Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The United Tent Cities of America



I viscerally remember a particular protest I participated in with Portland Tenants United that involved using tents as a symbol of the impending homelessness that will result if the landlords keep on raising the rent the way they've been doing. It's a common, useful symbol, that communicates well in a picture, a tent. But there was that one protest when a bunch of actually homeless teenagers asked us, "what are you going to do with those tents when you're done?"

If one of the tents had been mine, I probably would have just given it to the kids who asked about it. I didn't see anyone giving them one of the tents, though. After all, each of them was probably owned by a hard-working tenant, there to protest against landlords and rent hikes. It probably cost $80 or so and was used for camping with the kids and going to festivals, when it wasn't being used to protest landlords in downtown Portland. Most working folks scraping by to pay the rent don't make $80 donations to people on the streets, so I suppose it's understandable if no one gave away their tent that day.

Last weekend I heard on NPR the recently-updated statistic that there are about 60,000 people homeless, mostly living on the streets, unsheltered, in Los Angeles County, and almost 1,000 of them were found dead on those very streets last year, in 2018. It's a shocking thing to hear, partially perhaps because it's such a large, round number, which maybe gives it more resonance. Altogether we can say that there are untold thousands of people dying on the streets every year in the US, and literally the majority of the rest of the population is so squeezed by the cost of housing and other economic factors, that they can't afford to help. They have no savings, only debt. 4 in 10 people in the US can't afford an unexpected expense of any kind if it's greater than $400, according to a recent study. Many people are living in such cramped conditions that having one's own bedroom is increasingly becoming a middle-class fantasy.

In the suburb I grew up in, no one was homeless. Tents were strictly for camping, cars were for transportation -- and maybe sleeping in if you got caught in a blizzard or something. When my family made trips into nearby New York City and I saw people living in cardboard boxes beneath bridges and such, to me it was like going to Mars. A completely different reality. These grey, often bearded faces of ruined human beings, shivering, abandoned, waiting to die, it appeared to me.

They seemed like a different species to my clean-cut suburban eyes. If it weren't for the fact that as a young adult I found myself briefly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, I might still have that alienated orientation towards these castaways that can be found in every American city.

I was staying for a while in a tent on a very steep hillside near a park. It was a thickly-wooded hillside that no one used, but part-way down it there was a flat area just big enough for a very small tent. I set up a tent and hid it with a tarp and leaves and branches and such. No running water or electricity, but it was a dry, shaded place to camp. Until the police, or whoever, found it, and destroyed my camp, cutting lots of bushes and trees down in the process.

That night, it rained. I don't remember what I might have tried to rig up to sleep under or on top of that night, but whatever it was, it wasn't waterproof. The rain drenched me completely, until I was shivering, and probably hyperventilating. To survive the night, I spent hours awake, miserable, sitting in a 24-hour donut shop until the sun rose.

Just going through that experience for one night was a revelation. Until that night, being homeless sucked. I didn't care so much about not having electricity, but I was a big fan of daily showers, and that was not happening. But it had otherwise up til then been more or less an adventure. After that night it no longer was. Death suddenly became something easy to imagine. Anyone, at any age, can die of hypothermia in such a situation. And, as these recent statistics attest, many do.

I don't know how many other people who grew up in the suburbs end up having such experiences. I don't know how many of them can relate to these completely disenfranchised people among us, beneath us, at our feet, as fully human. Regardless of whether they can or not, it seems clear to me that this society is at a breaking point. Any semblance of life as usual can't continue while thousands of skeletal life forms are dying on the streets around you.

Listening to the tepid solutions being offered by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Oregon Governor Kate Brown or any of the presidential candidates running on the Democratic ticket -- all of which is getting lots of media attention lately -- we can be certain the crisis will only worsen. Building new housing and subsidizing rent for tenants in need are fine, but neither of these popular strategies challenge the profits of the real estate speculators, the developers, the landlord class so influential in so much of local, state and federal politics throughout the US.

What is abundantly obvious if you have any familiarity with the housing market in this country is leaving things to the free market has been an unmitigated disaster. Yet the only answer from the landlord lobby is more of the same.

