Ruminations from a Fun But Stinky Tour
by David Rovics - Songwriter's Notebook
I left Portland in the middle of September, a few weeks after the Ferguson-related protests had subsided. Got back just days before the verdict. While I was away, I was traveling around and between 22 US states and 2 Canadian provinces, from west to east, north to south.
I hadn't done a driving tour around the country for years, and on a whim last spring, I decided I should try doing one again. On the financial front it was a reminder of why I stopped doing it that way years ago. It was also a reminder of how big, how beautiful, how ugly, how empty, how crowded, and how diverse the country is. How rich, how poor, how pristine, how ravaged.
In downtown Portland I rented a shiny new black Toyota Corolla at Hertz, unlimited mileage multimonth rental, as they call them. The car had Texas plates, randomly, though I was renting it in Oregon. In the eyes of the world, a Texan driving around North America. Always interesting to try to gauge to what degree other drivers and passersby are reacting to you based on the point of origin of your license plates. As the Texas ebola scare mounted in intensity in the constant news broadcasts, the fact that the plates were having an impact was indisputable.
The first gig on the tour was close to home, just south of Portland a ways in the small city of Corvallis. The gig was actually fairly representative of most of the gigs on my nine-week tour, during which I had around five shows each week. There were two or three dozen people at the cafe as my fading memory recalls. Lovely folks, mostly the usual suspects, the guys and gals you'd see at the peace vigils or a protest for universal health care.
I wasn't the youngest person in the room, but I was definitely within the younger set in the establishment, at 47. It was a benefit, and ended up paying this working musician something along the lines of the average gig on this tour – about half of what I try to get for a gig. These days there's only one place where I consistently make what I aim to make on a gig or a tour. Luckily it's a big place, called Europe. (Particularly the wealthier, more northern, more English-speaking part of the region.)
That night I went back home to Portland, and when I left town the next day, I wouldn't see it again for nine weeks.
I had no gigs in Washington, Idaho, or Montana, but if you're driving, you go through all those states on your way east with or without gigs in them. Stopped for lunch in a town called Winthrop, which was clearly very self-consciously trying to maintain its historic, all-wood old west look, and succeeding. Even the sidewalks are made of planks of wood, and you can easily imagine the horses tied up to them throughout the day.
Spent the night in Twisp, another historic old west kind of town, though not as OCD as Winthrop in terms of the enforcing of historic building codes. There's some concrete in Twisp along with the aging planks of wood. Caught up a wee bit with Danbert Nobacon in the form of house guest. Here's a man who has done a lot of touring. Though much less in recent years, living out in the lovely, peaceful boonies.
Mostly peaceful. Driving east out of town the next morning after a praiseworthy breakfast sandwich at the Twisp Bakery, the recent, massive forest fires were very evident. Miles of black, burnt trees, looking like charcoal, upon black earth, a surreal landscape. Oftentimes smoke was rising, very visibly white, rising around the black trunks. Getting out of the car, the ground was warm, though the weather was not.
Without gigs, just driving through the vastness of Idaho and western Montana, it was good to be in those wide open spaces again, but there's an emptiness about it when you're not stopping to see people and do things. From coast to coast, north to south, from the beginning of the tour until the end, a constant feature of traveling on the highways of the United States were the mile upon mile of impossibly long, slow trains literally overflowing with coal, transported in open cars, along with mile after mile of trains full of huge tanks of oil or whatever variation of liquid fuel they contained.
The oil boom is all around you in so much of the country. Like everywhere in Wyoming. I had something resembling a series of gigs there, in the form of being the musical component of three stops on the campaign trail of a cowboy hat-wearing ex-priest named Charlie Hardy.
Charlie wasn't just any ex-priest from Wyoming. He had spent eight years living in a cardboard box in Caracas, Venezuela in the impoverished barrios. He was there when Chavez came to power, saw first-hand the positive impact of the new government on the people there. He wrote a book about his time there called Cowboy in Caracas which I want to read.
Charlie had gotten the Democratic nomination for Senate in Wyoming. I normally don't associate with Democratic politicians, since their basic MO is to act progressive in order to get the votes of the progressive majority, and then systematically stab us all in the back afterward. But in Wyoming, being a Democrat is only a bit less offensive than being a member of Al-Qaeda. Most people there don't remember the last time a Democrat represented Wyoming in the Congress.
Charlie's campaign had inspired people before it even started. I heard about it from his campaign manager, Bruce Wilkinson, who I knew from years before, when he was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia. Bruce met Charlie in Venezuela, and followed him back to Wyoming, via Olympia, where he picked up the rest of Charlie's campaign staff, all former Evergreen students. Other folks came from California to live on the campaign trail with Charlie and his gang (alternately known as “Charlie's Angels” or “the Hardy Boys,” depending) and make a documentary about the campaign.
At a pub in Lander I managed to offend an entire table full of young men who had been enjoying my set well enough until I mentioned foreign policy. Some of those huffing off, I guessed, had been in the military, and had managed to preserve a bit of that patriotic fervor that Americans are reputed to possess in large quantities.
All five of my fans in Wyoming live in Laramie, and two of them drove all the way to Casper from Laramie to catch the event there, which took place in a cafe where the barista refused on principle to not put frozen yogurt in my smoothie. That evening me and the campaign staff were put up by the manager of a small, independent motel, in a couple of the available rooms. Most of the other rooms were being rented on a weekly basis by oil workers from all over the country, especially places with a history of oil booms themselves, like Texas. Several of the vehicles were pickup trucks with oil equipment of one kind or another in the back. One of the vehicles was a broken-down car, looked like it was mainly held together by rope and tape, and the motel resident who owned the sorry wreck was being kicked out, presumably for being in arrears.
I was smoking a roll-up cigarette when an oil worker from Arkansas who spoke a barely-intelligible form of Arkansan English came to join me. We just shot the shit there on a concrete bench on the grass talking about Wyoming and Arkansas and the Ozark drug trade. It occurred to me after he went back to his room that perhaps the reason why our conversation drifted toward the drug trade was because he thought I was smoking a joint and he wanted a hit of it. Either he realized it wasn't a joint, or I finished my cigarette, I don't remember which.
The third and final campaign stop was a bit anticlimactic. It took place in a local espresso chain, which made good espresso. Which is always nice, especially if you're an espresso snob. There may not be much decent food to be found in the state of Wyoming, but at least there's good coffee. Good coffee or no, only one person showed up for the event, which then just didn't happen.
The guy who turned up was one of the few hardcore Democrats in the town of Gillette, the home town of Charlie's very Republican competition, whose main campaign strategy was just to ignore the fact that there was any opposition and hope not too many people hear about it. That night, another motel full of oil workers.
I can't remember the last time I had been in South Dakota. Wyoming is remote, but I had been there on a number of occasions over recent years, even without doing the big driving tours around the country anymore. Mainly because Laramie is only a couple hours' drive from Denver, Colorado, and Boulder – progressive hot spots, cities with money in them, the typical combination that seems to be required for me to manage to frequent a place.
