Certain activities dominated my summer at home in Portland, Oregon. Sweltering in the heat of the hottest summer in recorded history. Breathing the smoky air from the biggest forest fires in recorded history, much of which were not that far to the east of the city – as the crow flies, as the smoke blows. Spending time with my family. And, when alone, as I often was, reading the news, writing songs, and crying.
Some of this may be news to my wife, but she doesn't read my rambling blog posts. Though now that I've said that, one of you will probably tell her. But please don't – she has limited free time, and her own writing to do. But anyway, I do my crying alone. It's much easier that way, because people freak out when a grown man cries, unfortunately. Much of the world is still very sexist like that.
Of course, we're trained to ask incredibly stupid questions when someone is crying. Even when a child is crying, we automatically say, “what's wrong?” Meaning, of course, there is something wrong with crying. Something wrong with feeling. Unless you're laughing (but not too loudly).
Feeling, of course, is how you get through life, unless you've managed to kill that part of yourself, usually through some combination of drugs, alcohol and mindless entertainment – the three main pillars of modern western society. (Yes, as some of you know, I smoke pot and drink espresso regularly, both mind-altering substances. But not strong enough ones by themselves to stop the feelings, from my extensive experience.)
I would just like to point out, though it's a needless thing to do, since I'm preaching to the converted here, that if you have not spent the past few months crying as you hear about what's going on in the world, you're already dead. Which is sad, because you didn't die by accident – you were killed. But since this is a metaphorical kind of death, you can be resurrected. It starts with feeling. Everything starts with feeling, actually.
Scientists figured that out, did you hear? Some people have something missing in their brains so that they don't feel. Studies of these people find that they're completely dysfunctional and have no motivation to do anything in life. Which isn't surprising to anyone who's really living, but there's this longstanding macho idea you've probably heard of that real men don't feel anything, and that feeling things gets in the way of achieving things, which isn't true. Maybe it depends on what you're trying to achieve. But basically if you don't feel, you don't live.
I had this tour of Europe planned, but what I really wanted to do as soon as I got there was rent a big car and drive south, in order to take refugees north, where countries like Germany and Sweden were (and are) offering them asylum. As is their duty under international law, but most national governments don't give a shit about international law. (Take the USA, for example, which is constantly sending refugees to their deaths without asylum hearings. Every day.)
But I didn't do that. I did the responsible thing for a subsistence musician. I chased the paying gigs as usual, in the countries where the paying gigs are for me. Which, luckily for my sanity, involves hanging out and singing for activists and other wonderful people, along with lots of refugees, particularly on this tour.
The tour started out with one gig in the US, and then several dozen in Europe. I flew from Portland, Oregon to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Portland, the city where Joe Hill first became a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Salt Lake City, the city in which he was falsely accused of murder, put on trial, and executed by firing squad, 100 years ago next month. (Next month I tour the west coast with a bunch of other musicians, in part of the ongoing process to celebrate the life and work of this wonderful Swede.)
Starting, if I recall correctly, with the 25th anniversary of Joe Hill's execution, a group of folks in Salt Lake known as the Joe Hill Organizing Committee or something like that, began having periodic commemorations, with musicians and speakers and such. The last one was on the 75th anniversary.
There were some funds left from the last commemoration in a bank account, which turned out to be difficult to access, since most of the committee members from that time were now dead. But the surviving members managed to get the rules changed so they could access the funds, and they raised a whole bunch more, largely from the remnants of the local labor movement.
Two nice young people picked me up at the airport, one of whom was on the committee, and was, I believe, the only member of the committee under the age of 60. I'm pretty sure she was also the only committee member who was familiar with my music, and she was the one responsible for getting me to sing at the commemoration. Along with the great Philadelphia punk band, Mischief Brew, who I hadn't seen in years.
They picked me up at the airport and took me to a party at the home of one of the other committee members, where the rest of the committee was hanging out, along with an assortment of musicians and other folks. It was somewhat surreal, after one committee member after the other kept on welcoming me to Salt Lake City first, and then asking me what kind of music I play. Really...?
A lot of people don't realize that there are loads of progressives in Salt Lake City. They had a mayor, Rocky Anderson, who was one of the most progressive mayors in the US when he was in office, and that was fairly recently. There are all kinds of stupid ideas people have, which are easy ideas to have if you've never spent time in Utah, because few people or other outlets of information will tell you otherwise.
But unless you're one of those boring people who think that tattoos, piercings and vegetable oil are indications of progressive thought, Salt Lake City has way more progressive people in it than some cesspool of narcissism like San Francisco does. (I think I just pissed somebody off.)
