Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Tao of Rock

“If the Tao is a way of doing something in concert with its essential nature, David Meltzer’s ‘Rock Tao,’ a relic from the 1960s published for the first time this year by Lithic Press, is an aptly named guide. It’s a book as mysterious, ageless and full of contradiction as rock music itself.

Presented on the page as a textual collage in six parts, Meltzer alternates quotations from the I Ching with Greek philosophy and lyrics by the Supremes. He expounds on the teen appeal of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and touches on the artistry of Sam Cooke and showmanship of James Brown, among others. Weaving in and out of the music with scene-changing headlines, Meltzer chronicles, annotates, observes and critiques his times in “Rock Tao,” providing a portal into the mind of an insider.” Read the full story, my latest for Datebook in the San Francisco Chronicle

Filed under: Books, California, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

Future of Live Music Still Uncertain

Musician David James outside his Mission District home on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Musicians and live music venues are truly hurting five months into the pandemic: With all benefits expired, and no sign of returning to work on the horizon, clubs and the players themselves have turned to crowdfunding, busking (at risk to themselves and others) and live streaming from home for a small fee. So far, the live streams have proven to be either substandard or just plain boring and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on offer in the way of innovation or improved quality.  There are also the artists who won’t stay off the internet: broadcasting from their living rooms, hawking merch, doing what people have to do to survive. Yet art and music are important to a culture and to the well being of all people. Where is the support for it on a national, state and local level?  Where is the relief? It’s a sad state of things when the best option put forth at the highest levels of entertainment has been turning drive-in movie theaters into music venues. Ok, maybe. It’s a start (though do you know where there are still existing drive-ins? I don’t). Until there’s a real solution on offer, perhaps the best an artist can do while not drawing an income is to turn to woodshedding–the sharpening of skills, learning new tricks, deepening one’s artistry–and composing. 

San Francisco bandleader and guitarist David James finally got a break after years of hard work on the road and behind the counter: In addition to being a professional touring and recording musician (with Spearhead and The Coup), he’s held a day job as a record buyer for 35 years which means he could more easily claim unemployment than the average independent musician (there are also bands-as-corporations, like the Eagles and Pearl Jam who got gigantic PPP payouts, but this post isn’t about that, exactly). As for James, his bonus arrived just in time: An artist’s grant earmarked for the composition of a suite, based on the life of his father.  You can read the full story in my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives.

Photo of Henri Cash by Gilbert Trejo

During the pandemic season, I also visited (by phone) with young guitarist, Henri Cash of Starcrawler: He was set to visit the DMZ in Korea for a peace festival when live music and festival gathering came to a halt and the possibility of a long flight overseas was out of the question. Lucky for him, Cash had seen a good part of the world as a teenager with his band’s several tours of Europe and Asia before the world went awry.  Until further notice, he’s chillin’ at home with his family like the rest of us. His thoughts on pandemic life appeared in my column for Tourworthy.

And early in the breakdown of the nation’s health and welfare, I spoke to singer-songwriter, Betty Soo. She decided to come off the road early, out of precaution for herself and others, and immediately learned what she could about live stream production. As early as March, she was concerned about the future of the tiny folk clubs and coffeehouses where artists like herself are traditionally best heard and it was her aim to share her earnings with them. I also talked to Soo’s friend, singer-songwriter, Jaime Harris (the two paired up for some broadcasts). Read the full story about Soo and Harris here.

Everyday citizens and the people in congress who represent us don’t seem to understand the income streams and the way musicians earn their pay – If they did, the laws about music monopolies and online streaming would change. Nothing I or anyone else can say can will make it any more clear: There is no money to be made from streaming. Musicians earn money when they play on the road. The rest of the time, the pay pie is eaten up by everyone but the person who creates it. Please think about that the next time you pay nothing for a piece of music. Musicians are people trying to survive the pandemic too.

What in the world are we and the musicians of the world going to do about the future of live music? Rest assured, there is hope. Where there are artists, there is a solution in the works: Musicians have the insight and vision to imagine new realities for all of us. It’s just a matter of when.

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

Come Back Little Stevie (for JW)

It’s been years since I saw you at Gilbert’s El Indio

We waved but I didn’t stay. It was clear you were in deep

They say I wouldn’t recognize you so I’ve kept my vision pure

Giddy, ridiculous, sun bombed, self-conscious, unselfconscious

Like Stevie

Back then, we knew everything there was to know about

Everything

You couldn’t tell us

Anything

We hadn’t yet left home or done much

But we were destined

For the big screen and magazines

You knew the names of all the actors and the models, even the minor ones

Patti Hanson, Kim Alexis

I committed it all to memory. Documenting the rise. I’d write your bio, say I knew you when

We were 15 but said we were 16, just so we could work

At Woolworths

I thought you were smart, had things wired

And you did

Until the switch flipped

I don’t know when you found trouble or how it found you

These things have gone wrong since the dawn of time,

Or at least since the dawn of 7-11 parking lots

But we who belong to the sisterhood of checked-out mothers, stay at home mothers, gone to the club mothers, corporate executive at the bar mothers, overwhelmed by life and death and disappointed by life and divorce mothers, hooked on their own unique blend of white wine and Valium mothers, frozen in time mothers, younger than we are now that some of us are grandmothers mothers are here

And we love you

So tell us

Is it over now? And

Do you know how

To pick up the pieces and go home?

Filed under: Poetry, rock 'n' roll, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , , , , ,

A Very Merry Christmas

Holiday greetings:  This post is adapted annually for your reading pleasure.

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 clear—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.

The persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented; Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence and nearly 50 years since its release, their seasonal single and collaboration has taken on a life of its own.

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, rock 'n' roll, video, , , ,

Wayne Kramer’s Jailhouse Blues

The MC5. photo by Charlie Auringer

The legendary Detroit rock ‘n’ roll band MC5 was always a bit of a hard sell for me:  You just don’t have the right rock critic and fan credentials if you don’t bow down to the band and well, I frankly didn’t always hear it or have it in me to do that. Showmanship, yes. Sheer raw power, without a doubt. And a story that’s something else: Political to be sure, and sometimes problematic, but it’s fueled by a love of jazz and freedom and well, they kinda had me after that.

Wayne Kramer led the band through the early Detroit scene, back when they could manage mostly blues and R&B-based covers; eventually they graduated to grinding originals (you’ve probably heard their signature song, “Kick Out The Jams”). Kramer loved straight up Chuck Berry as well as Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and other avant garde music and the band attempted to merge roots rock guitar with the freedom of far out jazz. When the band joined forces with a local jazz writer, John Sinclair, things started to stir:  “The MC5 grew from a unique period of social, political and musical upheaval and created a sound that reverberated through their city with resonances throughout the counter cultural movement,” is how I put it in Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. In the course of writing that book, I spoke with Kramer about his life and times with the band and their political involvements, including all that came before and after their appearance at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Since that interview, he’s written his own memoir, The Hard Stuff, much of it concerning his drug addiction, his prison time behind that addiction, and of course his time with the band (which sounds a little a sentence of its own variety).

Further thoughts on the MC5, Kramer and his work as a contemporary prison activist are what’s on the page in this month’s edition of my column for Tourworthy.  I hope you’ll click through and have a look at it, and as ever, thanks for reading.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Archie Shepp, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Books, rock 'n' roll, , , , ,

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.

 

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, , , ,

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