Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-Ever Howard Zinn Bookfair Convenes In San Francisco: Marcus Books is Back!

Today’s first-ever Howard Zinn Bookfair zinnportraitconvenes at San Francisco’s historic Mission High School with a list of right-on authors as long as your arm so you’re going to have to check the program to believe your eyes. Organized by author James Tracy who also founded the San Francisco Community Land Trust,  the day is jam–packed with discussion and presentations concerning the people’s history—past, present and future—and is free to the public. I’ll be leading the discussion titled Supporting Our Bookstores in a Time of Gentrification from 1:30-2:30 PM in the James Baldwin Room, and will be joined by Karen and Gregory Johnson of Marcus Books San Francisco and Kate Rosenberger of the Mission District’s Dog Eared and Alley Cat Books. We hope to see the room filled with bookstore workers and supporters as we imagine ways in which our City’s bookstores can work cooperatively and reach out to each other more in what was a record-breaking year of small business closures in San Francisco.

As the day-long celebration of our stories transitions into the evening, there will be an arts and awards ceremony: I’m pleased to say, Marcus Books will be making an announcement about the store’s future and will be receiving a lifetime achievement award for their service to the people of San Francisco and beyond it.  Read my coverage on the current state of San Francisco’s bookstores at 48 Hills,  and I’ll see you at the people’s bookfair.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, Civil Rights, income disparity, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, , ,

Marcus Books: Keep It Lit in the Fillmore District

If buildings could talk, the Marcus Books property on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street, the onetime “Harlem of the West,” would tell a tale of two cities for over 50 years. Once the jazz club Bop City (where John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday performed), the purple Victorian structure is central to a neighborhood that has survived the internment and return of its Japanese American residents, an urban renewal project that resulted in the permanent exodus of African Americans when promises for new homes never materialized, and a blueprint for a  “Jazz District” that failed to launch. Now, the neighborhood faces a final act as Marcus Books, the oldest seller of books “by and about black people” in the entire US, attempts to uphold black history and culture, a part of which its founders helped create, while the mayor’s office and for-profit developers look instead to the influx of tech companies and their workers as the City’s future.

It’s taken decades, but the Mahattanization of San Francisco is nearly complete: The immigrants, artists and native-born who built the City and gave it its unique flavor can no longer afford to live here; with San Francisco’s African American population largely banished to Oakland and points beyond, alongside the working and artists classes, the freethinking lifestyle that attracted so many people to the Bay Area in the first place has largely been and gone. “What is crucial, is whether or not the country, the people of the country, the citizenry, is able to recognize that there is no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco, and the facts of life in Birmingham,” said James Baldwin on a fact-finding trip to San Francisco in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time at which he would have also visited Marcus Books.

Every black writer and intellectual in the US and throughout the African Diaspora knows the store; Celebrities, activists, athletes and literary giants, from Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Walter Mosely, Alice Walker, Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison have all passed through the doors of the San Francisco or Oakland stores. Founded by Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson in 1960, their leadership and the store itself served as sanctuary for thinkers, authors and community members during every watershed of black cultural and political movement, from the Voting Rights Act, through the Black Power Movement and historic student strike at SF State in 1968 (resulting in the establishment of multicultural study programs which still exist at universities today).  Many of San Francisco’s African American faith, civic, arts and culture leaders were educated through the program at State, either by the Richardsons themselves or the books they stocked at Marcus; 50 years later, the Richardsons’ daughter, granddaughter and extended family remain in San Francisco, providing black children with their very first books, as well as a safe community space where elders and organizers may engage in discussions on their journeys, from Jim Crow to the first black president. Yet for the past year, Marcus Books, one of those rare brick and mortar stores that operates in the black, has been waging a program for its own survival: The City’s community activists, elected supervisors and appointed commissioners achieved landmark status for the historic building, attorneys brokered a buyback after the property was sold at auction, and the store’s fund drive with a deadline at the end of Black History month is in its final stretch.  But Marcus is not the only community-serving destination that’s been diverted from its core mission to enlighten and educate: If a city’s bookstores are any indication of its cultural diversity and intellectual health, San Francisco is on the critical list. With City Lights the only vestige of the town’s Beat Generation past, the City’s last gay bookstore was laid to rest three years ago; it’s most progressive political book outlet in the Mission District is on the brink. A similar fate for Marcus Books would mean the end to longstanding black-owned businesses in the Fillmore, the so-called “heart and soul of the city,” a neighborhood once so diverse it was dubbed the “Little United Nations.” Seems The City That Knows How has forgotten where it came from and San Francisco is no longer the most progressive place on earth. Baldwin’s 1963 quote may’ve been specifically about Jim Crow ways and law, but a blow to Marcus Books could mean his message remains the same:  San Francisco’s reputation as a kindly city of love, tolerance and diversity will be forever tarnished; in fact, it may have been false advertising all along.

