Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Song For My Father

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner, or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights as a teenager, he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and the Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there in North Beach, San Francisco, Saturday night, 1958 or ’59: The Beats had arrived, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through, but my dad was from across town—the Sunset, Ocean Beach, a Catholic boy—and the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce worked in the area and would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a stiff-necked straight, but my father was no square: I like to imagine the neighborhood regulars welcoming him, an innocent among hipsters for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that he favored and he had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, along with MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale–Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid–Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida–with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way others tell me they’ve known Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia; they were like fathers, a part of the family. 


It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. Sure, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I really want, caked with his energy, accompanied by the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his approval and enthusiasm for my taste in the avant-garde and for own small, tidy, and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz. Somewhere along the way, he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times changed, and the City, as we call it, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was a young suburban family man, a periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision and become a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before those things helped define leisure styles in the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— and his life between jobs just outside San Francisco. Music didn’t figure into that picture. There was no nightlife to pursue there and no trips to town to hear the jams; most all the old clubs had gone dark though North Beach was becoming home to the next generation of outsiders, the art students and punk rockers of my generation. Not yet 40 years old, a suspended driver’s license kept my dad unemployable and housebound, his wife at work on the swing shift. By day, he slept in the hammock or sat at the kitchen table, pouring filtered coffee through a cone. He stayed occupied, typing mysterious reports and letters on the Royal and watering the lawn, but he never reached for the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, adjacent to the patio, just on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the family room of our California ranch-style home. It was as if getting up, the simple act of putting a needle to a record, was just too much for him: He had entered the no-jazz zone.

Though occasionally he’d ignite the old flame:  He took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing at St. Francis High School. I heard he rousted my brother and took him to see Milt Jackson at the grand opening of the Mayfield Mall.  Other times, if ever he dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that jazzer’s strange custom, finger-clicking (shoulders hunched). And sometimes while driving, he’d tune into the jazz spot and bop to the radio, occasionally gesturing with an air-cymbal crash. These efforts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal for me: Jazz made life bearable, if only for a moment, as we floated off to another land, returning refreshed, for a couple of bars or beats. 

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ’70s, my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them.  I moved back to San Francisco, and I’d heard so did my dad, after he’d done some rambling.  Eventually we got together for lunch, often at St. Francis Creamery in the Mission, and other times at Mama’s or Vanessi’s in North Beach; on those days he was feeling more flush and would spread the wealth. We never spoke of the past—it wasn’t in our repertoire—but the memory of his LPs, their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their spiraling liner notes occupied a large space in my heart, lighting a space in the darkness of the holy here and now. I wonder, had he lived, if we’d ever get back to jazz, if he would’ve rediscovered his passion for it, or if he would share mine for Mingus and Monk. If only it had occurred to me to have played some Louis Armstrong at his funeral.  What if he’d lived to see his 50s?  Would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm or held strong?  For sure we’d agree Duke is king, and we most certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal at his most recent appearance in town.  But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I still reflexively roll my eyes at him?  I will never know, though whatever his style and taste in his 70s and whether we agreed wouldn’t matter, if only he was here, right now.  Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is if he can remember the moment he stopped listening.  

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Jazz, North Beach, video, , , , , ,

New Ebook, Shaman’s Blues

shamans_bluesWhat was meant to be a short, between books project is now officially a new ebook, Shaman’s Blues. As an author from traditional publishing and as a person who spends much of her energy as a books advocate and activist, it’s a strange twist that my own title is available through that infamous bookstore-eating electronic channel. Let’s just say it’s an experiment for this writer and others like me: We’re in processing of discovering whether it’s possible to earn a living from our books instead of owing our publishers infinitely. Whether it’s possible to do that, as I’ve heard some writers have done, remains to be discovered. The good news in all this is a hardcover edition of the book will be available October 1 at independent booksellers and libraries (ordering details will appear here soon). And if you’re a traveler or fan of e-reading, Shaman’s Blues is available to you at no cost, beginning Friday August 22-Sunday August 24. For now, please visit the Blooming Twig/Sumach-Red blog for a taste of what you’ll find inside. And thanks for taking a chance on Shaman’s Blues.

Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Protest Songs, You Read It Here First

Stolen Legacy of Marcus Books Must Be Returned To Owners & The Community

In February: Mayor Ed Lee (center) of San Francisco signs the historic landmark designation for 1712-1716 Fillmore Street, former home of Marcus Books and Greg and Karen Johnson (also pictured).

Since the May eviction of Marcus Books in San Francisco, the speculators who purchased the property have waged a hateful campaign against the historic, landmarked Jimbo’s Bop City building that housed the oldest black bookstore in the US and the Richardson-Johnson family, its longtime proprietors. Theft of valuable store inventory and business tools, destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, displacement of four generations, and most recently a slander campaign against the family who ran the store for 50 years are the contributions made by new owners, the Sweises, to 1712-1716 Fillmore Street. That the City of San Francisco has done little to prevent the attacks, aside from rubber-stamping the building and business as a community and cultural resource with a landmark designation earlier this year, isn’t that surprising: Since the 2009 Mayor’s Task Force Report on African American Out-Migration, few of the recommendations for education, economic development, and cultural and social life have been implemented.  But the City’s negligence and complicity in this recent act of cultural genocide in the black community was so shocking, it must not be allowed to stand unchecked.

The continual and unrestrained despoiling of predominately black and brown neighborhood resources is not a newsflash:  There has been a concerted effort toward black neighborhood “redevelopment” since at least the early ’60s. Certainly evictions overall have been unprecedented on Mayor Ed Lee’s watch, but the way in which the dismantling of the Marcus Bookstore was carried out was particularly aggressive. Small business owners, especially those of color, know well the lack of protections for their tenant and human rights, but the Marcus Books story was under-reported by local media and the details remained largely a mystery to those outside the community until this response by the Johnsons was published on Friday.

In May: Contents of the Marcus Bookstore in process of being dumped and prepared for hauling away.

Following the store’s eviction, the new owners broke several moving dates, then took hostage the store’s books, art work and equipment. Said to be put in storage, to date the materials have not been returned. Community members suspect most all of what was contained in the bookstore—including 50 years of history and ephemera documenting black San Francisco—was either stolen or destroyed, hauled away in a landscaping truck by day workers. That the historic Marcus Bookstore should be physically dismantled in broad daylight as District Supervisors, various commissioners, Mayor’s Office and the NAACP leadership who supported the motion to preserve the property stood by and did nothing to prevent it is the question that remains shamefully unanswered. That passerby were allowed to rifle through the dump truck and take what they liked is simply further evidence of the uncivil and unjust treatment of a community’s history, co-signed by the City.

As a native San Franciscan, an author, and community advocate for the preservation of our most valuable cultural assets—in this case books and literacy—I support the campaign to return the Marcus Bookstore to its Fillmore location. As witness to the community meetings, in store events, Board of Supervisors and Historic Preservation Commission proceedings, and desecration of the property, I have observed and documented with astonishment the trail of broken promises and lies told by District supervisors, Mayor’s Office appointees, and the African American community’s own faith leaders about the bookstore and its proprietors. These erroneous claims–that a bookstore is an unsustainable model for 21st Century business–entirely misses the point. The campaign to support Marcus Books goes beyond keeping open the doors of a mom and pop bookshop: It is an attempt to shine a light on and preserve African American culture, community and literacy, particularly for readers of the future.  The removal of Marcus Books on the block could once and for all to erase the rich cultural heritage African Americans created in San Francisco—through art, music, literature, civic engagement and action and replace it with a whitewashed version of history that does not include black contributions. Further, it negates the interests of the wider community of black and other interested folks who relied on the Marcus Bookstore’s products, services, warmth, and humanity.

In July: The vacant and vulnerable historic landmark at 1712 Fillmore Street.

I am curious how the City officials and employees who reportedly bought their first books at the store, who sat at the owners feet as teenagers and said they were in support of the store can now step back and refuse to take notice or phone calls and deny their previous public statements of support. But I’m not surprised that the landmarking of Marcus Books was insincere and just another photo op: The City’s allegiance to money and power is well known: Given an opportunity, I can imagine Mayor Lee selling his own ancestors down the river. Expecting him and his regime to understand the struggle waged by Marcus Books as a cultural one was a non-starter from the gate. But there is no doubt Lee and Co. failed to “Provide full support of the Fillmore Jazz Heritage District and to make sure that African American culture is fully respected and highlighted in the effort” according to Out-migration Report recommendations.

