Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Kevin Burke
by Steve Sparks, August 5, 2009
Before I begin this week’s interview I feel it is necessary to point out that my guests’ opinions are just that: their opinions; nothing more, nothing less. They are not substantiated by factual background research on my behalf and should be read with this knowledge in mind. I have no desire to embarrass/hurt anyone and, as we here in the Valley know more than most, there are often two sides to every story. PS. This disclaimer paragraph has nothing whatsoever to do with the following interview. Kevin Burke is a good artist, one hell of a drummer, he really did date movie star Julie Christie, and he is a nice bloke! Read on.
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I met with Kevin Burke at his home on Ruddock Road, south of Philo. As any self-respecting Englishman might be expected to do, he made a huge pot of tea and we sat down to chat. Kevin chuckled as he said, “Actually, you could sum this whole thing up by saying ‘Kevin’s life can be best described as ‘an endless cup of tea’.”
He was born in north London in 1942, the oldest of three boys born to Edmund Burke and Rose Wright. Edmund was an Irish itinerant worker who had come over from County Armagh to Liverpool before World War II, moving down to London in the early 40s. Rose was the oldest of nine and when her mother died and her father went ‘off the rails’ she basically raised her siblings.
“My Dad was a handsome guy with the ‘gift of the gab’ and he swept my Mum off her feet. They were married in 1941 and I came along the next year, then brothers Peter and Michael, all three years apart. My Dad was a telephone engineer and was needed on the home front to help with communications and therefore did not go to the battlefields. Once the Germans began to bomb London — The Blitz — most of southern England was evacuated from the cities and we moved to southeast England, to the county of Kent where we bought a house near to an airport where planes were returning day and night from their bombing missions over Europe.”
Following the War, the family moved to Chingford on the outskirts of London. “It was at the end of the urban area and the beginning of the green belt. I loved it even though life in England was not easy after the war with the rationing of many foods and products lasting until 1954. At 11 years old I passed my exams to get into a good grammar school — St. George’s in Walthamstow — and went there for a couple of years before going to a boarding school, Bishop Challenor in Finchley, London. I suppose I did get used to it eventually but I didn’t dig it at all, being away from family for weeks on end. I began to get a little wild at that point. Apart from art class I was not a good student and was hopeless in many ways, and quite unhappy for a time.”
Kevin returned to St. George’s at 15 but soon thereafter he started to earn a little pocket money by helping a neighborhood friend of his father who was a commercial artist. “He would bring some work home and I helped do some basic things for him. I earned about ten shillings ($2) a week and thought it was great.” It wasn’t long after that the company announced they needed an apprentice so Kevin applied for and got the job. Kevin’s parents, who were having financial difficulties, did not mind — part of the money, out of six pounds ($12) a week, helped with their bills and the rest allowed Kevin to buy things for himself — sports coats and other nice threads were his first purchases.
A couple of years later Kevin realized that commercial art was not the career for him. “I had learned a lot and hung out with a real bunch of wags with their sports cars and lovely blonde girlfriends but I didn’t really like the work in that field of art so I left. I got various jobs over the next few years and I always had a little money but realized I wanted more and wanted to do real art. I was hanging out with people my parents did not approve of, shall we say, and getting into all sorts of mischief. I was the youngest of the group, some of whom were teddy boys — the gangs of the day. They did a bit of fighting but I hated that. They called me ‘The Professor’ because I had been to a good school and did not work in a gloomy factory like the rest. The fifties were not easy in England. I was always astonished to watch television programs from America showing homes with huge fridges and cars, and lovely gardens and lawns. The US was on the rise as England declined. Nevertheless, I saved my money and soon had two cars and lots of sports coats, but that was definitely not the norm.”
In 1960, at the age of 18 he went full-time to Walthamstow School of Art to study graphic design and found himself “miles ahead” of the other students because of his earlier experiences. After a time he decided that he wanted to make another change — to life painting where students would draw or paint naked models. “This was real art, much better than designing book jackets!”
Kevin’s introduction to the London art scene came at a very exciting time. There were many dramatic cultural changes in the Swinging 60s of London and beyond. Many of the students were on the cutting edge of a whole new movement, the very hip pop art scene. “The school was famous for its fashion department and my art tutors were among the big name modern artists of the time. We were just young men new on the scene and here we were with naked women to paint and the hippest tutors imaginable. I had found my niche in the art world and I grew up fast. It was all happening together — big changes in film, fashion, music, art, etc., the most dramatic cultural changes in decades. I was ready for it and took it all in.”