Anyway, all those progressives were not at the gig in Salt Lake. They were somewhere else. But the couple hundred folks who did come to the gig were a great bunch. Mostly they stuck around from beginning to end.
Which could be interpreted in various ways. Either the people who heard about the gig were the more engaged elements of the local labor movement -- all of whom were present, I would guess. Or that Judy Collins doesn't have as much as an audience as she used to have, since she was the headliner, and the crowd did not grow significantly when she was due to be on stage.
It was a great day, though. Some of my favorite musicians were on the bill – along with Mischief Brew there were more acoustic types like Anne Feeney, Mark Ross, and Joe Jencks, who was especially impressive. Man, that guy can play the guitar, and the bazouki, really well. And what a voice, and what a songwriter. Check him out, if you haven't run across him yet.
An unexpected surprise at the event was seeing my friend Tayo Aluko in the crowd. Tayo is an actor and singer originally from Nigeria, who has been living in England for most of his life. I may be improvising on the chronology a bit, but basically when he discovered the life and music of the African-American communist scholar, linguist, athlete and musician, Paul Robeson, Tayo quit his job as an architect and became a full-time artist and rabble-rouser. He had gigs in British Columbia, and thought he'd go check out the Joe Hill commemoration in Salt Lake City.
Being a struggling artist these days, rather than a well-paid architect, Tayo took a Greyhound all the way from Vancouver to Salt Lake. Now that's serious dedication. Particularly given that Judy Collins did not attract a crowd, it would have been so much nicer to have the finale of the event being Tayo, which would have been rapturous. Instead, the finale was Judy, who is undoubtedly a phenomenal singer, but also the richest, least political, and least relevant artist on the bill.
No offense to Judy – none of these things are her fault. And really no offense to the organizers either – you got to make these tough decisions when organizing events, and trying to attract a crowd to them. And to be fair, they did originally ask someone both famous and very political to headline – Pete Seeger. They called him up and asked him if he'd do the gig. He told them he would, if he was still alive. Then he died.
One really special element to the event was the presence of three members of Joe Hill's family who came over from Sweden – his grand nephew, grand niece, and grand grand niece. I think I've got that right. The youngest member of the family wrote a very moving, short song about Joe Hill's execution, which she performed with her mother and uncle. And her uncle built her guitar, so it's altogether a very musical family.
I love playing gigs with other musicians, since they're often really cool people. Most gigs I do by myself. Which is also lovely, and there are other cool people in the world who aren't musicians, too, of course. But musicians are easier to relate to, generally. Joe Jencks and I stayed in the same house, the home of a guy who I never met, a big house full of musical instruments. We were about ready to form a band by the end of our visit.
A nice woman gave me and Anne Feeney a ride to the airport the next morning. Anne was heading home to Pittsburgh, and I was flying to Copenhagen, via Denver, though we would soon be rendezvousing in Sweden, a few days later.
The Denver airport is the only major airport in the US that I can think of that doesn't have a Starbucks, and also has no other decent coffee anywhere to be found.
Which might not suck all that much, except every time I'm there I'm reminded of this fact, because of the one time I was stuck at the airport for eight hours, waiting for a flight to Durango that kept being delayed, supposedly because of a light dusting of snow. (One of many US airports where I have been stuck in transit for eight hours or more. Which isn't quite so bad if there's decent coffee.)
When I fly to Europe I usually try to have at least two days to recover from jet lag. But then a good gig might come up that messes up that plan, and I don't make nearly enough money to turn those down.
So upon landing in Copenhagen on the afternoon of September 7th, I got the rental car, took a nap in it, and drove the two hours in rush hour traffic from there to Odense, where I was doing a show in a pub, sponsored by the “red-green coalition” party in the Danish Parliament, Enhedslisten.
It was my only gig in Denmark on this tour that wasn't in the vicinity of Copenhagen, and several folks drove from all over the western parts of the country to catch it. It wasn't otherwise a huge crowd, but the few people who were there really wanted to be there. The sound system was mysteriously not working, so I played acoustic, which worked fine. If I had been trying to remember lyrics on my own, with the sleep deprivation and jet lag, it might have gone really badly, but with the tablet on stage in front of me, I didn't forget a word.
Attila says the tablet has deprived me of any punk rock credibility I might have had. But other people say it's cool to be a geek these days. So maybe I can still be a punk, I don't know. Or maybe I never was one.
From the first gig in Europe to the last, there was talk of refugees. And real live refugees, as well, on many occasions.
