Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

RIP: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Rock’n’Soul of Jesus

This is a repost of an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US number three with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two millions 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 in the beginning is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, but that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Good Friday and Easter Weekend, 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 “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the last time Dylan had a hit single—#24 in 1979).

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 as 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 number one in the US and five weeks at number one 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 rockin’ souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs alongside hymns from the British Isles—making way for a form of expression that gave 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 theological ideas and arguments toward fighting what he characterized as demonic institutions like slavery and Jim Crow law by evoking a more powerful spirit.

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus’ 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 number two as well as a three). The song was originally cut by “Snowbird” Anne Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” itself 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 would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. Jackson was of course gospel’s reigning queen throughout the civil rights era, until the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, essentially dethroned her. The story of how Aretha, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and other church singers turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are the stories 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 and soul more extensively on this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring, 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 number 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” and “You Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (on Sticky Fingers). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining in 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 the freewheeling 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 rap, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye 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 weekend to all the Jesus rockers, readers, and to people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice.

A version of this piece originally ran in Crawdaddy! as my column, The Origin of Song.

 

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

Remembering Mike Bloomfield

photo by Mike-Shea

Mike Bloomfield died in San Francisco, CA on February 15, 1981

Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.

So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution?

(Read entire article by Denise Sullivan at Blurt online).

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, film, Interview, new article, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

RIP Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

The folksinger, activist, songcatcher, banjo-picker, environmentalist, family man and non-violent resistor Pete Seeger was inspiration and forbear to any man or woman who uses their songs for economic and social justice—and doesn’t ever stop. Persecuted for his beliefs by federal law enforcement, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the public, he pressed on to become the greatest singing activist of our time.  “These days my purpose is in trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race by the end of the century unless we find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with,” Seeger told his biographer Alec Wilkinson, author of The Protest Singer. “Whether we cooperate from love or tolerance, it doesn’t much matter, but we must treat each other nonviolently.” Seeger will be an irreplaceable force on the protest scene, not only for his songs and actions, but for his pure belief in the promise that we shall overcome someday.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Environmental Justice, Folk, Freedom Now, Immigration Reform, Latino culture, Never Forget, Obituary, Occupy Wall Street, Protest Songs, Songs for the Occupation,

Promenade in Green

(UPDATE, December 19: I have since seen the film in its entirety and the “Green Green Rocky Road” scene is the best part. Though Len Chandler and the histories of some of the other folksingers of color on the scene—Odetta, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie—have been well-documented, the filmmakers chose to render invisible their counterparts or composites in their deeply cynical look at Greenwich Village folk).

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film concerning a fictional folksinger from the early ‘60s Greenwich Village scene (based loosely in post-modern style on some incidents from the life of actual folksinger Dave Van Ronk and other figures of the Village scene) opened in select theaters this weekend.

I have not yet seen the film, but gathered from the soundtrack the title character played by Oscar Isaac, performs “Green, Green Rocky Road,” which Van Ronk himself went as far as to call his “theme song.”  With melodic and rhythm roots in the Georgia Sea Islands and before that, West Africa, readers of Keep on Pushing will remember the songwriting credit for “Green, Green Rocky Road” belongs to Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman (yes, as in Beat poet, Bob Kaufman).

I had the great and rare honor to interview songwriter and activist Chandler in 2007; large portions of our interview appeared throughout Keep on Pushing and on this site.  Chandler spoke highly of Kaufman, Van Ronk, and of course Bob Dylan, who detailed their shared history and collaborations in his book, Chronicles. And yet, it is “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song Chandler never recorded, that may be one of his most enduring achievements, despite the fact he was a singing hero of the Civil Rights Movement (his contributions to African American/US political and social history remain obscured and inexplicably, largely unsung).

Here’s a clip of Van Ronk performing the song, followed by a clip of Chandler performing his own “Keep on Keepin’ On,” from his rare Columbia album, To Be A Man.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, film, Folk, Greenwich Village, Poetry, video, , , , , , , ,

Veterans Day: War Is Over

Iraq Veterans Against the War asked supporters to use social media this Veteran’s Day to speak about personal experience with militarism.  I don’t have much direct contact to report, unless you count carrying a sense of American shame and holding a deep well of sadness for the amount of senseless violence, killing, overspending, and harm done to the world’s people and resources in the name of liberty and justice for all.  My immediate family is not militarily descended, though among my few relatives who were called up, I remember an uncle named Charlie who went to Vietnam and mercifully returned, then asked to be called Charles from there on; I have not seen much of him in 30 years, but I suspect he’s suffered, the result of time served.

