Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

SF Lives/Live Talks Are Back!

Greetings fellow Friscans and those interested in the latest from our much maligned and beloved city. As readers know, I occasionally write about San Francisco’s people, poets, places and solutions to its problems for a project dubbed SF Lives. Its print/text version is in process of seeking a new home beyond this blog and the archives of the San Francisco Examiner. However, if you’re interested in keeping up with all the news that I see fit to report from my outpost at the edge of the world, our SF Lives/Lives Talks, is once again livestreaming conversations from Bird &Beckett Books and Records.

This month I interviewed Kelley Cutler, the human rights coordinator at the Coalition on Homelessness. Cutler is a 20-year veteran of providing services to our unhoused neighbors and has seen firsthand the way people’s lives change dramatically for the better when they are able to secure housing. But promised housing by the City of San Francisco and the supportive services to assist people in need have still not materialized: There are no beds available and a dysfunctional intake system continues to challenge and stymie the best efforts by outreach workers and the people living on our streets. In this conversation, Cutler helps us understand why the cycle of dysfunction persists. With much gratitude to her and the work she the Coalition do, I hope you will take an hour to hear why the mayor’s Tenderloin emergency plan and other efforts to house people are failing, why the city is in violation of people’s basic human rights, and why the work Cutler does is essential to all of our SFLives.

Filed under: California, gentrification, income disparity, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , ,

The Tao of Rock

“If the Tao is a way of doing something in concert with its essential nature, David Meltzer’s ‘Rock Tao,’ a relic from the 1960s published for the first time this year by Lithic Press, is an aptly named guide. It’s a book as mysterious, ageless and full of contradiction as rock music itself.

Presented on the page as a textual collage in six parts, Meltzer alternates quotations from the I Ching with Greek philosophy and lyrics by the Supremes. He expounds on the teen appeal of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and touches on the artistry of Sam Cooke and showmanship of James Brown, among others. Weaving in and out of the music with scene-changing headlines, Meltzer chronicles, annotates, observes and critiques his times in “Rock Tao,” providing a portal into the mind of an insider.” Read the full story, my latest for Datebook in the San Francisco Chronicle

Filed under: Books, California, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

Frisco Life of Pablo Celebrated This Month

You might remember when I reported on the memorial for skateboarder, drummer and visual artist Pablo Ramirez who died in a fatal collision with a truck on San Francisco’s Seventh Street in 2019 (ignore the byline which says “Danny Sullivan,” it’s actually me! An installment of my SFLives column, the piece earned an award from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020).

Famed for seeking out the city’s steepest hills and riding them all the way down, Ramirez was also a great explorer of the arts – a painter and a musician – and sought to cultivate his whole being by embracing life. He’s become a sort of folk hero within and outside the skate community.

Throughout March, the month between what would’ve been his 29th birthday and the third anniversary of his passing, the foundation set up in his name is hosting a series of events in San Francisco to raise awareness of skate culture(the full story is my latest for the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section). Aimed at delivering access to skateboarding across traditional barriers (race, gender, sexuality, income), the foundation was also set up to introduce skaters and other interested parties in skate culture and its lifestyle. Disinterested in business as usual, skaters are often counted among the societal outlaws dreaming of a better way of life. But far from the trouble and noisemakers they are often perceived to be, skaters are interested in evolving, pushing forward, living on the edge, making change and bringing others along with them. Whether caring for the environment or channeling energy into making art and music, the skate community is multi-dimensional and growing. I hope I’ve piqued your interest in learning more about where the Bay Area’s justice-seeking, visionary arts and skate communities converge. As ever, thanks for reading.

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

Looking For A Home

Dear Reader,

Living and working in major U.S. cities throughout my adult life, I always came back to thinking, and sometimes writing, about San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I was born here, have spent the majority of my waking and working life here, and expect to remain here (unless I make it out alive). But writing about this place I call home – whatever home means – for myself and for publication has been my preoccupation, and for the past four years, my vocation. One of the spaces I’ve found for my work as a reporter has been as a biweekly columnist at The San Francisco Examiner.

