May 2002, QMH:
Welcome to tonight's show. I'm very pleased to be bringing you a very special interview. The interview is with Alix Dobkin. Since 1973 Alix has been the most visible lesbian feminist in the women's music community. She's even been called "head lesbian." And this stems not only from her music, which includes some classics, but also from her speaking and writing, because over the last almost 30 years she has been a continuing force, performing, doing workshops and contributing articles to our major publications. I mentioned that this started in 1973, because in that year she formed her own record label, called Women's Wax Works, and produced the first album entirely produced, engineered, financed, and performed by lesbians, and the first to have international distribution. It was called "Lavender Jane Loves Women." That album is still available, because it along with her second album, "Living With Lesbians," have been re-released on CD. So those two will give you an instant entrée into the world of women's music. She's been working on her memoirs, which should be fascinating, but until they are published, I recommend picking up her songbook, as it gives a very interesting account of her history and stories of the songs. I reached Alix at her home in Woodstock, New York. Alix, welcome to Queer Music Heritage.
I want to start off with asking about that first album, please tell us about "Lavender Jane Loves Women."
I had wanted to make a record album all the years I was singing folk music in the Village and the Midwest touring in the folk music circuit in the 60s, the mid-late 60s. I hadn't for many reasons. I just wasn't slick enough or something, I never could an album. And so when I started writing women's music for women in particular, lesbians in particular, and about myself and my life as a feminist and a lesbian, I had all these I wrote these songs and a lot of women wanted to hear them. And so it was an idea whose time had come really I feel like "Lavender Jane Loves Women" was just a product of the times, just like the women's liberation movement, the second wave of women's liberation, was a product of the times, and it was all connected. So there was a lot of demand for it, a lot of excitement. Women were coming out by the droves. Whole dormitories were coming out in colleges.
This was the early 70s, so I had these songs and women loved them and wanted to hear them on record. So we made one. So I met Kay Gardner and we worked out some arrangements, and we got this bass player, who was really a conga player, but we kind of intimated her, bullied her into learning the bass cause we needed one for the group. So, that's how "Lavender Jane" came into being. And I raised about $3000 - $3500 on a cruise, with a group called Lesbian Life Space, about 500 lesbians cruising up the Hudson, listening to the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band, who had put out an album with the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, I think the year before. This was 1972 we're talking about, after I came out.
And so I raised the money and Kay & I found Marilyn Reese through WBAI-FM in New York City. Connections there led us to Marilyn, who was a lesbian, and an engineer, but she worked as an engineer for the spoken word, in a spoken word studio. Nevertheless she had the keys, it had four tracks, and she had the keys to the studio and the rest is herstory. And we got our backers into a group, called Women's Music Network, and they provided the backing for the cover of the first thousand we pressed. We printed a cover and pasted it on with rubber cement, a thousand albums. And had an insert printed with the information that would normally go on the liner notes. And so the first thousand albums launched "Lavender Jane."
What other women's music was available before you released your album?
There was Virgo Rising, which was and it I guess a feminist record album, engineered by Joan Lowe, produced in Arizona, I believe, in Phoenix, and it was released, I think, in '72 or '73, early '73, I'm not exactly sure of the year, but that was not a lesbian album. It was very heterosexual, but very strong feminist music. Then there was of course Maxine's 45 single record, which was produced by Robin Tyler of "Angry Atthis," and that was the first lesbian record. Now that was a 45. That was produced I think in '71, possibly, or '72. And then the next lesbian record, that I know of, was "A Few Loving Women," which was a talent show produced by Lesbian Feminist Liberation, I think it was, LFL, which was a lesbian feminist group in New York. I think that's who produced these talent shows. And so they recorded, they taped one, and made a record of it, and they released I think a thousand albums. And they actually made it impossible for me to claim that "Lavender Jane Loves Women" was the first lesbian album, because it wasn't, it was the second. I can say it was the first women-only produced, because they had male engineers, or male, you know, they mixed it, men mixed the album. So I had women working all the way down the line. I could say it was the first women-only, internationally distributed album. They only I think, like I say, pressed about a thousand copies.
