Too Much Caffeine Woman
Whimsical and Obsessed, Jean Caffeine Ponders Her Big Sweet Life at 40
By Margaret Moser, Fri., Oct. 13, 2000
Jean Caffeine is an easy interview. Her eyes light up when talking about many subjects -- art, punk rock, teaching, making records, gardening. So much so, in fact, that it's difficult to find one starting point with the well-seasoned local musician. Leave it to her to provide her own lead.
"Did I tell you how I ended up in Orange County when I thought I was on a flight to Portland for North by Northwest?
"I got on the wrong plane in Phoenix. They bumped me because I was going to miss my plane in Houston since I got distracted talking to a cute guy who did techno music. I remember looking at the gate and the departure times and destination, but I was so tired that I went to the gate I thought I was leaving from.
"They had loaded everyone and I was confused, thinking the plane was leaving later. I only had the boarding pass, so there was no ticket to look at. I went to the bathroom, and it was there they made the boarding announcement that sounded like 'wekshisorcopla.'"
Caffeine garbles unintelligibly into her hand.
"I fell asleep as soon as I got aboard, and next thing I knew we were landing and they were saying, 'It's 66 degrees, welcome to Orange County!'
"In retrospect, when I first went to my seat and a priest was sitting in it, I might have known -- it was a classic cinematic moment."
Cinematic enough that it sounds like the opening of a Twilight Zone segment, but it's not. It's Jean Caffeine's life, and these days -- trips to Orange County notwithstanding -- it's a damn good life, not one she's slept through at all.
Jean Leider, aka Jean Caffeine, was born in New York to an M.D. and a writer. [Emily Leider wrote an excellent Mae West biography a few years ago, and is currently working on Rudolph Valentino.] The family moved between both coasts a few times, settling in the Bay Area when young Jean was in second grade. San Francisco was a cultural garden, and by her teens, her interests bloomed beyond art and theatre, and into things that naturally attract teenagers. Like rock & roll.
"What really changed my life was going to see the Rolling Stones in 1975, for the It's Only Rock & Roll tour," she says. "I was giving my parents trouble, as happens between adolescents and grownups. They wanted to send me to camp, but 15 is too late to start sending the kid to camp, okay? Luckily, camp fell through at the last minute and I went to San Francisco State for this teen theatre program. I made a lot of friends that summer, and it was my birth into rock & roll."
That birth was an astonishingly profound experience for Caffeine, who recalls the Stones playing the Cow Palace with opener the Meters.
"I was a typical fan of the headlining band," explains Caffeine, "meaning I wasn't cool enough to like the music the band likes. I did not get the Meters. Every other song was 'fiyo.' Now I am so mad because I love the Meters. It wasn't the same seeing them at Liberty Lunch 20 years later.
"But the Stones changed everything. I saw the Faces' last tour, I saw Peter Frampton right before he broke. I went to see the Tubes, doing White Punks on Dope. Those things changed me so much. I would have been so different."
How different is hard to fathom, since rock & roll had its hands full with punk rock's adolescent rebellion as Caffeine came of age. In the Seventies, trends came by word of mouth -- in the schools, off the streets -- not in Gap ads. Punk was the last great anti-trend to affect rock & roll in those dark ages before the Internet and MTV, and its voice was not to be silenced. Certainly not by a curious teenager with a voracious appetite for life.
"Punk rock discovered me,"asserts Caffeine. "I first saw punk rock on the Tom Snyder show, not the one with Johnny Rotten, just an overview of punk. Then I remember seeing a poster for this band called the Nuns [featuring young Alejandro Escovedo]. I went to the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club, and asked, 'Do you let in minors?' I was 17 and they said yes, because they served food, but the food was long gone by the time the bands came on, so I don't know how they got away with it. I went in and saw the Nuns and a band called Crime.
