Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

A New Book By Mumia Abu-Jamal

I have composed my thoughts about the new book, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Click through to the new edition of Down With Tyranny!  to read it.

Abu-Jamal’s collection of essays, published by City Lights Books, covers the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans since the late ’90s to the present. The writings are an attempt to examine how the country arrived at its new stage of intolerance and what can be done from here. As told from the perspective of a writer who has spent the last 30 plus years behind bars, and most of those years on Death Row, the analysis proves to have been prescient in its wisdom and precise in its depiction of the US problem with white supremacy and law enforcement’s impunity when it comes to taking Black lives. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Books, income disparity, police, racism, , , , ,

Congratulations Kim Shuck

Kim Shuck was named the new Poet Laureate of San Francisco today. Author of several collections of poetry, editor of anthologies and contributor to countless publications and journals, Kim is part Cherokee, part Polish, and is a fifth generation San Franciscan currently living in the Castro District.

“I’m delighted and flattered and ready to get on with the job,” she told me this morning upon the announcement of her post. “It’s not about me as much as it is about poetry and supporting poetry in the City.”

A lifelong reader, educator, lover of San Francisco’s libraries, its poetry, and writing history, I know Kim best as the curator of the Gears Turning Poetry Series which started at Modern Times Bookstore Collective in early 2015 and ran until the store’s closing at the end of 2016 (Gears Turning continues at Adobe Bookshop). Thanks to her efforts, her monthly reading series hosted a truly diverse, intellectually gifted, and emotionally-deep line-up of Native American readers and San Francisco poets, from the Mission to North Beach: She introduced voices that are not always featured at the usual bookstore readings and helped to restore a sense of normalcy to a bookstore that was having trouble surviving the new San Francisco.  She will be publishing a book of collected works by the poets in the series soon.

Kim’s own poems explore life’s often ineffable and sometimes more tangible mysteries, the light and the dark of them. The work is at once lyrical, traditional, and new. There is joy and grief and hope to be found in the collections of her poems, Clouds Running In, Rabbit Stories, Smuggling Cherokee, and the chapbook, Sidewalk Ndn. She is also an awarding-winning bead work artist.

Kim steps into the poet laureate position where Alejandro Muguía leaves it:  Both Alejando and Kim identify as poets of the People and of the Mission District, though they certainly have their respective histories and ties to San Francisco’s other poetry district, North Beach.  But what I really wish to acknowledge here is their tireless (a cliché, but true) efforts to raise the Mission’s profile as a literary destination in itself and for never saying no when called upon to read, present, or otherwise boost poetry in the neighborhood and beyond it.

A side note: Yesterday’s NPR program Fresh Air featured an interview with Native American writer, Sherman Alexie who noted there were fewer Indian voices at work than when he started publishing. He joked he and Louise Erdich hoped for a Native American writing renaissance and I immediately thought wait: What about the recent poetry prize awarded to Joy Harjo? What about Kim Shuck? Today’s news confirms that Native voices, and all the poets of San Francisco, past, present, and future, will be well-tended to in the hands of our seventh poet laureate. Congratulations to her.

 

 

Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Poetry, Women's issues, , ,

Women’s History: Memphis Minnie

Memphis-Minnie-book-1.jpgIn 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.

A certain amount of projection, imagination, and accounting for what the Garons call “the listener’s own obsessions” aid in an understanding of Minnie’s blues, alternately concerned with cooking, hoodoo, love, sex, and the natural environment. A least that’s what I hear when she sings “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuits,” “Black Cat Blues,” and “When the Levee Breaks.” When Minnie sings, most of her lines go at least two or three ways, which in itself is not the revolutionary part; that she was a woman, saying and doing the things that she was in her time, contributes to the possibility she was also the greatest songster of them all, and yet, she remains the proverbial secret hiding in plain sight. Broonzy said as much in his 1955 book, and since then, the songs have supported the fact she’s a giant—just ask the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Chuck Berry who used them as springboards for their own. Is it possible that Minnie was so good—the world’s deepest blues player, conjurer, show person and poet—her story is believable only if it’s portrayed as myth?

Minnie’s way with words is largely the focus of the Garons’ study, a combination of interpretation and inquiry into Minnie’s blues and the deep subconscious well from which she drew inspiration. Crafting lines with far more layers of meaning than the kind of poetry which generally receives laurels, the authors emphasize Minnie’s contributions to blues form have barely begun to be unpacked. The Garons’ surrealist portrait of Minnie is a unique work of scholarship and an essential text toward understanding not only Minnie’s world and work, but the blues itself. Quoting her lyrics and others in blues tradition, the authors consistently and convincingly deliver the idea that a blues narrative is often less critical to interpretation than its lines and metaphors. Pieces of the dream are absorbed in a flash, by design, assimilated “on the fly, while dancing and drinking. Thus, there may be an analogy of how we listen to the blues and how surrealist poets listen to the unconscious.”

A captivating performer—agile, fast, and showy—Minnie was not only an accomplished guitarist but a songwriting original with verses double and triple-loaded with richness. She covered it all, though an area that Minnie mined singularly and deeply was the kitchen: Like the bluesmen’s perpetual and enduring references to liquor as poison, potion and magic elixir, Minnie used food as a way to sing of longing, desire and consummation but also of autonomy, liberation and ultimately transformation. (In addition to her ability to wipe the floor with her guitar competitors, Minnie was also known for her home cooking, especially her biscuits).

Automobiles and trains, allusions to the great outdoors, and the open road also serve as symbols of freedom in her songs, an ideal that still largely lived in the abstract for a rural black woman—and most all women—of Minnie’s generation. And though she might have done sung on the drudgery of domestic work, more often she chose not to: All these sides of Minnie, and what may also be perceived as her contradictions are explored throughout Woman With Guitar.

And you can’t tell me nothing, baby, that I never seen (2x)

And if you don’t believe me, follow me back to New Orleans

Among the new discoveries in this fresh edition of Woman With Guitar: Minnie, born Lizzie Douglas, was not from Algiers, Louisiana as was previously believed; rather, she is a Mississippian, like so many other legends of the blues, likely born in Tunica County around 1897. The eldest of 13, Lizzie or “Kid” as she was known, began to play guitar and banjo from age 10 or 11. She ran away from home to begin her career as a teenage guitarist on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few years. Returning to Beale Street, she fell in with friends in the Memphis Jug Band and was eventually discovered and signed to a Columbia recording contract in 1929. Her first sides, cut with “Kansas” Joe McCoy, were released that year and in 1930: Among the early songs, which remain her best-known were “Bumble Bee” and “When the Levee Breaks,” concerning the great Mississippi flood of 1927 (famously covered by Led Zeppelin).

Wild associations, side roads, and back doors are the Garons’ stock-in-trade, infusing their studies with an edge that the work by other scholars of classic American music forms often lacks; and yet, Woman With Guitar is no easy ride for casual readers who may need to delve deeper into America’s blues past to perceive the big picture.

When LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) described the makers of indigenous African American music as Blues People, he explored the idea that as musical innovators jazz and blues players could look misery in the face while never allowing despair or suffering the last word; music was their soul expression, a place where joy, pain, and liberation occupied the same truly free space, no matter one’s circumstances. Scholar Cornel West has furthered this idea in his ongoing dialogues suggesting, “These people are neither sentimental [nor] cynical; they’re blues people.” Blues people are willing to fight for what’s right and to be of service, “even when it did not look as if it would produce major consequences and effects.”

It’s unlikely Memphis Minnie was conscious of what she had to give or the ground she was breaking or taking—she was merely trying to survive America, the South, and escape her oppressors. Using her poetic and musical gifts, her expressions were samples of the life sustaining properties of song and the unconscious messages emitted when a poet puts pen to paper and gives voice to her soul. Given her circumstances, it’s miraculous that Minnie could read and write at all (any number of her contemporaries could not).