In 2018, I was invited to create and contribute SFLives, a series about people, to the paper. Since launching, I’ve written over 100 columns, earned two awards in the columnist category (from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020 and 2021), and curated and hosted a monthly hour-long talk series, live streamed from Bird & Beckett Books and Records (continuing on the second Sunday of each month). Writing the SFLives column, intended to celebrate the extraordinary lives of everyday people who make this a singular city, has been one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life. To get to know people, to be invited into the homes, businesses and lives of so many San Franciscans, particularly during the pandemic, and be trusted to tell their stories in a metropolitan newspaper, has helped me to better understand a complex city, though I can’t claim to know all its secrets just yet.

I don’t do the work alone: trusted friends and contacts have introduced me to people I may not have otherwise encountered. And of course the subjects themselves, San Francisco’s people, fulfill the major role in filling the column inches with their survival tactics, wisdom and personal histories every other week. Occasionally I get a little closer to the bone and to home, but it’s generally other people’s unsung, everyday achievements I’m interested in celebrating. Surely, I benefit far more from these tellings than do my subjects, though some of them reported back wonderful things that happened following the publication of their stories. I can’t think of anything more gratifying to me professionally, to be living and working in a complicated city with its neighborhood identities, and introducing its people to each other and to the larger community. I intend to tell these stories until my work here is done, though SFLives will no longer be hosted by the Examiner.

My consideration of our city’s emergency plan to bring “law and order” to the Tenderloin – San Francisco’s most long term troubled neighborhood – is my farewell for now. That the column concerns San Franciscans living unhoused on our streets is a sort of bittersweet occurrence but is not a coincidence. The city and its power base has not done right by its least fortunate and most vulnerable people (and the United Nations backs up that claim). Meanwhile the convulsive changes at the Examiner, a newspaper claimed by new ownership and management seeking a new identity, has recently made for a less than comfortable home for SFLives. I’ll be using my time away from it to continue my work as a teaching artist/writing instructor and a cultural reporter at other news outlets, and to further develop the SFLives project.

I am grateful to be among the housed in one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest region of the country, and to continue my work, documenting the lives and times of my fellow San Franciscans living through perilous times. But please keep the faith, friends and readers, that San Francisco, as a city, as an idea, as a state of mind and as a people, does the right thing and cares for its most vulnerable people this winter, as the COVID variants surge. There are plenty of good folks and organizations here, with open hearts and a willingness to communicate with care and compassion: I intend to stick with them, to keep doing my job, and telling your stories, in conjunction with partners whose values and mine are better aligned. Thank you for supporting independent thought and reporting and please return or subscribe to this space for updates.

In solidarity,

Denise

SFLives

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News, , , , , ,

Real SF Lives Talk Real: New Series!

First Stop/Last Stop photo by Denise Sullivan

If you read the national news- or even some of our local papers – you might think San Francisco is beyond redemption. I blame it on seven dollar coffee and toast (the fourteen dollar snack). Some will tell you it’s the corruption inside city hall, the mishandling of affordable housing, and the public school system, and I would believe them: All of it part of the unfinished jigsaw of our city’s story and there is more to it than that. But one thing we handled, and handled well, was the pandemic. So thanks for that, to the medical professionals and city officials, essential workers and everyday citizens who did their part to mask up and slow the spread. Though it might be fair to say the statewide reopening on June 15 felt hasty and confusing to those who adhered to the guidelines for the duration -no non-essential travel, social or business activity, six feet of distance, masking and no gathering. The mask off and the rush back to life is stress-inducing and no-wonder: There is so little known about the mutation of the virus, the variants; as it is, hospitalizations are up in some California counties…

In an effort to air some of the public’s immediate practical and emotional concerns and to feel uplifted during the transition, on June 13, a couple of days before “reopening,” we kicked off a livestreamed discussion series with our fellow San Franciscans, hosted by Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Our first guest was artist Anna Lisa Escobedo, an extraordinary San Franciscan with an LA background and a story to tell. Our second guest was columnist and independent publisher, Kelly Dessaint. Future guests will include many of the subjects of my column, SFLives, which runs every other week in the San Francisco Examiner: The folks I cover and tend to want to speak to in-depth are our on-the-ground leaders and everyday workers in arts, culture and various essential jobs that make San Francisco the place we call home.

