Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Bob Neuwirth: Here and Then and Now

Bob_NeuwirthBob Neuwirth is a character in the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of the 21st Century’s art and music.

“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,”  says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are enjoyed by collectors, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form. Neuwirth has also played a unique role in the lives of his fellow artists. A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, he’s served as an ear to friends in the arts for five decades now; as a catalyst to epic songs,  he’s lived the moments we read about in history books.

“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. Though to recognize it,  “It takes a different set of eyes. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says.“Turn on the radio.  What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening,” he says.

If some of what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, it’s because he’s earned the right to wax on; he’s pulled-off the great American hat trick of living an artist’s life while remaining just under the radar of massive success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran away).  From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, it was to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.

In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies. “He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan.  The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue).  He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”),  a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.

In the ’70s  Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and contributed to the making of the music there as he gathered more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll. “Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the displacement of the folky, singer-songwriters from the scene. But Neuwirth also had a hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into some songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.

Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his own masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to 20110409115304-2studio, he lived in a rat-infested loft formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. But New York and the art scene was changing. The roads for struggling artists to take gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of fame does today?

“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.

So where does one find art in the culture today? “If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says, noting there’s no shortage of work. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there’s really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ” Acknowledging one person’s cup of meat might not be another’s  (“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says) he concedes there’s room for everyone by way of one of his trademarked aphorisms with which we can’t argue: “Bad art is better than good bombs.”

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, California, film, Folk, Interview, video, , , , ,

What Makes A Legend: Darlene Love

Classic Track: “He’s A Rebel”

Born Darlene Wright in Hawthorne, California, and christened Love by Phil Spector, Darlene was a member of the vocal group the Blossoms and an A-list singer on the talented but wily producer’s sessions. Knowing in his bones the Gene Pitney song “He’s a Rebel” would be a hit,  instead of crediting the Blossoms, Spector rushed it out as the Crystals who were signed to his Philles label. Love was also the secret weapon on the Bob B. Soxx and the Bluejeans singles, “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts”, and “Not Too Young to Get Married.” Her unmistakable tone with no-nonsense, girl group attitude has backed-up Elvis (she and the Blossoms were part of the ’68 comeback special), Sonny and Cher, Papa John Phillips, Little Steven Van Zandt and his boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Career Highs: We’d have to ask her what she thought of singing on Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones” or if her turns as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies were thrills to her, but we loved them. Maybe her heart sang when she headlined her own one-woman show, Portrait of a Singer, or when she went to Broadway as Motormouth Mabel in the musical adaptation of  the John Waters story, Hairspray.

Career Low: Going uncredited on all the Spector productions (she eventually won a lawsuit that helped her collect on some unpaid royalties).

Essential Listening: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the song for which she’s probably best known outside of “He’s A Rebel”;  you can also hear her every year as background vocalist on the seasonal hit, “The Monster Mash.”  “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” are Love’s other great shots in the spotlight.  Her hits are all compiled on The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love and Da Do Ron Ron: The Very Best of the Crystals, issued by Sony/Legacy Recordings.

And if you like that you’ll like: “Lord, If You’re A Woman” (“give a sister a hand”), tells a story about someone who’s been had and if you have been, you’ll say amen.

What She’s Doing Now: Darlene Love took her rightful place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame when she was inducted on March 14, 2011. On March 2, 2014, she accompanied director Morgan Neville onstage at the Academy Awards to accept the Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the lives of background vocalists. As part of her acceptance speech, Love sang a portion of the Gospel classic, “His Eye on the Sparrow,” in acknowledgement of how music and faith carried her through the hard times.

Watch the action: Love With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2009

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Gospel, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, What Makes A Legend, , , , , , , , , , ,

Malcolm X: Malcolm, Malcolm–Semper Malcolm

On this day in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, shot mulitiple times at the podium of the Audubon Ballroom where he was about to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  Thousands flocked to Harlem over a three-day period to view his body before the burial.

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925 into a Baptist family; his father was a follower of Marcus Garvey and educated his son on all matters of black pride. While serving a prison sentence in the 1950s, he  learned about the Nation of Islam and began a correspondence with Elijah Muhammed; by the time of his release he’d joined the organization and changed his name to Malcolm X. An immediately charismatic leader at Temples one, 10, 12, and seven, his musician following included  Etta JamesJohnny Otis and saxophonist Archie Shepp. In 1964, he left the NOI and made his way to Mecca. As a Sunni Muslim, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz  came to believe that Islam was the way toward racial harmony.

