The Moral Case For Not Voting

The Moral Case For Not Voting

Twice in my adult life I chose not to vote in a general election, and on a third occasion, I almost didn’t vote, only doing so with great reluctance at the last minute.

Each time my reason for not voting (or, in the latter case, almost not voting), was the same: I had become convinced that both candidates were bad, or that there was not sufficient difference between them to make it worth my while to take a side.

And each time I was completely, terribly wrong.  In 1968 I refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey; the winner, Richard Nixon, presided over a pointless extension of the Vietnam War that cost 28,000 American lives and probably hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives.  He also mired the White House in such a cesspool of corruption and chicanery that the reputation of America’s system of government has still not fully recovered.

The next time I chose not to vote was when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter.  As a longtime California resident, I knew all the havoc that Reagan had wreaked on that state, knew how his sunny smile masked a callous indifference to human rights and liberties and a dogged determination to dismantle the New Deal, that bit of social engineering cobbled together as a response to the Great Depression that transformed and bettered the lives of millions of Americans.

But I just didn’t like Jimmy Carter, and in my stubbornness and youthful certitude, refused to consider that Reagan might be (as he proved to be) infinitely worse.

In the year 2000, I felt similarly about Al Gore, only dragging myself to the polls at the last minute, with extreme reluctance, because even in my muddle-headed state at the time, I had an inkling that George Bush might spell serious trouble.

We know how that turned out.  Bush became the worst president of the modern era, possibly the worst ever.  It was only because the government he inherited was in relatively good shape, the budget balanced, the economy thriving, that the damage he inflicted was not even worse.

But Bush’s wildly incompetent mismanagement and malfeasance—on a scale, I think history buffs would agree—comparable to that of the latter-day Roman emperors—took our country close to the brink of collapse.  And because of the globally interconnected age we live in, it would have taken a large part of the world with it.

We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.  In fact, even after the gradual stabilization that has taken place during the past four years, I still wouldn’t rate our chances of avoiding an economic and societal meltdown at much better than 50-50.  Bush’s bankrupting the national treasury to pay for giant tax cuts for millionaires and two insanely expensive and pointless wars was, again, on a par with the follies the sealed the fate of ancient Rome.

And that is precisely why this year’s election is so vital.  In a normal year, in a year when our finances and our social structure were on a sound footing, we could afford four or maybe even eight years of a cynical, mercenary buffoon like Mitt Romney.  We’ve had presidents like him before—Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover come to mind—and survived.

But our position is far more precarious now, very likely as precarious as it’s ever been.  Romney’s plan to apply the Bain Capital model to government—ruthless downsizing and outsourcing, looting the national pension system (aka Social Security and Medicare), and skimming off huge profits for a handful of the best-connected—would be stupid and brutal at any time, but in an economy as fragile as ours, it would be fatal.

I can’t say that strongly enough: if Mitt Romney gets his hands on our government, I think it’s unlikely that our system as we’ve known it will survive.  It’s not just political rhetoric to point out that his so-called economic plan is a poisonous fantasy; any rational economist will acknowledge that it is mathematically impossible to accomplish his goals without massively impoverishing the working and middle classes and/or massively expanding an already almost unmanageable debt.

What does this mean for the average American?  Very possibly a total wipe-out.  It’s not just a matter of losing your health insurance—Romney has already promised millions of you will do that—or getting stuck with lower pay and poorer working conditions.

I’m talking about total collapse, where your money—unless, of course, you were smart enough to stash a few hundred million in offshore accounts—could become literally worthless, where a government stripped of its resources and income by the avarice of Romney and their ilk will no longer be able to provide you with the most fundamental of services.

Yes, I know that sound dramatic and alarmist, and I hope and pray that I’m wrong.  But I’ve been following and studying politics and economics and history on at least an avocational level for some 50 years now.  I’m no professor, no certified expert, but I can hold my own on these subjects, and everything I’ve learned leads me to believe that yes, the situation is indeed that dire.

I’m voting for Barack Obama.  In fact, I already have, and I urge every single American who cares at all about the future of this country and this planet to do the same.  You don’t have to agree with everything he says or does—I certainly don’t—and you don’t even have to like the guy.  But it’s the least you can do, the bare minimum, to help save our country from falling into the hands of people who, whether from greed, megalomania, or sheer, bloody ignorance, might very well destroy it.

Now there are those of you—some of you are even my good friends—who will cling to nostrums like “A pox on both their houses” or “No matter who you vote for, the government wins.”  I say to you, in the strongest possible terms, please consider that it may be time, at least for now, to put aside that kind of thinking.

In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay condemning British pacifists who refused to participate in the war effort to defend Britain against a Nazi invasion.  He said, in no uncertain words, that under the conditions existing at that time, pacifism was “objectively pro-Fascist.”  You could not remain aloof from the struggle, he argued, as long as there was no realistic option to either a British or a Nazi triumph.

Similarly you can not remain aloof from the present struggle to prevent the devastation that Mitt Romney and his backers would unleash on this country.  You can trumpet your third parties or your principled abstinence from electoral politics as some sort of moral stance, but in fact—and this is, as Orwell put it, “elementary common sense”—you are voting for Mitt Romney just as effectively as any Tea Party fanatic or theocracy-fancying fundamentalist.

You can’t wriggle out of this one.  The Greens aren’t going to win this election.  Nor are the Libertarians, nor a coalition of anarcho-syndicalist communes.  Beginning November 7, this country will either be in the hands of fanatics, criminals and crazy people, or it will remain in the hands of those who have demonstrated at least some degree of sanity and some degree of responsibility to the people who elected them.

So what is the moral case for not voting?  This year, there is none.  Not just for yourselves, but for your children, for the future of this flawed but still inspiring experiment in democracy, please, I beg of you, drag yourself to the polls.  Regardless of whether you do so with a song in your heart or with one hand firmly holding your nose, it’s the least you can do.  I believe—as passionately as I’ve ever believed anything—that this is one time when failing to act is a luxury none of us can afford.

Waving, Not Drowning

Waving, Not Drowning

When I first started considering moving to the East Coast of America, the weather was  certainly something I considered.  I was mainly concerned whether, after 40 years spent in California and England, I was ready to face the rigors of a full-on Northern Hemisphere winter.  I could still remember that wretched February day in February 1967, when I struggled across the Diag in Ann Arbor into the teeth of an Arctic gale, cursing every step of the way.

In the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone With The Wind, I declared then and there, with as firm a resolve as I’d ever applied to anything in my then relatively young life, that I would never, ever be that cold again.  And with a few notable exceptions, like getting stranded in blizzards atop Spy Rock, I pretty much lived up to that ambition.

But times change, and so did I.  Besides, New York City, surrounded by the moderating influence of the sea, doesn’t get as cold as Detroit, and the worst part of its winters is maybe a month shorter.  Now that I’ve spent six years there, I have to admit it’s really not bad.  I’ve even come to appreciate all four of the seasons in a way I never imagined possible.

One factor I didn’t give a lot of thought to, though, was hurricanes.  I was familiar enough with history and climatology to know that they occasionally strike New York, but given that the last major one was in 1938, I didn’t feel I had to spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for the next one.

There’s a part of me, a very childish part, obviously, that revels in disaster, that secretly hopes the tornado or the hurricane or the blizzard will come our way, just for the excitement.  It’s shameful to admit, especially when you consider that this “excitement” often comes at the cost of lives lost or drastically upended, and I guess what I really hope for is that I’ll get to experience the drama without any damage to myself or others.

And, I’ve found, when the weather map shows that disaster is actually headed my way, I quickly change my tune, as I did last year when it briefly looked like Hurricane Irene might make a direct hit on Brooklyn.  I barricaded myself in my house, filled the requisite bottles, pans and bathtub with fresh water, and put in a stock of candles and canned food.

When I woke the following morning with the power still on, my house still intact, and little harm done to my block apart from a potted palm blown over across the street, I was greatly relieved, but also slightly disappointed.  I mean, it could have been a little worse without really hurting anyone, couldn’t it?

Maybe I’m finally growing up a little, because this year I didn’t for a minute hope that Hurricane Sandy would come our way.  In fact, I actively cheered for it to turn out to sea as northbound hurricanes normally do.  Irene had provided enough of a scare, and a graphic illustration of how much suffering even a hurricane downgraded to a tropical storm can cause, as illustrated by the havoc wreaked on the people of New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Besides—and wouldn’t you know I had a selfish motive as well—I was hoping to get out of town to attend the annual convention of the Guang Ping Yang T’ai Chi Association and to visit my mom in California.  In the end, I made the decision, call it cowardly or call it prudent, to beat it out of town just ahead of Sandy.  I caught one of the last NJ Transit trains out of Penn Station and one of the last planes out of Newark, and followed the unfolding disaster mostly via Twitter.

On board the California Zephyr en route to the Sierra Nevada.

Phone service was patchy to nonexistent, so I couldn’t check in with friends I’d left behind, and though they’re now all accounted for, quite a few are still without power or heat, and some are struggling to deal with major damage to their homes or workplaces.  Seeing the ruins of places like the Rockaways, Long Beach, Asbury Park, and the eastern shore of Staten Island, where only months ago I was strolling in the sunshine, is absolutely heartbreaking.

