Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Dear (White) Liberal San Franciscan,

fillmore-jazz-2014

The last sign of any jazz in San Francisco’s Fillmore District is this banner, hoisted in 2014.

I regret to inform, you missed it: The final day of celebration for the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street was Sunday. Aside from its usual meditation on “A Love Supreme” and a service to deliver the wisdom in its creator’s words, there was even a bit of time that day reserved to remember Prince, a kindred spirit and sound messenger of love who transitioned last Thursday. But really, there is no need to cry for the Coltrane Church: Going strong for nearly 50 years, it will continue to thrive in one incarnation or another, in accordance to its creed proclaiming life everlasting. Armed with a faith that knows no bounds, no building is going to hold down Archbishop Franzo King and his congregation. He and his musically gifted family of ordained ministers will remain in the light of Coltrane consciousness and on the move for truth and justice. However, if you’d still like to grieve our losses, please consider the sorry state of San Francisco, and our complicity in the soul murder of the city the Church calls home.

Read entire thing here:

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, Jazz, racism, San Francisco News, , , ,

Thanks for the Music: Van Morrison is 70 Today

Written last summer for Blurt online, I’m reposting my review of Morrison’s collected lyrics, Lit Up Inside, on his 70th birthday.

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVan-Morrison-1 limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

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

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

Van-Morrison-book-343x500Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

To Boom or To Bust: The Long Story of San Francisco

Author David Talbot was making the rounds of San Francisco’s booksellers earlier this month during California Independent Bookstore Day, though the author of Season of the Witch and Brothers wasn’t promoting a new book; rather, he was using the community-oriented bookstore scene as a platform for his insider knowledge of City Hall to promote someone’s– anyone’s– significant bid for a mayoral run against Ed Lee in November. Talbot believes the need for new leadership in San Francisco is so dire, he joked he would run himself were it not for the personal and fiscal demands of entering a campaign. “I don’t want my wife to divorce me, which she said she would do if I did,” he laughed. cvr9781439108246_9781439108246_lgOther potential candidates like former Mayor Art Agnos, State Senator Mark Leno, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano have all opted out of the race after being rumored or considered as runners; former Supervisor Aaron Peskin is also nolo contendere since announcing his wish to fill an opening on the Board of Supervisors (as its few remaining progressives term out). Talbot says there may be one more viable candidate out there for mayor, but his sources have made him promise not to drop any hints. Meanwhile, Lee and his chief backer, venture capitalist Ron Conway, will stop at nothing to win the race, so we shall expect the usual vulgarities once/if reasonable opposition appears on the scene before the June 9th nomination filing date.”So what we lack and need is leadership, a media outlet and a progressive think tank,” Talbot concluded from his opening remarks on Saturday at Modern Times Bookstore. Then he opened the floor to the assembled crowd of activists, attorneys, homeowners, and young journalists for comment. One long-time community organizer was near tears as she contemplated the prospect of another four years for Lee. “You think it’s bad now. We’ll all be gone by then,” she said, referring to the drift of long-time San Franciscans and natives away from the city they call home. “I share your pain, but don’t leave!” the author responded. “We need you here as an advocate.” 

Talbot believes an institution devoted to educating future political leaders, as well as voters, would be a longer-term solution, and again he asked the crowd to speculate how such a venture, as well as a much-needed media outlet, could be funded. That question remained largely unanswered, though the one name that consistently comes up in these conversations is Marc Benioff, a tech billionaire and serious philanthropist intent on doing good with his wealth while encouraging others in his business to do the same.

Talbot’s overview of city governance and his depth of understanding of public versus privately funded projects here, as well as of the more general role media plays in democratic society, is owed to his background as a journalist: He’s worked for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Examiner, and he founded Salon, one of the Web’s earliest full-service magazines/news destinations. He was raised in Los Angeles, and his father, Lyle Talbot, was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. Talbot’s self-proclaimed obsession with the Kennedys led him to write Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years; he followed with Season of the Witch, a cultural and political history of San Francisco and how it came to be the city it’s known to be versus the city that it is (on Saturday he revealed that Season of the Witch will be this fall’s One City One Book).

