Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Cyndi Lauper: She’s Still So Unusual

Photo1 - (courtesy WeTV and Kinky Boots)Though I never owned  She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper in the ’80s (it was what we called “too commercial” for my taste), I was certainly happy to revisit it in its 30th anniversary vinyl edition, and hear it as the watershed in women’s recording it was.

By the time Cyndi Lauper made her solo debut in the fall of 1983, the year had already delivered some of ‘80s culture’s greatest hits: Michael Jackson had performed the moonwalk on the Motown 25 TV special; Sally Ride was the first woman to fly into outer space, and a black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned for the first time ever. Madonna was still a yet to be, in the process of defining herself on a debut that just skimmed the radar. Lauper however was fully formed, comfortable in her own skin and clothes, wrote her own songs and had enough chutzpah to take others’ songs and make them her own. She was also an extraordinary singer, then and now, her voice an expression of pure joy and an assertion of her freeness…

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE: 

Filed under: Reviews, vinyl, What Makes A Legend, Women in Rock, Women's rights, , , , ,

For Cinco de Mayo: The Mexican American Rock y Roll Connection

It all started with Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” and The Champs and “Tequila”  in 1958, though it would be another decade before Santana took Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and freaked it out in 1970. Los Lobos brought Spanish language to LA punks with “Anselma” in the early ’80s and to the masses in 1987 with a remake of “La Bamba”; in 2002, they tore it up Chicano style with “Good Morning Aztlán.” Of course, these names of Latino rock royalty can twist a phrase en español—it is their birthright. But what about los gringos without Latino roots who’ve brought a Mexican vibe to their rock ‘n’ roll? And the bands that feature lesser known Mexican-American musicians, plus los otros conquistadors of south-of-the-border sound? Well, they are the subject of this Cinco de Mayo post, claro que si.

There are any number of starting points I could choose to begin the story of Latin rock and the use of Spanish language in rock ‘n’ roll, but since I’m not a scholar of the stuff and just an admiradora, I’ll apologize upfront for any mismanagement of details, mangling of the language, and my Anglo-centric survey of the music. Let’s just say for the sake of ease we start with 1948 and Don Tosti’s recording of “Pachuco Boogie”, a swingin’ tune about the rebellious zoot-suiters featuring a conversation or street rap in Caló, the urban dialect of the Pachuco subculture. The Pachucos donned the zoot suit and started a ’40s fashion and attitude riot that asserted individuality and anger in the face of having been stripped of a cultural identity. What, you are asking yourself, does this have to do with music? Well, Southwestern Chicanos adopted the baggy trouser/knee-length jacket uniform that had previously been seen on the Harlem jazz scene, and Don Tosti earned the nickname “the Godfather of Latin Rhythm and Blues.” Alongside Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music,” who also sang of Pachuco life as well as farm laborers’ rights, Tosti opened the door for an ethnocentric brand of music to cross into the mainstream (“Pachuco Boogie” was a massive seller), though it wouldn’t be until the late ’60s that the Chicano Movement would come to organize in the name of cultural identity. “Suavecito”, the 1972 hit by Malo (the group led by Santana’s brother Jorge), is an example of Caló y Latin rhythms coming together in one classic R&B/rock ballad. But what happened between “Pachuco Boogie” and the day when Santana threw down at Woodstock before even releasing a debut album?