But South Dakota, it's just not near anywhere like that. I barely remember the last time I had a gig in Rapid City, and I don't recall ever having a gig anywhere else in South Dakota. Most of the time I've passed through there it's been on tours like this one, without a gig in the state, going through there because it's slightly more attractive than North Dakota, where I also never have gigs. Though mostly because it's more on the way to the first “official” gig on the tour, a house concert in a small town in Iowa, where I sang for a crowd of five, including the host and her teenage daughter. But they were five progressive folks who had not all met each other before, so it seemed like a good thing was happening that sleepy evening.
Minneapolis always feels like coming home. Good food, good espresso. Housing and work collectives all over the place, dreadlocks everywhere, memories of protests, and a large concentration of my favorite anticapitalists anywhere.
I heard some stories I had never heard before on this visit. Or maybe I had heard them before but it had been long enough for me to have forgotten them. Like the one about the police infiltrator who attempted to become a supporter of the Minnehaha Free State and barely got out of there without shitting his pants.
Spent an evening with a man I used to know as Marshall Law. I was told he had kept in touch with everybody from the Free State better than anyone. Sure enough, to all of my “do you know what happened to so-and-so” questions, he had a ready answer. At least half of them now have kids my daughters age or older. Which, I was increasingly realizing, was probably a big part of the explanation for why my US audiences in particular were either in their twenties or in their sixties (mostly the latter). Because everybody in between is too busy working and raising kids, and they mostly can't afford childcare, and work too many hours, like Americans do.
The vast majority of the gigs I've ever done in Minnesota have either been in Minneapolis or St Paul. There are other towns in the state, including college towns that I vaguely recall playing in back in the days when I used to get college gigs on a regular basis. This trip was taking me to the town of Red Wing, however, basically to do a house concert in a small book store. Book stores, an ever scarcer and lovelier little marginal phenomenon, a little reminder of how things used to be, in those four centuries between the rise of the printing press and the rise of the internet.
I knew nothing about Red Wing except that Bob Dylan had written a song about the prison in it. I asked the twenty or so people assembled in front of me at the book store if they had heard Dylan's song, and the vast majority of them had not. Which was mind-blowing in itself. I sometimes forget that other people aren't me, and everybody else didn't go through a Dylan phase like I did, obsessively searching and listening intently to every word of every song.
Another day, another book store. This time a very big one, comparable in size to a small Barnes & Noble, or maybe a large one. The first chunk of the drive from Red Wing to Viroqua was on Highway 61. More Dylan. There was a song about that highway, too. Not much of a highway, either. Mostly two lanes. Which is much more personable than four or six, no doubt. I imagine more songs have been written about smaller roads.
Driftless Books is the name of the book store in Viroqua. Run by a guy named Eddie, who was a friend of my friend Brad Will, who was originally from Wisconsin, and passed through fairly regularly. The book store is an old tobacco warehouse, like so many of the buildings in the town, most of which seem to be abandoned. There are thousands and thousands of books, but still plenty of room among the multitude of shelves to have an array of wild, big metal sculptures of all sorts, and a bank of tricycles for all the little ones to ride around in on the broad expanses of waxed wooden floorboards.
It was a quality crowd there, with a lot of prison time to add up between some of the long-term antiwar activists present on those chairs. Which was possibly even more the case among some of the veteran organizers among the crowd in Madison, the iconic home of the student movement, and still the home of several dozen large housing collectives left over from that period, and going strong. Home in more recent years to the Wisconsin Spring, home to the capitol building where Governor Walker resides. (Who won reelection in Wisconsin on the same day that Charlie Hardy lost to his opponent in Wyoming.)
A very nice man had driven up to Madison from the Chicago area to hand me a check for $3,000, to help keep me going. That's the only time that's ever happened. The timing was amazing, given the number of gigs that basically barely paid more than expenses. By the end of the tour, counting up expenditures vs proceeds and all that, I figured that well over half of the actual earnings from the tour came from that one generous (and hopefully gainfully-employed) man from Chicago.
In the backyard of the house where the house concert was going to take place in the western suburbs of Chicago, I found out that my host, Brian, used to be a cop, and then decided that he wanted to actually help people and being a cop wasn't entirely working out that way, so became a firefighter instead. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Brian and a bunch of his fellow Chicago firefighters got in their fire trucks and drove them down to Louisiana, along with supplies. While attempting to put out fires, which were rife, despite the fact that the city was full of water, Brian began to realize that hardly anyone was even attempting to feed these people, and the supplies that firefighters had brought in from places like Chicago were about all a given neighborhood had to eat.
Heading toward Louisville was where I started seeing signs for St Louis, which is a few hours' drive to the west on i-64. Throughout the tour, Ferguson was regularly in the news. I would have loved to make another visit to that troubled American town. But I was on my way to another one of them, a city itself well-known for police brutality and a yawning gap between the rich and poor.
It was a small crowd at the infamous Rudyard Kipling pub, restaurant and music venue, which was under new management from the last time I was there. Nice folks. I'd had some great gigs there before. As with so many other gigs, this one was nice but underwhelming in terms of attendance, or any kind of sense of optimism among those who showed up. Despite all the protests going on all over the country against police excesses these days, it doesn't feel like an optimistic period. JP Wright did a very long opening set, which was entertaining, though he talked a lot between songs about the importance of labor unions, and I wondered how many people in the small crowd had anything to do with them. So few people do in the US these days. But JP is an enthusiastic Wobbly, which is certainly a fine thing to be.
I always notice when crossing state lines how all of a sudden the vast majority of the license plates you see are from whatever state you just crossed into. All those cars rolling down the highways, and at least 90% of them seem to be on fairly local business. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you're driving south on I-95, especially in winter, you'll see lots of license plates from all over the east coast of both the US and Canada, heading toward their vacation at Disneyworld or wherever else they're going in Florida.
Traverse City, Michigan, was clearly another one of those places. The contrast between Benton Harbor, where I spent the night on my way to northern Michigan, and Traverse City, couldn't be much more stark.
Benton Harbor is one of the many cities in the USA where you can buy a nice house for $25,000 or less. Despite its reputation for being the home of one of the biggest urban riots in recent memory, it's a lovely little town right on Lake Michigan. But the Whirlpool washing machine factory closed long ago, and there's no work. Tourists on their way to enjoy the natural beauty of the lake don't stop in Benton Harbor. I did, if only to spend the night at another Motel 6. The only person I met from the town on this trip was the receptionist, who was so friendly that I wondered if she might be trying to compensate for the town's reputation as a riot-prone, impoverished, dangerous place. If so, she succeeded. But I didn't think ill of the town in the first place, so I needed no convincing.
In Traverse City, on the other hand, you'd be hard-pressed to find poverty, or even very many people who grew up in Michigan, judging from the folks I met, anyway. It's a quaint, attractive little city full of white people dripping with privilege. Looking around at the fancy cars lining the streets, people have driven there from all over the country to enjoy what northern Michigan has to offer. Some have been spending the warmer months in their second home, before heading south for the winter. Others have come to go sailing in their sailboats, while others have come for the cultural offerings. TC is the home of Michael Moore these days, and there's a bustling scene for film aficionados.
