Troubadour David Rovics Explores the Left Coast, and Life
Guest Writer David Rovics is a keen observer of the political struggle. Here he describes his performance trip around the central Left Coast and the state of the left, both good and bad.-Editor
By David Rovics
It was a busy and thought-provoking week touring parts of Oregon and northern California, with the "accountability-seeking" cancellation campaigners failing to cancel any of the gigs.
I got home December 15 from a week-long tour that took me from Portland to as far south as Santa Cruz, and back up again. I almost made it to California in the fall of 2021, but Covid-related travel insanity at the time meant a canceled flight that couldn't be rescheduled in time to get to the gigs I had planned there. This time I did the tour in a rental car, no flights involved. And thankfully, rental car rates have gone back down from the crazy prices they were at just a few months ago, as has the price of gasoline.
So this was the first time since the pandemic hit that I have been anywhere south of the Portland area, here on the west coast, and definitely the first time since the pandemic hit that I've had five gigs in a row, or enough to possibly warrant being called a "tour," or at least a mini-tour...
As my regular readers and listeners are probably too aware, since around 2013 I've done very little touring in my own country, the USA, due to a lot of different factors, mostly related to economics -- a chronic lack of support for the arts here combined with vanishing venues, Spotify starting their free tier, skyrocketing costs for everything with precipitously falling earnings per gig, and the collapse of most of the various social movements or political tendencies I used to play for all the time, here in the US. I still tour in Europe a lot, and I'll be doing more of that soon, and writing about it, surely. But at this point, doing gigs in my own country has become a particularly special thing that happens only rarely, so when it does happen, perhaps it provokes even more rumination than touring in places I visit more often might do.
There are certainly good friends in Europe that I don't manage to see every time I'm there, but for the past week, every day has involved seeing old friends who I hadn't seen in physical form, or in some cases in any form, for many years. Every day has also involved seeing places I hadn't seen in years, which were once very familiar.
On Wednesday, December 7th, I walked downtown, picked up the rental car, took it back to my apartment, filled it with various items, and headed south on i-5. The flood of memories began at that point, and didn't stop until I got back to Portland.
I learned a long time ago that the time when you're most likely to have a recollection of some kind is when you're doing something that you've done a lot before. Driving down the i-5 corridor in either direction is something I've done so many times, it would be impossible to count at this point. The first time I took such a road trip, minus the gigs along the way, was around thirty years ago.
Stop number one was Eugene, to do a house concert at Todd Boyle's place. Hardcore Rovics fans may be familiar with Todd's name, because when he lived in Seattle he made high-quality live video recordings of some of my gigs up there, and put them on his YouTube channel, where they've gotten a lot of views.
President Bush the First nicknamed Portland, Oregon, "Little Beirut" because of how he was treated by the local population when he came to visit in the early 1990's. But by my own personal recollection, Eugene had an even more militant crowd. Exact numbers will never be available, but it's probably fair to say that at least half of the couple hundred folks that made up the Black Bloc element that smashed windows in Seattle during the WTO protests in 1999 were from Eugene. As people may or may not recall, the WTO protests involved around 60,000 people blocking intersections and getting teargassed and arrested for doing so, and around 200 people smashing the windows of corporate outlets in Nike Town, who got the lion's share of the press attention.
It was depressing but not particularly surprising that the only gig organizer on the tour to receive phone calls from people calling me a Nazi was Todd in Eugene, getting calls from people with local 541 area codes. Todd was not dissuaded, since he knows I'm actually against fascism, not for it, as he told the folks who called, who he invited to the house concert to find out for themselves.
I met up for an early dinner with a couple of friends who recently moved to Eugene. Among the various interesting things I learned over dinner was the fact that they had invited other local folks to come to the house concert, who informed them that the guy they were talking about (me) was a Nazi. In the end, no one showed up who seemed to think I was a Nazi, but who knows how many people might have been there, if not for these bizarre allegations floating around certain corners of society.
