Alix Dobkin

August 16, 1940 – May 19, 2021

“Smoke and mirror games are perpetrated by those who mean to be in control when the smoke clears.”

Interviewed by Linda Kavars, 1998

AD:  How do you learn your history? How do these young women get re-introduced to our history and connect it? It’s very important for us to be grounded in a past in a tradition, to know you come from somewhere. We’ve got interesting histories and it’s just so fascinating. But men make it so boring and patriarchy makes it so boring. Men’s history is about wars. But let’s talk about history. Let’s talk about why we do what we do. Where did this come from? How come? We knew men’s history: boring. Forget it.

But the real history of real movement in this country, for example, being raised as an outsider red diaper baby in a communist family, I was always an outsider. I always have that outsider perspective. I never accepted the mainstream and never accepted the conventional wisdom or stories about democracy. I love this country. I am so grateful to be living where I do in this time. But I always challenge and question authority. Well, you don’t hear that too much anymore because authority is so vague. What’s authority? You can’t define anything. Everything’s changing all the time.

The minute that lesbians got a voice, the minute that women got ourselves together and started saying we’re here too. Let’s take a look at ourselves, all of a sudden you can’t know who you are. All of a sudden it’s identity politics. No matter how the sands shift, the sands of gender shift or the tides of gender flow, it’s men who are going to rule the beach. And I also said, smoke and mirrors are perpetrated by those who are going to be in control of the smoke and mirrors. And I quoted Gandhi, first they ignore us, then they ridicule us, then they attack us. Then we win.  

But he forgot or he didn’t know about confusion. Then they confuse us. As soon as we get a theory, a way to think and things make sense, then all of a sudden, nothing is nothing. And then you’re confused. Where am I and who am I and what am I doing? Before I was a lesbian, I had left my husband and I was in this consciousness raising group here in New York. It was ‘71 or so. I had been married. I had an infant and was in New York in a feminist consciousness raising group which nobody knows about.

This was women getting together, talking about our lives, listening to each other and taking each other seriously. Making connections, supporting each other. I was in this group and it made it possible for me to have a life and get a life. This is like my hometown, it’s my hometown and they’re you know, they talk to me in the middle of a sentence. They’ll interrupt me and they’re wonderful. They’re great. It was such a contrast to Marist College.

LK:  What was Marist like?

AD:  They’re wonderful. They were speechless. They were absolutely mesmerized. I could see them sitting there just taking it in and it’s such old stuff. But I know they have never heard anything like that before. I tell them about the communists and the mob and American history. You don’t ever learn that if it wasn’t for the FBI, the Communist Party would have collapsed years before. The FBI supported the party. They infiltrated – half of the membership of the party were agents and informers. My career, I owe thanks to an FBI informant who was my first manager.

I was a communist when I was 16, I joined the party in nineteen fifty-six. That’s what you can go to jail for – being a communist. McCarthy hated queers too. Homosexuals and commies were the two twin eagles. And I’m Jewish, which he didn’t dare say, but that’s what he meant. McCarthy was an apprentice of Joseph Kennedy, that slimy, scumbag, Nazi, father of a dynasty of killer men. Killers, the Kennedy men. They’re just uncovering this twenty-five-year-old murder that they think involves a Kennedy man. Joseph Kennedy mentored Joe McCarthy. So did the cardinal, because they all trained him and schooled him.

They went after communists and the FBI was right along J. Edgar, I remember that very well. This was so frightening to me. These were my people. They’re putting us in jail and killing us. One of the reasons the FBI went after Communists was because the communists were the mob’s only competition for organizing unions in the 1930s. The mob decided to organize unions, because when you control the union guy, you control his whole family. You controlled huge numbers of people. The communists were their only competition.

J Edgar Hoover was paid off by the mob because he was a gambler. He played the horses. He loved horse racing. He had a box, a permanent box to go to the races all the time. Well, the mob tipped him off through Walter Winchell, another red baiter, and let J. Edgar know what races were fixed. That’s how he made hundreds of thousands of dollars from going after the communists and leaving the mob alone. This is American history, but you don’t get taught that in school. Nobody tells you that.

LK:  And they were all f’gs.

AD:  Totally. J. Edgar Hoover was a crossdresser. They were homophobic gay guys. Now, how about the Nazis? What is Nazism but the perfect male organization, is that right? It’s exactly the ideal way for men to organize themselves without women and without the civilizing influence of women. That’s already getting into a whole other kind of thoughts that are kept from people in order to preserve patriarchy. And allowed like thirty-five hundred, mostly white guys, to preserve their right in the world. The mob has controlled just about every president since and including FDR.

Everything changes and nothing changes. My job is to go around spouting off, preaching and educating. I use music and I use anything I can: stories, storytelling, just to get the point across, which is really to be true to yourself and to put yourself in a context and use your brain, get yourself a consciousness, think about things, consider things. That’s going against all the culture that we started talking about, instead of all the quick information, no time to think, no time to process, no time to do anything. Everything’s an emergency. People are so busy now. Everybody I know is just so busy. 

