Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Never Forget: NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers (June 12, 1963)

It’s been 50 years since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain in his driveway, returning home from a meeting over matters in the NAACP. Following the cold-blooded killing by a white supremacist, and coinciding with the period of ever-intensifiying racial hostility in the South, writers got more and more direct with their songs of southern hate.  “The Ballad of Megar Evers” is an a cappella spiritual by the Freedom Singers (a different group than the one founded by Cordell Reagon); Bob Dylan covered the Evers tragedy and its political ramifications in “Only a Pawn in Their Game;”

Phils Ochs weighed in with “Too Many Martyrs.”

Perhaps most famously, there was Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

Though it was the bombing of the four little girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist that forced Simone’s lyric,  the situation in Mississippi culminating in the assassination of Evers earned the song its title.  Evers’ killer was finally convicted in 1994.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, video, ,

Earth Day and Esso

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 his Calypso Years.

My interview with Van Dyke Parks originally appeared in the pages of Crawdaddy! in 2009. Four years later, the story of one man’s adventures in art and activism The Day Van Dyke Parks Went Calypso, remains the most most-read and most searched piece here at denisesullivan.com. Parks had a goal and an idea ahead of its time: To forge environmental healing through music made by instruments made of cast-off oil drums. Read the full story here or at the link above.  And happy Earth Day.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Protest Songs, video, , ,

Cambio: He, Too, Sings America

Cambio’s album title,  I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to his talk with Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO last week.  With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte,  the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja,  committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and  find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him.  Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album,  Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work:  One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s  “Eyes Wander,” featuring Favi and DJ Ethos.

There is so much to like about Cambio, so much more to learn and know, but the music speaks volumes on its own. Listen for yourself on his Bandcamp page.  You may also hear the archived broadcast (scroll down) of the show I heard. I encourage you to listen and support cambio: Positive hip hop is marginalized and Cambio’s is a voice that if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land.  He, too, sings America.

The following clip features the voice of Langston Hughes reading from the poem that started it all.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, Latino culture, Malcolm X, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, , , , , ,

The Rock’n’Soul of Jesus

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US number three with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two millions copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that 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 that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.

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 in the beginning is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, but that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Good Friday and Easter Weekend, I give you 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 “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the last time Dylan had a hit single—#24 in 1979).

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 as 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 number one in the US and five weeks at number one 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 revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rockin’ souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs alongside hymns from the British Isles—making way for  a form of expression that gave 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 theological ideas and arguments toward fighting what he characterized as demonic institutions like slavery and Jim Crow law by evoking a more powerful spirit.

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971,  a big one for Jesus’ 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 number two as well as a three). The song was originally cut by “Snowbird” Anne Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” itself 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 would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. Jackson was of course gospel’s reigning queen throughout the civil rights era, until the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, essentially dethroned her. The story of how Aretha, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and other church singers turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are  the stories 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 gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances  in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues and soul more extensively on this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring, 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 number 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” and “You Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (on Sticky Fingers). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining in 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’s 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 Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and 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 the freewheeling 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 (1980produced 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 rap, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye 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 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.

I chose to end with this clip from Gotta Serve Somebody, The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan because it features writer Paul Williams, speaking to Dylan’s Christian period.

A version of this piece originally ran in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Gospel, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

RIP Paul Williams (1948-2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: anti-war, Bob Dylan, Obituary, , , , ,

Lives and loves: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

“He wrote me a note to say we would make art together, and we would make it with or without the rest of the world,” writes Patti Smith of Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, her memoir of their lives and great love. Concerning their time as young artists discovering New York City and themselves in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, not only would both of them make art together, they would eventually become nothing short of internationally recognized, particularly among artists, freethinkers, and members of their blank generation. But while Mapplethorpe’s life was cut short by AIDS in 1989, Smith lived on to keep the fire of rock’s poetic origins alight, Mapplethorpe’s influence on her inseparable from the origin of inspiration in her art and life.  Without his prodding—his love—it’s quite possible that an entirely different Patti Smith than the one we know would have emerged. In Just Kids, Smith reveals Mapplethorpe’s commitment to art, his companionship, and his collaboration in the years leading up to her debut album Horses was invaluable to its creation: Not only did he capture the image of the poet/rock star-to-be on its cover, but it was he who first encouraged her to sing.

