Apr 2024 08

ReGen catches up with author Gerda Barker as she shares her memories of life in the Chicago art and music scene.
 

 

An InterView with Gerda Barker

By Fleurette Estes

On February 9, 2024, author Gerda Barker participated in a live reading and book signing of her recent book, Don’t Stand in Line: A Memoir, at the GMan Tavern in Chicago. As the child of Polish immigrants in search of the American Dream, the book is her chronicle of her life – working for the legendary WaxTrax! Records, marrying Paul Barker (MINISTRY, Revolting Cocks, Lead into Gold), and becoming a criminal defense lawyer while navigating the world of art and music. Jill Hopkins, the Civic Event Producer at Metro/GMan, hosted the event and guided Barker through an informative, insightful, and impactful discussion followed by a Q&A session. WaxTrax! Records exec and DJ Mark Skillicorn delivered a killer set of industrial and post-punk music before and after the discussion. ReGen caught up with Barker for this InterView after the event.

 

Tell us about yourself. Who are you? For those who are unfamiliar, what should they know about Gerda Barker?

Barker: Who am I? Well, I’m intensely interested in my world, whatever that looks like today, from the perspective of art, music, stories other people have to share. But really, from about 1980-1985 (and some of ’86), I worked at WaxTrax! Records on Lincoln Ave. in Chicago – downstairs, upstairs – recommending and selling records and fashion gear. And then, not hoping for a lifetime career as a record store clerk, I went to law school where I decided to put my punk rock aesthetic into play in the field of criminal defense… well, sort of. Then on a law school summer hiatus while back working the counters at WaxTrax!, I happened to meet Paul Barker (who eventually became my husband of 34 years), and of course, he became a seminal figure in the Chicago so-called industrial music scene as a member of MINISTRY, Revolting Cocks, and all the side projects he worked on and co-produced with Al Jourgensen. Fun Stuff, which taken altogether made for some interesting eyewitness accounts in my journals.

You recently published Don’t Stand in Line: A Memoir about your past. What prompted you to write this memoir? What does it mean to you? Why did you choose that title?

Barker: I’m a storyteller. I like to hear a good story too, whether it’s in person, in a song, in a book, on a stage, whatever format. As a child of immigrant parents who were either incapable of or not interested in telling stories about their own histories, I felt a constant need to fill in blank spaces with something interesting, no matter how seemingly mundane. I had an active imagination. I wrote down bits of dialogue I’d hear, thoughts I’d have, rhymes, word combinations… a language nerd – that was me, especially since we spoke three languages at home. And thrusting myself so directly into the Chicago art and music scene from the time I graduated high school, I couldn’t help but collect stories and memories of a vibrant time when everything was changing, evolving, getting noisier in Chicago and other cities, but especially there. And eventually, I had time during Covid to pull all the stories and notes together to make up a narrative that made sense to me, and one I thought would be interesting to an audience of pop culture junkies like myself.
I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, ‘You should write a book,’ because I’ve been in the thick of events that gave so much meaning to so many others – WaxTrax! Records becoming a label, the beginnings of the MINISTRY ‘sound,’ Lollapalooza-type festivals, industrial/rock, being the first in my family to graduate college, etc. etc.
 

 
Don’t Stand in Line came to me as a title while driving around Portland one day and being utterly bewildered as to why anyone would stand in line outside a local popular restaurant for breakfast for like an hour… waiting… which they did (maybe still do). Not me. I worked as a waiter for several years in college, and there’s no reason to put up with that kind of wait. ‘Don’t Stand in Line’ is also a snappy little song by Pailhead with lyrics that mirror my personal aesthetic down to the core: ‘Speak your piece/Speak your mind.’ How can you beat that?!

What does this book tell the reader about you?

Barker: What does my book tell the reader about me? Well, that I think being around fame and creative people can be exhilarating, awful, fun, depressing, and utterly human, and not all it’s cracked up to be in the press. Also, there are a lot of moving parts and support people propping up that rise to ‘fame.’ I’m more interested in the backstory sometimes.

What does this not tell us about you? What did you leave out of your memoir?

Barker: I didn’t leave anything out. What’s in the book really happened and it’s all true, especially my feelings at the time.

What do you hope to achieve with this book? What do you seek to gain from this experience? What do you hope your readers take away from it?

Barker: I hope the reader gets a sense of time and place, and that it was a lot of fun writing for the most part. And that I’ve told a good story… period.