My gig there was in a function room in a fancy hotel. I was the musical component of a local Green Party meeting. No one came to the show aside from local Green Party members, one of whom subsidized my appearance, I'm happy to say. While the actual meeting was taking place, I was mostly hanging out on a comfortable chair in a nearby hallway, observing the festivities of the evening in the nearby ballroom, which involved hundreds of high school students having some kind of dress-up event.
The boys were wearing jackets, and the girls were wearing some variety of glittery, tight, short dresses and high heels. I tried to be inconspicuous as I watched the proceedings. It was easy to tell which of the girls were accustomed to dressing up like that, which ones were used to walking in heels, and which weren't. Every now and then I'd see a kid who didn't want to dress in a suit or a skimpy sparkling dress, and they all looked very out of place. I figured there were probably many more like them, but mostly those who didn't want to play the part, and didn't go to the ball in the first place. Those were the kinds of kids that I hung out with when I was a teenager – the rejects, the self-exiled.
It was my first visit to Detroit since the city declared bankruptcy and started shutting off the water in thousands of impoverished homes. Right there next to the lake, but no running water in their homes. It didn't take long to be reminded of the battle for survival taking place in that god-forsaken metropolis.
In the church where me and my fellow rabble-rousing musical comrade, Anne Feeney, were holding court, big jugs of water lined the walls. Along with being a place where religious services were held every Sunday, this church was also a venue for cultural events and a distribution center for bottled water. I learned later that some of the water was being provided by trucks sent to Detroit from nearby Windsor, Ontario – one of many good projects being run by the activist group that calls themselves the Council of Canadians. The church was also one I remembered from past visits to Detroit, such as when the US Social Forum was held there, during which time the church was a focal point for USSF activities. Buttons bearing the ubiquitous slogan, “hands up, don't shoot” were being handed out.
Soon after the show was over it was time to rush off to the radio station where local legend Peter Werbe has been hosting a talk show every Sunday night since 1960 or so. Few people would guess that Werbe is now well into his seventies, since he very effectively maintains his youthful appearance by being an avid squash player, and by successfully avoiding the grind of more typical forms of employment, having actually managed to make a living as a local radio host for his entire adult life, since his early days as a student activist and founder of the now-venerable anarchist newspaper, the Fifth Estate.
During the course of Peter's two-hour-long talk show I sang songs and we discussed world events. Apparently, very little of what either us or Peter's co-host, Juline Jordan, said was controversial to their listeners, judging from the silence of their call-in lines. That all changed when I suggested that I was in favor of neighborhood committees run by local women controlling all the firearms of each neighborhood, and only allowing anyone to have them if there was some kind of invasion going on or other legitimate reason for a well-regulated militia to become active. My version of gun control did not impress many listeners, who called in to talk about how much they love their guns, and their gun-toting fathers. Loving your gun and loving your dad seem to go hand-in-hand for many gun enthusiasts. Maybe I'd feel the same way if I weren't raised by pacifists who had never touched a firearm in their lives, I thought.
My one-night visit to Pittsburgh the next day included dinner with Anne Feeney there in her home town, at a local restaurant run by a woman from Syria. The food was amazing, very reminiscent of my brief time in the Middle East nine years ago. I recognized the music they were playing. The legendary Lebanese singer known by the one name, Feyrouz. The young man who was waiting on the tables wasn't Arab and didn't know Feyrouz. The owner of the place was there, though, and she and I struck up a conversation about Arabic music, which quickly turned to politics, and Syria.
There are certain places in the world where you can't just smile and say “that's nice” when you ask someone where they're from and they tell you. One of those places is the shattered, war-ravaged nation of Syria. Like all Syrians I've ever met, the woman just wished everything could go back to how it was before the war. She said what so many say, that she wasn't a big fan of Asad, but she was a big fan of peace, as well as free healthcare and free education.
Upon mentioning healthcare and education, the conversation swung toward domestic politics. The woman told me about when she first came to Pittsburgh, 15 years before, and how shocked she was by the degree of poverty in the city. She said it's gotten worse since then. She said she was surprised that with all the wars the US fights around the world, the spoils of war clearly don't make it to the average resident of Pittsburgh, who would overall live better in Syria under Asad, before the war.
One of the reasons we ate out, rather than at Anne's place, was that her fairly sizable house was jammed full of Crush Corbett propaganda. She had had the idea a few months ago to do a tour around the state of Pennsylvania whose intention it would be to make sure the incumbent governor would meet defeat at the upcoming election. Though not a fan of the mainstream Democrat opposition to Corbett, Anne felt she had to do something to express her disgust with Corbett, who, among his many distinctions, was opposed to even taxing the corporations such as Halliburton who are so busily drilling for gas throughout the state and destroying the lives and drinking water of millions of Pennsylvanians. While I stood on the porch with Anne, one of her neighbors dropped by to ask her for another Crush Corbett lawn sign, saying that the one she had up before had been taken.
The next day was one of those days when I really regretted not consulting a map more closely before booking a gig. It was a seven-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Oneonta, New York. A beautiful drive, though, through the mountains of Pennsylvania and upstate New York. As with Pittsburgh, many of the residents of Oneonta are actively involved with opposing the frackers and pipeline-builders. Most of the members of my mostly older audience of two dozen or so people fell into that category, and as is so often the case, though the audience was small, the combined arrest record of those in attendance was impressive.
I first met the organizer of the show when she brought me to the college campus where she taught communications, in Illinois. Since then she moved back to her home state of New York, specifically upstate New York, which is, in the minds of most of its residents, a place very separate from the fast-paced megalopolis hundreds of miles due south, where the United Nations holds sessions. At the time of my gig there, she was working on the floor of a factory, having for years been unable to land any other jobs in academia.
It was my first gig in Buffalo in many years, though I had recently been to the city to visit friends, on my way to a gig in Toronto. I was once again heading toward Ontario, but this time the trip through western New York included a show in a small, collectively-run institution called Burning Books, which has clearly become a hub in that working class neighborhood. One of the members of the collective had been the spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, so the name of the store seemed very appropriate. The shelves included one of the most impressive collections of leftwing children's books I had ever seen. As with all the other gigs I did on this tour at book stores, I bought several books for my daughter before I left the place.
Later that evening I had another one of many similar experiences as a reasonably respectable-looking, short-haired, middle-aged white man in America. I was walking around at 1 am, getting a little fresh air, when a police car was approaching. At first I didn't notice it was a cop, and I paid it no mind, and lit up the joint I had rolled for the occasion of my walk around the block. Essentially while I was lighting the joint, the cop stopped beside me, rolled down the window, and asked me if everything was OK.
Yes, I replied, crouching down to look him in the eye, joint in hand, blue smoke rising from its tip. He rolled up his window and drove off.
Crossing into Canada the next day involved the usual “go into that building and get in line A” that I get every single time I try to cross that infernal border. Middle-aged white guy or not, I'm on a watch list, so how I get treated by Immigration authorities differs greatly from how I'm treated by local cops who don't have easy access to that particular database. But as usual since I started paying close attention to only doing gigs that don't require a work permit, I made it into Fortress Canada once again.
