All posts by David Rovics

The Making of an Album

As my regular readers and listeners are aware, I tend to go jaggedly back and forth in these missives between discussions of geopolitics and world history, and explorations of the minutiae of the daily life of the working musician. This one belongs in the latter category.

It’s been years since I’ve had much time for watching movies — there was a brief period between children when there was a bit of time for that sort of thing, but not much. When I’m on long plane flights is when I get to catch up on a little bit of movie-watching. The noise-canceling headphones I had the good sense to buy a long time ago help a lot with the din of the airplane engine constantly in the background, but they don’t come close to getting rid of it. Despite the adverse viewing and especially listening conditions, I often watch movies about musicians.

I’ve never been a rock star and I’ve only known a couple of them, a little bit, so whether the movies about rock stars are realistic is hard for me to know. The movies about working musicians who aren’t rock stars are more the ones I can relate to, the ones that are depicting what we might call working class or middle class musicians. The movies about these musicians are often just a good vehicle for telling the story of loneliness, to explore the creative tension inherent in the contrast between the excitement of the gig and the alienation of the highway truck stop.

While they sometimes get that part right, the sort of essence of the story, they rarely get the details. You can forgive them when it’s obvious that the actors are not the ones playing the instruments. But other times it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief, if you’re a working musician watching a movie that’s supposed to be about other working musicians. There was an especially memorably cringe-worthy scene in what was an otherwise charming love story called Once, about an Irish guy and a Czech woman falling in love on the streets of Dublin.

They’re both musicians, but how this classically-trained pianist is so good at improvising is never explained or explored, it just is. For anyone who is familiar with classical music circles, that needs to be explained. But then they’re in a studio together, recording an album without a producer, and the engineer tells them to listen to the click track, but there isn’t a click track. There was so much wrong with that scene, it would be hard to know where to start.

If you’re recording an album without a producer, the engineer is unlikely to suddenly assume the role of producer and tell you to listen to the click track. And if they do this, then there will presumably be a click track to listen to. Of course, most viewers of most movies wouldn’t know this, or even know what a click track is, and they don’t need to. If you don’t know what a click track is, there’s nothing to cringe at in this scene, it’s just fine.

Of course, movies like this are not made for the tiny minority of the general population who are working musicians. Just like the articles in Forbes or on the BBC. It just so happens that I am right now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to record an album, which I will hopefully be making with a bunch of other musicians in Ireland later in the fall. And then yesterday, listening to BBC Newshour as I often do, came another story about the death of the album.

Sure enough, Forbes agrees, album sales are a tiny fraction of what they once were — not just in physical forms, but in any form. It’s all about streaming, all about singles, or shuffle play, or playlists. The big hiphop artists, they say, are abandoning albums altogether, and just releasing singles, in more of a trickle, so each one will get a bit more attention along the way, is the idea.

Reading this music industry reporting is interesting, partly because of the assumptions that are made. For example, if albums aren’t of interest to consumers anymore, says the press, artists will naturally make the transition and start recording singles, and releasing songs one at a time every couple weeks, rather than a new album once or twice a year. And when we talk about releasing singles, it needn’t even be said that we’re not talking about recordings you made with your iPhone, we’re talking about professional-quality, produced stuff.

What they don’t mention, or don’t know, or don’t care to figure out because it doesn’t matter for the top 1% of the scene that they’re actually covering, is that this kind of transition is relevant mainly to the stars with huge budgets for recording — and for those way on the other end who are playing all the instruments themselves and recording everything on their laptops with ProTools and a USB mic. You’ll find little or no mention of the middle class of working musicians, those of us who, if we do keep on recording albums, even though there is basically no direct money to be made in recording either albums or singles in the free streaming era, we will be making them not just because it’s a wonderful, transcendent phenomenon, the album, but for very simple practical, and totally overlooked reasons.

If you’re going to record your music — and you’ll be forgiven for not knowing this if you’re not in certain niche professions — it’s much more economical to do it in bunches.

If you’ve ever made an album in a studio, you’ll be very familiar with the sight of a collection of musicians sitting around on couches with laptops, phones or other devices, quietly whiling away their time, waiting to be called on to do something. This is partly because playing music is only a small part of the process of making an album. So much of it is getting the sound right for each instrument. Just getting a drum set well miked for recording can take several hours. The drummer and the folks at the studio know this in advance, and this process is scheduled in to the whole thing. Studio musicians are usually hard-working people who put in very long days and show up early. They’re accustomed to doing exactly what they’re told to do by producers with high expectations. The good ones rarely complain.

When you’re one of the regular working musicians who used to populate the recording studios of the world that are now rapidly closing shop — when you’re one of the ones who didn’t have unlimited budgets to spend months or years working on an album, but who took a break from touring for a few weeks each year to focus on making a new album — the idea of hiring a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and whoever else you might be hiring for a recording project, just to record one or two songs, is completely ludicrous. It makes no economic sense. If you’re going to spend four hours just getting the drummer miked, you want to then use the rest of the day, and the next day, recording with the drummer. If you’re working hard and just getting decent takes of songs you’ve spent plenty of time rehearsing together, you might record the basic parts for two or three songs each day — after spending all the time setting up for each new instrument you’re recording.

The same is true for the mixing process, which often takes almost as long as the recording process. For many albums of other artists, I hear it takes longer. Any element of the recording or mixing processes can potentially go on forever. As with other things, it’s sometimes just a matter of stopping when you’ve got something that’s good enough, rather than aiming for perfection, which would simply take too long, it would require more time and effort than is available given your limited resources. But once you’re set up to start mixing an ensemble you’ve recorded, it will take less time to mix the second and third song than it will take to just mix one. Much of the setup you do for one song might be the same as the setup you’ll do for other songs, so again doing more songs will certainly take longer, but it will take less time per song to mix ten of them than if you just mix one.

Once you make that album, you may decide to release one song at a time on streaming platforms as they recommend these days, but there will still be basic logistical reasons why the album is likely to stick around as a phenomenon long past the time no one is buying them at all anymore. Because actually we’re already at that stage, and I’m still making another one.

For those of you listening to this in podcast form, I’ll close with a song that’s going to be among the songs to be recorded for this next album, if all goes according to plan.

Winning Hearts and Minds in August

It is in these bleak times that people need community and music more than ever — they just don’t tend to realize it.  The choir actually needs to be preached to on a regular basis, or it starts singing out of tune.

I heard some professional musicians on a BBC program talking about how their feelings of self-worth and general contentment in life are directly related to whether or not they’re working on a regular basis.  By “working,” they mean playing music in front of an  audience, which is what they all do to get by.  They were specifically talking about taking time off from touring because of having babies and raising small children.  There was a general consensus that while raising kids could be hard, they could deal with everything involved as long as they had access to the outlets of playing music regularly, and sharing it with people now and then.

I’m very familiar with this whole thing, being a professional musician with children myself.  I took a year off from doing any long tours when my first child was born.  At the time I was probably more focused on the financially disastrous aspects of unpaid paternity leave, but the psychological ones were intense, too.  It would have been too hard to ply all that apart from the emotionally overwhelming experience of raising a baby, but in retrospect it becomes clearer that these are different things, separate reasons for feeling small and inadequate.

If I had been one of the guests on that BBC show, I probably would have mentioned something about the cyclical nature of this self-worth phenomenon in the course of a typical year, for a touring musician.  I usually do long tours in the fall and spring, so it’s right around February and August that I’m generally in peak panic mode, wondering if this next tour will be the last tour I ever do, since maybe it will only have ten gigs in it and I’ll return home with more debt than I left with.  So far, most of the time in the end the tour pans out OK, at least since I stopped doing big driving tours around the US, where that was no longer reliably happening.  But this time of year, in August, I’m often a bit of a mess, looking at the empty calendar for the next few months, knowing that on the first of each of those months, the landlord will be demanding that I legitimate my existence by forking over yet another hard-earned $1,200.

Maybe, I always ask myself in August, it’s time to consider another line of work.  Actually this summer I am fully engaged in another line of work, running a small cafe with my family, and it is so much more work than I ever thought about.  I’m an espresso snob and I like making good espresso drinks.  My family is not big enough to satisfy my daily desire to extract a few more shots and foam at least a bit more milk than I can possibly consume in a day.  So when my friend Mette suggested I bring my family to Denmark and run the cafe for a summer, I more or less jumped at the opportunity.

I’m glad I did, but I was so naive.  There’s so much more to running a cafe than what happens, say, during opening hours.  Shopping, cleaning, fixing broken appliances like espresso machines and keeping them running well.  Paperwork, complying with health and tax authorities — all kinds of stuff.  And then there are those many, wonderful suggestions from friends and customers that usually begin with “you should,” as in “you should sell beer” — often it’s a suggestion related to things the cafe should sell that we’re not allowed to sell because we don’t have the right kind of license for that, such as alcoholic drinks or cooked meals.  Other suggestions include things like “you should be open for longer hours” or “you should advertise in the local paper.”

All these sorts of suggestions are very familiar to me in my life as a touring musician, too.  They’re just as common.  “You should play in that venue, they’d love you there.”  Who is they, exactly?  The audience that was at the last gig the person went to at that venue, who they’re assuming would show up for my gig there?  Or is they the people who organized and promoted that gig, who probably had no association with that particular venue, aside from the fact that they were using it to put on a show?  Yes, I generally agree.  I should play there — and I leave it at that.