My own conscientious objection and moral opposition to war developed out of the lessons taught by a few good teachers who waged stealthy anti-militarism campaigns in their high school classrooms: Images from documentaries on the Holocaust and post-atomic bomb Japan have stayed with me strong since I saw them. An education in war’s atrocities, along with my own love of the message music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I believe schooled me well, until I went on to research and learn more.

Created at the height of the Vietnam era, conceived with strength and intended as a balm and wake-up call for all that had gone wrong, artist/activists from Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”) and Phil Ochs (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) to giants Bob Dylan (“Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War”), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine”), the stars of Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, Edwin Starr’s “War,” written by Whitfield and Strong) and singers, songwriters and performers of all forms (“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and “Love Train” by the O’Jays”), delivered the songs of peace. Quite often they took anti-war sentiment to the top of the charts. It was a time when an anti-war view didn’t have to fight for space on the front page or evening news—it was the news. Back then, unless they were complete squares, members of the silent majority or total idiots, men and women were not afraid to stand against war.

As time went on, the wealth of Vietnam-themed Hollywood feature films (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) depicting the horrors of war, and set to a rock music soundtrack of songs associated with the time period (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” for two)  further informed my own beliefs about  that time.  The truth had surfaced and history was beginning to support the unjust nature of all that war’s ill concepts and casualties. Bombing unarmed innocents in the name of freedom is pure and simple, illegal, immoral, and just plain wrong. One of the movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, so convincingly used “The End” by the Doors  to convey a soldier’s pain, one could be forgiven for thinking the music was written to fit the sequence(s) in which it was used (it was not). Here is the opening scene of the film that stars Martin Sheen as the fictional Captain Benjamin Willard:

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, and all the children are insane.  Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic visions and anti-imperialist artistic views were tied up in a deep study of history and the humanistic concerns he shared with the artists of peace and vision who inspired him. Given his own generation’s stand against the war, Morrison’s radically left of center way of approaching life and art was complicated by his own family ties to militarism:  His father, Admiral Steven Morrison commanded the forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident that sent the Vietnam war into overdrive. The Doors cut at least one specifically anti-war song, or at least we can deduce that theme from the action in their own short film for “Unknown Soldier.”

“War is over,” the present tense affirmation that serves as the chorus to”Unknown Solider,” predates the use of the phrase in the Plastic Ono’s Band “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971); it coincided with the Phil Ochs song “The War is Over” (1968) and knowing Morrison’s influences, was likely borrowed from French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ 1966 film, War is Over, a political thriller set in Franco-era Madrid and Paris.

As time went on, the anti-war song fell out of favor, at least in the U.S. where our direct involvement in wars was mostly covert and away from our shores.  Now and again, we’d get a crucial reminder that war is bad and killing is no good in songs (“War” by Bob Marley), while other times when war was declared and battles raged on, anti-war songs experienced a tiny revival (“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine comes to mind, as does “Living With War” by Neil Young who continues to wage peace every day of the year). But unless mandatory service makes a comeback, it is guaranteed you’ll hear fewer songs of resistance to war, or resistance to much of anything, really. Killing for peace, bombing for safety and drones from here to kingdom come are not really what the people want from their songs anymore. Until further notice, the rocket’s red glare shall shine on, while few take a stand in song to abhor them.

Where are the songs that urge calling off drone strikes?  I know there are some, but they are not on the Top 40, blasting from jukeboxes and commanding the dancefloor the way Edwin Starr made a stand: “War! Huh-good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again. Yea.” Though once again, the ’60s generation—I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but in terms of longevity, staying the course, consistency of message and laying it down—comes through. Septugenarian Graham Nash cut a song with James Raymond for Bradley Manning.

Nash had done the same for Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven who among other things, opposed the war.  I’m not telling fans of ’60s rock anything they don’t already know.  But for the sake of the song, if you’re a singer or a songwriter and think that killing and torture in the name of what is wrong, use your stage to sing out and decry the lie, even if it’s just one song. Or do something: Professional musician Darden Smith is writing songs with vets. Recounting their experiences with war and turning them into songs, Smith has aided soldiers in coming to terms with their opposition to violence of all kinds.