Seeing the 20 or so folks who packed into Todd's little place provoked lots more memories. There were people there I hadn't seen in I guess 17 years, if memory (and a search engine query I just did) serves. Some moments are especially etched in the timeline. Bill Rodgers, aka Avalon, was found dead in his jail cell on December 21st, 2005. The last time I saw some of the folks there in Eugene was in Prescott, Arizona, at the infoshop where they and Bill organized the last gig I recall doing there, a few months before Bill died, fist in the air, plastic bag over his head, facing decades in prison for Earth Liberation Front activities.
Other than the presence of some unknown number of anarcho-puritan cultists who think I'm a Nazi, Eugene reminded me very much of Eugene, which can't be said for many towns these days. By my brief observation, it's still a sleepy college town full of hippies old and young, and of course lots of students. As Todd observed, there are no major corporations that have their hub in Eugene, so the avenues for making lots of money are more limited there. The more ambitious types that way go to other places, and leave Eugene for the hippies. Of course, as with every other second-tier real estate market, prices are rising there, too, but it's not nearly as crazy as it is in, say, Portland, at this point.
Europe has experienced hotter-than-ever temperatures in recent years, but most people in northern Europe, where I play a lot, have never experienced the kind of heat we had on the west coast in the summer of 2021. One thing I found universally to be the case at all these west coast gigs was I didn't need to explain what a Heat Dome is, or what 116 degrees Fahrenheit feels like in a building without shade or air conditioning, or what that means in Celsius (47). Everyone knew, viscerally.
Another universal thing was as far as I know, no one had been particularly familiar with what's been going on for the past 2-1/2 years in England and Scotland, with sledgehammer-wielding activists smashing up Israeli arms producer, Elbit Systems' factories constantly, and consistently having juries find them innocent of any wrongdoing, including as recently as earlier this month. This remarkable story is as unknown to the US left as it is in Scandinavia or the UK, the last parts of the world I was touring in, and spreading the good news.
My first gig in California, the day after a very long and occasionally snowy drive from Eugene, was in Santa Cruz. Keith McHenry, the founder of Food Not Bombs, organized a little benefit concert on the occasion of the thousandth day of hot meals being served in Santa Cruz outdoors, throughout the pandemic.
While in most of the country the old peace and justice centers, infoshops, and leftwing book stores are closing rapidly, and have been doing so for many years, in Santa Cruz, the Resource Center for Nonviolence moved into a much bigger building. If I had known, I might have tried harder to promote that gig, because the old Resource Center couldn't fit more than twenty people in it, as I recall. The new one has an auditorium that seats 200.
Throughout the downtown area there is clear evidence of the impossibly high cost of housing and lack of sufficient services in the city, which of course is not unique to Santa Cruz. Walking down the main drag or other nearby streets, in every direction you can see the damaged, limping or wheelchair-bound, often drug-addicted people dying on the sidewalks, along with huge numbers of vehicles that are clearly permanent homes to people long ago priced out of more conventional dwellings, like houses or apartments. In other words, it looked a lot like Portland.
As with Portland, the face of the city of Santa Cruz has been radically transformed for the worse over the years. In Portland this is a very recent phenomenon, like mostly since I moved here in 2007. In Santa Cruz, it goes way back, to the 1989 earthquake that levelled the downtown core of the city. I lived in Berkeley in 1987, and also visited Santa Cruz back then. It would be hard to overstate the contrast between the sleepy little hippie college town it was back then, to what it is today, with the downtown looking like an outdoor shopping mall.
Among the many familiar faces at the Resource Center was a guy who goes way back in antiwar movement circles, who has in recent years been vocally opposed to what he sees as prematurely-approved vaccines and authoritarian government overreach in many areas related to pandemic policies. He was wearing a t-shirt that clearly outlined his positions around these things. I was sad but not surprised to hear that random people in town sometimes tell him to his face that he's a Nazi -- that's the word they use -- for having these beliefs. But Dudley is definitely not a Nazi.
According to David Solnit, the heavily-bearded, sparkly-eyed Keith McHenry has the classic look of the leader of a peasant uprising, and I completely agree. The best part of my visit to Santa Cruz was the hours unintentionally spent with Keith and another friend in the parking lot after we ostensibly left the Resource Center, being regaled with stories by Mr. McHenry.