Twenty years after his death, the legacy of Malcolm X had largely not been passed down to the next generation; certainly, his contribution to the black liberation cause had not been fully incorporated into history texts despite the perennial popularity  of the considered classic, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration with Alex Hayley. But leave it to music—in particular Public Enemy—to recognize and close the gap. The New York hip hop collective began to use Malcolm X’s teachings and speeches in concert with their videos and recordings (Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One and Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, also played a major role in the comeback; the efforts were not without controversy at the time).

Chuck D has said Public Enemy was partly founded on the idea of “connecting the dots” for those unfamiliar with the depth of black history; hard information is tightly packed into their raps that raise a fist in the name of consciousness. Of course this all happened back in the highwater era of Reagan and Bush, or what you might call the beginning of the middle of the end:  As the nation enjoyed its boom-time and Michael Jackson paid a visit to the White House,  the holiday for Dr. King was still left unrecognized by all 50 states, and the disconnect had only just begun. This year, smack dab in the middle of black history month, Nikki Minaj misappropriated the famous image of Malcolm X holding a gun, in defense of his family; Black media voiced its concern, the Shabazz family threatened legal action and Minaj rethought her plan. Hip hop is generally removed from its mission to educate and there is still no holiday in the name of Malcolm X. Instead, his civil and human rights works are officially recognized by films, speeches, books and songs. In addition to the Hayley book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable is the considered definitive biography. James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare is a comparison study of the pair’s liberation strategies.  This musical tribute from musician, poet and educator, Archie Shepp, taken from his 1965 album, Fire Music, was recorded as an elegy soon after the assassination.  A reading from Keep on Pushing follows.

Filed under: Archie Shepp, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, film, Hip Hop, Jazz, Malcolm X, Poetry, video, , , , , , , ,

Remembering Mike Bloomfield

photo by Mike-Shea

Mike Bloomfield died in San Francisco, CA on February 15, 1981

Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.

So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution?

(Read entire article by Denise Sullivan at Blurt online).

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, film, Interview, new article, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Promenade in Green

(UPDATE, December 19: I have since seen the film in its entirety and the “Green Green Rocky Road” scene is the best part. Though Len Chandler and the histories of some of the other folksingers of color on the scene—Odetta, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie—have been well-documented, the filmmakers chose to render invisible their counterparts or composites in their deeply cynical look at Greenwich Village folk).

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film concerning a fictional folksinger from the early ‘60s Greenwich Village scene (based loosely in post-modern style on some incidents from the life of actual folksinger Dave Van Ronk and other figures of the Village scene) opened in select theaters this weekend.

I have not yet seen the film, but gathered from the soundtrack the title character played by Oscar Isaac, performs “Green, Green Rocky Road,” which Van Ronk himself went as far as to call his “theme song.”  With melodic and rhythm roots in the Georgia Sea Islands and before that, West Africa, readers of Keep on Pushing will remember the songwriting credit for “Green, Green Rocky Road” belongs to Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman (yes, as in Beat poet, Bob Kaufman).

I had the great and rare honor to interview songwriter and activist Chandler in 2007; large portions of our interview appeared throughout Keep on Pushing and on this site.  Chandler spoke highly of Kaufman, Van Ronk, and of course Bob Dylan, who detailed their shared history and collaborations in his book, Chronicles. And yet, it is “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song Chandler never recorded, that may be one of his most enduring achievements, despite the fact he was a singing hero of the Civil Rights Movement (his contributions to African American/US political and social history remain obscured and inexplicably, largely unsung).

Here’s a clip of Van Ronk performing the song, followed by a clip of Chandler performing his own “Keep on Keepin’ On,” from his rare Columbia album, To Be A Man.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, film, Folk, Greenwich Village, Poetry, video, , , , , , , ,

Jim Morrison For Sale

last-photos-of-jim-morrison-paris-1971-g1(UPDATE, December 19: Morrison’s notebook reportedly sold for the unverified amount of $200,000 on December 18, 2013).

This week’s news that Jim Morrison’s “Paris” notebook will be auctioned later next month, 10 days after what would’ve been the singer and poet’s 70th birthday, hasn’t exactly set the night on fire. The headline, characterizing the discovery as his  “druggy musings” makes it sound like more of the same, and yet, we’re talking about the recovery of a holy relic of rock’n’roll history here.  Media and mythology strike again, though the story managed to uncover the seller of the notebook as Graham Nash.  He and the Doors shared a manager who gifted Nash with the collection of notes and sketches, valued to be worth approximately $320,000. There was no mention of who shall benefit from the sale of the artifact which likely dates back to the singer’s life in the pre-Doors dawn, during his time spent at UCLA, his interests more focused on poetry and film than on songs. The inside flap of the book features a quote from a 1963 Paris Review interview with Norman Mailer (Morrison was an avowed fan) alongside an image of the artist Francis Bacon, artistic inspirers from the early ’60s.

As for Morrison, deceased since 1971,  the ‘60s most idolized rock star was no doubt plagued by alcoholism and drug addiction,  and yet, he was able to keep his artistic life somewhat sacrosanct; it is said when he left for Paris he took only his poems, filed in old notebooks, and his canisters of film with him. The notebook, with its so-called musings are presumably continuations of his creations, a winnowing and distillation of the things he’d been jotting down in notebooks he carried with him at all times,  even since before he arrived to the California coast as a student from Florida. The writings in his own hand offer more than  “a window into the mind of the deep-thinking singer, known for his drug abuse, in the run up to his death.”  They are a closer look at his process as an artist, a chance to examine the singer’s life through a new pair of glasses, one that isn’t too concerned with ‘60s nostalgia, preserving mystique or cashing in on it. Whatever its true origins, I would hope that the notebook will be purchased with the intent to publicly display it.

It is time to retire the persistent media portrait of the artist as a semi-dimensional party dude with a quasi-mystic side. My forthcoming book, Shaman’s Blues, The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, to be published early next year, attempts to cancel some of the old notions, and replace them with the source of Jim’s ideas and what he was creating with his body of work. I went in search of the building blocks that make his songs and poems meaningful to each new generation, his messages, and even his meanderings, still relevant to listeners in the 21st Century.

To better appreciate Morrison’s “druggy musings” is to understand his complete devotion to Arthur Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses, the principles behind Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Bertolt Brecht’s dramaturgy, and Julian Beck’s Living Theater, among other sources of his inspiration. One must have a general sense, if not  knowledge, of what those historic, artistic precedents were about to fully appreciate the Doors’ work. I took on the project as an opportunity to investigate the people, places and other worlds alluded to in Morrison’s songs, to seek the poetry at the core of the stories, and the diligence that went into creating the Doors’ own dark music.  And then I tried to unravel some of all that for the general reader without boring people to death by use of academic language, while striving to make Morrison more whole, less of an icon, and more of a human. Because behind the Hollywood and media representations of him, Morrison has largely been remembered well by family and friends. He was said to be thoughtful, loving, humorous, artistic, and pretty decent young cat, when he wasn’t under the influence (though there would also appear to reasons for his discontent, in addition to a predisposition to alcoholism).  I make no apologies for the drunk and disorderly behavior; it is on the record and clearly a part of who he was, but it was not all of Jim Morrison. And that’s part of why I’m so interested in the news of the notebook going on the market:  It is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of Morrison’s legacy, the process of demythologizing the mythic Lizard King.

I’m pleased to say I’m not a voice in the wilderness in my attempts to bring more light to the other side of Morrison’s work.  His friend Frank Lisciandro, who has long worked to keep Jim’s poetry and filmmaking in the public consciousness, is compiling Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together, an oral history of the singer’s pre-Doors years.  And filmmakers Jeff and Jess Finn continue work on Before the End: Jim Morrison Comes of Age, a documentary take  on the tale we all (think we) know so well, as told by Jim’s closest intimates, guided by the filmmakers’ access and own intuitive sense of his Jimness.

When I hear Jim speak or sing, on the page and on audio and video, on his clear days he seems thoughtful, interesting and right-on to me too. This is the Morrison I wanted to capture in Shaman’s Blues, and I certainly hope it is received in that spirit, though a writer cannot predict how she will be read. Perhaps there is no better example than Jim Morrison’s own legacy, to illustrate the dichotomy of the saying about one man’s trash: Welcome to “The Soft Parade.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, film, France, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Smarter than the average bear, , ,

Veterans Day: War Is Over

Iraq Veterans Against the War asked supporters to use social media this Veteran’s Day to speak about personal experience with militarism.  I don’t have much direct contact to report, unless you count carrying a sense of American shame and holding a deep well of sadness for the amount of senseless violence, killing, overspending, and harm done to the world’s people and resources in the name of liberty and justice for all.  My immediate family is not militarily descended, though among my few relatives who were called up, I remember an uncle named Charlie who went to Vietnam and mercifully returned, then asked to be called Charles from there on; I have not seen much of him in 30 years, but I suspect he’s suffered, the result of time served.