You were a participant in the early punk, post-punk, and industrial underground music scene. What commentary do you have on how these genres have evolved to the current day?

Barker: How do I feel about how various music genres have evolved to what they are today? Change is good. There will always be standout artists who have their own sound that gets lumped in with other artists in a loose genre someone else has named. Labels are so meaningless to me. If a band or artist is good, they’re good on their own merits; they don’t need the stamp of approval from the critics.

You have good taste in music and a great sense of style. Tell me about the importance of style and fashion in the punk, post-punk, and industrial music scene then and now?

Barker: I don’t know that you can separate style and fashion – in other words, attitude, from what you do as a creative person if you’re any good at what you do. When I say ‘good,’ I mean you’ve put out your effort – a song, a story, a painting, whatever, and you do it honestly, and without giving a shit if anyone else gets it or wants to buy it or thinks it’s cool, then that becomes a part of you. And that becomes your style, if that makes sense. I was watching an old Grace Jones video today of ‘Walking in the Rain,’ and nobody else could pull that off! So cool.

Did any authors inspire your book or influence your writing? If so, who?

Barker: I love good writing. The only author who always comes to mind is Frank O’Hara, who was an American poet and fantastic observer of the art and music scene of New York City life and Beat poetry of his time, although he didn’t write like anyone else. He was better.

Tell me about your experience writing, publishing, and promoting your book. Would you do it again? What would you do differently?

Barker: The writing part was easy once I got going and daydreamed it all together. The mechanics of self-publishing are a drag, but thankfully, I know editors, book designers, photographers, and all the creative magicians who do their own things so well and helped me finish mine. Yeah, I’d do it again. As a first-time author though, no publisher will talk to you unless you have 10,000 followers on social media and all that crap, and then you’re lucky if the book comes out in two years anyway. Boo-hoo on them.

Tell me about any interesting or memorable feedback you’ve received about your memoir.

Barker: Memorable feedback on my book? Well, several women (and a few men) have told me it was an ‘inspiring’ story, it was an immigrant’s tale similar to their own; ‘Thank you for putting so many arrogant men in their place!’ That was a great comment. I think the best came at my reading in Chicago at the GMan Tavern when not one, but two separate people came up to get their books signed and told me, ‘When you were at WaxTrax!, you saved my teenage life!’ Me personally, because I was nice to them, and I recommended some records, and I listened to them and their stories. How great is that?

What is your next book?

Barker: Next book? Don’t know yet for sure. I’m too busy trying to move yet again across the country. But this time, it’s the best, coming back to Chicago.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Barker: Advice for aspiring writers? Write every day, even if you ‘have nothing to say.’ Some days, I catch myself writing, ‘Just write,’ and go from there. It’s good practice for when you do have ‘something’ to say. Read everything, and I mean everything – novels, short stories, essays, poems, news articles. Get a feel for what you like to read. Then go out and write for yourself what you want to see in words. Sounds corny, but if you don’t like it, no one else will either. It won’t be honest. Honesty is the key. Don’t bullshit and try to sound like something you’re not.

Music played an important role in your past. What role does it play in your present?

Barker: I listen to music when I feel like it. Anything really that’s good. Like Grace Jones today, John Cage tomorrow, or maybe Guitar Wolf for a laugh! I don’t know. Music is so emotional. It depends on my mood sometimes. My son asked me yesterday to name some girl groups’ songs from the ’60s for some reason, and after running through the list of Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes, The Chiffons, etc., I remembered I really loved ‘You Don’t Own Me’ by Leslie Gore. Tears my heart out every time. What a radical song for that era, when every girl wanted to be ‘pinned’ or going steady or something. Blech!

What are you five bands you’re listening currently?

Barker: I don’t know that I really listen to bands, per se. If I want driving around town music, Aphex Twin is a recurring favorite. Otherwise, I listen to anything my kids recommend, like Japanese shoegaze – Moon in June. My son also likes Gyrofield. My daughter throws some New York bands my way occasionally. Let’s see… Yhwh Nailgun, Crack Cloud, Palm. I’m also pretty fond of Billie Eilish when I happen to hear her voice, and I’m usually not that thrilled by female vocalists.

What other words of wisdom would you like to share?

Barker: Wisdom? Really?! Get busy! And have some fun for god’s sake!

 

Gerda Barker
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Photography by Fleurette Estes – courtesy of Fleurette Estes Photography
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