There are very, very few people who have had lives as interesting and wild as Keith's has been. As many times as I've seen him and heard about what he's been up to, there are always stories I had never heard, and he rarely repeats himself. Two of the themes that tend to stand out to me is how thoroughly, obviously targeted by the authorities in San Francisco, Taos, Orlando, and other cities that he has been, and how much he has been targeted by freelance wingnuts as well, constantly trying to slander his name and accuse him of all sorts of things. I have every reason to believe that all of the allegations against him are patently false, but when I mention Keith's name in my travels, it's never long before someone says they heard Keith was guilty of this or that transgression somewhere down the line. The rumor mill worked well, even before Twitter came online.
The first city I ever lived in, other than New York City when I was very small, and the post-industrial city of Richmond, Indiana, where I went to college for a year or so, was Berkeley, California. This is where I stayed each night during my visit to northern California. Really, in Kensington, which is where you end up if you go from Berkeley to the Berkeley hills, and keep on going. When you get to the end of the line, where there are no more houses or other buildings, you see what looks like a beautiful park, but which is actually the vast lands surrounding the Lawrence Livermore labs, where, as I sat in my friends' guest room overlooking the ridge where Lawrence Livermore's property begins, I heard on the news about the first successful experiment getting energy from nuclear fusion, which happened while I was there.
Also while sitting in that Kensington guest room I was alerted to a story in the news about one Cameron Whitten being suspended from his position on the board of a Portland-based foundation he started, because of as-yet-unknown allegations of unacceptable behavior on his part from various coworkers. This story is of particular interest to me because this young man has done immense damage to the careers of some of the best organizers in the city of Portland, most notably Margot Black, founder of Portland Tenants United. Perhaps now all those who unquestioningly believed Cameron's completely vague assertions from an article he wrote five years ago will think twice before they do that again, next time someone makes vague assertions about someone else. I can only hope.
The protest planned for last Saturday at Twitter HQ got rained out and postponed til the next week -- it wasn't a little drizzle, either, but a major rainstorm, during the time the protest was to have happened. So, the event I organized this little tour around wasn't happening, but that's how the cookie crumbles. The rain stopped by mid-afternoon, but I walked around Berkeley in the rain anyway -- I brought a big umbrella with me from Portland. Much of the walking I did over the weekend, up til Sunday evening's gig in Berkeley, was with old friends who live there in the East Bay.
Most of my friends around there are a bit older than me. I turned 13 in 1980, but they were adults by then. I don't want to exaggerate how many other people on the more anarchist end of the left there are who look at everything the way I do, but I'm far from the only one who seems to think we took a seriously wrong turn a very long time ago, with the embrace of tactics as far back as the 1930's like dealing with a rising rightwing movement through means of widespread street fighting and campaigns to get events canceled (anti-platforming efforts, which also date back at least as far as the 1930's). As understandable as such campaigns are for any antifascist on an emotional level, these tactics have been consistently disastrous. They have only emboldened the right, and perhaps helped in no small part lead to Hitler's ascension to power in Germany in 1933.
But if you question these tactics today in certain circles, you'll be dismissed as a Nazi. No, I'm not exaggerating. It is, as one friend in Berkeley put it, a closed feedback loop.
If every time someone in your network of friends and activists who suggests we're going about things the wrong way is going to be dismissed and ostracized as a Nazi, and then kicked out of the scene, canceled, leaving the group with the remaining members who think that street-fighting, dumpster-burning, and event-canceling is the way to go about making social change, then it's inevitable that this group will become more and more insular and cultish. Folks in the Bay Area who are familiar with the scene in the Pacific Northwest tend to think the element of the anarchist scene that has totally lost the plot is very heavily concentrated in these parts, and I wholeheartedly agree. We need to win arguments and organize proactively, not spend our time attacking the bad people and making them more popular.
