Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Much More Than Just Music in Chrissie Hynde’s Memoir, Reckless

I think of Chrissie Hynde’s stunning “My City Was Gone” just about everyday as I stalk the streets of Sanchrissie-hynde-reckless-h724-1 Francisco, searching for meaning and life in a place I used to and sometimes still do call home. The song’s themes of urban destruction and environmental decline in the name of so-called progress are threaded throughout Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life As A Pretender, among other unexpected twists to her rock star’s back pages, but then Hynde was never one to do the expected. The fact she let Rush LImbaugh get away with using the opening notes of “My City Was Gone,” for his radio show for years still boggles the mind: Rationalizing her parents were fans, with folks like that, is it any wonder she had to leave Akron?

Read entire review at DOWN WITH TYRANNY!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Reviews, rock 'n' roll, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Now Playing: “Yes We Can Can”

Pointer-Sisters-first-album-coverThis is a repost in memory of Allen Toussaint passing today.

I was thinking about the Pointer Sisters today—The 1973 Pointer Sisters—and how their first album was one that rarely left my turntable that year. I was a child and mercifully I’ve held on to most of my records from then; curiously, this one’s  in pretty good condition—too good I’d say, to have belonged to a kid—which leads me to believe it’s not my original. Back then, I was in the habit of marking all my LP records with a DYMO tape sticker that said DENISE. Just like that, all caps, white letters on orange or green, sometimes red or blue though rarely yellow. But because the DYMO tape or any evidence of having been stuck by DYMO tape is missing (I like typing DYMO), I’m thinking the copy I’m holding of the Pointer Sisters’ self titled album on the Blue Thumb label was at some point reacquisitioned, between 1973 and now.

It’s uncharacteristic of me not to know exactly when I came by a record; that’s just how it is with people who collect records (or if you collect anything, you know what I’m talking about). Obtaining the object is part of its memory, which I find is selective and often obscured by all kinds of clouds and things. But records are the proverbial madeleine that take us back to the land that time (and sometimes I) forgot; songs may come and go, but it’s the record that helps me remember.

Opening the gatefold sleeve today, I recalled a few things: How as a girl, I preferred the portraits on the outer sleeve to the stylized inner sleeve which I bitterly critiqued as “staged.” The outer sleeve was real, or so I thought, not knowing photos were taken at a thing called a photo shoot, set up by a photographer (H.B. Greene according to the sleeve notes) who has an assistant. Preferring the sepia-toned “authentic” 1940s styling on the outer sleeve to the glossy, deco design on the inside, I’d pegged the Pointers as down-to-earth, regular people, not Hollywood types; they were after all local, from Oakland. This is how it should be, them living in a Victorian-styled house like the one pictured on the cover,  them dressed in ’40s casual, just as they would everyday.  I never talked to a single other kid about The Pointer Sisters first album or what they wore or how they wore it, I just know I’d still give my right arm for a dress just like the one June is wearing in the photo, perfect as it is in every way. Anyone who remembers these things like I do will tell you that baby June, the youngest Pointer, had the style thing completely locked-up. Such a fashion icon she was, it’s a wonder I didn’t take to wearing a turban like she did, though I think I intuited it probably wouldn’t go over very well at school. Where did a child obtain a turban anyway?

As for the music, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Forty years later, we all know everything about everything and all I’ve got is my stale madeleine from the early ’70s and my Pointer Sisters reverie. The first time I heard the Willie Dixon song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” it was not performed by Etta James; rather, it was right there in my bedroom with the yellow floral wallpaper, at the end of side two of The Pointer Sisters.  For sure, that was also the first time I ever saw the name A. Toussaint on a writing credit.  Allen Toussaint is of course a legend of New Orleans piano style and the songwriting giant who wrote the album’s opener, “Yes We Can Can.”  Why do I waste my breath? You knew that. Heck, even I knew as a small fry that Lee Dorsey was known for doing the song first; he’d been around the prior decade with “Ya Ya.”  I knew that one by heart for reasons I can’t possibly relay right now without getting way off course. Put it this way: “It may sound funny but I don’t believe she’s coming home” rung some bells for me.  I also liked the smooth vocals in “Jada,” one of the songs the Sisters themselves are partially credited with writing.  But really, what I was most concerned with in 1973 wasn’t the music but in getting hold of some old plastic fruit, likely the cherries from the bowl at my great-grandmother’s house, so I could fashion a bunch into a corsage that I could wear on the lapel of my Eisenhower jacket from Lerner’s, to be worn with some wide-bell high-waist pants and platform sandals. Pointer Sisters style, for real.

In closing, I was going to say I don’t remember what we did without You Tube but that would be a big fat lie. I remember perfectly well what we did and that was, we’d watch really bad video tapes that were hard to store and even harder to find on shelves, usually caked with dust. Once we got the tape in the VCR it had to be fast forwarded and rewound so many times, so maybe, just maybe you could find that segment of Soul Train you were looking for but started to regret you ever taped in the first place, since if you hadn’t taped it, you wouldn’t be messing around with a stupid remote control that never worked because the battery was like 10 years old to begin with.  Recalling this foolishness, I am wasting my own time and now yours, when all I mean to say is,  just try to imagine how I felt when I found this clip of “Yes We Can Can” today, because I can’t possibly describe the feeling of joy, such joy—not in 250 words or less I couldn’t—though I will add this:  If there is one song to have had burned into your consciousness, to have been etched onto your soul, and sent with you on your way into the world, this one isn’t a bad one to have to be. Bless you, Mr. Allen Toussaint and Ms. Pointers, Anita, Ruth, Bonnie, and June. Thank you for the record—and for my memories.  Great gosh all mighty.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Obituary, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Election Over, Work to Mend San Francisco Begins

CS83hfAUEAETkI_The mood was upbeat as the party thanking supporters and celebrating victory for District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin got under way last Tuesday night at North Beach’s historic Club Fugazi, otherwise known as the home of San Francisco’s longest running show, Beach Blanket Babylon.

Though the margin was slight in the early hours of reporting, confidence was high that Peskin would handily defeat Mayor Ed Lee appointee Julie Christensen. Fellow Supervisor David Campos called it from across town, live at the Mission’s El Rio and on Twitter when he said, “Looks like we will have a progressive majority at the Board of Supes for first time in years!” What San Francisco won’t have– for now, that is– is a new mayor.

– Read entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: new article, North Beach, , ,

Scary Stuff: Airbnb and Uber

1610760_681995441935841_5846217004420531092_nIt hasn’t been a great month in public relations for the so-called “sharing economy,” at least here at the industry’s ground zero, not-so-affectionately known as San Francisco 2.0. Here, even regular citizens– and not even particularly politicized ones– are starting to get hip to what unfettered capitalism and unregulated business looks like in their town now that the umpteenth Uber driver was accused of threatening a female passenger with sexual violence, followed by Airbnb’s appallingly tone-deaf ad campaign calling out public works and employees.

The home-sharing app stirred further controversy as its misguided billboard and bus shelter ads sparked questions of the financing of the No on F measure they fiscally sponsored. Going to vote next Tuesday, if F passes, it could  result in tightening existing regulations on the books by actually enforcing them, which would mean a new dawn for vacation rentals, and a bummer for the (mostly) pure profit margin of Airbnb.

Read entire article at DOWN WITH TYRANNY!

Filed under: new article, , , , ,

Two New Films, One Fiction, The Other Non, Examine The Darker Side Of Law And Order

The Other Barrio and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution are two very different films yet both depict crimes against communities of color in the Bay Area and beyond. I recently spoke to producer Lou Dematteis and director Stanley Nelson, about their respective films.


Forty nine years ago this month, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for the purpose of combating police violence in their Oakland neighborhood. Just in time for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, the story of the Black Panthers is told once and for all in Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “I’m interested in movements, not from the top down but the people who join and sustain movements,” says Nelson. “I really wanted the film to be about the rank and file members who are normally not talked to.”

