By Suzy Williams (from March 2003 Beachhead)
Linda Albertano: poet, feminist, peace goddess, pre-eminent Los Angeles performance artist, mistress of cataclysmic language, and long-time Venice Resident, has had major shows at Royce Hall, John Anson Ford Theatre, L.A. Theatre Center, The Wadsworth, and has toured here and abroad with Alice Cooper. She is a general all-around creative innovator, working with African instruments, sign language, and purple mohawked punkettes. She claims satire and simile as favorite tools, and costumes and color are generously splashed in her pieces, budget allowing. Last time we caught up with her, she was nibbling fresh arugula in Suzy Williams’ and Gerry Fialka’s hay strewn Fialka Funny Farm Yard:
Suzy Williams: So, let’s start with:…Linda , how would you describe yourself?
Linda J. Albertano: My goodness! I’ve never had to do that! Well, let’s see, I’m eccentric. I’m very tall, that’s kind of a central feature of me…
Williams: It’s true , you are sooo tall. Your centrifugal force would be something to reckon with…
Albertano: Oh, and I don’t like convention very much, I mean I don’t stray far from it, because I’ve been struggling to fight my way, claw my way into the middle class , to be a card-carrying member of the middle class. You see, I’m from poverty. But mostly, when I feel I’m being pushed into some kind of conventional role, I object! I also object when anybody around me expects me to squeeze into a specific role. See, my mother never told me to get married, so I’m always shocked when I hear people tell someone else to do that. I think, “What gives someone the right to mediate another person’s behavior?“
Williams: Especially pressuring to have kids. I mean how dare you! It’s so huge a thing to blithely toss off.
Albertano: Yes, to assume that’s what you ought to do, just because they’ve never thought of other options!
That’s one of my little rants.
Williams: So, let’s see… you’re eccentric, you’re tall, you’re fighting with convention, and…
Albertano: And….inwardly, aren’t we all secretly shy?
Williams: That’s my theory. I think anybody outgoing is just fighting harder against their other nature.
Albertano: When I grew up I was absolutely seen but not heard.
Williams: When did you get tall? (Linda is 6’4’.)
Albertano: Oh, always. At thirteen, that summer, I started that summer at 5’9’’, and ended it at six feet. That was the weirdest thing. Doorknobs were in a new place all of the sudden.
Williams: Did it hurt?
Albertano: Yeah, oh everywhere. And my feet kept getting bigger and I kept saying, “Please God! I want to wear a pair of fashionable shoes one day.”
Williams: Yeah, like, how big does this thing get? So what was the atmosphere like in your hometown in Colorado?
Albertano: I moved around quite a bit , because I did not grow up with my parents. My parents came from the most horrific, nightmarish childhoods, and were abandoned and abused as children and they had no idea how to be a family, bless their hearts.
Williams: You have this wonderful overview, Linda. You’ve forgiven the world for not giving you a living as a performance artist, brilliant as you are. You’ve forgiven your mom, and your voice is cheery on the telephone answering machine. You seem to be an optimist, like you might, while being marched into a gas chamber, notice the blue sky and the birds flying.
Albertano: It might be genetic, I mean the reason why I’ve forgiven my mom, is that she is the sweetest, most creative, adorable woman in the world.
Williams: And she really loves you.
Albertano: Oh, she is my major clacker. My most major person.
Williams: Who did raise you?
Albertano: I grew up in foster homes. In high school I was in a girl’s home, you see…my mom taught me to read when I was four and that’s what we did in our house, we read. And then I went to a series of foster homes that were selected on the basis of two things: Have a clean house and send the child to church, which meant that you wound up with the most fundamentalist wackos! And I’d already been exposed to the world of ideas, so it was like being held hostage from age seven through 14. And one of the things that came from being with all these different fundamentalists was that no matter what sect they were in, theirs was the only one that could gain entrance into heaven. So it was Christian vs Christian. So when you get switched from home to home to home, you get a perspective on religion that you really can’t get any other way.
Williams: So now are you attracted to any religion, like Buddhism?
Albertano: I’m really attracted to the Sufis. And once in a while, when the Sufi Master comes to town, I go and do the movement practice and so forth, but I’m not really a full-fledged Sufi. The foster homes allowed no radio, no movies, of course no makeup, no dancing, I mean, everything was a sin, so I love the Sufis, because everything that was forbidden is a sacrament! Good food! Beautiful carpets! Jewelry! Clothing! Music!
Williams: So I think that you started out your creative life as a singer.
