Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

It’s a Family Affair: San Francisco’s Hunger Strikers Moving Into Dangerous Third Week

Frisco5 photo by Lola M. Chavez (Mission Local) Maria Cristina Gutierrez and (clockwise): Equipto, Sellassie, Ike Pinkston and Edwin Lindo.

“This is the beginning of the struggle on so many fronts,” asserted Maria Cristina Gutierrez of the Frisco 5 on Tuesday. It was the end of a long day of marching, protesting and nearly the end of the second week of starvation in the name of ending police violence and the long arm of over-gentrification in San Francisco. Citing the efforts by Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, Gutierrez, 66,  says she was moved to hunger strike following the death of Luis Gongora, an immigrant from Yucatan who recently lost his housing and was living homeless on Shotwell Street until he was shot 11 times by SFPD for allegedly brandishing a knife. Witness accounts of the killing varied widely though one certainty is that once again, it doesn’t look good for the police department who in a two-year period have killed four men. Alex Nieto in March of 2014 was shot 59 times when police mistook his taser (he was employed as a security guard) for a gun. Not quite one year later, Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez was shot six times in the back. Native son Mario Woods of the Bayview District was shot 20 times in December and the event was caught on video in its entirety. The April 7 shooting of Gongora was the event that prompted Gutierrez to say, “No more,” and to take matters into her own hands. She, her son Ilyich “Equipto” Sato, Sellassie Blackwell, Ike Pinkston, and Edwin Lindo launched a hunger strike on April 21 and have vowed not to eat until San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee fires the Chief of Police.

 

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: San Francisco News, , , ,

Dear (White) Liberal San Franciscan,

fillmore-jazz-2014

The last sign of any jazz in San Francisco’s Fillmore District is this banner, hoisted in 2014.

I regret to inform, you missed it: The final day of celebration for the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street was Sunday. Aside from its usual meditation on “A Love Supreme” and a service to deliver the wisdom in its creator’s words, there was even a bit of time that day reserved to remember Prince, a kindred spirit and sound messenger of love who transitioned last Thursday. But really, there is no need to cry for the Coltrane Church: Going strong for nearly 50 years, it will continue to thrive in one incarnation or another, in accordance to its creed proclaiming life everlasting. Armed with a faith that knows no bounds, no building is going to hold down Archbishop Franzo King and his congregation. He and his musically gifted family of ordained ministers will remain in the light of Coltrane consciousness and on the move for truth and justice. However, if you’d still like to grieve our losses, please consider the sorry state of San Francisco, and our complicity in the soul murder of the city the Church calls home.

Read entire thing here:

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, Jazz, racism, San Francisco News, , , ,

Poet Bob Kaufman and the Here and Now

bobKaufmanIt’s been 30 years since Beat poet Bob Kaufman passed on, a few months shy of his 61st birthday. The often underlooked surrealist was a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; he lived in the North Beach and the Mission Districts of San Francisco for much of his life. In the spirit of National Poetry Month and in commemoration of what would’ve been his 91st birthday today, his work was celebrated here last week, a demonstration that it is never too late or too early to appreciate a visionary artist.

Speaking to Kaufman’s influence on the wider world of poetry and his deep imprint on them, poets Anne Waldman and Will Alexander, though only briefly acquainted with him personally, read Kaufman’s work aloud, accompanied by saxophonist David Boyce and percussionist Kevin Carnes. Sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation and the San Francisco Public Library, members of Kaufman’s family traveled from Mississippi and Louisiana to be present and to honor his memory.

Listening to Waldman and Alexander, you could hear why Kaufman’s poems are best experienced aloud and accompanied by the jazz he loved. Kaufman’s epic “The Ancient Rain,” written after his famous vow of silence (following the Kennedy assassination and until the end of the Vietnam war) was read by Waldman, as she sounded out the blows empire wages against humankind, and on bodies Black and Brown. Readings were also selected and extracted from “I, Too, Know What I Am Not,” “Rue Miro,” and “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,” among others (I did not hear my favorite, “Hollywood,” though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t read).

Kaufman gave up writing down his poetry in 1978, but his words survived thanks to friends, fellow poets and his wife Eileen who taped and cobbled together the pieces collected in the works published after his death. Though
Kaufman’s poems foretold the persistent dilemmas of our age—the surveillance state, police violence (he was arrested over 30 times), media irresponsibility, a collapsing democracy and unnecessary poverty in a nation of great wealth—with his vision came the cost of direct engagement with such disturbing truth.

