Rock's First Lady | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Rock's First Lady 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:38 pm
FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
Genya Ravan’s doting warmth and brackish, Lower East Side brogue suggest the archetypal Jewish-American grandmother. After being shepherded into her Saugerties kitchen with hugs and a bighearted “How ya doin’, hon?” you half expect a bowl of chicken soup to appear. Instead, it’s a welcome cup of tea and a few wisecracks about the merciless upstate weather. But despite her eye-rolling, laugh-at-life demeanor, there’s a certain world-weariness in those same soft eyes; a clear, unmistakable gaze that tells you that this is a woman who has seen it all, done it all, and, quite frankly, feels no reason to hide any of it. And if you happen to be a fan or have read Lollipop Lounge (Billboard Books), her tell-all 2004 autobiography, you already have just a sense of how much she has done. For Ravan’s is a life filled with many highs, many lows, and—as a documented rock ’n’ roll pioneer—many firsts. One might even say the singer, who turns 68 this month, has actually lived many lives.

“Yeah, I kinda feel like a cat sometimes—you know, nine lives,” she says. “But a lot of that is because I got started in music when I was really young.”

Ravan was born Genyusha Zelkowitz in the village of Lodz, Poland, in 1940, and her earliest memories are not pleasant ones. “We lost everyone,” the Holocaust survivor recalls. “I had two brothers; they both died. I never met my grandparents. My mother was in her 30s when her side of the family was taken away; my father was in his early 40s when he saw all nine of his brothers killed. It was just my parents, my sister Helen, and me. After our camp was taken over by the Russians, we were shuffled from one Russian camp to another until we managed to escape.”

Against all odds, the family held on, eventually arriving by ship in New York in 1947. Assimilating into Lower Manhattan’s European-Jewish diaspora, they eventually took an apartment on Rivington Street, where her father opened a candy store. In an effort to “Americanize” her daughter’s first name, Ravan’s mother began to call her Goldie. Little Goldie appeased her mother by dancing in neighborhood stage musicals with the other kids, but she never felt like she fit in. Thanks to the radio, however, she soon discovered something that did move her: music, specifically rhythm and blues. “I loved The Hearts with Baby Washington and Louise Harris, Etta James, ‘Shake a Hand’ by Faye Adams. That’s really how I learned the language, by singing along to those records,” says Ravan. “I’ve always been drawn to music I could feel—gospel, blues, stuff that’s very spiritual and filled with pain. Obviously my family was pretty messed up by what we’d gone through in Europe, so maybe that’s why.”

But her becoming a professional singer wasn’t exactly planned. In fact Ravan’s career in music started on a dare, in the long-gone nightclub that later gave her biography its name. “In 1962, some friends and I were out dancing and watching a twist band called The Escorts at the Lollipop Lounge in Brooklyn,” she remembers. “We were drinking and getting crazy, and a friend dared me to ask the band to let me sing. Naturally, I accepted, and ended up singing a couple songs with them. It was the first time I’d ever heard myself really sing.” A couple of days later, The Escorts’ leader, Richard Perry, who would go on to work with Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, and others, called and asked if she’d like to join the band. Rechristened The Escorts with Goldie, the group toured the Midwest and cut three well-received singles for Coral Records. But after several months of grueling residencies at New York clubs, Ravan began to grow restless.

Between sets at one such gig, she met Long Island drummer Ginger Panabianco. In the early 1960s, female instrumentalists were few and far between in the pop field. Ravan had an idea. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, a girl drummer. I’d love to work with a girl drummer. Maybe we could have an all-girl band’,” she says. And soon they did: Goldie and the Gingerbreads, commonly regarded today as the first true all-female rock ’n’ roll group. (The quartet’s most successful lineup also featured keyboardist Margo Lewis and guitarist Carol McDonald.) After signing first to Scepter Records and then to Atco/Atlantic, the band toured Europe with Chubby Checker and by 1964 had made it to England, where it racked up smash hits like “Can’t You Hear My Heart Beat” (later remade for the US market by Herman’s Hermits), appeared on TV pop shows, and toured with the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and others. “We were pushed as a novelty act since we were all girls, yet a lot of the time we actually ended up making more money than the guy bands because of that,” says Ravan. “But we could all play really well, we had a reputation as ‘musician’s musicians.’ [Organist] Ian McLagan of the Small Faces used to stand offstage to see how Margo played. The records were very pop, but, live, we weren’t doing fast-food rock ’n’ roll at all.” Yet in spite of the sweet times in swinging London, Goldie and the Gingerbreads’ heady days nevertheless came to a close in 1967 when intraband rivalries erupted. But Ravan’s next groundbreaking outfit was just across the pond.

