A child of a hippie, a hippie child, a troublemaker who turned teenage rage into music and music into freedom seeking and hope.
Did she really find what she was looking for?…the answer is out there so let’s give it up to Mrs. Vargas the science teacher or to some also better known as…
BARBARA MANNING !!!
You were born in San Diego, have you always been living in California? Describe your childhood? How were your school days? Teenage troublemaker?
Right now, in Long Beach, I live two hour’s drive from the hospital in San Diego where I was born. My mom and dad met in high school and were still teens when I was born. Their romance didn’t last long; I was lucky to get my sister, Terri, who is two years younger.
My mom was an unusual person. She was a life-long seeker. She had the courage to pack me and my sister up in a VW bug to find our way through hippie communes and neo-hindu ashrams of California until we settled in the Sierra Nevada foothills near a religious commune. For many years we lived without running water, electricity, meat, or school. It was a strange shift in life styles for my sister and me. We were cynical children. Eventually, my sister and I got in some trouble for harassing the “swami,” an American guy who was making his fortune off his followers’ work. We sent him a package that contained a jar of human feces, a plastic tea set, and a poem that was meant to be surreal, but was interpreted as a bomb threat. That was only the beginning of my teenage rage and poor judgements.
Was there any music in your parents’ house when you were a child and if yes what kind of music?
Before we moved to the woods and we were still near our relatives in San Diego, I heard music of the times. My parents were young, as were their friends; I was exposed to Beatles, Country Joe & the Fish, Carpenters, Moody Blues, Elton John. My mom especially loved Odetta and Jesus Christ Superstar. Plus my mom was big on flutes. I heard much too much flute playing while growing up. I still don’t like flutes. But in the woods, as a twelve year old I was desperate to hear music. We didn’t get radio reception well. I remember how frustrating it was to hear a song waft in clear and fade out into static repeatedly. I had a battery powered cassette player/recorder which got a lot of use when it had batteries.
At what age did you start playing music and what made you begin in the first place?
When my mom moved us from the woods, into “town,” Grass Valley, we had electricity. I turned 13 and became obsessed with popular culture, which was the Bee Gees. My sister and I learned to sing together in harmony because of the songs we heard on the radio and we fantasized about the life of the brothers Gibb. I had a part-time job attending and cleaning a laundromat and used the money to buy my first guitar on March 25, 1979 when I was 14. Suddenly everything in my life changed because I had a guitar and I could play songs. All my childhood confusion disappeared. With my guitar I had purpose, direction, escape. My sister has many musical talents too, and sometimes we still play songs from the Bee Gees songbook and harmonize like we used to do.
Besides your solo career you’ve been involved in quite some bands over the time such as 28th Day, SF Seals, Go-Lucky’s just to mention a few. Was there a time during your musical career where you felt more ‘at home’ and at ease with what you were doing and with who you were surrounded by?
This question is hard to answer because the feeling of comfort comes and goes easily with me. I long for certain days/nights with people, such as a specific show or recording session, but I would not pick any of my bands to be in again now. Maybe that is part of the reason I haven’t organized a band for myself in years-because of the struggle involved in making a band “work.” I still record with my best friend, Seymour Glass, mostly as Glands of External Secretion. We just finished a beautiful cover of a Dead C song. When I record with Seymour I am very much at ease. I can do no wrong musically according to him.
I am in an exciting time in my life now. I have the ability to record anytime I want because my husband is a music producer. He would be in heaven if I got busy with my music again. In fact he is in the little studio in our home at this minute working on his first solo album. Dan Vargas is obsessed with music and he really loves mine. He went looking for me about four years ago, and when he found me, like the time when I got my first guitar, everything changed. Now I feel secure.
I’m very intrigued by ‘The Arsonist Story’ could you please explain what the 4 songs in that story are about?
While I was rolling around on the mattress in the back of the van on a summer tour with the SF Seals in 1995 I started a story in my head about a mother who suddenly puts two and two together to make sense of why her son was acting so strangely. She is watching the local news, another arson fire reported, when her son comes home smelling of fire. The story continued to grow in my head until I saw the little town with a lake, full of blue-collar workers, and patriotism. I wondered how many views I could write from, and then the story flowed out. Only because you asked, here is some detail about each piece of the story.