In recent years, Talbot has followed the story of changing San Francisco and has delivered a series of talks, including “Don’t Be a Stanford Asshole,” which implores new and future Stanford elite to be mindful of the dehumanizing nature of technology. A transcript made the rounds on the Internet earlier this year when it was picked up by 48 Hills, the one-man operation helmed by former SF Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, who Talbot believes is creating the kind of deep investigative journal we need in light of the long-insufficient San Francisco Chronicle, and in the absence of SF Bay Guardian, which was abruptly closed last year.

“We are a city, a world, in a boom and bust cycle,” asserts Talbot, and of that there is no doubt, though he notes the strange mood here as most of us await the next bust more fervently than more boom.

Last month even the historically nonpartisan 58th San Francisco International Film Festival got into the spirit of imminent change by hosting a program titled “Boomtown.”  Redmond delivered a PowerPoint presentation providing an overview of the housing crisis in progress, though it was cultural expressions like Vero Majano’s heart-stopping spoken word and found film from the Mission District, Melorra and Melodie Greene’s interactive tribute to the LGBTQ/Black Lives Matter movement, and The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film in the works by Talbot’s son Joe, which if seen by wider audiences could potentially change hearts and minds. Joe Talbot’s film is based on real events in the life of its co-writer and lead actor, Jimmy Fails (whom Talbot the elder considers an honorary son).

Fails’ African American family experience is the most extreme example of a community’s disproportionate displacement here, and yet the feelings speak for many of us when the character says,  “My grandpa came West…Sometimes I feel there ain’t nothing left of me here. But where am I supposed to go? Ain’t shit west of here but water.” It’s an apt observation for a city lost at sea without a captain, but in these young filmmakers’ art and music (which Joe Talbot also composed) there is also light and hope–things we natives and transplants can all use a bit more of right now.

A version of this post appeared May 5 at Down With Tyranny

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, , , , , , ,

Love Your Local Bookstore

4344631_origThis week, KQED-FM, San Franciso’s NPR- afffilate and longstanding listener-supported radio station aired my Perspective on the economic boom and resultant gentrification situation here in San Francisco specific to how it impacts small business and in particular, bookstores.  Longtime readers know that since I moved home following a decade-in-exile in Southern California, I’ve become more than a little concerned about the changing book scene here.  I observed as two beloved West LA community insitutions, Midnight Special and Dutton’s, closed their doors. Citing emerging technology and real estate development as part of the complex, the closings left an area arguably already culture-spare without an accessible, substantial independent bookstore. Believe me when I say readers were bereft, though they were at a loss at how to turn things around without the assistance of major donor intervention or legislation.

And yet, a question I’m often asked is, what’s my personal stake in the matter of San Francisco bookstores? As an author, my livelihood depends in a small part on the sales of my books. I review books. Many of my friends are authors and I want them to succeed:  I support their work as I can—much of our work goes on in bookstores and on the backs of each other’s books.  I like bookstores.  I work parttime for a bookstore. Without bookstores, my husband wouldn’t know what to do with his spare hours when he isn’t working tirelessly; they feed him with more inspiration and fuel so he can work some more (books are part of his creative process and ability to earn too).  Children need books so they may learn how to read. People learn languages, new things, chart new paths, and cure diseases thanks to the knowledge found in books. Must I go on? I could, but you can just as easily listen.

This small effort in San Francisco, from the campaign to support 50-year-old Marcus Books to the ongoing progressive mission of 43-year-old Modern Times Bookstore Collective has resulted in the formation of United Booksellers of San Francisco (UBSF).  We have a long way to go, but I hope you will tell your friends what we are doing and that you will join us in the struggle to keep our small bookstores and the literary culture to which they contribute strong and vital.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, column, Editorial, income disparity, It's Personal, , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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