Lewis Lapham and the Fate of the Book

Posted by Lewis Lapham at 6:08pm, April 22, 2012.

[Tom Engelhardt writes, an an introduction to Lewis Lapham’s article. . .] A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century.  I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book.  Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day.  Still, back then, for my novel’s characters — mostly authors and book editors like me — I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.”  It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”– for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it — still in prototype form — it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object… a flickering jewel of light and color.”  And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.”  A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much.  The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing . . . (click here for the rest of this article).

Michael Warr’s Armageddon of Funk Reviewed

[Happy to repost this review from the City Lights Blog. The review includes the amazing Armageddon of Funk by (full disclosure) good friend and comrade Michael Warr. But it’s not just me who thinks it’s an amazing work.  Here’s what the Black Caucus of the American Library Association had to say in giving the book its Honor Award:  “In The Armageddon of Funk Michael Warr wages his own “funky” war using an arsenal of words, ideas, and personal experiences. From his soulful and historicized tribute to the legendary James Brown to his ode to the great Gwendolyn Brooks, this collection traverses the Black experience giving the reader a poetic soundtrack to Black life.” His work can be followed on armageddonoffunk.com. — LR]
The City Lights Booksellers & Publishers’ Blog

D. Scot Miller on giovanni singleton & Michael Warr

by admin Posted on April 10, 2012

“Ear of the Behearer” is the center suite of Ascension, giovanni singleton’s first poetry collection with Counterpath Press. Written during musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane’s 49-day transition through the bardo on to her passage from this planet, singleton takes us on an intimate metaphysical sojourn. Through song, chant, verse, and concrete poems she conjures a journey that unifies so many different, and seemingly disparate, influences.  Buddhism meets black folkways at organic parallel in singleton’s measured sophistication.

{012407.wednesday}

DAY 13

the readied hook

the swung rod

lowered bait

gets you hooked

and pulled up and

into open air.

listen.

let me tell you

where i’ve been.

before the

tide turns.

By Day 13 of ”Ear Of The Behearer”, the reader is truly hooked, or as the poem infers, perhaps it is the poet who is on the hook?  That slippery pronoun seems to be asking who exactly is the magic fish from the folktale able to grant wish of transcendence through their story, the reader or the one being read?  Ethereal revelation commingles with the sinister and uncanny as in DAY 2:

blue poet stands

at the crossroads framed

in indigo light.

he reaches his hand around

to his left side, slits himself open

as if to gut a fish…

The effect of such imagery is an opening of the reader as well. Each poem can stand alone, but like a recurring dream, a narrative floats slightly above our consciousness.  With each reading,  geography emerges, tools needed, tips on terrain, and codes to passage, giving Ascension the feel of both handbook and dream-book.  And like in a dream,  passages are fraught with ghosts and omens:

DAY 12

dead fox beside the road. the risk

we all run.

In order to go on this journey, we must trust our guide, giovanni singleton. And we do.  Though she promises that continuing on will indelibly change us:

today some

things will no

longer be true.

some things

we’ll deny

ever knowing.

from “Day 8”

Masks and rowboats, cupped hands, bent knees and speaking bowls; with a singular and distinctive voice, singleton presents this collection of visions, that at times feels like a curio shop of ritual and talisman used to gain entry to this world organically connected to ours.   Voices rise and fade creating an interior travelogue about the denizens of this place:

DAY 25

the circle spins

widen and emptiness

pours in.

the net catches its prey.

she swallows hard

what love

there is.

“Ear Of The Behearer”  is powerful companion to “Melanin Suite”, a meditation on shades of brown told in nine movements.  Here, singleton gives burnt umber and sepia different characteristics not only through voice, but line, structure, and pacing.  From murky, heavy darkness to brisk autumn parade, singleton’s ability to shape/code-shift brings both pieces together as a declaration of a strong voice from a “nocturnal”, contested space.   giovanni singleton’s poems are soothing sayings and fierce seductions.  Concise, playful, and profound, Ascension promises a new discovery with every reading.

Adrienne Rich describes Michael Warr's poetry as "the real thing."

*******

Adrienne Rich, who ascended this week at the age of 82, called Michael Warr’s poems, “the real thing,” and Warr’s latest collection, Armageddon Of Funk (Tia Chucha Press) proves yet another of her prophesies.

Through “poetic memoir” we join his navigation through the “apolitical,” rigid morality of his Jehovah’s Witnesses upbringing – and his father’s crisis of faith –  in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point in “Then He Became The One”,

“Tracing wet footsteps to the bathtub we found our

mother’s Watchtowers and Awakes floating.

