Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

This Business of Music is a Buzzkiller

Injustice in the music business is one of the themes shared by three summer music documentaries now playing in theaters or on demand. Twenty Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me all concern the lives of musicians who did not reap the benefits of success their superstar counterparts or even their industry’s executives enjoy. These tales of a typically unkind, fickle and often unethical music business are told far too often:  There is of course a long tradition of broke and hungry blues singers and ripped-off rock’n’rollers; perhaps most famous are the Funk Brothers, creators of the Motown sound, whose untold history became Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the blueprint for these kind of behind the veil stories. And yet, the background vocalists of Twenty Feet… and the musicians of the ironically named ‘70s bands, Death and Big Star, though largely overlooked, unsung, and often underpaid themselves, also delivered life-giving music of lasting value—music far more focused and accomplished than many of their more successful name brand peers.

Much to the younger generation of musicians in their family’s delight, the Hackney brothers co-created punk rock in early ‘70s Detroit.  A Band Called Death is their story, as told by surviving brothers Bobby and Dannis, with credit due to brother David for the vision. Inspired by their minister dad’s insistence they watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the boys formed a band; as rock evolved, so did their sound. David aimed to combine the guitar chords of Pete Townshend of the Who with the leads of  Jimi Hendrix. With Bobby’s vocals and bass, and Dannis’ agility on drums central to the crunch, David’s idea came into focus, though it had also been shaped by forces much stranger than spine-chilling rock’n’roll.  Impacted by the accidental death of their father, David’s idea—a hard rock threesome named Death with a triangular mind-body-spirit logo was an entire  concept, though it turned out to be a bit much for listeners to metabolize in the post-‘60s hour of segregated rock and soul.  It is generally agreed among band and family, record industry personnel and public perception that David’s extreme construct did the band no favors, particularly when they were very close to getting a record deal with Clive Davis and David wouldn’t budge. “First you let them change your name and then…” You may as well surrender your soul is the implication, and there is truth in those words. Though he and his brothers’ band were consigned to the rare and forgotten records rack for 30 years, David’s vision, that Death would one day be poplar after he was gone, turned out to be prophecy. A Band Called Death lets that story unfold, as it unleashes the power and excitement of the music, highlighting its timelessness and virtuosity. For non-believers, their pure rock’n’roll single, “Keep on Knocking,” may be the convincer:  I never tire of it and could happily spin it over and over and over again.

If there is such a thing as rock justice, revived career status may also be in the balance for some of the singers profiled in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a look at the ladies (and one man) who sing the background vocals to the soundtrack of your life.  To their tremendous credit, director Morgan Neville and producer and industry vet Gil Friesen don’t flinch from the cruelty of the record business, a model that has historically cheated its true talent while rewarding mediocre copycats. The film debuted at the Sundance Festival and screened earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and is told by the vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, their contemporary counterparts, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill,  and the musicians they sing for (Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger). With differing degrees of yearning for the spotlight, each woman shares her own tale of what it was like to sing behind Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson and in the case of Love, for producer Phil Spector (now serving a prison sentence for murder).  Both Fischer and Lennear, emerge as the pair who crave little more than what they have: Fischer’s devoted to her gift and married to the music and a life on a road. Lennear stepped back and became a teacher, though as a result of the film and revisiting her years alongside George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Ike and Tina Turmer, she’s been inspired to reclaim her place in the spotlight.  Here’s her version of the Beatles song, “Let It Be.”

Perhaps most depressing in this downbeat trio of tales is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a story of unrequited loves and life let downs. Chris Bell, who alongside Alex Chilton, was a principle songwriter on the Memphis group’s first album, left the fold under what the film portrays as mysterious circumstances. What’s clear however, is that he was touched by substance abuse, and sexual and religious confusion, and all the troubles conspired to takeaway his life at the cursed rock’n’roll age of 27. It didn’t help that Big Star’s record label, Ardent, was affiliated with Stax, though while giants of the soul industry were experiencing business and reorganization troubles just as they crossed the bridge toward releasing rock’n’roll records. And then there is Chilton, a vocal talent with qualities so chameleon-like, and a reticence to be interviewed, that he’s hard to pin down. The teenaged soul singer of “The Letter” shifted gears in Big Star, and yet again in his post-band, punkish years; he passed away in 2010 before the completion of the film, and his presence in it is confined to audio and performance clips.  It would’ve been interesting to hear what he might say of his former band from a 60-year-old’s vantage point, but without him or Bell to speak for themselves, the real story of Big Star largely remains a mystery, to be filed under bands that never made it, but could have, if only the stars had aligned in their favor. Though their story is grim, their recording legacy is the prize: “The Ballad of El Goodo” from #1 Record, is a collaborative effort between Chilton and Bell, a power-pop freedom song:

Though I would not characterize any one of these music documentaries as uplifting, within the frames of each reel, and certainly within the individual stories, there are flashes of reverence, bright spots of humor, and in all cases, impeccable music. There is no shortage of stories like these, ready to unspool and cast the music business as it was once known in its true, unflattering light.  I don’t want to say I’m happy that everyone can see for themselves the hit parade of human sacrifice, left in the wake of what it takes to create superstar entertainment for the masses. Nor do I delight in the music industry’s complete and total rupture.  But it’s no doubt valuable for music consumers, just like consumers of other goods, to know a little bit more about what goes into the making of product they love so much. The music business is a killer, with very little to do with the art of its creators. Certainly it has shown little to no compassion for the health and welfare of musicians, without whom, there would be no primary product.  Perhaps it’s best we no longer fool ourselves into thinking that talent and excellence are qualifications for success, no matter what business we may find ourselves. The artist or worker without a killer instinct, will need to make a choice: Take a backseat willingly, or be content, to be left standing in the shadows.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Now Playing, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, , , , , , , ,

Never Forget: Emmett Till, born July 25, 1941

The story of Chicago’s 15-year-old Emmett Till (born today in 1941), murdered while on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi, was among the events in the mid-‘50s that mobilized the Civil Rights Movement; the tragedy was chronicled by Bob Dylan in one of his earliest songs. This clip contains a bit of background as well as the audio of the song which tells the story.

Following the recent events in Florida, where George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the names Emmett Till, as well as slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers have been invoked by civil rights leaders.  It is unthinkable, though entirely possible, that a generation of young folk are unfamiliar with these names, icons of the civil rights movement that marched on, throughout the South and toward Washington in the Summer of ’63. But there remains similarities in the cases: Like the families of  Till and Evers, in the face of extreme tragedy, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and his father Tracy, are working with the civil rights communities for justice. And like Till and Evers, the death of Trayvon Martin has moved artists to tell his story, in an effort to increase knowledge and inspire action. Here are but two, “Trayvon” by Jasiri X, and “Justice (If You’re 17)” by Wyclef Jean.

In this 50th anniversary year of Freedom Summer and the March on Washington, while we at once celebrate a victory for same sex couples across the country, we must mourn the return to states rights and the constricting of voting and women’s rights down South, as well as the injustice of the trial in Florida and ridiculous Stand Your Ground laws. Young men of color remain especially at risk of racial profiling, targeted and incarcerated in vastly disproportionate numbers. As the California prison hunger strike (protesting torturous conditions of solitary confinement) now in its third week continues, while overseas US drones hunt and kill innocent people mercilessly, “the conversation on race” is having its moment in the media spotlight. We must insist it continue and on Freedom Now, as the generations of our parents and grandparents did. Deep in my heart, I do believe, there is a song waiting to be written and sung at this year’s March on Washington.

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…

…But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

–Bob Dylan

Filed under: Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Immigration Reform, Never Forget, Occupy Wall Street, Songs for the Occupation, Women's rights, , , , ,

Evolution of an Artist: Eugene E. White

Text of Evolution of an Artist:  San Francisco Appreciation Society Celebrates Eugene E. White, delivered at Elders Project 2013 Special Reception, African American Arts & Culture Complex, San Francisco, CA, July 11, 2013.

I have known of the artist Eugene E. White for decades, but it wasn’t until fairly recently, that I’ve come to know a little more about my fellow San Franciscan as a vital community member, with wisdom and experience to spare, and as a visionary artist. Humble heroes and heroines with rural roots, the people who raised families then sent them away from the South for better lives elsewhere, are the elders Eugene E. White honors in his work. Tonight, we honor the elder as artist.

Eugene E. White

Eugene E. White

From a boy in the backwoods of Arkansas, to a young man in the Cadillac factory of Detroit, Mr. White came to San Francisco in 1958 and made his way as a sign painter and electronics repairman.  He opened his Kujiona Gallery in 1963 and followed with a show in 1964, sponsored by Bulart in Golden Gate Park’s Hall of Flowers; from that start, fine art became his full time pursuit. Traveling across the country and over seas, seeing all the great changes of the 20th and 21st Centuries, he brought his artist’s insights home with him.  Yes, he’s known racism and participated in the fight for equality—and the artwork was part of that, whether at ’60s community meetings in his gallery, at the 1970s original Black Expo in Chicago, or as recently as this year’s Juneteenth festival in the Fillmore.  He also paints great figures from the past—Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass—and from his lifetime—Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Dr. King, and President Obama: They are the portraits of progress. But another story runs alongside that narrative: Mr. White has seen his community and neighborhoods devastated and dismantled. Poverty, violence, and prison statistics grow grim, courtroom injustices roll by and voting rights are rolled back, and yet he doesn’t flinch from these facts.  He is an artist, and as such he holds a vision that we can change history from here—for the good and for the better—by coming together and writing a different script. That is in part why he agreed to show the paintings, so we could better see the here and now.