It would be completely impossible to build enough new housing to build our way out of this problem. Regulation is obviously necessary. Democratic – that is, government -- control over the cost of housing, over what landlords can charge for rent. The kind of regulation that will profoundly affect the profit margin of the real estate speculators, the vulture capitalists in control of so much of our politics. I'm talking not about a rent freeze, but about slashing rents to a fraction of what they have become over the past few decades of free market insanity. What's needed is the kind of regulation that no one is talking about. For that kind of regulation, we'll need to have a mass movement that shuts the country down. Regardless of what the more hopeful voices in the liberal media and the Democratic Party might want us to believe.

Until then, keep the morgues cold, more bodies will be coming.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Joy of Touring



 I've been on a sort of paternity leave since last winter. I say "sort of" because it's not like I have an employer or anything -- taking a leave for me means not touring, and mounting credit card debt. The reality that it is time to book a major tour becomes undeniable, when the debt rises into the fifth digit to the left of the point. So lately, one of the balls I'm juggling is the tour-booking one, as I make plans to spend most of the autumn traveling and playing gigs around North America and Europe.

I've spent most of my adult life traveling the world and playing music. For many years I barely even had a home, aside from whatever guest room I was sleeping in, which was often my van or pickup truck parked in the driveway of that night's gig organizer, especially when I was in my twenties and thirties. Since I had my first kid, thirteen years ago, I've toured a lot less, but I've still mostly been away altogether about half of every year. As a parent, not being able to take the kids with me most of the time I go, touring now has a dark side to it that it didn't really have before. There was always the issue of wanting to be in more than one place at a time for a lot of different reasons, and never having enough time to do everything I wanted to do, but with kids, the equation changes for me, and on some level, wherever I am, if I'm not where my kids are, it's not the place I want to be in, regardless of how wonderful the scene.

But having had a solid break from extensive traveling, for the first time in well over a decade, as I work on booking the fall tour, the feeling of dread that usually accompanies the thought of abandoning my family for two months is not so far returning. The emotion in place of the dread is, on one level, an acceptance that some jobs involve traveling a lot, and that's OK. But mostly, the overwhelming feeling is one of eagerness. With apologies to all of those people out there who envy those of us who travel for a living, I'm really looking forward to traveling again.

While I've enjoyed doing the weekly columns and podcasts -- and intend to keep it up if I can manage it while touring -- writing about a world which I am mostly seeing through the filters of other people, be they journalists, friends, or whoever, is such a far cry from experiencing it myself.

There are many variations of the saying, but the idea always resonated with me that life is what happens when you're on your way there -- wherever "there" may be. Most of it isn't about arriving at your destination, it's about getting there. This applies very much in a very literal way, when it comes to actual, physical traveling. Certainly for me, for the kind of travel I do. I'm not locked in a tour bus going from stadium to stadium, only seeing the stadiums and little else. I'd take the gig if I were famous enough for it, don't get me wrong. But that's a far cry from my world. I know a couple of rock stars, but I only envy them a little. What they had to give up to take that gig is huge, it seems to me.

There's a lot you can learn about the world without seeing it all, to be sure. Just as with learning about history, which you will never personally witness, you can learn about the world by reading lots of material from many different perspectives, until the history, or the event or place or people become more three-dimensional, even to the point where you feel like you know and understand it or them.

While I do believe this, I also have found that there are many more things than just pictures that are worth a thousand words. This is also true of smells, sounds, and so many other sensory experiences you only get when you're really traveling in the physical world, when you're immersed in it. And there are stories and anecdotes and phrases that you will encounter when you travel, that just don't seem like things you'd have run across otherwise, though it's always possible you might have.

I don't know if I have this in common with other chronic travelers, but my mind is subdivided geographically. When I'm in a certain part of the world, that's when I'm most likely to remember people I know from that part of the world, experiences I've had there previously, places I've been in a given town or city or forest, venues I've performed in, cafes I loitered in, and stories about the place which local people shared with me before. To provoke my memory of a place -- and also for very practical reasons, to remember where I played there before and who might have organized that gig -- I often leave my laptop to go gaze at one of several maps I have on the walls of my apartment. In fact, I don't really need the maps, since they're all in my mind now, too, but I like to gaze at them anyway.

The sharpest memories jut up through the clouds, forming peaks that can be seen from a long distance. If I were flying like a bird across the landscape looking for those peaks, those memories, those images, flying over Alaska I'd remember what it was like to walk down the street, from my hotel to the supermarket, on a windy February day at minus 20 Fahrenheit, wondering how much longer I could have my cheeks exposed to the wind before I'd get frostbite. I learned on that trip that when it's below negative 40 Fahrenheit, axes tend to split in two when you swing them to try to cut wood. Perhaps I might have learned that by watching a documentary, but I don't think it would have stuck with me in the same visceral way as it has since I first felt the sting of a typical, windy winter day in Anchorage.

