Friday, May 24, 2013

Diary of a Drug-Smuggling Troubador

As I write, I'm right around the halfway point of a 10-week tour of seven countries in northern Europe. I thought I'd share some stories from the first five weeks.

A Greek Anarchist in Copenhagen

My first stop was Copenhagen, and a house concert at the home of two of my favorite communists. (From two different communist parties, however, and still happily married!) It was Gerd's birthday, and once again, we were celebrating it together. It was more or less an accident that this tour was starting in Copenhagen, though; my first previously-planned gig was in Norway, but the nice woman from United Airlines – a pianist from Bangalore -- explained that the best itinerary went through Copenhagen, and as long as I spent less than 24 hours there, I could stop there for no extra charge. So I arranged to spend about 23 hours and 50 minutes in Copenhagen. Which ended up being several days, because they lost my luggage (again).

So I arrived at my home away from home in the Valby neighborhood of Copenhagen, just down the street from a massive union hall with a big red star on top. Took a nap, ate dinner with my friends there, and played a little concert in their living room.


It was more or less a private party, with just friends invited, but Gerd said it was fine if I listed it on my website with an “RSVP Gerd if you want to come,” so Gerd told me in advance that she knew that “some people from Ungdomshuset” would be coming. That's Danish code for “anarchist youth.” So I knew in advance that a broad spectrum of revolutionary politics would be represented in that room – depending on who's defining the spectrum, you could say that the eight people in the room represented socialist reformists (that is, socialists far to the left of the government in Denmark, but who believe it might be possible to change it from within), communist reformists (that is, people even further to the left of the government in Denmark, who believe it can be changed without a revolution, but think running candidates is pointless at the moment), communist revolutionaries (a very small group of Danes who believe that overthrowing the Danish government by any means necessary is the only way forward), and anarchists – one Danish and one Greek.

I also knew in advance that everyone in the room would either be twenty years older than me, or twenty years younger. This happens a lot. After the show, Gerd, the anarchists, and I hung around and talked politics. Eventually the discussion devolved into a very respectful but very polarized debate on the pros and cons of Josef Stalin, and I went to bed. But before that point it was more about contemporary Danish and Greek politics.

All across Europe, xenophobic, rightwing political parties are gaining ground – such as the Dansk Folkparti in Denmark, and Golden Dawn in Greece (the subject of a great new documentary called Into the Fire). On the other hand, so are leftwing parties such as Enhedslisten in Denmark, and Syriza in Greece – this kind of thing can happen in actual, multi-party democracies. (Folks in more primitive democracies like the US, Canada and England aren't generally familiar with this phenomenon from direct experience, but it's real, in other places...)

The chilling fact we all learned in Gerd's living room that evening came from the Greek. In Greece, he explained, there's a law that says that how the police vote should be public knowledge. (Cool law!) In the most recent election in Greece, Golden Dawn – an overtly fascist, anti-immigrant party that regularly beats up immigrants, goose-steps in public and does the Nazi stiff-arm salute, etc. -- got 7% of the overall vote. But among the ranks of the police, they got 50%. In other countries with multi-party democracies, I'll bet the police vote would be similar, if we were allowed to know what it was.

The Teachers' Lockout

Danes generally hold social democracy (what people in the US generally call “socialism”) in high regard. Their differences are generally on the degree of it, and on issues like immigration, the European Union, NATO, etc. But the questions are along certain lines – for example, whether Denmark should participate in the occupation of Afghanistan is a dividing-line issue. Whether Denmark should massively increase its military budget is not – nobody thinks it should. Similarly, almost everybody in Denmark thinks the country should continue to have great schools, and that this requires having fairly high taxes to pay for the great schools. Unlike much of the world, most Danes will, if asked, reflect positively on their childhood experiences with school. Most Danes know that school is not just about learning math, science, etc., but about being a happy, well-adjusted kid who will become a happy, well-adjusted grownup and a good, loving parent.