Read entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Interview, , , ,

Indigenous Musicial Sheroes: Buffy Sainte-Marie and Debora Iyall

Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the central figures in Keep on Pushing: As unique musically as she is direct lyrically, Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot Cree Indian reservation in Saskatchewan and adopted by a family in Maine. She says that as a child she was artistic innately, as well by necessity. Befriended by a Narragansett couple who lived near her family in Maine, it was from them she learned about cultural handcrafts and kindness. “They didn’t sit around and give me Indian lessons,” she said, “But on the other hand, they didn’t chase me away.”  As a young student, Sainte-Marie was drawn to philosophy and religion, while she simultaneously developed her musical side, as a folk performer. Her unique vibrato and innovative song style are what first drew me to finding out more about her story; what I found, moved me to the core, from the volume of hardship and turmoil she described, to her refusal to study war, which landed her among Nixon’s enemies.  “I don’t think many people, even today, understand how much blacklisting has gone on of artists in the record business,” she says.  In the face of the hassles, Sainte-Marie continued to innovate, as an electronic musician as well as a computer-based visual artist. Committed to teaching, to passing on what was given freely to her as well as what she fought to achieve, Sainte-Marie’s work still offers a pointed critique of war, greed, injustice and the anti-people policies that impact indigenous people all over this land.

Debora Iyall is one of the artists  directly descended from Sainte-Marie’s example of native creativity:  A singer, a songwriter, a poet, and a visual artist, Iyall’s story also unfolds throughout Keep on Pushing, beginning with her time as a teenager during the Indians of All Tribes’ Occupation of Alcatraz.  Her punk-rooted style bears little resemblance to Sainte-Marie’s folk roots (Iyall was most influenced by Patti Smith), but a close connection to arts education and her roots in the Cowlitz tribe made her a unique presence in San Francisco art-punk band, Romeo Void. Iyall had the guidance of elders—her mother and the Natives she met at pow-wows and on Alcatraz—who supported her creative discoveries. “I felt like I had these little nuggets of information or culture to hang on to,” she said.  Today, Iyall exudes confidence in her work as a performer and visual artist and is also a teacher and advocate, for artists of all colors and dimensions.

I was honored and humbled to have been allowed access to the lives of both Debora Iyall and Buffy Sainte-Marie—two women whose works have uplifted and inspired, not only their brothers and sisters native to the Americas, but their fellow artists and anyone who’s ever been broke or hungry, tired, or cast aside, and helped them to keep on keeping on: Their complete stories are told in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Folk, Punk, Women's rights, , , , ,

Sanctuary City Added to Agenda At Vision-SF Gathering

“For those of us who are progressive, who believe the City of San Francisco should work for everyone, it’s a difficult time to be at City Hall…it’s a difficult time to be in that building,” said Supervisor David Campos over the weekend as he helped to launch Vision SF, a grassroots group primed to reclaim San Francisco from the forces of greed, corruption and narcissism that have poisoned municipal waters.

Representing the Mission, the City’s Latino cultural district and locus of its housing crisis, Supervisor Campos brought the additional dimension of the broken immigration system to the event conceived as a pre-election housing initiative forum. Referring to Donald Trump scapegoating immigrants following a recent murder committed by an undocumented person here, Campos cleaved to San Francisco’s sanctuary city status and pressed to keep local law enforcement out of the business of immigration. “Our sanctuary policy already says we’re not going to tolerate criminal activity,” underscored Campos. “No human being is illegal and every human being regardless of immigration status has human dignity.”

Intended to rally grassroots community organizations and free range citizens and spur them into a cohesive voting block for this election, there wasn’t much talk of San Francisco’s homeless population, though the ballot’s housing initiatives perhaps imply a way toward that solution too. Propositions A, F, I, J and K concern affordable housing, regulating Airbnb, pausing development of market-rate housing, protecting legacy businesses and using city-owned surplus land respectively—and were elaborated on by the Housing Rights Committee’s Sara Shortt, former assemblyman and supervisor Tom Ammiano, lifelong human rights advocate Cleve Jones and artist Roberto Hernandez (who learned to organize directly from Cesar Chavez). The activists were joined by committed singer-songwriter Tom Heyman, young filmmakers Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, comedian Mike Evans, and poet laureate, Alejandro Murguía, among others. A clip of Alexandra Pelosi’s new film, San Francisco 2.0, was to be screened but Vision-SF co-founder David Talbot announced that venture capitalist Ron Conway succeeded in scaring HBO and the filmmaker’s family from showing the film and attending the event (not exactly a good portent for the region that sparked the Free Speech movement).

