Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Few Random European Tour Reflections

I've just completed a nine-week tour that involved playing gigs most nights of every week throughout five different northern European countries. And once again, I'm finishing the tour with some written reflections and recollections from it. My observations probably get repetitive. I go back to the same countries, for the most part. Although things change in different ways each time, they stay similar more than they change.

In the US things stay similar more than they change, too. For anyone who read my reflections on the similarly extensive tour I did last fall in North America, the differences between that tour and this one in Europe will be fairly obvious. Recent protests against police brutality throughout the US notwithstanding, the Left more broadly has been in a fairly anemic state in most of the US for most of the past decade or so. This anemic state is reflected very starkly in my gigs there, such as with most of my gigs last fall, which were some of the worst-paying, most badly-attended gigs I've done since I started touring full-time in the 1990's, overall.

Not so in Europe, where my audiences continue to either grow or stay similar in size. Somehow, almost magically, it seems, my audiences in much of Europe don't age, either. Somehow, young people keep discovering my music and coming to my gigs there. Is that because the Left is so much more active in northern Europe as compared to the US? Are there more people in Europe who give a shit than there are in the US? To both questions, I would say the answer is a simple “no.”

Then why did my tour of the US last fall involve an average audience size of fewer than 20 people, whereas in Europe there were often close to or more than 100 people coming to many of my shows? Why did the tour last fall involve exactly zero protest rallies, whereas in Europe I sang at six of them in three different countries? All involving stages, nice sound systems, and crowds in the high hundreds or low thousands. In one case, tens of thousands.

In the US, the politicians from both parties seem to become more and more conservative by the year (what the rest of the world calls “liberal” or “neoliberal”). In northern Europe, the far right's electoral gains generally seem to eclipse the Left's gains, just as the “Tea Party” gain ground on the other side of the pond. In the US, the anemic Left looks to South American social movements and electoral politics for inspiration, just as the northern Europeans look to Greece and Spain.

My very differing experiences can be summed up in many relevant ways, but being both an American and a poet, I'm tempted to boil it all down to a one-word soundbite: infrastructure. There may be a similar proportion of activist-inclined types in Sweden compared to the US, but look what the Swedes have to work with that are either entirely absent or almost entirely absent in the US.

Unions. Unions that own property in every city and most towns in the country, where they use their vast financial resources to systematically fund cultural events, visiting speakers, adult education. Unions that run resorts for their members.

Truly Left political parties – not pseudo-progressive “caucuses” within otherwise neoliberal, corrupt organizations, such as the virtually worthless entities like the Progressive Caucus, but actual Left political parties with significant representation in parliament.

Leftwing social centers. Liberated territory occupied by anarchists, communists, punks and hippies (though rarely all at the same time). Self-run, independent social centers – not a function room in a fundamentally alienating environment like a Christian church. No offense intended to all you wonderful progressive Christians, but most of us on the Left are atheists, last I checked, and having Jesus hanging on the cross behind me when I'm trying to do a gig is not a welcoming environment. (Though the fact that the churches are often free or very cheap to use, even in cities where virtually nothing else is free or cheap to use, is a major factor that will surely keep the Left using churches in the US for many years to come.)

I left Portland, Oregon on the first day of April, landing in Hamburg on the morning of April 2nd. The great revelation for me that made this tour of Europe technically easier than any before it was owed to the fact that for whatever reason, if you have a contract with T-Mobile in the US, you can now roam the world with an unlimited data connection for no extra cost. For someone like me, it's hard to overstate how handy this development has been.

I also discovered Instagram in earnest at the beginning of the tour, so this tour has been especially well-documented with my best efforts at photography to date (though my real photographer friends have only been rarely impressed at my efforts). You can judge for yourself...

I landed in Hamburg because the rental cars are cheaper there than in Scandinavia, and it's nearby. But my first gig was north of Copenhagen, in the town of Helsingor. It was the annual conference of a Trotskyist party, with folks from all over Scandinavia participating. I somehow accidentally made a joke about an icepick (I meant pickaxe, but it came out wrong). No one called me a Stalinist, so it was all OK.

The month of April was fairly evenly divided between Denmark and Sweden, but Swedes played an especially prominent role in my life that month, in both Denmark and Sweden. My two-week tour of Sweden was all organized by a Swedish songwriter named Kristian von Svensson, and most of my gigs in Denmark involved opening sets by another Swede named Elona Planman.

