Somehow I never posted this article about me from a British music school, which may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever written about me. Definitely the first time I’ve been called a legend.
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I heard Steve Cannon’s voice before I met him. “Read the poem! READ THE GODDAM POEM!” His heckles were a key ingredient of the brand-new slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1989. They sounded like the disgruntled, impatient curses of a drunk – which, okay, they were – but they were also so much more. Steve did not suffer fools silently. He shouted at hapless literary wannabes stumbling over lengthy introductions to their work not to silence them, but to remind them why we were all here — to hasten them to their point: poetry. It was all about the goddam poem.
Steve played the part of the crank, the jester, the barfly. He used his growing blindness as a mask; there was a sort of barbed minstrelsy to his jeers. But he was actually a deep, generous spirit. He heckled because he cared. His lasting legacy is the way he opened his mind, his home, his heart, his wallet to all creative spirits who joined him on The Stoop. The Stoop was exactly what it sounds like: the steps up to his brownstone building in New York’s Lower East Side. Every New York denizen knows the culture of the stoop: the passageway in and out that becomes a hang, especially on days when either the sun beckons you out, or the heat inside is so oppressive you have to get out.
Steve was all about community: He had a permanent stool amid the collaborative space of the cooperatively run Nuyorican. He gently pushed and prodded the think tanks of the salons Stray Dog and the Stoop. The name of the magazine he founded and edited and the gallery that subsequently took over his home says it all: A Gathering of the Tribes. (A poster of the first cover, featuring art work by David Hammons, hangs on my office wall.) In the midst of the heyday of identity politics, Steve wanted us to all to think outside of our boxes.
Sadly Steve is not remembered as much for his own fiction, plays, and criticism, though his 1969 novel Groove, Bang and Jive Around is a cult classic. Once he lost his vision to glaucoma, it was hard for him to write. He relied on others to transcribe and edit his dictations, which were necessarily freeflowing and rambling. How else was a blind, elderly artist supposed to compose? Many people generously donated their time and energy to help him with his scripts, his gallery, his publication, his finances, his health, his life. It was no easy task. Steve always seemed to be on the brink of disaster, of losing his home (which he did, eventually, despite numerous individual and collective efforts to save Tribes), his sanity, his life. He lost the last battle July 7, at age 84.
Steve appreciated creativity and identified and nurtured talent. He was an explorer who encouraged the experiments of fellow black outsiders such as his friends and colleagues Ishmael Reed, Hammons, David Henderson, and Butch Morris. A then unknown poet who spoke directly to Steve’s sensibilities by not messing around with intros or theatrics and just plain-speaking his dense, punning verses won that first series of slams at the Nuyorican, and I can’t help but think that Steve’s heckles somehow, subtly, influenced the judges. Steve became one of future Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty’s first mentors and publishers. Paul was one of many writers and artists Steve pushed and prodded, including Willie Perdomo, Carl Hancock Rux, Sarah Ferguson, and myself.
I was with Paul when I last visited Steve at Tribes about six years ago. It had been several years since I moved away from Loisaida and the literary scene I was once immersed in, but he greeted me like I had never left. He held my hand tightly, introducing me to all the friends and interns and hangers-on and proppers-up in the room – Steve always traveled in a pack – asking me many questions about my work, my husband, my son, my life. He was the most kind and caring heckler you could ever know. The poet Bob Holman has called him, aptly, “the great connector.” For Steve, it was about the work, not the personal trappings. He wanted everyone to cut the crap and just speak their poem, their truth.
Kudos to Stevie Nicks and Janet Jackson for their inductions into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, as I broke it down for Longreads.com, women still make up less than 8 percent of Rock Hall inductees. The Hall exemplifies the historical manhandling of women’s roles in rock, from Rolling Stone to Mystery Train to, now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t just critique: I offer plans of action, including an (almost) all-female inductee list next year, and removal of Ahmet Ertegun’s name from the museum’s exhibition hall and industry award, in the wake of charges of sexual harassment. This isn’t the first time I’ve called the Hall to task for their systemic exclusion of female artists; sadly the numbers haven’t improved a bit since that 2011 Salon article.
Shirley Manson, La Marisoul, Saint Vincent, and Madame Gandhi will be among the artists paying tribute to Yoko Ono at the Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow night (March 22) for BREATHEWATCHLISTEN, part of the Fluxus Festival, copresented by Girlschool LA. I wrote the following to accompany the 2017 rerelease of Ono’s album 1973 Feeling the Space.
Like many of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators parading through downtown Los Angeles at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the young woman with pink streaks in her hair carried a handmade sign expressing its carrier’s personal sentiment. On the day after the presidential inauguration ignited a massive global protest, this marcher waved a distinctly original three-word message: In block letters on black paper it read, “Yoko Sent Me.”
