Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Spring Vacation in Europe

Listen to this essay as an audio PODCAST!

Note: This is just a bunch of random recollections from my spring 2012 tour of Europe. If gigs are mentioned, it's because they fit in an anecdote one way or another – but mostly they're not mentioned, so please don't feel like the gig you organized wasn't fantastic because it's not mentioned in here!

Belfast. Greece and Spain may be the hot spots of economic collapse in Europe these days, but parts of the UK are not far behind. The sense of despair is palpable there, particularly in the cities with a long history of chronic, mass unemployment, especially Belfast. The new Tory-led government has instituted a US-style welfare reform that requires welfare recipients to work, for nothing, just to stay on the dole, thus putting them into competition with those low-wage workers who do manage to find a job of some kind. In England the welfare reform may be hated, and may lead directly to riots, but in what they call Northern Ireland it could lead to all sorts of other unanticipated consequences – the Peace Process was supposed to lead to greater prosperity somehow, not this.

Although the Occupy movement hasn't really taken off in much of northern Europe, the UK has been something of an exception, sensibly enough. It's been pretty clear to me that the Occupy movement and its southern European counterpart, the Indignados, is especially a product of collapsing economies -- not the sort of movement likely to flourish in places like Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia where very few people are in some kind of financially disastrous state. But the UK, as usual, is more like the US than the rest of northern Europe, and a lot of people are really suffering under what are broadly known as the Cuts.

In Belfast's city center a motley crew of people, mostly folks from West Belfast, have occupied a large bank that had been sitting idle for some time. It's a lovely building of four or five stories, a very sturdy thing made with lots of stone and concrete and metal. There are vaults in the basement that look like they were designed to be bomb-proof. On the upper floors folks are camping in tents on the concrete, and on the ground floor people have set up a sort of informal cafe, with a stage that people have just put together for the little show that's happening there on the first Saturday of March, one of the two gigs I'm doing in Belfast to kick off this fifty-gig, eight-country tour of Europe.

The gig has only been thrown together over the course of a few days, and the audience is small but enthusiastic. The performers are me and Tommy Sands. I first heard Tommy's music a long time ago, can't remember when, maybe in camp when I was a kid -- “Your Daughters and Your Sons,” an iconic song that I seem to have always known, certainly since the first time I became familiar with the Rise Up Singing songbook, and Winds of the People before that.

In a very divided society, Tommy has managed to maintain close connections with lots of people from both sides of the divide, and it was a fascinating evening talking with him about the Irish conflict, about identity, and about his experiences relating with other divided societies. Although our audience at the occupied bank was small, as soon as we walked out of the bank, and for the next several hours, everywhere Tommy and I went, walking with our guitars slung over our shoulders, every ten meters or so someone would say “hi Tommy,” or just shake his hand and say “thank you,” or I'd hear someone nearby whisper, “that's Tommy Sands.” Tommy was graceful and warm in his interactions with each person who would stop him in the street like this, just as he was with me.

Flying from Belfast to London is mostly a major exercise in contrast. In Belfast, which side of the divide you grew up on affects everything in your life profoundly. In London most English people barely remember if their family used to be Catholic or Protestant, and in most cases they were probably a mix of the two, way back when those things mattered to anybody there, back when people would be discriminated against for being Catholic, back when anybody actually went to church or believed in God or marriage or any of that traditional English stuff. But for the most part, what's so cool about London is that so many of the people in there aren't English, at least originally. They're from all over the world, and not just the former colonies either.

I often stay near Brixton with friends in a small flat with a difficult parking situation. I'm usually traveling in a rental car, as it's overall the cheapest and easiest way to get around for a luggage-laden musician. But after two 65-pound parking tickets on one day I really wanted to find another place to stay. One night in Leytonstone I was invited over to the home of a little family in nearby Hackney, and I ended up staying there on and off throughout the month of March. They're French, and it turns out that much of the neighborhood is of some kind of Francophone origin, too. London, Anne told me, is the sixth biggest city in France. All I previously knew about Hackney was Robb Johnson's classic song, “Anarchy in Hackney Now.” I didn't experience any anarchy in Hackney, although I did see lots of gridlocked traffic, lots of one very lovely canal, and lots of Francophones eating really good food, which I partook in daily during my stay. A long walk along the canal listening to BBC on my headphones, to the crepe place a couple kilometers from my new home.

By happenstance, several of the other things that I wanted to do in London were also in Hackney, within walking distance. A couple I had met at a gig just outside of town, it turned out, were living in a houseboat that was moored on the canal near me at the time. And, very close to where they were moored, Occupy Hackney had a very small tent encampment just outside the fence where the authorities were building a supposedly temporary Olympic training facility on the wetlands beside the canal, taking from the local area a popular park. I did a little concert for the Occupiers one night. They got cleared out not long after.

Edinburgh. There are certain music clubs that have been around a long time and have become iconic in the folk music scene in different cities. One such place is the Wee Folk Club in the center of this beautiful medieval city. It is what it sounds like – a very small folk music club in the basement of an old building, about one-third of which is taken up by a bar, and another third of which has such a low ceiling you have to duck when you sit down. I stood awkwardly in the corner, with the front row sitting directly in front of my guitar, so if I strummed a chord a little too enthusiastically I might accidentally hit someone in the head. It occurred to me that it was a strange achievement to have played a gig in such an iconic folk club, since you basically have to be virtually unknown in order to get a gig there, as it can only fit a crowd of 25 people if they really like each other.

Glasgow. Back at Fatima's place, what used to also be Alistair's place, before Alistair Hulett died suddenly a couple years ago. The multitude of guitars that once filled most of one of the rooms have moved on to homes where they'll be played and looked after, but the posters remain. One wall is covered with posters evocative of various time periods, various tours. Punk rock posters from his days singing for Roaring Jack in Australia, posters for gigs he did with Dave Swarbrick, a poster from a gig we did together in Edinburgh with Leon Rosselson, Robb Johnson, Maggie Holland and Attila the Stockbroker at the chandelier-laden Queen's Hall during the week of the G8 meetings in the charming little village of Gleneagles. Last time I saw Ally was in that room, guitar in hand, singing a new song he had just written about a Scottish anarchist who was the English-language voice of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War.