Back in New York, she worked for a time with jazz drummer Les DeMerle before shedding the name Goldie Zelkowitz to become Genya Ravan. With the new name came a new manager, who in the fall of 1968 hooked her up with a pair of aspiring New Jersey songwriters, keyboardist Michael Zager and guitarist Aram Schefrin. At first she wasn’t sure what to make of the Stephen Sondheim-schooled duo’s more artful music, but after being assured she could have her way with their songs she took the chance and ran with it, injecting her uniquely raw soul and blues feel into the tunes. Motivated by the first Blood, Sweat and Tears LP, the trio soon swelled to become a 10-piece with a full horn section and took a name to match its full, powerful sound—Ten Wheel Drive.

At the time, FM radio was coming into its own as a more progressive, underground alternative to AM’s bubblegum-pop direction, and for most FM programmers Ten Wheel Drive was the perfect band at the perfect time. “We didn’t chart on AM, but the FM DJ’s played the hell out of us,” says Ravan. “Ten Wheel Drive was very much a hip, underground band. We played the Fillmore East all the time.” The group was also a regular on bills with Sly & The Family Stone, Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, and the like, headlined at Carnegie Hall twice, and made three press-pleasing albums for Polydor from 1968 to 1971. Comparisons to Janis Joplin have followed Ravan ever since; the two were casual friends and even jammed together once at New York club Steve Paul’s Scene.

“Horn bands were the thing at the time so we got a lot of work,” says Saugerties trumpeter Steve Satten, who performed with the group and played on its second release, 1970’s Brief Replies. “Genya was very striking, a very dynamic performer. When she got hold of [a musical idea], she just really rocked it.” But three solid years of constant gigging without the commercial success to match—along with an ill-advised affair between Ravan and the married Schefrin—eventually forced Ten Wheel Drive off the road, and the band split in 1972.

Taking the plunge into a solo career, Ravan made three albums with unsympathetic producers for as many labels that failed to chart and lived for a time in Los Angeles. But after a few years of “Hollyweirdness,” she was back in New York, where, frustrated by her previous studio handlers’ insensitivity, she began to take more of an interest in what happened on the other side of the control-room glass. It was while dating an engineer at storied Manhattan studio Media Sound that Ravan decided to try her hand at production, then still a domain absolutely verboten to females. “I practically lived at Media Sound,” she recalls. “I hung out at sessions by Kool & The Gang and other bands and really learned a lot about how to make records sound good.” Word got around about her newfound talents, and small demo jobs started to come her way. Before long she’d signed a production contract with RCA, which proudly touted her as “rock’s only woman producer.”

A regular patron of the city’s early punk scene, Ravan frequented CBGB and befriended the legendary club’s now departed owner, Hilly Kristal, who directed bands he felt were studio-ready to her. One such outfit was Cleveland transplants the Dead Boys, for whom Ravan produced the band’s 1977 debut, Young, Loud, and Snotty. A ferocious, life-affirming record that perfectly reflects its title, the disc easily rivals the era’s acknowledged benchmark, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, for sheer wall-of-guitars power. “That’s a really special record,” Ravan beams. “Though when [the band members] first came in, I screamed about the ‘shock-value’ swastikas they’d put on their drums until they felt stupid and got rid of them. With my background, I didn’t appreciate that stuff at all. But they were just kids then, didn’t know any better.”