Produced (reportedly with some difficulty) by John Cale and performed by the Patti Smith Group (with songs written mostly by Smith and co-writers Tom Verlaine, Allen Lanier, and members of her group, specifically Lenny Kaye), Horses launched at least a hundred punk bands, if not a generation of kids with punk attitude, and it remains fully alive today. Infused with the spirit of Smith’s dead poet/rock ‘n’ roll heroes—particularly Arthur Rimbaud, the libertine poet whose spirit she’s kept moving through rock ‘n’ roll—the first word of the first song is “Jesus,” as Smith cleverly fuses her own invocation to Van Morrison, proclaiming rock ‘n’ roll “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo.” Whether intertwined with the Catholicism of Mapplethorpe’s youth or with Rimbaud’s travels to Ethiopia and his relationship to Rastafari, Smith made bold statements, particularly for a young woman who claimed to be shy by nature; she summoned the spirits of two men named James (Hendrix and Morrison) with three Bobs (Marley, Dylan, and Neuwirth) or four if you count Mapplethorpe, and her own strong desire to merge poetry with performing rock ‘n’ roll.

“I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this… yet, I harbored that conceit,” she writes in Just Kids. Her connection with Hendrix was slightly more intimate: She was invited to the opening of his recording studio, Electric Lady. “I was excited to go. I put on my straw hat and walked downtown, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to go in,” she writes. “By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and grinned.” He talked to Patti, revealing that he didn’t like parties either. “He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play… Eventually, they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio. ‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.” And then he was off, to catch a plane to England, from which he never returned. Smith read the news of his death about a month later while on a trip to Paris—on one of her rare respites from her gigs as a bookstore clerk/rough living artist/caretaker of Robert.

In New York, she happened to meet singer-songwriter and painter Bob Neuwirth in a coffee shop (she recognized him from the Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back), and becomes just a little more inspired to try her hand at turning her poems into songs. “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,’ he said as we exited the bar,” she writes. But when she reports to Mapplethorpe of meeting Neuwirth, the photographer snaps back, “Maybe he’ll be the one to get you to sing, but always remember who wanted you to sing first.” Mapplethorpe doesn’t approve of Smith’s Marley-inspired pot smoking either, but the pair go on to spark up some sacred herb together, in the name of enhancing creativity.

Trying on her voice, reading her poetry aloud, Smith dove into performance mostly without Robert’s help, as he was moving deeper into the world of street hustling (this time it’s Patti who is disapproving). She reads for unappreciative fans of the New York Dolls and gets heckled by drunks before finding her sea legs and accompanists—first guitarist Lenny Kaye, and then Richard Sohl on piano. But when it’s time to record a single, it’s Robert who pays for the studio time at Electric Lady. For the recording, they choose “Hey Joe”, a song made famous by Hendrix. While Jimi closed his set at Woodstock with it, Smith and co. use it to usher in the era of the punk rock seven-inch. Recording at Jimi’s place, “I felt a real sense of duty,” she told the Observer in 2005. “I was very conscious that I was getting to do something that he didn’t.” Though Horses’ de facto title track “Land” was famously inspired by William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, the lesser-acknowledged last third—“La Mer (de)”—makes reference to Jimi (“In the sheets there was a man”), as well as Rimbaud. “Elegie”, the final song on Horses, is also for Hendrix: It was recorded on September 18th, the anniversary of his death. “I think it’s sad, just too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today,” she wrote, the words closely echoing those from Jimi’s “Well, it’s too bad that our friends can’t be with us today,” from  “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” from Electric Ladyland. As for fellow inspirer and rock star ghost Jim Morrison, “Break It Up” was based on a dream Smith had about him covered in plaster—like a statue.

Patti Smith - HorsesThe making of Smith’s own image as a rock star poet was yet another Mapplethorpe collaboration. “You should take your own photographs,” she once told him, and eventually he turned his attention away from jewelry, objects, and installations and towards photography. For the Horses cover Mapplethorpe knew exactly what he wanted, and so did Smith: “I flung the jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style; I was full of references,” she writes. Though still developing as a photographer, Mapplethorpe was clear that he would work only in shades of black and white. Illuminated only by natural light, he got the image of Patti in 12 shots.

“Patti, you got famous before me,” said Mapplethrope in 1978 as he and Smith walked the streets of Greenwich Village. “Because the Night”, the song Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen, blared from a series of storefront radios, “fulfilling Robert’s dream that I would one day have a hit record,” Smith writes. The song rose to lucky 13 on the pop charts, but Smith was burning out on the biz before she’d barely gotten stared in it. Following the recording of the album Wave, produced by her friend Todd Rundgren and again cover photographed by Mapplethorpe, she retreated from New York and rock to live as a wife and mother in Detroit, where her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, hailed. But the hiatus didn’t really take, and by 1986, she was ready to make a comeback. With the encouragement of her husband, she called her old friend Robert to see if he would shoot a portrait for the album, Dream of Life; Mapplethorpe, who had become a major art star in the interim, took the photo of Patti as a 40th birthday gift. But the reunion between artists was fated to be brief, and the sessions that took place yielded some of his final photos.

