energy through writing and photos. I found out about UK punk through reading NME and fanzines like Sniffin' Glue. I also loved LA and SF punk through reading Slash, Search & Destroy and Flipside. These were available at Yesterday & Today Records, which opened in '77 in Rockville, Maryland about 10 minutes from Bethesda. I had access to a lot of these publications through working there on and off from '79-'82. Skip Groff, the owner, would go on trips and bring things back for me. I would read the zines as if looking for some secret code that would open up the world that matched what was in my imagination. It was really like that at that time. There was this sense of an entire new consciousness - a new sense of freedom, a new way of writing music & listening to it, a new way of looking at gender, a new way of creating community. I was stuck in suburban Bethesda, envisioning a scene in my area like the scenes I read about in the zines.

3-Was Chalk Circle your first band? How did you meet each other and what made you want to do a band? What were your influences musically maybe but also anything in a more abstract way? How did you fit in with the DC hardcore thing and were there any other bands that were your peers that were more arty/messed up that have disappeared to the sands of time? What was the best show you ever played?

Chalk Circle was my first band. I wrote songs with my best friend Stacy Taylor in junior high but we never played out. Aside from my 5th grade solo performance, I performed solo in high school for a Jewish youth group at my temple, doing a cover of the Kinks' Lola to shock them! This was before I'd ever heard the Raincoats version. I did it because I loved the way Patti Smith played with gender in her cover of Gloria.

Anne Bonafede, Chalk Circle's drummer, and I met each other through the small circle of DC punk kids that hung out at Madam's Organ shows and parties and record stores around late '79/early '80. Some of the kids were friends through Wilson High School, a public DC school where most of the Teen Idles and Untouchables went. Anne went there with Jeff Nelson, Teen Idles' drummer, who was her boyfriend. I spent a lot of the spring of 1980 hanging out with Anne, Jeff, Nathan Strejcek, Henry Garfield, Ian and Alec MacKaye, Vivien Greene, Danny Ingram, Cheryl Celso, Bert Queiroz and Eddie Janney. It was a great time. We all loved the Bad Brains. And we loved UK and California punk. I could tell that the community I'd envisioned in my head was happening in reality, and that was very exciting.

Besides Yesterday & Today, we hung out in Georgetown where a lot of the DC punk kids worked. Two of DC's first punks, Danny Ingram and Bruce Buelken, worked there. Henry was manager at the Haagen-Dazs shop in Georgetown. If my memory is correct, Anne and Ian both worked at Haagen-Daz for a while. Ian also worked at the Georgetown movie theater. So for a while the DC punk scene was centered in Georgetown when we weren't at shows. Kids would spend a lot of time walking into various places to hang out with friends and people got to know each other that way. It's not the kind of place you'd expect punk kids to develop a community because it was a wealthy neighborhood with a lot of boutiques. But a lot of the DC punk kids grew up or went to school in Georgetown or nearby, and I guess it was easy to get jobs there. Some of the punk kids went to private high schools like Georgetown Day or Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was odd for me because part of my life was in Bethesda, part of it was at University of Maryland (starting Fall '79), and part of it was in DC.

I discovered a lot about 20th century art movements once I got to college because I took a lot of art history classes. I switched majors a few times, but basically I studied art history, aesthetic theory, film studies and english. I remember reading about Dada for one of my art history classes and thinking punk had a lot in common with it. I saw punk as more than just a style of music - I saw it as a life style, a youth movement and an art movement all in one. So I tried to read as much as I could about earlier cultural movements to get inspiration. In '81 I bought the Situationist International Anthology as soon as it was published, and that had a huge influence on me. My film history professor was Robert Kolker, who taught independent and international cinema. His film classes were where I first learned about feminist theory - he used it to discuss films by Jean-Luc Godard, Maya Deren and Marguerite Duras. I found out recently that he graduated from Columbia University in 1969. Columbia at that time, along with colleges such as UC Berkeley, was a hotbed of radicalism. Students there were part of the New Leftist revolutionary time period which involved a lot of Marxist and feminist thought. So I guess you could say that Chalk Circle was indirectly influenced by the New Left.

Before Chalk Circle played out and had a name (which I took from Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle), we consisted of me, Anne and Cheryl in 1980. Cheryl was at all the punk shows and we thought she was cool because she lived by herself in a studio apt. in downtown DC and had a real job, so she didn't have any parents to answer to! Anne still lived at home and I lived at home when I wasn't living in my college dorm.

Mitch Parker who went on to GI wanted to play with us, but he wanted to call the band Mitch and his Bitches so we said no. Henry was almost in the band but he ended up doing SOA instead. Bert Queiroz from the Untouchables rehearsed with us for a bit. We didn't play out until 1981 - the main lineup was Mary Green on vocals & guitar, me on guitar & vocals, Anne on drums. We went through a string of bass players - the first was Jan Pumphrey.

