Monday, June 2, 2014

Switzerland to Iceland

On April 29th I flew to Hamburg, Germany, part of that huge land mass that I grew up hearing referred to as “continental Europe,” which it eventually occurred to me was a weird way for people from one island to refer to the vast majority of the region (Europe, whatever that is) to which they belong. Reminiscent of my grandmother's use of the term “gentiles,” meaning “non-Jews” -- that is, the portion of humanity, approximately 99.8%, who are not Jewish.

The show in Hamburg was in a community center owned by a trade union. Not so much a union hall as a large room with a stage and a bar, there for the purpose of having cultural and other events. I don't know of any space like it in the entirety of the United States, but in Europe such spaces are not uncommon. The place was very centrally located, near the main train station, across the street from the dozens of African migrants maintaining a constant presence in and around a tent covered with printouts of letters written to European immigration officials. Above the tent, in larger print, are the words “solidarity with Lampedusa” (the Italian island near Tunisia where so many Africans end up in their efforts to get to Europe, if they're lucky enough to survive the ordeal).

The streets between the union building and the station were filled with one Turkish restaurant after another, all selling a very meat-oriented and fried version of Turkish food, evidently designed to please their German customers (though I suspect if some of them would start making real Turkish food, the Germans might like it even better). Between the Turkish shops are the sex shops, such as the huge “world of sex” place, which takes up half a block. I don't know what goes on in there, but it was clearly a popular place. Walking far enough to get lost (which I do very well since I developed GPS dependence syndrome years ago), I eventually found a restaurant that served vegetables. Small portions and over-priced, but good.

I once more or less lived in Hamburg over the course of a couple years, and the audience at the show included a handful of folks I knew from way back then, along with a wide variety of others, including members of the Pirate Party, which has done so much to promote my music (they have more or less used “Black Flag Flying” as their theme song, and have even been accused of being terrorist sympathizers for their continuing failure to denounce me for my alleged terrorist sympathies). In another room connected to the venue, young people were working on large banners for the annual May Day march that was coming two days later.

I spent the night at the home of the organizers of the show, who claim to be my biggest German lesbian fans, and I'm sure they're right! The apartment complex they live in has a big green courtyard, and it's owned by a nonprofit cooperative, like many other apartment complexes in Germany, so rents are around half of what they would be with a “normal” landlord. Unlike with cohousing, no one has to buy into it with hundreds of thousands of dollars to begin with. Tenants rent from the landlord, but the collective is the landlord. Pretty cool, eh? Why don't we have apartment complexes like that in the US...?

Next stop was the German-Danish border, and the tiny hamlet of Havetofloit, where Hajo runs a pub in the middle of the farmland there, called Land Art. Every weekend Land Art hosts musicians and bands from around the world, and people go there from miles around. Which is good, because otherwise there would never be more than ten people at any given show, since that's about how many people live anywhere nearby...!

The recent news was about the new Danish dog law. Germans and Danes both love their dogs, but Denmark has been having a persistent problem with violent gangs such as the Hell's Angels competing for the lucrative illegal drug trade. Part of the effort to deal with this situation has involved banning certain breeds of dogs that are popular among the gangsters, and Danish police routinely killing illegal dogs they find. The German city of Flensburg is right on the Danish border, and Germans innocently taking their dogs for a walk in the park that straddles the border have recently been traumatized by Danish police confiscating and killing their dogs for the crime of them being the wrong breed.

It didn't take long after arriving in Denmark to hear many more stories of nice people having had their dogs killed by the authorities. The stories seemed so surreal, such an arbitrary and evidently ineffective way of dealing with the gang situation. Legalizing drugs would be much better! If it were up to the municipal government in Denmark's biggest city this would probably happen, but the national government will have none of that.

On May 1 in Arhus I sang on the same stage that the Danish prime minister was booed off of the year before. It was my first time singing on the main stage at the May 1 event in the center of Arhus, Denmark's second city, and it was a bit anticlimactic. May 1 may be a leftwing event in many parts of the world, but in Arhus it's a mainstream kind of thing, at least around the main stage, and the vast majority of people in the crowd were ignoring anything happening on the stage that didn't involve rock or blues cover bands. The smaller stage is the one I've played at many times, and playing on that stage after my little set on the main stage was much more satisfying, aside from the random inebriated people you can always expect to have yelling at the stage incoherently now and then. At the smaller stage there was an intently-listening crowd of a hundred people or so gathered, mostly made up of black-clad punks, many of whom were enthusiastically waving black flags for the occasion of my set.

After a sleepy May 1 evening gig in Alborg, May 2 involved a drive across the country, which takes four or five hours if there's no traffic and you don't stop much. Folks started gathering at Bumzen early, in the traditionally working class, now more hipster, gentrifying, but still pretty leftwing neighborhood of Norrebro. Some flyers had said the show there would start at 6 pm, by which the organizers meant “doors open” at 6. The plan was for the show to start at 9, which it did, and once again it felt like a reunion of folks I've known since I first played in Denmark around 15 years ago – now grown-up former members of Red Youth, and youthful members of the Socialist Youth Federation, along with anarchists and others. The audience there was easily the most enthusiastic of all the audiences on the whole tour, singing along to every word of a lot of songs. They were also the only audience to cheer every time I sang the line about the White House burning down in “The Man Who Burned the White House Down.” The only other place that happens is Canada. (I'm not sure what's wrong with everybody else.)

The next day featured my first-ever visit to the sleepy Swedish town of Hassleholm. When I told people in Denmark I was going to Hassleholm, if they knew where that was, then they knew where in Hassleholm I was going to be playing, because it's the only thing happening in that town – Perrong 23. It's immediately evident that it's a punk rock club. You can tell by looking at the people hanging out in there, and the black-painted walls. But, like so many similar clubs in Scandinavia, they have a state-of-the-art sound system and they pay performers well, thanks to government funding for such places.

In Hassleholm and in Lund, all the talk was about the fascists and the cops. That is, the rise of far-right extremists in Sweden who have been marching openly in their dozens, and far less openly targeting immigrants and leftists for beatings and occasionally killings – and the police who are clearly more concerned with leftwingers and Roma people than with the fascists. Most recently, when the fascists were holding a march and rally in Lund on May 1, those who came to oppose them were attacked by the police. Before they had even arrived at their destination, the police boarded the train they were on and teargassed people in it.

What seemed to annoy the anarchists the most was that the cops took their black flags from them, on the grounds that they might hurt someone with the wooden poles the flags were attached to. One young women filed a complaint about that.

I stayed in the apartment of two fine upstanding young anarchists who had inherited all sorts of interesting BDSM equipment from the previous tenant. It wasn't that he left the stuff there, but more that it was physically built in to the place. One doorway without a door featured strategically-placed metal hooks, designed to hang someone from, in whatever position desired. My hosts insisted that this wasn't their equipment, but that the upside-down crosses all over the place indeed were. The woman had apparently been concerned that I might be religious, after she heard “St. Patrick Battalion,” and was relieved to find that this was not the case. I like Satanists at least as much as Christians, as long as they're leftwing.

The gig in the lovely university town of Lund began with a journalist speaking for close to an hour about the rise of the far right in Sweden. At least that's what I was told he was speaking about (it was all in Swedish). Folks in Sweden as well as in Denmark were wondering whether I would be in Copenhagen on May 10th, when a small Danish fascist group was planning to have their first rally in the center of town since 1945. Unfortunately I wouldn't be anywhere near Scandinavia by then, but it seemed the fascists would be vastly outnumbered with or without my participation. Everyone knew that that would be the case, but folks were still concerned that there were enough fascists in Denmark to hold a rally. When fascists hold rallies in Norway, most of them generally turn out to be Swedish. Not sure if this was the case in Copenhagen though.

As usual when I'm touring somewhere, it seems, there was a lot of electioneering going on, this time all over Europe, for the European Parliament elections. In Denmark, France, the UK and elsewhere, the far right did exceptionally well. One Danish organizer explained this phenomenon, I think very sensibly, this way: not to minimize the reality of racism in Europe, he said, but the main issue is that while maybe half of European voters are enthusiastic supporters of the whole European Union concept, around 95% of the politicians support it. So those voters who are concerned with the neoliberal tendencies of the European Union, and concerned with the race to the bottom involved with EU expansion and the flood of cheap labor from east to west, etc., have few left parties to vote for that seem to have any traction. So, hard as it might be for a leftwinger to get his or her head around, they turn to the right. Many of the same people voting for Le Pen used to vote Communist only a few years ago, and especially with those voters, they're not doing it because they're motivated by racism or xenophobia. They're internationalists, in fact, for the most part. They just don't like losing national sovereignty to a bunch of neoliberal, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.

Ten years ago these same people would have been mobilizing against the G8 meetings or other free trade talks, but this summit-oriented organizing has died down to a trickle in more recent times. Once upon a time groups like Attac were doing a lot of that organizing. While Attac is far smaller and less active than it once was, it was having a bit of a revival in Germany during my visit, as a result of the TTIP free trade talks between Europe and the US. One Attac activist had the idea to organize a tour around Germany to hold rallies and cultural events against “free trade” and for sovereignty and democracy, and the rest of the organization thought this was a good plan. I participated in two of these events, in Freiburg and in Bamberg.

It was my first visit to Bamberg, and I was taken aback by how beautiful the small city is. I also believe I started noticing a pattern – namely that the US military bases in Germany seem to be disproportionately located near the most beautiful cities, rather than the ones they bombed into oblivion. Bamberg, I was informed, was the recipient of “only two bombs” during the war.

In Belgium, the two gigs I did also involved folks organizing against TTIP. In Antwerp a farmer spoke, eloquently (even in translation), about why he was involved with organizing what would turn out to be a fairly large protest at some upcoming free trade meetings in Brussels, which was to involve thousands of farmers and other people surrounding the buildings where the meetings were taking place, many of whom were arrested, a few days after that show.

In Switzerland folks were talking also about worries related to the EU, even though they're not in it, and recent laws passed to limit immigration from EU countries into Switzerland. There was much talk about the cutbacks in government spending, too. Although the effects of what is generally called “austerity” are very obvious in places like Greece and Spain, austerity is also the number one concern in places like Switzerland, despite the fact that it is still inarguably one of the very most prosperous countries in the world. This fact was borne out at my shows there once again. Lots of people only download music there as everywhere, and don't buy CDs anymore, but if a Swiss punk is going to buy a CD, half the time he or she will just buy one of each, plus a t-shirt.

In Davos there was still snow on the mountains, and I shared the bill there with a well-known Swiss songwriter. He used to be played on the radio in Switzerland regularly, until around 1980, when he was musically involved with the youth rebellion in Zurich that happened throughout that momentous year, the beginning of the “autonomous” movement that swept across Europe, when many thousands of young people in many different countries very openly asked the question, whose world is this? Should it belong to the elite and their opera houses and second homes, or to the regular people who also want to have social centers and affordable housing?

The European autonomous movement isn't what it was in the 80's, but the remnants of it are still very visible in places like Copenhagen, Berlin, Hamburg and Bern. Bern may have a lot of rich bankers in it, but it's also got the Reitschule, a huge compound where there are many venues for performances, a restaurant, a bar, workshops, meeting spaces, a printing press and lots more. I visited the place, and Pumba was off to yet another meeting with the police, and this time also with the mayor. There's a new rule in Bern that all venues have to have a “security plan” worked out with the police. The point folks at the Reitschule make is that the police are the security problem! But the police aren't fond of that argument...

My show in Bern was part of an anarchist conference, with an audience of decidedly well-dressed anarchists and others, at a basement club called Ono. There are a whole bunch of these basement clubs in the center of the town, with cellar doors like the ones you would find beneath a restaurant in New York City, where deliveries happen. In Bern you walk down the same kind of steep staircase beneath a cellar door to get to the club, but then instead of a dank basement storing potatoes or coal or whatever they used to keep down there hundreds of years ago, you find a clean, stone-walled, windowless music club. (With an anarchist sound technician using yet another state-of-the-art sound system.)

After a lovely outdoor show at the Zegg commune an hour west of Berlin, a TTIP protest in Berlin that didn't quite happen, and other strange events there, I returned the rental car and flew to Norway, where the distances are too big between major population centers for driving tours to make much sense. Plus it's on the way home – Berlin to Oslo, Oslo to Trondheim, Trondheim to Reykjavik, and then from there to Boston. All more or less where the plane would go anyway, if you were just flying from Berlin to Boston.

The gigs around Oslo were great, but the most entertaining series of events happened from the time I got off the plane in Trondheim until I left town. Highlights began immediately upon arrival in the lovely, squatted neighborhood of Svartlamon.

When I got to the home of my friends there who were also the ones organizing my gig the following night, we took a wander around the little district, saw a woman painting something outside, using a projector and tracing an image, which was memorably surreal-looking, outdoors in the perpetual twilight that you get this time of year the far north.

Another neighbor invited us to smoke the Earth, to partake in an Earth Pipe, which was a new concept to me. You dig two intersecting tunnels in the ground with a stick or something. Then you fill one of the tunnels with little rocks, and upon the rocks you put whatever you're smoking. In this case a typically European mix of hash and tobacco. But the hash/tobacco mix our neighbor had carefully prepared got blown away in a gust of wind.

Our host lamented the forces of nature, and how some things are just not in one's control. Of course, not putting something very light on top of a piece of newspaper on a picnic table outdoors on a breezy evening could allow one to have some degree of influence over your fate, but anyway, the problem was soon fixed, and the smoking began.

Our host produced a small cardboard tube (from a toilet paper roll), which was the mouth of the pipe. It worked well, though the amount of smoke produced this way, while nicely cooled-down by the Earth, is fairly excessive. As a teenager I would have been proud that I was one of the few who tried it who did not cough copiously after exhaling the smoke, but at this point I only found this fact to be somewhat troubling.

Next, I discovered that in the lovely little wooden shack I was staying in for a couple nights, there was now no door handle on the inside. But I only discovered this after a friend and I locked ourselves in there when one of us made the mistake of closing the door for some reason. However, the window opened and wasn't hard to climb out of, so it was all good.

Bjorn-Hugo had made plans for me to play with a backing band the following evening.

We had a late afternoon rehearsal, and then the gig was to start at 9 pm. The rehearsal went well, although we changed drummers three times from the beginning to the end. But all the musicians were great, and everyone but the drummer had practiced with the music and knew it well. I was looking forward to the gig.

When 9 pm came around, there was almost no one there. The gig was happening in the newly-built (after the last one burned down) anarchist-oriented punk rock social center, Uffa. This was going to happen on punk rock time then. By 10:30 or so, people were coming in, and maybe around 11 the first band went on. Two women, one playing wild electric guitar stuff with all kinds of effects, and singing inaudibly through a microphone, along with a very good, very loud, blind drummer (who I had actually heard playing before, in a wonderful punk band from Trondheim). They were great, but too loud, so I mostly listened from outside, along with a lot of other folks.

