Well, also a bit of southern Oregon, but mostly California... I thought I'd paint a picture of the past couple weeks, travelogue style, for anyone interested.
"I love it when we tour in California," Reiko said, midway through our visit to the Golden State, "because we get to see so many of our friends."
Friends from many visits to the state, where I lived on and off in the late 80's and early 90's. Cities that seem to be made of gunpowder. And some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable.
When I looked at my daughter's school calendar a few months ago and saw she had a week off at the end of February, I started making plans for our little family to do a tour together in California that more or less fit with the constraints. (She had to miss three days of school, but she didn't mind too much.) My daughter, Leila, and I used to tour together more often, but school gets in the way of that a bit now. She has summers free of course, but summer isn't the best time to do a concert tour, actually. (It's great if you got gigs at festivals, but otherwise people don't go inside to hear a show if the weather is nice. And it's the most expensive time of the year for plane tickets. And the second-longest vacation happens around Christmas, when everyone else is on vacation, too.)
But then, balancing the time constraints in terms of the length of her vacation with my desire to make it an enjoyable trip, while still being a profitable one, is tough. Ideally it'd be longer, and more leisurely that way. But in the end, I think it worked out OK. Leila would certainly say we spent too much time in the car. Though as long as we were listening to audiobooks it was good. (We listened to the first two books in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time trilogy.)
The only reason I was a bit bummed about the timing of the tour was that I was looking forward to the teacher's strike in Portland. (I mean, you know, I wish they didn't have reason to strike, but if they're gonna strike, I'm gonna enjoy singing for striking teachers.) But the strike didn't happen, and I wasn't asked to sing at their rally, anyway, which was scheduled to happen on the day of our departure. Though we didn't end up getting out of town until around the time the rally was supposed to happen, so we could have attended it anyway...
By the time we got into southern Oregon, it was dark. The first gig on the tour was to be in Mendocino, so I planned in advance to break that drive into two parts. There are other folks we could have stayed with in the area that I actually knew, but I had met a great documentary filmmaker online somehow or other who offered to put us up at her cabin in the woods, right along our route, and, generally preferring the more adventurous route, I happily took her up on the offer.
For much of rural Oregon, as well as the more rural areas of the other two West Coast states of the US, since colonial settlement took place there have been three main industries -- gold mining, logging, and pot farming. (Correct me if I'm wrong -- I haven't studied this subject exhaustively or anything, but this is my impression, anyway.)
So when we got to the area, and there appeared to be some question as to where the house was, particularly in the dark, I got a little nervous. Not an area where you want to drive a half a mile down the wrong driveway. Some folks defend their pot farms around there with guns, and if you consider the amount of meth also being produced around the general area, some people subscribe to the "shoot first, ask questions later" approach.
But we found the right place, and in the morning looked out the window to a stunning view of the mountain range on the other side of the valley, and the sound of the swiftly-running creek a couple hundred feet below us. Soon we met our neighbor, who was also looking after the property we were visiting, and was, not surprisingly, a pot farmer, and a long-time environmental and social justice activist. He gave us a tour of that little corner of the valley, highlighting the restoration work folks had been doing on the creek, to use logs to mimic the work of the beavers who used to populate the area. Turns out the way the beavers fell logs creates pools in the creeks, which are essential for the salmon as they do their migration up the rivers. Without the logs, the creek is underground much of the time. With them, it's above ground.
After humbly receiving gifts for the road consisting of chocolate-coated ginger pieces, a bag of gorgeous, very locally-grown marijuana, and a home-made jar of organic coconut oil and pot bud cream, we set off for points south. Leila enjoyed the chocolate, I enjoyed the pot, and the day after we set out, Reiko burned her hand pouring very hot soup, and unfortunately then had a chance to see how well the cream worked on her burn, and it worked wonders.
I did a terrible job estimating how long it would take to get us from the Applegate Valley to Mendocino. Should have consulted my GPS earlier. We got in the car and realized we were just barely going to make it to the gig on time if we stopped at all along the way. Oops. Drove through the most beautiful old-growth forests on the planet that I know of, without having time to get out of the car. And it was winding, mountain roads the whole way, as anyone who's been to the coast of northern California can attest.
But we did make it to the first gig, in the tiny little town of Mendocino.
I first met Peter Sears when the march from Boston to New York City in 2004, known as the DNC to RNC, was happening. Most of the marchers were young punks, so Peter stood out, as he does anyway, being very tall, endowed with long, wavy white hair and a long white beard, and sharply gleaming eyes. He's an active member of Veterans for Peace, and for years, without fail except when he was in prison, every time I'm coming through Mendocino he has organized a gig, sometimes roping in other VFP members to participate in the organizing, sometimes not. This was one of the "not" occasions, but the 19 people who showed up to the gig were a quality 19 people, for sure, and I'm not just saying that.
There was Laurel Krause, whose sister was shot to death by the National Guard during antiwar protests at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. She was just about to head to Geneva to talk at the United Nations about that day, and the campaign for justice for the victims of the massacre there. There was Barry Vogel, an excellent radio host who interviewed me for his show on my last visit to Ukiah. On that visit I also met his dynamic little mother, who has turned 104 since the last time I saw her.
We were staying with Jim and Judy right on the coast nearby. We followed them home. Jim plugged in their car. I noticed the solar panels on the roof of their house. He informed me that their electricity bill for the entire previous year was $13. Amazing, I thought, that solar panels and plug-in cars aren't the norm yet, here in this climate crisis. Why aren't there government programs to make sure every homeowner can afford solar panels? Why does capitalism have to suck this much -- that we have to destroy the whole planet in order to feed the beast? Don't the rich also have to breath the air? Shit...
I had complained during my set at the Mendocino Community Center that there wasn't enough organizing going on inside the US against the TPP, and the following morning Jim handed me some copies of the magazine that the Alliance for Democracy puts out. His name -- Jim Tarbell -- was in there in multiple places, writing articles exposing the TPP for the anti-democratic, corporate scam that it is. Glad to see that someone's trying to get the word out about this.
No gig the next day, so the three of us and various members of Jim and Judy's extended family who happened to be visiting spent much of the day playing on the beach, much to Leila's delight. We were glad she brought along so much extra clothing, because everything she was wearing got covered in sand and salt water.
We stopped for a fine meal at a Japanese restaurant in Santa Rosa before going the rest of the way to Berkeley that night.
We arrived at the home of our hosts there at around 10 pm. Luckily not sooner, because they had forgotten we were coming, and had only just gotten home themselves. But it was all good, and we made ourselves at home in their spacious home just on the edge of the rolling hills beyond, which are owned by Lawrence Livermore labs I believe. If you overlook the radiation, it's very beautiful. I guess I have a tendency to accumulate not only really cool friends, but really cool friends who live in beautiful places and have guest rooms, which are especially useful for travelers such as us.
Before I proceed, a tangent. When Reiko first came to the US to attend graduate school in Boston, she had lined up housing for herself online. It's a very expensive place to live these days, and she did her best to find an affordable option. It turned out to be a room in a large Victorian house in Somerville, and her landlady turned out to be Sheila Hoffman, the first wife of Abbie Hoffman. (And if you don't know who Abbie Hoffman is, consult your local internet.) So Reiko got a crash course in US counterculture, along with a variety of other renters, mostly other students from East Asia.
Sheila's daughter-in-law, Tomoko, works for an NGO, I believe, and flies quite a bit, as do the rest of the family. For years they lived in Indonesia together. But it was still a fairly unusual event that Reiko and I ran into Tomoko during one of our every-other-year visits to Japan, at Narita airport. And then, spending the afternoon wandering around Berkeley before my gig there that evening, walking down Telegraph Avenue looking for a place to eat lunch, there was Tomoko, Sheila's son, Andrew, Andrew and Tomoko's two children, as well as Andrew's brother, America. As at Narita, it was Reiko who spotted them (from behind, even!).