Bellshill. Somehow it was a great gig, although the sound system was way too loud for such a small pub, and most of the people were talking throughout the night. But they have my picture framed above the bar in the Saints & Sinners pub in Bellshill, an overwhelmingly Catholic town in Scotland not far from Glasgow, where Irish Republicanism is very popular. Some of the Catholic-origin folks in Scotland are more fervent about Irish Republicanism than most Irish Republicans, it seems, and I shared the night in Bellshill with a man who is apparently an even better fighter than he is a singer. He sang excellent renditions of various Irish Republican songs, and you can forgive him if his guitar-playing wasn't the most intricate you've ever heard when you learn that his hands function much more often as fists than anything else. He had just returned from winning some major kickfighting competition in Thailand, and he had a scar and a tattoo to go along with every rippling muscle on his body. The type of guy you really want on your side of the argument.

Back in London on the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica, the first carpet-bombing of a city I believe, an atrocity committed by the Luftwaffe, under the command of the Nazis at the time. (A war crime carried out on so many more occasions in coming years by the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force as well.) The event took place at a pub called Filthy McNasty's, a bizarre place for such a solemn occasion, but it was good anyway. One man spoke who was from Guernica, and was sent to Britain as a child along with other orphans of the bombing, to be raised in London and, he said, embraced by the kind and generous people of Britain. Very moving, especially if it's true.

I used to be lovers with someone in Bristol, and Bristol makes me think of her every time, naturally enough. It's a nice town though, with qualities other than whether or not Kat lives there anymore. Including a nice, vegan cafe called the Arc, right in the center of town. The folks who run the place were organizing a day of activities, the main focus of which were performances by me and Gilad Atzmon. They were putting huge color posters all over town promoting me and Gilad, but they said the event was from noon to midnight. So both Gilad and I were regularly getting emails from local people who were wondering what time we were actually playing. Until the day of the event we didn't know, but once we did find out somehow Gilad managed to attract several dozen people to the 4 pm show. I know they were his crowd because when I started my set after him most of them left, and what remained was a dozen or so folks, mostly people I knew or people who really were just hanging around with the staff but had the courtesy to keep quiet during the music, so they looked a bit like a small audience.

Hearing Gilad play was a powerful experience. He's a phenomenal, passionate jazz musician, he's on fire and he can do amazing things with a saxophone or a clarinet, evoking sounds of the Arab world, the gypsies and the New Orleanians. He's an ex-Israeli with a dark, somewhat bleak sense of humor, which, along with his incessant writings on Jewish identity and history, have evidently earned him enemies on both Right and Left. His enemies include the rightwing US-based Anti-Defamation League, so he calls his foes collectively the Atzmon Defamation League. He is so hated, he jokes, he has become “king of the Jews.” This, I think, is the sort of comment that would get some hypersensitive person without a sense of humor to start flinging accusations of anti-Semitism. For weeks leading up to this gig I was hearing from people all over Britain and the US that I should cancel it. But I liked his supposedly evil book (The Wandering Who?), so I didn't. And then he turned out to be a really nice, funny, and extremely talented guy, too, on top of being a good writer. Apparently the Arc is being boycotted by some local people for not canceling this gig, too.

On April 3rd I flew from London to Berlin, where I had a gig in the lobby of the building that houses the offices of the mayor of Kreuzberg, one of the most solidly leftwing neighborhoods in this thriving international city. London to Berlin is normally a short and uneventful flight, but not today. I should have left Hackney sooner, but after getting stuck in predictably horrible London traffic, returning the rental car, and taking the shuttle to Heathrow's Terminal 5, it was still a full hour before flying time, so I thought, wrongly, that everything would be OK. I went to the machine and got my boarding passes no problem, then got in the line to drop off my bags. The line, inexplicably, took 45 minutes. Normally waiting in this line to drop off your bags most anywhere in the world takes more like ten or fifteen minutes, not 45, and of course, on this day I didn't have 45 minutes to wait in line without missing my flight, so I missed it. Amazingly enough, but not surprisingly, the British Airways peon I talked to after missing my flight told me I should have been at the airport sooner, did not seem to think that 45 minutes was a long time to wait to drop your bags on a conveyor belt, and made me pay for a new ticket.

This was only the beginning, however. It could all have been much worse of course – I wasn't injured or killed, my guitar wasn't even damaged. But when I arrived at the rental car center I discovered that several of the main rental car franchises were now engaging in a dishonest money-making scheme that used to be the purview only of little rental car companies you had never heard of. Now it was Thrifty, Dollar and Alamo all doing it together under the purview of a little rental car company no one had ever heard of. The car I had rented was very cheap. So cheap I might have wondered why it was so cheap, but not quite that cheap. It was like a hundred euros per week or something, like half as much as you might often pay for a rental car in many cities – though it always depends a lot on which city, what time of year, and other factors. But when I got to the counter, the nice, patient German man working there informed me that I had to purchase insurance.

Purchasing insurance, for those of you who don't go around renting cars much, is a scam. The thing is, if you have a credit card – which you probably do if you're renting a car, since it's basically a requirement for doing so – the card probably comes with rental car insurance. If it's a “gold” or a “platinum” card from Visa, like the one I was using, it always comes with insurance, and anybody in the business would know that. I only discovered this the hard way when I got in a fender-bender on my way to return a rental car at Heathrow several years ago. I had declined the insurance as usual, and thought that I would then be stuck for the repair bill to the car, but then the nice man at the rental company told me that because I had declined their insurance, I was covered by the insurance that came with my card. Which then made me really pissed off at all the rental car people who had sold me insurance in the past, who had never told me that. Which made me realize that they must be getting a commission when they sell insurance, otherwise they'd tell people about that more often. Which made me hate capitalism even more.