Despite the setbacks, the original owners of 1712 Fillmore and its family of supporters continue to fight injustice in their community and reclaim justice for all. We have not heard the last from the Marcus Bookstore.

 

If you are interested in expressing support and solidarity with the owners of Marcus Books San Francisco, please contact the Support Marcus Books site directly. If you are a bookseller, author, or publishing professional interested in joining a new alliance of Bay Area independent bookstores, please contact keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you will be added to an email list.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Civil Rights, Editorial, Jazz, new article, , , , ,

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Music for Change: Cambio

Cambio’s album title, I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to a broadcast by Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO San Francisco about a year ago. With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte, the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja, committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him. Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album, Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work: One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s a remix “I Need A Dollar” featuring Bocafloja originally from I, Too, Sing America.

This Saturday afternoon, Cambio and I will be making a presentation on music with a message and music  for change at the Oakland Museum of California. If you are interested in hearing more from Cambio, check his Bandcamp page and the archived broadcast of the show I heard. Please support his work and the work of other musicians for change: Positive hip hop is still marginalized but Cambio’s voice, if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land: He, too, sings America.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, video, vinyl, , , , ,

Phranc: Your Basic Average All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger

From her time on the LA scene during the first wave of punk, and through a 25-year solo singer-songwriter career that’s served as inspiration to a new generation of queercore and riot grrrl artists, Phranc is embedded in California’s rich musical landscape. Temporarily sidelined from performing in recent years, Phranc is officially back to art and music and fuels her creativity by pursuing her favorite activities offshore, from swimming and sailing, to surfing.

“Going surfing is a big part of my creative process,” she says. “I’ve surfed since I was nine years old. Leaving land is my favorite part of it. I like being in a separate reality.”

Phranc’s day-to-day reality includes making cardboard art (she shows in galleries and museums on both coasts) and writing songs. Some of her work is topical like “Bloodbath” (which took on apartheid in South Africa) and “Condoleezza”; other creations are more whimsical (“Rodeo Parakeet” comes to mind). But whether whimsical or topical, Phranc’s art and music always has a story to tell.

“It’s still my favorite thing, to listen to a story through a song. It’s like nothing else. A song can preserve time and memory and history in a way that words or a picture alone can’t. A song can capture it all,” she says. In recent years, Phranc wrote about her beloved hometown of LA; like souvenir postcards, she hopes to incorporate the songs in a package that merges her audio and visual media.

Growing up in the beach community of Mar Vista near Venice, California, Phranc took a ’70s pilgrimage to San Francisco, figuring she’d fall in with its world class gay community; instead, she discovered a world of artists, actors, and ne’er-do-wells who introduced her to punk rock. “It was a great time and a life-changing time for me. I felt like I had a peer group. Not only did I identify as far as politics and music, but also age-wise. I had been with people because they were lesbian and women and we had a lot in common but they were all a lot older. So for once, I fit in. Where could a freak fit in? In punk rock!”

Morrissey and Phranc strike a pose

Unable to secure a day job outside of a stint as a nude model at the Art Institute, Phranc returned to LA. “So I came back from San Francisco and the only people I knew here were lesbians, and no way man, I wanted punk rock! I started going out to punk shows. I would put on a little suit and tie and I would go there and try to look so cool though I didn’t know a soul.” Hanging out on the street by herself at a SoCal Avengers show, she was spotted by Edward Stapleton. “He walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, want to be in a band?’ Not, ‘Can you play anything?’ And I’m like ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Good. The band’s Nervous Gender, you’d be perfect.'” From keyboards in that band she moved on to guitar in Catholic Discipline, and eventually landed in Castration Squad. You can catch a glimpse of Phranc in Catholic Discipline, alongside bandmates Claude Bessey/Kickboy Face from Slash magazine and Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, in the Penelope Spheeris film, The Decline of Western Civilization.

