Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

“Lord, they cut George Jackson down”

GeorgeJacksonGerFrontBob GeorgeJacksonSpainFrontBob Dylan’s 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out on August 21, 1971, remains one of his most mysterious recordings.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring after a long hiatus, his subject remains as misunderstood to a general audience as does the singer and his songs.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson,” a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972.
Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

Dylan cut two versions of “George Jackson” for a double sided seven-inch: A “big band” version featuring Kenny Buttrey (drums), Ben Keith (steel guitar), and Leon Russell (bass), and a solo acoustic version. Among the various issues of the single—and there are many—is a picture sleeve with an image of Dylan performing at the Concert for Bangladesh (pictured above, it remains sought-after by record collectors). Here’s a version of Dylan’s song recorded by reggae band, Steel Pulse:

The details of the Jackson case are still debated today by scholars, historians, and those who remember the events. As the story goes, it was a 70-dollar robbery that landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Guards took an instant dislike to Jackson on the inside and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members, despite  J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration in 1969 that the Black Panthers were public enemy number one.

Published in 1971, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, was greeted with a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. In 2015, Hugo Pinell, the last incarcerated member of the San Quentin Six, was killed while serving his life sentence, much of it in solitary confinement.

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

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Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Bob Dylan, Protest Songs, , , , ,

“George Jackson” and Bob Dylan

GeorgeJacksonGerFront.jpgGeorgeJacksonSpainFront.jpg
Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the conditions were perfect for hard-hitting topical rock and soul songs to step in and document the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine,” the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. At the height of the era of music for change, it was more or less expected serious artists would weigh in during times of trouble with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was Blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was spurred on by their chart successes. Of course it was Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that were the catalysts for the decade’s new strain of rock and soul music with a message.

Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, found him mastering pointed and topical song form early on, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  He followed his first act with his famous retreat from political songs and folk music. Resisting the tag, “voice of a generation,” he leaned more toward poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical and developed his own world of song perhaps best exemplified by the rambles, “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” and other epics on the trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  From 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile, off the road and away from the spotlight.

Making his way back to performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for all of today’s all-star charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as well as a handful of more apolitical songs. Not long after the concert, on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged prison escape and Dylan would once again  pluck his subject matter from the headlines, returning to his roots as a social and racial justice singer. One could suggest it was Harrison’s and Shankar’s example of engaging with the world outside their door that inspired Dylan’s subject, though perhaps it was more a matter of his coming to terms with his own gift for topical songs.
Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years; his life and songs have been over-analyzed and well-examined, but the 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out remains one of his most intriguing cuts.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring, its subject remains almost mysterious and misunderstood to the general audience as the singer himself.
Landing in California following a life on the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery is what landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson immediately found trouble on the inside too when guards took an instant dislike to him and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one and set out to decimate them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

Filed under: Black Power,, Bob Dylan, California, Civil Rights, video, , , ,

“George Jackson” by Bob Dylan

bob+dylan+george+jacksonBob Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years now. His arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed as equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, marked the beginning of his relationship with topical song, followed by a famous retreat from it, as well as his resistance to the tag, “voice of a generation.” And yet, as the ‘70s began, Dylan was once again plucking his subject matter from the news, returning to his roots as a social justice singer with “George Jackson”, a memorial for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out on August 21, 1971.
Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the climate made necessary topical rock and soul songs which documented the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine”, the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, “What’s Going On?”, and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. It was also more or less expected that in these times of trouble, serious artists would weigh in on the events with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was fuelled by chart successes. Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs were largely the catalyst for the strain of rock music with a message that thrived throughout the decade. And while it’s true that from 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile from touring, leaning more towards poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical, “George Jackson” was his wildly unexpected return form.Performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for today’s all-star rock charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, as well as a handful of more apolitical songs.

Later that month at San Quentin in the summer of 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged escape attempt following a prison riot in which five inmates and a guard were killed. Less than a month after the Jackson incident in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also tells the story of Jackson.

Having made it to California from the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery landed Jackson in prison, his sentence indeterminate. He found trouble on the inside when guards took an immediate dislike to him; his sentences were extended—chiefly behind events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, he studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crimes in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover—declaring the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one—had set out to decimate them, and other groups like them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause celebre. But a few days before his trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain; this time it was Jackson who was shot while running across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.

