Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

December 8: Strange Days, Indeed

Remembering Jim Morrison’s birth and John Lennon’s death.  Rest in peace, brothers. Your energies and ideas are still very much needed here on earth.john-lennon-eyeglassesjim-morrison-2

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Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, , , , , ,

New Doors Single Benefits All Tribes

Ghost Song FNLYou have to hand it to the Doors’ drummer John Densmore: For over 40 years he’s refused to cave-in to requests from advertisers to use his band’s music in commercials when artists of more stature have not hesitated to compromise.

So why has this drummer (largely regarded to be a rock band’s low man) managed to stay so hardline and true when it comes to decision-making? “You know a long time ago Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us because we were considering ‘C’mon Buick light my fire…’ Because the dough looked good and we were young.  And Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing.  And he’s dead. And I’m not.  So I’m not gonna forget that,” said Densmore. His most recent book, The Doors: Unhinged, chronicles his battle with his former bandmates for the rights to the Doors name and his efforts to keep their musical legacy clean, while serving as the drummer’s meditation on greed—how it impairs people and society.

In a world filled with clutter, contradiction, and compromise, this past Black Friday, the Doors issued a limited edition single of “Ghost Song” b/w “Drums,” its sleeve designed by Shepard Fairey. “Ghost Song” is of course plucked from Morrison’s poetry, the one that nods to Indians…scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding… “Drums” is a composition by Peter La Farge recorded by Densmore for Rare Breed, a tribute to the songs of La Farge (first popularized when Johnny Cash cut them on his 1964 Native American-themed album, Bitter Tears).  Both Fairey and Densmore advocated staying out of stores on Friday, but for those who ignored the boycott (protesting over-consumption and the shooting of Mike Brown) and just couldn’t resist shopping, proceeds of their Doors purchase went to the Honor the Treaties organization which funds collaborations between Native artists and Native advocacy groups. Again, you can thank Densmore for that.

So when people ask me, as they often do, why I should want to write a book about Jim Morrison and the Doors, I tell them there is more to the band than its singer’s alcoholism and “Light My Fire.”  In fact, there is a deep well of influence from which the band has drawn, though it generally remains hidden from view. Tonight at the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, I will be noting the publication of my book Shaman’s Blues which delves into some of those influences by introducing the Doors documentary When You’re Strange (2009), directed by Tom DiCillo. Both the film and the book are additions to an already healthy pile of Doors-related material on view and for sale—it is arguable whether the world needs more of the same.  And yet these two 21st century Doors artifacts drive home a similar point: Here is a band that succeeded where its peers and contemporary artists have failed to hold the line: They chose not to sell-out.  That’s something worth remembering, documenting, and celebrating.

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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, , , , ,

Veterans Day: War Is Over

Iraq Veterans Against the War asked supporters to use social media this Veteran’s Day to speak about personal experience with militarism.  I don’t have much direct contact to report, unless you count carrying a sense of American shame and holding a deep well of sadness for the amount of senseless violence, killing, overspending, and harm done to the world’s people and resources in the name of liberty and justice for all.  My immediate family is not militarily descended, though among my few relatives who were called up, I remember an uncle named Charlie who went to Vietnam and mercifully returned, then asked to be called Charles from there on; I have not seen much of him in 30 years, but I suspect he’s suffered, the result of time served.

My own conscientious objection and moral opposition to war developed out of the lessons taught by a few good teachers who waged stealthy anti-militarism campaigns in their high school classrooms: Images from documentaries on the Holocaust and post-atomic bomb Japan have stayed with me strong since I saw them. An education in war’s atrocities, along with my own love of the message music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I believe schooled me well, until I went on to research and learn more.

Created at the height of the Vietnam era, conceived with strength and intended as a balm and wake-up call for all that had gone wrong, artist/activists from Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”) and Phil Ochs (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) to giants Bob Dylan (“Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War”), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine”), the stars of Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, Edwin Starr’s “War,” written by Whitfield and Strong) and singers, songwriters and performers of all forms (“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and “Love Train” by the O’Jays”), delivered the songs of peace. Quite often they took anti-war sentiment to the top of the charts. It was a time when an anti-war view didn’t have to fight for space on the front page or evening news—it was the news. Back then, unless they were complete squares, members of the silent majority or total idiots, men and women were not afraid to stand against war.