By this time, it was about 1979, and punk was already changing. “The fashions changed and the politics changed and people were wearing the swastika, which they hadn’t been up to that time. Because I’m Jewish I would notice and it pissed me off. So I wrote a song called ‘Take Off Your Swastika.’ It was right around the same time the Dead Kennedys wrote ‘Nazi Punks F**k Off.’ I wrote the song as a direct personal reaction to the swastikas and I decided to play it on my acoustic guitar. Up ’til then, I’d been playing electric guitar and synthesizer. Nobody in punk was really playing acoustic guitar at that time, and the reason I did it was because I really wanted the words to be heard. Because, as far as I’m concerned, punk rock is the folk music of today… though I didn’t play it at some folk club, I played it at punk rock clubs.”

folksingerPhranc was as amazed as anyone when people’s response was overwhelmingly positive. “People would yell and I’d get heckled and stuff, but on the whole it was pretty great. I remember playing at the Whisky and seeing a couple of guys taking off their swastikas.”
In 1985, her solo debut, Folksinger, was released on Rhino Records; she’d recorded the album with money she saved from teaching swimming lessons. It wasn’t long after that she became the designated support act for artists like Morrissey, Hüsker Dü, and the Pogues. “My audience has always been very diverse. People assume because I’ve been out as a dyke that my audience is lesbians and that’s not true. The audience that really supported me and continually has is a mixed bag of men and women, gay and straight. Still to this day, people come up to me because they heard me at college. My songs are for everybody. I like to reach as many different kind of people as I possibly can at one time.”

Read more about Phranc in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Folk, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , , , , ,

Cyndi Lauper: She’s Still So Unusual

Photo1 - (courtesy WeTV and Kinky Boots)Though I never owned  She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper in the ’80s (it was what we called “too commercial” for my taste), I was certainly happy to revisit it in its 30th anniversary vinyl edition, and hear it as the watershed in women’s recording it was.

By the time Cyndi Lauper made her solo debut in the fall of 1983, the year had already delivered some of ‘80s culture’s greatest hits: Michael Jackson had performed the moonwalk on the Motown 25 TV special; Sally Ride was the first woman to fly into outer space, and a black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned for the first time ever. Madonna was still a yet to be, in the process of defining herself on a debut that just skimmed the radar. Lauper however was fully formed, comfortable in her own skin and clothes, wrote her own songs and had enough chutzpah to take others’ songs and make them her own. She was also an extraordinary singer, then and now, her voice an expression of pure joy and an assertion of her freeness…

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE: 

Filed under: Reviews, vinyl, What Makes A Legend, Women in Rock, Women's rights, , , , ,

For Cinco de Mayo: The Mexican American Rock y Roll Connection

It all started with Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” and The Champs and “Tequila”  in 1958, though it would be another decade before Santana took Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and freaked it out in 1970. Los Lobos brought Spanish language to LA punks with “Anselma” in the early ’80s and to the masses in 1987 with a remake of “La Bamba”; in 2002, they tore it up Chicano style with “Good Morning Aztlán.” Of course, these names of Latino rock royalty can twist a phrase en español—it is their birthright. But what about los gringos without Latino roots who’ve brought a Mexican vibe to their rock ‘n’ roll? And the bands that feature lesser known Mexican-American musicians, plus los otros conquistadors of south-of-the-border sound? Well, they are the subject of this Cinco de Mayo post, claro que si.

There are any number of starting points I could choose to begin the story of Latin rock and the use of Spanish language in rock ‘n’ roll, but since I’m not a scholar of the stuff and just an admiradora, I’ll apologize upfront for any mismanagement of details, mangling of the language, and my Anglo-centric survey of the music. Let’s just say for the sake of ease we start with 1948 and Don Tosti’s recording of “Pachuco Boogie”, a swingin’ tune about the rebellious zoot-suiters featuring a conversation or street rap in Caló, the urban dialect of the Pachuco subculture. The Pachucos donned the zoot suit and started a ’40s fashion and attitude riot that asserted individuality and anger in the face of having been stripped of a cultural identity. What, you are asking yourself, does this have to do with music? Well, Southwestern Chicanos adopted the baggy trouser/knee-length jacket uniform that had previously been seen on the Harlem jazz scene, and Don Tosti earned the nickname “the Godfather of Latin Rhythm and Blues.” Alongside Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music,” who also sang of Pachuco life as well as farm laborers’ rights, Tosti opened the door for an ethnocentric brand of music to cross into the mainstream (“Pachuco Boogie” was a massive seller), though it wouldn’t be until the late ’60s that the Chicano Movement would come to organize in the name of cultural identity. “Suavecito”, the 1972 hit by Malo (the group led by Santana’s brother Jorge), is an example of Caló y Latin rhythms coming together in one classic R&B/rock ballad. But what happened between “Pachuco Boogie” and the day when Santana threw down at Woodstock before even releasing a debut album?

Well, that would be the invention of Latin rock by California son, Ritchie Valens, a rocker whose “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” are ’50s standards, but who happens to be most remembered for the music of his cultural heritage. As we know, the music died on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Valens, and the pilot died in a plane crash in Iowa, yet “La Bamba”, the el hefe of Spanish language rock songs, lives on. Starting out as a hundreds year-old Mexican folk song, Valens rocked it up and delivered a three-chord wonder that eventually any garage or punk-rock band could play. The Plugz, an LA band by way of El Paso, featuring Tito Larriva and Charlie Quintana, self-released their cranked-up version of “La Bamba” in 1981. The Plugz also recorded two long-playing rare classics, Electrify Me and Better Luck, before morphing into the Cruzados and then eventually going their separate ways, but not before their “El Clavo y La Cruz” and “Hombre Secreto” (as in “Secret Agent Man”) gave the right touch to Repo Man, the punky midnight movie about “the LA experience.” In 1987, Los Lobos were asked to re-record some Valens songs for the soundtrack to La Bamba, a Hollywood bio depiction of the Richie Valens story starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It was then the band, formed in 1973 in East LA, rose to a new level of fame (their take on “La Bamba” went to number one). Debuting in 1976 with Si Se Puede! benefitting the United Farm Workers, and inspired by music diverse as Bob Dylan and Traffic, R&B, Mexican folkloric music, Jimi Hendrix  and Marvin Gaye, Los Lobos are as American and rock’n’roll as they come, while they continue to clutch the roots of their musical  heritage, masterfully incorporating traditional corridos and norteño sounds into their alternately furious rock’n’roll and  laid back jams.

Los Lobos were also inspired by the Eastside sound of Thee Midnighters and Little Willie G (more on them in a minute), as well as Carlos Santana y Jerry Garcia, and the Sir Douglas Quintet, distinguished by Augie Meyers’ Vox Continental organ sound and the soulful singing of Doug Sahm who started their band in San Antonio, Texas. Their greatest hit, “She’s About a Mover,” as released in 1965. Sir Douglas Quintet belonged to the handful of US groups who brought the spirit of the British Invasion (English musicians doing American music), back into the hands of Americans by tricking the public into thinking they were playing British-styled music like the Beatles and the Stones, rather than American music by Americans. It was Sir Doug that officially added the Tex-Mex sound to the American music mix, while Sahm would also go on to sing of the border and other Mexican concerns (“Michoacan”). In later years, Sahm and Meyers would also join forces with Mexican-American rock and genre-straddling songwriter Freddie Fender and accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez as the Texas Tornados.

The Farfisa organ sound and the count-off uno, dos, one-two, tres cuatro would become recognized around the world that same year as the opening to “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Led by a Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, the song is about nothing really and was said to be named after his cat. Domingo worked as an itinerant musician and reportedly as a carny before forming the Pharaohs, who took their name from Yul Brynner because he looked tough as the character in The Ten Commandments, one of those epic 1950s Bible movies. “Wooly Bully” became a staple of the frat-rock genre though it was more distinctive than just serving as the soundtrack to AnimalHouse-style hijinks. The song spent an incredible 18-week stand on the charts, and by the end of 1965, it was named Billboard magazine’s Number One Record of the Year and had helped dislodge singles on the charts by the aforementioned pesky British bands of the era. Sam the Sham’s “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was certainly another fine moment for the band, but it lacked the Tex-Mex organ sound that would crop up on the great singles of the ’60s made by another legendary group of Mexican-Americans: “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, who hailed from Michigan and were fronted by Question Mark aka Rudy Martinez and featured a teenaged organ player, Frank Rodriguez, Jr. The organ riffing would also inspire the group’s “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby.” In 1998, Smash Mouth from San Jose, California, had a hit with the song alongside their hit remake of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by War, a mixed-race funk band whose big hit “Low Rider” was a hats-off to cruisin’, Chicano style.