Albertano: I was always attracted to ways of expressing myself, because in the homes, I was not permitted to do that. I could not speak out on my own behalf , or any behalf. I remember the first time I saw a piano, I was so amazed. I wanted to touch the keys. Then I didn’t see one for years. But the girls’ home had a piano. And I said: “I’m going to learn how to play this” and they said (evil voice): “You’ll never learn how to play that.” They never let me play more than an hour, and then I was actually forbidden to play, as opposed to all the other girls who were marched up and forced to take lessons. But then, in college, my mom gave me this old, beat-up guitar. It must have been a 20-dollar guitar, and it was made out of the heaviest wood! Cracked and glued-up, and varnished.
Williams: And you played that thing?
Albertano: Yes, and with the most elastic sense of rhythm! So then I just started writing songs…The thing that happened, tho’, was that I went to UCLA and majored in film.
Williams: Did you get a scholarship?
Albertano: No, I worked my way through film school. I was a waitress.
Williams: Wow, you were disciplined! Do you have some films that you like that you made at UCLA?
Albertano: I do, but they’re on 8 millimeter…. but I did well in film school. I graduated with honors.
Williams: You probably were a person, too, who was really interactive with the teacher.
Albertano: No. Well, first my teacher interacted with me and told me who I should get to be my cameraman, and what I should do, and my film started looking crummy, so I scrapped it , and never went back to school until the day that I showed my film. But I knew I didn’t want to work in the film factory, the film abattoir.
Williams: So then you started singing?
Albertano: Well, when I graduated , I was offered a job, either as a go-fer for a trailer-house, or I could be the manager of the restaurant that I was working in. Sooo….
Williams: Which one was that?
Albertano: Victoria Station, when it was brand new. There was one on Sepulveda at that time. And this was great for me because by then I was an extreme feminist. And then especially, jobs were often divided along gender lines. There weren’t women bartenders. There weren’t women chefs. And in Victoria Station, there were no women waiting tables. So all the women’s jobs were cocktail waitresses and hostesses, and the tips were teeny! A three-dollar drink, as opposed to a thirty dollar dinner. So we were working the same number of hours…
Williams: And getting just as exhausted….
Albertano: Yes, and that just rankled me. At first I started agitating to get a better position, but they didn’t want to hear rhetoric, they wanted results. They started cutting back my shifts. So then I set out to do the best job as a hostess, and I did. I could make people wait for three hours for their dinner! They told me I wasn’t strong enough to be a waiter, so I pointed out all the runty male waiters that I was beating at arm wrestling every night! Then they decided I’d have to be a bus boy first, so I simply went to the best, most legendary bus boy, wined and dined him and he told me his secret: always move and always move fast, be at a run.
Williams: Right! There’s washing dishes, and then there’s speed washing: that’s just washing dishes faster!
Albertano: So that’s how I became a manager- they did not want a woman waiting tables. And the men they hired for managers were really quite average, I had graduated from UCLA with honors. So I started hiring, lo and behold: women bartenders, women chefs, and women bus boys. But there was a sabotage that started going on.. they wouldn’t let me wear pants, but they’d order me to climb up on the roof in my heels and see what was going on …and they’d say: “You’re so stupid, I’m going to make you do this right if I have to screw it into you!” I thought: “This is a cartoon! People don’t really talk like this!” But eventually, after much more struggle with the Machiavellian management above me , I was able to bring a suit which resulted in a settlement : that every Victoria Station in America would hire on a gender free basis!
Williams: So you made an ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) before the ERA. Wow! I still can’t believe they haven’t put that in the Constitution! But tell me, were you one of those gals who were reading Betty Friedan and going to women’s conferences and such?
Albertano: Consciousness raisers, yes. We had our weekly consciousness raising groups at UCLA, and they were really fabulous. I found through those consciousness raising sessions that I had somehow absorbed many, many cultural biases toward women. It was a cleansing process. I remember I said something idiotic once, like: “If I ever have a man who abused me, I would just make him tow the line.”
Williams: Oh yes! At the University of Venice class on Feminism a couple of weeks ago, I was taught by my teacher, Peggy Lee Kennedy , that the important thing for the evolved Feminist was that we have to love each other as women. Really don’t say “Hey , you should really lose ten pounds, honey” And also don’t do unto men as they have done unto us.
Albertano: I remember going on a radio talk show one night, talking about women’s issues, but people had never heard of them. Tho’ I was supposed to go on for twenty minutes, the calls were coming so fast and furious that they extended the whole thing for an hour. I mean, in those days, it was revolutionary to hear somebody say that a woman could be a carpenter if she wanted! I also talked my philosophy teacher into letting me do special studies on feminism. He said, “Oh well, I don’t know much about it.” I told him it wasn’t all that different from race issues, these gender issues.
Williams: So, after Victoria Station, what did you do?
Albertano: I started my singing group, The Vanilla Dandies. At that time Charles Duncan, who was a really great songwriter, moved into my house. He had the coolest friends I had ever met in my life – creative, amazing people who came to see me sing, and then they asked me to be in their performance art pieces…and I had never heard of performance art, I had no idea what it was. And that was such fun work. I just loved it! In the early eighties, I met and worked with Molly Cleator and Lin Hixson, the great performance art director, and she got me into a class with Rachael Rosenthal. She is a cultural treasure. The city had a monument put out in front of her studio.