Anne and I met Jan and Mary through Nathan and Danny - both of whom were in Youth Brigade by that time. Mary and I wrote songs together - she wrote most of the lyrics and I wrote most of the music, but we collaborated a lot. After Jan, the bass players were Sally Berg for one show, then Tamera Edminster (aka Tamera Lyndsay). We met Sally and Tamera because they worked at the 9:30 Club. Anne and I went to shows there a lot.

We wanted to do a band because we loved playing music and listening to music. We saw all our friends playing in bands and we wanted to do it too. We saw girls from NY, LA, SF and London playing in bands and they gave us inspiration and courage. We loved the energy and attitude of punk which about just putting yourself out there and doing something productive. We wanted to be socially aware and active rather than passive consumers. We actually only played out four times and all four shows were a blast. We opened up for the Velvet Monkeys for our first two shows and then got support from the older art punk crowd - like Nurses, Half Japanese, Tru Fax & Insaniacs.

As the DC hardcore scene became more macho and less about a tight-knit group of friends, we found greater support with this older group of people. We always thought of punk as having no rules, but when hardcore became more popular there developed a code to which Chalk Circle didn't adhere. Nonetheless, Anne and I loved hardcore and went to all the shows. We went to all the Minor Threat, SOA, GI and Youth Brigade shows and loved to dance. But as the dancing matched the music, we danced so hard that we came home with bruises all over our bodies! Even though the dancing was not intentionally violent, it stopped being safe for girls - a lot of guys wore chains and studs and didn't realize their own strength when they rammed into people. This was the precursor to slam dancing. As the scene became more focused on thrash - ie. loud, fast rules - Chalk Circle didn't fit in so well. Our music was influenced by a lot of music besides hardcore, especially post-punk, no wave, funk, pop and '60s rock. I was listening to a lot of hard bop jazz at the time. Anne and I would drive around DC late at night after shows with the windows rolled down, blaring jazz on the radio.

I loved Anne's drum style. Jeff Nelson taught Anne how to play thrash beats but she made up her own style. She played cymbals sparingly. We felt we had more in common with bands like Red C, with Toni Young on bass, who had a reggae influence. I loved a lot of the bands that evolved out of hardcore that weren't generic thrash sounding and had a more experimental approach, like Red C and Toni's other band Peer Pressure, Nuclear Crayons, Hate From Ignorance, Fungus of Terror, Deadline, Void, Faith. I also really liked art punk bands like Velvet Monkeys, Half Japanese, Chumps, Tiny Desk Unit, Tony Perkins & the Psychotics. Chalk Circle fit in somewhere in the middle of all this.

Once I became friends with Colin Sears, he introduced me to all the younger hardcore kids in Bethesda. These were kids with a similar suburban background, who were a few years younger and very open-minded. Colin had a great hardcore band called Capitol Punishment and we became friends after he, Mike Fellows and I saw the DC premiere of The Decline of Western Civilization.

It was through Colin that I met Chalk Circle's last bassist, Chris Niblack. Colin and I ended up in Bloody Mannequin Orchestra together after Chalk Circle broke up and then he went on to Dag Nasty. Chris went on to No Trend.

4-Why do you think DC had so many creative ladies but so few were in the 'seminal'/remembered bands? Obviously there are other aspects to punk that are as important as being in a band, but it just seems weird that like Dischord didn't put out many bands with women in them til the late 80s/90s... Especially seeing the Banned in DC book which has so many amazing punk ladies represented.

There weren't at the time, and still aren't, enough people in the underground or mainstream print and broadcasting media who were/are interested in documenting U.S. bands with girls, especially those with creative musicians. There is a certain narrative that gets repeated over and over. The only reason the narrative began to change in the '90s is because of riot grrrl and because of the efforts of a lot of people to rethink rock/punk history. It is difficult to change the narrative when it is entrenched as a certain story from the very beginning.

It was due to efforts of Chalk Circle and documentation such as Banned in DC that things changed in DC. In the early '80s, Ian told me Dischord didn't want to release Chalk Circle because our sound didn't fit the label's aesthetic. And I completely understand that, even though at the time it hurt since the scene was so small and tight-knit and we were all friends. But obviously his tastes changed by the time Fire Party or Slant 6 were around. And Dischord probably wouldn't have released them if it hadn't been for Chalk Circle or the efforts of women like me, Cynthia Connolly, Amy Pickering and Lydia Ely. Cynthia and Amy worked for Dischord, and the four of us were responsible for the mixed gender discussion group documentation for MRR's women in punk issue in the late '80s. If Chalk Circle had been around 5 or 10 years later, maybe we would have been on Dischord. Afterall, the Suture 7" is a split release between Decomposition and Dischord, and that came out in '92. I'm the kind of person who likes to focus on the positive, rather than the negative. So I'd rather look at the fact that change is often gradual and things are much better now than they were in the '80s. Bikini Kill were directly influenced by Banned in DC. I think documenting the creative efforts of women is really important, even if the underground or mainstream media don't catch on until years later. It is the documentation that proves what happened and what is possible.

