To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself. - Albert Einstein
OK, basics: Born in New Jersey, 11 March 19-something, to a mundane dentist father and singer mother. Learned to sing and to read at a very young age; started playing guitar at 16; started writing the first of hundreds of songs shortly thereafter, including her first settings of Rudyard Kipling's poetry. Went to her first con at 16; saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak at 17; went to college, majoring in English and minoring in psychology, protest and politics. Paid hard dues in the Civil Rights and anti-War movements; joined the Industrial Workers of the World; did psych counseling for vets (among many other jobs including railroad yard clerk, go-go dancer, computer keypuncher and social worker). Wrote her first filksong of dozens, "Fellowship Going South", in 1963. Saw the Apollo 11 landing in 1969, and then began her most famous (and best-loved) filksong, "Hope Eyrie" [a.k.a. "The Eagle Has Landed"]; that took six years to write.
In 1973 she discovered Star Trek--and she was hooked--totally and thoroughly... ("TV that actually showed real issues!") She began contributing to the fanzines--illustrations, stories and songs. She was so hooked, in fact, that she cut two LP albums with her I.W.W. band, The Dehorn Crew, of space and Star Trek songs: _Folk Songs for Folk Who Ain't Even Been Yet_ (1976), and _Solar Sailors_ (1977), which debuted the all-time most notorious Star Trek filksong ever written: "Banned From Argo". These were the first of several solo albums, another with the Dehorn Crew, and dozens of songs, both alone and collaborative, on albums from every major filk label. She was elected to the Filk Hall Of Fame as one of the first inductees. She is also now a pro writer; in addition to her two fan novels, she has out _A Dirge For Sabis_ (part of the "Sword Of Knowledge" trilogy) with C.J. Cherryh, several short stories and more in the works.
Leslie is single, and lives in Phoenix, AZ with some house mates and a varying number of cats. Most of her time is spent writing and cat-chasing, but she makes time for gaming, the local SCA and her FanHaven land project (see her for details).
Look for her in the smoker's filkroom at night. Contrary to her rather lurid legend, she won't skewer anyone for honest questions: her weapons of choice are wits and words. She is patient with newcomers, she willingly shows guitar techniques or song chords to about anyone who asks. Her guitar technique is almost unreal; her vocal talents include a three-octave range and power enough to rattle windows; her songs are on scores of topics from cats to computers, but largely Anarchist politics, Pagan subjects, and future folk. She also has a wealth of stories on songwriting, fandom and politics [she's one of the best raconteuses I know]. Just DON'T ask for "Banned From Argo"--ask her to do something not on a tape or one that she hasn't done in years!
Mary Creasey of Random Factors
Excerpted from an autobiographical letter by Leslie Fish
(Fall, 1992. Edited by Mary Creasey)
Leslie Fish on Music...
I play 12-string guitar, 6-string guitar, some electric guitar, recorder and penny-whistle (not terribly well), autoharp, hand-drum, and I can fake it on electric bass. Keyboards? Hah! Just well enough to pick out a tune for transcribing. Plus my voice, of course. When I got my first guitar at 16 I'd already been into folk music, singing it anyway, for years; I spent about an hour a day playing/practicing with it, and would have done more if my parents hadn't yelled at me to quit making that godawful racket and do my homework. I think Mom was particularly pissed off because she'd tried for years to teach me piano (and Classical lyric-soprano singing -- even though my voice was obviously alto) because she wanted me to befome a proper Classic-music pianist/singer and maybe wind up at the Met -- and none of it took. Instead I was busy "wasting time with that awful cowboy music". Now that I'm successful enough to make my living at That Wretched Stuff, she never asks me anything about music. *Snicker* I use [a verse-long instrumental break] for dramatic purposes: to prepare the audience emotionally for the last (summarizing or punch-line) verse, or to heighten tension before the resolution. Naturally, the "break" can't be allowed to bore the audience, so I play my damndest then.
