Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Postmodern Times Requiem

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Poet Janice Mirikitani, GLIDE co-founder and housing activist, at State of the City Forum on Gentrification Issues, curated and moderated throughout 2014-15 by Denise Sullivan at Modern Times Bookstore Collective

How does a revolutionary bookstore and its personnel survive in the new Gilded Age?  A rhetorical question perhaps, but often asked, discussed, debated, and ultimately decided at 2919 24th Street in San Francisco, Modern Times Bookstore Collective. After 45 years of selling incendiary books to the loving people, the bookstore will close its doors next month.

You say you’re sad? We are too. You hope another independent radical bookstore will take its place. How can it?

Modern Times is where the brave, the broken, the bleeding hearts go to be repaired and refreshed, to be fed by literature and conversation, made (mostly) by Marxists,  Radical Queers, revolutionary sweetheart poets, and organized minds, the kind who protect Black Lives and Sacred Waters; your housing advocates, labor unionists, People’s politicians, Green partiers, anti-ablist, anti-ageist, anti-capitalist, anarchist cooks, militant vegans, and hopeful activists. And then there were the passersby who knew–there was a bathroom inside.

It was dirty in there: Waged that  war once or twice and lost it. I heard the staff of another neighborhood bookstore, never mind its name, speak ill of our sacred, safe, Spanish-speaking (ok, poor-Spanish-speaking), space. It hurt, but why reply and dignify ignorance: We were too busy anyway, blasting the surveillance state, police terror, environmental crisis, and the racist, sexist, bully nation.

We’ve been beat up, we’ve been thrown out, but we’re not down. We’re coming up, coming out, over the wall, across the bridge, under the freeway, on the block, in the chamber, in the jail cell, special housing unit, death row, and we’re gonna be alright. Because we don’t stop, you don’t stop, and there is no. sleep. ’til recall. Just know, even when the power gets cut, and the nights grow long and cold, Modern Times still sees you, and the little light that shines from your heart.

Written on October 11, 2016, barely revised, and read live that night at the Mission Bookstores/ Litquake Benefit, accompanied by Victor Krummenacher on guitar. Long live Modern Times Bookstore Collective.

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Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, California, Never Forget, Now Playing, Protest Songs, racism, San Francisco News,

Kandia Crazy Horse: Ready For the Country

Kandia useKandia Crazy Horse is on a crusade to become the first black woman to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.

Noting that the oval office, hockey, tennis, “and even show jumping” can claim high-ranking blacks breaking the color barrier, Kandia asks, “Why not in country music? I wouldn’t want my children to think the only Black Country singer was Charley Pride.” Creating a black female presence in Americana is Kandia’s personal Kilimanjaro.

Read the entire story of Kandia Crazy Horse by Denise Sullivan posted in today’s SXSW edition of Blurt online.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Catch a Rising Star, Civil Rights, Concerts, Georgia, Harlem, Interview, Mali, new article, Now Playing, Smarter than the average bear, , , , , , , ,

We Still Insist: Freedom Now!

Good Morning, Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday to the Emancipation Proclamation, 151 years old today. Back in ’63, when the document intended to free all slaves was just a spry 100-year-old memory, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, was conceived as a performance piece to celebrate that centennial. Freedom Now, as it is more commonly known, is credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom, much the way Sonny Rollins and his Freedom Suite of 1958 was  the first experiment in liberation sound.

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Max Roach was born in rural North Carolina for the record on January 10, 1924 (though by his family’s recollection it was the January 8) and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate, and he spoke and performed frequently for the cause.  Roach’s epic recorded suite, 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, rendered in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphically and imagery-wise:  Its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, is of course a reference 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.

Making a link between the oppression of negroes in the US to 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-four 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 black power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band (Clifford Jordan, tenor sax; Coleridge Perkinson, piano; Eddie Khan, bass) 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.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Concerts, Freedom Now, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Max Roach, Now Playing, video, , , , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

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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, , , , , , , ,

Summertime Blues

Chuck D and Tjinder Singh consistently stick out their necks to make music that matters. Here are their summer jams: Two that will help keep cool, the old school/soul school.