Pages of holy literature, our father baptized before

leaving for work, bled ink in their watery grave.”

We follow Warr through the revolutionary theories and free love of Black Panthers and Marxists; the promise of a bourgeois future from bank executives; a screaming soldier brandishing an AK-47 in his face, and on to a parched crisis in the Sahara in “Desert Lost (Leaving Timbuktu)”,

“Choked on petrol spiked with water,

by traders at Timbuktu, our Land Rover dies

in the desert, where Exxon is an illusion.

A barren landscape shifts into trees

as hologrammed-Africans wave us into

the inferno on foot.”

And further, to a man who has lived an exciting life as a poet, mostly watching and listening; excavating the gems of his experiences. The adventure lies not only in the settings and sights of Warr’s remarkable life, but in the telling.  The title poem, for example, is an evocative list covering over fifty years of American history from “Watts rebels” and “Ginsberg Howls” to “Howl turns fifty” and “Voting rights are extended another inadequate quarter,”  all tied together by a nut paragraph that simply says, “My only worry, at ten years old, is what will happen to the world if James Brown dies?”

As a kid who used to worry about the same Armageddon, I’m looking forward to the day I can create such a list, and such a chronicle, with as much black grace, fierce wit, and hard-fought compassion.

———————————————

D. Scot Miller is a Bay Area writer, visual artist , teacher, curator. He sits on the board of directors of nocturnes review, and is a regular contributor to The East Bay Express, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Popmatters, and Mosaic Magazine. 2011 San Francisco Arts Commission recipient for AfroSurreal San Francisco Project, Miller is author of The AfroSurreal Manifesto and is completing a book of AfroSurreal poems, his Afro-surreal novel, Knot Frum Hear.

Chris Drew: The First Amendment And The Right To Survive

[Occupy Rogers Park had no question about how it wanted to highlight the beginning of its “Chicago Spring” campaign: we decided to honor Chris Drew, Rogers Park resident and courageous artist, who has uncompromisingly fought for free speech rights for artists.  The unusual thing about Chris Drew is that he identified the right of the artist to survive (by his/her art) and the right of free speech, and thus began to challenge the restrictive peddler’s licensing procedure that limits artists’ abilities to pursue their craft and hence their speech.  He recorded his own arrest for violating this ordinance, and when the police discovered this they dropped that charge and instead charged him with felony eavesdropping.   The ACLU took up his case and in March, 2012 the trial judge threw the case out on constitutional grounds.  The Illinois eavesdropping law may be on its way out. 

What many may not know is that for the last year Chris has been fighting this case and fighting his own serious health issues at the same time. His indomitable will and his connection with and belief in those marginalized artists with whom he has worked for so many years sustained him.  But as his health is failing (for the past year he has been fighting lung cancer),  he was determined  to accept the award and to make his remarks, which appear below unedited.  In addition you will see the remarks I made to introduce Chris;  having worked with him since my arrival in Chicago has been a distinct honor;  and in making these remarks I wanted to add something that perhaps no one else was in a position to do.  When Chris and I had a few moments after we had dropped him off at home, we talked for a moment about how overwhelmed he was by the honors accorded him, and about the difference between the movements we had both seen as young people and the movement of today.  We talked about the slogan, often repeated on Occupy posters, “It Isn’t One Thing,  It’s Everything!”  Our experience is so tied up with this demand or that issue.  This piece of the pie or that piece.  But this is about the whole pie.  The whole thing.  And Chris responded: “What most people see is small and unconnectedness. But it is connected.  It’s about the whole thing, and art is the key.  It’s all connected it is the key to our freedom.  We use the art patch to illustrate how to fight for freedom, demonstrate that [artists] have tools to fight for that freedom.”    —  Lew Rosenbaum] (The April 7th program, including Chris Drew’s remarks can be seen here).

_________________________________________________________________________

The Art Patch Project: The First Amendment And The Right To Survive – Chris Drew

This expanded lecture needs to be repeated at graduate gatherings of the Arts Teaching Institutes in Chicago.

Community Arts Concept

Art for change vs. art for art’s sake:  Art is always both, because the act of art is self-expression, which is the act of expressing the self in flux – in change.

The economic system that developed around art – art for collectors, for curators and art as an investment separated itself from art for change when desirable.  “Change art” being feared by the moneyed classes had to be discouraged during its dangerous lifetime. This is done at the institutional level.

Community art keeps rearing its beautiful head, generation after generation, by different names, movements and artists. In the 60’s and 70’s tradition I am from, it was known as “Community Art,” and resulted in opening up institutions to minority artists as well as a call for the ambitious artist to establish small institutions in community locations, securing the self-esteem needs of community segments.

