The people's troubadour David Rovics is back in the U.S. after a two-month tour of Europe in April/May 2014. On the way home he wrote a piece for his blog about a few things he experienced on the road in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Iceland.
It was a beautiful day for a riot. Granted, it was an exceedingly small riot, and not a very spontaneous one. And I don't even support rioting as a tactic under most circumstances. But they can still be a lot of fun, and I had been looking forward to this one for several weeks.
I've been on this island that an ever-dwindling number of people call Great Britain for close to a month now, on another of my annual pilgrimages to Europe, otherwise known as a concert tour. Sitting in the lovely back garden of the pub known as the Duke of Wellington, the local pub of my good friend Attila the Stockbroker, punk rock poet and organizer of tonight's gig, the last of twenty or so gigs on the British leg of the tour.
Not sure how much it's helped, but I've been mentioning this day at the end of all my gigs here, the day the English Defense League celebrates England in their own special way. St. George's Day. I don't know who St. George was, but this is his Day, and it evidently has something to do with this political-geographical entity full of the descendents of the Celtic tribes, the Vikings, the Normans and people from all over what was once the British Empire and beyond, known as England.
Every St. George's Day, the xenophobic men of the EDL – there are virtually no women in the group as far as I can tell – get pissed (drunk, in American) and have their March For England. For some bizarre reason, they choose Brighton as the location for their annual March. Brighton, the lovely little city on the south coast of England, less than an hour's train ride south of London, which has long been a vacation spot for Londoners wishing to breath some clean air for a change, and in recent decades has become the gay capital of Europe. It's also a big university town and a huge magnet for tourists from around the world, what with its quaint Old Town known as the Lanes, its seafront B&Bs, its very colorful population, and of course its proximity to the even bigger tourism magnet, the sprawling megalopolis known as London.
Every year, the ranks of the EDL keep shrinking, and the ranks of the anti-EDL protesters and police continually expand. When I arrived in town I parked on the outskirts of the city, knowing how parking anywhere closer is virtually impossible, even on a normal day, when the police haven't fenced off half the city. The March had already started. I wasn't sure quite where to find it, so I followed the helicopter, which I correctly assumed was there for the occasion, circling above the proceedings. If there had been no helicopter, it would have been easy enough to find by the scores of police vehicles and hundreds of geared-up cops lining the streets near the section of the seafront which had been duly fenced off in preparation for the festivities.
Walking through the city, there were two conversations that kept on repeating themselves every few seconds all around me. One was people with southern English accents complaining about the massive police presence, all to protect a pathetic group of forty or so fascists, as they are popularly known. The other was people with foreign accents of one kind or another asking one of the many cops or someone nearby what was going on here.
The spectre of the sloshed, jeering football hooligans who pass for ultranationalists, trying not to notice that they owe their very survival to this tremendous police operation, as they are constantly getting yelled at wherever they go by people of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations, while walking up and down the fenced-off seafront, much of the time in the rain, was very sad. One expects a certain amount of military discipline from fascists, but this lot had none of that. They did at least have large flags on long wooden poles, approximately one flag for every two fascists, which gave them at least a slight air of respectability, or at least some kind of notion that they were making some attempt at being an organized group. While the fascists – or the “fash” -- were being unceremoniously shoved and kettled by the police just as the anti-fascist protesters were, the fact that many of them had their English crusader flags on long wooden poles was somewhat conspicuous. If any of the black-clad youth had showed up with any kind of flag on a long wooden pole, I'm fairly certain the poles would have been confiscated by the police, for fear of them being used as weapons.
The very small-scale rioting took place near the train station, when the fash were trying to escape Brighton and fuck off home, under police protection of course. On a couple of occasions, protesters got close enough to them to nail one with a can of beer, or in one case, to spill beer on their faces. The latter event I personally witnessed, while sitting in a pub a block from the station. A waste of good beer, someone nearby mumbled after the event.
What I like best about protests is running into friends, and this one was no exception. At the seafront I spotted a couple who had once organized a gig for me, and attended many others over the years. I hadn't seen them in quite a while, though, and seeing the badges around their necks it became clear why. Both of them had been elected to the Brighton City Council seven years earlier, on the Green Party ticket. Standing amongst them were a collection of other local Green Party politicians, including a Member of the European Parliament, and the infamous Caroline Lucas, the Green Party's one Member of Parliament at Westminster, who for the past few years has seemed to be the sole voice of reason in the British Parliament since Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons.
And there at the pub down the street from the train station was a table full of people with press badges and fancy cameras, including my old friend Guy Smallman, who had clearly had a satisfying afternoon of sticking his camera in the faces of drunk fascists. Guy had only returned from covering the elections in Afghanistan days before, and had some exciting (to him), horrifying (to me) stories of near-death experiences to tell about the trip, which included being way too close to an exchange of heavy artillery between the Afghan Army and the Taleban. Speaking of the Taleban, this was the one line of reason, if you can call it that, that the EDL boys kept using against anyone who would criticize them. “You like the Taleban?”, they kept asking. Evidently, anyone who has a problem with racist homophobic idiots must be a Taleban supporter.
This tour of Great Britain began where it ends, in southern England. The plan was to start with a day to recover from jet lag, but that was not to be, thanks to yet another very delayed United Airlines flight which prevented me from getting to Chicago, from where I was originally going to be taken to London. So my first gig was on the day I landed. I was exhausted, and didn't have much of a singing voice, but it was nonetheless another great gig at what might be the best-run folk club in England, the Islington Folk Club. Opening for me there, as they do there every Thursday for whoever is the main act that week, was the house band, the Angel Band, playing their familiar traditional folk music. The band has so many members that they barely fit on the stage -- a collection of accordian players, guitarists, and a fiddler player in his late eighties, originally from the US, who played with the New Lost City Ramblers once upon a time, back in the 1950's, when he and that legendary outfit were a central part of the Greenwich Village folk revival, before there officially was one.
After a gig at the much smaller Hove Folk Club, formed only in recent years by one of the greatest songwriters in the English language, Robb Johnson, soon after he moved from London to Hove, the next stop was a small town near Milton Keynes, northwest of London, where the Workers Music Association were having a weekend gathering. Somewhat reminiscent of the New York-based Peoples Music Network, the WMA is a collection of a few dozen leftwingers, many of whom are members of leftwing choirs. There's a folk music-oriented bias to the WMA these days, but its roots are in the “workers music” tradition of the 1930's, when folks like my father's mentor, Stefan Wolpe, and people like Bertoldt Brecht and Hans Eisler were composing music that they hoped would appeal to the working class, and thus do their part to use music as a tool for moving society in a sensibly leftward direction. As with most organizations with the word “workers” in its name, the membership of the WMA is solidly on the older and more communist side of the left. Nothing wrong with that in the least, as far as I'm concerned, but as usual with ageing organizations, there was a lot of talk about how to interest the youth in it. Always a tough question, especially when you're starting out with an organization that is completely lacking in youth. Helps to have some to start with, in order to attract more of them...
Next stop was Wales. The organizer of the show in the little town of Llandloes (don't ask me how to pronounce that) was a transplant from Glasgow with many fine stories of the chaotic scenes in that conflicted city that had prompted him to take his family to a decidedly quieter place. His kids, who, on their mother's side of the family, are the grandchildren of a great promoter of the Welsh language, are being raised bilingual, in both Welsh and English, like their mother was, long before that became commonplace for kids living in Wales.
In Cardiff I shared the stage with the great Cosmo, an English transplant to Wales and a fabulous songwriter of a decidedly anarchist persuasion, recently back from a trip to Palestine. Also back from Palestine there at the No NATO benefit gig was Dee, a feisty little Irish woman who had been living in Wales for a long time, who managed to get herself arrested by the IDF during their visit to Palestine, for yelling at the soldiers who had just randomly decided to teargas small children as they were attempting to walk to school one morning.
In Birmingham I had the great pleasure of sitting in on a meeting of folks involved with organizing a small left-oriented festival, including a couple of folks who are members of the venerable Banner Theater group, who have been on the forefront of the class war in England since the early 1970's. I interviewed Dave Rogers, who writes the songs for Banner, among other things. One of what I hope will be many interviews with folks I meet in my travels. (Stay tuned for more on that...)
The function room in the pub in Liverpool was packed, as were most of the gigs, which was an especially welcome surprise given that it had only been organized with about four days' advance notice by one of the (younger) folks at the WMA weekend, Phil Hargreaves, an extremely talented jazz musician (whose daughter is also a great musician in a really good band that has just recorded their first CD). Phil lives in the working class neighborhood where John Lennon grew up, but I couldn't find John's house. Had a nice walk, though, in making the attempt...
I had my first gig ever in the town of Wigan, probably best known for its rugby team (for those who are into sport) or by George Orwell's book about it (for those who are into literature). I'm completely uninterested in sport and have never read the book, but it's a nice little town, like most towns in England are. The great actor and singer Tayo Aluko sat in the front row. Always exciting and slightly unsettling when someone of his stature is paying so much attention to me, so of course I completely botched at least one song, but otherwise it went OK. (For those of you in Britain and Ireland, Tayo is touring with his one-man musical about Paul Robeson for much of the month of May, and more in the fall...)
Most of the other shows in England were in what they call the North. Exactly what defines the North seems to be open to debate, but Northerners will tell you if you're in the North, or just near it... It includes the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, I think I can say definitively. The North-South divide in England goes way back. Of course there are people of all sorts in both regions of the country, but some of the characteristics that people tend to think of when they think of this divide are things like, well, class, primarily. The South has more money, overall, and also a lot more people. The stereotypical bias of Southerners toward the North can be characterized by a Tory MP (and a Southerner) who said recently that while he didn't approve of fracking in the south of England, he thought that fracking was a good idea in the northeast of England, which he characterized as “barren.” When challenged about this characterization of the northeast, he corrected himself, and said that he had meant the northwest. So he managed to insert his foot even deeper down his throat, and offend everybody in the North all at once, not for the first time.
I'm always really happy to get up to the north of England. The atmosphere is more relaxed than in the parts of England that are anywhere near the great international financial capital and teeming metropolis that is London. The air is clean up north, especially since Thatcher destroyed the manufacturing base of the country long ago, which was once largely based there, in cities like Manchester. In the countryside there are lots of sheep, and beautiful rolling hills on which the sheep are grazing. In spring, there are lots of baby sheep frolicking about, looking impossibly adorable. Most of the population is what you might call leftwing. Or at least in the South they might call them leftwing. In the North they'd more tend to just consider themselves Northerners, where the term “left” or even “working class” might just seem redundant as a descriptor.
The gig in Lancaster was an exceptionally well-attended anti-fracking benefit that featured a bunch of other great acts, and many audience members who had recently been arrested for locking down to fracking equipment. When I arrived at the venue, I learned that the police had called in to the publican to express their concern, because they had heard there was going to be a riot after the gig. The cops were wondering if they should post a riot squad outside the building. Thankfully, the owner of the pub declined their generous offer. I was not the only person at the gig to think that if the police had had a riot squad outside the pub, this in itself could have caused a riot, but that with no riot squad, a riot was unlikely to happen, despite the fact that probably half of the anarchist punks in Lancaster were at the gig, one of whom recited poetry from the stage that definitely glorified violence against cops and fascists alike. (He also really didn't like meat-eaters, but luckily for me, he apparently didn't think they should be beaten up. Either that or he assumed I was a fellow vegan.)
From the moment I arrived in Scotland until the moment I left, there was talk of the upcoming Independence vote. I lost count of the number of people who told me, “next time I see you it will be in an independent Scotland.” The vote is in the fall, and for the most part they know I usually make it to Scotland and elsewhere in Europe in the spring. Occasionally I met someone who quietly said they didn't care whether it was a Scottish government or a British government as long as it was a socialist one, but most people there, at least among the possibly-not-very-representative self-selected group of leftists that I tend to attract, were convinced that independence would be a good thing, and many of them were actively campaigning for it.
I stayed with a friend in a neighborhood of Glasgow that's mostly populated by people with very recent South Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry. The neighborhood was well-known locally for the successful struggle for the Govanhill Baths. The government closed them down, and the people occupied them for several months, got arrested a lot, and mobilized the community to defend the venerable and much-loved institution. My friend and host, Fatima Uygun, and her late partner, my old touring companion Alistair Hulett, were central to this struggle. Alistair even wrote a whole album's worth of songs about the struggle to keep the baths open.
The neighborhood was also made famous by the murder of a young white man by a group of Asian teenagers one night some years ago, very near to Fatima's flat. So, just as Brighton has become the preferred location for the EDL to have their annual march, the neighborhood of Pollakshields has become the spot for the pathetically small Scottish Defense League to have their marches. Their last march consisted of seven racist twats, protected by hundreds of riot police, who shut down the neighborhood so these thugs could exercise their right to assemble in an immigrant neighborhood, which apparently did not go down well among the locals.
One day several of us took a day trip around Loch Lomond and to the beautiful Scottish Highlands. Other than nearly getting run over by a lorrie, it was magnificent. Hills and mountains, called glens there, with rivers running between them, and deer grazing in the plentiful grass. There are almost no people living there now, though. For just as England is a place divided by huge regional differences and a gaping class divide, to say nothing of the disintegrating collection of states that, for a few more months, we may perhaps call Great Britain, Scotland is also a divided place. The depopulated Highlands are an eloquent, silent testament to this fact. Once they were filled with people, people who lived in tribes called clans, who eeked out a living through small-scale farming. But ownership of their land was claimed by absentee landlords from England and the Scottish lowlands, who ultimately decided to systematically burn down their villages house by house, forcing the Highlanders to either freeze to death – as many did – or flee to the refugee camps in the cities of Scotland and England that awaited them, before being forced to emigrate to New Scotland – Nova Scotia – or elsewhere in North America, Australia, or New Zealand. Today there are far more descendents of the Highlanders in these places than there are in Scotland itself, and the Highlands remain land for grazing only, just as the landlords wanted it to be when they began the Clearances a couple centuries ago.
Back in England, an event sponsored by a Palestine solidarity group in the Lancashire town of Colne that featured a really good leftwing choir in between my sets, and then the next day, a long drive across England from north to south, featuring more and more traffic the further south I got, the kind of barely-moving traffic that roads like the M6 and M25 are well-known for, though it was actually the first really bad traffic I had encountered on the entire trip, aside from in London itself. The last two gigs in southern England, aside from at the Duke, were in Kingston and Hastings.
Kingston is at this point I suppose a suburb of London. I believe it's represented in parliament by Tories, but there is a leftwing punk rock underbelly to be sure. I got to the venue in plenty of time anyway. A pub called the Cricketers, it was presumably once for cricket players who would have been playing cricket in the field across from it, which now looks more like a typical park than a cricket field. I can imagine what kind of food the kitchen used to serve there, but thankfully, now there's a Lebanese chef, and a wonderful menu of Lebanese food, which I was very ready for after all those hours behind the wheel, drinking lots of espresso, but not eating a whole lot.
The gig was another wonderful multi-bill event, which I always love, because I get to hear other performers. (I don't get out much, aside from going to my own shows...) Grace Petrie delivered a stellar set of songs, including a few great new ones as well as somewhat older songs of hers. I knew which ones were the older ones, because I had heard them before, as, clearly, had at least half of the audience, who sang along loudly to every word of those ones. For someone with such outspoken leftwing politics, the fact that she's been getting regular airplay on national radio shows on BBC is hard to believe, from the perspective of this particular cynical American. (When, I often wonder, is Venezuela going to start up that English-language satellite TV channel, so I might have a chance of getting some media attention before I die...)
The organizer of the show at the Cricketers was also a fine performer of original music, Tim OT is the name he goes by. Tim has apparently been listening to my music since he was 14. He's now 22. I especially enjoy meeting people who “grew up” listening to my music, which happens increasingly the longer I do this.
In Hastings, a lovely coastal town, I wandered around the Old Town and then went to the Jenny Lind, the pub where the folk club in town happens, diligently organized every month by local rabble-rousing historian and author, Tony Streeter. I assume it was because he had a solidly leftwing performer on the bill that he decided to feature six different five-minute (theoretically) speeches by activists and organizers of all sorts, who spoke about everything from stopping drone warfare to promoting African land reform.
Attila tells me, and others gathered around the bar in between my sets, that when he first met me thirteen years ago I was a hippie, and played very folky music, which he imitated with hand gestures and “plunk-plunk” noises. But the longer we toured together, the blacker my clothing got, and the more punk rock my songwriting got. It's all true, of course. However, he says the iPad on the stage with me where I keep my lyrics these days has got to go. It's not at all punk rock, he says. I'm sure that's true, too.
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...
First published @ David's blog "Songwriter's Notebook": songwritersnotebook.blogspot.de.
David's songs, written over the past six months, comprise a new digital album, "All the News That's Fit to Sing," released 4th July 2014.
Photo Credits: (1), (8)-(9), (11)-(12), (14) David Rovics, (2) Attila the Stockbroker, (3)-(4) Robb Johnson, (5) Tayo Aluko, (6) Alistair Hulett, (7) Grace Petrie (10) Walter Lietha, (13) Angel Band (unknown/website).