Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Black History Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes (born February 1, 1902) was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.” Originally a Midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Freedom Now, Poetry, video, ,

The Last Holiday: Remembering Dr. MLK, Jr.

 

mlkIt was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumous memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retracethe long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.


The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”  Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., video, , , ,

Happy Xmas (War Is Over): Again

happy-xmas-war-is-overSome 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 on the track—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 by now you are seeking something a bit cheerier to spin, I wouldn’t blame you, so I’ve included a clip of “Run Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry—original rock ’n’ roller and another Lennon-inspirer—as a seasonal gift to you. Merry Christmas Everybody, and God Bless Us, Everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, video, Women in Rock, , , , ,

Bob Neuwirth: Here and Then and Now

Bob_NeuwirthBob Neuwirth is a character in the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of the 21st Century’s art and music.

“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,”  says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are enjoyed by collectors, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form. Neuwirth has also played a unique role in the lives of his fellow artists. A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, he’s served as an ear to friends in the arts for five decades now; as a catalyst to epic songs,  he’s lived the moments we read about in history books.

“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. Though to recognize it,  “It takes a different set of eyes. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says.“Turn on the radio.  What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening,” he says.

If some of what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, it’s because he’s earned the right to wax on; he’s pulled-off the great American hat trick of living an artist’s life while remaining just under the radar of massive success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran away).  From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, it was to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.

In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies. “He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan.  The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue).  He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”),  a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.

In the ’70s  Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and contributed to the making of the music there as he gathered more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll. “Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the displacement of the folky, singer-songwriters from the scene. But Neuwirth also had a hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into some songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.

Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his own masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to 20110409115304-2studio, he lived in a rat-infested loft formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. But New York and the art scene was changing. The roads for struggling artists to take gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of fame does today?

“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.

So where does one find art in the culture today? “If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says, noting there’s no shortage of work. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there’s really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ” Acknowledging one person’s cup of meat might not be another’s  (“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says) he concedes there’s room for everyone by way of one of his trademarked aphorisms with which we can’t argue: “Bad art is better than good bombs.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, California, film, Folk, Interview, video, , , , ,

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, ,

Song For My Father

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner, or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights as a teenager, he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and the Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there in North Beach, San Francisco, Saturday night, 1958 or ’59: The Beats had arrived, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through, but my dad was from across town—the Sunset, Ocean Beach, a Catholic boy—and the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce worked in the area and would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a stiff-necked straight, but my father was no square: I like to imagine the neighborhood regulars welcoming him, an innocent among hipsters for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that he favored and he had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, along with MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale–Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid–Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida–with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way others tell me they’ve known Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia; they were like fathers, a part of the family. 


It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. Sure, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I really want, caked with his energy, accompanied by the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his approval and enthusiasm for my taste in the avant-garde and for own small, tidy, and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz. Somewhere along the way, he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times changed, and the City, as we call it, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was a young suburban family man, a periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision and become a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before those things helped define leisure styles in the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— and his life between jobs just outside San Francisco. Music didn’t figure into that picture. There was no nightlife to pursue there and no trips to town to hear the jams; most all the old clubs had gone dark though North Beach was becoming home to the next generation of outsiders, the art students and punk rockers of my generation. Not yet 40 years old, a suspended driver’s license kept my dad unemployable and housebound, his wife at work on the swing shift. By day, he slept in the hammock or sat at the kitchen table, pouring filtered coffee through a cone. He stayed occupied, typing mysterious reports and letters on the Royal and watering the lawn, but he never reached for the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, adjacent to the patio, just on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the family room of our California ranch-style home. It was as if getting up, the simple act of putting a needle to a record, was just too much for him: He had entered the no-jazz zone.

Though occasionally he’d ignite the old flame:  He took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing at St. Francis High School. I heard he rousted my brother and took him to see Milt Jackson at the grand opening of the Mayfield Mall.  Other times, if ever he dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that jazzer’s strange custom, finger-clicking (shoulders hunched). And sometimes while driving, he’d tune into the jazz spot and bop to the radio, occasionally gesturing with an air-cymbal crash. These efforts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal for me: Jazz made life bearable, if only for a moment, as we floated off to another land, returning refreshed, for a couple of bars or beats. 

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ’70s, my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them.  I moved back to San Francisco, and I’d heard so did my dad, after he’d done some rambling.  Eventually we got together for lunch, often at St. Francis Creamery in the Mission, and other times at Mama’s or Vanessi’s in North Beach; on those days he was feeling more flush and would spread the wealth. We never spoke of the past—it wasn’t in our repertoire—but the memory of his LPs, their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their spiraling liner notes occupied a large space in my heart, lighting a space in the darkness of the holy here and now. I wonder, had he lived, if we’d ever get back to jazz, if he would’ve rediscovered his passion for it, or if he would share mine for Mingus and Monk. If only it had occurred to me to have played some Louis Armstrong at his funeral.  What if he’d lived to see his 50s?  Would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm or held strong?  For sure we’d agree Duke is king, and we most certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal at his most recent appearance in town.  But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I still reflexively roll my eyes at him?  I will never know, though whatever his style and taste in his 70s and whether we agreed wouldn’t matter, if only he was here, right now.  Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is if he can remember the moment he stopped listening.  