In his introduction to the posthumous Kaufman collection, Cranial Guitar, writer David Henderson noted that Kaufman’s life was unusual for a man of letters in that he left very little in the way of written materials or correspondence; just three published volumes, the broadsides Abomunist Manifesto, Second April and Does The Secret Mind Whisper? and some songs. One of those songs, “Green Rocky Road”  has enjoyed a long tenure as a folk music standard; most recently it was revived in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Lleweyn Davis. Co-written with Len Chandler, and popularized by Dave Van Ronk, the song bears the dreamlike, compelling qualities that are the hallmark of Kaufman’s poems; Chandler adapted the melody from a slave-era song quite possibly from the Georgia Sea Islands.

Kaufman’s most easily accessed works in libraries and bookstores are generally Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978 and Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman as well as Mel Clay’s Jazz Jail and God: Impressionistic Biography of Bob Kaufman. A new film, debuting at the San Francisco International Film Festival, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (Billy Woodberry, 2015), burrows into some of Kaufman’s secret history, from his beginnings as a union organizer, to the shock therapy at Bellevue that contributed to his silent years; there was substance and alcohol abuse and he was an absent father, though his magnitude as a poet is not open to debate. Artist and translator Mary Beach says, “I think he was one of the greatest of the 20th Century, frankly.”

I think of Kaufman’s poem,  “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,”  just about everyday. It begins like this:

In the City of St. Francis they have taken down the statue of

      St. Francis,

And the hummingbirds all fly forward to protest, humming

     feather poems.

The following is a rare, brief clip of Kaufman at work (likely at San Francisco Art Institute).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jazz, North Beach, Poetry, , , ,

New Jazz Biopics Riff on Familiar Formula

In some 80 years, the formula for a musical feature film has changed very little: From The Jazz Singer and The Jolson Story to1 The Glenn Miller Story and The Gene Krupa Story, ever since movies could talk, film goers have savored a good yarn concerning  familial conflict within and without the complicated, misunderstood, and stone cold wrecked lives of musicians. Truth is always better than fiction but for strictly commercial considerations, screenplays generally raise the stakes on untreated addictions, felled planes, philandering, domestic abuse, and mental illness, as if that were at all necessary. It appears that approximating the lives of professional road musicians as people is less important than adhering to the odd Hollywood recipe that contains reportage, entertainment, moralization, and glamorization in one 90-minute package.  As long as the tragedy (the triumph is usually incidental) is set to a toe-tapping beat and confirms what the general audience thinks it already knows about the hard-knock lives of working artists, there is potential for box office gold. The resulting tutorials on how to lead chaotic, short-lived, and tortured creative existences will always trump whatever a shelf full of well-researched biographies (i.e. books) have to say on the subject since, let’s face it, who reads those anymore? And so it is these depictions of fame, drugs, money, sex, guns, and all forms of excess cut to music that take the place in the public imagination where scenes at practice, contemplation, study, daydreaming, composing, performing, traveling, recording, reflection, playback, and in pursuit of other creative interests might’ve lived (with any likeness to any persons living or dead strictly coincidental).

Somewhere in this mix between sensational and substantive lives Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and star turn in Miles Ahead, and Ethan Hawke’s role as Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue. The films concern trumpet players of considerable renown, one East Coast the other West, one black, the other white, both famous for charting their own paths of excellence while dogged by substance abuse and the insecurities that go with addiction.  All similarities stop there.

Miles Davis as most listeners know was a creative genius who continually broke musical boundaries and innovated in jazz and beyond it. Miles Ahead is a completely, though not entirely, fictionalized version of a time when Davis dropped out of the public eye in the mid-’70s. In the film, a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) drops in on the recluse in an attempt to deliver him from the brink of obscurity and excess (a reporter seeking the “comeback” story is another well-worn device). Cheadle has gone on record aplenty addressing viewer and critical concerns over the film’s fabrications, as well as the matter of having to include a white buddy (as portrayed by McGregor) in the script.  He nevertheless made the best film he could given the time, budgetary, and racist restraints of his business. But it his performance as Davis, portrayed alternately in his fit and fighting years and at the dawn of his more eccentric, latter days, that is pitch perfect (it’s likely Davis’s friends and contemporaries Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter would not have rubber-stamped the project had they thought any less).

10The conceivable tension and the stress that Davis was under, living contemporary life as a legend, is transmitted with precision by Cheadle, an actor who needn’t prove his versatility: Over the course of a distinguished career that’s extended for more than 30 years, from an early role opposite Denzel in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, to his current popularity in House of Lies, Cheadle is the epitome of excellence. In his new medium as a director he shines, delivering a film that strives for excitement in scope and dimension. He also demonstrates artistry in his choice of collaborators, from an impeccable cast (especially Emayatzy Corinealdi) to glorious set design, locations, and musical direction (Robert Glasper). The story itself however, co-written with Steven Baigelman, could’ve been less ham fisted and more finessed, though details like Davis’s training in composition, his taste for Chopin, Stravinsksy, and Ravel, and a life-changing police brutality incident based on fact all make it into the story, serving to portray Davis more as a multi-dimensional human and less of an icon.