“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

“Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards”

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

Filed under: Bob Dylan, California, , , , , ,

“George Jackson” and “Hurricane”

Bob Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for 50 years now. His arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene that was informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, marked the beginning of his journey with topical song, to be followed by his famous retreat from it, as well as from those looking to pin a generational voice or spokesman tag on him. And yet, as the ‘70s began, Dylan was back on topic, returning to his roots as a social justice singer with “George Jackson”, a memorial for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out in 1971. Dylan spoke to power again in 1975 with “Hurricane”, concerning the flawed judicial process that sent away middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for an unjust term. Certainly the names George Jackson and Rubin Carter would be remembered in the halls of political history and activism (and in Carter’s case, boxing as well), even if their stories hadn’t been the subject of Dylan songs. But it’s also safe to say that in both cases, Dylan’s songs contributed toward increasing awareness among rock fans of the shortcomings of a criminal justice system in need of reform, as well as toward an understanding that all human life is of equal value, no matter the person’s race or class. In the case of Carter, a song even affected the outcome, though for Jackson it was too late: Like Dylan, he would’ve turned 70 this year—though as the song goes, “Lord, Lord, they cut George Jackson down” in 1971.

“George Jackson”

Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the climate was hot for topical rock and soul songs which documented the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine”, the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, “What’s Going On?”, and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. It was also more or less expected that in these times of trouble, serious artists would weigh in on the events with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was evidenced by their chart successes. And it was in part thanks to Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that rock music with a message thrived throughout the decade. Although, from 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile from touring, leaning more towards poetical and philosophical flavors, rather than those polemical or topical for his songs—that is, until his unexpected return.

Performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for contemporary all-star rock charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war and a cyclone and the flooding and famine that went with it. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, as well as a handful of more apolitical songs.

It was later that month at San Quentin during the summer of 1971 that George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged escape attempt following a prison riot in which inmates and a guard were killed. Less than a month after the Jackson incident in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities and became an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call that Dylan was responding to when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain strain of blues was born.

Jackson had made it to California from the streets of Chicago; a 70-dollar robbery landed him in prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson found trouble inside the prison walls too, and as his sentences were extended—chiefly behind events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three black inmates and a white guard were killed—he used the time in solitary to educate himself.  He studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor blacks for petty crimes in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers while on the inside, and went on to become one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover—declaring the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one—had set out to decimate them, and other groups like them, with a counterintelligence program, and was largely successful at it. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed in the Soledad incident, for conspiring to kill a guard, was a widely held belief; subsequently, a vocal celebrity chorus came to Jackson’s defense. But a few days before his trial for the murder was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain; Jackson was shot while running across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. The details of the case are still being debated by scholars, historians, and survivors, many of them with a personal attachment to the events of that day.

“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

“Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards”

“Hurricane”

While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, hisalbumsSelf Portrait and New Morning were the personal reflections of a more inwardly directed songwriter. Though he stepped out with the Band for Planet Waves and a tour in a new era of big-time rock ‘n’ roll concert business, he retreated again, against the backdrop of a marital disintegration that famously produced Blood on the Tracks in 1975. But by summer of that year, he came out swinging.

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he’d never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the champion of the world”

Dylan once again spoke to criminal injustice when he took on the plight of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which Carter explains his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his experience of being framed by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him in prison. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing the tribute with Jacques Levy, his collaborator at the time. “Look, there’s an injustice that’s been done and Rubin’s gonna get out, there’s no doubt about it,” Dylan told author Larry Sloman. “But the fact is, it can happen to anybody.”

“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as the pistol shots that rang out in that New Jersey night, Dylan sets the scene and creates a detailed picture of a world unfamiliar to the majority of his listenership—many of them now younger, and largely unacquainted with the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. The song stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as for others wrongly imprisoned behind false testimonies and racial bias. Following the release of the song as a single in 1975 and the formation of a grassroots movement for Carter’s freedom based on the false evidence used to convict him, the boxer was released on bail and granted a new trial the following year. His conviction was finally overturned in 1988.

During his 1975-’66 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan and friends performed “Hurricane” onstage every night. The entourage, including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, rolled into Madison Square Garden in December of 1975. They were joined that evening by singer Roberta Flack and boxer Muhammad Ali for a benefit billed as “The Night of the Hurricane.” Ali addressed the crowd playfully, in characteristic rhyme.  “I’m so glad to see you all with the cause because you have the connection with the complexion to get the protection,” he said from the stage.

Carter also spoke that night, his words delivered through the house PA via telephone. “Muhammad… on a serious note, my brother Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘Walk upside down inside handcuffs, throw up my legs and kick them off. Say all right, I’ve had enough. Now what else can you show me?’” Carter said, quoting from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” “Speaking from deep down in the bowels of the state prison of New Jersey, the fact that I’m speaking to you and the other brothers and sisters in the audience, that’s revolutionary indeed.” Praising the love of his wife and daughter, Carter said his hope was alive. “I knew that if I remained alive, that if I kept myself well… I knew they were going to come to my rescue, and tonight, here you are.” And though eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated, controversy still surrounds his case.