First part is a view from the sidewalk. The water hydrant watches a parade of fire trucks pour on to his street. When a fireman attaches a hose into the water hydrant, the hydrant has an epiphany because until this moment it never understood what its purpose in life was to do on the side of the road.
Next comes the anthem to Evil, a little pumpkin headed demon that harasses kids to commit arson. Evil simply craves attention.
The 3rd piece of the song has two parts, one is told from the mother’s perspective after she starts to figure out that it is her son that is causing the fires around town, and the second part is from the boy’s perspective as he sits in his tiny bedroom wishing he was someone somewhere else. There is a small part of this song where a box of matches are talking too (don’t strike me, leave me covered) but the boy doesn’t listen to them and burns down the local factory anyway.
The last song of the piece, I picture the boy cornered by his fire and as he backs up from the flames he falls in to the lake and he decides to drown.
Are your lyrics in general a window into the world of Barbara Manning’s private life?
Definitely. Sometimes that is why I don’t want to hear them anymore. My albums, the songs, the bands-all of my music reflects insecurities, relationship problems, confusion. Each album represents a time in my life that had difficulty to overcome.
Please talk about the “In New Zealand” album, how did this album come together and where did you get the inspiration for the lyrics?
‘In New Zealand’ was inspired by the challenge I gave myself in 1997 to record spontaneously with people I admired in NZ. The songs on that album were written on the spot and the lyrics reflect what I was seeing and feeling while there. It was a terrifying/rewarding experience to record with people who barely know you and you really hope to impress, without prewritten material.
‘Homeless Where the Heart is” is the title of your first album as Barbara Manning and the Go-Lucky’s, recorded with the two Steinbach fellas. You wrote a dedication to yourself, describing how everything fell apart, a year that destroyed you and built you back up again. What happened to you and why this decision?
Homeless Where the Heart Is was recorded in 1999 when I was truly homeless and living in guest rooms of friends in Germany. (That is where some of the German language comes from). I was taken in the parents of my bandmates, The Go Luckys who included twin brothers Flavio and Fabrizio.
All the records with the Go Luckys were done during this time when I had no idea where to go or what to do next. I found myself in an uncomfortable dilemma. I do not like taking without giving back. The joy of making music was not enough to overcome the lack of a steady income. I found it more difficult to record music as well. All my songs were recorded as quickly and cheaply as possible. Eventually I decided to put music aside and concentrate on getting a college degree so I could work steadily, then I could afford to make music again.
You’ve managed to travel with your music, what have been the most memorable places and experiences?
One of my favorite venues was on a Chinese pirate ship docked on the Seine River in Paris. It was difficult to use my guitar pedals because the sway of the ship was so deep and when I tried to turn a pedal on or off I would never know how far to step. Playing in New Zealand will always be magical to me. I remember fantastic receptions from clubs in Montreal, Canada, and Aalborg, Denmark where crowds sang along with my songs. Of course I love playing New York and Boston. For me, the meanest place I ever played was in England. They did not “get” me, I guess. But the nicest, most loyal crowds were always in Germany. I would look out into the crowd and not a person was ordering from the bar; everyone was watching intently. I would always feel so grateful and amazed that people cared enough to be attentive. Here in America it is a different scene. If you go to a show then you are there to party with your friends, regardless if loud talking overwhelms the music on stage. That drives me crazy.
Name a person you have been very proud of performing with and name one person you have been proud of just having met during your career?
While in New Zealand I organized a touring band that consisted of (Americans) Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, and (New Zealanders) David Kilgour, Robert Scott, and Graeme Downes. I remember looking one way and then other, and then turning around on stage and what I saw was a band playing with me that had some of my favorite musicians on the planet and I got so shivery with happiness that time stopped for a moment.