At the GPYTCA conference.

So yeah, I feel guilty for not being there, guilty that my own neighborhood was once again spared any significant problems, and most guilty that I’m not there to join the thousands of New Yorkers who are heroically pitching in to help the afflicted and clean up the wreckage.

It’s also kind of embarrassing to have to tell the many people who combined birthday wishes (I spent my b-day making my escape from New York) with anxious inquiries about my well-being that I’ve been safely holed up in the Sierra Nevada doing t’ai chi and basking in the (admittedly slightly chilly) California sunshine.

Speaking of embarrassing, it’s also a little awkward having to explain to people why they haven’t seen an update to my blog in, oh, I don’t know, half a year or so.  I’ll try to explain as best as I can what I’ve been up to, but I still can’t help feeling I’ve fallen down on the job, even if it’s a job I don’t get paid for except by the occasional “well done” or “Livermore, you’re an idiot.”

This past year has been mostly consumed by two projects that you may or may not have heard about.  The first, which should have been done long ago, but still isn’t quite, is preparing the manuscript of Spy Rock Memories for publication.  I’m working with a real solid editor, and the process has been thoroughly enjoyable, but also painfully slow, in large part because I decided that whole sections of the book needed to be completely rewritten.

Where I spent the hurricane.

But I’m through with the hardest part (I hope), and right now we’re just giving the text a final going-over.  With any luck, the book should be out next spring, only a year late.  Which also leaves me a year behind on starting my next book, the subject of which will have to remain secret for now, but which I’m very excited about.

Oh, and among the other details to be worked out: a decision on whether to change the title.  I’d be happy to hear from any of my readers on this question: do you think it should be Spy Rock Memories or Spy Rock Road?

My other project was a compilation record that Billie Joe Armstrong asked me to put together for his Adeline Records label.  Billie’s often expressed an interest in the pop punk and punk rock bands I’ve told him about, especially those who’ve been part of the scene centered around the annual Insubordination Fest and the infamous Pop Punk Message Board.

I hadn’t planned to get back into the record business, and probably won’t on any kind of permanent basis, but it was fun to do it once.  Although it was time-consuming, it turned out to be surprisingly easy and enjoyable.  Either bands these days are more together and dependable, or I’ve matured and learned a more about how to work with people.  Most likely a bit of both.

The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore, artwork by Patrick Hynes.

Even more enjoyable was the chance to work with Patrick Hynes again.  Patrick, as many of you will know, was one of my partners in Lookout Records, and was responsible for some of the iconic art by which people remember Lookout’s heyday.  I got him to reprise a 1991 Lookout magazine cover and update it for the 2010s; in tribute to The Thing That Ate Floyd, the 1988 compilation that David Hayes and I assembled, the new record was called The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore.

Nine months of work culminated with a series of record release parties in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, and then, after being constantly immersed in overseeing every aspect of production, everything went eerily quiet.  The reviews were great, the music was great, the shows were packed and amazing, and then the record slipped off into the ether.  I’d like to think it will go on to be a classic—many of the bands contributed what I consider among their best songs ever, and all the songs were original and exclusive to the comp—but who knows these days?  The record business, while still exciting and rewarding in its way, is nothing like it used to be, for better or worse.

Which reminds me, I still have a few copies of both the record and the CD, as well as some t-shirts featuring the Patrick Hynes artwork.  I’ve been meaning to set up a web store to offer them to the public, but that’s just one more thing that’s gone by the board during these months of staying indoors writing and editing and producing.

I missed most of the summer and, with the cold weather starting to settle in now, most of the fall as well.  No doubt it will all pay off in the end, though in what form, it remains to be seen.  I’m at a stage in life where work seems to have become more important than it ever was before—though given my long career of procrastination and job-dodging, that wouldn’t be hard—and sometimes that makes me very tired.

But I console myself with the thought that I spent much of my earlier life goofing off, and that I should have expected the work would catch up with me sooner or later.  Besides, I always thought it was kind of backward to expect young people to work like dogs to save up enough so they could retire at an age when they no longer had the energy or ability to do many of the things they most wanted to.  So who knows, maybe I blundered into doing it the right way after all?

Year Without A Winter

Year Without A Winter

If you’d known me as a boy, you could be forgiven for never knowing quite what what to expect of me.  I had no idea either.

If you saw me hanging around the street corner with my gang, you might figure me for a moronic, mindless thug; apart from the fact that I was too scrawny and weak to do any real damage without some genuinely tough guys to back me up, you wouldn’t have been far from the truth.  Look a little deeper, though, and you would have also discovered a shy, sensitive geek who could sing every lyric from Carousel or My Fair Lady and conjugate Latin verbs till the cows came home.

I discovered this ability to pivot abruptly between (among?) personas when, barely 10 years old, I founded my neighborhood’s first street gang, the fearsomely named Night Raiders.  I don’t know where I got the idea; this was years before West Side Story imbued me with the desire to go pirouetting off fire escapes and stabbing people in back alleys.  But I managed to enlist every 8 through 10 year-old on the block, with the exception of my best friend Rob, who, older and wiser (11 going on 12), warned me I might be biting off something I wouldn’t want to chew.  He ended up becoming a priest, if that tells you anything.

The Night Raiders rampaged up and down Carter Street for the better part of a week before the other boys’ parents got wind of it and banned them from playing with me.  Upon discovering that being the leader of a one-man gang was less than thrilling, I converted the Night Raiders into the more respectable-sounding Meteorology Club, which got the neighborhood fatwa against me lifted, but bored the hell out of the boys, most of whom couldn’t pronounce “meteorology,” let alone tell you what it meant.

Sitting around my basement studying the nuances of weather systems and cloud patterns couldn’t compete with the heady excitement of tearing laundry off clotheslines and letting air out of people’s tires.  The Meteorology Club struggled from the start, and once again I was reduced to a one-man operation.  I mention this not only to illustrate how my sociopathic tendencies were, from the beginning, interlaced with nerdly ones, but also to explain the origins of my curious obsession with weather.

If it weren’t for that obsession, I might never have heard about The Year Without A Summer, but in fact I am unnervingly familiar with it.  If you missed out on it yourself, it happened in 1816, when volcanic eruptions and other uncertain factors subjected much of the Northern Hemisphere to dramatic climate fluctuations that included midsummer frosts and snowfalls.  Crops failed, and considerable suffering, illness and death ensued.

Most of us – especially if we’ve ever lived in England – have seen summers of such dubious quality that they might as well be termed nonexistent, but the harm done seldom extended beyond disappointing beach holidays and a vague, overarching angst and resentment.  But this year the situation has been the opposite.  With the official start of spring less than a week away, we’re on the verge of having passed through The Year Without A Winter.

Here in New York we had a freak snowstorm at Halloween when it was effectively still late summer, with trees in full leaf.  Apart from a minor, very short-lived snowfall in December, that was it.  For the rest of the “winter” temperature seldom fell below freezing.  Even in January there were times when no more than a light jacket or sweater was needed, and February and March have already seen several t-shirt and shorts days.  Daffodils and cherry blossoms were more than a month ahead of schedule, and if the current weather keeps up – which is what’s being predicted – we should see most of the city’s trees in leaf before April.

These tulips were actually blooming in July in Iceland (you think our seasons are screwed up?), but we'll be seeing similar sights in a matter of weeks here in New York if this weather carries on like it has.

As much as I enjoy spring and summer, and as little as I savor the ice, snow and cold of winter, it’s disturbing.  Not just because it feels unnatural – a number of locals, bearing in mind the so-called Mayan prophecy, have taken to calling it “end of days weather” – but because it’s disruptive to the seasonal rhythm of work and hibernation.

A few years ago Aaron Cometbus and I were meandering around Carroll Gardens in early April as I enthused about the oncoming spring.  Aaron demurred.  “It’s too soon,” he declared.  “You can’t really enjoy spring and summer until you’ve had enough time hiding out indoors to get your winter work done.”  Being a fan neither of winter nor work, I argued vehemently against this viewpoint, but I’ve since come around to his way of thinking.

So how do you get your “winter work” done when there’s little or no winter at all?  I’ve got a ton of indoor things in front of me: the final editing of Spy Rock Memories is already months behind schedule, and tying up the bits and pieces of The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore which, thankfully, is on schedule, but still demands considerable attention.  Both invigorating tasks, to be sure, but hard to keep your mind on when it’s sunny and 70 degrees outside in the first week of March.  In a normal year, it might make sense to drop everything and run outdoors to take advantage of the day on the grounds that it might be weeks or months before there’s another one like it.  But this year has seen day after day of stunning weather, leading to the temptation to put off all work until, oh, next December, maybe.

Not that I need excuses.  I’ve never had difficulty finding those, come rain, shine or foreshadowings of the apocalypse.  Putting things off to the last possible minute seems to be intrinsic to the human condition, or at least my human condition. For years – all my life, really – I’ve wondered why I do this, especially when the end result is so often a piece of work I’m less than fully satisfied with, and which I tell myself would have been so much better “if only I’d had more time.”