Well, that would be the invention of Latin rock by California son, Ritchie Valens, a rocker whose “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” are ’50s standards, but who happens to be most remembered for the music of his cultural heritage. As we know, the music died on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Valens, and the pilot died in a plane crash in Iowa, yet “La Bamba”, the el hefe of Spanish language rock songs, lives on. Starting out as a hundreds year-old Mexican folk song, Valens rocked it up and delivered a three-chord wonder that eventually any garage or punk-rock band could play. The Plugz, an LA band by way of El Paso, featuring Tito Larriva and Charlie Quintana, self-released their cranked-up version of “La Bamba” in 1981. The Plugz also recorded two long-playing rare classics, Electrify Me and Better Luck, before morphing into the Cruzados and then eventually going their separate ways, but not before their “El Clavo y La Cruz” and “Hombre Secreto” (as in “Secret Agent Man”) gave the right touch to Repo Man, the punky midnight movie about “the LA experience.” In 1987, Los Lobos were asked to re-record some Valens songs for the soundtrack to La Bamba, a Hollywood bio depiction of the Richie Valens story starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It was then the band, formed in 1973 in East LA, rose to a new level of fame (their take on “La Bamba” went to number one). Debuting in 1976 with Si Se Puede! benefitting the United Farm Workers, and inspired by music diverse as Bob Dylan and Traffic, R&B, Mexican folkloric music, Jimi Hendrix  and Marvin Gaye, Los Lobos are as American and rock’n’roll as they come, while they continue to clutch the roots of their musical  heritage, masterfully incorporating traditional corridos and norteño sounds into their alternately furious rock’n’roll and  laid back jams.

Los Lobos were also inspired by the Eastside sound of Thee Midnighters and Little Willie G (more on them in a minute), as well as Carlos Santana y Jerry Garcia, and the Sir Douglas Quintet, distinguished by Augie Meyers’ Vox Continental organ sound and the soulful singing of Doug Sahm who started their band in San Antonio, Texas. Their greatest hit, “She’s About a Mover,” as released in 1965. Sir Douglas Quintet belonged to the handful of US groups who brought the spirit of the British Invasion (English musicians doing American music), back into the hands of Americans by tricking the public into thinking they were playing British-styled music like the Beatles and the Stones, rather than American music by Americans. It was Sir Doug that officially added the Tex-Mex sound to the American music mix, while Sahm would also go on to sing of the border and other Mexican concerns (“Michoacan”). In later years, Sahm and Meyers would also join forces with Mexican-American rock and genre-straddling songwriter Freddie Fender and accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez as the Texas Tornados.

The Farfisa organ sound and the count-off uno, dos, one-two, tres cuatro would become recognized around the world that same year as the opening to “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Led by a Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, the song is about nothing really and was said to be named after his cat. Domingo worked as an itinerant musician and reportedly as a carny before forming the Pharaohs, who took their name from Yul Brynner because he looked tough as the character in The Ten Commandments, one of those epic 1950s Bible movies. “Wooly Bully” became a staple of the frat-rock genre though it was more distinctive than just serving as the soundtrack to AnimalHouse-style hijinks. The song spent an incredible 18-week stand on the charts, and by the end of 1965, it was named Billboard magazine’s Number One Record of the Year and had helped dislodge singles on the charts by the aforementioned pesky British bands of the era. Sam the Sham’s “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was certainly another fine moment for the band, but it lacked the Tex-Mex organ sound that would crop up on the great singles of the ’60s made by another legendary group of Mexican-Americans: “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, who hailed from Michigan and were fronted by Question Mark aka Rudy Martinez and featured a teenaged organ player, Frank Rodriguez, Jr. The organ riffing would also inspire the group’s “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby.” In 1998, Smash Mouth from San Jose, California, had a hit with the song alongside their hit remake of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by War, a mixed-race funk band whose big hit “Low Rider” was a hats-off to cruisin’, Chicano style.

Of course, when it comes to cruisin’ Chicano style, the band for that is East LA’s Thee Midniters. Known for their instrumental jam “Whittier Boulevard”

The band and their especially soulful singer Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, was a big inspiration to the future members of Los Lobos. The song was a natural to cover for Los Straitjackets, the contemporary (mostly) all-instrumental band that performs in Mexican wrestler masks. Okay, so copping a Spanish name and wearing a mask does not make a Mexican rocker. But by virtue of using the article “los” in their names, Los Straitjackets, as well as Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, are filed in American record stores with the other “los bands,” like Los Bravos, the rock group from Spain whose 1966 hit, “Black Is Black”, did not contain a word of Spanish. Nor to my knowledge did the Zeros, the Mexican-American band from San Diego, ever sing in Spanish, though as members of the class of ’77,
they are distinguished as first-wave punk rockers; they also sprung Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Somewhere, there exists a rare single of their anthem “I Don’t Wanna” backed with “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu”, a cover of the first Righteous Brothers hit made even more famous by Mitch Ryder.