In an early scene, McGregor’s character interviews Miles who notes he’s a Gemini, “I was born modal,” he says. “A little bit of this and that…” Reminded of Cheadle’s particularly entertaining and under-looked performance in Talk To Me, in which he played the real life DJ Petey Greene in amplified reality, I wondered if he was inspired to craft his own screenplay that was also not self-conscious in its departure from fact. Whatever the source of inspiration, from the high-pitched drama of Davis’s five years off-the-grid, to the more somber reckoning with getting back to work, Miles Ahead borrows  from the Hollywood biopic playbook, yet forges its own path toward developing a new kind of cinema in the spirit of improvisation associated with jazz itself.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is but one note that runs throughout Born To Be Blue, loosely based on the sad life of Chet Baker. Starring Ethan Hawke and focusing mostly on the post-1966 period during which Baker was kicking heroin, Born To Be Blue is more like a throwback to earlier jazz films in which the lead’s life is lost to a dream of music but is left instead to hiding inside an addiction. Losing his ability to play horn following a post-gig street hassle that forced him to relearn his instrument was indeed a fact of Baker’s life, though the movie twists the people and places surrounding the events. Baker lived as a heroin addict until his death in 1988, reportedly from a fall, and the film makes note of that fact too in its final notes.  In between there’s lots of bleeding, smoking, and cool California coastal scenery. Again, Hawke’s performance as the broken and addicted Baker is appropriately pathetic, though there are sparkles of redemption in his comeback, particularly in his choice to use his voice as an instrument. But whatever Born To Be Blue lacks in fact or focus, it delivers in the feel, the vibe and look of jazz; these are the black, white and blue tones, the sharp-dressed, cigarette dangling Cali and New York cool styles we’ve come to associate with the music’s ’50s and ’60s epoch.

Perhaps it’s set-dressing and soundtracks that the biopic is good for: Whether the scandal that rocked Jerry Lee Lewis’s world in Great Balls of Fire, or the plane crash that took out Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) and Buddy Holly (The Buddy Holly Story), sensational and sentimental do all right, but often its period detail that make or break the projects.  Scenery chomping performances are even better: Ray and Ring of Fire were fairly straight ahead versions of the crooked roads walked by iconic musicians Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) and Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), but both films would’ve amounted to little more than catalog song-shilling opportunities were it not for their Oscar-worthy performances. More recent efforts like the Todd Haynes Dylan tribute, I’m Not There, the loose interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s life (Jimi: All Is By My Side, based on a discredited bio, adapted by John Ridley and starring André Benjamin) and Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, about Kurt Cobain, all took inside/out, post-modern, chuck-it-all-to the-wind, impressionistic approaches to storytelling (none were particularly satisfying). Straight Outta Compton took liberties by sanitizing the story of West Coast gangsta rappers NWA, while Love and Mercy mostly got it right, especially the scenes in which Paul Dano portrayed a troubled Brian Wilson, lost in the joy of composing. The forthcoming Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, would appear to be on the fast track to how not to handle the casting of a film about a beloved legend and her misdiagnosed mental illness. The critically acclaimed Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek in an Oscar-winning performance as Loretta Lynn, may serve as the one exception to all the rules: A well-executed film about a woman in music who triumphs (though Patsy Cline’s plane crash figures in Lynn’s own story) is all too rare.

Both Miles Ahead and Born To Be Blue certainly fulfill the function of entertainment; the acting is sharp and the subject 635955409131711598-BTBB-Still5matter more interesting than the rest of what’s on offer at the multiplex; the depiction of the creative process and hands on music making that comprises much of a musician’s life is handled for the most part well. And yet, I found myself wanting something more, something that probably can’t be found in a simple music biopic. I went to both films looking to get lost, which is of course one reason we go to the movies in the first place. But more than that, I went in search of lost time—a time when movies had more weight, were handled with more care. Is this just me, hoping for a return to the forever of my own young life, when the biopic and music doc were still emergent? The movies that provided a portal to my own discovery, that excited and transported me with their  well-told, visual stories were released in a period coincident with own my nascent enthusiasm for jazz. Lucky enough to indulge in Round Midnight (in which the real Dexter Gordon plays a fictionalized composite character), the documentaries Thelonius Monk: Straight No Chaser and Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, there was also Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, a stylized documentary on BakerThese films, plus my shelves lined with books of interviews with the musicians and the recordings themselves fed my understanding of a music I am still only in the infant stages of knowing. And yet, I understand enough to know that the ghost of Charlie Parker looms large over the new films about Baker and Davis. I thought persistently of Bird, the film Clint Eastwood made over 20 years ago on a budget of 9 million dollars for which Forest Whitaker should’ve earned an Oscar. If that makes me a product of my generation, then ah well, call me a traditionalist. And yet, the distinctly 21st Century biopics Miles Ahead and Born To Be Blue signal the future; they are the something new of biopics. Only a square would begrudge an artist for taking a step in a new direction.