Richie Havens, a frequent interpreter of Dylan’s songs who opens all his shows with “All Along the Watchtower” (to name just one of Dylan’s pointed “post-protest” era tunes), says that “Hurricane” remains his favorite among all of Dylan’s songs. “That was an incredible job of going in there and winning, getting him out of there. Unbelievable,” Havens said in 2008.

If I had to pick just one, I would have to say that “Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too. From the first time I heard it in 1975, it spoke to matters that as a young person I had little experience with, and yet I felt the truth in the lines, especially the one about the criminals in their coats and ties and how they put the wrong man behind bars. Everyday, I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing, and for an entire eight minutes and some odd seconds, be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my immediate sphere. This was not my parents’ Dylan (not that they listened to him), the vast catalog of songs from the ’60s that at the time meant so much to so many yet very little to me; this was the new ’70s Dylan. His exciting return to protest, and of course rebellion, was something that  I as a member of a new generation of listeners could totally get with.

Perhaps the goodwill of however many Dylan fans, young and old, diehard or just discovering him, rushing toward the Carter case and the folks who feverishly worked on it gave the cause a boost. Without a doubt, it was a song that set a direction for me—toward further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing and freedom movement, liberation, cultural celebration, and message songs; the kind that contain secret, hidden histories of ourselves and of our country; the kinds of stories that aren’t often told in school but rather handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and Jackson’s and, of course, heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.–

published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Bob Dylan, ,

Born Aquarian: Yoko Ono

This interview with Yoko Ono by Denise Sullivan was originally published as “Yoko Ono: Between Her Head and the Sky” in Crawdaddy! online in 2009.  Happy Birthday, Yoko.

YO3-600

 

“I’ve passed the time when I used to think I’m going to surprise people with this, break the sound barrier, I’m going to put in some chords that nobody has ever put in or whatever. That day is over. I just want to be myself,” says Yoko Ono.

Pioneer of the avant-garde, godmother of the new wave, conceptual art maker and peace advocator: Ono has been called all these things, and others, some of them not quite as nice, during her 40 years in the public eye and 50 years as a working artist. These days, she’s back to fronting the Plastic Ono Band, the group she and her husband John Lennon founded in 1969 as an outlet for his post-Beatles expression and the couple’s most political and experimental work. It was also the beginning of a period of intense collaboration for them, inside and outside the studio, which lasted ’til Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Beatles fans and critics were notoriously unkind about the partnership, particularly regarding Ono’s musical participation in it. “I’ve been attacked so much, I thought, ‘Oh, being attacked… this is a normal thing,’” she says.

Next year marks 30 years since Lennon was murdered and 40 years since the break-up of the band he founded in Liverpool over 50 years ago. Had he lived, he would be turning 70, while his and Ono’s son, Sean, who shares a birthday with his father, will turn 35. Though I neglected to ask the reported numerology and astrology buff Ono about the significance to all those round numbers, I don’t have to consult any oracles to know that her next birthday in February will be an auspicious 77. After all these years, it is amazing that she even bothers with fielding the inevitable Lennon questions and Beatles queries, and she does it with admirable enthusiasm and personal dignity, too. Certainly, in the face of a tragedy that could’ve defined the last 30 years of her life, she couldn’t have been blamed if she had chosen to retreat. But Yoko’s too much of a life-lover to go down that way. “Why is this life so beautiful, so interesting?” she exhales on the new Plastic Ono Band album, Between My Head and the Sky. Remaining a kind steward of her husband’s legacy—overseeing the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, their remasters, and curating a New York exhibit of Lennon artifacts currently on display—it’s no wonder she demurs when asked if she’ll ever sit down to write her own story.

“I’m too busy to do that. I think it’s something that might happen later, but I don’t think I can do it now.”

Perhaps Ono, whose first name translates to “ocean child,” is waiting for old age for that; for now, her work as an artist and musician in her own right is demanding her full attention. She has finally transcended the myth that a petite conceptual artist could come in and break up the mighty force that was the Beatles, and she has been reborn in time, with a little help from her son. Karma finally won out, if not instantly, then ultimately, as today it’s a lot hipper to dig Yoko than it is to knock her. Of course, that’s what John had been trying to tell everyone since the beginning: “What in the world you thinking of, laughing in the face of love?”

