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.
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.
Matt Giles interviewed me for a Topic magazine story on women in the music industry circa 2000. I’m in great company: Allison Wolfe, Melissa Auf der Mar, Louise Goffin, JD Samson, Amy Finnerty, etc. There are intriguing and often divergent POVs in here, as one would expect/hope. A few comments particularly strike me. One is when Auf der Mar talks about her decision to join Hole being a statement of feminist solidarity:
“I felt a higher calling about women in rock, and quickly understood that this was much bigger than me. It was about women in general.”
And when Samson reflects on touring with Le Tigre, she perfectly expresses what grrrl power is all about:
“We wouldn’t have been who we were without the audience. Those people in that room, thinking about those things, sweating, feeling safe in our bodies, taking up that space, breathing the same air—that’s what we needed.”
On a more personal note, I love the moment when New York Times deputy culture editor Sia Michel talks about starting her career as my intern at SF Weekly, and how San Francisco criticism was led by women including Ann Powers and Gina Arnold:
“In my mind, music journalism was something that women did.”
Elsewhere, Ultragrrrl Sarah Lewitinn reflects on how Michel supported her career (as she did NYT music editor Caryn Ganz). I see us as a feminist music-critic bucket brigade, passing each other these support lines. These are all examples of the importance of women helping other women, creating safe spaces for each other to exist — musical matriarchies and matrilineals.
I was so excited to be part of The New York Times‘s multimedia package on Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl, I forgot to blog about it. I co-wrote with Elisabeth Vincentelli the main piece, the essential Riot Grrrl listening guide. And I got to write about my first Bikini Kill show and their first show in years. And I took part in the Popcast! Plus there are historic videos of 1990s Bikini Kill shows by my grrrlfriend Lucretia Tye Jasmine. PRDCT!!!
We should have packed tissues. The theme of the annual Pop Conference at the Museum of Pop in Seattle this year was death. It was couched in a lot of verbiage: “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife” was the official 11-word title. But it didn’t take a seance to locate the ghosts. They were all around, as we tried to pontificate without breaking into tears. I failed at both the panel and roundtable I moderated, suddenly finding myself unable to speak. I believe so did everyone else I shared a dais with. It was weird to find oneself suddenly, repeatedly vulnerable in the quasi-academic space of delivering a paper. As I always tell my kid, weird is good.
MoPop felt like a safe space to let oneself feel, perhaps because in the conference’s 17 years, so many bonds have been formed. I was riding with multiple posses myself. And of course, there was a ghost in this machine: It was the first year PopCon was not run by Eric Weisband, with keynote assistance from his spouse Ann Powers (both of whom I have known since long before there was a PopCon). Charles Hughes, of Rhodes College, nobly and ably ferried us across the Mersey to this Pop afterlife. It was the saddest year, and the funnest year.
There were more than 100 presentations over four days, and I can’t possibly mention even all of those I saw. Let’s just say it began with a keynote panel where Journey frontman Steve Perry was the most solid, emotionally honest classic rock star you could imagine sitting with a bunch of scholars and lesser luminaries, and it ended, for me, with a fascinating rumination on the influence of Franz Liszt on Donny Hathaway by I. Augustus Durham. The highlight, perhaps of any PopCon presentation I have ever seen, was the slideshow duet by Hugo Burnham and Jon King on the strange business of rock-band reunions, a subject they know all too well. They were brilliant and poignant and funny, and they were one-half of Gang of Four!!! Dave Allen was in the audience, and the Gang of Three DJed that evening. Women who write Vivien Goldman and Holly George-Warren and I danced till the midnight hour.
Earlier that day, I moderated What Becomes Legend Most, a panel featuring the authors of the first four books from the Music Matters series, which I not incoincidentally edit (along with Oliver Wang) for University of Texas Press. Fred Goodman delivered seemingly without notes a lyrical summary of the extraordinary art and life of the late singer Lhasa de Sela. At the end, he simply played a video of her performing “The Bells” a few months before her death from cancer at age 2010. You could have heard a pin drop in the JBL Theater.
Tom Smucker compared the crazy death of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson to the unlikely survival of his brother Brian. Karen Tongson pondered the suburban tragedy of her namesake, Karen Carpenter. Donna Gaines paid ode to her heroes and friends in the Ramones. Hearing their literary meditations all together made me understand on an emotional level what we are trying to accomplish with this series: putting on the page that ongoing argument you have with every music lover you know, about why your favorite band/musician is the GOAT. That night we held a release party for Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters that doubled as a launch party for the series; attendees included future authors Caryn Rose (Why Patti Smith Matters), Michelle Threadgould (Why Rage Against the Machine Matters), and Annie Zaleski (Why the B52’s Matter).
Too early after the late night of parties and dancing, Saturday morning I moderated Death and the Maiden, a roundtable of contributors from Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. The venue was the museum’s capacious Sky Church, so we began the proceedings with Solvej Schou singing “Amazing Grace”, then took a moment to pay respect to Nipsy Hussle and Gary Stewart, two visionaries from the City of Angels who are now angels themselves. We discussed how death – supposedly the great equalizer – can be shaped by gender. Holly George-Warren compared the tragic trajectories of Patsy Cline, whom she wrote about for Women Who Rock, and Janis Joplin; her biography of the music legend will be published in the fall. Lucretia Tye Jasmine spoke hauntingly about hunger, shaming, and Karen Carpenter (yes, I presided over two papers about Carpenter). Schou paid homage in words and song to Sharon Jones. Threadgould weaved a poetic narrative about mortality through the works of Diamanda Galas, Laurie Anderson, and Selena. Folks were smart and deep. I was proud to be their editor/interlocutor.
And then we had fun fun fun. Vivien and I took the theme literally, ghosting for an afternoon to shop at Pike Place. Donna and Tye read tarot cards. There was sushi with Tricia Romano. For the first time at Pop Conference, I checked out Saturday night karaoke, and was glad I did. Attendees’ love of the music they get all theoretical about was on drunken display, and I marveled at everyone’s humility, their lack of embarrassment – as well as at some genuinely great voices (Kate Kay, Kathy Fennessy). Hearing Karen Tongson sing “On Top of the World” made me all weepy again. Girl sings it like she writes it. The day that began with Solvej’s “Amazing Grace” ended with her karaoke of “Respect.” Baby she got it.
We should have organized a jazz line. That’s how I felt flying back from Portland on Tuesday, having followed the conference with a visit to my oldest bestie, Cindy, who has been busy the last seven months kicking cancer’s butt. If you’re going to spend four days talking about death and music, book a New Orleans brass band to march you outta there. And then on Thursday came the Tweet. Thanks, Beyonce.
My Longreads piece on the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and other perpetrators of gender inequity, “The Manhandling of Rock’n’Roll History,” seems to have hit a chord (so to speak). Future Rock Legends, THE watchdog site for the Rock Hall, published an article about it. And I did a really fun interview with Who Cares About the Rock Hall?, a podcast by comedians Joe Kwaczala and Kristen Studard.