Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

On Litquake, Legacy Businesses, Logos and Literacy: Are You Reading Me?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Where the fall days are shorter, sometimes hotter, and always foggier, where we are spoiled for choice between theimg_1987865_primary play-offs, election season, the Mission Playground debacle, and our annual book festival, Litquake, already in progress, and where we are one progressive free weekly shorter as of this afternoon. It is here, in this wonderland that just yesterday, the Columbus/Indigenous People’s holiday, that District 9 Supervisor David Campos chose the Beat literature/Italian American landmark, Caffe Trieste in North Beach as the time and place to roll out his proposed legislation that may contribute toward saving San Francisco from itself. Grasping at straws?  Pulling at threads?  It’s all in a day’s work around here, but I promise it will all come together before nightfall, or daybreak—at least that’s what I tell myself.

Flanked by a handful of small business advisers, city officials and somewhat surprisingly, me (representing for the independent booksellers in past or imminent peril due to increasing rents and few protections), the Supervisor pledged on Monday,  “City Hall has a responsibility” to protect what he’s calling our legacy and heritage businesses.

In a report commissioned by Campos and released last Friday, the number of small businesses here that will be lost by the end of this year is 4,378. You read it correctly. That’s “a significant increase from the 693 businesses lost in 1992, the first year of the study.” Closures and relocations in the period from 1992 to 2011 have also risen: from nearly 1300 to nearly 13,000. What happened in the intervening years is of course familiar to anyone vaguely familiar with the economic system in the USA, Inc.com. But it seems someone at City Hall is listening and it just might be Campos (and Supervisor Mark Farrell who co-created the plan based partly on programs in place in London, Barcelona and Buenos Aires where policies have been implemented to aid local heritage). San Francisco could be the first US City to add small local and culturally relevant businesses to its recently collated registry of historic bars and restaurants deemed worth preserving. By incentivizing commercial property rentals and when possible, advising and assisting through cooperative agencies the purchase of anchor businesses and properties, community character and services shall be retained and our neighborhoods will continue to provide jobs, remain more diverse, enjoy less crime, and stay vital, all according to plan.

Screen+shot+2011-06-08+at+10.27.38+AM-1Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And apparently it’s entirely possible, especially if you belong to the stable sector of small retail that hopes to benefit from the heritage program. For example, a store like Green Apple Books, awarded 2013 Bookstore of the Year by national book trade magazine Publisher’s Weekly, is an exemplar of the kind of indie business the City is looking to preserve. Who can’t appreciate and celebrate the successes of a bookstore like Green Apple? They earned their kudos and we all wish them well-deserved continued success. Though at the other end of the spectrum are the stores that are struggling through crushing economic downturns, bad loans, wily speculators, poor City planning and a trail of broken promises that leads straight to City Hall. These are the stores that serve our communities most at risk—sometimes at their own peril—and have done so for decades. Stores like Marcus Books San Francisco (evicted, 2014,and hoping to relocate after 53 years), and Modern Times Bookstore Collective (after 43 years it is next in line to close in 2015 unless something gives), and Bibilohead Bookstore (in a holding pattern after 10 years, displaced behind a retrofit and awaiting terms of a new space). These are the stores that some of us rely on for our everyday interests, our community, our culture and lives of the mind. As an author, a part-time bookstore worker and activist, I have seen our stores time and again get left out and left behind or be judged by the community as “not having the right business model.”  They’ve been accused of “mismanagement” or entering into “bad leases” (are there good ones?). None of these booksellers could have thrived for as long as they did and have the answers to their problems be quite so convenient. These stores and their personnel have been on the wrong end of wrongheaded assumptions and I fail to accept that kind of treatment of our small retailers and fellow San Franciscans (you know, the ones who’ve allowed you to use their bathroom, even though you couldn’t repay them by buying a book from them).  Rather, it’s matters of racism, sexism, classism, simple greed, poor Cityimages-1 planning and the public’s allergy to reality which are at the root of the problems faced by these stores and others like them (like queer-focused A Different Light which closed in 2011). I’m happy that Supervisor Campos has displayed the courage to acknowledge these facts—that the City does indeed have some kind of responsibility to its small businesses, in particular the ones which are most at risk precisely because they promote literacy, diversity and community, to the people who need those things the most: The immigrant, poor, working class, artist, intellectual and politicized people and people of color in town. These are the folks who gave San Francisco its progressive reputation in the first place and who have been disgraced and abandoned on Mayor Lee’s watch.