As time went on, the wealth of Vietnam-themed Hollywood feature films (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) depicting the horrors of war, and set to a rock music soundtrack of songs associated with the time period (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” for two)  further informed my own beliefs about  that time.  The truth had surfaced and history was beginning to support the unjust nature of all that war’s ill concepts and casualties. Bombing unarmed innocents in the name of freedom is pure and simple, illegal, immoral, and just plain wrong. One of the movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, so convincingly used “The End” by the Doors  to convey a soldier’s pain, one could be forgiven for thinking the music was written to fit the sequence(s) in which it was used (it was not). Here is the opening scene of the film that stars Martin Sheen as the fictional Captain Benjamin Willard:

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, and all the children are insane.  Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic visions and anti-imperialist artistic views were tied up in a deep study of history and the humanistic concerns he shared with the artists of peace and vision who inspired him. Given his own generation’s stand against the war, Morrison’s radically left of center way of approaching life and art was complicated by his own family ties to militarism:  His father, Admiral Steven Morrison commanded the forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident that sent the Vietnam war into overdrive. The Doors cut at least one specifically anti-war song, or at least we can deduce that theme from the action in their own short film for “Unknown Soldier.”

“War is over,” the present tense affirmation that serves as the chorus to”Unknown Solider,” predates the use of the phrase in the Plastic Ono’s Band “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971); it coincided with the Phil Ochs song “The War is Over” (1968) and knowing Morrison’s influences, was likely borrowed from French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ 1966 film, War is Over, a political thriller set in Franco-era Madrid and Paris.

As time went on, the anti-war song fell out of favor, at least in the U.S. where our direct involvement in wars was mostly covert and away from our shores.  Now and again, we’d get a crucial reminder that war is bad and killing is no good in songs (“War” by Bob Marley), while other times when war was declared and battles raged on, anti-war songs experienced a tiny revival (“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine comes to mind, as does “Living With War” by Neil Young who continues to wage peace every day of the year). But unless mandatory service makes a comeback, it is guaranteed you’ll hear fewer songs of resistance to war, or resistance to much of anything, really. Killing for peace, bombing for safety and drones from here to kingdom come are not really what the people want from their songs anymore. Until further notice, the rocket’s red glare shall shine on, while few take a stand in song to abhor them.

Where are the songs that urge calling off drone strikes?  I know there are some, but they are not on the Top 40, blasting from jukeboxes and commanding the dancefloor the way Edwin Starr made a stand: “War! Huh-good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again. Yea.” Though once again, the ’60s generation—I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but in terms of longevity, staying the course, consistency of message and laying it down—comes through. Septugenarian Graham Nash cut a song with James Raymond for Bradley Manning.

Nash had done the same for Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven who among other things, opposed the war.  I’m not telling fans of ’60s rock anything they don’t already know.  But for the sake of the song, if you’re a singer or a songwriter and think that killing and torture in the name of what is wrong, use your stage to sing out and decry the lie, even if it’s just one song. Or do something: Professional musician Darden Smith is writing songs with vets. Recounting their experiences with war and turning them into songs, Smith has aided soldiers in coming to terms with their opposition to violence of all kinds.

The Veterans Against the War say on their website that everyday, 22 veterans take their own lives. Could it be that they cannot stand the post-traumatic stress of remembering?  Were they tortured, or asked to torture someone else?  We will not know now or ever because they’re gone, as are the great mean of peace, Gandhi, Dr. King and John Lennon. Today I thank all, veterans and others, who fought and now work for peace: You remind us that we can not tell ourselves that war is something that only happens over there, far away, to other people. We cannot continue to pretend that we are  not connected or impacted too. We are responsible. The horror, the horror.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, film, France, , ,

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