Ace Of Cups
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Fame Eluded The Ace Of Cups In The 1960s. Can They Reclaim It In 2020?
Mary Alfiler was in the middle of a rough patch when she found a poem about death written on a bar napkin. "We thank with brief thanksgiving / Whatever gods may be, That no life lives forever / That dead men rise up never / That even the weariest river / Winds somewhere safe to sea,” one verse read. She didn’t know it then, but those words were from “The Garden of Proserpine” by Algernon Charles Swinburne.
At the time, Alfiler — then Gannon — just knew it meant something to her. It was 1971, she was a single mother on food stamps, and her band, the Ace of Cups, was hanging on by a thread. Still, Swinburne’s poem, which she found at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, California, became the germ of a new song, "Slowest River," which flips the theme of death into one of renewal and return to one's life-source. Forty-nine years later, the stirring piano ballad concludes Sing Your Dreams, a new record by the Ace of Cups. On that track, Jackson Browne shares lead vocals with founding member Denise Kaufman.
Confident, joyful and eclectic, Sing Your Dreams follows the band’s 2018 self-titled debut. The album features reworkings of Ace oldies, like “Waller Street Blues,” and “Boy, What’ll You Do Then”; a trippy devotional to the Feminine Divine (“Jai Ma”); and a fiery call for female leadership (a cover of Keb’ Mo’s “Put a Woman in Charge”). Before it’s released Oct. 2 via High Moon Records, check it out exclusively below via GRAMMY.com.
Back in the 1960s, the Ace of Cups shared stages with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother and the Grateful Dead. While they may not appear in biopics and on blacklight posters, the Ace of Cups have something ultimately sweeter than public adulation. Unlike their old associates Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia, who all died too young, the Ace are happy, creative and healthy in their autumn years.
Before the Ace of Cups, hardly anyone had heard of an all-female rock band. In that way, they paved the way for the Runaways, the Go-Go’s, the Slits and so many others. Despite having the talent, the drive and the charisma, the Ace of Cups missed the major-label feeding frenzy that gobbled up many of their Bay Area peers.
Which may have been for the best, they say. "If we had gotten signed, things might have played out differently, Alfiler says. "Knowing me and knowing the way we were acting, we might have gone the way of a lot of bands.”
"A lot of bands that we played with and musicians we loved aren’t even on Earth anymore," Kaufman tells GRAMMY.com. "We’re grateful to all not only be alive but be alive and up for playing."
But as septuagenarians, the Ace of Cups has been given an unlikely second chance in the music business — and they’re seizing it.
Hear Every Sound
From an early age, each Ace member had musical impulses that they struggled to manifest in an uncomprehending world. Alfiler, their bassist and a native of New York state, sang in a girls’ choir that performed Gregorian chants and Irish reels. She longed to play an instrument but hadn’t received piano lessons, and the guitar was out of the question. "I’m not complaining; I’m so happy about my vocal training," she tells GRAMMY.com. "But what opportunities were there for me?" Alfiler went to college out west in Monterey, where she joined a theater group.
Mary Mercy (née Simpson), their lead guitarist, loved Joan Baez and won first prize at a high school talent show for her renditions of "Silver Dagger" and "Banks of the Ohio." In 1964, while attending San Jose State, she saw the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen play at a coffeehouse owned by his bandmate Paul Kantner, and Kaukonen agreed to give Simpson guitar lessons. "I abruptly left San Jose State, so I never did pay him [for the last lesson]," Mercy tells GRAMMY.com with a laugh. (She’d reimburse him two years later.)
After her lessons with Kaukonen, Mercy functionally learned lead guitar backward. "Most guitar players I ever met would copy every guitar player they heard," she explains. "In a song, I would play whatever notes, but sometimes the notes wouldn’t sound right. So I learned the scales sort of by trial and error. Looking back, I think that was probably a mistake because you have to learn from what other people have done."
Of all their backstories, Kaufman’s is the most bonkers. In her freshman year of college, she was Merry Prankster, traveling on the bus with countercultural figures Neal Cassady (of On the Road fame) and Ken Kesey. Under the name Mary Microgram, she appears several times in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s 1968 document of the Pranksters’ hallucinogenic sojourns. “At last Kesey returns with the last to be rescued, Mary Microgram,” one passage reads, “looking like a countryside after a long and fierce war.”
