Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Music business in trouble, but film lives

Jacks Haupt and Doris Muñoz as themselves in Isabel Castro’s documentary, Mija

In Mija, directed by Isabel Castro, the intersecting stories of artist manager, Doris Muñoz, and singer, Jacks Haupt, unfold in a classic rock ’n’ roll fairytale. 

“When you’ve never seen someone like you succeed, it feels impossible,“ says Muñoz in the film as she dreams big for herself and Haupt.

As children of immigrants, the documentary’s Latinx subjects share a bond: Their family dilemmas combined with the elements of chance it takes to make it in the music business are a reminder of just how much timing and luck have to do with the game, no matter the amount of raw talent or hard work at hand. Throw in a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the odds of connecting with a wider audience become even more remote.

And yet, Mija screened to a sold-out theater this week with its subjects and director in attendance at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Returning to a live theater format rather than offering a streaming or hybrid option as the pandemic has dictated for the past couple of years was an intentional choice by the SFFILM, sensing that we’re all past due for communal filmgoing again. 

“At this point, there’s one group of moviegoers you can count on and that’s young adults,” said Adam Bergeron, owner of the Balboa Theater and operator of several independent theaters in San Francisco, including the Vogue and the soon-to-reopen Four Star. Business has been steadily coming back, and with it, there are plans to turn the Four Star back to a single screen theater with a gallery/event space and a cafe as additions. Scheduled to open this summer, the news of a hybrid space launching in the face of so many small businesses and independent cinema closures is a victory for grassroots artists and the people who support them.

Read the whole article at Tourworthy:

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , ,

SF Lives/Live Talks Are Back!

Greetings fellow Friscans and those interested in the latest from our much maligned and beloved city. As readers know, I occasionally write about San Francisco’s people, poets, places and solutions to its problems for a project dubbed SF Lives. Its print/text version is in process of seeking a new home beyond this blog and the archives of the San Francisco Examiner. However, if you’re interested in keeping up with all the news that I see fit to report from my outpost at the edge of the world, our SF Lives/Lives Talks, is once again livestreaming conversations from Bird &Beckett Books and Records.

This month I interviewed Kelley Cutler, the human rights coordinator at the Coalition on Homelessness. Cutler is a 20-year veteran of providing services to our unhoused neighbors and has seen firsthand the way people’s lives change dramatically for the better when they are able to secure housing. But promised housing by the City of San Francisco and the supportive services to assist people in need have still not materialized: There are no beds available and a dysfunctional intake system continues to challenge and stymie the best efforts by outreach workers and the people living on our streets. In this conversation, Cutler helps us understand why the cycle of dysfunction persists. With much gratitude to her and the work she the Coalition do, I hope you will take an hour to hear why the mayor’s Tenderloin emergency plan and other efforts to house people are failing, why the city is in violation of people’s basic human rights, and why the work Cutler does is essential to all of our SFLives.

Filed under: California, gentrification, income disparity, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , ,

The Tao of Rock

“If the Tao is a way of doing something in concert with its essential nature, David Meltzer’s ‘Rock Tao,’ a relic from the 1960s published for the first time this year by Lithic Press, is an aptly named guide. It’s a book as mysterious, ageless and full of contradiction as rock music itself.

Presented on the page as a textual collage in six parts, Meltzer alternates quotations from the I Ching with Greek philosophy and lyrics by the Supremes. He expounds on the teen appeal of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and touches on the artistry of Sam Cooke and showmanship of James Brown, among others. Weaving in and out of the music with scene-changing headlines, Meltzer chronicles, annotates, observes and critiques his times in “Rock Tao,” providing a portal into the mind of an insider.” Read the full story, my latest for Datebook in the San Francisco Chronicle

Filed under: Books, California, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

Frisco Life of Pablo Celebrated This Month

You might remember when I reported on the memorial for skateboarder, drummer and visual artist Pablo Ramirez who died in a fatal collision with a truck on San Francisco’s Seventh Street in 2019 (ignore the byline which says “Danny Sullivan,” it’s actually me! An installment of my SFLives column, the piece earned an award from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020).

Famed for seeking out the city’s steepest hills and riding them all the way down, Ramirez was also a great explorer of the arts – a painter and a musician – and sought to cultivate his whole being by embracing life. He’s become a sort of folk hero within and outside the skate community.

