Saturday, February 25, 2023

"Unprovoked": War Talk

After a year of the brinksmen using Ukraine as their venue for global hegemony, some reflections.

With each new dramatic chapter in the unfolding saga of Disaster Capitalist rule in the USA, there are those who drink the Kool-Aid.  The Kool-Aid of Disaster Capitalism's horribly distorted vision of history and reality that has people of all walks of life finding they once again seem to have something in common with the billionaires who rule us.  Those who are apt to find a way to understand the world that allows for the existence of the exception to the rule -- "but this time it's different, we're the good guys." 

I'll just note here that the term, Disaster Capitalism, comes from Naomi Klein's book, the Shock Doctrine, which will never go out of date, because it's basically a history of the twentieth century and the early part of this one.  Everyone should read it, in order to understand the nature of the stage of capitalist development the US is in these days, which is the most cynical possible form of capitalism, where disasters are manufactured, just as the corporate media manufactures the consent to go along with them, that says we must form some kind of a united front with the billionaires in order to deal with this manufactured disaster.  (And disasters that aren't manufactured can still be used opportunistically to serve the same functions.)

The Disaster Capitalist Kool-Aid is not only being imbibed by folks across the USA, but throughout Europe as well (the parts of the world that the western press likes to call "the international community," since they decided "the civilized world" didn't have as nice a ring to it anymore).  Along with so many other fissures in society in recent years, where people stand on the war in Ukraine has become a big one.  A number of friends and comrades of mine from the US and Europe have reluctantly concluded that they must now support NATO's position in the conflict.  Some of the people who have come to my concerts in Sweden in recent visits support Sweden's entry into NATO.  They're not bots on Twitter, though they've inevitably been influenced by such entities, as have we all.  They're real people.

To add to the realness of it all, they're real people with real Ukrainians in their lives.  If they didn't know many Ukrainians before, they do now, especially in Europe to the west of Ukraine, where the millions of Ukrainian refugees mostly live now.  It's very easy for many people to find real live Ukrainians who vehemently support the fight against Russian aggression, and it's easy to imagine feeling the same way.

The people I know who support the war effort against the Russian military would not say they've reached their conclusions because of emotions, though.  They would tend to have a more sensible rationale for what I'm sure for them is a principled position.  It's a very flawed position, however, I would argue, for so many reasons, if your goal is something other than the end of life as we know it.  I don't know what good it might do for me to make this case and by doing so perhaps convince a couple folks to reconsider their positions, but I have to try.

My main problems with trying to even start making my case are twofold.  On the one hand, the people I want to argue with are some of the smartest folks I know, and they're already familiar with the same history and political realities that I am.  What facts can I present that will change their minds?  And secondly, what camp am I hoping to draw them into?  I have no immediate solutions for a problem of this massive historic magnitude, other than "when you're in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging."

There are lots of people dying, a country lies in ruins, and the idea of peace or justice under such circumstances are clearly farcical, but things like justice and victory are what the supporters of the Ukrainian government are calling for.  At what cost?  Talk about cost is seen as heretical.  Only complete dedication to justice and victory seems to be acceptable.  It is, after all, the right and moral outcome to this conflict.

This is an age of moral outrage if ever there was one.  A good, moral argument seems to be more persuasive than ever, these days.  But what about when reality and morality conflict, as they so often do?  And what if this conflict means the very real possibility of global nuclear annihilation?

I don't want to set up a straw man here, but I know the response.  If Russia is allowed to get its way just because it is able to threaten the possibility of nuclear retaliation when attacked, then Russia can get away with anything.  This is, indeed, what the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has long been meant to deal with -- that if Russia launches a nuclear weapon, the US will completely destroy Russia as a response, while Russia completely destroys the US as a response to that.  

And what about countries that aren't part of NATO's mutual defense treaty or another such treaty with the US?  Those countries aren't covered by this MAD insurance program.  That's why those countries get to be the battlegrounds for conflicts between the Great Powers of the world, unequally arrayed as they are and have long been.

The supporters of US military aid to Ukraine among those who come to my shows in Scandinavia or California are not people who need any history lessons from me about the nature of the US capitalist empire, or the intentions of the US ruling class currently or historically.  They know the US invaded Russia after the Russian Revolution.  They know the US carpet-bombed Japan, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam, destroying civilian infrastructure indiscriminately while sucking the oxygen out of entire cities, killing tens and hundreds of thousands of people at a time, ultimately slaughtering millions of innocent civilians in all of these countries, and many others.  They know this.

They know, as well, about the few brief years in the 1940's during which the US and the Soviet Union were on the same side of the bloodiest war in the history of humanity, what has become known as World War 2.  They know that this war, like World War 1, was largely a war between empires vying for world domination on the global colonial landscape, to which Germany, Italy, and Japan were latecomers.

I believe I'd be right in summing up that for the elements of the left that support ongoing military aid to Ukraine, the historical juncture that they most strongly embrace is that brief period during which the US and the USSR were on the same side of the war against the Nazis.  They know that this was a war between empires with very bad intentions, for the most part, whoever might win.  They know the US was a segregated country steeped in a recent history of slavery and genocide, with a future before it full of carpet-bombing one Asian country after another, from the invasion of Korea to so many others that followed.  They know the US always took the side of the dictators and coup-plotters, never the democratic socialists like Arbenz, Allende, or Aristide, three of so many other elected governments overthrown by ours.  They know all this -- some of them have written books about these things.

The reason why 1939-45 or so is the historical moment of greatest significance to a lot of folks in this camp, in my understanding, is this is the period of the United Front.  The period when the global forces of capitalist empire and the countries that had overthrown capitalism or feudalism and replaced it with some form of socialism united in an epic battle against the forces of fascism, and defeated them.  It's this spirit of the United Front that those supporting military aid to Ukraine are trying to evoke, and it's this spirit that they are embracing as well.  It is certainly a spirit being embraced broadly in what the establishment press refers to in the US as "bipartisan."  Across Europe, as well, support for military aid to Ukraine is a matter of degree, among the ruling parties, not one of whether to engage in this path in the first place.

But what is the goal of this united front, what is it hoping to achieve?  These questions are never answered, because the ultimate possible answers are too terrible to even think about.  The willingness to engage in the very idea of military aid to Ukraine is a willingness to consider the possibility of global annihilation, because taking this risk is the right thing to do, even if the circumstances involved may be complex.

There also seems to be a widespread willingness to confuse the concepts of "justification" and "provocation" with each other.  This, I would argue, is a symptom of the age of moral outrage in which we find ourselves, which goes along seamlessly with the identity politics and corporate social media algorithms that increasingly strangle global discourse.

To justify something is to make a moral argument.  Provocation, on the other hand, is more a practical thing than a moral one.  If you punch me, that's a provocative action that tends to be seen as justifying a response.  If you're punching me because I punched you first, however, my response to your punch, while perhaps justified, is also now becoming a cycle of violence.  It may end with victory of one of us over the other, though in the process we may both break each other's teeth and sustain other long-term injuries, and afterwards we may both wish we had found another route aside from physical violence.  We may start to resent the people around us who were egging both of us on to throw the next punch.

For most people, it's extremely hard to even imagine at what point we might feel sufficiently provoked where we feel like it's justifiable to do something like to start launching deadly missiles at a neighboring country, or any other country -- let alone getting to the point where we actually give the orders for the bombing to begin.  The vast majority of us aren't in a position to make any such decisions, never have been, and never will be.  

