Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Postmodern Times Requiem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, ,

“George Jackson” and Bob Dylan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Rupa Marya Does No Harm

In a recent post for Down With Tyranny!, I report on the forced resignation of the Chief of SFPD and the way forward in the fight by the Frisco 5 to reclaim San Francisco. The activists who recently survived a 17-day hunger strike had a volunteer attending physician, Dr. Rupa Marya: She’s since founded the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Do No Harm Coalition of medical professionals with participation of students from SF State, and has declared the epidemic of police brutality a public health emergency (with data to back up the claim). Read the full story at Down With Tyranny! and be sure to enjoy this clip of Dr. Marya’s work away from the hospital, as leader of the group Rupa and the April Fishes (watch for the cameo by Bay Area activist/musician, Boots Riley).

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, cross cultural musical experimentation, gentrification, police, San Francisco News, , ,

Now Playing: “Yes We Can Can”

Pointer-Sisters-first-album-coverThis is a repost in memory of Allen Toussaint passing today.

I was thinking about the Pointer Sisters today—The 1973 Pointer Sisters—and how their first album was one that rarely left my turntable that year. I was a child and mercifully I’ve held on to most of my records from then; curiously, this one’s  in pretty good condition—too good I’d say, to have belonged to a kid—which leads me to believe it’s not my original. Back then, I was in the habit of marking all my LP records with a DYMO tape sticker that said DENISE. Just like that, all caps, white letters on orange or green, sometimes red or blue though rarely yellow. But because the DYMO tape or any evidence of having been stuck by DYMO tape is missing (I like typing DYMO), I’m thinking the copy I’m holding of the Pointer Sisters’ self titled album on the Blue Thumb label was at some point reacquisitioned, between 1973 and now.

It’s uncharacteristic of me not to know exactly when I came by a record; that’s just how it is with people who collect records (or if you collect anything, you know what I’m talking about). Obtaining the object is part of its memory, which I find is selective and often obscured by all kinds of clouds and things. But records are the proverbial madeleine that take us back to the land that time (and sometimes I) forgot; songs may come and go, but it’s the record that helps me remember.

Opening the gatefold sleeve today, I recalled a few things: How as a girl, I preferred the portraits on the outer sleeve to the stylized inner sleeve which I bitterly critiqued as “staged.” The outer sleeve was real, or so I thought, not knowing photos were taken at a thing called a photo shoot, set up by a photographer (H.B. Greene according to the sleeve notes) who has an assistant. Preferring the sepia-toned “authentic” 1940s styling on the outer sleeve to the glossy, deco design on the inside, I’d pegged the Pointers as down-to-earth, regular people, not Hollywood types; they were after all local, from Oakland. This is how it should be, them living in a Victorian-styled house like the one pictured on the cover,  them dressed in ’40s casual, just as they would everyday.  I never talked to a single other kid about The Pointer Sisters first album or what they wore or how they wore it, I just know I’d still give my right arm for a dress just like the one June is wearing in the photo, perfect as it is in every way. Anyone who remembers these things like I do will tell you that baby June, the youngest Pointer, had the style thing completely locked-up. Such a fashion icon she was, it’s a wonder I didn’t take to wearing a turban like she did, though I think I intuited it probably wouldn’t go over very well at school. Where did a child obtain a turban anyway?

As for the music, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Forty years later, we all know everything about everything and all I’ve got is my stale madeleine from the early ’70s and my Pointer Sisters reverie. The first time I heard the Willie Dixon song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” it was not performed by Etta James; rather, it was right there in my bedroom with the yellow floral wallpaper, at the end of side two of The Pointer Sisters.  For sure, that was also the first time I ever saw the name A. Toussaint on a writing credit.  Allen Toussaint is of course a legend of New Orleans piano style and the songwriting giant who wrote the album’s opener, “Yes We Can Can.”  Why do I waste my breath? You knew that. Heck, even I knew as a small fry that Lee Dorsey was known for doing the song first; he’d been around the prior decade with “Ya Ya.”  I knew that one by heart for reasons I can’t possibly relay right now without getting way off course. Put it this way: “It may sound funny but I don’t believe she’s coming home” rung some bells for me.  I also liked the smooth vocals in “Jada,” one of the songs the Sisters themselves are partially credited with writing.  But really, what I was most concerned with in 1973 wasn’t the music but in getting hold of some old plastic fruit, likely the cherries from the bowl at my great-grandmother’s house, so I could fashion a bunch into a corsage that I could wear on the lapel of my Eisenhower jacket from Lerner’s, to be worn with some wide-bell high-waist pants and platform sandals. Pointer Sisters style, for real.

In closing, I was going to say I don’t remember what we did without You Tube but that would be a big fat lie. I remember perfectly well what we did and that was, we’d watch really bad video tapes that were hard to store and even harder to find on shelves, usually caked with dust. Once we got the tape in the VCR it had to be fast forwarded and rewound so many times, so maybe, just maybe you could find that segment of Soul Train you were looking for but started to regret you ever taped in the first place, since if you hadn’t taped it, you wouldn’t be messing around with a stupid remote control that never worked because the battery was like 10 years old to begin with.  Recalling this foolishness, I am wasting my own time and now yours, when all I mean to say is,  just try to imagine how I felt when I found this clip of “Yes We Can Can” today, because I can’t possibly describe the feeling of joy, such joy—not in 250 words or less I couldn’t—though I will add this:  If there is one song to have had burned into your consciousness, to have been etched onto your soul, and sent with you on your way into the world, this one isn’t a bad one to have to be. Bless you, Mr. Allen Toussaint and Ms. Pointers, Anita, Ruth, Bonnie, and June. Thank you for the record—and for my memories.  Great gosh all mighty.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Obituary, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Sanctuary City Added to Agenda At Vision-SF Gathering

“For those of us who are progressive, who believe the City of San Francisco should work for everyone, it’s a difficult time to be at City Hall…it’s a difficult time to be in that building,” said Supervisor David Campos over the weekend as he helped to launch Vision SF, a grassroots group primed to reclaim San Francisco from the forces of greed, corruption and narcissism that have poisoned municipal waters.

