Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Margaret Cho’s on a Mission: Helping Homeless Youth in San Francisco

“If you have, give. If you need, take.” That is comedian and San Francisco native Margaret Cho’s simple, seasonal message to the people of her hometown and so far the directive is working: Staging impromptu street performances, Cho is devoting two months to raising awareness and much-needed funds and supplies for the homeless here, in memory of her philanthropic comic inspirer, Robin Williams.

Cho for change, Market and Powell, San Francisco (photo courtesy Gerard Livernois)

Cho for change, Market and Powell, San Francisco (photo courtesy Gerard Livernois)

“With Comic Relief he raised 70 million dollars for homelessness causes,” claims Cho of the series of televised charity shows and events hosted for over 20 years by Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal. Calling from San Antonio where she was performing her stand up act over the weekend, Cho explained, “He had written into his contracts that a certain percentage of homeless workers had to be employed on the set. He was very conscious of homeless people and he turned in perhaps the greatest performance of a homeless person ever in The Fisher King.” The loss of Williams this year she says, was more than the death of a dangerously depressed fellow comedian and street theater vet. “We lost a passionate activist.”

Read the Entire article at 48 Hills:

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, income disparity, new article, San Francisco News, , , , ,

December 8: Strange Days, Indeed

Remembering Jim Morrison’s birth and John Lennon’s death.  Rest in peace, brothers. Your energies and ideas are still very much needed here on earth.john-lennon-eyeglassesjim-morrison-2

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

New Doors Single Benefits All Tribes

Ghost Song FNLYou have to hand it to the Doors’ drummer John Densmore: For over 40 years he’s refused to cave-in to requests from advertisers to use his band’s music in commercials when artists of more stature have not hesitated to compromise.

So why has this drummer (largely regarded to be a rock band’s low man) managed to stay so hardline and true when it comes to decision-making? “You know a long time ago Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us because we were considering ‘C’mon Buick light my fire…’ Because the dough looked good and we were young.  And Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing.  And he’s dead. And I’m not.  So I’m not gonna forget that,” said Densmore. His most recent book, The Doors: Unhinged, chronicles his battle with his former bandmates for the rights to the Doors name and his efforts to keep their musical legacy clean, while serving as the drummer’s meditation on greed—how it impairs people and society.

In a world filled with clutter, contradiction, and compromise, this past Black Friday, the Doors issued a limited edition single of “Ghost Song” b/w “Drums,” its sleeve designed by Shepard Fairey. “Ghost Song” is of course plucked from Morrison’s poetry, the one that nods to Indians…scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding… “Drums” is a composition by Peter La Farge recorded by Densmore for Rare Breed, a tribute to the songs of La Farge (first popularized when Johnny Cash cut them on his 1964 Native American-themed album, Bitter Tears).  Both Fairey and Densmore advocated staying out of stores on Friday, but for those who ignored the boycott (protesting over-consumption and the shooting of Mike Brown) and just couldn’t resist shopping, proceeds of their Doors purchase went to the Honor the Treaties organization which funds collaborations between Native artists and Native advocacy groups. Again, you can thank Densmore for that.

So when people ask me, as they often do, why I should want to write a book about Jim Morrison and the Doors, I tell them there is more to the band than its singer’s alcoholism and “Light My Fire.”  In fact, there is a deep well of influence from which the band has drawn, though it generally remains hidden from view. Tonight at the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, I will be noting the publication of my book Shaman’s Blues which delves into some of those influences by introducing the Doors documentary When You’re Strange (2009), directed by Tom DiCillo. Both the film and the book are additions to an already healthy pile of Doors-related material on view and for sale—it is arguable whether the world needs more of the same.  And yet these two 21st century Doors artifacts drive home a similar point: Here is a band that succeeded where its peers and contemporary artists have failed to hold the line: They chose not to sell-out.  That’s something worth remembering, documenting, and celebrating.

