Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Happy Xmas

Some time in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances, but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage).

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

As most readers know, Spector is currently serving time in a California state prison for using a firearm to murder Lana Clarkson. Legend has it Johnny Ace shot himself by accident, and the persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented. Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence.  The song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” itself has inspired many covers,  none of them worth mentioning, and at least one (Billy Bob Thornton) worth calling out as being unmentionable. The only version worth a bleep I’ve ever heard is the original:  It just might be the best rock’n’roll song to capture the spirit of Christmas.

If, after reading this and enduring the year we’ve shared, you’re seeking something a bit cheerier, I’ve included a clip of “Run Rudolph Run” by original rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry—yet another Lennon-inspirer who we lost in March of this year. Consider it a seasonal gift: Merry Christmas Everybody, and God Bless Us, Everyone.

Advertisements

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jim Morrison, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

New Ebook, Shaman’s Blues

shamans_bluesWhat was meant to be a short, between books project is now officially a new ebook, Shaman’s Blues. As an author from traditional publishing and as a person who spends much of her energy as a books advocate and activist, it’s a strange twist that my own title is available through that infamous bookstore-eating electronic channel. Let’s just say it’s an experiment for this writer and others like me: We’re in processing of discovering whether it’s possible to earn a living from our books instead of owing our publishers infinitely. Whether it’s possible to do that, as I’ve heard some writers have done, remains to be discovered. The good news in all this is a hardcover edition of the book will be available October 1 at independent booksellers and libraries (ordering details will appear here soon). And if you’re a traveler or fan of e-reading, Shaman’s Blues is available to you at no cost, beginning Friday August 22-Sunday August 24. For now, please visit the Blooming Twig/Sumach-Red blog for a taste of what you’ll find inside. And thanks for taking a chance on Shaman’s Blues.

Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Protest Songs, You Read It Here First

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, , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme