Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal

mumia-writing-wallMumia Abu-Jamal has been in jail longer than members of the millennial generation have been alive. Those who’ve followed his case know he’s served his time in the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution “ona move,” to use one of his catchphrases. The most identifiable prisoner in the known world, through his own persistence and with the help of a core council of support who works to deliver his books and his Prison Radio broadcasts, Writing on the Wall is his latest communique to reach us from the confines of the prison nation. Published by City Lights Books and selected by Johanna Fernández, a scholar, educator and coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, over 100 previously unpublished short essays by Abu-Jamal well-cover our history of violence (from the police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, to commentaries on the violence in Ferguson, MO ) and the media circusry that accompanies it. Prepared in the style and format of his Prison Radio pieces broadcast on public radio, Fernández wrests hope from Abu-Jamal’s prophecies that one day America might live up to the truth of its own advertising. “Like Nelson Mandela, Mumia defies his captors by preserving his integrity and compassion in the face of the hateful repression orchestrated against him,” she writes. Read the full review at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Book news, Books, France, , , , , ,

Remembering The Outlaw: Eugene McDaniels

A portion of this post originally appeared here as an obituary in July, 2011.8765 It has been updated and amended as a remembrance.

Rare groove chasers know well the name Eugene McDaniels; his 1971 album for Atlantic, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a standard-bearer for psychedelic soul/funk/jazz rhythms and is borrowed frequently for its samples (most famously by A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys). The album is a fierce statement of Black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, a yearning for world peace, and ultimately love. A showcase for McDaniels’s breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”), his strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation (“The Lord is Black, his mood is in the rain…he’s coming to make corrections”).  His reward for creating such a unique piece of work was to have it recalled from the shelves and suppressed by Nixon’s White House; it remains a lost classic and is a story waiting to be told.

McDaniels is also the composer of “Compared to What,” the jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a worldwide hit in 1969.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, McDaniels studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, and singing with the McCann trio, he signed with Liberty Records and hit in 1961 with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” followed by five more Top 40 hits, including “Tower of Strength.” With six hit records to his credit, McDaniels turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). Following the success of “Compared to What,” by the time he attempted to relaunch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist with his 1970 album The Outlaw, McDaniels had developed an intensely personal and pointed new style and direction. Fearless with his melodies and in his verses, the instrumentation on his early ’70s companion albums was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass brushed against guitar, drums, and piano. The arrangements combined with the lyrics to strike inner chords of deep recognition, touching places in the heart  only music can reach. McDaniels injects each song with theatrical and emotional soul power, delivering the verses with a fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration.  Incensed and confused by injustice, his notes echo and stretch, like the sound of someone losing his mind. His elegy for the genocide of America’s indigenous population, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Native American and folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, is a shining example of his dramaturgical song style that places his subjects in a social, political. and psychological context. But McDaniels’s revolution of the mind is a peaceful one; though he paints pictures of hell and all hell breaking loose, his narrator does not advocate use of violence as a solution. Rather, violence is portrayed as the problem.

In Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, I touched on McDaniels’s status as one of Nixon’s Enemies. It was in fact his story that in part inspired me to probe 50 years of freedom singing, and how resistance in song is received (or not) by a mass audience.  I remain deeply curious on the subject, but when my faith in music and in people is lagging, I pull out Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and find it restores and inspires me. Whatever darkness he’s describing, the McDaniels point of view remains poised and unique; his higher consciousness and keep-on-pushing spirit bleeds between the notes of each slyly rendered gospel-laced track. Years later, the Beastie Boys would turn to McDaniels, nicknamed the Left Rev McD, for a sample, as would the Afro-centric, conscious hip-hoppers, A Tribe Called Quest who used a piece of “Jagger The Dagger” throughout People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What,” which was most recently updated by the trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard (with E-Collective featuring PJ Morton).

Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison. Listen below to “Supermarket Blues,” his musical statement from 1971 on racial profiling, police violence, and white supremacy: It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Eugene McDaniels, Folk, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Protest Songs, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , ,

SF Punk Rockers Send a Message to City Hall

San Francisco–“That was for librarian Cynthia Hurd, murdered two nights ago for being black in America,” said Penelope SF City Hall Centennial Celebration - photo credit is John MargarettenHouston from the stage of Friday night’s musical Centennial Celebration of City Hall, punctuating her 38-year-old song, “The American In Me,” concerning the country’s culture of violence. Accompanied by Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, Houston, who works by day as a city librarian and archivist, originally cut the song in 1977 with her history-making punk rock band the Avengers (they opened the last ever show by the Sex Pistols in San Francisco). Her remarks were welcome commentary at the mid-point of an  impressive cross-generational revue assembled by Prophet to sing the songs of San Francisco…

READ MORE AT DOWN WITH TYRANNY!

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

To Boom or To Bust: The Long Story of San Francisco

Author David Talbot was making the rounds of San Francisco’s booksellers earlier this month during California Independent Bookstore Day, though the author of Season of the Witch and Brothers wasn’t promoting a new book; rather, he was using the community-oriented bookstore scene as a platform for his insider knowledge of City Hall to promote someone’s– anyone’s– significant bid for a mayoral run against Ed Lee in November. Talbot believes the need for new leadership in San Francisco is so dire, he joked he would run himself were it not for the personal and fiscal demands of entering a campaign. “I don’t want my wife to divorce me, which she said she would do if I did,” he laughed. cvr9781439108246_9781439108246_lgOther potential candidates like former Mayor Art Agnos, State Senator Mark Leno, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano have all opted out of the race after being rumored or considered as runners; former Supervisor Aaron Peskin is also nolo contendere since announcing his wish to fill an opening on the Board of Supervisors (as its few remaining progressives term out). Talbot says there may be one more viable candidate out there for mayor, but his sources have made him promise not to drop any hints. Meanwhile, Lee and his chief backer, venture capitalist Ron Conway, will stop at nothing to win the race, so we shall expect the usual vulgarities once/if reasonable opposition appears on the scene before the June 9th nomination filing date.”So what we lack and need is leadership, a media outlet and a progressive think tank,” Talbot concluded from his opening remarks on Saturday at Modern Times Bookstore. Then he opened the floor to the assembled crowd of activists, attorneys, homeowners, and young journalists for comment. One long-time community organizer was near tears as she contemplated the prospect of another four years for Lee. “You think it’s bad now. We’ll all be gone by then,” she said, referring to the drift of long-time San Franciscans and natives away from the city they call home. “I share your pain, but don’t leave!” the author responded. “We need you here as an advocate.” 

Talbot believes an institution devoted to educating future political leaders, as well as voters, would be a longer-term solution, and again he asked the crowd to speculate how such a venture, as well as a much-needed media outlet, could be funded. That question remained largely unanswered, though the one name that consistently comes up in these conversations is Marc Benioff, a tech billionaire and serious philanthropist intent on doing good with his wealth while encouraging others in his business to do the same.

Talbot’s overview of city governance and his depth of understanding of public versus privately funded projects here, as well as of the more general role media plays in democratic society, is owed to his background as a journalist: He’s worked for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Examiner, and he founded Salon, one of the Web’s earliest full-service magazines/news destinations. He was raised in Los Angeles, and his father, Lyle Talbot, was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. Talbot’s self-proclaimed obsession with the Kennedys led him to write Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years; he followed with Season of the Witch, a cultural and political history of San Francisco and how it came to be the city it’s known to be versus the city that it is (on Saturday he revealed that Season of the Witch will be this fall’s One City One Book).

In recent years, Talbot has followed the story of changing San Francisco and has delivered a series of talks, including “Don’t Be a Stanford Asshole,” which implores new and future Stanford elite to be mindful of the dehumanizing nature of technology. A transcript made the rounds on the Internet earlier this year when it was picked up by 48 Hills, the one-man operation helmed by former SF Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, who Talbot believes is creating the kind of deep investigative journal we need in light of the long-insufficient San Francisco Chronicle, and in the absence of SF Bay Guardian, which was abruptly closed last year.

