Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gun Violence, Massacres and “Other Developed Countries”

One evening in the spring of 1993 I took a bus across San Francisco, leaving the troubled, largely impoverished neighborhood of the Western Addition, populated mostly by the descendents of African slaves, in which I lived (representing, I suppose, the artistic hippie beginnings of the gentrification process which has since pushed most of San Francisco's Black population across the bay). My closest friend at the time was someone I met because we were housemates in a big apartment. He was a tall man with a long, thick red mane and beaming eyes named Eric Mark. A brilliant engineer with a promising career as such who quit his job and became a cab driver in the interest of experiencing life more fully. Eric and I, along with one friend and two of his acquaintances, were headed to the Mission District, another troubled, impoverished neighborhood, this one populated mostly by the refugees from the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, generally known as “immigrants.”

Had we been just a clueless bunch of outsiders maybe we would have been fine, but two members of our party were of Mexican origin, and there was a gang war going on. It was the wee hours of the morning on May 1st and several of us were decorating a nearby abandoned building with political slogans appropriate for International Workers Day, while Eric and Alfredo were keeping watch, ostensibly for cops, on the sidewalk three stories below. A group of kids with a gun pulled up in a car and demanded the contents of Eric and Alfredo's pockets, which were promptly delivered. One young man then pointed his gun at Alfredo, who looked suspiciously Latin but was apparently causing offense because he was dressed entirely in black, which was not either one of the gang colors. Eric stepped in front of the gun, asked the kids what more they wanted now that they had taken their money, and the kid pulled the trigger.

A madman with a gun killed Eric. He didn't use an assault rifle, just a shotgun, and it didn't even make the news. The police investigation seemed to last a few hours at most, with no one identified, arrested, tried, or any of that. And although it was a somewhat unusual case in that Eric was white, he was otherwise just another one of many thousands of mostly young men killed that year, and every year since – one of many, many times more innocent people killed this way by guns, and as shocking and life-shattering for his friends and family when he was shot as it has been for those close to the stolen lives of Newtown, Aurora, or Blacksburg. The motivation for the crime? Gang initiation, perhaps. The motivation for the gang? Poverty, racism, drug prohibition – what you could call the madness of our society. A madman with a gun killed Eric, but what was it that drove him mad? Was this a “senseless murder”? “Senseless” meaning we can't make sense of it, it's so crazy it can't be understood?

Now there's been a massacre horrific enough to sustain the attention of the media as well as the general population for more than a few days, and there's a lot of talk about banning assault weapons, what to do about gun violence in the US, and how to improve mental health services for the sociopathic killers in our midst.

Banning assault weapons is a very good idea, no doubt, and I don't want to set up a straw man in order to knock it down, but a simplified version of the argument I'm hearing from a lot of mainstream as well as progressive media is if we had the gun laws of “other developed countries” we'd then have a similar homicide rate to those countries. While I'm sure that a lot fewer people would die on the streets and classrooms of the US if we could effectively ban assault weapons, what seems equally obvious is once such a ban went into effect we would still have a far higher homicide rate than “other developed countries,” because we are not one of those “other developed countries,” we are a banana republic.

I have spent several months of almost every year since the late 90's playing music in those other developed countries, mostly in northwestern Europe, and I can tell you from abundant first-hand observation that it is not just our gun laws that differentiate us from “other developed countries.” I hear the talking heads making noises about expanding mental health services. Sounds like a nice idea, if you're into rearranging deck chairs on sinking ships. The elephant in the living room is we don't live in that kind of country. This isn't a country where people get “services.” This is a country where you work or die, where you are denied essential surgery for not having insurance, where even if your insurance covers mental health care, that means three appointments with a psychiatrist and a prescription for Prozac. Not all deranged American mass murderers are from privileged suburban communities with parents who can easily afford them “mental health services.”

This is America, this is a banana republic, this is a country with two oscillating ruling parties who both agree we should spend half our tax dollars on the military while governing over a country which has entire cities where the average lifespan is significantly lower than in many impoverished African countries. This is a country with four million people living on the street. You gonna give them mental health services? Before or after you find them a place to live and enough food to eat?

But it's a nice fantasy. We need lots of mental health services. And after we ban assault weapons it would be nice if our society didn't systematically breed alienated young men who learn to resent the more privileged and more attractive people they seem to be surrounded by, who ultimately dehumanize the socially more successful girls and women who are usually their targets when they snap and bring assault rifles and bombs to their schools. But once these people have been produced by our pathetic, jock-worshipping suburban school systems and our culture of commercialism and greed which constantly tells these unstable young men that they're not pretty enough, not sociable enough, or rich enough to ever get anywhere in life, then there's a lot more than some mental health services that they will need.

I know what it's like in countries where there is no underclass to speak of, where the social atmosphere in the public schools is much more reminiscent of a Waldorf school than a typical American public school, where people can talk sensibly about “improving mental health services” for an entire society. In the social democracies of Europe where most government housing is indistinguishable from privately-owned buildings, where almost all the jobs pay a decent wage and include at least several weeks of paid vacation every year, where any citizen can get a college education for free, where you can get across town or across the country more cheaply and faster in a train than in a car, people talk about “improving mental health services.” It seems half the people I meet in places like that work in mental health services, it's like my own private joke, one that only visitors from a banana republic can understand. You ask a Scandinavian what they do for a living, and you'll see – a shocking amount of the time their answer will have something to do with caring for people. If they're older than their early twenties, they'll usually be highly trained experts with college degrees specializing in something having to do with education, taking care of the elderly, or helping drug addicts and people with mental problems. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: What do you do for a living?

Scandinavian: I'm a pedagog.

Me: Oh, I see. Do you specialize in children, the elderly, or drug addicts?

At which point the Scandinavian will respond with one of those three options, generally.

But the only reason they can have a society like that in those “other developed countries” is because they have a certain fundamental thing that we lack: democracy. For all the hype to the contrary, we live in the least democratic “developed country” around. You need go no further than the following for the evidence: while polls have shown consistently for decades that most Americans would rather spend their tax dollars on things like education, health care and housing, we instead spend half of our taxes on the military, sending generations of young men all over the world in order to learn how to be sociopathic killers. We spend more on taxes than the average Japanese. Whereas the Japanese get space-age mass transit and universal healthcare, we get Amtrak, prisons and an abundance of fighter jets and nuclear bombs to defend us from an enemy that has never really existed, that has always been nothing more than an excuse for a nakedly imperial, extremely violent foreign policy.

If any political party in Europe even talked about changing the system there so half of the taxes went to the military, they would be voted out of office in the next election. But they have multi-party democracies with political groupings that have radically differing opinions – we don't. It is our lack of democracy, the fact that we are a banana republic ruled by a consortium of energy companies and banks, that prevents us from “improving mental health services.” “Improving mental health services” in America is like putting a new coat of paint on the Supermax penitentiary. It's a sick joke. We are not one of those “other developed countries” – we are a country with a huge portion of the population that lives with levels of violence that have far more in common with Bogota than Berlin, and for the same sorts of reasons. Inequality, poverty, lack of opportunity.

We can take away the assault rifles, and I hope we do, but until we develop a real democracy, stop spending all our money on bombs, and eliminate poverty – all of which can and has been done by many of those “other developed countries” – the innocent children and adults like Eric Mark and so many others will continue to be killed by “madmen” in “senseless acts of violence.” And while Anders Breivik is evidence that even in a democratic, egalitarian society where assault weapons are not available over the counter, a dedicated fascist can still manage to import some guns from the USA and kill lots of innocent people if he really wants to, it is only once we have a democratic, egalitarian society ourselves that we will be able to stop the majority of the violence so rife on the streets of America: the violence caused by American poverty and American racism.


David Rovics is a singer/songwriter who grew up in suburban Connecticut, currently based in Portland, Oregon. Songs and poems he's written relevant to gun violence and modern-day massacres include “Song for Eric,” “All the GhostsThat Walk This Earth,” “I'm Taking Someone With Me When I Go,” “Aurora Massacre,” and “Breivik.” All of these songs can be found at www.davidrovics.com for free download.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Music Matters: An Open Letter to Democracy Now!

To whom it may concern:

I have been a regular listener to (and more recently sometimes viewer of) Democracy Now! for about twelve years now. It's one of the best daily news shows on radio anywhere, and among progressives in the US it's easily the most popular non-corporate show on the airwaves. (No, NPR doesn't count as non-corporate and neither does MSNBC or Comedy Central.) I first met Amy Goodman and many of her show's producers, interns, etc. around twelve years ago, during the attempted coup at the Pacifica Foundation, when DN! was largely relegated to the web for a time. I have since listened to the show regularly, and being a musician, I have paid special attention to the music breaks and to stories related to culture. Over the years the music breaks have changed in dramatic ways, haphazardly going from really good to really bad to just plain bizarre. Over the years I have talked with many other people who have had similar reactions to DN!'s music breaks, and to many other people who share my consternation at DN!'s persistent inability to use music effectively, at least for the past ten years or so.

It probably should be someone else writing this letter. I'm a musician, and certainly I'm a musician who would like to be played more often on Democracy Now!, so I'm a completely non-objective party here. Worse, I'm a musician who was once played often on DN!, so I'm kind of like a jilted ex. But the annoying thing is that this is also what puts me in a unique position to write about this, since I'm just about the only indy musician who can actually tell you first-hand and unequivocally that Democracy Now! not only has a lot of listeners, but there are lots of people out there paying close attention to the music breaks. Occasionally they are profoundly moved by them, but most of the time they are just a bit perplexed.

I'm sure there aren't enough people out there who care about what happens during the music breaks of any radio news show anywhere in the world to have a critical mass around doing anything about any of them. It's just not high on anybody's priority list. I realize I have an obsession. At the same time, it does matter, it does affect hearts and minds in a big way (if used well), and it is worth talking about. The problem is, it may only be musicians who are likely to understand this or think about it. It's the same thing with doing a gig through a shit sound system – it's only the person on the stage (like, say, me) and a few people in the audience who will know what the musician is whining about when he's complaining about the sound. Everyone else in the room will say, “it sounds fine,” even as they leave the room because they think the music is boring and perhaps the musician is a whiny prima donna – not realizing that the problem is actually that they can't hear the guitar.

In any case, for those who are interested, I will briefly make my case, one point at a time.

Democracy Now! matters. DN! is not just a great independent news show, it is a very influential one listened to by many, many people. It deserves and needs the support of those who recognize it's value to society, and it's also too important a show not to be constructively criticized on occasion. Given its stature I'm sure mine is not the only voice of criticism out there. I was recently talking with a couple of attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights who mentioned that most of the time when they ask someone how they first heard of CCR, the inevitable response is “I heard about it on Democracy Now!” When I ask people who have come to one of my shows in the US how they first heard my music, the response is often the same.

Music matters. On news shows small and large around the world, everywhere I've ever been except for the USA, they play entire songs as part of every “news hour” type show. Usually they're promoting local (or national) artists. It is already very revealing that DN! is, consciously or not, emulating NPR, rather than, say, Canadian, Australian, Swedish, British, Irish or other broadcasters. American corporations, like their counterparts around the world, have long realized the power of music, and they use it every minute of the day to sell their products. The US government and governments around the world have long recognized and used the power of music to recruit soldiers for their militaries and to maintain morale within them. All social movements of any significance around the world have used music in a central way, and indeed if you ask someone at a protest, for example, how they first got involved with activism, the name of a band will be as common a response as any, and if they're under fifty years old you're likely to hear names like Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine or the Clash as seminal influences. Since Reagan deregulated the airwaves it's been almost impossible to find independent music of any kind on commercial radio, but there have been some bands such as these that have managed to sell millions of records and get lots of commercial airplay. For most, though, this is a pipe dream, and our outlets have shrunk to such a degree in the US that it is indeed the case for me that when I ask people how they first heard my music the response is often a music break on Democracy Now!. And if you asked these same people if they have ever heard of any number of other artists doing similar work to mine, you can be sure that in most cases they haven't, and I am frequently (and very wrongly) identified by well-meaning people as “the only one” doing this sort of thing. But as many people in positions of power know, words when sung go directly to the emotional center of the brain. Music communicates in a way that nothing else does. It can be used to great effect in so many ways, or it can be ignored, the great potential impact lost.

DN!'s music breaks matter. More than 250 days per year DN! is on the airwaves, on a thousand radio stations and on the net, reaching the hearts and minds of millions of people. Or at least the minds. The hearts? Less so. As many radio broadcasters know, and as someone like Amy Goodman should know but clearly does not, how you begin or end an interview, how you frame it with music during the breaks that most radio shows have in between segments, can massively amplify the message, eloquently driving a point home, or it can dilute the message or cause the listener to think maybe it was all just a joke in the first place. When someone hears a powerful interview with someone just back from Afghanistan, by the end of the interview they are primed for an emotional component, they are expecting it, the music break that's inevitably coming. If they then hear a song that brings the war to them in a way that basically describes what the last story was about in a musical form, addressing the current military occupation of Afghanistan or something else current, this can be a powerful, sometimes life-changing experience. (I have met people who have been deeply affected by this kind of experience many times.) If, on the other hand, you follow an interview like that up with a song by James Brown or Johnny Cash or Donovan that isn't related to the subject at hand, and that, unlike the person just interviewed, everyone has heard thousands of times, what message does this communicate? That the story is just as unimportant as the song? Or that while it's important to give voice to people who are not heard on the corporate airwaves, the only relevant music to play are by artists who have sold millions of records?

DN!'s criteria for picking music breaks matters. I have heard many times from people who know Amy Goodman far better than I that she isn't interested in music or art. I have no idea whether this is true from first-hand experience, but listening to the show, this seems to be the case. On the rare occasions when she's interviewing artists, she generally has no idea what to ask them about, and usually does a bad job of it, in stark contrast to her well-honed interviewing skills when it comes to politicians or intellectuals. And DN!'s policy with regard to music breaks, as I understand it, is simple: how to fill those two or three segments of each show with music is left up to one young producer and his or her musical preferences. There is clearly no guideline that the music be related to the story, or if there is one, no one is paying attention, because it's not happening. There is also clearly no guideline with regard to promoting non-corporate music. By my account, keeping track carefully for a sample month, more than half of the music breaks consist of artists who have sold more than a million records. (That last sentence bears repeating a few times for impact, so just pretend I did that.) DN! used to be different, not because it was structured differently – music for the breaks has long been chosen by a producer – but because for a couple years over a decade ago, the show had producers who were at least making an effort to be finding and playing music that was directly, currently relevant to the various topics at hand. It was during the time that one of these producers was Senior Producer when the show instituted the policy of naming the music played during the breaks. But those producers are long gone, they've moved on themselves to becoming college professors or best-selling authors, and in more recent years when the music in question is an electronic instrumental that's been played for the nth time on the show for no apparent reason, or some million-selling artist strongly associated with the 1960's, I get the feeling the person choosing the music is trying to mock Amy, and Amy is sadly unaware of this self-mockery. People could be forgiven for thinking Amy has an obsession with 1960's hippie music or 1970's motown or reggae. She doesn't, I can say with some confidence. In fact, she doesn't even smoke pot.

Whether DN!'s music breaks are related to a story or not matters. Also, whether DN!'s music breaks are breaking the sound barrier created by corporate culture and playing censored artists matters. The fact is, the best music DN! could be using to drive their stories home on the much-neglected emotional front is being created today by indy artists who are locked out of any corporate (or “public”) airplay in the USA at least. I can list names you've probably never heard of but I won't bother (some of them are on my website's links page if you're interested). But aside from the music being generally of a higher caliber as well as being fresh and new stuff for listeners to experience, there is another reason to play independent artists: because no one else is doing it. Because we are unofficially censored by the US media. Because by accident of birth we (or many of us) are living in the one country in the world that produces most of the crap the western world listens to, but which has no means to promote independent artists, at least in the sense that other countries do, not since 1980 or so anyway. And what does DN! do in the face of this? Play million-selling artists that everybody has already heard too many times on commercial radio. Why? Because a young man who works for the show grew up listening to certain artists who sold millions of records, he likes them, and so that's what we all get to hear every day on Pacifica's flagship show. Aside from playing better, more relevant music, DN! could be going such a long way to enrich society, enrich social movements, bring unknown artists to a large audience, help those with a small audience get a bigger one. It could be the difference between dozens or even hundreds of artists making a good living and enriching the lives of so many people. But it isn't. I have many friends who are some of the best songwriters the world has ever seen, in my humble opinion. It just so happens that several of them currently have cancer, so the question of whether they will, in their lifetimes, ever be played on Democracy Now! and have the opportunity to move an audience like that with a poignant song about one of the subjects that DN! covers would seem to be clear – probably not.

Whether DN's primary intent is just to report the news or to influence public opinion in a more progressive direction or both, it doesn't matter – playing contemporary independent artists is the best and most effective thing to do regardless. When I've griped to some folks about DN!'s music break choices, they've said perhaps the idea behind emphasizing the very famous artists is so they can come off as more of an objective news show and less of an advocate for leftwing causes. Play the familiar hits of the past, stuff considered “normal,” so people will think of DN! as “normal” too. But for anyone who's seriously into independent music this is a laughable position, because the best of the indy songwriters out there hard at work today writing songs about current events from the US to Iraq to Pakistan are not trying to come off as wild-eyed leftist advocates for a cause any more than DN! is. Those who take their roles seriously are, just like DN!, trying to write in a way that is accessible to the average English-speaker, trying to move people emotionally in the same way that DN! is trying to educate people – by telling a good story from planet Earth, about what's happening now, about things the corporate media doesn't want to talk about.

What's clear about DN!'s policy with regard to music breaks is basically that there is no policy, only a huge lost opportunity and a lot of embarrassing moments (or moments that should be embarrassing to Amy, but instead us listeners just feel the embarrassment on her behalf, and the lost opportunity to boot). I hope it's still possible for the show to start paying attention to what goes in those breaks, and the many music-lovers who, despite their love of music, listen to Democracy Now! on a regular basis, can go from feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable to feeling empowered and represented. Just to be clear, I like Johnny Cash and James Brown, too. But I'll be very happy if I don't hear either of them ever again on Democracy Now!. There are simply too many artists writing much more relevant and effective music for those precious music breaks to fill even one more of them with an artist who you can hear every day when you walk into the pharmacy looking for toothpaste. Some of those artists in question have been lucky enough to sell a million records, but only some – the vast majority of the best ones have not, and if you don't have a policy that involves promoting good, relevant music, then the default policy is what will be in effect, and that will be the policy created by corporate culture, and therefore the answer to the question will once again be Johnny Cash and James Brown.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The New Normal: Police State

I'm pretty sure I have just experienced the most disproportionate reaction to a protest in a supposedly democratic society ever, at least since labor organizer Mother Jones faced off all by herself with one hundred members of the National Guard around a century ago. As someone who has personally been fairly actively attending protests since the early 1980's, and as a student of the history of social movements that happened before my time as well, it seems difficult to put what just happened in Florida into some kind of relevant context, but I'll just share my own story of the past week in north Florida and attempt to make sense of it, for whatever that's worth.

I suppose a place to begin might be with my last trip to Florida, in October of last year. It was soon after the birth of what became known as the Occupy movement. After participating in the protest on Wall Street on September 17th, I had gigs further south, and by early October I was in Florida. Going to Disneyworld inevitably includes experiencing certain things along with the roller coasters, such as bad food, bad parenting, and long lines. While waiting with my family in the long lines I engaged in my own, slightly more subtle form of bad parenting, spending much of my time staring at my phone, reading the endless stream of articles in the news related to Occupy protests and encampments that were starting up all over the US, Canada and elsewhere. As the day progressed and the long lines continued, I moved from reading about the news to writing about it, in the form of a song, which I finished by the pool at our hotel the following day.

