Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Primer on Refugees (Musically Annotated)

The United Nations has a strict definition of the term "refugee," whereby you are only a refugee if you are fleeing war or persecution of some kind.  If you are fleeing a place because there is no way for you to feed yourself or your family if you stay, the UN defines this kind of movement as "migration."  Until 1967, the only refugees recognized by the original refugee convention were Europeans.  So clearly there's lots of room for improvement.

In any case, however you define the term, the history of what some call civilization has been full of refugees.  Most sensible people think that if you're starving, that's also a good reason to seek out a place where you might not starve, and that also counts as being a refugee.  That is the definition of "refugee" that I use -- anyone who is fleeing for their lives, for whatever reason.

There is a lot of propaganda here in the US -- in the schools, histories, in the media, etc. -- that we are a country of immigrants.  Of people seeking a better life in a "new" world.  To be sure, there were some very wealthy and powerful Europeans who were seeking greater degrees of wealth and power in the Americas, and they found it.

People like the Van Renssalaer family, of royal Dutch extraction, who came to New York in order to be given much of the state by the Dutch crown.  Through this massive land grant to the already-wealthy, they got much, much wealthier through the practice of exploiting peasants, aka "tenant farmers," up and down the Hudson River Valley.  There are a lot of other similar examples throughout North and South America.

Even people who have swallowed the line about "migrants seeking a better life in the new world" are aware that millions of people were brought to the Americas in chains, mostly from Africa, so clearly weren't "migrants."  They may also be aware that there were 500 nations full of people already living within the borders of what today is known as the United States.  500 nations full of people with different languages, customs, and highly advanced farming, forestry and game management practices, who were systematically driven off of their lands and killed through a web of market-incentivized methods of extermination.  Including but not limited to the European practice of "scalping," which involved white settlers getting paid by the local authorities on a per-scalp basis.

But what of the European "migrants"?  What of the ancestors of the majority population today in the US and Canada?  My ancestors, for example?  Aside from the Van Renssalaers and their ilk, the Europeans who settled North America were certainly primarily refugees.  They came not seeking a better life, but seeking to live.  They were fleeing the violent, disease-ridden, often war-torn cities of Europe.  Fleeing corrupt, despotic rulers.  Famines, pogroms, inquisitions and crusades.

They were refugees seeking survival, seeking not to be killed for practicing a certain religion, seeking to have land to farm so they could eat -- land that was systematically stolen from them in Europe in order to force them into miserable, fatal jobs in dangerous, deadly factories.  (In England they called this practice "enclosure."  In Scotland it was known as the "clearances."  In Ireland, the Irish called it slavery, and referred to each other as slaves -- an accurate description of their condition through most of British colonial rule there.)

The refugees coming from Europe to the Americas over the course of many hundreds of years were coming from Europe because countries like the US and Canada had a whites-only policy for accepting refugees, aka "immigrants."  If not for this racist policy -- now a slightly less racist "quota system" -- perhaps there would have been a greater proportion of refugees migrating from other parts of the world.  In fact there were, but many of the Chinese, Japanese and other non-whites who came here to build the railroads and work the coal mines were sent back later, and could never get citizenship, by virtue of the fact that they weren't European.

Generally, these European refugees came here with promises of work and land.  They often found neither, but were sometimes given the opportunity to have land to farm if they went west and stole it from someone else first.  This was the principal method of westward expansion, backed up by genocidal military campaigns to help clear land for settlement.

This process of settlement also produced massive flows of refugees throughout the Americas, such as the Cherokee and hundreds of other nations -- millions of people altogether -- forced at gunpoint to leave their ancestral lands and try to survive somewhere else.  Usually somewhere with rocky soil that the whites didn't want to bother with.

If you're familiar with the history I have laid out here so far, it's very likely that you're unfamiliar with what I'm about to tell you.

Before the Americas became the primary method for the European ruling classes to give rebellious peasants the "flight" option (within the "fight or flight" equation), European refugees went south and east instead of across the Atlantic.  That is, throughout what in Europe they called the Dark Ages, starving European peasants fled in their thousands every year to live in relative safety and prosperity in lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

That is, European Christians fled Europe in order to live under Muslim rule in the Middle East and North Africa.  Every year, in their thousands.  It was a one-way flow.  Muslim farmers from Ottoman lands wouldn't think of moving to Europe.  Such a move would likely result in them being killed for the crime of not being Christians.  Also, while most of Europe was ruled by petty, xenophobic despots in the post-Roman period, the Middle East and North Africa, by contrast, was ruled by comparatively enlightened rulers.  Things in the Ottoman lands were much more predictable, much more stable.  You got taxed once a year, rather than whenever the local baron wanted to build a new castle or make war on his neighbor.  And you could freely practice any religion and speak any language without fear of persecution.

