Over the years I've written many travelogues after tours, ruminating on the tour overall, and sharing some of the highlights that come to mind at the time of writing. After spending enough time hanging out with journalists over the years, I finally decided to start taking occasional notes as I go. So, for the first time ever, I actually have a few pages of very basic notes to help me remember some of those things that seemed worth remembering at the time, to write about in future.
What I didn't do while traveling was to keep track of news developments in my notebook. But keeping track of world news – including of course Trump's most recent shocking statements and actions – is a constant thing for me, that tends to affect how I view the world I'm physically passing through, as well as how I approach the phenomenon of giving a very politically-laden concert in the midst of whatever cyclone is enveloping Washington, DC (and much of the rest of the world) that particular day. So I wish I had made notes about that, too, and probably other things as well. Next time...
There is a Specter Haunting Europe
Europe's crisis, like the crisis in the United States, is manufactured. There are of course factors like industrial automation and other aspects of technological development and global economics that create challenges for any nation or region of the world to cope with, but through neoliberal policies on both sides of the Atlantic, these challenges are just being used as excuses to actually make the whole situation far, far worse. The powers-that-be are using the growing inequality that they have created or exacerbated in the first place as a pretense to impose more policies designed make the situation even worse, while claiming they will make things better. And then when things predictably continue to get worse, they blame the refugees – which themselves are largely the product of US, UK and NATO policies of wanton destruction in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
As the decline continues – which is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, with the difference being that the decline in the US started from a lower point in terms of living standards, job prospects, housing costs, social and economic inequality, and so on – movements and politicians offering what appears to be real change become more popular. But because many of the ruling parties in Europe call themselves “socialist” while largely implementing capitalist (“free market”) reforms – which, incidentally, was also the case back in the 1930's with the Social Democrats that then ruled interwar Germany – many Europeans no longer look to the left for solutions to their mounting problems. Many look to the right.
Many people in many of the countries I have been traveling in do not recognize their own societies anymore. They hear people say things people wouldn't have said twenty years ago. Many people in Europe feel a bit dazed by developments. How is it that the right is able to continually control the narrative and keep growing? How can we reverse this process – not to return to a broken, neoliberal, Obama/Blair/Macron-style status quo, but to at least return to the kinds of social democratic policies that made much of Europe and even the United States fairly egalitarian societies for one or two generations during a big chunk of the latter half of the twentieth century.
It's not the same everywhere – there are important distinctions in how things are going from one country to the next. But there are important generalizations to be made as well, which seems obviously like the overall context for any present-day collection of observations about how Europe is doing in the year 2018.
It Began With a Ban
At the end of March I was banned from Facebook for the first time in my life. All posts I had made over the years related to the London band, the Commie Faggots, were being flagged as hate speech by Facebook's bots or interns, I don't know which. It took months before I successfully found and removed all the offending posts, and every time I was unbanned I'd be rebanned again a few days later for yet another old post I hadn't managed to find earlier. The latest ban ended a few days ago, only days before this 11-week tour of Europe ended. Both an inauspicious beginning and an inauspicious ending to a tour, in an age where Facebook is one of the most dominant platforms for all kinds of communication, both public and (at least theoretically) private.
I left Portland two days after my son, Yuta, turned two. Reiko and Yuta took me to the airport on April 16th. After I went to the gate I learned that the flight would be very delayed. I suspected Reiko and Yuta would be hanging out somewhere where they could look at the planes taking off, and they were. From the other side of a very thick, soundproof glass wall, I sat in the hallway and got my last looks in on my wife and youngest child, who I wouldn't see for almost three months, except on Skype.
The flight was so delayed that I missed my connection in San Francisco. After two hours on the phone with Orbitz representatives who themselves were trying to reach SAS representatives on my behalf, I was eventually rebooked onto a flight leaving early the following morning. I had a carryon bag that had CDs in it, but no clothing – oops. Rather than sitting around SFO for nine hours, I took the BART to Berkeley, visited with my old friend David Solnit, and slept for four hours before heading back to the airport, wearing some of David's borrowed, ill-fitting undergarments.
The first airport I landed in in Europe was Copenhagen, but it was just to switch planes for Trondheim, Norway, where I had my first gig. I originally planned to have four days there to recover from jet lag, which is, I've found, an important first step to any long tour, if I want to avoid getting sick. But then I whittled that down to three days so I could spend an extra 24 hours with my baby. And then because of the flight mishaps, three days became two.