But the question of provocation is extremely relevant, setting aside strategic and moral decisions about what types of provocations justify different responses to them.  Relevant because provocations are the actions that lead to justifying responses to them.  And as to whether the Russian government has been provoked by US and NATO policies since the dissolution of the Soviet Union there is no doubt whatsoever, unless you are in the business of disinformation or revising history.  The very existence of NATO as an organization after the Warsaw Pact dissolved is a provocation, as was the vast expansion of NATO that has taken place over the past three decades.

A long time ago, both sides in this conflict -- which has been manufactured in large part by the military-industrial complex (as Donald Trump just pointed out in a speech on February 21st that has been seen by millions) -- learned, in the course of narrowly averting global nuclear annihilation, that it was in everyone's interest to avoid direct conflict.  Many former war hawks at that point, six decades ago, learned the importance of finding a way to coexist with the other nuclear powers in the world (though many proxy wars around the world continued, and continue today).

Any student of the Cuban Missile Crisis knows that Khruschev very publicly broadcast -- in a speech from the floor of the UN that was televised around the world -- that a US Naval blockade of the island of Cuba would be considered an act of war by the Soviets, and any actions taken by US ships to impede the movement of Soviet ships would be met with retaliation.  Everyone involved knew what that meant -- launching nuclear missiles, under the doctrine of "there is no such thing as a Second Strike."  That's why, under the operative doctrine at the time, of Mutually Assured Destruction, First Strike was the only strike, for all sides involved.  Which is why the only conceivable option was No Strike.

But the US violated that mutual understanding in international waters near Cuba in 1962.  If not for submarine commander, Vasili Arkhipov, disobeying Khruschev's orders, the southern half of the United States would have been completely destroyed, almost immediately.  A secret deal was reached between the US and the USSR after that, to remove US nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba -- which were already in Cuba, contrary to US intelligence reports at the time.

Since then, there's been a policy of deconfliction when it comes to encounters between Soviet or Russian troops and US troops, ships, or planes.  Since then, it's been proxy wars, with one side armed by the Russians and the other armed by the US.  This was the format, from the millions who died in Angola during the "Cold War" to the Syrian Civil War today.  But whereas there was at least a fig leaf of neutrality when it came to military aid to those seeking to overthrow the governments of Syria today, or Afghanistan in the 1980's, there is no fig leaf present with the massive direct military aid to Ukraine.  The fig leaf is gone, the brink being approached by the brinksmen closer than ever.

The CIA, aided by Norwegian operatives, apparently are responsible for blowing up the Nordstream pipelines.  This is an act of war -- and wasn't carried out by proxy forces, according to the impeccably-accurate journalism of Seymour Hersh, recently published.  

When the US and the west backed the faction that took power from the previous government in 2014 (during which parts of Kyiv looked a lot like Washington, DC in January, 2021), thus threatening declared Ukrainian neutrality, intelligence documents make clear that the US knew this would be a provocation that would lead to the Russian government justifying the annexation of Crimea, which they did.  Now it is becoming clear that the US intelligence community knew that Ukraine's bid to join NATO would be a red line that would, for the Russian government, justify a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, which is what then transpired.

The think tanks are full of smart folks who predict what's going to happen when something else happens, it's what they do.  It wouldn't have taken much to predict what this war would do to global grain supplies, or what blowing up the Nordstream pipeline would do to European energy prices.  Whether or not this was all part of the plan, the Disaster Capitalists knew it was coming and are profiting from the situation handsomely.  Or is it just a very convenient coincidence that the US is one of the world's other biggest suppliers of grain, oil, and gas?  Maybe.  (Maybe just the speculation will result in accusations that I'm a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist or Putin supporter!)

Either way, they certainly knew what was going to happen in all the countries that have suffered from high inflation, high energy prices, high food prices, and so on -- social unrest and political turmoil.  And focusing on certain countries where these things are happening -- specifically countries like Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela -- the western media and US politicians have been quick to blame political corruption and dictatorial incompetence on the situation in these countries, ignoring the US sanctions that have impoverished all of them, and largely ignoring the social unrest and political turmoil that can be found in most of the countries closely allied with the US.

With each of these aforementioned cases -- Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela -- you can find the same fissures within the western left.  Those who blame all the unrest on western meddling, and those who blame it on local political misleadership.  Within each of these camps you'll find those who think the western countries are trying to do good things in these particular cases, and those who have a more realistic understanding of western intentions.  Within each of these camps can be found those who support the protest movements in these countries, those who see them largely as creations of western subterfuge, and those who see them as complex phenomena produced by complex societies with their own internal contradictions, along with the outside influences.

Without trying to break down the situation in terms of social movements in Iran or Nicaragua or wherever else, address their origins and internal contradictions, the extent to which western sanctions or intelligence agencies are involved, etc., my perennial hope is that sensible people in the US and everywhere else in the world can see that the long and well-documented history of US involvement in overthrowing democracies, supporting dictators and would-be dictators, and making foreign policy decisions clearly and consistently based on support for large western corporations exists, and can be presumed to be ongoing, given no indications to the contrary.

Given that reality, and the reality that where life in a given country was at some point defined by large amounts of US military support or US military engagement, things have not turned out well for them.  Some of the most destitute places on Earth today are littered with the shells of American bombs or the legacy of US military involvement -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Haiti, are places where mass starvation is around the corner for many, where cities still lie in ruins, as they once did in Vietnam, Korea, Germany, Japan, and so many other places.  In all of those countries, the US military daily committed crimes against humanity.  We don't call them that because the victors of the Second World War made the rules.  We also don't call them that because the US is not a member of the International Criminal Court (and neither are Russia or Ukraine), though you'd never know that from the news coverage of Merrick Garland announcing from Ukraine that he was going to prosecute Russian war criminals.

My hope is always that somehow, armed with this kind of knowledge, people can put two and two together, and conclude that if the answer is the US sending billions of dollars worth of deadly weaponry to an obviously western-backed government in a former Soviet republic that is fighting Russia, then we're clearly asking the wrong question, and should try that one again.  But at times like these, when the propaganda machine is in full swing, my hopes are often dashed by a whole lot of Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Communications for Indy Musicians, Then and Now

After a quarter century of the internet being a household phenomenon, and 17 years of domination of it by corporate social media platforms, some reflections on what's changed in the lives of musicians.

On various platforms, I posted a song I had just written and recorded.  Within minutes I had received my first offensive comment on one of the platforms -- Reddit, in this instance -- from someone who may or may not have actually listened to the song, but had to say something about how much they dislike the general population in East Palestine, Ohio, where the smoke was still rising from a toxic disaster there that I was posting about. 

As I read this verbiage, it occurred to me that things did not used to be this way.  And as I further interrogated this thought, it occurred to me that it was a subject well worthy of a blog post, and more.

One of the challenges of exploring a subject like how our communications have changed over the past few decades is, I at least suspect I'm right to presume, it has changed differently for different people.  For example, whether you're a consumer of news or a producer of news content, such as a freelance journalist, you may have radically differing experiences with the rise of the internet, or later, the rise of corporate social media platforms.

I probably wouldn't be too far off to say that I primarily have always used email and the internet as the means to an end, the end being making a living as a recording artist and touring musician.  As time passes, I realize that at the age of 55 I have what is an increasingly rare thing:  the experience of having  been a working, touring, independent recording artist for years prior to email and the internet becoming ubiquitous, and for the 25 years since the rise of both the internet broadly, including the past 17 years or so of corporate social media platforms dominating our communications.  To be able to point out how the changes in the ways we all communicate and understand the world around us have impacted my life as a working indy artist seem worth enumerating.