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

November 20, 1969: Indians Claim Alcatraz

On November 20, 1969, All Tribes of the Native Nations occupied the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The taking of the former state penitentiary (the one that once held down gangster Al Capone and the notorious “Birdman,” famous for escaping it) was a major awareness-raising event, illuminating the treatment and near-extinction of Native people in the US. Issues like land theft and other deceptions served to Americans were in process of being clarified for all of us by members of the Native Nations: the Indians had longer-term plans to establish a culture center on the Rock, but federal authorities ultimately ended the peaceful occupation—with force—after a 19-month stand. Today, the former prison operates as a museum; it is presently hosting an art installation of work by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with reference to the island’s Native American protest past)

Among those who heard the call to gather in 1969 was John Trudell (Santee Sioux) who served as a broadcaster, the Voice of Alcatraz. Radio Free Alcatraz reached the airwaves daily via KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles (the Pacifica radio network). “He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous,” says the note in Trudell’s FBI file. In 1979, Trudell lost his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law in a mysterious house fire. The event was a turning point toward his life as a poet, musician and actor; miraculously his spirit remains outspoken and free.

Deborah Iyall (Cowlitz) was just a teenager at the time of the occupation: She ran away from her childhood home (with her mother’s blessing) to join the protestors on Alcatraz. “I remember a song this woman Oona taught me at the powwow… I felt like I had these little nuggets and culture to hang on to.” Iyall remained on the Rock for a few foggy and cold nights before returning home, but her introduction to a creative Native person helped shape her own identity as a professional visual artist, poet and musician (Iyall recorded and toured as the frontwoman of Romeo Void and remains a solo artist. Read more on the lives of Debora Iyall, the work of John Trudell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other artists inspired by the American Indian Movement in Keep on Pushing).

The anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, the annual sunrise Thanksgiving Day ceremony there, the team sports protests and the ongoing violation of Indian lands made it an Indian news-filled week here in Nor Cal, but then, here in the US, everyday is an opportunity to remember what the Indian people sacrificed for US and to say thank you for their land which the rest of us occupy.

Thanks to Mary Jean Robertson—host of Voices of the Native Nation, broadcasting every second, third, and fourth Wednesday of the month on KPOO—for bringing the news to Natives and their allies. Last night she played the above clip by Redbone, released in 1970 at the height of the occupation, with footage collected from more recent sunrise ceremonies. 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Buffy Sainte-Marie, California, Environmental Justice, income disparity, , , , ,

First-Ever Howard Zinn Bookfair Convenes In San Francisco: Marcus Books is Back!

Today’s first-ever Howard Zinn Bookfair zinnportraitconvenes at San Francisco’s historic Mission High School with a list of right-on authors as long as your arm so you’re going to have to check the program to believe your eyes. Organized by author James Tracy who also founded the San Francisco Community Land Trust,  the day is jam–packed with discussion and presentations concerning the people’s history—past, present and future—and is free to the public. I’ll be leading the discussion titled Supporting Our Bookstores in a Time of Gentrification from 1:30-2:30 PM in the James Baldwin Room, and will be joined by Karen and Gregory Johnson of Marcus Books San Francisco and Kate Rosenberger of the Mission District’s Dog Eared and Alley Cat Books. We hope to see the room filled with bookstore workers and supporters as we imagine ways in which our City’s bookstores can work cooperatively and reach out to each other more in what was a record-breaking year of small business closures in San Francisco.

As the day-long celebration of our stories transitions into the evening, there will be an arts and awards ceremony: I’m pleased to say, Marcus Books will be making an announcement about the store’s future and will be receiving a lifetime achievement award for their service to the people of San Francisco and beyond it.  Read my coverage on the current state of San Francisco’s bookstores at 48 Hills,  and I’ll see you at the people’s bookfair.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, Civil Rights, income disparity, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, , ,

Bob Neuwirth: Here and Then and Now

Bob_NeuwirthBob Neuwirth is a character in the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of the 21st Century’s art and music.

“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,”  says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are enjoyed by collectors, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form. Neuwirth has also played a unique role in the lives of his fellow artists. A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, he’s served as an ear to friends in the arts for five decades now; as a catalyst to epic songs,  he’s lived the moments we read about in history books.

“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. Though to recognize it,  “It takes a different set of eyes. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says.“Turn on the radio.  What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening,” he says.

If some of what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, it’s because he’s earned the right to wax on; he’s pulled-off the great American hat trick of living an artist’s life while remaining just under the radar of massive success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran away).  From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, it was to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.

In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies. “He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan.  The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue).  He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”),  a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.