portion of A Song For My Lady

portion of A Song For My Lady by Eugene E. White

Mr. White has a calling, not only to paint, but to tell stories through images that help us better see everyday people—ourselves and each other—“the people without titles,” as he describes his subjects. When I came by to see him and his wife Lynnette late last year, it was as a journalist, to inquire about the paintings and the process, to find out what he’d been doing in the years since I first made his acquaintance. Of course he was painting, and had two commissioned portraits in progress, but he wasn’t publicly showing his work outside his own gallery—which is why tonight is a very special occasion. As we take time to admire the canvases and their images of beauty, resilience, and courage, let us also reflect on their maker’s message: Mr. White’s gift is a starting place for a dialogue on life, its sacrifices, and what can be done to improve circumstances, for ourselves and for those around us.  His success as an artist is a demonstration of his passion and dedication not only to art, but to the art of life. May this night inspire a young man or young woman in the room to pursue his or her dreams to pick up a brush or a pen and make art in San Francisco, to become our city’s next fine artist for the next 50 years.  We appreciate the White Family, for letting us into your lives; and especially Mr. White, who has made an indelible impression on our city:  The San Francisco Appreciation Society and those of us assembled here tonight wish to say thank you.

Eugene E. White receives commendation from City of San Francisco  Supervisor London Breed

Eugene E. White received commendation for his art and service to the City of San Francisco from Supervisor London Breed. Later in the evening, San Francisco Appreciation Society honored him with a Proclamation from Mayor Lee declaring July 11 Eugene E. White Day.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Freedom Now, new article, , , , , , ,

“Five to One” Again

(Preview of the book,  Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, by Denise Sullivan, coming soon)

“Five to One,” was the outgrowth of a philosophical conversation among enthusiastic film students Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, and their friend Alain Ronay. Though it remains a lyric that was never fully explicated by Morrison for the record, the original conversation among student artists reportedly concerned a generation at odds with the established order at the height of the Vietnam era (“they got the guns but we got the numbers”). Driven by drummer John Densmore’s strict timing, there is a tension evoked as Morrison explodes into rebellious nuggets of truth— “Trading your hours for a handful of dimes”—blowing holes in the bubble once known as the American Dream. The song is also the source of the epigraphic phrase that would go on to be associated with Morrison and the Doors for all time: “No one here gets out alive.”

Morrison’s  twist on the subject of power, his credibility as an outlaw street poet, and the Doors’ deep grooves would eventually weave their ways into the rebel music of the next generation and beyond, from punk rock  to hip hop. Like Morrison at his finest, hip hop artists tell stories, some real, others fantastical, born from urban legend and rooted in folk and oral tradition. Hip hop’s more conscious artists seek to shine a light on societal ills, and work toward changing and correcting them; many have paid a price for their points of view by becoming ostracized from the mainstream or hunted by law enforcement. Like the bluesmen and rebel poets before him, Morrison shall remain a touchstone for the  those who work in the tradition of prophetic and poetic verse, though his impact on hip hop, remains largely overlooked and under-explored.

The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass was an early example of the Doors’ embrace by hip hop artists (samples of “Peace Frog” and An American Prayer were used for its Bomb Squad-produced tracks in 1989). Since that early appropriation, DJs, producers, and emcees continue to pay homage with samples, mash-ups, and even covers (Snoop Dogg played with “dog without a bone,” in his own “Riders on the Storm”); there would likely be even more were the Doors not extremely protective of its legacy and cautious of approving tracks. “I’m the main spoiler in that area,” admits Densmore. He was however, willing to make a big exception.

In 2001, the Doors’ music made a massive leap into hip hop consciousness when producer Kanye West pulled a sample of “Five to One” to create the music bed for “Takeover” by Jay-Z. Conceived as a dis of fellow rapper Nas, “Takeover” launched a rap battle royale and series of answer songs and copycat tracks. “He sent me…a letter, explaining how what they were trying to do was what we were trying to do in the ‘60s, talk about social change, and I went, ‘Wow, and I got educated,” said Densmore who has done his best to maintain the integrity of the Doors’ catalog by holding out on commercial uses.

“You know a long time ago, Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us, because we were considering, “C’mon Buick, light my fire.’…Because the dough looked good and we were young,” he recalled.  “Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing. And he’s dead. And I’m not. So I’m not gonna forget that.”

Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1970 in Paris, France. Largely estranged from his bandmates, family and friends who were in the midst of the US Fourth of July weekend, final arrangements for his burial at the Père Lachaise  Cemetary were postponed until July 7.

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, France, Hip Hop, , , , ,

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