Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Stew and Heidi return with two new albums: Notes Of A Native Song and The Total Bent

The year’s end brought not one but two new albums of material by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, known professionally as The Negro Problem. Stew’s the wordman and Rodewald is the melodicist, arranger and additional voice in the mix. Both The Total Bent and Notes Of A Native Song are thematic works and the material is as wonderful as I remember: the songs were presented as work in progress at a San Francisco performance at the Curran two years ago. Here’s the audio for “Jimmy” from Notes Of A Native Song, followed by an interview I did with the pair in on the occasion of the release of their album Making It (2012), a pop chronicle of love lost.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, also known as the self-described Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee. Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the show must go on and the resulting musical, Passing Strange ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July of 2008.

And then it got a stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.”

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most of it.”

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the case of Making It (released on Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums, from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious “Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you think Making It is his diary of a mad artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew to wallow in too many teardrops.

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims, “You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s impressionistic musings on the New Black and the so-called post-racial thing: “I have poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice, empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding “Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes, all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t so unlike breaking-up after all).

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya lastsummer.  And yet, he’s still one Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

As the narrator of Passing Strange, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a refugee in South Los Angeles until he gets wind of the idea that a black artist can live more free in Europe  (though when he gets there, he’s hipped to other realities).

As a theater piece Passing Strange is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score, largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles and says he caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from the ‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set though they remained only a moderate draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop twice what became Passing Strange, once in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the final night of Passing Strange and cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal on a broiler.  An initial performance of the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard toward completing Making It as an album.

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to know that following the release of Making It, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new musical, The Total Bent, begins a three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,” it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of the Twilight Zone.”

 It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, their collaboration is secure; they’re making it work.

“I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harlem, James Baldwin, Now Playing, , , , , ,

Music is the answer for God’s Children

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God’s Children, from left to right in center: Lil’ Ray , Little Willie G. and Lydia Amescua. Cover design by Barb Bersche for Minky Records

God’s Children: Music is the Answer, The Complete Recordings, is recommended listening for anyone interested in the roots of Chicano Rock.  The group’s studio sessions never saw the light of day in the ’60s for some of the usual reasons — corporate bungling, market considerations, and the strains on the lives of people whose work intersects with politics and race matters.

As the year winds down, I’m taking a minute to tell you about the release of their recordings from the archives and the story of my experience writing liner notes for the project. Had I known at the time when I wrote the piece in 2016 where the country was going, that there would be unmitigated hatred and horror waged on women and children at the border, I would’ve written that into the narrative, but how could I know the future? I just try to report on it. I also couldn’t predict that my work on the project would be rendered invisible and plagiarized, but I can call out those practices, along with the attempt to shame me for taking a stand. Originally posted here on December 8, I hope you’ll read the new and expanded version of the text, published in its entirety December 21 at Tourworthy.

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, Latina, Latino culture, Latinx culture, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, vinyl, Women in Rock, Women's issues, Women's rights, , , , ,

Two California Women in Conversation

Getting to meet inspiring, creative and intelligent people is probably my favorite part of the job as an independent journalist, editor and curator (aside from doing the writing, of course…). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two extraordinary women, Kim Shuck, a poet/educator/beadworker and Lynell George, a journalist/essayist/photographer. Somewhere along the way and between individual conversations with both of them, I had the idea to get the pair together to talk about the things we seem to talk about most: The changing cityscapes of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Being born Californian and staying here has given Lynell and Kim a deep understanding of the place. I hope you’ll explore their insights and their work, and I invite you to read the conversation, published this month in Boom California, by the University of California Press.

(photo of Kim Shuck by Doug Salin; photo of Lynell George by Al Quattrocchi)

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, gentrification, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

San Francisco filmmaker Jeanne Hallacy

Director Jeanne Hallacy and refugee children in Myanmar

Fall has been a busy season for me, jumping from stories on musicians, photographers, painters and visual anthropologists: I get so caught up in the words, music and lives of my subjects, it can be easy to forget to take a breath and assess the day in and day out of what’s right in front of me (and remember to post updates here).

One of the stories that took some deep research and extra transitioning for me was my piece on human rights filmmaker, Jeanne Hallacy. Born in San Francisco, she’s lived in Bangkok since the ’90s but returns occasionally to screen her work and check in with friends and family. When I asked Jeanne what she made of her hometown these days, given that this year the United Nations declared it in violation of the human rights of its thousands of citizens who sleep on the street without adequate shelter or sanitation, she offered some deep responses that I’ve carried with me since speaking to her last month. I hope you’ll read my story on Jeanne in the new edition of CurrentSF and see her film, Mother, Daughter, Sister, about the women of Myanmar who are taking a stand against the state violence waged against them and their children that’s earned the country a place on U.N.’s “list of shame.” More posts much sooner than later, I promise.

Filed under: anti-war, film, San Francisco News, Women's issues, Women's rights, , , , , ,

Willie Says Vote ‘Em Out

 

With racist violence and murder escalating and the nation well-past its crisis point, the looming midterm election is an eleventh hour opportunity to turn this mess around. Willie Nelson got involved during election season to cut a song with a clear message:  “Vote ‘Em Out.”  The legendary outlaw country star knows where he stands on national issues like immigration policy and gun safety: At home in Texas, he’s supporting Beto O’Rourke for Senate in the statewide race against Ted Cruz. We can’t all write songs and reach hearts and minds like Nelson can at a rally or with a tune, but we can all be effective in our homes and workplaces. We can take time in the next week to canvass or phone bank for the candidates and issues we support. We can speak out when the people we know, including friends and family, try to defend or ignore the racist/sexist sickness that has infected the highest elected and appointed officials in the land.  And on November 6, we will cast our votes: It remains a tool to counteract the hate with nonviolence, or as Willie sings it, “The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box.”

