Published on January 16th, 2014 | by Tom Mayne0
Cindy Lee Berryhill on her career, the early scene & coining the word ‘Antifolk’
(Main Photo Credit: Dennis Anderson)
Tom Mayne interviews Cindy Lee Berryhill, one of the original Antifolkers on her wide ranging musical and literary career and the origins of the New York scene.
Tom Mayne: How’s things? I hear you’re working on a 7th album?
Cindy Lee Berryhill: Yes. A good number for the muse. So I have high aspirations, er, hopes. I’m in love with the songs and they are mostly about Love.
TM: Where are you living now?
CLB: About an hour and a half south of LA, in a surf town called Encinitas. Skate boards, surfing. 30 minutes north of San Diego.
TM: Nice. And you’re from California originally also?
CLB: Yes, I was born in a part of Los Angeles called Silver Lake. It’s totally hipsterville there now… And raised in different parts of California. LA, the beaches of Hermosa/Manhattan, then we moved to Delano (home of Union upriser for Mexican workers, Cesar Chavez), gold town Oroville, then to San Diego county.
TM: What are your earliest musical memories?
CLB: With my dad, who loved to sing, sitting on his lap in a chair and singing songs with him. Old tunes like “School Days”. Not the Chuck Berry song but the one from the turn of the century. There’s a tape of me singing that song at age 4.
TM: And then what got you into playing music?
CLB: When we moved to Delano, when I was 5, there was a small radio station that would play World War 2 songs at night I’d go to sleep to. But by day I was at my best friend’s house and her sister listened to a radio station that played The Animals’ “House of The Rising Sun”, which scared me somehow… I started taking guitar lessons at 9, when we moved to Oroville about 2 hours inland from San Francisco. And wrote my first song at age 10, “Cretaceous Times”.
About 12 verses discussing the various theories of the demise of the dinosaurs. I played it for my guitar teacher who promptly told me it was “too long” so to me that meant it was bad…Anyways, all I remember is “Rocks tumbled land rumbled dinosaurs died, so had come an end to Cretaceous Times.”
Since he thought it was bad, I decided to use the same 2 chords (A minor and E minor) to write a new song: “Pompeii”, about the demise of the ancient Italian town. I seemed to have a theme of destruction going on for the first 3 songs…
TM: That’s a song worthy of Filthy Pedro. He’s a great history buff.
CLB: I LOVED ancient history: of mankind and of the earth/animals. I read tons of that stuff. And wondered “why don’t they write songs and play songs on the radio about stuff I like?” So I felt a mission to write these kinds of things.
TM: When was your first gig, and where? Did it go well?
CLB: First time I played live, was a talent contest in Oroville. I was 11 and sang Pompeii and it was a hit. I made it through the trials and onto the final night on the big stage then suddenly I decided not to sing “Pompeii” and instead sang “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, which did not fair nearly as well.
TM: And when did you move to New York? Was the idea to move there for music? To make a living doing it? Or just to get out of California?
CLB: I got a little windfall of money from the IRS (I did my taxes and they owed me!) – $700 and bought a Greyhound bus pass for a month. Went around the US with my guitar and a backpack. I wanted to see the country and had been reading books, Woody Guthrie’s “Bound For Glory”, Kerouac’s “On the Road”, and a book called “Hoboing in the USA”.
TM: What year was this?
CLB: June of 1985.
(Cindy in San Diego, 1988. Photo: Henry Diltz)
TM: But you stayed in New York, at least for a time?
CLB: I got sick in Memphis, TN came down with strep. When I dragged myself off the bus I asked the driver, “Do you know where the closest hotel is” and he said, “A girl travelling alone, I know what kind of girl you are.” Ha!
TM: That’s Memphis hospitality for you…
CLB: Anyways, eventually I ended up in NYC. I couldn’t wait to be there. I’d read the [Robert] Shelton Dylan biography and had recently been listening to the Velvet Underground and read about Edie Sedgwick. And dug that whole scene. I was hoping to find cool people like that!
I was staying in Yonkers way up top of Manhattan and was only there for a week. Then I ran into a San Diego friend who’d moved to NY and I moved in with her in an artist enclave on the West side of Lower Manhattan called WestBeth.
So I knew enough to hit the Folk City open mic in Greenwich Village. It was run by Sunny Ochs, Phil Ochs sister, who always seemed rather grumpy. Anyways, the first time I was there I met The Folk Brothers, which was Lach and Kirk Kelly.
TM: What did you think of Kirk & Lach when you first saw them, and heard them?
CLB: I absolutely fell in love with them both. They gave me their cassette called “All Folked Up With Nowhere To Go”. And I knew I’d found a couple of soul mates. They played at Folk City that first night I was there and they were funny with plenty of attitude. I remember thinking (it’s silly now) Kirk reminds me of Kerouac and Lach reminds me of Ginsberg. I completely fell in love with everything about New York City. AND I got my first gig in that week. At the Pyramid Club on the Lower East Side.