I debuted the song at Occupy Tampa soon thereafter, where several dozen people of all ages, from all walks of life, had just set up a tent city, as people had done in hundreds of other cities throughout the continent and beyond, at the same time. The first police raid against this apparently very threatening group of peaceful urban campers happened the next day, and was repeated ad nauseum at almost every Occupy site in the US over the next few weeks, involving innumerable cases of unprovoked police brutality and a national total of 7,000 arrests by the end of the fall.

While I was in Florida last fall, many local activists in Tampa, St. Pete, and elsewhere were beginning to make preparations for various protests and other activities to welcome the upcoming Republican National Convention to Florida, which was still a long way off, but you gotta start early with making such plans, and folks were excited that something of national significance was going to be happening in their neck of the swamp, with lots of advance notice. I was asked by many people if I was planning to come, and of course, having no plans yet for August 2012, I said yes, as long as I can line up a couple of paying gigs to cover my travel expenses. The gigs came together, and I made plans for August in Florida.

Of course Florida, like North Carolina, is a “swing state,” which might be the main explanation for why the Republicans decided to have their convention there. It did occur to me, though, that given the extreme paranoia of the various US authorities about protests of any kind, especially ones that might not involve a permit and might potentially feature civil disobedience or maybe even a couple of misguided kids throwing a rock at a window (oh horror of horrors, not that!), Florida in August was the next best thing to holding the convention in a bona fide dictatorship somewhere – but given that this was a convention for a US political party, Florida was the best they could do.

For people in what we might call the activist community, Florida, at any time of year, is not the most welcoming location. Although it is a state full of transplants from New York and Massachusetts, it is otherwise in what we call the “deep south,” which is more known for gun-toting Republicans in oversize pickup trucks than for leftwing organizations. And sure enough, most of the folks coming in to protest were from places like New York, Illinois and California much more than from neighboring states such as Georgia or Alabama. Also, unless you're from Louisiana or Missisippi or somewhere subtropical like that, the heat and humidity of Florida in August is something most sensible people would tend to avoid. Add to that the fact that, as anyone who remembers Hurricane Katrina would know, August is hurricane season in that part of the world, and what you get is a good formula for very small protests.

There are many other reasons anyone paying attention would have known not to expect much of a protest crowd in Tampa over the past week. The Republicans, while even more terrifying than the Democrats, are in opposition right now – not the ruling party and thus somewhat less of a target for public ire than, say, four years ago. Also, since the Occupy movement fizzled out in most cities for the most part by the end of last autumn, there hasn't been anything anyone could reasonably describe as a militant mass movement happening in the US. And unless you believe every anonymous statement of anarchist bravado written by suburban teenagers on Infoshop.org, you would have known beyond any doubt that there was not going to be any mass migration of insurrectionary elements to Florida any time soon.

But the authorities were taking no chances. And although there have been dozens of massacres carried out by wingnuts with automatic weapons just over the past couple years, no attempt was made to limit the carrying of concealed firearms near the convention center – to have a few machine guns and a few thousand rounds of ammunition in your trunk while driving around downtown Tampa would have been perfectly legal. The concern on the part of the authorities was clearly not about terrorism of one kind or another. The concern was all about people who might dare to march without a permit, what kinds of dangerous items someone might hide inside a puppet, or whether there might possibly be a handful of black-clad youth who might dare to smash a window or – gasp – set a dumpster on fire or – scariest of all – make and perhaps even use a molotov cocktail. None of which would seem to even approach the chaos that could ensue if someone decided to fire into a crowd with an AK – however, the laws passed in Tampa related to puppets, placards and face masks, not rapid-fire, high-calibre weaponry. That's protected under the Second Amendment (the First Amendment apparently just being an annoying afterthought not worth anyone's concern).

After a festive pre-RNC party at the venerable Civic Media Center in Gainesville last Friday night, I headed into Tampa on Saturday. As with other major meetings of the elites in recent years where some kind of protest was anticipated, the corporate media stenography machine had been going full-tilt for weeks, fueled of course by the propagandists in government who they obediently echo, telling all who would hear them that violent anarchists from the west coast were coming to destroy the city. The propaganda is clearly meant to scare all but the hardest hardcore of activist types from showing up, as well as to psychologically condition the local population to fear the streets, to fear the protesters, and to sympathize with the police, who are there to protect the law-abiding citizens of Tampa from the crazed, bomb-toting revolutionaries from Oakland and Seattle and corrupt places like that where most people don't go to church enough anyway.

Upon arriving in Tampa on Saturday, I headed downtown to see what was happening. The RNC was not scheduled to kick off until two days later, but the lockdown of the city was well underway. Every government building, whether or not it had anything to do with the RNC, was surrounded by ten-foot-tall, black steel fences. Entire areas of downtown were blocked off to all traffic except for Republican delegates and others directly involved with the convention. Thousands and thousands of police on foot, on bicycles, and in cars, vans, buses, open-air Jeep-type vehicles, and in helicopters were everywhere. To overstate the police presence would be very difficult. If you were anywhere near downtown Tampa, which is a very large, spread-out, car-oriented city, you were always within view of at least a few cops – always. And usually you were within view of several dozen cops wherever you went. And if you were participating in a march or something like that, you were, without exception, going to be “escorted” by hundreds of cops – dozens within view, and hundreds in bullet-proof riot gear hiding around every corner, waiting for the orders to pounce. (And in case you think I'm being metaphorical here, I'm not – I literally mean hundreds of cops hiding around the corner, trying – and failing – not to be too obvious about it, by virtue of the fact that the larger number of cops were generally carefully staying on the other side of the block from the march itself.) Almost at all times during the entire week, wherever I was in Tampa, there was at least one helicopter directly overhead or within view, and very much within earshot – the damn things are very loud, and almost every outdoor event involving a sound system was badly affected by this constant noise.

In the wake of 9/11 and the almost weekly massacres that have been happening in the US more recently, one might think these helicopters would be hovering over the convention center or other places where Republican delegates were having meetings and cocktail parties and such, looking out for Al-Qaeda or something. But no, the helicopters were invariably hovering over us, the peaceful protesters, waiting to see if we left the park and decided to take a collective stroll around town, so they could tell their Ninja Turtles to “escort” us, and, if we were marching without a permit, to surround us, box us in, and generally prevent us from getting very far. (Note that nowhere in the First Amendment does it stipulate that a group must have a permit in order to peaceably assemble, and in most democratic countries this is not necessary.)

As I walked around the deserted ghost town that was the center of Tampa for the past week I had many conversations with police officers. With most of the groups of police there was always a majority of red-faced white men who had an unmistakably aggressive expression on their faces, as if they were just itching to break some bones. When you look someone like that in the eye with a friendly expression, inviting them to relax just a bit, and they don't change their expression in the least, you know what's going on – it's blatant intimidation is what it is. But in every group of cops that I talked to there was always a minority (which usually included a greater percentage of nonwhite cops, but also white ones) who were friendlier-looking and ready to engage in conversation, often initiating it themselves when they saw by my facial expression that I was open to it – unlike a lot of the protesting youth who were as aggressively unfriendly to the cops as some of the cops were to them, which seems to me to be entirely counterproductive. (Remember Tunisia, where the cops switched sides? It can happen here, too. But this would seem like a more distant prospect if too many people are treating them like they're subhuman.)

What I learned from talking to the cops who were willing to engage with me was they had all watched the same video, presumably shown to them by their superiors, of a molotov cocktail being thrown by a black-clad youth in Oakland last May 1st. What was also clear was that the police had been told that not all of the protesters planned on doing stuff like that, but that those who were intent on doing such things would always be lurking amongst the ranks of unsuspecting, nonviolent-type protesters, so they needed to be ever vigilant, watching out for anyone who might do something unspeakable like cover their face with a bandana and break a window or worse – throw a bottle at an armored vehicle perhaps! What they clearly hadn't been told was that the one case of a molotov being thrown at a riot cop in Oakland happened only after months of terrible, unprovoked police attacks on the Occupy movement that had resulted in some very serious injuries, repeatedly.

But what if there had been a contingent of young people intent on trashing corporate property, as happened a couple years ago at the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh, where the police presence was similarly overwhelming? How many cops were required to deal with the 80 or so kids who marched down the street beside the University of Pittsburgh, set a dumpster alight, and smashed three or four store windows? How much was the value of those windows altogether – maybe a thousand dollars? Maybe two thousand dollars? As I recall from my time there in Pittsburgh, the response of the police at the time was to collectively punish – and I mean physically punish – anyone who happened to be on or near the college campus that night, whether they were black-clad kids with masks on, or sorority girls fruitlessly trying to defend themselves by chanting cheerleader slogans that the cops might recognize from local football games (the cops beat them anyway, as they chanted their Pitt slogans). And it didn't require more than a couple hundred cops to savagely put a lid on that riotous mini-mob. (Among those who were hit with a police baton that night was yours truly – and I was just as innocent of any window-smashing or dumpster-burning as those sorority girls, though at least I was actually wearing black clothing...)

As counterproductive as window-smashing generally is (although quite cathartic, therapeutic, etc., no doubt), nobody in Pittsburgh got hurt by that incident, nor has anyone been hurt (except by cops) at any protest that I know of in the US for decades. The cost of those windows would be a tiny fraction of the cost of just one of those fences that surrounded so much of downtown Tampa. But nevertheless, preemptive collective punishment of any potential protester was the order of the day, and is the new norm throughout the USA.

I attended most of the planned and unplanned protests in Tampa over the past week, I think, including the biggest protest events, and by my count none of the protests involved more than 300 people. I probably have a tendency to under-count, and many other estimates of the crowds generously involved numbers like “500 to 1,000,” but I think in all cases, 500 was probably an exaggeration. The fear-mongering, the massive police presence, the season, the location, and the impending hurricane had done what I had expected it to do, and kept most people away.