Read this month’s column. And thanks for voting.

 

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Protest Songs, Texas, , , ,

New Mission Muralistas

Last Saturday on Balmy Alley, a street entirely devoted to local mural art in San Francisco’s Mission District, the latest work to grace the backside of a building on the block-long street was finally unveiled:  Women of the Resistance was conceived and painted by a collective of women artists, many of them local to the neighborhood and trained at the San Francisco Art Institute. I had the opportunity to speak to three of the painters, Lucía Gonzalez-Ippolito, Fernanda Parker Vizcaino and Michelle Williams, and to learn the story of how they chose the 38 women of the resistance to paint into the mural.  Pictured here is the mural just before the unveiling and blessing ceremony, but you can read my interview and to see photos by the Aperturist of the mural in all of its full color glory at CurrentSF.

One of the central figures in the mural is Judy Brady, a local activist I was acquainted with from my own work in the district. Brady was known to locals for her participation in neighborhood demonstrations, particularly those against the tech buses which block the way for school children and people with disabilities, of which she was one. But what most people didn’t know about Judy, otherwise known as the terse, silver-haired lady in the motorized scooter, was that she was a pioneering feminist and one of the first writers for Ms. Magazine: Her essay “Why I Want a Wife,” published in 1970 is still used in women’s studies courses to this day. Had I known this about Judy, we would’ve enjoyed talking more than we did, I’m sure. As it was, we brushed past each other regularly in the bookshop where I worked, we spoke just a few times and briefly: The bookstore closed in 2016 and Judy died the following year. Writing about this mural, I learned that there are everyday women of the resistance in our midst: I wish I’d had a chance to thank Judy for all that she did for us.  Read the entire article now:

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, new article, San Francisco News, , ,

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, , , , ,

Take Down The Statues

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All around the country, bronze statues are coming down, thanks to a movement started in the South in 2015 following the church shooting in Charleston. A city, a whole region, holding on to a vision of the past that was not very honorable in the first place is no way to acknowledge true history or let the generations of people who were harmed by that history heal; instead these megaton renderings glorify injustice and beget more violence. A nation in the middle of a prolonged racial crisis can no longer continue to inflict harm on its citizens and yet, these statues are a daily reminder of how twisted, inaccurate, and dated our history has become.  It’s time for a change.

The movement to unpack and teach a more accurate version of our state’s history has finally reached the far west, where we of course are supposed to understand and know better (yet by and large, I’m sad to report, there are those who still don’t get it).  Here in San Francisco last week, Native American activists and their allies achieved a victory that was 30 years in the making:  The rendering of a piece called Early Days depicting a Spanish conquistador and a Franciscan missionary lording over a Plains Indian (who by the way, was not from this region), was finally removed at the break of dawn following a contentious hearing process. I talked about statuary and other civic concerns with San Francisco’s poet laureate, Kim Shuck, a member of the Cherokee nation as well as a Polish American and a native to San Francisco.  She’s an educator with a masters in fine art and knows well the precedents for public art display; as a Native American, a person of conscience, and a mother, she was personally aggrieved by the sight of the statue as she moved in and out of the public library, her primary place of work as our city’s poet laureate.  And we talked more in-depth about the battle to topple the statue and about her San Francisco life.  I hope you’ll read on and link to this week’s edition of my San Francisco Examiner column, S.F. Lives: READ NOW

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Poetry, racism, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , , , ,

Remembering 4 Little Girls + 2 Songs

It was 55 years years ago that the four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  In 2011, a marker was finally dedicated in their names at the site of the vicious, racially motivated attack.

Just three months after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and two weeks after the March on Washington and Dr. King’s momentum-building “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Alabama tragedy became the pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in immediate response to hearing the news:“I shut myself up in a room and that song happened,” she said of the song that begins, “Alabama’s got me so upset.”  From that moment forward, Simone was committed to writing and performing material that would jolt people awake or into action.  It remains her most enduring work.

Joan Baez,  had of course walked alongside Dr. King at the marches in the South all along; her tribute was a recording of “Birmingham Sunday” by her brother-in-law, the writer Richard Fariña.  Each girl was remembered by name in the verses, set to the tune of a beautiful folk melody. Fifty-five years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged here and yonder, year in and year out, by so-called humanity.

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Filed under: Civil Rights, Obituary, video, , , , , , , ,

Another displaced: Irwin Swirnoff’s SF Life

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Photo of Irwin Swirnoff by Kevin Hume, courtesy of The San Francisco Examiner

My Sunday Examiner column S.F. Lives, continues to chronicle the comings and goings of people I’ve determined to be of The City, Franciscan or how we say, Frisco Kids.  This week’s subject, Professor Irwin Swirnoff, and his story of multiple displacements that’s culminating in a job search and possible relocation away from the Bay Area really hit close to home for me. Irwin and I share many of the same interests, from broadcasting, DJ-ing and interviewing to a love of books, records, and films.  We’ve crossed paths at various cultural institutions and alternative retail outlets in town and we’re interested in the history of the arts here, as well as in preserving and passing on the underground esthetic we gravitated to and continue to develop via our respective crafts (he’s a filmmaker). I have no doubt he’ll land exactly where he needs to, and that his outcome will be better and more beautiful than anything we could predict for him, but if you have a moment, send a shout-out to the universe, launch a flare and say a little prayer for Irwin and the artists like him who’ve made The City’s reputation sparkle and shine,  far beyond our seven super-square miles and western horizon.

Catch up on all the S.F. Lives columns

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , ,

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