...Which songs am I proudest of? Well, there are a lot of them, but I'd have to say that "Hope Eyrie" heads the list. It's gone the farthest and influenced the most people. Oh, the tales I could tell about that one -- how it came to be written, how it became the anthem of the fandom/pro-space movement, how it was translated into Polish, smuggled into Poland and became the underground anthem of Solidarnosc -- hell, ask me later; Other songs I'm proud of: "Freedom Road", "They Were Having a Sale at the Gun-Store", "The Cripples' Shield-Wall", "White Man's Rain Chant (Lord of Thunders)" --they're all good solid songs, and they all have workable magic.
Song I'm least proud of: "Banned From Argo", no contest! I wrote it to order, to fill in a four-minute shortage on the master tape when we were recording SOLAR SAILORS, and hoo- boy, do I ever regret it! The damned piece of fluff became damn-near as popular as "Hope Eyrie". It's inspired a horde of filk-variations (which Random Factors has collected into a book, gods help them), got asked for at every con for years until I got so heartily sick of it that I refused to sing it again, and now it's inspiring spin-offs too. Arrrgh! Which tapes am I proudest of? Hard to say. The Kipling tapes have some of my best tunes (most of them I'd been singing and refining for years before they were recorded), CHICKASAW MOUNTAIN has some very good songs with reliable magic effect, IT'S SISTER JENNY'S TURN TO THROW THE BOMB was most fun to make (being a reunion with my old Chicago band), and FIRESTORM has some of my best and most powerful songs on it (though I really don't like the way it was produced), the various Misty Lackey song-tapes have some gems on them, and SOLAR SAILORS was my first big-break record.
My current filk-book has over 100 songs in it (I haven't counted), and there's my Kipling collection (at least another 50), my Pagan songs (at least 25 there) all the Misty Lackey poems I put tunes to that I don't have copies of (another 25 or so), plus some purely folkie-political stuff I have in other books at home. Say at least 200, maybe 300 -- and I'm constantly adding to it, so I have no way to tell.
Favorite filksong that I didn't write: "Worms of the Earth", by a band called Clam Chowder, popular around the SCA for the past couple of years. I heard it at Pennsic 19 and it blew me away. (Well, wait until I've been to another filksing, and that may change.) WOTE is one beautifully- written song, set purely "in period", and with a moral that I can't help agreeing with. Hmm, I can't say whether it's a filksong or actually a folksong; the border between the two is exceedingly fuzzy.
Leslie Fish on Hobbies...
Movies? Heh-heh! I like thrillers and sci-fi and adventure tales; ROAD WARRIOR is my all-time favorite. (Hmm, and thereby hangs the tale of how I broke into professional writing. If I don't remember to get around to it in this missive, remind me and I'll tell you later.)
Sports? Okay, I'm wierd. I like horseback riding (pretty good at it, if I say so myself -- more stories there), canoeing, archery, hunting and target-shooting -- but only to DO, not to watch. To me, the whole point of a sport is to enjoy the physical effort, skill and excitement of doing it. I honestly can't see the fun of watching a gang of uniformed pros running around doing all the action while you just sit on a bench (or TV chair) and watch. I used to be a Trekker -- actually got my start in writing by doing stories and poems for Trek-zines (and of course, I made myself infamous there, too; I was the third writer to ever tackle the K/S theme -- Diane Marchant was first, with the story "A Fragment Out of Time", and Gerry Downes followed with "Alternatives", but my stories "Shelter" and "Poses" really shoved the theme into mainstream Trek-fandom, for which I got the expected flak) -- but I sort of lost interest when NEXT GENERATION came along; it's just too pusey, Yuppie-ish, and bloodless for my tastes. Hmm, I don't know if this counts as a hobby, but I like good SF/ST/adventure porno. Ghu knows, I've written enough X-rated Trek stuff to have a taste for that! In fact, early in my writing career, I once took a pot-boiler job writing short novels for a porn-publisher. Frankly, it was boring as hell and didn't pay very well, and after the one-year/eleven- manuscript contract was up, I quit the business before it could make me bored to death with either writing or sex.
Leslie Fish on Odd Jobs...
"Odd jobs"? Heh-heh! Hell yes, I've had some VERY odd jobs! Back in my last days in college, I needed supplemental jobs to keep my nose above water. I took whatever jobs showed up in that primarily-college town (Ann Arbor; I went to the University of Michigan), and some of them were odd indeed. I worked as a keypuncher for a Fortran class (remember that antique?), and sneaked revolutionary comments into the interstices -- started off some fine discussions and arguments, too. I did the usual clerking and waitressing too, but couldn't stand to keep at it for long. I did industrial day-labor too (which inspired me both to join the Wobblies and to write "Minnie the Freak" -- remind me to tell you about that one some time). Having developed a taste for bizarre work, I kept at it after I finished college and moved to Chicago. I worked for awhile as yard-clerk ("cinder kicker") for the B&O Railroad. I was under-editor for the Wobblies' newspaper, THE INDUSTRIAL WORKER, for a year. I also put together the IWW union band, The Dehorn Crew, which managed to get a little work around Chicago, but which is mostly famous for doing an album of my StarTrek songs called "Folksongs For Folks Who Ain't Even Been Yet", which sold at SF cons well enough to inspire another album called "Solar Sailors", which brought me to the attention of Off Centaur Publications, who invited me to come move out to California and work for them as their house musician. Wierd enough yet?
Anyway, the last time I really needed cash (one of my cats had a huge vet-bill; paying off that, plus my rent and utilities, left nothing for little things like food, so I needed a job quick) I recalled what a fannish girlfriend had told me. She worked for an S&M club as a professional dominatrix, and upon viewing my usual con-costume of black leathers, she commented that if I ever needed money I could always come to work with her as a dominatrix. So, what the hell, I called her up and said: "You're on. How do I start?" Well, she took me to the club and showed me the ropes (and the whips, and the chains,) and explained how this game worked: 90% fantasy, 10% health-precautions. Well, I made enough bucks to keep me fed for a couple months, while the rest of my income went to paying bills, and I got an interesting look at the inside of the S&M scene of the San Francisco area. However, I was never really good at it: just didn't have a talent for it, couldn't pick up on the psychology, had real trouble not laughing at some of the things the clients wanted. But what the hell, it paid the bills and inspired "Dominatrix' Song" -- which I sang for the other girls at the club, who liked it so well that they've made it their unofficial anthem, part of their act and their advertizing in the, hmm, trade-papers. *Sigh* Such is fame!
Leslie Fish on Childhood...
I was born and raised in dull, ruthlessly respectable suburbs in dull, ruthlessly respectable New Jersey, to dull, ruthlessly respectable parents whose religion was Class Climbing and whose passion was Making Money. Outlet for relief: Mom had been a professional musician before Dad married her, and they liked showing off her Classy ability whenever possible -- which meant that Mom had to keep in practice; as a result, I grew up with music constant in my ears. I remember that I could sing before I could talk. Mom often told me that I could whistle on pitch when I was 8 months old. I had an old record-player (and later a radio) in my room from the day I was born, which I soon learned to operate, so when Mom wasn't singing or playing I could always have records or the radio on while I played with toys or did homework. It was a real punishment to have the music turned off -- but then, I could always sing to myself. I was always a night-owl, and bedtime always came too early, so when I had to go to bed and keep quiet in the dark I'd tell myself stories -- and after awhile start singing the words until I fell asleep. I sang myself whole rambling essays of rambling thoughts, which I liked much better than lullabyes. One problem with this, which I didn't realize until years later, is that the part of the brain which holds music also deals with mathematics. In my case, that whole department was ordained, before I was born, to be taken up with music. That means that I had no talent or understanding whatever for mathematics. Since the schools at that time (and most of them at present, from what I hear) taught the sciences math-first, I was doomed to fail embarassingly in any science course I ever took. I actually loved science -- the facts and relationships fascinated me -- but when it came to required mathematics, I was dead in the water. Anything that I could physically SEE I could understand and enjoy, but anything that required shoving abstract numbers around lost me completely. The only math class I ever did anywhere near well in was geometry, because I could see the relationships the numbers were supposed to explain. I actually liked chemistry, but flunked it and had to take it over (in a summer-school course, where I passed with a C+ only by swearing to the professor -- on a copy of THE HANDBOOK OF CHEMISTRY AND PHYSICS -- that I was a continuing Literature major and would never, ever, go into any science field professionally).
I learned how to read when I was three. Mom had a habit of reading me bedtime stories, and I soon noted that the same stories from the same books always used the exact same words -- very different from the stories Pop told me, which he made up himself. (They tried all sorts of tricks to make me go to sleep on time; none of them worked, but I learned from all of them.) I would sneak closer and peek into the book to see what it was that showed Mom the same exact words, and I noticed lines of regular, repeating squiggles that were obviously The Secret Code. I asked Mom about the squiggles, and she was delighted to show me what letters were and how they worked. It didn't hurt that she taught me the Alphabet Song, along with giving me a set of alphabet building-blocks.
Once I'd memorized the letters and their sounds, she showed me how to put the sounds together to make whole words -- and after that, there was no holding me back. I remember to this day the first book I ever read by myself; it was a "Bucky Bug" comic-book, aimed at the 10- year-old crowd, and it featured a really neat fight between the harmless good-guy bugs of Bugtown and a bunch of nasty big bad-guy cockroaches. Of course I liked the fight scenes; all little kids are bloodthirsty, little though parents- teachers-preachers and other kid-wranglers want to admit it, because all kids know that they're an undersized slave-class and they damn-well resent it. I remember that the tactical trick which turned the tide for Bugtown (invented by the smallest and youngest -- yay! -- of the good guys) was sticking mirrors out in front of the invading cockroaches so that they attacked their own reflections and knocked themselves silly. Moral: "Victory goes not to the strong, but mainly to the skilled." One of the bad-guy bugs commented, after knocking dents in his head on the mirror, "These guys kick like mules." Everything else I could get, fitting letters into words and seeing the words clarify the story -- but that word "mules" had me stumped. All I could make out of it was "mull-less", which didn't make any sense.
So, being a trusting little kid at the time, I went and asked Mom what that word was. Mom was delighted -- at first -- to see that I was learning to read (and only three years old, too! What a nice achievement for her to brag to the neighbors about!), and she explained about "mules" and the variations on the letter "U". Then she looked at the rest of the comic book. Ooh, ick: vi-o-lence! Sleaze! Trash! Low-class! She confiscated the comic-book and threw it away. That was when I learned that adults could be hypocrites, thieves and tyrants, more interested in ruling kids than in teaching kids to be competent -- and to be free, I had to keep secrets from the grown-ups. Anarchism 101. After that I got in the habit of reading-on-the-sneak, with a flashlight under bed-covers, in the library when nobody was looking, at friends' houses. I learned to hide those "trashy" books that the grownups didn't approve of, especially comic-books, in lots of different stashes.
Leslie Fish on First SF encounters...
I can't recall exactly when I first encountered sci-fi, except that I had to have been less than six; that was when we got our first TV set (also the year that I finally figured out about time and dates, and understood what year it was), and I discovered Captain Video -- and later Science Fiction Theatre and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Rocky Starr, Space Ranger. I know I was already fascinated with rocket-ships and outer space when Pop took me to see DESTINATION MOON at the movies. Whee! Special Effects -- in color! The parents were tolerant of that taste, since some clever child-shrink had told them that science-fiction got kids interested in themselves on the kid-psych tests to be woefully bad. The parents would even let me read comic-books (I remember recognizing the drawing-style of Wally Wood) if they were sci-fi. I read all the "juvenile" sci-fi books in the school and town libraries, and then started sneaking into the adult section to get grown-up sci-fi. The librarians sometimes caught me, but when I insisted that I was interested only in the "science books" -- nothing as dangerous as sex or politics -- they didn't complain too hard.
But onward: I made my escape via academics -- in other words, my grades and PSATs were good enough to get me an early acceptance from the U. of Michigan (I'd been hoping for UCLA, but Michigan was far enough from home to keep the parents from visiting regularly, or expecting me to come back every weekend). My first day there, after the parents had left, I strolled around the campus getting acclimatized when I saw a poster announcing a pro-Civil Rights demonstration that night. I took my guitar and my folkmusic books and showed up.