“Suddenly this record… I think it has a lot to do with my son. It’s not too wacko,” she says. “Did you know ‘Higa Noboru’ means ‘samurai,’ means ‘the sun is rising,’ and that’s the last song on the album?” asks Ono, to which I must reply I did not know that, but I am certainly intrigued by the concept as well as her stream of consciousness style of speaking, and she’s got me thinking… Now that Sean is nearly 35, the age Lennon the elder was when his beautiful boy was born, I see that, in some kind of cosmic way, the son is indeed rising. If Sean’s musical career has been marked by anything, it’s been its tentative launching, understandable for any child of a Beatle (perhaps he and his half-brother Julian have talked about that); so far, it’s most notable for an eight-year gap between solo albums following his debut. As an alternative musician whose sound doesn’t fit the mainstream alterna-sound, Sean would’ve disappointed those looking for a reprisal of the angry rock ‘n’ roll John. As a teenager, he organized IMA, a three-piece to back-up his mother’s ’90s album, Rising. Going on to forge his own relationships on the downtown avant-garde and experimental scenes, he struck up a longstanding collaboration with Yuka Honda, one half of Cibo Matto, and played bass with her group for five years. Now he collaborates with wildman savant Vincent Gallo, as well as with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, though Honda remains a studio collaborator and player in the new Plastic Ono Band.

“Sean was creating this music company… he had a few artists and a few songs on a website and I checked it out and I said, ‘Look, they’re beautiful songs but they need some fire,’” says Ono. “‘I’m going to give you some fire,’ and he said, ‘Great!’ I think still the fire’s with me.” Listening to the new album and watching a live clip of the band performing “Why”, from her 1970 solo debut, it is safe to say Ono’s still got it. But the littlest Lennon also has a way with his parents’ most outside music. “Isn’t that weird?” says Ono. “I didn’t know he was checking on me but he was. ‘You mean you know the intro to this?’ Yeah, he knows the intro, he knows the chords, he knows everything—all my songs. So when I say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and name one of the old songs, he’s like, ‘Okay.’” Ono says okay, nonchalantly, in an effort to put across the ease with which Sean tackles the often difficult and at times improvisatory music that defined the Plastic Ono Band.

Following their marriage in Gibraltar near Spain in 1969, and using the paparazzi moment of their honeymoon as an opportunity to wage peace, Ono and Lennon masterminded the Bed-Ins, first in Amsterdam and later Montreal, which is where Crawdaddy! first caught up with them: Founder Paul Williams participated in the anti-war event and got caught front and center on film. “Crawdaddy! I remember Crawdaddy!. My God, that was a long time ago… that’s nostalgia time for me,” says Ono.

Born in 1933 in Japan to a wealthy banking family, the Ono’s fortune waxed and waned during wartime and Yoko experienced extreme poverty and the horrors of war firsthand. By the late ’50s, her father had secured work in the US and she had begun her education at Sarah Lawrence College, though even before graduation she became immersed in the New York avant-garde scene of the early ’60s. Under the tutelage of composers La Monte Young and John Cage and her friend George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus movement in art, Ono fell in with a pack of musical and visual conceptual artists. The Fluxus artists, with their ties to Dadaism, are credited for creating, among other things, “happenings,” art events that could include audience participation. Perhaps her most famous work of this period is “Cut Piece,” for which she invited the audience to cut away pieces of her dress as she sat passively on the floor (the work was a harbinger of what we now call performance art). During this period she was married twice and a daughter, Kyoko, was born.

It was at the Indica Gallery in London where Lennon first encountered Ono and her work in 1966. The usual telling of the story says he was initially skeptical of the art but smitten with the artist, and by 1968, he had divorced his first wife, Cynthia—leaving her with a young son—to begin life with Yoko. Ono and Lennon began their recorded collaborations in 1968 with the noise- and tape loop-based Two Virgins album (also notable for its frontal nudity of the couple on the cover). By this time, the anti-war movement had taken to the streets and the radical left’s rub with law enforcement was turning the peace movement violent; the Bed-Ins’ intention had been to pull focus back to nonviolence. “Nobody’s ever given peace a complete chance. Gandhi tried it and Martin Luther King tried it, but they were shot,” Lennon said from his bed at the Amsterdam Hilton. Recording from a bed in Montreal a few months later with a roomful of friends and fans, “Give Peace a Chance” became the peace movement’s chant, as well as the inaugural release for the Plastic Ono Band, its substance often referring to the anti-war effort and bringing light to matters of racial and gender equality.

 

Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (which featured the heavyweight talents of her husband, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, and appearances by jazzmen Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden) made its vinyl debut in 1970, but its experimental nature was easy to brush aside in the face of the simultaneous release of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, an album many Lennon fans maintain is his greatest solo work (it includes “God”, “Working Class Hero”, and “Mother”). Those releases were followed by Ono’s own 1971 solo album, Fly (featuring the addition of Eric Clapton to the ensemble), that notably included her song, “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).” Ono’s second husband had gone missing with the girl, essentially abducting her, and mother and daughter would not be reunited properly until much later in life.

