Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 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, these are 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, , , , ,

Three Women: Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie & Nina Simone

Coincidence or likely story, three of the great freedom singers of our time, Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Nina Simone were born on nearly consecutive days in February.

 

Yoko Ono is of course a conceptual artist, a recording artist, a peace activist, wife of the late John Lennon and mother of Sean Ono Lennon. Born on February 18 in Tokyo, at 84, Ono remains a working artist and advocate for peace and human rights.

Born on February 20, 1941, Buffy Sainte-Marie turns 76 this year.  She is still a vital recording and touring artist, fronting a band, and waging peace and freedom, particularly for the First Nations people of North America.

Though she passed on in 2003 at the age of 70, North Carolinian and world citizen Nina Simone continues to win over listeners with her unique vocal and composition style and revolution rhetoric that truly remains unmatched since her prolific ’60s and ’70s period. Though she adapted her songbook as times changed, Simone kept it fierce and strong until breast cancer took her off the road in her 60s. She would have turned 84 on February 22.

All three women hold unique distinctions as pioneering vocal stylists and composers of depth and substance—pro-woman, anti-war and anti-racist—which found them as revered as they are reviled.  Yet those of us who appreciate the work, who lived in times that crossed with theirs, who were lucky enough to have seen them perform or simply feel the enormity of their contributions to the modern music canon shall pause, listen, and give thanks in the coming days that these three extraordinary 20th Century women were born.

Read more on Ono, Sainte-Marie and Simone in Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, Rock Birthdays, video, Women in Rock,

RIP: Mose Allison, 1927-2016

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Jazz-blues singer-songwriter and pianist Mose Allison is yet another extraordinary example of the ways in which the best (and by that I mean, the only good) American popular music made by white people borrows, steals, and is inspired by music that is tied to a root of African or African-American origin. American music is, as the narrative goes, where “the races meet;” the space where we walk right in, set right down and let it all hang out. While that is often the case, Black, Latino, other non-white, female, LGBTQ, and disabled musicians will tell you a different story; the contradictions are a part of the story too and must be aired out consistently to get the full picture. This is perhaps related or not to how Allison, a Mississippi-born white man came to sing cotton-picking songs on the piano and inspired a generation of rock musicians to look back and discover Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. When Allison opened his mouth to accompany his piano songs in 1963, he reached The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, the Clash and the Pixies… and that’s only a fraction of the artists he touched.

 

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, ,

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

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The Thursday morning announcement that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to have struck a raw nerve among (mostly) male novelists and some crabby millennials on social media who were intent on disputing the 75-year-old American songwriter’s worthiness of the honor. We pay no attention to them other than to say, they are entirely wrong: Dylan is a writer the likes of which we will never again see in our lifetimes. That we lived in his time and were able to see him perform his written work just happens to have been our good luck and privilege, an idea suggested by the writer Paul Williams and one I believe should be kept close at hand when the inevitable bashing and clashing continues.

The Nobel committee called Dylan’s work “poetry for the ear,” celebrating him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition;” authors Joyce Carole Oates and Mary Karr weighed in with a series of favorable tweets as did the great Salman Rushdie who offered comparisons to Orpheus and Faiz.

Meanwhile author Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) used his twisted sarcasm to tweet, “books are kinda gross.” Irvine Welch (Trainspotting) was a little more coarse, and Hari Kunzru (My Revolutions) wins for angriest. That Dylan is a songwriter, and an innately American one, touring during his country’s likeliest darkest hours yet was not enough to stop the novelists’ outbursts: All three were born outside of the USA and are well read here, though none among them have written anything that can remotely compare to the beauty of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Visions of Johanna” nor anything as compelling as “Masters of War,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Their lyricism has not been likened to that of Keats, Blake, and Shakespeare, like Dylan’s work has been. Of course this is barely scratching the surface of a long list of Dylan-writings, including songs, poems, memoirs and screenplays, and possible reasons for other writers’ grievances. One is tempted to simply list the titles and produce evidence of the full bodied depth and freshness to the work that stretches out following the ’60s and into the ’70s, ’80s and beyond, whether it be the collaborative Desire or high watermarks Infidels and Oh Mercy, or late work like “Not Dark Yet” from Time Out of Mind and “Mississippi” and “Sugar Baby” from the 21st Century magnum opus, Love and Theft, released on September 11, 2001.

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Poetry, Protest Songs, racism,

Postmodern Times Requiem

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Poet Janice Mirikitani, GLIDE co-founder and housing activist, at State of the City Forum on Gentrification Issues, curated and moderated throughout 2014-15 by Denise Sullivan at Modern Times Bookstore Collective

How does a revolutionary bookstore and its personnel survive in the new Gilded Age?  A rhetorical question perhaps, but often asked, discussed, debated, and ultimately decided at 2919 24th Street in San Francisco, Modern Times Bookstore Collective. After 45 years of selling incendiary books to the loving people, the bookstore will close its doors next month.

You say you’re sad? We are too. You hope another independent radical bookstore will take its place. How can it?

Modern Times is where the brave, the broken, the bleeding hearts go to be repaired and refreshed, to be fed by literature and conversation, made (mostly) by Marxists,  Radical Queers, revolutionary sweetheart poets, and organized minds, the kind who protect Black Lives and Sacred Waters; your housing advocates, labor unionists, People’s politicians, Green partiers, anti-ablist, anti-ageist, anti-capitalist, anarchist cooks, militant vegans, and hopeful activists. And then there were the passersby who knew–there was a bathroom inside.