LK:  So, you came back in the ‘60s?

AD:  Yes, in the summer – folk music was so fresh. I got hired at The Gaslight in ‘62  along with these great people that I mentioned on the show. Tom Paxton was a regular, Carolyn Hester, Greg Buffy Segre, Patrick Scott, John Sebastian, Jonny Carroll, the New Lost City Ramblers, the Greenbriar Boys. They are just such heart happy and arty trout that Ian and Sylvia come in as they were starting too. They’re wonderful, wonderful performers, really gifted, very innovative, important musicians and comics like Flip Wilson. Flip was wonderful, wonderful. He seemed so funny and original. This guy, he was a good friend. Jim and Jean were there. Just so many wonderful performers.

So, I got in with that crowd and I was singing international songs. I was singing songs of fourteen languages that count in Spanish, Argentina and Chile and Mexico, four languages, 14 languages. But I did international songs, and this was my progressive background, my folk progressive background, like the almanac singers, like the Weavers. I grew up with Woody Guthrie and Josh White and all these wonderful singers, Paul Robeson, I knew all these people, the Red Army correspondence with their albums. I wore their records out when I was three years old. I played the Red Army for so long.

I was surrounded by these international folk songs because of my political cultural upbringing. That was my niche. As I said, you could have 50 guys playing guitar, playing the same songs, one after the other. Two chick singers back to back was bad programming. For every twenty guys there was one woman and fortunately I was one of those women. I was able to work fairly regularly in those days. It was very exciting. I got married, moved to Florida, to Miami and opened the club there, it lasted nine months and then we went bankrupt. They had no money, so we went out of business and eventually moved back to New York.

LK:  So, you came back up here.

AD:  Eventually came back up here and noodled around. Sam, my husband, managed the club on Bleecker Street, we had the Blues Project. But the folk boom had really kind of peaked and there wasn’t the excitement that there had been before. Now we’re talking 1969. It was moving into much bigger venues. They were filling stadiums and it became a big business. And then the big promoters took over, as they do, and it became a different kind of event.

LK:  So, it’s 1969, you’re back and he’s managing a club. When do you meet the woman?

AD:  I got pregnant, had a baby and separated from my husband. I got to the CR and then I separated, and I didn’t know was a lesbian, I didn’t know. Somebody said, Alix, are you a lesbian? I said, “Deep in my heart, I hope I am.” I don’t know if I shocked myself. But I did hope I was, and then lesbian feminist had come along. And all the sudden I had some politics again after I had left the party 10 years before. If it wasn’t working for me, it didn’t matter. I had outgrown the party. So, I didn’t have politics, no political being. I was raised with politics. This is the center of my world always. So, I found politics the most exciting, coherent, comprehensive, interesting, fun, effective politics ever, ever on the planet.

I found and so did thousands of other women, sexual politics. It set me on fire, I came out. The second wave. As long as there are women there will be lesbians. There have been feminists forever. Put them together and you’ve got something that changed everything, changed me. I remember my first woman-only event, I went to the church on Washington Street in the village and there was a group called It’s All Right to Be Woman Here. I was a rep to a group of women who did original shows about women – about our lives. And they had women only shows. And I walked in with my child in a little sling and I saw this performance and we were all sitting on the floor, packed within those days.

LK:  Were you married?

AD:  I had separated. I walked into this church and saw this woman-only production, and there was a room full of women. I was walking on air for days afterwards. This was heaven. Getting back to the point I was making that I forgot: When I joined the consciousness raising group our first Thanksgiving, we decided to have just us and our kids. No men. We’re going to have Thanksgiving dinner with just women. I thought that was so sad. I can’t imagine going to a Thanksgiving without any man. How sad. That shows where I was at, that I couldn’t even conceive of why women would want to be together without men.

We had a ball and I didn’t stop. Then I went to this woman-only show performance and loved it. And then I was in this consciousness raising group. And then I went and did a radio show with Elixa Cohen: it was like midnight to two or something once a week, a late-night show. And I heard her put out an announcement for women songwriters. I had just started writing songs about my life. They weren’t particularly lesbian songs, but they were women centered songs.

I gave her a call in the spring. And I thought, “Oh, I write songs.” She said, “OK, and you come to the show.” I said, “I can’t.” So we made a date for next December like months and months in advance after the summer where I left my husband, or he left me. I made it so he left me. I still didn’t know what I was or what was going on. I go on this show that we arranged months before and I walk into the room and I see her, and I just smile. Just smile. There were these long pauses on the air and we just fell in love on the air.

The next day, her mother calls and says, what was going on with you two on the air last night? What do we know? It took us three months before we managed to go to bed together, and then we were out on the roof tops, on the radio, we were lesbian, lesbian, lesbian, feminist and all. That’s how I came out on the radio.

LK:  Then as soon as you met, you met her, you guys became lesbians, and then that’s when you went scouting for women’s only space.