"At the Mabuhay, there was this little punk rock newspaper called Psyclone, and I wanted to get involved. It's 1977 and I'm in high school. I don't remember whose idea it was, but it was decided I would do a fashion shoot with garbage bags. We went to places like the Hyatt and shot pictures. And I saw the same thing -- garbage bags -- on this Tom Snyder show! Like independent consciousness, I was definitely part of it, and teenage angst was so perfect for that. I would like to write punk-rock memoirs."
Her experiences with the Nuns alone could probably provide the bulk of those memoirs, which would include her doing homework at their rehearsal space and dating the band's drummer. It was another drummer, however, Carla Maddog of the Controllers, who gave the budding punker lessons on the actual instrument. Turns out she'd already put in some time on the stool -- at camp, of all places.
"I ended up getting into dance, losing a lot of weight, becoming a vegetarian, and giving my first blow job," she laughs. "They should have sent me to camp earlier."
Or maybe New York.
"I never felt like I was San Francisco in my core," she admits. "I felt like I was New York in my core. Really."
Really. Those expanded "punk rock horizons" never left Caffeine's line of sight, and in 1980, she moved back to her native New York. The Big Apple in 1980 was as happening as in 1968, but instead of psychedelia, Caffeine found a post-punk paradise. First it was as a DJ at venues like Danceteria and Club 57, then she returned to her percussive roots and started drumming for an all-girl band known as Pulsallama, which was led by an ambitious performance artist named Ann Magnuson, later of Bongwater.
Pulsallama developed a reputation as the queens of cacophony, their theatrics earning them a tour in England opening several dates for none other than the Clash. Eventually, Pulsallama imploded, as much a product of the times as creative imaginations and feminine egos, but Caffeine wasted no time in forming her own all-girl band, Clambake.
Clambake's lifespan was about as long as, say, a clambake, Caffeine teaming up with Texpatriates Cathy Crane (the Foams) and Liz Gall (Buffalo Gals) as well as Holly George, who would later hyphenate her name with Warren and become an editor at Rolling Stone. Clambake burnt out with only an Alex Chilton-produced CD as evidence of its brief existence.
Down but not out, where does a bicoastal young woman with punk credentials and energy to spare go next? To Texas, of course, to play country music. Jean Caffeine's All-Night Truckstop attracted a variety of musicians hungry to play her "electrified porch music and garage country," but nowadays, Caffeine thinks of the Truckstop as an "alternative bar band."
"I get sick of all that, 'I was country when country wasn't cool,'" she sneers. "I was country after that cowpunk thing in L.A. -- I wasn't cool enough for X or even Dwight [Yoakam]. And it was before this newer, wimpier country. I like honky-tonk and I like the Stones, and I like them for the same reason I seek out art. I look for things I didn't grow up with."
A typical Truckstop set list would include not only standard weepers like Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," but the Rolling Stones' "Far Away Eyes" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me)."
"I like honky-tonk titles, I still use them," explains Caffeine. "They're like a cross between humorous puns and sadness. I like that. When k.d. lang started refuting her country roots, I started wondering if I was doing that too. But I don't have country roots. I'm a girl from San Francisco. I grew up on the transistor radio."
The All-Night Truckstop's legacy was a self-titled CD followed by the wonderfully rootsy cassette-only release Hard Work and a Lot of Hairspray. Produced by Gurf Morlix, Hard Work marked Caffeine's growth from penning punk and country-inspired ditties to original songwriting that began to garner attention. It would also be her last recording effort until 1997's Knocked Down 7 Times Got Up 8.
As it turns out, another siren was calling to her, and Caffeine answered it willingly. It's a long way from the honky-tonk of Hard Work to the soul-baring rock & roll of Knocked Down, but the catharsis was due in part to her new job. It was a career change that continues to shape Caffeine's music, and every now and then, said music even finds its way into that same place: the classroom.
Caffeine's shaggy brown head, with its spare, chunky stripes of blond, is bent over a bright blue iMac in one of the animation rooms at Rick Linklater's Detour Productions office. She and an assortment of other whiz kids are doing animation work on his latest film, Waking World, which was shot on film that's being colored in by an assortment of local artists.