Mapplethorpe’s patron and partner Sam Wagstaff succumbed to AIDS during the making of the album (Smith and Smith recorded “Paths That Cross” in Wagstaff’s memory). She had sung “The Jackson Song” (for the Smiths’ son) in which Mapplethorpe is also referenced (“little blue star that offers light”) to Wagstaff as a lullaby in his final days. Recording for Dream of Life continued, and she wrote “Wild Leaves” for Robert on the occasion of his 41st birthday. Somewhere in this mix, Smith and Smith also penned an enduring protest anthem, “People Have the Power”—the kind of song people sing when they need to raise a little spirit to keep on keeping on. Dream of Life was finally released in June of 1988, 10 years after the success of “Because the Night.” Mapplethorpe died in March of 1989, and Smith wrote “Memorial Tribute” (“little emerald soul, little emerald eye”) for him (it appears on the 1993 No Alternative AIDS awareness compilation).

In 1994, Fred “Sonic” Smith died, followed by the death of Patti Smith’s brother Todd and her bandmate Richard Sohl. Soon to turn 50, she returned to Electric Lady for the recording of the 1996 album Gone Again, a tribute to her dead friends and loved ones. Kurt Cobain was mourned (“About a Boy”) and soon to be gone Jeff Buckley sang on “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a song that survives as part of the Patti Smith Group’s concert repertoire. Following an eight year gap after Dream of LifeGone Again, recorded in Fred’s memory, proved to be Smith’s real comeback. Now without Fred or Robert, she was supported as ever by guitarist Lenny Kaye and by new friend Oliver Ray, a young poet and guitarist who joined her band and photographed her. Michael Stipe (who had been inspired to become an artist himself upon hearing Horses) was also on board as a road friend when Bob Dylan invited her to tour with him. Back on the swing shift as a musician, there was no time to write the book she promised Robert on the day before he died that she would one day write.

In 2010, 35 years after its debut,  Horses was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, archived for posterity alongside sonic artifacts by Little Richard, Willie Nelson, and Ethel Merman. That same year, Just Kids won the National Book Award. Moved to tears as she accepted the honor, Smith recalled what it was like to work as a bookstore clerk, dreaming of what it might feel like to author a book with the award-winning seal one day. “Thanks for letting me know,” she said by way of acceptance. For the reader, Just Kids is the kind of book that serves not only as a history of a bygone age or a how-to as an artist, but as inspirational literature. It is a reminder that we are all members of the human family and artists of the everyday. If we are lucky, we have friends, relatives, and inspirers, our own set of losses, and our own unique memories, as well as a collective conscience from which we draw. There are dreams to be accessed and visions to fulfill, all day, everyday, whether through words, music, pictures, or the creation of an artful life. As Allen Ginsberg told Patti upon the occasion of the death of Fred “Sonic” Smith:  “Let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life’s celebration.”

While Mapplethorpe depicted dark against light—and vice versa, his increasingly sexually explicit images landed him in much hot water. But there is something innocent in his early photograph of Smith that portends more about the new wave of rocker than words could have ever described at the time: Smith is an original and reverent, androgynous yet vulnerable, regular but inscrutable. Mapplethorpe’s true image of her on Horses ripples through the contemporary persona who conducted the interviews for Just Kids: Patti Smith in black and white has her humble and “bravada” sides; the disheveled waif converges with the mensch in designer clothes. Open but reserved, she is a wizened poet who’s still girlish, gangly, and awkward—and still very much in love with art and life.

 

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Origin of Song, Poetry, Punk, Reggae, , , , , , ,

Keep on Pushing (Again)

Everybody’s humming “Keep On Pushing” again, thanks to it being the soundtrack to a new ad, but there are a few details that even LeBron’s smart phone doesn’t know about the wonderful song that also stands in for the title of my book concerning political movement and music.

Among the  young songwriters who knew the power of an anthem and made the Freedom Movement swing was Curtis Mayfield of Chicago. Just 17 and straight out of the Cabrini-Green housing projects when he hit it big with “Your Precious Love,” recorded by his vocal group the Impressions, Mayfield was a highly conscious, conscientious, and musicially gifted individual. By the early ‘60s he had already sustained the departure of his childhood gospel choir buddy, Jerry Butler, from the group and was leading Samual Goodens and Fred Cash on his own as he became a formidable writer of inspirational R&B hits.

The Impressions captured the ephermeral spirit of gospel’s lift and married it to Mayfield’s layered melodies with a message. In 1964 Mayfield came up with the black-powered “Keep on Pushing,” its sentiment and language  borrowed from a gospel groove and easily adapted to the civil rights cause:  “Hallelujah, hallelujah, keep on pushing.”  “Keep on Pushing” was in perfect synch with Dr. King and the march forward; it has been characterized as one of the movement’s unofficial anthems.  “Move up a little higher,” “I’ve got my strength,” “keep on pushing,” all phrases from the song, also borrowed from gospel’s language and its inspirational intent.  These were elements that never strayed far from Mayfield’s consciousness, and combined with the melodious strains to which he set his words, he could disguise the tougher sentiments by weaving them into the complex harmonies, while never losing the threads.  As time went on, Mayfield became more direct lyrically, but these early works were foundational to setting soul music in its new direction while they also passed in the mainstream.