Throughout March, the month between what would’ve been his 29th birthday and the third anniversary of his passing, the foundation set up in his name is hosting a series of events in San Francisco to raise awareness of skate culture(the full story is my latest for the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section). Aimed at delivering access to skateboarding across traditional barriers (race, gender, sexuality, income), the foundation was also set up to introduce skaters and other interested parties in skate culture and its lifestyle. Disinterested in business as usual, skaters are often counted among the societal outlaws dreaming of a better way of life. But far from the trouble and noisemakers they are often perceived to be, skaters are interested in evolving, pushing forward, living on the edge, making change and bringing others along with them. Whether caring for the environment or channeling energy into making art and music, the skate community is multi-dimensional and growing. I hope I’ve piqued your interest in learning more about where the Bay Area’s justice-seeking, visionary arts and skate communities converge. As ever, thanks for reading.

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

Total Recall (San Francisco Edition)

If you are getting your news about San Francisco in the national mainstream media, you are understandably confused. Take last week’s recall of three members of our school board.

For anyone seeking actual answers as to how San Francisco was played in the outcome of its particularly San Franciscan recall, educational policy expert Kevin Kumashiro, author of Surrendered: Why Progressives Are Losing The Biggest Battles In Education, offered a streamlined and clear explanation to Ian Masters on a recent edition of Background Briefing.

Kumashiro has been following the nationwide dismantling of school boards in the wake of pandemic closures and the concurrent CRT debates, and breaks down how specifically GOP strategies, money and other forces came to bear on San Francisco’s maligned school board.

“This was about some people feeling the school board was putting too much of its time into ‘equity issues’ [renaming schools and admission policies], and not enough attention on reopening,” said Kumashiro. He further notes San Francisco reopened last fall like many other school districts, but the emphasis was placed on the slow action and competence of its three now-recalled board members who are, as you might’ve guessed, Black, Asian-Pacific Islander and Latina. Make no mistake: Kumashiro describes what happened in San Francisco as part of a larger plan to prey on national race anxieties that will ultimately be used to strike down affirmative action in the Supreme Court. This is cause for anyone with a pulse to feel alarmed. And yet, still not reading much real talk about this angle of the outcome of the recall in the press. Read my full report on the recall in Down With Tyranny which also links directly to the interview with Kumashiro.

Filed under: San Francisco News, , , , ,

Poly Styrene’s Time is Now

“When we all got into music, back in the day, we got into it to be anti-establishment,” said punk filmmaker and musician Don Letts. “Nowadays, bands start bands to become part of the establishment.”

Poly Styrene, late ’70s

In the ’70s and ’80s, Letts was an intimate friend and documentarian of the Clash. He was also acquainted with punk empress Poly Styrene, front woman of X-Ray Spex and a witness to her unfurling following a difficult evening spent in the company of Johnny Rotten.

Much has been left uncovered and to the imagination concerning Styrene’s reclusive post-punk life, but the new documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, co-directed by Paul Sng and Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, corrects the record and tells the true tale of an accidental icon.

“People often ask me if she’s a good mum – it’s hard to know what to say,” says Bell in narration of the film, exploring the life, career and spiritual-questing of her mother. Decades later, Styrene is still considered one of punk rock’s mothers and its premiere feminist, anti-capitalist and Afrofuturist.

Expertly weaving archival film with ephemera, testimonials and additional voicing of Styrene’s diaries by actor Ruth Negga, Bell’s very personal story is centered on the art itself, along with a narrative that underscores the artist’s ability to create lasting work in the face of the odds and a world that was built in opposition to her. That the artist was her mother makes for a complex telling but those complicated feelings never get in the way of keeping the focus on Styrene’s values as an artist; her contemporaries like Letts, ska music’s Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar, and latter-day punk spokespeople like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore are all quick to corroborate her impact. Bell does away with the documentary convention of talking heads which effectively keeps her subject in the spotlight rather than creating a distraction by fixing a camera on so-called experts. A daughter’s understanding of her mother’s role as a pioneering biracial feminist environmentalist with a spiritual directive to deliver a message to the world is a testament to Bell’s own commitment to making a film about art as opposed to conforming to commercial ideas of what makes good entertainment. Read full article here:

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Environmental Justice, film, Protest Songs, Punk, Women in Rock, , ,

Looking For A Home

Dear Reader,

Living and working in major U.S. cities throughout my adult life, I always came back to thinking, and sometimes writing, about San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I was born here, have spent the majority of my waking and working life here, and expect to remain here (unless I make it out alive). But writing about this place I call home – whatever home means – for myself and for publication has been my preoccupation, and for the past four years, my vocation. One of the spaces I’ve found for my work as a reporter has been as a biweekly columnist at The San Francisco Examiner.

In 2018, I was invited to create and contribute SFLives, a series about people, to the paper. Since launching, I’ve written over 100 columns, earned two awards in the columnist category (from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020 and 2021), and curated and hosted a monthly hour-long talk series, live streamed from Bird & Beckett Books and Records (continuing on the second Sunday of each month). Writing the SFLives column, intended to celebrate the extraordinary lives of everyday people who make this a singular city, has been one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life. To get to know people, to be invited into the homes, businesses and lives of so many San Franciscans, particularly during the pandemic, and be trusted to tell their stories in a metropolitan newspaper, has helped me to better understand a complex city, though I can’t claim to know all its secrets just yet.

I don’t do the work alone: trusted friends and contacts have introduced me to people I may not have otherwise encountered. And of course the subjects themselves, San Francisco’s people, fulfill the major role in filling the column inches with their survival tactics, wisdom and personal histories every other week. Occasionally I get a little closer to the bone and to home, but it’s generally other people’s unsung, everyday achievements I’m interested in celebrating. Surely, I benefit far more from these tellings than do my subjects, though some of them reported back wonderful things that happened following the publication of their stories. I can’t think of anything more gratifying to me professionally, to be living and working in a complicated city with its neighborhood identities, and introducing its people to each other and to the larger community. I intend to tell these stories until my work here is done, though SFLives will no longer be hosted by the Examiner.

My consideration of our city’s emergency plan to bring “law and order” to the Tenderloin – San Francisco’s most long term troubled neighborhood – is my farewell for now. That the column concerns San Franciscans living unhoused on our streets is a sort of bittersweet occurrence but is not a coincidence. The city and its power base has not done right by its least fortunate and most vulnerable people (and the United Nations backs up that claim). Meanwhile the convulsive changes at the Examiner, a newspaper claimed by new ownership and management seeking a new identity, has recently made for a less than comfortable home for SFLives. I’ll be using my time away from it to continue my work as a teaching artist/writing instructor and a cultural reporter at other news outlets, and to further develop the SFLives project.

I am grateful to be among the housed in one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest region of the country, and to continue my work, documenting the lives and times of my fellow San Franciscans living through perilous times. But please keep the faith, friends and readers, that San Francisco, as a city, as an idea, as a state of mind and as a people, does the right thing and cares for its most vulnerable people this winter, as the COVID variants surge. There are plenty of good folks and organizations here, with open hearts and a willingness to communicate with care and compassion: I intend to stick with them, to keep doing my job, and telling your stories, in conjunction with partners whose values and mine are better aligned. Thank you for supporting independent thought and reporting and please return or subscribe to this space for updates.

In solidarity,

Denise

SFLives

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

Celebrating 100 San Francisco Lives

Corner Launderette, California Street, Inner Richmond District, San Francisco, 2021 photo by Denise Sullivan

The idea of the “soul of San Francisco,” and whether it’s been lost or found in these years of our gentrification and more recently the pandemic is worn-out. But what exactly does it mean, to go in search of something as ephemeral as a city’s spirit? After 99 columns, I’m still trying to find out.

“One of the things people say to me all the time is they’re happy we’re still here. As if they are expecting me not to be,” said Paula Tejada, the self-proclaimed Empanada Lady who presides over Chile Lindo, her specialty food stand and catering business on 16th between Capp and South Van Ness, the crossroads of good fortune and hard luck.

Tejada is the among the San Franciscans I’ve talked to for SFLives, my column that has been running every other week in the San Francisco Examiner for going on four years. In that time we’ve earned second and third place awards in the columnist category of the San Francisco Press Club’s annual Northern California Journalism Awards, launched a monthly talk series at Bird and Beckett Books & Records, talked to over 100 San Franciscans and shared a bit of our own history. The space has been devoted largely to probing the idea of what keeps some of us here, while there are others who try us, then decide it’s time to leave in a hurry. The whole project has been a thorny proposition, fraught with the usual contradictions of writing about a complex city. And yet, I learn more and more about San Francisco each day by talking to folks who call this place home.

“Foot traffic in the morning is done,” Tejada told me when I checked in on her pandemic status, three years after we first sat down for a chat.

“There are no Google buses, people who used to walk by in the morning aren’t going to work on BART and I never know if I’m going to have that customer that’s coming in for a dozen.”

And yet, Tejada digs into reserves she doesn’t really have to pay topflight jazz, salsa and bossa nova musicians to perform at her storefront, thanks in part to The City relaxing regulations around outdoor dining and drinking during the pandemic. She does it because she believes in that ineffable thing we call the soul of San Francisco…

READ THE ENTIRE COLUMN HERE and 99 other columns HERE.

