Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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.”

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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, , , , , , , , ,

No Literary Work Here, Not a Chance

Sometimes I write.  Well, most times I write.  Daytime.  Nighttime. And often at the crack of dawn. Very rarely am I up in the middle of the night, though if I’m working on something strong, it’s been known to happen. What I write is not always for publication and it’s not always for you to know, though occasionally, I will publish work that is outside of the square boxes that keep writers locked in and gatekeepers busy doing the ticking.  That box labels me a journalist, a columnist, a music critic, an arts reporter. And yes, I know it’s so confusing but I also review books and films and write extensive profiles of people. Can you imagine that I also have dared to write about politics?  Please don’t fret, it’s usually just personal and local though occasionally it reaches out into the world. Crazy, I know! Here’s the thing and you might not be ready for it, but heck, I’m about to tell you anyway: I write writings of all kinds, occasionally sacred and other times sordid (as are most matters for hire, which means I get paid for those pieces).  Sometimes I volunteer my time (the pros call it pro bono work. I call it writing). What I’m getting at is the list of themes and assignments is long and frankly, a little unbelievable so I’ll spare you the details, partly because so many of my subjects have crossed over to the other side: They can’t testify for themselves, but among the living, I can tell you that most all the customers report satisfaction. Generally, I specialize in “difficult to categorize” “unwieldy” and “marginal” subjects, though there is one kind of writing to which I lay no claim though have been accused of lately and that’s poetry. Actually some “friends” told me the work, published here and there and most recently in a chapbook, The Rakish Tam, could be called such a thing. I disagree with them.  I am a writer, plain and simple.  Writers write.  So go ahead and call me what you like, just know that square boxes and categorization are not for me.  If you care to learn any more about what all my fussing is about, you can send a self-addressed stamped envelope the size of a notebook eight dollars — six for the book and two for postage and handling — to keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you can decide for yourself.  Or not. Though while we’re here: Limited edition reprints of my first chapbook, Awful Sweet, are also available at the same cut-rate. And with that, I thank you for leaving your preconceived ideas about writing in the 20th Century, and as ever, for reading: Because while I’m happy to give away everything on these pages for free for use in classrooms and homes throughout the world, I’m not as happy to post everything I write on the worldwide web for no compensation and a whole lotta unsolicited feedback. Which is why you won’t find anything remotely literary here. Not at all.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Editorial, Freedom Now, gentrification, income disparity, It's Personal, Poetry, police, Sunnyside Up, You Read It Here First

Wayne Shorter’s Legend and Legacy

88be2d1eb4124206aeb362e8da4e0f22Saturday night’s celebration of Wayne Shorter’s music in San Francisco turned out to be a symbolic passing of the torch by the Wayne Shorter Quartet to jazz’s new leading lights, Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin. The LA musicians and their relationship to tradition, innovation and carrying the music forward is similar to the role Shorter and his close collaborator Herbie Hancock played in the ’70s and beyond.  Read the entire review, my take on the show, in DownBeat online. 

Also, in this week’s online issue of DownBeat, my profile on pianist Joey Calderazzo of the Branford Marsalis Quartet on how he beat cubital tunnel syndrome. The story also appears in the January newsstand issue of the magazine: DownBeat has been publishing since 1934 and I am thrilled to have become a regular contributor there. Look for the February issue on newsstands now.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Concerts, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, , , , , ,

Stew and Heidi return with two new albums: Notes Of A Native Song and The Total Bent

The year’s end brought not one but two new albums of material by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, known professionally as The Negro Problem. Stew’s the wordman and Rodewald is the melodicist, arranger and additional voice in the mix. Both The Total Bent and Notes Of A Native Song are thematic works and the material is as wonderful as I remember: the songs were presented as work in progress at a San Francisco performance at the Curran two years ago. Here’s the audio for “Jimmy” from Notes Of A Native Song, followed by an interview I did with the pair in on the occasion of the release of their album Making It (2012), a pop chronicle of love lost.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, also known as the self-described Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee. Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the show must go on and the resulting musical, Passing Strange ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July of 2008.