Kevin graduated from art school in 1965 and went back to his high school to teach art. Then in 1967 a friend from college, Laurie Lawrence, sent Kevin a postcard from Los Angeles where he was studying for a year at UCLA. It simply said, ‘Kev, You’ve gotta come here. This is cool.’ “It was raining in London and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Eventually I made my mind up and set off. I went to Gibraltar near southern Spain where I caught a boat to New York. On the boat over I smoked a lot of hashish with two Canadians. I had not smoked much pot to that point, students in England were beer drinkers not pot smokers, but these two were fiends for it. We were stoned listening to Miles Davis for the whole trip. It was a very rough crossing, but we didn’t get ill like most other passengers. We ate huge breakfasts and had a great time, proof perhaps that marijuana prevents nausea! As we entered New York harbor many people were throwing their hashish bought in Europe overboard before they got searched. It was a strange sight.”
Kevin stayed in New York for a few days on 5th Street and Avenue C. “The heat and humidity was incredible and my first impression of Americans was how big they were when I saw a massive guy with a big fat cigar. People in England were thin in those days but Americans were clearly well fed. I stayed around long enough to realize that this city was just as busy at night as during the day and also to get mugged in Washington Square before I signed a drive-away car deal in which I would deliver a car to Los Angeles and get paid some of the gas money for doing so. I was in America. ‘What a trip,’ I thought.”
Kevin reached Los Angeles in less than a week and moved in with his friend in Santa Monica. He had a great time just hanging out and then one day another friend called to say his friend, actress Julie Christie, was in town with Gabrielle Crawford (English actor, Michael Crawford’s wife) and they were at a bit of a loose end. “Julie was dating Warren Beatty at the time but he was away filming and so we called and picked them up in our rented Mustang. I was a teacher, artist, and general lay-about; she was an Oscar winning actress (for ‘Darling’ in 1965) and yet we really got on well together. In fact the four of us hit it off — four Brits in L.A. We had a blast over the next few weeks. I had some income from my job as a projectionist at the Cinemateque 16 Cinema (16mm movies only) just off Sunset Boulevard, doing just enough to support my leisure time with these two English women on the loose. Warren was fine about it, happy that Julie had found some friends she could relate to as she never really liked the Hollywood scene.”
However, by the end of the summer, even though in many ways Kevin wanted to stay, he felt he had to return to his girlfriend in London, plus he did not wish to outstay his visa limit. He returned to teaching in London and doing a little of his art on the side. He had always been a ‘one girlfriend at a time’ guy and he was glad he came back but it was not the same and they soon split up. “My painting was enjoyable but not moving along very quickly. I have never been an artist who works behind a closed door, eating beans, painting all-day, sleeping, talking to nobody. I was confused about a lot of things and having experienced the LA lifestyle I did not know where I wanted to be. I was also smoking far too much dope.”
He decided to stay and over the next few years at the end of the decade and the early 70s, during which time he felt he was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippy. So he hung out in London. “I lived what might be called a full life but looking back it was a waste of time in terms of any career advancement. I did date Julie Christie for a year or so, and I did enjoy many aspects of the very hip scene. I did some freelance artwork and with friends set up a company that designed and built clothes’ boutiques — very popular at that time. We called ourselves The Crazy Kats and our motto was ‘Cheap in Quality not in Price.’ People loved our work and we did well for a time.”
“I did return to LA for a year and managed the Cinemateque 16 Cinema and taught ‘life painting’ at USC but I returned to London in 1972 when my mother died — the second saddest day of my life. I have a very philosophical view of most aspects of life, thank god, and dealt with this quite well. But when I suffered a collapsed lung soon after and nearly died it was a wake-up call. I had no money, had few prospects, and was somewhat despondent. I got a job at the City University as a lab technician in the civil engineering department and ended up being there for nine years! I moved from the labs to the environmental department, to various art projects, to finally the photography department.”
During this time Lauren Elder, whom Kevin had known in Los Angeles, showed up. She was on a book-signing tour after writing an account, ‘I Alone Survived’, of her amazing story of survival following a plane crash that killed the other two passengers in the Sierras. They began dating and eventually she persuaded Kevin to move to her home in Oakland, leaving London for the final time even though he had bought a flat not long before. “She did not like England very much. She did not understand many of the British ways and the weather didn’t help. Then Margaret Thatcher won the election in 1979 and I decided it might be good for me to leave too. I sold my London house, left England, and we were married by a Hindu Guru in Berkeley in 1980.”
Kevin got a job working for CBS News arranging for the shipping of logistical support and supplies to the network news program wherever they may be on location. He was there until 1986 during which time he visited Anderson Valley on a few occasions to visit Lauren’s friends, Steve and Barbara Derwinski. After leaving CBS, Kevin helped his wife in her graphic art business but also worked on various committees in trying to get Oakland council to set aside old industrial buildings for art/work space. With a business partner he had picked out a huge space and the money and plans were in place. All that remained to do were the seismic tests. Then in October 1989, when Kevin was visiting Anderson Valley, he heard of the earthquake that caused so much damage in the East Bay. His knew immediately that the project was over. He never returned to see the building.