As I like to say, please don’t believe everything you read in the national and international press about San Francisco. But if you get a chance to talk to one of us who lives here, you might find out, like I’ve found out, that our people have still got that indescribable something that it’s been said we San Franciscans are made of and carry with us wherever in the world we go: Maybe it’s a can-do spirit, maybe it’s soul; some might call it grace and I call it home. We all carry the place where we’re from with us, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I truly hope that here in this place once known as the City That Knows How we can find within us and its city limits the ability to rise from this very, very broken place we’ve arrived post-pandemic. Until then, squint your eyes and try to find some light in the darkness: I promise it’s here, but you have to look up at just the right moment or you just might miss it.

Filed under: San Francisco News, , ,

Real SF Lives Talk Real: New Series!

First Stop/Last Stop photo by Denise Sullivan

If you read the national news- or even some of our local papers – you might think San Francisco is beyond redemption. I blame it on seven dollar coffee and toast (the fourteen dollar snack). Some will tell you it’s the corruption inside city hall, the mishandling of affordable housing, and the public school system, and I would believe them: All of it part of the unfinished jigsaw of our city’s story and there is more to it than that. But one thing we handled, and handled well, was the pandemic. So thanks for that, to the medical professionals and city officials, essential workers and everyday citizens who did their part to mask up and slow the spread. Though it might be fair to say the statewide reopening on June 15 felt hasty and confusing to those who adhered to the guidelines for the duration -no non-essential travel, social or business activity, six feet of distance, masking and no gathering. The mask off and the rush back to life is stress-inducing and no-wonder: There is so little known about the mutation of the virus, the variants; as it is, hospitalizations are up in some California counties…

In an effort to air some of the public’s immediate practical and emotional concerns and to feel uplifted during the transition, on June 13, a couple of days before “reopening,” we kicked off a livestreamed discussion series with our fellow San Franciscans, hosted by Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Our first guest was artist Anna Lisa Escobedo, an extraordinary San Franciscan with an LA background and a story to tell. Our second guest was columnist and independent publisher, Kelly Dessaint. Future guests will include many of the subjects of my column, SFLives, which runs every other week in the San Francisco Examiner: The folks I cover and tend to want to speak to in-depth are our on-the-ground leaders and everyday workers in arts, culture and various essential jobs that make San Francisco the place we call home.

In recent columns, I’ve covered the controversy surrounding the opening of the Great Highway from a very personal perspective; I’ve spoken to photojournalist/filmmaker Lou Dematteis, musician/composer Jon Jang, artist/urban farmer/community historian Lisa Ruth Elliott and Japantown community leader Grace Horikiri (You can peruse nearly 100 columns at the Examiner’s website).

Porthole photo by Denise Sullivan

In some of these talks we take on gentrification issues, the ways in which the city has ceded the people’s interests to newly minted tech barons and their minions and pretty much successfully destroyed our international reputation as a sanctuary for artists and outsiders. Yes, that. But mostly in 2020 and beyond it, we confronted pandemic issues, how we coped and how our hometown did that aforementioned exemplary job at keeping the spread under control, even though we as a city continue to fail our most vulnerable — those without homes, seniors without families, and developmentally and physically disabled folks. As for the rocky “reopening,” we’ll be talking about that too: Nobody really knows how to handle the summer rush. There are no workers for low-wage jobs. And as the unvaxed and unmasked descend upon us, the most committed lovers of this place are at the brink: There are stories we’re moving out in droves, moving to Tahoe (and ruining the way of life there). A recent New York Times story about organized shoplifting crimes at Walgreen’s is the latest outrage, meanwhile, children remain out of school while a dysfunctional school board (we voted for) squabbles over….don’t ask, most of us have lost the plot; discontent –no, rage–directed at the district attorney (we voted for) has degenerated into moms shouting down other moms at the neighborhood farmer’s markets. Finally, the web of deep corruption within city hall and other city agencies continues to be investigated by the feds. These are just a few of the challenges confronting us in perilous times. Yes, this place is for the birds. And where isn’t right now?

What I feel like I’ve failed to put into words, ever, but especially in these times, is there is nowhere else I would rather be. This is that elusive place called home. There is something about waking up in the City and County of San Francisco seeing the sun (or at this time of year, fog), and feeling in your bones it’s the right place to be; that there is something to be said for enduring our cold summer winters, days like these. And on other days, one peek at the sky, if it’s that particular shade of blue I have not yet found words to describe, with clouds that seem to move as I go, the contentment and acceptance that I’m in San Francisco turns to deep joy and gratitude that I’m San Franciscan. In the blue, I can breathe more deeply, though why that is I haven’t yet discovered. So until then, I’ll keep talking about this place with you. And taking photos. And writing about it. Here’s to another day in the beautiful city. I have so much left to learn.

