Tuesday, January 28, 2014


I'm on a watch list, and for the most part it's very pleasant, because whatever mystery list I'm on means that I always have an empty seat next to me on a domestic flight, even if the plane is otherwise completely full. Despite this, the flying experience is often pretty miserable for domestic flights, since the airlines all seem to have lowered the oxygen content in the cabin to the point where it usually gives me a headache for the duration of the flight. But I suppose it still beats hitching a ride on a cargo ship.

My destination was Dublin, Ireland – a hell of a long way from Portland, Oregon. The first leg of my three-leg journey was Los Angeles. I had a couple hours there and got something to eat. I had heard not long before that workers at LAX were now all being paid at least $15 an hour. I'm pretty sure this was not the case the last time I passed through. The atmosphere bore more resemblance to Scandinavia than to the LAX I used to know. The workers were consistently enthusiastic, cordial and went out of their way to be helpful and welcoming to everyone – the kind of attitude that seems way beyond the call of duty, and certainly the kind of attitude I have only ever encountered in places where service workers are being paid a living wage. (Or in very poor countries where anyone with a job that allows them to eat seems grateful to have the privilege of not starving.)

One of the few improvements made on the flying experience in the 21st century is a wider selection of movies than were possible with the older technologies. When you have a hundred movies to choose from, there's bound to be one or two good ones, and this was indeed the case on the flight from New York to Dublin. I watched Fruitvale Station, a crushingly good film about the last days in the short life of Oscar Grant and his family. Sitting in the dark on the plane while most everyone else slept, I wrote a Song for Oscar Grant.

In the line for immigration to enter Ireland, a jovial, older Irish man was much more interested in practicing his very limited Spanish and teaching international visitors random phrases in Irish than in asking anyone any questions about their intentions in visiting the country. Although I have heard of people getting turned away from entering Ireland, it was hard to imagine this could happen to anyone that day, particularly a musician. I immediately recalled the feeling I had the first time I visited Ireland decades ago – that having a guitar slung over my shoulder elevated my importance as a human being, rather than making me a slightly more suspicious character, as it would do in many other countries.

The guy at the Hertz counter at Dublin airport tried a new tack to convince me to buy insurance for my rental car. I have learned over the decades that buying insurance is a scam; they don't tell you that if you're renting the car with a typical credit card, which you have to do anyway, since they don't accept any other form of payment, the credit card automatically comes with rental car insurance, if you decline to buy the insurance the rental company wants to sell you. This dude was telling me that the Republic of Ireland was exempted from this, and was one of five countries that wasn't covered by the insurance that comes with your credit card. He seemed to believe this, but I didn't. He said if the car got wrecked, I would be billed for the full cost of replacing the car. I didn't point out that this would not be possible, given that my credit card only had a few hundred dollars left on it before hitting its limit. He claimed – obviously falsely – that a 5,000 euro hold was being placed on the card. If such a hold had been placed on the card it would have been declined. I've always figured that these folks get a commission for every time they manage to scare their customers into buying insurance, but now I'm more confident than ever that this is the case. (If anybody reading this happens to know concretely whether or not I'm right in this guess, let me know!)

First stop in the rental car was the lovely town of Rostrevor, in County Down. The fortified border between the Republic and the northern six counties officially known as Northern Ireland is no longer there, but I only had to go a mile or so off the motorway before there were uniformed policemen driving armored cars, stopping and checking every car going in one direction, obviously looking for someone.

My gracious hosts for most of my visit to the emerald isle would be my friend Tommy Sands and his family. Except for the brief period during which the island's economy was doing well, which abruptly ended several years ago, Ireland is a wonderfully slow-moving place that's best visited at leisurely pace. You expect the most interesting things to happen at the last minute, not with lots of advance planning. I was determined on this visit to leave room for that, unlike on some of my more rushed visits in recent years, and I succeeded.

