By Barbara Celis
Art is the antidote. This timeless truth became clear once again on Saturday night when Subliminal Projects, the Echo Park art gallery owned by Shepard Fairey, hosted a politically- and musically-charged event that celebrated artists as activists and art as a way to agitate consciousness and raise awareness about social justice.
'A Furious Heartbeat: An Evening of Art and Music' brought together the spirit of Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash, their music, their pictures and author Antonino D'Ambrosio, the writer behind the recently published book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears and the soon to be released documentary Let Fury Have the Hour, inspired by The Clash's cultural activism.
The evening happened under the guidance of Fairey, who created the cover for the book and is doing animations for the movie. Joe Strummer blessed the event from the walls of the gallery via the last pictures ever taken of him (a few weeks before his death by D'Ambrosio himself, and many years earlier by photographer Kate Simon, who did the cover of their first album). Fairey's artwork about Cash and Strummer was also in display; they sold before the night was over, including a big piece honoring The Clash singer that went quietly for
Also featured were Native American- and Cash-inspired pieces by Ben Scanlon, the art director of writer D'Ambrosio's non-profit, La Lutta. Those pieces sold fast, too, but with a less expensive price tag than Fairey's. (You can't compete with Fairey's Obama “Hope” poster fame). Special guest Wayne Kramer from the MC5 brought his elegant punk flavor to the stage, and was supported by a great men-in-black band with a very Cash-like singer. D'Ambrosio read excerpts from his book, and musicians sang some of the ballads from Bitter Tears.
Cash recorded this little known folk protest album in 1964, inspired by the Native People's rights movement. The lyrics were too controversial for their time: his words were deemed “unpatriotic.” He sang about how Ira Hayes, the Native American soldier who, after planting the flag in Iwo Jima, died poor, alcoholic and lonely. Columbia Records pulled all the ads out of fear; the Ku Klux Klan threatened stores who carried it; and radio stations across the country killed its tunes. In a matter of weeks the album went silent and was erased from Cash's official discography.
At the same time, the whole country was about to start shaking beneath the Civil Rights Movement, protests against Vietnam and all sorts of social and cultural earthquakes. Cash wasn't wrong; he was in tune with the time, although he saw the Native American movement coming way earlier than his contemporaries — and was punished for it. It didn't matter that by then he was a star.
Cash fought back against censorship, and here is where D'Ambrosio enters the story. “I came across an original recording of Bitter Tears and a piece of paper fell out of the sleeve,” he told West Coast Said on Saturday night. “It was a copy of the letter he published in Billboard magazine to protest against the backlash. He bought a full page to defend himself and it ended it with the line 'So many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes. Just one question, Why?'” That's how D'Ambrosio's book — not a biography but a volume about suppressed cultural history — was born. “I thought this album was the true portrait of Cash as a citizen and an artist and I wanted to understand what made him write it,” he explained at the gallery.
In the best tradition of balladeers, with guitars and drums playing in the background, D'Ambrosio told the packed audience at Subliminal Projects this story and many others around Cash's Bitter Tears, which the singer penned with folk artist Peter La Farge. It was a night to honor the musician's role as “a rebellious troubadour,” and the whole history of music as a way to foster progressive change in society. In fact, the last tune before turning over the music to Fairey, who DJed after the concert, was Bob Marley's “Redemption Song.” It wasn't a random choice. According to D'ambrosio, Strummer and Cash met briefly in Rick Rubin's studio in Los Angeles only once, and they recorded a duet of the song (included in Cash's box set Unearthed, published right after his death in 2003).
If it weren't because of Strummer, D'Ambrosio would have never known about Bitter Tears. He discovered that album during research for Let Fury Have the Hour, a critically acclaimed compilation of essays written by him and people like Billy Bragg about the outspoken singer of The Clash, his role as a social agitator and his influence as what D'Ambrosio calls 'world citizenship'. That definition is actually what lies behind the documentary of the same name. The writer will release the film next summer (with actor Tim Robbins executive producing).
“World citizenship is the movement of those who think of themselves as connected to other people of the world, not only to their block” D'Ambrosio explained to West Coast Sound after the performance. “Using The Clash and their cultural activism as a starting point, I follow three musicians that are representatives of that movement at three different levels: Manu Chao, MIA and Rachid Taha. And within that movement there are also people like Shepard Fairey or Jack Healey, the former executive director of Amnesty International and one of the most important activists of this country. The documentary traces the history and connections of the movement and talks about the importance of art and culture in helping foster change. I learned about Jamaica listening to reggae music; I 've got interested in the Spanish Civil War and fell in love with García Lorca because of the Clash song “Spanish Bombs.” That's pretty powerful, to do that in a three-minute punk rock song and to tell a sophisticated story. So in the documentary we are telling stories that highlight the fact that we are interdependent and interconnected; that's how democracy and humanity moves forward.”