Kathi Goldmark: It all started with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band of mostly very well-known authors.
In mid-March, Goldmark threw a record release party for Decca and the Dectones, to promote the cassette and CD release of their first release, with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Grace Darling," a favorite folksong from her childhood.
I work with a lot of authors, and I've also been a bar-band musician for about twenty years. Time after time, people would get in my car and ask, "what else do you do besides this?" I'd say, "Oh, I play in a little country and western band onThursday nights. They'd say, "Oh God, you're so lucky!"
After a while, I'd hear stories about people who had bands in high school and college, or always wanted to be in a band. I suddenly realized that I had enough players: a bass player, guitar player, and keyboard player to actually put a lineup together, and we started the Remainders. Of course, once Steven King became a Remainder it got to be a huge deal and a lot of publicity.
I started getting calls for the Rock Bottom Remainders to play at book festivals or little library benefits -- some regional thing where there was no possiblity that the folks putting it together could afford to bring us in. It occured to me that we could have talent shows that would be a lot simpler, easier and less expensive to put on. You'd hire a four or five piece house band and any author who wanted to could get up and sing a song, play guitar, or do whatever they wanted to do. You could run it sort of like an amateur hour, a talent show, or whatever.
Then I got a call from the Paris Review. They were putting on a 40th anniversary party in San Francisco and wanted a literary talent show. It happened that Maya Angelou was in town and I booked her. I was joking with her and said, "Oh, it's too bad you can't stay for another week; you could sing in my talent show." She has a spectacular voice. She said, "I can't possibly change my schedule -- but you know what, Decca will do it: she'll do anything." She picked up the phone and called Decca. "Decca, I'm calling to tell you I've bought you a scholarship. You're going to be in a talent show."
She brought down the house. She was fabulous, just wonderful. And so we did it again last year at the San Francisco Book Festival. We did a Rock Bottom All-Star Review at Slims, and she was our headliner. Again there were hundreds of people there, screaming for her. She was the only performer who got an encore.
Then Maya Angelou was here again, and I was with her on her publicity rounds. We were going on about Decca and how much fun she was having being a rock star, and I said, "You know, you guys have been singing these songs around the piano for about thirty years. We should record the two of you doing that." She said, "Monday afternoon is good." Except I'm broke, don't have a studio booked, don't have musicians reserved, and don't know how I'm going to pull this off. That's going through my head and my mouth is saying, "Oh, fine, that'll be no problem."
We did make it work. She came into the studio right after reading her U.N. poem. Meanwhile, Decca has performed at Town Hall, at a thing for The Nation, andshe's opened for Cindy Lauper on the roof of the Virgin records megastore in San Francisco. That was literally on the roof, and to get from the top floor of the building onto the roof, you had to climb one of those portable stairways, but it was really not much more than a ladder. And here she is, this 77 year-old woman recovering from a broken ankle, scampering up that thing. It's just unbelievable she has so much energy.
The event was held at the Paradise Lounge, a punk-thrasher club in the South of Market area. Your nose crinkles upon entering; these smells you don't want your brain to work too hard to identify. Walls and ceiling are matte black; the floor is concrete grey, and your shoes make a sticky-smack sound as you walk. By showtime, the place was filled with Decca's buddies, many clearly in their eighties, if not beyond. More than a few came with canes or walkers. Some seemed tickled by the surroundings; others looked brave and stoic, like they were slumming at a blues club in the dicey part of town. Many wore buttons espousing ecological or progressive slogans.
Besides the two songs on the album, Decca led sing-alongs for a few old tunes: "Joe Hill" and "Single Girl." For an encore, the audience sang to her. Verses to "The Ballad of Decca," sung to the tune of "Grace Darling" were distributed, and merrily the crowd saluted her. The second verse:
She settled in Oakland's flatlands, accepting many a dare
With Dinky, Bob, and Benjy, determined to make things fair
When the Unamericans came to town
Decca was there with a wink and a frown
Taking the Fifth (which became a noun) she never let her comrades down
Fearlessly she sailed into the fray, relentlessly brave and true
"HELP! HELP!" she could hear the cry
That echoed around and pierced the sky
Decca had lots of heart, and a twinkle in her eye
She was ready with her reply,
"You'll never get me to testify"
She laughed and bowed, her eyes glittering in the spotlight.
It was oldest audience at Paradise lounge. The poor doorman was absolutely bored all night because he didn't have to check any ID's. He was falling asleep.
A lot of the audience was old political buddies from when they were in the Communist Party. Most of the people there were friends of hers, and I got the feeling it was kind of a reunion.
[As for "The Ballad of Decca,"]
I remember reading in A Fine Old Conflict that when she met Bob he use to like to write parodies of popular songs. I enlisted his help, and we were slipping notes to each other in the kitchen -- that sort of thing. Then the very last day, we thought we needed another verse. Tony, my son, and Audrey, who helps me out in the office here, contributed some too, so we were able to finish it just in time.
We also had this sort of glamor week in New York, [when she and Bob appeared on] The Food Network. It's a cable thing we don't get here, but it's all over the country. They have this show where Robin Leach talks about food. It gets weirder. Somehow the publicist booked her on the show. I told them Decca doesn't cook -- I don't even know if she could boil a pan of water. They said that doesn't matter; she can throw onions on something.
Then Bob volunteered to make Chicken Paprika on the show. He was fabulous; you'd think he'd been doing it all his life. It's not easy thing to do, an on-camera cooking demonstration. He also got his politics in. He said, "This is a working class dish, not gourmet. This is something you can cook very easily all in one pot, when you come in from your hard day of work." Then they did the interview with her for about forty minutes and somehow they even got Maya to call in and sing, "Right Said Fred" with her on the air.
You know, it was just this way they kind of work together and help each other out. They're really partners, it seems. I love how they kind-of scold each other. At one point, Bob got worried that Decca's phrasing on a particular part of the song wasn't quite right, and he started talking like a husband-manager: "I really think she should be working on her phrasing."