Thursday, October 17, 2013

East Coast Travels

I love airports. Sure, there are the bored business travelers, the loud Americans who think everybody else desperately wants to hear every bit of their end of a mobile phone conversation, and there's often plenty of bad parenting on display, if you're not in Scandinavia. But for the most part, particularly in relatively poor countries like the United States, you've got a whole lot of people who are going somewhere, and excited to be doing it. Lots of folks who rarely fly, because they can't usually afford it, and when they do it, they're happy. Or they're sad to be leaving friends or family who they don't get to see often enough, and either way, the emotions are in the air, the atmosphere is charged with kinetic energy.

Being back at Logan Airport in Boston is especially exciting for me. Boston, the city I lived in as a young adult for more years than any other, where I cut my teeth as a street performer for the most part, where every block, and every stop on the MBTA contains memories. And it's a particularly exciting place to be because it is my point of embarkation for the journey home to Portland, Oregon, where I'll get to see my little family again, for the first time in two months.

Being at an airport for me usually means I'm in between one leg of a tour and another, which is indeed the case today. I flew from Iceland to Boston nine days ago, when the US government was well into the first week of its shutdown, and today I'm flying away from Boston, on the third week of shutdown, the day before we get to find out whether the federal government will default on its multi-trillion-dollar debt for the first time in over a century.

It was only nine days, with gigs in two US states and two Canadian provinces, but the east coast leg of my tour around the world has been full of the fascinating diversity of the human experience, and seems well worth recounting a bit.

When I arrived at Logan Airport nine days ago, I waited in the long line at Immigration, just ahead of an older man who took interest in the fact that I had a guitar over my shoulder, and asked me about what I had been doing. I told him I had been playing gigs around the world, and he told me about his life raising kids and working in middle management for various corporations, all of which at some point downsized their workforce and laid him off after a few years. But his wife still had a job, so he seemed to be doing OK, as he was just returning from some kind of Holy Land tour, where he had visited places of significance to Catholics such as the Vatican and what he called Israel, by which he meant the occupied West Bank. He had been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem without noticing the Apartheid Wall. What did he think of the new pope, I wondered? John Paul II was his favorite, he said. John Paul was Polish, and so was he. (By which he meant Polish-American.)

I was glad to make it through that line. The Immigration guy was impressed at the number of countries I had visited, which I had obediently written down on the landing card. What were you doing in all those countries? A concert tour. How was it? Good, except for not being allowed into New Zealand. What happened? I guess I should have gotten that work permit before I left the US. Ah, he replied, Immigration can be sticklers about that sort of thing. Yes. Especially US Immigration, I wanted to say, but didn't. So many friends from so many countries who can't even enter the US on a tourist visa because of having some kind of criminal record, such as things like marijuana possession charges from two decades ago.

The rental car center was packed with people. Most of the companies had long lines of folks waiting to rent their cars. The company I had a reservation on had no line for some reason, even though it was one of the cheapest. The woman behind the counter did what they always do in the US – she tried to convince me that the small car I had reserved was really too small, and wouldn't I be more comfortable in a bigger car, for an extra $5 a day? No, I actually meant to reserve that car, thanks! I don't say that. I'm much more polite than that. The woman who has just stepped up to the counter, one foot away from me is breathing loudly, coughing every thirty seconds or so, without covering. She's old, she has very badly dyed black hair, and she's clearly mentally ill.

“They say you've got the last car,” she says to the woman behind the counter.

“I can help you when I'm done with this gentleman,” the woman responds, clearly annoyed, clearly tired of dealing with this crotchety old germ-spreading Bostonian.

She said I'd have a little Fiat, but the car in that space was a Chevy Malibu, which was exciting to me for no reason other than the fact that I knew the trunk would be big enough that I could fit both my suitcases and my guitar in it. That's always nice for not getting the car broken into. This has happened five times so far in my touring career (three times in the US, twice in Europe), but it's not happening this time, with this spacious car.

The young woman who checks me out of the parking lot looks about 16, and seems totally out of place in that smelly airport parking garage. She's the most elegant, angelically beautiful Latin American woman I've ever seen. She says only a few words, but the way she speaks immediately communicates an incisive wit, and an abundance of intelligence. Probably one of Boston's 250,000 college students. We check the car for scratches together. I sign on the dotted line, while she holds the paper on the hood of the car for me, unbearably close.

“Do you need anything else?”