So it was with some degree of shock that Denmark woke up one morning, a couple weeks before I got there, to find out that the new government, led by the Social Democrats, had decided that the traditional rules for how decisions are made in the schools would now change, with no negotiation, and if the teachers didn't like it, they didn't have to come to work. Traditionally, there were national laws dictating how many hours per week teachers were required to teach, and how much time they had for preparation and other things necessary for good teaching to happen. Now, these rules would be decided by the principal (headmaster) of each school. Which would mean more hours for teaching and fewer for preparation, everybody knew – it was just an underhanded way to make the teachers work longer hours without paying them for it, in order to avoid hiring more teachers. It was Denmark's version of austerity – the budget cuts happening all over Europe since 2008 that are causing so much misery everywhere, in reaction to the banking collapse that began in the US and then spread to everywhere else.

So for around a month, the teachers didn't come to school, and there were lots of very busy grandparents in Denmark, spending quality time with their grandchildren while the parents worked. (Probably some of the best times many of these kids ever had, actually – at least for those with nice grandparents.) The evidence of the lockout was everywhere, you couldn't miss it. Not only were the schools closed, but they were decorated with posters announcing the next demonstration, random bits of artwork, and police tape that normally would say something like “caution,” but instead read (in Danish), “this is crazy.” One such school – a small nursery school – directly across the street from Gerd's house was a case in point. Some cafes in town were showing their solidarity by changing their menu a bit, and selling things like “lockout burgers.”

Strip-Searched in Trondheim

I have now had the memorable experience of being strip-searched by customs officials twice in my life. Once driving from Copenhagen to Malmoe, Sweden, and once flying from Copenhagen to Trondheim, Norway. I understood what was going on pretty quickly, by the way the customs officials kept on slipping up and asking me and others about their flight from Amsterdam. We weren't coming from Amsterdam, we were coming from Copenhagen, but we could see that for the customs officials, this was the same thing.

And to be sure, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the two cities in Europe where it is easiest to procure really good weed – though finding hashish in any European city is something anyone can do within about one minute from arriving at the main train station, if you know where to look, which isn't hard. (Just ask any group of young men hanging around who look like they might not be citizens of the country you're in. 100% of the time, one of them is selling hash or knows someone within 50 meters of where you're standing who is. This is the only kind of work they can find, since the “illegal economy” of farmworkers, construction workers, dishwashers, nannies, etc. that keeps the US functioning is not allowed to exist in most European countries.)

They were actually searching everyone coming off the plane this time, which I had never seen before. The next day I heard on the news there was a big drug bust in Norway, involving a big shipment of something or other. Maybe they knew this was coming, and they were being extra-vigilant that day, I don't know. Most people weren't being strip-searched, but I was. Probably because they smelled weed on me, and they were wondering where it was. Hint: it wasn't taped to my body, it was in the vitamin bottle. They didn't find it, but I decided that day to stop traveling with pot.

The customs man kept on asking me if I had any drugs on me. Did he really think I was just going to tell him where they were? Do people do that...? And then he asked me if I knew anyone in Svartlamon – the squatted, hippie enclave, and coolest neighborhood in Trondheim – who sold drugs. At this point I laughed. The fact is, you can't walk ten meters in Svartlamon without tripping over a drug dealer, and everybody knows this. “If I know someone in Svartlamon who sells weed, I'm not telling you!” The customs guy laughed, too.

Of course, another possible reason they were interested in me could have been that a suspicious-looking band of young, black-clad Maoists were waiting for me in the airport.

Why does Norway have so many Maoists? It's a mystery. A friend from Copenhagen who lived for years in Oslo often asked herself this question. She grew up in a family of communists, of the more traditional, Moscow-oriented variety. This is common in many European countries. Actually in all of them. But Maoists are another thing. Most places saw an upsurge in Maoism during the 1960's, but then the phenomenon subsided by the time Mao died. But not in Norway. But why Norway? Why not some other small, rich European country, like Denmark, Sweden, or Switzerland? Who knows. But Norway has a lot of Maoists, young and old, and several of them were there at the airport waiting for me.

