Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Antonino D'Ambrosio and Shepard Fairey at Subliminal Projects: Bitter Tears, Fury, and Politics
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.