Why is she asking me that? What else might I need? Directions to get out of the parking garage? Of course it's just a polite, meaningless question, to which I'm expected to answer, “no thanks.” Which is what I say. While every pheromone-drenched cell in my body is screaming at my brain to answer, “your phone number,” but I don't, and never would, for which the angel in the parking garage is probably glad.

It's after 8 pm by the time I get out of there, and my body feels like it's 2 am, and definitely past bedtime. Jet lag. I have for some reason decided I'd spend the night at my dad's place in Connecticut, a three-hour drive from the airport. I meet a friend in Wellesley for coffee at JP Licks. Sufficiently buzzed on caffeine, I continue on down the highway, enjoying the unexpected fact that my car has satellite radio built in. Fifty more Syrian refugees dead in Mediterranean, says the BBC.

After a too-short visit with my father and stepmother, I'm off the next day to Long Island, for the first of seven gigs on the east coast.

My father is a composer, and taught composition and other music-related courses at Long Island University for over three decades. For the small community of people who are into what they call “concert music,” what they used to call “avant garde,” “12-tonal,” or “microtonal” music, especially on Long Island, Rovics is a familiar name. But there is very little crossover between the Left or the folk music scene and the world of “concert music,” so I'm always pleasantly surprised when someone at a show knows one of my parents. The opening act consists of a fantastic duo – a married couple, I believe. The man playing the piano and singing along with his wife, who is clearly a trained opera singer, and pulls of these political art songs that the man wrote with another man who's sitting in the front row, hunched over because of some kind of health problem like the one my grandmother used to have. The woman is definitely a senior citizen, though a well-preserved one, and her voice is very much still intact. She pulls off these very funny songs, very reminiscent of Tom Lehrer's stuff, with acrobatic, vocal perfection, which match the skilled delivery of the piano part that her husband provides.

The gig is in a church. Which in North America is a common thing, and doesn't mean there's anything religious about the event. It's sponsored by Veterans for Peace, which is a secular organization. But at this church event, the minister is involved, and he is clearly a revered figure among the people gathered here. He's the second opening act. Banjo in hand, he proceeds to tell us all about the plane wreck in California about which Woody Guthrie wrote the song “Deportees.” He describes the song in detail before singing it, which is usually a bad idea, but then I wonder if he's doing that specifically for the benefit of the large Latin American presence in the room. It's a free event, and I get the impression that many of his flock who are there along with the Vets for Peace contingent are recently-arrived migrants who may not speak very good English yet. Sure enough, his second song is one by Daniel Viglietti, which he introduces as a song by Victor Jara. (Victor Jara sang it, but he didn't write it. I find out later that the minister was aware of this, but presumably didn't feel it was worth mentioning. As a songwriter this rubs me the wrong way, but it shouldn't.)

The Vets for Peace crowd is almost entirely of my parents generation. One of many gigs I've done over the years where I'm the youngest person in the room. I don't mind at all. I love playing for this generation of activists. Ten years ago, for the most part, the 1960's generation didn't seem old yet. They still seemed solidly in the camp that you would refer to as middle aged. But ten years is a long time, and now this generation is, for the most part, old. Of course there are the few of that generation of leftwing New Yorkers who look after their bodies and stay younger. There are a couple like that at the church. But for the most part, the New York diet of bagels, pizza, coffee and cigarettes that most of these good people grew up on has not been kind to them, and most of them are moving around the room with a pronounced awkwardness of gait, though most of them also seem to have successfully held on to the youthful optimism and colorful forms of dress which is still a hallmark of that generation.

Probably half the crowd there had never heard my music before, and their reaction to it was humbling, and at this point fairly predictable. People look for new music when they're young, for the most part. When they're older, it's more the kind of thing that has to come to them. When these people were young the FM airwaves were independently owned, and filled with the unmistakably leftwing sounds of the Sixties. Unbeknownst to most members of that generation, the leftwing music they loved existed long before the Sixties, and continued to be created afterwards, but there was only that brief period when they were young when this kind of music got on the radio much, so for them it basically disappeared. Then, for these people here in this room, I came along. Never mind all my contemporaries – Jim Page, Robb Johnson, Ryan Harvey, Ani DiFranco, Tom Morello, Grace Petrie – they've never run across those folks. They've never even heard of Rage Against the Machine. Since Phil Ochs died, the next one like that they came across, randomly enough, was me, and they're impressed.