In the depth of August I might be desperate enough to follow one of these suggestions.  I have barely any gigs for the fall tour, maybe they’re right. I should just email this venue and see if they want to have me open for that guy.  But it doesn’t work that way, and I know it.  I know a lot of things, because I’m an expert at this, even though in August I generally don’t feel expert at much of anything.  I’m trying to book a tour, but it’s not really working.  Maybe all these people who are on vacation are never coming back from vacation.  Maybe they’re just pretending to be on vacation because they really don’t like me anymore.

I wrote a song last week about the power of songs to win hearts and minds.  I’m a firm believer, but I wrote the song because I was still stewing on a conversation I had with a radio journalist I used to admire who made dismissive comments about music and the role of people like me in public communication, such as a radio news and information program.  “Just songs” is the phrase that has been ringing in my head for about a year since that conversation with that particular radio host.  So the song is a defensive song, a defense of what I do, and why it can be such an effective means of communication.

Probably I’m remembering that conversation so much lately because it’s August, and the fall tour is only in a very skeletal state of existence.  Probably by next month I’ll be feeling like the expert at public communication and popular education that I am.  I am, I remind myself.  This is why one of my songs is the centerpiece of Haskell Wexler’s last documentary.  This is why they use my songs as tools for teaching high school teachers in Germany and Sweden how to teach their students.  This is why my songs appear in songbooks put out by the national labor federations of several countries, this is why the unions and political parties in different countries employ me on a regular basis for the purposes of educating and inspiring their members.  Music is effective as a means of communication — my music in particular.

I’ll share a message, the sort of message I’m sure all kinds of people in the public communication fields get on a regular basis.  I found it only hours after I finished writing the song about that conversation, in one of the various inboxes that each of the social media platforms has.  Here are a couple excerpts:  “Thank you for making music and getting the good message out.  Your music taught me never to give up no matter how hopeless things seem.  Your music has gotten me through depression, protests that didn’t go smoothly, and many other hardships I’ve faced.  You’re a beacon of hope to me and even though we’ve never met you’ve made a huge impact on me and my life.  You’ll always be my comrade.”

These sorts of messages help a lot, especially in August.  Because it’s not enough just to write songs that I know are really well-written and probably effective at what they’re trying to do.  It only begins to be enough when you can bring the song to an audience that is affected by it in the ways you intended.  It’s only culture when it’s something people participate in together, in the same physical location.  That’s when people get the feeling that they’re in something together — when they’re together, doing the same thing, such as singing.  People know they’re in a struggle together when they laugh at the same jokes and cry at the same sorrows, and experience these things collectively.  These kinds of things have been studied and proven to be true in peer-reviewed publications, incidentally.  We’re fundamentally social animals.

We also hear differently and process information differently when the information is sung.  The reason music has been used as a tool for inspiration and education and for fostering a sense of community over the course of millennia by every form of institution that’s ever existed, from governments to churches to armies to labor unions, is because it’s so effective.

But for me to be effective, for me to have a chance at winning hearts and minds, at keeping people involved, to be able to share thoughts about tomorrow with people, I need an audience.  Just as with a cafe that barely has any reason to exist from a financial standpoint, “you should” statements don’t actually help.  Yes, I’d love to be open longer hours and to hire more staff and advertise in the paper.  I’d love to do all those things as a musician, too.  This isn’t how it works, though, in practical reality.  Those staff need to get paid, advertisements cost money.

When this goes out on my blog and in podcast form, I’ll undoubtedly get lots of well-meaning messages from people saying “if you come to my town, I’m looking forward to seeing the show,” and “you should check out this venue.”  Seriously, this is going to happen.  Maybe those people aren’t the ones who finished reading the column, but the messages will come.

There will also hopefully be a few messages from people who are members of organizations that have budgets who want to put together a paying gig for me somewhere, for a union, a political party, an arts center, or some other kind of community group.  Those are the messages that will once again restore my sense of self-worth, which is tied not just to being able to communicate well, but having access to people with whom I may communicate — in the same physical place, at the same time, somewhere in the world.

There is probably a nagging concern aside from the fact that it’s August and all the good folks in Europe who will probably be putting on gigs in various places are still on vacation and haven’t gotten in touch yet.  Maybe a couple nagging concerns.  One is that the social and political structures I used to rely on for touring in the US have since collapsed, three times, maybe four, depending on how you measure these things.  In Europe that hasn’t happened, things are much more consistent for many reasons.

But the other thing that keeps me up at night is this terrible conundrum:  I have noticed that when times are hard — when there are multiple massacres in one day, half the world is on fire and the other half is flooding, fascists are coming to power in major countries around the world, and so on — this is when a lot of people tend to stay home.  People don’t stick their necks out unless they’re feeling optimistic, and at times like these, optimism is scarce.  People stay home, which also means they don’t go out to concerts and they don’t organize them.  This is, fairly obviously, the opposite of what would be best for everyone.

It is in these bleak times that people need community and music more than ever — they just don’t tend to realize it.  The choir actually needs to be preached to on a regular basis, or it starts singing out of tune.  It’s not just about winning the hearts and minds of fascists and lemmings, but about dreaming of a better world.  And to dream, you must sing.  But if that singing is going to involve me, you need to do more than share this message on social media.  You need to be involved with an organization or other actual, real social network, not one that calls itself a social network, but which is actually a social network, and then you need to use this social network to do things like organize events that I sing at.  Drop me a line.  I’ll see you in the streets, and in the living rooms.

Truth, Lies, and Will Van Spronsen

I have lost track of the number of times in the past few days that I have been told by openly fascist YouTube viewers that I deserve a bullet in my head for writing my most recent song.

It’s been a pretty busy week. It’s always a busy week when you have a small child, much more so if you have two of them. And then along with my wife and teenage daughter I’ve been attempting to keep a small cafe going, with all the multitude of little tasks this entails for all of us, it becomes much busier. So this four-day visit to Sweden on my own that I’m currently in the midst of, although it involves two five-hour drives and two concerts, actually feels like a vacation.

My two days in between gigs here at an all-ages communist summer camp north of Gothenburg have allowed me a little time not only to spend an evening puttering around the fjord in a boat with my friend Bo, a retired dockworker and dedicated red from Gothenburg, and to hang out with a great bunch of Swedish bluegrass musicians, one of whom writes for the communist newspaper, Proletarian (interview with me coming up in the next edition), but to catch up on the death threats on YouTube.

Nobody here talks about it, at least no one has brought it up with me, but the massacre in Norway occurred at a left wing summer camp very much like this one, only a few hundred kilometers away, only eight years ago. I was in Oslo only a couple weeks after that, and I wrote a song about it. Probably because I named the song after the killer, the video got seen by a lot of the killer’s fans who had been searching online for other like-minded people, and they were horrified by the content of the song, once they discovered it was not in support of mass murder, and there were many comments from people who made it clear they thought I and all others like me should meet the same fate as all those people on the island of Utoya.

So something about being at another left wing summer camp in Scandinavia and receiving multiple death threats on YouTube is unnerving. But, of course, they’re not really death threats. Or are they? That I deserve a bullet in my head is the popular refrain among a certain crowd. This is the preferred imagery of the week, as opposed to a gas chamber or a firing squad, because of what happened last weekend, and the song I wrote about it.

In the scheme of things, the song is pretty irrelevant to the overall debate, having been heard by not more than a few thousand people. But it’s enough of a sample to glean a few things from, anyway.

It began when I saw an Associated Press report about a man being killed outside of an ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington. Hours after I saw this report, I started getting messages from friends, acquaintances and comrades of the deceased from Washington State, mostly saying they didn’t know exactly what happened, but that the police report was probably inaccurate, as they often are. Several people wrote to tell me I needed to write a song about what happened, and others just tagged me on Twitter, saying that they expected I’d be writing one soon.

I had already been working on the song after reading the AP report, or at least working on the initial stages in the process, which in this case is the same basic process as for journalists, gathering more information. I found and read Will Van Spronsen’s moving statement that he sent to friends before he did what he did, and I listened to much of his music, as he was, I learned, a songwriter. His last album was recorded at the studio of a mutual friend in Olympia.

I’m sure I was in the same place at the same time as Will on multiple occasions over the course of decades, but I don’t recall whether we ever had a conversation. We had many of the same friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. What Will did was what so many anti-fascists over the generations have talked about doing, and that many have also, in fact, done, in so many different scenarios, such as in and around Germany during the Third Reich. He may have had multiple reasons for doing what he did aside from the obvious one, but that doesn’t matter. What he did was he sacrificed his life in order to at least symbolically throw his body into the gears of the machine, to maybe stop it from running for at least a few minutes. His intent seems clearly to have been to destroy as many buses as possible before he would be killed. The buses were those used to deport unwanted refugees. Many of these refugees, as we all should know, will be deported to their deaths, as have so many others, since they were actually fleeing in many cases because they found themselves on a hit list of one sort or another, in their native countries.

These sorts of deportations are happening all the time, of course, but what was a bit different about last weekend was Trump’s announcement of the raids. We all knew they were coming, and Will acted one day before they were to commence (if ICE had followed through with their plans as announced).