By far the most dramatic chapter in the history of refugees on our planet took place in 1492, when the new rulers of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, declared in their Edict of Alhambra that all of Spain's approximately 800,000 Jews (the Sephardim) had three months to leave Spain before they would be killed.

Thousands of Sephardic Jews died in various attempts to get out of Spain, "aided" by Spanish sailors who generally took them out to sea, only to cut them open and dump them overboard once they got far enough from land.  (There were rumors that the Jews were eating gold and diamonds, so the Spanish sailors had to verify whether or not this was true, rather than saving their lives.)

However, the vast majority of the Sephardim survived the Alhambra Edict -- by being rescued by the Ottoman fleet.  That is, the Ottoman ruler, the Sultan, sent his navy to Spain in order to rescue Spanish Jews, and resettle them within Ottoman lands that had not recently been overrun by xenophobic religious bigots such as Spain's new rulers.

Contrary to what happened with the Jews who stayed in Europe -- such as those who went to Portugal or Russia, so many of whom were ultimately killed -- Jews in the Ottoman Empire lived in peace and prosperity for over a millenia.  (If westerners know anything about Ottoman history, they usually know about the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Although this was an unspeakably awful chapter in the history of humanity -- the dying gasps of the Ottoman Empire in the midst of losing the First World War -- it is not representative of the thousand-year rule of the Ottomans.)

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, European and American powers could finally do what they had wanted to do for centuries -- divide up and rule the Middle East.  You'll note that the European colonial powers had at this point taken over much of the world -- which was easier to do when you were coming with modern weaponry backed by a dynamic, ruthless economic system into a place that had so far suffered neither of these developments, such as North America or Australia.  Attempting to colonize other parts of the world that were at a similar level of "development" proved far harder.

Prior to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, colonial powers had made very significant inroads in terms of economic domination of places nominally under Ottoman rule, such as Egypt.  The British and American colonists in Egypt, in fact, pioneered new ways of exploiting not only the living there, but the dead, as well, in their practice of using the cloth wrappings of the dead to make paper in the paper mills in Maine.

But to rule most of the former Ottoman lands, the colonial military campaigns that we know of as the First World War had to take place.  With tens of millions killed, millions starved to death, and untold numbers homeless and destitute, European and North American powers were prepared to run things in the defeated lands, and they did.

Colonial rulers in the Middle East then did what they had already done in much of Asia and Africa.  They drew borders, created new countries, with an aim to create countries and systems of governance that were inherently unstable politically.  They did this by dividing tribal lands up into different countries (with half the tribe in one country and half in another), and by picking an ethnic or religious minority in each country that was a sufficiently small minority that it wouldn't be too threatening to the colonial power -- but would be sufficiently large that it was big enough to control the rest of the colony's population, if provided with enough weapons and ammunition.

In the new country of Iraq, the ruling class became elements of the Sunni minority.  In Syria it was the Alawite minority.  In Lebanon, the Maronite minority, and so on.

There were lots of ups and downs in the past century of US and European domination of the Arab world.  One country in the region even managed to have a thriving, multi-party democracy for a while -- Iran -- until it was overthrown by the CIA in 1953.  Because of this kind of behavior on the part of the CIA and the divide and conquer policies of the colonial and neocolonial powers, the region has largely been in a state of turmoil since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Western powers have worked hard to exploit divisions at every turn, fueling conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Syrian Civil War, and sending massive amounts of military and other forms of aid to the specifically Jewish-European colonial land grab known as the state of Israel.

These western policies have resulted in millions of Palestinian refugees -- mostly descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians driven out of their homes at gunpoint after Israel declared itself to be a Jewish state in 1948.

The US-UK occupation of Iraq created a refugee crisis in the region, both in terms of "Internally Displaced People" (refugees within their own country) as well as millions of Iraqi refugees flooding refugee camps, towns and cities throughout the region, particularly in Syria.  This refugee crisis and the many strains on Syrian society caused by it also helped foment the Syrian Civil War, which has resulted in an even larger outflow of refugees.  Since these refugees effectively can't seek refuge in neighboring countries because they are all already suffering from bona fide refugee crises themselves, many of them go instead to the traditionally unwelcoming, colder lands to the north and west -- Europe.

Internal European conflicts have resulted in massive numbers of European refugees who sought refuge elsewhere in Europe.  There have been some nice success stories with such movements of refugees, such as 1943, when thousands of Danish Jews were transported by other Danes to Sweden, where they were given asylum.  (This story is in stark contrast to the lesser-known episodes of German civilians fleeing the aerial bombardment of their country, who were starved and refused medical aid in places where they fled to, such as Denmark.)

For most of the past thousand years, though, Europe has generally been an intolerant place for anyone different from whatever the norm was considered to be at the time.  Catholic and Protestant despots had a longstanding tendency to kill people who were perceived to be different.  While the Ottoman world was made up of relatively thriving, multicultural societies, Europe was a place where you were far more likely to starve, and far, far more likely to be killed in a crusade, a pogrom, or, later, in a gas chamber.

