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.