The Roches' Showbiz Blues

Sisterhood is both biological and political for the folk trio

The Roches perform on SNL, November 17th, 1979. Credit: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

"At this point, we don't have a relaxed feeling of being successful and happy. There's a lot of pressure and anger and pent-up frustration." Terre Roche, the most voluble member of the New York folk trio whose debut Warner Bros. album, The Roches, is receiving national critical acclaim, speaks in carefully measured cadences. Hypersensitive artistes in the philistine pop world, Roche sisters Maggie, Terre and Suzzy are notoriously skittish with the press, and it's only after an hour of tense conversation — the four of us sprawled on the grass beside the Charles River in Cambridge — that they begin to open up.

"I can't talk to anyone these days who's not relating to me as one of the Roches," complains youngest sister Suzzy. "You ask a question, and one thing comes out for three different people who are basically trying to get away from each other. In my experience of being around the Roches, there are a lot of spears flying."

"That's not my experience!" protests twenty-seven-year-old Maggie Roche, the group's senior member and most prolific writer. Maggie speaks with the pained solemnity of someone struggling to communicate through a catastrophic grief. But even as they disagree, the three sisters exchange a look of protective love that excludes the rest of the world. Sisterhood, biological and political, is a fundamental ingredient of the Roches' sensibility. Depending on their mood and on the song they're singing, they can exploit it for wacky humor or ominous solidarity. But if sister acts have traditionally emphasized similarity, the Roches insist on a fierce individualism.

"We're all very different personalities with different opinions," Terre says forcefully. "It creates a three-sided, three-dimensional thing."

Maggie and Terre Roche were entering adolescence at the time of Beatlemania. It's easy to imagine that as teenagers, these irreverent, luminously intelligent women secretly resolved not to run after the Beatles but to grow up to be like them. And in a way they did — within a folk, feminist, Seventies, New York bohemian framework. A sleek gamin sporting a Jean Seberg haircut, Terre, 26, is the trio's poised, sarcastic spokesperson. Shy and darkly mysterious, suggesting reservoirs of rage and strength, Maggie is their aesthetic theorist and spiritual mother. Suzzy, 22, plays the rebel and the clown, her tempestuous slapstick rock & roll personality neatly undercutting her sisters' artier tendencies.

Though the Roches have been hailed as leading lights in the so-called New York folk revival, the point is really that they represent the best and brightest of a new generation of middle-class pop intellectual artists who were teenagers at the time of Woodstock and who are just now reaching maturity. The previous generation — Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell — shared the righteously romantic attitudes of the Sixties counterculture. The new generation, having inherited that culture's shattered hopes, evinces skepticism rather than certainty, and its political style is more eclectic and off beat than rhetorical.

By cavorting around in weird combinations of thrift-shop threads and sports gear, the Roches deliberately contradict their serious folk image. The same iconoclasm applies to their songs. In addition to their own material, their repertoire includes such oddities as a three-part a cappella version of the "Hallelujah Chorus," the old Ames Brothers hit, "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane," Little Eva's "The Boy I Love" and Bob Dylan's "Clothes Line Saga."

The Roches' own songs, many of them arranged in close, swooping harmonies, are laced with deadpan one-liners ("You can go south in winter/Be what you are a goose") that don't make their songs any less serious, only less obviously so. Where Joni Mitchell's ballads of erotic disenchantment bleed, Maggie Roche's are wryly philosophic. "I know these girls, they don't like me/But I am just like them," she wrote about wives and mistresses in "The Married Men." The Roches' music is correspondingly cool and exploratory. Embracing barbershop, Irish traditional, Andrews Sisters swing, Carter Family mountain music, doo-wop, work songs and children's songs, as well as Joni Mitchell, it succeeds in keeping the listener constantly off-balance.