Where did the name Lavender Jane come from?
Oh, that's a combination of Janes. I had just read Jane Alpert's article, "Mother Courage," I think it was called, in which she exposed the left men, the leftist men. I come from a Communist background, and I was a member of the party for six years in the 50s, when you could go to jail for it. And actually the party gave me a wonderful education. I first heard the term male chauvinism at a party meeting. But at any rate, I had left the party and I was quite disillusioned with Marxism, especially as it completely disregards, ignored feminism or women. So I loved that she exposed the men in the left, who just used women for sex and to make coffee and stuff like that. So, I was very impressed with that. So that was named partly after Jane Alpert, and the other Jane is Jane Powell, who I loved as a girl. She was a major MGM musical star [oh, the actress]. I loved her singing and I just saw all of her movies many times, and, you know, had her picture up on my wall and was totally in love with her
I've heard you referred to as head lesbian. What do you think about being a role model?
Oh, I love that, that's great. Actually the way I got that title was from Therese Edell. Are you familiar with Therese? [very much so, yes] Well, she recorded "A Woman's Love," did you heard her version of it? [I love her version] Isn't it wonderful? Yeah, she started singing it way back in the 70's and she told me that when she first heard it she was so impressed, and she used to say this when she sang it. She said "when I first heard this I couldn't believe that anybody would actually write this. Wow, Alix Dobkin, she must be the head lesbian. So that's how she would introduce it when she sang it.
I need to make time for a quick break.
QMH Show ID, Holly Near
Also, be sure to listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Saturday night at midnight on KPFT, it's Queer Radio, with attitude. And this is a good time to mention that since there are often many obscurities heard on this show, I thought those on the internet would like to be able to see photos of the artists and recordings, and view the playlist. You can do that at www.queermusicheritage.com.
Of which of your songs are you the most proud?
I'm proud of different ones for different reasons. I guess "The Women in Your Life" is probably my signature tune. I suppose I've gotten the most response to that and it wears the best, I think, of all of them. I don't remember struggling with it and I don't remember having a hard time writing it, but everything about the song has felt very wonderful and positive to me. So, it's hard to talk about it but that would have to be my number one.
Let's hear "The Woman In Your Life Is You"
- The Woman In Your Life (1973)
That was just describing my feelings. I used to introduce it by saying, this is a song about Liza, and she would say, no, it's a song about you. And of course she's right because it was about me and my feelings and reactions, and all about me, which is my favorite topic for songwriting.
Here is "A Woman's Love"
Alix - A Woman's Love (1973)
One of your theme songs is "Amazon ABC"...can you tell us about that.
That was based on the alphabet song. The alphabet song was a hit in 1949, I was 9 years old. Perry Como had the hit, but the Fontaine Sisters had the great hit that I loved, and I loved it so much that I went out and bought the sheet music and thought it was the cleverest thing I ever heard. Nine years old. So there it was, sitting in my memory, when I came out, there it was waiting for me to do a folk process on it, which I did, and had a great time doing it. It was a really really fun song to write. And I've been singing it, closing my shows with it, almost all my shows. That's the last tune, and that's been going on since 1974, when I think I wrote it.
Alix - Amazon ABC (1976)
Please tell me about the song "View from Gay Head"
I was in Gay Head, which is in Martha's Vineyard, and I was there a couple of weeks during the summer of 1973, and that inspired the name, "View from Gay Head." The tune is the harmony of a Balkan song that I learned from Ethel Raime, in her class. I was taking Balkan singing lessons in Ethel Raime's class and I just kind of collected various instances of why it was so great to come out and be a lesbian, and different memories and experiences that related to that in my life and just sort of put them together.
