Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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.


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

Hello Mumia, Goodbye Columbus

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, and its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal as most people know, is not 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 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In a new film, Long Distance Revolutionarywhich made its worldwide premiere over Columbus Day Weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, filmmaker 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 rehash the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist forced to moonlight as a cabbie, they shine a light on how he’s used the misfortune as prophetic opportunity, to become a voice for the voiceless.

In the film, 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 speak to the important role Mumia, the writer as political prisoner, plays on the world stage, as he reflects 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; the mystery that unfolds onscreen is more to the point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Mumia 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 his literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him.  Of course the most resounding voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world; it can also be heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  For the Mill Valley premiere, Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area which he remembered from visiting once as having a “luscious sun,” 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 was M-1 of Dead Prez; traditionally, it is musicians who sing out for injustice, in the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film), indirectly leading to his exoneration. Eddie Vedder’s recording of  “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandless), serves as a closing theme. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.

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 on move: Long Distance Revolutionary is on its way to festivals in Denver, Copenhagen and New York City.  It opens in wider release in February of 2013.  Here’s the trailer.

Filed under: Angela Davis, film, France, Keep On Pushing, Reviews, , ,

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Last year’s most insistent documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, makes its public television debut this month: By any and all means, see this film.

Written and directed by Göran Hugo Olsson and co-produced by actor and one-time San Francisco State student activist Danny Glover, The Black Power Mixtape is a visual record of a period that inalterably changed America, as viewed through outsider lenses.  Edited from footage shot then by a Swedish television crew, the material was rescued and revisited 35 years later by Olsson and a cast of contemporary American musicians and activists who provide voiceovers. The resulting mash-up is as disassociated and cohesive, chaotic and united, as were the times themselves; the film is a testament to the people who lived and died through the upset.

This new version of American history, as told by Europeans and African Americans could ideally serve the new generation as a long-overdue introduction to who and what made the Black Power Movement move. From the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, toward its mission for freedom for all oppressed people, and into black empowerment’s more  general directive to teach true history, self-reliance and pride, the film also spells out the forces that conspired to decimate the people and dismantle the movement from within and outside it.  As for those already well-familiar with the subjects of political activism and the social changes that took place in the US in the ’60s and early ’70s, The Black Power Mixtape offers an opportunity to view rare footage that you haven’t seen a million times; rest assured, the contemporary voiceovers not only add fresh insights but are in synch with contemporary survival issues, as well as with the current protests taking place in US town squares.

My enthusiasm for The Black Power Mixtape is partly based on my interest in the subject matter and my passion for passing on recommended listening, viewing and reading materials; I also see it as the perfect  audio/visual companion to my own text on the subject, specifically chapters four, five and six of Keep on Pushing (though the film is undoubtedly more concentrated and is  enhanced by the voices of Questlove, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and author Robin D.G. Kelley, among other noted artists and activists). I’m about to quote heavily from the film here so if you haven’t yet seen it and like being surprised,  you may want to stop reading and start streaming.

There’s a moment when the historic footage of the activists-then, dovetails in chilling harmony with the now-narration. Talib Kweli, a contemporary rapper/resistor, in the black radical tradition, begins his story of being inspired by the words of Stokely Carmichael. “He was a fiery speaker and had passionate ideas, but he was a calm, cool, collected person,” say Kweli. “None of these people were evil or bad or even extra violent.  Common sense meant that they had to speak and stand up for themselves….” In the name of research and inspiration, and in preparation for his own studio recording, Kweli began to study some of Carmichael’s widely available speeches.  “It was shortly after 9/11 in America,” he explains. “I was making a reservation on Jet Blue airlines to fly to California.  When I got to the airport…they came and intercepted me, all these guys in black suits, and they took me into a back room and started questioning me…They were very concerned with me listening to this Stokely Carmichael speech from 1967,” says Kweli. “We have gangster rappers talking about shooting people all the time but the FBI is not looking for them. They’re looking at me because I’m listening to a speech from 40 years ago…”

As the film wraps, author and scholar Robin D.G. Kelley underscore’s black power’s links to second wave feminism and gay liberation movement.  Readers of Keep on Pushing will also recollect that the entire second half of the book is dedicated to the impact of black power on other minority cultural and political movements, while it also follows power music into its next black incarnations. In The Black Power Mixtape, singer Erykah Badu puts in a word for the importance of documentation—the writing and reading—of black history by blacks, while filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles suggests that the movement was not a racial cause, but a freedom cause, for all the world’s people.

“People need to know, particularly in the 21st Century, it is important even under a black president, to bring the kind of pressure, to force the kinds of issues that will allow us to imagine a future without war, without racism and without prisons,” says Angela Davis.

“The rich are getting richer, not only in America but in the world…” says Sonia Sanchez.  “You’ve got to talk about that one percent or five percent that runs everything. It’s a lot of work. You don’t get any reward…The reward is knowing that when you make transition when you die, if you have children, there’s a better world for them and if you don’t have children, there’s a better world for other people too.”

Check your local PBS listings and Independent Lens for further February screenings of  The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975—there are many.  The film is also available as a DVD.

Filed under: Angela Davis, film, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

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