Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Remembering Tom Petty

Tom Petty was born today in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida.  He died suddenly earlier this month at home in Los Angeles.

Like countless rock ‘n’ roll fans of my generation, I loved the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from the first notes I heard.  I saw the band perform countless times in every decade they worked, from an early band show at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, to an intimate gig at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell sat in with J.J. Cale.  The Heartbreakers and their leader made it look easy, in the way that only musicians who are of one mind do: The mastery of their musicianship and its intensity, particularly over the three nights I saw them during their historic Fillmore run, remains burned in my consciousness. When I call up the memory, I can feel the room levitate as it did each night during “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” Not every concert is like that.

This month’s column is dedicated to the music and memory of Tom Petty with a focus on his quiet work as a philanthropist, and not so quiet work as a rock ‘n’ roll giant.  READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE at Tourworthy.

 

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Filed under: Obituary, rock 'n' roll, Rock Birthdays, , , ,

Prophets of Rage, Rage On

Prophets-of-Rage.jpgOn the occasion of the one year anniversary of its formation, I filed a brief overview of Prophets of Rage, the supergroup, featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford, B-Real of Cypress Hill, and DJ Lord. The rap-metal band is on a mission to “Make America Rage Again.” Read the entire story at Tourworthy:

Filed under: anti-war, Black Power,, Hip Hop, rock 'n' roll, , , , ,

Back On The Chain Gang

Dear Readers,

It’s an unusual post where I want to send you away from my site and toward another, but that’s the case this evening…As it happens, I’m back on the rock ‘n’ roll beat and want to point you to a couple of publications where my work is now playing:

Last week, a group of former colleagues launched No Recess! a music and culture site that aims to bring you some good reading on rock ‘n’ roll, resistance, and whatever else they feel like.

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Check my contributions, a column titled What Are We Gonna Do Now? and subtitled Rock and Resist or Rollover.  I also contribute a book review of the new autobiography by the Band’s Robbie Robertson.   And here’s a film review of I Called Him Morgan), and a news brief (an item on John Hurt Jr.)

I’m also filing a monthly column over at Tourworthy.  My first piece is on the Latino psychedelic soulsters with a message, Chicano Batman.   I hope you’ll look deeper into these new publications and lend them your eyes (and ears) as they keep you up-to-date on the sounds that matter, on the music that’s making a difference. As ever, thanks for reading!

Filed under: Protest Songs, rock 'n' roll, video, You Read It Here First

With or Without You: U2’s The Edge at the End of the World

I’m a beach person. Maybe it goes back to when my people came here by boat, in the early 20th Century, and set up businessbono-the-edge1 at the water’s edge. Born on an avenue named after the sea, the story goes my parents met at San Francisco’s public beach and I took some of my earliest steps there. Of my not-so-many teenage accomplishments, I took most pride in holding what I think was the land speed record of 30 minutes by Mustang, from high school parking lot to Sunny Cove in Santa Cruz. As an adult, I’ve lived life either blocks away or on a bus line to the water. I’m comfortable wearing the scars of a weather-worn Californian who knows her Coast, from Del Norte to Coronado.

