Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Much More Than Just Music in Chrissie Hynde’s Memoir, Reckless

I think of Chrissie Hynde’s stunning “My City Was Gone” just about everyday as I stalk the streets of Sanchrissie-hynde-reckless-h724-1 Francisco, searching for meaning and life in a place I used to and sometimes still do call home. The song’s themes of urban destruction and environmental decline in the name of so-called progress are threaded throughout Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life As A Pretender, among other unexpected twists to her rock star’s back pages, but then Hynde was never one to do the expected. The fact she let Rush LImbaugh get away with using the opening notes of “My City Was Gone,” for his radio show for years still boggles the mind: Rationalizing her parents were fans, with folks like that, is it any wonder she had to leave Akron?

Read entire review at DOWN WITH TYRANNY!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Reviews, rock 'n' roll, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

The Staple Singers: The Long March on Freedom’s Highway

StapleSinger_cover-450x450In April of 1965, just weeks after the historic marches for voting rights across Alabama, the Staple Singers convened at a South Side Chicago church for a service dedicated to the marchers. The resulting live album, Freedom Highway, has since become a recorded classic, merging soul-solid messages and spirit-rising music. Long out of print, it was reissued in an expanded edition this week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, though its gospel-sung dreams of justice for all are yet to be won.  Read my full review at Blurt online.

Filed under: Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Gospel, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

Van Morrison: Songwriter

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVanMorrisonLo limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

READ THE FULL BOOK REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE

This one goes out to the City of San Francisco, Inc.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, California, new article, Reviews, video, ,

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Cyndi Lauper: She’s Still So Unusual

Photo1 - (courtesy WeTV and Kinky Boots)Though I never owned  She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper in the ’80s (it was what we called “too commercial” for my taste), I was certainly happy to revisit it in its 30th anniversary vinyl edition, and hear it as the watershed in women’s recording it was.

By the time Cyndi Lauper made her solo debut in the fall of 1983, the year had already delivered some of ‘80s culture’s greatest hits: Michael Jackson had performed the moonwalk on the Motown 25 TV special; Sally Ride was the first woman to fly into outer space, and a black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned for the first time ever. Madonna was still a yet to be, in the process of defining herself on a debut that just skimmed the radar. Lauper however was fully formed, comfortable in her own skin and clothes, wrote her own songs and had enough chutzpah to take others’ songs and make them her own. She was also an extraordinary singer, then and now, her voice an expression of pure joy and an assertion of her freeness…

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE: 

Filed under: Reviews, vinyl, What Makes A Legend, Women in Rock, Women's rights, , , , ,

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, , ,

Goodbye Old Year, Happy New You

Among arts enthusiasts, there is the year-end tradition of list-making, that compulsive, hierarchical compiling of bests and worsts that at its most sinister and cynical is rooted in the marriage of media and market forces and at its most benign is a form of entertainment for us media freaks and geeks. I happen to enjoy the tradition of critically reviewing the year in culture; it helps me remember its themes and threads and some of the good times as I determine what I shall carry forward versus what I’d rather forget. Listmaking or at least the act of reading and sharing of lists, is a form of community; and a little like resolutions, a list can hold you accountable for your taste, revealing however impeccable, poor, quirky, or mediocre it might be. Top Tens are also great conversation starters, and they can contribute toward creating a grassroots buzz for the otherwise unheralded.  Word of mouth is still my favorite way of receiving a recommendation, especially when so many other channels of information have been cut-off or rendered unreliable.  “I didn’t hear it, but a friend told me she liked it,” is often a good enough reason for me to try something new. Which brings me to my own list of a few of my favorite things from 2011.

Tassili by Tinawiren produced by Ian Brennan: Mali music spiked with the art rock of TV on the Radio, a taste of New Orleans from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and all the soul of Tinawiren’s distinct desert blues.