The neighborhood where my friends live in Trondheim is called Svartlamon. It's a neighborhood that was squatted originally, and is now a more or less accepted part of the urban landscape. As with many of the places I'll mention in this post, I have been there many times and written about it a number of times in past travelogues. (And of course, armed with the knowledge that there is a place in Trondheim called Svartlamon, you can consult the Oracle for more information than you ever wanted.)
Only a week before I left Portland, one of Europe's most dynamic, biggest and most political squatted communities, La ZAD, outside Nantes, France, was being attacked by thousands of riot cops. The struggle at La ZAD wasn't getting much English-language press anywhere as far as I'm aware, but the raid on La ZAD was one of those things – along with Trump's constant escapades, weekly massacres of Palestinians in Gaza, and regular news of more refugees drowning in the Mediterranean – that was never far from the thoughts of so many of the people I talked with throughout Europe.
But Svartlamon is growing. The community is building several beautiful new, multi-story houses out of all kinds of cool, recycled materials. The arrangement is structured so that the houses will always be inexpensive housing for members of the community. Long-term, nice housing, but not a real estate investment that some individual can later profit from. The way housing should be.
The daycare in Svartlamon is thriving, full of happy children and staff. My friends who had babies last time I was there now have toddlers, who are like siblings to each other now. Bjorn-Hugo runs a little clothing shop there called Banana Moon. His last trip to India to buy clothes to sell at the store didn't go well, as it coincided with the Indian government's efforts at the time to get everybody to open bank accounts, and there was no cash available anywhere to anyone. Panhandlers weren't even asking the European tourists for money, since they knew that they, like everyone else, didn't have any.
It was only after two days in Trondheim, when I was at the airport, still jet-lagged, getting my flight to Copenhagen, that I was reunited with my luggage. I was in such a hurry to put on a clean t-shirt that I ducked around a corner and changed my shirt in a hallway, rather than bothering with dragging all my stuff to the nearest bathroom.
Just to make a random comparison, Denmark has approximately one-tenth the population of England. On most of my tours of Europe I either have the most gigs in England or the most gigs in Denmark. This time it was Denmark. Out of the 50 gigs I had in Europe, 14 of them were in Denmark, 12 in England. (The other 24 gigs were distributed between Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands, where I had one gig in each country, and Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Scotland and Ireland, where I had multiple gigs in each place.)
Put another way, of the 11 weeks I've just spent touring in Europe, I spent four of them in Denmark. From what I've seen, Denmark is a rare example of a country with leftwing institutions that have managed to grow while also maintaining the kind of regular regimen of activities – conferences, demonstrations, summer camps and cultural events, among other things – that ensure the next generation will be full of knowledgeable, socially well-adjusted leftwing organizers.
The xenophobic Danish People's Party is growing, as with similar parties across Europe, but the leftwing Unity List, Enhedslisten, is also growing, and the bigger that party grows, the more gigs I get in Denmark. Most of the gigs I did were organized by local Enhedslisten branches or their youth wings, along with the independent Socialist Youth Federation (SUF), the 3F union federation, as well as now-legal former squats – some of which receive a budget from the cultural ministry for putting on their events, which is also the case in some other countries in Europe, such as Switzerland. These institutions – left parties, unions and squats – are, for me at least, the three main pillars of many European societies that tend to make them better places to be than so many others.
As with most other years since 2000 or so, May 1st involved multiple gigs in several cities – 8:30 am singing for the Builder's Union in Copenhagen, then 5 pm on the other end of Denmark at the May 1st celebrations in Aarhus, then at 9 pm a concert at the formerly-squatted punk rock social center to the north, in Aalborg, 1000Fryd. My latest song on Danish history, about the people's seizure of the stock exchange in 1918 (“Stock Exchange”), went over well. And so many times when I close a show with “Denmark, 1943,” I meet another person whose father or brother sailed one of the boats full of Jewish refugees to Sweden on those fateful October nights.75 years ago.
Although the 900-person commune in the center of Copenhagen that is Christiania has been legalized for years now, as an overall entity, the scene on the specific little section of the Free State known as Pusher Street is as tense as ever. This is where people can buy cannabis products, as has been the case since the early 1970's. But ever since a cop was shot and killed during a drug bust not long ago, police have been doing multiple sweeps of the area every day, confiscating all the hash and pot they can get ahold of as they do, while the dealers (known locally as “pushers,” this term doesn't necessarily have the negative connotation it tends to have in the US) quickly grab their stashes and try to suddenly become invisible.
A building which was also squatted around the time Christiania was is Folkets Huset, in the Norrebro neighborhood not far from the center of the city. Some local drug-dealing youth were found to be keeping guns in the building and it got shut down sometime in the past year or two, but I learned on this visit that it's been reopened, with some wonderful folks I've known for a long time involved with the new project there.
In summer 2019, I will probably be spending July and August along with my family running a little cafe on the Baltic Sea in Hellebaek, Cafe Hellebaek...
In the Battle of Lund, 10,000 Swedish and Danish soldiers hacked each other to death. These days they get along fine, though. On many tours in Europe I do multiple gigs in Sweden. In recent years they're often collaborations with a great songwriter from Malmo named Kristian Svensson. On this tour there was only one gig with Kristian, in the basement of a building at the university. It was put on by the youth wing of the Social Democrats, who were celebrating their 150th anniversary as an organization. As with many other places, it was evident in Lund how much the ongoing massacres in Gaza were on the minds of the people, and the posters on the walls.
The project that has been taking up much of Kristian's attention, aside from raising his happy little child, is a musical he's written and recorded about the labor organizer originally from Gavle, Sweden, Joel Emanuel Hagglund, aka Joe Hill. I believe it is going to be coming to a theater near you, if you live in Sweden. And it's in English, so maybe even outside of Sweden, too! I've heard a bunch of it, and it's really good.
I had met many Finns and heard so much about Finland and Finnish history before finally making my first trip to Finland in early May. I was only there for a couple days, so really didn't have a chance to confirm or deconstruct any of my prejudices. But the Finnish punks at Squat Kumma were lovely, and one of the other bands on the bill was really good, and reminded me of a lot of train-hopping youth I've met over the years in the US.
As a foreigner in Helsinki it was interesting to walk around the neighborhood where Squat Kumma is located, which I did for hours before the gig. It's a nice neighborhood, or at least it could be. There are a handful of restaurants and bars, lots of public, car-free space, and lots of apartments that look perfectly fine, if not fancy. There's not much green space, but it's by no means an oppressive-feeling neighborhood.
I mention this because it was after visiting Helsinki that I heard a news story about how the people in that neighborhood feel like they live in a ghetto, and the Finnish government is trying to figure out why they feel that way, and what can be done to make them feel more at home. My only thought is that most of the residents of the neighborhood are from Somalia, and maybe they'd feel less like they lived in a ghetto if half the people in the neighborhood were, say, from Finland. I'm just guessing.
In most of Germany you will encounter pleasant, thoughtful and efficient people in all walks of life and in pretty much all professions, most of the time. This is not the case at Berlin's main airport, however. Evidence was everywhere that services were being rapidly privatized, budgets cut, with the familiar sense of complete dysfunctionality that is a commonly-referenced fact of daily life in much of the world. This usually definitely does not include Germany, but that's apparently changing. I waited at a desk for over an hour for an employee to finish his lunch break (or whatever he was doing) in order to answer my question, which was “where is my luggage.” An hour after that, I got my luggage.
The band I double-billed with in Berlin was a wonderful local band called the Rathmines. Very Irish-influenced folk punk, but there's nothing contrived about it. That is, to be blunt, they don't sound like Germans playing Irish music. They just sound like great musicians playing well-crafted and well-executed songs.
The gig was recorded really well, I was happy to discover...
I've been billing the tour as the Ballad of a Wobbly tour, which is also the name of my latest studio album. On that and other recent albums, I've recorded a lot of songs about the IWW – the history of this wonderful organization as well as songs about the kinds of issues that drive Wobblies on the scene today. One of my Fellow Workers in Australia has been contacting IWW branches wherever I'm touring and alerting them about my upcoming appearances. However it's happened, Wobs have often found out about my gigs, and in some cases stepped forward to organize them, which was the case with the IWW chapter in Vienna.
It was my first-ever gig in Austria, somehow or other. As with Finland, it's a little strange to me that I had never ended up with a gig there before. There's a left there, and a high degree of English fluency, as with Finland. But as with Finland, I had to tour in Europe two or three times a year for eighteen years before ending up with a gig in Vienna.
It was a beautiful drive through parts of eastern Germany, through the Czech Republic, and into Austria. I didn't manage to line up a gig in Dresden or Prague along the way, either of which would have made very good sense geographically. Someone in Dresden threatened to organize a gig for me a couple times but I don't know what happened to them. I played in Prague a couple times, a long time ago, I think not since 2003 or so, and that remains the case.
There are many parts of Europe that are so picturesque, both in terms of the natural scenery and the way human society interfaces with it, that it looks like a fairy tale. The part of Denmark where I usually stay when I'm there is one of them. The German region of Bavaria is another. I don't think I've seen a part of Bavaria that isn't stunningly beautiful.