They buy gobs of CDs, we pose for lots of photographs, and old women walking with the help of canes have that unmistakable glitter in their eyes that reminds me of why it's such a privilege to be a musician. I remember my friend Sara Stinus, who was a bit older than the Sixties generation, and has since died. She was the best-looking seventy-year-old anywhere. She didn't live in New York, she lived in Copenhagen, and rode a bicycle. In front of her husband, Erik, at the end of every show of mine they'd come to, she'd always say, “If I were younger, I'd take you home with me.” There was no question that she was not just talking about cooking me dinner. I'd smile and hug her lingeringly, not mentioning, for the benefit of Erik, that I'd happily have gone home with her at any age. But she died before he did, so that never happened.

The next day was the longest drive of the east coast tour, from one end of New York state to the other, up to the post-industrial city of Rochester. The gig is at the Squirrel Community Center, a neat place I've played at twice before. I walk in and I'm surprised to see a man I haven't seen in almost three decades, since we were both students at Earlham College in Indiana. He looks the same, except with grey hair, and I recognize him immediately.

When I knew him he was a good-natured, pot-smoking, guitar-playing hippie from Philedelphia. Since I last saw him he got mixed up with the mafia and had to leave Philadelphia on pain of death. He thought he should get far away from Philadelphia. Being Jewish, he figured he'd go to Israel. No Italian mafia there, just the Russian one, and that's different, at least for his purposes.

He hadn't really given it enough thought, and found himself an Israeli citizen under the age of thirty, and obligated to do military service. Soon he was driving around in a military vehicle, participating in the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, translating between English, Hebrew and Arabic for military officers and foreign visitors. A Scud missile landed in his Jeep and messed up his knee, but otherwise he weathered that one OK. The whole time he was there he wondered what the heck he was doing there, and felt nothing but sympathy for the Lebanese and the Palestinians. He missed a bus once because he had taken a walk with a friend to smoke a joint. They watched the bus leave the station, and then it blew up. Saved by a joint. After a couple more occasions like that he thought he'd move back to the US. Time had passed, and I guess the mafia wasn't interested in pursuing their vendetta anymore. He couldn't stick around for the gig because he had to go to an AA meeting, but it was good to see him.

There was an array of punks and hippies, young and old, at the Squirrel. In towns like Rochester, where the Left is small, people hang out together. There were a bunch of Sixties generation folks with white hair and white beards. There were folks from Rochester Indymedia, one of the few Indymedia centers still active, including one member who was, like me, a friend of the late Brad Will. I met friends of Brad's on this tour in Tokyo, Freiburg and Rochester. The guy got around. There were young punk rockers who really came alive for “I'm A Better Anarchist Than You,” singing along with gusto. Someone wrote a fun review of the show on his blog.

One man there told me that there was an active anti-eviction movement in Rochester. I hadn't heard about it. I had heard about a police raid on a foreclosed, squatted house that was especially brutal, and made national news to some extent. I hadn't heard that since that raid, the police had backed off a bit. Now, when activists chained their necks to foreclosed houses to protect the former owners from being evicted by the police, the police back off, every time. Solidarity works, sometimes. There I am in Rochester, wishing the great, progressive city of Portland had a police force like that. It doesn't.

The next day was one of the two days I didn't have a gig. I had dinner with a couple of friends in Buffalo. Activists, as usual, and when they moved to Buffalo from Vermont some years before, they were “welcomed” by a whole bunch of undercover police officers in unmarked cars, staking out their apartment, letting them know that the state was aware of their movements. On the day they moved in, someone smashed the windows of five cars in front of their building. A message of sorts. Or a coincidence, if you believe in coincidence theory.

After dinner I headed to the Canadian border. I wanted to cross a day early, in case I had any problems. As always, I was sent in for further questioning. The young woman behind the counter looked up my long record of trouble with the Canadian border. She looked completely unimpressed. I told her about the three gigs I had in Canada, and how they all fell under the exemption because each of them were rented for the occasion, and so didn't require a work permit. She was unconvinced. I showed her the part of the law which gave me the exemption, which my friend Walter, an immigration lawyer in Montreal, had just sent me to make sure I had it handy. She was still unconvinced.

“My friend Walter is an immigration lawyer, and I have his cell phone number right here,” I said, trying to be helpful in case there was some legal clarification needed. She took offense at this.