Just driving down the streets of various towns and cities in Ontario, en route to Toronto, the difference between Canada and the US would be impossible not to notice for anyone with their eyes open. There is a distinctly less desperate, less ragged look on the faces and in the demeanor of people walking down the sidewalks. People are better-dressed, and look less stressed. They have the look of people with access to affordable healthcare and education. They look like people who get more sleep, and generally only work one full-time job, rather than two. The roads are a bit thinner, more European in appearance, and there are no billboards. Every time I cross the border, I feel more relaxed. Partly probably due to the fact that I had been worried about whether I'd succeed in the effort, but also because of the changed atmosphere on the other side.
My first gig in Canada was a house concert in Toronto. The place was completely packed. The average audience member could probably be described as over 60, of Jewish lineage, and current or former member of the Communist Party of Canada. Many were to one degree or another involved with the Winchevsky Center in Toronto, and one of the last remaining communist-run summer camps in North America, Naivelt (Yiddish for “New World”).
The elderly couple whose home I was singing in are folks who divide their time between Toronto and Jerusalem, where they're involved with leftwing groups opposed to the way the state of Israel treats Palestinians, just as they are involved with such groups in Toronto, and have been for decades. They were telling me about the first time they became involved with opposing Israeli policies, in the early 1980's. They had long been opponents of US imperial policies in Latin America, and were in Guatemala as human shields, trying (with success) to protect Guatemalan Indians from being killed by the military, by being with them and being white and Canadian. One day they saw a sign at the local post office about a protest folks were organizing against Israel. Why Israel, here in Guatemala, they wondered? Because, it turned out, Israel was very actively involved with arming and training the Guatemalan death squads who were daily massacring the Indians they had come to protect, that's why.
My second of two gigs in Ontario on the tour was in St Catharines, a town very close to Niagara Falls. It was my first visit to the town, and a lovely little gig with a youthful organizer and a youthful audience, in an art center with cool stuff on the walls and a library of old films. The gig featured the best opening act of the tour, hands down, in the form of the Niagara String Band. Except that only one member of the band showed up, but he was still the best opener on the tour. A fantastic, stoic, understated musician who had clearly listened to a lot of very old records in his life, I figured he might just be a fan of my friend Craig Ventresco, and it turns out he was not only a fan, but was just as blown away by Ventresco's virtuosity as I was. We geeked about about Craig for a while, unintentionally doing that in front of the audience, who were evidently waiting for me to get on the stage, rather than talk for ten minutes about an obscure musician no one else in the room had ever heard of.
I always say that it is only the rare, truly exceptional organizer who manages to attract a truly diverse audience to a gig. Normally, if the organizer is, say, white, Jewish, and over 60, most of the audience will be white, Jewish, and over 60. If the organizer is a middle-aged Syrian communist, most of the audience will be middle-aged Syrian communists. If the organizer is a Francophone student activist, most of the audience will be Francophone student activists. Thus was the case at my show in Montreal. (And I'm not complaining either!)
It was exciting for me to discover on another visit to Montreal that there were significant numbers of Francophones there who knew my music. Several of them came to a show I did there the year before. Normally, my audiences in Montreal were either Anglophone or Arab in past years, but this time it was mostly Francophone. Lucky for me, unlike in other French-speaking places in the world (such as France), English fluency among Francophones in Canada is very high. Not surprising, since, to quote one of the organizers of the gig (and one of the organizers of the student movement there more broadly), Genevieve Cote, “we're pretty much surrounded by you people.”
One of the folks at the gig was none other than the Anarcho Panda himself, a philosophy professor who became known to many when he started attending student-led protests dressed up in a giant panda suit. Another in attendance was the young, very punk woman who became famous in Quebec through the unfortunate means of being savagely beaten by Montreal police. Many Quebecers of all walks of life demonstrated in her support after that incident. A couple nights after my show, I was a guest performer at a night of locally-made independent short films as well as live performers. One of the films was about her, and seeing this young punk organizer get a standing ovation from hundreds of people packed into a dome-shaped theater in the center of Montreal was very touching.
Vermont in October was glorious, a wild display of fall colors on the endless ranges of forested hills and valleys. My gig there was in the small town of Plainfield, home to the tiny institution known as Goddard College, along with a few hundred residents, a couple of nice cafes, and a food coop. My show was in the function room above the coop. It was quickly evident that the organizer was highly competent. It was one of the larger audiences on the tour, especially considering the size of the town. A whole bunch of those in attendance had come from all over the small state, and the age of the crowd ranged from young to old and everything in between.
Several of those in the room were active members of Rising Tide Vermont, and would soon be getting arrested for sitting in in front of the governor's office, where they were protesting against plans for a new pipeline.
Before the gig, I was busily on the phone, trying to find housing for a friend visiting San Francisco whose housing arrangements had just suddenly fallen through, so I didn't get to spend much time with the organizer, who was an older woman I was just meeting for the first time, named Crystal. During the brief time I talked with her, I was very interested to find out that she had been very much involved with Occupy Wall Street, which I believe is how she first heard my music. After the Occupy movement started fizzling out, she decided she wanted to record interviews with people who were or who had been involved, all over the country. So she spent a week taking a crash course in film-making, and then set out to interview people all over the country.
I stayed in her lovely home in Plainfield that night, though Crystal herself was staying elsewhere, where she had things to do early the next morning. It was only when I got to her home and saw books, CDs, DVDs, and other memorabilia related to the great songwriter and musician, Warren Zevon, that the penny dropped. Crystal's last name is Zevon, which had struck me as unusual, but I never bothered asking her whether she was related to Warren. Turns out she is Warren's widow. When he found out he was dying, he asked her to write a book, which she did. I want to read it... But then I thought, no wonder it was a very well-organized gig, if the organizer was the former partner of a very professional musician.
There was a DVD, which I also want to watch, about the making of Warren's last CD, which reminded me of the one Warren Zevon concert I attended, along with several hundred other people packed into a basement dive bar in Northampton, Massachusetts in the mid-90's, which was presumably one of his last live concerts. He played solo, but he used a looping device, brilliantly, so he could play guitar solos on top of the rhythm parts which he was also playing. One of the most memorable things about that show was the fact that it started more than two hours late, because the piano was out of tune, and Warren wouldn't go on stage until the venue owners got the thing tuned up. This meant that the opener did a two-hour-long opening set, rather than the usual twenty minutes or so. He wasn't very good, which might not have been a big deal except that it was hot in there and there were no seats, so it was a long time to stand around waiting for something to happen.
On the way through New Hampshire, getting a tank of gas, the woman behind the register commented on my Texas plates, and said that the whole state of Texas should be quarantined. She was commenting on ebola, and the fact that one or two cases of ebola had occurred in Dallas. It was fairly evident which TV news channel she had been glued to for years.
Oddly enough, though I lived in Boston for many years and know lots of people there, it was Boston that had the distinction of being the town where I had the smallest audience, at least among the gigs that actually happened. If I recall correctly, there were six people in attendance, including the organizer, my sister, and my sister's boyfriend. And then after the gig, while spending the night at my sister's house in Jamaica Plain, someone stole two of my rental car's hubcaps.