My own conscientious objection and moral opposition to war developed out of the lessons taught by a few good teachers who waged stealthy anti-militarism campaigns in their high school classrooms: Images from documentaries on the Holocaust and post-atomic bomb Japan have stayed with me strong since I saw them. An education in war’s atrocities, along with my own love of the message music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I believe schooled me well, until I went on to research and learn more.

Created at the height of the Vietnam era, conceived with strength and intended as a balm and wake-up call for all that had gone wrong, artist/activists from Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”) and Phil Ochs (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) to giants Bob Dylan (“Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War”), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine”), the stars of Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, Edwin Starr’s “War,” written by Whitfield and Strong) and singers, songwriters and performers of all forms (“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and “Love Train” by the O’Jays”), delivered the songs of peace. Quite often they took anti-war sentiment to the top of the charts. It was a time when an anti-war view didn’t have to fight for space on the front page or evening news—it was the news. Back then, unless they were complete squares, members of the silent majority or total idiots, men and women were not afraid to stand against war.

As time went on, the wealth of Vietnam-themed Hollywood feature films (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) depicting the horrors of war, and set to a rock music soundtrack of songs associated with the time period (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” for two)  further informed my own beliefs about  that time.  The truth had surfaced and history was beginning to support the unjust nature of all that war’s ill concepts and casualties. Bombing unarmed innocents in the name of freedom is pure and simple, illegal, immoral, and just plain wrong. One of the movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, so convincingly used “The End” by the Doors  to convey a soldier’s pain, one could be forgiven for thinking the music was written to fit the sequence(s) in which it was used (it was not). Here is the opening scene of the film that stars Martin Sheen as the fictional Captain Benjamin Willard:

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, and all the children are insane.  Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic visions and anti-imperialist artistic views were tied up in a deep study of history and the humanistic concerns he shared with the artists of peace and vision who inspired him. Given his own generation’s stand against the war, Morrison’s radically left of center way of approaching life and art was complicated by his own family ties to militarism:  His father, Admiral Steven Morrison commanded the forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident that sent the Vietnam war into overdrive. The Doors cut at least one specifically anti-war song, or at least we can deduce that theme from the action in their own short film for “Unknown Soldier.”

“War is over,” the present tense affirmation that serves as the chorus to”Unknown Solider,” predates the use of the phrase in the Plastic Ono’s Band “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971); it coincided with the Phil Ochs song “The War is Over” (1968) and knowing Morrison’s influences, was likely borrowed from French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ 1966 film, War is Over, a political thriller set in Franco-era Madrid and Paris.

As time went on, the anti-war song fell out of favor, at least in the U.S. where our direct involvement in wars was mostly covert and away from our shores.  Now and again, we’d get a crucial reminder that war is bad and killing is no good in songs (“War” by Bob Marley), while other times when war was declared and battles raged on, anti-war songs experienced a tiny revival (“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine comes to mind, as does “Living With War” by Neil Young who continues to wage peace every day of the year). But unless mandatory service makes a comeback, it is guaranteed you’ll hear fewer songs of resistance to war, or resistance to much of anything, really. Killing for peace, bombing for safety and drones from here to kingdom come are not really what the people want from their songs anymore. Until further notice, the rocket’s red glare shall shine on, while few take a stand in song to abhor them.

Where are the songs that urge calling off drone strikes?  I know there are some, but they are not on the Top 40, blasting from jukeboxes and commanding the dancefloor the way Edwin Starr made a stand: “War! Huh-good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again. Yea.” Though once again, the ’60s generation—I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but in terms of longevity, staying the course, consistency of message and laying it down—comes through. Septugenarian Graham Nash cut a song with James Raymond for Bradley Manning.

Nash had done the same for Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven who among other things, opposed the war.  I’m not telling fans of ’60s rock anything they don’t already know.  But for the sake of the song, if you’re a singer or a songwriter and think that killing and torture in the name of what is wrong, use your stage to sing out and decry the lie, even if it’s just one song. Or do something: Professional musician Darden Smith is writing songs with vets. Recounting their experiences with war and turning them into songs, Smith has aided soldiers in coming to terms with their opposition to violence of all kinds.

