Lisa Kindred MacKay (In an interview with Jim Lammers)
Born in Buffalo, New York, Lisa Kindred MacKay, jazz and blues singer, has experienced and seen much in her seventy-five years. Lisa says, it is, and has been, a good life, from childhood summers often spent at her grandparents’ farm near Niagara Falls, Ontario, only a short walk from the famous falls, to opening for Woody Allen at the Bitter End, to playing with Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, to more recently her work with first graders at Park School in Mill Valley and her retirement two years ago. Still today Lisa regularly enjoys singing gigs in Marin and San Francisco.
What are you proudest of in life?
Lisa smiles and laughs, her laugh full, deep, and easy from years traveling the singer’s life. She sits with her back straight, attentive, present in the moment.
“Mostly my life, my music, lots of things, piles of things. As I get older, I look back and realize that I like my life. I’m fairly proud of most of it. Some of it should go under the table. But I’m proud of most of it. I’m a Buddhist which promotes happiness, too. It’s good stuff. I’m very glad I’m living it.”
How did you get started in music?
“When I was young I listened to the radio. In Buffalo at the time, there was a show on Saturday morning by a man named the Hound Dog. I later learned his name was John Lorenz. He had a show dedicated to blues and traditional black music. I started listening to it and got addicted. I went to the library and found all these Folkways records, the acoustic especially. I listened to them, started memorizing them, picked up a little guitar, started to sing for fun, then I started to sing for money. The transition from fun to money was not noticeable because I wasn’t making much money at that point. The singing has continued for the last fifty-five years. That’s pretty much it.”
You were born in Buffalo, New York.
“Yes, but I spent much of my childhood, my summers, at my grandparents’ farm in Ontario. They were lovely people. My mother only had one child, me, but she had seven siblings so I had lots of cousins. We all were there together in summers and had an insane fun time. Really nice. Great. The summers on the farm were phenomenal. It’s a feeling in your backbone. An ahhhhhhh. The sunshine. The berry fields. Everything was very lovely there.”
“My parents breaking up was one of the saddest memories. I really missed my dad. I saw him every Sunday, though. He had me make up stories when I saw him. He kept nuts in his pockets which he would feed to the squirrels when we’d go for a walk.”
Did you have a nickname when you were a kid?
“Errr. Yeah I did. We’ll leave it right there. Actually it’s ok. I was a big girl, 5’10” when I was in fifth grade so people used to pick on me. So I learned how to fight so they called me Combat. The aggression made me physically ill so I had to get over that. It made me sick. But I didn’t get picked on very much after a fight or two.” She laughs.
You left home at eighteen. Where did you go from there?
“It was the days of the Beatniks. So we all got in a car. We were going to Mexico but got as far as Chicago. I stayed there for a year and then moved to New York and stayed there for a long time.”
Tell me about New York.
“It was great. It was like going to school. You learn a lot about life and about my acceptance level which at the time came from a Catholic school. Twelve years of Catholic school so at that point you have blinders on though when I moved to New York, the blinders came off. I was really naive the first year. I lived through it. But it was wonderful. I started down in Greenwich Village with my guitar in these little “basket houses”, little places as big as a small room. You sang and people came in and put money in the basket. Then I went to work at the Bitter End and the Gaslight and went on the road for years and years.”
And The Bitter End and the Gaslight Club?
“The Bitter End is where Peter, Paul, and Mary got started. Woody Allen and many, many comedians, musicians, and singers. They had a Tuesday Hootenanny night so I went in there and sang and they hired me. I opened for Woody Allen. The Gaslight was like a den – Bob Dylan, Bill Cosby, David Van Ronk and all the folkies in the universe. I got a job there for awhile then got a manager and went on the road.”
Do you have any memories from that time that really stand out?
“When I was working at the Gaslight, there were often interesting people that would be there just hanging out. One time I remember Johnny Cash and his buddies sitting at a table in the back just kind of hiding out in the dark.”
How did you end up in California?
“Somewhere along the line I got tired of the travel. The road is a rough life. So after about ten years of that, one year they sent me to Los Angeles to the Troubadour to open for Josh White. I took a deep breath and said, I’m moving here. So two years later I moved to California and continued music. Then in 1970, I moved to Northern California. So I missed all the fun, you know.” Lisa laughs her gravelly laugh. “I became sedimentary, got married, a couple of times.”
Sedimentary as in the rock, settled in layers?
Lisa laughs. “Yes, like the rock.”
Most memorable moments in life?
“I just found out I’m on Wikipedia, as Lisa Kindred. Things about my career. Some of my most memorable times were and are the times when I really connect with an audience. It’s a total experience, like being lifted off this earth. I’m not sure what more to say about it. It happened more often when I was a folk singer and had my guitar. Now I have a four piece band and it still happens, not with these up tempo dance tunes, but with the slow blues ballads. People have such a reaction, such a communication with the people. I never had that sense of communication with anything else except the music. It’s wonderful to know that such moments exist.
I am so glad I’m seventy-five years old. If I had to grow up in these times where kids are talking to each other on their cell phones a few feet away from each other…”
“I started as a crossing guard and then on the playground at Edna MacGuire School. One of the teachers thought I would be good with this boy with MS in a wheel chair at the middle school. I was there for a couple of years but didn’t really like middle school so they found something for me in kindergarten. I was at Park School then for twelve years.
I worked at Park School Mill Valley as a first grade aide and as a playground supervisor until two years ago when I retired. When I watched the kids on the playground, I told the kids they couldn’t be on their phones unless they were calling their parents about being picked up or something important. Calls to parents they could do with me present. I told them they were out here to play, to exercise, to make friends not to call a girl friend or boy friend.”
How is your health?
“It hit about 15 years ago. I thought I had food poisoning but it was an exploding gall bladder. The doctor looked at me and said, Does diabetes run in your family? I said yes and he said, you, too. There’s little things. Not any big deals. I don’t want to limit the way I live but some things are necessary. It’s limiting, not necessarily in a bad way. My body is aging which is ok. It’s supposed to.
The one nice thing about getting my cataracts removed is I’m reading like a fiend again. It doesn’t bother me to sit down and go away in a book for four or five hours.”
Most important lessons from life.
“Hmmm. Tolerance is a big one. Tolerance. Everybody’s cup of tea is not everybody’s cup of tea. Learning from it every day. Everyday is different, every day is a new lesson. Getting rid of the prejudices you grow up with, expanding your horizons as a human are probably the biggest lessons I’ve learned. And it’s an ongoing thing, it’s everyday.
Buddhism says that two of the four sufferings are being born and dying, but they’re inevitable. Everything in between is a learning lesson.
It’s all a continuing story. I’m very happy for my Buddhist practice. That happened about twelve years ago. Actually that’s a funny story. It really started about twenty-five years ago in a weird way. I was walking down Beachwood Avenue in Los Angeles. I was in to all this Hippie Hurrah stuff like Tarot cards, etc. when this little Japanese woman came up to me and said, you chant. You chant. So I followed her into this place, went back a couple of times and then didn’t go back. When I started at Park School twelve years ago the teacher I worked with said she was Buddhist so I asked her if she chanted. She said yes and I said I want to be more associated with that practice. Every since that little woman, I haven’t been able to get Namu Myoho Renge Kyo out of my head. It works for me. I’m more directed than I ever have been, less scattered in the way I do things, much more patience. The teaching is to see the Buddha in other people. That saved my life when I was working with first graders.” Lisa leans back and laughs and smiles.”It works.”
Is the chanting maybe an extension of your singing?
“A lot of musicians are chanting. The jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock, is the leader of this Buddhist sect in New York. There are a lot of musicians in it because of the chanting. You don’t have to be a musician but you’ve got to have a sense of rhythm in order to chant.”
Who had the greatest influence on your life?
