Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Loraine Alterman, Panel with Female Musicians, 1973

by justindburton on July 18, 2012

Once a month, IASPM-US brings you an exclusive piece from the vaults of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of music journalism and pop writing – as used by teachers and students at institutions from Harvard to Berklee College of Music. For info on group subscriptions and free trials, go tohttp://www.rocksbackpages.com/group.html or emailsubscriptions@rocksbackpages.com

Three Artists on the New Consciousness: A Record World Forum

Loraine Alterman, Record World, 19 May 1973

Carly Simon, Dory Previn and Mary Travers are three major artists whose work and lives exemplify the independent role women are assuming in society. As writers, Simon and Previn are providing a new point of view about the relationships between men and women; as an interpreter, Travers is performing material indicative of the new consciousness. In the following discussion, each artist offers some provocative thoughts about the women’s movement and its relation to their music and the record industry.

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Record World: In what way do your own songs or the songs you select reflect your experiences as a woman?

Carly Simon: I don’t think of myself as being a woman. I mean that’s not what hits me first. The fact that I am a woman, of course, is reflected in the songs but I don’t think that that comes first. That’s why a song like ‘You’re So Vain’ is not necessarily sung at a man and not really pointed at a man or a woman. In fact, that song is as much about myself as it is about anybody else. Now there’s this whole business about androgyny – male characteristics in female characteristics. I feel that in a lot of very basic ways, in fact in the most basic ways, there are probably more similarities between men and women than there are dissimilarities. I try to de-condition myself all the time to being what is thought of as a woman. In my early songs I was thinking much more about what it was to be a woman and to not be able to call up a man, to have to be the one to be sought after and not the seeker. That’s not nearly so much in my songs now.

Dory Previn: My songs come out of my experience as a human being who happens to be a woman.

Mary Travers: I think it’s impossible not to be a woman when you are picking songs because it’s impossible not to have your entire life color your choice. There are times when I specifically choose a song because it deals with a problem that I specifically have or have had or that I know a great number of women have. For instance, ‘All My Choices’ is not a particular problem I’m having at the moment. However, it is a problem that I’ve had, a feeling that I’ve had and a feeling that a great number of women have all the time. So it has a kind of validity for me.

RW: Has the Women’s Liberation Movement affected your songwriting or choice of material?

Simon: Again, I don’t do it on a conscious level. It comes out of my being a person because I am a woman and there’s a lot of subconscious and unconscious material. I think, for instance, the Helen Reddy song, ‘I Am Woman’, was a conscious attempt to make women and men realize that women weren’t going to be put down any longer. I didn’t happen to like the song particularly because it just came on too strong. There was nothing delicate about it. It was like she was out to do a certain thing and it was just over-stating the fact.

I don’t sit down and think well, I want to get the world roused up about this or that. Anyway, I don’t write songs for the public, I write them for myself. I write them out of little ideas that come into my head during the day. For example, I started to write a song about being a little girl and standing in the doorway and listening to my parents and their friends’ conversation and thinking as a child, “How safe they are, how sure of themselves the grownups are and how when I get to be their age I’ll be sure of myself too.” But really, it’s the penny candy syndrome. You think I just can’t wait until I have enough money to get 100 sticks of penny candy and then when you are able to afford it, it makes you fat or it puts cholesterol in your blood or you don’t want it any more. It’s just that whole thing about growing up and being grown up myself. Just the other night a little girl was standing in the door and looking with such awe at me for being one of the grownups.

I was sitting there thinking, “I feel so uncomfortable, so shy and unsure of myself.” And all the songs kind of come out of an experience and I don’t consciously want to put a message across. If it happens, it happens. I guess there are some people who sit down and say, “All right, I want to write a hit single, what’s a big item at the moment?”, but I’ve never worked like that…

I’m aware of the influence of women’s liberation sinking in by osmosis but it hasn’t had an overt effect on me… You can’t avoid the media and I certainly listen to what other people are singing and I’m very interested to read what women are writing about. I read recently a book called Women and Madness by Phyllis Chessler. It’s a really, really heavy book. It talks about men who force women into roles which they don’t know how to extricate themselves from which leads to depression or anxiety or some form of neurosis. That leads them into therapy, often with a male psychiatrist who perpetuates the whole syndrome of male-female role playing…

I’ve never felt that because I was a woman I was less capable. The major difference that I’ve felt in relation to men since the movement started, I guess, is that I really don’t have the tools to be as out front, as aggressive as I’d like to be. Men grow up with tools that kind of teach them to succeed in a certain manner by being aggressive and going after what they want. Women are taught the tools to be feminine and recessive in a way.

