Musically, Barbara Golden was a late bloomer, but oh what a luscious garden she’s cultivated.
A bon vivant who threw herself into the Bay Area’s rollicking new music scene almost immediately upon her transplantation from Montreal to Oakland in 1979, Golden found fertile soil as a grad student studying composition at Mills College’s Center for Contemporary Music.
She made her mark as a mischievously lusty vocalist and songwriter, though her creative pursuits sprawled across numerous scenes and media. She was also a longtime member of Gamelan Sekar Jaya and kept wee-hours listeners rapt on her monthly show Crack o’ Dawn, which featured interviews with electronic music composers and other artists (including Leonard Cohen, Laurie Anderson, and her mentor, Lou Harrison).
After decades ensconced in the North Berkeley cooperative Walnut House, she relocated to Nova Scotia in the early months of the pandemic. Golden returns to town this week to celebrate her 80th birthday (which was June 23) and a new anthology of her recordings, Not Dead Yet. West Berkeley cellist, composer and vocalist Theresa Wong, who co-produced the album and released it on her invaluable fo’c’sle label, hosts a celebration Saturday at Tilden. (Guests are strongly encouraged to come vaccinated and masked.)
“She did so many different things it’s mind boggling,” Wong said over a latte at CoRo Coffee. “I realized her 80th birthday was approaching and that would be a good occasion to do something to celebrate all that she’s given to the community. She just embodies this pure love of music.”
Not Dead Yet is as idiosyncratic as one would hope for a Golden project. Every piece is enmeshed in an overlapping matrix of friendships and feels like the result of too much fun. The fact that her friends are influential and accomplished artists who’ve shaped new music over the past half-century is icing on the birthday cake.
More than half of the album consists of the 37-minute piece “At the Corner of Alive & Jesus,” a surreal, dream-like prose poem with musical interludes that unfolds like a mescaline-inspired radio diary. Golden wrote the music and recites much of the prose, the work of prolific, uncategorizable writer Melody Sumner Carnahan. The musicians include Mary Oliver on violin and viola, percussionist Willie Winant, flutist Maggi Payne, and saxophonist George Brooks. Robert Ashley and David Cremin provide additional narration, which means the Mills music department was practically empty on the day of the recording in 1988.
“Melody wrote a story for me and I just made it into chapters for a radio show,” Golden said. “I made little songs and asked my friends, mostly very close friends, to partake. There’s no improvisation in it. It’s all composed.”
She recorded the lascivious, gospel-infused song “Lick Me to Heaven” with the WIGband, her art rock duo with visual artist Johanna Poethig (“usually we write together, but Johanna wrote those words and I wrote the melody and chords,” Golden said). Chris Brown played keyboards, Gino Robair supplied the percussion, and her dear friend George Lewis came up from Southern California in response to her plea. “I was going through an unhappy divorce,” she recalled. “He was at UC San Diego and he came up and played mercy trombone.”
While “Whipping the Boys” sounds like another X-rated excursion, it’s actually some platonic electronic silliness that makes effective use of the Center for Contemporary Music’s vintage Moog synthesizer. In the background, Golden chats with Willie Winant and Sam Ashley, who seem to be immobilized (“all parties kept their clothes on,” she writes in the liner notes). The experience is like listening in to a butt-dialed call from someone at a booze and bong load-bleary celebration. The indie rock band she sings with The Golden Path isn’t represented.
I interviewed Golden last week, reaching her by phone in her house on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. She’d been to a party and it was past midnight Atlantic time, but tucked into bed she was game to trace her unlikely journey escaping the expectations of her middle class Jewish upbringing and embracing the Bohemian life of an artist.
Talking with Golden started to feel like encountering a doppelganger of my mother, who took a different path from similar origins. They both grew up in the creatively fecund Jewish community of Montreal in the years before the rise of Quebecois nationalism. It turns out that they attended the same high school and took classes from the same teachers, but since Golden is a year younger they were in different grades and don’t recall each other. They also overlapped at McGill University.
Like Golden, my mother was a standout student who was encouraged to pursue graduate studies, but they both got married young and went on to work as grade school teachers. The rise of the women’s movement led my mom to law school. Golden’s early mid-life crisis sparked a passion for avant garde music and, well, passion. Sowing her oats with a younger crowd (“I was in my late 30s going on 18,” she said), Golden started studying composition while soaking up performances by Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen and Berio at the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec.
The bio on her website tells the story of her journey west succinctly. “In 1979 she borrowed a friend’s husband for three weeks, and escaped across the continent in her orange VW, so that she could attend Mills College Center for Contemporary Music in Oakland to learn from Terry Riley, Bob Ashley, Lou Harrison, David Behrman, and Maggi Payne.” Writing her first song at 40, she developed a devoted following “and reputation as the Joan Rivers, and Mae West, with a hint of Zappa,” of the Bay Area experimental music scene.
Wong, who graduated from CMC about a quarter century after Golden, doesn’t remember exactly when they first met, but they inevitably came into each other’s orbit via their Mills connection. After attending many of the same gatherings, Golden approached Wong and her partner Ellen Fullman, the composer and Long String Instrument sonic explorer, “and said, ‘I want to get to know you guys,’” Wong recalled.
In winnowing the material for Not Dead Yet, Wong sifted through Golden’s entire archive. She thought about including one of her interviews from “Crack O’ Dawn” but decided it didn’t fit the mood. The aim wasn’t so much to capture the scope of her creative output as to “give a feeling of her as a person,” Wong said.
“Her motto is sex, drugs, experimental music, and songs. I wanted to showcase the storyteller, the love of electronic music with the Moog, her playfulness and love of music. I wanted the feeling of spending an evening with Barb.” Or in the case of Saturday’s celebration, an afternoon in the park with the Joan Rivers and Mae West of the Bay Area (by way of Nova Scotia) new music scene.