“My mother was incredible. My parents split when I was very young. She was a math monster, taught contract bridge. She kept a house together alone when it was not cool for a woman to be alone and she had a pretty total life. She put up with me which was not easy because I was a brat. As I look back now, I realize what an influence she was on me. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course. But now I go, Wow. Wow. What a woman. That’s nice. I never thought I’d mature enough to say that. She was a nice person. Her whole side of the family were lovely. She was the oldest of eight. She was gorgeous. My father, by then they’d been separated for 15-20 years, said to me, ‘You’re a good looking girl but your mother is beautiful.’ I just smiled. It was nice.
I had a partner for a long time who passed away. Geno Skaggs. He was a bass player, played with John Lee Hooker. A union musician so he played with whoever came in town. He opened my eyes to things I refused to look at. I’d be like, ‘That’s not for me.’ He was like, ‘Open them, take a look.’ He opened my eyes to a lot of things in life that I thought were beneath me, the little bratty girl I was. Acceptance. Geno taught me to accept things not from my own personal stuff. He was a pretty big influence on me for about 15-20 years. Nice man. That was probably the saddest moment of my life, when Geno passed away. It wasn’t really a moment, it was a few months because he had been ill. I was like, oops. He’s not here anymore.”
And what about now? What’s happening now?
“It is a good life. I have a good number of friends. I play music a lot.
I have three regular gigs a month. The Saloon in North Beach, the oldest bar in the City of San Francisco. First and third Tuesday evening and the first Friday afternoon 4 to 8 pm. I also play at the Sausalito Cruising Club and the No Name once every six weeks at each of those. Once in a while I go down and hang out at Sweetwater. I go up to a place called Twin Oaks near Cotati and play every once and a while. That’s a nice place. There’s lots of places around if I’d get up off my duff and go.
This Buddhist group I’m with, we put together a chorus, not a choir but a chorus. It’s fun. It’s done more for my ear, by sharing with other people. I’m a bass. So with other people, it’s really nice feeling. It’s fun. Two of the singers from Dan Hicks are part of it. Remember Quicksilver Messenger Service? The bass player, close to eighty now, an incredible voice, he’s still got it. Too good. So it gives us all a chance to sing if we’re not getting out in public to sing a lot. That’s a good thing.”
“My bass player lives in Oakland. My drummer lives in Berkeley, my guitar player lives in Pacifica. My piano player lives down south. I’ve been playing with the same bass player and drummer for twenty years. They’re great. They’re lunatics but they’re great. I had another guitar player for twenty years but he just moved to Lake County. We’re all a bunch of old farts but it’s good. It’s good. I love it.
I get a big kick out of some of these young girls. The Saloon has a lot of young European kids come in because it’s a “blues” place. They young girls come up to me and ask, ‘How do I grow up to sing like you?’“ Lisa laughs.
“Oh I don’t know, I tell them, drink a lot of Jack Daniels and smoke a lot of cigarettes for about twenty years then just say enough.” She laughs.
“I work some days at the Family Store in Mill Valley, run by Family Services. I volunteer about four or five afternoons a month. It’s cool. I get to see people from the past when I go down there. It’s Mill Valley so it’s very nice clothes. The people are always nice. It’s well run.”
If you could interview anyone, living or dead, celebrity or not, who would it be?
“I don’t know. Hmmm. Maybe Gandhi. That’s probably because I’m reading a book right now, “Choose Peace,” and his fingerprints are all over it. It would be nice to talk to someone who was so clear on how he viewed life. I really admire people who are good teachers without being preachy, their example.
I would have loved to have talked with Mahalia Jackson. Oh man, that voice. She could take a word and just bend it. Wow.”
Do you have anything you wish you had done?
“Sometimes I wish I had had children. And sometimes I don’t. I took care of that want and need when I worked with first graders. That’s the best time. I helped raise a couple of God Children, too.”
“Now I live at Tam House, which I like. I like everybody there. Some of them need to tell their stories to someone everyday so the manager has to be there to listen and of course to run the place, too. Not an easy job. I wouldn’t want it. I’m looking forward to meeting the new manager.”
How would you like to be remembered?
Lisa says without hesitation,“Kindly.” Then laughs and adds, “I’m not a mover and a shaker. I’m sort of sedimentary. I don’t know. But kindly would be nice.”