It's amazing what two stolen hubcaps can do in terms of appearances. Suddenly I was no longer driving a spiffy new Toyota. I was now driving a car with missing hubcaps. Cars with missing hubcaps, even when new, have a distinctly illicit appearance. From that day on I felt slightly self-conscious, like the next cop I saw would not think “respectable-looking middle-aged white man” when he saw me, but something more along the lines of “potential meth dealer in a potentially stolen vehicle.” Though I still never got pulled over, so I must not have looked too suspicious...
Lack of adequate publicity may have been the primary reason for low attendance at the Community Church of Boston, but at the time it felt more like a statement, an expression of the sorry state of the Left in the US today. A European friend who has seen me in action on both sides of the Atlantic commented recently that I'm making a living off of an anemic, dying social movement. She added that she's impressed that that's even possible. I often think the same things. Now and then there's a brief revival of some kind of spirit of civic responsibility in different parts of society – the current protests against racism and police brutality, Occupy Wall Street a couple years ago, and before that, the brief, massive groundswell of protest in favor of the rights of so-called immigrants, and before that the antiwar movement during Bush's first term and the anticapitalist movement at the end of Clinton's reign. But mostly in my adult life, and most especially in recent years, anemia. My job as I see it is to be a cheerleader for those who are trying to make a difference, but sometimes it's hard to know how to maintain an appropriately optimistic demeanor, which I always figure a good cheerleader needs to possess.
In Connecticut, the state I grew up in and lived in as an adult for many years as well, I had no gigs. Which was fine, because that gave me a little more time to visit family. I often get the impression that the internet, as an organizing tool, has largely been killed by social media and the narcissism and individualism it propagates. But to be sure, there are lots of people paying attention to the internet, and there is lots of possibility to get a giant share of that attention if you play your cards right. Writing original songs about politics might not be the ticket, but evidently making really fun Lego animations based on Spongebob Squarepants episodes every Friday is.
A couple years ago, after visiting my family in Connecticut, I was in a toy store somewhere or other. In addition to finding puppets I thought my daughter would enjoy, I also came across a book about how to do stop-motion animation with a computer that was oriented toward kids. I don't want to take credit for it, but not too long after that, my nephew Lorenzo started making these Lego animations and putting them up on Youtube. After just over a year of putting up these animations every Friday, Lorenzo has gotten more than 17 million views. During my visit to Connecticut I helped him monetize his site, which I'm hoping will allow him to buy a new car or something when he turns 16 in a few years...
I had a wonderfully surreal gig at a little bar in Long Island that involved a US flag on the outside, bikers and members of Veterans for Peace on the inside, along with a handful of folks from the city who came to attend the one gig I had that was in the area of New York City, along with my dad, who I drove there with from Connecticut.
Luckily I had brought ear plugs with me, which I gave to my dad. There was an opening band at the gig doing 60's covers, featuring a very talented rock & roll lead guitarist, and a volume level appropriate for the style of music. I did my usual thing, and was constantly expecting to offend one of the bikers, wondering what might happen if I did, but to my great pleasure, that never happened. Some of them were talking during the set, and even watching football, with the volume on. I asked the bartender if he'd turn the volume off, which he did, though he seemed surprised by the request. The woman doing the sound was very appreciative of my songs, and clearly friends with the bikers sitting at the bar. I thought she probably really did like the music, but I wondered if the level of enthusiasm she demonstrated was partly for the bikers, just to make sure they knew that she liked the music, and hoped that they would, too. Or maybe I don't get bikers, with their leather vests, crosses, American flags and eagle tattoos. Maybe lots more of them would appreciate antiwar and pro-immigration musical themes if I played in biker bars more often, I don't know.
I picked up a spiffy 12-page calendar to hang on my wall back home at the gig in Philadelphia, a calendar commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of the great IWW organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill. It was a small but respectable crowd in a church that is clearly a focal point of the local community. While I sang, children were taking a karate class downstairs. Which you had to walk through in order to get to the bathroom, so everybody had a chance to check it out up close.
The show at a college in Maryland was well-attended, in large part probably because the students got extra credit for showing up. The Hungarian guy who set up the sound system was a fan of the current president of Hungary, which was interesting. I had never met a fan of the Hungarian president, who is widely vilified as a power-hungry proto-fascist who hates gypsies whenever he is mentioned in the western media. This guy said the new Hungarian government is standing up to the big banks, which, he said, is why he's so vilified by the western press. Makes me curious to find out more. Especially since I'm now qualified for Hungarian citizenship, since one of the things the new government there has done has been to make it easier for people in the Hungarian diaspora to get citizenship. (You now only need a direct Hungarian ancestor, and he or she doesn't need to be a grandparent, like in most other European countries. And you need to speak some Hungarian, but apparently not much, from what I hear.)
My hosts in Maryland were not only the parents of my dear friend Jenka Soderberg (currently news director at KBOO community radio in Portland), but also brilliant intellectuals (like Jenka, not surprisingly), and Jenka's mom is a Civil War expert. Knowing that I had written a song about the abolitionist warrior John Brown, she was kind enough to organize a day-long outing for me and my family to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, where John Brown's disastrous effort to foment a slave revolt took place, and to the farmhouse a few miles outside of town where Brown, his daughter, sons, and twenty other abolitionists secretly plotted the raid for months before it took place.
The old man who showed us around the farmhouse was also very knowledgeable about the period, though not quite to the level of our host, Susan. He thought John Brown was a nutter who got what he deserved. Interesting guy, though, known only as the Captain. Just fifty meters or so behind the farmhouse was a somewhat more modern, square building which had once been the local center of the chitlin circuit, where during the long decades of Apartheid in America, black people gathered in their thousands and danced to the music of James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles and many others.
The building was a shambles, having been mostly destroyed by a fire decades before, in an incident that the Captain referred to as “Jewish lightning.” That is, the owners of the building (whether they were Jews or not I don't know) burned it down and claimed it was an accident, in order to collect on the insurance. The Captain planned on restoring the building, though from the looks of it, he and his comrades were in the early stages of this endeavor.
There seems to be a rise in the number of real progressives running for local office throughout the country. Mostly losing, of course, but sometimes winning. In Washington, DC I played at a benefit concert for the campaign of Eugene Puryear, a member of the small Socialism and Liberation party, but running with the backing of the DC Statehood Greens party, which seemed to be providing most of his campaign support. It was easy to see why the Greens would get behind this man. The speech he gave at the event was eloquent, and the message was a clear rallying cry to fight the class war. His platform, which appeared on his campaign banners and posters, unlike so many political campaigns, where the posters say nothing about the candidate other than what party he or she is in, along with some word like “hope” or “change,” focused on two things: rent control, and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Sometime after that event it occurred to me that if you wanted to have a really succinct campaign platform, especially in places like Portland, where the ballots only tell you the name of each candidate and what office they're running for, you could just change your name to something like Rent Control. (I'm thinking about it...)
Roanoke, Virginia was another town where putting a stop to the pipeline-builders was a major focus in the community. One woman gave a model speech in which she talked about how the route of the pipeline had been moved so that it no longer presented a major threat to her property, but she was still just as intent to stop it, saying “not in my backyard and not in anyone else's backyard either.”