UnknownThe businesses that I and others in the progressive communities are interested in registering and preserving received loans with interest rates too high for anyone to make good on because they were discriminatory. The mortgage crisis put some of these small business owners and their stakeholders homes at risk as they attempted to keep the businesses afloat. Some of them have been harassed or received ambivalent protection from law enforcement. What do I mean by that, exactly? Well, the political and activist groups who convene at community spaces are targeted for spurious code violations and other so-called crimes. Marcus Books’ property was stolen and destroyed in broad daylight! Disbelieve me if you like, but these are some of the more systemic problems besieging our City; I want to believe Supervisor Campos is not blind and seeks to amend them.

Here it is a little more concretely: On Sunday, Modern Times celebrated 43 years of progressive bookselling with its Litquake event featuring writers and poets Aimee Suzara, Dee Allen, Kim Shuck, Ocean Capewell, Tommi Avicolli Mecca and Don Skiles. Last year the Litquake legacy celebration at Marcus headlined literary and visual artists esteemed as Genny Lim, Chinaka Hodge, Raina J. Leon and Lewis Watts. I mention all this because this year, Marcus Books didn’t have a Litquake event and next year, Modern Times might not have one either. So when we talk about preserving our City’s cultural institutions and legacy businesses, I hope this is the kind of thing the Supervisor is mindful of, because it’s what’s on my mind. And while we’re here: Litquake is our City’s only festival of books: It is the finest moment—now in its 15th year—of our small but mighty book community. It celebrates author excellence, charm, and ridiculousness. Founded by my colleagues Jack Boulware litquake-2014and Jane Ganahl (who both made the move from journalism and publishing toward organizing literary events), they survive by their wits, and to my knowledge, with little to no funds from the moneybags known as City of SF, a circumstance that appalls me and I hope outrages you, too. Without the stewardship of our community by Boulware and Ganahl, I’m not sure we’d have a book community at all. My expression of gratitude to them is to devote as much time to their festival as I can as a curator and booster. But while we are all congratulating ourselves, celebrating our new books, all our new multi-digi-partner-publishing-platform ventures, and awarding our community pillars like Malcolm Margolin and Dave Eggers, let us also pause for a moment of grave concern:

San Francisco is hemorrhaging bookstores and small businesses, and though you won’t hear a lot of talk about it at the lit festival, or at the new restaurant on Divisadero, nor will you read a thing about it in the paper,  please take a moment of your time to remember the bookstore that held you up in lean times, that gave you your start, provided you with reading matter or a seat and place to read in rain. They have been on the critical and missing list for some time and will remain there until further notice, to be replaced by a vegan bacon donut shop or some other culinary monstrosity coming to a vacant $675.10 (actual figure) per square foot space near you soon.

Campos_logo-02So yes, it is my wish that so inspired by Mr. Campos on his way to Sacramento, that we all insist his personal legacy be a registry of historic legacy businesses that includes as many of our small bookstores all over town (but especially the three on Calle 24), whether they be shiny and new or dusty and dark, so that we may all eat and grow strong and acknowledge our beauty and power collectively, despite the world being on fire just outside our doors. And oh: Go Giants.SF-Giants-Logo

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, Editorial, income disparity, San Francisco News, , , , ,

Van Morrison: Songwriter

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVanMorrisonLo limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

READ THE FULL BOOK REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE

This one goes out to the City of San Francisco, Inc.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, California, new article, Reviews, video, ,

New Ebook, Shaman’s Blues

shamans_bluesWhat was meant to be a short, between books project is now officially a new ebook, Shaman’s Blues. As an author from traditional publishing and as a person who spends much of her energy as a books advocate and activist, it’s a strange twist that my own title is available through that infamous bookstore-eating electronic channel. Let’s just say it’s an experiment for this writer and others like me: We’re in processing of discovering whether it’s possible to earn a living from our books instead of owing our publishers infinitely. Whether it’s possible to do that, as I’ve heard some writers have done, remains to be discovered. The good news in all this is a hardcover edition of the book will be available October 1 at independent booksellers and libraries (ordering details will appear here soon). And if you’re a traveler or fan of e-reading, Shaman’s Blues is available to you at no cost, beginning Friday August 22-Sunday August 24. For now, please visit the Blooming Twig/Sumach-Red blog for a taste of what you’ll find inside. And thanks for taking a chance on Shaman’s Blues.

Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Protest Songs, You Read It Here First

Stolen Legacy of Marcus Books Must Be Returned To Owners & The Community

In February: Mayor Ed Lee (center) of San Francisco signs the historic landmark designation for 1712-1716 Fillmore Street, former home of Marcus Books and Greg and Karen Johnson (also pictured).

Since the May eviction of Marcus Books in San Francisco, the speculators who purchased the property have waged a hateful campaign against the historic, landmarked Jimbo’s Bop City building that housed the oldest black bookstore in the US and the Richardson-Johnson family, its longtime proprietors. Theft of valuable store inventory and business tools, destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, displacement of four generations, and most recently a slander campaign against the family who ran the store for 50 years are the contributions made by new owners, the Sweises, to 1712-1716 Fillmore Street. That the City of San Francisco has done little to prevent the attacks, aside from rubber-stamping the building and business as a community and cultural resource with a landmark designation earlier this year, isn’t that surprising: Since the 2009 Mayor’s Task Force Report on African American Out-Migration, few of the recommendations for education, economic development, and cultural and social life have been implemented.  But the City’s negligence and complicity in this recent act of cultural genocide in the black community was so shocking, it must not be allowed to stand unchecked.

The continual and unrestrained despoiling of predominately black and brown neighborhood resources is not a newsflash:  There has been a concerted effort toward black neighborhood “redevelopment” since at least the early ’60s. Certainly evictions overall have been unprecedented on Mayor Ed Lee’s watch, but the way in which the dismantling of the Marcus Bookstore was carried out was particularly aggressive. Small business owners, especially those of color, know well the lack of protections for their tenant and human rights, but the Marcus Books story was under-reported by local media and the details remained largely a mystery to those outside the community until this response by the Johnsons was published on Friday.

In May: Contents of the Marcus Bookstore in process of being dumped and prepared for hauling away.

Following the store’s eviction, the new owners broke several moving dates, then took hostage the store’s books, art work and equipment. Said to be put in storage, to date the materials have not been returned. Community members suspect most all of what was contained in the bookstore—including 50 years of history and ephemera documenting black San Francisco—was either stolen or destroyed, hauled away in a landscaping truck by day workers. That the historic Marcus Bookstore should be physically dismantled in broad daylight as District Supervisors, various commissioners, Mayor’s Office and the NAACP leadership who supported the motion to preserve the property stood by and did nothing to prevent it is the question that remains shamefully unanswered. That passerby were allowed to rifle through the dump truck and take what they liked is simply further evidence of the uncivil and unjust treatment of a community’s history, co-signed by the City.

As a native San Franciscan, an author, and community advocate for the preservation of our most valuable cultural assets—in this case books and literacy—I support the campaign to return the Marcus Bookstore to its Fillmore location. As witness to the community meetings, in store events, Board of Supervisors and Historic Preservation Commission proceedings, and desecration of the property, I have observed and documented with astonishment the trail of broken promises and lies told by District supervisors, Mayor’s Office appointees, and the African American community’s own faith leaders about the bookstore and its proprietors. These erroneous claims–that a bookstore is an unsustainable model for 21st Century business–entirely misses the point. The campaign to support Marcus Books goes beyond keeping open the doors of a mom and pop bookshop: It is an attempt to shine a light on and preserve African American culture, community and literacy, particularly for readers of the future.  The removal of Marcus Books on the block could once and for all to erase the rich cultural heritage African Americans created in San Francisco—through art, music, literature, civic engagement and action and replace it with a whitewashed version of history that does not include black contributions. Further, it negates the interests of the wider community of black and other interested folks who relied on the Marcus Bookstore’s products, services, warmth, and humanity.

In July: The vacant and vulnerable historic landmark at 1712 Fillmore Street.

I am curious how the City officials and employees who reportedly bought their first books at the store, who sat at the owners feet as teenagers and said they were in support of the store can now step back and refuse to take notice or phone calls and deny their previous public statements of support. But I’m not surprised that the landmarking of Marcus Books was insincere and just another photo op: The City’s allegiance to money and power is well known: Given an opportunity, I can imagine Mayor Lee selling his own ancestors down the river. Expecting him and his regime to understand the struggle waged by Marcus Books as a cultural one was a non-starter from the gate. But there is no doubt Lee and Co. failed to “Provide full support of the Fillmore Jazz Heritage District and to make sure that African American culture is fully respected and highlighted in the effort” according to Out-migration Report recommendations.

Despite the setbacks, the original owners of 1712 Fillmore and its family of supporters continue to fight injustice in their community and reclaim justice for all. We have not heard the last from the Marcus Bookstore.

 

If you are interested in expressing support and solidarity with the owners of Marcus Books San Francisco, please contact the Support Marcus Books site directly. If you are a bookseller, author, or publishing professional interested in joining a new alliance of Bay Area independent bookstores, please contact keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you will be added to an email list.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Civil Rights, Editorial, Jazz, new article, , , , ,

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed upamiribw

To my daughter’s room and heard her

Talking to someone, and when I opened

The door, there was no one there …

Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.

-LeRoi Jones, excerpt from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… 1961

“Never settle for the given.  What is it that hasn’t been mentioned? What is beyond that?” These are the words of activist, actor, poet, playwright, director, and music critic Amiri Baraka. He passed today in Newark, NJ at the age of 79.  “Art is supposed to unlock you, make the world more available to you,” he said.  It was the way he felt when he heard Thelonious Monk for the first time. I heard Baraka speak at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles two years ago this month,  in conversation with his daughter, Kellie Jones, curator of the wildly successful exhibit, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960—1980, discussing art and family, though the conversation inevitably turned to Baraka’s recurrent theme, surviving America. “Do you understand the world?…What do you think?… What is important to you?…What is it you want to say?…How do you say what the world is?…How do you tell us who lives on this planet?…How do you make something speak to the world?…” These are the questions he asked of himself and of other artists, for over 50 years.

Born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in Newark, NJ, where he lived until the end, he changed his name to LeRoi and chronicled the birth of free jazz as a journalist; he wrote an Obie award-winning play, The Dutchman, and he is the author of Blues People, one of the first books to make connections between music and social history. Equally informed by the poetry of Langston Hughes, the politics of Malcolm X and the Black Mountain College poets, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement, in the mid-‘60s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem which contributed to the development of a new, unapologetically black style of writing, its creation dovetailing with the Black Power movement’s cultural agenda. By the late ’60s he’d changed his name to Baraka; his album It’s Nation Time—African Visionary Music, for Motown’s Black Forum label, features his Black Nationalist poetry set to music.

Stirring it up for 50 years, in 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and of the Newark Public Schools amidst controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (who? who?  who?). That same year, The Roots accompanied him on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” on their album, Phrenology. Condolences to the surviving members of the Jones and Baraka families.

(More on Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and his connections to music, from blues to hip hop in Keep on Pushing) 

Filed under: Book news, Books, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, Obituary, , ,

Jim Morrison For Sale

last-photos-of-jim-morrison-paris-1971-g1(UPDATE, December 19: Morrison’s notebook reportedly sold for the unverified amount of $200,000 on December 18, 2013).

This week’s news that Jim Morrison’s “Paris” notebook will be auctioned later next month, 10 days after what would’ve been the singer and poet’s 70th birthday, hasn’t exactly set the night on fire. The headline, characterizing the discovery as his  “druggy musings” makes it sound like more of the same, and yet, we’re talking about the recovery of a holy relic of rock’n’roll history here.  Media and mythology strike again, though the story managed to uncover the seller of the notebook as Graham Nash.  He and the Doors shared a manager who gifted Nash with the collection of notes and sketches, valued to be worth approximately $320,000. There was no mention of who shall benefit from the sale of the artifact which likely dates back to the singer’s life in the pre-Doors dawn, during his time spent at UCLA, his interests more focused on poetry and film than on songs. The inside flap of the book features a quote from a 1963 Paris Review interview with Norman Mailer (Morrison was an avowed fan) alongside an image of the artist Francis Bacon, artistic inspirers from the early ’60s.