As usual with leftwingers of most any stripe, they were committed activists, cordial, and intelligent. Though unlike their anarchist brethren, they didn't smoke pot – party discipline, it's not allowed. (They usually compensate by drinking even more than the anarchists, which is allowed – so far I've never run across a completely straight-edge leftwing party.)

I knew that this party had taken a lot of heat for usurping control of a popular organization called SOS Racism. These accusations of parties like this taking over groups are common, and usually true. The thing is, when you're in a party that believes in what is termed “democratic centralism,” and the party decides it wants to do something, it's often much more able to accomplish the goal, whatever it may be, in comparison with more libertarian-minded activists who aren't making decisions as a block like that. Although I was very familiar with both sides of this argument, what was sad and interesting to see was that especially in a small city in a small country, this kind of thing takes on the characteristics of an argument between a divorced couple as much as anything else. It's personal. As teenagers, the Maoists and the anarchists all hung out in the same squats. But they all try to pretend it's all about politics, which makes it even sadder.

Some of my friends in Svartlamon were concerned, and perhaps even a bit upset, that I was doing a gig organized by the Maoists. They knew I had a general policy of playing for anyone to the left of the social democrats, regardless of whether they might be characterized by colors such as red, pink, green or black. But this was different, it seemed. One friend asked if I was still planning to stay in Svartlamon. I got all teary-eyed when I read that email. It's not that I have a problem with staying somewhere else, but since discovering and befriending the people of Svartlamon, I couldn't imagine not spending time there during a visit to Trondheim, regardless of whether I might be doing a gig in another part of town. Oftentimes, on previous visits, the only parts of Trondheim I saw were the airport, and Svartlamon. But this time I was branching out, just a little...

The Maoists were all involved in the group, SOS Racism, and, true to form, the gig was taking place at a place called the International Center. Other than the boxy acoustics in the room, this was one of the coolest gigs I ever did. The audience was a mix of Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, and Somalis, along with Norwegians. Many of the non-Norwegians were young men awaiting deportation back to the war zones from which they were attempting to escape. The father of the Kurdish-Iraqi manager of the center had been an Iraqi soldier in 1991, and went missing. Probably he was one of the hundreds of thousands of conscripts killed by my country's Air Force during that terrible winter.

Although the Norwegians were, in the main, the ones to spoke the best English, and probably only a few of the foreigners, such as one Congolese writer I had met before in Svartlamon, understood everything I was singing about, the audience certainly got the gist of it, and showed their appreciation with great enthusiasm. If this is the kind of gig Maoists organize, I want to do more gigs for the Maoists. (Although, true to form, the anarchists also organized a great gig – in a packed theater, with only a few hours' advance planning to spread the word.)

Before the gig at the International Center, Kenneth was showing me around downtown a bit. He took me to the offices of SOS Racism, a prominent storefront space in the middle of the city, with a popular space for leftwing teenagers to hang out upstairs. As we were walking, we came upon a statue. It was reminiscent of one I had seen in Berlin – a man on top of a pillar. The pillar was so high that you had to back up quite a bit in order to get a view of the man on top of it.

I asked Kenneth who the guy on the pillar was. Kenneth explained that in 1912, after Norway became independent from Denmark, the new rulers of Norway had this statue made, to celebrate their independence. The man – I can't remember his name – was a 12th-century Norwegian king, and was known mainly for his habit of decapitating people he didn't like, which was generally anyone who didn't believe in his version of Christianity.

OK, I thought, I'll take this with a grain of salt. This may be just the Maoist version of this medieval king's credentials. Perhaps he's also known for other, less violent things, too. But upon examining the statue more closely, my heart skipped a beat. I had noticed that the man was wearing a helmet, and had a sword – this kind of thing is common in old European statues. But what were those round-ish objects at his feet?