As I was ruminating about all the insults, condescension, and bullying that make up a significant percentage of the comments I encounter on the corporate social media platforms we've all become dependent on, and thinking about how prior to social media I almost never, if ever at all, encountered anyone saying this kind of stuff in any setting or through any other means of communication, I thought about other categories of communication, broadly defined, and how they have been impacted in one way or another by the changes of the 21st century thus far.  After a quarter century of the web being a household phenomenon, where are we at?  I'm 55, as I mentioned, and without wanting to pull seniority, anyone much younger than me would have no direct way of knowing how things have changed.

Other than online insults and bullying, what other major categories of communication are there for the modern independent artist?  Praise is a big one, for sure, and unlike insults, it was a common thing in the old days, back when it was known by terms such as "fan mail."  Other important categories for communication for indy artists pre- or post-internet include those which are involved with promotion of things like new recordings, selling those recordings, organizing tours, promoting gigs, and being engaged in discourse with individuals and groupings of people of various kinds.

I know that the internet is also a tool for most of us for keeping in touch with friends, keeping up with news of all sorts, finding myriad forms of entertainment and resources for learning about pretty much anything.  I've heard for many people the internet has helped them connect with people in all kinds of ways, while for others it has felt like the main reason for a growing sense of isolation or worsening depression.  But my focus here is how things have changed for the working indy musician, specifically, the one I know best, me.  I'll start with my least favorite development that was brought to us by anti-social media.

Receiving Insults

Receiving insults wasn't really part of the deal to be a working musician prior to the rise of the internet, and specifically corporate social media platforms.  I'm sure there were people thinking these thoughts before, but there were too many barriers between thinking an insulting thought and actually communicating it to the artist that it may be somehow related to.  There was a time when I used to get insulting phone calls from some dedicated guy who didn't like me, and sometimes he'd call as often as daily.  No one bothered writing anything insulting in the pre-social media days, whereas in the age of Reddit and Twitter it's a daily thing.

The exception to this was the possibility of being insulted by corporate media, in the unlikely case that I or artists like me got any such coverage.  When I did get negative coverage on Fox radio once, for writing songs against President Bush, soon after the US invasion of Iraq, not a single Fox listener bothered writing me any hate mail.  Too much trouble, I guess, not worth the effort if you're just writing the artist and not being performative about it in a comment thread, and if it involves spending thirty cents on a postage stamp.

Receiving Praise

Prior to the rise of email, most people didn't write much.  At least when it came to writing a letter that you might send in the mail to someone, it wasn't all that widespread.  Of course, it was far more widespread than it is now.  But a lot of people didn't feel confident about their writing, and just avoided doing much of it.  With the rise of very short-form written communication like texting and messaging and commenting on posts, far more people got into writing, at least to the point of writing short, often cryptic comments on posts that they may or may not have explored beyond the title or subject line.

In sum, real change has been minimal.  If we exclude short comments on posts, anyone motivated enough to send a substantial message to me about my music would have been about as likely to have done the same thing in prior years by writing to the mailing address they might have found in the liner notes to a recent CD, or before that, cassette or LP.  (Of course, letters sent to the wrong mailing address might get returned to the sender, just like emails bounce when sent to an old or incorrect email address.)

Positive feedback from people on social media platforms can be a good thing for various reasons, but it's basically all that remains of the concept of an album review in Sing Out! magazine, since journalism largely collapsed as a paying profession, largely due to deregulation of the industry (in the US), well before the internet became popular, but made much worse by the online reality later.

Selling Recorded Music

Of course, to most any musician under the age of 40, this is a fantasy subheading.  It's not a thing.  Just to be clear, I don't say this because I used to be more popular than I am now.  If this were the case, it might help to explain the drastic decline in my income, and in that of so many other artists, over the past decade.

According to Spotify, I'm in the top 4% of Spotify artists, in terms of listenership, and they're mostly young.  This translates into receiving deposits from all the different streaming platforms that annually amount to around $5,000, which is about what I'd make on an average month of touring from CD sales twenty years ago.

For the entirety of the twentieth century, selling merch of one kind or another funded the music industry, which was many times bigger than it is today, prior to the internet.  In the early twentieth century it was all about sheet music and songbooks, but for most of the century it was about vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs, depending on which part of the century we're talking about.  My time with physical merch was the end of the cassette era and the entirety of the CD era, which effectively ended ten years ago.

With the internet, the whole phenomenon of physical merch began to change drastically, at first mainly for the major artists.  Indy artists were a lot less likely to have our stuff "pirated," from my experience.  For me, it wasn't until Spotify endeavored to make their platform free in 2013 that I and millions of other artists around the world suddenly found we were now giving away all of our music on a very popular corporate platform over which we had no control, other than to opt in or opt out -- which by 2013, with the world completely inundated with tens of millions of free songs from throughout the history of recorded music, whether or not you opted to be on Spotify was a question of whether you were opting to be visible or invisible to most people out there in the world who listened to music.

In any case, for this category there is no question.  The internet, in its current form, barely regulated, with huge companies like Spotify and Google calling the shots and defining the terms, has led to the collapse of what was once called the recording industry, along with many other industries.

Promoting Music

While commercial radio and the record industry was long a very exclusive operation, throughout the twentieth century there were many avenues for an independent artist to develop an audience.  Prior to the rise of the internet, throughout the radio era, particularly, by my estimation, from the 1960's to the 1990's, there were community radio, college radio, and pirate radio stations.  In areas like the west coast of the US, you were almost always within range of one or another such radio station, and many of them had whole communities that tended to have the local station on in the background.  Lots of people were involved with programming as well as listening.  In the 1980's, community television became commonplace, with a rare instance of regulation, rather than deregulation, of industries in the US, in the form of what became known as Cable Access television.

What this all meant in practical terms is if you used a resource put out by any number of different magazines, festivals, or other such institutions that provided a list of current radio stations, shows, names of hosts, etc., with a targeted selection of a few dozen stations, you could potentially get a lot of attention by investing a couple hundred dollars and a few days of effort in a publicity campaign for a new album.  If you can afford to make an album these days, there are all sorts of ways to generate attention to a new album online, too.  Like airplay on community radio stations, it's not necessarily directly remunerative, but online is where most people get their music these days, particularly on Spotify, and if you make good albums and have an audience, it's likely to grow there.

Organizing Tours

So much of organizing tours is about being in touch with people you already know or know of, in different places, at the right time.  These days this sort of thing is more often done with email, or with some messaging platform (that may or may not penalize you for sending the same message to too many of your contacts in one day).  Back in the twentieth century it was mostly done by phone.  Not by cell phone, but with land lines, which were everywhere, such as at each table of your average truck stop (or "travel center") on the highways in every corner of the USA.

What can also be useful in organizing tours is reaching out to organizations of the sort that might be interested in hosting concerts, because you write songs about what they're involved with.  This was, for me, especially useful as a tour-booking strategy in the beginning.  In the age of the internet, it seems like it would be easy to wonder how people found lists of organizations, student groups, festivals, etc., if they didn't have search engines and websites.  Search engines and websites are very useful indeed, and have made other methods extinct.  But what we used to do was very simple.  For example, at the back of each new edition of the Earth First! Journal you would find a list of contacts, by state, with their mailing address.  With each newsletter of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, same thing, an up-to-date list.  Magazines like Sing Out! would feature editions that mainly focused on telling us about all the different festivals coming up, including contact information for each one.