I of course explained to the man behind the counter there at Tegel Lufthaven that the card came with insurance, and he told me that if this was the case (this thing which he already knew was the case), I would need to provide a fax from the Visa Corporation with my credit card number on it that explained that my card came with insurance. Now, oftentimes when I reserve rental cars I reserve more than one, just in case one of the companies turns out to be engaging in just this sort of scam. But because I was using a rental company that had never done this sort of thing to me before, which I had used many times in many different countries, and because I was renting the car in Germany, which is, as the stereotype accurately indicates, a very well-organized, sensibly-run country where there are usually laws against this sort of nonsense, I wasn't thinking about it and had only reserved one rental car. So normally I would then have gone to the second rental car company where I had reserved a car, but in this case that wasn't an option. I knew it would cost a lot more to just ask about prices at the other rental car companies there in the rental car center, so I figured I needed to get online in order to either get this fax from Visa or reserve another car.

Normally getting online in a major airport is fairly straightforward. At Tegel this appeared to be the case. When I opened the browser I saw that I could get a free 15 minutes online before being charged for more time than that. So I used my 15 minutes on Skype with Visa, where I eventually learned that although they could point me to the web page that indicated that anybody with my specific credit card did indeed have rental car insurance, for security reasons at Visa they don't have access to fax machines, or, for some reason, to pen and paper, either. At this point the 15 minutes was up. I then tried to pay to get online some more, but none of my credit or debit cards worked. I dragged my two suitcases and guitar back to the main airport building and tried to use the pay phones there, but none of them worked. By this time I had to get to the gig, so I abandoned the effort to rent a car and took a taxi instead. (I did manage to rent one from a different company the next day, for twice the price.)

Guttersloh is a town about halfway in between Berlin and Bonn, which is why I accepted the gig offer there. I normally try to mostly take gigs that I have a reasonable suspicion will pay well and be well-attended, since I need to make a living and I like playing for audiences that significantly outnumber me. This was a gig I had no idea about. There was no guarantee but the organizer assured me he'd promote it and I'd be fed and I'd have a room to spend the night in, so OK, what the heck. When I got there I discovered that the organizer was a militant young Greek communist whose family ran a small pub in the middle of an otherwise residential neighborhood a kilometer or so from the center of town. I had only spoken with him for about ten minutes before I discovered that he hated anarchists.

This did not bode well, I thought. I know in Greece it's not uncommon for communists and anarchists to hate each other, and occasionally to come to blows with each other, but in northern Europe it's usually not that way. Although in big cities it still happens sometimes that I'll do a gig organized by communists that will have almost no one in attendance other than communists, or a gig organized by anarchists which will be attended almost exclusively by anarchists, at least in big cities there are enough of one population or the other to have a well-attended gig. This is not the case in Guttersloh, which, I believe, has ten communists, and, I'm guessing, ten anarchists, twenty environmentalists, twenty Pirate Party activists and maybe a dozen or so serious labor activists. Normally in a town the size of Guttersloh (small) the various tendencies that you could say broadly make up the progressive scene would do things like this together to at least some degree, but not at this Greek communist pub. The only promotion that appeared to have been done was among the local members of the German Communist Party's youth wing, and all ten of them showed up. They were a very enthusiastic, very good-looking bunch of teen-agers and twenty-somethings, and I ended up having a good time singing for them and watching them get drunk. In talking with Nikos the Greek communist I discovered that it wasn't just a hatred of anarchists that had prevented him from telling anybody else about the gig, but a fear of fascists, who had targeted his mother's bar, smashing windows and spraypainting xenophobic slogans in recent years. But he had neglected to tell me that he wouldn't be promoting the gig outside of the DKP, which is, at this point, a very small organization, and in Guttersloh, virtually nonexistant. Although maybe if the adult members of the party had also showed up we could have had an audience of twenty people instead of ten... (I will hasten to add, lest Nikos reads this and feels bad, that the gig in Guttersloh was not the most badly-attended gig on this tour – there was one other gig that only had six people at it, not including the bar staff...)

Amsterdam. The infamous Eurodusnie squat with the Las Vegas bar in Leiden is no more, but a new squat in Amsterdam has been granted a right to exist under complicated Dutch squatting law, and folks are actively reorganizing the dilapidated old building's innards. Almost no one is there when the show is supposed to start, but after a very long opening set by a punk from Poland an audience was coalescing. By the middle of my set there were several dozen enthusiastic people, including a large number attempting to dance along to my erratic and often not very rhythmic rhythms. One standing off to the side was the unmistakable pair of Herman (stage name Armand) and Marrit – Herman with his long, bright pink-and-yellow hair, Marrit with her traditional Dutch peasant dress, braided hair and wooden shoes.

Soon thereafter five of us spent the day at Efterling, which is easily the coolest amusement park I've ever been to. It being the Netherlands, we smoked joints throughout the day in between the rides, the fairy forests, and the Dutch pancakes. Any ride that the rest of us were too freaked out by that my daughter Leila wanted to do, Herman was always up for it. Throughout our time there, grownups but especially children were regularly approaching Herman for an autograph. He's easily recognizable, and he was recently on a popular Dutch hiphop TV show, so he has a newfound popularity among the kids – though he has, since the Sixties, been well-known to adults, being dubbed by the press “our national smokestack.” Most of his songs are related to marijuana as far as I can tell, though I'm not sure because they're generally in Dutch. Herman is very humble about his fame, which is not surprising, since he can easily re-familiarize himself with what it feels like to be anonymous as soon as he leaves the Dutch-speaking world, which is fairly small. Occasionally when he's recognized on the street he says to me quietly, “I'm in the phone book!”, quoting from Steve Martin in the Jerk, who gets really excited when he finds that his name is now published in the new phone book – he was now someone.

For five days Reiko, Leila and I had our own flat in the middle of a Hasidic neighborhood in Antwerp. It was a lovely neighborhood with a park nearby, but there were no cafes or restaurants in it, and most of the men were wearing what has got to be the most ridiculous hat I've ever seen, a sort of graduation cap stuffed with marshmallows and wrapped in plastic. Walking into the town center, after the Hasidic neighborhood is the one with lots of Turks and others from across the Muslim world, and then you get into the center, with its little Chinatown. I'm sure there is more to Antwerp than what we saw, but in our entire time there we never came across a single fresh cream truffle.