While it's not hard to find bizarre sectarian behavior and identity politics in the Bay Area, every time I go back there, the presence of multiple generations of leftwing society actively engaged in the scene is very evident. In Portland, it seems that half the people I meet just moved here a few months ago. In the Bay Area, by contrast, there are many left cultural institutions still there since they were formed during the 1960's renaissance, or during the punk wave in the 1980's. Other local cultural institutions in the East Bay, such as the one I played in last Sunday, opened much more recently. Many of them are in a particular neighborhood near the Berkeley-Oakland border, where there used to be many more such institutions, in an area where there is now a conspicuously large four-lane road.
Lest anyone get the impression that paving over leftwing institutions is not also a Berkeley tradition, the battle over People's Park continues. An iconic struggle dating back to the year I was born, things are not looking at all good for our side. The university appears to be on the cusp of finally driving out the multiple generations of activists who have kept the park a park over all these decades. The trees have been cut down and are currently lying on the ground, along with a bulldozer, which is currently surrounded by folks in tents trying to stop "progress" one more time. Eric Drooker is the most recent brilliant artist to make a poster for the resistance to the bulldozing of the park.
Amid the neighborhood with places like the La Peña Cultural Center and the Arthouse Gallery and Cultural Center is the Long Haul Infoshop, where the Slingshot Collective was having a meeting when I dropped in (I have a piece in the current issue, incidentally). Across the street from there is the Irish Republican pub and music venue, the Starry Plough, where another old friend, Ed Biow, had arranged for us to have dinner with several members of the family of Pedie Perez, a young man who was shot to death by the police in Richmond, California, in 2014.
After another marathon drive from Berkeley up to Oregon, via a wonderful visit with more old friends, Pat and Sandy of the duo, Emma's Revolution, after lots of conversation, singing together, eating some delicious home-made toffee, and salivating over Pat's baritone guitar (I want one), I had a little concert in Ashland, Oregon, where I saw another old friend who was having the very disturbing experience of being called a Nazi for being critical of Covid-related policies.
The folks organizing the show in Ashland were involved with the local community radio station, among them Jason Houk, whose home was destroyed by fire when so many others in southern Oregon were, in latter 2020. Throughout the region there is a palpable tension around the approach of the next fire season.
On the way to the final gig of the tour, in the town that might be the hippie capital of Oregon, Takilma, I stopped for several hours in Grants Pass, for another good visit with an old friend, Michael Franklin.
I first met Michael around twenty years ago, when I was still very actively touring all over the US by car. He and his partner, Angela, lived in Missouri, and organized lots of house concerts there, among other things. Sometime after I moved to Portland, they did, too, and we saw more of each other for some time. We largely fell out of contact around a decade ago, when they moved to southern Oregon.
If I toured in the US the way I used to, I would surely have been seeing more of Michael and Angela, and all the other folks I saw on these travels, but if you're not doing gigs there, southern Oregon is very far away from Portland.
I figured they had been priced out of Portland, like me and my family probably should have been long ago, but it was only on this visit in Grants Pass that I learned about how they had essentially been hounded out of Portland by detestable anarcho-puritans campaigning against them, affiliated with the now-defunct Red & Black Cafe.
The last time Michael and Angela and their 10-piece gypsy punk band did a rabble-rousing driving tour around the US, around a decade ago, more than half of their gigs were canceled at the last minute by local punks who believed the nonsense rumors being pumped out on Facebook from these "anarchists" in Portland who were accusing Michael of being a "violent transphobe," which was and is patent nonsense, on both counts.
In our discussions of this whole phenomenon that we both have way too much experience with, I talked about how in the anarcho-puritan scene (as I call what some refer to as "the Nexus," among other terms) there is a widespread tendency to believe the victim, or anyone who claims to be a victim, always, unquestioningly. To do otherwise, according to the anarcho-puritan ethic, is to be a Nazi of some kind.
Always believe anyone who claims to be a victim.
"How did that work out for Emmett Till?" Michael wondered, rhetorically.
A very, very good question.
I drove the several hours from Takilma to Portland, listening to a fascinating podcast series about North Korean hackers. I returned the rental car, and walked past the unhoused people dying on the streets in the near-freezing temperatures, got a burrito, and discovered as I walked over the Morrison bridge that there's a local tagger who has my initials.
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