Promoting Gigs

Before email lists there were mailing lists.  In the twentieth century, photocopying machines commonly known as Xerox machines (though Xerox was only one of the companies that made them) could be found all over the place.  Traveling musicians and many other DIY artists and entrepreneurs, students, etc., spent a lot of time at photocopying places like Kinko's or some local place, copying postcards, cutting them up, sticking address labels and stamps on them, etc.  You can see why everyone was thrilled when email came along -- it was more or less free to send lots of emails.  Which involved the down side of most emails then becoming spam and being ignored.  But for a while, it was cool.  

And then came Facebook, which for a while was about as handy as email lists for promoting gigs, tours, albums, or doing anything like that.  So much so that a whole lot of people more or less stopped using email or paying attention to email lists.  Once Facebook basically took over the market, they then changed their business model drastically, and introduced the algorithmic feed that makes sure no one will generally see anything about upcoming gigs or new albums unless the artists pay to boost the posts.  

It was good while it lasted, but once the era of the email list ended and Facebook took over so much of our communications, this aspect of the internet which was temporarily very handy for a lot of people suddenly became about as expensive as things used to be in the days of sending out hundreds of postcards each month.

Having Discussions/Discourse

Before the internet you were less likely to meet people from the other side of the world and get into disagreements with them, but you could have in-person gatherings and even conference calls with people that involved hearing their voices.  Even if people sometimes might wear masks and change their names, depending on the circumstances, there was still the advantage of communicating with vocal inflections.  Misunderstandings could and did occur, but not nearly with the frequency that they occur on the comment threads you can find on any of the social media platforms.

Real discourse is endangered, cancellation campaigning and shaming (or fear thereof) are the norm in many circles, and effective, locally-based organizing has largely been replaced with amorphous "groups" on social media platforms that excel at spinning the hamster wheel and not much else.  We've been conned into a trap, from which we don't seem to know how to escape.

Fundraising/Crowdfunding

While the interconnected nature of the internet, facilitated on the financial front by platforms like PayPal or Patreon, make fundraising -- or crowdfunding, as the form of fundraising where you're trying to raise money from regular people is called these days -- an easy thing to automate, it was all done before, and done very successfully, by institutions of all kinds, such as public radio and most charities and nonprofit organizations.  The campaigns were conducted through the mail, by phone, and door-to-door.  

From my own very limited vantage point, this kind of fundraising was not popular among indy musicians until around 2013.  I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this is the same year Spotify started its free tier, and millions of us suddenly lost half our incomes.

In Conclusion

In the 21st century so many institutions that used to exist died (like most newspapers and most record companies) and in some cases were replaced by something else generally deeply inferior or otherwise very problematic (like Facebook and Spotify).  And many forms of communication were replaced by others, which also came with lots of pros and cons.  For independent artists specifically, while we all had to adapt to many new ways of conducting affairs, the bottom line in the era of corporate social media is some aspects of our lives and livelihoods remained about the same, all told, and other aspects got a lot worse.  There is absolutely no question that the takeaway here is the impact of the internet generally and corporate social media platforms especially -- as things stand til now, with no regulation of the industry to speak of -- has been and continues to be overwhelmingly negative, overall, silver linings notwithstanding.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Tour Reflections: Hawai'i and the West

I spent the last half of January making an album in Hawai'i, and nine days during the first half of February on tour, mostly in California.

Well, technically only nine days of it might be considered "touring," mostly in California, but the recent spate of time away from home began with a flight to Hawai'i, and what they call the Big Island, which includes the world's biggest active volcano, and is home to the region that produces the legendary Kona coffee.

When a fine musician and engineer named Chet Gardiner invited me to come spend a couple weeks in Hawai'i to make a recording, my first thought was that's a very nice idea, but a long time to be away from home.  But I mentioned the notion to some fellow musicians, and they responded with great enthusiasm.  Chet said there was room for more people on the farm, and a plan began to form. 

Lorna McKinnon, Glasgow choral director who had already done wonders to two of my albums in recent years, enjoyed a brief visit in Portland before we boarded the flight to Kona, which is a similar-length flight to flying across the continental US in the other direction.  Looking at a map, Hawai'i is at a similar latitude to Central America.  That's what it feels like, too.  It took about ten minutes of being off the plane for Lorna and I to agree that it was too damn hot.  Two weeks later, we were both looking forward to being back in the freezing rain of Portland, and when we arrived in it, we still loved it.

For a couple days we were joined by violinist extraordinaire Billy Oskay, who came on another, far more circuitous flight from Portland, delayed and rerouted like flights generally seem to be these days, on certain airlines more than others, and Kamala Emanuel, doctor from Australia moonlighting as a musician, who flew in on an even more circuitous route from Brisbane.

During our twelve days on the coffee farm we spent many days recording, and many others taking time off to accompany Chet to one of a variety of farmers markets, where he and one of his two bands are a regular feature.  The three of us who made it through the whole adventure also frequently borrowed a car to see the sights or to drive the 45 minutes to the nearest supermarket.  The rest of the time, at the farm, there were rehearsals and things like that, but the only really consistent daily phenomenon was watching Lorna get eaten alive by mosquitoes, who seem to especially appreciate the blood of people who come from a place where it's too cold for them to exist.

In years past, I have visited Oahu a couple times, and Maui once.  It was my first time on the biggest of the Hawai'ian islands, the one called Hawai'i.  At least in the section we spent the lion's share of our two weeks in, anyone fantasizing about sandy beaches and gentle ocean waves will have their hopes quickly dashed, along with other things, if they're not careful.  The jagged volcanic rocks are generally the terrain which meets the sea, and it is a rough sea, that tends to knock people over every few seconds, by my observation.

An exception to the jagged rocks are the smoothed-down ones that make up the black pebbles on the section of coastline known on the map as Pebbles Beach, which was recommended to us by a local woman who runs a second-hand clothing shop from a collection of tents on her property by the side of the highway.  She was welcoming to us, showed the women to the tents with the clothing in it, and showed me to the hammock, which was apparently the waiting area for guys like me.  She was listening to pop music with a mix of English and Hawai'ian lyrics -- notable, I thought, and rare these days for anything to be played on a commercial radio station that doesn't originate in Los Angeles or Nashville.

She talked about how she almost got a real shop in town, but was priced out of some kind of nasty real estate deal, and ended up opening this shop using tents by the side of the road instead.  She seemed very nice, and she recommended Pebbles Beach to us, instructing us not to tell the other tourists about it because it's a local secret.  A couple days later, we set Google Maps to take us to Pebbles Beach, and proceeded to watch our lives flash in front of our faces on multiple occasions over the perilous next twenty minutes or so, as we descended down the steepest paved roads, or roads of any kind, any of us had ever seen, and certainly the steepest I've ever driven on.  These roads were so steep, they were the stuff of nightmares, like the nightmares where the road gets so steep that you wonder if you're going to just fall off of it.

But the brake cables on Chet's old Prius held, and we survived Pebbles Beach.  Whether or not the nice Hawai'ian lady was trying to kill the tourists, we may never know.

But certainly, the situation she described about her shop seemed like the same story everywhere, with the working class and those living in little inland houses overwhelmingly being poor and brown, with those living in big houses on the beach, along with the big land owners and most of the tourists being wealthy and white.

To rub the salt in the wounds of conquest, the tourist industry doesn't just advertise the warm weather, the waves and the volcanoes, but also the "Aloha spirit," which seems to mean the locals are supposed to smile while you rob them of their land and sovereignty and turn them into your servants.