David Evans, better known to the world as musician the Edge, was born outside of London, England, though his parents hailed from a coastal town in South Wales. The family moved when Evans was a babe in arms to Dublin, the Emerald Isle, where he formed a band with schoolmates Paul Hewson, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. (during the same window of time I was burning up the highway). Our generation was taught, by rock itself and the previous generation’s missteps, to tear up the rules and start again. U2, for their part, did it their way, and in a big way, joining spirituality and romance with a post-punk sound that rubbed against the grain of the movement’s nihilistic and apocalyptic profile. Edge was a guitar innovator and key architect of the sound of U2, who’d come to be identified as earnest, naive, over-arching, dramatic, and populist, mostly owed to singer Bono’s undeniable charisma and confidence. Occasionally humorous (though not enough), in their years as a top name in rock ‘n’ roll, they’ve collaborated with artists the likes of Salman Rushdie and Wim Wenders, sat at tables with world leaders, and used their name to do good, raising money for Africa’s hungry with Live Aid and Ireland’s jobless with Self Aid and for worldwide human rights with Amnesty International. Bono co-founded the One and (Red) campaigns to ease poverty and disease, and Edge created Music Rising to support musicians post-Katrina. Most recently, the band lifted its voice against terrorism in Paris. Supporting all manner of progressive causes, a list of the band’s good works would be exhaustive; they are peerless, though their lofty aspirations toward creating a better world have made them easy targets, especially Bono because, well, he’s Bono. Like Bono, The Edge is in an elite class as a member of the band whose recent world tour grosses broke all previously existing box office records. Their spoils include multiple residences not only in their country of origin, but here and elsewhere.  And as of December of last year, the 150,000 highly contested acres The Edge acquired above Malibu in the Santa Monica Mountains has been cleared by the California Coastal Commission for development.

Read The Entire Story in Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Environmental Justice, gentrification, rock 'n' roll, , , ,

New Replacements Bio Lays Rock to Rest

-1Faultily wired from the womb, like all true rockers from Little Richard to Johnny Thunders, the things that were wrong with the Replacements were precisely what was so right about them. Forming in the late ’70s, a time before rock became the domain of the pasty and privileged college set, problem child Bob Stinson slapped a bass on his baby brother Tommy in an effort to save him from a similar juvenile delinquent fate. A girl, and there were always girls around, introduced them to drummer Chris Mars. Eventually, Paul Westerberg, the child of an alcoholic with his own disobedience disorder, heard the din coming from the practice house, and the games would commence.

“It was the four of us.  It was an attitude that made those songs,” says Westerberg in the new and definitive biography of the band, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, by Commercial Appeal critic, Bob Mehr. READ ENTIRE BOOK REVIEW AT BLURT:

Filed under: Books, new article, Punk, rock 'n' roll, , , , , , ,

Born to Rock: Lead Belly

leadbellyLead Belly was born around this day of January in 1888 or nine. This is a portion of his story, adapted from my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

“I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite performer,” said Kurt Cobain. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” claimed George Harrison, and the same may as well be said for Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page was rocking “Cotton Fields” back in 1957. According to Van Morrison, “If it wasn’t for Lead Belly, I may never have been here.” And yet, Lead Belly—born Huddie Ledbetter near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888—is rarely the first traditional American musician historians credit with the creation of rock ‘n’ roll or the bands of the British Invasion. His contribution to rock is as fundamental and profound as those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, so why is it we don’t hear that much anymore about his legend? Perhaps it can be blamed on the boll weevil he sung about—and it indeed may have something to do with cotton—though the diminishing of Lead Belly’s influence on rock is likely just another case of the forgotten origins of song.

The Louisianan’s sound first came to impact the young lads who would go on to form the classic rock bands of the ’60s via the British Isle’s mid-’50s skiffle craze. Rooted in the jug band style of the 1920s, skiffle’s homemade and improvised style relied on the wacky sounds of household items like washboard, comb, and homemade instruments—the stuff that makes for its irresistible, ecstatic sound. Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan’s frantic version of “Rock Island Line”, first popularized by Lead Belly, swept across the land like skiffle-mania, boosting guitar sales and launching a thousand bands, like young Jim Page’s combo as well as the Quarrymen (who we all know by now birthed the Beatles).

For Morrison—who’d already developed a taste for the blues voices of the American South—skiffle provided confirmation of the potential for what an Irishman could do with a Black American folk sound. The Lead Belly repertoire meeting English skiffle marked the beginning of his long association with rock ‘n’ roll; though stateside he was more of a singular phenomenon, as well as a folker.