The 1980s were too conservative to promote and sustain bands with women. There just wasn't enough support for female musicians, which translated into a lack of creative nourishment. Many women chose other creative avenues of expression that provided more nourishment, such as writing or photography or graphic design.

You have to keep in mind that just before Chalk Circle played our first show, Henry left DC to join Black Flag and that changed things a lot. The attention got put on the bands like Black Flag that were touring a lot. The bands that are remembered are the ones that toured. Chalk Circle never toured - there were too many obstacles. It was hard enough for guys!

I was involved in the U.S. hardcore scene through writing, rather than touring. Anne and I worked on one of the earliest DC hardcore zines, Now What?, published in 1981 by Sarah Woodell. Then I became pen pals with guys all over the U.S. through Colin's and my zine If This Goes On. There was this great network of fanzine writers who were also in punk bands, but they were all guys. My whole attitude was that I didn't want to be a groupie - I wanted to participate as an equal. I communicated with Thurston Moore who had just started Sonic Youth and did Killer, Barry Hennsler of the Necros who did Smegma Journal, Bob Moore who was in Rebel Truth for a bit who did Noise and ran the label Version Sound, and one of the guys from Jody Foster's Army who did Phenis. We all just found each other by reading each other's zines.

5-what's your favorite memory of being a young punk? anything! a show, a feeling, the first time you heard a record...

The memory that is seared into my heart and brain is this - watching the Bad Brains and Teen Idles rehearse in the basement of Nathan's house with Henry. March 1980. It was an uplifting, exciting, exuberant feeling. I remember thinking - this is day one of my new life because I've finally found friends I fit in with. I felt completely accepted by them. We respected each other and we stimulated one another. I felt completely connected and inspired.

Another great memory is of seeing the Mo-dettes at the old 9:30 Club at 9th & F in DC. It was so rare to see an all-female punk band. Chalk Circle were the only all-girl punk band in DC until Fire Party and Nike Chix came along in the mid-'80s. So I went up to the singer for the Mo-dettes after their show and asked her for advice on how to deal with being in an all-girl band. She said something to the effect of - "You can't deny you're all girls, but remember you're in it for the music".

6-I loved the thing you talked about at VC's BBQ which was something along the lines of noise being a way to stay creative and DIY without being in a rerun of the past as a lot of punks/ex punks seem to get tangled up in... Instead of seeing punk as a musical idea/style of dress I have always thought of it as an idea of possibility and freedom, DIY etc, rather than a set of rules, and I think of your music and art as being so linked to this. How it's possible to stay fierce and brave and new and underground without seeming like a boring guy at a bar telling the same black flag anecdote over and over... if that makes sense!! do you wanna talk about your relationship to the underground scene and music and how you keep your sense of adventure in regards to music...

Yes, this makes sense. Thanks! I believe exactly what you said - that punk is an "idea of possibility and freedom". In my mind, punk is part of a lineage that stretches back through the 20th century that encourages freedom of expression through the means of everyday life. And it goes even farther back to a time when there were no rules about how art or music was supposed to be made. In other words, I see what I do in within a wider context. I have a creative practice that is a daily exercise in exploration, experimentation, discovery.

I'm interested in what I can do as an individual to engage other people. Noise is one avenue for this because noise is DIY and experimental. Actually, I was into noise back in the '80s and at that time it was seen as an extension of punk. When I was in Bloody Mannequin Orchestra, we opened up for Einsturzende Neubauten. We were all part of the same group of underground musicians. I liked noise when it was first evolving into industrial music and I was super into the NY noise scene in the early '80s. So I see a continuum with noise that has evolved from early punk to what it is today and it's mutated and transformed a lot.

Sonically I connect with noise because I like the way it makes me feel. It's actually very soothing and comforting! I love the feeling of being able to let go and lose myself in the moment that sounds are being made. It's similar to the energy I felt with punk. In these moments, the body takes over and responds to the sounds or the music even as the mind is working to conceptualize what's going on. It's a very visceral way of expressing various states of mind. That's what keeps things fresh for me. I also love narrative and sometime noise is too abstract for what I'm trying to express, especially when these ideas relate to what is happening on a larger social or political level. But at the same time, working abstractly challenges me. I usually have an idea first and then I choose how I'm going to express it. It usually comes from improvising in some way.