“We are a city, a world, in a boom and bust cycle,” asserts Talbot, and of that there is no doubt, though he notes the strange mood here as most of us await the next bust more fervently than more boom.

Last month even the historically nonpartisan 58th San Francisco International Film Festival got into the spirit of imminent change by hosting a program titled “Boomtown.”  Redmond delivered a PowerPoint presentation providing an overview of the housing crisis in progress, though it was cultural expressions like Vero Majano’s heart-stopping spoken word and found film from the Mission District, Melorra and Melodie Greene’s interactive tribute to the LGBTQ/Black Lives Matter movement, and The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film in the works by Talbot’s son Joe, which if seen by wider audiences could potentially change hearts and minds. Joe Talbot’s film is based on real events in the life of its co-writer and lead actor, Jimmy Fails (whom Talbot the elder considers an honorary son).

Fails’ African American family experience is the most extreme example of a community’s disproportionate displacement here, and yet the feelings speak for many of us when the character says,  “My grandpa came West…Sometimes I feel there ain’t nothing left of me here. But where am I supposed to go? Ain’t shit west of here but water.” It’s an apt observation for a city lost at sea without a captain, but in these young filmmakers’ art and music (which Joe Talbot also composed) there is also light and hope–things we natives and transplants can all use a bit more of right now.

A version of this post appeared May 5 at Down With Tyranny

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, , , , , , ,

Unique creative partnership subject of new documentary, Lambert and Stamp

In the early ’60s, young British filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp set out to find a rock band and make it the subject of a movie: To be crafted in French new wave style, they were set to upend the dominant narrative of grey, post-war England and capture the excitement of an explosive youth quake in progress.Photo of Chris STAMP and Kit LAMBERT

“We didn’t know what we wanted, but we absolutely knew what we didn’t want,” says Chris Stamp in the new documentary, Lambert and Stamp. Their indescribable “it” made itself apparent at the Railway Hotel in 1964 where the High Numbers were at the center of a raucous and sweat-soaked Mod dance scene, yet instead of going through with their film, they turned the band—Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon—into a palette for their expression. Fifty years later, Lambert and Stamp tells the largely untold story of the men Daltrey calls “the fifth and sixth members” of the Who.

READ THE WHOLE STORY AT BLURT ONLINE

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

National Poetry Month, Jazz Appreciation Month, and Record Store Day: Go Get Yourself a Gil Scott-Heron LP

April is National Poetry Month, Jazz Appreciation Month, and the consumer holiday known as Record Store Day (RSD) is April 18. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano. He also has a vast recorded catalog, most all of it available on vinyl. Though he was often classified as a jazz artist, his emphasis was truly on his words. Truth was, there were echoes in his grooves of blues and gospel, rock and soul. If ever you seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the rock, jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find the discs there. Last year’s RSD release by Heron, Nothing New, is a collection of stripped-down tracks, recorded in 2005.  This sample cut, “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams),” was originally released on the 1980 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, 1980, as a full band, gospel-synth track.

It’s amazing how timely the song and its story of border crossings remain, though it is of course the nature of visionary poetry and jazz to foreshadow our concerns. The song’s refrain, “hold on” is recurrent in liberation songs and movement: The most obvious reference is the spiritual “Gospel Plow,” rendered as the civil rights anthem, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” Scott-Heron conjures its spirit of persistence in his own tenderly rendered immigrant song.