It was quiet, peaceable, and dead-boring as picket-lines go, and between songs I had plenty of time to talk to the picket-captain. He was a grad-student named Tom Hayden, and he was one of the founders of this pro-civil-rights/anti-war group called Students for a Democratic Society, and how would I like to come see what they were up to? "Where do I sign up?", said I.
Needless to add, I spent the next few years running around doing pro-civil-rights and anti-war stuff when I wasn't studying, doing folkmusic or trying to earn money. It was a very interesting time, to say the least. Too many stories there to begin going into now. Sci-fi had to wait on the sidelines until the war was over. On the day that Nixon announced he was officially pulling out of Vietnam, I was over at Vets' House (a crash- pad, war-data-library, office and community-center run by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, whom I worked for as a psych. counsellor -- long story). The whole gang of us watched, dead silent, while the TV newsmen analyzed Nixon's words and showed the first troops returning, and it finally sank in that the war was over. Nobody cheered; we all just gave a huge sigh of relief and exhaustion. Some of the vets wandered off to get beer, others sprawled around the living- room talking half-heartedly about getting the VA to give decent help to returning vets. I wandered down to campus to see how the no-longer-draftables were taking it. At the student center I found a huge crowd of kids huddled around the TV.
They weren't watching any news- analysis of the war's end, no; they were watching reruns of a famous sci-fi show that I'd heard about but had never before had time to watch. The show was STAR TREK, and I walked in on the beginning of "Mark of Gideon" -- a good episode if not a great one, about the horrors of overpopulation. Well, I was hooked. Ye gods, a TV drama-series that dared to talk about real issues -- such as overpopulation, war, censorship, sex -- all the things that so-called serious TV wouldn't dare touch, and it was science-fiction yet! (Bear in mind that at that time TV was self-censored to death -- had been since its inception -- and nobody, except Ed Murrow with his splendid news-exposes, discussed real and relevant social issues. TREK was a ground-breaker in more ways than one.)
Well, I proceeded to catch up on all the episodes I'd missed. Then I started collecting the James Blish short-story versions of the episodes. Then I started writing ST filksongs (the first was "The
Thousandth Man", as I recall), went hunting for ST conventions, and encountered fanzines. Then I got into collecting zines, and writing poems and stories and letters-of-comment for fanzines. Then I started on my sprawling epic "The Weight" and became a serious Big-Name Fan. And of course I wrote more filksongs. I sang them at room-parties at conventions and got a reputation as a Big- Name sci-fi folksinger (I didn't encounter the word "filk" until 1977). I even got my band, The DeHorn Crew, into singing some of them. Then a fan I met at a con offered to produce a record (all of 500 copies) of my filksongs, and FOLKSONGS FOR FOLKS WHO AIN'T EVEN BEEN YET was launched.
The year after that another fan, named Steve Reubart, offered to do a better job (and 2000 copies worth), so SOLAR SAILORS got pressed. I advertized among the fanzines, and sold the records at cons, and eventually somebody with serious publishing intentions noticed. In 1982 I got a contact from Off Centaur Publications, the first people to seriously make a full-time business out of recording and selling filk; seems they were putting together a new kind of convention (Bayfilk) and wanted to invite me as their next guest of honor. Well, I'd never been to a purely-filk con, or to California, so naturally I went. (I wrote "No High Ground" while waiting in the airport -- one of the last times I rode a plane -- sang it at my opening concert and had an instant hit on my hands.) It was great fun, and San Francisco was the most physically beautiful city I'd ever seen, and the weather was utterly gorgeous (especially compared to Chicago; ask me about the Bad Winter of '79 sometime -- that's when 15 feet of snow fell on the city between New Year's and April Fool's, and it didn't all melt off until Mayday. Tales I could tell...). So, after the con was over (and after I'd spent a few days recording some of my Kipling songs for what later became COLD IRON), when Teri Lee asked me: "Why don't you move out here and work for us?" all I said was: "Wait 'til I pack."