For the one Scottish member of our party, the only one of us who was not raised in a settler-colonial country, the obvious contradictions of life in Hawai'i were the hardest to stomach, I think it's fair to say.  The rest of us have somehow learned to live with it, although even for Kamala and I, it was easy to see how recently-conquered this place was.  If you've lived on both the east and the west coast of North America as I have, the differences are observable there, too, with the ranks of the disenfranchised and the sizes of the reservations they have been forced to live on growing in visibility, in number, and in size, the further west you go -- all the way to Hawai'i, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The stark reality of the situation wasn't lost on so many of the people we talked to, but I was surprised by how many of the white people I met who grew up somewhere on these Hawai'ian islands, often because their fathers were in the military.  In other words, they may see how messed up the situation is, but it's what they've mainly known, and either way, they learn to live with it.  Some find ways to actively be in solidarity with the indigenous people of the islands.  Others convince themselves it's OK that the islands were conquered by the US Navy, it was a long time ago, and anyway, they like to repeat, the former king who united the islands of Hawai'i into the nation that it was did so using force.  Two wrongs make a right.

Those supporting the Hawai'ian sovereignty movement to one degree or another often can be seen sporting the old flags of the nation of Hawai'i, which oddly enough contains a bit of the Union Jack in it.  The most noticeable representation of the sovereignty movement and use of this flag to me is when someone has a really big one trailing behind their motorcycle, which is a fairly common sight around Kona.

Before going to Hawai'i I had taken account of the impossibly high prices for hotels and rental cars, and we initially intended on avoiding both of those things, staying on Chet's coffee farm and borrowing his old Prius for the occasional local drive somewhere.  What I had no idea about until we got there was how much more expensive everything else is in Hawai'i, such as essential items like food.  

While things like oranges, coconuts, and avocadoes grow in large quantities all over the area and can often just be picked off of the trees, anything you might buy in a supermarket is two or three times the price that you'd find on the continental US.  Prices had evidently been rising recently.  In every grocery store or supermarket we went into, it was pretty much all anyone was talking about.  The stunned and sometimes despondent conversations could be heard wherever there were two or more people gathered in any aisle.  

For our last 48 hours on the island we decided to splurge and stay in a hotel for two nights in downtown Kona (thanks, mom!).  Unsurprisingly, the local/tourist divide was especially stark there, with a collection of homeless men taking it upon themselves to get into regular collisions with tourists at every opportunity, via bicycle or skateboard, weaving in and out of car and pedestrian traffic, narrowing missing people and vehicles, including me and mine on at least two different occasions.

For our very last 24 hours on the island we rented a car, so we could drive to the other side of the island and visit the big volcano, see some lava in the real world, not just on Minecraft.  It was one of those special car rental deals, though a very expensive one, where you didn't know what kind of car you might end up with.  Our choices turned out to be a little sportscar or a Ford F-150 pickup truck.  Given the options, we went with the most popular vehicle in the United States, the F-150.

The truck was so far off the ground and so hard to drive safely, given that you couldn't see most of what was around you since it was beneath you, I was very glad when we brought it back to the rental car agency and were done with it.  In the meantime, seeing the volcano was indeed impressive, even though the actual lava was quite a distance away. 

It was chilly on top of the mountain there, as I might have anticipated, but didn't.  I hadn't brought a long sleeved shirt of any kind with me.  When the young man at the gift shop told me the hoodies were $50 each, he gave me a look that said yes, I know it's ridiculous.  Not dissuaded, too cold to care, I bought one.  I wonder if most of the hoodie purchases in that gift store involve people who showed up with nothing but a t-shirt on, got out of their cars, and realized they were on the top of a mountain?

While we were on the farm in Hawai'i there were two horrible massacres in California, and I got word from various old friends that another old friend, Robert Hoyt, was dying of cancer in Indiana.  Robert died the day we got back, on February 1st, and I spent my free time back at home writing about him.  Then an earthquake destroyed much of Turkey and Syria, while Biden flipped out over a Chinese weather balloon, a train full of toxic chemicals derailed and leaked its toxins all over the watershed on the impoverished, post-industrial Ohio-Pennsylvania border area near Youngstown, the US and Germany agreed to send state-of-the-art tanks to Ukraine, and Microsoft released an initial iteration of its AI chatbot, which will soon be leading to mass unemployment and new vistas for the possibilities of disinformation.  And in very local news, Chet sent various mixes of songs for me to listen to from Hawai'i as our album project progressed, and my kids were happy to see me back at home.  Unusually for me, I had a social engagement in Portland, having been given a free ticket to an annual shindig called Winterfolk on Alberta Street.  Billy was playing with Jim Page, and predictably enough, they were great, and everybody was telling Jim how much they were enjoying his new album, which I still need to check out.  The main musical revelation for me that evening, though, was hearing Kate Powers sing.  What a voice.  

After those six short days reunited with my family, it was time for the travels to continue, in the form of nine days on the road south of Portland, mostly up and down the state of California.

The tour that was otherwise all gigs in California began in Eugene, Oregon, with a house concert for the dedicated few who wanted to come hear a second concert from me in the course of two months, as I was just there in December.  It was filmed very nicely, however!

We stopped for a walk at Lithia Park in downtown Ashland, an easy place to get to from the highway.  As with the last time I walked around in that park, a couple months ago, there was a group of a couple dozen kids and several adults all wrapped up appropriately for the cold weather, playing by the creek.  I didn't want to bother the adults and ask them questions while they're paying attention to the kids, but I'm pretty sure this is an outdoor school we were witnessing.  Kamala and I readily agreed that we wished we had gone to a school like that.

Driving past the snowcapped peak of Mt Shasta and eventually into the Chico area, we passed signs for Paradise, the town largely burned down a few years ago with woefully insufficient warning to boot, leading to scores killed in their homes or cars.  In the Chico area, many of the folks still living in their vehicles today are from Paradise, people tell me at the community radio station.  The station, KZFR, is a thriving local institution that takes up most of the third floor of a sizeable building in the center of town, which is where that night's concert took place.

In Chico, over breakfast, I learned about how a local peace group had declined and then fallen apart under the strain of the familiar tropes we hear in the current era, about how the old and white should step aside and make room for whoever it is that's going to take their place running the local peace group, which of course is generally no one, after the dust settles.  Such a strikingly familiar story.

In Chico I also learned that someone I first met almost two decades ago, fellow PM Press author and my one-time album promoter, Jen Angel, had been robbed in Oakland, and in the course of pursuing the robber, had somehow gotten caught in the door of his car and dragged fifty feet down the road.  The next day I learned that her brain had swelled in the hospital, and she had been pronounced dead.

Everywhere we went in California, the stress of the class divide, and the stress of either living in cars and tents or just being in a city where so many people are forced to live that way, was palpable.  It was always just hanging in the air.  I counted five times that I got yelled at while driving my nondescript little rental car.  Each time, I struggled to come up with anything I might have done that could have provoked such a reaction.  None of the times did I understand what the person was yelling about, who was driving another car, looking at my face and shouting.  The last time this happened, just south of San Francisco, the red-faced white man behind the wheel stopped and started his car in a way designed to make me stop behind him, so he could get out of his vehicle and do what, I didn't want to find out, so I turned into a parking lot to avoid him.

In Santa Rosa the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center was fairly well packed.  A woman from Mendocino talked about the fight there, now going on for years, so far successful, to save a forest around there.  They want to give it back to the tribe from whom it was taken, who are apparently in the lead on this initiative.

The center seemed to be a hotbed of activity around there, emerging from the pandemic, so it was sad to hear that it apparently needs a new roof, and no one has the money for that, so it's facing some kind of existential risk of closing.

The Mission District in San Francisco was in the most desperate state I had ever seen, reminiscent of the way downtown Portland, or downtown Oakland is these days as well.  Like a big ball of stress, mixed with the strong scent of urine, along with expensive restaurants and people lying on the sidewalks and decaying in public view.

Desolation aside, when we parked and looked up, we were met with a lovely vision of Francisco Herrera, the musician and recently also political candidate who would be singing with us that evening.  The Redstone Building, where that night's show in the Mission District of San Francisco was taking place, is being sold, and the new landlord plans to rent most of it out at market rate.  The future of all the left groups that populate much of the building is unknown, such as the Living Wage Coalition that hosted the concert.

A few blocks from where we played that night is 23rd and Shotwell, where my dear friend and housemate was shot to death on May 1st, 1993, almost thirty years ago now.  Kamala and I visited the site where he was killed.  There still appears to be blood or other bodily fluids staining the wall that received much of the blast from the shotgun that blew Eric's head off that night, but there is otherwise no indication at all that a man was murdered here.  

A couple blocks away there's a yard with some great artwork in it, related to the subject of gun violence.  Do they know someone was killed on the street two blocks from them one night in 1993?  Probably not.  Probably someone they know was shot nearby on another night.  If there were a plaque on the sidewalk or on a nearby building to mark each killing that took place in cities across the US, that would be really something to see, it would be powerful, they would be everywhere, even more so than the ghost bikes.

A couple friends were at the show all the way from Boston, but many members of the small crowd that came to the show in San Francisco were local friends of Jen Angel's, and the mood was fairly somber.  Of course, there's a high death toll in most of my songs, too, so somber works much better than many other possibilities, like a beautiful night beneath the stars by the seashore in Mendocino, for example.

Over dinner after the show it was a nice gathering.  Turned out Karen Pickett of Earth First! is very involved with saving that forest up in Mendocino, too, that the woman in Santa Rosa had talked about -- Jackson Demonstration State Forest, as it's awkwardly known.  Most notably over dinner I heard from a local organizer about what had become of the antiwar demonstration coming up in DC and San Francisco on February 19th, and all the various groups who had tragically pulled out of the thing because of political differences of the sort that sounded all too familiar in the 2020's.

Before we left San Francisco to head to southern California we had the pleasure of joining David Giesen on part of one of his walking tours of the city.  We met him and a small group of travelers from a youth hostel, and followed him around the Tenderloin area.  David made reference to nearby buildings where a couple of members of the Black Panther Party lived in the mid-Sixties, or where the Diggers ran one of their programs, and painted a picture of San Francisco in the Sixties that was educational as well as entertaining.

After the guided tour, we joined the monthly musical rally that Steve Zeltser and others have been putting on in front of Twitter Headquarters on Market Street, just a couple blocks from the BART station where I used to busk over three decades ago.  A fabulous band called Angry Tired Teachers have worked out kick-ass versions of classic rock hits with the lyrics adapted to be all about billionaire industrialist and new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk. 

The cancellation campaigners of the modern left had not left Topanga unscathed, as I soon learned.  I hadn't been to this adorable hippie canyon largely surrounded by Los Angeles since the pandemic hit.  At the heart of Topanga are the descendants of a group of blacklisted actors, Will Geer and friends, who built the beautiful, big Shakespearean theater that has long been run by Will's daughter, the actor, Ellen Geer, who, along with her husband, singer/songwriter Peter Alsop, were hosting us. 

Ellen was involved with putting on a play that featured an entirely Black cast and Black director, but because she herself was still involved with the production and she isn't Black, a group of disgruntled actors actually and apparently unironically calling itself the Blacklist began an email campaign to get Ellen to remove herself from any involvement in putting on this play at her theater.  Stunning behavior, and so divisive, like what often passes for "activism" these days, treating someone like Ellen Geer like she represents the Hollywood establishment or something.

After a long and beautiful drive back to the north, we arrived in Santa Cruz and parked in the parking lot of the Resource Center for Nonviolence, where that evening's show would be happening, sponsored by the local Veterans for Peace chapter.  Unlike some of the other centers of local activity I've mentioned, the Resource Center in Santa Cruz is bigger than it used to be -- growing rather than shrinking.  

We walked past the Starbucks that has no bathrooms, even for customers, and no seats, since they adapted it to the reality that any semi-public space with seats and tables might be taken over by folks with nowhere to live, so, get rid of them, along with the bathrooms.

Walking down the main street with all the cafes and clothing stores and such in the rebuilt center of the city, I heard my name, and looked over to see Keith McHenry hanging out with a few other folks.  The founder of Food Not Bombs is once again under attack by local authorities, who are trying bizarrely to charge him with felonies for spending tens of thousands of dollars of his own money to put hundreds of homeless people up in hotels at the beginning of the pandemic.  In December, during my last visit to Santa Cruz, Food Not Bombs was celebrating their 1,000th day feeding free hot meals to people during the pandemic, the only people in town doing that.  Now they're facing felony charges in appreciation for their herculean efforts.  The "progressive" and impossibly gentrified city of Santa Cruz, right there in a nutshell.

Just before we started our show in Santa Cruz I heard from Niels in London, the Danish videographer who spends most of his time documenting the efforts of Stella Assange and others to call for Julian Assange to be freed from prison in London, where he awaits extradition to the US for exposing US war crimes.  Niels had finished the little music video we were working on together last summer, "When Julian Met Stella," and was preparing to release it online in time for Valentine's Day, the following morning.


As soon as the video was up on Twitter it started getting lots of retweets and views, and it also attracted an immediate and protracted attack on Stella's character by a group of trolls -- be they freelance wingnuts, agents, or bots -- accusing her of somehow or other preventing her husband from speaking to the public from his prison cell, an attack campaign reminiscent of those who go after survivors of massacres to inform them that they are actually "crisis actors" making stuff up.

After a beautiful morning walk in a redwood forest with friends, I dropped Kamala off at the airport for her to begin her journey back to Australia, and I headed further north, to the enchantingly beautiful historic village of Mendocino. 

Mendocino is where all the rich people hang out, along with those who moved up there and bought houses decades ago, when the houses were mostly shacks, and very affordable ones.  The town is an interesting mix of these elements, plus the next generation of them.  I remember other nearby villages as being smaller and funkier, but the only one I had a chance to visit around there this time was the one I was doing a little concert in, facing the crashing waves of the Pacific, on the second floor of a two-story town, so you can really see them.

The food at Flow Restaurant and Lounge was amazing, even more so for me because it was free.  The show was kind of what you might expect of a benefit for the local arts center at a restaurant where people easily spend $50 on dinner, without the wine.  There were loyal fans, such as the former mayor of Ukiah and his wife, a couple of folks who drove in from Chico, a couple of other folks related by marriage to David Solnit.  And then there were the well-to-do supporters of the arts who might have been wondering what they were doing in a room with a guy who was singing excitedly about the time when "Iceland told the bankers to fuck off."  There might have been a banker in the room, quite possibly.

The drive home to Portland the next day was a ten-hour affair, without traffic or making any stops, so really it was twelve hours.  I spent most of it listening to the audiobook rendition of George Lakey's book, Viking Economics.  It's really a great introduction to what everybody needs to know about the history of Scandinavia and how the Scandinavian economic model functions.  After seeing the gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots all over Hawai'i and California, and feeling the misery in the air that this causes for, it seems, most people, I couldn't have been listening to a more relevant audiobook than that one.

