Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

A Very Merry Christmas

Holiday greetings:  This post is adapted annually for your reading pleasure.

Some time in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances, but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage).

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clear—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

The persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented; Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence and nearly 50 years since its release, their seasonal single and collaboration has taken on a life of its own.

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, rock 'n' roll, video, , , ,

23 San Francisco Lives

This year it was my great pleasure and honor to have conceived and contributed my biweekly column, SF Lives, to The San Francisco Examiner.  The basic idea behind the installments is to profile everyday people who live and work in the most expensive city in the US yet manage to make a difference in the lives of their fellows. The larger concept is to point toward how our lives as San Franciscans intersect, despite our specific neighborhood identities. Here in the highly-touted progressive and diverse San Francisco, we are too often insulated and in essence segregated by divides of race, class and sexual orientation. But those who live here long enough or adapt accordingly become adept at crossing our permeable neighborhood distinctions to become interconnected citizens of one city. It’s a micro-cosmic thing, and not always easy to navigate or articulate, though as Tamara Walker explained it, “If you stay here long enough, you’ll meet everybody.” A diagram, or one of those New Yorker style maps might include Downtown, the Mission, Hayes Valley, Ocean Beach, and “everywhere else.” But for the rest of us, life happens in the Excelsior, the Richmond and the Sunset, the Ingleside and Sunnyside Districts. There is still more life in the Fillmore and the Haight and in the Western Addition, Glen Park and Crocker-Amazon. Japantown, Chinatown  the Tenderloin, the Bayview, Potrero Hill…all of it, San Francisco, all of us San Franciscans. I invite you read today’s column on coop business advocate and musician Howard Ryan and catch up on past columns: Read all about the lives of some of my favorite San Franciscans, from seamstress and office worker Rita LaForce and poet/movement worker, Tongo Eisen-Martin to painter and cultural organizer Anna Lisa Escobedo and  HIV/AIDS activist Mike Shriver.  

And thank you to all the faithful readers of SFLives and of this space: To you, I wish the best for the final days of 2018 and raise a toast for a joyful 2019.

(All photos in this post were taken by Kevin Hume for The San Francisco Examiner, 2018. Pictured from top left to right: Tongo Eisen-Martin, Howard Ryan, Rita LaForce, Mike Shriver and Anna Lisa Escobedo).

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Poetry, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, Women's issues, , , ,

Stew and Heidi return with two new albums: Notes Of A Native Song and The Total Bent

The year’s end brought not one but two new albums of material by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, known professionally as The Negro Problem. Stew’s the wordman and Rodewald is the melodicist, arranger and additional voice in the mix. Both The Total Bent and Notes Of A Native Song are thematic works and the material is as wonderful as I remember: the songs were presented as work in progress at a San Francisco performance at the Curran two years ago. Here’s the audio for “Jimmy” from Notes Of A Native Song, followed by an interview I did with the pair in on the occasion of the release of their album Making It (2012), a pop chronicle of love lost.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, also known as the self-described Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee. Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the show must go on and the resulting musical, Passing Strange ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July of 2008.

And then it got a stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.”

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most of it.”

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the case of Making It (released on Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums, from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious “Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you think Making It is his diary of a mad artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew to wallow in too many teardrops.

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims, “You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s impressionistic musings on the New Black and the so-called post-racial thing: “I have poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice, empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding “Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes, all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t so unlike breaking-up after all).

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya lastsummer.  And yet, he’s still one Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

As the narrator of Passing Strange, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a refugee in South Los Angeles until he gets wind of the idea that a black artist can live more free in Europe  (though when he gets there, he’s hipped to other realities).

As a theater piece Passing Strange is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score, largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles and says he caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from the ‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set though they remained only a moderate draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop twice what became Passing Strange, once in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the final night of Passing Strange and cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal on a broiler.  An initial performance of the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard toward completing Making It as an album.

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to know that following the release of Making It, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new musical, The Total Bent, begins a three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,” it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of the Twilight Zone.”

 It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, their collaboration is secure; they’re making it work.

“I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harlem, James Baldwin, Now Playing, , , , , ,

Music is the answer for God’s Children

Gods-Children-CD

God’s Children, from left to right in center: Lil’ Ray , Little Willie G. and Lydia Amescua. Cover design by Barb Bersche for Minky Records

God’s Children: Music is the Answer, The Complete Recordings, is recommended listening for anyone interested in the roots of Chicano Rock.  The group’s studio sessions never saw the light of day in the ’60s for some of the usual reasons — corporate bungling, market considerations, and the strains on the lives of people whose work intersects with politics and race matters.

As the year winds down, I’m taking a minute to tell you about the release of their recordings from the archives and the story of my experience writing liner notes for the project. Had I known at the time when I wrote the piece in 2016 where the country was going, that there would be unmitigated hatred and horror waged on women and children at the border, I would’ve written that into the narrative, but how could I know the future? I just try to report on it. I also couldn’t predict that my work on the project would be rendered invisible and plagiarized, but I can call out those practices, along with the attempt to shame me for taking a stand. Originally posted here on December 8, I hope you’ll read the new and expanded version of the text, published in its entirety December 21 at Tourworthy.

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, Latina, Latino culture, Latinx culture, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, vinyl, Women in Rock, Women's issues, Women's rights, , , , ,

Two California Women in Conversation

Getting to meet inspiring, creative and intelligent people is probably my favorite part of the job as an independent journalist, editor and curator (aside from doing the writing, of course…). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two extraordinary women, Kim Shuck, a poet/educator/beadworker and Lynell George, a journalist/essayist/photographer. Somewhere along the way and between individual conversations with both of them, I had the idea to get the pair together to talk about the things we seem to talk about most: The changing cityscapes of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Being born Californian and staying here has given Lynell and Kim a deep understanding of the place. I hope you’ll explore their insights and their work, and I invite you to read the conversation, published this month in Boom California, by the University of California Press.

(photo of Kim Shuck by Doug Salin; photo of Lynell George by Al Quattrocchi)

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, gentrification, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

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