Our initial Art of the T-shirt and its presently evolved Art Patch Project is the fruition of this in our 25 year long arts activity.

Stolen Rights –the Right to Survive by Art

We are talking about the real First Amendment right to survive by selling our art in public spaces that is required for change art to exist and build a public audience. This is the right above all that should be defended by our lives. In Chicago and too many other locations it has been abandoned as useless, a move that has marginalized artists and dwarfed our art scenes in public.

I have written on the legal basis and significance of this on my blog (http://www.c-drew.com/blog/) and in e-mails available on

Chris Drew asks “WHO WILL WORK?”

line.  Here I hope to describe a vision shortly and hook a few dedicated individuals.  Every movement is only as great as the art that informs it.  We need a core of workers to re-awaken the Art Patch Project to change Chicago – to create survival opportunities as an arts change base for Chicago.  WHO WILL WORK?

Art Patch Project

Please use the Art Patch Project to make Chicago Change.  Bluntly put, I am dying and the Art Patch Project needs new energy.  I pray some of you are that new energy.

Why the Art Patch Project?

We must teach citizens of Chicago to stand up for their rights and demonstrate the central role art has in this process.  We must employ win-win strategies to do so.  Using art we have changed the eavesdropping law.  Let’s extend this to artists’ rights and set an example of using art to fight for First Amendment Rights.

The Art Patch Project is a win-win concept.  Artists submit designs and are encouraged to promote their art on line on the art patch.  The Art Patch Project promotes artists’ rights on line on the patch.  Volunteers print and give away the many flavored art patches over time educating the public to the variety of artists missing in public.  The movement regenerates an art movement to sustain its needs in public. Activities take place in low-tech one or two day a week activities sustainable by a core of dedicated artists at costs affordable to a volunteer movement that takes place in public.

In 2006 Chris Drew set up “shop” on Michigan Ave., ironically in front of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Museum

This concept is already underway, demonstrable today. You may have an art patch in your hand right now.  These patches are sewn on clothes, pinned up in a creative variety of ways. They have a life that goes on promoting your voice.  This is a solution.

Artists have been using the Art Patch Project to protect our stolen rights with growing awareness, establishing a foundation to build on.  The fact is we have less right to survive by our art in Chicago in public than most places of the world.

The fact is we have less right to survive by our art in Chicago in public than most places of the world. And we have a first amendment guarantee in this right.  And we are not fighting for it.  We have given it up. We have given up our most basic right.  It is your duty to change this.

__________________________________________________________________

Sue Ying, an advocate of the Harold Washington Cultural plan, founder of Artists Against Homelessness, a strong woman and revolutionary artist for fifty years, introduced me to Chris Drew shortly after I arrived in Chicago in 1987.  Chris had come to Chicago’s uptown as a homeless expatriate from Minnesota.  He’d set up a gallery on Clark Street and began a career devoted to advocating for and with artists, recognizing that suppression of the artists’ voices is key to suppressing any revolutionary discontent in society.  

She told me he was someone I needed to know, to work with, and to learn from. What he was doing was important and powerful and it went to the heart of understanding what it meant to be a revolutionary and to have clarity about the content of our time. 

He was opening the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center, which is still housed in the American Indian Center. Recognizing that Chris’s work was important to the youth in Uptown, especially the American Indian youth, the American Indian Center gave Chris a space, rent-free, to run the workshops that were open to anyone– ANYONE — who wanted to take them. Chris started a free screen print workshop, which pulled young taggers and graffiti writers in to learn how to put their drawings onto t-shirts.  He taught them the process and then engaged them to help teach others.  He never charged for what he taught and he always encouraged people of all ages to honor their creativity. Even if they could not sell to a gallery or get published, they could make art, they could make t-shirts for themselves; for their friends; to sell at pow-wows and to display and sell at the Art of the T-shirt exhibits that Chris arranged in libraries, at the Cultural Center one year, and at Daley Center another year.  But more than anything, Chris adhered what his mentor Carlos Cortez used to teach us: “Do not expect to become an artist to make a living; become an artist to make a life.

For 20 years, Chris has run UMCAC on a shoestring — he always said he operated very low to the ground.  And while it is true that famous artists such as Carlos Cortez have worked closely with Chris, the thousands of other artists he has touched and helped to show that they have a voice are at least as important.  Chris’ gift to the community is translated into his vision that everyone is an artist, a vision that he shared with that other mentor, Sue Ying.  That there can be no revolution without a revolutionary culture.