As for Morrison, deceased since 1971,  the ‘60s most idolized rock star was no doubt plagued by alcoholism and drug addiction,  and yet, he was able to keep his artistic life somewhat sacrosanct; it is said when he left for Paris he took only his poems, filed in old notebooks, and his canisters of film with him. The notebook, with its so-called musings are presumably continuations of his creations, a winnowing and distillation of the things he’d been jotting down in notebooks he carried with him at all times,  even since before he arrived to the California coast as a student from Florida. The writings in his own hand offer more than  “a window into the mind of the deep-thinking singer, known for his drug abuse, in the run up to his death.”  They are a closer look at his process as an artist, a chance to examine the singer’s life through a new pair of glasses, one that isn’t too concerned with ‘60s nostalgia, preserving mystique or cashing in on it. Whatever its true origins, I would hope that the notebook will be purchased with the intent to publicly display it.

It is time to retire the persistent media portrait of the artist as a semi-dimensional party dude with a quasi-mystic side. My forthcoming book, Shaman’s Blues, The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, to be published early next year, attempts to cancel some of the old notions, and replace them with the source of Jim’s ideas and what he was creating with his body of work. I went in search of the building blocks that make his songs and poems meaningful to each new generation, his messages, and even his meanderings, still relevant to listeners in the 21st Century.

To better appreciate Morrison’s “druggy musings” is to understand his complete devotion to Arthur Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses, the principles behind Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Bertolt Brecht’s dramaturgy, and Julian Beck’s Living Theater, among other sources of his inspiration. One must have a general sense, if not  knowledge, of what those historic, artistic precedents were about to fully appreciate the Doors’ work. I took on the project as an opportunity to investigate the people, places and other worlds alluded to in Morrison’s songs, to seek the poetry at the core of the stories, and the diligence that went into creating the Doors’ own dark music.  And then I tried to unravel some of all that for the general reader without boring people to death by use of academic language, while striving to make Morrison more whole, less of an icon, and more of a human. Because behind the Hollywood and media representations of him, Morrison has largely been remembered well by family and friends. He was said to be thoughtful, loving, humorous, artistic, and pretty decent young cat, when he wasn’t under the influence (though there would also appear to reasons for his discontent, in addition to a predisposition to alcoholism).  I make no apologies for the drunk and disorderly behavior; it is on the record and clearly a part of who he was, but it was not all of Jim Morrison. And that’s part of why I’m so interested in the news of the notebook going on the market:  It is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of Morrison’s legacy, the process of demythologizing the mythic Lizard King.

I’m pleased to say I’m not a voice in the wilderness in my attempts to bring more light to the other side of Morrison’s work.  His friend Frank Lisciandro, who has long worked to keep Jim’s poetry and filmmaking in the public consciousness, is compiling Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together, an oral history of the singer’s pre-Doors years.  And filmmakers Jeff and Jess Finn continue work on Before the End: Jim Morrison Comes of Age, a documentary take  on the tale we all (think we) know so well, as told by Jim’s closest intimates, guided by the filmmakers’ access and own intuitive sense of his Jimness.

When I hear Jim speak or sing, on the page and on audio and video, on his clear days he seems thoughtful, interesting and right-on to me too. This is the Morrison I wanted to capture in Shaman’s Blues, and I certainly hope it is received in that spirit, though a writer cannot predict how she will be read. Perhaps there is no better example than Jim Morrison’s own legacy, to illustrate the dichotomy of the saying about one man’s trash: Welcome to “The Soft Parade.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, film, France, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Smarter than the average bear, , ,

Graham Nash: Wild Tales of a Protest Singer

“We need people like Bradley Manning,” said singer Graham Nash on Friday night at the Nourse Auditorium in San Francisco, in conversation about his new book, Wild Tales:  A Rock & Roll Life.  The evening ended with questions from the crowd, a convention that in lieu of any interesting questions coming from the stage often provides the most interesting parts of these so-called public discussions.

“Where is the anger?” someone from the audience asked. “Why aren’t we rising up?”

“Do you think they really want protest songs on the airwaves? Do you think they want people singing about these things on TV?” answered Nash with more questions, while further noting the media has largely turned its back on free speech matters.  Though he suggested our first and fifth amendment rights were our country’s greatest assets, his questions were perhaps an acknowledgement that we can no longer rely on a free press to help us protect those rights to speech, a fair trail, or to keep us truly free.