Alix - View From Gay Head (1974)
Can you tell us about "Lesbian Power Authority"
That originated when the power company, the state power authority, wanted to put high intensity lines out in the country where we lived. They wanted to string them up and there was a lot of protest against them, and in fact I met some of my dear friends at a booth that we set up at the 4-H Fair and gave out propaganda against this power line, and it went through anyway, but that was really where the phrase came into my mind. And I was really feeling my oats as a lesbian and I just translated it to Lesbian Power Authority, and again wrote about my life and how the lesbian power authority, how the empowerment of being a lesbian affected me and what I felt best about it
Alix - Lesbian Power Authority (1976)
That was "Lesbian
Power Authority." People in movements don't always see eye to
eye, which was the case with your song "My Lesbian Wars."
Can you tell us about it?
"My Lesbian Wars" was inspired by the lesbian wars that Dyke Magazine faced, when it was have you seen Dyke Magazine? Are you aware of it? [I don't think so] It was published in the mid-70's, '74, '75, maybe into '76. It was a quarterly, published by my girlfriend, Liza, at the time, and her best friend for many years, Penny House. The put this really very interesting, very snappy magazine, and wrote some articles and reviews that got some lesbians angry, and especially in California and Oakland, when a bookstore practically organized a hate mail campaign, and they got all these anonymous letters just blasting them. You know, very fierce and ferocious. We can be the hardest on each other. We act out our horizontal hostility upon, and that's what was happening then, so I was kind of taken aback. We were kind of devastated by the fury we had unleashed, well, not we, excuse me, my lover, and so that inspired that song.
Alix - My Lesbian Wars (1976)
Your song "Crushes" talks about the early feeling of lesbians, can you elaborate?
I can give the rap that I use to introduce the song in concerts. I wrote this song to summarize all the different crushed on girls and women I had up until the time that I came out, and then I figured I could write one for each, and kind of slow down the pace. I had to kind of get them all into this song. And I wrote it and I sang it to a friend of mine, who was straight at the time and she said, "Well, I believe you, Alix, but it just never happened to me, I just never had those feelings about women or teachers or anything before. I said, fine, and she said, "Oh I know you're sincere about it, but I just never felt that way." I said, fine, and she said "You know, I know many, many women have said that. I just can't ever remember every having " I said, FINE. And then she came out, and then she remembered all these crushed she had had, but before she came out, her memory was gone, so it's a wonderful restorative act
Alix - Crushes (1974)
I have the CD by Romanovsky and Phillips, "Be Political, Not Polite," and you and Holly and Phranc sing backups on a song on that. How did that happen?
We were all in the same place in the same time, and that was a very fortunate moment. And they were recording the album. They are friends of ours, and so it just worked out. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but it was a very happy coincidence. It was a lot of fun to do.
I really respect Ron & Paul's work and they don't get enough credit for it.
Yes, you're so right. They had a hard road to hoe and they aren't actually playing together anymore, you must know that [yeah] Yeah, they were very good, very witty, very with it, and they had a hard time in the gay community, as you understand. So much of the gay male community is just not interested in feminism and politics and community building. Now I don't know how it is now, I hope it's changed, but when they were making the circuit they had an uphill battle
I've had more than one artist tell me that they were an inspiration, that it was possible to be out as a musician
That's right, that's right. Well they did wonderful work, and they should get more recognition
Here are Alix, Holly Near, and Phranc, singing backups on the song "False Hope" by Romanovsky & Phillips.
Romanovsky & Phillips - False Hope (1991)
What gay or lesbian artists do you particularly admire?
Oh, you know I'm always caught off guard by this question and that is so silly of me. Well, Peggy Seeger was a great influence, and she wasn't a lesbian, but she is now; and I wasn't then either, but I am now. So she's a major one of course. Billie Holiday, who wasn't really a lesbian, but she loved women, but, let's see, who else? I admire, I admire k.d. lang, she's such a wonderful singer. I admire Melissa Etheridge, she was a friend of mine way back when, in fact she lent me her credit card when I didn't have one, I like telling that story. And she was just wonderfully warm and friendly, and she'd done great work. I admire so many women. Faith Nolan. Here's somebody I really admire, Linda Tillery, she just gets better and better and better all the time, and the Cultural Heritage Choir, you must know their work. She's an amazing singer, and musician, and historian and she's so knowledgeable and such a wonderful teacher, and I guess she's up there in the top of the list.