The fact that the once-reviled Yoko Ono is inspiring a new generation of activists comes as no surprise if you’ve listened to Feeling the Space, her personal-is-political 1973 album that resonates remarkably 44 years later. On such songs as the righteous chant “Woman Power,” the empathetic ballad “Angry Young Woman,” the hilarious proto-grrrl “Potbelly Rocker” and the satirical “Men Men Men,” Ono sings in surprisingly straightforward fashion about the burdens carried by women and the mandate for feminism. Supported by such skilled studio vets as guitarist David Spinozza, sax player Michael Brecker, and drummer Jim Keltner, this is perhaps Yoko’s most accessible album, and her most intimate. Feeling the Space was recorded during the time of the infamous “lost weekend,” when the avant visionary artist became estranged from her rock-star husband John Lennon. He plays only briefly on the album (billed as Johnny O’cean); she produced and wrote all the songs.
The album’s sheer musicality should have shut up the detractors who denied her abilities. Yes, she sings; the album contains only a few examples of the atonal vocal experiments for which she became famous. Mostly, Yoko’s pain and vulnerability, and also her declaration of independence, are communicated simply and gingerly, as if she were still sorting out very strong emotions that needed clear expression, not, this time, the purging power of a wail. “Run Run Run,” a gentle tune from which the album gets its title, is almost like a directed meditation, as a woman explores the territory that opens around her, that she forces open, as she takes flight (to a splendid keyboard dance by Ken Ascher). Ono was literally feeling her space. But rather than striking a separatist vibe, this album is also notable for the quality of the singer’s collaboration with the musicians, the way the male instrumentalists answer her articulations with stirring solos, and her call and response with the female vocalists, the sisters who have her back.
The result is a definitive soundtrack/document of the era of consciousness raising and of radical critique of the family structure. Yoko and company deliver this hard message soft rock style, or as soft as Yoko could get – think of Feeling the Space as Tapestry with talons, or the second-wave godmother of Lemonade. Yoko was inspired by the women’s liberation movement – it freed her from the burden of being a celebrity wife. Dedicated “to the sisters who died in pain and sorrow and those who are now in prisons and in mental hospitals for being unable to survive in the male society,” it’s an emotional exploration of the psychological toll of oppression.
As an extra track in this reissue and also in the 1992 Ono box set, there’s a live version of the eternally prescient “Coffin Car” – as spectacularly right-on a song as her spouse ever wrote. In its prologue, she tells a humbling story about how the intense pressure on her as a Beatles wife – and an artsy, foreign, weirdo wife to boot — caused her to develop, in her 30s, a stutter. She’s humble and humorous in her famous childlike accent, seeking not pity but to explain by example the cultural damnation of women — n words of the world, as she and John sang.
At the International Women’s Conference organized by the National Organization of Women in 1973, Yoko met an attendee from the Midwest who had left her husband and children. This figure inspired one of this album’s best tracks, “Angry Young Woman,” as well as, one guesses, Yoko’s own separation from John. The banker’s daughter sings with impressive understanding about the everyday struggles of women in families: the way a demand for a shirt or dinner can become a daily insult, a reminder of patriarchal servitude, of domestic “duty.” After all, who more than Yoko suffered the sexist – and racist – derision of 20th century culture, both Western and Eastern (no refuge for Yoko!).
Yet one of the qualities that makes Yoko Yoko is her eternal optimism. “There’s no way back, so just keep walking,” she tells the “Angry Young Woman.” “When you turn the corner you’ll see the new world.” It’s a message of encouragement that, tragically, is as needed in 2017 as in 1973. The young women are still walking, sent by Yoko.
What happens when 50 female-identified musicians, DJs, journalists, scholars, publicists, sound engineers, podcasters, etc., come together in a subterranean hotel bar on a rainy Superbowl Sunday? “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky come tumbling down.” On Sunday, February 3, Turn It Up!, a collective of women working in the music industry that has been meeting since December, had our coming-out party at the Hotel Figueroa. It was an invitation-only mixer — an initial step to broaden our base as we take aim at gender inequality in the music industry. The feeling in the room was electric, the ideas that came out of small brain-storming sessions were provocative. A change is gonna come.
Turn It Up! evolved out of a special December issue of KPFK’s Feminist Magazine Radio show. Valecia Phillips interviewed myself and six contributors to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. Inspired by each other’s stories about the musicians they profiled for the book, we decided we didn’t want this to be the, er, final chapter of our work together. As Alice Bag said Sunday, Women Who Rock is “the big, hard, pink seed” that must be planted and grow.