The first gig that Elona and I did together was that first gig of my tour, in Helsingor. Elona is an amazing songwriter and a spellbinding performer. And she pretty much writes exclusively in Swedish, a language I do not understand. How, you may wonder, do I then know that she's so good? Answer: the same way I know I'm good. Not by assessing various aspects of the songs themselves so much as by assessing the reactions of the audience.

When Elona makes a joke, the audience laughs. When she sings a sad song, the audience cries. Simple as that. Although she has also given me rough English translations of her songs, and they're really good. Despite the fact that none of her songs are as overtly political as, say, mine tend to be, she completely won over audiences of Trotskyists, retired union members, elderly folk music aficionados, and teenage anarchists alike.

I first met Elona two years earlier, when her life was mostly full of a wild project known as the Floating City. Which is essentially a metal ship the size and shape of a city block, which will hopefully soon be floating on the water, rather than inside a warehouse, where it's been now for many years, in construction.

We had a gig together back then, and when I went to visit the Floating City later in the week, we spent most of an afternoon with me giving her a guitar lesson. She was clearly sucking up everything I showed her, like a proverbial sponge. And then hearing what she's been doing since then, doing these gigs together, it was so gratifying to hear so clearly how thoroughly she had absorbed all that stuff, and worked at it daily. Which is not at all to say that I deserve any significant credit for Elona's development as a guitarist. But it's still so gratifying on those rare occasions when you can clearly tell that music tips I gave were understood, absorbed, and incorporated. Students like that make teachers happy...

The days between gigs for Elona and I were spent largely at a multifaceted place a few kilometers down the road from Helsingor, in the little coastal village of Hellebaek. Run by founders of an alternative school system which was eventually more or less banned by the Danish government, the buildings where the schools used to run out of are all still in operation, since those running the schools had the wisdom to buy property, rather than rent it. So when the Danish state's largesse was no longer available, the physical infrastructure was still there, and now there's the Hellebaek B&B, among other things happening there.

And what a B&B it is. Not just great meals, but eaten in the company of some of the most interesting, knowledgeable teachers and organizers I've ever met, who have spent their decades-long careers teaching, working, and traveling throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Every day was a new lesson in the history of Danish social democracy or the bizarre and tragic fate of the Algerian revolution.

About half of the rooms one might stay at at the old school in Hellebaek are overlooking the forest – one of the few parts of Denmark where you will find the kinds of miles-long trails winding through the woods that people more commonly associate with Sweden or Norway. The other half of the rooms, like the one I was staying in during my various visits to the place throughout the month of April, overlook the Baltic Sea.

Whether you're overlooking the woods or overlooking the sea, it's a meditative place to be. But it was while I was looking across the Baltic at Sweden, which is as close as it gets to Denmark at that point, close enough to see some of the buildings in the Swedish town of Helsingborg, that I heard the news of the ship full of refugees that sank in the Mediterranean, with around a thousand dead. This prompted thoughts once again for me of the much luckier Danish refugees who fled to Sweden in 1943, and this time I wrote a song about them.

For Kristian von Svensson and I, the focus of the tour was Joe Hill. Specifically, this year is the 100th anniversary of the execution by firing squad in the state of Utah of the Swedish poet, songwriter, cartoonist and labor organizer, Joel Emanuel Haglund (who later changed his name to Joe Hill, after getting blacklisted under his original name).

Kristian is another great Swedish songwriter, with a decidedly more traditional folky style, particularly in terms of his guitar playing. He is also a novelist, and possessed of an incredibly impressive knowledge of Scandinavian history, as well as history of lots of other places in the world. We knew we wanted to make Joe Hill a central theme of our gigs, but the way that ended up coming together was basically a happy accident. Without really coordinating our presentation – which was also half if Swedish (Kristian's half) and half in English – what we basically ended up doing every night was Kristian would focus on the man, his music, and a sampling of music from more recent times that was clearly influenced by the man, and I would mainly tell stories and sing songs that put the IWW of Joe Hill's day into some kind of historical context.

The last gig of our tour together was in Sweden's second city, the beautiful, canal-filled, coastal city of Gothenberg. (Like so many of Europe's most attractive cities, it was largely designed by Dutch engineers.) This show was well-recorded, and if you want to get a flavor of the way I worked Joe Hill into the thing, here's the set I did.

And for those of you who have organized events in the US, always in search of some kind of free or inexpensive venue to use, almost always a space that isn't quite what we might hope for, that isn't really Ours, let me tell you about the venues Kristian and I played in. In Gothenberg, the five-story building in the center of the city owned by the Communist Party, appropriately named Marx-Engels Huset (“huset” meaning either “house” or “building” or “center,” depending on the context). And at this gig, along with many Swedish communists, a Canadian one as well – Kevin Neish, who was in Sweden to help with the Swedish Ship to Gaza, getting their newly-purchased boat into shape for an ocean voyage from Sweden to the besieged Gaza Strip. Kevin came to the show in his impeccable Lenin outfit, much to the pleasure of many in attendance.

Other venues included Stockholm's chief punk rock social centers, the venerable Cafe 44 in the center of town, and the magnificent, multicolored plastic architectural achievement in the outskirts of town known as Cyklopen.

And in Gavle, Joe Hill's home town, we played in the back yard of the house Joe grew up in, which has for decades now been owned and run by the anarcho-syndicalist Swedish trade union, SAC.

Of the dozen or so gigs we did in Sweden, all the rest were in union-owned, union-run social centers known as ABF Huset – the adult education wing of the social democratic union movement, where Kristian and I were just another of an unending series of educational and cultural events hosted and funded by these centers.

Among the many conversations Kristian and I had during our many long drives through different parts of Sweden, was one about the state of Palestinian football. I had been reading about football, and Palestinian football in particular, on and off for months, trying to be inspired to write a song about the Palestine national football team, but with no luck. What should the hook line be? That's always the biggest hurdle for me.

Then Kristian let me in on a well-known expression within football circles – “the ball is round,” meaning, roughly, anything can happen. That was it, I thought, and then the song wrote itself, as they do, once you have a good hook line to center it all around. Soon afterward, Palestinian football was making international headlines, as FIFA was considering the possibility of disallowing Israel from participating in the association, as a way of punishing the Israeli government for their systematic practice of preventing Palestinian players from being able to get to matches.

And then back in Denmark. More venues of various kinds, with the same common theme of Left ownership – more or less permanent fixtures of the Danish Left. Oktober Books, owned and run by a small communist party in Copenhagen. A longstanding squatted social center near the center of town called Folkets Hus.

In three different parts of the country, adult education centers run by the Danish labor union, 3F. Another union-sponsored May 1 event in Arhus, and a punk rock social center in Alborg that gets subsidies from the Danish culture ministry for hosting punk rock shows – and the government funds them with the full knowledge that putting on Leftwing punk rock shows is primarily what they do!

I have had many friends in the US who have been involved with the Green Party and other small political parties, who have engaged in more or less symbolic opposition to the two dominant parties, rarely winning actual elections. In Europe, many of the people who were union organizers or teenage leftists of one kind or another are now older, and elected members of their local municipal, regional or national legislatures. From these positions they continue to organize events like they used to, except now sometimes they take place in the parliament or the city hall, as was the case with two of the gigs I did in Germany.

The first gig in Germany on this tour, in a union-owned venue a block from the main train station, was yet another crowd of close to 100 people, organized by a wonderful couple who are my self-proclaimed “biggest lesbian fans in Hamburg.” They've organized several of my best gigs in Hamburg over the years, and attended many others, but it was only on this visit that I learned of the family background of Katharina Jacob.

I was booked to play at a communist-run festival on May 9th, but my friends mentioned to me that on the previous evening, May 8th, there would be a walking tour of Hamburg organized by some other fine, upstanding reds. Many people in Germany are claiming as theirs the notion of Liberation – that is, liberation from fascism, the liberation that formerly Nazi-occupied countries throughout Europe celebrate, usually on some date in early May, depending. Though Germany lay in ruins, with millions and millions of Germans dead, May 8th also marked the end of fascist tyranny, the date in 1945 when suddenly, being a Jew or a communist or even a social democrat was no longer a death sentence.

The walking tour involved bits of street theater, music, and brief talks about different events that had taken place in different parts of town – people who had been found and sent to concentration camps here, others who successfully passed on secret information there. A refugee detention center now, which was once a Nazi-run prison, where Katharina's grandmother was on a hunger strike. The legislature, where her grandfather, Franz, was once on the City Council.

In Switzerland I had another lovely gig at the massive squatted social center in Bern known as the Reitschule (it was once a school).  Folks who run the place were talking about how there's always a chronic shortage of volunteers willing to be involved with the nitty gritty of keeping a place like that going.  I heard this theme often.  The thing is, if they have just enough folks to do that work, the result can be having an institution like this, which keeps so much of a scene going.  A comparatively little effort can have very amplified results, with infrastructure beneath it all.

I also played for the first time in a punk pub called Walhalla, in the snow-capped mountain village of Davos. So now I can finally say that I have not only been to Hell (a very small town near Trondheim airport in Norway), but I have also played in Walhalla.