It was mostly a transvestite Go Go club and the night I was booked to play Happy Face (a very big woman) introduced me. I played acoustic guitar and harmonica for 15 minutes and Iggy Pop was in the crowd. My first gig: I got paid $200!! I’d never been paid to play before.
TM: Wow. Try getting that in NYC or London now for a first gig… I don’t think my first gig in Stockport was quite as glamorous… if that’s even the right word for a transvestite club with Iggy Pop…
CLB: I know. I thought I’d made off with the bank. They kept doing that too. I found I could come and go from NYC with the money the Pyramid would pay me. So after about 3 months in New York I flew back to San Diego recorded some with my musician friends, got another paying gig at the Pyramid and flew back to NYC. It used to be, you could fly to NY from San Diego or LA on $150-200…
TM: So the story goes, you guys got banned from Folk City, and at another open mic at Speak Easy, which lead to Lach forming “The Fort” [firstly at his place on Rivington St].
CLB: Sonny Ochs tried to put up with us…we were brats. But at some point I know most of us got kicked out of both places. I tried to reason with the guy at SpeakEasy and said, “Don’t you think this could be the modern folk movement we have here, with the rough edges, do you see how that could be the case?” and he said, “No, not really.”” But he liked me so he said it very nicely. He was a fan of Suzanne Vega, which was cool, but a different vibe then us.
TM: I’ve heard that you’ve been credited with coming up with the word ‘antifolk’?
CLB: Well, we were rattling around all the ideas for making our scene a thing. I guess like branding. Lach had been doing shows at his loft on Rivington St, I think, and had already had done one folk festival and he’d called it something like “New York New Folk Festival” and I chimed in, “It’d be cool if he had an edgier name.”
At that time in LA I’d been playing at the AntiClub, a venue that booked outsiders and punks. So I suggested to Lach “AntiFolk”. I suppose I understood that branding concept, before they started using the word branding. But that was the idea.
TM: Pedro did an interview with Lach recently – he’s a little hazy in his memory about that conversation.
CLB: Last time I spoke with Kirk he remembered it like I do. It was just the three of us.
TM: So the Fort had started before the term ‘antifolk’ was created. I guess that makes sense- Lach started living in Rivington St around ’84, I think.
TM: It’s funny that a lot of the early guys, especially you and Kirk, had a more acoustic ‘folk’ sound than the ‘punk’ sound that antifolk sometimes represents. I guess was it more about attitude? That you wouldn’t just play the old standards and stroke your beards?
CLB: Beards are so way cool now…
TM: In London too.
CLB: Acoustic music before antifolk was all about sitting on a stool and being totally mellow. But we were raised on punk rock and still wanted to play acoustic guitars. I could say that my personal mission has, always been, how far can you take an acoustic instrument, into what realms can it go – a string pushing through air. I love Steve Reich as much as the Violent Femmes in that way. I dug the whole Freak Folk that was happening 10 years ago too.
TM: So what does antifolk mean to you?
CLB: It’s a riddle isn’t it? What is antifolk. What is punk? What’s rock and roll? It changes to meet the needs of the generation playing the music. It’s always about reinvention and pushing the edge of the envelope.
TM: What were your memories of the Fort when it was at Lach’s place?
CJB: What I remember was a bed turned into a stage. I only went a few times. I remember a few junkies shooting up in the back room by the bathroom, walking home at 4 in the morning and seeing the biggest rats on the streets I’d ever seen. I remember hanging out with Pat Dinizio, lead singer from The Smithereens and talking to him about our scene one night at the Rivington Fort.
Then after that Lach moved it around and it had different names like Lach’s Lair. Then it moved to a night at Sophie’s on Avenue A. Then to the place next to Sidewalk – I can’t remember the name – then to Sidewalk.
TM: Tramps & Nightingales? The Chameleon Club?
CLB: Yes – right! The Chameleon Club was next to Sidewalk.
But the scene kept on even outside of Lach’s clubs. We had shows with the name sometimes at other places and of course we all had our individual gigs. I got signed to Rhino Records and my first album came out in 1988 and then toured. Honestly, the folks at Rhino did not really like my Antifolk friends. They thought we were all too scrappy.
TM: Kirk got signed as well, around that time.
CLB: Yeah, I was friends with some of the folks at SST records in Lawndale, CA so we hung out there and somehow talked them into signing him. They signed Roger Manning too.
TM: Did that change things music-wise?
CLB: Only thing it changed was that we were playing outside of NYC. Maybe it changed when the article came out on the Antifolk scene written by Mark Kemp… “Option Magazine”. Other than Option we were a well-kept secret.
Then Paleface came around and Beck. Beck told me sometime after his first hit album, that he’d read about us and came to NYC to hang out on our scene.
TM: It’s a beautiful thing – that that can happen. People just gravitating to a place. What were they like?