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout the rock ‘n’ soul songbooks, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock, soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. His memoir, The Last Holiday, details this background and is gloriously written in plain spoken style.  As a musician, Scott-Heron’s sound was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff. Scott-Heron died on May 27, 2011 leaving a huge void in vision and voice, poetry and jazz, though through the miracle of recorded sound and the printed page, his words and music still echo in hearts of his fellow travelers.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, , , , , ,

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Easter Week, I give you songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charing single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired work served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are the origins of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There”, “Respect Yourself”, and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice. (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Gospel, Soul, , , , , , ,

The Staple Singers: The Long March on Freedom’s Highway

StapleSinger_cover-450x450In April of 1965, just weeks after the historic marches for voting rights across Alabama, the Staple Singers convened at a South Side Chicago church for a service dedicated to the marchers. The resulting live album, Freedom Highway, has since become a recorded classic, merging soul-solid messages and spirit-rising music. Long out of print, it was reissued in an expanded edition this week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, though its gospel-sung dreams of justice for all are yet to be won.  Read my full review at Blurt online.

Filed under: Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Gospel, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

Love Your Local Bookstore

4344631_origThis week, KQED-FM, San Franciso’s NPR- afffilate and longstanding listener-supported radio station aired my Perspective on the economic boom and resultant gentrification situation here in San Francisco specific to how it impacts small business and in particular, bookstores.  Longtime readers know that since I moved home following a decade-in-exile in Southern California, I’ve become more than a little concerned about the changing book scene here.  I observed as two beloved West LA community insitutions, Midnight Special and Dutton’s, closed their doors. Citing emerging technology and real estate development as part of the complex, the closings left an area arguably already culture-spare without an accessible, substantial independent bookstore. Believe me when I say readers were bereft, though they were at a loss at how to turn things around without the assistance of major donor intervention or legislation.

And yet, a question I’m often asked is, what’s my personal stake in the matter of San Francisco bookstores? As an author, my livelihood depends in a small part on the sales of my books. I review books. Many of my friends are authors and I want them to succeed:  I support their work as I can—much of our work goes on in bookstores and on the backs of each other’s books.  I like bookstores.  I work parttime for a bookstore. Without bookstores, my husband wouldn’t know what to do with his spare hours when he isn’t working tirelessly; they feed him with more inspiration and fuel so he can work some more (books are part of his creative process and ability to earn too).  Children need books so they may learn how to read. People learn languages, new things, chart new paths, and cure diseases thanks to the knowledge found in books. Must I go on? I could, but you can just as easily listen.

This small effort in San Francisco, from the campaign to support 50-year-old Marcus Books to the ongoing progressive mission of 43-year-old Modern Times Bookstore Collective has resulted in the formation of United Booksellers of San Francisco (UBSF).  We have a long way to go, but I hope you will tell your friends what we are doing and that you will join us in the struggle to keep our small bookstores and the literary culture to which they contribute strong and vital.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, column, Editorial, income disparity, It's Personal, , ,

Honoring Bob Marley at 70

Bob-Marley-look-like-today-photoHad he survived the cancer that killed him in 1981, Bob Marley would’ve been 70 today. Perhaps he would’ve looked something like this computer-generated image. Perhaps he would still be on the road and recording albums with some frequency, in the way, say Bob Dylan does. Or maybe he would enjoy staying at home with his many children and grandchildren in Nine Mile, the place he was born and buried. Whatever he’d be doing, it’s certain that we’re still singing his songs, the lion’s share of which concern revolution, no more war, and universal love; sadly, they are as relevant as they were in the days he wrote them.

In honor of the Tuff Gong’s 70th, his family has launched the #Share1Love campaign; it encourages hashtag activism—video-making and sharing—and the Marleys will donate a dollar for every creation to charities bringing clean water to countries and regions where it is most needed. The family also oversees the 1LoveFoundation, its mission to “do good in honor of Bob Marley’s vision of a better tomorrow.”

If you are unable to give, the best thing you can do today to remember Bob Marley is to keep it positive. In that spirit, I can’t resist this crazy rare clip of him lip synching with the  I Threes (“Roots, Rock, Reggae,” “One Love” and “Positive Vibration”).  It’s followed by the classic Wailers appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973 performing the more downbeat, “Concrete Jungle.” Happy Bob Marley Day to everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Environmental Justice, income disparity, ,

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