Romneyville was an encampment taking up one square block of private land maybe a bit less than a mile from the center of the Republican storm in the center of town. It was run largely by a combination of folks from Cheri Honkala's Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, plus two buses full of folks from Occupy Wall Street in New York City, who were thriftily and wisely spending the money many people had donated to the campaign to rent two buses and take everybody to Florida and North Carolina to protest the two corporate parties that rule our land on behalf of the 1%. Romneyville had a squad of cops watching over it at all times, and more often than not, a helicopter hovering directly overhead.

Nearby Romneyville, on the way to downtown, was a fabulous Arabic restaurant. Me and my friend Jun, a fellow musician from St. Pete, went in there for dinner one evening, and while we ate we did some people-watching, which mostly meant cop-watching. Two small marches passed by, each accompanied by many times as many police. We were talking with the owner, who told us that a few weeks before some men in dark suits had visited and explained to her that because of the RNC she could assume she'd have approximately three times as much foot traffic in front of her establishment than normal. Predictably, what really happened was a serious loss of business and revenue due to the police state, not just for her but for most downtown establishments aside from the 5-star hotels.

The Food Not Bombs World Gathering was happening in the days leading up to the RNC in Tampa, which involved a fair number of dedicated Food Not Bombers from around the country, plus at least one from Russia. Keith McHenry, a co-founder of Food Not Bombs who had, along with several others, spent time in prison recently for daring to feed the hungry in the very image-conscious, poverty-stricken (Disney-stricken) city of Orlando, was there too, participating in workshops and marches and feeding lots of people. One of the last events of the FNB gathering before the RNC kicked off was a concert that took place at a spacious bar in the Ybor City neighborhood, an area that's fairly deserted during the day but at night is packed, teeming with bar-crawlers of all description – well-off people dining in fancy restaurants, toothless street dwellers trying to panhandle enough money for a meal, gobs of college students, strippers, and others. It was striking that aside from the six or seven cops standing directly across the street from our bar all night, the rest of Ybor City had a relatively low police presence – although I think I can confidently say that far more drunken idiocy, violence and property destruction probably takes place in Ybor City on any given Saturday night than occurred throughout the week of the RNC, as far as us protesters were concerned. (As far as I know, nobody was hurt and no property destroyed by protesters at all during the whole week, and there were a total of three arrests.)

In past decades, the authorities in the US have tended to differentiate between different kinds of protests – like if it was the “direct action” crowd they might have a heavy police presence, but if it's a mainstream labor event they'd tend not to. As far as I know it's been many decades since there was anything approaching a riot that involved a union rally, and it used to be that the authorities generally recognized this reality, but at the small march held by the Service Employees International Union in Ybor City the police were taking no chances, and were there in their hundreds, covered in body armor, wearing night sticks, pistols and handcuffs as usual.

The SEIU also marched in St. Petersburgh, a small city not far south of Tampa, where the Republicans had an event at a stadium there. St. Pete was an even more eerie scene than Tampa, with most businesses having closed in preparation not for the hurricane, which was still days away and mostly bypassed the area, but for fear of violent protesters. The streets were almost completely deserted except for lots of cops, a few protesters trying to find their way to the rally, having to navigate a ridiculous maze of steel fences that the police had set up, which made both walking or driving through St. Pete very difficult. Every other street was shut down and cordoned off with fencing. For what? Who knows. No pedestrians or cars were permitted to go down these streets. Perhaps they were available for emergency vehicles to use if needed...? Who knows. Eventually the three buses full of union members wound their way to Mirror Lake, where the rally was taking place, and then the 300 or so people who came marched around town a bit, nowhere near where the Republicans were meeting, nowhere near anything or anybody, since the city was bereft of local people or even businesses that were open. Walking down the street after the march, looking at one closed business after another in this normally bustling, normally pedestrian-friendly tourist town on the water, I walked for blocks before I finally found a restaurant that was open. (It was a very good Greek restaurant complete with a real Greek bazouki player playing real Greek music, being thoroughly ignored by all those dining in the restaurant except for me.)

Code Pink did what they do best, repeatedly, every day, to great effect. There were very few of them, mostly folks I knew from lots of other protests in the past. Once again, Medea Benjamin, Ann Wright, Rae Abilae and others managed to infiltrate and disrupt the convention on both days. As usual, as the police are keeping their eyes pealed for masked anarchist youth, the real disruptive types were petite, pink-clad women. Outside the cocktail parties of the Republican elite they flirted with the rich and powerful with bags full of (mostly fake) money in their hands, representing the latest incarnation of Andrew Boyd's Billionaires for Bush – Millionaires for Mitt. No massive number of police could prevent these women (and some men) from disrupting various events, and with the massive media presence at all of these events it seemed the police decided that attempting to arrest small, pink-clad women for standing on a public sidewalk and verbally harassing rich people was a bad tactic, so they let it go on uninterrupted from what I saw.

While it was more or less impossible to have a protest anywhere in Tampa that could be heard or seen by anybody actually at the convention itself, because the authorities were making sure we were always kept out of sight and out of mind, at least one group – Planned Parenthood – was apparently so freaked out by the police state that they canceled their plans to march, and decided to hold their small (maybe 300 people again) rally in the middle of a park on the other side of the bay from downtown – far away from the action, in what the organizers must have figured would be a safe space. There were a couple dozen cops visible at that event, and I heard one of them say that “the anarchists are trying to blend in with the crowd, but they're here.” Given the violence certain rightwing, Christian thugs have rained upon pro-choice advocates such as Dr. Tiller, Dr. Gunn, Dr. Slepian, and so many others, perhaps in this one case the police presence served a useful purpose.

For all the overwhelming police presence and the kettling of nonpermitted marches, it should be said that the police apparently were under orders to avoid mass-arresting nonviolent protesters as has happened on so many occasions at other protests in recent years, such as the RNC in New York City in 2004 and Minneapolis in 2008. But the scariest thing for me that I experienced in Tampa was that when I engaged local citizens in conversation, most of them seemed to think that when a few hundred people are going to protest in a major city, it is normal and perhaps even necessary for there to be thousands of cops and steel barricades all over the place. As one veteran journalist at WMNF who has lived in Tampa for 33 years pointed out, these were the biggest protests in Tampa he had ever seen. (Maybe he was on vacation in April, 2006, when there were much larger protests in Tampa around the issue of immigrant rights, but I don't want to split hairs...) Presumably they were the biggest protests that most other local people had ever seen, and so how would they know that this is a completely, outrageously over-the-top police state response to a protest? It's here, it's now, not in some dystopic future – the police state is here, the new normal. It's morning in America all over again.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Aurora Massacre -- a poem

In the wake of the Aurora Massacre, pundits of all stripes are saying the same things they always say after all the massacres. In this sort of situation, poems are better, even if they may be just as inadequate as any other form of communication. There is also an audio version.

Aurora Massacre

The survivors will hug and tell their stories
With flashing lights the living and the dead
Will be taken to the morgues and to the hospitals
We'll hear about the last words that they said
At least if it was a notable occasion
Like if it happened just down the road from Columbine
If the victims numbered in the dozens
The murder plan especially malign

The governor will talk about the senselessness
The madness that must explain the crime
Some will ask about the guns, six thousand rounds of ammunition
He bought legally all at the same time
If the murders were especially dramatic
This man will have his week of fame
But by around this time next year
Just a few will remember his name

Fewer still will remember his victims
In this great nation that seems to have no peer
And who can blame us for our amnesia
With fourteen thousand killed by guns last year
But for now they'll talk about his methods
They'll ask how he came to be this way
They'll hire more policemen in the theaters
It's another massacre in the USA

They'll ask about his schooling
Who could have seen these warning signs
Some will ask why he had access
To buying an assault combine
Former victims will speak out on the TV
They'll have a platform for just a little while
Until something else takes over
Like a storm or a fire or the latest summer style

They'll talk about violent films and video games
The social disconnection of the youth
They'll talk about the cubicles and headsets
With each one separated in a little booth
They'll talk about bullying in schools
They'll talk about all sorts of social ills
They'll ask if he smoked marijuana
And if he was on any kinds of pills

The corpses will be removed from the theater
They'll replace the seats and wash away blood stains
The NRA will lay low for a week or two
While pouring money into electoral campaigns
The President will praise the First Responders
And ask God for these madmen to be cured
The Assault Weapons Ban will be voted down in Congress
And the next massacre will be assured

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Weekend in Texas

I took a taxi to the Portland airport and flew to Houston, via Seattle. My ride to the show was one of the organizers and a friend of hers, and they were stuck in traffic. I sat outside the terminal with my stuff in the shade on a bench, watching the SUV's and pickup trucks come and get everybody, many of them getting yelled at by an overzealous traffic guy. The man sitting beside me asks to borrow my phone. He calls his sister, who is waiting for him at the airport but they can't find each other. I wonder if maybe she's at the other Houston airport, so I make sure he explains to her we're at George HW Bush Intercontinental. Then she figures out what's wrong – he came to the wrong city. She's in Dallas, a four-hour drive to the north. He's never been to the US. He's from an island in the Caribbean I had never heard of with a population of 20,000. It hadn't occurred to him that Texas might have more than one international airport.

My ride arrives and we head into the city. Both of the women had been in prison for nonviolent drug-related crimes of one sort or another and had come out more leftwing than when they went in. We got to the Houston Cultural Center and there was a spiffy red and yellow flag with a hammer and sickle on it. The Houston Communist Party, proudly displaying their flag. There were a couple dozen people of all ages, mostly a bit older. Much of the crowd is made up of my most reliable fans, who are on my email list, folks I used to see more often when I more or less lived in Houston, at KPFT events or Green Party meetings.

The next day, Friday, I visited KOOP in Austin and spent an hour with veteran underground newspaper editor turned modern-day blogger Thorne Dreyer, then it was off to San Marcos for a concert in the outdoor pavilion of a suburban house belonging to a leftwing police sergeant. He voted for GW the first time but after that came to his senses and became a leftist. He tries to get his cops to watch Michael Moore films but most of them politely decline. Two of his cops came to the show. They were nice enough, but I'm not sure how much they liked it. Sergeant Dave Waugh apparently has a poster on the wall of his office at the police station from my Halliburton Boardroom Massacre tour. Definitely the kind of cop I like!