Crailsheim. The town was completely destroyed by bombing at the very end of the Second World War, and rebuilt later. The Jugenzentrum (Youth Center), where I played, has black walls inside the club, except for large white writing in Arabic that says “sex, drugs and rock & roll.” (Although when I showed a photo of the slogan on the wall to my friend Saed he said it reads, “sex, illegal narcotics and music” – close enough!) Someone from the anti-Deutsch had evidently tried a little to get the gig canceled by posting on Jugenzentrum's Facebook page a quote from an interview I did with the Tehran Times, but after discussing it they decided to let the show go on.

Lately a good bunch of the folks organizing and attending my shows in Germany are somehow or other related to the Pirate Party. Which is especially interesting for me because these mostly young, extremely intelligent people who are usually expert in some computer-related field are not coming out of the Left scene, they're more like figuring out a lot of political questions along the way, as they increasingly keep getting elected to public office all over the country. I'm once again reminded in so many ways what a remarkably introspective people the Germans are, what a society so keenly aware of its own history – so unlike so many in the US who go around waving flags as if all these massacres and carpet-bombings never happened.

Freiburg is a lovely city in the mountains of southern Germany, near the Swiss border. There's a vibrant community of organizers there, a bunch of whom live together in a big collective house. Some of the folks there were friends with Brad Will, and we were surely in some of the same places at the same time, though for the most part this is our first encounter. People were organizing a musical event at the big community garden they had on the outskirts of town. When many of these folks were a bit younger and involved with organizing civil disobedience against the IMF and the World Bank and such, the question of “convention hopping” vs. “community building” was posed by many. It was evident among this group of gardeners, filmmakers and lawyers that their answer to this question was “both.”

The Reitschule in Bern is a cavernous bunch of buildings which include ten different performance spaces, from ones that can fit a few dozen to one that has room for thousands. The biggest rooms are used less often, but most of the place, which used to be a school before it was abandoned and then squatted, is pulsing with activity. It's directly next to the main train station, right outside the old walls of the medieval city, and is very valuable property. Some people really want to shut it down, but thousands of local people circulate through the Reitschule going to shows every week, and the efforts at shutting it down get voted down by the people and their elected representatives. Outside the building is a welcoming crowd of refugee drug dealers, a common thing to find in a place like the Reitschule, where those inside would be more likely to take the side of the refugees in a conflict with the cops, and where lots of young people are going every day and they need their drugs. It's the refugees without papers who end up dealing the drugs, naturally, because they have to do something to survive and legal avenues aren't generally available.

When I told anyone outside Switzerland that I had a gig in Davos I was usually met with a perplexed look. Davos is mostly known for being the town in the mountains where there's lots of snow and lots of bankers having ski vacations and deciding the world's fate together, like when the World Economic Forum meets there every year. But Davos is also home to a punk rock club called the Box. It's a smoky place where the music is up too loud most of the time, in other words, a fine place for a punk rock gig. I had them eventually lower the volume to less deafening levels for my set. Hopefully far enough away to avoid hearing loss, Leila slept through the whole thing. At the end of the show when she woke up for a little while and we were walking to our rental car, she said, “that was weird -- you brought your guitar and we came to this place but you never played!”

In another, smaller, smokier place in Winterthur that, unlike the Box, which has a squattish feel, was an actual squat, Leila, Reiko and I were hanging out with a room full of fine upstanding squatters and eating some delicious vegan food together. Leila really liked the food and ate lots of it, but she wasn't very impressed with the place otherwise, as evidenced by the conversation she had with her mom, which was on speaker phone and easily audible to anyone in the room who wanted to listen.

“Where are you?” Nathalie asked over the phone line.

“In a squat,” Leila replied, sitting on the upper bunk of a bunk bed, next to Reiko.

“What's a squat?”, asked Nathalie. “Is that when people take over an abandoned building and live in it?”

Leila wasn't sure, but she was looking at Reiko's face for guidance, and Reiko was nodding her head in agreement. “Yes,” she said.

Nathalie: “What's it like in the squat?”

Leila: “It's dirty.”

I break out laughing, I can't help it.

“Daddy, stop laughing!” Leila says, suddenly embarrassed but not knowing why.

West of Cologne the three of us visited what is known locally as the Biggest Hole in Europe, a massive coal mine that is trying to expand even more, taking forest after forest and turning it into a big pit of coal and machinery.

Most of the time when I'm going somewhere I get a street address I can plug into my GPS, but for this gig there was no such thing. I was told to get off at a certain exit and take a right at the end of the ramp. We did that, and within a hundred meters the road ended. There where the road ended there was a makeshift dirt parking lot, and a young man on a bicycle wearing a pink skirt who welcomed us to the camp and pointed out where the action would be happening, a few hundred meters down a dirt road. We drove down the dirt road and eventually came to a small stage covered by a tarpaulin, with a nice little sound system already all set up. It was only at this point that Reiko and Leila ascertained that the gig would be outdoors.

Admittedly, before we got to the camp there near Cologne I didn't know if it was a protest against building a new road through the forest or some other sort of unwanted industrial activity, but I did know that it was a protest camp in the woods, and I had explained that to Reiko and Leila. Leila, however, is six, so should be forgiven for not knowing what a protest camp in the woods was, exactly. Reiko is 36, so quite a bit older, but she still somehow thought that a gig at a protest camp in the woods might somehow be an indoor gig. Which is all just to say that I was the only one of us who brought appropriate clothing for what turned out to be a very cold night, but luckily there was a big fire, so it all turned out fine.