AD:  We started developing our politics and we knew we were lesbians. I thought all lesbians were feminists. And I quickly found out, no, that’s not true. I also thought that all lesbians would agree on everything. I really thought that it’s so obvious, what’s to disagree with? We love women. We want to be together. We have a culture. We make a community. What’s to disagree with? We had these huge expectations of each other and then we started developing our politics. There was a great network, and we got a hold of this paper from Seattle called An Amazon Analysis. It was women centric, featuring lesbian feminist theory.

Then we got a hold of some writing called the Clit Papers that was a lesbian separatist theory about patriarchy, about women being together and thinking together and consciousness. It was Susan Cadart and her girlfriend, Marico, who wrote that. Susan’s a professor at Rutgers. She’s brilliant. So, she wrote these Clit Papers and that got published off our backs, which was just starting up then. We read that and that fired us up. And I started this community of women on the Upper East Side and then I met Kay Gardner.

There was a regular coffee house Sunday afternoon of lesbian feminist liberation telefilm meeting at the firehouse that burned down. But every Sunday we’d meet there, the same 50, 60, 70 faces every Sunday. And one time they had a talent show and I thought, I’m going to sing my song. So, I started writing more lesbian songs. I had a little repertoire of maybe eight, nine, 10 songs. Plus, I’d adapted a couple of popular songs. After all those years on stage as a folk singer I had it down, but for this little dot in this dump of a firehouse for these 50 New York people, I was so nervous I was shaking, I could hardly catch a breath.

I was terrified. I knew they’d love the music, but I had never sung these songs. These were different – about women. I sang them and they loved them. I raised the money to produce the album on a lesbian life space. The lesbians everywhere were coming out and we had this boat ride circle around Manhattan. It was called MySpace or 500 dykes on this ship. It was fabulous. And the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band was playing, and it was just great. All these women had heard me sing these songs and Kay and I had started playing together. I met her at one of these Sunday get togethers.

I go upstairs, there’s this woman playing the flute, and we get together and start working out arrangements. We played a few times and we would say, “Make a record. You got to make a record.” So, on this lesbian MySpace cruise, I went around to all these women saying we want to make a record how much can you lend us? I raised three thousand. We found Marilyn Reese, an engineer, and she had the keys to this four-track recording sound studio. She never recorded music. We didn’t know what we were doing. We made love to Jane.

We pressed a thousand copies, pasted the cover song, we printed our own covers and got the inserts printed by Tower Press. It’s still in business, but, two women were running it, lesbians running this brand-new women’s press. We got them to print inserts. We printed a cover that I designed, and we stuck them on. We had a party with some of our backers, the women who had lent money. A thousand albums, regular white record albums, stuck the covers on. Have all these out, now what? You gotta sell them. I never thought how am I going to move them? There were a few lesbian publications, this was just the beginning of lesbian women’s bookstores. I took out some ads.

Those albums disappeared just up here because there was never a lesbian album before that was available. Now, a few loving women had been released and that was a talent show. I knew I had to do it myself, fortunately. Well, the record had to be made. I feel like I was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff and the forces that had it. This had to happen. And I was just in the right place. And I’ve always been in the right place at the right time.

Well, that was the first step and that financed whether we could afford to print the covers instead of pasting the ones on the first thousand. And instead of an insert we printed on the back of the jacket. And then I took an ad out in Ms women’s magazine, the classifieds, which we’re almost done. First of all, it was affordable, and it worked like crazy because any woman who was interested in feminism, consciousness raising, you know, anything that was Ms. That got the record out internationally.

It was an internationally distributed album and it was the biggest selling women’s music album in Europe – it outsold everything else. I sold from my house, I would pack them up, get orders, sell to the bookstore, sell to the individuals. I’d sell them for years and years, till 1978. And then I made a deal with the Ladies for Music and then they distributed whatever. I have to answer to my inner imperative. I have to answer to my community. I have to answer to my nearest and dearest and some really smart women who will challenge me.

LK:  You said your friend got mad at you.

AD:  Oh, that was way back in the 70s. They sent me a petition, unfeminist, unsisterly and rude.

LK:   How did you feel then? What do you remember?

AD:  I wrote a long letter.

LK:  Do you feel like you were right, that they were wrong? Did they make you feel bad about yourself?

AD:  Well, actually, that issue I changed right away. That was when I asked non lesbians to leave for that one song that I had written, “My Lesbian,” because it’s on love and politics. I had just written that about lesbian business. And I didn’t want anyone not lesbian listening. I thought, it’s none of your business. It’s about us. So, leave. Well, that was very rude. And it was rude, and it was unsisterly, unfeminist. I think lesbians have a right to be together without anybody else. It was something that I got into too much trouble. I’ll change. I changed. I can listen. It’s totally self-serving.

Everything I do is calculated to make women love me. Everything I do is self-serving. If you know where I work, community building, so I’ll have a community that serves me, I don’t do it because I’m a do gooder, I do it because it’s good for me. I want to build a strong, conscious community because that’s where I want to be. So, it’s for me and happens to work for you, too. That’s great. I’m so glad.