Coming up through traditional, mythological American folkways, it is said that folklorist John Lomax discovered Lead Belly during the singer’s stay at Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary (it was his third incarceration). It was there that Lomax and his son Alan recorded songs by him for the Library of Congress, some of them passed on to Lead Belly through his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson; among them was the standard “Goodnight Irene”, which eventually became Lead Belly’s calling card.

As one version of the story goes, Lomax pressed a record of Lead Belly and presented it to the state’s governor, who was so taken with it that the prison doors unlocked for his release. So off went Lomax and Lead Belly, at this point close to 50 years old, to New York and toward a career in show business.

As a late-comer to the game, Lead Belly was not in on the earliest rush of race records in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it was his less-than-polished Lomax recordings that would come to define him; that may be one contributing factor toward explaining a present-day resistance to a full embrace of Lead Belly as pre-rock ‘n’ roller. Additionally, Lomax’s song-catcher practices are a source of controversy and a sore subject among blues researchers. Objections to the way Lead Belly was discovered, promoted, and recorded are cited; indeed, shortly after his initial agreement with him, it appears Lead Belly found the arrangement with Lomax unacceptable too. Though not long after severing ties with Lomax (he would eventually resume relations with the Lomax family) Lead Belly accepted a press opportunity to be photographed, costumed in black and white prisoner’s attire, performing his role of ex-convict made good. By the end of the ’30s, he’d gone on to find success writing topical songs (“The Bourgeois Blues”) and fell in with the left-leaning protest singing community—though he didn’t necessarily abide its progressive politics. His association with fellow travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, found the FBI hunting him as well. What Lead Belly, the folksinger, really desired was to launch a career in Hollywood, but that wasn’t meant to be.

None of these political or personal, salient or picayune points debated by historians or surveyed here concerned the queen of civil rights music, Odetta. She cut straight to the emotional delivery and content of Lead Belly’s songs and made his work her guidepost throughout her long career; she was the bridge to folk rock. “When I started in the years of folk music, it was a discovery,” she said to an audience at UCLA in 2008. As part of a self-directed exploration of her cultural heritage, she came upon the Lomax recordings in the 1950s and recognized in Lead Belly’s songs the sound of slavery, “my people,” she said. Her earliest recordings include Ledbetter arrangements of “Alabama Bound” and “Take This Hammer”, released in 1956 and 1957 respectively; she is famously credited for inspiring Dylan to pick up the acoustic guitar. Dylan’s recording debut (prior to his own solo album, on which he name-checked Lead Belly) came as a harmonica player, for calypso and Lead Belly fan Harry Belafonte, who cut the traditional “Midnight Special” for his 1962 album of the same title. Belafonte had previously recorded Lead Belly’s composition “Cotton Fields” in 1959, one of the songs that gets covered and covered by artists diverse as Buck Owens to Buckwheat Zydeco (young Jimmy Page played it with his skiffle band). By 1969, when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered both “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” for their Willy and the Poor Boys album, doing Lead Belly had become a rock ‘n’ roll requirement or at the very least a very trendy thing to do—even the Beach Boys had a hit with “Cotton Fields.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin got the Lead out when they turned “Gallis Pole” into “Gallows Pole” on their adventures in acoustic folk album, III (they later revived it in their Page and Plant incarnation). First recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Gallis Pole”, the song is based on “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”, likely of Scandinavian origin and run through the British ballad tradition. Page first heard the song as arranged by Fred Gerlach. “He’d been influenced originally by Lead Belly,” Page is quoted as saying in Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography, though Zeppelin was certainly not unaware of Lead Belly. “He was one of the main movers when I was a kid,” says Robert Plant (quoted in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, also the source for the endorsements by Harrison, Cobain, and Morrison above). Plant and his collaborator, Alison Krauss, first bonded musically at a Lead Belly tribute concert. Perhaps there is more to the story of how they got the Led in their name than goes the legend of John Entwistle’s joke about the potential for a supergroup to fall flat, “like a lead zeppelin.”

