Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Just Got Back From Texas…

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Paul Williams and His Greatest Hits (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Columbus: Hello Buffy Sainte-Marie and Debora Iyall

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

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

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

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

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