The next morning I discovered that there is no good coffee at the Austin airport, none. But I'm sure I slept better on the plane to Dallas that way, anyhow. In Dallas I got some coffee, rented a car and pointed the GPS towards the Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, where my friend Marie Mason is serving a 22-1/2 year prison sentence. The prison is next to a military base, but my GPS said it was on the base, so I went to the base's entrance. The teenager in camouflage on guard politely directed me to the main entrance of the military base when I explained I was trying to visit the prison. Miles away at the main entrance a woman gave me a piece of paper with directions to the entrance to the prison. Apparently this happens often. The directions are old, and some of the landmarks in them don't exist anymore, such as a CVS pharmacy that has closed since someone printed them out. After getting thoroughly lost, I finally find the entrance to the prison, save the coordinates, and the guard tells me I'm ten minutes too late for visiting hours, they're over for the day. It's Saturday, and visiting days are Saturday and Sunday. He tells me which hours I can come back the next morning.

That evening I'm playing at a beautiful chapel sort of place, one of those big, spacious modern churches that the big cities of Texas are full of – gotta spend that oil money on something I guess. The place was designed for sound, but the stage was oddly set in the wrong part of the room, so the echo was horrendous. Whoever designed the building would have been really annoyed with whoever decided to put a stage in that part of the room, but it was a fun show, with a fairly small but very enthusiastic crowd. Dallas has a large population of folks from all over what we call the Middle East. There in a suburb (the whole city is a suburb) called Richardson the directors of the Holy Land Foundation were found guilty of giving charity to hungry Palestinians in some fashion that the government decided was terroristic, and now they're serving unbelievably long prison sentences of up to 65 years, in Communication Management Units similar to the one Marie is being held in. (Listen to my song about the the Holy Land 5 if you want.) I recognize faces in the crowd from the Palestine Film Festival in Dallas where I've played before. Others, such as one of the organizers of the show, Leslie Harris, I recognize from Camp Casey and many protest-related encounters since then. Camp Casey is what changed her life, and she went from organizing tailgate parties at football games to organizing tailgate parties at protests. Even as her life was was changed by living in the ditch with Cindy Sheehan beside Bush's ranch in Crawford, some of the cops assigned to dealing with Camp Casey were also changed by the experience, became different people, different cops. What seemed like the remnants of Occupy Dallas were also there. I never got to Dallas during the Occupy Autumn, but the Occupy crowd was clearly represented, waving their hands in the air instead of clapping when someone said something they liked, with the sort of enthusiasm of people who just discovered this tradition of unobtrusive appreciation. I personally associate it with the anticapitalist movement around 1999-2001, but I'm sure it predates that scene as well.

In the morning I left Leslie's house early to get to the prison on time, but there was massive construction going on at one of the interchanges and I missed the exit and had to drive an extra twenty miles or so, and by the time I got to the gate the first window of opportunity was over, which was from like 8 to 9 am, and the next one was at around 11. I went and got more caffeinated at a nearby Starbucks full of camouflaged soldiers on breaks, who all looked tired and worn down. When I got back to the gate there was a line of cars waiting along the road for the gate to open. Should've got there sooner, I realized. But the line moved, slowly. I got to the gate house and the harried-looking man there told me I couldn't go in because the expiration date on my driver's license is faded (which it is). I should have brought my passport for extra ID but I didn't. I sat there for a couple minutes or so thinking about the possibility that I had come all the way to Texas to visit Marie in prison and would be turned away for having some faded text on my stupid Oregon driver's license. He called someone and came back and told me I could go in, that they'd decide whether my ID was OK further on in the visitation process.

I drove down the barren streets in the neighborhood past the gate. It was a very basic kind of prefabricated neighborhood clearly intended to house workers, very much like the places where the soldiers lived in the massive adjoining military base. There are signs all over the place announcing that any visitors can be searched anytime, but there was no one around who looked like they had any time to search a car, the streets were empty. The guard at the gate had told me to take a right, head towards the big flag, then park in the lot beyond it. The big flag was indeed big, and impossible to miss. It flew proudly directly in front of the building where visitors enter the prison. The friendly, obese man behind the desk smiled and said, “we've been waiting for you!” I wasn't sure if that was about the faded expiration date on my license or because I was visiting one of the few women held in this ultra-maximum-security prison within a prison that are the CMU's, nicknamed Little Guantanamos, since most of the prisoners in them are of Muslim extraction.

Visiting Marie there at Carswell is a special procedure, not like visiting most of the thousands of prisoners at this huge complex surrounded by multiple, very tall, very barbed-wire fences, overseen by a tower, presumably staffed with snipers. A guard escorts a group of us visitors to a big room where most of the visitation is taking place. I'm instructed to wait until another guard comes to get me. I don't want to be nosy, so I sit close to the wall, several meters away from the nearest group of visitors and prisoners hanging out together. I can't hear much of what people are saying, but from the body language of everybody in the room it's completely clear – the sadness, the guilt, the mourning, the attempts at putting on a brave face, the stiff upper lips, it's all there on everybody's faces as clear as tattoos.

A guard comes to get me. He's a clean, polite, short man with a close-cropped goti and an Italian name. His demeanor seems highly professional, he strikes me more like Secret Service or FBI rather than what I imagine prison guards to be like. I don't know many prison guards, but you hear about the sadistic rapists, like the 7 or 8 from this very prison who are themselves in another prison now for raping inmates – not like this clean, polite professional. He takes me through a variety of the biggest metal doors I have ever seen, doors that make the bomb-proof buildings I've seen in Ireland look like tin foil. They always came in sets of twos, and the guard always needed someone else to let us in. They all have these massive keys, the size of the old ones, but higher-tech-looking. The doors, of course, all open and close by themselves, slowly, deliberately, so you can feel just how massive they are. Each one must weigh a ton.

Finally I'm led into a room, completely barren except for an odd poster of the Statue of Liberty or something, and two card tables with a few plastic chairs around them. The tables are next to each other. The guard takes one of the tables and moves it to the other end of the room. The room is around four square meters, not very big, but he takes his table as far from the other one as he can. A door opens after a few minutes, and there is Marie in her blue prison jumpsuit. I then realized that the guard was trying to give us as much space as he could under the circumstances during our visit. Marie and I hugged briefly – she had already told me over the phone or in a letter how full-blown hugging is forbidden, but a brief greeting hug seems to be acceptable.

I hadn't seen Marie in person for years, since she was under house arrest in Michigan. She looks a lot like she used to except for the gray hair and the pallor of a person who lives in a cage with very little access to direct sunlight. In her face is the clear look of an animal who is attempting to live a life inside a cage. Not surprising to see that look, since that's the situation she's in. We talk about her conditions and things she could use in there. The problem is, there's so little she's allowed to do. Where she was held before, at Waseca up north, closer to home, to where most of her family and friends live, she was allowed to play the guitar and there was regular access to social activities with other prisoners at least. Then she was moved to Carswell, a thousand miles from most of her personal connections, to a city where she didn't even know a single person, for example, someone with whom her children could stay when they came to visit, so they didn't have to pay for a hotel. There at Carswell she had access to a guitar for a little while every week or two, that was it. The occasional phone call, the occasional visit on some weekends when someone like me made the trek to Dallas from somewhere far away.

There are only twenty women in her unit in total. Most of them are crazy, and badly-behaved, and her unit is under lockdown much of the time. Several of the prisoners are some of the finest political prisoners you could imagine. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani scientist who supposedly attempted to defend herself against American soldiers who had kidnapped her. Ana Belen Montes, the high-ranking Defense Department official convicted of spying for Cuba for 25 years, about whom I wrote a song about ten years ago. And Marie Mason, convicted of several cases of politically-motivated arson. Like Montes, Marie did not hurt anyone in carrying out her offenses, but now, like Montes, she is serving a sentence many times the length of sentences served by lots of actually violent criminals. The mix of the insane and the political seems like such an obvious reference to the Soviet gulag it's almost beyond belief that it's happening today in the USA, but I guess there is no more Soviet Union to set the standards we're supposed to be avoiding anymore.

Since being convicted Marie has become what we could call a third-tier celebrity – famous among a limited crowd of people, but for some she's certainly a rock star, along with people like Eric McDavid, Daniel McGowan, Bill Rodgers, Rod Coronado, Peg Millett – an unrepentant radical environmentalist of the direct action variety. The point can't easily be missed by anyone who sees her up close – she has an amateur tattoo job on her left arm that has been added to a more professional, circular, Celtic-looking piece of body art. On one end of the circle is etched "A.L.F.", and on the other side, "E.L.F."

We go back and forth talking about politics and talking about life in prison. Mostly I'm asking questions and she's answering them. I wish I could have brought in a recording device. She has a lot to say about the state of the environmental movement, the Occupy movement, and more. If these movements were a bit more movement-like we'd have more to talk about, but as is so often the case with two leftwingers in the US these days having a conversation about politics, most hopeful references in terms of overthrowing established orders usually have something to do with Latin America or the Arab world.

We talk about those perennial questions of what do you do when you live in such desperate times and most people are not responding with the militancy that change requires. What is it we should be doing, at least among those who are willing to make great sacrifices for the cause? What are the most useful courses of action? Is Derrick Jensen right or wrong? We probably don't see eye to eye on all these questions, but we both enjoy the discussion, and Marie is, as always, open to seriously considering different viewpoints. She's concerned about becoming out of touch with the world around her – an obviously relevant concern in her situation. She wants to remain engaged somehow or other, although cut off from the physical outside world as well as from the virtual world, the internet, only allowed a limited amount of monitored, restricted communication time. She says something positive about the Guardian, a newspaper I also read regularly. She's so hesitant to ask for anything from anyone. I order her a subscription to the Guardian Weekly when I get online the next day.