Initially, trying to figure out what kind of protest camp this was was slightly confusing because most of the banners and posters scattered about were against nuclear power. Somehow this made sense, though, given the size and scope of the German anti-nuclear movement, and given that any sensible German environmentalist would be opposed to both nuclear reactors and coal mines. After having what must have been a slightly confusing conversation with a local resident about how the Cologne area seemed to have enough roads, I was informed that this was a protest against a coal mine, which was – he pointed – about three hundred meters in that direction.

Upon being informed that the biggest coal mine in Europe was just over yonder, Leila, having not the foggiest idea what a coal mine was, really wanted to check it out. So we walked into the woods to the platforms high up in the trees that folks had been busily constructing all that day, past that area to where the woods thinned out and then stopped being woods altogether, at which point we were walking on a surface that looked like the sort of caked, dried mud you see in the pictures of areas in the Amazon that have been logged and over-grazed and stuff like that. As we walked on the dried mud, the surface started getting increasingly harder to walk on, and then there were signs – in German, but the meaning was clear enough – that said this was an active mining area beyond these signs and people who didn't work at the mine were not allowed any further. I explained what the signs said to Leila and she very quickly said, “let's keep going.” When I hesitated she scolded me. “Come on, daddy!” Reiko was thirty meters behind us. “Come on, Reiko!”, she called to her.

We kept going. We could hear the machines in the distance, but it's a fairly flat part of Germany, and without any trees or hills it was impossible to tell how much longer we would need to walk before we could actually see the pit. It was starting to get dark, and I managed to convince Leila that we should turn back, though I really wanted to see the actual pit myself too and get a feel for just how big the biggest hole in Europe really is.

By 9 pm, when my show was happening there in the woods on the outdoor stage with the lovely sound system, Leila was tired, but didn't want to miss any action. She wanted me to park our car directly in front of the stage so she could be part of the scene while lying down in the car. Thirty meters was practically speaking the closest we could really be to the stage with the car, and that wasn't close enough for Leila, so she did what she has done innumerable times in the past, and made a little nest for herself on the stage with my jacket and other soft things, including some stuffed animals of course. Incidentally, that's often the quietest place for a kid to be if a kid is going to attempt to sleep through a concert. I rarely use monitors, so I'm behind the speakers, where it's much quieter than in front of the speakers...

On the day Leila and Reiko flew home from Hamburg, after getting yet another call from an immigration official (this time a friendly Dutch one) wanting to make sure that Reiko was not engaging in child-trafficking, I had to fly back to London for one night. Crazy, but that's how the gigs happen sometimes, and this was one that paid well enough to make that sort of thing make sense, at least financially. It turned out that that day, April 26th, ended up being the first of who knows how many days of headline-grabbing queues at Heathrow's infamous Terminal 5. I waited in line for Immigration along with all the other non-EU citizens for two hours. At other times in the day the wait was apparently as long as three hours, but I guess I was lucky. Most people in line were stoic, others were discussing the reasons for the delay.

What was evident was that it was a protest of some kind. I say this because it was plain to see that the line for UK and other EU citizens was staffed by three Immigration agents, who glanced at the ID's presented to them and let the Europeans through within a few minutes. Then, during the two hours I and hundreds of other travelers were waiting in line, those three Immigration agents were sitting there with nothing to do. In our line there were also three agents – although there were desks and computers sufficient for twenty or so agents if the place were fully staffed. Conveniently for me I suppose, these three overworked agents were not asking anyone what they were doing in the UK, they were just stamping the passports when they finally arrived at their desks. I asked the agent I finally got to if this was an industrial action of some kind. No, he said, this is because of the Cuts. Actually, I thought, it's a good strategy for them to be doing this kind of industrial action and then saying it's because of the Cuts, because the Cuts do royally suck, but it was very obvious that the line could have gone twice as fast if the three agents with nothing to do had been temporarily moved to our line instead. In a society less riven by class division and animosity than Britain – such as anywhere else in northern Europe – I suspect that's what they would have done.

Back in Germany. A gig in Senffabrik, an old factory in the center of Flensburg that is being rented by an assortment of alternative types. In every way it has the feel of a squat. The rent is cheap, but it's interesting that the landlord manages to charge for the place at all – the building is not that ancient, but it's certainly well over a century old, and has clearly not been well-maintained. The floors, once presumably flat, have become a series of hills about the height of your average speed bump on a residential street. There is so much mold growing on the walls the entire building smells like a rainforest. I had a packed audience, and most of them clearly had never set foot in the place. I don't know who they were or where they all came from, but they were half my age and looked very green, as in inexperienced, at least in terms of exposure to places like Senffabrik. About twenty of these young people came in as a group, and all of them looked like if it weren't for the fact that twenty of them had come together, they would have fled immediately. Instead they all came in and sat on the various couches strewn about the bar, looking very uncomfortable. Eventually they relaxed.

In Neumunster the Pirate Party was having their annual national convention. Some folks set up a gig for me to do in town during the weekend of their convention, thinking it might attract some Piraten. It didn't – they were all still having meetings and such late into the night, like good political activists often do. I thought this might be the case, but that we'd attract a crowd of somewhat less committed Pirates, the ones who tend to leave meetings early, but there were none like that – which impressed me even before about the Pirate Party, though for my own selfish purposes I wish there were more lazy Pirates around... There was still a good crowd, four members of which had come all the way from Denmark, which is where I needed to be the next day, so it was very convenient that they offered me a ride. (I had been planning to take the train, but this option seemed like more fun, and was definitely cheaper.)

They were two married couples, one of which had kids that were staying with the grandparents for the night so they could go to the show. The two men had both been members of Red Youth when they were younger, and back when Red Youth was a much more active national organization in Denmark. It was over ten years ago, when they were active in Red Youth, that they had first heard my music. When you get to play for teenagers it's great, because it tends to have a bigger impact on them than with older, more jaded adults, and as they get older they remember their teenage years and everything they did and all the music they listened to with an intensity unlike the associations most people will make in their adult years. I felt like a real rock star, particularly once we got to their house in the countryside of Jutland, where they rolled all the joints I could smoke and put me up for the night in the most comfortable bed in the house. I don't know where the four of them slept, but I'm afraid they were all on couches. I didn't protest though.