The show took place in a sort of common space in a building with various businesses in it, including the Compact Cinema, a very small room with a screen and projector in it. Opening a micro cinema in the modern age seems about as sensible from a financial standpoint as starting up a small book store. Even more impressive, the owner, Ben Bristoll's intent with the operation is to show educational documentaries.
From the time I entered western Virginia, driving south to North Carolina and later into Tennessee, the forested mountains of Appalachia were my lush surroundings. Most of the towns are like Roanoke or Knoxville – struggling places where you can buy a house for less than one-fifth what you'd pay in Portland, where the mountains are beautiful, people are friendly, and jobs are scarce.
Asheville is an exception to that set of rules. Gentrification is rampant, housing is increasingly expensive, and all those yuppies and hipsters moving in from all over the country need servants, so there's work, if you don't mind earning just enough to barely pay the rent, or living way outside of town. I sang for the birthday party of a local progressive city councilor, Cecil Bothwell, in the Grey Eagle, a music venue in which I've played many times. Last time I remember playing there it was also organized by Cecil, and brilliant local songwriter Chuck Brodsky was on the bill along with me, singing to a packed house. This time the house was decidedly less than packed, and Cecil came quite late to his own birthday party, due to an unexpectedly long city council meeting that he was very much obligated to attend. I know I have fans in Asheville, but only a small handful of them were there, including one old friend of Marius Mason. Sitting in the back, recording the gig for posterity on a little video camera, was Ellen Thomas, a little old women with long, braided white hair who had spent decades sitting across from the White House every day, protesting the existence of nuclear weapons, and eventually ended up in Asheville.
Knoxville featured another reunion for me, with old friends who I had somehow lost touch with for many years. There were other folks there I hadn't seen in a while, people involved with the fight against the Y12 nuclear weapons factory in nearby Oak Ridge, the once-secret city that cartographers weren't allowed to put on the maps. These anti-nuke activists lost most of the funding they used to get from institutional donors who decided to stop funding such things after 9/11, so they don't fly me out to sing at their annual protests anymore, but they're still plugging away, trying to raise awareness of the existence of this factory, and its devastating consequences for workers and people who live in the surrounding area.
Before my gig at the Birdhouse community center in Knoxville, a meeting was adjourning, involving folks trying to do something to change the situation for the immigrants and refugees in their midst.
My next gig on the tour, in Nashville, was organized in part by a kick-ass immigration lawyer involved with doing the same. It was another gig in a Unitarian church. I don't think much of the congregation was there, but it was a good crowd of peaceniks and others, including one who drove up from the Farm, and others who came from pretty far away as well. Being Nashville, Tennessee's only bustling metropolis and the country music capital of the world, the crowd also included at least a couple of musicians.
It was a lonely Hallowe'en, bereft of trick-or-treaters for me. No gig that night, just a travel day with a stop for the night in some suburb of Little Rock, Arkansas, where capitalism's best friend, Bill Clinton, once governed.
It was a long drive from Little Rock to Dallas, Texas, but I got to the gig on time. Since I first met Leslie Harris, some time around Camp Casey, she has very reliably organized a show for me every time Dallas is in my tour plans, and this tour was no exception. Everything this unflinchingly enthusiastic Code Pinker organizes involves lots of good food – in this case far more food than could possibly be eaten by the small crowd of music fans and activists present for the house concert in Leslie's daughter's dance studio. Two of the folks present had come all the way from Oklahoma. One of the Oklahomans was a descendent of John Brown's, so I had practiced the song to make sure it was good and ready for the occasion. She had gotten in touch with me years before, after I recorded the song in question, but this was our first time meeting in person.
Leslie and a few others at the dance studio ran off as soon as the show was over, to participate in a protest against AIPAC, which was having a big convention at a fancy hotel downtown. The protesters consisted of not more than a couple dozen folks, almost all college students. Considering their small numbers, they were very loud and boisterous, marching around the hotel, chanting anti-Zionist slogans, holding very visible signs made of LED lights, and even projecting an anti-Zionist slide show on the wall of the building across from the hotel. According to my very unscientific calculations, the protesters included among them one person of Arab descent, which struck me as pretty depressing, given that we were in Dallas – the fourth or fifth biggest city in the US, with one of the biggest Arab populations in the country.
I'm not the first one to say it, but if Arabs in America supported Palestinians as stridently as many Jews support Israel, Israel wouldn't have a chance.
The next day I got up early and drove across the city for what has become an annual pilgrimage to the supermax prison-within-a-prison where Marius Mason and a whole bunch of other wonderful people are serving out their outrageously long prison sentences.
Unlike at so many prisons you hear about, the guards and other prison employees are mostly friendly, but nonetheless the conditions of imprisonment they are enforcing are tortuous, and I don't mean that figuratively. After the long drive the day before and then not sleeping enough, unfortunately I was pretty shit company for Marius, half-sleeping through our visit, sitting on either side of a plastic card table on plastic chairs in a bleak room otherwise empty aside from a single potted plant, a large poster featuring New York City's skyline, and a very bored-looking guard, herself half-sleeping through our visit, sitting on another plastic chair, in front of another card table.
As always, Marius is glad to see me, and hungry for information and impressions from the outside world. He keeps up on local, national and world news as best he can from in there, listening to NPR, reading the Guardian Weekly, which my mother has subscribed to on his behalf. If Dallas had a Pacifica station he might be able to listen to Democracy Now, but no such luck. Prisoners these days are allowed to have MP3 players, but they have no access to podcasts. Only music they pay for – a million songs Wal-Mart gives them paid access to, which not surprisingly do not include any music by independent artists like me, despite the fact that my music is registered with the various agencies that would make accessing such music easy if Wal-Mart wanted to allow it.
Marius is well up on what various progressive groupings have been doing since I last saw him. What's lacking, it seemed to me, was perspective on just how big or how active these groups are. On paper people can look impressive, but it seems it's only when you're out on the streets that you can get a real impression of how active a movement really is. I shared my fairly downbeat perspective on the state of the movement in the US today.
A recent development in the saga of Marius's imprisonment is that the prison officials have finally told him why he was moved to the extremely restrictive supermax facility, and what he would need to do for them to consider moving him elsewhere and giving him more access to things like communicating with the outside world, being able to play the guitar more than once a week, etc. In no uncertain terms, finally they tell him that he would need to cut off all communication with his activist friends, which means all of his friends, pretty much. He tells me how now that he knows this, he's dropping the idea of being moved, of anything changing for the better, since this is a condition he refuses to meet.
He talked about how hard it is not to become hardened by years imprisonment, to maintain the essence of one's humanity, and as the guards announce that our visit is over, and they take Marius away, through the massive steel door and down the hallway back toward his cell block, I can't help but notice that for the first time as we're parting at the end of a visit, there are no tears in his eyes.