As with so many other parts of Europe, the population density seems very low in Bavaria. There are people and villages distributed with great regularity, but never all that many at once. There are green rolling hills to hike on for people just interested in what the English call rambling, as well as jagged peaks not far away for the more foolhardy.
I stayed in Bavaria in the home of a young family that lives beside the next generation of the family, as things used to be in so many places, and sometimes still are. All three generations are really cool, but the toddler is the cutest among them. (She finally warmed up to me the day before I was leaving.)
The father in the household is one of the members of a really great band called the Bumbleboys. Yes, I know they have a silly name, but they're really good. (I think they should change their name to Bavarian Scum and they'll quickly gain a bigger international following. At least that's how it works in my head.) Me and the Bumbleboys had two gigs in two different pubs in two different picturesque Bavarian villages, each well under an hour away from home.
This trip to Bavaria also included my first visit to the small city of Dachau. It's a beautiful little city, which I never even knew of, having only heard of the concentration camp, which it turns out is located on the outskirts of town. My host in Dachau, who was organizing the gig at the punk rock social center I played at, also kindly showed me around town, and took me to the concentration camp (which was my request). The main exhibits were closing when we arrived, so we just had a walk around the grounds, where the barracks that housed the inmates used to stand – not a lot to see, really.
I've noticed over the years that close to half of my gigs in Germany probably occur somewhere in the corridor along the western border of former West Germany, in cities that are usually not very far from the borders with the Netherlands, Belgium or Switzerland. This tour was like that, too. Of the seven gigs people organized for me in Germany, three of them were along this corridor – in Wiesbaden, Heidelberg, and Cologne.
The Infoladen Cafe in Wiesbaden is a very cozy little venue, filled with art and posters and things. The location looks like it might be a common room in a cohousing estate, but it's a cafe, or an infoshop, or a performance venue, or all of the above. Last time I played there, a little girl talked to me a lot about all kinds of things, in German. I didn't understand her, but she didn't mind, as long as I was looking attentive. She was there again, but this time she was old enough to know that I wouldn't understand her, and she ignored me.
Heidelberg is a beautiful city full of hills and old buildings, spared from destruction by the Allies because it was chosen to be the city where the US military would have their headquarters once the war was won. Right next to the old abandoned military base is a housing collective, with a lovely outdoor area where you can easily forget you're in the middle of a city. Rain was forecast, so this time the concert happened indoors, in a big living room full of couches. That was one of the most comfortable audiences ever. Also one of the youngest audiences on the tour outside of Denmark (largely university students).
In Cologne the show was part concert, part interview, conducted by a really good local musician and now also organizer for ATTAC named Ingo. Part of the idea with the interview was to talk about what was happening in the US in terms of any effective organizing against Trump. I don't think I filled the room with optimism, but they sure did a great job of editing the evening down to something digestible.
There are various indications as you get closer to Switzerland that you are entering a country which is a bit different, and not part of the usual EU way of doing things, not being a member of that club. You have to buy a sticker to put on your windshield in order to drive on the Swiss highways without getting a fine, you might get looked at by a border guard who might even want to see your passport, and of course the currency used in the country is not euros, unlike all of Switzerland's neighbors.
I arrived into Zurich on a cold afternoon. The gig, I realized as I got deeper into the city, was basically right in the middle of the city. I had expected I'd need to find a parking garage somewhere on the outskirts, as is generally the case in Swiss cities, but I was able to park the car right behind the venue. The venue was a very artistic, DIY creation, all the more artistic and DIY because it is located directly in the shadow of a massive, glass and steel bank. Construction is happening in most directions, and the whole area where this place, Zum Gaul, is located will be subsumed by the construction zone in four years. The food, espresso, beer and live music is top notch, so it's a shame that the place's existence has a time limit.
In the gorgeous capital city of Bern I played another show at a little collective work space located just on the edge of the city center. This time I remembered to contact my friends and fellow musicians, Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore, a few hours in advance of my arrival, and I was able to hang out with them a bit, and praise Mat in person for the fascinating book he recently published via PM Press about the movement and the music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1965-75.
At Sedel, outside Lucerne, everything was perfect except for the lack of an audience. The venue, an old squatted school well beyond the outskirts of the city, beside a farm. In the building there were practice rooms and various kinds of spaces where things were happening. That did not extend to the bar area where the gig was supposed to happen, where nobody came, aside from the bartender, sound guy and my opening act, a very nice Italian punk who had cool stickers on her guitar.
After a couple hours of hanging around, one friend of the opening act showed up, and we both did a few songs for an almost completely empty room, with a very pronounced echo. The folks who ran the place couldn't have been nicer about the situation. They put me up in a nice clean room behind the stage, fed me, and paid me. The only thing missing was the audience – nothing else.
Belgium and the Netherlands
I was sitting in a living room in Paris some years ago with a bunch of folks from France, the US, and Belgium. In the course of the discussion which migrated to various subjects including nationalism, the Belgian said “well Belgium's not really a country.” I didn't understand what he meant at the time, but since spending more time in Belgium, it seems a little more clear.
As I understand the history, it only exists as a nation because Britain wouldn't let it join France after the Napoleonic Wars were over, because the British leadership didn't want the French in control of the Port of Antwerp.
Many people identify with the regions they're from, or the states or cities, more than with any broader concept of nationhood. There are a lot of reasons for this – good, bad and indifferent ones. The unusual thing about Belgium is that there are only two regions that people strongly identify with – Wallonia and Flanders, one predominantly French-speaking, the other Flemish (Dutch). Politically, they often can't agree on a government. The society works just fine, and it's a prosperous place, but there is often a certain tension in the air, to me reminiscent of the feeling you sometimes get between the Anglophone and Francophone communities in Montreal.
And of course, as with most everywhere, there are great people doing all kinds of good stuff on both sides of this linguistic divide. I sang at events with speakers speaking about the ongoing struggle in Kurdistan, specifically related to the Turkish Army's invasion of Afrin, where they're leaving bodies to rot in the streets. At the event in Namur, French was the main language. In Leuven it was Flemish, but the subject was the same.
Wallonia was the one region in all of Europe that was standing between the EU ratifying a big “free trade” agreement a couple years ago. It's basically a socialist state, tempered by the far less socialistic Flanders, where most of the rightwing parties in Belgium get elected. In Wallonia, all of my gigs are organized by socialists, communists and labor activists. That was true of this visit, too – the difference with this visit being that more of the organizers and audience members were younger, in their twenties and thirties.
I met Gert Kleinpunk through the fact that we both knew Armand (a well-known, now deceased Dutch songwriter who recorded a Dutch version of my song, “the Commons”). Because Armand sang mostly in Dutch, he naturally developed an audience in Flanders as well as the Netherlands, and Flemish-language performers like Gert naturally play regularly in the Netherlands, where they share a common mother tongue.
Gert organized a second annual little festival in a barn in the countryside that's been turned into a very nice music venue, really comfy to hang out in, and great sound. On the bill along with me and Gert's band was the Bucket Boyz, a brilliant trio from Amsterdam who just barely managed to make it to the gig on time to do their spellbinding set. (My set was so nicely recorded by the sound engineer that I released the recording as an exclusive perk for my CSA members to download.)
The gig Gert organized was in the little village of Herent, but he lives in the nearby city of Leuven. In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, exactly one block away from the apartment complex Gert lives in, a circus was taking place. Circus performers from around the world were in Leuven for the weekend, and sitting in the shade in front of a cafe, there was the Palestinian Circus School. I introduced myself, and sent my best wishes to Mohammed Abu Sakha, who is back at the school, teaching kids, no longer in an Israeli prison. I tried to go see the circus performance, but that one was indoors, and you needed a ticket. Which would have been fine, except that it was sold out, as I discovered when I eventually got near the entrance of the theater, after waiting in line with lots of enthusiastic supporters of the Palestinian cause as well as circus aficionados.
I only had one gig in the Netherlands, but I spent a bunch of time there, crossing the Dutch-Belgium border often. The gig was in Utrecht, at the punk rock club called Acu, where I played on many occasions in the past, both with and without Armand and the Bucket Boyz. I was staying in Eindhoven, with yet another Armand connection, in the house where Armand lived for many years.
I stayed in a town outside of Utrecht where Patrick, one of the organizers of the gig at Acu, made the best Indonesian curry I've ever had. We walked to the town center there, where everyone is greeted by a statue of a famous, 13th-century troubadour.
Acu has been going through hard times of various sorts, but I had a nice little audience, and the sound system there was as good as ever. One of the doors was broken, but the walls had some great posters on them.
While I was in Belgium, an incident took place that dominated local news, though it was barely covered elsewhere. A two-year-old Kurdish girl named Mawda was shot and killed by a Belgian cop. She was in a van full of refugees, one of the vans that drive every night from the German border, trying to get to port of Antwerp, and then from there to England, one way or another.