May 1st. I have no idea how many times I've spent the First of May in Denmark, but probably at least ten. May 1st, of course, is International Workers Day, but some of my readers from the US may not be aware of that. Although the holiday was an initiative of the Socialist International following massacres of workers protesting in support of the eight-hour day in Chicago and Milwaukee on May 1st and 2nd in 1886, International Workers Day was renamed Labor Day in the US and moved to September a long time ago. But in Denmark, and in just about every other country on Earth with the exception, at least to a large extent, of the United States, May 1st is a big deal.

Usually it's raining, or at least cold, in Denmark on the First of May – as was the vast majority of my time in Europe over the course of the spring. But there were two hot, sunny days in Scandinavia during my time there – May 1st and May 3rd. I began the day early in Roskilde, where I have begun May Day now on I think five different occasions. When I stay in Copenhagen I almost always reside in the shack behind the house of two of my favorite Danish communists, Gerd and Jan, who are as welcoming as hosts as they are leftwing. As I was walking from their house in the Valby neighborhood to the train station at seven in the morning, I walked past a dozen or so young men, some wearing hardhats, most with a can of Carlsberg in their hands. That was not a typo or anything – it was seven in the morning and the Danish May Day celebrants had already started drinking. This is normal in Denmark.

I took the train to Roskilde – which takes fifteen minutes, twice as long as it takes to drive there – and was met by a young woman working for Danish national radio. This is also something that happens to me in Europe sometimes – getting on the radio. The interviewer was, not unusually for Danish women, shockingly beautiful and almost completely unaware of this fact. She exuded a self-confidence completely normal for Danes who grew up going to Danish daycares as a baby and Danish schools as a kid, but not the sort of arrogant self-confidence you might expect of such a beautiful, intelligent, well-educated woman, if she were, say, from the US. Maybe it's something to do with growing up in a big imperial country like the US that makes so many people so loud and arrogant, or maybe the Danes are just so humble because they are completely surrounded by other beautiful, intelligent, self-confident people, so what is there to be arrogant about? I might not have been so affected by her beauty if she hadn't been standing about ten centimeters from my face, holding that furry microphone stuck right near my mouth. I think I did OK with the interview, and I'm sure I succeeded in not acting inappropriately, which was my main goal, given the circumstances.

The event I was singing at in the small city of Roskilde was the annual First of May breakfast get-together of the most leftwing political party that actually runs candidates, what's known as the “Red-Green Coalition,” called Enhedslisten. In past years people would talk who were party activists, many of the older ones having been active in the Danish Communist Party or other leftwing organizations before Enhedslisten came together not too long ago. But now it was a bit different – the same sorts of people speaking, but now most of the speakers were holding elected office, both nationally and locally. Suddenly I find myself with friends in parliament, which is always a bit unnerving.

Although it wasn't raining and I spent the morning hanging out with actual politicians, the rest of the day was more like a typical May Day in Denmark for me. I sang at three different events in Copenhagen, one planned well in advance, the others planned only hours in advance. As is often the case, the gigs that had the biggest and most enthusiastic audiences were the more spontaneous ones.

All of Copenhagen was a bustling sea of humanity, drinking beer, listening to music, and often waving red, black or red and black flags. This was particularly true in the most leftwing neighborhood in Copenhagen, where the old Ungdomshuset once stood, Norrebro. In Faelledsparken, the big park where the officially-sanctioned May 1st event takes place every year, it was such a sea of humans that it was a bit annoying. Normally, on a typical rainy May Day, you get more of the extremes – people who are so political, or so enthralled with a certain band, or so enthusiastic about drinking that they don't care that it's pissing down cold rain and they go to the park anyway. On a sunny day, though, you get all the riff-raff. Granted, they are scantily-clad, sun-bathing, very attractive riff-raff, but riff-raff nonetheless. They're not there for the music or the politics, by and large, just there to burn their lilly-white flesh and look really good while they're doing it.

In Norrebro, at the completely unplanned gig at Folkets Park, the sound system was an absolutely wretched disco kind of thing that basically didn't work for live instruments, but somehow we made it work, though it was probably a bad idea to try. There was some kind of Elvis-ish slap-back effect happening, some kind of weird half-second delay, which made the guitar sound just horrendous for playing anything that had any kind of beat to it. Nonetheless, a large crowd in front of me was dancing and singing along. Oddly, although I often have a hard time lining up a good gig in a spacious venue in Copenhagen, here I was in this park with hundreds of people, dozens of whom knew all the songs and were happily, drunkenly singing along with them. Something like this can randomly happen in a park in Norrebro, but then two days later I can (and did) do a gig in a venue fifty meters away from Folkets Park for a crowd in the single digits. Maybe someday I'll figure out how this all works.

In all fifty states of the US I don't think I've ever come across a socialist youth club oriented towards teenagers, but in Denmark there are a number of them. The one I ended up singing at to finish off May Day is around the corner from Folkets Park. It's a socialist youth club unaffiliated with any of the left parties, but probably most oriented towards Enhedlisten. They have their own two-story building, and some arm of the government that supports youth groups pays the rent. Most of the folks were in their teens, with a bunch in their twenties as well, such as the one who brought me there from the park, a young man who lamented that most of the kids in the socialist youth club don't stay politically active when they're older. This reminds me of what one of my bosses said to me a long time ago when I used to do word processing for a living. I was surprised that this basically nice but apolitical woman had been in SDS as a youth. She explained, “that's where all the cute guys were.” It might be the same sort of thing with the socialist youth club, but if so, it's a bit hard to imagine, based on the level of enthusiasm with which dozens of kids were dancing and singing along to every word of many of my songs. (But maybe I just think too highly of the potential influence of my music over young minds.) Turned out they had four of my songs in their official socialist youth club songbook...