Filed under: film, Jazz, , , , , ,

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-six years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Uncategorized, , ,

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, , , , , , ,

Furry Lewis: Born to Blues

 

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and the unbelievable, actual surname of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the Depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him though Lewis was not a fan. No stranger to film and television, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88.

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. His “Judge Harsh” blues from Good Morning Judge, never fails to restore my cheer). People rely on the blues to chase away their own; when I play Furry Lewis, I don’t stay down too long. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby,” or the he way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony).  His recorded output is generally optimistic, and bring a smile, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

Covering in song the spectrum of life in all its colors—from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow—he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee.“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said.  And for that, I am most grateful that he was born to sing and play the blues.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video,

Born Aquarian: Yoko Ono

This interview with Yoko Ono by Denise Sullivan was originally published as “Yoko Ono: Between Her Head and the Sky” in Crawdaddy! online in 2009.  Happy Birthday, Yoko.

YO3-600

 

“I’ve passed the time when I used to think I’m going to surprise people with this, break the sound barrier, I’m going to put in some chords that nobody has ever put in or whatever. That day is over. I just want to be myself,” says Yoko Ono.

Pioneer of the avant-garde, godmother of the new wave, conceptual art maker and peace advocator: Ono has been called all these things, and others, some of them not quite as nice, during her 40 years in the public eye and 50 years as a working artist. These days, she’s back to fronting the Plastic Ono Band, the group she and her husband John Lennon founded in 1969 as an outlet for his post-Beatles expression and the couple’s most political and experimental work. It was also the beginning of a period of intense collaboration for them, inside and outside the studio, which lasted ’til Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Beatles fans and critics were notoriously unkind about the partnership, particularly regarding Ono’s musical participation in it. “I’ve been attacked so much, I thought, ‘Oh, being attacked… this is a normal thing,’” she says.

Next year marks 30 years since Lennon was murdered and 40 years since the break-up of the band he founded in Liverpool over 50 years ago. Had he lived, he would be turning 70, while his and Ono’s son, Sean, who shares a birthday with his father, will turn 35. Though I neglected to ask the reported numerology and astrology buff Ono about the significance to all those round numbers, I don’t have to consult any oracles to know that her next birthday in February will be an auspicious 77. After all these years, it is amazing that she even bothers with fielding the inevitable Lennon questions and Beatles queries, and she does it with admirable enthusiasm and personal dignity, too. Certainly, in the face of a tragedy that could’ve defined the last 30 years of her life, she couldn’t have been blamed if she had chosen to retreat. But Yoko’s too much of a life-lover to go down that way. “Why is this life so beautiful, so interesting?” she exhales on the new Plastic Ono Band album, Between My Head and the Sky. Remaining a kind steward of her husband’s legacy—overseeing the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, their remasters, and curating a New York exhibit of Lennon artifacts currently on display—it’s no wonder she demurs when asked if she’ll ever sit down to write her own story.

“I’m too busy to do that. I think it’s something that might happen later, but I don’t think I can do it now.”

Perhaps Ono, whose first name translates to “ocean child,” is waiting for old age for that; for now, her work as an artist and musician in her own right is demanding her full attention. She has finally transcended the myth that a petite conceptual artist could come in and break up the mighty force that was the Beatles, and she has been reborn in time, with a little help from her son. Karma finally won out, if not instantly, then ultimately, as today it’s a lot hipper to dig Yoko than it is to knock her. Of course, that’s what John had been trying to tell everyone since the beginning: “What in the world you thinking of, laughing in the face of love?”

“Suddenly this record… I think it has a lot to do with my son. It’s not too wacko,” she says. “Did you know ‘Higa Noboru’ means ‘samurai,’ means ‘the sun is rising,’ and that’s the last song on the album?” asks Ono, to which I must reply I did not know that, but I am certainly intrigued by the concept as well as her stream of consciousness style of speaking, and she’s got me thinking… Now that Sean is nearly 35, the age Lennon the elder was when his beautiful boy was born, I see that, in some kind of cosmic way, the son is indeed rising. If Sean’s musical career has been marked by anything, it’s been its tentative launching, understandable for any child of a Beatle (perhaps he and his half-brother Julian have talked about that); so far, it’s most notable for an eight-year gap between solo albums following his debut. As an alternative musician whose sound doesn’t fit the mainstream alterna-sound, Sean would’ve disappointed those looking for a reprisal of the angry rock ‘n’ roll John. As a teenager, he organized IMA, a three-piece to back-up his mother’s ’90s album, Rising. Going on to forge his own relationships on the downtown avant-garde and experimental scenes, he struck up a longstanding collaboration with Yuka Honda, one half of Cibo Matto, and played bass with her group for five years. Now he collaborates with wildman savant Vincent Gallo, as well as with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, though Honda remains a studio collaborator and player in the new Plastic Ono Band.