That same year, the Lennons made their fateful permanent move to New York City, embarking on a path of radical political activism. Combined with their increasingly personal and self-revelatory music, the political era was arguably the most controversial time of the couple’s collaboration and remains topically relevant today. “And close to my heart, too” says Ono. “Because I had to suffer. Sexism, the whole bit.” It also marked the beginning of intense suspicion and surveillance of Lennon by the US government.

“When I hear the song ‘Revolution’, even now, it chokes me up. We were ostracized by the world and the fans too, and that John was daring to speak out,” said Ono in the film The U.S. vs. John Lennon, based on research compiled in the books Come Together and Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files by Jon Wiener that explore Lennon’s political life. I asked Yoko what she thought of the movie and if she had anything to add to it. “Not really. Except it’s the tip of the iceberg. But that’s all you need these days to open it wide.” She suggests, for anyone interested in such things, that the exhibit titled John Lennon: The New York City Years, currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York, may be of interest. Yoko created it, gathering material for the exhibit by raiding her own closets. “There are things I put in there that I would never put in again,” she says of the items on display. The most talked about piece is a bag of blood-stained “patient’s belongings,” returned to her following the pronouncement of her husband’s death by hospital officials.

Some Time in New York City

In the late ’60s and early ’70s and until the end of the Vietnam War, the couple’s stock-in-trade had become the creation of one-line slogans, many of them appropriate for singing in large groups of people outdoors: “Give peace a chance,” “War is over! If you want it”; some of the song slogans had been appropriated from the people themselves: “Power to the people,” “Free the people now.” But the prescience of the concerns that Lennon and Ono raised in the high era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution—raising ideas like changing the world by making music, standing together, engaging in small acts of human kindness—were considered a threat to national security and, eventually, they were even rejected by fans. But before all hope for political change was lost, there was an incredibly dynamic, cross-fertilized moment between pop culture and the counterculture: The week Lennon and Ono were invited to host The Mike Douglas Show for five days in 1972. To daytime television they brought Jerry Rubin in to explain the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Bobby Seale to represent the Black Panthers, while the straight-laced and game-faced Douglas gave the proceedings a stamp of middle-of-the-road approval. Ralph Nader spoke on student organizing and the need to vote and Lennon hero Chuck Berry rocked the house. The forum also gave Ono a chance to reveal more of her personality, as well as her excellent personal style, to the curious American public, still suffering from misperceptions of their Beatle’s wife. The week was a hit, and it was an optimistic time for anyone involved in the movement for change, though things were about to get rough.

By the time of the release of Some Time in New York City in June, critics and fans alike were in agreement that the couple had gone too far in their merging of music with politics. Produced by Phil Spector and backed by an anonymous New York group, Elephant’s Memory, the album was an accurate reflection of the chaotic times. “Attica State” referred to a historic September 1971 prison riot, allegedly sparked by the previous month’s murder of radicalized prisoner George Jackson, resulting in the deaths of 39 people. Lennon and Ono had joined the chorus of justice seekers (which also included Bob Dylan) who followed the case. “Angela” was written in tribute to young politico Angela Davis. There was also a song for Detroit hippie leader “John Sinclair”, who had just been released from his 10 for two marijuana conviction, following the Lennons’ appearance at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan (musicians Phil Ochs, Stevie Wonder, and Archie Shepp, poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, and activists Seale and Rubin also appeared). Ono’s contributions to the set were less experimental and more song-like: “Sisters, O Sisters” remains a potent feminist/environmental anthem. The album’s single, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”, a concept expressed by Ono which Lennon turned into a song, was clouded by controversy and contributed to the unpopularity of the album, though it was meant to be understood as a pro-feminist statement. “The feminist thing is still very, very important. Most people think, ‘That’s over, isn’t it?’ Of course, it’s not over,” says Ono.

But while the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Davis, and Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson”, other artists took nowhere the kind of heat Lennon did for making songs from radicalism’s headlines. Ono was getting her fair share of abuse, too. “I wasn’t heard then. Okay, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says. Her music didn’t really stand a chance once the press was through with her. “If it’s that bad, of course I’m not going to buy it!” she says of what average consumers must’ve been thinking. Some Time in New York City was their worst-ever received album, critically as well as commercially. “We thought it was really good,” says Ono. “When I went to Moscow, this was much later, after John’s passing, Some Time in New York City was something that they remembered, of course. I was so amazed and so happy.”