The gas chambers of Nazi Germany were in a way a logical conclusion to the long tradition of European xenophobia, bigotry and intolerance.  They certainly were not an exception to the rule of the crusaders, inquisitors, and mass murderers that you can see memorialized with statues throughout European lands.

But now, if you ask most people in Europe or North America, you'll probably find that people think of religious intolerance as being a mostly Muslim phenomenon.  Today, westerners know much more about the jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State than they do about the much longer and even deadlier (though otherwise very similar) European tradition of crusades and inquisitions.

For most people in what we call "the west," history has essentially been turned on its head.  For centuries, millions upon millions of Europeans fled Europe.  Many of them went to the very Muslim lands where the predominantly, historically Muslim refugees today are leaving.

While it is beautiful to see the solidarity with Syrian and other refugees to be found in abundance on the streets of modern-day Germany, Sweden and elsewhere, it is also a fact that the xenophobes throughout Europe and the US are playing a massive role as well -- such as the neofascist president of Hungary today, the ascendant neofascist parties such as Le Pen in France or the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, and the governors of 27 states in the US who are refusing to take Syrian refugees.  And the federal government in the US, which is only prepared to take in a tiny fraction of them in the first place.

It is also beautiful to see governments like those in Germany and Sweden standing by international law, standing by their commitment to take in refugees.  (The Syrians of course all qualify as refugees according to the stricter UN definition.)  But of the 28 countries in the European Union, that leaves 26 others who are breaking their own laws by refusing to take meaningful numbers of legitimate refugees, leaving Germany and Sweden virtually alone in Europe to shoulder this responsibility.

And there is no country in the world that seems even to be considering doing what the Ottoman Sultan did over 500 years ago.  That is, not just giving safe haven to those fleeing war and persecution, but actually sending their navy to the war zone and rescuing them.  If there were a single ruler in the west who was capable of behaving as ethically as the Ottoman Sultan did half a millenia ago, the world would be a much better place.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Other Side 2016 WORLD TOUR

I have a few available dates in various places -- especially Quebec, Ontario and northern New England.

There are print versions and web versions of the poster to the right, as well as versions that have a blank space on the bottom for adding local gig details.

The shows I'll be doing will be very much related to the history of refugees in the world, and the current refugee crisis.

There are Facebook Event pages for most shows.  Please feel free to become members of my "street team" and invite friends who live in towns where I'll be playing!

Hope to see you on the road and in the streets!


The Other Side 2016 World Tour DATES

Friday, January 29th, 8 pm
3100 McKinney
Houston, Texas

Saturday, January 30th
House concert -- email Leslie for info if you want to attend with "David Rovics concert" in subject line!
Dallas, Texas

Sunday, January 31st, 7:30 pm
Esquina Tango Austin
209 Pedernales St
Austin, Texas

Tuesday, February 2nd, 7:30 pm
Lake Worth Playhouse
713 Lake Ave
Lake Worth, Florida

Wednesday, February 3rd
Civic Media Center
433 S Main St
Gainesville, Florida

Thursday, February 4th, 6 pm
Sacred Grounds
4819 E. Busch Blvd
Tampa, Florida

Saturday, February 6th
Zeppelinstr. 1
69120 Heidelberg

Sunday, February 7th, 9:30 pm
ADM -- me and the Bucket Boyz!
Hornweg 6
The Netherlands

Monday, February 8th
Spinhuis dungeon squat -- me and the Bucket Boyz!
Singel 165A
1012 VK Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Wednesday, February 10th
Flensburg -- details TBC

Thursday, February 11th
Kattesundet 10

Friday, February 12th, 6 pm
House concert with Elona Planman -- email Kirsten for more info if you'd like to attend!

Friday, February 12th, 10 pm
SUF -- with Elona Planman!
Mindegade 10

Saturday, February 13th
BumZen -- with Elona Planman opening!
Baldersgade 20-22

Wednesday, February 17th, 7:30 pm
Klub am Besenbinderhof
Besenbinderhof 62

Thursday, February 18th, 8 pm
Coop Anti-War Cafe Berlin
Rochstr. 3 (Alexanderpl.)