Representing the Mission, the City’s Latino cultural district and locus of its housing crisis, Supervisor Campos brought the additional dimension of the broken immigration system to the event conceived as a pre-election housing initiative forum. Referring to Donald Trump scapegoating immigrants following a recent murder committed by an undocumented person here, Campos cleaved to San Francisco’s sanctuary city status and pressed to keep local law enforcement out of the business of immigration. “Our sanctuary policy already says we’re not going to tolerate criminal activity,” underscored Campos. “No human being is illegal and every human being regardless of immigration status has human dignity.”

Intended to rally grassroots community organizations and free range citizens and spur them into a cohesive voting block for this election, there wasn’t much talk of San Francisco’s homeless population, though the ballot’s housing initiatives perhaps imply a way toward that solution too. Propositions A, F, I, J and K concern affordable housing, regulating Airbnb, pausing development of market-rate housing, protecting legacy businesses and using city-owned surplus land respectively—and were elaborated on by the Housing Rights Committee’s Sara Shortt, former assemblyman and supervisor Tom Ammiano, lifelong human rights advocate Cleve Jones and artist Roberto Hernandez (who learned to organize directly from Cesar Chavez). The activists were joined by committed singer-songwriter Tom Heyman, young filmmakers Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, comedian Mike Evans, and poet laureate, Alejandro Murguía, among others. A clip of Alexandra Pelosi’s new film, San Francisco 2.0, was to be screened but Vision-SF co-founder David Talbot announced that venture capitalist Ron Conway succeeded in scaring HBO and the filmmaker’s family from showing the film and attending the event (not exactly a good portent for the region that sparked the Free Speech movement).

Talbot and co-host, former supervisor and housing rights activist Christina Olague presided over the program that generally advocated coalition building across race, age, and economic lines. Addressing the need to include young, exploited tech workers in the movement for economic and housing justice, Cleve Jones invoked the name of his friend Harvey Milk which brought the crowd to a eerie hush. “It’s over,” Jones remembered, as he recalled the moment of seeing the slain body of Milk being removed from City Hall, “All I could think was, “it’s over’,” he said. Though as night fell and the streets filled with San Franciscans from all walks of life, candles lit to mourn the fallen at the evening’s march and vigil in 1978, Jones found a way to be inspired to push forward. “This is just the beginning,” he said, and it was that message he impressed on the crowd who left with house signs and a renewed spirit of solidarity.

Meanwhile, across town, thousands of San Franciscans and tourists reveled in Golden Gate Park while musicians, many with counter-culture roots of their own, entertained at the annual three-day music festival sponsored by deceased private equity investor, Warren Hellman. Mega-producer T Bone Burnett used his stage time to speak truth to power: “Who’s going to call this darkness, darkness. Somebody’s got to locate the bomb, dot com.” The founders and members of Vision-SF are trying, man, but they’re going to need a whole lotta help from their friends.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, new article, ,

On Bernie Sanders, Alice Bag, and the Enduring Politics of Punk Rock

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Frightwig and Alice Bag photo by Eric Goodfield

Among reasons to like Bernie Sanders, he supports the ERA and the Paycheck Fairness Act, he advocates for increasing minimum wage, has commited to expanding health and reproductive rights, and believes that childcare, preschool, and parental leave should be available to all Americans, not just a privileged few.  While I don’t know where punk rocker Alice Bag stands on Bernie Sanders, I recently heard her perform “Equality in the USA” with Frightwig in San Francisco at the Punk Renaissance, a week long festival organized by Punk Rock Sewing Circle, former punk rockers committed to social justice. Interestingly, Sanders has ties to punk rock, when as mayor of Burlington, he approved the Mayor’s Youth Office and punk gathering spot, 242 Main. Not only do I think there could be a valuable meeting of the minds here– as in a coalition of punk rockers for Sanders– but Bag’s powerful punk performance once again reminded me of my generation’s musical ability to change hearts and public opinion in fundamental ways. Read entire article at

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Editorial, income disparity, Punk, ,

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, , , , , , , , , ,

“George Jackson” by Bob Dylan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of the (Gentrification) City: Tom Heyman and Deirdre White

I’ve been working on a new column series based on real life stories from the heart of Gentrification City. The first one concerns songwriter and recording artist Tom Heyman and visual artist and community college instructor Deirdre White, a couple of longtime Mission District residents who’ve found a way to survive in high-tech town as working artists.

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo by Deirdre White

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo of sunset in the Outer Richmond by Deirdre White

Debuting this week at Down With Tyranny, I’m seeking a permanent home for the serial (it might be here, there or elsewhere).  Until then, please find the first installment here and let me know what you think:  The story is just beginning. Turns out this 49(ish) square mile patch of scenic beauty is smaller than ever before. The lives of those of us who remain here are all very much interconnected.

I look forward to sharing the stories of 21st Century San Francisco with you and am exceedingly grateful I’ve been given the opportunity to do so.  Until the next installment, I’ll be here riding the waves and the ropes, too. Stand strong people:  They can’t take away our souls or the songs in our hearts…

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, serial, Sunnyside Up, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , ,

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