“I Shall Not Be Moved” from the new Public Enemy album, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp

and “Milkin’ It” featuring In Light of Aquarius, from the new Cornershop album, Urban Turban

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Now Playing, , , ,

Now Playing: The Pointer Sisters, “Yes We Can Can”

I was thinking about the Pointer Sisters today—The 1973 Pointer Sisters—and how their first album was one that rarely left my turntable that year. I was a child and mercifully I’ve held on to most of my records from then; curiously, this one’s  in pretty good condition—too good I’d say, to have belonged to a kid—which leads me to believe it’s not my original. Back then, I was in the habit of marking all my LP records with a DYMO tape sticker that said DENISE. Just like that, all caps, white letters on orange or green, sometimes red or blue though rarely yellow. But because the DYMO tape or any evidence of having been stuck by DYMO tape is missing (I like typing DYMO), I’m thinking the copy I’m holding of the Pointer Sisters’ self titled album on the Blue Thumb label was at some point reacquisitioned, between 1973 and now.

It’s uncharacteristic of me not to know exactly when I came by a record; that’s just how it is with people who collect records (or if you collect anything, you know what I’m talking about). Obtaining the object is part of its memory, which I find is selective and often obscured by all kinds of clouds and things. But records are the proverbial madeleine that take us back to the land that time (and sometimes I) forgot; songs may come and go, but it’s the record that helps me remember.

Opening the gatefold sleeve today, I recalled a few things: How as a girl, I preferred the portraits on the outer sleeve to the stylized inner sleeve which I bitterly critiqued as “staged.” The outer sleeve was real, or so I thought, not knowing photos were taken at a thing called a photo shoot, set up by a photographer (H.B. Greene according to the sleeve notes) who has an assistant. Preferring the sepia-toned “authentic” 1940s styling on the outer sleeve to the glossy, deco design on the inside, I’d pegged the Pointers as down-to-earth, regular people, not Hollywood types; they were after all local, from Oakland. This is how it should be, them living in a Victorian-styled house like the one pictured on the cover,  them dressed in ’40s casual, just as they would everyday.  I never talked to a single other kid about The Pointer Sisters first album or what they wore or how they wore it, I just know I’d still give my right arm for a dress just like the one June is wearing in the photo, perfect as it is in every way. Anyone who remembers these things like I do will tell you that baby June, the youngest Pointer, had the style thing completely locked-up. Such a fashion icon she was, it’s a wonder I didn’t take to wearing a turban like she did, though I think I intuited it probably wouldn’t go over very well at school. Where did a child obtain a turban anyway?

As for the music, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Forty years later, we all know everything about everything and all I’ve got is my stale madeleine from the early ’70s and my Pointer Sisters reverie. The first time I heard the Willie Dixon song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” it was not performed by Etta James; rather, it was right there in my bedroom with the yellow floral wallpaper, at the end of side two of The Pointer Sisters.  For sure, that was also the first time I ever saw the name A. Toussaint on a writing credit.  Allen Toussaint is of course a legend of New Orleans piano style and the songwriting giant who wrote the album’s opener, “Yes We Can Can.”  Why do I waste my breath? You knew that. Heck, even I knew as a small fry that Lee Dorsey was known for doing the song first; he’d been around the prior decade with “Ya Ya.”  I knew that one by heart for reasons I can’t possibly relay right now without getting way off course. Put it this way: “It may sound funny but I don’t believe she’s coming home” rung some bells for me.  I also liked the smooth vocals in “Jada,” one of the songs the Sisters themselves are partially credited with writing.  But really, what I was most concerned with in 1973 wasn’t the music but in getting hold of some old plastic fruit, likely the cherries from the bowl at my great-grandmother’s house, so I could fashion a bunch into a corsage that I could wear on the lapel of my Eisenhower jacket from Lerner’s, to be worn with some wide-bell high-waist pants and platform sandals. Pointer Sisters style, for real.