Advocating for truth-speaking and against torture, as well as for solar power and ending world hunger, Nash isn’t just a one-size-fits-all protest singer; rather, he’s one who’s consistently stood strong against nuclear power, supports the science behind climate change, and was on the side of the Occupiers on Wall Street. The musician of conscience has consistently weighed in with songs of resistance since the dawn of his career, as a solo artist, as a member of the duo, Crosby & Nash, and the supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Last week I posted Nash and James Raymond’s song for Bradley Manning; his earlier works like “Chicago” and “Immigration Man,” among others, bear his mark of vocal excellence combined with pointed, topical concerns.

Among his known charitable activities, Nash co-founded the Musicians United for Safe Energy in 1978; he participated in 1985’s Live Aid, spotlighting famine in Africa and he toured with CSNY in 2006 on the Freedom of Speech tour, a traveling protest roadshow.  “We knew what we had to say, especially about George Bush,” Nash said, though the message was not entirely popular, particularly as they crossed the red states.  “I’d never been on a tour where there were bomb-sniffing dogs.  I’d never been on a tour where people walked out. You bought a ticket to a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert…what did you expect?”

On Friday, the crowd was comprised largely of freethinkers, baby-boomers, and progressives in accordance with Nash’s views, clued-in enough to ask: Had he ever requested his FBI files? Born in Blackpool, England but a citizen here since 1978 Nash answered with yet another question: “Why would I care if they have papers on me?” He shouldn’t.  But rest assured, they do. And had I held a mic that night, I would’ve first and foremost thanked Graham Nash—bold enough to sing the contents of his heart and mind for over 50 years—no questions asked.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Environmental Justice, Folk, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Occupy Wall Street, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, Songs for the Occupation, ,

Remembering Paul Williams and His Greatest Hits (Again)

Crawdaddy Litquake PosterTonight is the Lit Crawl, the final night of San Francisco’s annual festival of books, Litquake. For the occasion, I organized a tribute to writer Paul Williams  who at age 17 founded Crawdaddy! the first national magazine of serious rock criticism.  From John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace, to the back-to-the-land movement, and a literary association with Philip K. Dick, Williams wrote over 25 books on his travels through rock ‘n’roll and underground culture. The night’s offerings by, about, and inspired by Williams were prepared by Trina Robbins, Rudy Rucker, James Greene Jr., Ron Colone and Williams’ wife, Cindy Lee Berryhill, who (with the exception of Robbins) will be there to read them. The following is a repost of my remembrance of Paul Williams on the occasion of his passing on March 27, 2013, at the age of 64. 

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 howCrawdaddy! 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.paul-williams-crawdaddy-650-1

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, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, Books, Obituary, , , , , , , , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

freedom

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal, as most people know, is no longer primarily an announcer by trade.  Better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for over 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In the documentary Long Distance Revolutionaryfilmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than retell the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist (whose views forced him to moonlight as a cabbie, just to survive), they shine a light on how he’s used misfortune as opportunity, to become a prophetic voice for the voiceless.

Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who testify in the film on the important role Mumia—the writer as political prisoner—plays on the world stage, reflecting the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free, while the mystery that unfolds onscreen in Long Distance Revolutionary is more to a specific point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Abu-Jamal  keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who talks of how she was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him in the book market.  But the most convincing voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world and heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  At the film’s premiere in Mill Valley, California last October,  Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area. He remembered its “luscious sun,” and the Bay as a place where he,  “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice in the chorus is M-1 of Dead Prez. Used to be musicians sang out for injustice, the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film); in that case, the musical association indirectly lead to Carter’s exoneration. But the music community has largely remained silent on the subject of Abu-Jamal. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Eddie Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.  “Please know that I (and my co-producers) tried hard to get…and a number of other musicians into the mix—on numerous occasions and through numerous fronts—but not one of them would agree to interview (except M-1) and/or offer a musical piece or new selection,” Vittoria wrote in an email to me.  Vedder’s song “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandlessserves as the film’s closing theme. “I was fortunate that Eddie allowed us to grace the film with his powerful song,” added Vittoria.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is still on move: Long Distance Revolutionary has been on the festival circuit and in general release throughout the year. It opens August 23 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and next month at Spokane’s Magic Lantern.  Here’s the trailer:

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, film, France, Never Forget, Now Playing, Poetry, , , , , ,

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