And then it got a stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.”

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most of it.”

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the case of Making It (released on Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums, from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious “Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you think Making It is his diary of a mad artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew to wallow in too many teardrops.

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims, “You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s impressionistic musings on the New Black and the so-called post-racial thing: “I have poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice, empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding “Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes, all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t so unlike breaking-up after all).

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya lastsummer.  And yet, he’s still one Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

As the narrator of Passing Strange, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a refugee in South Los Angeles until he gets wind of the idea that a black artist can live more free in Europe  (though when he gets there, he’s hipped to other realities).

As a theater piece Passing Strange is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score, largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles and says he caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from the ‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set though they remained only a moderate draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop twice what became Passing Strange, once in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the final night of Passing Strange and cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal on a broiler.  An initial performance of the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard toward completing Making It as an album.

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to know that following the release of Making It, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new musical, The Total Bent, begins a three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,” it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of the Twilight Zone.”

 It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, their collaboration is secure; they’re making it work.

“I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harlem, James Baldwin, Now Playing, , , , , ,

Two California Women in Conversation

Getting to meet inspiring, creative and intelligent people is probably my favorite part of the job as an independent journalist, editor and curator (aside from doing the writing, of course…). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two extraordinary women, Kim Shuck, a poet/educator/beadworker and Lynell George, a journalist/essayist/photographer. Somewhere along the way and between individual conversations with both of them, I had the idea to get the pair together to talk about the things we seem to talk about most: The changing cityscapes of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Being born Californian and staying here has given Lynell and Kim a deep understanding of the place. I hope you’ll explore their insights and their work, and I invite you to read the conversation, published this month in Boom California, by the University of California Press.

(photo of Kim Shuck by Doug Salin; photo of Lynell George by Al Quattrocchi)

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, gentrification, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

Take Down The Statues

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All around the country, bronze statues are coming down, thanks to a movement started in the South in 2015 following the church shooting in Charleston. A city, a whole region, holding on to a vision of the past that was not very honorable in the first place is no way to acknowledge true history or let the generations of people who were harmed by that history heal; instead these megaton renderings glorify injustice and beget more violence. A nation in the middle of a prolonged racial crisis can no longer continue to inflict harm on its citizens and yet, these statues are a daily reminder of how twisted, inaccurate, and dated our history has become.  It’s time for a change.

The movement to unpack and teach a more accurate version of our state’s history has finally reached the far west, where we of course are supposed to understand and know better (yet by and large, I’m sad to report, there are those who still don’t get it).  Here in San Francisco last week, Native American activists and their allies achieved a victory that was 30 years in the making:  The rendering of a piece called Early Days depicting a Spanish conquistador and a Franciscan missionary lording over a Plains Indian (who by the way, was not from this region), was finally removed at the break of dawn following a contentious hearing process. I talked about statuary and other civic concerns with San Francisco’s poet laureate, Kim Shuck, a member of the Cherokee nation as well as a Polish American and a native to San Francisco.  She’s an educator with a masters in fine art and knows well the precedents for public art display; as a Native American, a person of conscience, and a mother, she was personally aggrieved by the sight of the statue as she moved in and out of the public library, her primary place of work as our city’s poet laureate.  And we talked more in-depth about the battle to topple the statue and about her San Francisco life.  I hope you’ll read on and link to this week’s edition of my San Francisco Examiner column, S.F. Lives: READ NOW

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Poetry, racism, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , , , ,

Boots Riley: The Coup, Sorry To Bother You & The Art of Anti-capitalism

Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Amelia Kennedy.