Most people I know in Denmark were somehow involved with trying to help the Syrians and others who were and are walking down the highways of the country, mostly en route to Sweden. So many people were bringing them food that there was too much of it. People were offering them places to stay, but oftentimes the refugees were unable or unwilling to accept these offers, either for fear of being fingerprinted in a country in which they didn't want to claim asylum, or because they wanted to keep going toward Sweden.
After the gig in Odense I did have a couple days to recover from the jet lag, which I spent staying with friends near Helsingor, on the Baltic Sea.
I spent much of my time there sleeping, taking advantage of my hosts' hospitality, which included several hot meals a day, and walking. I walked from the school where I was staying (part of which is now the Hellebaek B&B, which I highly recommend for anyone traveling in Denmark) to the center of Helsingor several times, which is a long walk. I listened as I walked to an audiobook version of the recent work, An Indigenous People's History of the United States, which is fantastic.
Listening to this book, I was reminded once again of some of the lesser-known events of the year 1492, and it occurred to me how terribly relevant the story of the Ottoman defeat in Granada is for us today. Particularly the bit where the Spanish rulers declare that all Jews had three months to leave Spain or be killed, and how the Ottoman Sultan responded to this declaration – by sending the Ottoman fleet to Spain to rescue hundreds of thousands of Europeans, and bring them to Ottoman lands, where they and their descendants lived in peace and prosperity, and still do. While in other places, Europeans were busily exterminating pagans, Jews, Muslims, atheists and even their fellow Christians, especially the non-white ones, on both sides of the Atlantic.
On September 10th I met up with my dear friend, comrade and fellow rabble-rousing songwriter, Kristian von Svensson. We played at the venerable punk rock social center in the Norrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen, Bumzen. Earlier in the day, the place was kitted out with bedding, in expectation of refugees spending the night, but they didn't end up making it there for one reason or another.
From early in the evening until late, the place was filled with people of all ages, mostly on the younger side, who treat me like a rock star. There are very few places outside of Denmark where I get the rock star treatment. But just a little of that goes a long way to making me feel like I'm doing something right. Folks were singing along to my older songs with great enthusiasm, and it was even caught on film for posterity. (With a little camera sitting on a windowsill near me – not a professional job or anything, but fun, if you're into home movies.)
On September 11th there was a peace demonstration in the center of Copenhagen. One of the themes at all the Danish peace demos is the opposition to Denmark's participation in NATO's disastrous military campaigns in places like Afghanistan and Libya, and opposition to the Danish government's purchasing of fancy new fighter jets from the US. At this demo, not surprising given the choice of date, there were a whole bunch of 9/11 conspiracy people, fairly aggressively pushing their world view, with a wingnutty style that matched the content of their thinking perfectly. Some of them spoke from the stage, too, presumably because they were invited to do so, which was somewhat shocking. (This would never happen in Germany or many other countries.)
This would be the first of several demonstrations I would sing at during the course of my tour. The biggest being almost exactly one month later, in Berlin.
After Kristian and I sang at the demo, we split for Malmo, over the bridge that crosses the Baltic Sea, which separates Denmark from Sweden. We joined Anne Feeney, and the well-known leftwing Swedish songwriter, Jan Hammarlund, at a conference organized by the most leftwing party represented in Sweden's parliament.
The cultural evening preceded the actual conference, and culminated in a fabulous set by a one of those bands that you will run into frequently on both sides of the Atlantic these days, who are clearly influenced by some combination of Balkan music and punk rock. I wanted to kidnap the fiddle player and take her on the road with us, but I figured she might not approve of such a plan, and so I didn't. (I only like kidnapping people who want to be kidnapped.)
The next day we were in Oslo, where we met up with our mutual friend, another Swedish songwriter, future rock star Elona Planman.
She was touring on her own, but had eight days free, which coincided perfectly with our plans. Due to my fairly impressive car-packing skills (which mostly involves the basic principle I learned from Alistair Hulett, that you can put a guitar upside-down in the backseat, so the neck is in the floor well and the body is flush with the door, thus taking up very little space), we managed to fit three adults, three guitars, and luggage in a small rental car.
There had been a big demo in cities throughout Europe that afternoon in solidarity with refugees, including in Oslo. Unfortunately we couldn't sing at any of the demos that day, since we were spending the whole day in the car, driving from Malmo to Oslo. The crowd at the punk rock bar, Maksitaksi, was a quality crowd, but lacking in numbers, due, I think, to the fact that people were tired after spending the day demonstrating. There was also a meeting going on related to refugees across the street, which may have also depleted our potential audience.
Touring with Kristian and Elona was like a constant party (minus the drugs or alcohol, for the most part). It's strangely so rare to spend significant amounts of time with two other people of such like mind. All very different people, and very different musicians as well, but with a lot in common.
In Norway the gigs were largely either in punk rock venues, or cafes run by Maoists. These things vary a lot depending on the country, the city, and the scene, but for sure on this little tour of Norway, the biggest and most attentive audiences were at the Maoist venues, which also definitely had the largest numbers of red flags.
On the way up to Trondheim we were pulled over by a cop, who just wanted to know where we were going and why and stuff like that. It was a very unusual thing to happen in Scandinavia. I'm still not sure what that was about, and I didn't ask at the time, though I suspect (and hope) it was just a safety thing.
It's a long drive from Oslo to Trondheim, and there are probably a lot of drivers who don't take breaks to rest along the way. The cop seemed especially to want to know if we had driven that day all the way from Denmark, where the car was rented. Which would have been nuts. But that's when I thought maybe he was just looking out for drivers who might be about to fall asleep at the wheel.
There is not a single cup of decent coffee to be found anywhere between Oslo and Trondheim, and all the food sucks, too.
In Trondheim the three of us did a workshop in a little leftwing infoshop in the wonderful, squatted neighborhood of Svartlamon.
The idea was a workshop about songwriting and making a living as a DIY musician. But it seemed like at least half of the folks there were hoping to hear music, and we lost half the crowd by the end of it. We had a great time, though, and it was pretty wild to see how much we all thought the same way about these things. (This was also recorded and is apparently up on the web somewhere.)
Two different couples for whom I have great affection and admiration in Svartlamon have had babies since I last saw them, so there was lots of playing with babies going on during our fairly leisurely visit to the city. We had three gigs in four days, but they were all very nearby, so the days were ours.
On our way back south, another night in Oslo, a little house concert, where one of the folks in attendance was involved with providing 120 winter jackets per day to all of the refugees coming into Oslo.
As with Germany and elsewhere, many of the donations are from individuals, but local companies are also donating lots of stuff, too. In many cases the folks providing these things are so well-organized that the refugees have no idea they're volunteers, and not working for the government.
All over Scandinavia as we drive and walk around, and later all over Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, the most common poster to be seen wheatpasted all over the place included the words, “refugees welcome.”
With some variation – in Glasgow, one guy at my gig there had a t-shirt that read, “aye, refugees welcome.” The Scottish version.
Back in Malmo for a gig at the collective house that Kristian lives at, I took some folks for a beer run in our rental car, where we passed a bustling refugee center. And a few blocks later, several dozen people marching through the streets in solidarity with said refugees, on the way to do something at the center.
One of the folks helping run the gig was a Palestinian who had been living in an overcrowded refugee camp in Syria before that became untenable. He was one of the earlier Syrian arrivals to Europe, having lived in Sweden for three years now, after having a miserable time first in Italy, where he had to stay because of the Dublin Treaty.
The last gig that Kristian, Elona and I did together was in a union hall in Copenhagen, from the union federation known as 3F. It was an unexpectedly fun gig.
The 3F gigs are always great – appreciative audiences, good pay. But although most Danes are very fluent in English, this is often somewhat less true of the labor movement's rank and file, who are less likely to have gone to college (where instruction is mostly in English). In Copenhagen, however, even the rank and file of the labor movement speaks excellent English, and this was very evident from the responses of the audience when I was doing my thing. I think they had more trouble understanding Swedish than English, according to one Danish friend's report. (Kristian and Elona mostly sing in Swedish -- which closely resembles Danish in written form, but less so when spoken or sung.)
My next stop was Great Britain, where I was due to do six gigs in seven days, starting in London. I stayed in London with my favorite soft-hearted, dog-loving photojournalist who pretends to be a hard-nosed cynic, Guy Smallman, who has been making frequent trips in recent months to places like Calais and Hamburg, which both have large refugee populations, and lots of activities related to them. In Calais these are often characterized by the French police brutalizing people and making their lives much more difficult than they already are. In Hamburg, it's more about covering the amazing efforts local people have been making to try to accommodate the influx of refugees in need of housing, food and clothing.
My first gig in London was singing a few songs at the launch party for Attila the Stockbroker's new memoir, Arguments Yard. I've got a copy, which I'm looking forward to reading. Attila and I have done something like 14 tours together over the past 15 years, so apparently I'm in the book... One of the performers at the packed venue in the center of London was a leftwing comedian, the best I've ever heard, named Jeremy Hardy.
In England, the fact that the Labor Party had a grassroots democratic vote of its own membership for the first time ever, resulting in the election of the most leftwing leader the party has ever had, was the biggest topic of conversation.
And it's quite a development. This man, Jeremy Corbyn, is Facebook friends with Guy, who has known him for something like twenty years. It may be a total fantasy, but the idea of Corbyn being Prime Minister of the UK at the same time as Bernie Sanders is president of the US is a pretty wild notion. Which I think very unlikely.
Particularly unlikely when you take in the media coverage of Corbyn in Britain. Driving around in my rental car, I listened a lot to BBC Radio 4, as I often do when I'm there. It's an interesting thing with BBC. The World Service makes BBC appear progressive for the most part. This is the image the BBC (and perhaps the British establishment generally) wants to convey to their many foreign listeners, for whom the World Service is intended.
But within England it's a different story, and I heard almost nothing but ridicule aimed at Corbyn from just about everyone on Radio 4 who talked about him. And most people on Radio 4 were talking about him most of the time. If it was a program that had anything to do with the news of the day, and not some radio drama about the love affairs of the royals.
Glasgow was also a place for me to feel somewhat rock star-ish, with people enthusiastically singing along to the older songs they knew. The thing was that when they weren't singing along with me, they were talking loudly and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. In between songs they were breaking into pro-IRA chants and snippets of rebel songs. Most of the people in the bar were drinking a green substance known as Venom. A sweet mixed drink of some kind. (I had a sip, for sociological purposes.)
Outside of the Squirrel Bar in Glasgow, I witnessed for the first time the following sequence: an extremely drunk man tripped over the curb backwards and landed on his head with a horrid thwack. And then he immediately started snoring loudly. Which was very reassuring for me, because I thought he might have died when he hit his head on the sidewalk.
His friends seemed unconcerned about that possibility, though when he woke up eventually, they were diligently making sure he didn't fall again, helping him walk and such. “You'll never walk alone,” the song goes, very popular among footballers throughout Europe. Not sure if that's the kind of thing the song is referring to, though.
Edinburgh, the ancient capital of Scotland, is a much more posh, and smaller, city than Glasgow, and the audience at the show there was true to form. Attentive, quiet, and not drunk, at least not in any noticeable kind of way. Back again in England, in Birmingham a young man spoke at the gig who was off to Calais the next day. Solidarity everywhere. There was also a fabulous opening set by a local songwriter named Alan Sprung. (No relation to Roger Sprung, for any of you hardcore folkies who might be wondering.)
The one gig I did in London where I was doing a full show was the last gig in Britain, at an art gallery run by Palestinians, called P21.
A whole bunch of folks came from my email list, and from the efforts of the organizer, who wasn't involved with the gallery, but was offered the use of the gallery for the occasion. Somehow or other, either because no one had looked at the fine print, or because no one had been told about it, the gallery folks planned on taking almost the entire money from the door for their “expenses.” This was the first gig I've ever done where the venue took 80% of the door. If you're thinking about doing a gig in London, avoid the P21 gallery!
By now, the month of September was over. It was October 1st, and I was flying to Munich. I rented a car at the Munich airport, and headed towards the small town in the picturesque Bavarian mountains, where I would spend the next three nights.
There are three brothers, all really great guys. One of them is a professional rock climber, and he's the one out of the three who first heard my music. The other two are musicians, and both absolutely stellar ones at that. Together they make up half of two different bands, one more acoustic-oriented, and one solidly punk rock.
Their acoustic band and I did one of the gigs together – the Bumble Boys.
It was great to hear their set, but otherwise the gigs were a bit odd. People in Bavaria seem to have too much money, as far as I can tell, at least in the countryside. Maybe in the actual city of Munich it would be different, but I've never had a gig there, aside from singing at the G7 protest there last spring. But being in the mountains and hanging out with the Bumble Boys was a pleasure. Especially the baby.
In Freiburg I played at the squatted social center by the railroad tracks known as KTS. It was a “refugees welcome” gig, and among the fifty or so people in the room were a dozen or so refugees. One who I talked to was a French-speaker from somewhere in Africa. The folks at KTS had made piles of food, which was all eaten happily and eagerly.
Some of the same people who organized the KTS gig are also very involved with refugee solidarity. Among other things, they had briefly set up a volunteer welcome center just outside of Freiburg's refugee camp. But the only place they could set it up on was a little patch of dirt on privately-owned land, and the landlord objected, so they couldn't stay there.