Not long after this he and Lauren split up. He knew a handful of people on the Valley’s music scene, such as Charlie Hochberg, Brian Wood, Diane and Ellen Hering, with whom he had played banjo in many enjoyable jam sessions together. He decided to move up here and, after making a financial settlement with Lauren, he bought an acre of land on Ruddock Road where he lives to this day. “I thought it was not so bad here even though I had always been a city person. The locals had accepted me and my banjo, I could not buy much in the Bay Area with what I had left, Lemons’ sold my favorite cigarettes which were not easy to get, the public radio station was in its infancy and I liked that, so I thought I’d give it a go. I moved lock, stock, and barrel up here in my 1975 Buick Station Wagon, ‘the biggest car I have ever seen’ according to Bruce Hering.”
“It was tough for a time but I’ve been here for 18 years now — longer than I’ve lived anywhere. I have also always done various small construction jobs over the years, including the old AVA compound building on AV Way. I believe in doing just enough work to pay for what you need to do. I’m not work-shy but there is so much else to do in life. I had a jazz program on the public radio station and filled in for others at times, and have been involved in the Valley’s music scene to varying degrees over the years, off and on at Lauren’s on Thursday nights, then in The Big Band, and currently I also play out on the coast in the Dixieland Band. The sax is my favorite instrument; the banjo I like too, but the drums has become my instrument for most of my time here. Yes, I’m another underappreciated drummer!”
“I feel very settled here but I would never say I will not move anywhere else. I shall see what happens. The thought of finishing here is not good, but then neither is the possibility of moving back to England. That could be a nightmare. I have always thought of myself as being in control of my destiny but in many ways you are just a leaf in the wind. Meanwhile, I love hanging out here at home, drinking tea and reading, a little bit of music, a bit of art, some gardening. Not a lot of socializing these days, and little drinking, although I used to be a real piss-artist — you know, the kind who drives, throws up out of the window, and continues to drive. No more. I’m free to do what I please here. It’s a beautiful place and I feel part of this wonderful community. I do like people but I’ve also always enjoyed my own company and can do that here.”
‘I do miss the wide range of culture that I had in the cities — London, Los Angeles, the Bay Area. I had been a big city person all my life and I miss some of the banter I had with people in those places, talking about all kinds of issues well into the early hours. It’s a choice I have made and conversely I couldn’t have much of what I have here if I lived in a City.”
I asked Kevin for his brief responses to some of the issues confronting Valley dwellers.
The wineries? Things change. They are here, it’s a fact of life. It is important that they chip into the community and if they take too many liberties with the resources here then we have to stop them.”
KZYX public radio? “It’s cool. I want it to survive. I wake up and listen to Democracy Now as I have a cup of tea. We must try to keep it going.”
The AVA newspaper? “I like it. Bruce writes from the heart it would seem and in the past sometimes perhaps he thought why let the truth get in the way of a good story. At least that has been the knock on the paper. I think the paper is essential for the community to keep in touch with each other. Just the act of reading it puts you in the community.”
The modernization of the Valley? “I do not like that some people move here and try to turn it into Marin with their big gates and swimming pools etc. I appreciate that some of the small businesses need the tourists but they have therefore got expensive and I cannot support them. They need to think about that perhaps.”
I last posed a few questions from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert” Bernard Pivot, featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? “Yes”
Least favorite word or phrase? “I don’t like to hear people finish their sentence with ‘and stuff.’ What is this ‘stuff’ they talk of? I also find it equally irritating when people say ‘a whole bunch’ — it’s like they cannot think of what they want to say.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Art — there is such a thing. Real art. I also like thinking; being able to think stimulates me.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? ‘Tedious, boring people who should know better.”
Sound or noise you love? “Melody. And the sounds of the outside, rural and urban, crickets, rain, and the sounds of Camden High Street in London, equally as valid.”
Sound or noise you hate? “People arguing. I walk away from that. And yet I do like an argument myself, or rather a critical discussion.”
Favorite curse word? “I say the f-word far too often.”
Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “This week? There are too many of each. Er, how about ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ by Carlos Castaneda. It made a big impression on me.”
Favorite hobby? “I’ve never really had hobbies. My interests have always been paid for so they’re not really hobbies.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “An architect perhaps, or maybe a psychiatrist. I am a good listener.”
Profession would you not like to do? “It would be something that did not require any creativity.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? “Can’t think of one thing, although getting accepted into Art School made me very happy indeed.”
The saddest? “The death of my father in 2006 at 83 years old. We got close in later years and he came out here in 2004. We had a real bonding experience and I learned that he had been a drummer in an Irish folk band, traveling by horse and cart to his gigs. Yes, a drummer! The loss of my second parent was tough. I felt completely adrift for a while; it was a very strange feeling.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “I could not do without my sense of humor. I also like that I am able to get introspective at times.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well that would be ‘Wait here a minute — I’m going to have to put this to the other guys.’ Yes, I’d like think it was not a foregone conclusion. Make him think about it a little.”
To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Don Shanley.