In 95% of those cases, I did have more time, sometimes tons of it, but chose instead to stare out the window, peruse internet message boards, or catch up on Law And Order reruns.  None of which I really enjoyed because I was too conscious of the what I needed – and, in my heart, wanted – to be doing instead.

I’ve read and heard many explanations for why I operate like this, but the one that makes the most sense is fear.  Yes, there’s the perhaps more obvious idea – often suggested to me by parents, teachers and bosses – that I was just plain lazy, but I think laziness is just shorthand for procrastination, and that both of them are ways of avoiding coming to grips with our fear of failure – or, if you want to get all woo-woo about it, fear of success.

As long as a task remains uncompleted, it can’t be judged a failure or success.  In fact, it can’t be judged at all, because, we tell ourselves, even a team trailing 18-0 could always pull out 19 runs in the bottom of the 9th.  This happens, if it happens at all, once or twicea century, but until we play those last three outs, nobody can prove it won’t happen.  Which makes it somewhat understandable why, when told it’s time to take the field, we respond with “What’s the hurry?”

So what are we talking about here?  Perfectionism?  Or the weather, which often serves as surreptitious metaphor for matters less salubrious?  As Oscar Wilde put it: “Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else.  And that makes me so nervous.”

Well, the weather is making me nervous, and not because it might be a harbinger of the global warming that supposedly will see millions of us coastal dwellers erecting dikes and/or donning aqualungs.  At my age chances are great I won’t be around when New York becomes New Venice.  From a purely selfish standpoint, I should welcome the city’s long-dreamed-of (by me, anyway) transition from intemperate to semi-tropical.

But pleasant as it’s been not having to hunker down in scarves and snowboots, there remains something unsettling about it, something that can’t be explained away by ignoring the calendar and celebrating spring in February.  Even if calendars had never been invented, our inbuilt conditioning would tell us something is out of kilter when flowers luxuriate under balmy zephyrs while the sun still hangs low in the wintry sky.  It reminds me of when California would go through a winter with little or no rain.  People unfamiliar with the natural rhythms of the seasons or, more to the point, where their drinking water came from, would exult over the succession of warm, sunny days in mid-January.  Those of us who lived closer to the land would fear the wilting crops and dying forests of a drought-year summer.

The East Coast gets rain all year round and is blessed with abundant sources of water upstate and upstream, so it’s hardly in danger of drying up and blowing away.  And this being mid-March, it’s still possible some morning could find us buried under a late-season blizzard.  But I doubt it.  Just as, while I know it’s possible, I doubt this unnaturally warm winter will be followed by an unbearably hot summer (that might only be because for me, “too hot” is a nebulous, almost nonexistent concept).  I look forward instead to a long, awesome summer whose main problem will be convincing myself to go indoors long enough to write something now and then.  Or perhaps it will finally be time to hook myself up with that solar-powered computer and just live on the beach.

In other news, this has been a very special week musically. Two artists I recently wrote about here and here came to town; both lived up to and surpassed my expectations.  John K. Samson was at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday; as much and as long as I’ve loved the Weakerthans, he has broken through to a whole new level on his own, with an even greater eloquence and ease of manner.  He played two encores and would have played several more if the crowd had had its way.  He performed his final song, the heartrending “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure,” without benefit of microphone or amplifier, counting on the audience, in the spirit of the Occupy mic check, to render it audible throughout the building by singing lustily but gently along.

Had they not known and loved those lyrics, or had John’s charisma and trust not been sufficient to carry them along, it could have been embarrassing, but instead it was transcendent and triumphant.  I once watched Billie Joe Armstrong, armed with only an acoustic guitar, hold 20,000 fans enraptured at Madison Square Garden, and thought that was a marvelous feat.  But acoustic guitar or not, he still had a multi-million dollar sound system to fall back on; to divest oneself of even that advantage, as John did, must take incredible courage and confidence.  It could have failed, but it didn’t, and the payoff was profound and terrific.

Then on Saturday Jesse Michaels and the Classics Of Love played a sold-out show at Death By Audio.  I almost didn’t go because of the venue’s policy of allowing indoor smoking (disgruntled patrons have renamed it Death By Asphyxiation).  But thanks to the request (or insistence; I don’t know the full story) of the performers and cooperation of DBA management, I was able to attend an entirely smoke-free event.  It was heavenly, and with any luck will cause both fans and management to realize, “Hey, we could have been doing this all along!”

The Classics played a short, fast and furious set that was as riveting and breathtaking as anything I’ve seen since Jesse’s days with Operation Ivy 25 years ago.  The lithe energy,  the impassioned leaps, the lilting, vulnerable vocals that danced between a rasp and a growl and held melody in thrall to a scream: it was as though Jesse had been reborn after years of wandering in the wilderness.  Offstage, he was personable, relaxed, even outgoing, a far remove from the years when his legions of admirers sometimes seemed to depress and even terrify him.  It added up to two of the best nights of music I’ve seen in years, and in the same half of one week.  If that’s how the year is shaping up, what the heck: it might as well be spring.





Canada’s Poet Laureate

Canada’s Poet Laureate

I seem to recall a time – maybe I’m imagining it, but probably not – when people earnestly argued over whether song lyrics constituted “real” poetry.  Most likely it was during the 1960s, when Bob Dylan’s visionary, amphetamine-fueled rants (I don’t have any inside info with regard to drug use, but they did go on a bit) seemed to blow away the dry-as-dust literary maunderings sold to us as poetry in textbooks and highbrow journals.

If the issue was ever resolved – as opposed to people getting bored with abstract definitions and moving on to more tangible discussions about how to overthrow the government or organize their polyamorous communes or whatever else it was that post-hippies used to get het up about – I don’t remember how it came out.  Like many young people, I arrived at a point where I began to be embarrassed over taking a folk singer so seriously and tried to find new outlets and postures through which I could show the world how cultured and sophisticated I was.  By the time I was in the 30s found myself even more embarrassed by that.

By then, fortunately, the world was awash in punk rock, which only idiots and journalists took seriously, and I no longer had the slightest impetus to trouble myself over what constituted true literature or art or poetry.  From time to time I’d get out the acoustic guitar, strum an old Dylan tune or two, and muse on the fact that certain of his lyrics had stuck with me throughout my life in a way that no academically certified “poem” ever had, but by the same token, most of his later work had become something of an embarrassment in itself, the sort of thing you’d expect Dad to produce upon re-uniting his garage band after all the kids have left home.

But eventually certain artists with roots in the punk scene, none more notable than John K. Samson, who’d started out with agit-pop rabble rousers Propaghandi, started catching my attention with lyrics that were powerful, poignant, and – at least in my view – undeniably poetic.  Having never been much of a Propagandhi fan, I first encountered Samson through his work with the Weakerthans, a long-running and much-loved Canadian combo who wowed me not only with their instrumental virtuosity and lilting, haunting melodies, but also with the way they could inveigle a normally rowdy punk rock audience into respectfully, even reverently singing – in some cases almost whispering – along with every single word of their songs.

In 2001 I interviewed Samson for Punk Planet, and we had a wide-ranging discussion, sometimes almost verging on argument, on a number of subjects, primarily but not exclusively political.  In addition to his performing and publishing careers – his “other” job is at Arbeiter Ring, a self-described left-leaning press – Samson is also a renowned activist with, for such a seemingly mild-mannered fellow, surprisingly strident views.  One question we touched upon briefly, and which I’ve periodically attempted to bring up again during our occasional meetings over the years, was the old “can song lyrics be poetry?” one, because I felt – increasingly so with each new album – that his work emphatically demonstrated that they could and were.

John K. Samson contemplating his Southern Manitoba prairies.

He demurred then (“I don’t think my songs can be defined as poetry, because they are coupled with music, and that gives an extra structure to them that poetry doesn’t have.  I personally think the most daring writing is poetry, because it’s just a blank canvas for words…”), and has continued to do so, while acknowledging that he considered some of Dylan’s work to be poetry.

Whether this is a literary point or simply a surfeit of modesty on his part, I can’t say.  I do know that at my very traditional Catholic school, with very traditional standards for just about everything, literature included, I was taught that the defining characteristics of poetry were “rhyme, meter and imagery,” all of which are richly imbued in Samson’s while, while much of what is formally recognized as modern poetry possesses few or none of them.

Another aspect of Samson’s writing that we talked about was his instantly recognizable sense of place, something missing from much modern writing.  Perhaps the internet’s ability to convince us that, no longer constrained by physicality, we are capable of being located both everywhere and nowhere, coupled with the ever greater homogenization of (in particular) Western society, has left us less likely to appreciate an evocation of a specific time and place that is anchored by the sights, sounds, smells and memories that only someone who has been there can fully recognize, but that anyone, even if they’ll never set foot on those streets or fields, can appreciate and aspire to.

Samson’s particular stomping grounds are the prairies of Manitoba and, especially, his native Winnipeg, a lovely but slightly forlorn city in the midst of the vast emptiness that is central Canada, from which, as his song “Longitudinal Centre” put its it, “the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.”  While taking me on a tour of his town some years ago, he told me how Winnipeg was once envisioned as “the Chicago of the North,” but that people eventually realized there was already a Chicago, and another, far less conveniently situated one, wasn’t really necessary.