Ireland was part vacation, part work. I only had two gigs – one Belfast and one in Derry – and three full days off to hang out in Rostrevor. Since discovering Rostrevor, I miss seeing my friends in Belfast as often when I come to Ireland, but it's too rejuvenating to hang out there in the countryside for me to pass it up, being spoiled as I was by the very kind and generous people of the Rostrevor Inn, with the homes of various members of the extended Sands family right down the street (of the Sands Family Singers – Tommy and Calum being the Sands brothers in the village).
Tommy and Katrine had just come back from a trip to Iran, which they enjoyed very much. I had been invited to come to a conference in Iran, but because of the timing of it and lack of enough advance notice, I already had plans (touring Europe). The organizers of the conference had asked me for recommendations of other artists they should have there, so I mentioned some other artists I knew who had written songs relevant to the subject at hand (Jerusalem), including Tommy. Most of the people I recommended were invited and offered plane tickets to the conference. It's so rare that I have that kind of influence in the world, so that was very exciting. Hopefully someday I'll make it to Iran myself.
The show in Belfast was at the American Bar, a place that's been there for a very long time. Right near the docks, still very much an industrial harbor, even if they're not building massive ships like the Titanic these days. I imagine the pub dates back to when there would have been lots of sailors and soldiers from the US coming in and out of the docks all the time. The show was organized by Trade Union Friends of Palestine, and the room was full of dedicated activists, many of whom had themselves traveled to the occupied lands of Palestine and witnessed Israeli apartheid first-hand.
In Derry the gig was also related to labor, but not specifically to Palestine. The public service workers' union were having a conference at a big conference center, and they were having their evening cultural event after all the meetings and speeches and such at the legendary Sandino's music club. I've played a few times at Sandino's, but this time it was in the big room, where I had never played. It was a noisy crowd, as I had expected, but hopefully they had a good time, though if anybody could hear a word I sang, that would be impressive.
My visit to Ireland happened to coincide with the victory of the pro-choice majority of Irish society in overturning the law which had essentially kept abortion almost completely impossible to obtain in the Republic of Ireland. This had happened a day or two before I landed on the island. The day I was in Derry, a delegation of pro-choice activists had come to protest, and a delegation of labor union members came to stand with them, including the union president, an eloquent woman who gave the most understated and the best speech at the protest, in my recollection of it.
The activists came to the North to say “the North is next.” Although not under the same system of laws as Dublin, abortion is also inaccessible in Northern Ireland. I was especially moved by hearing many of the older men speaking out, talking about women like comrades in a broader struggle. “The young women have had enough of this shit,” one retiring union organizer said, and everyone agreed wholeheartedly.
England, Scotland, Wales
Oddly enough, the most dysfunctional country in northwestern Europe, England, is probably also the most optimistic place in Europe these days as well. Although the specter of Brexit, austerity budgets, rising poverty and homelessness, fleeing Europeans and European businesses, etc., takes its toll in so many ways, the prospect of one elderly radical named Jeremy Corbyn someday possibly becoming prime minister continues to fill the sails of English people with at least a little hope for the future – which is more hope than most Europeans seem to have for it.
My first stop in England upon landing in Gatwick and successfully picking up my rental car and getting to Coombes Farm on time for my gig, was the Glastonwick Beer, Punk Rock and Poetry Festival. Attila the Stockbroker – punk rock poet extraordinaire, beer aficionado, and most excellent festival organizer, among other things – was the MC. He's been putting on this festival with the help of the local Dark Star Brewing Company for decades now. I've played at it many times, but not every year, as Attila has been recently paying particular attention to gender diversity among the performers (a very worthy goal that can only make it a better festival).
I enjoyed the very loud punk bands that played throughout the night very much from just outside the venue, where I could hear everything perfectly, but without suffering hearing loss. I stayed with Mr and Mrs Stockbroker, and when I got up in the morning, Joe Solo was in the little room just past the kitchen, working on the washing machine (a washing machine which has cleaned many a load of my laundry over the years).
Joe is a full-time washing machine repair person, father, and very active touring songwriter and performer. While doing all of these things, he somehow also maintains a permanently chipper demeanor, and keeps his hair in a state of greased perfection. As I travel around England on this and other tours in recent years, I regularly see posters for Joe's gigs that are just coming up or have just passed, and they're often in the same venues as I'm playing in.
I couldn't dawdle around Attila's place or catch any more music at Glastonwick as I had a birthday party to sing at in Birmingham that day at 4 pm. I got to catch up a bit that weekend with Dave Rogers of Banner Theatre, who was just back from a performance in Manchester for the Manchester Trade Union Council (TUC), the theater's latest production being prompted by the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the formation of the TUC.