One of the things I like about collaborating with so many different people through Coterie Exchange is that I see how we all like noise or punk, in their broadest definitions, and integrate them into our own work in various ways. One of the original ideas I had behind Coterie Exchange was that it would be a vehicle for like-minded people to collaborate together, regardless of musical background and regardless of location. I wanted to bring together people from various regional scenes in order to facilitate a dialogue through working together. It just so happens that most of the people I know work independently - we're all pretty committed to the DIY concept. But I wouldn't rule out working with someone who wasn't underground.

I've always been very broad-minded and I love a lot of different types of music, art, film and writing, so when I think about being creative I try not to limit myself much. Often I'll play with the conventions of different genres to explore various ideas.
7-what were your favorite records when you were 17? what about now?

Hmmm, when I was 17 it was 1978-79, my senior year in high school and first year of college. It's hard to remember because all my LPs are in storage. But what I vividly recall is that 1979 was the year everything changed musically because punk was evolving into post-punk. '79 was also the year the Germs' GI came out and that blew my mind. In trying to list my favorite records, I realized I have way too many to name. I love music and I've been buying records for 35 years, so what can I say? So I'm going to take the challenge to ONLY list ones that were my favorites back when I was 17 AND nowŠand that I actually owned.

> In no particular order:
> all Beatles
> Who Sell Out, A Quick One, Happy Jack, The Who Sings My Generation, Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy, Who's Next, Tommy, Quadrophenia - Who
> Power to the People/Touch Me 7" and Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions - Plastic Ono Band
> Wild Life - Wings
> For Your Love and Having a Rave Up - Yardbirds
> The Kinks' Greatest Hits and Something Else - Kinks
> Them - Them
> Love is All Around - Troggs
> Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era
> Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan
> Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Goldrush - Neil Young
> Gloria/My Generation 7" and Horses - Patti Smith
> Marquee Moon - Television
> Blank Generation - Richard Hell & the Voidoids
> The Clash - Clash
> Another Music in a Different Kitchen - Buzzcocks
> In the City and All Mod Cons - Jam
> I'm Stranded - Saints
> Action Time Vision 7" - Alternative TV
> Crossing the Red Sea with - The Adverts
> Cut - Slits
> Hedi's Head EP (Swiss version) - Kleenex
> Mind Your Own Business 7" - Delta 5
> Kerb Crawler EP - Au Pairs
> Fairytale in the Supermarket 7" - Raincoats
> Teenage Jesus & the Jerks 7"s
> GI - Germs
> Tooth & Nail compilation LP w/Germs, Flesheaters, Middle Class, Negative Trend
> Babylonian Gorgon - Bags
> We Are the One EP - Avengers
> Ack Ack Ack Ack EP - Urinals
> Pink Flag - Wire
> Entertainment - Gang of Four
> Live at the Witch Trials - The Fall
> Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division
> early Rough Trade 7"s and A Trip to Marineville - Swell Maps
> Heart of Darkness/30 Seconds Over Tokyo 7" - Pere Ubu
> Cyclotron/Agitated 7" - Electric Eels
> Psychedelic Sounds of and Easter Everywhere - 13th Floor Elevators
> No Way Out - Chocolate Watchband
> Barrett and Madcap Laughs- Syd Barrett
> Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure - Roxy Music
> Here Come the Warm Jets - Eno
> Space Oddity 7" - David Bowie
> Happy Together/She's My Girl 7" - Turtles
> Straight Up - Badfinger
> More of the Monkees and Head - Monkees
> White Light/White Heat and Velvet Underground & Nico - Velvet Underground
> The Stooges - Stooges
> Back in the USA - MC5
> 'Round About Midnight - Miles Davis
> Monk's Music - Thelonious Monk
> Giant Steps - John Coltrane
> I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You - Aretha Franklin
> Original Folk Blues - Elmore James

8-what's the best place you've ever lived and what was the best thing about it?
I have my most happy childhood memories from LA. In the '60s it was a great place for kids - because of the sunshine and beaches and open spaces. I don't think it's that way anymore because of the traffic congestion and urban development. I think I've always longed to recapture the sense of openness and freedom I felt back then. I had it for a while in the early '80s DC punk scene and also for a long time in San Francisco, where I moved in 1990. I've been back in LA since 2005 and it's been great reconnecting to my past, but my favorite city so far to live in has been San Francisco.


Unknown said...

congrats on your new gig- wiley, justin and helen

Anonymous said...

i loved it. i love her.