But like cotton, the King of the 12-String could not remain king forever. Them old cotton fields back home were beginning to recede from popular consciousness as songs of urban discontent began to take their place. In addition, the Rolling Stones, who had previously brought their audience to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were now touting Robert Johnson. Their 1969 version of his song “Love in Vain” preceded to the market place the 1970 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its new cache of Johnson songs. The Johnson and Delta influence remains a big deal to this day, its legends and iconography completely enmeshed with blues culture as we know it. Lead Belly’s prison songs, children’s songs, and field and work songs didn’t fit so neatly into bluesology, and rock became a Lead-free zone, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1977, Ram Jam put some Southern rock funk into Lead Belly’s “Black Betty,”  though the Top 20 single wasn’t a hit with critics or (according to lore) with racial equality groups. The track played Lead Belly’s rock potential to maximum effect (though it is regrettable if anyone got hurt by it). As the ’80s arrived, punk rock and new wave took Lead Belly underground with it, as Bongwater, Michelle Shocked, and X became keepers of the flame. Proudly in synch with the pulse of the people and the hard times that echoed his original era, X turned “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” into an elegy for a loved one and revived “Rock Island Line” with their folky side project, the Knitters.” A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly joined Little Richard and Fishbone on “Rock Island Line” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson came back for another pass at Lead Belly on “Goodnight Irene”, though the project did more for boosting the rock cred of Guthrie (who got the Springsteen and Mellencamp treatment) than it did for Lead Belly.

From there, it was on to the Pacific Northwest and under the bridge where Kurt Cobain lived. The Nirvana man brought his tape of Lead Belly songs to his band’s earliest rehearsals; he and fellow founding grunge scenester Mark Lanegan shared an enthusiasm for him, as heard on their duet of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (found on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album). Nirvana’s definitive performance of the song on Unplugged was an immediate highlight of that show, when Cobain’s guttural wrenching was assumed to be tied to his personal life and precarious emotional states. It’s hard to top that one, though when Alvin Youngblood Hart rejuvenated “Gallows Pole” in Lead Belly-style on his 1996 album, Big Mama’s Door, he brought back Lead Belly’s quickness and dexterity on his instrument full circle: Just man and guitar.

Lead Belly lived out his final days in New York, eventually succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. Had he lived another year, he would’ve seen his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”, turned into a million-seller, a #1 hit as interpreted lightly by the Weavers. The overlooked genius of Lead Belly is that his songs and mighty rearrangements continue to transgress genres and generations, from folk to rock, from Pete Seeger to Jack White. Just think what we would’ve missed had Jimmy Page pursued a career in research science as he’d intended rather than picking his way to the top of the “Gallows Pole.” By the 21st century, the White Stripes played “Red Bird” and “Take a Whiff on Me”, and if the show went well, they’d close it with “Boll Weevil”, yet another folk tune popularized by Lead Belly. I’ve heard of Two Gallants playing “Mother’s Blues” aka “Little Children’s Blues” live, though only time can tell who’ll be the next in line to shine an ever-lovin’ light on the songs of Lead Belly.

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Origin of Song, rock 'n' roll, Rock Birthdays, , , , ,

Heaven Loves Ya: David Bowie, 1947-2016

maxresdefault-1It’s been a day of mourning throughout the rock’n’roll nation: David Bowie, 69, died last night. The worldwide outpouring of grief transcended racial, gender and sexual orientation, economic, and national boundaries, just as the Brixton-born artist’s music did. The last thing any of us need are more words or further analysis of an already well-documented life and depth of the art: Bowie’s creative expression of rebellion will ring in the hearts of anyone with their mind set on freedom for generations to come. And now here goes anyway…

Read the entire remembrance at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Obituary, rock 'n' roll, ,

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, , , , , , ,

Thanks for the Music: Van Morrison is 70 Today

Written last summer for Blurt online, I’m reposting my review of Morrison’s collected lyrics, Lit Up Inside, on his 70th birthday.

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVan-Morrison-1 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.

It is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Van-Morrison-book-343x500Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

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