"Neal was tuned in on such an amazing level," Kaufman says. "I’d ride shotgun with Neal and close my eyes. It wasn’t like you were in your thoughts, and he was in his thoughts. He was a weaver, a combiner of consciousness." Soon after Kaufman got off the bus, she sang in a band called Luminous Marsh Gas, which later evolved into Moby Grape.
During her freshman year at UC Berkeley, Kaufman met future Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and shepherded him through his first acid trip. "I thought it wasn’t a good idea for him to do that himself with no experience," she says. The pair bought a Sandy Bull record, went to his house, and he did the deed. Kaufman and Wenner eventually dated and were briefly engaged until she, in her word, "bailed."
Wenner partly inspired Kaufman’s first solo single, "Boy, What’ll You Do Then," which would become an Ace calling card and appears on Sing Your Dreams. (There are only two known copies of the original 45, one of which recently sold for $10,000; the masters went up in the Oakland fire of 1991.)
Growing up with a white father and a Black stepmother, Ace keyboardist Marla Hanson (née Hunt) was exposed to gospel music and R&B. "I came from a musical family. Everyone played an instrument and sang," she wrote on her website. I’m told that the first song I learned on the piano was Brahms’ ‘Lullaby,’ and by the time I was eight, I had taught myself the first two movements of [Beethoven’s] Moonlight Sonata by listening to a 78 record."
Ace drummer Diane Vitalich got her musical itch watching marching bands. "I could hardly see the drummers’ strokes because they were moving so fast," she tells GRAMMY.com. "They had a little music class in grammar school, and I told them I wanted to play the drums. They said, ‘No, you’re a girl. Girls don’t play the drums.’ I wished I was a boy because my brother could do all these different things I wasn’t allowed to do."
Photo by Casey Sonnabend
The Ace Begins
Alfiler and Hanson were the first two members of the Ace to play together. (Alfiler’s last band was the Daemon Lover, which she joined "because I thought the guitar player was cute.") "Forming an all-woman band was Mary’s idea," Hanson stated in the liner notes of the band’s 2003 odds-and-ends collection It’s Bad For You But Buy It!. "She just talked about having a band like it was the most natural thing in the world."
At this point, the concept for the band was amorphous, even crossing over into performance art. Alfiler once considered wiring up her college friend Val Risely with bird wings to soar over the audience to the folk song "The Cuckoo." One night in 1966, while party-hopping in Upper Haight, Alfiler met a kindred soul and the next member of their nascent band.
"I just wandered into one of these Victorian houses on a side street," she remembers. "They had all the Zig-Zag papers they’d licked all night long to make crepe paper decorations." In one room, she found a girl bashing a drum kit all by her lonesome. That girl was Vitalich, and Alfiler invited her to come over and jam. "It was a very innocent thing," Alfiler says. "We had no image of what we were doing." After transferring from San Jose State for San Francisco City College, Mercy heard through mutual friends about Alfiler and Hanson, called them up, and came over to jam.
Kaufman was the last member to join. At the time, she lived in the psychiatric wing of Mount Zion Hospital, where her parents had committed her due to her LSD use. Before acid attracted rough publicity, Kaufman’s parents were open to it, going as far as to schedule a therapist-supervised psychedelic experience with her. (That therapist, Dr. James Watt, went on to be arrested for possessing 300 milligrams of liquid LSD on his yacht.)
Upstairs at Mount Zion, she met the eccentric beatnik and band manager Ambrose Hollingsworth Redmoon, who had been rendered paraplegic by a 1966 car wreck. As per a family therapy program, Kaufman could keep an organ, a guitar and an amplifier in her room. She could also breeze in and out as she pleased.
On New Year’s Eve 1966, Kaufman attended a party at the proto-metal band Blue Cheer’s house in the Haight. "I wandered upstairs, and that’s where I met Mary Ellen," she says. "I always travel with at least an A harmonica in my purse or pocket in case some guitar player is playing blues in E." Which is just what Mercy was doing, and the two women began to jam.