I have only scratched the surface of the Latino influence on rock, precisely because it is inescapable and inextricable. I never got to point toward the “Spanish” sound on all those Brill Building and Phil Spector hits, or delve deep into the Afro Cuban percussive roots of rock (best exemplified by Bo Diddley borrowing the rhumba-like clave beat), nor did we open the pandora’s box of disco that partially paved the road to hip hop and other forms of dance music.  There is so much to uncover, from Devendra Banhart’s musings en español on Cripple Crow to the Mission District’s #1 son, Jerry Garcia (that is if you don’t count figure #1a, Tijuana-born Carlos Santana). I had planned to wax on about Jack White’s and Beck Hansen’s Mexican-American neighborhood origins as well as the exact definition of un perdedor as heard in Beck’s “Loser,” but I will leave that to you to explore. While were are here, let’s not forget the great Spanish-lover, Joe Strummer, whose Mexico City childhood allowed him to open his corazón to the Spanish-speaking world, and they to him. I had hoped to remind you to remember to forget U2’s lame-o uno, dos, tres, catorce countdown to “Vertigo”, but who am I to talk when all I can offer are my own gabacha sign-offs, ay, caramba y que lástima. Yo no soy una roquera, lo siento. Pero, in the hands of the Mars Volta, Ozomatli, Zack de la Rocha, La Santa Cecilia, Cambio, y todos los músicos, there is mas y mas y mas y mas musica: Rest assured, La Raza rocks on. Wishing all a safe and sane Cinco de Mayo.

The research compiled in this column was originally published some years ago in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Origin of Song, , , , ,

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band,  Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

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, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.”  Originally a midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Freedom Now, Gil Scott-Heron, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Jazz, Poetry, Richie Havens, video, , , , ,

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-six years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”, April 4 1968, Memphis TN, Striking Sanitation Workers

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, income disparity, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Gil Scott-Heron

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry history, specifically where the two forms meet and get real. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. Truth was, there were echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves, though if ever you go and seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find discs there. Come April 19, Record Store Day, there will actually be a new slab of wax in the stacks by Scott-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. Amazing how timely the song and its sentiments remain, though that is of course the nature of visionary poetry–and jazz. 

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 music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, 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’n’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. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style 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.

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

Filed under: Arts and Culture, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Gil Scott-Heron, Immigration Reform, Poetry, Protest Songs, vinyl, , , , , , ,

Kandia Crazy Horse: Ready For the Country

Kandia useKandia Crazy Horse is on a crusade to become the first black woman to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.

Noting that the oval office, hockey, tennis, “and even show jumping” can claim high-ranking blacks breaking the color barrier, Kandia asks, “Why not in country music? I wouldn’t want my children to think the only Black Country singer was Charley Pride.” Creating a black female presence in Americana is Kandia’s personal Kilimanjaro.

Read the entire story of Kandia Crazy Horse by Denise Sullivan posted in today’s SXSW edition of Blurt online.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Catch a Rising Star, Civil Rights, Concerts, Georgia, Harlem, Interview, Mali, new article, Now Playing, Smarter than the average bear, , , , , , , ,

Furry Lewis Born Today, 1893

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and God-given name of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him and Lewis hated it (it crossed some lines). He appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88. His “Judge Harsh” blues made a real impression on me in 2004 (The Year of Our Injustice) which was also around the time Fat Possum released Good Morning Judge (there are plenty of other Lewis titles available but I like that one).

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. Listen for the way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby”).  His outlook was generally optimistic, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said. Personally, I rely on his blues to chase away my own. When I play Furry Lewis, I find I just can’t stay down too long. Covering the spectrum of life in his songs, from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow, he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee. And it’s for that, I thank him most of all.

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

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