“He could be anybody,” she said. Actually I'm sure there's a way for her to look up who the legitimate lawyers are, but I didn't say that.

“Whether you get into Canada or not is up to me, nobody else,” she explained, clearly peeved that I may somehow have implied that there was anybody else with any kind of authority to decide my fate, other than her.

“Do you have a manifest?”

“I don't have anything printed out, but you can see on my website where I'm playing.”

“But I can't see on your website whether these are venues that fall under the exemption. You need to provide a printed explanation about each venue, their operating hours, and other pertinent information.” It sounded very much like she was getting ready to turn me away until I came back with printed information.

“So if I had this information in print, with the record of being turned away from the border that you're looking at on your computer there, you would just believe me?”

“No, I'd still have to confirm that the information you provided me with is true,” she replied. She clearly had just caught herself in this contradiction, and didn't need me to rub it in. I didn't. She looked up each of the venues, confirmed to her satisfaction that they all fell under the exemption, and told me I was free to go. Into Canada, that is, though she didn't say that.

The gig in Toronto was reminiscent of the gig in Long Island, in that most of the audience were leftwing Jews of a certain generation, except at this gig there was probably a higher proportion of Jews relative to Goyim, since it was a leftwing Jewish cultural center where the gig was taking place. As in Long Island, they bought gobs of CDs, and were wildly appreciative of the whole evening. Several of them were organizing a protest against the prime minister, who was scheduled to receive an award from the Jewish National Fund, a rightwing Zionist organization despised by probably everyone in the room. These were people of a generation who viscerally remembered anti-Semitism as it was practiced daily in North America, but these kinds of formative experiences just made these people despise the racism of the anti-Palestinian Jewish National Fund even more, sensibly enough. I love these people. They would drive the Antideutsch crazy if the Antideutsch ever met them, my friend Kate pointed out, when I told her about the folks at the Winchevsky Center, as Kate was traveling around Germany doing screenings of her documentary.

Next day, Canada's capital city, Ottawa. Another gig in a church. The audience here was just as leftwing as the last several audiences, but this time half of those in attendance were from Syria. It was an event sponsored jointly by a church-based group of leftwing Syrians opposed to US intervention in their war-torn country, along with the Communist Party of Canada, in the form of their Cuba solidarity group. I focused my set on songs related to refugees, and US imperialism. I've written three or four songs related to Syria, one of which is a love song. To my surprise, many of the Syrians had evidently heard that song already, and there in the church I had a group of Syrian women in the front row singing along to the chorus of “Syrian Princess” beautifully.

A friend from Victoria had taken a road trip across Canada to visit her parents in Ottawa, and there she was at the gig. She was the one person in the room for whom the posters worked. Posters only work for artists with name recognition. Otherwise you're much better off with word of mouth or other forms of more direct promotion, when trying to promote a relatively unknown artist. But the poster worked for her, even though she had only just seen it that day, and it was on the ground, having presumably been ripped down by someone who didn't like one or both of the sponsoring organizations. (Or by someone who didn't like me, which seems less likely. You don't have to know anyone from the Communist Party of Canada to know you don't like them, if you're that sort of person...) I met Anne and her 2-year-old son for breakfast the next morning. He and I really hit it off, and he had a good time riding on my shoulders, after he eventually figured out that I did not intend to drop him, even if he stuck is fingers in my ears and insisted on licking my inexplicably furry arms.

I had been in touch with a student activist from Montreal for a couple months before my arrival there at L'Artere. But while in previous years the average age of the folks in attendance in Montreal might have been around my age or a bit older, this time it was a different story. The older folks were there, but so were a whole bunch of young Francophone student activists. The student movement in Quebec had risen to incredible heights, with a demonstration happening more than once a day for months on end. For quite some time they had a demo on the 22nd of each month which usually had over a hundred thousand people at it. A real mass movement, against a rise in tuition fees for the university students of Quebec. Despite facing lots of police brutality, the movement persevered, grew, and won.

For the folks I was hanging out with there in Montreal before and after the show, the victory was bittersweet. The movement had been so big, and such a source of optimism, that many people involved thought it would be good to take advantage of that momentum and go further. The movement won in the sense that the planned tuition increases were canceled by the provincial government. But for these folks, they thought it would be a good idea to expand the fight to cancel tuition fees altogether, and other such lofty goals, but the mass of students and others participating in their struggle didn't think so, apparently. There are still regular demonstrations, but they're much smaller, and much more being controlled, kettled and mass-arrested by the police, who have also taken to issuing huge fines to protesters for things like ashing their cigarettes on the street (not even for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground, but for the ash from the end of the cigarette hitting the pavement!).