Winnipeg has, nonetheless, soldiered on, producing, despite its isolation, a startling number of talented artists, musicians and visionaries, and while some members of his band have left for the bright lights of Toronto (which, like Vancouver, has always beckoned to and drawn away from the heartland many of Canada’s best and brightest), Samson has stayed put.  Not without ambivalence, granted: see his “One Great City” (subtitled “I Hate Winnipeg”), which consists mostly of chronicling the small and larger miseries of a hardscrabble town locked into longer and bleaker winters than anyone should have to endure while counterpointing and overriding them all with his heartfelt lament for those who laugh and “watch the North End die.”

The North End is also home to Samson’s “Pamphleteer,” a, one suspects, semi-autobiographical character who becomes, pace Karl Marx, “a spectre haunting Albert Street,” trying to foist upon passersby the tracts and leaflets that even he himself might no longer comprehend but cannot stop producing.  But as much as he can poetically characterize the bleak cityscape, Samson excels equally at capturing the sometimes seductive, sometimes terrifying emptiness of the vast open spaces surrounding Winnipeg.  When, for instance, he sings about “Southern Manitoba prairie’s pulling at the pants leg of your bad disguise,” I never fail to feel the warm, rambunctious breeze that traveled a thousand kilometers across Alberta and Saskatchewan to slap me gently but relentlessly in the face the first time I visited one early summer.

I have had to, more than once, go back and re-read those lyrics to confirm that they said absolutely nothing about a breeze or a wind, or dust or corn fields, or grain silos or stillness, and yet those few simple words manage to evoke all of those things for me with a realness and substance that might surpass the experience of actually being there.  That is the mark of a true poet, and what for me makes John K. Samson one of Canada’s national treasures.

Apparently – I did, admittedly, have to look this up – Canada already has a reigning poet laureate, but they’ll be missing a sure bet if they don’t eventually get around to naming Samson to that post, and I’ll be losing a bet (made, it’s true, only with myself) that he’ll eventually make it.  There’s time – Samson is not yet 40 – but meanwhile, I recommend investigating and cherishing his new solo record, Provincial (Anti, 2012).  Call it poetry, call it prose, call it simply some lovely words set to beautiful music: it’s a window into a world that you should very much like to know.

Scene Of The Crime

Scene Of The Crime

Between the time when Operation Ivy broke up in 1989 and Rancid formed in 1991, Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman formed several other bands.  One of them, Dance Hall Crashers, went on to enjoy considerable success, but without Armstrong and Freeman, whose involvement was brief.  Two others, Generator and Downfall, appeared and disappeared so quickly that if you didn’t live in the Bay Area and have some connection to the scene they inhabited, your chances of ever having seen or heard them would be slim indeed.

Both Operation Ivy and Rancid eventually achieved such iconic status that the in-between bands were almost completely overshadowed, but one of them, Downfall, has maintained a legendary if shadowy presence on the music scene for well over 20 years.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just that they were a great band, which they were.  It’s also that most of their music has only been available in the form of scratchy and tinny 8th-generation bootlegs, good enough to pique people’s curiosity, but not to satisfy it.  There’s a reason for that, too, and during my days at Lookout Records, questions to the effect of “When’s the Downfall record coming out?” (yes, for those of you who weren’t around in those days, there was a Downfall record; no, it was never released) became so frequent and inevitable that they became a running joke with Lookout staffers.  Not because they thought it was funny that so many people had ordered a record they never got, but because the question had become so utterly unanswerable.

Here’s the story as best as I can tell it: Downfall recorded an album (a 10″ LP was the original plan), the release date (it would have been Lookout 99) was announced, orders came flooding in, and then, well, nothing happened for a long time.  The cover art didn’t get drawn, the center labels (we were still doing everything on vinyl then) didn’t materialize, and somewhere in the middle of all the delays and uncertainty, Rancid started creating a lot of excitement for themselves.  Between doing a 7″ for us and their first album for Epitaph, Downfall seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

It wasn’t the first time a record had been delayed for unforeseen reasons, so Lookout employees, acting on the assumption that Downfall’s Get Ready For Action would be along sooner or later, issued credit slips to everyone who ordered it.  From time to time, all these years later, I still run into people either literally or figuratively brandishing one of those credit slips and demanding, “Where’s my record?”

But wait.  That wasn’t the end of the story.  Two, three, four – I don’t even know anymore – years after the original release had been scheduled, Tim and Matt announced that they were at last ready to release the record, but that first it had to be remixed.  Epitaph Records’ Brett Gurewitz took on this task and after some months handed back a topnotch product that sounded far more polished and professional than the hastily done original recording.  Everyone who heard it was excited, and since by this time both Operation Ivy and Rancid were far more well known than they’d been a few years earlier, it was assumed that the Downfall record would be nothing less than massive when it finally hit the stores.

Downfall at Gilman Street, October 1989, photo by Murray Bowles.

And yet… it never happened.  This time, the culprit, as near as anyone could tell, was Rancid’s breakthrough into the world of MTV and major label courtship.  Bear in mind that this was during the time, following in the wake of the runaway, game-changing success of Green Day and the Offspring, that punk rock finally made it through to the masses.  Madonna was backstage trying to sign Rancid to her new label, and she had plenty of competition.  In the midst of all this, getting Tim or Matt on the phone became far more difficult, and running into them at Gilman considerably less likely.  When I did talk to one or the other of them, I’d be assured that yeah, the Downfall record was still happening, but would have to wait until the current flurry of Rancid excitement settled down.  When might that be?  Oh, probably once the new Rancid album was released.

The new album turned out to be And Out Come The Wolves, the biggest Rancid record ever, and among the top 10 or so biggest punk rock records ever.  This did not help the excitement to “settle down,” instead launching Rancid into a nonstop round of touring and recording that was still going on when I left Lookout Records in 1997.  I assumed the people who took over Lookout after my departure would continue to push for the record to be released – it was really too big not to – and that eventually it would be, but it was no longer my job to worry about it.

I had my own personal copy to listen to – or did, until it got lost when I was moving house – and from time to time, when I ran into Tim or Matt, I’d ask them when it was going to happen, but eventually they got bored with answering or I got tired of asking, and that was more or less that.  By then bootleg copies had begun to emerge, but they were mostly of the original recording, not the Gurewitz remix, and since they’d all originated on some ancient cassette and been reproduced countless times, the quality was decidedly substandard.  And then of course, the new Lookout owners stopped paying royalties to most of their bands, the former members of Operation Ivy took back ownership of their records and severed all relations with Lookout, and any remaining chance of the Downfall release seeing daylight, at least on that label, vanished.

A couple of Downfall songs did make it into semi-wide release by way of compilations, and probably the best-known of them is “North Berkeley,” which appeared on Lookout’s Can Of Pork in 1992.  The lyrics, half-sung, half-rapped by Tim in what was to become his inimitable (though it didn’t stop people trying) and sometime impenetrable style, were the subject of some bemusement at the time, particularly the part that began, “North Berkeley, scene of the crime.”

What made it especially curious was the line that followed, or at least what a lot of people thought they heard: “There was a party, Adeline,” Adeline being a major thoroughfare on the the other side of town that didn’t go anywhere near North Berkeley.  Eventually someone suggested that it sounded more like “out of line,” but with Tim’s patented marbles-in-mouth enunciation, it was never possible to know for sure.  Anyway, the other part of the joke was that North Berkeley was about the least likely part of town for any crime scene to unfold.

West Berkeley, sure, South Berkeley, even more so, and South Campus provided easy pickings for muggers who preyed on clueless and often pie-eyed college students.  Even downtown, where I lived, could get a little rough, too, but North Berkeley?  That was where the rich folks and the professors and the people with maids and gardeners lived.  Well, maybe I exaggerate slightly about the maids and gardeners, but that was the way it looked to those of us from the other side of University Avenue.

Oh, but a couple years earlier, I’d moved into a room in a house on Berkeley Way.  Though still well within reach of downtown’s urban ills, including a tribe of squatters in the backyard cottage and a one-family ghetto across the street, it was a block north of University Avenue.  Its location led to an uproarious but eventually hilarious bustup with Tim or, as I was probably still calling him at the time, Lint.

We were talking about ideas for record cover art.  Tim wanted to use a big picture of a gun, and I was trying to persuade him not to.  This was in the heyday of gangster rap, remember, as well as the crack cocaine wars, and I thought it sent a bad message.

“Yo, you don’t understand, Larry,” Tim told me, “See, this is the reality of life on the streets down on my side of town.  You live in North Berkeley, that’s why you don’t get it.”

It’s true that Tim had recently moved into a room above a liquor store in one of the grittier parts of South Berkeley, but he’d spent most of his life in the very placid and tranquil suburb of Albany, which is even north of North Berkeley.  I pointed this out, adding that my $100 a month room one block past University was not likely to qualify me for membership in the early 90s version of the 1%, but he wasn’t having it, and stuck fast to his definition: “North Berkeley starts north of University, and you’re north of University.”  It’s not that often that someone can reduce me to an inarticulate mashup of laughter, outrage, and flabbergastedness, but Lint certainly managed it that day.