Onward through the fog.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Remembering Robert Hoyt

My old friend Robert Hoyt -- singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, organizer, nurse, father, lover of the wild -- died on the morning of February 1st, 2023, at the age of 68, only weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  He hadn't wanted to make his illness public, and only a very few of his friends and relatives were aware of it.  I've been getting beautiful personal messages from many people I haven't seen much or at all since the 1990's with updates. 

Just to say from the outset, I will not be writing the definitive remembrance of Robert, and I'm not sure if anyone else could do that if they wanted to try to, either.  It may be a stretch to say that Robert led many lives, but he certainly embraced a number of different identities over his lifetime, certainly on a musical level at least.  I suspect any thorough effort to pay homage to the man would have to involve at least four or five different people, who knew him during different stages of his life.

The Robert I knew best was probably the one known by the widest array of people, throughout the 1990's, when he was a traveling troubadour who identified strongly under the banner of Earth First!.

Robert was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, along with two brothers (if he had other siblings I hope they will forgive me, I'm going on memory here).  I was introduced to Robert by another singer/songwriter from the state of Georgia, Chris Chandler, who whisked me up off the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts one cold winter day to take me to upstate New York, where the People's Music Network was having one of their biannual gatherings.  If memory serves, this would have been January 1991.  

Robert had come to the PMN gathering mainly because Chandler recommended it, and it was a long way to drive from Decatur, the hip neighborhood in the Atlanta metro area where he was living then, and where he maintained a PO Box long after he no longer had a residence there.  

I don't think Robert ever came back to a PMN gathering after that one.  For me, this gathering was the first of many, and the beginning of a long-term friendship with Robert, along with other folks I met there that winter.

Robert had recently recorded an album called As American As You.  Like Dumpster Diving Across America and Mind's Eye, which he put out over the following decade, it was full of hard-hitting and often truly eloquent, driving songs featuring Robert expertly playing guitar, bass, keyboards, and singing brilliant harmonies with himself, mostly on subjects related to environmental activism, and critiquing various aspects of modern industrial high-tech society, in favor of the ecosystems, the trees, the animals, the wild, with a smattering of songs on more acceptable subjects -- but no less heartfelt ones for Robert -- such as loneliness and lost love.

In the early 90's I was moving around a lot, but whether I was living in Massachusetts, Connecticut, San Francisco or Seattle, Robert would be touring there, and coming to visit.  We'd swap songs and talk about what we'd each been up to, which for me meant hearing lots of great stories from Robert's work. Robert's work throughout the 90's mainly involved touring around the US and playing shows on college campuses, sponsored by environmental activist groups on each campus, often affiliated with the Student Environmental Action Coalition, and spending his "free time" during the summers on the front lines of eco-defense, blocking logging roads and supporting tree-sits such as the Cove-Mallard campaign in Idaho, about which he wrote a great song called Jack Road.

At some point in our regular encounters he would mention the idea of me traveling with him, playing bass guitar and singing harmonies.  I was always too busy with whatever I thought was more important than traveling with Robert, until I finally took him up on the idea, which was either in the spring of 1996 or 1997 (maybe someone out there remembers which).

Fans of Robert's album, As American As You, will be aware that Robert's father worked on a military base, claiming to be a fixer of clocks.  As Robert grew up he realized that this was just a story, and to my knowledge he never learned what his father actually did for a living.  

His dad had died sometime before I met Robert, but his mother was very much still around.  Our time together that spring began with a week or so at Robert's mother's home in Macon, being looked after wonderfully by her as we rehearsed the set lists until I got his bass parts and harmonies down cold.  Then we hit the road.  What followed was an absolutely amazing education, on so many fronts.

Traveling on my own or with other young friends was always memorable, but traveling with someone like Robert, who knew people everywhere and sang for them, was a whole new thing.  I had traveled as a bass player with other artists before, but never had I met so many kindred spirits in the space of a few months.  In that spring of traveling together I met people who I'd see again on many occasions, who became long-term friends and comrades, in too many places to list, from Vermont to Tennessee to Indiana to Wisconsin and so many other places.

It was during these long hours of driving day after day, week after week, month after month, when we got into a whole lot of both talking about life on planet Earth as well as recounting stories from our pasts.  A few months may not seem like a long time, but when you're spending several hours each day during that time alone in a car with one other person, it can be intense, in various ways, but with Robert, overwhelmingly in positive ways.

I won't paper over the negative ones though.  The biggest of them being Robert's cat, Claude.

Just before I started writing this missive, I discovered that the documentary from back around then, Travels With Claude, has just been put up on YouTube by the filmmaker, Paul Bonesteel.  I've been watching it again today, for the first time in decades -- it's a wonderful document of history, and tribute to Robert, his music, and his organizing.

For those who haven't seen the movie, Claude was a paraplegic tabby cat.  Paralyzed from the waist down by a tragic accident involving an ex-girlfriend of Robert's and a closing door, Claude came out of it decidedly worse for wear.  Many pet owners would euthanize a cat in such a situation, but Robert nurtured the orange cat and learned from veterinarians how to position Claude and squeeze his bladder the right way, which made his tail flip up into the air and caused him to squirt pee in whatever direction Robert was aiming him.

Helping Claude pee every eight hours or so was necessary for keeping the cat alive and prosperous.  For Robert, this meant that throughout the 1990's, he could never fly anywhere without leaving Claude with a veterinarian capable of looking after him, at great expense.  So although he was in demand for gigs all over the country, he did all his touring by land, in a pickup truck.

Normally Claude's home was the passenger seat of Robert's pickup truck.  Robert went through a couple pickup trucks during the 90's, but he always traveled in and largely lived out of a pickup truck with a cab on the back (just as I soon began to do, for many years).  During the season I toured with him, Claude had to be relegated to sitting in the back, which he could freely access with a ramp Robert had put in there.  Which also meant that Claude could slide out of the back and into the front anytime he wanted to let me know just what he thought of this guy usurping his seat in the pickup.

This was still before either Robert or I had gotten an email account or websites or any of that sort of thing.  We took breaks from driving every day to eat at truck stop buffets, and use the free phones that back then could be found at each booth.  We also spent a lot of time at photocopy places, putting address labels and stamps on untold numbers of postcards we'd mail strategically around the country to promote our gigs to Robert's mailing list.  Amid these sorts of activities, as I was writing letters to my girlfriend back in the northeast, I would involuntarily decorate them regularly with blood stains from my latest wound.  Claude clearly believed the best defense was a good offense, which makes sense for a paraplegic cat, and his front legs were probably as muscular and powerful as a small mountain lion.  He was definitely taking it easy on me, all told.

My memory going back that far is too foggy for me to remember whether I met Anne Feeney through Robert or through Chris Chandler or by some other means, but the late Anne Feeney was a close mutual friend of all of us.  When Robert wasn't around and Anne and I could freely talk about our dear friend behind his back, as you do, Anne's chief complaint was the same as mine, which was the mild scent of cat piss that might generally be emanating from the back of Robert's truck.  Anne thought that Robert needed a girlfriend, and that in order for him to find one, he'd have to lose Claude one way or another.  The very thought would have horrified Robert, so Anne would share her laments about the cat with other people.

Through Robert I became very familiar with the wonderful music of folks like Darryl Cherney, Judi Bari, Danny Dolinger, Dana Lyons, Casey Neill, Peg Millett, and others who made up the cultural backbone of the Earth First! network as it existed then.  All of Robert's concerts were an introduction to these artists, with live renditions of "Who Killed Judi Bari," "Ghost of a Chance," "Turn of the Wrench," and "Dancing On the Ruins" being regularly featured.  Robert's concerts were also always an introduction to whatever was happening with Earth First!-related activities, forest defense campaigns, conferences, and other things that were ongoing or coming up somewhere.  In the 80's and 90's there was a fairly popular concept, in certain circles, of the "road show," or specifically the concept of the Earth First! Road Show, which varied widely, but generally involved at least one speaker and at least one musician, doing popular education about the situation with the forests, and recruiting for ongoing forest defense campaigns.