As times changed, Chris added more weapons to his artistic arsenal: art shows, computer skills workshops, an artists’ co-op, a web campaign to revive the Harold Washington Cultural Plan that had been abandoned, the annual Art of the Tee Shirt Harvest Festival and the web based ART-ACT or Anti Racist T-Shirt-Artist Contest Tour.  From the ashes of the Washington Cultural Plan, Chris began the project that evolved as Free SAM or Free Speech Artists Movement.  

Chris passionately wanted artists to be able to display, and sell, their artwork in the parks and on the lakefront. That led to questioning the peddler’s license process. and that then led to his art patch project and to the Artists’ Free Speech Movement.  He was arrested in 2009, initially for selling his art patches for $1, but that charge was dropped and he was instead indicted for felony eavesdropping because he had audio recorded his arrest for selling the patches.  

This only scratches the surface, but I have to stop now.  I have to stop now by thanking Mayor Richard M. Daley.  I thought I would never thank Richard Daley, but I am doing it now.  Because King Richard and his minions thought they would pick a fight with a defenseless artist who would go quickly into oblivion.  Instead they picked on a tiger, who seized the opportunity and whose merit is that he wants us to continue to seize the opportunity, not to give up the fight for freedom until we are all free. 

Now, Occupy is not in the habit of petitioning the Mayor for actions.  In various parts of the city, organizations petition the mayor through their alderman for an street to be named in honor of one of the neighborhood’s distinguished citizens.  Instead of begging the Mayor of the 1%, we decided to confer that honor on one of Rogers Parks most distinguished citizens.  And so  Morse Ave. will be re-christened Honorary Chris Drew Way. And we are presenting this commemorative proclamation recognizing why the street will bear his name.  It’s especially appropriate for Occupy Rogers Park to be give this proclamation to Chris, because it is precisely the question of defending the “99%” to which Chris has devoted himself.  That is the content of our time: “Everything or nothing all of us or none. ” (Bertolt Brecht)

Chris Drew prints and gives away art patches at the Glenwood Ave. Arts Festival, August 2010

So now, I want to ask you, as Chris begins to talk, remember the felony charge that Chris has been fighting and take out your video cameras, your cell phones, any recording devices you have for video and audio, and record what you are about to hear, to post it far and wide on FB or any other medium you have at your disposal, to celebrate the fight for which Chris has dedicated the majority of his life, the battle which is for your freedom and the freedom of us all.  Pull those phones out and please help me welcome Diana Berek, a long time cohort of Chris Drew to present our Occupy Rogers Park award !!! — introductory remarks by Lew Rosenbaum]

The Longer School Day and Education Reform: What’s Really Going On?

page image
Students, parents, and teachers march to Chicago Mayor’s home
to protest school closures. The government must be held
responsible for providing education. Education must be taken
out of corporate hands. PHOTO/SARAH JANE RHEE
By Lew RosenbaumOn August 23, 2011, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizzard announced a plan to extend the school day from 6 hours to 7.5 hours. After refusing to go along with the contractually agreed-upon salary increase for teachers, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) then turned around and slapped the teachers with a longer school day. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) responded that more work time should be accompanied by an increase in pay. They also opposed the change since CPS had no plan for how the extra time would be used.This battle has gone back and forth since August. The current CTU contract expires at the end of this school year, and what the new school day will look like has become the subject of contentious negotiations for the new agreement.

What is the battle around the longer school day all about? CPS says that keeping kids in school longer will improve their test scores. Some parents, grasping at any straw offered, see some possibility of salvation. Others fear releasing their children to the streets. But as Karen Lewis, CTU president, maintained on a Chicago Tonight (WTTV) interview, there is no research that indicates that a longer school day in itself improves education. More time in school does not equal better learning.

Just as important, test scores do not really measure learning anyway. There is no plan in place to introduce funding for art and music teachers, or for more staff to cover recess periods—elements that have been removed as cost-cutting maneuvers. The battle is really not about effective education.

At first the effort was part of a campaign to vilify teachers. CPS launched its attack on teachers with the refusal to grant the pay increase already agreed upon, and then accused the CTU for being greedy. The school day battle followed the same script: The CPS announced it’s plan, the CTU objected, and the CPS characterized the teachers as only interested in money, not in children.

Reality check: CPS public education policy is being decided in the interests of a certain group of wealthy adults, the Commercial Club of Chicago, and that plan has starved public schools of needed resources for almost two decades. It has created a two-tiered public education system, with high performing magnet schools at one end and a mass of so-called failing schools at the other. Whitney Young and Northside Prep, two of the highest performing magnet schools, have circulated a petition to opt out of the longer school day. They know they don’t need that extra time. The city’s scheme to privatize “failing schools” into charter schools has not improved the children’s learning. A longer school day that could mean increased class size and even more test preparation will not improve it either. CPS does not take into account that 80% of the children in public schools qualify for free lunches. The poverty rate, along with class size and prevalence of high stakes testing, limits instructional quality and makes the US rank 24th among 29 industrial countries in educational achievement.