There was one strange young blonde hippie handing out strange fliers about some kind of natural medicine which KTS folks said was a form of neo-fascist propaganda.
Germans can be very sensitive about anything smacking of paganism coming from other Germans, since that was a big part of the Nazi shtick back in the day. Germans are often skeptical when I tell them that in Scandinavia, England, the US and elsewhere, paganism and natural medicine is not at all associated with fascism. (Most of the pagans in the US that I know grew up Jewish, so that would be especially weird if they were closet Nazis.) At the end of the night, the hippie with the flyers was told to leave. She cried. I felt bad for her, but didn't know what to say.
My next actual gig was in Cologne, but first I made a detour to Gent, in Belgium, to sing one song at a press conference against the TTIP. Which is an evil trade deal you should know about – the Atlantic version of the TPP deal, which Hillary Clinton has just joined Bernie Sanders in ostensibly opposing, though I'm sure that's just her positioning herself to look more leftwing in order to win the Democratic nomination, before she goes and stabs us all in the back afterwards, like usual for her and other leaders of her corporate, undemocratic party.
In Gent we had the press conference, and made a little video in front of Cargill's big factory on the outskirts of town.
I hadn't slept well the night before, since I arrived in Gent to be welcomed by my host who I had been in touch with, and her extremely drunk husband and his equally drunk friend, who proceeded to spend the rest of the evening regaling me with stories that were almost entirely impossible to understand, since half the time they were lapsing into Flemish or French, both of which they spoke far better than English.
I then slept in a room with no door on it, which meant I didn't sleep much, until the drunks started snoring rather than shouting. A slight improvement. Naturally, they didn't have to get up in the morning to go sing at a press conference, like I did.
There were only a few people at the show in Cologne, which was too bad, because the venue, Underground Cologne, is a really cool spot. There's a big squat in the neighborhood, complete with a military helicopter sitting on a roof. (I'm pretty sure it doesn't fly anymore.)
Of the few people at the gig, one had come all the way from Berlin – about six hours on the train. A quality crowd, even if it were just her. And it was nice to hear the Children of Lir play, a local band that was on the bill with me at the Underground.
After a long drive to Berlin, the high point of the tour began. There were two gigs in towns in former East Germany outside of Berlin, and one protest in Berlin. Despite the fact that my pickup mysteriously wouldn't function through their sound system, it eventually worked out and I sang three songs for an estimated 250,000 people.
The streets of that big, lovely city were filled with marchers from all over the country, many of whom had come there in buses. There were more buses than I've ever seen in one place. Literally for miles you could walk down a big wide street, with bus after bus parked side by side – not end to end, but side by side. And on other streets, yet more buses, this time parked end to end.
The whole thing was a model of good organizing, from the buses and the massive crowds to the highly professional stage, sound system, screens broadcasting the proceedings with a three-camera shoot, great people giving speeches from all over the German left, and great musicians.
Unlike at similar big demos in the US, there were no rock stars on the stage. I'm sure there would have been rock stars who would have gladly played for free for such a crowd. I don't think they were asked. The musicians who did play were uniformly really good, DIY bands, including a feminist, anti-fascist hiphop artist and a punk band called Radio Havana.
Performers who attract audiences, to be sure – I talked to the singer in Radio Havana, and he said they usually get 300 people coming to their shows. Which means they have a serious following, far bigger than mine – but not nearly on the rock star scale of things.
On either side of the demo were the two gigs in the eastern German towns. One was in Brandenburg, and the other in Bad Belzig. Both of these gigs were “refugees welcome”-themed events, with great crowds of people, almost none of whom had any idea about my music, most of whom were older easterners who did not speak much English.
In the media, when refugees and eastern Germany are mentioned in the same article, it's usually to talk about the anti-immigrant group in Dresden, PEGIDA, or to talk about Nazis burning down asylum centers. But in both Brandenburg and Bad Belzig, the mayors of the towns, and very mainstream organizations such as the Lions' Club and the Rotary Club were sponsors of the events. Dozens of refugees came to each gig from the local refugee centers, and were warmly welcomed with food, and the occasional person who spoke both Arabic and German.
The main person coordinating these gigs, and getting the sponsorship of everyone involved, was a local social worker who I originally knew from Cologne a long time ago, named Regina Schwartz. Regina also made what everybody says are very poetic translations of dozens of my songs into German, which she read aloud to the assembled audiences before I sang each song. This made the whole thing drag a bit for me and probably for others who were fluent in English, but for most of the people there, it seemed to work well.
There were many women and children, but most of the Syrian refugees there were young men. Some journalists have pointed out that part of the reason why Angela Merkel is welcoming the Syrian refugees so enthusiastically is because she and others in Germany know that the German population is rapidly aging as well as shrinking, and without a very large amount of immigration, this trend will continue, which is bad for the German economy. Immigration, as people know who are not xenophobes reacting emotionally to these things, is good for national economies, particularly in countries like Germany and Sweden, which have such low birth rates.
In any case, the contrast between these young Syrian men and the mostly elderly Germans in these towns was very noticeable. It was also interesting to note that the Syrians who spoke the best English were usually the ones with the lightest skin. I've never been to Syria, but hanging out with these guys made me wonder about the class divide in Syria, and how it breaks down in terms of skin color and other factors. Several of the Syrians were so white, they would fit right in in Scandinavia. The rest would fit in more easily in Sicily or thereabouts.
A large group of Syrian guys came to the gig in Bad Belzig because someone simply walked to the closed infoshop where they were hanging out outside, using the free wifi, and said there's something happening at the church around the corner.
I don't think they even knew what it was that was happening there, but within a minute or so, they were all in the church attending my gig, and helping set things up for it. At the gig in Brandenburg, a former English teacher from Syria had stayed up all night the night before making Arabic translations of my set, which people projected on a screen as I sang the songs in English. (Which was a great idea, except that the stage lights kind of made the screen almost impossible to see if you weren't in the front row.)
Then a stop in Dusseldorf – an interview at a TV station that was organized by the same folks who had organized the gig in Cologne.
The original idea was to be on TV before the gig in Cologne, to help promote it, but that didn't work with my schedule, so I was on TV after all my gigs in Germany were over. But it was great – so professional, with a three-camera shoot and an expert interviewer, as fluent in English as he was in his own language.
It's always so nice to be on TV in Germany or in England or elsewhere, but it always makes me wish this would ever happen in my own country. (Aside from public access stations, which are great, but not at all on the same level of professionalism as the more mainstream stations in Europe that seem to have no problem having someone on who expresses political views such as mine).
I arrived in Brussels early the following afternoon. The folks putting on the house concert there said they'd be home by late afternoon, so I just poked around the neighborhood for a few hours. I had set the GPS to take me to the address of the show, and then found parking and walked around.
I was walking down one street when someone knocked on a window, from the inside, as I passed by. I thought, maybe it's someone involved with the house concert who recognizes me or something. I turned around and went back to the window where I had just heard the knocking, and was momentarily surprised to see a nearly naked woman smiling at me. Ah-ha! I was in the red light district. After that, there were many more knocks on windows as I passed them. I eventually settled for a large chunk of the afternoon in a cafe with virtually no customers, with a young woman behind the counter, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to very loud Spanish pop music.
The house concert turned out to be in the backyard of a collective house, on a freezing, rainy night. Because it's the red light district, rent is cheap if you're not renting a window to work out of. People don't want to live in the neighborhood.
But the folks in the collective house have a great deal on the place, all the more so because they have a huge backyard with a big one-room house in it. The house used to be full of junk, but they cleaned it up and now they use it as a place for having events.
The roof of the house in the backyard is made of glass panels, so it's like a greenhouse. Some of the panels are smashed or otherwise not there, and the place was very damp and moldy, but otherwise quite welcoming, by squat standards.
Folks made two campfires, one of them in the house in the backyard. There were no chimneys or anything, but most of the smoke eventually made its way through the holes in the roof. Much of it lingered in the house, making the place very smoky, especially since the wood we were burning was mostly wet.
My clothing still smells like acrid smoke. There were several dozen people present on a rainy, cold Wednesday night outside, which makes me wonder how many people might have showed up if it not been quite so inclement.
Despite the cold weather and rain and all that, and it being a Wednesday night, there were two other musicians on the bill, both young folks who did very long sets full of their feelings and opinions about everything, by the end of which many of the audience members had given up on the weather and left. But the crowd that remained that I played for was very appreciative.
The following day the rain continued, as a thousand or so people gathered for yet another protest against TTIP.
Which had a serious refugee lining to it, given the times, and given that people are aware of the intimate connections between economics, wars, and the inevitable flows of refugees fleeing these man-made disasters. A couple weeks earlier, the Belgian labor movement had gathered to protest TTIP, with an estimated 100,000 people attending. But this protest was elements of the left not involved with labor, for the most part.