In recent columns, I’ve covered the controversy surrounding the opening of the Great Highway from a very personal perspective; I’ve spoken to photojournalist/filmmaker Lou Dematteis, musician/composer Jon Jang, artist/urban farmer/community historian Lisa Ruth Elliott and Japantown community leader Grace Horikiri (You can peruse nearly 100 columns at the Examiner’s website).

Porthole photo by Denise Sullivan

In some of these talks we take on gentrification issues, the ways in which the city has ceded the people’s interests to newly minted tech barons and their minions and pretty much successfully destroyed our international reputation as a sanctuary for artists and outsiders. Yes, that. But mostly in 2020 and beyond it, we confronted pandemic issues, how we coped and how our hometown did that aforementioned exemplary job at keeping the spread under control, even though we as a city continue to fail our most vulnerable — those without homes, seniors without families, and developmentally and physically disabled folks. As for the rocky “reopening,” we’ll be talking about that too: Nobody really knows how to handle the summer rush. There are no workers for low-wage jobs. And as the unvaxed and unmasked descend upon us, the most committed lovers of this place are at the brink: There are stories we’re moving out in droves, moving to Tahoe (and ruining the way of life there). A recent New York Times story about organized shoplifting crimes at Walgreen’s is the latest outrage, meanwhile, children remain out of school while a dysfunctional school board (we voted for) squabbles over….don’t ask, most of us have lost the plot; discontent –no, rage–directed at the district attorney (we voted for) has degenerated into moms shouting down other moms at the neighborhood farmer’s markets. Finally, the web of deep corruption within city hall and other city agencies continues to be investigated by the feds. These are just a few of the challenges confronting us in perilous times. Yes, this place is for the birds. And where isn’t right now?

What I feel like I’ve failed to put into words, ever, but especially in these times, is there is nowhere else I would rather be. This is that elusive place called home. There is something about waking up in the City and County of San Francisco seeing the sun (or at this time of year, fog), and feeling in your bones it’s the right place to be; that there is something to be said for enduring our cold summer winters, days like these. And on other days, one peek at the sky, if it’s that particular shade of blue I have not yet found words to describe, with clouds that seem to move as I go, the contentment and acceptance that I’m in San Francisco turns to deep joy and gratitude that I’m San Franciscan. In the blue, I can breathe more deeply, though why that is I haven’t yet discovered. So until then, I’ll keep talking about this place with you. And taking photos. And writing about it. Here’s to another day in the beautiful city. I have so much left to learn.

Please join the conversation with San Francisco’s artists, essential service providers and and everyday people as we talk about this place we call home. Coming up, Sunday August 8, 10 a.m. live from Bird and Beckett, filmmaker Eric Goodfield.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, photography, San Francisco News, serial, Tales of the Gentrification City, , ,

San Francisco: Where there’s hatred, let love rule

Sometimes there are coincidences that can’t be ignored. That’s what I said to the Reverend Roland Gordon and author/activist Benjamin Bac Sierra who echoed similar ideas when I interviewed them individually about their San Francisco lives and times for my San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives: Both men preach love and tolerance, Gordon (pictured below right) from the pulpit at Ingleside Presbyterian Church and Bac Sierra (pictured below left) from the podium in his classroom at City College of San Francisco (though for the past 365 days of the pandemic, their work has been done virtually). Both men are situated a matter of blocks from each other, coincidentally or not, just blocks from where I lived for the first several years of life with my parents, behind the restaurant and home of my grandparents. But when both Bac Sierra and Gordon conjured St. Francis, namesake of our city, I had to pause and acknowledge the source outside ourselves at play: A higher vibration that sometimes goes by the name of Love.

photos courtesy of Ben Bac Sierra and Kevin Hume for San Francisco Examiner

In this pandemic year, I’ve made fewer trips across town, had less in-person contact and left reporting from the frontlines to those who receive the hazard pay to do so. My writing has been more from the armchair and virtual perspective due to my own limitations; I’ve relied more than ever on my files and list of ideas and contacts — the ones I’d been meaning to get to but hadn’t, for one reason or another, than unearthing new discoveries. But then, that’s been the experience for many of us – exploring the great indoors, whether metaphorical or metaphysical, has been some of the work of our pandemic lives.