So, (after a few delays, such as attending the first Trek-fan writers' con in Britain, selling or rail-shipping everything I owned, formally breaking up the band, booting out a dead-beat roommate, and getting my car fixed up for the trip) I took off cross-country for the San Francisco Bay. That trip was an epic in itself, since it was a cold and snowy February, and there was a truckers' strike going hot and heavy -- complete with State Trooper raids and shooting rifles at scab trucks, and the convoy of fans I linked up with had vehicles in worse shape than mine, and a lot of the highways were closed off with snow (don't ever get snowbound in Amarillo; the city has absolutely no facilities for it).
Leslie Fish on Off Centaur & C.J. Cherryh...
But anyway, I finally got to the Bay Area and moved in with Off Centaur and friends, and became a professional filker. Well, the next couple years were pretty idyllic. California food and rent prices hadn't skyrocketted then, so what I made off my now-deceased Pop's trust-fund plus my royalties from the OCP tapes kept me quite comfortably. I worked steadily as OCP's house musician, putting in vocal and instrumental back-ups and leads on damn-near every tape they put out. That's also where I got into the habit of writing songs on demand in a half-hour or less; Teri would hand me a clutch of poems -- usually Misty Lackey's -- and ask me to put tunes on them before dinner. Hey, no problem. Writing whole songs on demand was tougher, and took longer, but I managed.
Then I'd sing said songs at the next con we went to, mention that listeners could pick them up on tape such- and-such down in the dealers' room, and come home with enough sales to keep me in steady royalties. Nice work. Using the skills I'd picked up while writing for ST fanzines (seeing how much feedback you get per story, I'd say there's no better working school for writers), I started sending out my fiction in search of a buyer. I sold just one story ("Amateurs", a little realistic horror piece, to the short-lived NIGHT CRY, for the unimpressive sum of $75.00) when I ran into C.J. Cherryh.
Okay, I'll tell you that story. It was at a WesterCon, I think (after too many cons they begin to blend together), and I was pretty much leading the Bardic Circle in the smokers' room, when a shy-looking lady in a subdued business skirt-suit tiptoed into the room and took a seat at the far end of the circle. She was carrying an electric autoharp, which is, to be blunt, a piss-poor instrument. In short, she looked the perfect picture of Neo. Well, be nice to Neos, I always say; remember, thou too wert a Neo once.
Well, when it came her turn, the shy little lady pulled out her autoharp and sang a long, slow, quavery, almost-tuneless ballad in such a tiny, shy little voice that I couldn't make out the words from less than ten feet away. Everybody else was yawning, shuffling through their filk-books for next choices, getting up to make a quick trip to the john, etc. Me, I stayed put and did my best to look intently interested in the Neo's song (remember, thou too...).
When she'd finished, since I couldn't think of anything else encouraging, I praised her choice of song and asked, as gallantly as I could manage, "Did you write it?" She blushed, smiled, nodded, then packed up her autoharp and scurried off while the next song started up. Little seen, little heard, soon forgotten. Until next day, when I strolled down to the dealers' room to see how OCP's sales were doing. At the table, I found Teri bouncing up and down with excitement, waving frantically the minute she saw me. It seems that Hugo-award winner C.J. Cherryh had come up to the table an hour before, bought over $100 worth of books and tapes -- particularly my stuff -- and she wanted to meet me at 2PM, table 4, in the hotel lounge upstairs. Wow.
Of course, at 2PM I showed up at the hotel lounge and went looking for table 4. Guess who I found sitting there, nursing a double dark-rum cooler? Uhuh. Not exactly a Neo: just new to filking. Well, the upshot was that she was intrigued by filking, wanted to authorize OCP to produce a tape of songs based on her stories and characters, and had I written anything besides filksongs? Well, I just happened to have with me a novel based on the MAD MAX movies, which I was trying (unsuccessfully, it later turned out) to sell to Kennedy-Miller Ltd. I gave her a copy to read at her leisure and send back when she had time.
A few weeks later, while busy putting tunes to a clutch of Cherryh-universe songs for the tape FINITY'S END, I got a package from C.J. 'Twas the copy of the novel, along with a note saying that this was "the best novel by an unpublished author" that she'd ever read, and how would I like to contribute stories to her upcoming series, MEROVINGEN NIGHTS? Yup, that's where I got started as a pro SF writer. The moral of the story is: always be nice to Neos; you never know where they can take you.