Talbot and co-host, former supervisor and housing rights activist Christina Olague presided over the program that generally advocated coalition building across race, age, and economic lines. Addressing the need to include young, exploited tech workers in the movement for economic and housing justice, Cleve Jones invoked the name of his friend Harvey Milk which brought the crowd to a eerie hush. “It’s over,” Jones remembered, as he recalled the moment of seeing the slain body of Milk being removed from City Hall, “All I could think was, “it’s over’,” he said. Though as night fell and the streets filled with San Franciscans from all walks of life, candles lit to mourn the fallen at the evening’s march and vigil in 1978, Jones found a way to be inspired to push forward. “This is just the beginning,” he said, and it was that message he impressed on the crowd who left with house signs and a renewed spirit of solidarity.

Meanwhile, across town, thousands of San Franciscans and tourists reveled in Golden Gate Park while musicians, many with counter-culture roots of their own, entertained at the annual three-day music festival sponsored by deceased private equity investor, Warren Hellman. Mega-producer T Bone Burnett used his stage time to speak truth to power: “Who’s going to call this darkness, darkness. Somebody’s got to locate the bomb, dot com.” The founders and members of Vision-SF are trying, man, but they’re going to need a whole lotta help from their friends.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, new article, ,

On Bernie Sanders, Alice Bag, and the Enduring Politics of Punk Rock

Alice Bag 1

Frightwig and Alice Bag photo by Eric Goodfield

Among reasons to like Bernie Sanders, he supports the ERA and the Paycheck Fairness Act, he advocates for increasing minimum wage, has commited to expanding health and reproductive rights, and believes that childcare, preschool, and parental leave should be available to all Americans, not just a privileged few.  While I don’t know where punk rocker Alice Bag stands on Bernie Sanders, I recently heard her perform “Equality in the USA” with Frightwig in San Francisco at the Punk Renaissance, a week long festival organized by Punk Rock Sewing Circle, former punk rockers committed to social justice. Interestingly, Sanders has ties to punk rock, when as mayor of Burlington, he approved the Mayor’s Youth Office and punk gathering spot, 242 Main. Not only do I think there could be a valuable meeting of the minds here– as in a coalition of punk rockers for Sanders– but Bag’s powerful punk performance once again reminded me of my generation’s musical ability to change hearts and public opinion in fundamental ways. Read entire article at

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Editorial, income disparity, Punk, ,

Artists Endorse Aaron Peskin to Lead Fight For Affordable San Francisco

Cafe Zoetrope in North Beach was overflowing on Monday evening with politically engaged artists, Artists for Aaron (center). Photo by Stewart Bloomwriters, and neighbors gathered to support Aaron Peskin, candidate for Supervisor. A longtime affordable housing advocate and former chair of the SFDCCC, Peskin termed out of his Supervisor’s seat in 2008, but a return to the Board representing District Three could mean a restoration to sanity in the City’s legislative chamber if he succeeds in ousting the Ed Lee appointee, Julie Christensen.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, San Francisco News, ,

Punk Rock: US, UK, and San Francisco-style

The following is an extract from, Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, a perhaps unlikely source for a chapter featuring a mini, concise history of punk rock, with a San Francisco-bias.  It’s a subject I’ve been interested in since Patti Smith’s Horses reached me in the Summer of 1976. On September 24, I will be among the panelists at SF Punk Renaissance for Punk:  What Went Wrong…or Right? a discussion on the music and movement that inspired my generation.

All over the world, youth were collectively inspired to take back rock and put it into the hands of their generation, and they did it themselves, without corporations or websites or even a whole lot of love behind them. They did it with spit, muscle, sweat, and even Sid Vicious’s blood, and a couple of copies of Raw Power between them.

220px-Spiralscratch“It seemed like it had to go back to the three-minute song, something immediate and direct,” says Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle.  “And from that people came alive again.”

Among punk rock’s targets was the comfortable numbness of quotidian life, partially provided by expensively produced (Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Steely, Dan, and Fleetwood Mac) and lightweight (James Taylor and Carly Simon) rock.  The back-to-basics music style combined with the anti-authority philosophy meant punk was largely a scene without leaders, organization or infrastructure.  It can’t be said enough that in the United States there was virtually no commercial airplay for the music and there was very little in the way of favorable aboveground rock press for it either.  But self-starting had its own rewards.