It's a long drive from Dallas to Houston, but I arrive early for tonight's gig at AvantGarden. Houston is a flat, heavily-paved, unattractive city overall, but within it are many places like AvantGarden that have created a beautiful, artistic environment once you enter their property. It's my first visit to this venue, and as soon as I park the car, I'm greeted by a tall, beautiful woman. Regal, exuding warmth, confidence, and a sort of no-nonsense orientation, dressed in comfortable clothing with long, dark hair. Her accent tells me that she's from somewhere in Latin America. My guess is Argentina, but I don't ask.
It turns out she's the owner of the venue. After brief introductions she says she's going out for a bit, and will be back later. In the meantime she gives me the keys to the place, on the assumption that I am who I say I am, and then she's off.
I'm soon greeted by many familiar faces. From early 2002 til early 2007 I more or less lived in Houston, in a relationship with another regal South American woman of European extraction with long dark hair, who would become the mother of my daughter. I was on tour about three weeks out of four back then, but the one free week each month would usually be spent in Houston. Nathalie was very actively involved with the Green Party back then, and as has often been the case at Houston gigs since 2002, many of the folks who showed up were our old Green Party comrades, along with others I met along the way.
Torry Mercer opened the night with his band, Deconstruction Crew. Loud, political, fun music with a mix of influences, chiefly folk and heavy metal. The music is good but the sound system is distorted and basically pretty awful, for whatever reason. When I took the stage I tried briefly to sing through it, and abandoned the effort after the first song, and did an acoustic show. I can't recall how many times this has happened. It's this sort of thing that gives musicians like me the reputation of prima donna, I imagine.
The gig in Austin at Monkeywrench Books is on Election Day. Most people in the US stay home, and as usual when that happens, Republicans are winning one election after another. If the Democrats weren't just a sort of spineless reflection of the Republican Party, perhaps people would bother voting. It's also raining hard, something that doesn't happen often in Austin. The combination is fairly predictable. The organizers had warned me in advance that Election Day was a bad night to do a show, and I wished I had listened to them.
I think there were eight people in my audience that night, including three book store volunteers, and my good friend Haithem El-Zabri. Seeing Haithem at the gig was unexpected, since he had told me before he was showing a film elsewhere that night. But no one turned up for his film screening, so he came to my gig instead. For the first time in a long time, dear friend and veteran organizer extraordinaire Lisa Fithian was not in attendance, since she was preparing to leave for Ferguson, Missouri the following morning.
The following day involved a long drive from Austin to Lubbock. It was many years ago the last time I had a gig in Lubbock. The venue I played in back then closed its doors for good the following day. The oil boom has improved the Lubbock economy since then, but not with the types of folks who would tend to organize or come to one of my gigs.
The day after, another long drive, from Lubbock to the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. What was once a peaceful drive across a very sparsely-populated, meditative desert landscape had changed. Now the main characteristic of that stretch of road was olefactory in nature. It stank. Oil drilling was going on everywhere, and the road smelled bad throughout the drive.
Not surprisingly after that driving experience, I soon found out that fracking was the big issue among my friends and comrades in Las Vegas. Sadly, the fracking issue has not only been one to motivate people to action, but has also been very divisive, with some opponents to fracking campaigning for an all-out ban on the practice, and others believing the more strategic orientation is to create lots of legal obstacles to keep the frackers from fracking, without actually banning the practice, fearing that a ban would be overturned in the courts if it were imposed. Some of my favorite people are on both sides of this strategic divide, and although the concert at New Mexico Highlands University was far from a washout, it wasn't as well-attended as past shows, and it seemed pretty evident that the divide among the anti-fracking activists was at least partially to blame for that.
Lodging for the night was provided by the good folks who run an old (as in 19th century) hotel, the Plaza Hotel, in the center of town. The center of Las Vegas, New Mexico is laid out like towns in Mexico I've seen, with a big square park in the middle, surrounded by shops, including the hotel. The beautiful building had been recently restored back to its former glory, and it would have been easy to imagine it was sometime much earlier than 2014. According to the internet, one of the rooms in the hotel is reputedly haunted, but there was no indication of the ghost during my night there.
The drive north from Las Vegas to Boulder, Colorado included a brief stop at the site of the Ludlow Massacre, when the Colorado state militia opened fire on men, women and children who were spending the freezing Colorado winter in tents, having been kicked out of their company-owned housing, since they were on strike at the mines where the men worked. Like other US union-made memorials to such events, it's a strange combination of labor history and some kind of patriotism. I guess the Colorado militia were being unpatriotic when they massacred the miners, even though killing miners is a longstanding American tradition that was generally approved of at the highest levels of government for most of this country's sordid history. Still a powerful place to visit, regardless, and especially nice to see the union-related stickers that so many visitors had put in various places at the memorial.
The friend I stayed with in Boulder was struggling with a resurgent bout of cancer, something she's been dealing with for years, like so many people I know these days. What a gorgeous, though thoroughly gentrified city that is. Walk a mile or so from the city center and you're in the Rocky Mountains.
The gig was at the Rad-ish Collective. My main contact for the event was veteran organizer with the Boulder Peace and Justice Center, Betty Ball, a tiny, big-hearted, ferocious activist with a background in the environmental movement as well as the peace movement in pretty much equal portions. She's getting older fast and can barely walk, but she still kicks ass, figuratively speaking. She was lamenting the fact that so many of the gigs I've done in Boulder have mostly involved audiences significantly older than me on average, and her strategy to do something about that was very effective – she got a mostly student housing collective on board.
When I got to the place, several folks were working feverishly at building a ramp for the entrance, so that folks in wheelchairs, or folks using walkers, like Betty, could get in more easily. They didn't quite finish building the thing by the time the event started, but almost. Inside, other people were cooking up a vegan storm. One of the residents, whose abode was actually a space beneath a staircase smaller than your average closet but with a curtain for a door, was one of the initial organizers of the protest on Occupy Wall Street protest in September, 2011, in New York City which I was privileged to attend. A full three years after the fact, he was apologizing for the fact that there was no sound system at the protest.
The lack of a sound system at the protest was because the organizers were concerned if they had one it would be confiscated, or would give the police an excuse to go onto the private property that is Zucotti Park and cause lots of problems. The organizers had asked me to sing there, but when I got there and found there wasn't a sound system, but that there were lots of other people making all sorts of noise, including a full chorus of people singing songs based on Lyndon LaRouche's bizarre conspiracy theories, I opted not to get my guitar out, much to my regret later. In any case, the lack of a sound system at that protest led quite directly to the use there in New York and soon all over the world of the “mike check” phenomenon, which wasn't an invention of that movement, but certainly has come to be very much identified with it.
The first one or two hundred miles west of Boulder, en route to Utah, is one long playground for the rich. Ski resort after ski resort. An espresso addict's dream, with a Starbucks at every exit, and a parking lot packed with SUVs. And then all that abruptly ends, and there's a 100-mile stretch without even a gas station. And you're in the barren, beautiful lands settled by the families from the east coast who went to Utah under the direction of their prophet, Joseph Smith.
Moab is another one of those lovely towns in the desert populated largely by folks who could afford to live in the middle of nowhere somehow or other, or people involved with some aspect of tourism. There's a good bunch of folks in there who were either inspired by Edward Abbey, or actually knew him personally back when he was alive, and lived in the area. And the friends and fans of Abbey have a lot to do in Moab these days, with an all-new push on the part of rapacious corporations to open up a new southern frontier for tar sands extraction.