We're not allowed musical instruments in there or anything else as far as I know, but I wish we could play music together. I regret that I didn't just try organizing a little a cappela singing with her – she's a good singer. But there's so much to talk about, and time seems so short. I had to leave my phone behind so I don't know what time it is, but after two or three hours our time's up. The guards have changed during our visit, and now the guard is an absolutely massive, musclebound man of unmistakably Nordic descent. He looks like Thor, complete with shoulder-length, light blond hair, but his shoulders are wider, and the muscles on his arms, torso and neck are so huge that I wonder if he has the flexibility to touch his own waist.

Thor is even more reserved than the last guard, and clearly doesn't want to be in the position of telling Marie her visit is over. He waits patiently while we say our last good-byes. Marie walks down a hallway where I'm not allowed to follow, smiling but with tears in her eyes. Thor and I walk together through the labyrinth of steel doors together in silence.

When we're outside I venture a little communication. "I wish she could have a guitar," I say.

"I was trying not to listen in on your conversation," he said, "but I'll see what I can do about getting her more access to the music room."

You're terribly understaffed here, is that right? I had heard this from Marie, about cuts to staff at this prison. Thor sort of acknowledged this, but seemed not to want to get too much into that subject. What he did make clear, in a roundabout way, was that letting Marie have access to the music room was not a time-consuming or difficult thing for him to arrange, but that it wasn't up to him. He told me Marie is such a well-behaved prisoner that it's easy for the guards to forget she's there. The look on his face, as with the guard before him, told me that he felt seriously conflicted about what must have felt like keeping his mother under lock and key. Many prisoners fit the part – they “look like criminals,” you might say. They're covered with tattoos, they're obviously angry with life, they treat guards and each other with blatant disrespect, and so on. Marie doesn't fit the mold in any way, and I'm pretty sure I could see how uncomfortable this was for these guards.

I drove to the airport, returned my rental car, and flew from Houston back to Portland, via Denver. The flight from Houston to Denver was full of people who had apparently never flown before. The flight was somewhat delayed and everybody on the plane, it seemed, were terribly concerned that they were going to miss their connection and be stranded forever at the Denver airport. Many people were wondering whether the airline was going to pay for a hotel in Denver if they were stranded there. They were constantly harassing the flight attendants for information of all kinds, and all the flight attendants could tell them was that the airline people would do everything they could to make sure they got to their destinations, but this vague bit of information only pissed people off even more. Having done this before, I knew that probably we'd make our connections, because the folks on the ground in Denver, which was the hub city for the airline in question, would know this flight was delayed and would delay the various connections, which they did. If people did miss their last connection and the airline didn't want to pay for their hotel room, the flight attendants were not the right airline employees to be whining to – you had to save the whining for the customer service desk, if you wanted your whining to actually accomplish anything other than allowing you to blow off steam at some low-wage peon. But blowing off steam at low-wage peons is an American pastime, Americans just do that without giving it any thought, it seems.

In Portland I shared a shuttle with an Army veteran who was heading home after visiting his girlfriend, who is herself in the Army, and he had just been visiting her on another Texas military base. I had a smoke on my porch, enjoying the fresh air that I usually take for granted, and went to sleep in my comfortable bed, with no crazy people waking up sweating and screaming anywhere nearby, no musclebound jail guards walking by with their keys clattering, no fluorescent lights. The next day I went for a walk to a cafe and played with my daughter in a park, something Marie won't be able to do with her kids until they are well into middle age, unless something dramatic happens between now and Marie's release date that changes the scenario. I hope so.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Busking Memories

Listen to the audio PODCAST of this essay if you want...

Some recent experiences over the past few months have brought me back to my youth, or at least my young-adulthood, much of which I spent as a professional street musician. For many, busking is a marginal profession at best. For others, it's a good living. These days there are large parts of the world, particularly in the US and Canada, where you can travel for hundreds of miles without seeing a busker. In much of the world, though, and in some parts of North America as well, the buskers are an active subculture that anyone who uses mass transit or frequents pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods has daily contact with in one form or another.

Ever since anybody has been paid to play music, there have been buskers. In other words, it is a tradition that goes back at least as far as the first market town. And as sure as busking is as old as civilization, it has also always been the number one profession of travelers of many kinds, and of the newest migrants to any place, along with other forms of day labor. Although the tradition is old and has a timeless quality to it, it's also profoundly influenced by things like laws, urban planning (or lack thereof), and the state of popular culture (that is, Clearchannel, Sony, Time-Warner, etc.).

From the time I was in my late teens I guess I was pretty sure I wanted to be a professional musician. I tried my hand at busking in various cities as a youthful vagabond, but for years it was only an occasional preoccupation that only supplied me with a very supplemental income in terms of what I needed to come up with every month in the perennial effort to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. In my early busking efforts I don't think I ever made much more than $4 an hour on average, and I could make three times that much money doing temp jobs for Kelly Services and the like. Back then, in the 1980's, someone who could touch-type and knew how to use a primitive word processing program was in high demand. I could (and did) live somewhere for a few months just to check it out, knowing I had a skill that could keep me more or less gainfully employed in any major city or college town.

By the early Nineties, though, I developed an unmistakably nasty case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and typing for a living was no longer a viable option unless I were just resigned to the problem getting worse, which I wasn't. I stopped typing for a living and never looked back. Faced with the need to make a living doing something else, I started busking again. I also took a couple jobs in cafes, but it became clear that I could make just as much money per hour busking, so I never worked the cafe jobs more than on a very part-time basis.

I quickly discovered that there were ways I could make quite a bit more money busking. But I never intended to be a professional busker -- I wanted to be a professional musician, making a living performing mostly original material, or at least covers of really obscure leftwing artists. I knew this kind of material wasn't ideal busking material, unless you're busking near a protest or something, but I didn't care. I had a plan, and busking was to be part of it. The plan was to become a really good musician, and then to become a really good songwriter. I viscerally recognized the truth in the advice I had received somehow or other from Utah Phillips, I believe it was -- that in order to be a good writer of any kind, you first had to steep yourself in the tradition. Whatever tradition you're into, you have to have it in your blood.

At the Pike Place Market in Seattle there was a young woman one day handing out fliers about what it meant to be a bard. It said a bard needed to be able to make up a song on any subject on the spot, and a bard should have at least three hundred songs memorized at any given time. I never worked too hard at on-the-spot songwriting – although one of Pike Place Market's regular buskers, Jim Page, was and is a master at that art -- but I thought memorizing three hundred songs seemed like a good plan.

Although I had lost the worker's comp claim against my former employer due to a new law passed by the state of Massachusetts under the Republican governor at the time that said any worker's comp claims had to be approved by the employer of the injured worker, thereby making most claims by folks like me completely pointless, Aetna kept on sending me worker's comp checks by accident. They were supposed to only send them for 6 weeks, but they kept coming for eighteen months. I was receiving a whopping $160 a week for eighteen months, and I savored every bit of my newly-found liberation from wage-slavery.

I used the time methodically, living in the tiny little efficiency apartment in Seattle I had moved to. Every day I spent several hours learning songs and practicing them, committing them to memory. I had a songbook I made from photocopied pages of other songbooks, and lots of lyric transcriptions I had made myself for songs of artists without songbooks such as Jim Page, John O'Connor, Utah Phillips and others. Once I had a batch of songs memorized I'd spend an afternoon busking at Pike Place Market, then I'd go back to the woodshed and work on learning more songs.

Life continued like this until Aetna rudely stopped sending me checks. I then briefly and abortively pursued higher education a bit more in late 1993 and early 1994, before picking up with a band called Aunt Betsy, for whom I played bass guitar, recorded an album, and did a midwest tour. Soon after that was over I found myself once again living in Boston, where I had originally gotten Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This time I wasn't typing for a living, I was busking, pretty much five or six days a week, four hours a day (until my voice was hoarse, which took four hours generally), mostly in the Boston subways -- the T, as it's known.

Although I spent most of three years as a full-time busker in Boston, I was still looking at it as an opportunity to pay the bills while honing my craft. By this time I had learned well what sorts of acts make significant money on the streets, and I was not doing most of the things I should have been doing if I were trying to really master the specific craft of busking. My goal by then was to become a good topical songwriter and a good musician, and I was still working at it.

Particularly on the streets -- the tourist spots like Faneuil Hall or the neighborhoods where people go when they're "out on the town" such as Harvard Square -- the buskers who make serious money are generally very talented people who tend to fall into one of three categories: the exotic, the extravagant, and the familiar. People who combine these qualities often do the best. For those of us who possessed none of these qualities, those of us doing a more subtle kind of thing, such as telling an unfamiliar story or singing an unfamiliar song in a way that wasn't particularly flashy, our best bet was always the subways, rather than the streets, and the Park Street T stop, middle platform of the Red Line, became my home. Usually Monday through Friday, 11 am til 3 pm or so.

On the streets people are walking around from place to place, going somewhere, and if they're going to stop and listen to a street musician or watch a street performer of some other kind, the performer has no more than a few seconds to catch their attention. In the subways it's different -- people are standing on the platform waiting for the next train. If it's not rush hour, the trains might be coming once every ten minutes. This means that most of your audience is going to be on the platform, within earshot of you, for one full song. If the trains are running late, maybe they'll catch two or three. (Those were the best days.) In this situation you have a bit more to work with, you have a chance to suck them into your story -- nothing too impressive required other than a good, solid narrative.

Until last fall I hadn't really done any busking since 1997. I often think of the years when I spent much of my time on most days somewhere underground, though, and sitting in a bus a couple weeks ago really brought it all back to me in a more physical way. Sitting in a bus is also something I haven't done much since those days, for better or worse, and sitting in my seat, looking at the advertisements and the poetry and the diverse bunch of people crowded onto that bus, I remembered all those mornings, many hundreds of them I guess, taking the Orange Line from the second-to-last stop, where I lived in Jamaica Plain, to Downtown Crossing, where I'd take the Red Line one stop to my spot at the Park Street T stop.