Those, Kenneth explained, are the decapitated heads of his victims.

A Tour of Squats

In the lovely city in the hills of southern Germany, Freiburg, there is a squatted social center called KTS. It was a disused building owned by the railroads, originally. When the cultural elite in Freiburg decided they were going to open up a new cultural center for classical music and such, the local leftist rabble decided that they, too, needed a cultural center for punk rock, so they opened one, too. The government was going to call their new cultural center KTS (an acronym for culture something or other). So the squatters called their new place KTS, too. After a while, the government changed the name of their cultural center, to avoid the confusion that was common because of the fact that the squatted social center was more popular and better-known.

The walls of the building were covered in art, and posters. Posters announcing upcoming protests and cultural events, and posters from the past two decades or so of leftwing activity in Germany, from past punk concerts, protests, festivals, nuclear transport shut-downs, etc. The G8 protests in Rostock – lots of good memories. One of the posters about upcoming events was advertising the Freiburg appearance of the phenomenal artist, Eric Drooker. As is often the case, nobody knew him by name, but when I showed my friends there some of his artwork on his website, everyone recognized it. Probably half of the big protests over the past thirty years that have used artwork for their posters, have used Eric's (with or without acknowledgment).

The squatter's movement in New York City in the 80's and 90's was a big part of Eric's life. New York City was pretty much the only place in the US that had that kind of squatting scene that would be familiar to people in much of Europe today, which was significantly bigger than it is now, back in the 80's, when it was commonly referred to as the autonomous movement (autonomen).

Today squatters are often spoken of with a certain degree of disdain or derision by more mainstream folks. It's often a “you'll grow out of it” kind of attitude. And indeed, much of the squat scene is youthful, in both age and appearance, though if you look closely, many of those tattooed, pierced men and women are older than you might think. (They just seem younger when they have green hair.)

But I would say that the influence on society of the squat scene would be difficult to overstate. As Europe becomes increasingly more privatized, more and more like the USA in all the wrong ways, the squat scene often seems like the last solid bastion of anti-capitalism left standing. As the social housing is systematically destroyed in country after country, city after city, and fancier, more expensive apartments are built to replace them, the squatters are there, standing out amongst the gentrified neighborhood more starkly than ever, saying, in so many ways, “there is an alternative.” You may not like our music or our way of dressing, etc., but you can live in a nice building, maintain it yourself, pay your electric bill and such, but tell the landlords to fuck off. Paying rent is not inevitable. It's a capitalist plot, and it's so ubiquitous at this point that if it weren't for the squatters, most people wouldn't even imagine that life without landlords is even possible.

Of all the squats in Europe, I have probably never seen a more thriving one than the Reitschule in Bern. They also have the best espresso, the best food, and the most thoroughly-pierced waiters, who are friendly and cordial in direct proportion to the number of piercings they have on their bodies. Within this old school building is a courtyard with a big medieval gate in front of it, which can be closed down in preparation for a police raid of the illegal refugee community who occasionally flees to the Reitschule when the police are trying to round them up. There is a print shop, a workshop where a man is building a long boat like the ones that used to be popular in the Pacific northwest before the white man came, a women's center, a theater for plays and such, a bar, a couple different spaces for concerts, big and small, several flats where people live, and the restaurant with the great food and coffee I mentioned before.

Every year the local authorities in Bern are trying to shut down the Reitschule, and every year they fail to do so. The thing is, the place is popular, and not just among the squatter-punk types. Every week, thousands of people circulate through the place, going to concerts, going out to dinner, or just hanging out in what feels like liberated space – a place where you know you can smoke a joint in peace, where the police are not welcome, and will be driven out if they show up, which they can only effectively do in large numbers.