It’s said timing is everything and in the case of these two profiles, I can’t agree more: The stories crossed my desk/came to mind/dropped in my lap at the one year mark of the pandemic and our shelter-in-place orders. It’s been a watermark, a time when people and The City (as we call it) are suffering from the fatigue of isolation and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel anticipation, mixed with COVID-anxiety and variant dread. For some of us, the vaccine is not yet available. It hasn’t been an easy year: Not for the families who have lost members and not for people with disabilities and high risk conditions, including those who suffer the pain of depression due to isolation. It’s been hard on essential workers, healthcare professionals and especially for Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. And there is an additional layer of distress on Asian American Pacific Islanders, who for the last year have been targets of an appalling number of hate crimes here — yes here, in the city of St. Francis, where over one-third of our population identifies as AAPI.

For Bac Sierra, a combat vet with an incredible backstory of survival and an evolving story of reclamation and redemption as an writer and educator, this time of year not only marks the anniversary of the pandemic: It’s been 30 years since he returned from the Gulf War and seven since his friend, Alex Nieto, was shot 59 times by SFPD. This is a solemn week in San Francisco as we once again remember those lives that were taken by police violence. Bac Sierra continues to honor his friend with Amor For Alex, an ongoing demonstration of love in action, a movement “beyond justice,” he said.

As for Rev. Gordon, the idea behind his Great Cloud of Witness, a giant building-sized collage mural devoted to Black excellence he’s crafted over several decades, is to inspire youth toward greatness. He established a basketball league and community center to develop community engagement and has been an advocate for over 30 years. Extending beyond his neighborhood, he offers the San Francisco World Peace Affirmation, based on the words of the prayer commonly referred to as The Prayer to St. Francis, but tailored so as to affirm peace in the now. “If you’re talking about love and honor and respect for everybody, San Francisco could be a microcosm of the world,” said Gordon. We still have quite a bit of work to do, thus the prayer and affirmation.

Francis of Assisi was born late in the 12th Century. By the turn of 13th Century, his visions of Christ drew him deeper toward living a life more like Jesus, renouncing his family and worldly goods and tending to the sick and poor (this is of course a general and capsule take on one of the most important figures to all of Christendom). He honored the elements, all creatures, and is the patron saint of nature and animals. It is probably needless to say that some thought he was mad. There are others, even those outside the faith, who believe in the prayer named for him, though not written by his hand: It is the prayer that begins, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred let me sow love… You may’ve heard it. If not, I encourage you to look it up, if you’re the praying kind.

The future of San Francisco, and the rest of the world, is still untold. Some would say we are at the point in our so-called civilization that only a divine source, the power of a miracle or some higher force outside ourselves is going to turn around this mess we humans have gotten into. But where there is love there is hope. I hope you will read the stories of Rev. Gordon and Ben Bac Sierra in the column and love what they have to say as much as I loved being reminded by them of the saint meant to guide our city and its actions, and the words to the prayer that bears his name: Grant that we may not so much seek to be loved as to love.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

San Francisco Names Eighth Poet Laureate: Tongo Eisen-Martin

“My poems are a product of a complete life of resistance,” said Tongo Eisen-Martin when I interviewed him for the San Francisco Examiner in 2018. On Friday, the San Francisco-born movement worker, educator and poet was named the city’s Eighth Poet Laureate. With the civic appointment and as author of (the award-winning) “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” No. 61 in the prestigious City Lights Books “Pocket Poets Series” — which includes “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg and “Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara — Eisen-Martin is receiving the kind of recognition it often takes poets a lifetime to achieve. Yet, he is exceedingly humble, his head in his work as a social and racial justice teacher, and his eyes on the prize. “The best reality for me is the reality that’s better for everybody,” he said, his extra-tall self contained in what looks to be a chair too tiny for him in the back of a Mission District bookstore. “If not that, I’m deluding myself and not living the ideas I’m championing in my poems. READ THE COMPLETE PROFILE in my column, SF Lives in the San Francisco Examiner

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, California, Civil Rights, Poetry, , ,

A Dream of Fillmore Street

People walk by the Clay Theatre in Pacific Heights on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, two days before the single-screen movie house closes its doors after 110 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The mood went dark on Fillmore Street three weeks into January as locals took in the news that their cinema, The Clay Theatre, would be closing without a fight or fanfare before the month’s end.