Marcus Books will be holding a hackathon on Saturday afternoon in San Francisco.

Donate directly to Marcus Books 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Jazz, Malcolm X, new article, San Francisco News, , ,

Update: Free Marcus Books

UnknownMarcus Books and its supporters won a small victory in the ongoing fight to save the store when this week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the preservation of the historic building.  In business for over 50 years, Marcus is America’s oldest black-owned bookstore and a San Francisco literary institution that’s hosted James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison, among countless other writers and thinkers; it is a huge part of the City’s African American heritage. Before it became a bookstore, the Victorian building originally located on Post Street was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, the legendary Fillmore District club that staged Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, among other jazz giants. The resolution put forth by Supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen, and supported by Supervisors of all districts, urges the new owners of the property to “uphold the building’s community serving purpose.”

At a rally and press conference Tuesday afternoon, hours before the resolution was passed, about 100 community and church leaders, as well as activists, artists and supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall (never mind the persistent sound of horns you will hear in this clip—in a separate but related issue, cab drivers were protesting the rogue transportation companies that have taken over the roadways in the face of SF’s latest tech boom).

“Tell everyone you know who loves truth and justice and tell them to get involved,” said Archibishop Franzo King of Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The Fillmore has historically been the scene of systematic removal of it residents, whether the internment of Japanese Americans in the ‘40s or the ‘50s and ‘60s relocation of its African American dwellers who were promised housing that never materialized. After a decades-long, so-called redevelopment project (which is now widely and finally acknowledged at the city government level as a failed undertaking), the Fillmore has rebuilt and rebooted more than once, but the well-documented exodus of middle to low-income people of color, and the working and artist classes from throughout San Francisco continues unabated. To state the  plainly obvious, unlike buildings, people cannot be replaced.

“This isn’t just about the bookstore,” said Marcus Books owner Greg Johnson.  “It’s about humanity.”

“This is about transfer of wealth, out of the hands of working class black folk…” said Rev. Arnold Townsend, Vice President of the local NAACP, at Tuesday’s press conference.

Most all of the speakers noted the persistent effort to save Marcus Books goes beyond highlighting the failing of brick and mortar book stores in the 21st Century; it touches realms of historical preservation of culture and ideas, and bores straight into matters regarding maintenance of a community hub. Literacy, education, and generally freely traded  knowledge of self and others are also at stake.

“When we lose our artists, we lose our stories,” said Tony Robles of grassroots arts organization, POOR Magazine.

“I would not be where I am without this book store,” stated devorah major, author, educator, and a San Francisco poet laureate.

The Marcus situation is sadly indicative of the changing demographics of the so-called sanctuary City of St. Francis, “with its widely advertised liberal and cosmopolitan tradition.”   But San Francisco’s track record with its African American population is not good, a contradiction that did not escape the notice of James Baldwin who participated in a film specially broadcast on public television station KQED in 1963.  I recommend the entire series of clips that follow from Take This Hammer.  And I especially commend San Francisco’s elected officials for taking the matter of Marcus Books and the larger problems it represents with the seriousness it demands.

For updates on the effort to Support  Marcus Books,  visit the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Filed under: Books, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, video, , , , ,

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