It was dirty in there: Waged that  war once or twice and lost it. I heard the staff of another neighborhood bookstore, never mind its name, speak ill of our sacred, safe, Spanish-speaking (ok, poor-Spanish-speaking), space. It hurt, but why reply and dignify ignorance: We were too busy anyway, blasting the surveillance state, police terror, environmental crisis, and the racist, sexist, bully nation.

We’ve been beat up, we’ve been thrown out, but we’re not down. We’re coming up, coming out, over the wall, across the bridge, under the freeway, on the block, in the chamber, in the jail cell, special housing unit, death row, and we’re gonna be alright. Because we don’t stop, you don’t stop, and there is no. sleep. ’til recall. Just know, even when the power gets cut, and the nights grow long and cold, Modern Times still sees you, and the little light that shines from your heart.

Written on October 11, 2016, barely revised, and read live that night at the Mission Bookstores/ Litquake Benefit, accompanied by Victor Krummenacher on guitar. Long live Modern Times Bookstore Collective.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, California, Never Forget, Now Playing, Protest Songs, racism, San Francisco News,

Loudon Wainwright’s Terrifying Vision

DMP_Loudon-Wainright-542x445A righteous pundit, Loudon Wainwright III has been pursuing music since the late ’60s, debuting with a self-titled album in 1970. Aside from his honest and deeply felt songs on relationships and life circumstances, he’s long written satirical work, a style he calls “musical journalism,” best demonstrated over an album’s length on 1999’s Social Studies (he sticks it to O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, and Jesse Helms). For awhile he was the in-house songsmith for Nightline and is occasionally commissioned songs for NPR. His latest is a hilarious nightmare vision of this year’s U.S. Presidential election.

Read The Entire Post and Hear The Song At Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Folk, Protest Songs, , , ,

Poet Bob Kaufman and the Here and Now

bobKaufmanIt’s been 30 years since Beat poet Bob Kaufman passed on, a few months shy of his 61st birthday. The often underlooked surrealist was a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; he lived in the North Beach and the Mission Districts of San Francisco for much of his life. In the spirit of National Poetry Month and in commemoration of what would’ve been his 91st birthday today, his work was celebrated here last week, a demonstration that it is never too late or too early to appreciate a visionary artist.

Speaking to Kaufman’s influence on the wider world of poetry and his deep imprint on them, poets Anne Waldman and Will Alexander, though only briefly acquainted with him personally, read Kaufman’s work aloud, accompanied by saxophonist David Boyce and percussionist Kevin Carnes. Sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation and the San Francisco Public Library, members of Kaufman’s family traveled from Mississippi and Louisiana to be present and to honor his memory.

Listening to Waldman and Alexander, you could hear why Kaufman’s poems are best experienced aloud and accompanied by the jazz he loved. Kaufman’s epic “The Ancient Rain,” written after his famous vow of silence (following the Kennedy assassination and until the end of the Vietnam war) was read by Waldman, as she sounded out the blows empire wages against humankind, and on bodies Black and Brown. Readings were also selected and extracted from “I, Too, Know What I Am Not,” “Rue Miro,” and “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,” among others (I did not hear my favorite, “Hollywood,” though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t read).

Kaufman gave up writing down his poetry in 1978, but his words survived thanks to friends, fellow poets and his wife Eileen who taped and cobbled together the pieces collected in the works published after his death. Though
Kaufman’s poems foretold the persistent dilemmas of our age—the surveillance state, police violence (he was arrested over 30 times), media irresponsibility, a collapsing democracy and unnecessary poverty in a nation of great wealth—with his vision came the cost of direct engagement with such disturbing truth.

In his introduction to the posthumous Kaufman collection, Cranial Guitar, writer David Henderson noted that Kaufman’s life was unusual for a man of letters in that he left very little in the way of written materials or correspondence; just three published volumes, the broadsides Abomunist Manifesto, Second April and Does The Secret Mind Whisper? and some songs. One of those songs, “Green Rocky Road”  has enjoyed a long tenure as a folk music standard; most recently it was revived in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Lleweyn Davis. Co-written with Len Chandler, and popularized by Dave Van Ronk, the song bears the dreamlike, compelling qualities that are the hallmark of Kaufman’s poems; Chandler adapted the melody from a slave-era song quite possibly from the Georgia Sea Islands.

Kaufman’s most easily accessed works in libraries and bookstores are generally Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978 and Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman as well as Mel Clay’s Jazz Jail and God: Impressionistic Biography of Bob Kaufman. A new film, debuting at the San Francisco International Film Festival, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (Billy Woodberry, 2015), burrows into some of Kaufman’s secret history, from his beginnings as a union organizer, to the shock therapy at Bellevue that contributed to his silent years; there was substance and alcohol abuse and he was an absent father, though his magnitude as a poet is not open to debate. Artist and translator Mary Beach says, “I think he was one of the greatest of the 20th Century, frankly.”

I think of Kaufman’s poem,  “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,”  just about everyday. It begins like this:

In the City of St. Francis they have taken down the statue of

      St. Francis,

And the hummingbirds all fly forward to protest, humming

     feather poems.

The following is a rare, brief clip of Kaufman at work (likely at San Francisco Art Institute).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jazz, North Beach, Poetry, , , ,

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-six years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Uncategorized, , ,

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.

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“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, ,

The Last Holiday: Remembering Dr. MLK, Jr.

 

mlkIt was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumous memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retracethe long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.


The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”  Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., video, , , ,

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