At the end of my show, another young woman who I hadn't met yet asked me, with a bit of an accusatory tone to her voice: “Why didn't you sing 'We Are Everywhere'?”

I didn't quite know what to say. I bumbled through some kind of response, like I've written a lot of songs and there's not time to do all of them.

“During the student movement here,” she explained, “'We Are Everywhere' was a song we all listened to when we were feeling down, to give us some hope.”

I had been admiring the massive Quebec student movement from afar, unable to make it to Quebec while it was happening, having no idea that any of these young Quebecers were fans of my music. Mine is a fun job in the worst of times, but these are the moments that make it feel entirely worthwhile.

If you go to Canada on business from the US, you have to pay $10.75 upon return. I was sent into the Immigration and Customs building, paid my $10.75, and drove through Vermont, from north to south, until I reached Massachusetts. No gigs in Vermont, but so many memories along the way. Singing at an antiwar protest in Burlington soon after 9/11 that Ward Churchill spoke at. Singing at a union event that Bernie Sanders spoke at. Hanging out there with Jim Page and the late, great author and activist, John Ross. Montpelier, and memories of Graciela, and giant puppets, my first pair of snow shoes, and nearby Plainfield, where the Institute for Social Ecology used to exist.

In Florence, Massachusetts the gig was a fundraiser for Valley Free Radio, and probably half the people in attendance were enthusiastic radio programmers at the station. The venue was Cafe Evolution, the latest business venture of Star Drooker, a very talented artist himself, and brother to a much more well-known artist, Eric Drooker. More memories of playing at Star's old cafe in Northampton, and of my brief stint living in western Mass, next to a sheep farm in the mid-90's.

A drive across the state of Massachusetts, back to Boston. I get to Copley Square a few hours before the gig, and walk around Boston Commons, near where I used to busk for a living at the Park Street T twenty years ago. I'm listening with my headphones to a podcast of This American Life, about Harper High School in Chicago, where something like 29 students got shot the year before, though this kind of thing happening at a predominantly Black high school in America hardly ever makes the news. The podcast was spell-bindingly good, as that show often is, but this one was especially so.

As I listen to the stories of death from Chicago, I happen to walk past a church near the place where the Boston Marathon bombings took place. The iron fence surrounding the church is festooned with ribbons of cloth, each one with some kind of Christian or pagan or other prayer for peace on it.

The gig in Copley is at the Community Church of Boston. Always hard to get a crowd there for some reason. Nobody lives around there, other than rich people. It's very accessible by mass transit, but that doesn't seem to help. I lived in Boston for many years, and the crowd of 15 people or so seems to be entirely from my email list, despite the good efforts made by the sponsor of the gig. There's my sister, her boyfriend, and several mutual friends of ours, and a random selection of fans from the Occupy movement and Veterans for Peace, or both. There's Chuck Rosina, radio programmer and sound engineer, who made a nice live recording of the whole show, as he often does.

The guitar strap I had been using since last spring was one I borrowed from a squatter in Copenhagen, and forgot to return to him. I lost it in Iceland, just before I got to Boston, and I had been doing all my gigs since then sitting on a stool, rather than standing, since I lacked a guitar strap and kept on forgetting to buy one. Dean Stevens, the activist there at the church, is also an accomplished musician, and I asked him if he had a guitar strap I could borrow. He presented me with a hand-made, woven purple guitar strap from a village in El Salvador that he visits regularly.

Back at the airport the next day, while waiting to board my flight and looking for coffee, I saw an old man who looked, from behind, like Noam Chomsky. I quietly walked towards him to get a closer look. It wasn't Noam, I determined.

Then I noticed that he wasn't just randomly admiring the view, looking out the window, but was looking at something out there in particular that was happening. Several fire trucks and police vehicles with lights flashing were gathered around a Delta airplane. Along with these official vehicles were a hearse, and a few other cars.

“What's going on over there?” I asked an airline employee who was standing nearby.

Quietly, with an unmistakable bitterness to her voice, she answered.

“It's the remains of a soldier, back from the wars. This happens way too often.”

I agreed, and headed towards my gate.

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