The Veterans Against the War say on their website that everyday, 22 veterans take their own lives. Could it be that they cannot stand the post-traumatic stress of remembering?  Were they tortured, or asked to torture someone else?  We will not know now or ever because they’re gone, as are the great mean of peace, Gandhi, Dr. King and John Lennon. Today I thank all, veterans and others, who fought and now work for peace: You remind us that we can not tell ourselves that war is something that only happens over there, far away, to other people. We cannot continue to pretend that we are  not connected or impacted too. We are responsible. The horror, the horror.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, film, France, , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

freedom

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal, as most people know, is no longer primarily an announcer by trade.  Better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for over 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In the documentary Long Distance Revolutionaryfilmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than retell the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist (whose views forced him to moonlight as a cabbie, just to survive), they shine a light on how he’s used misfortune as opportunity, to become a prophetic voice for the voiceless.

Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who testify in the film on the important role Mumia—the writer as political prisoner—plays on the world stage, reflecting the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free, while the mystery that unfolds onscreen in Long Distance Revolutionary is more to a specific point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Abu-Jamal  keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who talks of how she was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him in the book market.  But the most convincing voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world and heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  At the film’s premiere in Mill Valley, California last October,  Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area. He remembered its “luscious sun,” and the Bay as a place where he,  “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice in the chorus is M-1 of Dead Prez. Used to be musicians sang out for injustice, the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film); in that case, the musical association indirectly lead to Carter’s exoneration. But the music community has largely remained silent on the subject of Abu-Jamal. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Eddie Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.  “Please know that I (and my co-producers) tried hard to get…and a number of other musicians into the mix—on numerous occasions and through numerous fronts—but not one of them would agree to interview (except M-1) and/or offer a musical piece or new selection,” Vittoria wrote in an email to me.  Vedder’s song “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandlessserves as the film’s closing theme. “I was fortunate that Eddie allowed us to grace the film with his powerful song,” added Vittoria.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is still on move: Long Distance Revolutionary has been on the festival circuit and in general release throughout the year. It opens August 23 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and next month at Spokane’s Magic Lantern.  Here’s the trailer:

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, film, France, Never Forget, Now Playing, Poetry, , , , , ,

This Business of Music is a Buzzkiller

Injustice in the music business is one of the themes shared by three summer music documentaries now playing in theaters or on demand. Twenty Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me all concern the lives of musicians who did not reap the benefits of success their superstar counterparts or even their industry’s executives enjoy. These tales of a typically unkind, fickle and often unethical music business are told far too often:  There is of course a long tradition of broke and hungry blues singers and ripped-off rock’n’rollers; perhaps most famous are the Funk Brothers, creators of the Motown sound, whose untold history became Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the blueprint for these kind of behind the veil stories. And yet, the background vocalists of Twenty Feet… and the musicians of the ironically named ‘70s bands, Death and Big Star, though largely overlooked, unsung, and often underpaid themselves, also delivered life-giving music of lasting value—music far more focused and accomplished than many of their more successful name brand peers.

Much to the younger generation of musicians in their family’s delight, the Hackney brothers co-created punk rock in early ‘70s Detroit.  A Band Called Death is their story, as told by surviving brothers Bobby and Dannis, with credit due to brother David for the vision. Inspired by their minister dad’s insistence they watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the boys formed a band; as rock evolved, so did their sound. David aimed to combine the guitar chords of Pete Townshend of the Who with the leads of  Jimi Hendrix. With Bobby’s vocals and bass, and Dannis’ agility on drums central to the crunch, David’s idea came into focus, though it had also been shaped by forces much stranger than spine-chilling rock’n’roll.  Impacted by the accidental death of their father, David’s idea—a hard rock threesome named Death with a triangular mind-body-spirit logo was an entire  concept, though it turned out to be a bit much for listeners to metabolize in the post-‘60s hour of segregated rock and soul.  It is generally agreed among band and family, record industry personnel and public perception that David’s extreme construct did the band no favors, particularly when they were very close to getting a record deal with Clive Davis and David wouldn’t budge. “First you let them change your name and then…” You may as well surrender your soul is the implication, and there is truth in those words. Though he and his brothers’ band were consigned to the rare and forgotten records rack for 30 years, David’s vision, that Death would one day be poplar after he was gone, turned out to be prophecy. A Band Called Death lets that story unfold, as it unleashes the power and excitement of the music, highlighting its timelessness and virtuosity. For non-believers, their pure rock’n’roll single, “Keep on Knocking,” may be the convincer:  I never tire of it and could happily spin it over and over and over again.