More than ten years of work have gone into the Roches. Maggie and Terre began singing professionally in the late Sixties at Democratic fundraisers in their hometown of Park Ridge, New Jersey. They were brought up Irish Catholic; their father, John A. Roche, was a speech-training consultant who developed a taped language-skills course called Speechmaster. When the duo were offered a tour, Maggie quit Bard College, and Terre dropped out of high school. "One by one we left home/We went so far out there/Everybody got scared," Terre wrote in "Runs in the Family," a song that suggests the danger and the personal cost of making bold decisions early in life and sticking to them. Among other things, this meant having to support themselves on and off with secretarial and waitress jobs.

In 1970, Maggie and Terre attended Paul Simon's songwriting seminar at NYU. Two years later, they called him up and asked to audition for him. Simon was impressed enough to have them sing backup on There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and he also introduced them to his lawyer, who negotiated an album deal with Columbia. Seductive Reasoning, an interesting, uneven record, which had four producers, was released in 1975 to resounding public indifference.

Devastated, Maggie and Terre retreated for several months to a friend's kung-fu temple in Hammond, Louisiana, where, in Maggie's words, "a lot of people went to learn how to beat people up." When the temple dissolved, they drifted back north and into performing again. Their first gig was a women's music festival in Champaign, Illinois, in June 1976. Although Maggie wasn't a politically active feminist, she found the influence of women's music "very healing."

"We kind of came to feminism the way we came to the Andrews Sisters. Very much after the fact," she says.

The Roches became a trio in late 1976, when Suzzy, who had been studying acting at the State University of New York in Purchase, moved to Maggie and Terre's home turf of Greenwich Village. The three sisters outfitted themselves as living Christmas trees, complete with tinsel, and began performing elaborately harmonized carols on street corners and in subways. Pretty soon they began playing at New York clubs like Kenny's Castaways and Folk City, where they caught the ear of Warner Bros. A&R woman Karin Berg. Coincidentally, their producer-to-be, English avant-garde art-rock figure Robert Fripp, saw them perform and decided that he'd like to produce them.

The Roches captures the trio's live sound, adding only a few "Fripperies" here and there, such as the three tape loops in "The Married Men." Other additions include harmoniumlike synthesizer on a couple of tunes and a sinuous lead guitar in "Hammond Song." But the overall effect is intimate and relatively unadorned, the few embellishments subtly enhancing the Roches' ethereality.

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At the Inn-Square Men's Bar, an inauspicious little Cambridge pub with a red beer sign in the window, the three sisters troop onto the platform stage to a rousing ovation from the hip college-community crowd that is their natural audience. In green gym shorts and hiking boots, Terre looks like a wigged-out high-fashion model. Maggie is wearing a fishnet shawl over a peasant blouse and two dresses, one a half-foot longer than the other. Suzzy, hunched and mugging like a marathon runner champing for the gun to go off, has brought along a paperback copy of Lolita to beat time on.

They deliver a smooth fifty-minute set of songs from their album, interspersed with material by Loudon Wainwright III, Dylan and Handel, and punctuated by many wisecracks. (From Terre, for example: "One of the things about coming from the suburbs is that wherever you travel, you always feel you've done something wrong.") Though the set is wonderful and the audience enthusiastic, I sense that tonight the Roches haven't quite satisfied their own rigorous standards of artistic perfection. I remember Suzzy fuming a few hours earlier about the pressures of performing: "If I don't want to do something, I'll do anything to get out of it! I'll create cancer in my body!"

Terre agreed. "Performing is too special to push it to the point where it dies. The same's true of writing. I almost feel that it's a spiritual process and if your motives are impure, you're not going to write a good song."

"It's like you're on the run," Maggie sighed. "You see that you got something good going, and you gotta run with it."

The big time has also wreaked havoc with at least one of their personal lives. Suzzy's boyfriend, Loudon Wainwright III, recently moved to California. "My personal life and my working life are killing each other," she said flatly. For Terre, whose boyfriend, singer/songwriter George Gerdes, lives in New York, the career and the personal aren't presently at odds. Maggie, who I sense has given up the most for the Roches, sees life and art, career and personal life, as indivisible.

"I feel like I'm gonna be pissed off all my life, so I'm just happy that I get real happy sometimes," she said. "Even though I don't think I could stay in this forever, what's happening to us now beats anything else I've seen."