The five women played together for the first time at Alfiler’s and Hanson’s pad at 1480 Waller Street. "I’ll never forget when [Denise] walked in," Hanson said in a 1995 interview. "She’s wearing cowboy boots, a very short skirt, a wild fur coat and a fireman’s hat. Her hair’s stickin’ straight out on the side. She’s got these big glasses and this big guitar case — she’s like 5’ 3, and it’s almost as big as she is. Even in San Francisco, she stood out."
The fivesome wrote their first song, "Waller Street Blues," about the realities of bohemia in the Haight. "That funky blues described, with a few exaggerations — our life at the time," Alfiler says. No bread, lousy food and a pot bust next door." There was no template for what the five women were doing: the Ace was simply a raw expression of creativity and camaraderie.
"All the social mores about what you were supposed to do, like get a boyfriend, were all out the window," Alfiler says. "It was a brave new world, and we didn’t know where it was going." Even Kaufman admitted to being skeptical: "I couldn’t imagine women playing like that. I’d never seen a woman kick ass on the drums," she says. "I knew there were jazz bands with women and all that, but I’d never seen any women play the kind of music we were playing. I had no context."
As part of the deal with Mount Zion, Kaufman ran the office and did PR at Fantasy Records, taking the bus there every day from the hospital. One of her co-workers was a young John Fogerty, then in the pre-CCR band the Golliwogs, who worked in the vinyl packing room. Upstairs were senior partners Max and Sol Weiss and junior partner Saul Zaentz.
Max Weiss helped the Ace rent their first real gear from an Oakland music shop and let them and the Golliwogs practice at the Fantasy headquarters three nights a week. Hollingsworth became the band’s manager. One night, while the nameless band sang around Hollingsworth's bed, he pulled a Tarot card and passed it to each member. It was the Ace of Cups, which depicts a divine hand holding a cup with five streams of water flowing forth.
The women saw the five streams as representing themselves. As such, the Ace of Cups had a name and a band prayer, which they recited in a circle before every practice: "May the Ace of Cups overflow and fill the world with happiness."
Because he was physically indisposed, Hollingsworth, who also managed Quicksilver Messenger Service, handed the reins to Ron Polte. Polte had been enamored with the Ace ever since he saw them at the Continental Ballroom in Santa Clara in early 1967. “I heard their little tinkling voices, went over and saw all these beautiful women playing music,” Polte remembered in It’s Bad For You But Buy It!’s liner notes. “So at the end of the show, when I was paying Denise, I said, ‘You know, you guys are great.’ And she gave me a big hug and a kiss and said thanks.”
Because the Ace didn’t have an album, promoters had to consider them on face value. “When we were first looking for gigs, Ron called the Peppermint Lounge on Broadway, and the manager said ‘An all-women band? Yeah, we’ll hire them.’” Ron said, ‘Well, do you want them to come in and audition?’ The guy goes, ‘No, no. We’ll hire them, but we want them to play topless.’ Ron called me afterward, and I said ‘Well, we’ll play naked, but we won’t play topless!'"
At their house on Autumn Lane looking toward Mount Tamalpais, the Electric Flag shared the band’s equipment and invited them to their "coming-out party" at Monterey Pop Festival. Vitalich didn’t go, and Kaufman rain checked because she had a sitar lesson that Monday. But Alfiler, Mercy, and Hanson went, and they returned raving about a dazzling new guitarist: Jimi Hendrix.
"We were in their motel room, and I was in the bathroom, just combing my hair or whatever. The window was open, and I heard this guitar player. I go to Mary [Alfiler] and say, ‘We have to go there right now. We have to see who that is!’ We rushed over, and it was Jimi Hendrix playing." One week later, Polte got a call asking if the Ace of Cups would open for Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Panhandle in Golden Gate Park.
Hendrix watched the Ace and became their most high-profile fan, asking if the Experience could use their equipment and running around during their set taking pictures. Sadly, the Ace never got to see them. (“I’ve never seen any photos taken by Jimi Hendrix,” High Moon founder George Wallace remarks.)
Mercy was perturbed by Hendrix’s guitar antics but charmed anyway. "My guitar teacher Namoi Healy had always told me ‘Whenever you play your guitar, when you’re done, put it in its case. Don’t take it to the beach. Take very good care of your guitar,’” she says. “So when he burned his guitar, I thought he must have flipped out or something. I couldn’t fathom it!"
That December, Hendrix raved about the girls to Melody Maker. "I heard some groovy sounds last time in the States, like this girl group, Ace of Cups, who write their own songs and the lead guitarist is hell, really great." To be praised by Hendrix means a guitarist has reached the top of the mountain — a notion that makes Mercy laugh long and hard.
"I just wish, in some ways, that he had just said ‘The Ace of Cups were a great band,'" she demurs. "I don’t think my guitar playing was up to what he said it was. I think he was just being nice."
Later in 1967, the Ace set up their practice space at a hangar in the Sausalito heliport. Word was getting out about the Ace of Cups, and a few potential deals materialized. One day, Capitol Records stopped by the heliport. "They had to leave fast. They said, ‘You have five minutes to play us something,'" Vitalich says. "The song we chose may not have been the best one for them to get who we were. They thought ‘Eh.’ They weren’t that interested."
Cracks In The Cups
At this point, the Ace of Cups had friends in high places. In 1968, they sang backups on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “The Fool,” a nearly sidelong jam from their 1968 debut. (They’d later do the same on Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 album Volunteers.) Despite their rising profile, the pressure was mounting to put down their guitars and focus on family. “It was always a dilemma when we were thinking about it,” Kaufman says. “If we got a chance to do that, how would we pull it off?”
Hanson and Alfiler had babies at this point; Hanson’s daughter Scarlet Hunt had been born in April 1968, and Alfiler’s daughter Thelina Allegra arrived on Valentine’s Day 1969. While they had nannies to watch the babies during practices, being away from them on tour was virtually impossible. While Alfiler was nursing Thelina, she had to leave for Chicago to play a festival without her. "That was painful for her," Kaufman says.
“One of the hard things for us which freaked us out whenever we got close to signing a record deal,” Kaufman said in the It’s Bad For You But Buy It! liner notes, “was that in those days, you had to promise that you would tour. So when we began to have kids, it was such a dilemma… they were offering so much money, but it was hard. Even us just going away for short trips was difficult for the babies.”
Friction developed between Kaufman and Hanson. “Marla and I had some difficult times working together,” Kaufman says. “We could spark off each other and write well, but my experience with Marla was that she was volatile, and I could never count on what might happen. That was hard for me. She was a real talent and had wonderful musical gifts, but I never knew if she would give them or withhold them.”
Meanwhile, Polte’s agency West-Pole, which also booked Big Brother and Electric Flag, was, in Alfiler’s words, “disabling themselves” in a cocaine haze. “The drug scene was starting to be pretty bad,” Mercy says. “It was disheartening and just seemed dirty. That bothered me. I used LSD for sure, and I smoked pot, but I didn’t do these harder drugs. I started feeling like I needed to get out of this whole scene.”
At the time, Mercy was in a relationship with Francis Roth, who managed the Bay Area rock band Sons of Champlin, and domesticity was on her mind. “I started feeling like what I was supposed to be doing was having a family and living a life in that way,” she says. “There was a cultural impression of what I should be doing. There was arguing going on. I decided, ‘I don’t need this.”
In 1969, Mercy became the first to leave the Ace. (That fall, she returned briefly for one gig.) “Without [Mercy], it wasn’t the same ever again,” Hanson said in the liner notes. “I got more and more depressed as the weeks and months went on… we had all worked so hard for so many years and still had nothing to show for it.”
That year, Kaufman, who was five months pregnant with her daughter Tora, was shoulder-to-shoulder with 20,000 people at the Altamont Free Concert when a 32-ounce beer bottle landed on her head. The bottle cracked Kaufman’s skull, requiring emergency neurosurgery to remove shards of bone from her brain. If the doctors had used anesthetic, she would have lost her baby. (Over Zoom, Kaufman lifts her hair to show the quarter-sized dent in her head. Today, Tora lives on her Kauai farm and co-owns the music shop Hanalei Strings.)
The following year, the Ace of Cups got their only authentic offer from Saul Zaentz at Fantasy Records. Given this is the same Zaentz, who later sued John Fogerty for performing his own songs, one can imagine how this went down. “They sat down, and they wanted all our publishing!” Kaufman says, and Fantasy made a paltry offer that Polte refused.
