August 1, 2015 • 7:58 am 0
November 27, 2013 • 10:56 am 1
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.”
November 11, 2013 • 3:02 pm 2
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.
July 3, 2013 • 9:49 am 0
(Preview of the book, Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, by Denise Sullivan, coming soon)
“Five to One,” was the outgrowth of a philosophical conversation among enthusiastic film students Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, and their friend Alain Ronay. Though it remains a lyric that was never fully explicated by Morrison for the record, the original conversation among student artists reportedly concerned a generation at odds with the established order at the height of the Vietnam era (“they got the guns but we got the numbers”). Driven by drummer John Densmore’s strict timing, there is a tension evoked as Morrison explodes into rebellious nuggets of truth— “Trading your hours for a handful of dimes”—blowing holes in the bubble once known as the American Dream. The song is also the source of the epigraphic phrase that would go on to be associated with Morrison and the Doors for all time: “No one here gets out alive.”
Morrison’s twist on the subject of power, his credibility as an outlaw street poet, and the Doors’ deep grooves would eventually weave their ways into the rebel music of the next generation and beyond, from punk rock to hip hop. Like Morrison at his finest, hip hop artists tell stories, some real, others fantastical, born from urban legend and rooted in folk and oral tradition. Hip hop’s more conscious artists seek to shine a light on societal ills, and work toward changing and correcting them; many have paid a price for their points of view by becoming ostracized from the mainstream or hunted by law enforcement. Like the bluesmen and rebel poets before him, Morrison shall remain a touchstone for the those who work in the tradition of prophetic and poetic verse, though his impact on hip hop, remains largely overlooked and under-explored.
The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass was an early example of the Doors’ embrace by hip hop artists (samples of “Peace Frog” and An American Prayer were used for its Bomb Squad-produced tracks in 1989). Since that early appropriation, DJs, producers, and emcees continue to pay homage with samples, mash-ups, and even covers (Snoop Dogg played with “dog without a bone,” in his own “Riders on the Storm”); there would likely be even more were the Doors not extremely protective of its legacy and cautious of approving tracks. “I’m the main spoiler in that area,” admits Densmore. He was however, willing to make a big exception.
In 2001, the Doors’ music made a massive leap into hip hop consciousness when producer Kanye West pulled a sample of “Five to One” to create the music bed for “Takeover” by Jay-Z. Conceived as a dis of fellow rapper Nas, “Takeover” launched a rap battle royale and series of answer songs and copycat tracks. “He sent me…a letter, explaining how what they were trying to do was what we were trying to do in the ‘60s, talk about social change, and I went, ‘Wow, and I got educated,” said Densmore who has done his best to maintain the integrity of the Doors’ catalog by holding out on commercial uses.
“You know a long time ago, Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us, because we were considering, “C’mon Buick, light my fire.’…Because the dough looked good and we were young,” he recalled. “Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing. And he’s dead. And I’m not. So I’m not gonna forget that.”
Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1970 in Paris, France. Largely estranged from his bandmates, family and friends who were in the midst of the US Fourth of July weekend, final arrangements for his burial at the Père Lachaise Cemetary were postponed until July 7.
January 10, 2013 • 9:03 am 0
Two albums credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom are Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite—the first experiment in 1958—and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite— the fulfillment of the form. Born for the record in rural North Carolina on January 10 (by his family’s recollection it was the 8th) 1924, and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate and performed frequently for the cause. His Freedom Now Suite was initially conceived as a performance piece to coincide with the fast-approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963: Fifty years later, as the historic document that freed all slaves celebrates its 150th anniversary, Roach’s piece with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln, (with Coleman Hawkins on sax, Olatunji on congas and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) sounds as radical as the ’60s revolution in words and sound it helped to launch.
The cover art, in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphic and image-wise in its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, a reference of course to the sit-in on February 1, 1960 at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store that became a pivotal action in the non-violent fight for civil rights. But inside the cardboard sleeve, the vinyl grooves were an assault on the senses, capturing as they did the sound of exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, freedom. A sonically and politically strong statement, the Freedom Now Suite is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music and remains a challenging, invigorating, and inspiring listen for anyone interested in such things. Making a link between the oppression of blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone sought to parallel the civil rights movement in the US with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. Dubbed the Year of Africa, 1960 held hope for the continent for independence from France, Britain, and Belgium and the promise that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the land. Fifty-three years later, the people here and there continue the fight for human rights, and the chance to be emancipated from the conditions of poverty, ill-health, environmental crisis, and violence that defines both our lands, while Freedom Now Suite still pounds out the sound of impending liberation.
The following clip depicts civil rights power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band performing the suite’s “Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)” on Belgian television in 1964. Roach passed in 2007, though in his lifetime he he’d been a recipient of the USA’s MacArthur genius award, a commandeur in France’s Ordre des Artes et les Lettres, and a RIAA (Grammy) honoree. Read more on both Rollins, Roach, and their respective Freedom Suites in Keep on Pushing.
October 8, 2012 • 1:26 pm 0
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 Revolutionary, which 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.
July 26, 2011 • 5:09 am 0
In 1964, the French singer/scamp issued his sixth studio album, Gainsbourg Percussions, a beat-driven project that included three remade (and uncredited) songs from Olatunji’s watershed recording, Drums of Passion. Olatunji’s work sold over five million copies in 1960 and introduced African percussive stylings to pop audiences around the world, its release synchronistically coinciding with the decolonization of Africa and the launch of the civil rights era in the USA. Gainsbourg’s ambitious concept album didn’t exactly take the world, nor the Bastille, by storm; largely it’s been forgotten, though it may well have been one of the earliest attempts on record of an Afro-pop fusion. Gainsbourg Percussions also marks a transitional time in the anti-authoritarian/artist’s timeline—a period in which he moved from the dying breed of chanson, into the more highly-charged yé-yé records he wrote/recorded in the mid-late ’60s with singers like France Gall, Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (they married and had a daughter, Charlotte). Gainsbourg connoisseurs are largely divided on the merits of Percussions, though the album featured a hit, “Couleur Café,” as well as the tense but hypnotic rewrites of Olatunji’s songs, like “Akiwowo” as ”New York—USA.”
Gainsbourg’s 47-year-old piece of work is once again available on vinyl; Drums of Passion was also reissued in a deluxe CD package on the occasion of its 50th anniversary last year.