For those of you familiar with Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, it was an iconic countercultural location to run into the Hoffman family, and the kids really hit it off, too. We spent much of the next day in the Berkeley hills, kids zipping up and down on scooters, avoiding getting hit by the cars on those steep, winding, narrow roads that seem like they were designed for just such an accident. Andrew and Tomoko's home was a construction site, but a glorious one, with the promise of the place easy to imagine. When it's done it looks set to resemble a Pacific Island village, with a pool in the middle.
I was hoping to visit my former boss at the word processing place on Bancroft Way where I worked at the age of 19, but we got sidetracked and had to head to the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center on Shattuck Avenue, just a couple blocks from where I once lived, at the Lighthouse Collective on Ashby and Shattuck.
One wall of the funky, colorful gallery was covered in great photos of Allen Ginsberg that had been taken by the gallery's owner, Harold Adler. The evening's plan included a long set by the great New York artist, now living in Berkeley, Eric Drooker, a long-time friend and collaborator with Ginsberg, and his performance included part of his groundbreaking poem, Howl, which he had animated, along with a team of animators, for the recent, wonderful film production that focused on Ginsberg's early life, the publication of Howl, and its many consequences.
The night began with a slide show of pictures from El Salvador, narrated by Tristan Anderson, who spent many years in El Salvador in the 90's. Tristan's speech was still halting as a result of massive brain injury caused by the high-velocity tear gas canister that was fired directly at his face during a protest against the Apartheid Wall in Occupied Palestine several years ago, but he spoke much more easily than at any time since that near-death experience, and with a great sense of humor as well. One of the members of the audience was a young Israeli woman, an active member of Anarchists Against the Wall, who was in town for a conference on polyamory. When organizers found out who she was, they made her give a little impromptu speech, which she pulled off very well.
There were several dozen people who packed into the gallery that night, but there was plenty of food left over, as is generally the case when Ed Biow is feeding people. He always makes food for the vegans, too, but his passion is massive amounts of red meat, which he cooks to perfection, cuts up haphazardly, and serves to the masses. In recent years the beneficiaries of his culinary generosity have been involved with Occupy Oakland, which probably wouldn't have lasted as long as it did without Ed maintaining the protein levels in the blood of all those folks who kept on losing that blood on a regular basis at the hands of Oakland's Finest. Ed's dog, Einstein, is also getting increasingly politicized, and is currently involved with a run for Oakland mayor. He has learned to bark at the mention of the current mayor's name, and most of the third party candidates have already sought his endorsement if he ends up getting out of the race early.
Einstein wasn't at the gig, but somebody brought a bunny rabbit named Slingshot Hiphop Palestine Bunny or something like that. The bunny naturally spent most of the evening in Leila's loving arms, so she was well entertained. Plus she really liked Eric's artwork. At the end of the evening another Israeli present started showing her capoeira and samba moves.
These gatherings in Berkeley that have in recent years become an annual thing, organized by friends of Tristan's, are like a coming together of an extended family. There's also always an undertone of mourning involved, particularly for the increasing number of mutual friends of many in the room who died much too young. A few of those in the room were close friends of both David "Gypsy" Chain and Brad Will, who both lived in California and were involved with Earth First!, among other groups. Undoubtedly one of the best organizers who's been doing it consistently for the longest time period, Karen Pickett, was working the door.
The next morning we had to check out Cafe Leila on San Pablo, one of the many new places in the Bay Area since I lived there. Great place, with a huge backyard. We met my old friend Jonathan Smucker for breakfast. I met him under a different name, when he was one of the central organizers of the road occupation known as the Minnehaha Free State in Minneapolis back in '97. I had probably first heard about the encampment in the Earth First! Journal (which is still going strong, now based in Florida), and went out to visit soon thereafter. Now he is getting a PhD at UC Berkeley, basically on the academic version of my song, "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You" -- how cliquishness happens in social movements, why it's important that a social movement develop a culture, but one that is inclusive in nature. Fascinating stuff!
The main organizer of the next evening's concert, or at least my contact for it, was in Florida at another Earth First! gathering, hanging out with friends of mine. It took place in a conference room at the headquarters of Global Exchange, in the class war zone still known as San Francisco's Mission District.