Do you plan on doing any recording in the future?
Well, J.D., I haven't written a song since 1989, because I am concentrating on writing my memoirs. I lost interest in songwriting, so it came in the form of prose, so I'm like I said I'm writing this memoir [How are they coming along?] Well, good, I just finished the first draft. It took me ten years practically to the month to get that done, so now is the fun part, the revising. [Was it, like, 5000 pages?] It's like 700 pages, or 888 actually, so it will be considerably less when I get through with it, I'm sure. [When do you see it being available to the public?] You know, I take things one step at a time, that's all I can handle, but thanks for asking. [Probably every time you speak someplace someone asks, "When can I get the book?"] Yes, I do readings too, and I get a lot more of those questions. And people say, "I can't wait for the book," and I say "I can't either," so that's the best that I can do for the moment.
I need to interject here an explanation. I belong to an organization based out of New York City called Outmusic, it's made up of GLBT musicians and supporters who believe in helping create opportunities for the artists and in increasing awareness of their work. In June Outmusic is having their 2nd annual awards presentation. The awards celebrate excellence in recording, song writing and cultural activism, and we thought it was very appropriate this year to give out the Outmusic Heritage Award, to honor one of our music pioneers. Alix Dobkin has been chosen to receive the first award, and I asked her about it.
How do you feel about being given the first Outmusic Heritage Award?
Highly honored, and delighted. I think that's great. I just hope people don't put me you know squarely in the 70's, because I'm performing and still sing. That's what I have to do and that's what I love to do, so I'm thrilled to get the award. I just don't want to be pigeon-holed back in the 70's.
I think part of the concept of that award is not only an early but an on-going influence
Ah, yes, and I AM a heritage. I am, you know, living history, so I accept that and I love that, actually, so that is my job and I look at it as my role, and it's a great honor
And I'll be there in New York on June 9th to see her accept that award, and she's even promised to sing a song or two. For tonight's show, I've got one more song for Alix to tell us about but I want to slip in a show ID that she helped me with. You've heard the song already, but wait for the punch line
Alix - QMH show ID
I thank Alix for that and I'm sure I'll play it again on a future show. Okay, before we hear the last song, I want to thank Alix Dobkin for the very special interview. It isn't often I get to interview one of the true pioneers of our music culture, and it was a real treat for me. And of course I thank you all for tuning in to the show. You can see photos of Alix and her recordings and see the playlist for tonight's show at www.queermusicheritage.com. And while you're on the net, you can get Alix's music at www.ladyslipper.org If you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write to me. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston, and I'll be back on the 4th Monday of next month with another installment of Queer Music Heritage.
And now, I asked Alix to tell us about one of her most popular, and most humorous, songs. Please tell us about "lesbian code"
That was another fun song to write. This was a result of my, what I call my lesbian anthropology research. I don't even remember when or why I started doing this, but I started collecting code words, sounds, phrases, whatever lesbians use in the fake world. When lesbians are out in the fake world and we see a likely looking woman, there is some sort of recognition that passes between us, and so that's what is the lesbian code, and I started coming across so many of them, and then I solicited codes wherever I went, and in my concerts, and I'd be up there with a pen and pencil and women would yell things out and I would write them down. And sometimes they'd tell me wonderful stories about how they came to use this code, and sometimes it was a code that only a few women knew, and sometimes I'd hear the same one across borders, and I started collecting them in Australia and New Zealand, ah, England, Scotland, Ireland, and I got quite a stack of them, and I put them into a song, and of course women keep coming up to me, and sometimes men even, and telling me new codes, and sometimes they're really funny, but if I don't write them down I don't remember them, but they really disprove the idea that lesbians aren't funny
Now, here is "Lesbian Code"
Alix - Lesbian Code (1990)
Total time: 58:20