Previn: Women as individuals and as human beings have become more conscious of themselves and amazed, as most so-called second-rate citizens are, at the realization. When one goes along and says well, that’s the way it is, when you’re doing it that way, when you’re living that way, you’re not even conscious of that’s the way it is because that already implies an understanding that there is a situation. The moment someone says that’s the way it is, then it’s got to change.

When I speak of women as a minority, I mean a psychological minority because I guess there are more women in the world than men – but of course, there are always more slaves than royalty. I think women discovered their situation when other minorities began to be very vocal and we owe a great deal to them for that.

When I look at the old movies on TV late at night, I’m always astonished at the part that women took always as the satellite that spun around the focal point. Even if it was a very strong, terrific Rosalind Russell creature who really was the head of the publishing firm and ran the world, and man finally in the end either took her across his knee and spanked her or put her in her place in some other equally humiliating way and, of course, made her see the light. She then became a so-called good person or knew her place, so to speak, even though she still wore a hat to work.

Speaking for myself, I would have to say that it was my freedom that comes from within that led to a new freedom for me because I was in analysis before the women’s movement. I knew that there was something wrong with me, with my situation, with my attitudes, my responses, my reactions, everything, and I was trying to liberate myself because the only way you can is by self-knowledge.

Travers: I think my initial level of consciousness may have been above some people’s only because my mother was a working mother. She was a writer which carries with it a certain level of intellectual competence. She is also a very pretty woman so that I had a one-up position there. I had a model to look up to that disproved that pretty ladies were dumb or that all ladies were dumb or any number of computations of that particular syndrome. On the other hand, I have got to admit that I spent a lot of time being very unaware of the machinations I was going through and being put through by men. It’s very important to put in when discussing the whole question of liberation the fact that when people’s consciousness is raised, it is tantamount to passing the stage from adolescence to adulthood and there is a natural period of some rage as you realize who has control. Some women can pass through that period of rage quickly, others cannot. Some women get frozen in it just as some adolescents get frozen in it. It’s the same for any group of oppressed peoples…

The rage is there with many women and the question of how to deal with it on a one-to-one basis is something every woman has to work out. We have to admit that we’re angry. We have to say also that beating the other person is not the solution. It is not the solution having been a slave to become the master. The solution is – can’t we all do it together.

RW: In your work do you consider the problems of men as well as women in relation to liberation from traditional role playing?

Simon: As I said in the beginning, my awareness isn’t singled out in the category of what the problems are with women. It’s with what the problems are to be a person and the sex roles somehow fit into that category, but I don’t think really distinctly about them. Jacob Brackman wrote the lyrics of ‘That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’ out of a conversation we had had about it. But, the same thing in a way was happening to him. He was going through a period in his life where, when his girlfriend moved in with him, he had the same fear that he would no longer be him first, by himself and that this woman was going to come in and was going to live in his roots and that her things would gather among his things.

Previn: Now that I realize that I’m responsible for myself, I also realize how difficult the responsibility is in every other human being, male and female… The song ‘Don’t Put Him Down’ is about a man and the male performance and how he has to get an erection to prove himself. I wanted to try and say, “Hey, look, I know I’m saying in another song (‘The Perfect Man’) that he has feet of clay and I know I’m saying this about hunters and predators (‘When A Man Wants A Woman’). But yet I understand what you’re going through too. I know how tough it is for you as a man to do this.” That was very important to me, like in the album before this the song ‘The Talkative Woman And The Two-Star General’. Nobody really knew that was about menstruation as opposed to the general of the army and the difference between life and death. I was trying to say, “Look, I know what you generals have to go through too.”

I don’t want to just lambast everybody around and say this, this and this without compassion for the very people who are in the same kind of tragedy. Men are victimized just as we are… The fact that women are finding their voice and that we are writing the female point of view, I think, is temporarily a threat to men because we have no literary heritage of the magnitude of the male literary heritage. We have no Homer, no Shakespeare, no James Joyce. We do have a few women, all of whom were either suicides or committed mythic suicides, so consequently we don’t have as great a mythology, chronology and heritage to live up to as men do. Consequently we are brave like kids who are taking on the Empire State Building. Fay Wray is now carrying King Kong up the Empire State Building or trying to or at least climbing up herself. Nevertheless, while I think that men resent it, I think the burden of living under the shadow of Homer and Shakespeare and James Joyce has become so unbearable and such a weight because there is practically nothing more to say. Men have said it all from the strictly male point of view.