That same spring and summer, Yippies and musicians of conscience had been hoping to organize an anti-war concert of some magnitude at the Miami Republican National Convention and were very much after Lennon to participate. But the Lennons had never intended to go, declining the invite for personal reasons. According to Wiener’s FBI Files, a report filed by an informant stated Lennon said he would participate in the demonstrations, but only “if they are peaceful.” And there was no one on earth who was going to make an iron-clad guarantee of that, especially given the police riot that erupted at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 and the increased mood of violence in the air, fueled by the fog of war. In the end, the authorities, reportedly aided by hippie infiltrators and informants, were successful at thwarting the production of a large-scale anti-war concert in Miami. And with his position on nonviolence now officially committed to a government document, you would think the case against Lennon could be closed. But rather, it marked the beginning of a long hassle with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, under order of the Nixon White House, and a dark period in the couple’s life that lasted for three years. Not only was there the pressure of the deportation case and the potential of losing their stateside residence, there was Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” interlude involving Ono’s secretary May Pang. By the time the order to deport was overturned in 1975, the couple had not only survived the INS, their relationship had survived the seven-year itch and a new baby had been born.

Beautiful Boy

“You see that he’s playing the piano? We didn’t have to dub again and it’s a long, long piano piece. I thought, ‘My God, it’s incredible, but he’s like that,’” says mama Ono of her son. Co-mingled with the loud, raucous, and electronic moods on the new album is Sean’s piano composition, characterized by sparkling minimalism and accompanied by Yoko on vocals, sometimes spoken and other times sung. His style and its production has more in common with his mother’s avant-garde and classical past than his father’s taste for rock ‘n’ roll and Phil Spector. I wondered if the Ono Lennons employed any of the techniques mother had learned as a student of avant-garde music in the late ’50s and early ’60s while they prepared the new album. “Whatever came to me when I was in the studio just got in there. It was like… I was inspired in Japanese—whoa! I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a Japanese song—in Japanese! And that’s good!’” she says. “Instead of, well, ahem…’ Ono adopts a serious tone, a little like John would do when he mocked things: “‘This is a good song and I don’t want to waste it, so I’ll first translate it to English…,’ I didn’t do any of that. I let it have the naturalness.” The resulting sound is unadulterated Yoko, accompanied by players comfortable rolling with her anything-goes attitude. “Isn’t that great?” she says, once again brimming with enthusiasm. “I didn’t realize Cornelius—which is Keigo, Shim, and Yuko, three people and they call themselves Cornelius—for some reason… I didn’t know they were that good! I didn’t have to tell them, ‘This is how you do it.’ They just knew how to play it!” In other words, the young folk were able to keep up with the septuagenarian.

BedIn3

It wasn’t all that long ago that Yoko’s music was on the mostly inaccessible side of alternative, though around the invention of new wave, the tide was beginning to turn in her favor. “I enjoyed the B-52s, because I heard them doing Yoko,” said Lennon in his famous final Playboy interview. In the early ’80s, Elvis Costello recorded “Walking on Thin Ice” on a 50th birthday tribute to Ono, but versions of her work by more mainstream singers like Rosanne Cash and Roberta Flack didn’t work as well. It would be a few more years before the culture would catch up with Ono, as well as with punk and new wave, but a new generation was definitely getting tuned into the sound of the future, something that Ono and Lennon had always believed in.

“Well, John, as you remember, was always jumping on the newest media. The computer… the global village… he would’ve said, ‘I told you so.’ I think he would’ve been at home sitting doing the email, website, all that,” says Ono. As far as her own relationship to technology, she admits to being slow to catch on. “I still like the typewriter.” The new album’s artwork reflects Ono’s long relationship with the typewriter, consistent with the look of her minimalist work, though its actual design was handled by Sean. “Isn’t it great? I have to tell you… John and I always did our album design, we were very hot on that. This time Sean did it. He kept saying, ‘Let me do it, let me do it,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, ah, ew… I’m going to break the tradition? Okay!’”

It’s funny to hear an iconoclast like Ono speak of the virtue of tradition, though aside from artistic presentation, I guess she’s always been about traditional values, like peace, justice, and equality for all. I wondered if she thought there was anyone out there doing the work she and John started, keeping the tradition of art and activism alive through music.

“Well, I think there are some indie artists out there… I put out an album called Yes, I’m a Witch—every one of them are fantastic, I really appreciate each one of them,” she says of Peaches, Le Tigre, and the Flaming Lips, among others who created remixes and covers of her old songs for a various artists compilation released in 2007.

Does she still think music plays a vital role in creating change in the world today? How can it help, for example, environmentally? “Okay, well, there’s so much we can do. And all of us can handle something. But I think what we can do is concentrate on something we really love. Try to do it as perfect as possible. That thing is going to send a most beautiful vibration to the world. Music covers the world and it heals the world. I do anything, really, to try to make a better world in my own small capacity, shall we say? But the thing is, actually doing one beautiful song—that makes it.”