“Sean was creating this music company… he had a few artists and a few songs on a website and I checked it out and I said, ‘Look, they’re beautiful songs but they need some fire,’” says Ono. “‘I’m going to give you some fire,’ and he said, ‘Great!’ I think still the fire’s with me.” Listening to the new album and watching a live clip of the band performing “Why”, from her 1970 solo debut, it is safe to say Ono’s still got it. But the littlest Lennon also has a way with his parents’ most outside music. “Isn’t that weird?” says Ono. “I didn’t know he was checking on me but he was. ‘You mean you know the intro to this?’ Yeah, he knows the intro, he knows the chords, he knows everything—all my songs. So when I say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and name one of the old songs, he’s like, ‘Okay.’” Ono says okay, nonchalantly, in an effort to put across the ease with which Sean tackles the often difficult and at times improvisatory music that defined the Plastic Ono Band.

Following their marriage in Gibraltar near Spain in 1969, and using the paparazzi moment of their honeymoon as an opportunity to wage peace, Ono and Lennon masterminded the Bed-Ins, first in Amsterdam and later Montreal, which is where Crawdaddy! first caught up with them: Founder Paul Williams participated in the anti-war event and got caught front and center on film. “Crawdaddy! I remember Crawdaddy!. My God, that was a long time ago… that’s nostalgia time for me,” says Ono.

Born in 1933 in Japan to a wealthy banking family, the Ono’s fortune waxed and waned during wartime and Yoko experienced extreme poverty and the horrors of war firsthand. By the late ’50s, her father had secured work in the US and she had begun her education at Sarah Lawrence College, though even before graduation she became immersed in the New York avant-garde scene of the early ’60s. Under the tutelage of composers La Monte Young and John Cage and her friend George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus movement in art, Ono fell in with a pack of musical and visual conceptual artists. The Fluxus artists, with their ties to Dadaism, are credited for creating, among other things, “happenings,” art events that could include audience participation. Perhaps her most famous work of this period is “Cut Piece,” for which she invited the audience to cut away pieces of her dress as she sat passively on the floor (the work was a harbinger of what we now call performance art). During this period she was married twice and a daughter, Kyoko, was born.

It was at the Indica Gallery in London where Lennon first encountered Ono and her work in 1966. The usual telling of the story says he was initially skeptical of the art but smitten with the artist, and by 1968, he had divorced his first wife, Cynthia—leaving her with a young son—to begin life with Yoko. Ono and Lennon began their recorded collaborations in 1968 with the noise- and tape loop-based Two Virgins album (also notable for its frontal nudity of the couple on the cover). By this time, the anti-war movement had taken to the streets and the radical left’s rub with law enforcement was turning the peace movement violent; the Bed-Ins’ intention had been to pull focus back to nonviolence. “Nobody’s ever given peace a complete chance. Gandhi tried it and Martin Luther King tried it, but they were shot,” Lennon said from his bed at the Amsterdam Hilton. Recording from a bed in Montreal a few months later with a roomful of friends and fans, “Give Peace a Chance” became the peace movement’s chant, as well as the inaugural release for the Plastic Ono Band, its substance often referring to the anti-war effort and bringing light to matters of racial and gender equality.

 

Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (which featured the heavyweight talents of her husband, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, and appearances by jazzmen Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden) made its vinyl debut in 1970, but its experimental nature was easy to brush aside in the face of the simultaneous release of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, an album many Lennon fans maintain is his greatest solo work (it includes “God”, “Working Class Hero”, and “Mother”). Those releases were followed by Ono’s own 1971 solo album, Fly (featuring the addition of Eric Clapton to the ensemble), that notably included her song, “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).” Ono’s second husband had gone missing with the girl, essentially abducting her, and mother and daughter would not be reunited properly until much later in life.

That same year, the Lennons made their fateful permanent move to New York City, embarking on a path of radical political activism. Combined with their increasingly personal and self-revelatory music, the political era was arguably the most controversial time of the couple’s collaboration and remains topically relevant today. “And close to my heart, too” says Ono. “Because I had to suffer. Sexism, the whole bit.” It also marked the beginning of intense suspicion and surveillance of Lennon by the US government.

