Month of February, 2011

Winter 2011: Ladies Rock Camp

As I used to do during the zine times (1996?), I apologize for disappearing. Hey, I made a promise to a friend that I would blog each week in 2011. It's nearly the end of February and I haven't done it once. I'm back on. You in?

I've been working this weekend at the Willie Mae Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, Ladies Camp edition. It's about 35 women from ages 20 to, perhaps 50?, in the camp's space in Fort Greene. It's the first time I've been in the space, which is part of the Co-Op School space, a pre-school. That makes teaching in the classrooms pretty funny, as in adult women on instruments surrounded by miniature furniture and hanging puppet cubbies. (perfectly indie rock set up, although the camp tends to draw folks more interested in harder sounds). 

Today at lunch I spoke with a woman who is learning vocals. She said she went home last night to listen to music and was shocked that she'd never really paid attention to the structure or phrasing. I wasn't really shocked to hear it, but I remember that feeling: moving from listening as pleasure to listening as research. It's a strategy, a skill set, an art. She was so excited to hear language in this new way. 

I combined her statement with another statement I made to Emmet, the fearless coordinator of the camp, the night before. Emmet moved from a small town in upstate to NYC after volunteering at camp and making friends with the folks who work there. I told him that until I worked at camp I had never felt part of an activist community in the city—I always felt excluded or somehow that the fit was not right. And to be honest, it took me a while to get into the groove of Rock Camp, because I am hyper-critical and had been thinking of music from an aesthetic standpoint for so long that I couldn't shake my snobbery at first, but once I did I came to feel that camp was a defining part of my life in the 2000s. I didn't just feel that my volunteering was another "drop in the bucket," which is hard in a city as big and full of big work as this is. 

So I went into my Women Who Rock class with two  challenges. The first was to give the ladies more language to conceptualize and organize their listening and appreciation of musical, songwriting, and performance techniques, for the immediate goal of getting them to incorporate some of the ideas into their show Monday. (Sample: the first 15 seconds of a song are the most important. Words: Intro, Hook. Example "These Boots Are Made for Walkin", Carol Kaye on bass, Nancy Sinatra on vox and boots). The second goal was to find a new nickname for Karla Schickele, the camp's founder. We did so by a 30 minute session of "Women who rocked NYC 1910-2010: In Sound and Social Justice," which was a kind of whirlwind lecture, discussion, listen to the city's Empresses, Ladies, Godmothers, First Ladies, Sisters, and Queens: Eve Tanguay, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige. The group decided on two perfect nicks for Karla, who before camp rocked in Beekeeper and Ida, and had a solo career as k. in the 2000s: modest goddess and camp firestarter. I think the final decision was: modest camp goddess. Whatever it was, it was the truth.

Rock Camp in the summer is a Herculean effort of hundreds, but Ladies Camp is scaled down to just a few teachers per instrument, and at this level it is possible to see just how well the camp runs. Everyone is autonomous but helpful to each other, skilled in many platforms and willing to jump in to do whatever needs to be done. Karla does in fact stand in the middle of all of this, with a sly smile, hoodie, and clipboard: calm central command.

The ladies themselves, the campers, are like the 8 year olds in as much as they seem to also want to write songs about animals, eat snacks during rehersal (a cultural universal?), and spend as much time laughing as playing. All of these are great. Also great is the way they're different. The animals they sing about are like "nature." Real, beautiful, cruel, no happy endings. "Guinea pigs eat their young" is one lyric, which might not be great meterically, but is pretty effective in the jangle pop structure and sweet coos of the singer. And when I say "great pop songs are about longing" they know what I mean. It's serious stuff, even with the piles of Snickers on the floor and the puppets on the wall.

The experience makes me realize how inoften adult strangers just come together, decide to work together learning something new, and thus create a fast emotional intimacy, a basic need for bravery and trust. Maybe that's why those reality shows make so much sense culturally - they fufill a desire for this kind of connection. It's thrilling and a bit scary to watch, and moreso to facilitate.

Every Rock Camp I catch myself tearing up. This time, it's not nostalgia as much as it is deep sympathy for the anxieties and joys I see among the women. What do you want to write a song about? About how no one understands me. About how I can't be myself at home. About being frustrated all day and wanting quiet.

These are the same things the eight year olds write their songs about.





Ellen Willis Out of the Vinyl Deeps

I'm really excited to be working on a conference celebrating the music writing career and impact of Ellen Willis @ NYU on April 30, 2011. We're still confirming the location, but the time is 9:30am-4pm, and the details are here, at Ellen Willis Conference blog, Sex, Hope & Rock 'n' Roll: The Music Writing of Ellen Willis.

Faking it in Flaunt's space

Time for another installment of my Flaunt music column, on the curious and wonderful world of '80s synths.