Punk professor Vivien recalls Marley and Me

SIMON YAFFE speaks to Vivien Goldman, the British-born professor of punk and reggae.

VIVIEN GOLDMAN immediately tells me it is her birthday - but, like any self-respecting woman, she won't tell me her age.

"Let's just say I have reached an age where I have stopped counting," she revealed from her New York City home.

Professor of punk and reggae may sound like a euphemism used by a tacky tabloid, but that really is her title.

It is all down to her teaching job at New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music.

"I don't have my own room with a plaque declaring my title," Vivien laughs.

"I am actually an adjunct professor, so I share a room with other members of staff."

But she is well qualified for the position, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the punk and reggae movements.

From working intimately with Bob Marley to infiltrating the racist National Front at the height of the punk movement, Vivien knows her music.

Music is ingrained in her DNA. Her Berlin-born father Max, who escaped the Holocaust by moving to Britain in the 1930s, came from a long line of Polish violinists who built their own instruments.

Vivien recalled: "He went into the shmatte trade once he was in London, but he would always get his violin out and the rest of the family - my mother, my two elder sisters and I - would bring the tambourines and maracas.

"There is a lot of music in Judaism, especially in Orthodox circles, which is where I grew up."

Her Frankfurt-born mother Erna came from a distinguished German Jewish family called the Feuchtwengers.

Erna's relative Lion Feuchtwanger was a prominent novelist and playwright who influenced the likes of Bertolt Brecht.

Vivien's parents met at a Jewish refugee club in north London.

She said: "They were observantly Jewish, but my father always said that every Jew had their own gradation when it came to observance. I had an Orthodox north London upbringing and attended Habonim Dror."

After reading English and American literature at Warwick University, Vivien landed a job as a secretary with an offshoot edition of Gramophone magazine.

She made her first foray into journalism after being given writing duties, but was fired after a new editor came in who wanted a secretary - and not a writer.

A job with Transatlantic Records followed where she worked with jazz and folk musicians, before landing a public relations position with Island Records.

That was where her career took off. As well as contributing stories to the NME, Vivien was assigned to look after Bob Marley and The Wailers.

However, her first planned meeting with the Jamaicans did not go quite as planned - as her father died on the morning she was supposed to pick them up from the airport on their arrival in Britain.

Vivien recalled: "When I told Bob what had happened, he just grunted, but apparently that was the Rastafarian way of dealing with death. They don't believe death is the end."

Marley was a devout Rastafarian, a follower of the movement which started in 1930's Jamaica.

Its adherents worship the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie.

And, surreally, Marley was a member of the 12th Tribe of Israel branch of the movement.

Vivien explained: "There are a lot of similarities between Jews and Rastas.

"They have similar dietary laws, the codes of modesty are almost the same and the Rastas are very into the Old Testament.

"They believe that Selassie is the direct descendent of King Solomon and Sheba."

And Rasta reggae often mentions Zion and Israel - such as Marley's Iron Lion Zion and Zion Train.

She recalled: "When I was hanging out with Bob and other Rastas, one of them said to me on finding out I was Jewish, 'I am a Jew, not you'. I was passionate about Bob.

"The British music press was not that interested in him, but I got him on to front covers."

She also visited Jamaica and was there during a time of violent political unrest, especially among street gangs who tried to assassinate Marley in 1976.

The attempted plot forced the reggae legend to leave the Caribbean island and inspire his classic album, Exodus.

Her experiences and knowledge led Vivian to write Soul Rebel, Natural Mystic, the first biography on Marley.

The Book of Exodus, published in 2006, examines the cultural, political and violent roots of the album.

It also explores the links between Judaism, Zion and the Rasta movement.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Vivien co-founded the new wave group The Flying Lizards.

They scored a huge hit with a cover of Barrett Strong's Money.

Punk was establishing itself both in America and Britain in the late 1970s and was increasingly becoming the government's bugbear.

Anarchists and rebels latched on to the movement, but, more sinisterly, it also attracted skinheads and members of virulently racist organisations.

Vivien recalled: "There was a lot of violence and I questioned whether it would ever disappear and something had to be done."

Her determination led to her infiltrating the notorious National Front while she was working for Melody Maker.

She said: "I was involved with the Rock Against Racism movement.

"I was young, cocky and had tons of chutzpah - going to an NF rally did not intimate me. The most I worried about was choosing what to wear.

"Once I was there, one of the NF members hit on me and when I later told him I was Jewish, his face dropped."

Vivien made a name for herself writing for various musical publications, including NME and Sounds - and shared a flat with The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde.

"There was only myself and Caroline Coon who were female and writing about music," she remembered.

"I am a confrontational person and used to get into terrible fights with my colleagues and people in the industry.

"Because of my refugee background, I have the skin of a rhino."

Vivien decided to swap England for Paris, turning her attentions to being the musician, rather than writing about then.

She formed the new wave duo Chantage, became well-known in France and released an EP, Dirty Washing in 1981 which was produced by John Lydon - better known as Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten.

"John was funny and caustic," Vivien recalled. "I saw him in New York a couple of months ago and he's still the same, but he has calmed down a bit since those days."

Vivien also made a documentary on the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti for Channel 4, which saw her nearly being arrested by the Nigerian government.

She moved to America more than 20 years ago and became intimately involved with the city's music scene, finding work as a journalist, documentary maker and lecturer.

Vivien also teamed up with Mick Sawyer to co-direct Eric B and Rakim's I Ain't No Joke, which launched the video career of Public Enemy's Flava Flav.

Currently working on a Jewish music project with prominent klezmer musician Frank London, Vivien speaks with ardour about her beloved music industry's future.

"A lot of it is in such a flux, that it is anyone's guess," she said. "Recorded music is only a century old, but there has always been music and there always will be.

"Music and culture is everything to me."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph