Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Happy Xmas (War is Over)

Sometime in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage), but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song.

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence on the track—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

As most readers know, Spector is currently serving time in a California state prison for using a firearm to murder Lana Clarkson. Legend has it Johnny Ace shot himself by accident, and the persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented. Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence.  The song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” itself has inspired many covers,  none of them worth mentioning, and at least one (Billy Bob Thornton) worth calling out as being unmentionable. The only version worth a bleep I’ve ever heard is the original:  It just might be the best rock’n’roll song to capture the spirit of Christmas. Though if, by now you are seeking something a bit cheerier to spin, I wouldn’t blame you, so I’ve included a clip of “Run Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry—original rock’n’roller and another Lennon-inspirer. Merry Christmas Everybody, and God Bless Us, Everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Folk, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, , , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , ,

Jim Morrison For Sale

last-photos-of-jim-morrison-paris-1971-g1(UPDATE, December 19: Morrison’s notebook reportedly sold for the unverified amount of $200,000 on December 18, 2013).

This week’s news that Jim Morrison’s “Paris” notebook will be auctioned later next month, 10 days after what would’ve been the singer and poet’s 70th birthday, hasn’t exactly set the night on fire. The headline, characterizing the discovery as his  “druggy musings” makes it sound like more of the same, and yet, we’re talking about the recovery of a holy relic of rock’n’roll history here.  Media and mythology strike again, though the story managed to uncover the seller of the notebook as Graham Nash.  He and the Doors shared a manager who gifted Nash with the collection of notes and sketches, valued to be worth approximately $320,000. There was no mention of who shall benefit from the sale of the artifact which likely dates back to the singer’s life in the pre-Doors dawn, during his time spent at UCLA, his interests more focused on poetry and film than on songs. The inside flap of the book features a quote from a 1963 Paris Review interview with Norman Mailer (Morrison was an avowed fan) alongside an image of the artist Francis Bacon, artistic inspirers from the early ’60s.

As for Morrison, deceased since 1971,  the ‘60s most idolized rock star was no doubt plagued by alcoholism and drug addiction,  and yet, he was able to keep his artistic life somewhat sacrosanct; it is said when he left for Paris he took only his poems, filed in old notebooks, and his canisters of film with him. The notebook, with its so-called musings are presumably continuations of his creations, a winnowing and distillation of the things he’d been jotting down in notebooks he carried with him at all times,  even since before he arrived to the California coast as a student from Florida. The writings in his own hand offer more than  “a window into the mind of the deep-thinking singer, known for his drug abuse, in the run up to his death.”  They are a closer look at his process as an artist, a chance to examine the singer’s life through a new pair of glasses, one that isn’t too concerned with ‘60s nostalgia, preserving mystique or cashing in on it. Whatever its true origins, I would hope that the notebook will be purchased with the intent to publicly display it.

It is time to retire the persistent media portrait of the artist as a semi-dimensional party dude with a quasi-mystic side. My forthcoming book, Shaman’s Blues, The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, to be published early next year, attempts to cancel some of the old notions, and replace them with the source of Jim’s ideas and what he was creating with his body of work. I went in search of the building blocks that make his songs and poems meaningful to each new generation, his messages, and even his meanderings, still relevant to listeners in the 21st Century.

To better appreciate Morrison’s “druggy musings” is to understand his complete devotion to Arthur Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses, the principles behind Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Bertolt Brecht’s dramaturgy, and Julian Beck’s Living Theater, among other sources of his inspiration. One must have a general sense, if not  knowledge, of what those historic, artistic precedents were about to fully appreciate the Doors’ work. I took on the project as an opportunity to investigate the people, places and other worlds alluded to in Morrison’s songs, to seek the poetry at the core of the stories, and the diligence that went into creating the Doors’ own dark music.  And then I tried to unravel some of all that for the general reader without boring people to death by use of academic language, while striving to make Morrison more whole, less of an icon, and more of a human. Because behind the Hollywood and media representations of him, Morrison has largely been remembered well by family and friends. He was said to be thoughtful, loving, humorous, artistic, and pretty decent young cat, when he wasn’t under the influence (though there would also appear to reasons for his discontent, in addition to a predisposition to alcoholism).  I make no apologies for the drunk and disorderly behavior; it is on the record and clearly a part of who he was, but it was not all of Jim Morrison. And that’s part of why I’m so interested in the news of the notebook going on the market:  It is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of Morrison’s legacy, the process of demythologizing the mythic Lizard King.

I’m pleased to say I’m not a voice in the wilderness in my attempts to bring more light to the other side of Morrison’s work.  His friend Frank Lisciandro, who has long worked to keep Jim’s poetry and filmmaking in the public consciousness, is compiling Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together, an oral history of the singer’s pre-Doors years.  And filmmakers Jeff and Jess Finn continue work on Before the End: Jim Morrison Comes of Age, a documentary take  on the tale we all (think we) know so well, as told by Jim’s closest intimates, guided by the filmmakers’ access and own intuitive sense of his Jimness.

When I hear Jim speak or sing, on the page and on audio and video, on his clear days he seems thoughtful, interesting and right-on to me too. This is the Morrison I wanted to capture in Shaman’s Blues, and I certainly hope it is received in that spirit, though a writer cannot predict how she will be read. Perhaps there is no better example than Jim Morrison’s own legacy, to illustrate the dichotomy of the saying about one man’s trash: Welcome to “The Soft Parade.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, film, France, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Smarter than the average bear, , ,

Anybody Here?

“Abraham, Martin and John” was written by Dick Holler and first released by Dion (DiMucci) in 1968. Neither Holler nor DiMucci were known for being particularly political in their music, but the assassination of Robert Kennedy inspired the question, delivered in a song.

Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye also recorded “Abraham, Martin and John.” Here’s a clip of Robinson singing it at the White House, followed by Gaye’s version, featuring full text of the lyrics.

Countless artists have performed or recorded variations on the song and it has more than once reached the charts; comedian Moms Mabley took it to number two. For those seeking further illumination on the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and Black America, read this.

Though the assassinations are no mystery, and 50 years later the grief lingers on,  liberty and justice await, and hope is still awake in the song.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., video, , , , , , ,

Graham Nash: Wild Tales of a Protest Singer

“We need people like Bradley Manning,” said singer Graham Nash on Friday night at the Nourse Auditorium in San Francisco, in conversation about his new book, Wild Tales:  A Rock & Roll Life.  The evening ended with questions from the crowd, a convention that in lieu of any interesting questions coming from the stage often provides the most interesting parts of these so-called public discussions.

“Where is the anger?” someone from the audience asked. “Why aren’t we rising up?”

“Do you think they really want protest songs on the airwaves? Do you think they want people singing about these things on TV?” answered Nash with more questions, while further noting the media has largely turned its back on free speech matters.  Though he suggested our first and fifth amendment rights were our country’s greatest assets, his questions were perhaps an acknowledgement that we can no longer rely on a free press to help us protect those rights to speech, a fair trail, or to keep us truly free.

Advocating for truth-speaking and against torture, as well as for solar power and ending world hunger, Nash isn’t just a one-size-fits-all protest singer; rather, he’s one who’s consistently stood strong against nuclear power, supports the science behind climate change, and was on the side of the Occupiers on Wall Street. The musician of conscience has consistently weighed in with songs of resistance since the dawn of his career, as a solo artist, as a member of the duo, Crosby & Nash, and the supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Last week I posted Nash and James Raymond’s song for Bradley Manning; his earlier works like “Chicago” and “Immigration Man,” among others, bear his mark of vocal excellence combined with pointed, topical concerns.

Among his known charitable activities, Nash co-founded the Musicians United for Safe Energy in 1978; he participated in 1985′s Live Aid, spotlighting famine in Africa and he toured with CSNY in 2006 on the Freedom of Speech tour, a traveling protest roadshow.  “We knew what we had to say, especially about George Bush,” Nash said, though the message was not entirely popular, particularly as they crossed the red states.  “I’d never been on a tour where there were bomb-sniffing dogs.  I’d never been on a tour where people walked out. You bought a ticket to a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert…what did you expect?”

On Friday, the crowd was comprised largely of freethinkers, baby-boomers, and progressives in accordance with Nash’s views, clued-in enough to ask: Had he ever requested his FBI files? Born in Blackpool, England but a citizen here since 1978 Nash answered with yet another question: “Why would I care if they have papers on me?” He shouldn’t.  But rest assured, they do. And had I held a mic that night, I would’ve first and foremost thanked Graham Nash—bold enough to sing the contents of his heart and mind for over 50 years—no questions asked.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Environmental Justice, Folk, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Occupy Wall Street, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, Songs for the Occupation, ,

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, , ,

Just Got Back From Texas…

Preservation of the stories of music’s most unsung participants is my job, though there are times I’ve questioned the motivation and sanity behind my choice in career.  Thanks to a quick trip to Texas, MEOWcon_header-e1365515867432 I can recommit to my own calling, writing the stories of the under-looked and unjustly underappreciated people of  arts and letters who make history everyday by living creatively and pursuing their own truth, sometimes at great risk:  They are paying the wages of our liberation.  The freedom singers profiled in Keep on Pushing had plenty of experience with perseverance and faith-keeping; it’s partly why I went in search of their stories at such a deeply troubled time in our history.  I also could venture a guess that ninety percent of the interviews archived here feature artists who persist, despite the revelation, there are no free refills for the taking: They are the ones who inspire me not only to write and storytell, but to live authentically myself.

