Genya Ravan of Saugerties: The Life of a Holocaust Survivor and Hudson Valley Rock Musician
Genya Ravan is a rock and roll pioneer — and a Holocaust survivor
Stone Ridge freelance writer Richard Klin penned Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2010), a book which profiles artists (including the Valley’s own Pete Seeger) whose work is intertwined with politics. Klin has long been interested in Genya Ravan, a pioneering ’60s singer, musician, producer — and the only rock and roller known to have avoided the Nazi death camps during World War II. “Both of my parents were also Holocaust survivors,” says Klin, whose appreciation of Ravan appears below. “She has such a harsh background, but she’s so warm and unassuming, she comes across as your mom’s friend.” The 72-year-old rocker — whose most recent album, Undercover, was released in the spring — now lives in Saugerties. Klin says he is most impressed with Ravan’s stick-to-itiveness. “She’s kept on, starting off with the first girl band, then making the switch to punk-garage rock. She represents the opposite of resting one’s laurels; she’s not a nostalgia act.”
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Genya Ravan boldly marched onto the musical stage in the early 1960s and has, over many different incarnations, never left. Like the musically restless Miles Davis, stubbornly refusing to be pigeonholed, Genya Ravan too has assumed the role of musical shape-shifter: leader of the mid-’60s girl group Goldie and the Gingerbreads, anchor of the late-’60s cult band Ten Wheel Drive; punk icon; pioneering female producer; and one of the very few woman performers to have launched her own record company. She provided a shoulder to cry on for a lovesick Jeff Beck, trimmed Van Morrison’s hair, and was introduced to Indian food via Ringo Starr. And like so many others, she fell victim to the era’s hard-drinking, hard-drugging ethos.
Ravan was born Genyushka Zelkowitz, “a Jew in Poland at the onset of World War II” as she starkly relates in her honest-to-a-fault autobiography, Lollipop Lounge. Miraculously surviving the Nazi death machine, Ravan and the remnants of her family were sheltered in a displaced persons’ camp after the war, arriving at Ellis Island in 1947. “We had left hell behind us,” she wrote, “but not the scars and memories of it.”
It was the radio that provided early, crucial solace: “Even though I was young, I understood the link between music and pain. I felt the words.” The passionate, stark R&B, the emotive ’50s pop all served to contextualize her family’s trail of tears. Radio taught her English. It provided, metaphorically and literally, a voice.
Legendary impresario Bill Graham was, like Ravan, a Jewish war refugee. Rush’s Geddy Lee and Kiss’s loutish frontman Gene Simmons are children of survivors. Genya Ravan has the tragic distinction of being the sole rock and roller to survive the Holocaust.
Busy, active, and with two decades of sobriety under her belt, Ravan lives in a pleasant, understated neighborhood in Saugerties. It is hard to imagine a more unlikely locale for the godmother of punk. She is a warm, gracious hostess, proffering fruit and coffee and tossing off a few Yiddishisms.
It is when the topic turns to music that the image of the slightly eccentric Hadassah member is irrevocably shattered and the onetime producer of the Dead Boys comes to the fore. Her recently released CD comes blasting out: loud, raw, passionate.
Way back when, Ravan was compared to Janis Joplin. Both possessed full-throttle, searing vocal styles, both shared a penchant for dissipation. But the similarities are a bit of a stretch. A more accurate comparison would be to Yoko Ono, another chick who forced herself into the estrogen-adverse rock and roll club.
Goldie and the Gingerbreads was an all-female band, and the members played their own instruments. In 1964, this was completely uncommon, akin to a novelty act. “It was very funny,” Ravan relates. “The prevailing attitude was,‘youse broads know how to play?’ We carried our own equipment in — there were no roadies. We were treated as a freak show, and we made money from it. I said, ‘Good!’ We used to scare the hell out of club owners: Sometimes we would do a sound check in different keys, all of us, on purpose. They wanted to call the agent! I said, ‘Don’t worry — I’m just joking. Here, this is what we sound like.’ ”
A future slot on the oldies circuit was not even remotely possible for this ears-open musician. Intrigued by the expansive possibilities of emerging FM radio and keenly aware of rapidly evolving music sensibilities, her next incarnation came at the helm of the iconic, brassy ensemble Ten Wheel Drive.
The songstress of gritty soul and acolyte of Ray Charles discovered a natural affinity with the sounds emanating from a Bowery club called CBGB. This led to yet another fascinating musical chapter — as evidenced by albums entitled Urban Desire and ...And I Mean It! — and a niche as one of the very few women producers. “It was a fight all the way,” Ravan remembers. “And it still is. It’s not that men will not accept women — they do, but on their own terms. That’s what we’ve got to get over. For me to get a man’s job, I’ve got to work twice as hard.
“I think when there’s something in the air, it’s just a matter of who gets there first. Other women certainly had the ability to produce records — I just got there first. I just loved being the first in anything. And I still do. I think when it’s in the air, it’s in the air.”