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Jazz, North Beach, 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, , , , , , ,

Music for Change: Cambio

Cambio’s album title, I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to a broadcast by Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO San Francisco about a year ago. With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte, the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja, committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him. Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album, Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work: One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s a remix “I Need A Dollar” featuring Bocafloja originally from I, Too, Sing America.

This Saturday afternoon, Cambio and I will be making a presentation on music with a message and music  for change at the Oakland Museum of California. If you are interested in hearing more from Cambio, check his Bandcamp page and the archived broadcast of the show I heard. Please support his work and the work of other musicians for change: Positive hip hop is still marginalized but Cambio’s voice, if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land: He, too, sings America.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, video, vinyl, , , , ,

Phranc: Your Basic Average All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger

From her time on the LA scene during the first wave of punk, and through a 25-year solo singer-songwriter career that’s served as inspiration to a new generation of queercore and riot grrrl artists, Phranc is embedded in California’s rich musical landscape. Temporarily sidelined from performing in recent years, Phranc is officially back to art and music and fuels her creativity by pursuing her favorite activities offshore, from swimming and sailing, to surfing.

“Going surfing is a big part of my creative process,” she says. “I’ve surfed since I was nine years old. Leaving land is my favorite part of it. I like being in a separate reality.”

Phranc’s day-to-day reality includes making cardboard art (she shows in galleries and museums on both coasts) and writing songs. Some of her work is topical like “Bloodbath” (which took on apartheid in South Africa) and “Condoleezza”; other creations are more whimsical (“Rodeo Parakeet” comes to mind). But whether whimsical or topical, Phranc’s art and music always has a story to tell.

“It’s still my favorite thing, to listen to a story through a song. It’s like nothing else. A song can preserve time and memory and history in a way that words or a picture alone can’t. A song can capture it all,” she says. In recent years, Phranc wrote about her beloved hometown of LA; like souvenir postcards, she hopes to incorporate the songs in a package that merges her audio and visual media.

Growing up in the beach community of Mar Vista near Venice, California, Phranc took a ’70s pilgrimage to San Francisco, figuring she’d fall in with its world class gay community; instead, she discovered a world of artists, actors, and ne’er-do-wells who introduced her to punk rock. “It was a great time and a life-changing time for me. I felt like I had a peer group. Not only did I identify as far as politics and music, but also age-wise. I had been with people because they were lesbian and women and we had a lot in common but they were all a lot older. So for once, I fit in. Where could a freak fit in? In punk rock!”

Morrissey and Phranc strike a pose

Unable to secure a day job outside of a stint as a nude model at the Art Institute, Phranc returned to LA. “So I came back from San Francisco and the only people I knew here were lesbians, and no way man, I wanted punk rock! I started going out to punk shows. I would put on a little suit and tie and I would go there and try to look so cool though I didn’t know a soul.” Hanging out on the street by herself at a SoCal Avengers show, she was spotted by Edward Stapleton. “He walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, want to be in a band?’ Not, ‘Can you play anything?’ And I’m like ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Good. The band’s Nervous Gender, you’d be perfect.'” From keyboards in that band she moved on to guitar in Catholic Discipline, and eventually landed in Castration Squad. You can catch a glimpse of Phranc in Catholic Discipline, alongside bandmates Claude Bessey/Kickboy Face from Slash magazine and Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, in the Penelope Spheeris film, The Decline of Western Civilization.

By this time, it was about 1979, and punk was already changing. “The fashions changed and the politics changed and people were wearing the swastika, which they hadn’t been up to that time. Because I’m Jewish I would notice and it pissed me off. So I wrote a song called ‘Take Off Your Swastika.’ It was right around the same time the Dead Kennedys wrote ‘Nazi Punks F**k Off.’ I wrote the song as a direct personal reaction to the swastikas and I decided to play it on my acoustic guitar. Up ’til then, I’d been playing electric guitar and synthesizer. Nobody in punk was really playing acoustic guitar at that time, and the reason I did it was because I really wanted the words to be heard. Because, as far as I’m concerned, punk rock is the folk music of today… though I didn’t play it at some folk club, I played it at punk rock clubs.”

folksingerPhranc was as amazed as anyone when people’s response was overwhelmingly positive. “People would yell and I’d get heckled and stuff, but on the whole it was pretty great. I remember playing at the Whisky and seeing a couple of guys taking off their swastikas.”
In 1985, her solo debut, Folksinger, was released on Rhino Records; she’d recorded the album with money she saved from teaching swimming lessons. It wasn’t long after that she became the designated support act for artists like Morrissey, Hüsker Dü, and the Pogues. “My audience has always been very diverse. People assume because I’ve been out as a dyke that my audience is lesbians and that’s not true. The audience that really supported me and continually has is a mixed bag of men and women, gay and straight. Still to this day, people come up to me because they heard me at college. My songs are for everybody. I like to reach as many different kind of people as I possibly can at one time.”

Read more about Phranc in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Folk, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , , , , ,

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band,  Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

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