Hanson soon exited the band. To fill the void she and Mercy left, three men temporarily join the Ace of Cups — Kaufman’s then-husband Noel Jewkes on horns, guitarist Joe Allegra, and drummer Jerry Granelli on an occasional second drum kit. By 1972, the Ace had evaporated completely. “I wouldn’t say it was a breakup. We just kind of faded out,” Vitalich explains. “The five of us just kind of drifted apart.”
What'll You Do Then?
That year, Alfiler and her baby daughter Thelina flew to her bandmate Denise Kaufman’s house on Kauai with 11 pieces of luggage, including a sitar and tamboura wrapped in blankets. She ended up staying on the island permanently. At that point, Vitalich and Jewkes lived in converted chicken coops outside Kaufman and Jewkes’ house on Creamery Road in San Geronimo Valley. ("There weren’t any chickens in it," she clarifies.) When that living situation ended, Vitalich moved into a tent on the next-door neighbors’ property, where she kept a queen-sized bed, a rug, a dresser and her drum pads.
Vitalich briefly played in the band Saving Grace with Hanson, the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, Quicksilver’s David Frieberg, and singer Cyretta Ryan, which rehearsed for months, played one gig, and called it a day. Alfiler and Kaufman soon moved to a house in Novato with a woman named Joellen Lapidus, who built ornate dulcimers for Joni Mitchell.
In 1974, Alfiler returned to Marin County for a year; she met her husband Andy on Kauai, he joined her back in California, he returned to the island, and she followed him. She had five more children, taught music at Island School in Kauai, and played in church and local bands. For a year and a half, Alfiler and Kaufman played in the all-women band Tropical Punch, which played at Club Med in Hanalei. But for a while afterward, the two didn’t see much of each other.
“That’s the house where I remember working with Mary Gannon on ‘Slowest River,’” Kaufman says. “When I went to Kauai, I left everything there because I thought I’d be back in a few weeks. I left everything and took my pop-tent, a dulcimer, and my baby.” That Thanksgiving, Alfiler arrived by plane with the remnants of the band.
In 1972, Mercy lost her son Kodak at 22 months old from a heart condition, a tragedy Alfiler alludes to in the song "Macushla." "At that point, I got into all kinds of spiritual ideas because I kept thinking, ‘What’s the point of life?’ I had a baby die, and I was young,” she says. She attended a three-day Tibetan Buddhist retreat and underwent a series of initiations, including fasting from food and water for a full day. "I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this. This isn’t for me,'" Mercy says.
For the next 13 years, Mercy, her then-husband Roth and her two children lived rent-free on 120 acres of land in Willow Creek, halfway between the California coast and where she lives now in Weaverville. “That’s where I learned how to can food,” she says. “We had eggs; we had chickens. We had bees; I had a bee suit and gathered honey. It was the back-to-the-land movement, which was one of the things that happened during the ‘60s.”
While in Willow Creek, Mercy played in the country-western band the Cosmic Cowgirls, then moved to Arcata and played in the band Roundup (later called Still Pickin’) then-partner Dave Trabue. She worked in the Behavioral and Social Services department at Humboldt, then in a detox center, as a substance abuse counselor, and as a case manager for behavioral health services.
In 1983, Kaufman moved to a guest house in Laurel Canyon to attend the bass program at Musicians Institute. While in Los Angeles, she taught yoga to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Sting and Madonna. In a 1997 Rolling Stone profile, Madge sang Kaufman’s praises. “She was in one of the first all-female bands,” she said. “Have you heard of the Ace of Cups? They [played] with the Grateful Dead. I like to poke her brain, get information out of her.”
For her part, Hanson spent many of her post-Ace years as the pianist and director of Fairfax Street Choir, a collective she formed in 1972 from jam sessions at the Sleeping Lady. (Alfiler, Vitalich and the Monkees’ Peter Tork also had stints in the choir, which reunited in 2013 for a new album and performance at the Marin County Fair.)