“When I hear the song ‘Revolution’, even now, it chokes me up. We were ostracized by the world and the fans too, and that John was daring to speak out,” said Ono in the film The U.S. vs. John Lennon, based on research compiled in the books Come Together and Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files by Jon Wiener that explore Lennon’s political life. I asked Yoko what she thought of the movie and if she had anything to add to it. “Not really. Except it’s the tip of the iceberg. But that’s all you need these days to open it wide.” She suggests, for anyone interested in such things, that the exhibit titled John Lennon: The New York City Years, currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York, may be of interest. Yoko created it, gathering material for the exhibit by raiding her own closets. “There are things I put in there that I would never put in again,” she says of the items on display. The most talked about piece is a bag of blood-stained “patient’s belongings,” returned to her following the pronouncement of her husband’s death by hospital officials.

Some Time in New York City

In the late ’60s and early ’70s and until the end of the Vietnam War, the couple’s stock-in-trade had become the creation of one-line slogans, many of them appropriate for singing in large groups of people outdoors: “Give peace a chance,” “War is over! If you want it”; some of the song slogans had been appropriated from the people themselves: “Power to the people,” “Free the people now.” But the prescience of the concerns that Lennon and Ono raised in the high era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution—raising ideas like changing the world by making music, standing together, engaging in small acts of human kindness—were considered a threat to national security and, eventually, they were even rejected by fans. But before all hope for political change was lost, there was an incredibly dynamic, cross-fertilized moment between pop culture and the counterculture: The week Lennon and Ono were invited to host The Mike Douglas Show for five days in 1972. To daytime television they brought Jerry Rubin in to explain the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Bobby Seale to represent the Black Panthers, while the straight-laced and game-faced Douglas gave the proceedings a stamp of middle-of-the-road approval. Ralph Nader spoke on student organizing and the need to vote and Lennon hero Chuck Berry rocked the house. The forum also gave Ono a chance to reveal more of her personality, as well as her excellent personal style, to the curious American public, still suffering from misperceptions of their Beatle’s wife. The week was a hit, and it was an optimistic time for anyone involved in the movement for change, though things were about to get rough.

By the time of the release of Some Time in New York City in June, critics and fans alike were in agreement that the couple had gone too far in their merging of music with politics. Produced by Phil Spector and backed by an anonymous New York group, Elephant’s Memory, the album was an accurate reflection of the chaotic times. “Attica State” referred to a historic September 1971 prison riot, allegedly sparked by the previous month’s murder of radicalized prisoner George Jackson, resulting in the deaths of 39 people. Lennon and Ono had joined the chorus of justice seekers (which also included Bob Dylan) who followed the case. “Angela” was written in tribute to young politico Angela Davis. There was also a song for Detroit hippie leader “John Sinclair”, who had just been released from his 10 for two marijuana conviction, following the Lennons’ appearance at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan (musicians Phil Ochs, Stevie Wonder, and Archie Shepp, poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, and activists Seale and Rubin also appeared). Ono’s contributions to the set were less experimental and more song-like: “Sisters, O Sisters” remains a potent feminist/environmental anthem. The album’s single, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”, a concept expressed by Ono which Lennon turned into a song, was clouded by controversy and contributed to the unpopularity of the album, though it was meant to be understood as a pro-feminist statement. “The feminist thing is still very, very important. Most people think, ‘That’s over, isn’t it?’ Of course, it’s not over,” says Ono.

But while the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Davis, and Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson”, other artists took nowhere the kind of heat Lennon did for making songs from radicalism’s headlines. Ono was getting her fair share of abuse, too. “I wasn’t heard then. Okay, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says. Her music didn’t really stand a chance once the press was through with her. “If it’s that bad, of course I’m not going to buy it!” she says of what average consumers must’ve been thinking. Some Time in New York City was their worst-ever received album, critically as well as commercially. “We thought it was really good,” says Ono. “When I went to Moscow, this was much later, after John’s passing, Some Time in New York City was something that they remembered, of course. I was so amazed and so happy.”

That same spring and summer, Yippies and musicians of conscience had been hoping to organize an anti-war concert of some magnitude at the Miami Republican National Convention and were very much after Lennon to participate. But the Lennons had never intended to go, declining the invite for personal reasons. According to Wiener’s FBI Files, a report filed by an informant stated Lennon said he would participate in the demonstrations, but only “if they are peaceful.” And there was no one on earth who was going to make an iron-clad guarantee of that, especially given the police riot that erupted at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 and the increased mood of violence in the air, fueled by the fog of war. In the end, the authorities, reportedly aided by hippie infiltrators and informants, were successful at thwarting the production of a large-scale anti-war concert in Miami. And with his position on nonviolence now officially committed to a government document, you would think the case against Lennon could be closed. But rather, it marked the beginning of a long hassle with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, under order of the Nixon White House, and a dark period in the couple’s life that lasted for three years. Not only was there the pressure of the deportation case and the potential of losing their stateside residence, there was Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” interlude involving Ono’s secretary May Pang. By the time the order to deport was overturned in 1975, the couple had not only survived the INS, their relationship had survived the seven-year itch and a new baby had been born.