Now when women in finding their voice threaten men for a while like the new fresh kid on the block taking over, men are going to retreat and then come back and say, wait a minute, what did you say. Then there’ll be an encounter and I think that then they will begin to write first in an antagonistic response which will be healthy. Then there’ll be a dialogue between men and women in literature, in painting and in songs and then I think that there will be a new platform, a new voice, which is not male, not female, but just a voice of human beings.

Travers: I look for songs like on my second solo album, ‘Man Song’ by David Buskin, which specifically took the other side of the trap since I hadn’t found a women’s lib song which made sense and wasn’t so trite or corny or hostile or angry that it didn’t say anything. I thought David’s song was perfect. Somebody should program it on a radio show back to back with ‘I Am Woman’ because they are really two sides of that coin. Men have been trapped by it too. They’ve had to be noble, strong, take care of everything, don’t cry, never show emotion, never be open, some John Wayne picture. Needless to say, isn’t it interesting that more men have ulcers than women….

Maybe I’m moving beyond my past anger. I’m just interested in the problems of living for us all. I don’t feel that women’s liberation is an issue by itself. It’s people liberation that I’ve always been interested in. Peace, civil rights, women – it’s all part and parcel of the same thing – people liberation, of the problems of developing full human beings who are alive and who are not zombies.

RW: Have you had any formal involvement with the women’s cause?

Simon: No, because it’s always helped me to get together with my women friends and talk about common problems. And I’ve always somehow been able to fortify myself and my conviction about what it is that I want as a woman by talking to other women who seem to have the same problems… I’ve always felt a kind of camaraderie with women that I don’t with men. I feel a different type of camaraderie with men.

Previn: No. This leads back to the first question. I’ve always been involved in a minority of one. I’m not seeking identification with a group but rather personal identity. It interested me because a critic carped on something in my latest album. He said that I used the very unsophisticated solution at the end of the old thing that we’re all one. Well of course, we are not all one and I didn’t say that at all. If he really read the lyrics and listened, I said we are all in one. And what I’m saying is that we are all minorities. I feel that I’m everyone in the universe and so are you. There is only one you. So consequently instead of trying to integrate outside first, until I can integrate all the various minorities that exist within myself, all in one, good, bad, up, down, back, forth – all the many many contradictions, until I can begin to get myself to co-exist with myself and within myself, I’m not going to be any good. I’m just putting on a Band-Aid by trying to coexist with groups… The more I am able to get all the things inside me living together in one, the more I am able to co-exist on the outside.

Travers: No. I think probably the only women’s movement I ever belonged to was the Women’s Strike For Peace and even then it was kind of a loose arrangement. I probably should have I guess. I suppose I feel like many artists that we have a method of dealing with the public and we do it the best we can in the sense that art is not a community project… I think the only thing a performer has to offer an organized group is the one thing they know how to do which has nothing to with “let’s have a talk about it.” It has to do with “Mary, will you sing on the benefit?” So I never felt a necessity to join one of those groups because what I have to offer is something that I do by myself. I’ve never felt the need to thrash out all of that stuff. I think it’s marvelous some of the consciousness-raising sessions where women can help each other see where the traps were. I feel that those things are very necessary for women or anybody to get together and talk about it and find what really the problem is all about. But some of the problems that I’ve had personally in dealing with men are ones that I kind of thrashed out in my analysis.

RW: In your career have you ever felt discriminated against in any way because you are a woman?

Simon: I don’t like being made a sex object. I don’t like it when I’m asked to pose for a picture in a sexy way. I guess that is a certain form of discrimination that you are a more salable commodity because you’re a sexual woman. If I were short, fat and bow-legged, I probably wouldn’t be as successful as I am, which is not to say that I’m a raving beauty, but the people on the selling end have tried to make a lot out of my sex appeal for some reason. I don’t think it’s bad to have sex appeal and if I have it, I’m really happy about it.

I think men are probably being discriminated against in the same ways. Certain men who are sexy will have an easier time of it in show business so that’s really not being discriminated against. It’s being made into a sex object. Every time I think of whether I’m being discriminated against, I think of men and the fact that they are too….

In fact, I’ve felt special in the business because I am a woman. It’s strange but I’ve been coddled and taken care of in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if I were a man. I’ve never gotten paid less because I was a woman.

Previn: Yes, I was. I was never aware in the male-female relationship that I was in fact the minority. I think back to what I put up with, with what we all put up with, and didn’t know we were putting up with and that I still do because I’m a victim of that upbringing. At least now I have a knowledge of it but when I first started as a writer, I deeply resented the fact that I was a woman. I was told in no uncertain terms “we pay you less because you’re a woman.” I would collaborate with a man for a cartoon company. They paid him his money and didn’t pay me mine. I said, “You can’t do that, why would you not pay me mine.” And the man said, “well, that’s the way big bad businessmen are Dory.” They used to talk to me as though I were a child. “You write nice little lyrics.” Everything was in a diminutive.