The advance plans involved four gigs. The television show in Newry, the interview on BBC Ulster with Tommy's brother, Colum, and the nights out with friends in Rostrevor, Belfast and elsewhere were more spontaneous. I was staying in the guest flat in the Sands compound, which used to be the horse stables for the extremely wealthy family of General Robert Ross, whose family had been given much of County Down centuries before, when Ireland was invaded by British settlers. I had my own flat, but the espresso machine was in Tommy's kitchen, and I was made to feel as welcome in that kitchen as any other member of the family. Being an espresso addict, I made frequent use of that welcome. There was a clock above the door to the guest flat, which I would habitually look at before I headed to Tommy's place to make espresso. On one occasion I looked at the clock upon my return to the flat and noticed that eight hours had gone by since I left. I hope it wasn't just me who wasn't noticing the time going by. On other occasions only four hours had gone by, again unnoticed, by me at least.

Tommy has been an internationally-renowned touring musician since the 1960's, and has also been deeply involved with efforts to find a way for the divergent communities that constitute Northern Ireland to live together peaceably, and no matter how much time I spend in his kitchen, I have never heard the same story twice. Mention a musician or a political figure, and he's had some kind of memorable encounter with them. Same goes with most any geographical location in Ireland or elsewhere. So for an oral history fanatic like myself, I was very much in my element. I tried not to be a nuisance, and hopefully succeeded at that, but I had made sure I had time for these unplanned and unrecorded oral history sessions, and I was very glad I did. (And if you want to hear some of them yourself, then rather than me recounting my recollections of his stories, I'll just recommend to you Tommy's wonderful memoir, The Songman.)

My first gig on the island was in downtown Belfast, at a social center that had only opened a few weeks earlier called the Realta. It took a little while for me to find it, since they didn't yet have a sign on the door identifying the place. The center was intended to be a place for people to gather who were specifically interested in forming a new, progressive but nonsectarian political movement in the North. It didn't take long on that very evening to see what a challenge such a project would be. One of the ideas is to support political campaigns led by progressive, nonsectarian political candidates. While some of the younger folks in the room were clearly very enthusiastic about the notion, others I talked to wondered aloud who these nonsectarian candidates might be, such as one friend whose sister had been gunned down by the Ulster Volunteer Force, in front of her small children, when she went to answer the door one day.

Doing an opening set at that gig was a fine songwriter named Pol MacAdaim (who, word has it, will soon be visiting the US). Though he's younger than me, between he and his two brothers, his family has spent about forty years in prison. He wasn't involved with any extraparliamentary activities until after the first time he was picked up off the streets of Belfast, arrested and tortured by occupation forces at the age of 15. But now he's armed only with a guitar, not a gun, and he sings beautiful songs about life in Northern Ireland and beyond, including a gorgeous song he wrote about the late children's author Troy Davis, executed several years ago in the state of Georgia.

Although folks at the Realta knew who they were inviting to do a support set at the gig, feathers were visibly ruffled when he sang his song about the loyalists who threw bags of urine at his four-year-old daughter as she and her mother were attempting to walk to school through an unfriendly neighborhood. Apparently, according to some, in the new North you're not supposed to mention the existence of loyalist thugs. Me, I got in a bit of trouble with the other half of the audience for not singing “Up the Provos” in my set. Eventually I relented and sang the song, which I probably should have done earlier. (For the record, I sang all the other requests from the Republican contingent in the packed room, but apparently that wasn't going to cut it!)

Three of the four gigs in Ireland also featured Kate Mara and Guy Smallman's powerful documentary about the refugee/austerity crisis in Greece, Into the Fire. This was the second time I had done a series of shows that began with a screening of this film, and the showings in Ireland were a fascinating contrast to my previous experience in Belgium. In both countries, the audience was generally sympathetic to the subject of the film and to the filmmaker present. But in Belgium last fall there was a distinct undertone among some members of the audience that these refugees really should be going somewhere else other than Europe. There was no such undertone detectable anywhere in Ireland – only sympathy, and questions related to what people might do to change the situation in the increasingly xenophobic European Union. I believe the Republic of Ireland is the only European country that does not have an organized racist political party.

Dublin was a bit of a shock. Upon entering the scruffy social center in the northern outskirts of the city, the atmosphere was the familiar, welcoming vibe of an anarchist squat. The walls were covered with political slogans and pictures relating to freeing Palestine, doing away with national borders, riding bicycles, etc. The aroma of vegan food was in the air, and several people were busily working in the kitchen, preparing vegetables, pasta, pesto and some kind of grain that I could not identify. In another room, a film series related to the occupation of Palestine was going on, and a live Skype session with an Israeli anarchist and a Palestinian activist was taking place.