Following a four-day weekend in Austin for MEOWCon  and Texas Book Festival,  the  importance of documenting our untold stories and the theme of living history were driven home to me at every turn. It was a much-needed validation and dare I say vindication of a life spent in music’s trenches, a role which author, folklorist and professor David Ensminger assures me is vital and necessary.  As “culture workers,” we share a passion for recording and preserving the contributions made by artists who have gone unembraced by mainstream media and the consumer culture, while digging for lesser-told stories by musiciains of renown. mojo-hand book 0419 Ensminger also maintains the Center for Punk Arts and holds a vast archive of flyers and ephemera, most of it viewable online. Appearing in conversation at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday to talk with me about his two new music history books:  Left of the Dial, a collection of interviews with punk legends, and Mojo Hand: The Life and Times of Lightnin’ Hopkins,  the biography he co-authored with Tim O’Brien, as people who experienced punk’s dawn firsthand, we agreed we can identify with the outsiders who conceived, lived, breathed its ethos but more importantly, made the music. They aren’t much different from the outlaw blues heroes of yore who also adhered to an anti-authoritarian credo,  while kicking against the confines of a society designed to keep them on the outside (or in the parlance of the prison system, on the inside). And yet, these cross generational musicians not only survived the system, they lived to make life-changing music;  in many cases they also did it with incomparable style (particularly in the case of the one-of-a-kind playing and haberdashery of Lightin’). As we talked, Ensminger and I tuned into Texas musicians who found the heat on them so oppressive, they migrated to California, where it was easier to be themselves. And yet, wherever these Lone Stars roamed,  their spirit shone through in the music, with its yowling chords of liberation and the harmonica of injustice, never veering far from South-bound roots.  In an interesting twist, Ensminger and I delivered our talk on fringe musicmakers in chambers at the State Capitol (we had no doubt the irony of our presence there would not be lost on our subjects from Lightnin’ and the Big Boys, to the Dicks, the Stains and MDC, while I prayed it would not be noticed by the state’s right wing nut cases).

Across town at MEOWCon, a couple hundred women convened for the first-ever event organized to honor women’s history and contribution to rock, roll, and other popular music, with the intention of bringing along younger women and empowering them with tools for equal opportunity. After 50 years of taking part in rock’n’roll collectively, many of us still find rock’s smoke, mirrors and glass ceiling firmly in place, discouraging our participation in it on all levels, from music to media.  It’s only when we come together that we realize, we can and have done every aspect of the business well, and yet the history of our success has largely gone unrecorded. This theme of under-documentation emerged again and again at the three-day conference.  It was present while Suzi Quatro suzi-quatro-col-3played (where was the national press for this rare stateside appearance by one of rock’s living, vital foremothers?); it took a direct hit during Kathy Valentine’s keynote address (as she pointedly asked why she and her band the Go-Gos still hold the record for being the only female band to have written and recorded a number one album?) and it was upended during the panel and performance by the women of These Streets:  Seattle grunge players who’ve taken it upon themselves to document the scene they were wholly a part of, yet the role of women rarely gets a mention in texts devoted to the ’90s music explosion there.  I would say the same for the Q&A with Frightwig, the reunited band from ‘80s San Francisco who though under-appreciated in their first incarnation will go down as vastly influential, especially as they continue to bring new meaning to what it means to be a mid-life, punk generation woman playing on in the 21st Century.

Meeting and mingling with women who paved the road for us, from Patricia Kennealy Morrison and Robin Lane, to solid sisters like Julie Christensen, and young women like Aly Tadros, Shelby Figueroa, and Wendy Griffiths of Changing Modes to whom we hand the torch, was an experience I hope to repeat, and document more extensively.  Thanks to Carla DeSantis Black for the putting together the whole shebang:  Many years ago, the editor/publisher of ROCKRGIRL printed my piece on Jane Weidlin, and today it lives in an anthology titled A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World: Writings From the Girl Zine Revolution.  I’m humbled to have witnessed and survived that revolution, and recommit to finding more untold stories of women—and the men who support us—rising, as we document and preserve our herstory.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, video, Women's rights, , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , ,

Goodbye Columbus: Hello Buffy Sainte-Marie and Debora Iyall

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

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

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

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

50 Years Ago: Four Little Girls and Two Songs

It was 50 years years ago that the four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  In 2011, a marker was finally dedicated in their names at the site of the vicious, racially motivated attack.

Just three months after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and two weeks after the March on Washington and Dr. King’s momentum-building “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Alabama tragedy became the pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in immediate response to hearing the news: “I shut myself up in a room and that song happened,” she said of the song that begins, “Alabama’s got me so upset.”  From that moment forward, Simone was committed to writing and performing material that would jolt people awake or into action.  It remains her most enduring work.

Joan Baez,  had of course walked alongside Dr. King at the marches in the South all along; her tribute was a recording of “Birmingham Sunday” by her brother-in-law, the writer Richard Fariña.  Each girl was remembered by name in the verses, set to the tune of a beautiful folk melody. Fifty years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged here and yonder, year in and year out, by so-called humanity.

Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers