ariel gore

Rock Out with Your Book Out #2: Writer Ariel Gore’s Steely Dan Detox

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Hip Mama, which started as Ariel Gore’s student project at Mills College in Oakland and debuted as a zine in 1993, elevated Gore to rockstar status among what mainstream America viewed as the nation’s misfit contingent: teen moms, single parents, queer families, activist moms and dads, musicians with kids, and lactating mamas with nipple piercings, among others. Gore’s fans wanted more than the advice on Diaper Genies, jogger strollers, and au pairs that typical parenting rags offered. We wanted to know whether it was safe to get tattoos while breastfeeding, what big food companies to boycott because of environmental and human-rights violations, how to juggle school or careers (or both) while parenting. We wanted advice on how to talk to our children about things like sexuality and loss and oppression. And we wanted to feel a sense of community, a link to other families living life on the periphery of what society seemed to demand from us.

Hip Mama, for many, created a tribe of allies. What a fucking relief.

At the turn of the century, the birth of the Hip Mama website also provided a space for parents to share ideas and camaraderie on its online forum. While the discussion boards covered topics from cloth diapering to co-parenting with an ex and her new communal family, the music section got a lot of action. People active in the punk and indie scenes recommended new tunes to those of us too isolated by our newfound parenting duties to attend many live shows. One of many frequent users, I’d click the site as a reward for getting my colicky second child to sleep. I’d chat with my virtual tribe—all of us scattered across the country, sitting at our screens with messy hair and stained pajamas—and discuss music, from Bikini Kill, Ani DiFranco, and Sleater-Kinney to The Coup, Dead Prez, and Gil Scott-Heron.

Gore, who passed Hip Mama on to a new editorial crew years ago, has gone on to publish a novel and several books on parenting, writing, and feminist psychology, in addition to contributing to several anthologies. Throughout her writing, there’s a DIY flavor, a challenge to authority, so I’ve often imagined her hammering away at her computer on her latest politically badass essay, eco-punk records blasting in the background.

Her latest memoir, which has yet to be published, is called Lung Cancer Noir, and was written over the course of eight short months, in the wake of her mother’s death and the breakup of her long-term relationship. Naturally, I wondered what kind of music played as a backdrop to this time in Gore’s life, which also found her temporarily living in—and cleaning out—her mother’s Santa Fe home.

“The memoir basically covers a period of two and a half years, starting when my mom got sick until just after she died,” Gore tells me in Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum. “In the middle of that, I had this girlfriend for ten years, who I had a kid with, and we broke up. And one element of what was sucky about that relationship was that she was a musician, which was great, but she wouldn’t ever let me choose music, and then it became this thing in the memoir. Whenever she’d enter a scene, she’d push eject and put in something else.”

Gore is quick to point out that the ex, whom she’s remained friends with, is a talented musician, playing mostly in a relatively well-known Americana/alt-country band. Maybe her taste was better than Gore’s and she was introducing her to new music?

“She never bought anything new,” says Gore. “So we just always listened to old music. Mostly Steely Dan.”

The thought of Ariel Gore listening to Steely Dan renders me speechless for a moment. I stare at her, sitting across the table from me with her signature dark curly hair pulled back away from her face. I ask her, this woman who I have idolized for her rebellion against the status quo, for clarification.

“I’m sorry, but did you just tell me that she spent the past ten years listening to little more than Steely Dan?”

“I know. Nobody listens to Steely Dan. Nobody! Even her musician friends were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I guess that’s a fault of being passive. You just adapt, right?” She laughs. “But that is exactly the kind of music I hate. I mean, who listens to Steely Dan?”

Okay. No offense, Steely Dan. Really. I totally dig “Dirty Work,” and I think I can state with certainty that most of us have some Steely Dan lyrics ingrained in our psyches from summertime excursions to the nearest body of water (i.e., where dudes in the ’70s and early ’80s blasted 8-tracks from primer-gray Camaros and smoked grass). But Steely Dan, by choice, in the new millennium? I expected her to be introducing me to new music, music with some hard-core socioeconomic political edge. Some new feminist hip-hop group or a folksy indie-punk girl band that she discovered in a bar in Taos with her friend, the great Inga Muscio. I didn’t expect this.

“I think in the beginning of the relationship, I just threw out all of my CDs,” says Gore, “and for about a year after we split up, I was like, ‘What kind of music do I like?’ I don’t know. I have no idea what kid of music I like. It’s like: What kind of cereal do I like? If you’ve been with someone who only likes Raisin Bran, then you don’t know!”

***

Though Gore reminisces over David Bowie and the Talking Heads as the perfect antidote to the “hippie” music—Cat Stevens, Joan Baez—that she was raised on, she really has no idea what she likes. She can’t suggest any new music for me, can’t even really name any bands that she’s recently discovered, other than what she’s caught snippets of on Pandora. I want to hold her and tell her everything will be okay.

“Pandora tells me I like Aloe Blacc,” she says, “so I want to get one of his CDs. I can’t remember the station [he was on]. It was playing a lot of white dudes for a while. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a resurgence in white dude music—there are always white dudes singing on Pandora! Then Aloe Blacc came on, and I loved it.”

We leave the café and head next door to Amoeba Records in search of music by Aloe Blacc, a bright, thirtysomething singer whose ridiculously catchy soul tunes are tinted with upbeat shades of his hip-hop beginnings. I feel hopeful, but I’m slightly worried that the store will be playing Steely Dan and Gore will have some sort of traumatic flashback reaction. I tell myself there’s no way “Do It Again” is her trigger song, but say a little prayer to the gods regardless.

Approaching the mustard- and earth-tone-clad gentleman behind the counter, I explain Gore’s situation.

“Hi,” I say. “My friend here has been on lockdown for ten years, and she was forced to listen to nothing but Steely Dan the whole time. We need to help her find the opposite of Steely Dan.”

“Um, maybe hip-hop,” he responds. “But I don’t know, I kind of like Steely Dan.”

“We need the hip-hop guy,” I say, stunned that any Berkeley hipster would listen to Steely Dan. “How do we find the hip-hop guy?”

The sales guy calls a name as we walk to a wire rack of employee picks and check out what’s on display.

“I don’t want anything with songs about states,” Gore says. “The Indigo Girls ruined that for me.”

A very tall and very excited man with a large caffeinated beverage of some sort approaches us. He’s the hip-hop guy. I explain our mission to find Gore the antidote to Steely Dan.

“I’m imagining this as a sort of detox for her,” I explain. “Like a big musical enema.”

Our Hip-Hop Master leads us to another rack of CDs, and in between gulps of his great big coffee, starts listing his favorite artists and their new releases, which Amoeba is mostly sold out of (due, I’m sure, to this dude’s enthusiasm). Within moments, Gore’s eyes are twinkling, her arms piled high with the perfect cure for her ailment: underground hip-hop heroes Typical Cats, soul goddess Bettye LaVette, punk-rock-rapper P.O.S., and a limited-release CD by formidable Hawaiian-born female rapper Neila. This is the best salesdude ever. He’s saving her life, paving a smooth road between Gore and her life’s purpose. Or something like that.

Finally, before heading to the cash register, Gore snatches the last remaining Aloe Blacc CD. Now this is the woman I look up to. This is my Hip Mama champion. I release her back into the world with a brand new music collection that we can only hope she’ll never trade in for Steely Dan.


Dani Burlison is a staff writer for a Bay Area alt-weekly, a recent columnist at McSweeney's Internet Tendency and a freelancer of epic proportions who also slings zines and teaches writing workshops. She is currently working on her first book. To find her or her essays, book reviews and more, visit http://www.daniburlison.com or @DaniBurlison on Twitter. More from this author →