If there is such a thing as rock justice, revived career status may also be in the balance for some of the singers profiled in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a look at the ladies (and one man) who sing the background vocals to the soundtrack of your life.  To their tremendous credit, director Morgan Neville and producer and industry vet Gil Friesen don’t flinch from the cruelty of the record business, a model that has historically cheated its true talent while rewarding mediocre copycats. The film debuted at the Sundance Festival and screened earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and is told by the vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, their contemporary counterparts, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill,  and the musicians they sing for (Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger). With differing degrees of yearning for the spotlight, each woman shares her own tale of what it was like to sing behind Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson and in the case of Love, for producer Phil Spector (now serving a prison sentence for murder).  Both Fischer and Lennear, emerge as the pair who crave little more than what they have: Fischer’s devoted to her gift and married to the music and a life on a road. Lennear stepped back and became a teacher, though as a result of the film and revisiting her years alongside George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Ike and Tina Turmer, she’s been inspired to reclaim her place in the spotlight.  Here’s her version of the Beatles song, “Let It Be.”

Perhaps most depressing in this downbeat trio of tales is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a story of unrequited loves and life let downs. Chris Bell, who alongside Alex Chilton, was a principle songwriter on the Memphis group’s first album, left the fold under what the film portrays as mysterious circumstances. What’s clear however, is that he was touched by substance abuse, and sexual and religious confusion, and all the troubles conspired to takeaway his life at the cursed rock’n’roll age of 27. It didn’t help that Big Star’s record label, Ardent, was affiliated with Stax, though while giants of the soul industry were experiencing business and reorganization troubles just as they crossed the bridge toward releasing rock’n’roll records. And then there is Chilton, a vocal talent with qualities so chameleon-like, and a reticence to be interviewed, that he’s hard to pin down. The teenaged soul singer of “The Letter” shifted gears in Big Star, and yet again in his post-band, punkish years; he passed away in 2010 before the completion of the film, and his presence in it is confined to audio and performance clips.  It would’ve been interesting to hear what he might say of his former band from a 60-year-old’s vantage point, but without him or Bell to speak for themselves, the real story of Big Star largely remains a mystery, to be filed under bands that never made it, but could have, if only the stars had aligned in their favor. Though their story is grim, their recording legacy is the prize: “The Ballad of El Goodo” from #1 Record, is a collaborative effort between Chilton and Bell, a power-pop freedom song:

Though I would not characterize any one of these music documentaries as uplifting, within the frames of each reel, and certainly within the individual stories, there are flashes of reverence, bright spots of humor, and in all cases, impeccable music. There is no shortage of stories like these, ready to unspool and cast the music business as it was once known in its true, unflattering light.  I don’t want to say I’m happy that everyone can see for themselves the hit parade of human sacrifice, left in the wake of what it takes to create superstar entertainment for the masses. Nor do I delight in the music industry’s complete and total rupture.  But it’s no doubt valuable for music consumers, just like consumers of other goods, to know a little bit more about what goes into the making of product they love so much. The music business is a killer, with very little to do with the art of its creators. Certainly it has shown little to no compassion for the health and welfare of musicians, without whom, there would be no primary product.  Perhaps it’s best we no longer fool ourselves into thinking that talent and excellence are qualifications for success, no matter what business we may find ourselves. The artist or worker without a killer instinct, will need to make a choice: Take a backseat willingly, or be content, to be left standing in the shadows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Now Playing, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, , , , , , , ,

Punky Reggae Party Revisited

images“Anybody’s who’s meant to get it, gets it, and those who don’t, they never will,” says Don Letts. The filmmaker and musician is talking about the ways in which the rhythms of Africa have a habit of turning up in popular music from around the globe, most noticeably these days in the work of Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective. But Letts could just as easily be commenting on his own career as a DJ, writer, and member of the Clash posse, or as an accidental pioneer of sampling as a member of Big Audio Dynamite, the Mick Jones-led Clash sequel.

“Like a lot of great ideas, these things are stumbled upon rather than by design,” he says, somewhat understatedly. But when it comes right down to it, Letts’ life story reads like a series of 20th century music history flashpoints: From the time meeting with Bob Marley led to the Rastaman’s song “Punky Reggae Party”, to when, as a punk club DJ, he spun reggae when he ran out of punk discs (few existed at the time). “New wave/new phrase,” sang Marley. “Rejected by society / Treated with impunity / Protected by my dignity / I search for my reality / It’s a punky reggae party / And it’s all right.”

You might even say that without Letts’ point in the magic triangle, the resulting permanent alliance between the two major forms of rebel music might not have ever happened.

READ MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH DON LETTS HERE:

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, film, Interview, Punk, Reggae, , ,

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