Even a woman who recently interviewed me said, “Well, you’ve done this and this and isn’t it terrific that you have the time to do that.” And I said, “I resent that coming from you.” I thought about it all night and the next day when she came back, I said, “Look, I wrote these things.” Then I did an unconscionable thing. I reeled off what I have accomplished in the past four years. And I said, “That is not a person who is a dilettante. I don’t take alimony. I take no support. I support myself and one other person also. These things were written because I work damn hard and I’m very serious and I never stop and I tear myself apart writing these things.” What nerve to say, “isn’t it nice you have time to do these things.”

Travers: Are you kidding? You always sort of feel kissy and telly about that. I always feel very hesitant about talking about it in the simplest way I know how, because some men don’t know they are male chauvinists and they take it as an act of aggression if you tell them they are. It is not meant as an act of aggression. It’s just that that’s the way it is. Most men’s male chauvinism is so overladen with cultural upbringing and things that they are hardly aware. It’s kind of like that old Dorothy Parker story, “Conversation In Black And White,” where this woman keeps saying how nice colored people are and here she thinks she’s really liberal and she’s saying really terrible things. That’s what a lot of fellows are about. They just love ladies and in truth have big problems with them.

To be specific, the whole industry is male geared in the sense that the whole society is. The major record buyers in this country are 14, 15 and female so right away are they trained to identify with women? No. They buy records because they are trained to identify sexually. They don’t look at the female hero and wish to emulate her…

Then you deal with the business world of the entertainment industry. There is not one high executive in any record company, except for maybe one, I think Scepter. One record company out of the whole shebang and they are all full of shit. Their level of tokenism is outrageous… Then there’s the business aspects of everyday affairs. Your manager will be a man; there are very few women managers. There are very few good managers period so maybe they are lucky they aren’t in that one to get nailed with all those terrible things people say about managers. Your accountant, your lawyers, almost everyone you will touch in the business world, the producers and directors of television shows are men….

With musicians you aren’t necessarily dealing with the most liberated crowd either. I mean I’ve had to ask contractors to please hire ladies if they are going to hire strings. I mean for years I made records and the only lady musician I ever saw was a harp player and I knew there were women who played other instruments. I said to the contractor, “I’m not asking you to hire a bad musician just because she’s a woman. I’m asking you to hire a good musician who happens to be a woman…

RW: Do you detect any changes in the attitudes of men in the music business towards women?

Simon: I hear a lot of stories about women being exploited and about men in the business just thinking that women are kind of the brainless vocalists who get up in front of the mike and “just sing the song, honey, we’ll do the rest.” This certainly does happen. I’ve heard stories of women getting rotten deals, but then again I hear stories about men too. I mean men are really awful to other men. One of the questions that Phyllis Chessler points out in Women And Madness is that if women do win the fight, if it is a fight, and become the leaders of our society, will they be fair? Won’t they go overboard just as much and oppress men. So it certainly is true that men are the leaders of our society and that they are more men politicians and executives than women politicians and executives but I would be curious to see what would happen if women took control.

Previn: I’ve had experiences even recently. I did the lyrics for Last Tango In Paris and had a line in it that says, “In the mirror we look as we pass/no reflections revealed in the glass.” The publisher actually said to me, “I don’t think that’s a good line because a man would never say that.” If you’ve seen Last Tango you know there are mirrors all through it. Every scene is reflected because they are reflected images. At one point after an encounter between the two human beings, Brando picks up a broken mirror and looks at himself in it. And the whole thing has to do with do we exist or don’t we… I said to my publisher, “If I had been a man and written that line would you say that?” because I found it an unbelievable point. He didn’t answer and then I said to him, “O.K., answer this, are you saying you wouldn’t say that or men wouldn’t say that?” He said, “I wouldn’t say that.”

So yes, I still get that but I find not as much because you see we’ve changed. Women have changed. I used to go in with a chip on my shoulder all the time and that was my fault because I felt oppressed. I felt discriminated against. I felt inferior. That was my problem, not theirs… Now I don’t. The result is that I don’t get treated in such an inferior way any more. So you see what I mean about integrating oneself.

Travers: Fundamentally no. Surface-wise, yes. Men all over are aware that they must walk a little more carefully verbally with you. They are very, very sensitive. It’s like that funny phase when people stopped saying “Negro” and said “black.” However, I’d like to remind the ladies that in the change from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” nothing really changed. So that although men may go through the motions verbally, don’t get outfoxed by that.

© Loraine Alterman, 1973

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