In the ’70s  Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and contributed to the making of the music there as he gathered more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll. “Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the displacement of the folky, singer-songwriters from the scene. But Neuwirth also had a hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into some songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.

Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his own masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to 20110409115304-2studio, he lived in a rat-infested loft formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. But New York and the art scene was changing. The roads for struggling artists to take gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of fame does today?

“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.

So where does one find art in the culture today? “If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says, noting there’s no shortage of work. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there’s really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ” Acknowledging one person’s cup of meat might not be another’s  (“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says) he concedes there’s room for everyone by way of one of his trademarked aphorisms with which we can’t argue: “Bad art is better than good bombs.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, California, film, Folk, Interview, video, , , , ,

On Litquake, Legacy Businesses, Logos and Literacy: Are You Reading Me?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Where the fall days are shorter, sometimes hotter, and always foggier, where we are spoiled for choice between theimg_1987865_primary play-offs, election season, the Mission Playground debacle, and our annual book festival, Litquake, already in progress, and where we are one progressive free weekly shorter as of this afternoon. It is here, in this wonderland that just yesterday, the Columbus/Indigenous People’s holiday, that District 9 Supervisor David Campos chose the Beat literature/Italian American landmark, Caffe Trieste in North Beach as the time and place to roll out his proposed legislation that may contribute toward saving San Francisco from itself. Grasping at straws?  Pulling at threads?  It’s all in a day’s work around here, but I promise it will all come together before nightfall, or daybreak—at least that’s what I tell myself.

Flanked by a handful of small business advisers, city officials and somewhat surprisingly, me (representing for the independent booksellers in past or imminent peril due to increasing rents and few protections), the Supervisor pledged on Monday,  “City Hall has a responsibility” to protect what he’s calling our legacy and heritage businesses.

In a report commissioned by Campos and released last Friday, the number of small businesses here that will be lost by the end of this year is 4,378. You read it correctly. That’s “a significant increase from the 693 businesses lost in 1992, the first year of the study.” Closures and relocations in the period from 1992 to 2011 have also risen: from nearly 1300 to nearly 13,000. What happened in the intervening years is of course familiar to anyone vaguely familiar with the economic system in the USA, Inc.com. But it seems someone at City Hall is listening and it just might be Campos (and Supervisor Mark Farrell who co-created the plan based partly on programs in place in London, Barcelona and Buenos Aires where policies have been implemented to aid local heritage). San Francisco could be the first US City to add small local and culturally relevant businesses to its recently collated registry of historic bars and restaurants deemed worth preserving. By incentivizing commercial property rentals and when possible, advising and assisting through cooperative agencies the purchase of anchor businesses and properties, community character and services shall be retained and our neighborhoods will continue to provide jobs, remain more diverse, enjoy less crime, and stay vital, all according to plan.

Screen+shot+2011-06-08+at+10.27.38+AM-1Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And apparently it’s entirely possible, especially if you belong to the stable sector of small retail that hopes to benefit from the heritage program. For example, a store like Green Apple Books, awarded 2013 Bookstore of the Year by national book trade magazine Publisher’s Weekly, is an exemplar of the kind of indie business the City is looking to preserve. Who can’t appreciate and celebrate the successes of a bookstore like Green Apple? They earned their kudos and we all wish them well-deserved continued success. Though at the other end of the spectrum are the stores that are struggling through crushing economic downturns, bad loans, wily speculators, poor City planning and a trail of broken promises that leads straight to City Hall. These are the stores that serve our communities most at risk—sometimes at their own peril—and have done so for decades. Stores like Marcus Books San Francisco (evicted, 2014,and hoping to relocate after 53 years), and Modern Times Bookstore Collective (after 43 years it is next in line to close in 2015 unless something gives), and Bibilohead Bookstore (in a holding pattern after 10 years, displaced behind a retrofit and awaiting terms of a new space). These are the stores that some of us rely on for our everyday interests, our community, our culture and lives of the mind. As an author, a part-time bookstore worker and activist, I have seen our stores time and again get left out and left behind or be judged by the community as “not having the right business model.”  They’ve been accused of “mismanagement” or entering into “bad leases” (are there good ones?). None of these booksellers could have thrived for as long as they did and have the answers to their problems be quite so convenient. These stores and their personnel have been on the wrong end of wrongheaded assumptions and I fail to accept that kind of treatment of our small retailers and fellow San Franciscans (you know, the ones who’ve allowed you to use their bathroom, even though you couldn’t repay them by buying a book from them).  Rather, it’s matters of racism, sexism, classism, simple greed, poor Cityimages-1 planning and the public’s allergy to reality which are at the root of the problems faced by these stores and others like them (like queer-focused A Different Light which closed in 2011). I’m happy that Supervisor Campos has displayed the courage to acknowledge these facts—that the City does indeed have some kind of responsibility to its small businesses, in particular the ones which are most at risk precisely because they promote literacy, diversity and community, to the people who need those things the most: The immigrant, poor, working class, artist, intellectual and politicized people and people of color in town. These are the folks who gave San Francisco its progressive reputation in the first place and who have been disgraced and abandoned on Mayor Lee’s watch.