In Skals, a small village in western Jutland, about as far as you can go from Copenhagen without leaving Denmark, I had the very unusual, indeed almost unique, experience of playing at the same high school not once, but twice, one month apart. I believe it's only happened once before that I've been invited back to play at a high school that I had played at before in the US. Generally, the teachers who invite me get in trouble afterwards, even if they didn't think they would. The one high school where I was invited back, the teacher got in trouble after the second time. (The first time was only for his class – the second time was for several hundred students, and the gig included not just me, but the very rude, beer-promoting English punk rock poet, Attila the Stockbroker.)

Turns out the Skals Efterskole is one of over two hundred such schools across Denmark, a sort of boarding school with partial public financing for kids in the ninth and tenth grades. I don't know if all the other schools are like this one, but it was fairly evident right away that this school is a place with highly engaged teachers and administrators who are really focusing on critical thought, civic engagement, democratic decision-making and good stuff like that. The students were generally present in a way that is very rare among their peers in the United States. No doubt they were still kids, but they were kids with whom you could have an intelligent conversation in a foreign language about many of the issues of the day. Both times at Skals I sang with no amplification in a theater for two hundred or so students, and the entire audience was quiet and clearly, authentically appreciative. The second time there was a lot of coughing going on but that couldn't be helped – it seemed like half the country had the flu during the month between my visits to Denmark, and Skals was definitely not spared.

In Malmo, Berg had recently returned from Moscow, and together he and a Russian anarchist gave a presentation in a collective vegan cafe in which they painted a chilling picture of how tough it is to be an activist in Russia. There I met an Iranian filmmaker named Mehdi who was working on a film about Wikileaks, and wanted to record me singing “Song for Bradley Manning.” We did an interview in a nearby park that was pleasantly interrupted by a large family including kids ranging in age from two to eleven or so, who insisted that Mehdi film them doing an intricately choreographed hiphop performance. They all had Spanish names and were rapping in Swedish. The evidence of Sweden's open immigration policy for so many decades is everywhere, and Malmo is a vibrant multicultural city, as are all the major cities of Sweden.

By the time I got to Oslo, the trial of mass murderer Anders Breivik had been going on for several days. I was reading about it every day in the news, along with the always-imminent possible Greek exit from the Eurozone. I took the train from Gardemon Airport, locked away one of my suitcases in one of the big lockers that they still have at the train station in Oslo (in many other countries they did away with these big lockers at train stations, sensible and useful though they would be, because of the threat of terrorism). I went to Rooster Coffee, the best espresso in the Oslo train station, and met a young man there, one of the organizers of my gig in town that night, I'm spacing on his name. We went to Hausmania, a venerable Oslo squat, and left my guitar with the refugees who populate the cafe, relatively safe within the bowels of the squat. My comrade and I walked around town for most of the afternoon, in the rain, and got very wet. We visited the other prominent local squatted social center, Blitz – if Hausmania is largely for older hippies and refugees, Blitz is the domain of the young, vegan punk rockers. Norway doesn't have a Black Bloc, but if there were anyone militant enough to be part of such an outfit they would hang out at Blitz.

Several city blocks were still closed off to the public, their facades still being repaired after the extensive damage done by the massive bomb that somehow failed to cause the collapse of the building that was intended. (Though Breivik planned his deadly operation with great precision, he apparently failed to take into consideration the parking garage that was directly beneath his explosive-packed van, so much of the blast impact went downwards instead of upwards into the government offices above.) Flowers were surrounding the courthouse where the trial was taking place, where 40,000 people had recently engaged in a wonderful sing-along to a popular Norwegian version of Pete Seeger's song, “My Rainbow Race,” a song Breivik apparently hates, which promotes multiculturalism and togetherness among us humans, something Breivik opposes to a wildly sociopathic degree. Although the question posed in the trial, which is not about Breivik's guilt or innocence, as this has already been firmly established, but about whether Breivik, or anyone else who commits an unprovoked massacre of 77 people, should be considered sane or insane, is a very interesting one. On one level, of course the guy is completely nuts and sociopathic. But on the other hand, if that's true of everyone who commits similar massacres throughout history, then Europe is populated largely of the descendents of sociopathic killers, as anyone who participated in the Inquisition, the Crusades, or fascism clearly had to have been.

I'm sure I'm not the only one ill at ease that not far away from the courthouse, beside Hausmania, is a small park that, as I visited, housed the remnants of what had been a 24-hour encampment of Palestinians refugees. A couple weeks before I got to Oslo most of the tents had been taken away by the authorities, and yet another public protest camp of refugees not wanting to be deported to war zones had been stopped by the powers that be. The fact is, Breivik or no Breivik, Norway remains a far less multicultural society than its more populous neighbor to the east, Sweden.

At Bergen airport I learned that the brother of one of Breivik's victims, an Arab, threw a shoe at the killer, but hit his lawyer instead by accident. Collateral damage I guess. He was very nervous about throwing the shoe, but when others in the courthouse applauded him he felt better. It's hard to imagine well-behaved, middle class, social democratic Norwegians applauding someone for throwing a shoe at someone else, but until recently it was very hard to believe that a Norwegian would be the one to carry out the most horrific massacre in western European history since World War II.

I had never been to Bergen. It didn't take long in Bergen to see that it is easily one of the most beautiful cities in Norway, a country full of beauty. To a certain extent it wouldn't matter what kind of buildings they stuck in there, since the whole place is perched on hills and mountains overlooking stunning fjords – it would be very challenging to make this landscape unattractive. Probably nothing short of open pit mining could ruin this scene.

Bergen is a university town, and my gig there was at the university. My main contact was an Englishman named Dave Watson who had been living in Norway since soon after Thatcher took over his mother country. Dave has lived for decades in this prosperous social democracy, raising children there and becoming fluent in Norwegian, but he is still a leftwing English class warrior at heart. He's a few years older than me, and like so many others of that generation, across Europe, North America, and most especially Central America, his life was forever changed by his direct experiences with the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Reagan's proxy war there, and the concurrent civil war in nearby El Salvador. He's part of the Ben Linder generation, you could say.