I am personally not about to go do something like what Will did last weekend, for a whole lot of different reasons. But it’s obvious that the action he took falls into the category of an attempt to sabotage the machinery of deportation, at least temporarily. The consequences of this kind of sabotage are often death. Such as when Dutch munitions workers left the gunpowder out of the bullets that were going to the front lines of the Nazi war effort in Russia. They were all deported to death camps once their righteous act of sabotage was discovered. I’m sure these Dutch workers were also called terrorists – it was a popular term back then, too, because the western media had coined the phrase “the Nazi Terror” at the time, to describe the atmosphere of fear that Nazi rule had instilled in anyone who wasn’t a rabid supporter of fascism.

Of course, there were many rabid supporters of fascism back then, too. Many people who thought those munition workers were, in fact, terrorists who should be sent to death camps for their crimes. If munitions workers in the US sabotaged things at Honeywell like that and US soldiers ended up dying in Afghanistan as a result, you can be sure there would be many people saying the same sorts of things, and the workers might even meet a similar fate – if not death camps, probably death row. But, of course, the US isn’t Nazi Germany. Or is it?

“Send her back,” chant the crowds. Pretty much exactly the same chant from the fascist throngs across America that Nazis like Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford spoke to, saying exactly the same things, at a time when my own European relatives were being prevented from coming to the US by xenophobic laws aimed specifically at eastern and southern Europeans – the undesirable Europeans. Xenophobic laws passed and enforced over decades mainly by Democrats, incidentally.

We are rapidly moving towards an overtly fascist state. If Trump is elected again, perhaps it’s time to get the family out while there’s still the chance. But I think it’s so important to recognize that the reason we are in this situation is because of generations of mis-rule by both parties, generations of corruption, generations of the basic needs of the people being ignored or used for political games, without ever being addressed. And now a whole generation that is poorer and dying younger than their parents, a skyrocketing housing crisis to add to so many other very real crises.

Part of the mis-rule has been in the form of mis-education, or what the Marxists call false consciousness. That the Trump supporters believe Will Van Spronsen was a terrorist and that I should also be killed for being an anti-fascist, along with all other anti-fascists, doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from people who have been told, for generations, by not just the right wing media but by the mainstream media and by their teachers in school and in so many other ways, that America is a welcoming land for immigrants, the land of opportunity, if people play by the rules they can achieve anything, and those who don’t play by the rules deserve to be punished and they’re up to no good. We are never told about refugees or about the consequences of our country’s foreign policy. In fact, we are consistently lied to from most quarters, told our country helps other countries around the world with its foreign aid and its foreign wars, and we’re generally not appreciated for it. Why they chant “death to America” all over the world every day is never explained. The sources of the resentment are never made clear, but a smokescreen of nonsense about people resenting our supposed prosperity, freedom and democracy is on constant display, coming from both parties’ incessantly flag-waving leaderships, and most corners of the media and educational systems, public and private.

A friend once said in his opinion, ten minutes of truth can counteract 24 hours of lies. I believe that that ratio is accurate. But ten minutes of truth cannot counteract 48 hours of lies. The ratio needs to be there, it’s not magic, truth isn’t infinitely more powerful than lies. It’s much, much more powerful, but not infinitely. Reading one book by Howard Zinn can cure an entire year of mis-education in high school, but to cure you of another year of it, you still have to read yet more books, to continually seek out knowledge, or you will fall victim to the constant disinformation campaigns we are all being assaulted by on a daily basis, from so many corners that it can be very overwhelming and confusing for a whole lot of people.

I remain convinced that most of these people who say I should have a bullet in my head are not bad people, but are victims of generations of misinformation, bad education, and propaganda. They seem to think I’m a Democrat, for Pete’s sake. They don’t know the difference between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Fidel Castro, and most of them, in addition to being profoundly ignorant, are also deeply homophobic. I believe if these people listened to my podcast every week, I could change most of them. But they’re not going to be doing that, it doesn’t work that way.

Many of the minority of viewers who posted these sorts of comments had handles that made their adherence to Adolf Hitler clear to anyone who knows what kinds of names fascists like to use online. When it comes to fascists, as you may or may not already know, “88” does not refer to the number of keys on a piano, for example. Of course, I don’t know which of them are real people, the same people, intelligence operatives for one country or another, or most likely all of the above.

However, for those of you YouTube commenters of any political persuasion who are real people and want to have an actual conversation about politics, history or Will Van Spronsen’s motivations, where we listen to each other and refrain from using adjectives or making references to each other’s imminent and violent demise, my phone number is in the book. And I won’t call you a Nazi if you don’t call me a liberal.

My fellow Americans and all you other people, too, this is David Rovics, signing out for this week. In the podcast version of this missive, the song I wrote about Will, the Time to Act, should start playing momentarily.

This machine burns buses.

Embargoes and Other Acts of War

The war between the United States and Japan began with a US-enforced oil embargo against the Japanese Empire.

Right now, in the United States, huge detention camps are being constructed for the increasingly criminalized refugee and migrant population, a campaign of government-sponsored domestic terror run by a supposedly temporary, “acting” head of the department created by the ever-Orwellian 9/11-era Bush administration, Homeland Security.

Abroad, an oil embargo is being enforced by the US and British Navies against Iranian ships worldwide, strangling the Iranian economy, immiserating millions, with many unpredictable, destabilizing effects on the horizon.  These policies are being spearheaded by another sort of “acting” head, the infamously empire-loving sadist, John Bolton.

You can be sure, however, that if there is any sort of retaliatory action taken against these policies, this is where the mainstream narrative will start.  “Iran’s unprovoked, sneak attack,” or some variation thereof, will be the headline.  They’ll tell us about how much these totalitarian Iranians hate our freedom and democracy.  That the entire story between Iran and the west began with British and US support for a dictatorship, and a US- and UK-led overthrow of a thriving democracy will be facts relegated to the obscurity of the history books read by specialists in the region.  That the current oil embargo is an effort to strangle the Iranian economy and provoke a military response will rarely be mentioned, especially once the military response happens, if indeed it does, whether it’s in a form recognized as such by what they call “the international community” or not, whether it’s a response fabricated by John Bolton, that actually only exists in his warped brain, or if it’s a real one.

There are crippling embargoes the US has enforced on other countries for extremely long periods of time, without eliciting a military response.  But as economically damaging as it has been, the US never ratcheted up the blockade against Cuba to the extent that it is enforcing this blockade against Iranian trade — at least, to my knowledge, not since 1962 or so, when what we now call the Cuban Missile Crisis almost brought the world to nuclear holocaust.  (Prevented only by a very clear-thinking, cautious submarine commander named Vasili Arkhipov, incidentally.)

What has already been relegated to the dustbin of historical obscurity, of interest mainly to military historians and few others, as far as I can tell, is the fact that it was an oil embargo against Japan that was unequivocally and directly the provocation for the Japanese Empire’s bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii.  The bombing raid was retaliation against the embargo that had been preventing Japan from importing oil.  First the US stopped selling oil or anything else to Japan.  This is not what provoked Japanese retaliation, however.  It was after the US Navy imposed a blockade between Indonesia and Japan, preventing Japan from importing oil from anywhere else, that the Japanese Empire was put into a position where they could either surrender or fight back.  After the US imposed its embargo, the more militarist among the Japanese leadership rose to the top, and retaliation was ensured.  Hopefully we all know what came next — four years of massive bloodshed and destruction, ending with all of the islands of Japan in smoking ruins, including two cities and hundreds of thousands of children and senior citizens annihilated by the world’s first use of atomic weapons.

Although no two countries have the same histories, there are historically dynamics between powers like the US and the UK and other countries these governments and their corporations interact with, that tend to produce a lot of similar patterns.  While I may be just another voice shouting in the wilderness here, there are many reasons why the history of modern Japan is more than a little worth recalling — especially certain salient aspects of it.

Prior to its encounters with the western colonial powers (a group which has long included among its ranks the United States, contrary to popular mythology), Japan was, relative to Europe, a prosperous country with a strong and well-organized government, that had been at peace within its borders and with its neighbors for centuries.  This period was known as the Edo Era.

The Edo Era ended when Edo, what we now know as Tokyo, was bombarded by the US Navy in 1856.  In our history books we call this the “opening” of the “isolationist” nation of Japan.  Japan did not need to be “opened,” and it wasn’t “isolationist” either.  But if you don’t want to trade with the US, that apparently makes you isolationist, and in need of a thorough bombing.  In short, it is the US Navy that set Japan on its course of rapid industrialization and militarization, which culminated in the Japanese Empire’s desperate effort to beat back the United States and maintain its own brutal empire in East Asia.  The Japanese leadership that took power in the period after the US attack in 1856 believed that if Japan didn’t become a regional power capable of defending itself against the greatest military powers of the world, it would become a colony, like China had been.  The Japanese leadership looked across the sea at the opium-addicted, impoverished nation of China, and knew exactly the fate they wanted to avoid.  Britain and the US, among other colonial powers, had used their military might to force the Chinese Emperor to allow the import of the deadly drug, though the Emperor had repeatedly tried to ban the trade — clearly “isolationist” behavior that required severe punishment in the forms of a “trade war” that ended the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese people, and destroyed two cities, in two different military campaigns that took place both before and after Admiral Perry’s bombardment of Japan.