The crowd included some folks I knew from past visits to Ireland who were involved with Palestine solidarity groups, Sinn Fein, the Socialist Workers Party and others. Good people of various leftwing political persuasions. But the dominant feeling in the room was nothing short of oppressive. The Better Anarchists have finally made their way to Dublin. Ireland has clearly come of age as a European country. They may not have a far right party yet, but they clearly have got the far left covered. The audience was attentive, as is generally the case in such venues. But very few people laughed in the places where they might normally do so, and that, along with other observations, gave me and other folks I talked to the clear impression that people were generally afraid to laugh, lest they offend an anarchist who is a better anarchist than they. Some of the folks who had greeted me fairly cheerily when I came in were decidedly more icy on my way out, and I was pretty sure that this was their reaction to my song, “I'm A Better Anarchist Than You.” If so, good – the song was for them, and they clearly needed to hear it.

One of the many unplanned social occasions on the trip was the party at the home of my host after the gig in Waterford, the oldest city in Ireland, whose walls are over 1,000 years old (we Americans are really impressed by that shit). Although most of the folks in the little living room we were hanging out in were increasingly inebriated as the night progressed well into the wee hours, the quality of the music did not suffer in the least. Along with renditions of songs by English bands like Radiohead and New Model Army, I heard one of the most moving and pitch-perfect performances of “Raglan Road” ever, there in that smoke-filled flat.

In Cork I talked at length with a man who shall remain unnamed, who had the classic Irish experience of living for years as an “illegal alien” in the USA. He even raised a family there. Being Irish, however, he suffered none of the discrimination faced by his brown-skinned fellow aliens, aside from once having to drive from California to the Canadian border in order to get a new stamp in his passport. Once he even worked on a supposedly high-security military base, where no non-citizens were supposed to be allowed to enter. But unlike a Mexican accent, his clear Irish brogue didn't raise an eyebrow for the military police at the gate, and his California driver's license was all he needed to proffer in order to enter.

Next stop was New York City, and the welcoming embrace of Queens, which is apparently the most diverse city on Earth. True to form, my hosts were a wonderful older leftwing couple, one from Ireland, the other from Scotland. I was in the city to break up my long trip back to the west coast, to do a gig, and to attend the annual winter gathering of the People's Music Network.

It was the most youthful PMN gathering I have ever attended, with the organization now headed up by an executive director who I believe is still under thirty. Folks at PMN gatherings have been lamenting its increasingly ageing membership ever since I first attended a gathering in 1990, but now things are changing in a decidedly youthful and energized direction. I gave a workshop on my version of DIY Music Business, and, having never officially done anything resembling a “mentoring session” in my life, found myself signed up to do six of them in one day. It was a fascinating experience, reminding me once again that my basic message – that what musicians need to do is focus on networking directly with their fans, rather than trying to knock down the fortified gates of the music industry -- is still not the dominant paradigm among aspiring musicians.

As with so many places I go, but especially unsurprising in New York City, I once again saw several friends of the late Brad Will, who used to organize most of my gigs in New York City, from the time I met him in 2000 until his untimely death in 2006. The show was at the Sixth Street Community Center, in the Lower East Side neighborhood where Brad and so many other great activist types used to live (and still do, except for the many who have had to leave because of rampant gentrification in recent decades). Seeing the nearby community gardens brought back difficult memories of hanging out with Brad, and of Brad's beautiful memorial service that I was lucky enough to attend, a week or two after his murder in Oaxaca at the hands of the Mexican paramilitaries.

The entire gig was caught on film and uploaded to YouTube by the venerable media activist, Joe Friendly. (Not a bad recording, but it was better live...) The pizza dinner a bunch of us had around the corner afterward was a typically lovely New York City affair, with at least four nationalities represented around that little table.

And at that I'll sign off, from this plane bound for the west coast, that is currently somewhere over Minnesota I believe. Once again happy to report that I have an entire row to myself, and this time the air quality is better. Probably mainly because this time it's a really big plane, a 767, which are usually used for international flights. Even if they don't mix in enough oxygen, in the bigger planes it takes longer for it all to get depleted. And the little cobb salad I just ate may have cost $10, but it was pretty good.

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