The Veterans Against the War say on their website that everyday, 22 veterans take their own lives. Could it be that they cannot stand the post-traumatic stress of remembering?  Were they tortured, or asked to torture someone else?  We will not know now or ever because they’re gone, as are the great mean of peace, Gandhi, Dr. King and John Lennon. Today I thank all, veterans and others, who fought and now work for peace: You remind us that we can not tell ourselves that war is something that only happens over there, far away, to other people. We cannot continue to pretend that we are  not connected or impacted too. We are responsible. The horror, the horror.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, film, France, , ,

Remembering Paul Williams and His Greatest Hits (Again)

Crawdaddy Litquake PosterTonight is the Lit Crawl, the final night of San Francisco’s annual festival of books, Litquake. For the occasion, I organized a tribute to writer Paul Williams  who at age 17 founded Crawdaddy! the first national magazine of serious rock criticism.  From John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace, to the back-to-the-land movement, and a literary association with Philip K. Dick, Williams wrote over 25 books on his travels through rock ‘n’roll and underground culture. The night’s offerings by, about, and inspired by Williams were prepared by Trina Robbins, Rudy Rucker, James Greene Jr., Ron Colone and Williams’ wife, Cindy Lee Berryhill, who (with the exception of Robbins) will be there to read them. The following is a repost of my remembrance of Paul Williams on the occasion of his passing on March 27, 2013, at the age of 64. 

Crawdaddy! founder Paul Williams, widely considered to be the creator of modern rock’n’roll criticism, has died in Encinitas, California, following a long struggle with early onset dementia, the result of traumatic brain injury sustained following a bicycling accident in 1995.

In 1966, a 17-year-old Williams wrote, edited and distributed Crawdaddy! from his dorm room at Swarthmore College.  As a young man at the epicenter of ‘60s music and movement, Williams had what is now recognized as incredible access as a journalist on the scene, whether taking calls from Bob Dylan, sitting in on a studio session and riding a plane with Jim Morrison and the Doors, partying with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, or running a gubernatorial campaign for Timothy Leary.

Here’s a clip of Paul with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the celebrated Bed-in for Peace (he’s wearing a brown shirt, back-to-the-camera, front and center).

Williams had keen powers of observation and while his intellect was sharp, it was the emotional content of music that he attempted to unravel in his writing. Over time, Williams grew Crawdaddy! into a magazine with a circulation of 25,000—about the right size to serve his niche audience of music geeks, the diehards who lived the counterculture rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Williams, however, turned out to be more of a back-to-the-land guy. He left the city and turned over the magazine to capable hands while he pursued other roads—like a love of literary science fiction and tracing the evolving career of Bob Dylan as a live performer.  Eventually becoming executor of the Philip K. Dick estate and editing a book of Theodore Sturgeon stories, the science fiction community also mourns the loss of Williams today.

In the ‘90s, Williams revived Crawdaddy! briefly as a newsletter; compiled by hand and from the heart, much the way he started it, his close-knit and handcrafted care contributed to Crawdaddy! maintaining its cachet through the years. It was in his middle period, of attending Bob Dylan concerts that I became acquainted with Williams while I was  attempting to get my own career as a music writer up and running.  He encouraged me to write my first book and introduced me to my first publisher. Williams was the closest person I had as a mentor among rock writers, though how I ended up writing for the online edition of Crawdaddy! from 2007-2011 was not related to our acquaintance.  By that time, Williams had sold the rights to his magazine to an entity known as Wolfgang’s Vault and they hired me as a contributor there where it was my privilege to interview a crazy-long list of rock legends who gave me access largely based on the reputation of the magazine produced by Williams. Richie Havens, Yoko Ono, Van Dyke Parks, Eddie Kramer, Janis Ian, and John Sinclair, among others, all remembered howCrawdaddy! contributed to shaping the culture of music fan journalism, and all were happy to give back what Williams had so freely given to them with his magazine and with his words.paul-williams-crawdaddy-650-1

My interactions with Williams, a couple of handfuls of times over two decades, and just twice during his extended illness, were marked by a spark of familiarity—the kind that is shared by people who live and write inside the music, among a community of friends whose own lives are intertwined with art and music, the beauty of the everyday, and the struggle to survive it. Through the years, I closely observed Williams, watching as he maintained his dignity, despite the diminishing returns encountered by his rock writing.  I noticed that he refused to compromise, that he did things for love instead of money, and admired that he remained a fan while maintaining his professional status on the inside track. As it turned out, taking a path like that is no way to make a living in the rock ‘n’ roll business, but it was a great way to live a rich life, full of love and friendship, full of writing, and full of rock’n’roll.

His passing last night comes as little surprise; the grieving process for family and friends had begun some years ago when Williams could no longer care for himself and became confined to an assisted living facility not far from the home he shared with his wife, singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, and their son, Alexander. Last weekend in New York, Williams and his life’s work was celebrated at a one-day show of his manuscripts at the Boo-Hooray Gallery, organized by the Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye. The intention of the exhibit was to shine a light on the vast literary contribution Williams made to rock journalism, science fiction, and to the study of Bob Dylan’s evolution as a performing artist in the late 20th Century.