During times when there is no serious mass movement going on in a society, the more fringe leftwing groups always retreat to the university campuses, especially the larger universities. It was immediately clear that this was the case with the university in Bergen. The sponsors of my concert were students and community members like Dave who were involved with Latin America solidarity. For the most part, this meant students involved with organizing trips to help out on a farm in Cuba or to monitor elections in El Salvador, but there were other, smaller groups also present, such as the one Maoist group on campus with three very active members who makes it their main purpose to support the most controversial guerrilla movements they could find, namely Peru's Shining Path and India's Naxalites. Being on the left comes with lots of internal challenges, no doubt about it. As far as I could tell, the three Maoists had more important things to do than to attend the film screening and concert in the other room, remaining for the whole time at their little table with their Naxalite literature. I talked with the one female Shining Path supporter for ten minutes or so, and I could feel her commitment to principle, it oozed from every pore. Like many other members of political groups that are so marginal that they don't have much of a community associated with them, she had a tension about her borne, I suspect, from the pain of having to hear her peers regularly tell her she's in a cult, or she's crazy, or she supports a divisive, violent, authoritarian group that has very limited popular support. The very last thing I felt like doing was disagreeing with her politics like almost everyone else she meets would probably be doing when they started talking about politics, which probably was a daily occurrence, initiated by her. What I really wanted to do was join the cult just long enough to become her boyfriend and extricate her from it with the help of lots and lots of psychotropic drugs that we would do together every weekend. But that's just in my fantasy life. In real life we talked for ten minutes and I went and did my show while she ignored it.

My last gig in Europe was to the north of Bergen in the city of Trondheim, a place I've been many times before, ever since meeting Bjorn-Hugo at a NATO protest in Sweden seven years ago. The gig was where my gigs in Trondheim have been ever since the punk rock social center, UFFA, burned down several years ago. Actually the specific venues have varied since UFFA, but they've all been in the same neighborhood, Svartlamon. Svartlamon is sort of Trondheim's answer to Christiania, the 900-member squatted community in the center of Copenhagen. Svartlamon is a bit smaller and less populous, but it has the same feel of a liberated, squatted urban neighborhood. It's a very international neighborhood, easy to find folks from the US, Germany, England, and at least one Argentinian man and one Chinese woman. The day after my show I played in the same venue for a young man's Confirmation, which is apparently something Lutherans do when they turn 14. I had never played at such an event before, and I was skeptical about it at first, but it went OK. The mother of the boy turning 14 had only heard one song of mine, a love song I wrote for Yuan-Yuan, the Chinese harp player who was also performing at the Confirmation, along with the rest of her band – the Argentinian academic moonlighting as a bass guitarist, and two talented Norwegian guitar players. I warned everybody that most of my songs were terribly offensive and the one song the woman liked was not at all representative of my repertoire, but after scaring them all like that, the songs I actually did weren't as offensive as all that – if only because my warning probably made people think I'd be much more offensive than I actually am... (At least I'm not as offensive as Attila the Stockbroker, for example.)

On the morning I left Trondheim I flew to Copenhagen. Noting there that I had almost three hours until my next flight, to Chicago, I dashed away from the airport, took the Metro to Christianshavn, and walked to Pusher Street in Christiania. Bought a joint, smoked it with two young German travelers who I thought looked like they needed a smoke (they did, it turned out), and then I took the Metro back to the airport and caught my flight in plenty of time – and I was in the right mindframe to enjoy it, more or less.

The fun in Chicago began right away. Some nice labor activists who saw my Facebook post about needing a ride from the airport picked me up and delivered me to my lovely home during my week in Chicago in the Rogers Park area. When I got there I went for a walk to the Heartland Cafe, a mile away, to eat dinner. I hadn't looked to see if an event was happening there, but when I got there I discovered many friends from throughout the US and even a couple from Europe, there for a Code Pink event where Medea Benjamin was speaking, and rallying the crowd brilliantly as usual. Medea was arrested for disrupting a speech by some high-ranking government official recently. I had heard the audio version of the great speech she managed to make while being hauled off by security, but the video which I saw that night was even more impressive.

Every morning during my stay in Chicago I walked to the Heartland to meet friends for breakfast who were in town for the festivities, that being the protests against NATO's biggest-ever get-together, which was happening for the first time in Chicago, rather than its usual location of Washington, DC. No matter how successful these protests are in terms of changing anything or getting media attention or whatever else, I always enjoy them immensely, because it's the only time I get to hang out with so many different friends during the same period of time in the same city.

Having been away from the US all spring I was especially curious to see if the Occupy movement had revived itself since it was essentially beaten and arrested into not being able to hold almost any physical spaces throughout the US. There were lots of scattered elements of Occupy in the city throughout the week but nothing like an overwhelming presence. Still, the atmosphere was festive, and there were always small or somewhat larger groups of people involved with various protest activities in various parts of the city every day. Some of the marches were too small to even happen, while others involved hundreds and in a couple of cases thousands of participants.

Riding around on the back of Todd Allen's electric recumbent bicycle with a spiffy sound system mounted on a cart on the back of it and singing while moving was a definite highlight for me. The big rally on Sunday was marred by the sound system inexplicably dying after I was about two-thirds of the way through with my first – and, it turned out, only – song of the day. Tom Morello, the Outernationals and other musicians did a semi-acoustic set in the middle of the crowd on the hot asphalt beneath the stage, which was very photographic and absolutely the right thing to do, but very few people could hear anything they were playing due to the sound situation.

I had to leave the rally early to get to my last gig of the tour, a sleepily anticlimactic show for a small crowd of Palestinians at the Hyatt in Dearborn, Michigan, commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba 64 years before. So I left the rally before most of the arrests and police brutality that evidently came with the end of the march. And as I left Chicago, the three young men charged with “terrorism” who seem to have been entrapped by undercover police posing as Black Bloc, were still being held in solitary. On the way to Detroit I wrote a song about that. And now I'm back in Portland, watching my daughter ice skate in the mall.

4 comments:

Dean Stevens said...

David,
What an amazing travelogue.....keep up the great vital work you do. See you in October. Dean Stevens

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