"This is Wiley Wiggins,"says Caffeine, "Remember him as Mitch from Dazed and Confused?"
The young actor's features are outlined with bold, colorful strokes as she plays and replays a 15-second clip.
"He needed money after the movie, so he came in and started animating himself."
She flips through a few more frames of Wiley before starting work on the background and the character of an elderly woman.
"My parts here are very simple because I'm only a part-time animator," she explains. "I'm kind of obsessive about details. I didn't do the old lady, but I'm doing backgrounds. I'm also working on a little kitty-cat that will be on a television set."
Her eyes are wide and shining; she whispers conspiratorially, sitting up and pointing to the muted tones on the computer screen.
"See this?" she pulls up a frame with trees and bushes in the background. "The movie is underneath everything, and you paint on top of it, almost a paint-by-numbers element. It's both mindful and mindless. The drawing part can be very tranquil."
Caffeine completes painting the trees in the background and heads to dinner, where she ruminates about art and how it plays out in her life and music. Her direct manner of speaking is both confessional and childlike, as her inquisitive nature permeates all conversation.
"Picasso said we spend our lives as adults trying to draw like children," she says. "I'm very drawn to naive art, especially from special-needs people, because it looks like children's art. I always want to find pieces of art that are unique, [and] I've always liked the feeling of discovery."
Caffeine touts California's state-sponsored art centers Creativity Explored and Creative Growth, where interested parties can witness "people of various disabilities and strengths" exercising their creativity firsthand.
"I started getting into this one artist's work," she says, but "at first, I thought it was two artists. I kept seeing all this art of food on wheels -- a hamburger on wheels, hot dog on wheels, Swiss cheese on wheels. So I started buying the pieces. Later, I went back and asked if I could use the art for on the cover. That's the cover of Idée Fixe.
"I chose it for a combination of two elements: whimsy and obsession. I feel like that combination speaks to me. I think there's a whimsical aspect to my character, and that this album is focusing more on my own obsession or what I have to do for catharsis."
Idée Fixe, Caffeine's new album, gathers 10 songs that cogently define the angrier Knocked Down with a calmer, but no less discerning, eye. She allows that some of Knocked Down was made when a relationship was foundering, but the actual recording was cathartic, and she maintains, fun.
"I'd record every weekend if I could," she enthuses. "You know, before you put your record out, all that time before is what's so exciting, so empowering. Idée Fixe didn't get fun 'til the end. I was worried about it. I wanted to have more of a heavy hand, and I didn't know enough about Pro Tools to have a heavy hand, and Lars the producer did. So I had a lighter hand than usual.
"I got a lot of positive feedback from Idée Fixe, and I'm vulnerable to that. Good reviews help everybody think you're happening and make a buzz. I always get written about because of good reviews. I don't know if they make people buy records or draw at a club, but I've had A&R guys write because of what they've seen in the Chronicle."
It's not hard persuading Caffeine to rattle off a few choice tracks.
"I really like 'Girlfriend Girlfriend' as a favorite original song, because I wanna be tougher and cooler than I really am. That one just plopped out in response to having a really bad boyfriend. It's really fun to play that loud, grungy stuff 'cause I have a puny little voice. It just sounds better on record.
"I really love the song 'Guilt.' I also like 'It's Not Nice Without You.' I thought that would be more of a hit. I heard from a friend of mine that her third-grade daughter is really into it."
She picks at her food.
"If they just stay away from that one bad word ..." she grins.
"My records are very telling."
Jon Dee Graham's "Big Sweet Life," one of two covers on Idée, makes you want to hug the song, the songwriter, the singer, the one you're with. If the record-making process is empowering, so is the way Caffeine embraces this song so joyously.
"Come on over here and give me a big sweet kiss," she flirtatiously improvises in her version, both inviting and assertive. "I've been thinking what this album is all about. I thought it was about obsession, but it's not all about obsession. 'Big Sweet Life' is the happiest song on there. Every time Jon Dee played it, it made me happy, so I asked him if I could learn it. When you learn a new song, whether it's yours or someone else's, it fills you with a huge happiness. Especially songs like that. Exuberant."