On the heels of the glowing praise for the Dead Boys album, Ravan inked a deal with RCA subsidiary 20th Century Records and recorded the pair of self-produced return-to-form LPs that are the high-water mark of her solo canon: 1978’s Urban Desire, which crosses classic R&B with piano-laced, Springsteen-esque drama and the energy then coming off the Bowery, and sports full-force Ravan lung-busters like “Cornered” (check YouTube for a powerful live clip of this song) and a guest vocal by Lou Reed; the second release, 1979’s …And I Mean It!, is less raw but features glam gods Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson. “By that time, I’d fully blossomed as an artist,” she says. “But those albums didn’t get enough airplay, I was told, because radio wasn’t ready for hard-rock women then.”

Inspired by famed British indie Stiff Records, Ravan’s next move was to start her own label, Polish Records (“polish as in shine”). With Ravan as in-house producer the imprint signed several acts, including another pioneering female rocker, Ronnie Spector. But during the recording and marketing of her 1982 Siren album, the legendarily unstable ex-Ronettes singer fell out with her new label and almost immediately quashed whatever commercial success the record might have had. Ravan, however, wasn’t long for the label, either; although she was something of a drug guzzler herself at the time, she eventually realized that her partner in Polish, a known cocaine dealer whose profits were funding the entire enterprise, might well prove a liability. She grabbed the tapes of Spector and some other artists and quit.

Ravan began taking trips in 1984 to visit weekending friends in Palenville, and fell in love with the area’s simple solitude. She soon purchased her own getaway home in the town, commuting to her New York apartment during the week. But, as they are wont to do, the struggles of drug and alcohol addiction continued to follow her to wherever she was. “I was getting sicker and sicker every day,” she writes in Lollipop Lounge. “And broker and broker.” In 1990, she finally decided to get straight when she got some truly sobering news: She had lung cancer. “The voice of my addiction said ‘You’re going to die anyway, why not have fun?’,” she recalls. “But my ‘angel’ voice said, ‘Do you want to go out in the light, or do you want to go out in the dark?’ If I didn’t have much time remaining I [decided that I] needed to live it in the light as much as I could.”

Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, the caregivers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Ravan’s own undefeatable inner chutzpah, she’s kept both diseases at bay for the last 18 years. For a time she lived in Florida with her sister (who recently passed away) and then in New York again, but returned to the Hudson Valley in 1995. She’s also been back in the studio lately to work on new material and has even returned to the stage, recording a 2006 live album at CBGB. Besides the wonderful new man in her life, Ravan has found another new love: the colorful paintings that adorn her sunny home. “That’s just something I do for myself,” she says. “Though a few friends have asked to buy them.” To benefit Sloan-Kettering’s cancer research program she’s auctioning some of her Goldie & The Gingerbreads and Ten Wheel Drive stage apparel, and there’s also talk of a film based on Lollipop Lounge.

But what keeps Ravan busiest these days are the two shows she hosts on Sirius Satellite Radio: “Chicks & Broads,” which features music by female artists past and present; and “Goldie’s Garage,” which presents tracks by 12 unsigned bands each episode. “It’s a lot of fun, being a DJ,” Ravan says. “It’s like therapy or something.”

“Genya is not just a good friend and an amazingly entertaining radio personality,” says Little Steven Van Zandt, whose Little Steven’s Underground Garage Channel carries Ravan’s shows. “She also continues to be an inspiration to the unprecedented number of young girls starting and joining garage bands that we proudly play non-stop in the Underground Garage.” The E Street Band guitarist, erstwhile Sopranos star, and syndicated radio host is currently lobbying for Goldie & the Gingerbreads’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Which would certainly be justice done were it to happen, since today any female rocker—and many a male—that steps on a stage, puts their foot on a monitor, and belts out a rough and impassioned tune owes a size able debt to Genya Ravan. And though she may not have Courtney Love’s bank account, after all she’s been through the singer seems happy enough just to be here to share her gifts and experiences. “After cancer and everything else, I really appreciate life more. I try to be a better person,” she says. “Whenever I feel afraid to try something new, I ask myself this: ‘If not now, when?’”

Genya Ravan hosts “Chicks & Broads” on the first Friday of every month at 10pm and “Goldie’s Garage” on the third Friday of every month at 9pm on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage Channel 25. www.genyaravan.com.

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