The mixer was a tremendous first sprout. Opening up our “rolodexes,” our steering committee — Alice, Adele Bertei, Allison Wolfe, Lynnée Denise, Mukta Mohan, dIA hakinna, Shana L. Redmond, Solvej Schou, Valecia Phillips, Lucretia Tye Jasmine, and me — were able to draw a pretty impressive group of artists, scholars, writers, workers, engineers, publicists, and activists, including Phranc, Lysa Flores, Kate Nash, Anna Bulbrook, Carla Bozulich, Anna Joy Springer, Abby Travis, CJ Miller of Dimber, and Katie Gavin and Naomi McPherson of MUNA. There were representatives of other rad feminist warriors, including SoundGirls, 50/50 by 2020, the Kilroys,Girlschool, and Chicas Rockeras, as well as folks from KXLU, Fly PR, Girlie Action, etc. My favorite moment was when the hotel’s staff couldn’t figure out how to get the microphone working, so Kathleen Hanna got up and fiddled with the cables, and voila, sound. Turn it up!
Turn It Up! somewhat coincidentally happens to be the name of a great song about self-expression by Alice Bag: “You’ve made a playlist and it’s locked inside your head, Toss it out play something new instead.” In just two months, we’ve got a name, an anthem, and a logo: the women’s symbol with the computer icon for volume inside it. We’ve also got a mission statement:
“Turn It Up! is a collective working toward gender parity in music. We advocate for equal airplay, media coverage and industry employment of groups who are historically and structurally excluded from the business and the institutions of music-making. Women WILL be heard.”
The Hotel Figueroa generously housed us and donated a fabulous spread including warm cookies. The building has a feminist history, having been built as a YWCA and served as the first place where women traveling alone could find lodging in downtown LA. Sunday we plotted the next steps for change, breaking up into small groups that brainstormed a number of ideas to put our mission into motion. Stay tuned for further developments.
Thursday we buried my Uncle John. He was the last of his generation, of Mom’s five siblings, to die. It’s the passing of an era but also, the passing of a great man. One of six, father of seven, John Duncan Harrod loved family. He opened his home and his heart to anyone who became part of his tribe. And his family became truly blended over the years, as was evident at his funeral. There were six of his kids and their spouses, and many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There were the relatives of his son-in-law Vito Zambetti, the two families indelibly bonded by Vito’s tragic death decades ago. There were the children of his second wife, Colleen, as red-eyed as their step-siblings. I know how open-armed John could be because he always treated my brother and myself, and my husband and my son, as if we were as welcome in his home as his own offspring. Our families vacationed together, camping in Yosemite and Kentucky, celebrating the country’s bicentennial in Wisconsin. Whenever we visited LA, we stayed with John and his family, even if we slept in our trailer parked outside.
The Harrods are pioneer stock, descendants of the frontiersman James Harrod. John, my mom, brothers Royce, Leon and Bill, and sister Louise moved to LA from their native Kentucky when they were still kids, and with my grandfather Arthur, they built houses for California’s booming expansion. John never stopped working. As his son-in-law Steve Ruda eulogized, he always had a hammer and a nail pouch hanging from his belt. At 87, he was strong as an ox — even after a massive brain bleed felled him and left him attached to machines. When I visited him in the hospital, he held my hand in a grip so tight I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to break free. His eyes were open, and they seemed to look around the room in response to sounds, but I don’t know that he could see or hear. Yet when I squeezed his hand he squeezed mine back. That was the last time I saw him alive.
Before the hemorrhage, his mind was strong too. At my mother’s memorial, he recounted vivid details and the exact addresses of all the places their itinerant father had taken him to live: Florida, Kentucky, near Macarthur Park. Like my parents, he loved to travel America, camping in our great national park system, making use of our highways. It’s a lost art, trailering across America. Maybe, if we toured our own country like our parents did, we would feel less divided.
The night before we buried John, a former marine killed 12 people in a bar not far from San Fernando Mission, the historic 19th century church where my uncle was honored with a last communion. On the day we said goodbye to my mother, a man killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando. Natural deaths are sad enough; why this haste to increase our country’s mortality rate? On our drive to the Valley for the funeral, my husband had a vision of Uncle John standing at the pearly gates, greeting those poor shooting victims with those great strong arms of his spread wide.
As we left the reception, a fierce wind whipped through Porter Ranch, a gale so strong I understood why multiple highway signs warned of dangerous gusts. At that moment in fact, flames were lighting north of Malibu, and an hour later in Woolsey Canyon. Soon the families we had been having lunch with would be evacuating their homes, and John would be hugging more of his California neighbors at the gates of heaven.
I don’t really believe that, of course. I don’t believe in heaven, or life after death. But I appreciate them as good stories that give us comfort in trying times. And we could all use some comfort these days.
Goodbye Uncle John. I probably never told you how much I loved you, but you probably didn’t need me to. That’s what family is for.