For the new album, Caffeine drafted longtime sideman Dennis Ku and guitarist Lee Jay Paschall, drummers Stephen Bellans and Rob Gaines, and lured producer Lars Göransson to play bass. The usual suspects also gathered, thus Miles Zuniga, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Andy Dyken, Phillip Lit, Jose Galliano, and Caffeine's longtime buddy Tawnya LoRae contribute guitars, keyboards, percussion, and vocals. This type of clan gathering is crucial to her concept of making albums, and she credits Göransson with the magic of Idée Fixe.
"The album would have sounded very small without his production," she insists. "It's his baby."
That's generous praise from someone who also confesses she can't afford to make any more albums unless someone pays for it.
"It's expensive," she says, stating the obvious. "I became a homeowner and I shouldn't always operate in debt. I'm not that money-motivated, I would just like to lose less money."
Caffeine ponders setting aside money for home improvements, but admits she doesn't really spend that much time at home.
"The most I live in my house is when I have a mate. I'm a little cleaner, a little tidier. I like to cook, but I don't like to cook for just me. In New York, I lived in clubs. I was never at home. I'd get home in time to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show at 2am.
"I'm into more of a light life," she insists. "Not l-i-t-e like Cool Whip, but bright. I don't know if Idée Fixe is the death of the 'Dark Jean,' but my newest record ... well, I don't feel like that right now. I'm 40. I've never been married. It doesn't look promising. I'm not Cinderella waiting for the slipper, and like a lot of 40-year-old women living alone, I've gotten set in my ways."
With turning 40 comes inevitable transitional anxiety, where values shift and priorities rearrange themselves seemingly overnight. What was once a source of interest and fascination becomes irrelevant, and the weight of having a personal history kicks in. Sometimes it's a little alarming, Caffeine admits.
"I got into The Sopranos, but it was way too violent for me. I'm very into television, but I am not into the postmodern ultra-violence. It's so brutal."
Shaping the minds of young Austinites has caused Caffeine to rethink part of her previously liberal outlook.
"I want everyone to think I'm bad-ass with my new rock record, but I'm getting so conservative," she confesses. "My liberal freedom-of-speech militancy is so different since I started teaching. As a teacher, you try to get across to kids that we're all different but we're the same.
"By introducing them to art and traditions of different cultures [like] Day of the Dead or Chinese New Year, it broadens their perspectives. They get some tolerance for what they don't know. Kids aren't so set. And they can build a lot of chops. Their little hugs in the hall are so awesome. And their imagination is something else!"
In terms of imagination, Caffeine labels television "the opiate of our generation," but confessing weaknesses for Friends and Ally McBeal ("except that Ally made me feel lonely"). She also cites the required English-class allegory Pilgrim's Progress as an unlikely source of inspiration.
"We thought it was so lame, [but] it was all about a life mission," she says. "I'm not a religious person, but I've always felt there's a life mission for me. Since I've been a singer, I've tried to find out that thing that's messing me up and write about it, make light of it, and work through it. I was so into gardening, but how many songs can you have with metaphors about plants?"
Caffeine giggles a little self-consciously as she sings over the remains of her salad.
"Some things just come to me. That's something I always want to ask other songwriters: 'Does something absolutely just fly down and land on your plate?' The song was 90% written after that weekend trip, but I'll probably work on that 10% for the next year.
"I hate it when everything's out of my hands," she explains. "I guess that's why it's hard to figure out which place in the bin is best for my album. If it's not going to be promoted, then I want it to be because I am not promoting it. But I like to get things out there, and I've chosen a profession where things are more in my hands: teaching. But punk really changed me too. Do my eyes light up when I talk about punk rock?"
As she spears the last leaves of lettuce in her bowl, Caffeine looks very innocent for 40. Her quizzical eyes sparkle with mischievous intent and her lips quirk. Is it a question, an answer, or a wry observation on the tip of her quick tongue?
Whatever it is, her eyes light up.