Pearl Harbor was not unexpected, nor was it a “sneak attack.”  The only reason some in the Roosevelt administration believed it wouldn’t happen was because they thought it would be an irrational move on the part of the Japanese Empire, when the US had just made sure that it was their only option besides surrender.  Historical differences aside, this is exactly, precisely the situation the Trump administration and its imperial British allies are putting Iran in, right now.  Retaliate or surrender.  Either way, the outcome will be immeasurable human suffering.  And probably the only ones who could potentially prevent this outcome would be an activated US population, organized into a massive, militant social movement that finally puts an end to the imperial madness that has characterized US foreign policy since long before the revolution of 1776, through both Republican and Democratic governments, up until the present moment, the current precipice we are all standing on now.

So This Is What It’s Like


Concentration camps in the United States are nothing new.  As has been widely reported, one of the many new, austere, prison camps for dividing up and indefinitely detaining families for the crime of being refugees that has recently opened up is one in Oklahoma that was previously used for the same purposes during the Second World War to imprison Japanese American families and to kidnap and abuse Native American children.  Concentration camps in America go back to the days when white people could supplement their farming income by being paid for each Indian scalp they turned in to the colonial authorities — they go back to the reservations and the slave plantations, and they continue to this day with mass incarceration, mass torture through solitary confinement and by many other means.

What’s different now, as opposed to how it has been in anyone’s living memory up til the present, is the authorities are bragging about their concentration camps, very openly expanding them, openly flouting court judgment after court judgment telling them to return the children to their parents, and the government departments ignoring the courts and committing crimes against humanity that flagrantly violate US and international law are being led by what is known as “acting” heads — these are mostly people that have not even been vetted by any Congressional procedures, and just appointed, as blatantly political appointments, with no sign that the administration is ever going to submit to the normal appointment process, that involves a bit of Congressional oversight.

What’s different now is there are no more dogwhistles, there are no more fig leaves, there’s just completely open, naked racism, xenophobia, sexism; and then, plans for a new world war, beginning with an impossibly draconian embargo on global trade with Iran, that is designed to provoke some kind of desperate response from an increasingly cornered political leadership of an increasingly hungry, angry nation full of young people whose dreams are currently being crushed by Uncle Sam.

And you can hear how the corporate media suddenly then talks of “the US government” when it comes to the potential war with Iran.  It’s no longer the crazy, arrogant Trump, but now it’s “the State Department” — as if said department weren’t actually being led by a totally deranged ideologue bent on nuclear war.

So they increasingly put this veneer of respectability on this administration that they have for years now been describing in overwhelmingly negative terms.  The corporate media doesn’t use the word, but much of the population increasingly realizes, either with glee or with horror, that they are living in an nascent sort of fascist country, where ultimately the future is very unknown and, for many, far more terrifying than the present.

Both in person, before I left the US to spend the summer in Denmark, and, of course, online, I encounter more and more people saying things like, “my country is kidnapping, imprisoning and torturing refugee children.  We have concentration camps.  I don’t know what to do.”

Of course, people may go protest, and come home, and they — we all — know this isn’t going to change anything.  To one degree or another, most people realize that challenging what is becoming an entrenched fascist sort of regime will require far more than some protest rallies.  People know you have to shut down the country, stop business as usual, like in other recent examples on planet Earth where popular movements have caused governments to fall.  But one person can’t just start being a movement.

So we wait for that massive, militant movement to form that we can join, and we wait, and we wait.  We all had that conversation when we were kids about how if we could go back in time and shoot Hitler, even though we’d be sacrificing our lives in the process, we’d do it, but we probably wouldn’t, and we don’t.  The overwhelming majority of humanity, quite sensibly, according to the historical record, don’t stick their necks out like that unless they think there’s at least some remote chance of coming out the other end with their heads intact, along with a victorious social movement and an end to the fascist dictator they’re trying to get rid of in the first place.  Social movements are based on optimism, and this isn’t an optimistic moment in America.  So this is what it’s like.

The United Tent Cities of America

I viscerally remember a particular protest I participated in with Portland Tenants United that involved using tents as a symbol of the impending homelessness that will result if the landlords keep on raising the rent the way they’ve been doing. It’s a common, useful symbol, that communicates well in a picture, a tent. But there was that one protest when a bunch of actually homeless teenagers asked us, “what are you going to do with those tents when you’re done?”

If one of the tents had been mine, I probably would have just given it to the kids who asked about it. I didn’t see anyone giving them one of the tents, though. After all, each of them was probably owned by a hard-working tenant, there to protest against landlords and rent hikes. It probably cost $80 or so and was used for camping with the kids and going to festivals, when it wasn’t being used to protest landlords in downtown Portland.

Most working folks scraping by to pay the rent don’t make $80 donations to people on the streets, so I suppose it’s understandable if no one gave away their tent that day. Last weekend I heard on NPR the recently-updated statistic that there are about 60,000 people homeless, mostly living on the streets, unsheltered, in Los Angeles County, and almost 1,000 of them were found dead on those very streets last year, in 2018. It’s a shocking thing to hear, partially perhaps because it’s such a large, round number, which maybe gives it more resonance. Altogether we can say that there are untold thousands of people dying on the streets every year in the US, and literally the majority of the rest of the population is so squeezed by the cost of housing and other economic factors, that they can’t afford to help. They have no savings, only debt.

Four in ten people in the US can’t afford an unexpected expense of any kind if it’s greater than $400, according to a recent study. Many people are living in such cramped conditions that having one’s own bedroom is increasingly becoming a middle-class fantasy.

In the suburb I grew up in, no one was homeless. Tents were strictly for camping, cars were for transportation — and maybe sleeping in if you got caught in a blizzard or something. When my family made trips into nearby New York City and I saw people living in cardboard boxes beneath bridges and such, to me it was like going to Mars. A completely different reality. These grey, often bearded faces of ruined human beings, shivering, abandoned, waiting to die, it appeared to me. They seemed like a different species to my clean-cut suburban eyes. If it weren’t for the fact that as a young adult I found myself briefly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, I might still have that alienated orientation towards these castaways that can be found in every American city.

I was staying for a while in a tent on a very steep hillside near a park. It was a thickly-wooded hillside that no one used, but part-way down it there was a flat area just big enough for a very small tent. I set up a tent and hid it with a tarp and leaves and branches and such. No running water or electricity, but it was a dry, shaded place to camp. Until the police, or whoever, found it, and destroyed my camp, cutting lots of bushes and trees down in the process.

That night, it rained. I don’t remember what I might have tried to rig up to sleep under or on top of that night, but whatever it was, it wasn’t waterproof. The rain drenched me completely, until I was shivering, and probably hyperventilating. To survive the night, I spent hours awake, miserable, sitting in a 24-hour donut shop until the sun rose.

Just going through that experience for one night was a revelation. Until that night, being homeless sucked. I didn’t care so much about not having electricity, but I was a big fan of daily showers, and that was not happening. But it had otherwise up til then been more or less an adventure. After that night it no longer was. Death suddenly became something easy to imagine. Anyone, at any age, can die of hypothermia in such a situation. And, as these recent statistics attest, many do.

I don’t know how many other people who grew up in the suburbs end up having such experiences. I don’t know how many of them can relate to these completely disenfranchised people among us, beneath us, at our feet, as fully human. Regardless of whether they can or not, it seems clear to me that this society is at a breaking point. Any semblance of life as usual can’t continue while thousands of skeletal life forms are dying on the streets around you.

Listening to the tepid solutions being offered by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Oregon Governor Kate Brown or any of the presidential candidates running on the Democratic ticket — all of which is getting lots of media attention lately — we can be certain the crisis will only worsen. Building new housing and subsidizing rent for tenants in need are fine, but neither of these popular strategies challenge the profits of the real estate speculators, the developers, the landlord class so influential in so much of local, state and federal politics throughout the US.

What is abundantly obvious if you have any familiarity with the housing market in this country is leaving things to the free market has been an unmitigated disaster. Yet the only answer from the landlord lobby is more of the same.

It would be completely impossible to build enough new housing to build our way out of this problem. Regulation is obviously necessary. Democratic – that is, government — control over the cost of housing, over what landlords can charge for rent. The kind of regulation that will profoundly affect the profit margin of the real estate speculators, the vulture capitalists in control of so much of our politics. I’m talking not about a rent freeze, but about slashing rents to a fraction of what they have become over the past few decades of free market insanity. What’s needed is the kind of regulation that no one is talking about. For that kind of regulation, we’ll need to have a mass movement that shuts the country down. Regardless of what the more hopeful voices in the liberal media and the Democratic Party might want us to believe.

Until then, keep the morgues cold, more bodies will be coming.

The Joy of Touring

I’ve been on a sort of paternity leave since last winter. I say “sort of” because it’s not like I have an employer or anything — taking a leave for me means not touring, and mounting credit card debt. The reality that it is time to book a major tour becomes undeniable, when the debt rises into the fifth digit to the left of the point. So lately, one of the balls I’m juggling is the tour-booking one, as I make plans to spend most of the autumn traveling and playing gigs around North America and Europe.

I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling the world and playing music. For many years I barely even had a home, aside from whatever guest room I was sleeping in, which was often my van or pickup truck parked in the driveway of that night’s gig organizer, especially when I was in my twenties and thirties. Since I had my first kid, thirteen years ago, I’ve toured a lot less, but I’ve still mostly been away altogether about half of every year. As a parent, not being able to take the kids with me most of the time I go, touring now has a dark side to it that it didn’t really have before. There was always the issue of wanting to be in more than one place at a time for a lot of different reasons, and never having enough time to do everything I wanted to do, but with kids, the equation changes for me, and on some level, wherever I am, if I’m not where my kids are, it’s not the place I want to be in, regardless of how wonderful the scene.