It was with great trepidation that I learned at some point while in continental Europe that my dear friend and longtime musical co-conspirator, John Baine, aka Attila the Stockbroker, had a spot of cancer on the lining of his bladder. By the time I saw him at the Glastonwick Beer and Punk Rock Festival that he's been running every year for twenty years now, it seemed the beloved, besieged National Health Service (NHS) medical practitioners at his local hospital had zapped the tumor successfully.

After singing in April at a protest in Copenhagen against Denmark's purchase of new fighter jets, another protest in Copenhagen against fracking, a protest in Stockholm against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Protocol (TTIP), and another TTIP protest in southwestern Germany in May, my tour of Europe would end at the beginning of June, as previous European tours have ended in years past, singing at two different protest rallies happening around this year's big G8 meetings – now the G7, since Russia got kicked out for allegedly doing the same kind of shit that all the other G7 members do regularly. (That is, invading other countries without UN approval.)

The rally in Munich where I sang on June 4th was organized by a wide variety of parliamentary and extraparliamentary groups including Die Linke, the Pirate Party, Attac and others, and involved 34,000 participants according to the police estimates. The town where the actual G7 summit was taking place was over an hour's drive from Munich, on the German-Austrian border. In actuality the drive took much longer than that, because of several police checkpoints which were set up on all the roads leading to the quaint little village of Garmish in every direction, starting quite a ways from the actual town, manned by cops who totaled, altogether during the summit, 17,000 in number.

I roll with the punches when it comes to singing at protests, because there's always a major element of unpredictability to these things, for all kinds of reasons. In the case of the event Attac and others were organizing in Garmish on June 6th, I started out being less than hopeful about it, in terms of the prospects for me having much of an audience, because I've been around the block and know how these things often go. That is, I knew the beginning would likely be good, and it was. Despite all the fear-mongering and checkpoints everywhere, thousands of people managed to get to the town, the camp that was eventually allowed to be set up, and the rally. There were speakers and musicians. Then the march started.

I knew that the starting of the march, and the plans to have a sort of mini-festival afterwards, could go different ways. Often what happens is marches go on too long, and slowly peter out, with people leaving in dribs and drabs, so plans to have a thing after the march often just don't really pan out. Of course, another thing that's always likely to happen during a march, is kettling, mass arrests, and police brutality. This one did not involve mass arrests, but did involve a lot of kettling, and everything took hours longer than planned.

What was to be a 5 pm return to the stage became 7 pm or so, and when the remnants of the march did eventually make it back to the stage, what immediately followed was an absolutely torrential downpour, combined with copious bolts of lightning and blasts of thunder. I got two-thirds of the way through with one song before the decision was made to shut down the stage, for fear of electrocution (quite sensibly I'm sure). A band full of very nice guys from Bologna, Italy was to be the final act of the event, but after driving all the way to Germany from Bologna, they didn't end up playing a note.

The last supper of this tour was my first-ever meal at an Indonesian restaurant, in Eindhoven, one of the larger cities in the little country that once ruled colonial Indonesia, the Netherlands. I gave virtually no notice about my swing through town, but several friends were able to join me there, including the infamous Armand, who has once again been riding high with massive amounts of media publicity coming from all ends of the country, due in large part because a popular Dutch band called the Kik has just put out an album consisting entirely of songs of Armand's.

Except for one song, which is his Dutch version of my song, “the Commons.” Armand brought with him a magazine that featured his smiling face on the cover, and really well-done photos of his face within the magazine, accompanying the nine-page-long article about him.

“You're in the phone book,” were Armand's first words to me, as he sauntered in to the establishment, a while after the rest of us had gotten there. He then sat down and found the bit where he talks about me and “the Commons.”

In case you're wondering whether having a famous Dutch band record a Dutch version of one of your songs makes a difference in one's musical career, as far as I can tell, it doesn't. But then again, the album's not actually out yet, so who knows.

And then before I put my phone back into flight mode, sitting on the connecting flight that will finally take me home to Portland from a very long layover in Detroit's spacious, sterile airport, I find an email from the singer of the Scottish band, the Wakes, who have just put out a three-song album on Bandcamp, a benefit for folks in Bethlehem, the first track of which is easily the best version of “They're Building A Wall” that has ever been made.

Which fits in well with the infrastructure theme. That's the kind of infrastructure we don't want. We don't want fighter jets, fracking drills, or walled ghettos. We want punk rock social centers, union resorts, and commie book stores.

1 comment:

Michael Caddell said...

Thanks David, reading this helped me through some pretty bad times here in Kansas. "Another world is possible."