A few months before, I had heard about a protest of 25,000 people in the center of Bern, in front of the government buildings there in the Swiss capital. (I only heard about this protest because I listen to German radio – it was not mentioned in any US media that I know of, whether “mainstream” or “alternative.”) What I didn't realize until my most recent trip to Bern was that it was organized by folks from the Reitschule, and it was in response to the government's latest attempt to shut down the place. Rather than just having another protest, they decided instead to flout the new curfew laws and have an all-night dance party in the streets of the city center. The message being, “if you stop us from having dance parties at the Reitschule, then we'll just have them here on your doorstep.” Instead of selling cheap beer (the main source of revenue for most squats in Europe), they bought hundreds of cases of it and gave it all away. And the Reitschule stays.

An Albanian Reunion in Denmark

I got back to Denmark just after the teachers had gone back to work. In the end, the government had negotiated a little bit, but overwhelmingly got what they wanted, and after a month of using up most of their union's financial reserves during the lockout, the teachers, and the kids, went back to school. But they were pissed (in the American sense of the word, not the British).

I was in Denmark to sing at May Day events once again – I've been in Denmark on May 1st for all but one or two of the past 13 years or so. This year I only had two gigs on May 1st – I think my record was last year, when I did five gigs in that one day. This year I began with a sleepy, early afternoon gig at the beginning of the May 1st event in Odense, a small city in the middle of Denmark which suffers from what you could call “Copenhagen syndrome,” that is, the leftwingers who grow up there promptly move to Copenhagen, where they can be with other members of their tribe. (In Louisville, Kentucky, they call this phenomenon “Portland syndrome.” Same idea.)

Then later in the day I sang in Arhus, Denmark's second-biggest city, and there the scene was decidedly more rowdy. Earlier that day, the Social Democratic prime minister of the country had been booed off-stage by an angry audience of teachers and their supporters, who all turned their backs on her while wearing t-shirts with a simple drawing of a frowning face on the backs of them. They also whistled and otherwise made lots of noise, and the politician had to end her speech after 7 minutes, because nobody could hear her. (Although in actuality, the much larger television audience could hear her just fine. If you know how microphones and soundboard recordings work, you understand why. But Danish politicians apparently aren't as savvy as US politicians in similar situations, so rather than orienting towards her TV audience and ignoring the crowd in front of her, she gave up.) The same thing happened with the mayor of Copenhagen attempting to address the May Day event there.

Usually, especially outside of Copenhagen, May 1st events in Denmark are more like union-sponsored picnics for the general public to come and listen to innocuous music – rock & roll cover bands and the like. But this time, the atmosphere, at least in the bigger cities, was electric. I got to Arhus hours after the prime minister was driven off the stage, but the atmosphere was still charged. Plus, every black-clad punk rocker in Arhus had come to hear me on the smaller of the two stages, where I was playing, all 100 or so of them, and they made such a ruckus that lots of other, less punk-rock types had to come and see what they were excited about.

It was a week later, after a few very nice gigs in northern Germany, that the Albanian reunion happened. Attila the Stockbroker flew from his home in England to Denmark to join me for several gigs. Attila plays a lot in England and in Germany, but rarely in Denmark, and I thought something should be done about that. (Plus, he has organized or facilitated so many great gigs for me in England that to say “I owe him one” would be a ridiculous understatement.) After a great gig for a packed crowd at the venerable punk rock social center in Denmark's third city, Alborg, we headed across the country to Copenhagen, along with a young punk with a large nose ring who came along for the free ride.

When Attila first became politically-oriented, as a young teenager, he became associated with a small communist party that held Albania up to be the pinnacle of human achievement to date. Mainly because this was the first organized group of leftists he came into contact with. But, naturally, he has always held a soft spot for Albanian-oriented communists as a result. But you don't meet them often. So when I brought Attila to Gerd's house, it was basically one big Albanian reunion. Here were two communists who had both made multiple trips to Albania over the years. Two people who both knew of the mythical importance of Albanian tractor production, who had both had personal opportunities to marvel at the ridiculous turtle-neck sweaters the secret police there used to be forced to wear all year round. (Note for the geographically-challenged: Albania is next to Greece, and it is usually hot there.)