Beautiful Boy

“You see that he’s playing the piano? We didn’t have to dub again and it’s a long, long piano piece. I thought, ‘My God, it’s incredible, but he’s like that,’” says mama Ono of her son. Co-mingled with the loud, raucous, and electronic moods on the new album is Sean’s piano composition, characterized by sparkling minimalism and accompanied by Yoko on vocals, sometimes spoken and other times sung. His style and its production has more in common with his mother’s avant-garde and classical past than his father’s taste for rock ‘n’ roll and Phil Spector. I wondered if the Ono Lennons employed any of the techniques mother had learned as a student of avant-garde music in the late ’50s and early ’60s while they prepared the new album. “Whatever came to me when I was in the studio just got in there. It was like… I was inspired in Japanese—whoa! I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a Japanese song—in Japanese! And that’s good!’” she says. “Instead of, well, ahem…’ Ono adopts a serious tone, a little like John would do when he mocked things: “‘This is a good song and I don’t want to waste it, so I’ll first translate it to English…,’ I didn’t do any of that. I let it have the naturalness.” The resulting sound is unadulterated Yoko, accompanied by players comfortable rolling with her anything-goes attitude. “Isn’t that great?” she says, once again brimming with enthusiasm. “I didn’t realize Cornelius—which is Keigo, Shim, and Yuko, three people and they call themselves Cornelius—for some reason… I didn’t know they were that good! I didn’t have to tell them, ‘This is how you do it.’ They just knew how to play it!” In other words, the young folk were able to keep up with the septuagenarian.

BedIn3

It wasn’t all that long ago that Yoko’s music was on the mostly inaccessible side of alternative, though around the invention of new wave, the tide was beginning to turn in her favor. “I enjoyed the B-52s, because I heard them doing Yoko,” said Lennon in his famous final Playboy interview. In the early ’80s, Elvis Costello recorded “Walking on Thin Ice” on a 50th birthday tribute to Ono, but versions of her work by more mainstream singers like Rosanne Cash and Roberta Flack didn’t work as well. It would be a few more years before the culture would catch up with Ono, as well as with punk and new wave, but a new generation was definitely getting tuned into the sound of the future, something that Ono and Lennon had always believed in.

“Well, John, as you remember, was always jumping on the newest media. The computer… the global village… he would’ve said, ‘I told you so.’ I think he would’ve been at home sitting doing the email, website, all that,” says Ono. As far as her own relationship to technology, she admits to being slow to catch on. “I still like the typewriter.” The new album’s artwork reflects Ono’s long relationship with the typewriter, consistent with the look of her minimalist work, though its actual design was handled by Sean. “Isn’t it great? I have to tell you… John and I always did our album design, we were very hot on that. This time Sean did it. He kept saying, ‘Let me do it, let me do it,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, ah, ew… I’m going to break the tradition? Okay!’”

It’s funny to hear an iconoclast like Ono speak of the virtue of tradition, though aside from artistic presentation, I guess she’s always been about traditional values, like peace, justice, and equality for all. I wondered if she thought there was anyone out there doing the work she and John started, keeping the tradition of art and activism alive through music.

“Well, I think there are some indie artists out there… I put out an album called Yes, I’m a Witch—every one of them are fantastic, I really appreciate each one of them,” she says of Peaches, Le Tigre, and the Flaming Lips, among others who created remixes and covers of her old songs for a various artists compilation released in 2007.

Does she still think music plays a vital role in creating change in the world today? How can it help, for example, environmentally? “Okay, well, there’s so much we can do. And all of us can handle something. But I think what we can do is concentrate on something we really love. Try to do it as perfect as possible. That thing is going to send a most beautiful vibration to the world. Music covers the world and it heals the world. I do anything, really, to try to make a better world in my own small capacity, shall we say? But the thing is, actually doing one beautiful song—that makes it.”

I Love You

The obvious cruelty of a peace man dying by a bullet from a gunman’s hand would not have been lost on John, whose messages still resonate in the lifelong pursuit of art and peace activism of Yoko. Amongst her various other pursuits, she works to raise awareness of statistics on death by handguns occurring in the US each year. I have not yet admitted here that I am among those in supreme awe and great debt to Yoko and John, for the message of love they brought to the world, and for the many ways in which their work and their realness continue to inspire me. I figure in my last few moments with her, perhaps I should use the time to confirm those messages, and make sure I’ve interpreted them correctly: Was all they were saying was that peace and harmony begin at home and that to care for the world, we must first care for each other?

“Exactly,” she says. But were there ever moments back then when they faltered? Did she ever have to convince Lennon that applying spiritual solutions to practical problems was a sensible approach to life? I mean, did he ever think their cause was silly or, to use her word for it, wacko?

“Well, I don’t remember! The thing is… when you say ‘I love you’ to the one you love, actually you’re saying it to the world and the planet. I think that’s it. That says it all.”