Anne Feeney was not the only person who thought Robert needed a girlfriend back in the 90's -- Robert tended to agree.  But most of the time, instead of spending much time hanging out with people like gig organizers and their friends offering to put us up in a nice house with beds and hot running water, unless the gig organizers in question lived deep in the countryside and off the grid, Robert's plan was generally to turn down these offers in favor of driving an hour or two to an ostensibly nearby patch of national forest land somewhere, and camp.  Or technically, he'd sleep in the back of his pickup with Claude and I'd camp.  

Robert was fairly profoundly introverted, and seemed more comfortable in the company of one or two old friends than with larger groups of less familiar people.  On many nights after gigs I'd be enjoying myself and my surroundings, while at the same time mildly stewing over having to leave a nice party in some college town so we could go camping in some beautiful, remote location, where we'd play music together and talk around a campfire, him drinking cheap wine that he always had in the back of his truck, and me smoking cannabis that I also always had somewhere accessible.  Good times in the woods aside, abandoning most of the parties wasn't a good dating strategy.

Eventually, fleetingly, I learned of the lives Robert had lived before he became an Earth First! troubadour.  In the 70's he played in different bands, but he never played me any of the music they might have recorded, or told me the names of the bands, or the names of any of the hundreds of songs he apparently wrote before he recorded As American As You.  He referred to the decade prior to the AIDS crisis as the "Sleazy Seventies," because of the amount of gratuitous sex that he thought was going on all over the place, with some concert attendees specializing in developing relationships with different band members, depending on which instrument they played.  He never seemed to miss the 70's, on the rare occasions the subject came up.

In the 80's, by his own recounting, he might have qualified as a yuppie, working a good-paying IT job (as it would be known in today's jargon), and eating a lot of sushi.  Then he quit what he called the high-tech plantation and began to write songs encouraging other people to do the same (such as "Quitting Time" from his 1995 album, Dumpster Diving Across America).

For a few years after our time traveling together, I continued to see Robert often.  We were both touring in largely the same circles, and our paths often intersected.  One memorable evening during this span was September 10th, 2001, when we both sang at a conference related to the global justice movement, organized in part by Allie Rosenblatt, who had recently been a student organizer, and was still an organizer, there in Indiana, where Robert was now based.  The next morning, Robert uncharacteristically woke everyone up to make us listen to the radio, which was reporting that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers.

By this time Robert had found a wonderful woman, an extraordinary organizer named Karyn Moskowitz, who could put up with Robert's cat, and they had a daughter together, named Cicada (now a brilliant young woman of 23).  I guess Cicada would have been about 2 years old at the time of one of the last gigs Robert and I had together that September in Bloomington.  She wandered onto the stage during our show, holding her arms up so her daddy would pick her up, thus completely destroying the depressing atmosphere around the beautiful song Robert was trying to do at the time, about a mass lynching that took place in Ocilla, Georgia, in which hundreds of local residents threw a piece of wood on the fire that was burning a man alive.

The frequency with which I saw Robert, Karyn, and Cicada in the two decades since then decreased drastically as the 21st century progressed.  The last time I saw any of these good folks was six years ago, by my recollection, which was the last time I was in either Indiana or Kentucky, where Robert and Karyn ultimately had separate homes, Robert in the middle of nowhere next to the Hoosier National Forest, Karyn in a town where the humans probably outnumber the squirrels.

Robert got a nursing degree sometime along the way, and worked as a nurse, taking care of people and having a stable income.  I'll bet he had a positive impact on a lot of people's lives, be they patients or coworkers.  I'd love to hear some reflections from folks, but I know nothing about all that.

Six years ago when I and a friend visited and stayed with Robert at a place where he was living outside of Bloomington, closer to where he worked, he gave my friend and I a wonderful private concert in his living room.  He was working on an entirely new act that he was calling Bob Palindrome, for which he had written an entirely new body of material, the vast majority of which were songs about lost love, some of which, depressing as they are, could have been hits in Nashville, if they were being performed by a different artist with connections, and those kinds of ambitions.  He had worked out his new material entirely on a keyboard, the main instrument he played in the 70's, which he played flawlessly, just like he played the guitar, just like he sang melodies or harmonies.  

He was wanting to keep his Bob Palindrome identity separate from his identity as an Earth First! troubadour, but now there's no damage that can be done by spilling the beans (I hope all of Robert's other friends, fans and family agree with me on that judgement call).  He asked me for advice on promoting his new act online -- a subject I know something about, generally, but I know a lot more about promoting Robert Hoyt than Bob Palindrome, and I don't think my suggestions were helpful.

I regret that that visit six years ago was the last time I spoke with Robert.  I don't know how the time slipped away like that over the past twenty years or so, but it did.  

I don't really know if Robert moved on from being a constantly-touring performer mainly because he wanted to spend more time with his partner and kid, or because he thought it would be more responsible and grown-up if he got a real job, or because it had become impossible to tour and perform without being very actively online and engaged with the high-tech plantation in a big way, or because what had for so long been his bread and butter, college gigs that paid well, were all drying up and disappearing, as a common phenomenon.  Or perhaps all of the above.  

Robert talked back, I don't know, twenty years or so ago about how when he stopped trying to get gigs with student environmental groups and such, he also stopped hearing from them.  He seemed disillusioned to discover that if he didn't call them, they weren't calling him.  I'm not even sure to what extent he was aware that a big part of the reason why he wasn't hearing from them might have been because they no longer existed.

One of the folks who let me know that Robert was on his deathbed was Danny Dolinger.  Danny and Robert, and I think all the other musicians I mentioned earlier, have long played regularly at annual events put on by an environmental activist network in the midwest called Heartwood.  It's been a long time since I've been among them, but I was happy to hear from Danny that they're still going on, and that only a few months ago at one of these gatherings, Danny and Robert were singing all of their great songs of community and resistance together around a campfire.

One of the most moving songs Robert wrote, that I especially enjoyed singing with him, was "This Star."  He wrote it for Peg Millett, while she was in prison for Earth Liberation Front-related efforts.  It was the perfect song to connect a beautiful, starry night in the forest with a political prisoner in a concrete box somewhere, who might get to see the night sky every now and then if they're lucky.

And when you see this star think about me
About the times we had and times yet to be
Look for the star and know when you do
That I'll be watching this star and thinking of you

Whether it was intentional on Robert's part or not, the only Robert Hoyt album that you can find on some streaming platforms (like YouTube) is Mind's Eye, a fantastic album.  Whether As American As You and Dumpster Diving Across America aren't there because he never got around to uploading them or because these albums no longer met his standards, I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised by either possibility.  Either way, Robert was not a fan of technology or the internet, and engaged with things like websites, music streaming, or social media platforms on a sporadic and very limited basis, which I'm fairly sure is the main reason you'll find so little about him online.

You won't find Robert Hoyt on Spotify, but you will find Bob Palindrome.  The guy in the hat there, that's Robert, a man who made a big difference in the world for a lot of people, very much including me.  One of the best things I ever did in life was to be Robert's bass player, no doubt about it.

Long live planet Earth, and long live Robert Hoyt.  I'll see you at the campfire, beneath the stars, guitar in hand.

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