I guess it was the closest thing to a regular full-time job I ever had. Each weekday morning I'd put my guitar on my back and pack my battery-powered amp, mike stand, mike and assorted cables onto a little wheely thing and I'd walk to the Green Street T. The commute from there in JP to downtown was 45 minutes each way on the Orange Line. I became quite disciplined about reading a book during the commute, so I was spending 1-1/2 hours each day reading a book in those days, and I got more book-reading done during my Boston busking years than ever before or since.

The subway line I was riding on every day only exists due to a struggle waged by the local residents against a planned highway that would have essentially wiped the neighborhood off the map, like so many others around the country before it. People mobilized and the government ultimately canceled their highway plans and replaced them with an extension of the subway instead. Above the subway in JP is a long, thin park, and on this park every year people involved with a local institution called Spontaneous Celebrations hold a small festival -- in part to commemorate the victory of the neighborhood in defeating plans for a new highway.

In a place like Boston it doesn't take very long to get to know all the regular street performers. Some of them come and go, but by and large it's pretty much a few dozen people who are full-time buskers, at least among those whose main stomping grounds were the T, like me. I quickly discovered that for the sort of music I was doing, the mid-day train schedule worked best. Fewer people coming through, but they have more time on the platform. I made a living, just barely, but in a decidedly unambitious way. The more ambitious performers did popular covers, or had a really eye-catching shtick of some kind, and in the subway they played during rush hour, when the maximum number of people are going past them or waiting on the platform near them, and when the trains are coming every few minutes -- too fast for most commuters to even hear an entire song.

The plus side of being unambitious was there was rarely any competition for my favorite spot -- at least by the time I got to it. Before I got there there would often have been someone busking for hours, taking advantage of the rush hour. Two of the regulars at that spot other than me were a cantankerous blues musician from New York with the stage name of Roland Tumble, and a cantankerous blues and folk musician from West Virginia named Nathan Phillips, who later took up the moniker of Bullfrog. Many of the other musicians would drop by on their way to another spot, sometimes checking in to see if my spot was already taken. It was a major stop for switching from one major line to another (Green to Red or vice versa) so they would often have been coming through anyway, and when you ride the subway enough you know where to get on so when it stops at Park Street you'll be near the area where the buskers usually busk when you step out of the train.

Some of the best musicians I know, who I have recorded and performed with on and off since then, I first met in the subways. Eric Royer was one of them. I don't remember if we met when I was listening to him busk or when he was listening to me, but whenever I was lucky enough to come across him on the street or in the subway somewhere I'd listen for a good spell. He was and is a crazy musical phenomenon, with a vast repertoire of traditional old-time and bluegrass songs in his head, all delivered on a five-string banjo that he plays with consummate skill, and when it comes to most of the bluegrass numbers, with the blinding speed and technical accuracy that the genre usually calls for. But in addition to the fine singing and banjo-playing, Eric also accompanies himself with the most sophisticated one-man band setup I have ever seen or heard of, which basically involves playing a two-string bass, a four-string guitar and a cow bell using an intricate, medieval-looking invention of his that allows him to play different chords, complete with an alternating bass line, using pedals controlled by his feet.

The highlight of many different afternoons of busking was when Eric would stop by on his way somewhere, get out his banjo, and play along with me for a few songs. Eric is a fairly shy sort who probably didn't enjoy a lot of the attention he'd get while busking, but his craft was clearly destined for the profession. The blistering banjo solos are a real attention-getter, and combined with the wild one-man band setup it's irresistible. Eric made more in an hour than I'd generally make in a day -- this despite the fact that he hardly ever did a song that anybody other than a serious traditional music fan would recognize. If he did bluegrass, one-man band versions of Aerosmith songs he probably would have made many times as much money, I'd guess.

One of the legendary buskers of Harvard Square in the 1980's -- a few years before my time as a professional busker, but he would very occasionally make an appearance during my time on the scene -- was a guy named Luke. I don't know his last name -- I heard many people refer to him by his first name and never once heard anyone mention any other name. He was a very precise, energetic performer with an impressive vocal range and very solid guitar skills, and he did nothing but Beatles songs. He only ever busked in the same storefront in Harvard Square, and whenever he'd set up to do his thing he'd attract an adoring crowd of tourists, students and street kids who'd stick with him until he packed up for the night. If he wasn't around on a warm weekend night when people figured he'd probably show up, many of the street kids could be heard asking, where's Luke?

With Luke there was something intoxicating about the way he used the Beatles as a unifying factor for all of society. It turns out pretty much everybody loves the Beatles -- they transcend age, class, ethnicity, etc. Their music was just so popular and so infectious that it just managed to get into the broad fiber of society, and people would sing along actively, often in harmony. It was a very participatory thing.

But if Luke represented the positive side of using popular culture for good purposes, you might say Manny represented the dark side. He was always an impeccably nice guy, and extremely industrious. He had learned many things about doing street music over the years, growing up somewhere in the Boston area, with his unmistakable, working class Boston accent. He knew the basic elements, or some of them, of how to make decent money at the craft: a good spot with room for lots of people to gather, a good sound system, a knowledge of songs that people are familiar with. He may have known that he could make even more money if he were a better musician, but this was unclear.

I heard the stories from many people who attempted to have a chance to busk in Manny's very prime spot there in the middle of Harvard Square on Brattle Street. Whatever time of the morning they'd get there -- and for the best spots you had to get there hours early and hold the spot until the good busking time came around -- Manny would be there. It seemed he often got there before dawn, riding to the Square on his bicycle, home-made wooden trailer attached to the back of it, with his mixing board, speakers and guitar.

What he lacked was the ability to deliver anything but the most lifeless renderings of only the most over-played, over-busked songs ever written. Like a broken record, visitors and locals alike would be accosted every day to many hours of Cat Stevens, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones -- but only their very most popular songs, none of the other ones, ever. Workers at the local businesses had to suffer interminably repeated unvaryingly stillborn renditions of "Heart of Gold" and "The Sound of Silence," quietly wishing Manny would one day be silent, their wishes dashed with every new dawn, as they found Manny holding down his spot when they came to open their businesses.

And then there were artists who had an even better, more souped-up battery-powered sound system than Manny's, complete with a variety of effects pedals, but who were masters of their craft. One such busker in Harvard Square for many years was Ned Landin, aka Flathead. He was, in fact, slightly Neanderthal-looking, with long hair coming out of a balding head and big, hairy eyebrows. I assume that's where he got the stage name, I don't know. More notable than his appearance was his mastery of the guitar and his poignant songs. He'd do a lot of his own songs, not so much familiar stuff, but despite this and the fact that he was just another white guy with a guitar, he had a loyal following in the Square because he was just so damn good. Flathead originated in Minnesota, and he could often be seen busking in Harvard Square in the middle of winter, when most buskers were either in the subway, busking in some warmer part of the world for a few months, or doing something else for the winter. Just to emphasize the point, he would plant his big amp on top of a nearby snowbank. He told me once that if the temperature went down below 25 degrees Fahrenheit he'd stop for the day, not because he had a problem playing the guitar in such weather, but because people wouldn't stop and listen when it was that cold.

Weekends were the best time to busk in a place like Harvard Square, and many people only came out to busk on weekends, such as Mike, the juggler and tightrope-walker extraordinaire, who set up his tightrope in one of the few parts of the Square where there's a wide enough public space to set up a tightrope without getting hit by a car. This happened also to be within earshot of Manny's perennial spot, so the juggling and tightrope-walking inevitably had to happen to the tune of yet another sad performance of "Wild World" or "Down By The River."

A bunch of us regular street performers once had a meeting to try to figure out a system so people wouldn't have to get up at dawn to hold down a prime spot, which is generally the default procedure when a better system isn't agreed upon, but if I recall, Manny didn't show up to the meeting, and we gave up soon thereafter. Sometime after that Flathead abdicated his position as a fixture of Harvard Square and moved to Los Angeles. I couldn't believe a Minnesotan who had lived for years in Boston could find a happy home in LA, but he's still there last I heard, so I guess he likes it.

At the Harvard Square T Stop -- easily the most popular place on the T to busk, the Inbound platform, specifically -- a system had been agreed upon by all the regular buskers, called "the flip." This happened every morning at 7 am, and I believe it still does today. Every morning at 7 anyone who wanted to busk on the spot at some point during the day would show up, and the spot would be randomly allotted via the flip of a coin to three performers, who had dibs on morning, afternoon or evening. I never wanted the morning slot and I was damned if I was going to get up at 5:30 so I could be on the other side of the Boston area by 7, just so I could hang around somewhere or other in order to have the afternoon spot I wanted. But I did show up for the flip on more than a few occasions, somehow or other.

During one of the time periods when I was showing up for the flip we had an entertaining little problem in the form of a Polish accordian player, an older man who had probably very recent immigrated to the US, and spoke no English. The flip is, of course, just a convention established by the community of street performers -- nothing legally binding or anything. So if someone gets there before 7 am and doesn't want to play by the rules, there's no predetermined method for dealing with this. So for several mornings in a row, an assortment of musicians showed up for the flip and encountered this stern-looking, very large Pole with a massive accordian protruding from his very large belly. Each morning we'd all attempt to explain to him through some combination of English and sign language what the deal was, and each morning he'd look at us with an expression that at first appeared to be confusion, and later looked more like annoyance.

By the second morning, Roland, who was cantankerous to begin with, suggested we break the accordian player's fingers. The rest of us, exasperated though we were by the situation, all thought that this was a shockingly violent idea, especially coming from a fellow musician who used his fingers for a living in very much the same way as the accordian player. Along with me and Roland, Grant was there every morning. Grant was a very good classical guitarist from somewhere in England who was one of the most regular occupants of the spot there on the Inbound platform of the Harvard Square T. Finally, after four or five days of this, a young classical violinist from Russia came to the flip, and the confict was resolved immediately and amicably. Amazing what a little verbal communication can do when it's in the right language. The Pole spoke Russian. The violinist explained, in Russian, how the flip works. The accordian player understood. Starting that very morning he started participating in the flip and playing by the established norms henceforth.