“People gained confidence in who they were, even ourselves, even with all our insecurities,” says Diggle.  “It wasn’t like we were the big show business act to come to entertain people, it was more like…These guys are the same as us,” he says.  “It was real people singing about real things and when we go up on stage we just put on guitars and there’s no big act.”

The do-it-yourself directive also lead to the resurgence and proliferation of the self-released seven-inch single, a format that had virtually become extinct with the popularization of seventies album rock.  Buzzcocks was one of the first bands of the punk surge in England to release its own record, debuting with their Spiral Scratch EP in January of 1977.  That spring the Ramones, with the Nerves and Pere Ubu, took the first murmurings of punk all across the USA.  Though at the surface the punk pop of the Buzzcocks wasn’t political, “It was about personal politics,” explains Diggle.  “It questioned things on many levels.”  A song like “Autonomy” was about “self-rule.”  And ‘Fast Cars’ was about the business of having a fast car,” he says.

Whether it was the words they sang—at once passionate and dispassionate—the way they sang them, or the fact that they sang them at all, songs like “Fast Cars” telegraphed something that went beyond the general speed limit:  It confronted individuality and choice in a market-driven culture.  “I hate fast cars!” was a radical statement, a rejection of values prized by a capitalist society.

The Ramones and the Sex Pistols have both been called the Johnny Appleseeds of punk, crisscrossing their respective countries and crossing the Atlantic while punk bands were breaking out like a spotty rash in places likely (London) and unlikely (Akron, Ohio).  The Ramones brought their show to San Francisco’s Savoy Tivoli in 1976 and inspired a few artists and musicians to form bands of their own.  The Sex Pistols did the same, bringing their show to the United States in early 1978, though the resulting media circus marked the end of the Pistols and the death of the early phase of punk.  penelope-houston-the-avengersPenelope Houston’s band the Avengers opened the last-ever Sex Pistols show at Winterland in San Francisco.  Less influenced by the entertainment of the Sex Pistols and the fun of the Ramones, Houston was a punk rocker of the battling kind. “I definitely recognized that Dylan was fighting against the things he saw as wrong but I would say my biggest singing influence would be Patti Smith,” she says.

The blank generation, a term coined by poet Richard Hell, found its muse, its voice, and its generation’s answer to Bob Dylan in Smith who released her first punk single in 1974. Having escaped a New Jersey childhood for the Chelsea Hotel, the young poet was also the girlfriend of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and together they made art before she ever had the idea of making a record.  Through the course of her bookstore clerk days and Max’s Kansas City nights, Smith emerged an androgynous, rock ‘n’ roll type, a person with more in common with Dylan and Keith Richards than any woman in rock.

Smith went to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974—high Watergate season—to perform at Rather Ripped Records on the North Side of Berkeley campus.  At the time, it was one of the few places you could buy an independent seven-inch record, what you might call the broadside of the late seventies.  Smith’s new single was “Hey Joe,” the song with which Jimi Hendrix had ended his fateful set at Woodstock in 1969.  The A-side began with a poem titled Sixty Days:

“Patty, you know what your daddy said, Patty, he said, he said, Well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child , and how here she is with a gun in her hand.”

The Patty to whom she referred was Patricia Campbell Hearst, the newspaper heiress who’d taken the name Tania following her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an armed band of radicals, one group among a host of urban predators and terrorists raising hell in the Bay Area during the protracted aftermath of the Summer of Love.  Tania had seemingly joined her captors in the class war struggle; “Hey Joe,” marked the official arrival of the new generation.

“I’m nobody’s million dollar baby, I’m nobody’s Patsy anymore, and I feel so free.”

From the decaying urbanscapes epitomized by the rotting Big Apple and the Rust Belt cities, and especially in hippie haven San Francisco, the post-sixties air of revolution hung heavy; Smith was the something new that blew in, wild, from the streets.  San Francisco would remain the scene of more high times and inexplicable crimes throughout the decade.  Home to the historic free speech and antiwar movement gatherings in the sixties, the Bay Area continued to be a place where minds behind movement and invention—whether high tech or slow food—converged.  Its consecration as a gay mecca at that time is well known, while the role disco music played in gay liberation movement, and the role San Francisco played in the development of the punk rock movement, remain less documented. Perhaps these stories go some way toward providing necessary connections, as might the next section on punk’s relationship to reggae and hip hop.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, California, , , , , , , , , ,

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