Friday, February 19th
Alleeweg 2a

Saturday, February 20th
Ye auld Fellows Irish Pub -- me and the Bumbleboys!
Tirolerstraße 19
87459 Pfronten

Sunday, February 21st
Gelateria Restaurant Bar
Scheibenstrasse 39
3014 Bern

Wednesday, February 24th
J U G E N D K U L T U R I N I T I A T I V E e. V. (JKI ) E S P E R A N Z A
Benzholzstraße 8
73525 Schwäbisch Gmünd

Thursday, February 25th, 7 pm
The Venue -- Palestine benefit with The Gracious Attempt and Dan Vevers opening!
Stirling Student Union
University of Stirling

Friday, February 26th, 7:30 pm
Govanhill Baths -- me and the Wakes!
99 Calder St

Saturday, February 27th, 7:30 pm
Bolton Socialist Club
16 Wood Street
Bolton BL1 1DY

Sunday, February 28th, 8 pm
Heeley Institute
147 Gleadless Road
Sheffield, S2 3AE

Monday, February 29th
House Concert -- RSVP Suzannah if you'd like to attend
Barnoldswick, Lancashire 

Tuesday, March 1st
Fox & Goose -- with Will Kaufman opening!
7 Heptonstall Rd
Hebden Bridge  HX7

Wednesday, March 2nd
Polish Expats Association
Unit 4 Minerva Works
158 Fazeley Street
Birmingham  B5 5RT

Thursday, March 3rd
Islington Folk Club
24 Clerkenwell Close

Friday, March 4th
London  WC1H 0XG

Saturday, March 5th, 11 am
With Banners Held High Festival -- with Attila the Stockbroker and others!
Unity Works
Wakefield WF1 1EP

Saturday, March 5th, 7 pm
Hovingham Village Hall -- with Uncle PAF and Kate Fox opening!
Main Street
Hovingham, YORK, YO62 4LF

Sunday, March 6th
St James Wine Vaults -- me and Comrade Sir Henry!
10 St James Street
Bath BA1 2TW

Monday, March 7th
Royal Sovereign -- with the Commie Faggots!
64 Northwold Road

Thursday, March 10th, 7 pm
Stone Soup
4 King Street
Worcester, Massachusetts

Friday, March 11th, 7:30 pm
Community Church of Boston
565 Boylston
Boston, Massachusetts

Saturday, March 12th
Mt Toby Friends Meeting House
194 Long Plain Rd
Leverett, Massachusetts

Sunday, March 13th
Spark Arts Center
137 Greenwood Ave
Bethel, Connecticut

Tuesday, March 15th
Pianos -- with White Collar Crime
158 Ludlow Street
New York, New York

Thursday, March 17th, 7 pm
Vermont Independent School of the Arts
5126 Route 14
Sharon, Vermont

Monday, March 21st, noon
Burritoville Coop
2055 Bishop/de Maisonneuve
Montreal, Quebec

Wednesday, March 23rd
House concert -- email Maxine for more info if you'd like to attend
Toronto, Ontario

Thursday, March 24th
Flying Squirrel Community Space
285 Clarissa St
Rochester, New York

Friday, March 25th
Burning Books
420 Connecticut St
Buffalo, New York

Saturday, March 26th, 7 pm
First Unitarian Society of Ithaca
Corner of Buffalo and Aurora Streets
Ithaca, New York

Friday, November 20, 2015

Remembering Armand

Yesterday, 19 November 2015, was the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor organizer and troubadour, Joel Emanuel Hagglund, aka Joe Hill. I discovered when I woke up this morning and looked at my phone that it was also the day that my dear friend, Herman George van Loenhout, better known simply as Armand, died at the age of 69.

I had one last Joe Hill-related gig last night, one of scores of Joe Hill-related gigs I've done since early in 2015. I had only been in the green room behind the stage at the Alberta Rose Theater in northeast Portland when a member of the local band, General Strike, slowly entered the room. He was walking with difficulty, using a walker to stay upright. He was one of three musicians in the room who did not walk with ease anymore. Observing this fairly obvious fact, he joked in an exaggeratedly old-sounding voice, “is this the infirmary?”

Musicians often die young. It's often a very public death. They usually keep on performing long after they should have stopped, long after they lost the ability to sing on pitch or to sustain a note, long after they couldn't really play their instrument anymore, as they struggle with one illness or another, on and off the stage. They often keep performing not out of vanity, but out of necessity, since most musicians are poor – especially the professional ones.

As any self-aware professional musician will tell you, the most likely way for a musician to die is behind the wheel, or in a plane – Buddy Holly, John Denver, Stan Rogers. Then there are the many who die at the peak of their careers while in their twenties because the combination of the fame and the drugs and alcohol was too much for them – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Gram Parsons, Amy Winehouse.

Many others who are not quite so inclined toward self-destruction die in their fifties due to too many years of the very exhausting combination of life on the road combined with too much drugs and alcohol over the years. I think of Jerry Garcia, and my dear friend and long-time touring partner, Alistair Hulett.

Armand died too young, but for some reason it seems relevant to point out that he didn't drink, and his drugs of choice were of the psychedelic variety. The tobacco he mixed with his hashish did not do his lungs any favors, to be sure. But the drugs never got in the way of his spell-binding performances, except to the extent that they were part of the act.

If you look on the web you will find almost nothing in English about Armand. I would have wanted to write something about him anyway, but this fact compels me to do so that much more.