By the time I was to go on it was after midnight. Throughout the evening, the most recent drummer, actually a percussionist, playing one of those South American wood box instruments, had been saying that he wasn't going to drink until after the gig. I didn't comment either way on this idea, since I figured this was up to him. But it was clearly an issue for him, and he mentioned it several times. But given the late start, I noticed after a bit that he had evidently abandoned this plan, and had started drinking fairly heavily. By the time we went on stage, he wasn't staggering or anything, but he was drunk. Basically, the bass player and lead guitarist were brilliant, and the percussionist, though clearly an excellent musician, was too impaired by alcohol to keep track of the beat, which is a fairly vital aspect of playing in a band, perhaps most especially for the drummer.

It felt kind of like having an extended family argument, on stage, mostly without words. Though the other three of us played well, I was very glad when they all left the stage and we didn't have to fight with the percussionist anymore. I played a few more songs on my own, sensing that some other folks in the audience had felt the same way about the band experience, although many of them were enthusiastically moshing about and singing along throughout the set. (If the audience is at least as drunk as the drummer that probably helps.) The experience reconfirmed my lack of interest in trying to form a band. Mostly this is something I don't try to do for financial reasons, but also the idea of spending every night sleeping in a tour bus with a bunch of guys doesn't seem very attractive. And then you never know when your perfectly good drummer will go get drunk before the show and ruin everything.

The last show on the tour before getting back to the USA was Reykjavik. This time an IWW member with a completely unpronounceable Icelandic name picked me up at the airport, which was nice because he could point out some local landmarks on the way in, such as the massive housing complex not far from the airport that used to be a US military base, and the now-economically-depressed town across the highway from the base that used to exist largely to serve the needs of said base.

On the way into Reykavik we made a detour to the town my ride lived in, so he could vote. He voted for nobody, but he felt strongly about making that statement. We ran into his great aunt, a wrinkled old woman walking slowly toward the voting booths, who was probably voting for somebody.

The gig was a house concert, originally meant to be a garden party, but it was drizzling out. So it was happening in the basement. It was the same housing collective I stayed in on my last visit to Reykjavik, a few months ago, though many of the people living in it now were new since then. They told me the house was going to be repossessed by a bank the following month, sold by the landlord to the bank, which wanted them out. Other people told me that more or less the same thing had happened to two local institutions that used to be hangouts of the left in town. With that along with the new rightwing government in power, I opted not to sing my song praising the Icelandic government's initial response to the bank collapses (they didn't bail them out, unlike most other countries, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown even called the Icelandic government “terrorists” as a result). Icelandic anarchists, it seemed to me that night at least, are especially down on anything Iceland. That's not unique to this small country, but the self-hatred seemed notably more vitriolic than that which you would tend to find even among the anarchists of Germany.

Most of the audience at that gig were not from Iceland, though, as it turned out. I talked to folks from Poland, Estonia, Mexico, Portugal and Denmark. The two-woman duo who was opening for me there also figured that out, so they were doing their song introductions in English, although all but one of their songs were in Icelandic, and thus pretty much inscrutable to all the foreigners in the room, with the possible exception of the Danish IWW member and principal organizer of the gig.

I had heard these women play before at my last gig in Iceland. I already had the impression from the poster for that gig that they had a feminist orientation in their song lyrics, and this time I got very slightly more of an idea of what they were singing about, because of the English introductions. They were short introductions, though. Mostly just stuff like, “this song is about letting your body hair grow,” “this song is about women who like to have orgasms,” or “this song is about anal sex.” (Whether anal sex is good or bad, I wasn't sure, but I'm pretty sure they thought that orgasms were good, and so was body hair. Though neither of them appeared to have any of that, probably due to the fact that translucent blondes generally tend not to, whether they like it or not...) Then these two young Icelanders with glittery things on their faces would jump into their upbeat mix of poppy melodies, hiphop verses and lovely harmonies, one of them playing reggae-influenced electric guitar chords, the other playing the occasional trumpet lines. Once or twice they switched instruments.

The next morning I got up before anyone else in the house and took a bus to the airport. Next stop: my old home town of Boston, Massachusetts, and then my current home town of Portland, Oregon...