I Love You

The obvious cruelty of a peace man dying by a bullet from a gunman’s hand would not have been lost on John, whose messages still resonate in the lifelong pursuit of art and peace activism of Yoko. Amongst her various other pursuits, she works to raise awareness of statistics on death by handguns occurring in the US each year. I have not yet admitted here that I am among those in supreme awe and great debt to Yoko and John, for the message of love they brought to the world, and for the many ways in which their work and their realness continue to inspire me. I figure in my last few moments with her, perhaps I should use the time to confirm those messages, and make sure I’ve interpreted them correctly: Was all they were saying was that peace and harmony begin at home and that to care for the world, we must first care for each other?

“Exactly,” she says. But were there ever moments back then when they faltered? Did she ever have to convince Lennon that applying spiritual solutions to practical problems was a sensible approach to life? I mean, did he ever think their cause was silly or, to use her word for it, wacko?

“Well, I don’t remember! The thing is… when you say ‘I love you’ to the one you love, actually you’re saying it to the world and the planet. I think that’s it. That says it all.”

After 13 songs of restless beauty, Between My Head and the Sky ends with the aforementioned piano song, “Higa Noboru”, played by Sean. But the final word belongs to mother: For 23 seconds, the album’s last track rests on the sound of metal on metal, ’til the voice of Ono, clearly smiling, emerges from the din. It is a breathtaking juxtaposition, between the harshest and sweetest of sounds. “It’s me,” says Yoko. “I’m alive.”

Filed under: anti-war, Rock Birthdays, Women in Rock, Women's issues, Women's rights, ,

RIP: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter passed away on Easter Sunday at the age of 76. “Hurricane” was Bob Dylan’s protest song concerning the story of the middleweight boxer and the flawed judicial process that sent him away for an unjust term. The recording was a landmark: Over eight minutes long, it was released at a time when the media perceived Dylan to have moved away from topical subjects and protest songs; moreover, the song played a contributing role in Carter’s case to have his sentence overturned.  Here was clear-cut evidence of music attempting to forge change actually doing so.

As a listener, the song forever changed me: I will never forget the moment I heard the song on the radio, its content crashing with my understanding of the American judicial system, the clarity of the message and the dissonance it created so upending to me as a young person, I froze.  For many years, I could only refer to Dylan’s line from the song as a way to describe what I felt: “Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.” Not knowing what to do or say or think about these matters, without access to organizations for change or discussion about it, “Hurricane” would become why I would write about music with meaning, though I would not know that for many years to come.

The following, reprinted in the spirit of the memory of Carter, picks up threads I’ve written on Dylan’s post-“political period,” the time in which he wrote and recorded “George Jackson” and “Hurricane.”

While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, his albums Self Portrait and New Morning were the personal reflections of a more inwardly directed songwriter. Though he stepped out with the Band for Planet Waves and a tour in a new era of big-time rock ‘n’ roll concert business, he retreated again, against the backdrop of a marital disintegration that famously produced Blood on the Tracks in 1975. By summer of that year, he was ready to come out again, swinging.

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he’d never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the champion of the world”

Speaking to criminal injustice, Dylan took on the plight of  Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which the boxer outlined his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his framing by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him on the inside. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing a tribute with Jacques Levy, his collaborator at the time.

“Look, there’s an injustice that’s been done and Rubin’s gonna get out, there’s no doubt about it,” Dylan told author Larry Sloman. “But the fact is, it can happen to anybody.”

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan's prison visit to Carter.

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan’s prison visit to Carter.

“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as pistol shots in that New Jersey night, Dylan sets the scene and creates a detailed picture of a world unfamiliar to the majority of his listenership—many of them now younger than his original folk peers, and for the most part unacquainted with the political world, much less the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. Certainly the name Rubin Carter would be remembered in boxing and prison justice activism even if his story had not been the subject of a Dylan song. Yet the song comes by special stature, not only for increasing awareness among rock fans of the shortcomings of a criminal justice system in need of reform, but for reinforcing a perennially misunderstood concept: All human life is of equal value, no matter a person’s race, class or crime–real or imagined.

During his 1975-’76 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan and friends performed “Hurricane” onstage every night. The entourage, including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, rolled into Madison Square Garden in December of 1975. They were joined that evening by singer Roberta Flack and boxer Muhammad Ali for a benefit billed as “The Night of the Hurricane.” Ali addressed the crowd playfully, in characteristic rhyme. “I’m so glad to see you all with the cause because you have the connection with the complexion to get the protection,” he said from the stage.