CLB: I remember Beck and Paleface sitting outside of Chameleon. Kind of a young Mutt and Jeff, one guy looking like a lanky Huck Finn and Beck, the younger shorter guy in a hoodie, sitting on the curb drinking tall boys. In 1995 I was working at a bookstore in San Diego and Beck, when he was in town, stopped by to see me.
He thanked me for my part in starting the scene that inspired him. He’d seen me, he said, a bunch of times at the Chameleon with Lenny Kaye backing me up, in 1989 and ’90 and it’d left an impression on him. That really meant a lot. I’ll always hold him in high esteem for that thank you.
TM: Speaking of Lenny Kaye [guitarist from the Patti Smith Group], you followed up ‘Who’s Gonna Save The World?’ with ‘Naked Movie Star’ in 1989, which was produced by him. What was it like working with Lenny?
CLB: Lenny was amazing. He’s still one of my dearest friends. Last March when my husband was dying, and my son and I were in NY for a show of his work, Lenny put us up in his apartment and took great care of us. He is a man of great talent and great compassion. I met him at a benefit for the writers of the Village Voice… and he’d vaguely heard of our antifolk scene and was curious. This year I’ve gotten to hang out with Patti several times, a real inspiration.
(Cindy with Lenny Kaye, December 2013. Photo: David Godlis)
TM: I think if you’re in a certain kind of music, Patti has to be an influence… When did you leave New York and why?
CLB: I left NYC November 1990. I’d broken up with my boyfriend, Kirk [Kelly], 11 months earlier and it was a tough breakup for me. I stuck around most of the year, doing shows, and dragging through the days but I knew I needed a change of scene. Plus there were so many people I knew dying of AIDS it was very depressing. I needed some sun. So I moved to Taos, NM for 6 months then made my way back to Southern California.
TM. How did your book ‘Memoirs of a Female Messiah’ come about?
CLB: I started writing that book in 1985 a few months before I got on that Greyhound bus that took me around the country. I wrote a bunch of chapters, maybe 1/3 of the book, then set it aside. I always knew I’d go back to it but it wasn’t until after [my husband] Paul’s brain injury in 1995, we went to the BEA Booksellers convention and I got a writers badge.
I noticed writers would write the name of their book on their badge so I made up the name of my book right there. Then I got stopped by one of the coolest editors in the biz, Morgan Entrekin from Grove Atlantic who wanted to read it. I went home finished writing it and he came real close to publishing. In the end Paul’s label Entwhistle put it out. Still available on line by the way…
TM: What will album 7 be like, compared to 1-6, sound-wise? What has it been like getting back recording?
CLB: I’m excited about the new stuff. Whole album is on the theme of love and desire. Not a topic I’d written much about, at least not so obviously. The research was delightful. We’ve just started the recording process… some of the same guys I played with on “Garage Orchestra” and “Straight Outta Marysville”. Plus Nelson Bragg from Brian Wilson’s band and David Schwartz playing bass and co-producing, he’s best known as the composer for the music on Arrested Development, Dead Wood and Northern Exposure.
TM: One blog I read in praise of you said “She took a form I had rejected (folk music), infused it with wit, cynicism, irony, and just a smidge of heartfelt sentimentality”. Is that about right?
CLB: I like what this person said, it’s pretty flattering. But I don’t think of my music as particularly sentimental. I don’t think of it as being particularly nostalgic. Any tenderness in the music probably came later after the hot fires of ambition cooled down enough to find some silences in between the notes.
TM: Are you still in contact with Lach, Kirk, Roger [Manning]?
CLB: Haven’t talked to Roger in years, I hope he’s well. Kirk I saw in NY last March, we had lunch and a chat. And Lach and I keep in touch via FB and email. Tougher now that he’s in Scotland. But we would see each other every year or so out on tour. I love Lach, always did and I admire his tenacity with the whole Antifolk thing. He kept the flame of the movement alive while most of us had moved on, moved home, or whatever.
TM: Your husband, Paul Williams, founded Crawdaddy magazine. R.E.M’s Peter Buck wrote: “He wasn’t reviewing records he didn’t like because he got the assignment from some guy in an office. The passion was always there. You could tell that Paul was someone who wrote about things that he actually cared about.” You could say he was the ‘antifolk’ of music criticism…?
CLB: Sure. Paul was definitely not into labels though. He’d been the total hippy as a teenager and had hated the term, mostly because it had been made up by someone else and probably an adult. The way I saw the name Antifolk was this: if they are going to give you a title or a label, and they usually do, you might as well have some say in it.
What was so wonderful about Paul, besides everything else, was his ability to be more than any one label; father of rock journalism, True-fan, Literary Executor to the Philip K. Dick estate, writer of common sense philosophy (Das Energi), Commune-hippy, wearer of punk-rock t-shirts, etc. We are all, as artists, so multi-faceted, so dichotomous, it’s good to remember that we are more than our labels. And that our labels, whether Antifolk or another, is there as a kind of artifice meant to serve us.
(Paul Williams c. 1968)