The tour was actually far more zigzagging than it might seem from this rendering of it has been so far. For example, in actuality I went in and out of Germany from various other countries, rather than doing most of the gigs in Germany in one go. And I went back and forth between England and Scotland several times in the month of June. This was not the original intent when I started organizing the tour – it never is. But that's how it ends up anyway, most of the time.
This time, I already had plans in southern England for Attila's festival and two gigs in London by the time I decided what the heck, I'll play at the annual James Connolly event in Edinburgh after all. It was the 150th anniversary of his birth, for Pete's sake. And there were no other gigs materializing for that Tuesday night. Long drive from Birmingham, and even longer to London afterwards, but I had good audiobooks to listen to.
The gig in Edinburgh included Calum Baird, a local singer/songwriter, and the Glasgow band, the Wakes, among other fine performers. Some of the Wakes crew are also doing a new podcast series interviewing leftwing musicians of various sorts, including me.
On a free night I had the rare opportunity to actually go hear a concert by another performer. I caught Robb Johnson, one of my favorite songwriters on the planet, from Brighton, playing for a small crowd at the Edinburgh Folk Club, which was taking place in a fairly sterile university building with a bar and a stage in it. Coming back to Fatima's place in Glasgow, there sitting in the living room with her was Rory McLeod, who was himself in town for a gig. He had just caught Robb's show in Glasgow the night before. Fatima is a force of nature as an organizer herself, but she was also married to the late Alistair Hulett, my friend and touring partner on several occasions. Not shocking to run into a folk music legend in Fatima's living room, but a pleasure nonetheless – I don't think I had seen him for a decade or so.
The Wakes and I also had a memorable gig later in June at the Squirrel Bar in Glasgow, a well-known Irish Republican hangout where the punters are known to randomly break out in Celtics Football Club songs at any moment, while drinking an especially toxic caffeinated alcoholic beverage served, incredibly, by the pint, known as Venom.
There was one more well-attended show in Edinburgh as well with a fabulous local band made up of a mix of folks from Spain, Scotland and Ireland, called Gallo Rojo. The sound they've got, this mix that I might characterize as some kind of traditional Irish/flamenco/punk rock vibe, works brilliantly when someone who is not on the stage is doing the sound for them. (At least I'm sure that would be the case. So far I've only heard them twice, both times when they were doing sound for themselves, from the stage, and both times the electric guitar was overpowering everything else. Being a musician, I could remix the whole thing in my head with the guitar much lower in volume and all the Spanish singers louder, and it sounded amazing.)
London was in a state of upheaval, at least my little corners of it. The Islington Folk Club has had to move, and last I checked they haven't yet found a good place to move to. The yuppies, hipsters, or whatever we can rich young white people these days, are taking over the place. They apparently have corporate parties in the bar where the folk club used to happen, where some corporate guy leaves his credit card behind the bar, and drinks are on him. Under those kinds of circumstances, they make a lot more money hosting corporate parties than comparatively less alcohol-consumption-oriented folk club events. The location where my Islington gig took place was a one-off, and it was very loud in there. Reuben saved the day by going home to get his nice little sound system, just in time for my second set!
The gig with the band whose name was at least ostensibly the reason why I spent the whole spring banned from Facebook, the Commie Faggots, was great. A small, packed venue, my favorite kind. (Other than a large, packed venue...) The band had lots of great new material which they showcased on the occasion. Janine Booth, the official disgruntled middle-aged woman, gave a blistering spoken word performance where she once again laid waste to the capitalist system, and the Tories in particular.
Staying with my friends Jane and Tony I learned that due to the fallout from the last London Anarchist Book Fair, the next one wouldn't be happening. It seems that because of their efforts to break up a fight (an actual physical fight) between several dozen angry trans anarchists and one radical feminist woman who had fliers that many people found offensive, they were accused of all sorts of nonsense. I looked at some of the accusations, which also included accusations related to me being an anti-Semite (I performed at that book fair). Utter bullshit – what some have been calling Extreme Identity politics. Though maybe that label won't stick very nicely, since Trump is also using a similar combination of words to describe people he doesn't like... Very discouraging that the organizers are so discouraged that they decided not to do it again, but completely understandable. If this is to be the state of “anarchism” today – accusing people of running an unsafe space because they break up a fight – then fuck it.
Far more uplifting was the gathering and concert held just across the street as well as directly in front of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Well, the neighborhood itself wasn't uplifting. It was downright distressing, with Gulf sheikhs driving around in extremely loud, extremely expensive sports cars that were so low to the ground it seemed impossible. The doors opened upwards.
But it was a good bunch of folks who gathered to support Julian Assange, who has been unable to leave the building for many years now, lest he be arrested when he walks out of it, and deported to the United States to face life in prison. All of which seems very likely to happen, if he did leave the building, so he doesn't. But then to complicate his already very complicated life further, the government of Ecuador seems to have cut off his internet access in recent weeks.
While I was singing in front of the Ecuadorian Embassy my friend Guy Smallman was taking photographs (for publication in various places, including the Socialist Worker newspaper) at a protest outside the prime minister's office at Downing Street. He reported there were between twelve and fifteen thousand neofascists (also known these days in England as the “Football Lads Alliance”) protesting for their leader to be freed (he's currently in prison). It was, Guy said, the biggest protest of neofascists in England that he's ever seen.David Rovics @drovics singing “here’s to love and solidarity” as he stands in front of an open window at the Ecuador Embassy in support of the @Wikileaks founder @JulianAssange. Supporters have been outside the embassy since March 2018 when Assange’s communications where cut off. pic.twitter.com/b9KTz8teT7— Niels Ladefoged (@NielsLadefoged) June 9, 2018
There were no gigs in Wales this time, just a little visit to Cardiff where I saw a very bad movie and got to catch up with Cosmo, one of my other favorite songwriters, among other folks. A new cafe has opened up on the outskirts of town where my friends live near Victoria Park, so espresso junkies visiting Cardiff no longer have to go all the way to the center of town to get their fix. But there are actually two new cafes there, and only one of them is any good, and that's only when the barista is on the job who knows what she's doing... Luckily, at least for now, that's most every day.
As usual on my tours of England, most of the gigs in England were in the north of England. The further north you go, the more militant does the working class become. The legacy of Thatcher and the miners strike in the 1980's in the north of England cannot possibly be overstated. (Want to know more about that? Watch Ken Loach films.)
Neoliberalism may have left poverty and homelessness in all the cities of England in its wake, most especially in the formerly industrial north, but the working class militancy that still pervades the region also means there are active union branches. Many of them are mainly for retired union members, but that's not so unusual, even in places where there are still a lot of currently-employed union workers.
At the Three-Minute Theater in Manchester there was a lovely gig with the very tall, young Dru Blues opening. The Malton/Thirsk Labor Party Corbynista branch organized another great event, this time in Malton itself, a very beautiful market town I had never been to, as far as I can recall. I also had a gig in Rotherham, another town I had never been to, but I only saw the venue, a pub called the Trades. An old friend from Norwich was at the show, along with her boyfriend, who is from Rotherham. They've been going out for over a year now, and they informed me that this was the first night they have ever gone out on a date in the town of Rotherham.
The Love Music, Hate Racism folks who organized the gig in Rotherham did a great job. They spoke with dread about the recent gathering of thousands of neofascists in London. And about the racist killing of an elderly, brown-skinned man that had taken place in Rotherham last year. I know from my lived experience – as I'm sure every MP in Westminster knows – that if towns like Rotherham had anything interesting happening in them on a regular basis for young people to do other than drink, these sorts of things wouldn't happen.
For those few of you who are still reading after these 8,000 words you may have gotten through up til now, while I've been on the road I've been writing a new, month-to-month, vertical (if you will) history series which is up now at www.davidrovics.com/history.
I've also been reading audiobooks, some of which I'd highly recommend. Evicted is a really important book about the state of poverty, misery and eviction in the US, and specifically in the author's case study of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Another very prescient book I was absolutely enraptured by was Chris Hedges' Death of the Liberal Class, which, among other things, predicts Trump's presidency very well, back in 2010.
The basic premise of Kurt Anderson's book, Fantasyland, was very interesting and illuminating, though I found there are basic aspects of US society and US history that the author doesn't understand well enough to draw the right conclusions from some of his historical observations – but the historical observations are nonetheless very interesting.
My twelve-year-old offspring, Leila, recently read the book, Plant Paradox, which she successfully convinced me to read. That was the first book I read on the tour. Unrelated to the rest of the more overtly political books I read, this one was about diet and nutrition. It was the most useful book I've ever read on the subject, for sure, and I've been successfully losing some weight as a result of the advice within it. Though that's only speculation, since nobody in Europe that I ever stay with seems to have a scale in their bathroom.
Another book I read was William Shirer's Berlin Diary. Shirer was a journalist from the US who is most known for writing Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, another excellent book. But Berlin Diary was a more personal account of the years of Nazi rule in Germany that he actually lived through himself, as a journalist reporting for CBS from 1934-41 (which was when the US entered the war and he had to leave, basically).
I'll leave you with my latest musical composition, which is a song inspired by reading Berlin Diary, and following the news from the United States today.