The Mission District, where my dear friend and housemate, Eric Mark, was killed one night in 1993, where I first learned to see the grief in the face of the refugees from Central America that used to populate the neighborhood. Now less so, displaced by young white people, primarily, working for tech companies and start-ups (whatever that is). The yuppies are like an invading army, but clueless victims all the same. They want to live among the hipness of San Francisco, rather than Palo Alto, the boring suburb where many of them work. But in moving to the city, because of the nature of the capitalist beast and the unforgivable lack of rent control in the most expensive city in the United States, they wreak havoc on the place. Anyone who's known San Francisco in years past can see it as soon as you walk off the BART or drive into the city. The poor have become homeless, the working class have moved to Oakland or Richmond or somewhere else. There are still Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants, but many of them have been replaced by sushi bars and wine bars, and all of them are filled with young white couples.
The place feels like a powder keg. If you're not sure what a powder keg feels like, go to the Mission District. That's what it feels like. I don't know what's going to set it off, or how it will burn once it catches fire, but it will burn, no question about that. As it is it's just a hot simmer. And true to form, the Bay Area continues to be the political hotbed that it's been for a century or more. Where in most of the country, the Occupy Wall Street movement trickled into little more than a whisper, in San Francisco the weekly Occupy Forum seems to be fairly thriving, which is where I sang, there in the Global Exchange building, only days before one of Global Exchange's founders, my friend Medea Benjamin, was beaten by police and deported from Egypt.
Another drive through more mountains to Santa Cruz, and another night only a couple hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean, at our friend Bob's humble abode. Bob and I have both watched too much Al-Jazeera since they started their English service, but when they started only making Al-Jazeera America available in the US, and only with cable, we parted ways on Al-Jazeera. Bob bit the bullet and got cable, but I just stopped watching. I have to agree with Bob that even this new Al-Jazeera America is better than any other mainstream news source available, but it's a shadow of its former self, pandering to the kind of banter and slapstick humor the management there thinks will impress the average American viewer.
An avid consumer of alternative media as well as a participant in the sorts of events often covered by such media, Bob first heard my music on Democracy Now!. As I travel through California and anywhere else in the US, I meet so many people the same way as first met Bob over a decade ago, through them having heard me first on that show. (It is not in spite of that fact, but because of it, that I recently started up a blog dedicated to critiquing and hopefully improving Democracy Now!'s music breaks.)
The next day, a long drive down the coast, and another audiobook. Somewhat less mountainous, more brown, or golden, as they say. More like what California means in the popular imagination among regular people in other countries, as well as in much of the US -- southern California. We stopped for lunch at the very hip Kreuzberger Cafe in San Luis Obispo (great burgers, great coffee, free wifi, and cool stuff on the walls, including a bust of Karl Marx).
I was happily surprised to find a few weeks before we headed to California that studying with Dick was my old friend Ben Manski. Ben had moved with his wife, Sara, to Santa Barbara, where Ben began a PhD program, and Sara promptly had a baby, Lev, who was a scant two months old when we met him, and looking especially jowly, as small babies often do (but stunningly adorable of course). I believe I first met Ben when he was a student activist in the 90's, and knew him over the years in many incarnations, as he frequently organized great gigs for me when I was touring in the midwest, as an organizer with Earth First!, and later as Ralph Nader's campaign manager, national Green Party president, and founder of a couple different nonprofit activist groups. A local Madison cartoonist long ago dubbed Ben "the Manski with the Planski."
Ben was in Madison for the winter 2011 uprising against the neoconservative new governor, during which time I was much annoyed by the fact that I couldn't afford to just buy a plane ticket to Madison and join the festivities, like some somewhat better-off musicians, authors, filmmakers and many others were doing then. (This was one of the many experiences that led me to start seeking subscribers, so I might have some kind of income stream in addition to gigs, that could allow me to up and go to last-minute protests in some random place, where normally I'd need to plan way in advance and line up paying gigs there first in order to afford the travel expenses at least.)