An hour ago, the English-language Wikipedia entry on Armand was just this:

“Herman George van Loenhout (born 10 April 1946 in Eindhoven, died 19 November 2015), better known as Armand, was a Dutch protest singer. He was known as 'the Dutch Bob Dylan.' His greatest hit song was 'Ben ik te min' ('Am I not worthy?'). Armand came to the fore during the hippie generation and was an advocate of cannabis.”

Now there's one more paragraph that has very recently been added, I just noticed. It talks of the “reviving” of his music career after 2011. Media types love to refer to things like that, but really, although he did get some major press attention in the past several years due to various artistic collaborations he was involved with, his career didn't need reviving. He's been a successful professional musician since the early 1960's, and his career was doing fine before and after 2011.

I last saw him a few weeks ago in the hospital in Eindhoven, the city in the Netherlands where he lived, where he grew up. There are many people who knew him far better than I, and many, many others who know his music far better than I. There has never been an English-subtitled video made for any of his songs as far as I know. No documentaries about him with subtitles that I've ever found. He was an entirely Dutch phenomenon. And in the Dutch-speaking world, Armand was and is a household name, across the generations.

Armand was often caricatured, and was widely both loved and ridiculed, sometimes by the same people. He came to be the one person who more or less represented the spirit of the 1960's in the Netherlands, so depending on where you stand in the culture wars, either you loved him, or he made you feel very uncomfortable. For many, especially for people of his generation, he was a constant reminder of something you weren't -- or had once been, but had later rejected.

What a difference fifteen years can make. Fifteen years ago, when I met Armand, he was not yet old, and I was not yet middle-aged. I was 33 and he was 54. In other words, I was one of those people who still nominally qualified as a member of “the youth.” The anti-capitalist movement was thriving throughout Europe, North America and elsewhere at the time, and Armand was hungry to be a part of this phenomenon.

But lest people get the wrong idea, let me clarify what I mean by that. Armand wanted to be at the center of the action, not because he was seeking more fame, but because that's who he was. If he had been trying to get more famous, he would have sung in English or French (both major languages which he spoke with complete fluency). Aside from covering some old American folk songs and the odd Bob Dylan song (which he did brilliantly), he wrote and sang in Dutch – thus essentially limiting his potential mass appeal to the Netherlands and part of Belgium.

Armand's influence on society was easy to ascertain. Mention the man by name, and Dutch or Flemish people will often laugh immediately. But mention instead the title to one of his well-known songs such as “ Ben ik te min,” and the tears will well up in their eyes, especially if they're men of a similar age. Armand's words spoke to the very essence of what it meant to be a young person in a relatively conservative, stiff, Protestant society who wanted, needed to break out of that restrictive mold and discover an entirely different value system, where love and laughter were infinitely more important than things like money, social status or driving a fancy car.

Today many of us take for granted the cultural victories of the Sixties generation, the overcoming of so many taboos and forms of internalized repression that so many more people suffered from before the Sixties began to make it OK to be an effeminate man, a masculine woman, a free lover, an artist. OK to not give a shit what your neighbors think, to reject careerism in favor of living a full life. OK to reject patriotism and embrace multicultural internationalism.

But for those who were rejecting the repressive aspects of the old society back then, for those who in the Netherlands were known as the Provos, like Armand, it was all much more challenging, much more cutting-edge than many younger people today imagine. People like Armand were not just caricatured back then – they were actively hated, and regularly beaten by police, arrested, imprisoned.

I hope those out there who know more about Armand and more about the Netherlands than I will forgive me if I get anything wrong here – I don't read Dutch and I'm not inclined to verify facts even if I did. (Never trust a songwriter for that sort of thing. We're all naturally prone to exaggeration.) But I'll tell you a little more about the man.

Armand was born on 10 April, 1946, less than a year after the end of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. As a child, he lived right near the Philips Electronics factory, and had chronic lung problems of the sort that seem to me to be the direct result of industrial poisoning. The first of many times he was hospitalized with pneumonia was at the age of seven. The doctors at the time didn't think he'd make it very far into adulthood.

He was, as far as I gather, one of those small, weak boys that develops a great sense of humor in order to survive childhood. He was only a teenager when he was hanging out on the docks, I think in Antwerp, with sailors from somewhere else, I think it was Jamaica, as I recall him recounting to me, and he first discovered marijuana, years before most white people in Europe or North America had done so.

Along with so many others at the time, he also discovered rock and roll, and in so many ways these things – drugs and rock and roll, and sexual liberation – were not just ways of rejecting the repressed, walking-dead society of the dominant culture in the traumatized 1950's. Not just rebelling in order to embrace a more sensible, more free understanding of the glories that life has to offer us. Not just a rejection of status, wealth, and consumerism. But also an active embracing of other cultures, and an active rejection of empire, colonialism, racism and xenophobia.