Flying across the continent in a zigzagging path, east, west and south from there through the map in my mind, like in a guided meditation, the next peak I come to is Prince Rupert, BC. There's a fishing boat there that washed up all the way from Japan, that stands as a reminder for all of the dangers of the trade, and the solidarity that exists among the seafaring peoples of the world.

I'd land in Montana, where I was following my GPS blindly to get to the next gig on one tour, heading towards Wyoming, and I unexpectedly came to the sign, "entering Yellowstone." I'll forever remember only minutes after passing that sign, the buffalo that stood bigger than any horse I've ever seen, like a furry mountain, thick steam rising from its fur in the early morning light, stopping what little traffic was on that road, making all of us humans in our comparatively puny cars feel very small and vulnerable. Certainly the car I was driving could have been smashed in one stomp, I imagined, but the buffalo calmly continued down the road, ignoring the tourists.

I'd find myself on the Pine Ridge reservation, where I somehow ended up early one morning before a gig in Rapid City. I'm going to film a church-burning that day, my host informed me. I had the day free, so I made sure to haul ass to the east or west or wherever I was coming from, and get there a day early, so I could go, too. I spent the day watching an old church burn to the ground. Lakota people had bad associations with it, and a guy named Big Jim bought it, and burned it to the ground, with the Fire Department watching to make sure it was safe. An old white couple who had been married in the church also came to watch. The Lakota guys who were cheering when various especially offensive parts of the church had collapsed in ash on the ground quietly moved around the corner from the old white couple, to give them the space to have whatever less joyous experience they were having while watching the church burn.

I'd land in Colorado, where on the foothills of a mountain that once served as a watershed for all the farmers in the San Luis Valley I watched the pickup truck speed towards the forest defenders locked to a tripod on a dirt road leading into the largely denuded hillside behind them. I'd watch as the angry driver slammed on his breaks, stopping only a foot from the face of some brave, terrified people.

I'd spend another night at that Catholic Worker hospitality house with the art work in the backyard consisting of a hole with a toilet in it, and a bust of Richard Nixon sitting at the bottom of the toilet. I'd remember my friend who ran the place at the time telling me how one of the residents was so worried that the authorities would shut down the house if they found this terribly disrespectful scene, that he would go out at night and cover the hole with leaves and branches.

I'd watch the Northern Lights from the plane window over Halifax -- it was like the Crystalline Entity from Star Trek, appearing to be below us, completely white, and very much alive. I'd see the lights again from the ground in Quebec, like a dark rainbow taking over the sky. I'd make love again in a tent in New Brunswick, the air outside the screen so full of mosquitoes, doing anything else seemed suicidal. I'd watch that police van try to run over my friends in Washington, DC. I'd be clubbed by the police in Pittsburgh again.

I'd watch the gay couple holding hands as they walked confidently through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. I'd see the list of names written on the chalkboard in that church in the Ninth Ward, when no one knew if they'd all live or die in there, after being abandoned by the federal authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I'd watch the tumbleweeds blow across the prairies of West Texas, in the years before it was covered with fracking rigs, before it all smelled like burning oil. I'd hear the coyotes howling in the Sonoran, and see the pack together, clearly-outlined silhouettes, with the full moon rising behind them above the cactus-strewn, dry, sandy hills.

I'd hear the stories about the outlaws back in the day, when the was Mexican land, before the border crossed them, and they found themselves in the United States. I'd remember Steve, before he died so young of some disease, what was his last name. He and his comrades talked about la Raza Unida like it was an organization everybody knew about, because they did, at least around there. I had never heard of it until I got to Las Vegas. Not Nevada, but New Mexico. They had all heard of it because they lived it. I'd remember many things. Perhaps most of all, I'd remember the bones in the desert.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Remembering Gerd Berlev



I got word last weekend, on the afternoon of June 1st, 2019, Denmark time, that my friend and comrade, extremely talented organizer and much-loved grandmother and horn player, Gerd Berlev died. There is so much that can be said about her, but as I sat in my apartment in Portland, Oregon, taking in this news, I wrote these words.