But having had a solid break from extensive traveling, for the first time in well over a decade, as I work on booking the fall tour, the feeling of dread that usually accompanies the thought of abandoning my family for two months is not so far returning. The emotion in place of the dread is, on one level, an acceptance that some jobs involve traveling a lot, and that’s OK. But mostly, the overwhelming feeling is one of eagerness. With apologies to all of those people out there who envy those of us who travel for a living, I’m really looking forward to traveling again.

While I’ve enjoyed doing the weekly columns and podcasts — and intend to keep it up if I can manage it while touring — writing about a world which I am mostly seeing through the filters of other people, be they journalists, friends, or whoever, is such a far cry from experiencing it myself.

There are many variations of the saying, but the idea always resonated with me that life is what happens when you’re on your way there — wherever “there” may be. Most of it isn’t about arriving at your destination, it’s about getting there. This applies very much in a very literal way, when it comes to actual, physical traveling. Certainly for me, for the kind of travel I do. I’m not locked in a tour bus going from stadium to stadium, only seeing the stadiums and little else. I’d take the gig if I were famous enough for it, don’t get me wrong. But that’s a far cry from my world. I know a couple of rock stars, but I only envy them a little. What they had to give up to take that gig is huge, it seems to me.

There’s a lot you can learn about the world without seeing it all, to be sure. Just as with learning about history, which you will never personally witness, you can learn about the world by reading lots of material from many different perspectives, until the history, or the event or place or people become more three-dimensional, even to the point where you feel like you know and understand it or them.

While I do believe this, I also have found that there are many more things than just pictures that are worth a thousand words. This is also true of smells, sounds, and so many other sensory experiences you only get when you’re really traveling in the physical world, when you’re immersed in it. And there are stories and anecdotes and phrases that you will encounter when you travel, that just don’t seem like things you’d have run across otherwise, though it’s always possible you might have.I don’t know if I have this in common with other chronic travelers, but my mind is subdivided geographically. When I’m in a certain part of the world, that’s when I’m most likely to remember people I know from that part of the world, experiences I’ve had there previously, places I’ve been in a given town or city or forest, venues I’ve performed in, cafes I loitered in, and stories about the place which local people shared with me before. To provoke my memory of a place — and also for very practical reasons, to remember where I played there before and who might have organized that gig — I often leave my laptop to go gaze at one of several maps I have on the walls of my apartment. In fact, I don’t really need the maps, since they’re all in my mind now, too, but I like to gaze at them anyway.

The sharpest memories jut up through the clouds, forming peaks that can be seen from a long distance. If I were flying like a bird across the landscape looking for those peaks, those memories, those images, flying over Alaska I’d remember what it was like to walk down the street, from my hotel to the supermarket, on a windy February day at minus 20 Fahrenheit, wondering how much longer I could have my cheeks exposed to the wind before I’d get frostbite. I learned on that trip that when it’s below negative 40 Fahrenheit, axes tend to split in two when you swing them to try to cut wood. Perhaps I might have learned that by watching a documentary, but I don’t think it would have stuck with me in the same visceral way as it has since I first felt the sting of a typical, windy winter day in Anchorage.

Flying across the continent in a zigzagging path, east, west and south from there through the map in my mind, like in a guided meditation, the next peak I come to is Prince Rupert, BC. There’s a fishing boat there that washed up all the way from Japan, that stands as a reminder for all of the dangers of the trade, and the solidarity that exists among the seafaring peoples of the world.

I’d land in Montana, where I was following my GPS blindly to get to the next gig on one tour, heading towards Wyoming, and I unexpectedly came to the sign, “entering Yellowstone.” I’ll forever remember only minutes after passing that sign, the buffalo that stood bigger than any horse I’ve ever seen, like a furry mountain, thick steam rising from its fur in the early morning light, stopping what little traffic was on that road, making all of us humans in our comparatively puny cars feel very small and vulnerable. Certainly the car I was driving could have been smashed in one stomp, I imagined, but the buffalo calmly continued down the road, ignoring the tourists.

I’d find myself on the Pine Ridge reservation, where I somehow ended up early one morning before a gig in Rapid City. I’m going to film a church-burning that day, my host informed me. I had the day free, so I made sure to haul ass to the east or west or wherever I was coming from, and get there a day early, so I could go, too. I spent the day watching an old church burn to the ground. Lakota people had bad associations with it, and a guy named Big Jim bought it, and burned it to the ground, with the Fire Department watching to make sure it was safe. An old white couple who had been married in the church also came to watch. The Lakota guys who were cheering when various especially offensive parts of the church had collapsed in ash on the ground quietly moved around the corner from the old white couple, to give them the space to have whatever less joyous experience they were having while watching the church burn.

I’d land in Colorado, where on the foothills of a mountain that once served as a watershed for all the farmers in the San Luis Valley I watched the pickup truck speed towards the forest defenders locked to a tripod on a dirt road leading into the largely denuded hillside behind them. I’d watch as the angry driver slammed on his breaks, stopping only a foot from the face of some brave, terrified people.

I’d spend another night at that Catholic Worker hospitality house with the art work in the backyard consisting of a hole with a toilet in it, and a bust of Richard Nixon sitting at the bottom of the toilet. I’d remember my friend who ran the place at the time telling me how one of the residents was so worried that the authorities would shut down the house if they found this terribly disrespectful scene, that he would go out at night and cover the hole with leaves and branches.

I’d watch the Northern Lights from the plane window over Halifax — it was like the Crystalline Entity from Star Trek, appearing to be below us, completely white, and very much alive. I’d see the lights again from the ground in Quebec, like a dark rainbow taking over the sky. I’d make love again in a tent in New Brunswick, the air outside the screen so full of mosquitoes, doing anything else seemed suicidal. I’d watch that police van try to run over my friends in Washington, DC. I’d be clubbed by the police in Pittsburgh again.

I’d watch the gay couple holding hands as they walked confidently through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. I’d see the list of names written on the chalkboard in that church in the Ninth Ward, when no one knew if they’d all live or die in there, after being abandoned by the federal authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I’d watch the tumbleweeds blow across the prairies of West Texas, in the years before it was covered with fracking rigs, before it all smelled like burning oil. I’d hear the coyotes howling in the Sonoran, and see the pack together, clearly-outlined silhouettes, with the full moon rising behind them above the cactus-strewn, dry, sandy hills.

I’d hear the stories about the outlaws back in the day, when this was Mexican land, before the border crossed them, and they found themselves in the United States. I’d remember Steve, before he died so young of some disease, what was his last name? He and his comrades talked about la Raza Unida like it was an organization everybody knew about, because they did, at least around there. I had never heard of it until I got to Las Vegas. Not Nevada, but New Mexico. They had all heard of it because they lived it. I’d remember many things. Perhaps most of all, I’d remember the bones in the desert.

Remembering Gerd Berlev

I got word last weekend, on the afternoon of June 1st, 2019, Denmark time, that my friend and comrade, extremely talented organizer and much-loved grandmother and horn player, Gerd Berlev, died. There is so much that can be said about her, but as I sat in my apartment in Portland, Oregon, taking in this news, I wrote these words.

When I met Gerd, she was around the age I am now, in her early fifties. There were still teenagers in her life, who are now accomplished young adults with children of their own. I wasn’t around for the raising of Gerd’s children, but most of my visits to Gerd and her husband, Jan, in recent years have involved multiple grandchildren present. She was a highly engaged and very enthusiastic, ebullient grandmother, just as she was highly engaged and enthusiastic about everything else that mattered. Gerd is one of the many people in the world who I have known in a sort of snapshot form.  One of many people who I’ll see a lot of for a few hours or a few days, and then I won’t see again for several months or more, until the next time.  But Denmark is a country that I have often visited or toured in more than twice in a given year, over the past two decades or so, and most of those visits included seeing Gerd for one reason or another — usually for several reasons.

I believe I first met her at an annual Communist Party festival that used to happen in Copenhagen, called K-Fest.  In any case, it was soon after my first tour of Denmark that she became, for many years, the most consistent organizer of protests, peace festivals — and concerts for me as well as for other indy left wing musicians from Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere.

When Gerd first offered to organize a gig for me in Copenhagen, sometime in the early Naughties, another Danish communist I knew cautioned me, making sure I knew that Gerd was a member of the smallest communist organization in the country — the last one that still believed in the violent overthrow of the Danish government. I have no idea if this is true, I’ve never read the party platform, but I did, in fact, confirm Gerd’s desire to overthrow the Danish government. However, I never saw her lift a finger to hurt a fly, let alone take up arms. But she may have just been waiting for the right moment.

While she never organized the revolution, she organized a hell of a lot else, and always with an infectious joy for the small things in life, and the kind of dedication to the broader cause that inspired others to feel it, too.  She organized very small events frequently, at her party’s book store, October Books, but for many other bigger events, few people knew in what ways she had been involved.  She was very sensitive to politics, so she would frequently give me a union official’s name and number and say things like, “he’ll probably be interested, but don’t tell him I recommended that you contact him.”