I began to hang out with artists. We did ensemble work and I started doing pieces of my own at the Lhasa Club. To me, I’ve always been simply writing songs or making movies, it’s not performance or poetry to me …it’s a song or a movie. People liked it, the clubs would invite me back, and eventually I was performing at places like the LA Theatre Center and Barnsdall Park.
Williams: Give me an example of some of the art that you did then.
Albertano: There’s a piece called “SOS” that was about someone who’s in love with somebody else, who is in love with someone else. A circle of sad, rejected people.
Williams: Did that echo anything in your life?
Albertano: Oh, yeah! (both laugh) Right now, I am currently nuts about Beck. And he doesn’t even know I exist! He’s in love with someone else! Then I did a piece at the John Anson Ford Theatre and at the LA Theatre Center for a week on de-facto Apartheid in L.A.- It was called “Joan of Compton-Joan of Arcadia.” And I had about 30 kids from Compton in the piece. I had been thinking about how we just weren’t an integrated society. It troubled me. It still does, because honestly I grew up loving America.
Williams: Even in the sorry state that you know it to be.
Albertano: America is about justice and peace and freedom and liberty. American values are really solid. They’re wonderful. Even tho’ I lived in all these nutty fundamentalist homes, I just think that Jesus was a wonderful person, a wonderful human being. I think he was a revolutionary, that he was for the poor people.
Williams: He had extra good values. “Be nice to the prostitute.” Linda, tho, don’t you think you are looking rose-coloredly at the country’s values?
Albertano: No, I think that whatever the government is, whatever the administration is, or whatever the Pentagon is doing, that’s not America to me. I’m afraid of those people and I’m afraid of their values. Most people in America who still want this war with Iraq think that the Iraqis are being deprived of American values of liberty and justice.
Williams: You’re right. I think most Americans are sweet and innocent.
Albertano: If they knew what was really going on, they would be horrified. They wouldn’t stand it for a minute.
Williams: Especially the women. The trusting wives.
Albertano: More of us have to be in politics. Oh! I forgot to tell you about this whole chapter in my life. I sang folksongs with this other tall girl in the USO during Vietnam.
Williams: You’re too young to have done that!
Albertano: Well, I was a zygote!
Williams: So what was that like?
Albertano: We were out for five months and we did Alaska, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Korea. The Philippines were this Paradise overlaid with the crassness of America. Playboy insignia everywhere. My tour guide was dressed like a low rider. He wore black loafers with giant cleats on them. He had rolled a pack of cigarettes in his t-shirt sleeve and his hair was in a greasy drainpipe. But when we got to this exquisite Pagasanan waterfall, he slipped everything off and dived into the pool and he came up as this beautiful indigenous God.
At night, I would go walking down a county road and the children would come out of their homes and they would just follow me. I felt like the Pied Piper! I must have had 20 or 30 kids behind me on this country road. And they started singing “Doe a deer, a female deer”. It was magic!
Then in Vietnam I made friends with some of the children on the street – I had such a good time with them. The soldiers told them to go away. To me they said “They just want your money.” That was all such a lie! I later did a piece about it called “Mercenary Children” at the John Anson-Ford Theatre. Once an American soldier showed me a photo of Vietnamese corpses. And he was proud. That never left me. I was shocked right down to the soles of my shoes. By that, and by the way the American soldiers in Korea would gun their jeeps, leaving the compound, so the Koreans would be forced to scatter or be injured. I really understand why the Koreans were infuriated when those girls were run over recently.
Williams: So what were some of your top fave gigs?
Albertano: The LA Theatre Center, and The International Poetry Festival in Amsterdam, that was INCREDIBLE! There were poets from all over the world, we stayed at a hotel together, had breakfast, did pieces together, oh! and The Lhasa Club! “Drugs, Politics and Modern Sex,” I had a run of that piece there. And I always loved doing Lin Hixon’s art extravaganzas.
Williams: So what’s on your mind for your next project?
Albertano: Well, I spend so much time with the music now. I’ve really enjoyed taking up this new instrument, the Kora.
Williams: That’s right! You’re playing with Prince Diabate now! I think he is one of L.A.’s great stars. He is such a great performer!
Albertano: Yes, he’s such a master, a real griot, and he’s so wise. We played Royce Hall and the Getty Museum, and the roof came off the Getty! Nobody’d ever danced on that stage before.
Williams: Oh Linda Albertano, I have loved this time with you so much! Say, do you have any parting words? (both laugh) …Or something your mother might have said?
Albertano: My mother always said: “Never get married! Live with them if you have to, but never get married!”,