In all the years I was busking in the Boston area I hardly ever played an original song. I was actively writing them by then, but I felt like they were still collectively works in progress. I also couldn't bear exposing my own songs to the harsh subway environment, really, it was more an emotional thing than anything strategic in terms of my musical evolution, though that was also part of it. In any case, what I sang down there was almost entirely obscure songs from the past and present that only hardcore fans of topical folk music might recognize -- and even most of them wouldn't, either.

In my years living in Seattle I became a huge fan, as well as friend, of Jim Page. Leftwingers in Seattle and people who frequent certain places like the Pike Place Market know his music, but in Boston, and most other places, this is not the case. While in Seattle I went to many of Jim's shows. Many of his songs I couldn't find in recorded form I found by befriending other Jim Page fans who had recorded some of his live shows. I copied their recordings and transcribed every word of every song on them. Then I set out to figure out how he played the guitar parts. That part was harder -- I never learned to fingerpick anything like Jim, nowhere near that good, but I did learn to mimic his flatpicking style, as well as his idiosyncratic singing style, which he has since pretty much abandoned, but he used to fancy a certain vocal trick that made him sound perpetually like a teenage boy whose voice was changing.

So I'd stand there deep under the streets above, singing the songs of Jim Page, Phil Ochs, Utah Phillips, Woody Guthrie, and loads of old anonymously-written songs I had found in books like Songs of Work and Protest or the Little Red Songbook. There were many conclusions I could effectively draw from years singing those songs in the Boston subways. For one, the overwhelming majority of people riding the Boston subways seem to have a "live and let live" policy in life. Only twice did anybody ever get visibly angry as a result of my leftwing songs. One was an elderly World War 2 vet who took offense to "The Draft Dodger Rag." Another was an agitated young man who seemed to think a line in a Judy Small song was offensive to poor people, because he evidently didn't understand the line was supposed to be ironic.

Most people didn't react one way or another, but from those who did, whether because they said something, or through their facial expressions or their donations, it was clear that many people were very sympathetic to the ideas I was singing about. One conclusion that can be drawn unequivocally is that white men in suits are almost universally stingy bastards. They probably also didn't like the music or the words, but other street performers can also attest to the stinginess of this crowd. The working class is generally far more generous than the yuppies, and, breaking things down demographically, no one was more generous than middle-aged Asian women.

The Boston area has the best mass transit out of any city in the US with the possible exception of New York City. Boston is also a huge college town and is comparatively pedestrian-friendly, though compared to many cities in Europe it doesn't come close. But neither of these factors is the main thing responsible for the flourishing street and subway music scene there. It mainly comes down to the actions of Stephen Baird and the Street Artists Guild in the 1970's.

As I heard the story from Stephen and others soon after I started busking there in Massachusetts' capital, busking in Boston or Cambridge was much like busking in most of the US. That is, any cop who didn't like your looks or your music or was just in a bad mood that day could tell you to pack it up because you were blocking the sidewalk, disturbing the peace, or because a business owner or resident complained, or whatever other reason they wanted to invent. The street artist had no recourse but to pack it up or risk arrest. Stephen's organization sued the city of Boston and the city of Cambridge, and maybe other entities, I don't remember. They won these suits, and street music was established as a legally protected activity. This really upset some of the meaner elements of the local police force, but they had to accept it.

In Cambridge, it wasn't even really under the authority of the police to say anything about the street performers now. They were officially being monitored by a paid staff member from the Cambridge Arts Council. Official rules of conduct were established that the monitors were monitoring. The performer couldn't take up more than 50% of the sidewalk in front of him or her. Volume of the amplification equipment (which they were allowed to use) couldn't exceed 80 decibels measured at a distance of 25 feet, etc. Unfortunately, in one particular case, the power-tripping police force was replaced by a power-tripping monitor. Granted, the guy wasn't armed, but he had the authority to issue tickets that the street performers were obliged to pay, and he issued them regularly. He seemed to think his performance as a monitor was dependent on how many tickets he issued. I'm pretty sure this was his very own idea. He was either on a big power trip, or he hated music, or he hated people generally, nobody knew. He was a quiet, stern, single-minded man, and his job was to make the life of street musicians difficult. It's conceivable that he didn't actually know how to use a decibel meter, but only just. He definitely wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but this decibel meter was a very simple device. The thing was, he often took his measurements at a distance closer than 25 feet, which would of course dramatically increase the reading. Also, a passing truck could be far louder than the music on occasion, so if you were just a vindictive misanthrope of some kind, you could always get high readings and blame it on someone.

I never got a ticket. The amp I used was industry standard for the subways, but kind of wimpy for street use. The streets -- and we're not talking about pedestrian streets here, for all you European readers who might assume such a thing -- are much noisier than the subway platforms, and people tended to use bigger amplification devices. Usually things they'd have to rig up themselves, requiring a certain level of interest in slightly technical things, like you might need to use a soldering iron or something, from the looks of it. They'd use things that were made for cars and rig them up to work as amplifiers to connect to speakers and play live through, all powered by a car battery. So there was always some mixing of things that were designed to be powered by AC and things meant to be powered by DC. I never got into that fancy street amplification stuff. In most places I had busked before Boston, people didn't tend to use amplification. In Boston they did (mainly because they were allowed to). But in the subways the standard device was a Mouse amp.

I believe the company stopped making them. But at the time it was the best thing you could find for the price, by far. Basically nobody else made anything quite like them, I suppose because the market for such a thing was so small. How many street musicians are there in the world who are allowed to use amplification? Who else would have need of a battery-powered amp you can plug a mike and a guitar into and sound pretty good for several hours of battery life as long as you had no ambitions of entertaining an audience of more than 25 people or so? I remember being surprised when I heard, rightly or wrongly I don't know, that the folks who made the Mouse amps went out of business. For many years the little thing was, along with my guitar, my most important possession. If you didn't want to mess around with soldering irons and car batteries, there simply wasn't anybody else who made a small but decent-sounding amp with a battery that lasted several hours on a charge. A Pignose amp was the closest thing there was before Mouse, and those things are awful. Many years later, perusing a music store somewhere, I came across this thing made by Crate, the Limo. It was similar to a Mouse, but slightly bigger, louder, better-sounding and with a longer-lasting battery. I hadn't busked in years at that point, but I had to get one. I never used it, but it stuck with me somehow for many different moves. (Then when Occupy started last fall I knew I had to take it with me in my travels so I'd be prepared to do impromptu concerts at the local neighborhood Occupation, and I did. But it's really more of a subway amp, still, I discovered when I finally put it to use.)

The quality of the buskers throughout the Boston area is so high, generally, that tourists often asked me if we were being paid by the city to busk. Other times they just assumed we were. People in charge of attracting business to downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire instituted a program to help defray the costs of Boston-area musicians who want to go up there and busk, so this idea of people being paid something to busk wasn't actually a complete pipe dream. We got the option to enroll in the Portsmouth program when we got our $40 annual busking licenses at the Cambridge Arts Council. Licenses to busk in the T were free. But we weren't being paid.

During my busking years I left Boston a number of times and plied the trade in other places. In San Francisco the general knowledge among buskers was that among the places you could play was the lobby area in the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) where people buy their tickets to ride. I busked a bunch there, but there you just get the passersby, nobody spending substantial time there for the most part. On the platform is where you get the quality time, but the platform is where you were strictly not allowed to busk.

One day I tested the law. I bought a ticket and got onto the BART at Civic Center. Took the guitar out on the platform and started singing "This Land Is Your Land." Not in any kind of offensive way, just a nice, moderate rendition of the song, with my guitar case sitting on the platform in front of me as usual for busking. I wasn't even halfway through the song when I was interrupted by a cop and told to stop, that I couldn't do that. I got in the next train and took it one stop, and there and at every other stop in the city of San Francisco (I tried all of them) the same thing happened, I never got to finish the song, and it's not a long one. People responded very generously to the song each time, and I think I made $20 in 20 minutes or so there.

I visited London, England twice during my busking years. Once just before the 1995 Criminal Justice Act went into effect and once just after. There was a provision in this law that dealt with street music, which basically criminalized it, as I recall. The impact of the law was stark and easy to see. Before the law went into effect the Underground was full of talented buskers. After the law came into effect the Underground was still full of buskers, but the level of talent had plummeted. These new buskers were people living on the margins of society who didn't care whether they got a 200-pound fine. The buskers who didn't want to get the fine, or were just offended at being considered criminals in the first place, left the Underground and presumably took up different occupations or went to busk somewhere else where they were not unwanted.

I remember around that time listening to someone on BBC World Service saying that he liked the buskers in the Underground. He was saying this in the context of a story about Singapore, where busking was a criminal offense. Ironically, he didn't seem to know that the same was now true in London as well.

The worst part about busking was the air quality. It's not necessarily smog of the sort cars produce, but it always smells really bad when they hit the brakes. In both Boston and London the subways were built around the turn of the 20th century, and it's not like the florid-smelling, ultra-modern Metro in Copenhagen or the Shinkansen in Japan. It stinks, a lot. London, not surprisingly, given that it's a much bigger city, is much worse than Boston. Every night after busking in the Underground I'd have nasty black gunk coming out of my nose for hours.

But far more challenging than the air quality, really, is the illegality of the activity. When you give it a try, you'll find that in most places that would be obviously good places to busk, public spaces with lots of pedestrians who would tend to enjoy having good musicians around, it's not legal to do so. In New York City spaces are limited and auditions are required, going against the very nature of the thing. Try busking on subway platforms in Atlanta or the nation's capital and you will suffer the same fate. Or London, Singapore, or lots of other places. But in Boston it's alive and well, for now.

In the spring of 1997 I went on a tour around the US playing bass for Robert Hoyt, and then traveled for several months backing up veteran street performer Chris Chandler. Like Chris had, I went on after those tours to touring myself, playing indoors, as Chris put it, doing gigs that usually paid a little bit better than street performance did for me, where the air quality is somewhat better as well. But despite the downsides of the craft, I often nostalgically recall my years of working there beneath the streets of Boston.