I first saw The Roches perform on “Saturday Night Live.” We now think that the early years of “SNL” were all about John Belushi and Eddie Murphy, of course, but one of the remarkable things about that show, for a ’70s teenager like me, was a window into the world of eccentric nightclub performers: People like Leon Redbone and Andy Kaufman and The Roches, who had never had that kind of exposure on TV before.
Maggie and Terre and Suzzy Roche appeared on “SNL” in 1979, the same year that their debut album came out, and I was a fan pretty much from the start. Punk was just starting to seep into the mainstream, and there was no shortage of exciting new wave bands, but here was something that didn’t really seem to be connected to anything else: Three sisters who wore thrift store clothing and sang clever and sometimes quite moving songs in uniquely sweet-and-sour (but stunningly precise) harmony. I listened to that first album over and over — their later albums less so, but still a lot.
I also discovered the greatness of Seductive Reasoning, recorded by Maggie and Terre, as a duo, in 1975, before Suzzy joined them. That should have been the breakthrough, but they had to wait for the world to catch up to them.
Maggie Roche died Saturday, of breast cancer, at the age of 65. I’ve been thinking about her, and The Roches, a lot. More than I would have expected, actually, so I’ve also been trying to figure out why, and I think it’s because they represent to me, a kind of hope.
Let me explain.
I started to listen to music seriously in the early- to mid-’70s, and artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Who and The Beatles formed a kind of musical bedrock for me. As I started to learn more about pop and rock, my assumption was that it had peaked in the ’60s, and would never be as great again. But The Roches — like Elvis Costello, The Clash, Patti Smith and others — showed me that, while the ’60s would never happen again, there was still a possibility for something new and original and exciting to come along. There was a real renaissance in popular music around that time, and The Roches were part of it.
I later learned, of course, that they didn’t come out of nowhere. They were originally from Park Ridge, and were part of the New York City folk scene. Their song, “Face Down in Folk City,” was inspired by the same Greenwich Village nightclub that I went to, often, in the ’80s.
I saw The Roches perform in concert a number of times through the years, and interviewed them, and wrote about their various solo, duo and trio releases. And any time I hear them singing, in any combination, it brings me right back to 1979. My last year of high school and first year of college — a year when everything seemed possible.
Maggie — the Roche who looked like Gilda Radner, I always thought — was the trio’s dominant songwriter in those days, and her low voice was one of the things that really made the group’s vocal mix distinctive. I’ve spent some time since Saturday listening to some of those classic Roches songs again, and would encourage anyone reading this to do the same.
An anecdote I’ve also been thinking about:
After college, I found myself working for the Ridgewood News newspaper, and one of the towns I covered was Park Ridge. I went to borough council and board of education meetings and wrote items on local police activity, and so on.
I was not writing about music at all, but wanted to give it a try. Unfortunately, there was not a lot going on, musically, in the Bergen County area those days — at least that I was aware of. There were occasional shows at the Capitol Theatre and the Brendan Byrne Arena, of course, but there was no Mexicali Live, and BergenPAC (then known as the John Harms Center) wasn’t doing much pop or rock. It wasn’t a great place for an aspiring rock critic.
But I knew The Roches had grown up in Park Ridge. They were pretty much at the height of their fame them — I didn’t think I’d be able to land an interview with them — but I found out that their brother, David Roche, had written a song on their then-new Another World album, and was performing in local clubs. Surely he would give me an interview, and the Park Ridge connection would justify it to my editor.
So I approached him, after a show at the Turning Point in Piermont, N.Y., and asked if I could write about him. He said sure, and so I visited him a few days later in his East Village apartment, to interview so, and that was my first article about music (32 years ago!). Without The Roches hailing from Park Ridge … who knows, maybe everything would have worked out differently for me.