Ben told us about his recent trip to Japan. Ben moved to Wisconsin from Israel at the age of 13 -- he was born in Israel because his grandfather, Samuil Manski, found his way there, to what was then known as Palestine, via China, Japan, Russia, and Lithuania, from his home in Poland, after the Nazis invaded. Samuil and thousands of other Polish and Lithuanian Jews were able to get out of Lithuania because of the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, and his wife, taking big risks in disobeying direct orders from the Japanese Empire to issue thousands of visas to them. Ben went to a village in Japan to represent the Sugihara Survivors, as the descendents of those whose lives the diplomat saved are known. He also introduced folks there to my song about the man, the lyrics for which are now apparently on display in the museum there in Tsuruga, near where the great man grew up.
While on the road in California I got the news from London, England that Pete Crook had died, very suddenly, by falling and hitting his head. Traveling through California I was constantly reminded of the two weeks he and I and the great English songwriter, Robb Johnson, spent together there. It was a packed two weeks, including gigs on the east coast, the west coast, and the southwest, involving lots of flying and lots of driving. Everywhere we went, Pete and Robb were taking pictures of a teddy bear belonging to one of Robb's kids, mostly in situations that wouldn't be likely back home in England, like in a massive parking lot, on top of a snowbank, or on a fire hydrant.
I was even more reminded of Pete because the town we were heading to -- Upland -- was a town where Robb and I performed, where he and I and Pete stayed, with the very woman whose house we were heading to from Santa Barbara, Marjorie Mikels. But this time Marjorie was in a different house in Upland, since her last one burned down.
Neither Marjorie nor anyone else has made any accusations of foul play, but anything like that happening to Marjorie is always automatically suspicious to me. San Bernardino County is a huge county, known for having more prisons than just about anywhere else on Earth, lots of meth labs, and terrible political corruption involving things like nuclear waste dumps and attempts to build condos on top of them. Marjorie is a lawyer and an activist, and has long been opposed to condos on nuke dumps and that sort of thing, so she's made herself a lot of powerful enemies. One day she found her van in the driveway had no brakes. She pushed it into the garage for safekeeping, and it immediately caught on fire. The fire department was two blocks away, but it took them 45 minutes to show up, by which time her van and house were burned to a crisp. They said it was an electrical fire caused by rats. But she had good rodent-killing cats in her house, and rat traps in the garage.
The next day was the one Leila had been most looking forward to -- Disneyland. I know it's terribly overpriced, the workers are underpaid, and the whole thing is basically one big advertisement, but, well, rollercoasters are fun. I think we rode all of them, at least of the ones that were open. Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain were both closed for repairs... It was the first visit to Disneyland where Leila was tall enough for any of the rides, and she especially enjoyed Space Mountain. Riding Space Mountain just after eating ice cream was a bad idea for me, but I managed not to puke.
The rain held off while we were at Disneyland, but the next day it really came down. Everybody was saying that we brought it with us from the Northwest, and they were all very happy about it, as California is having its worst drought in centuries lately. We drove through the rain from Upland to Santa Cruz. Our right windshield wiper stopped working again. But the left one is the one you really need... The next day, another rollercoaster, this time on the quaint Santa Cruz boardwalk. There was only one ride open, but it was a good one -- an old, wooden rollercoaster, better than any of the ones at Disneyland in my opinion.
After riding the Giant Dipper, we headed up to San Francisco, back to the Mission District, for what turned out to be the most well-attended gig on the little tour, and the only one in a proper theater setting, which I always especially enjoy (both well-attended gigs, and gigs in theaters -- especially the combination). It was organized by the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, folks at the forefront of the class war in that scenic class war-ravaged metropolis. It took place in the historic Redstone Labor Temple, a lovely old building. (More than a century old -- that's old by west coast US standards, for all you Europeans reading this. The Native people of the region generally built their longhouses out of wood, if I'm not mistaken, so for that and many other reasons, those older buildings are no longer with us on this part of the continent.) The Redstone was abuzz with activity, full of offices and conferences rooms being well-utilized by all sorts of different activist groups, before, during and after my concert in the theater, and it's been like that for a while -- I was told that much of the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 was organized from within that building.