Goodbye, Paul, with love and thanks to you for all you gave to the music, to the encouragement you gave to me as a writer, and with condolences to your friends, your sons, and your devoted wife, Cindy Lee.

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote about the love shared by Berryhill and Williams and how his longterm illness impacted and ultimately inspired her music. Some of text of this remembrance was borrowed from the piece that originally appeared in Crawdaddy! online in July 2011.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, Books, Obituary, , , , , , , , ,

Len Chandler: Fifty Years of Marching and Singing the Songs of Freedom

As most readers know, today is the 50th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  What you may not know, even as an astute observer of civil rights and music history and where they meet, is the name Len Chandler:  He was among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day, as well as on the marches in the Southern States.  At the March on Washington, Chandler was one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He marched with Dr. King and traveled through the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, at risk to his own life. It was a now-you-see-it-now-you- don’t YouTube clip of Chandler’s inspirational performance of “Eyes on the Prize” that contributed to inspiring me to track him down and move forward with the writing of Keep on Pushing, my text that unpacks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.images

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music a bit by accident. Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene based on his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later when the gig was through, he returned to New York to find the folk thing in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles, remembering when.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  ”The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” wrote Dylan.

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People.  He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

Today, Chandler is largely retired from performing, but he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts, and can write and perform songs that still pack a punch.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung singing activists of my lifetime (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story in Keep on Pushing (which is where you will find more straight talk from Chandler, as well as my own perspectives on his contribution to civil rights history). I had hoped to see him on television today,  in the crowd in Washington, or better yet, onstage with Peter and Paul, reviving a freedom song for our times. Perhaps I missed him, but Len Chandler belongs on the guest list of esteemed names assembled for any kind of 50th anniversary commemoration of the March, the Civil Rights Era, and anywhere Freedom Songs are still sung.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Freedom Now, Greenwich Village, Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

freedom

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal, as most people know, is no longer primarily an announcer by trade.  Better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for over 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In the documentary Long Distance Revolutionaryfilmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than retell the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist (whose views forced him to moonlight as a cabbie, just to survive), they shine a light on how he’s used misfortune as opportunity, to become a prophetic voice for the voiceless.

Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who testify in the film on the important role Mumia—the writer as political prisoner—plays on the world stage, reflecting the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free, while the mystery that unfolds onscreen in Long Distance Revolutionary is more to a specific point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Abu-Jamal  keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who talks of how she was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him in the book market.  But the most convincing voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world and heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  At the film’s premiere in Mill Valley, California last October,  Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area. He remembered its “luscious sun,” and the Bay as a place where he,  “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice in the chorus is M-1 of Dead Prez. Used to be musicians sang out for injustice, the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film); in that case, the musical association indirectly lead to Carter’s exoneration. But the music community has largely remained silent on the subject of Abu-Jamal. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Eddie Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.  “Please know that I (and my co-producers) tried hard to get…and a number of other musicians into the mix—on numerous occasions and through numerous fronts—but not one of them would agree to interview (except M-1) and/or offer a musical piece or new selection,” Vittoria wrote in an email to me.  Vedder’s song “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandlessserves as the film’s closing theme. “I was fortunate that Eddie allowed us to grace the film with his powerful song,” added Vittoria.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is still on move: Long Distance Revolutionary has been on the festival circuit and in general release throughout the year. It opens August 23 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and next month at Spokane’s Magic Lantern.  Here’s the trailer:

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, film, France, Never Forget, Now Playing, Poetry, , , , , ,

Never Forget: NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers (June 12, 1963)

It’s been 50 years since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain in his driveway, returning home from a meeting over matters in the NAACP. Following the cold-blooded killing by a white supremacist, and coinciding with the period of ever-intensifiying racial hostility in the South, writers got more and more direct with their songs of southern hate.  “The Ballad of Megar Evers” is an a cappella spiritual by the Freedom Singers (a different group than the one founded by Cordell Reagon); Bob Dylan covered the Evers tragedy and its political ramifications in “Only a Pawn in Their Game;”

Phils Ochs weighed in with “Too Many Martyrs.”

Perhaps most famously, there was Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

Though it was the bombing of the four little girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist that forced Simone’s lyric,  the situation in Mississippi culminating in the assassination of Evers earned the song its title.  Evers’ killer was finally convicted in 1994.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, video, ,

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