Unusually for communist-oriented types, Gerd was very familiar with and really in her own way part of what often gets dismissed with terms like “the counterculture.”  Her brother was a member of a very well-known Danish rock band called Gasoline.  I got some idea of how mis-spent her youth may have been when she mentioned that as a teenager she slept through a live Jimi Hendrix concert.  She was friends with, and worked actively with, a lot of other people coming out of the more counter-cultural parts of Danish society.  It was through one of the small peace festivals Gerd organized where I first met the core members of the iconic Danish band, Savage Rose, Thomas and Annisette, who gave a spell-binding performance that day, just as a duo.  I would later see Annisette singing at most of the demos Gerd organized.  Thomas would have been at them, too, but he had died by 2006.  The shirt Gerd is wearing as she’s receiving the local peace award, pictured with this post, is about Thomas Koppel, a “message from the grassroots,” a campaign she was involved with, both in his memory and looking forward to a better world, taking Thomas’s thoughts and music to help navigate.

It was Gerd’s completely open, ecumenical orientation towards organizing a real people’s movement that set her apart from the sorts of people who are more like functionaries, more interested in getting more people to sign up to their party’s email list than in building a broader movement.  Gerd always had much higher aims than the email list.

Though I first met her in her capacity as an organizer, for me she and her husband, Jan, became more just friends, and the people I usually stayed with when I was in Copenhagen, for many years.  When their teenagers moved out of the house, the little shack in the backyard that had for so long housed a chain-smoking Danish punk kid was empty, and became the home away from home for this touring musician for many years of frequent visits to Copenhagen.

So my main recollections are the little ones — waking up in the morning, coming out of the shack and talking about the news of the day over an edition of Politiken or the Daily Worker in Gerd and Jan’s little kitchen, or coming home late at night after a gig and talking beneath the open skies in their very well-tended and well-loved backyard garden.  I was able to bring my daughter, Leila, to Denmark once, when she was four, and she had a great time swinging on the swing on the back porch, that they set up when there are small children about.

Gerd applied all her grandmotherly skills during Leila’s visit, and I particularly remember one wonderful little intervention.  I had to go off to play somewhere, which involved taking our rental car.  But Leila wanted to sit in the stroller.  I explained to her that we needed to take the car, so if she could walk with me to the car, that would be great.  But she was steadfast, and sat in the stroller anyway.  It was one of those little conflicts that can arise between a parent in a hurry and a small child who quite understandably doesn’t want to go along with the program being forced on her.  It could have gone in a number of different ways, one likely possibility involving a crying child and sad parents, too.  But Gerd knew just what to do.  She grabbed the handles of the stroller Leila was sitting in and took her for a walk — a walk of about three meters, the distance from the house to the car.  But it was a walk in the stroller, and for Leila, it turned out to be just what she needed.  Happy at this point that her desire to walk in the stroller had been sufficiently acknowledged, she got out of it on her own accord and sat in the backseat of the car as her papa had demanded.  If I had thought a three-meter walk in the stroller could have made everything better, I might have tried that, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

Gerd’s partner for all the time I knew her has been Jan Nielsen, who is very much still with us.  Every spring, Gerd would get some kind of spring fever, and fall in love with Jan all over again.  She would tell me about it every spring, how she was falling in love with her husband all over again, but it was the sort of thing that hardly needed to be expressed verbally to be abundantly clear.  Her face would turn red and she would act like a puppy.  It was a beautiful relationship to witness, also because it persisted so well despite the fact that she never succeeded in getting Jan to join her party.  He, instead, had settled for the furthest-left party that has actual representation in the Danish parliament, Enhedslisten.

Gerd’s antiwar organizing efforts often involved opposing NATO’s wars, NATO’s expansion, and NATO generally.  The least well-liked Danish prime minister in recent decades among my friends, Fogh Rasmussen, was NATO Secretary-General for a good chunk of NATO’s recent expansionist and especially actively militaristic period.  In 2005, when NATO was having a summit in Sweden — oddly enough, a non-NATO country — Gerd and I, along with rabble-rousing songwriter Anne Feeney and other folks, traveled up to northern Sweden to protest.

I suppose it’s in times of relative crisis that the most enduring memories are formed, so probably the vision of Gerd Berlev that I will always remember the most will be from December, 2009.  It was during the climate summit that was happening that year in Copenhagen.  Laws had been temporarily modified to basically suspend civil liberties in Denmark for the duration of the summit.  Anyone was liable to be arrested anywhere, anytime, basically.  This was especially true one night at Christiania, where some of the counter-summit types of activities were taking place.

A police raid turned into a riot, there were burning barricades, thousands of bottles and other things transported and thrown, and then, unusually for Denmark, there was a water cannon.  This changed the equation for the usual Copenhagen riot, and soon the riot police had put out the burning barricades, thus allowing them to drive onto Christiania with their armored vehicles.  A crowd of people smelling strongly of tear gas flooded into the Opera House, where I was playing that night.  We tensely awaited the next wave of people to enter the building, who we expected to be riot police intent on taking revenge on whoever it was who might have been throwing all those many bottles at them not long before.

Word quickly got out about what was going on then in Christiania.  My friend Carsten, a teacher from Hellebaek I had been marching with the other day, texted me, that he was waiting in his car just outside Christiania, to take me away from the riot zone, once I managed to get out of the Free State.  But it was Gerd who marched on her own through the ranks of the riot police as they stood in their helmets, menacingly gripping their truncheons, to the Opera House.  She fetched me and I think a couple other folks, and led us back through the ranks of the riot police and out of Christiania, to Carsten’s waiting car.  She had a sort of militant, communist, grandmotherly halo around her as she walked.  Although she was a little woman, a full head shorter than me or the average Dane, she inspired fear and obedience in the typical riot cop.

I last saw Gerd a couple months ago, last time I was in Denmark.  It was a brief visit of not more than a half hour or so, due to logistical issues.  She had had something mailed to me in Portland that was from the US, just to save postage and such, because she knew I was just about to come to Denmark.  I was just delivering a bottle of vitamins.  One of a variety of ways she was trying to get healthy again, after being diagnosed with cancer.

Gerd played in a group called Red Horns — the horn version of the Socialist Choirs you’ll find in some towns in England, or the Labor Choruses you’ll find here and there in the US.  Gerd will be missed by her fellow musicians, her fellow organizers, her husband, children, grandchildren, and her many friends and comrades.  Many others in Denmark will miss her, but they won’t know it, because so much of the work she did was behind the scenes, like all the best organizers, among the ranks of whom Gerd Berlev most definitely belongs.

For those of you in the region, her funeral will be in Copenhagen on June 15th. I won’t be getting to Denmark for the summer until ten days later, so I’ll have to settle for being there in spirit.
Good-bye, Gerd.  I miss you already.

SPECIAL EDITION: Songs For Today, an Album Tour



Note to readers of my column:  I normally organize my weekly missives in such a way that they work almost as well in written form as they do in podcast form.  This week is a bit different — this week’s podcast doesn’t just involve a song at the end that’s related to the subject at hand, but the podcast is about the album, and includes all 13 songs on it, interspersed.  But if you want to read all about the album without listening to it, keep reading!

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From 10 am until about 9 pm on Wednesday, May 29th, I was working with an award-winning musician, producer, engineer and studio owner named Billy Oskay, along with his assistant engineer, Peter Wells, to record 13 songs.  We took a few minutes off to chat or have a snack or make some coffee now and then, but otherwise it was noses to the grindstone.  The result, by the end of the day, is my latest solo acoustic studio album, titled Songs For Today, in the form of 13 very high-quality WAV files that I put into a Dropbox folder.  For now, I’m making the album exclusively available to members of my CSA, or Community-Supported Art program, where everyone who signs up gets access to a folder with 42 albums in it, some of which are only available to CSA members, such as my latest.  But if you don’t mind listening to me ramble on about each song before you hear it, you can also take in the album by listening to this special edition of my weekly podcast — This Week with David Rovics episode 44.

I’ve never done a tour of an album in a podcast, but I also wasn’t doing podcasts when I made any of my previous 41 albums, and it seemed like a good idea.  For a variety of reasons, but partly because it works well with the theme of several of my recent missives related to the economic and other logistical realities of being a working, independent musician.  What, exactly, goes in to making an album?  Where did these songs come from?  What was involved with writing and recording them?  It seems like a worthwhile topic to explore, using this album to do it, one song at a time.

Before I continue, for people who enjoy this podcast and the music within it, if you’re able to join my CSA that would be amazing, and you can do that by going to davidrovics.com/subscribe.  If that’s beyond your means, don’t worry about it, but feel free to tell other folks about it who you may know, who like my music and also might be more gainfully-employed than you or I are.  Also please feel free to let folks know that they can hear this podcast by searching for This Week with David Rovics on any of the usual podcasting platforms.

The album is called Songs For Today, but I almost called it Somewhere On Spotify.  I decided against that title, not exactly sure why, but anyway, the album both begins and ends with songs related to a particular struggling profession with which I am most intimately familiar — the independent, touring, recording musician.  Most of the songs on the album were written over the course of the past 9 months or so, but the first and last songs on the album are both songs I wrote the most recently, during the past month.