Carter also spoke that night, his words delivered through the house PA via telephone. “Muhammad… on a serious note, my brother Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘Walk upside down inside handcuffs, throw up my legs and kick them off. Say all right, I’ve had enough. Now what else can you show me?’” Carter said, quoting from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” “Speaking from deep down in the bowels of the state prison of New Jersey, the fact that I’m speaking to you and the other brothers and sisters in the audience, that’s revolutionary indeed.” Praising the love of his wife and daughter, Carter said his hope was alive. “I knew that if I remained alive, that if I kept myself well… I knew they were going to come to my rescue, and tonight, here you are.”

The song’s intensity, a unity of frantic fiddle and verse, stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as others wrongly imprisoned behind false testimonies and racial bias. Following the release of the song as a single in 1975 and the formation of a grassroots movement for Carter’s freedom based on the false evidence used to convict him, the boxer was released on bail and granted a new trial the following year. His conviction was finally overturned in 1988. Eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated; Carter went on to become an activist for falsely accused prisoners.

Richie Havens, a frequent interpreter of Dylan’s songs who opens all his shows with “All Along the Watchtower” (to name just one of Dylan’s pointed “post-protest” era tunes), says that “Hurricane” remains his favorite among all of Dylan’s songs. “That was an incredible job of going in there and winning, getting him out of there. Unbelievable,” Havens told me in 2008.

“Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too: It spoke to matters for me that as a young person in 1975,  I had little experience with, and yet I felt the truth in the lines, especially the one about the criminals in their coats and ties and how they put the wrong man behind bars. I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing for an entire eight minutes and be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my own adolescent world. Dylan’s exciting “return” to protest was my first meaningful engagement with a protest song.  Though it took many years for me to unpack its importance to who I am personally and professionally,  it was this song that set me in a direction for further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing, freedom movement, liberation, and message music, the kind that holds secret, hidden histories of ourselves and our country that you won’t often find written about in history text books; rather these relevancies to American social, political and cultural history are handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.

a version of this originally published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Concerts, Keep On Pushing, Obituary, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, video, , , ,

“All I Want is the Truth”

Remembering John Lennon (October 9, 1940—December 8, 1980) today, I offer an excerpt from Keep on Pushing and a clip from The Dick Cavett Show.john

“Upon the release of Some Time in New York City in June of 1972, critics and consumers decreed that a heavy does of politics with their music was not what the people ordered. The album became the couple’s worst-received recording in their catalog.  “We thought it was really good,” says Yoko Ono.  Though Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Angela Davis, Lennon and Ono took the most heat of all for supporting radical ideals in song, and Ono got her fair share of abuse. “I wasn’t heardthen.  Ok, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says.  And yet the prescience of the concerns that the Lennons reaised in the high-era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution —-raising ideas like making art and music for peace, standing together, and suggesting we engage in small acts of human kindness as a way to change the vibration of the world—were deemed threatening to national security and rejected by fans. With his commercial potency at a low ebb and his position on nonviolence officially committed to government documents [translation: he was for peace], one might think there was no case for the US government against the Englishman and his Japanese wife.  But their problems with the immigration service and the Nixon White House had only just begun…”

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , ,

Earth Day Special: Van Dyke Parks & Esso

This is your Earth Day long read: The story of how musician, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band, Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. I interviewed Parks in 2009 for Crawdaddy! and since that time, this story has become the most-read on this site, receiving the top number of views daily from around the world. Thanks for your continued readership and for your stewardship of the earth today (Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue their Smile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones,” he said.

Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump as a “premium gift” with fill-up (the idea was a sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby), his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things,” explained Parks. “A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steel band was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Calypso, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Harry Belafonte, , , , , ,

On Oil Barrels, Calypso & Van Dyke Parks

This is your Earth Day long read: The story of how musician, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band, Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. I interviewed Parks in 2009 for Crawdaddy! and since that time, this story has become the most-read on this site, receiving the top number of views daily from around the world. Thanks for your continued readership and for your stewardship of the earth today (Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue their Smile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones,” he said.

Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump as a “premium gift” with fill-up (the idea was a sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby), his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things,” explained Parks. “A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steel band was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, Earth Day Music, , , ,

The ’70s Jesus-Rock Boom and the Resurrection of a Superstar

In light of this year’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (to be broadcast on live TV Easter Sunday, starring John Legend in the title role) I’m re-posting this piece which I wrote about 10 years ago on the ’70s Jesus-rock boom the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice concept album had a hand in creating.

johnlegendinjjesuschristsuperstar-1200x690-1

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 record with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock in the ’70s that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, this is an overview of the songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charting single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized also revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century).

Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired music served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest stories in music history ever told, as is the origin story of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on this gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus, and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,”  the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,”  and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival and continues to grow stronger following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and to people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site annually).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Gospel, , , , , , , ,

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