Please join the conversation with San Francisco’s artists, essential service providers and and everyday people as we talk about this place we call home. Coming up, Sunday August 8, 10 a.m. live from Bird and Beckett, filmmaker Eric Goodfield.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, photography, San Francisco News, serial, Tales of the Gentrification City, , ,

Tongo Eisen-Martin: The revolution is live

Today April 30, marks the end of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. The bookend to my April 1 post on musician, poet, and literary artist Gil Scott-Heron is in tribute to Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s newly appointed poet laureate, and a multidisciplinary artist in his own right. Eisen-Martin’s inaugural address and the reading he curated for the occasion was live-streamed on April 22 by the San Francisco Public Library in cooperation with local literary institutions, City Lights Books and Litquake. You can watch the entire 90 minute program here:

Please be patient as I am only just now realizing the how and why of Eisen-Martin’s standing as a natural torch-bearer for a modern style of poetry the likes of which Scott-Heron forged and the performing hip hop poets of the ’90s brought back into vogue: Both Eisen-Martin, like Scott-Heron, make substantive use of revolutionary rhetoric and their dead serious lived experience as Black men in America. While rooted in Black experience, the content expresses a profoundly deep love of and want for liberation of all oppressed peoples which leads with the dismantling of the structure of a capitalist society built on white supremacy, the one we historically and presently inhabit. That’s a lot for some folks, I know. There is also a spiritual core to the content that veers from the satirical to the surreal, all of it of a piece with its message.

Scott-Heron famously followed in the footsteps of his inspiration Langston Hughes, and Eisen-Martin has direct links to that lineage of jazz and blues poets: I’m not going to give away the hand, so if you’re interested you can dig around on your own and make the connections.

Though familiar as I am with Scott-Heron’s work, and in the several hours I’ve talked poetry and in the many more spent reading and listening to Eisen-Martin, Scott-Heron didn’t come up. Why? Well, Gil is the poet most often checked when people not-so-well-acquainted with poetry, Black poets, hip hop, Black music or Black Arts think of the first time they hear Eisen-Martin at work: I didn’t want to be that person, so I didn’t say so. Besides, that, I knew Eisen-Martin was more likely to name revolutionary, feminist, activist poet Audre Lorde, as someone he’d read widely and revered; that he’d studied with scholar Manning Marable, who’s written extensively on Malcolm X, and that he has appreciation for a spectrum of music, from Handy to Hendrix. But anyone who’s a regular at Eisen-Martin’s virtual readings will have noticed the image tacked to wall of his Zoom background: A picture of Scott-Heron, preaching to thousands.

For his inaugural event, friends, family, fans and San Francisco poet laureates emeritas Janice Mirikitani, devorah major and Kim Shuck were in attendance as Eisen-Martin passed the virtual mic to a cast of extraordinary poets, their work helping to give him his start and sustain him: They were, in no particular order here, his brother, Biko Eisen-Martin; early supporter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph; running mates during his New York years, Jive Poetic, Anthony Morales and Mahogany L. Browne, and the local network upon his Bay Area return: poet Joyce Lee, community organizer Uncle Damien and Alie Jones, co-founder of his newly established independent publishing house, Black Freighter Press. All contributed to making the poet and his inaugural event unprecedented in its power and presence. The humility of Eisen-Martin, and all of the poets, their collective ability to be attentive to each other’s work as they prepared to respond then perform their own considerable pieces without any interruption to their respective flows was part of the revelation. The intensely personal and political content was extraordinary, alive with excellence, contributing to the livestream’s immediacy, prescience and what will be its staying power: It was epic, in all respects. These poets of the Bay Area and beyond are the voices of the here and now, speaking to our precarious times, to neverending police violence and murder of Black people, and the everlasting oppression of indigenous people, women and the environment – matters that impact all people – delivered through Black (and Brown) lenses.

I hope readers of this space will set aside time to listen to the 90 necessary and critical minutes archived here, so that you may see and hear what we are doing here in San Francisco under Eisen-Martin’s steady guidance. “It’s the best decision this country ever made,” said Mahogany L. Browne of Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Eisen-Martin. “You’re a soul survivor – you are the best of us,” said brother Biko Eisen-Martin. ”Tongo might be the greatest poet of our generation but he’s a very, very good man,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph in an introduction that also served as a lead up to a piece in which he conjured the life, slow death and words of Gil Scott-Heron.

And so the month ends where we began it: The revolution is in good hands.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Book news, Poetry, video, , ,

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