The atmosphere in Brussels that day felt very strange, especially in the area of the European buildings, the city being the capital of Europe, so to speak, with official EU institutions taking up much of the urban landscape. So many of the cars were limousines or other fancy cars filled with politicians, lobbyists, and other such scum (aside from the occasional leftwing MEP, who mostly don't drive in fancy BMWs anyway).
Police and soldiers lined the streets all over Brussels, turning away anyone without the right credentials.
I joined one group of French-speaking people who were clearly headed to the demo, and it took us a long time to eventually find the route that we were allowed to take that would lead us to the proceedings. As I walked past some smug yuppies who were commenting on the demo they had just passed by, one of them said to the other, “these people couldn't organize a brawl in a pub” or something to that effect.
I wondered if she knew about the 100,000 people who had protested there two weeks earlier. But hey, when you're opposing the richest, most powerful forces in the history of the world – European and American capitalists – perhaps not winning right away is not an indication of poor organizing skills...?
In any case, the yuppie spoke too soon, or at least she would have thought so if she had tried to drive a car following that rally, as I did.
After singing a couple of songs, I beat a hasty retreat back to my rental car, with the plan to drive to Eindhoven to pick up a couple of friends, and then from there to Utrecht for the evening's gig. However, I had only gotten about one block away from where I parked before I had a front row seat there in my car to witness a bunch of folks very efficiently blockading a major road by dragging big metal barriers into the road, like the kind police use. They then stood behind the barriers – a smart place to stand, given the aggressive attitude of many of the drivers in their fancy cars with their suits and ties on, who would have had to first hit a metal barrier if they wanted to plow into any of the protesters.
This was the only road blockade I personally witnessed, but judging from the completely snarled traffic throughout the city in every direction, I'm pretty sure they were blockading many other roads as well. It took me exactly an hour to get from the center of Brussels to the ring road, which I think was only around five kilometers away.
This was not the only traffic-related excitement for me that day, unfortunately.
Driving with my friends from Eindhoven down the highway towards Utrecht, traffic was stop-and-go now and then, though mostly it was moving OK. But at one point I noticed a red car that just stayed in the fast lane after the traffic had started moving again a good 30 seconds or so already, before the car got going. That's when I passed the red car, and got into the fast lane myself. Then the stop-and-go traffic started up again, and, while completely stopped in traffic, we got rammed from behind – by that very red car I had noticed a minute earlier.
The driver of the fancy new red car was a very fashionable young Dutch woman with tight pants and a fur coat. She acknowledged in writing on the trans-European form for traffic accidents that all European drivers have with them in their cars that she had hit us from behind, which means she was at fault. Hopefully things go OK with the insurance companies, unlike several years ago when I was also stopped in a road and was hit by another attractive young white woman, who totaled the car Alistair and I were following, and then proceeded to total our car. Although we had a lawyer friend helping us for free, we were unsuccessful in getting that woman to pay the $1,200 we ended up having to pay the rental car company for the deductible.
My gig that night in Utrecht was originally to have been a double-bill with the rocking hippie legend of the Netherlands since the early 1960's known as Armand, but he's sick in the hospital. So I visited him there, and did the gig with another group that the organizer had gotten to replace him, a fantastic trio of guys who all live in a squat in the ADM squat in Amsterdam, called the Bucket Boys.
The trio consists of three singers doing lots of great, bluegrassy vocal harmonies, with one guy on banjo, another on a one-string tub bass, and the other playing percussion on a bucket. The percussionist is originally from Tennessee, but has been living in Amsterdam so long that his English is peppered with Dutch grammar and phrases.
The final gig on the tour involved one more stop in England. I returned my German rental car in Dusseldorf and flew again to Heathrow, where the only car they had left for me to rent was an SUV, which I drove to Harlow, getting there in time to be early for the gig.
The place in Harlow was a historic punk venue that had been around since the beginning of the punk rock phenomenon in England. Attila used to live in Harlow back in the 80's, and played there often, as did the poet who was the first, brilliant act on the bill, Janine Booth.
The venue is called the Square, though it was originally called Square One (a better name). It's closing after all these years, and the volunteers who run the place decided to go out with a bang, having lots of acts play there who had played there long ago.
I never played there in the 80's, but the Square in Harlow was one of the first gigs I ever did in England, back around 2000 or so. The organizer of that gig introduced me. Appropriately for a venerable punk venue soon closing its doors, the other of the three acts on the bill, and the one that attracted most of the audience members under the age of 50, was a very youthful band having their first gig ever.
Next tour: the Joe Hill 100 Road Show on the west coast of the US.