After 13 songs of restless beauty, Between My Head and the Sky ends with the aforementioned piano song, “Higa Noboru”, played by Sean. But the final word belongs to mother: For 23 seconds, the album’s last track rests on the sound of metal on metal, ’til the voice of Ono, clearly smiling, emerges from the din. It is a breathtaking juxtaposition, between the harshest and sweetest of sounds. “It’s me,” says Yoko. “I’m alive.”

Filed under: anti-war, Rock Birthdays, Women in Rock, Women's issues, Women's rights, ,

Black History: Interview with Stanley Nelson, Director of Black Panthers-Vanguard of the Revolution

In October of 1966,  Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for the purpose of combating

Huey Newton by Stephen Shames

Huey Newton photographed by Stephen Shames

police violence in their Oakland neighborhood. Just in time for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, the story of the Black Panthers is told once and for all in Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”I’m interested in movements, not from the top down but the people who join and sustain movements,” says Nelson. “I really wanted the film to be about the rank and file members who are normally not talked to.”  Though hailing from the East, Nelson was exposed to his local Panther chapter as a teen; he considered joining for about a minute, but opted to pick up a camera instead of a gun. Pursuing freedom narratives throughout his career as a documentarian, it  was only natural that over time, as an African American observing Black lives, the story of the Panthers was a natural for his historic oeuvre, though he could not have predicted the timelessness of the story and the never ending cycle of police brutality in communities of color, combined with young people’s need to invent new ways to resist.

“In the last year and a half, when we were close to locking down the film, Ferguson happened,” explains Nelson. Of course he knew police brutality, and the need for better schools and housing were still relevant (“It’s why I wanted to do the film seven years ago,” he says) so the fact matters became more urgent was simply history taking its course.

“Because of recent circumstances, it’s opened a door to a conversation where people don’t wish to condemn the Panthers outright or at first glance,” he says.  “They are more moved to think about the fact African Americans organized to defend their community. A year ago, they might’ve said, ‘Defend their community from what?” but people wouldn’t say that now.”

As the story goes, from their incredible rise to their notorious fall, the sight of young, mobilized Black people caught fire with the media and sympathizers on the ground as  BPP chapters sprung up around the country and even Hollywood (Brando, Fonda) got down for the cause. At the same time, law enforcement was taking notes: By the late ’60s, J. Edgar Hoover’s well-documented COINTELPRO program was full blown. Nelson allows all the players in the dramatic take down of the Party to speak to its highs and lows.

#10 Fred Hampton at Dirksen Federal Building. Photo courtesy of Paul Sequeira

Fred Hampton photo by Paul Sequeira

“We wanted geographical diversity, and talked to lot of Panthers, men and women. I knew early on, I wanted to tell certain stories, like the murder of Fred Hampton and the LA shootouts, so we found Panthers in the Chicago and LA chapters involved in those events,” he says.   “We also wanted to interview as many cops, FBI agents and informants as possible,” he explains.  Conversely, events like the UCLA murders of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were left out as were stories of party sympathizers like H. Rap Brown and Angela Davis (there are also no contemporary interviews with former party leaders Seale and David Hilliard). Plenty of filmmakers, scholars and Panthers themselves have attempted historical overviews of the Party, but award-winning filmmaker Nelson (Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer) has landed on something close to a definitive reading of its politics and people, in all their glory and contradictions.

“I never know why people talk or don’t talk,” says Nelson, “I never ask them. I’m just happy when they do.”

Filed under: film, Interview, , , , ,

Black History Month: Rosa Parks Meets The Neville Brothers

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the rebellious civil rights activist remembered most for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest and an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery. Her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam–though she knew her rights,  the protocol for civil disobedience, and the possibility of taking an arrest.  In the immediate aftermath of sitting down for racial equality and desegregation, far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid a price for asserting her right to ride. She could no longer find work in the Montgomery area; she and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton), and the Congressional Gold Medal. A new political biography of Parks details a life dedicated to seeking justice, from the Scottsboro Boys case to the anti-apartheid movement.

Parks remained particular and protective of her legacy:  She slapped legal actions on filmmakers and recording artists who wished to use her name and likeness, though “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians the Neville Brothers, was cleared to appear on their 1989 album, Yellow Moon.  Produced by Daniel Lanois, and accompanied by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Brian Eno for the sessions, Yellow Moon is an exceptional record. The band transforms two Bob Dylan songs (“With God On Our Side,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” (title self-explanatory, taken from the guitarist’s obscure and brilliant 1971 album). Standing alongside the Neville Brothers’ bayou-fired originals, “Sister Rosa” is their attempt at rap.

For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.  For more information on the Neville Brothers, visit their website.

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Hip Hop, video, , ,

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