What predicated both of these songs, along with other songs I’ve written on related subjects, is decades of experience as a touring musician, working in a collapsing industry.  Having been on Spotify and most other streaming platforms since they came into existence, it was fairly obvious that this was going to be the music industry’s game plan to do what they could to recoup their losses and that it would be their newest method of screwing struggling independent artists around the world.  Recently I’ve read extensively on the subject and have discovered that my suspicions are shared by many people who know much more about the details than I do.*

A little over a year ago I got word from folks in Manitoba that plans were afoot to commemorate the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.  The folk festival organizers and labor organizers in Manitoba who had brought me there on a couple occasions in the past were planning to do it again, for the first time in at least six years, as far as I could recall.  This gave me plenty of time to read up on the history of the strike, and write a song about it, which I eventually did last December.

I was already familiar with a lot of the context of the heady times the strike took place in — the 1910’s, with the backdrop of wars, revolutions, and many other general strikes in many other countries, including in other cities in Canada.  Reading the many accounts of the strike which emphasized the total solidarity in the city of Winnipeg among native-born Canadians, immigrants of all kinds, veterans of the First World War, non-veterans, unionized and non-unionzed workers, and even ultimately the police themselves, the chorus hit me.  I wrote the song as if I had been there, and obviously I wasn’t, so on a couple different levels one’s disbelief must be suspended, but that’s how it is when you’re writing from someone else’s perspective, which is a fine thing to do on a regular basis, I find.  And although I wasn’t there myself, I can be sure that when I say “if you weren’t there you’ll never know just what it was like when the whole city went on strike,” this is true — for me, too.  I can only dream — and write.*

As a regular consumer of lots of world news in various forms, I’ve been closely following the ongoing and worsening economic situation in Venezuela that has been unfolding over recent years, particularly since the death of Hugo Chavez, who I opened for in Copenhagen in 2009, and who I wrote a song about before that.

Without, if possible, tooting my own horn in some narcissistic way, I think it’s interesting to briefly explore what exactly goes into writing a song like the third track on the album, “In Venezuela.”  How would we break it down?  Partly I just find it an interesting question because Spotify values one stream at one one-tenth of one cent, which strikes me as elitist.  Also because I, along with lots of other musicians, am often in the position of being asked to do a gig and being told that we will be paid “traveling expenses.”  I always wonder exactly how this amorphous concept is defined, especially when they know they’re talking to a musician who is not from their country.  Traveling expenses from the last city I played in to the city you’re in?  Or traveling expenses from Oregon to Europe?  Do these “expenses” include food and lodging?  How about paying the rent back at home and feeding the kids?  And so on.

On the surface, obviously the song was written after extensively following developments in Venezuela, amounting to hundreds of hours of news programs from many different news outlets from many different countries and many different perspectives, as well as a similar amount of written material from a similar variety of sources.  The perspective behind the song, though it’s a short song, also required that I understand the nuances involved in terms of the current government of Venezuela not being without fault, but also not being primarily responsible for the current mess.  Nowhere in the song do I present a black and white perspective, though this can obviously be inferred by anyone who really wants to infer one, given the small amount of information that you can really have in a decently-written song.  Equally, the perspective in the song also required an extensive knowledge of Latin American history and the history of US imperialism in the world more broadly and in Venezuela in particular.

As with all of the songs on this album, I’m using an open tuning called DADGAD, which I first learned from listening to the Scottish musician, Dick Gaughan, and then later discovered among many other players in the Scottish and Irish traditional music scenes especially.  The dissonant chords that feature prominently in this song are ones I adapted from listening to, touring with, and learning from Scottish master guitarist, Alistair Hulett, before his untimely death.*

There are many songs about events that took place which I never would have heard about if I didn’t travel so much.  It also helps that at least some people know I’m always interested in hearing about things that someone thinks would make a good song.  Last year was when I first learned of the trial of the Rotherham 12, in the small, struggling, post-industrial northern English city of Rotherham.

Still today, if you mention the town of Rotherham in England, if anyone has heard of it, it has been in the context of tabloid press stories about Asian men grooming children to become victims in a pedophilia ring.  To read the English tabloids, you would think that all the Asian men in Rotherham were pedophiles, though obviously we’re talking about a tiny minority, and no larger percentage than there is within the broader population.  Groups of Nazis capitalized on the situation by holding monthly anti-Asian rallies in Rotherham.

The fact that the police steered an anti-Nazi march directly in front of a group of Nazis, essentially forced a confrontation, and then went about actively vilifying and prosecuting the Asian men who defended themselves against Nazis, is still little-known in England, or anywhere else in the world.  But in the town of Rotherham, the trial saw many people from all walks of life mobilized in defense of these innocent men, who were ultimately acquitted.

I only heard about the Rotherham 12 last year, from Love Music, Hate Racism organizers in the area who were putting together a gig for me, who were also very much involved with the solidarity campaign.  The song went through several revisions before it got to its present state, as I checked with LMHR organizers as well as one member of the Rotherham 12 to make sure I was getting all my facts straight, and just as importantly, to make sure I was accurately representing the emotions behind the whole situation, particularly given that I’m again writing this song from the first person perspective, and I am myself neither from Rotherham or of Asian descent, and I was not on trial, either.

Musically, the song’s chords and structure once again owe a great debt to Alistair Hulett.  Fans of Alistair’s who are also serious guitarists might notice the unusual, dissonant chords in DADGAD in the song.  The other musician who was very influential in the guitar style employed in this song is Ani DiFranco.  I fell in love with her intense, percussive guitar style when I first heard her, in the 90’s.  I developed my own right-hand thump technique, to keep a steady rhythm in between chords and riffs, around 2011, I guess, and it started finding its way into many of my songs, especially ones I wrote around 2011 and 2012, but it crops up again frequently in more recent songwriting efforts to varying degrees.*

Jeremy Corbyn is the elected leader of the biggest political party, by membership, in all of Europe — the British Labor Party.  As an avid listener to BBC World Service and active consumer of other British media, I might have been forgiven for thinking that Jeremy Corbyn was either a pitchfork-bearing anarchist with a recently-contracted case of rabies, or some kind of a clown.  As a regular visitor to the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales, I know differently.  Jeremy Corbyn is a brilliant and morally upstanding human being.  Not only does he have a stellar voting record and great eloquence when it comes to explaining his very sensibly left wing positions on most everything, but he is a personal friend of friends of mine, and one of my best former gig organizers in England is now in his shadow cabinet.  I wrote this song last November.*

I have been writing songs about refugees for a long time now.  Partly this is because I write songs about historical and current events, and refugees figure prominently into them, in many different ways.  Also the reality of refugees and what people go through to get out of war zones is a phenomenon I have intimate second-hand experience with, being close friends with many refugees from many different war zones, from Guatemala to Afghanistan to Palestine.

But particularly since what became known as the refugee crisis of 2015 in Europe — which hit me hard, you could say, because Europe is where I do most of my touring these days, and being in the little niche I’m in, I did a lot of gigs in 2015 throughout Europe, and even a few in the US, with and in solidarity with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and elsewhere — I became increasingly aware that what hit me so hard about this situation is partly how closely it resembled the kind of situation my own ancestors were in, when they fled wars in Europe for the relative safety of New York.

Shortly after writing the song, “My Great Grandparents,” last fall, I learned that at least on my father’s eastern European Jewish side of the family, I have a lot in common with Donald Trump’s xenophobic immigration czar, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Miller’s uncle, who so eloquently denounced everything his nephew stands for in an open letter he published soon after I wrote it.*

I guess track 7 is the only song on the album that was written more than a year ago.  I wrote “Is That A Girl Or A Boy” in 2015.  I don’t even have to look it up, because 2015 is the year I was mainly writing songs using an electric cello instead of a guitar as my main instrument for playing chords on, or some approximation thereof.  It was one of many “cello songs” that never made it on to the one album of cello-backed songs I made, Punk Baroque.  But pretty much every time I make a new album, I take some time to go over songs I’ve written over the past few years that have never made it onto an album.  There are many others I considered, but this is the only one I chose.  There were also many songs I wrote in the past year that also didn’t make the cut — not because they weren’t well-written songs, but mainly because I’m looking for a nice selection of different themes and different musical styles when I’m putting together an album, and a good album, like a good song, is generally best when it’s neither too short or too long.

The song was inspired by kids I’ve known who have preferred to dress in clothes that are popularly identified as belonging to a gender other than the one that they are generally identified with.  It’s a song for all the boys who like to wear dresses, and all the other gender-nonconformists.  It was also inspired by the beautiful children’s book, Jacob’s Dress, and by other experiences in my own personal exposure to and slow development of an understanding of what so many people around me have been going through for so long, just because they don’t conform to patriarchal gender stereotypes — gender norms and expectations which we would all be better off throwing out, I have come to believe.  My own teenage daughter, Leila, has been a big part of my education on that front as well.*

I was once again thinking so much about my daughter — at the time I only had one, now I have two daughters, as well as a son — last September, during the Supreme Court hearings and related activities going on around Brett Kavanaugh, who, of course, was confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court, where he now presides over us all.  Hearing the testimony of Dr. Blaisey-Ford, hearing his pleas of total ignorance, it brought me back to my teen years, growing up around the same time as they did, in the same culture, in which teenage male football players are given a massive carte blanche to behave in whatever misogynistic ways they want to, with no repercussions, leaving a trail of destruction, pain and anger in their wake.

Long before these particular hearings, though, I struggled with the idea of writing a song like the one I ended up writing, “Behind Closed Doors.”  My own feminist education has been a gradual one, and I didn’t want to write a song that somehow left me off the hook, or implied that I have always lived up to my own standards of behavior, or that my standards have always been what they are now.  I grew up in the same sorts of suburbs as they did.  I never behaved the way Brett Kavanaugh did, but I knew a lot of guys who did, like the entire football team in my high school one year.  They talked about ending the football program and suspending the entire team.  As I recall, they did neither, and the idea of criminal prosecutions wasn’t even on the table.

