Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

November 20, 1969: Indians Claim Alcatraz

On November 20, 1969, All Tribes of the Native Nations occupied the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The taking of the former state penitentiary (the one that once held down gangster Al Capone and the notorious “Birdman,” famous for escaping it) was a major awareness-raising event, illuminating the treatment and near-extinction of Native people in the US. Issues like land theft and other deceptions served to Americans were in process of being clarified for all of us by members of the Native Nations: the Indians had longer-term plans to establish a culture center on the Rock, but federal authorities ultimately ended the peaceful occupation—with force—after a 19-month stand. Today, the former prison operates as a museum; it is presently hosting an art installation of work by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with reference to the island’s Native American protest past)

Among those who heard the call to gather in 1969 was John Trudell (Santee Sioux) who served as a broadcaster, the Voice of Alcatraz. Radio Free Alcatraz reached the airwaves daily via KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles (the Pacifica radio network). “He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous,” says the note in Trudell’s FBI file. In 1979, Trudell lost his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law in a mysterious house fire. The event was a turning point toward his life as a poet, musician and actor; miraculously his spirit remains outspoken and free.

Deborah Iyall (Cowlitz) was just a teenager at the time of the occupation: She ran away from her childhood home (with her mother’s blessing) to join the protestors on Alcatraz. “I remember a song this woman Oona taught me at the powwow… I felt like I had these little nuggets and culture to hang on to.” Iyall remained on the Rock for a few foggy and cold nights before returning home, but her introduction to a creative Native person helped shape her own identity as a professional visual artist, poet and musician (Iyall recorded and toured as the frontwoman of Romeo Void and remains a solo artist. Read more on the lives of Debora Iyall, the work of John Trudell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other artists inspired by the American Indian Movement in Keep on Pushing).

The anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, the annual sunrise Thanksgiving Day ceremony there, the team sports protests and the ongoing violation of Indian lands made it an Indian news-filled week here in Nor Cal, but then, here in the US, everyday is an opportunity to remember what the Indian people sacrificed for US and to say thank you for their land which the rest of us occupy.

Thanks to Mary Jean Robertson—host of Voices of the Native Nation, broadcasting every second, third, and fourth Wednesday of the month on KPOO—for bringing the news to Natives and their allies. Last night she played the above clip by Redbone, released in 1970 at the height of the occupation, with footage collected from more recent sunrise ceremonies. 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Buffy Sainte-Marie, California, Environmental Justice, income disparity, , , , ,

First-Ever Howard Zinn Bookfair Convenes In San Francisco: Marcus Books is Back!

Today’s first-ever Howard Zinn Bookfair zinnportraitconvenes at San Francisco’s historic Mission High School with a list of right-on authors as long as your arm so you’re going to have to check the program to believe your eyes. Organized by author James Tracy who also founded the San Francisco Community Land Trust,  the day is jam–packed with discussion and presentations concerning the people’s history—past, present and future—and is free to the public. I’ll be leading the discussion titled Supporting Our Bookstores in a Time of Gentrification from 1:30-2:30 PM in the James Baldwin Room, and will be joined by Karen and Gregory Johnson of Marcus Books San Francisco and Kate Rosenberger of the Mission District’s Dog Eared and Alley Cat Books. We hope to see the room filled with bookstore workers and supporters as we imagine ways in which our City’s bookstores can work cooperatively and reach out to each other more in what was a record-breaking year of small business closures in San Francisco.

As the day-long celebration of our stories transitions into the evening, there will be an arts and awards ceremony: I’m pleased to say, Marcus Books will be making an announcement about the store’s future and will be receiving a lifetime achievement award for their service to the people of San Francisco and beyond it.  Read my coverage on the current state of San Francisco’s bookstores at 48 Hills,  and I’ll see you at the people’s bookfair.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, Civil Rights, income disparity, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, , ,

Bob Neuwirth: Here and Then and Now

Bob_NeuwirthBob Neuwirth is a character in the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of the 21st Century’s art and music.

“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,”  says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are enjoyed by collectors, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form. Neuwirth has also played a unique role in the lives of his fellow artists. A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, he’s served as an ear to friends in the arts for five decades now; as a catalyst to epic songs,  he’s lived the moments we read about in history books.

“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. Though to recognize it,  “It takes a different set of eyes. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says.“Turn on the radio.  What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening,” he says.

If some of what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, it’s because he’s earned the right to wax on; he’s pulled-off the great American hat trick of living an artist’s life while remaining just under the radar of massive success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran away).  From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, it was to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.

In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies. “He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan.  The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue).  He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”),  a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.

In the ’70s  Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and contributed to the making of the music there as he gathered more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll. “Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the displacement of the folky, singer-songwriters from the scene. But Neuwirth also had a hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into some songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.

Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his own masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to 20110409115304-2studio, he lived in a rat-infested loft formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. But New York and the art scene was changing. The roads for struggling artists to take gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of fame does today?

“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.

So where does one find art in the culture today? “If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says, noting there’s no shortage of work. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there’s really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ” Acknowledging one person’s cup of meat might not be another’s  (“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says) he concedes there’s room for everyone by way of one of his trademarked aphorisms with which we can’t argue: “Bad art is better than good bombs.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, California, film, Folk, Interview, video, , , , ,

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