I never once visited Armand without him recounting a story about an experience he had hanging out with a friend from Turkey, Morocco, Jamaica or some other place. Yes, the stories usually related to smoking hash. Yes, this kind of thing can be easily caricatured. But for Armand's generation especially, this embracing of other cultures was a real act of rebellion as well as discovery. Learning that there is such wisdom to be found in the lives, lifestyles, and philosophies of people outside of the Netherlands, outside of the often-stifling West.

Armand was a multi-lingual person who embraced not only the drugs of the Others, but their languages, their intellectuals, and their music. He became a musician in the mold of so many others who were discovering the rest of the world at the time, discovering improvisation, seventh chords, syncopation, electricity and the like. He excelled at all of it, and his excellence was even recognized by the record companies and radio stations, which began to bring into every household in the Netherlands the songs this man wrote -- though his songs were very controversial, and many of them were not played, and were censored in one form or another at the time.

Although Armand later came to represent what they might call the Drug Culture in the mainstream press of the past few decades, you need look no further than the covers of his albums to see how engaged he was with international politics. On one of them you will find the widely-viewed, very disturbing photo of a Vietminh soldier being summarily executed by a US-backed South Vietnamese soldier.

The form of rebellion that Armand most represented was a rebellion of values and lifestyle. Underpinning this rebellion is the idea that if you have a society full of people who are too busy having a good time enjoying the finer things in life, there might not be anyone left to do things like join the Army, run the banks, collect taxes, etc. But he was never far from what we might call the more confrontational forms of rebellion.

One of Armand's best friends was a guy I met at a protest in Germany in 2000, a fellow resident of Eindhoven named Antwan. Antwan was best known at the time for being a very active participant in a struggle to save the village of Ruigoord from destruction by the ever-expanding industrial ports of western Amsterdam. Antwan spent weeks living in a tunnel beneath a road, in which he was almost buried alive by being run over by a bulldozer. Much of the port is now a massive Starbucks bean-roasting and distribution plant. Though the surrounding farmland was lost in the struggle, due to the efforts of people like Antwan, the village of Ruigoord itself was saved.

When I met Antwan, he told me about Ruigoord and about his friend Armand. Soon after, next time I was in the Netherlands, I visited Antwan, and together we went to Armand's house, where I met him and his long-time partner, Marrit.

They were both dressed like psychedelic hippie Dutch peasants. Marrit still wears wooden shoes, as she always did back then. Armand's English was so good, you wouldn't necessarily guess he was Dutch. You could tell he was from somewhere else, but he spoke English with the kind of vocabulary that would have sounded very colloquial if you were hanging out in Greenwich Village in 1968. Marrit, by contrast, with her wooden shoes and braided hair, spoke with a perfect Dutch accent, like the kind of Dutch accent an actor would imitate in a movie if she were trying to sound unmistakably Dutch.

That first conversation was one of many other similar ones – long, intense, moving erratically from the topic of cannabis to civil disobedience to the history of the Ottoman Empire. I had never heard of this phenomenon known as a chillum, but I became intimately familiar with this ridiculous method of smoking hash and tobacco together through a wet cloth. Sort of like putting ice in a bong, except it's a pipe instead of a bong, and a wet cloth instead of ice. Partially because of his exhibitionist chillum-smoking habits, along with his habit of writing songs with frequent references to cannabis, LSD, and other things like that, he became known in the Dutch press as Holland's “national smokestack.”

As far as I could tell as a non-Dutch speaker, Armand would allow himself to be put into the role of the Sixties Throwback in the Dutch media regularly, only to regularly break out of the box they put him into, demonstrating again and again his eloquence, his musicianship, and his wit. At his shows, his audiences were laughing uproariously about every thirty seconds. Unfortunately not me, since I don't speak Dutch, although whenever I was in the audience he'd throw in a couple more English songs than usual for my benefit.

Although he's a thousand times better-known in the Netherlands than I am, Armand would do gigs with me in squats and punk social centers in Holland as a double-bill. When I sang, he sat in the front row and listened avidly to every word. Soon after I wrote my song, “The Commons,” I sang it at a gig in the Netherlands, and Armand translated it into Dutch and made his Dutch version of the song a standard part of his performances after that.

We discovered we shared a birthday in common, and every April 10 since then, his would generally be the first birthday greeting of the day for me. This is due to the time difference, of course, since most of North America would still be sleeping when the Europeans were starting their day. And also because it's easy to remember a friend's birthday when it's the same as yours.

Four years ago we celebrated our birthday together, going to the Efteling theme park in Holland. Kind of like Disneyland, except way cooler, way cheaper, and way more Dutch. (And smaller.)

It was just after Armand's “revival” that the new second paragraph of his English Wikipedia entry refers to was happening. He had been on a hiphop-oriented TV show popular among the youth, and he came to the amusement park prepared for what he apparently knew would happen. In his knapsack was not only a day's supply of pre-rolled joints, but also a stack of color photographs of himself for him to sign for fans.