The gig in Moab took place at KZMU Community Radio, a cute little building on top of a hill just outside of the center of town. Finally I could utter the phrase, “in front of a live studio audience” to the dozen or so folks in attendance, and whoever was listening out there on the airwaves. One of the members of the audience was the station manager. Given the number of community radio stations that are struggling to stay in operation (along with newspapers and other media), I asked the question I often ask people like him – how's it going? Not well, essentially, due to a new rule issued by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
I was surprised to learn that KZMU gets the majority of its funding from the federal government, in the form of the CPB. The station manager said he thought that percentage of funding coming from the government was pretty unusual, but that a lot of stations probably got more like a third of their funding from the CPB. Well, the CPB's bizarre new rule is that any community station that cannot raise $120,000 annually to pay for their operation will no longer qualify for CPB funds. We could call this the official new federal “screw the little guy” policy.
Another gorgeous drive the following day through Utah's surreal landscape. Rock formations that look like they were designed by an artist on a really good acid trip. Funny that some of the most psychedelic landscapes in the country are in a state run by Mormons. If ever there was a place where LSD-oriented tourism could really take off, it would surely be Utah. But that seems very unlikely. But who knows – pot's now legal for recreational use in neighboring Colorado...
The second of my two gigs in Utah was in St George, home of Dixie State University, which, as the name would indicate, was founded by people who emigrated to southern Utah from the Confederacy. St George made the news, at least locally, a couple weeks before my arrival, because the organizers of a Hallowe'en dance party were told that if anyone danced at the party, the organizers would be charged with felony incitement to riot! Only in Utah (or Saudi Arabia).
I was in St George in time for Veteran's Day (Armistice Day to you Europeans), and although Dixie State is not a hotbed of radicalism, it does have at least one Marxist professor, who perhaps should best remain nameless lest I inadvertently cause him to lose his job. Suffice it to say that the state of Utah paid me to sing antiwar songs at a Veteran's Day event. Which really pissed off at least one of the four veterans in attendance.
The professor was going around in a suit that looked very much like the outfit of some kind of priest. There in Utah on Veterans Day I was inducted into the Church of Universal Life as a minister. I also got a doctorate for good measure.
San Diego featured a refreshingly well-attended outdoor concert, a benefit for another struggling community radio station, at another housing collective. In Upland, another in a series of house concerts at the home of the longtime activist, Marjorie Mikels. The second in her new home, since her last one burned down in a fairly mysterious fire.
Since he was shot in the face by a tear gas canister aimed directly at him at close range by an Israeli soldier, Tristan Anderson has split his time between Berkeley and Grass Valley, California. After he came out of the coma and eventually left the Israeli hospital that was his home for a long time after the IDF nearly killed him.
Berkeley is where he made his home before being shot in Israel, and Grass Valley is where his parents live. The show in Berkeley was organized by his longtime friends and supporters. Yet another brilliantly well-attended gig organized by those folks, and such a classic Berkeley scene, complete with a bunny rabbit named Hiphop Palestine Bunny or something like that. This was the second gig attended by the bunny and its human.
The amount of prison time served collectively by that audience would probably at least equal the life of your average human altogether. There were longtime Earth Firsters, Ploughshare activists, Occupy Wall Street folks, Food Not Bombers, even a former Black Panther, along with a bunch of folks campaigning busily to keep the Berkeley Post Office from being turned into a mall.
Berkeley is one of those rare places, along with New York City, where at any time in the past century, right up to the present, you'd be forgiven for being under the impression that the Left in the US is alive and kicking. Because in those two cities it always is, even if that may not be the case anywhere else, at least not with such consistency.
The crime rate in the big city of Oakland was on display during my two nights there. Just after my old friend there bragged to me about how with all the crime in the city, no one messed with the mail, since it was federal property and messing with the mail could end you up in prison for a long time, a very expensive package that was waiting to be picked up got stolen. (A few weeks later, in front of the same house, there was an armed robbery of a high school student in broad daylight.)
The timing worked such that Tristan was in attendance in both Berkeley and Grass Valley, melting the hearts of all in attendance by singing along with my songs from his wheelchair, using the side of his face that still functions to do so. His singing ability and intellectual prowess continues to develop and astound, demonstrating the incredible ability of the human brain and human spirit to overcome some pretty horrific obstacles.
It was a poignant visit to Grass Valley for me as well, since it was the first time back in the area for me since the death of Utah Phillips, a man who meant a whole lot to me as an artist and a human being. I paid a visit to the radio station from which he used to broadcast his Loafer's Glory radio shows. The last time I was in that station, Utah was standing behind me in his signature blue overalls, praising my songwriting and bloating my ego terribly. Afterward, having lunch with him and a couple other friends, I was surprised to find that half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, since I didn't recognize most of the hobo terminology he used in everyday speech. I had previously figured that he reserved that jargon for on the stage, only then realizing that this was really how the man with the big white beard talked.
If those two northern California gigs were two of the best ones on the tour, the next two were easily the worst. Attentive readers may be noting that I said before that Boston was the most badly-attended gig on the tour, which is true. But that's only true because the two gigs that were to be the last ones on the tour were so bad that they just didn't happen.
In the lovely town of Willits, where you never ask anyone what they do for a living, because approximately 19 out of 20 people you might talk to are pot growers, it was raining. The promoter of the gig had organized good gigs for me before, but in this instance he was relying on a local Willits person to spread the word, which never got spread. He showed up with an assistant, and the owner of the venue was there, and that was it. They put out a bunch of folding chairs, and a half hour later, put them back in their stack and called it a night, as did I.
Reno was a fairly heroic clusterfuck. The teenager who organized the gig knew who he wanted on the bill, but that was apparently all he knew. How to promote a gig was not his area of expertise, but putting together a good line-up may have been. He managed to convince not only me, but two bands from the San Francisco bay area and another local Reno band to come to this pub. All the bands showed up as requested, with their vans and gobs of sound equipment. The audience, however, did not. At all. I left, spending the night in that surreal city full of gambling, prostitution, alcohol, and not much else as far as the eye can see. To top it off, I got food poisoning from eating a burger at a casino restaurant. (All the restaurants are in casinos in downtown Reno.)
The next day involved a lot of bathroom stops, and a night in a cheap motel in Klamath Falls, Oregon, just over the border from California. The following day I spent the first couple hours driving through a snowstorm in the mountains, very nearly skidding off the road on one occasion, at which point I discovered how to properly use the lower gears in my automatic rental car. Which worked really well, I might add.
It was smooth sailing up the I-5 once I got back on it. It was raining, but from morning til late afternoon, the day was peppered with some very impressive double rainbows.
A few days after my return, the farcical "grand jury" in Missouri returned it's verdict, and I participated in the biggest protest I'd been to in Portland in years. With some of the best speakers (the highlight probably being Ahjamu Umi, as is usually the case when he speaks at a protest), the worst sound system. And no music, aside from one a cappella song. A week later, another verdict, this one from New York.