A fixture between Clay and Sacramento streets for over 100 years, “The Clay is a pillar, a cornerstone of the neighborhood,” said Fred Martin, stationed behind the counter of Browser Books, one block down. Noting its great projection and offbeat programming, “there has to be some way to keep it. If they could do it with The Vogue, they can do it here,” said Martin, referring to another historic theater, just a few blocks west.

“This is Pacific Heights. There’s money here.”

The Landmark Theatre chain was tight-lipped about The Clay’s abrupt closure; its press announcement cited “the changing theatrical landscape and challenges to independent exhibition.” But Martin notes, the independently owned and operated Vogue seems to be doing fine, despite the challenges in film markets.

Read the whole SFLives column in today’s San Francisco Examiner

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, gentrification, income disparity, new article, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

Earth Day Special: Van Dyke Parks & Esso

This is your Earth Day long read: The story of how musician, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band, Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. I interviewed Parks in 2009 for Crawdaddy! and since that time, this story has become the most-read on this site, receiving the top number of views daily from around the world. Thanks for your continued readership and for your stewardship of the earth today (Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue their Smile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones,” he said.

Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump as a “premium gift” with fill-up (the idea was a sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby), his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things,” explained Parks. “A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steel band was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Calypso, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Harry Belafonte, , , , , ,

Two Artists: One Making Art, the Other Making History (An Appreciation)

Last week I had the opportunity to interview San Francisco wire sculptor, Kristine Mays. I should no longer be surprised by how small a

San Francisco artist Kristine Mays, whose sculptures expressing the human form through hundreds of individual pieces of wire are featured at the African American Arts and Culture Complex in the display “Brutally Soft” through March 24, talks about her favorite piece “Birthing Greatness” at the complex’s Sargent Johnson Gallery in the Fillmore District on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

town this city really is, or how synchronicity plays a role in, well, everything. It was a joy to have a meaningful conversation with a working artist, born in San Francisco, whose daily life as a child had her crisscrossing the Southwestern San Francisco corridors I know well. After so many years, Mays is committed to staying here, despite the loss and the grief associated with a city under hard gentrification.  Mays is a member of the 3.9 Art Collective, a group of black artists supporting black artists. I hope you’ll read her story which includes a connection to San Francisco’s most famous and beloved wire sculptor, Ruth Asawa (as well as an unwritten connection to literary legend Maya Angelou whom she often quotes in her sculpted work).  Mays is carrying on the work that both women started here as groundbreaking artists. Read her story in this week’s SFLives column in The San Francisco Examiner.

At this time, I wish to personally remember the San Francisco artist Eugene E. White for a couple of reasons:  He passed on Friday afternoon February 8, in the hours I was speaking to Mays at the African American Art & Culture Complex [AAACC]. He was a dedicated and groundbreaking painter. For over 60 years, Mr. White ran his gallery, Kujiona: It was an unprecedented achievement for an independently-owned, Afrocentric gallery. In 2013, Mr. White was honored with a group show at the AAACC; it was the rare occasion that he chose to publicly show his work. I can’t stress enough how unique Mr. White was, as a person and as an artist.  This film by local filmmakers Citizen Film is a good doorway to his story.  I’ve written about the artist many times in this space and elsewhere and you can link to those pieces for more. In 2018, I was contacted by The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, inquiring if Mr. White was still living. Indeed at that time he was. I hope to hear his work will be on view there or elsewhere in the not-too-distant future. I will point readers to a full obituary when it runs. My heartfelt condolences to his beloved family and friends. And to San Francisco I say, harrumph: You’ve lot another great, under-recognized  artist.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Black Power,, California, gentrification, San Francisco News, , , , , , , , ,

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