Paul Garon’s City Lights title, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, further defends the blues as a complex form, piled with as much meaning as so-called standard poetry has, if not more. Making the case that the blues is a “sustained poetic attack on the superstructure of an exploitative society,” he asserts the blues has made its own “psychopoetic” contribution to American music and social history. The same must be said for Minnie. Whether or not she is acknowledged by the masses, or the blueskeepers and tastemakers who reissue records is irrelevant.

“We have everything to gain if we interrogate our own level of consciousness about what we hear and how we hear it, in an effort to plumb the depths of responsibility toward the determination of the nature of the revolutionary poetic voice,” write the Garons. An offering to anyone interested in better understanding the blues and aiding in its survival, the Garons’ work has certainly made a difference in my own explorations, listenings and writings on blues. While there are no pat stories or explanations and few solutions to age old dilemmas on offer, Minnie’s story as a consummate artist against the odds will resonate with anyone who finds him or herself up against it in the here and now. Let Minnie’s life and work be a reminder that it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it that’s important.  May she continue to inspire and inform listeners for another 100 years or more.

Originally appeared in Blurt

Filed under: Blues, Books, Poetry, Women in Rock, ,

Lit Up Inside: Van Morrison at 71

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find itVan-Morrison extremely necessary to leave city 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.

Van-Morrison-bookIt is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, California, ,

New Replacements Bio Lays Rock to Rest

-1Faultily wired from the womb, like all true rockers from Little Richard to Johnny Thunders, the things that were wrong with the Replacements were precisely what was so right about them. Forming in the late ’70s, a time before rock became the domain of the pasty and privileged college set, problem child Bob Stinson slapped a bass on his baby brother Tommy in an effort to save him from a similar juvenile delinquent fate. A girl, and there were always girls around, introduced them to drummer Chris Mars. Eventually, Paul Westerberg, the child of an alcoholic with his own disobedience disorder, heard the din coming from the practice house, and the games would commence.

“It was the four of us.  It was an attitude that made those songs,” says Westerberg in the new and definitive biography of the band, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, by Commercial Appeal critic, Bob Mehr. READ ENTIRE BOOK REVIEW AT BLURT:

Filed under: Books, new article, Punk, rock 'n' roll, , , , , , ,

Black History Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes (born February 1, 1902) was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.” Originally a Midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Freedom Now, Poetry, video, ,

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, , , ,

Punk Rock: US, UK, and San Francisco-style

The following is an extract from, Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, a perhaps unlikely source for a chapter featuring a mini, concise history of punk rock, with a San Francisco-bias.  It’s a subject I’ve been interested in since Patti Smith’s Horses reached me in the Summer of 1976. On September 24, I will be among the panelists at SF Punk Renaissance for Punk:  What Went Wrong…or Right? a discussion on the music and movement that inspired my generation.

All over the world, youth were collectively inspired to take back rock and put it into the hands of their generation, and they did it themselves, without corporations or websites or even a whole lot of love behind them. They did it with spit, muscle, sweat, and even Sid Vicious’s blood, and a couple of copies of Raw Power between them.

220px-Spiralscratch“It seemed like it had to go back to the three-minute song, something immediate and direct,” says Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle.  “And from that people came alive again.”

Among punk rock’s targets was the comfortable numbness of quotidian life, partially provided by expensively produced (Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Steely, Dan, and Fleetwood Mac) and lightweight (James Taylor and Carly Simon) rock.  The back-to-basics music style combined with the anti-authority philosophy meant punk was largely a scene without leaders, organization or infrastructure.  It can’t be said enough that in the United States there was virtually no commercial airplay for the music and there was very little in the way of favorable aboveground rock press for it either.  But self-starting had its own rewards.

“People gained confidence in who they were, even ourselves, even with all our insecurities,” says Diggle.  “It wasn’t like we were the big show business act to come to entertain people, it was more like…These guys are the same as us,” he says.  “It was real people singing about real things and when we go up on stage we just put on guitars and there’s no big act.”