One of my biggest “fan” moments was when I got to take a photo with Nick Lowe while he was about to play in San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Blues Festival. I’m a huge fan of his.
You also wrote that you had been living in a van driving across America visiting National Parks and playing your heart out. Please tell us some stories from this trip?
I was touring America in 1998 opening for Yo La Tengo who had many sold-out shows. I toured as a solo artist and to save money my companion and I slept in National Parks and campsites along the way. Usually we wouldn’t see where we had stopped to sleep until the morning. I have a lovely memory of getting out of the van one autumn morning and staring right at the Smoky Mountains covered in red and orange leaves.
Please also tell us stories from Mexico?
Mexico was beautiful and scary. While traveling in Baja California with Tex Houston (producer of many great NZ records) we were stopped twice by Mexican Swat police because our van resembled a van they were looking for. We were sleeping on a beach campsite near a town where the same night a family was massacred. The kids and adults had been lined up and shot by drug cartel which was last seen driving a van of the same make and color as our trusty Ford.
We couldn’t get back to California fast enough.
Is lonely lovely? Not in my experiences.
What have been the best times and what have been the worst times during your life up until now?
The worst times in my life were: Summer 1985, all of 1998, 2006-2012
Why? Mostly heartbreak and poverty.
Best times in my life: 1994-1997 and now.
Why? Plenty of food and laughs.
Anything you regret having done or not having done in your life?
I regret not being nicer to my sister.
Do you love life? I do lately.
Does life love you? It seems to love me a lot. I feel lucky.
Are you a sensitive person?
Oh my, yes. I need to work on a ‘bulldog skin’ so that I’m not so easy to manipulate with dramatic music in movies.
If you were standing on a hill overlooking the San Diego bay what would you shout out to the seven seas?
“Mermaids, where are you?!!?”
Who is Barbara Manning today?
Barbara Manning has turned into Mrs. Vargas, the science teacher of 12 and 13 year olds. Mrs. Vargas is always busy with work and has no time to put away her laundry so how to find time to write good songs? Mrs. Vargas needs to step aside and let Barbara Manning rock out once in a while.
Still playing music?
No, although I want to get back to it. I miss playing and writing and singing my heart out. When I am playing music, I feel strong.
My excuses for not playing is not having enough time to do a good job. Time to really practice and do music well. Time to collaborate with like-minded people that can commit their time. Time to organize shows and plan recordings. The work seems overwhelming. Instead I quietly play weird covers on our back porch and tell myself I did enough records for one person.
Biggest gift in life? My friends, (including my husband and my cats).
Biggest wish for the future?
I wish that someone famous would use my songs for a T.V. show or movie which would be so popular that I could live off of the royalties so that I could stop working and do music full time again without worrying about how to pay for everything. I would LOVE to travel again.
City or countryside kinda girl?
San Francisco is my favorite place to be. Otherwise, give me nature.
First record you ever bought? Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumors’ on cassette.
All time fave bands/musicians?
Swell Maps, Wire, Mission of Burma, Television, Clean, Verlaines, Saints, Flamin’ Groovies, Nick Lowe/Rockpile, Brian Eno, Midlake, Baby Woodrose, Al Green
Are you a wiz in a kitchen? Ha! No. I use too much cream and butter.
Fave food? Burritos and Pizza
Fave movie? Babe and Dog Day Afternoon
Fave book? Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), The Story of the Earth (Robert Hazen)
Write a short poem that talks about your life?
Her little hands slipped the vinyl record out of its sleeve and on to the floor
So many bare feet marks where she danced on top
Music comes from this, she thought
Later her friends watch the girl on stage
Slam a record on her head to make it crack
To celebrate the limited release
Music comes from this, she thought
Two turntables now
Speakers in every room
Blowing so gently on the needle to remove the dust
Music comes from this, she thought
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One thought on “Barbara Manning: Music comes from this she thought..”
I’m really grateful to have grown up in Chico in the 1980’s and was able to see Barbara and 28th day in all their glory. They were the pre-cursor to a life long love affair I’ve had with the band “X” who 28th Day reminded me of alot.
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