When I met Gerd, she was around the age I am now, in her early fifties. There were still teenagers in her life, who are now accomplished young adults with children of their own. I wasn't around for the raising of Gerd's children, but most of my visits to Gerd and her husband, Jan, in recent years have involved multiple grandchildren present. She was a highly engaged and very enthusiastic, ebullient grandmother, just as she was highly engaged and enthusiastic about everything else that mattered.

Gerd is one of the many people in the world who I have known in a sort of snapshot form.  One of many people who I'll see a lot of for a few hours or a few days, and then I won't see again for several months or more, until the next time.  But Denmark is a country that I have often visited or toured in more than twice in a given year, over the past two decades or so, and most of those visits included seeing Gerd for one reason or another -- usually for several reasons.

I believe I first met her at an annual Communist Party festival that used to happen in Copenhagen, called K-Fest.  In any case, it was soon after my first tour of Denmark that she became, for many years, the most consistent organizer of protests, peace festivals -- and concerts for me as well as for other indy leftwing musicians from Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere.

When Gerd first offered to organize a gig for me in Copenhagen, sometime in the early Naughties, another Danish communist I knew cautioned me, making sure I knew that Gerd was a member of the  smallest communist organization in the country -- the last one that still believed in the violent overthrow of the Danish government. I have no idea if this is true, I've never read the party platform, but I did in fact confirm Gerd's desire to overthrow the Danish government. However, I never saw her lift a finger to hurt a fly, let alone take up arms. But she may have just been waiting for the right moment.

While she never organized the revolution, she organized a hell of a lot else, and always with an infectious joy for the small things in life, and the kind of dedication to the broader cause that inspired others to feel it, too.  She organized very small events frequently, at her party's book store, October Books, but for many other bigger events, few people knew in what ways she had been involved.  She was very sensitive to politics, so she would frequently give me a union official's name and number and say things like, "he'll probably be interested, but don't tell him I recommended that you contact him."

Unusually for communist-oriented types, Gerd was very familiar with and really in her own way part of what often gets dismissed with terms like "the counterculture."  Her brother was a member of a very well-known Danish rock band called Gasoline.  I got some idea of how mis-spent her youth may have been when she mentioned that as a teenager she slept through a live Jimi Hendrix concert.  She was friends with and worked actively with a lot of other people coming out of the more counter-cultural parts of Danish society.  It was through one of the small peace festivals Gerd organized where I first met the core members of the iconic Danish band, Savage Rose, Thomas and Annisette, who gave a spell-binding performance that day, just as a duo.  I would later see Annisette singing at most of the demos Gerd organized.  Thomas would have been at them, too, but he had died by 2006.  The shirt Gerd is wearing as she's receiving the local peace award, pictured with this post, is about Thomas Koppel, a "message from the grassroots," a campaign she was involved with, both in his memory and looking forward to a better world, taking Thomas's thoughts and music to help navigate.

It was Gerd's completely open, ecumenical orientation towards organizing a real people's movement that set her apart from the sorts of people who are more like functionaries, more interested in getting more people to sign up to their party's email list than in building a broader movement.  Gerd always had much higher aims than the email list.

Though I first met her in her capacity as an organizer, for me she and her husband, Jan, became more just friends, and the people I usually stayed with when I was in Copenhagen, for many years.  When their teenagers moved out of the house, the little shack in the backyard that had for so long housed a chain-smoking Danish punk kid was empty, and became the home away from home for this touring musician for many years of frequent visits to Copenhagen.

So my main recollections are the little ones -- waking up in the morning, coming out of the shack and talking about the news of the day over an edition of Politiken or the Daily Worker in Gerd and Jan's little kitchen, or coming home late at night after a gig and talking beneath the open skies in their very well-tended and well-loved backyard garden.  I was able to bring my daughter, Leila, to Denmark once, when she was four, and she had a great time swinging on the swing on the back porch, that they set up when there are small children about.