In closing, I was going to say I don’t remember what we did without You Tube but that would be a big fat lie. I remember perfectly well what we did and that was, we’d watch really bad video tapes that were hard to store and even harder to find on shelves, usually caked with dust. Once we got the tape in the VCR it had to be fast forwarded and rewound so many times, so maybe, just maybe you could find that segment of Soul Train you were looking for but started to regret you ever taped in the first place, since if you hadn’t taped it, you wouldn’t be messing around with a stupid remote control that never worked because the battery was like 10 years old to begin with.  Recalling this foolishness, I am wasting my own time and now yours, when all I mean to say is,  just try to imagine how I felt when I found this clip of “Yes We Can Can” today, because I can’t possibly describe the feeling of joy, such joy—not in 250 words or less I couldn’t—though I will add this:  If there is one song to have had burned into your consciousness, to have been etched onto your soul, and sent with you on your way into the world, this one isn’t a bad one to have that be. Bless you, Mr. Allen Toussaint and Ms. Pointers, Anita, Ruth, Bonnie, and June. Thank you for the record—and for my memories.  Great gosh all mighty.

Filed under: Now Playing, , , , , , , , ,

Now Playing: Come Back, Africa

Come Back, Africa is a rare piece of cinema:  Not only will fans of cinéma vérité, Italian neorealist, and French new wave film find much to love about its style, historians will find it to be a valuable film document of an otherwise largely unrecorded period in Africa’s history.  At once a brilliant documentary and strong anti-apartheid statement, Come Back, Africa is also jammed with music: From the streets and townships of South Africa to its speakeasies or shebeensCome Back, Africa introduced singer Miriam Makeba to the world. Among those impressed by the Lionel Rogosin film was Harry Belafonte; the actor/singer/activist would become a mentor, friend and benefactor to Makeba, would help her secure gigs, and would set her in the direction of performing the sounds of South Africa around the globe, while spreading the word against apartheid. 

With South African writers, Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, Rogosin developed a filmic narrative  driven by the dilemma of people being forceable removed from their land. Come Back, Africa “laid bare apartheid’s ruthless cruelties,” wrote Belafonte, as it tells the story of Zacharia, a man who leaves his country life, his wife Vinah, and their children, to seek work in Johannesburg. What he finds there are unfamiliar laws rooted in racism and a series of dead-end jobs. He confronts inadequate housing and street violence, though a handful of souls provide sanctuary; he is introduced  to political ideas and dialogue by the artists and writers of the Sophiatown Renaissance.

Putting non-actors to work amidst the unrest, Come Back, Africa depicted dignity and tragedy; it exposed tremendous human failing, and it revealed glimpses of humanity and compassion.  A prize-winning documentarian for his first film On the Bowery (concerning the men on New York’s Skid Row in the late ‘50s), Rogosin made Come Back, Africa largely in secrecy, under the pretense that he was making a travelogue of South African music. He was eventually granted permission to make the film; Time Magazine called it one of the best films of 1960 (alongside The Apartment and Elmer Gantry).  “I took a vow at the end of World War II to fight fascism and racism wherever I saw it,” he said.

Writer, producer and director Rogosin was characterized by John Cassevettes as “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” He founded the Bleeker Street Cinema and would continue to make films, though later in life, he would have trouble finding the funding for his projects.

Come Back, Africa, starring Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile, and featuring Miriam Makeba, has been beautifully restored and is currently in re-release. It screens at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater from February 3-8.

Read more about Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte and the music of anti-apartheid in

Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, Now Playing, , , ,

Now Playing: Tinariwen

Tassili  is Tinariwen’s latest collection of desert blues from Mali. This song features Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, the contemporary  indie rock band from Brooklyn.

[youtube.com/watch?v=BOV5jEa-vwc]

Filed under: Blues, France, Mali, Now Playing

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