Eventually he got his gun on a record cover.  No one was murdered as a result, at least as far as I know, and the record sold in the hundreds of thousands.  Whether or not that disproved my original point remains open to discussion, but I suspect most people would feel it did.  Just as almost everyone would agree I’d been famously wrong when I’d tried to talk Lint out of naming his new band Rancid.

“Do you even know what the word ‘rancid’ means?” I asked during a fervent contretemps out front of Gilman.  “Foul, rotten, stinking, disgusting.  Is that what you want people to think of when they hear your band name?”

“Yo, Larry, that don’t matter, cuz we’ll give it a new meaning,” was his answer, and I guess he turned out to be right again.

The damndest thing is that I started out to write this article about crime in Berkeley – yes, even in North Berkeley – and how the old town isn’t what it used to be.  The Downfall reference was meant to be no more than a hook to hang it on, but somehow turned into the whole story, and now I’m out of space and time.  Which is probably for the best, because Bay Areans get mighty butthurt at the slightest suggestion that their little slice of Northern California is anything less than an enduring countercultural nirvana, and I really don’t have the energy to argue with them about it.

Besides, someone recently handed me a digital copy of the Downfall remix to replace the one I lost so many years ago, and I’ve been letting the music and the memories wash over me to the point where you know what?  I can’t, at least for now, get that fired up about the socio-cultural ramifications of Berkeley’s drug and idealism-addled admixture of benign tolerance and malign neglect (or maybe I’ve got that backward?).  But I will have to say that Downfall were a pretty decent band, and those were some interesting times to live through.


(It’s Not) Rocket Science

(It’s Not) Rocket Science

How do you run a successful indie record label in the year 2012? Ask as many scenesters, hipsters, music business “professionals” as you want; the answer you will hear most often, frequently punctuated by bitter laughter, is “You can’t.”

Ironically, I heard the same thing 25 years ago when – against all odds and defying common sense – I decided to start a record label.  Even more ironically, today’s naysayers will typically point to the 80s and 90s as some sort of golden age when anyone capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time could cobble together some shoestring operation that would quickly grow from selling 7″s out of your disheveled bedroom into a multi-million dollar monolith that could be flogged off to one of the major labels for an even bigger fortune as soon one of your “underground” artists broke through into mainstream success.

The fact that this actually did happen on occasion does nothing to diminish the reality that then, as now, most indie label owners never saw their pride and joy develop into more than an expensive hobby.  It was a rare (and usually naive) individual who went into the business expecting to make money.  If in 1987 you’d asked what sort of financial future I envisioned for Lookout Records, I would have said I was hoping, if things went very well indeed, not to lose too much money.  Breaking even or coming out slightly ahead was about as wild as my dreams dared to get.

Nowadays people get annoyed when I tell them that, especially since when doing so I’m usually trying to demonstrate that it can be dangerous and self-defeating to assume you know what is or isn’t possible.  “Yeah, it’s easy for you to talk,” I’m told.  “You happened to luck out by starting your label right when everybody was having to re-buy their entire music collection on CD and before digital downloads came along and all but destroyed the retail music business.”

That does, in retrospect, look extremely lucky, but more to the point, I think, is the fact that in 1987 I had no way of knowing any of this was going to happen.  I didn’t get involved in CDs until the beginning of the 90s (they weren’t “punk,” you know), and as for the digital revolution, well, when an early adopter tried to explain how this whole “internet” thing worked, I was left hopelessly befuddled.  “Okay,” I kept asking him, “you hook up two computers so they can talk to each other? But what’s the point? What would a computer have to talk about?”

Still think it was a lot easier to bumble one’s way to success back in those days?  You’re possibly right.  When I get interviewed, one of the inevitable questions is, “Do you ever think about starting another record label?”  My answer is always a resounding NO.  Not just because the last one nearly drove me off the deep end, but also because I too would be intimidated by the seemingly bleak outlook facing the music business today.

But does that mean it can’t or shouldn’t be attempted?  Quite the contrary.  If I were 30 or 40 years younger, there’s every chance I’d be launching some sort of indie music venture, and tackling it with every bit as much enthusiasm, idealism and naiveté as I did the last time around.  I can’t guarantee I’d be successful, but I’d give it a pretty good go.

“Aha!” you say. “You’re chickening out because you’re old and you’ve lost your passion.” Maybe that’s a little true, but it’s more a case of wanting to do other things now, like writing, and seeing the world.  Besides, and perhaps most importantly, there are others who’ve taken up the challenge, others who are every bit as idealistic and motivated, and probably a lot smarter than I was when I first got the idea I could somehow run a record label.  They’re doing all the things I would be trying to do if I were still in the business, signing the same bands, treating them openly and honestly, injecting a much-needed note of innovation and integrity into an industry that has seldom been noted for either.

I hesitate to start naming names, not because there aren’t many that deserve to be named, but because I would inevitably miss so many more.  That being said, I do want to give shout-outs to a couple of my favorite indie labels.  One is It’s Alive Records in Orange County.  Though the majority of their output comes in the form of vinyl records that I can’t even play because I don’t have a record player (I’m getting one soon, which will be nice, though I’m endlessly chagrined about having given away my 1970s Technics turntable a few years back on the assumption I wouldn’t be needing it anymore), they’re a source of endless inspiration, both for their honorable business practices and their sheer love of the same sort of music I myself love most.

Then there’s New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records.  Full disclosure: Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski, the guys who run it, are friends of mine, and I’d be inclined to support any enterprise of theirs, music-related or not.  But having watched their label grow for a few years now, I’m continually impressed by the way they’ve combined a well-run business with an artist-centered attitude, and in the process demonstrated that despite shifting formats, fragmenting markets, and wholesale disillusionment, it’s still possible, by following the same fundamental principles that have always underpinned a successful record label, to thrive and prosper.

One of the reasons Zach and Joe work so well with their artists is because they’re artists themselves: both have been in a variety of bands, perhaps none so notable as the much-loved but slightly star-crossed For Science.  Known originally as Skynet (a reference to some science fiction show or movie that everybody except me is familiar with, and which I could quickly look up if I didn’t want to maintain the illusion that I’m immune to popular culture), they dropped that name for fear of lawsuits, left science fiction behind, and went for straight-up science.

They were playing around New York quite a bit around the time I moved here, but I must admit I didn’t really “get” them.  Most of my friends were fans, some ravingly so, but every time I saw them it seemed as though one or more members would be drunk and/or otherwise impaired, and onstage chaos would ensue.  I remember once asking in all seriousness, “Why doesn’t somebody get those drunk guys off stage so the band can play?” not realizing that they were the band.

“Yeah, sometimes they’re a mess when they play live,” my friends would tell me, “but you have to hear their records.”  Which I never did, because, as you’ll remember, I didn’t have a record player.  Then one day a new lean, mean and sober version of For Science rolled into an afternoon show at the Cake Shop and I was not only amazed, but grudgingly had to admit, “Yeah, I guess maybe they’re not so bad after all.”  Shortly after that, the band imploded, thanks to a member’s LSD freakout (who does that in the 21st century?) and other murky circumstances that don’t need to be delved into here.

End of story, until quite recently, when a) I got a digital copy of two For Science albums; and b) it was rather abruptly announced that For Science were reuniting and would be playing the annual Don Giovanni showcase next weekend in Brooklyn (I say “rather abruptly” because I was somehow under the impression that certain members were never going to speak to each other again; once again, I was proved to be wrong, wrong, wrong). And the other news is that I’ve now listened to the digital albums a couple times and, whoa, my friends weren’t lying.  This band really is good.  Really, really good.  And though they’ll be sharing the stage with such luminaries as Screaming Females and Laura Stevenson and the Cans, chances are that For Science will end up stealing the show, either through the sheer exuberance of their fans welcoming them back to life, or because… well, who really knows what could happen?  It’s not the kind of band you’d want to make predictions about.

One prediction, however, that is a safe bet: you won’t want to miss this.  Last I heard, tickets weren’t sold out yet, but probably will be soon.

We Need A Gathering Instead

We Need A Gathering Instead

Classics Of Love at Barfly, London, 2009. Photo by Imelda Michalczyk

When Lookout Records, the label I co-founded and ran from 1987 to 1997, shut its doors a few weeks ago, I was besieged by journalists and bloggers, some earnestly inquiring into What Went Wrong or What It All Meant, others more interested in taking a gentle, nostalgic stroll down the boulevard of broken dreams.

Before my appearance on KQED, San Francisco’s NPR station, I was asked to put together a brief playlist of songs that epitomized the Lookout ethos and aesthetic.  They’d been planning on using Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge,” easily that band’s best-known song, thanks to the gently mocking yet affectionate cover version performed by Green Day at nearly every concert for the past 20 years.

I pointed out that not only would “Knowledge” bring down the wrath of the FCC, containing as it does one of the Seven Deadly Words radio stations are never allowed to broadcast, but that it wasn’t even Operation Ivy’s best song.  Or at least not the song that best summed up what that band was all about.

“The Crowd,” I suggested, would be a better choice, and that was in fact what they played.  I listened over the phone while waiting for the interviewer to turn his attention to me, anticipating the part where, following the first anthemic chorus, Jesse eases up ever so slightly to sing, with that subtle yet unmistakable catch in his voice, “Drink drink in the badlands…”

The whole song makes me want to jump up and down, grin maniacally, and throw myself around the room, but there’s something about that line, with its barely muted, infinitesimally constrained passion, that has never failed to send chills right through me.  David Hayes, my original partner in Lookout Records, put his finger on a similar phenomenon back in 1989 when we were listening to the rough mixes of the Op Ivy album.