Readers of Keep on Pushing, published in the Summer of 2011, may remember I briefly noted The Coup as hip hop artists who use ideas and art to make change. When I was writing the book over a five-year-period mid-decade, times were such in post-9/11 USA that “political music” was annexed to the sidelines, largely unheard by the mainstream. “Movement building” was something to be considered a leftover idea from another dimension. Things have changed: Now even your grandma is woke (though chances are your other grandma and maybe even your ma or pa are among the third of folks still living in American dreamland, the one that still doesn’t/never did exist).

Before a handful of musicians rallied behind the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, and decades before the current moment of resistance, there was Boots Riley.

Born into the movement in Oakland, California, Riley was politicized from the gate. Since the early ‘90s he’s used his innate talent and acquired knowledge to make change as a community worker and as a hip hop artist, leading The Coup.  The activist and auteur’s latest project, is the film he wrote and directed, Sorry to Bother You.  It’s an important surreal and absurd social satire, at once entertaining and disturbing (because it hits so close to home, which is also one of its strengths).

Riley, who studied film at university, also understands the wages of capitalism and the politics of labor and the economy; the lyrics he spit with the Coup were loaded with often cinematic displays of the details of his interests. For this month’s column, I delivered a sweeping overview of his band’s catalog as a sort of prelude to the film: I hope every working American will see it.

Read the entire article at Tourworthy.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, film, Keep On Pushing, , , ,

Extra: More S.F. Lives to read all about

Since the first of this year, it’s been my great pleasure to write a column for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner in which I introduce readers to some of the everyday citizens here who make our city a better place under difficult circumstances.  Yep, I said it:  For the last couple of years, you’ve probably been hearing about what some of us politely call “the changes” and what one of my favorite artist/activists calls the problem of gentrif-c-ation. Despite the pressures of living in the city with the highest cost of living in the United States, if we’re lucky (and I am) we’re making it with some help, some compassion and on the wings and the prayers of our best and brightest residents.  I hope you’ll read the latest published stories in our ongoing series of profiles: On artist Marco Razo, poet and movement worker, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Cherokee broadcaster, Mary Jean Robertson, Japantown preservationist Karen Kai, and public health advocate Mike Shriver and let me know what you think.  This Sunday we’ll be featuring the super-charged electrical contractor, Hanson Lee. Oh, and I get to collaborate with a great photographer, too: Here’s a snap I took of Kevin Hume at work photographing Karen Kai.  Thanks for reading!

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

SF Lives: A New Column By Yours Truly

Stacks of the newest edition sit on the steps of San Francisco Bay View newspaper newsroom. (Emma Marie Chiang/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

I wanted to wait until we had a couple of editions under our belts to let my readers know I’m writing a bi-weekly column for The San Francisco Examiner called SF Lives.

My intent is to bring you news of everyday people who are leading extraordinary lives despite living under pressure in the most expensive city in the United States.  Many of us feel despair, as if we are underwater, unable to cope with the realities of the changing tides in our much-fabled and beloved city. Things are not always what they seem, especially to those of us who were born here and hold close The City’s secrets, legends, and sometimes myths and lies. Long term residents and newcomers alike are feeling the heat, but there are people among us who carry a torch for what we call “the old San Francisco.”  They bear the weight of upholding our city’s heavy reputation for innovation and iconoclasm with a humane touch:  They are the doers, and they are often the rulebreakers. They are definitely the unsung and they are the keepers of the spirit and soul of San Francisco now.

The SF Lives column is a small attempt to unpack the clashing ideas and ideals here, and to offer a glimmer of light in these dark times.  I’m not entirely sure where we’ll end up, but I hope you’re up for taking the trip with me.  If you’re interested in tuning in, follow the links to the first three columns now posted online: Mayoral candidate, Amy Farah Weiss; the couple behind The Bay View Newspaper, Mary and Willie Ratcliff; filmmakers Sophie Constantinou and Tamara Walker. As ever, I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the column and I appreciate your readership.

Filed under: California, column, gentrification, San Francisco News, ,

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