Come the 1990s, “I was living in Hawaii, not connected to anything,” Kaufman says of the band, whose name was quietly bubbling up in music collectors' and historians' circles. She’d heard about Ace of Cups songs, like “Boy, What’ll You Do Then” and “Stones,” circulating among bootleggers under false band names and track titles. In 1997, Kaufman got a letter from Alec Palao, who ran a magazine about the Berkeley music scene, and the pair began a correspondence. Palao knew about their boxes of reel-to-reel tapes and wanted to release some of the music therein.
Palao listened to their assortment of rehearsals, live gigs, and demos and cleaned up the audio. Then, Kaufman tracked down the one collector known to own a copy of “Boy, What’ll You Do Then” and Vitalich came over with an ADAT recorder to capture the audio. Thus, this nearly-lost recording — and so many others — were included on 2003’s It’s Bad For You But Buy It!. One person who eagerly bought it was the eccentric George Wallace, who then was dreaming up his boutique reissue label High Moon Records.
Reading about Kaufman in the liner notes, “I thought ‘Well, this is somebody who knew everybody,’” he says. “Maybe she’ll know where there are some lost tapes from the Avalon Ballroom [or something].” Wallace flew to Los Angeles for dinner with Denise, came to her house, and the pair listened to music all night.
Wallace is still amazed the Ace wasn't successful in the 1960s. “I would think the fact they were all women — and so good! — would make record companies drool,” he says. “No one knows why exactly the Ace didn’t get signed to a record deal. To me, it’s astounding.” He encouraged Kaufman to do more with the Ace and gauge the other members’ interest in continuing it.
An Unlikely Reunion
In 2011, the five original Ace members reunited to perform for Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday celebration in support of his Seva Foundation. “The reason we could do that show was that George rented us a house and a rehearsal space,” Kaufman says. “It was only because of George’s support that we could do that.” Due to personal differences, Hanson didn’t join the other members for future performances.
About a year after Wavy Gravy’s party, Vitalich, Kaufman, and Mercy began flying to Marin County to jam together. (At that point, Alfiler, who lived 3,000 miles away, “wasn’t in with two feet at all,” Kaufman says. “She was interested, but she wasn’t committing to be part of it. Eventually, she did.”) In 2015, after discussing the matter with Kaufman, Wallace decided to help the Ace make the debut album of their dreams.
And he was the man for the job, Kaufman says. “When he listens to music, he hears things I certainly don’t hear and has such interesting ideas. He believes in artists and artistry. And who else would take a group of women in their seventies and say ‘This music needs to be heard?’”
With Vitalich’s old collaborator Dan Shea behind the boards, the band entered Laughing Tiger Studios in Marin County sans Hanson. “My first thought was ‘What would this record have sounded like if they had recorded it in 1968 or 1969?’” Shea tells The Recording Academy about the experience of recording 2018’s Ace of Cups. “We tried to get the most vintage sound possible, which is harder than you might think.”
The Ace of Cups had their record release show in 2018. Soon after, their new manager Rachel Anne — who the Ace calls their “un-manager” due to being unmanageable — took the septuagenarians on a West Coast tour. At the time, Shea filled in on the keyboard but didn’t want to commit to touring. Dallis Craft, a Bay Area musician who is more than a dozen years the others’ junior, stepped up as their fifth member.
Photo by Jamie Soja
"I’ve always been a scrapper, making my living making music,” Craft tells GRAMMY.com. "I guess people floated my name around." She sees herself as the glue between the larger-than-life personalities in the Ace. “I’m just a happy first mate or whatever. Just tell me what to do to facilitate this whole thing, and I’m there. They’re strong. And it’s so good for me to be around strong women because I’m not.”
In February of 2019, the Ace played at the Mercury Lounge and Rockwood Music Hall in New York. That November, they returned to perform on The Today Show. “That was the biggest gig,” Alfiler says. “The big time, right? I met all these people, normal people with headphones on, running around. Everything’s on time; the makeup is downstairs. Maybe in my 20s, I would have thought it was the cat’s meow, but now it’s like ‘Thank you for doing this because I know what it is. It’s so hard.'"
“They schlepped all their gear,” Rachel Anne says. “We sometimes fight because they do shit and I’m like ‘‘Could you please not touch anything? We have roadies.’ I would go in with a load, come back, and there they’d be, like a trail of ants, carrying their gear. They’d say things like ‘Rachel, we’ve been schlepping our gear for 50 years! Back off!’ I’m like, ‘I can’t let anything happen to you!'"