There’s one song – “Bad Town” where Tim Armstrong sings lead.  It’s a great song, and totally stands on its own, but when it reaches the outro, there’s a 10-second – seriously, 10 seconds, no more – where Jesse adds a backing vocal that blasts the whole thing into the next dimension.

“Listen to what happens when Jesse comes in,” said David.  “It’s almost scary.”

It’s been almost 25 years since I first heard Jesse Michaels sing.  I’ve seen him with Operation Ivy, Big Rig, Common Rider, Classics Of Love, even doing birthday karaoke at El Cerrito’s Mel-O-Dee Inn, and I’ve never known a more naturally gifted performer.  His whisper-to-a-scream intensity can instantly electrify any piece of music it’s attached to.

When Operation Ivy broke up immediately upon releasing their first and only album, “Whatever happened to Jesse?” soon became the inevitable question in any discussion about the band.  It was widely known that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman kept their partnership going through the short-lived Downfall and Generator before winding up in the very long-lived Rancid, and slightly less known yet easily ascertainable that drummer Dave Mello aligned himself with the virtuoso jazz-punks of Schlong.

But Jesse? He was reported to have become a monk, to have moved to Nicaragua, to be writing a book, constructing a new supergroup, or in rehab, or… feel free to add your own stories, because that’s what it seemed everybody was doing, while almost nobody knew what if any of it was true.

Over time I’ve learned little bits and pieces of what really happened, while remaining as befuddled as anyone about some of the other legends of Jesse’s Lost Years (I say that semi-facetiously; the only people they were actually lost to were the fans, waiting impatiently for Jesse’s return).

When he did re-appear, you could say he eased rather than thrust himself back into the limelight with the solid but low-profile Big Rig.  Then, after a similarly long interval, came Common Rider.  They were well-loved, but despite a couple superficial similarities to Operation Ivy – mainly in the use of ska and reggae beats – they too seemed almost deliberately low key.

“Too much attention unavoidably destroyed us” was Operation Ivy’s epitaph as delivered by Tim Armstrong and Rancid.  Perhaps – I may well be reading too much into this, of course – that outcome prompted Jesse, in his new musical incarnation, to exercise the caution that he had once claimed not to understand.

More years passed – if there’s a single definitive thing you can say about Jesse, it’s that he’s not one for rushing into things – before slowly, gradually, a new band, Classics Of Love, emerged.  Thanks to his history, Jesse couldn’t avoid being the most visible member, but this time it felt more like a band than “Jesse Michaels and…”

To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan when I first saw them three years ago in London.  The group – who had been performing on their own as Hard Girls before joining forces with Jesse – were undeniably and impressively solid, but Jesse was still nervously feeling his way into this new role, and a full-fledged musical bond had yet to be formed.  The highlight that night was a cover of  – what else? – Operation Ivy’s “The Crowd.”

But what a difference a little time makes: Classics Of Love are back with their debut full-length album, released February 14 on California’s Asian Man Records, and it’s a dazzling tour de force that marries intense melodic hardcore with Jesse’s signature vocals more successfully than anything I’ve heard since the heyday of Operation Ivy.

Not wishing to mislead anyone, let me hasten to point out that Classics Of Love do not resemble Operation Ivy in any obvious way (apart from being awesome).  The one similarity I can see, though, is the way Jesse’s voice has regained its full-throated and uninhibited power, and is driven and underpinned by a band that matches him note for note and beat for beat, a band that plays not behind but as one with him.

I don’t write a lot of record reviews these days, and haven’t had much interest in doing so.  This one’s worth making an exception for.  Like many of us, Jesse has spent his share of years in the wilderness.  It only makes it all the more special to welcome him home.


Studs Lonigan: Looking Back Into My Future

Studs Lonigan: Looking Back Into My Future

In the course of a search for Patrick Hamilton’s The Gorse Trilogy, I wandered into bookshops new and old across several miles of San Francisco, uncovering little more than blank stares and frustration.  I was all the more exasperated because I had already acquired, thanks to Aaron Cometbus, the middle volume of the trilogy, had read halfway through it with a gusto and élan few things in life remain capable of eliciting in me, only to set it down at San Francisco Airport coffee counter and walk off without it.

My quest took me on a meandering route from North Beach to the Mission.  It was an unnaturally warm and sunny day not long before Christmas, but by the time I passed the once-hellish, now pleasantly re-imagined Valencia Gardens project, the sun had slipped behind Twin Peaks and a wintry chill intruded into what had been a benign breeze.

It was time to duck into La Cumbre for a warming burrito, but as I crossed 16th Street, I noticed a sign that read “Used Books.”  Not just a sign, I reasoned; it had to be a sign.  A bookstore suddenly appears on a block I’ve walked down a thousand times over the past several decades?  Advertising that it specializes in “hard-to-find” and “out-of-print” volumes?  What could this mean but that my hunt was about to have a happy ending?

I walked in and instead of heading straight for the shelves, asked the proprietor how long the shop had been there.

“22 years.  People are always saying they never noticed us before.”

All those walks from the 16th Street BART to La Cumbre, the hours spent staring out the front window of Pancho Villa, long-ago trips to Epicenter and Blacklist Mail Order, and Forest Books had managed to remain invisible to me for over two decades?  I wondered if I was dealing with some ephemeral presence along the lines of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

Which made it all the more plausible that they would have the book I’d been searching for, but no, as it happened; he’d heard of Patrick Hamilton, sort of, but wasn’t really familiar with his work.  Resigning myself to finding the Hamilton book next time I was in England, I decided to take a quick spin through the aisles to see if they had anything else of interest.  I hadn’t made it ten steps before spotting a hardbound copy of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, and decided instantly that I had to have it.  I bounded up to the counter, almost as if I were afraid someone or something might snatch it away from me before I could pay for it.

The proprietor gave me an odd glance, followed by, “Whoa, how do you even know about this book?  You’re not old enough.”

Perhaps he flatters all his customers that way – I guessed he and I were about the same age – but as it happened, I not only knew the book, but had read it as a young teenager, some 50 years ago.  My first copy of Studs Lonigan had been a paperback, sold for 35 cents – now that I think about it, I almost certainly stole it; that’s how I rolled in those days – on one of those revolving racks you saw in every drugstore.

I’d never heard of the book before, but the cover showed a kid about my age, dressed up like a tough guy, his hair slicked up and back, hanging out on a street corner in a manner clearly meant to annoy the bourgeoisie.  I tore through those pages with a fervor others reserved for religious texts.  The author might have intended it as a cautionary tale for aspiring hoodlums, but I read it as a design and ideal for living.

It was a long book, the longest I’d ever read at that age, and for the first couple hundred pages, the life of young Lonigan was filled with exactly the sort of mischief and thrills I was looking to add to my own.  Opening on a warm evening in 1916 as Studs (“that dreadful name,” according to his mother, one of the few who insisted on calling him William or Bill) is graduating from eighth grade, it follows him through a dreamlike summer of roistering and rollicking with his gang on the streets of Chicago’s South Side.  I began reading it in 1961 as my eighth grade graduation gave way to a very similar summer on the streets of Downriver Detroit.

Studs and I were Catholic boys graduating from Catholic schools, retaining a visceral loyalty to the Church while ignoring or flouting nearly all its precepts.  Our gangs were made up of the children or grandchildren of immigrants, predominantly Irish, riven straight through by the Catholic obsession with guilt, suffering and doom.  We sinned repeatedly, felt terrible about it, and took it as given that we would pay harshly for our transgressions in the end.  An end, we assumed, which would probably not be long in coming.

Half a century later, re-reading Studs Lonigan as avidly as I had the first time, I was surprised – not just surprised, shocked – to see how closely his exploits and misadventures had mirrored and prefigured my own.  The initial intoxication of running wild in the streets gave way to the boredom and monotony of day after day and night after night in front of the pool hall or drugstore.  We groused that there was nothing to do but bragged that at least we weren’t like the punks and cake-eaters who scurried home after dark and tried to live up to the expectations of nuns and parents.

Some of the guys dropped out – waylaid by after-school jobs or girlfriends –to be replaced by more serious criminals and nutcases.  By the time I was 15 I was carrying a pistol and had earned the nickname “Drunk.”  Considering the drinking habits of the gang that gave it to me, I took it as one of my proudest accomplishments.

At 17 I’d graduated from the drugstore to a pool hall identical to the one Studs frequented toward the end of World War I, right down to the perennial poker game sequestered in the back room and the shady characters lurking around out front trying to sell boosted auto parts at pennies on the dollar.  I’d begun to pride myself at climbing – in retrospect, of course, it was more like descending – the criminal ladder faster than Studs had, but then I wasn’t as burdened by conscience as he’d been.

It might have taken me a year or two to finish the Studs Lonigan trilogy the first time, because after a whiz-bang beginning, Studs’ life began deteriorating so badly that it was painful to read about.  Not just because I’d come to care about him, but because I’d made his existence such a template for my own.

The fights, the hangovers, the arrests, the tentative attempts at love and the blithe, inevitable rejections; eventually it became difficult to tell where his life left off and mine began.  Re-reading it in 2012, I’m struck not only by how clearly I remember nearly every scene and bit of dialogue – I’m normally the kind of guy who can’t tell you what a movie or a book was about 20 minutes after I’ve finished it – but also how I could no longer be certain which of my memories came from my own life and which from his.

Long before I’d heard of Oscar Wilde, I was a dutiful subscriber to Miss Prism’s dictum, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means.”  So I wasn’t surprised when Studs ended unhappily, even though, in the final analysis, he wasn’t that bad at all, just foolish, stubborn, and proud.

All qualities I possessed in spades.  And by most standards, I was worse than Studs, with fewer redeeming qualities.  Yet for some reason, I haven’t ended unhappily – at least not yet – despite having spent the greater part of my life anticipating such an outcome.  As Studs himself might have observed, “Geez, it just ain’t fair how things work out sometimes.”

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

It’s been months, has it?  Well, I guess it has, and while I feel guilty for having let this splendid forum remain blank all this time (and for months before that using it for little more than posting installments of Spy Rock Memories), I have actually been fairly busy.

In fact, when I complained to a good friend who often acts as an unpaid adviser that I was feeling overwhelmed with all the responsibilities and challenges – not to mention deadlines – staring me in the face, he said, “Hang on a minute, isn’t all of this stuff exactly what you’ve been saying you wanted to do for the past several years?”

Which, of course, was completely true, so that was enough to stop me complaining, at least to other people (I can still occasionally be heard muttering to myself, but then I’ve been doing that for years, regardless of whether things were awesome or abysmal).

However, as of late it almost feels like everything is coming up Livermore (with a couple exceptions that are too inconsequential and/or hopeless to bother mentioning here). First off, though I believe I’ve mentioned it here before, it’s now official: Spy Rock Memories is coming out as a book, in both printed and digital form.  The precise publication date hasn’t been set yet, but it looks to be sometime this spring, and once the book is out, I expect to be setting out for several months of traveling to various bookshops and cultural centers around this great land to promote it.  No definite schedules yet, but I especially look forward to visiting as many towns as possible around the Emerald Triangle and in Northern California.  Anyone who has suggestions for bookstores or other worthwhile venues is welcome to get in touch.

Almost simultaneously, the songs of my old band, the Lookouts, almost all of which have been out of print for 20 years or more, are being reissued, on a double LP as well as digitally.  One of the records will be the original Spy Rock Road, which we released in 1989, and the other will contain our 7″ and compilation tracks, which adds up to another 13 songs.  Tentative title for the package is Spy Rock Road and Other Stories.  We’ve been urged to re-unite for a show or two to help properly launch the record, but as usual, our drummer finds himself very busy with his new band (the one he joined in 1990), so the likelihood of that happening any time soon remains in doubt.

Cover to the original Spy Rock Road album; the re-release will contain a second record and 13 additional songs.

Right about the time the decision was reached to bring the written and musical versions of Spy Rock to the world at large, I received a call from Billie Joe Armstrong, who asked if I’d be interested in putting together a compilation of my favorite punk rock and pop-punk bands for his Adeline Records label, and though my initial reaction was, “Oh no, how am I supposed to find time to do that, too?” it was too exciting an offer to refuse, so I said yes, and it turned out – thanks to modern technology, much of which didn’t exist when I was last putting out records – that within a couple months I had not only rounded up 16 outstanding bands, but also got them into the studio, and bingo, just like that, we have a compilation: The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore.  Old-timers among you will of course recognize the allusion to the 1988 Lookout Records classic compilation, The Thing That Ate Floyd.

Patrick Hynes artwork for the new compilation.

Hoping to remain true to that spirit, I recruited my old Lookout Records (and Potatomen bandmate) Patrick Hynes to do the cover artwork, and while it’s true we recycled the concept from an old issue of Lookout magazine, I think it came out fantastic, and am looking forward any day now to see the back cover, which is likely to be equally amazing.  Release date is also sometime this spring; in fact we’re shooting for early April right now.  I’ve posted the names of the bands elsewhere, but what the heck, I might as well do it again: Dear Landlord, Mixtapes, Lipstick Homicide, Dopamines, House Boat, Vacation, The Max Levine Ensemble, Emily’s Army, Mean Jeans, The Hextalls, Weekend Dads, City Mouse, Be My Doppelganger, Night Birds, The Copyrights, The Visitors.  Quite a list, wouldn’t you agree?  Unless, of course, you don’t follow this particular style of music, in which case you’re probably reading off the names with a glassy-eyed stare as you wonder what if anything it all means.

Had a bad dream this morning just before I woke up – well, maybe not a *bad* dream, but definitely a disturbing one.  For some reason I was driving through Mexico and while attempting to back out of a parking lot, inadvertently knocked another car over the edge of a small cliff.  Yeah, surprised me, too, because I barely touched it.  But instead of stopping to deal with the situation, I panicked and took off, and the rest of the dream consisted of a series of buses and bus stations (don’t know what happened to my car) where whichever way I traveled, it was the wrong way, and the authorities were inexorably closing in on me to lock me away in a Mexican jail cell for the rest of my natural, etc.  Thankfully I woke up before things got any worse, but it was still troubling.  I don’t often have dreams like that anymore, although when I was young I had them all the time.  Hopefully this means I have mended my ways since then, or at least have less of a guilty conscience.  And just in case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t, as far as I can remember, committed any crimes in Mexico in recent memory, and I think we could safely extend “recent memory” to include “ever.”

That digression aside, one of the worst aspects of not keeping up with the blog these last few months is my having neglected innumerable opportunities to comment on what has taken shape as the most ludicrous and pathetic political campaign in my memory, and is only likely to get worse.  When I was a kid I was inordinately fascinated by the Roman Empire, what went wrong with it, and what we could learn from its demise to prevent America from stumbling down a similar path.  If you read Gibbon – which I did, albeit only partially – one thing that strikes you is that in Rome’s latter days it was afflicted with a succession of ever more corrupt, weak-minded and idiotic emperors.  There were other parallels to our present-day situation – squandering the imperial treasury on futile and pointless colonial wars, the wholesale abdication of responsibility on the part of both the ruling class and the general citizenry, the substitution of cults and mysticism for reason and discipline – but given the clown show of candidates the Republicans have managed to come up with, and given that it’s far from unthinkable that one of them will become president, precipitously declining standards in public life just might be our biggest single threat at this point.

I recognize that many people – myself included – are disappointed in Obama, feel that he has been too sympathetic toward the corporate class and too willing to compromise with the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party (is it fair, though, to call it a fringe anymore, now that there’s little left to the Republican Party but a lunatic fringe?), but even seen in the worst possible light, Obama remains a rational, intelligent person who adheres to at least some basic principles (we don’t have to agree with those principles to recognize that they are in fact principles).  So it bewilders me when many of my friends and fellow left-of-center types are ready not only to abandon Obama, but to work actively against him.  As I said, I understand and share your disappointment, but I can’t conceive of a single scenario under which our lot would be improved by replacing him with someone almost infinitely worse.  It was a similar logic that gave us George Bush in 2000: because Al Gore was insufficiently progressive for many of us, we instead allowed one of the most disastrous presidents in history to be installed, and I believe the jury is still out on whether the country will ever recover from the damage Bush and his cronies did to it.

You’d think the fact that every single Republican candidate this year is more extreme than Bush – not to mention, in the case of most of them, more intellectually and morally deficient – would give people pause before they take any action to increase the chances of one of them getting into office, but you would in fact be wrong.  There are those, of course – I know, because at times in the past I’ve been one of them – who cling to the belief that things need to get worse in order to prompt the full-fledged revolution that we need, but this thinking ignores both history – most revolutions take place when things are already beginning to get better, not when they are plummeting toward their worst – and common sense. The USA is not – the admirable efforts of Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding – in a pre-revolutionary situation.  It is more likely to be in danger of imminent collapse.

Perhaps I’m getting a bit carried away?  I spent most of my younger years in fear of an apocalypse that never arrived, and it’s perhaps a bitter irony that just when I had reached a state of tenuous accommodation – i.e., accepted the supposedly more “grown-up” notion that most of the time things were neither as awful nor as outstanding as they appeared – that the actual end times might be arriving.

Not everywhere, of course: many parts of the world, including some that I’ve visited this past year, seem to be doing just fine, and doing so by following policies that are precisely the opposite of those being advocated by Republican extremists and too easily acceded to by Democratic moderates.  But enough of that: we’ll survive – or not – and life will go on – or not – and hopefully you’ll all be sufficiently untouched by the impending havoc that you can still afford to buy my upcoming book and records.  Personally I’m debating whether to stop paying attention to politics altogether.  It’s childish and irresponsible, I know, but I get so wound up and agitated whenever I watch these people lying on a prodigious scale and/or giving vent to paranoid flights of fantasy.  The chances that my opinions, no matter how vociferously expressed, will have any impact on the political climate or its outcome are slim, and I’ve also got a couple more books to write (subject matter to be revealed in the upcoming months) before I get too terribly much older.