Of course, when it comes to cruisin’ Chicano style, the band for that is East LA’s Thee Midniters. Known for their instrumental jam “Whittier Boulevard”

The band and their especially soulful singer Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, was a big inspiration to the future members of Los Lobos. The song was a natural to cover for Los Straitjackets, the contemporary (mostly) all-instrumental band that performs in Mexican wrestler masks. Okay, so copping a Spanish name and wearing a mask does not make a Mexican rocker. But by virtue of using the article “los” in their names, Los Straitjackets, as well as Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, are filed in American record stores with the other “los bands,” like Los Bravos, the rock group from Spain whose 1966 hit, “Black Is Black”, did not contain a word of Spanish. Nor to my knowledge did the Zeros, the Mexican-American band from San Diego, ever sing in Spanish, though as members of the class of ’77,
they are distinguished as first-wave punk rockers; they also sprung Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Somewhere, there exists a rare single of their anthem “I Don’t Wanna” backed with “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu”, a cover of the first Righteous Brothers hit made even more famous by Mitch Ryder.

I have only scratched the surface of the Latino influence on rock, precisely because it is inescapable and inextricable. I never got to point toward the “Spanish” sound on all those Brill Building and Phil Spector hits, or delve deep into the Afro Cuban percussive roots of rock (best exemplified by Bo Diddley borrowing the rhumba-like clave beat), nor did we open the pandora’s box of disco that partially paved the road to hip hop and other forms of dance music.  There is so much to uncover, from Devendra Banhart’s musings en español on Cripple Crow to the Mission District’s #1 son, Jerry Garcia (that is if you don’t count figure #1a, Tijuana-born Carlos Santana). I had planned to wax on about Jack White’s and Beck Hansen’s Mexican-American neighborhood origins as well as the exact definition of un perdedor as heard in Beck’s “Loser,” but I will leave that to you to explore. While were are here, let’s not forget the great Spanish-lover, Joe Strummer, whose Mexico City childhood allowed him to open his corazón to the Spanish-speaking world, and they to him. I had hoped to remind you to remember to forget U2’s lame-o uno, dos, tres, catorce countdown to “Vertigo”, but who am I to talk when all I can offer are my own gabacha sign-offs, ay, caramba y que lástima. Yo no soy una roquera, lo siento. Pero, in the hands of the Mars Volta, Ozomatli, Zack de la Rocha, La Santa Cecilia, Cambio, y todos los músicos, there is mas y mas y mas y mas musica: Rest assured, La Raza rocks on. Wishing all a safe and sane Cinco de Mayo.

The research compiled in this column was originally published some years ago in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Origin of Song, , , , ,

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band,  Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

RIP: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter passed away on Easter Sunday at the age of 76. “Hurricane” was Bob Dylan’s protest song concerning the story of the middleweight boxer and the flawed judicial process that sent him away for an unjust term. The recording was a landmark: Over eight minutes long, it was released at a time when the media perceived Dylan to have moved away from topical subjects and protest songs; moreover, the song played a contributing role in Carter’s case to have his sentence overturned.  Here was clear-cut evidence of music attempting to forge change actually doing so.

As a listener, the song forever changed me: I will never forget the moment I heard the song on the radio, its content crashing with my understanding of the American judicial system, the clarity of the message and the dissonance it created so upending to me as a young person, I froze.  For many years, I could only refer to Dylan’s line from the song as a way to describe what I felt: “Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.” Not knowing what to do or say or think about these matters, without access to organizations for change or discussion about it, “Hurricane” would become why I would write about music with meaning, though I would not know that for many years to come.

The following, reprinted in the spirit of the memory of Carter, picks up threads I’ve written on Dylan’s post-“political period,” the time in which he wrote and recorded “George Jackson” and “Hurricane.”

While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, his albums Self Portrait and New Morning were the personal reflections of a more inwardly directed songwriter. Though he stepped out with the Band for Planet Waves and a tour in a new era of big-time rock ‘n’ roll concert business, he retreated again, against the backdrop of a marital disintegration that famously produced Blood on the Tracks in 1975. By summer of that year, he was ready to come out again, swinging.

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he’d never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the champion of the world”

Speaking to criminal injustice, Dylan took on the plight of  Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which the boxer outlined his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his framing by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him on the inside. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing a tribute with Jacques Levy, his collaborator at the time.

“Look, there’s an injustice that’s been done and Rubin’s gonna get out, there’s no doubt about it,” Dylan told author Larry Sloman. “But the fact is, it can happen to anybody.”

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan's prison visit to Carter.

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan’s prison visit to Carter.

“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as pistol shots in that New Jersey night, Dylan sets the scene and creates a detailed picture of a world unfamiliar to the majority of his listenership—many of them now younger than his original folk peers, and for the most part unacquainted with the political world, much less the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. Certainly the name Rubin Carter would be remembered in boxing and prison justice activism even if his story had not been the subject of a Dylan song. Yet the song comes by special stature, not only for increasing awareness among rock fans of the shortcomings of a criminal justice system in need of reform, but for reinforcing a perennially misunderstood concept: All human life is of equal value, no matter a person’s race, class or crime–real or imagined.

During his 1975-’76 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan and friends performed “Hurricane” onstage every night. The entourage, including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, rolled into Madison Square Garden in December of 1975. They were joined that evening by singer Roberta Flack and boxer Muhammad Ali for a benefit billed as “The Night of the Hurricane.” Ali addressed the crowd playfully, in characteristic rhyme. “I’m so glad to see you all with the cause because you have the connection with the complexion to get the protection,” he said from the stage.

Carter also spoke that night, his words delivered through the house PA via telephone. “Muhammad… on a serious note, my brother Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘Walk upside down inside handcuffs, throw up my legs and kick them off. Say all right, I’ve had enough. Now what else can you show me?’” Carter said, quoting from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” “Speaking from deep down in the bowels of the state prison of New Jersey, the fact that I’m speaking to you and the other brothers and sisters in the audience, that’s revolutionary indeed.” Praising the love of his wife and daughter, Carter said his hope was alive. “I knew that if I remained alive, that if I kept myself well… I knew they were going to come to my rescue, and tonight, here you are.”

The song’s intensity, a unity of frantic fiddle and verse, stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as others wrongly imprisoned behind false testimonies and racial bias. Following the release of the song as a single in 1975 and the formation of a grassroots movement for Carter’s freedom based on the false evidence used to convict him, the boxer was released on bail and granted a new trial the following year. His conviction was finally overturned in 1988. Eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated; Carter went on to become an activist for falsely accused prisoners.

Richie Havens, a frequent interpreter of Dylan’s songs who opens all his shows with “All Along the Watchtower” (to name just one of Dylan’s pointed “post-protest” era tunes), says that “Hurricane” remains his favorite among all of Dylan’s songs. “That was an incredible job of going in there and winning, getting him out of there. Unbelievable,” Havens told me in 2008.

“Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too: It spoke to matters for me that as a young person in 1975,  I had little experience with, and yet I felt the truth in the lines, especially the one about the criminals in their coats and ties and how they put the wrong man behind bars. I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing for an entire eight minutes and be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my own adolescent world. Dylan’s exciting “return” to protest was my first meaningful engagement with a protest song.  Though it took many years for me to unpack its importance to who I am personally and professionally,  it was this song that set me in a direction for further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing, freedom movement, liberation, and message music, the kind that holds secret, hidden histories of ourselves and our country that you won’t often find written about in history text books; rather these relevancies to American social, political and cultural history are handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.

a version of this originally published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Concerts, Keep On Pushing, Obituary, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, video, , , ,

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