The Impressions album Keep on Pushing was a Top 10 hit, making its impression on the masses as well as on two major 20th Century songwriters:  images-1Bob Marley had begun performing with his vocal group the Wailers in Kingston Jamaica, as if they were their country’s answer to the Impressions.  “Amen” and “I Made a Mistake” from Keep on Pushing were an important part of their early repertoire.  In 1965, Bob Dylan featured a picture of Keep on Pushing on the cover of his own album, Bringing It All Back Home.  That same year, the Impressions hit again with “People Get Ready,” a song Mayfield was first inspired to get busy on following the March on Washington; it ultimately became the song for which he would be best known.  “When humans from all walks of life can experience a piece of music and feel the same way—that’s soul,”  he once said.  Fifty years later, “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” are still turning heads and inspiring people to singalong, though sadly Mayfield is gone.  Following a distinguished career as a groundbreaking solo recording artist and performer, Mayfield became paralyzed as a consequence of an in-concert accident (a lighting rig fell on him). He still wrote, but didn’t perform; he died the day after Christmas in 1999 of complications from diabetes.

You can read more on Curtis Mayfield and “Keep on Pushing” in Keep on Pushing. And next time you see that LeBron spot, I hope you enjoy the Curtis song just a little bit more.

Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?

Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner” and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Pushing, , ,

Hail to the Yeah: Obama Prevails

November 5, final campaign stop, Columbus, OH.

“Don’t believe the media. I think it’s going to be a landslide,” said Bob Dylan from the stage on election eve in Madison, WI.

The President and the Boss also put in a Madison appearance earlier in the day.

 

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Concerts, , , , , ,

When Record Store Day Meets Earth Day, it’s time for The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

In honor of this weekend’s most auspicious collision of Record Store Day and Earth Day,  Saturday and Sunday respectively, I decided to reprise a story about where environmentalism meets record collecting, which as it happens is also the most-read article here at denisesullivan.com.  The Day Van Dyke Parks Went Calypso, originally appeared in the pages of Crawdaddy! in 2009, 40 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and the birth of the environmental movement, and upon the occasion of the  re-reissue of Parks’ long out-of-print productions for calypso artists, the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, and the Mighty Sparrow. Parks had a goal and an idea ahead of its time: To forge environmental healing through music made by instruments made of cast-off oil drums. The story further explains one man’s adventures in art and activism and begins after the clip below: Taken from a documentary on the Esso Trinidad Steel Band,you won’t find the rest of the film on youtube, though you will find it with the reissued Esso, available at your local record store.

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 his 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.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harry Belafonte, Interview, , ,

The Ballad of Trayvon Martin

The story of 15-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago, murdered while on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi, was among the events in the mid-‘50s that mobilized the Civil Rights Movement; the tragedy was chronicled by Bob Dylan in one of his earliest songs. This clip contains a bit of background as well as the audio of the song which tells the story.

Oddly, I had long been holding tickets to attend a staged reading this week of Ifa Bayeza’s play, The Ballad of Emmett Till, in which the scene above with Mose Wright is recreated, as is mother Mamie Till’s testimony. The script was beautifully written and the acting superb, especially by Lorenz Arnell who played Till.  But I had a difficult time sitting through the show, in light of the recent events in the Sunshine State, and the information that continues to surface following the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Today, as people gather in Union Square in New York City to protest the racially motivated killing of the young man in Sanford, Florida on February 26, his assailant has not yet been arrested or charged.  The rally is intended not only to shine a light on injustice—Martin’s murder was clearly a hate crime and needs to be treated with the kind of seriousness that an offense like that demands—but a plea to end the practice of racial profiling.

It’s been fifty years since Dylan sang his song about Emmett Till and it is unthinkable that it should have to be reprised as a mourning song anymore, except to be used as a history lesson. I encourage people unfamiliar with the Trayvon Martin case to read up on it and to listen to Dylan’s song. I hope that all of us will think of Martin and his family, and think of Emmett Till and his kin, and of all the Trayvon Martins and would-be Emmett Tills out there. And if there’s a freedom singer in the town square, maybe he or she will sing these verses loud, so everyone can hear them, all over this land, once and for all.

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…

…But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Read more on “The Death of Emmett Till” in Keep on Pushing 

 

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Folk, Hip Hop, , , , , ,

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