Singing Their Dreams
For Sing Your Dreams, Shea adopted what he calls "a more contemporary approach." "There are more songs that they’ve written in the past 20 years as opposed to 50 years ago,” he says, despite two of the first songs they ever wrote, “Gemini” and “Waller St. Blues,” popping up on the tracklist. “I would say it’s less produced than a lot of the songs on the first record.”
Kaufman calls “Jai Ma” a “sort of Latin, sort of African, sort of Sanskrit, sort of Yogic dance to the feminine.” “It’s looking again at the story of Eve and the apple,” she explains. “In many cultures and traditions coming from patriarchy through thousands of years, women are kind of blamed or demeaned or made nameless. She brings up the story of Siddhartha, specifically his harem of women from whom he flees in disgust: “I always wondered when I heard that story, ‘What are their names? What do they want?’”
“Basic Human Needs” was written by Wavy Gravy in response to the bombing of a North Vietnamese hospital on Christmas Day 1972. “He’s a writer, but that was his only song, I think,” Kaufman explains. “He’s sung it through the years, but we wanted to do something with it.” This take of “Basic Human Needs” is its first recorded performance; Gravy sings the lead vocal and plays the “ektar,” his trademark one-stringed instrument.
Alfiler’s “I’m On Your Side” has an old Hollywood feel that recalls her theatrical background. “I had worked hard to bring in a collection of six original songs to play for Dan Shea in hopes that one or two would make it on to this second album,” she says. “One of the last songs we listened to was a ukulele ditty that I had written for my children and grandchildren. That’s the one he liked!"
Vitalich wrote “Little White Lies” about a real-life boyfriend who pulled the wool over her eyes. “I was heading to the movies to catch up with Mr. Wrong, as our roommate said he had gone to the theater. I couldn’t find him at first, but there he was, sitting embraced in the arms of another woman. I asked myself if I should make a scene, but to my surprise, I turned around and walked out of the theater with an overwhelming feeling of freedom,” she continues. “How could this be when I believed it would destroy me?”
The band updated “Waller Street Blues” with lyrics about the realities of the Bay Area in 2020. “I don’t know if you got our snarky little things about the tech invasion,” Kaufman says. “In the early days, Mary’s rent was, like, $45 a month. Maybe it was $45 each for two people, but it was not much. I look at young artists and creatives and think about how much energy they have to [expend] to have a space to work. Do they have time after paying for that loft or warehouse to be able to do their art? In those days, it was much easier.”
Then, of course, there’s “Slowest River / Made For Love.” To avoid words that sound too “ancient,” the Ace tweaked a few lyrics, including the final verse: “Even the slowest river winds ever to the sea.” They also released the “Made For Love” half of the song in advance to comment on our very trying year. “I’m glad we’re able to release it now because these are narrow places, these times,” Kaufman says. “We’re pressed in from all sides, and we need to hold on to our souls.”
After The Storm
As the COVID-19 lockdown approaches the seven-month mark, the Ace of Cups are doing what they’ve always done — playing music, staying active and hanging out with their children and grandchildren. They’re all communicating and collaborating over email; Vitalich is learning GarageBand and recording a new song called “After the Storm” about getting to the other side of the pandemic.
“I’m starting to record it in my home studio with the harmony parts,” she says. “I want to put it out there because it’s positive and might give hope.” She hopes it’ll make their eventual third album.
Because the Ace is his passion project, Wallace is anxious that they haven’t risen to the level of popularity he expected. Kaufman isn’t bothered by this in the slightest. “I don’t know what it takes to be popular in today’s music world,” she says. “We’re not in this to take the record industry by storm. We’re in this to share something real that’s authentic for us to sing about.”
Alfiler is even more Zen about the matter: “I can’t look further than two, three, or four years. We’re in our mid-70s. I’m the oldest. If it’s something I can put in the world that’s of value, I want to do it. If other people can do it better, then that’s fine too.”
She says this in paradisaic climes 3,000 miles from the nearest landmass, separated by decades from that night at the Sleeping Lady. As music careers go, the Ace of Cups’ is the slowest river imaginable, but it flowed into something like contentment.