In the midst of conversations about Albanian socialism, Albanian mountains, Albanian Beatles cover bands, and even Albanian football, Gerd, Attila and I headed to the harbor, where various folks including Gerd, her husband Jan, members of Enhedslisten and others had organized a concert/protest against the privatization of the local harbor. Because of the reason for the event, folks had thought it would make good sense to have the concert on a boat.

We were standing by the harbor, waiting for the boat, a couple hours before the event was set to begin. We were looking at various boats coming along, wondering if that was the one. When the boat we were waiting for finally came, there was no question that this was the one.

“It's a floating hippie thing!” Attila declared. Indeed it was. The motor was barely running, and it was proceeding at about the speed of someone walking nonchalantly down the sidewalk. It was a marvelous construction involving a dome-shaped cobb-looking structure on top, which was strong enough to climb on (which we did), and a sort of porch area with a sound system on it! Perfect. Attila, me, and the Oktober choir (dressed entirely in red, of course) performed for the assembled group of 80 or so socialists, communists, anarchists and hippies. (The hippies had come with the boat.)

A bunch of the folks who came told me about a new building which had been squatted, on Jagtvej, the same street that the old Ungdomshuset used to be on, before it was raided and destroyed by the police several years ago. This new building was just a hundred meters away from the old Ungdomshuset, and they asked me if I could do an impromptu show in there. So, with two hours to promote the show, we parted ways and I headed over there later with Jan. (Gerd and Attila had gone elsewhere to watch a football game and talk about Albania some more.)

There at this old school building which the kids were trying to turn into a new squat, I did an acoustic show in front of the blackboard for several dozen young people, many of whom had perhaps never heard acoustic music before, but seemed to like it very much. I realized then that I had left my guitar strap on the boat, and I borrowed one from someone else, which I now still have with me, so I guess I stole it. Hopefully whoever owned it doesn't mind. There was a Reclaim the Streets event planned for after my show, so most people in the squat headed out and walked towards another part of town nearby. As some of them were walking, they were chanting slogans, one of which was the not-very-political but very rhythmic chant, “more! beer! more! beer!” I was not surprised to learn that as the evening progressed, after Jan and I went home to bed, there were a number of youth arrested for throwing rocks at the police and such.

I spent most of the next day hanging out with the fine, upstanding hippies who had built the wonderful boat we sang on (one of whom did a brilliant job of repairing my torn-up guitar case). This boat was just the tip of the iceberg – they were working on another boat which was much, much larger, but otherwise of similar design. It was about the size of a fairly large passenger jet, but probably a lot heavier, as it was mostly made of metal. If they ever finish building that thing and get it out of the warehouse and into the water and it actually floats, it will be amazing to behold. Their aim is to build a small “floating city,” complete with a greenhouse boat for growing vegetables on the water! And, of course, a sauna boat.

I left Denmark and headed towards the Netherlands, stopping for a lovely night in Bremen along the way.   Heard from some of the Jagtvej squatters, who informed me that the police had raided the place and kicked them out. In the Netherlands I once again did a couple gigs with a man who is undoubtedly a one-man Dutch hippie institution, the great Armand. Our last gig was at the Ruigoord Poetry Festival, in the squatted village of Ruigoord, to the west of Amsterdam, right on the industrial harbor, surrounded by huge tanks of oil, big industrial-size windmills, and the main coffee roasting plant for Starbucks' European operations. The village of Ruigoord was almost razed and turned into more oil storage tanks itself many years ago, but for the resistance of the villagers and their supporters, who managed to save the place (after losing all of the surrounding farmland to the industrial harbor). Neither Armand or I did any poetry, and all the poetry everybody else did was in Dutch, but it was a great festival nonetheless.

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