Detroit Ville Sauvage aka Detroit Wild City, directed by Florent Tillon, concerns the regenerating landscape and pioneering people of one of America’s greatest cities.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson, conjoins lost and found footage of the struggle in the ‘60s and early ‘70s with the voices of contemporary artists and activists (its narrative echoes the story told in Keep on Pushing, but that’s not the only reason I liked it).

La Havre by Aki Kurismaki.  A middle-aged French bohemian with problems of his own offers asylum to a young immigrant from Africa, separated from his family in the port city of La Havre.

Activist and educator, Dr. Cornel West and journalist Tavis Smiley for The Poverty Tour.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee for her activism.

Journalist Amy Goodman for her coverage of the Occupy movement

All the citizens who occupied our streets and parks, from coast to coast.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  The story of trio of students forced to reevaluate everything they’ve learned up until graduation day will ring through for not only ’80s grads but the graduating classes of  2012 and 2013, too.

The Last Holiday by Gil Scott-Heron: A memoir as well as the story of how a hip hop original, alongside Stevie Wonder, contributed toward establishing the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I can’t wait to read it.

Who and what contributed to some of your most treasured moments, events and artistic endeavors from the year that was?  And what are you looking forward to in the year that is?

Twenty-eleven was chock-a-block with personal milestones on my calendar—not least of which was the publication of Keep on Pushing--though I’d like to begin 2012 with a few words of thanks for the memories, inspiration and encouragement from this past super-year. First to my readers—whether we are strangers, relatives, colleagues, kindred spirits or friends for real, your support of the book has meant a great deal to me.  In the cases where we’ve dialogued, whether about the book’s themes, its soundtrack, the artists, and my reasons for writing about them, your inquiries and  feedback have been most gratifying. I am indebted to the thoughtful interviewers—broadcast and print journalists—who took the book to their hearts and invited me in for conversation.  In a new section of the blog headed Audio, I’ve recapped some of those recorded highlights (or I should say, the miracle that is internet radio and its archives has preserved them, in perpetuity).  Also, I owe yet another round of thanks to the publications that reviewed the book, as well as to the book sellers and librarians who invited me to participate in events at their stores and institutions, my editors and publisher Lawrence Hill Books and its distributor IPG, as well as the the musicians and poets who supported me at those appearances by performing for free. Chuck D’s tweet  about the book on New Year’s Eve ended the year on a sweet, high note.

We plan to Keep on Pushing throughout the election year with our revue. If you are a musician, a poet, an educator, activist, or a citizen who wants to get into it and get involved, please be in touch. Wishing us all peace, prosperity and good health in the new year (and whatever else it takes to move up a little higher, someway, somehow).

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Occupy Wall Street, Reviews, , , , ,

Vibration is…Positive for Keep on Pushing

“A pleasing survey of soul music, from Lead Belly to Johnny Otis to Michael Franti to Louis Farrakhan . . . Sullivan offers a welcome exploration of how African-American popular music became America’s vernacular.”—Kirkus Reviews

Sullivan . . . combines impressive research and wide-ranging interviews in a multilayered narrative about the power of music within black liberation, civil rights, antiwar, and gender-related movements . . . This is for anyone interested in a thorough analysis of music as a commanding force in change as well as a continually evolving artistic presence.” —Library Journal

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Reviews, , , ,

Keep on Pushing Reviewed in July Print Edition of Under the Radar

“Reaching as well into the areas of punk rock, reggae, and finally hip-hop, Keep On Pushing admirably points out numerous key developments and connections throughout a vital, revolutionary element of popular music.” —Under the Radar

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Reviews, , ,

Kudos For Keep on Pushing in Pop Matters


“…Sullivan paints with condensed strokes, documenting in succinct sections how the music segued with powerful protest movements to smash disfranchisement and rouse sometimes fleeting victories, daring “to question the new freedoms and the quality of life ‘freedom’ brought in the face of liberty’s inconsistencies and … costs.”  -Pop Matters

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Reviews, ,

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