As soon as we entered the park, he was pretty much swarmed by children. The adults all knew him, too, of course, but they mostly maintained more of Dutch reserve about the situation, not wanting to bother him. The kids didn't give a shit though, and they all gathered around him, asking him if his orange hair was real (“real hair, but not the original color”), and asking for his autograph. At every ride we went on, he had to stop for a couple minutes to talk to the star-struck worker running the ride. And everywhere we went, we smoked joints, which might seem completely outrageous to many readers, but for Armand, in Holland, was completely anticipated behavior which failed to raise a single eyebrow.

Marrit was with us, and my wife and child as well, and all the rides which looked too sickening for me, Reiko or Marrit to deal with, Armand was up for, so he and Leila were the only ones in our group to survive that swinging pirate ship thing. Why the fuck anyone would want to experience sea-sickness if they're not on a ship without a choice in the matter is beyond me, but there's obviously a market for it, otherwise Efteling would go out of business, along with Disneyland.

He was one of those rare people who read every mass email I ever sent out as if it was a personal message to him. One of my best boosters, he would write me frequent emails to tell me how a song I had just posted had moved him to tears. Last February he wrote with great excitement to tell me that he was doing an album with a popular Dutch band called the Kik. It was to be an album of all Armand songs, chosen by the Kik, and one of the dozen songs they chose was Armand's translation of “The Commons.” (“You're in the phone book!” he wrote me excitedly once it was clear that this song was going on the album.)

They sang that song and others on TV and radio stations and at shows for large audiences throughout the Netherlands last summer. Armand definitely didn't fizzle out, no question – he went out on a strong note. He and the Kik did twenty shows last summer. (Which in the Dutch context means playing in every city in the country, plus some other towns.)

I was passing near Eindhoven in September and I dropped by his apartment for a visit. He had just gotten some very bad news about the state of his lungs from the hospital. He was clearly short of breath. He said that over the summer on the tour he was often so weak that he made sure he was always using a really sturdy mike stand, so he could hang on it when he needed to, if he was having trouble standing. Somehow, though, as any listener could tell you, he still delivered great renditions of his songs, even in that condition. He was always at his best when he was on stage – the stage revived him, no doubt, every time (as it will often do).

The next time I saw him was a couple weeks later when I was coming back through Eindhoven for another visit. This time he was in the hospital, with his seventh bout of pneumonia since he was a kid. He was very frail, weak, getting oxygen through a tube. I had long ago noticed how small he was, though not until I knew him for years. Beneath his usually multi-layered, multi-colored hippie outfit, you wouldn't be able to tell how little he was unless you hugged him hard, and our physical contact usually involved something more like a pat on the back than a real American hug.

I was pretty sure at the time that this would be the last time I would see him. Some of his friends said he had been really sick before and had pulled through, and I hoped they were right, but it was hard to imagine this tiny little sack of skin and bones could survive much longer, despite his intense love of life. It was probably the love of life that had sustained him far beyond when most people would have given up, I'm sure.

I'm not going to try to wrap this up with some kind of effort to summarize the significance of this beautiful man. There are no summaries. Life is way too big for that kind of thing. I'll just leave you with one of Armand's favorite poems, one by the English poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, published in 1873. (In an email from a few months ago, he quoted the poem and raved about how good it was, telling me about how he had just recited it at a gig.)

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

From Paris to Salt Lake: November, 2015 IN SONG

Friends and comrades,

A lot's been happening this month. I feel compelled to share a few thoughts on that, musically annotated. Mainly links to relevant songs. All the links below are to places where you can listen to a song (for free), unless otherwise noted.  Some of the songs are embedded on the page as well as linked.

I wrote a poem after the Paris attacks.

Steel birds streak through the sky above the Syrian Levant
The pilot flew the plane all the way from Nantes
Explosions rock the cities in this proxy civil war
So many innocents killed, everyone has lost the score
Jean-Pierre fired a missile and was heard to say
He wished he could be home in France at his favorite cafe
Not fighting in a conflict that shows no sign of ever ending
As the Eagles of Death were descending

The bars were filled with people on a balmy Friday night
Out enjoying the weather, having a drink or a bite
Watching football in a stadium, hearing a live band
Washing dishes in a restaurant or shopping for the latest brand
The luckiest ones stayed home, catching a TV show
Not knowing how glad they'd be that they didn't go
Out that evening to join a war they had just last week been protesting
When the Eagles of Death were descending

The Right is overjoyed, prepared to do their best to try
To use these acts of terror to continue to deny
Asylum for the refugees, who are largely fleeing the same men
Who took over their towns and cities at the very same time when
They escaped the carnage to attempt to cross the sea
To be refused safe haven in the land of fraternity
Where this war that has come home keeps rivening and rending
As the Eagles of Death were descending

But oftentimes anecdotes from history speak more powerfully to the present than the present itself, and I think the story of the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of European refugees in 1492 after the Ottoman defeat in Granada says more than anything we could say about the horrors of last Friday.