On the mostly plus side: it’s the middle of winter and we’ve had a spate of shirtsleeve and light jacket weather more appropriate to March or even April than January.  I only put it on the “mostly” plus side because it makes it very hard to stay indoors and do the massive amounts of work I seem to have signed up for.  Happy New Year, everybody, and let’s hope it’s not nearly as long before we meet again!



Ten Years

Ten Years

It was exactly 10 years ago tonight that I had my last drink.  I’d been stopping and starting for a year or two.  I’d get sick of myself getting sloppy drunk again and again when I’d only intended to have a civilized glass (or two) of wine with dinner, so I’d pull the plug and stop cold turkey.

The first couple days would be awful, but by the third or fourth I’d be feeling pretty good, and by the fifth and sixth, I’d be on top of the world.  Should have done this years ago, I’d tell myself, and by the seventh and eighth days I’d be telling everybody else, because by then I was feeling distinctly superior to the mere mortals who were still slaves to alcohol.

By the ninth day, I’d be getting a little irritated that my Nobel Peace Prize hadn’t arrived yet, and a little annoyed that so many people – friends, relatives, colleagues and strangers – showed no sign of appreciating what a marvelous accomplishment it was that I hadn’t had a drink in over a week.

And on the tenth day or thereabouts, I’d be starting to annoy myself.  Hadn’t I proved that I didn’t have a drinking problem?  Not just that I didn’t have a drinking problem, but that I was a human being of rare and impeccable moral character.  How many people, after all, could go ten whole days without drinking alcohol?  Practically none, as far as I knew.

In fact, I thought, wasn’t it possible that I was overdoing this whole temperance business?  Moderation in all things, including moderation, wasn’t that how the saying went?  It wasn’t that I wanted to get drunk – why, it went without saying that I was never again going to get drunk; only weaklings and moral defectives did that – but surely a beer or a glass of wine now and then wouldn’t hurt.   In fact, it would probably help.

Not for my sake, of course, but for the sake of others that I had to get along with.  There was such a thing as being too perfect, my reasoning went; now that I had licked my alcohol problem, er, I mean, proved I’d never had one in the first place, it would make perfect sense to have a single celebratory drink – or maybe two very small ones – in an appropriate social setting.

Heck, why wait until I got into the social setting when it would be more efficient to have that drink before I got there; that way, I’d arrive relaxed and affable and ready to slip into the swing of things.  Okay, two drinks, just in case it was a tough crowd.  Sometimes that drink or two would open the floodgates and I’d instantly be back on an idiot’s drunken binge; other times, I’d just have the one or two and wait another couple days before descending into full-fledged drunkenness.

But the end result was always the same.  Regardless of my intentions, regardless of the most fervent efforts of my will, I’d end up drunk again, depressed again, with my physical and emotional well-being deteriorating alarmingly, and increasingly unable to see any value or point to going on with the sort of life I was living.

The tail end of summer, 2001 was especially tumultuous and disturbing.  I’d stopped drinking in mid-August, fallen spectacularly off the wagon during the Reading Festival on the last weekend of the month, then cleaned up again in the wake of September 11, when after drinking myself into a sodden, jellied mass of protoplasm plopped in front of the TV for the first couple days following the attack on the World Trade Center, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be such a helpless mess should the terrorists turn their attention to Notting Hill (not a likely prospect, as you’ll know if you’re familiar with the place, but rationality was not my strong suit at the time).

So the next ten days were sober ones, and as usual I grew in wisdom, strength and grace while I contemplated the glory that would be mine when I led my neighborhood defense committee in turning back the terrorist menace.  And I had no intention of drinking again, I was quite sure, until I heard that my old friend Danny had arrived back in London from a year-long hitchhiking and backpacking trip around the world.

He had been pretty much my best friend in London, and we’d spent many a happy hour sitting around pubs talking over the day’s crucial historical, political and social issues.  Pubs being pubs, we’d generally lubricated our discussions with a few pints of beer.

Danny wasn’t much of a drinker; he’d typically only have one or two pints, which I found both inexplicable and exasperating.  If you were going to drink, I figured, then you should drink, and not lollygag around sipping a little beer here and a little there, sometimes not even finishing your whole glass.

The worst thing, though, was that it cramped my style.  I couldn’t very well down two or three pints for every one that Danny did.  Well, I could, but it wouldn’t look so great, would it?  So with great pain, strife and forbearance, I’d match Danny’s drinking pace, and then, once I’d said good night to him, rush home or to another pub where I’d make up for lost time by drinking everything that I would have drunk if I hadn’t been so worried about what he might think.

Obviously Danny – like most normal people – couldn’t have cared less how much I drank, or even if I drank at all.  As long as I didn’t vomit on him, or shout too loud at him in public places, he was content with me consuming as little or as much as I chose.

But now, with our first meeting in a year looming, I felt horribly torn.  I wanted it to be like the old days, a couple of highly civilized gentlemen having a highly civilized conversation over a few pints, but at the same time, I was worried sick that if I made even a one-night-only exception to my no-drinking rule, I’d be back in the soup again.

In the middle of going back and forth over this, the phone rang; an old punk rock friend who’d been sober for years was calling to see how I was doing.  I told him about my dilemma, and he said, “Well, you’re free to do whatever you want, but instead of worrying about not drinking again for the rest of your life, why don’t you just focus on tonight?  You can always change your mind tomorrow, but just for today, try making a decision not to drink.”

That made sense, and I promised him I would try it, but I knew all along I wouldn’t have the nerve to tell Danny I was going to have an orange juice or a 7-Up instead of a beer.  We went to the pub, had two pints each, and were busily catching up on what had happened in the year since we’d last seen each other.  Around 11 pm, which was the hour that most pubs closed, it became apparent that this pub had a late license.

We could – if we chose – carry on for another three hours.  I got up to go to the bathroom, and on my way there, realized, thanks to my leaden feet and sluggish mental reactions, that I was already as drunk as I needed or wanted to be.  It was impossible, I protested.  I’d only had two pints, a fraction of my normal intake. But it was undeniably true.

So I had a choice of sitting there for another three hours drinking nothing, sipping soft drinks, or telling Danny I’d had enough and calling it an early night.  You can probably guess the choice I made: three more pints of extra strong lager, and by the time we parted company I was in enough of a state that I still don’t know how I made it home from Kentish Town to West London.

I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life, and the pain was only exacerbated by the knowledge that I hadn’t drunk nearly enough to merit this sort of suffering.  Why, I’d downed ten pints and a bottle of whiskey and felt better than this.  But logic was of no avail; all day Saturday and all day Sunday, I lay there in agony, cursing alcohol for turning on me and myself for having turned back to alcohol.

It was Monday evening before I felt well enough to leave my room, let alone the house.  I was still shaky, but I’d already racked up my first three days of sobriety.  Since then, I’ve counted 3,649 more (including leap years), and today I’ve reached what once would have been the unimaginable milestone of 10 years without a drink.

And what do I have to show for it?

In a word: everything.  I probably wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t stopped drinking when I did.  At least half a dozen people I know weren’t so fortunate and did in fact pass away during the time I’ve been sober.  More than just being alive, though, I have reasons – abundant reasons – for wanting to be alive.  That wasn’t always the case.  I enjoyed some material blessings, and some of the trappings of success, but they were never enough to give my life purpose or meaning.  For most of my adult life (and the bulk of my childhood as well), I was one of the most miserable, unpleasant, arrogant, sarcastic and insensitive sonofabitches you’d ever not want to meet.

It probably goes without saying that during most of that time I was deeply depressed, frequently to the point of seriously contemplating suicide.  I may not have completely freed myself from the arrogance and insensitivity, though I think I’ve made progress, but the depression is almost completely gone, and without the use of shrinks, psychiatric drugs, or anything else more remarkable than a substance-free existence and an assiduous effort to clear up the wreckage of my past.

I laugh a lot these days – not always at things that “normal” people would consider funny, it’s true – but though I’ve still got many of the same worries and problems – especially in the finance and romance departments – that I had 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago, they just don’t seem to faze me in the way they once did.  My writing is getting better, my music is getting better, but most of all the quality of my life and my interactions with my fellow human beings is increasing by leaps and bounds.  For the first time in my life, I can unhesitatingly say, on almost any given day, that I am enormously happy and grateful and thrilled just to be alive.

Do I miss anything about the old days?  The jagged romance of hanging out in late night boozers, of staggering comically into oblivion, the poetic mystique of the beautiful but doomed loser drinking himself into the grave over lost love or unfulfilled ambition?  Sure, there’s a certain dark charm to all that, but it’s one that I can live – and have lived – very happily without.  Once – and for a very long time – I didn’t know anything else, but now I do, and it’s nothing short of awesome.

So it’s a day for celebration, but also a day for quiet thanksgiving, for remembering those who weren’t so fortunate and didn’t make it.  And, of course, to acknowledge the people who offered me a helping hand, some useful advice, or just a kind word or smile over the years.  Some of you know who you are; others of you may have no idea that some seemingly insignificant thought or gesture on your part played a vital role in saving my life and making it shine.  To all of you, thank you so very much; I could never have made it without you.