UnknownThe businesses that I and others in the progressive communities are interested in registering and preserving received loans with interest rates too high for anyone to make good on because they were discriminatory. The mortgage crisis put some of these small business owners and their stakeholders homes at risk as they attempted to keep the businesses afloat. Some of them have been harassed or received ambivalent protection from law enforcement. What do I mean by that, exactly? Well, the political and activist groups who convene at community spaces are targeted for spurious code violations and other so-called crimes. Marcus Books’ property was stolen and destroyed in broad daylight! Disbelieve me if you like, but these are some of the more systemic problems besieging our City; I want to believe Supervisor Campos is not blind and seeks to amend them.

Here it is a little more concretely: On Sunday, Modern Times celebrated 43 years of progressive bookselling with its Litquake event featuring writers and poets Aimee Suzara, Dee Allen, Kim Shuck, Ocean Capewell, Tommi Avicolli Mecca and Don Skiles. Last year the Litquake legacy celebration at Marcus headlined literary and visual artists esteemed as Genny Lim, Chinaka Hodge, Raina J. Leon and Lewis Watts. I mention all this because this year, Marcus Books didn’t have a Litquake event and next year, Modern Times might not have one either. So when we talk about preserving our City’s cultural institutions and legacy businesses, I hope this is the kind of thing the Supervisor is mindful of, because it’s what’s on my mind. And while we’re here: Litquake is our City’s only festival of books: It is the finest moment—now in its 15th year—of our small but mighty book community. It celebrates author excellence, charm, and ridiculousness. Founded by my colleagues Jack Boulware litquake-2014and Jane Ganahl (who both made the move from journalism and publishing toward organizing literary events), they survive by their wits, and to my knowledge, with little to no funds from the moneybags known as City of SF, a circumstance that appalls me and I hope outrages you, too. Without the stewardship of our community by Boulware and Ganahl, I’m not sure we’d have a book community at all. My expression of gratitude to them is to devote as much time to their festival as I can as a curator and booster. But while we are all congratulating ourselves, celebrating our new books, all our new multi-digi-partner-publishing-platform ventures, and awarding our community pillars like Malcolm Margolin and Dave Eggers, let us also pause for a moment of grave concern:

San Francisco is hemorrhaging bookstores and small businesses, and though you won’t hear a lot of talk about it at the lit festival, or at the new restaurant on Divisadero, nor will you read a thing about it in the paper,  please take a moment of your time to remember the bookstore that held you up in lean times, that gave you your start, provided you with reading matter or a seat and place to read in rain. They have been on the critical and missing list for some time and will remain there until further notice, to be replaced by a vegan bacon donut shop or some other culinary monstrosity coming to a vacant $675.10 (actual figure) per square foot space near you soon.

Campos_logo-02So yes, it is my wish that so inspired by Mr. Campos on his way to Sacramento, that we all insist his personal legacy be a registry of historic legacy businesses that includes as many of our small bookstores all over town (but especially the three on Calle 24), whether they be shiny and new or dusty and dark, so that we may all eat and grow strong and acknowledge our beauty and power collectively, despite the world being on fire just outside our doors. And oh: Go Giants.SF-Giants-Logo

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, Editorial, income disparity, San Francisco News, , , , ,

Van Morrison: Songwriter

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVanMorrisonLo limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

READ THE FULL BOOK REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE

This one goes out to the City of San Francisco, Inc.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, California, new article, Reviews, video, ,

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

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