But listening to the way Blaisey-Ford described the party she was at, and the cultural environment and extreme forms of male entitlement around the football team in her suburb, in my suburb, I kept thinking of this one football player I knew from another town who bragged to me about how he got drunk and raped a fellow drunk teenager at a party they were both at one night.  He thought that his actions made him both cool and funny.  I didn’t think he was either cool or funny, but it wasn’t until last September that I started really wondering who was the girl he raped, and how has her life been over the past 35 years or so, since that kid told me about his horrifying accomplishments.  Then I thought about my own daughter, already in Middle School, soon going off into the world.*

The astute observer may have noticed thematic connections between songs appearing on the album.  Sometimes I opted for musical diversity and the changing of keys from one song to the next over thematic connection, while other times all those factors came together fine.  Tracks 4 and 5, about the Rotherham 12 and Jeremy Corbyn, are both about England, for example.  Tracks 7 and 8 are both related to gender and gender roles.  Tracks 2 and 3 are both about epic, world-historic struggles of the working class on Planet Earth.

Tracks 9-12 are all directly related to war and peace.  Track 9, “In ’68,” is an overview of some of the key events of 1968 on the streets of the US, France, southeast Asia and elsewhere.  The guitar part employs a bit of that thump I mentioned earlier, and some dissonant, Hulett-esque chords, played with a slightly funky right-hand part.

As with many other songs, this song was probably mainly written as a response to media coverage of 1968 that I was listening to throughout 2018, which did usually touch on protests as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll, but most of the coverage of the protests minimized them in terms of how much support the movement had, how global it was, how threatening it was to the powers-that-be around the world, and how much it changed the face of so many societies, despite the fact that the movement in the US, France and most other places was ultimately beaten back.  It may not be much consolation, but if not for certain social movements, things might be even worse now than they are.

The basic knowledge of history involved with writing a song like this involves a lifetime of reading history, news stories, traveling to key destinations, and personally knowing many of the people involved with this particular struggle, most of whom are still alive and currently in their seventies or eighties.*

I studied Political Economy at the Evergreen State College for a few months in the fall of 1993.  I was apparently unsuited for academia, and I didn’t last long, but I had a lot of nice walks through the beautiful, forested campus, I met a lot of nice people, and I attended a lot of fascinating lectures about politics and economics by Pete Bohmer, some of which I understood.  I wrote this song as a surprise for his 75th birthday, but after I wrote it I liked it so much that I had to put it on the album, so I might lose the element of surprise before his actual birthday party.*

A man from more or less the same generation as my professor, but on exactly the opposite end of the spectrum politically, was the late Senator John McCain.  He was celebrated by liberals and conservatives alike, for very mysterious reasons.  To me, he was nothing more or less than a war criminal.  Not just because he flew bombing missions over Vietnam as a young man, but because in his long life as a politician, he supported every war that ever came across his desk, and every military expenditure, at the expense of humanity — including his own.  This is my remembrance of Senator John McCain, who died last August.*

One of the biggest supporters of arming the criminal regime of Saudi Arabia and aiding the Saudi royal family in its apparent goal to completely destroy Yemen and kill all of the country’s inhabitants was Senator John McCain.  His own death came twenty days after the Saudi Air Force bombed a bus parked in a crowded outdoor market in Yemen, killing 44 children, among many others.  They were all from the same school, out on a school trip.

There were a couple songs on the album that were significantly reshaped by my producer for the album, Billy Oskay, and “Today In Yemen” was one of them.  Those of you who want to hear the difference can check out earlier versions of the song that you can find on the very first episode of my podcast, This Week with David Rovics.*

The last song on the album is, like the first one, about the struggle of the working musician in the post-piracy, for-profit streaming age.  It is my musical effort to encapsulate what it is we need to do — not to form an alternate platform or boycott the incredible infrastructure that we all now have at our fingertips in the form of platforms like Spotify, but to organize as a class against the ruling elite of Big Tech, as represented by predatory corporations such as Spotify, and their predatory companion corporations such as Uber and Facebook.  It is the theme song for the campaign I’m trying to get off the ground, which I’m calling the Penny Campaign for Streaming Justice.*

The Winnipeg General Strike

In these troubled times, around the world people seem to be asking each other, how do we fight back against this madness?  In May, 1919 in Winnipeg, the working class answered this question by shutting down the city and running it themselves.

I was born in 1967, and for many people my age, who turned 13 in 1980 or so, I felt like I was growing up in the shadow of a massive, exciting, really earth-changing social movement that I had missed out on — what we have come to refer to as “the Sixties” in shorthand.  But as I grew up and became more and more interested in history, I increasingly came to realize that the most significant period of earth-shattering social movement activity around the world that I missed, at least as far as the twentieth century goes, took place a half century before I was born, one hundred years ago, with this month, the month of May, of 1919, being an especially iconic moment of the period.

In many circles, particularly among labor history buffs, one-word place names are all that are needed to evoke historical battles in the ongoing, thousands-year-long struggle on planet Earth between the haves and the have-nots, also known as the class war or the class struggle.  Refer to cities like San Francisco or Seattle and people think of many things, but in certain circles, say the name of these cities and “General Strike” will be the first thought that comes to mind, the moment in the history of these cities when the class struggle was on, and most clearly defined, and the workers were, briefly, in complete control.  By the same token, in the annals of the global class struggle in the industrial era, if anyone outside of Canada knows anything about Canadian history it can be summed up in a word and a number:  Winnipeg, 1919.

Being born and raised in the US, there is an ingrained tendency to assume that the US and Canada, both being former British colonies in North America with a whole lot else in common, that history and the development of the societies in the two countries happened along similar lines.  This assumption is sometimes not at all accurate, but when it comes to the first two decades of the twentieth century there was a lot of parallel stuff going on.

Westward expansion in both countries with the building of the railroads had seen the rapid development of cities and towns throughout the west of North America.  As usual, it was often those who had the least to lose who were the most itinerant, so a huge number of the people moving out west were immigrants and refugees from across Europe.

With widespread poverty, brutal exploitation of workers, massive unemployment as well as a huge influx of immigrants, conditions were extreme in so many ways, across both the US and Canada.  Extreme conditions tend to invite more robust responses, and this was very evident at the time, in the form, on the one hand, of a visionary, hugely popular, radical labor movement, and on the other, a very violent, often obviously corrupt, openly racist, actively xenophobic, and “pro-business” police state.

This was the sociopolitical context in both the US and Canada for World War 1.  Afraid of the potential consequences, there was much disagreement within the ranks of the militant labor movement of the day over whether to openly oppose this war that would pit the working classes of Canada, the US, Britain, France, Russia and so many other countries against the working class youth of Germany, Austria-Hungary and elsewhere.  Ultimately, both the Industrial Workers of the World in the US and the organization’s Canadian rendition, the One Big Union, denounced the war as a bosses’ war.  They said “a bayonet was a weapon with a working man at either end.”

One half of Canadian draft-age men got medical exemptions to avoid military service.  In many cases this was evidence of the unhealthy state of the Canadian working class of the day, so many of whom were suffering from black-lung or had other chronic health problems related to working in dangerous mines, factories, logging camps, lumber mills, and so on.  But it’s more likely that this statistic was also evidence of the widespread opposition to the war.

In the months after the imperial bloodbath in Europe ended, the class war in Canada came to a head in Winnipeg.  Both national and local authorities were actively promoting nationalism and xenophobia in their dual effort to garner support for Canada’s participation in the war and defeat the organizing efforts of the One Big Union.  Their claims that the union was led entirely by immigrants and that the veterans of the war opposed the union were bald lies, which were countered by huge rallies of immigrants together with Canadian-born Canadians, including large numbers of returning veterans.

When the ruling class in both Canada and the US decided it was time to initiate their deadly, nationally-coordinated efforts to defeat radical unionism and divide the working class along immigrant and non-immigrant lines and to whip up anti-union, nationalist hysteria in the wake of the terrible sacrifices made by so many hapless members of the Canadian working class during the so-called Great War, in the midst of unrelenting, ongoing repression and a continent-wide backdrop of racism, xenophobia and nationalism, backed into a corner, with the only real alternative being to roll over and play dead, the working class, led by the One Big Union, responded.

In Winnipeg, this response meant unionized and non-unionized workers walking off their jobs throughout the city, and staying off their jobs for over five weeks.  By the end, they had no food.  The labor movement of the day was very militant and well-organized, but terribly under-resourced and constantly under siege.  There was nothing close to the kind of strike fund that would have been needed, but the strike happened anyway, because there was no real alternative.  In the end, the forces of capitalism and repression won, killing strikers, starving them out, and forcing them back to work — if they were lucky enough to get their jobs back.

Many of the basic demands of the working class in Winnipeg in 1919 were later won by future labor struggles, and by political reformers elected to parliament from the ranks of strike leaders in the years after the Winnipeg General Strike.  But far more than those substantial victories that came later, it is the total solidarity of basically the entire working class of the city of Winnipeg in the very physical form of the shutdown and takeover of the entire city by the workers, that will long be remembered as the moment when the working class truly stood up.