My latest album, The Other Side (that's the Bandcamp link -- you can also buy in physical form via my new online store), includes “Before the War Came Home,” which is a song I wrote last January after the last massacre in Paris.

When events like this happen in the Muslim world, of course, they often barely make the news. This is primarily due to endemic European-American racism. Also because if something happens more often somewhere, it's less newsworthy. (For example, there have been over 1,000 mass shootings in the US since Sandy Hook, but only a handful of them made the headlines. Such as the ones this year in South Carolina and North Carolina that are memorialized on my latest album.)

Last Thursday there was a multiple-suicide-bombing attack in Beirut. A few days before that in Baghdad. Last month in Ankara. Last summer's suicide bombing in the town of Suruc, Turkey, just across the border from Kobane, Syria is the one among those many horrible attacks that I commemorated in song.

The police killed another Black man in Minneapolis the other day. Still awfully hard to breath if you're Black in America. CeCe McDonald is a trans African-American woman from Minneapolis who almost became another victim of a similar racist attack in that city, except that she managed to successfully defend herself – and then was imprisoned for doing that. (And then there were Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant – endemic institutional racism represented especially well by the Portland Police Department.)

In the news in Oregon and around the US this month is the fact that there is a housing crisis, and the average rent in Portland has doubled over the past few years. The town is gentrifying rapidly, along with many others. There is no rent control – it's banned in Oregon on a statewide basis, along with 47 other US states. We need to overthrow the landlord class. There will be many more children spending Christmas in a tent this winter in the USA.

Relations with Cuba have not been normalized yet, but they keep talking about it. The moronic governor of New Jersey insisted earlier this month that the Port Authority of New York not allow flights from New York to Havana until the Cuban government turns over the FBI's #1 Most Wanted Terrorist, Assata Shakur, who has been living in Havana since she escaped from prison in New Jersey over three decades ago, having been convicted of a crime she never committed. Meanwhile it is the corrupt governor of New Jersey who belongs in prison, not Assata.

Today, November 19th is the 100th anniversary of the execution by firing squad of IWW songwriter, cartoonist and organizer, Joe Hill.

A lot of the shows I've done this year in Europe and North America have had a Joe Hill theme, such as every show on the west coast tour I've just done here in the US.  The one two nights ago in LA included an all-star cast, and was very memorable, singing along with Tom Morello, Joan Baez, Boots Riley, Ziggy Marley, Tim Anderson, Jill Sobule and other great musicians.

The show with me, Chris Chandler, George Mann and others in Reno, Nevada last week was recorded nicely and put up on YouTube in two parts, in case you didn't catch one of those shows live – Set One and Set Two.  There's also a video of Chris Chandler and I doing a spoken word and song collaboration on Joe Hill.

Do you know why there's never been a coup in the US? Because we don't have a US embassy. But unfortunately, the rest of the world does. US foreign policy is the primary reason why much of the Middle East is currently in a state of chaos and war. But 27 bigoted US governors don't want to take any of the tiny number of Syrian refugees Kerry has said we'll accept. They're afraid that these people who are fleeing terrorists are going to be infiltrated by terrorists.

After Anders Breivik massacred scores of Norwegians in a very similar mass killing several years ago, no one called for keeping Norwegians from settling anywhere. This double-standard is called racism. These 27 governors are all racist scum. Maybe they should arrange to give the Statue of Liberty back to France, since we're not using it, and never really have.

Bombs will never stop terrorism. It is US policies in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria that are the cause of the terrorism. Extrajudicial executions of people like Osama bin Laden set a terrifying example. Imprisoning people like Moazzam Begg in Guantanamo without trial for years sets a terrifying example. Systematically torturing prisoners sets a terrifying example. The active support of Israeli state terrorism and Israeli apartheid sets a terrifying example, as does US support for dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The example set by the draconian punishment of heroic whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden sets a chilling example when it comes to the US “leadership of the free world” that the thugs in Congress like to drivel on about.

They interviewed Senator John McCain on NPR yesterday morning. He said we could “fight IS here or we can fight IS there [in the Middle East]. I'd rather fight them there.” John McCain is a fool. The very reason why they're over here is because we're over there. And as long as we stay over there, the next attack is coming soon.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, two more oil trains derailed this month. God bless the USA.


P.S. The Other Side 2016 World Tour is coming together well. That'll be late January through late March. But there are still plenty of dates left to fill! So especially if you live in any of the following regions, I'd love to hear from you about any gig ideas you may have: Texas, Florida, New York, New England, Quebec, Ontario, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Wales, Scotland!

P.P.S. Baby is due on May 1st, so I'm sticking around the Pacific Northwest in April and May. In other words, I'd love to do gigs that are within a few hours' drive of Portland in April and May if anybody wants to put something together!

P.P.P.S. Please support the arts and join my CSA if you're able to do such a thing.