The do-it-yourself directive also lead to the resurgence and proliferation of the self-released seven-inch single, a format that had virtually become extinct with the popularization of seventies album rock.  Buzzcocks was one of the first bands of the punk surge in England to release its own record, debuting with their Spiral Scratch EP in January of 1977.  That spring the Ramones, with the Nerves and Pere Ubu, took the first murmurings of punk all across the USA.  Though at the surface the punk pop of the Buzzcocks wasn’t political, “It was about personal politics,” explains Diggle.  “It questioned things on many levels.”  A song like “Autonomy” was about “self-rule.”  And ‘Fast Cars’ was about the business of having a fast car,” he says.

Whether it was the words they sang—at once passionate and dispassionate—the way they sang them, or the fact that they sang them at all, songs like “Fast Cars” telegraphed something that went beyond the general speed limit:  It confronted individuality and choice in a market-driven culture.  “I hate fast cars!” was a radical statement, a rejection of values prized by a capitalist society.

The Ramones and the Sex Pistols have both been called the Johnny Appleseeds of punk, crisscrossing their respective countries and crossing the Atlantic while punk bands were breaking out like a spotty rash in places likely (London) and unlikely (Akron, Ohio).  The Ramones brought their show to San Francisco’s Savoy Tivoli in 1976 and inspired a few artists and musicians to form bands of their own.  The Sex Pistols did the same, bringing their show to the United States in early 1978, though the resulting media circus marked the end of the Pistols and the death of the early phase of punk.  penelope-houston-the-avengersPenelope Houston’s band the Avengers opened the last-ever Sex Pistols show at Winterland in San Francisco.  Less influenced by the entertainment of the Sex Pistols and the fun of the Ramones, Houston was a punk rocker of the battling kind. “I definitely recognized that Dylan was fighting against the things he saw as wrong but I would say my biggest singing influence would be Patti Smith,” she says.

The blank generation, a term coined by poet Richard Hell, found its muse, its voice, and its generation’s answer to Bob Dylan in Smith who released her first punk single in 1974. Having escaped a New Jersey childhood for the Chelsea Hotel, the young poet was also the girlfriend of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and together they made art before she ever had the idea of making a record.  Through the course of her bookstore clerk days and Max’s Kansas City nights, Smith emerged an androgynous, rock ‘n’ roll type, a person with more in common with Dylan and Keith Richards than any woman in rock.

Smith went to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974—high Watergate season—to perform at Rather Ripped Records on the North Side of Berkeley campus.  At the time, it was one of the few places you could buy an independent seven-inch record, what you might call the broadside of the late seventies.  Smith’s new single was “Hey Joe,” the song with which Jimi Hendrix had ended his fateful set at Woodstock in 1969.  The A-side began with a poem titled Sixty Days:

“Patty, you know what your daddy said, Patty, he said, he said, Well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child , and how here she is with a gun in her hand.”

The Patty to whom she referred was Patricia Campbell Hearst, the newspaper heiress who’d taken the name Tania following her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an armed band of radicals, one group among a host of urban predators and terrorists raising hell in the Bay Area during the protracted aftermath of the Summer of Love.  Tania had seemingly joined her captors in the class war struggle; “Hey Joe,” marked the official arrival of the new generation.

“I’m nobody’s million dollar baby, I’m nobody’s Patsy anymore, and I feel so free.”

From the decaying urbanscapes epitomized by the rotting Big Apple and the Rust Belt cities, and especially in hippie haven San Francisco, the post-sixties air of revolution hung heavy; Smith was the something new that blew in, wild, from the streets.  San Francisco would remain the scene of more high times and inexplicable crimes throughout the decade.  Home to the historic free speech and antiwar movement gatherings in the sixties, the Bay Area continued to be a place where minds behind movement and invention—whether high tech or slow food—converged.  Its consecration as a gay mecca at that time is well known, while the role disco music played in gay liberation movement, and the role San Francisco played in the development of the punk rock movement, remain less documented. Perhaps these stories go some way toward providing necessary connections, as might the next section on punk’s relationship to reggae and hip hop.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, California, , , , , , , , , ,

Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal

mumia-writing-wallMumia Abu-Jamal has been in jail longer than members of the millennial generation have been alive. Those who’ve followed his case know he’s served his time in the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution “ona move,” to use one of his catchphrases. The most identifiable prisoner in the known world, through his own persistence and with the help of a core council of support who works to deliver his books and his Prison Radio broadcasts, Writing on the Wall is his latest communique to reach us from the confines of the prison nation. Published by City Lights Books and selected by Johanna Fernández, a scholar, educator and coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, over 100 previously unpublished short essays by Abu-Jamal well-cover our history of violence (from the police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, to commentaries on the violence in Ferguson, MO ) and the media circusry that accompanies it. Prepared in the style and format of his Prison Radio pieces broadcast on public radio, Fernández wrests hope from Abu-Jamal’s prophecies that one day America might live up to the truth of its own advertising. “Like Nelson Mandela, Mumia defies his captors by preserving his integrity and compassion in the face of the hateful repression orchestrated against him,” she writes. Read the full review at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Book news, Books, France, , , , , ,

Remembering The Outlaw: Eugene McDaniels

A portion of this post originally appeared here as an obituary in July, 2011.8765 It has been updated and amended as a remembrance.

Rare groove chasers know well the name Eugene McDaniels; his 1971 album for Atlantic, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a standard-bearer for psychedelic soul/funk/jazz rhythms and is borrowed frequently for its samples (most famously by A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys). The album is a fierce statement of Black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, a yearning for world peace, and ultimately love. A showcase for McDaniels’s breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”), his strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation (“The Lord is Black, his mood is in the rain…he’s coming to make corrections”).  His reward for creating such a unique piece of work was to have it recalled from the shelves and suppressed by Nixon’s White House; it remains a lost classic and is a story waiting to be told.

McDaniels is also the composer of “Compared to What,” the jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a worldwide hit in 1969.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, McDaniels studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, and singing with the McCann trio, he signed with Liberty Records and hit in 1961 with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” followed by five more Top 40 hits, including “Tower of Strength.” With six hit records to his credit, McDaniels turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). Following the success of “Compared to What,” by the time he attempted to relaunch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist with his 1970 album The Outlaw, McDaniels had developed an intensely personal and pointed new style and direction. Fearless with his melodies and in his verses, the instrumentation on his early ’70s companion albums was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass brushed against guitar, drums, and piano. The arrangements combined with the lyrics to strike inner chords of deep recognition, touching places in the heart  only music can reach. McDaniels injects each song with theatrical and emotional soul power, delivering the verses with a fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration.  Incensed and confused by injustice, his notes echo and stretch, like the sound of someone losing his mind. His elegy for the genocide of America’s indigenous population, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Native American and folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, is a shining example of his dramaturgical song style that places his subjects in a social, political. and psychological context. But McDaniels’s revolution of the mind is a peaceful one; though he paints pictures of hell and all hell breaking loose, his narrator does not advocate use of violence as a solution. Rather, violence is portrayed as the problem.

In Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, I touched on McDaniels’s status as one of Nixon’s Enemies. It was in fact his story that in part inspired me to probe 50 years of freedom singing, and how resistance in song is received (or not) by a mass audience.  I remain deeply curious on the subject, but when my faith in music and in people is lagging, I pull out Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and find it restores and inspires me. Whatever darkness he’s describing, the McDaniels point of view remains poised and unique; his higher consciousness and keep-on-pushing spirit bleeds between the notes of each slyly rendered gospel-laced track. Years later, the Beastie Boys would turn to McDaniels, nicknamed the Left Rev McD, for a sample, as would the Afro-centric, conscious hip-hoppers, A Tribe Called Quest who used a piece of “Jagger The Dagger” throughout People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What,” which was most recently updated by the trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard (with E-Collective featuring PJ Morton).

Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison. Listen below to “Supermarket Blues,” his musical statement from 1971 on racial profiling, police violence, and white supremacy: It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Eugene McDaniels, Folk, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Protest Songs, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , ,

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