Some folks at the gig were telling me about David Solnit and other folks who were involved with the many organizing efforts going on in Richmond, the poor, cancer-ridden city on the East Bay where Chevron's oil facilities are located. Until recently, the town was generally controlled by Democrats being paid off by Big Oil, but the Green Party has taken the lead in the city council, and on the ground, there have been lots of protests against Chevron's pollution and plans to run more trains full of explosive materials through the city center, the same kind of stuff that killed 47 people in a massive explosion in Quebec last summer.
Other folks were talking about the recent police murder of 13-year-old Santa Rosa resident, Andy Lopez. His name is becoming as well-known as that of Oscar Grant for folks in the Bay Area, for the same reasons. There from the East Bay, tabling in the hallway outside the theater, was none other than Ramsey Kanaan. If you were first meeting this unassuming Scotsman of Lebanese descent, you might not guess that you were meeting the founder of two of the most influential anarchist publishing houses the US or Britain had ever known -- AK as well as PM Press.
While Leila and Reiko spent much of the next day in the Berkeley hills with the very same crew we ran into on Telegraph a few days earlier, I spent several hours at the home of my old friend Chris Chandler, in front of a green screen, lip-syncing for music videos I've roped Chris into working on. Chris is a man of many talents, including very creative and captivating music videos. ("Last Lincoln Vet" and "John Brown" being two examples.) What he's most known is something that's hard to describe, and is best experienced live. He mixes poetry, storytelling and music in a way that no one else does. I'm familiar with the intricacies of the whole thing, because I played guitar and sang in what became his band, the Convenience Store Troubadours, in 1997, along with the wildly versatile Oliver Steck, and Sammy Parton, who went on to achieve infamy as one-third of the three-woman Canadian band, the Be Good Tanyas.
When I got to his place he was working on another pot of coffee, saying that his car had broken down late last night, and it had taken two hours for a tow truck to arrive. I was awash with fond memories of spending time in the parking lots of auto parts stores throughout North America during our travels together in 90's. And way too much coffee consumption back then, too. And some fantastic gigs, especially the festivals -- Kerrville, High Sierra, the Oregon Country Fair -- along with a couple gigs in between the festivals where the people in the band outnumbered the audience members. Chris and I first met around 1990. I think I had heard him busking on the sidewalks of Harvard Square before then, but 1990 was probably when we first hung out, and he took me in his beat-up old car to my first gathering of the People's Music Network, where I first met Pete Seeger, Charlie King, Robert Hoyt, Pat Humphries and other folks who would, along with Chris himself, have a huge impact on my life and work, such as it is.
Leila had finally grown tired of the movies I had downloaded onto my iPad a long time ago -- Up and Finding Nemo. She had eventually become tired enough of the two familiar movies she loved so much that she was ready to try something new. After months of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ready to view, but unwatched, she watched it, and loved it, as we drove north of the Bay Area. We weren't needing to make any stops in coastal places like Mendocino this time, so we took the faster, inland route -- i-5.
Driving through those barren, brown hills on the inland route makes me think of many things. For one, how it's such a small strip of land right on the coast that is full of trees and water and everything green, but wherever you are on the coast, you don't need to go far to the east before you're in the desert, and it's desert for a thousand miles after that, at least if you have a fairly flexible notion of what "desert" is.
And seared in my mind forever, it seems, every time I pass through the bleak little city of Redding, is the memory of the day around 25 years ago when I hitch-hiked from Arcata to Redding, which took all day and involved six different rides in pickup trucks driven by evangelical Christians, and one ride with a bunch of folks in yet another pickup truck who were headed to a UFO convention. Which I went to, since I hadn't made any plans for not reaching my destination (Seattle) in one day, and didn't have with me a sleeping bag, tent or any of that. I stayed with the nice man who was running the little convention, in a trailer next to a landing pad for an expected visit from a UFO. The next morning he kindly drove me to the highway onramp, after his dog jumped up and ate the donut he had given me. Then I got a ride all the way to Seattle, right to the front door of the cafe where I was supposed to meet my friend John...
Reiko, Leila and I made it to the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon by just after midnight. Spent much of the next day playing in the creek again, and then we were homeward bound. The next day was a school day, and Leila was especially excited about it, because they were going to have a field trip to a food bank.