Gerd applied all her grandmotherly skills during Leila's visit, and I particularly remember one wonderful little intervention.  I had to go off to play somewhere, which involved taking our rental car.  But Leila wanted to sit in the stroller.  I explained to her that we needed to take the car, so if she could walk with me to the car, that would be great.  But she was steadfast, and sat in the stroller anyway.  It was one of those little conflicts that can arise between a parent in a hurry and a small child who quite understandably doesn't want to go along with the program being forced on her.  It could have gone in a number of different ways, one likely possibility involving a crying child and sad parents, too.  But Gerd knew just what to do.  She grabbed the handles of the stroller Leila was sitting in and took her for a walk -- a walk of about three meters, the distance from the house to the car.  But it was a walk in the stroller, and for Leila, it turned out to be just what she needed.  Happy at this point that her desire to walk in the stroller had been sufficiently acknowledged, she got out of it on her own accord and sat in the backseat of the car as her papa had demanded.  If I had thought a three-meter walk in the stroller could have made everything better, I might have tried that, but it hadn't occurred to me.

Gerd's partner for all the time I knew her has been Jan Nielsen, who is very much still with us.  Every spring, Gerd would get some kind of spring fever, and fall in love with Jan all over again.  She would tell me about it every spring, how she was falling in love with her husband all over again, but it was the sort of thing that hardly needed to be expressed verbally to be abundantly clear.  Her face would turn red and she would act like a puppy.  It was a beautiful relationship to witness, also because it persisted so well despite the fact that she never succeeded in getting Jan to join her party.  He, instead, had settled for the furthest-left party that has actual representation in the Danish parliament, Enhedslisten.

Gerd's antiwar organizing efforts often involved opposing NATO's wars, NATO's expansion, and NATO generally.  The least well-liked Danish prime minister in recent decades among my friends, Fogh Rasmussen, was NATO Secretary-General for a good chunk of NATO's recent expansionist and especially actively militaristic period.  In 2005, when NATO was having a summit in Sweden -- oddly enough, a non-NATO country -- Gerd and I, along with rabble-rousing songwriter Anne Feeney and other folks, traveled up to northern Sweden to protest.

I suppose it's in times of relative crisis that the most enduring memories are formed, so probably the vision of Gerd Berlev that I will always remember the most will be from December, 2009.  It was during the climate summit that was happening that year in Copenhagen.  Laws had been temporarily modified to basically suspend civil liberties in Denmark for the duration of the summit.  Anyone was liable to be arrested anywhere, anytime, basically.  This was especially true one night at Christiania, where some of the counter-summit types of activities were taking place.

A police raid turned into a riot, there were burning barricades, thousands of bottles and other things transported and thrown, and then, unusually for Denmark, there was a water cannon.  This changed the equation for the usual Copenhagen riot, and soon the riot police had put out the burning barricades, thus allowing them to drive onto Christiania with their armored vehicles.  A crowd of people smelling strongly of tear gas flooded into the Opera House, where I was playing that night.  We tensely awaited the next wave of people to enter the building, who we expected to be riot police intent on taking revenge on whoever it was who might have been throwing all those many bottles at them not long before.

Word quickly got out about what was going on then in Christiania.  My friend Carsten, a teacher from Hellebaek I had been marching with the other day, texted me, that he was waiting in his car just outside Christiania, to take me away from the riot zone, once I managed to get out of the Free State.  But it was Gerd who marched on her own through the ranks of the riot police as they stood in their helmets, menacingly gripping their truncheons, to the Opera House.  She fetched me and I think a couple other folks, and led us back through the ranks of the riot police and out of Christiania, to Carsten's waiting car.  She had a sort of militant, communist, grandmotherly halo around her as she walked.  Although she was a little woman, a full head shorter than me or the average Dane, she inspired fear and obedience in the typical riot cop.

I last saw Gerd a couple months ago, last time I was in Denmark.  It was a brief visit of not more than a half hour or so, due to logistical issues.  She had had something mailed to me in Portland that was from the US, just to save postage and such, because she knew I was just about to come to Denmark.  I was just delivering a bottle of vitamins.  One of a variety of ways she was trying to get healthy again, after being diagnosed with cancer.

Gerd played in a group called Red Horns -- the horn version of the Socialist Choirs you'll find in some towns in England, or the Labor Choruses you'll find here and there in the US.  Gerd will be missed by her fellow musicians, her fellow organizers, her husband, children, grandchildren, and her many friends and comrades.  Many others in Denmark will miss her, but they won't know it, because so much of the work she did was behind the scenes, like all the best organizers, among the ranks of whom Gerd Berlev most definitely belongs.

For those of you in the region, her funeral will be in Copenhagen on June 15th. I won't be getting to Denmark for the summer until ten days later, so I'll have to settle for being there in spirit.

Good-bye, Gerd.  I miss you already.

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