Public education cannot be quick-fixed by increasing the instructional day. The framework of our educational apparatus is stacked against us. The Commercial Club of Chicago has no need to educate most children for the fewer jobs available, even for college graduates. Necessities of life are abundant, but produced without people having jobs. People are being replaced by “smart” electronic technology.

All children in all neighborhoods need an education that will prepare them to understand and act on the fundamental changes our society is undergoing. We must take education out of corporate hands and hold the government responsible for providing these resources. Discussion of a longer day cannot take place outside this context.

Capitalism, a New Poem by Matt Sedillo

 

Matt Sedillo

Capitalism

by Matt Sedillo

Edgar
One of seven
Third born
Parents poor
Seen two younger die
Bed ridden
Mother crying
Father’s time
Fleeting
Man has
Something to say
Has an opinion
About everything
By sick child’s bed side
Pain reads in his eyes
Yet says next to nothing
Father rendered silent
London
Is full of dying children
Sheets carry
The stench
Father’s coat
Smells of factory smoke
Of the ash
That fell upon it
Mother sings sweetly
But the truth rings in her eyes
Edgar is going to die
And they both know it
Jenny

Jenny Marx, Karl Marx' wife

Pawn shoes
Pawn rings
Pawns linen
Has already lost
Two children
To the squalor
Of the east end
Does her shopping
Stepping over
Beggars lying in sewage
Lying in shit and piss
And third child
Her only son
Her precious boy
Her sweet angel
Edgar
Is dying
Victorian England
The world’s most
Powerful nation
Is full of dying children
Streets run flooded
With the tears
Of the women
Forced to bury them
Husband

Karl Marx

Some kind of genius
Beloved
Celebrated
Studied
The toast of a town
That will do nothing
To help feed his children
Edgar is going to die
And the whole family knows it
Karl
Spends more time
In the library
Than he does
With family
There are questions
To be answered
Momentum
To be conquered
There is talk
In intellectual circles
That his
Is the most brilliant mind
In all of London
His ideas are spreading
As his child lays dying
Walks the streets
That lead
To hallowed
Halls of knowledge
That lead to ladies in parlors
That lead to lords in parliament
On the same stretch of sidewalk
Of whores and beggers
Karl immerses his mind
In political economy
Some say his ideas
Will be the ones
That will shape history
He says the point is not to simply
Interpret the world
But to change it
Because he knows
Knowledge is not power
Only power is power
And kings queens
Clergy
Industrialists
And moneyed interests
See to it their critics
Are not rewarded
For their efforts
And Karl knows
That a man with ideas alone
Right as they may be
Cannot salvage a single

Edgar Marx, son of Jenny & Karl Marx, died in 1855. "Der arme Musch ist nicht mehr. Er entschlief (im wörtlichen Sinne) in meinen Armen"(Jenny Marx)

Solitary child
Not even
His own
The industrial revolution
Is full of dying children
Edgar
One of seven
Third born
Parents poor
Seen two younger die
Will not survive
The night
And there is nothing
The boy’s father
The most brilliant political mind
In all of Germany
France or Great Britain
The specter that haunts Europe
The writer
The philosopher
The journalist
The political economist
The revolutionary
The boy’s father
History’s most famous communist
No there was not a damn thing
Karl Marx
Poor as he was
Could have done about it

In memory of Edgar Marx and all the child victims of the industrial revolution

<mailto:mattsedillo1981@gmail.com>mattsedillo1981@gmail.com

RRC Extra No. 28: Dave Marsh Writes About Austin Hopes and Dreams

RRC Extra No. 28: Austin Hopes and Dreams

Please feel free to forward or post this RRC Extra widely. We only ask that you include the information that anyone can subscribe free of charge by sending their email address to <mailto:rockrap@aol.com>rockrap@aol.com. If you ever wish to unsubscribe, just send an email with “unsubscribe” in the subject line to <mailto:rockrap@aol.com>rockrap@aol.com.

The massive South by Southwest music festival (SXSW) has been held in Austin, Texas in the spring of every year since 1987. Dave Marsh reports on this year’s shindig.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

I know something about SXSW keynote addresses. Little Richard and Smokey Robinson both did theirs as, in part, dialogues with me—sitting live in front of several hundred people, Richard being Richard, Smokey being serious, sincere, smart, and as handsome as seventy will allow.

To a certain extent, it’s a setup: All the attendees who don’t care find other things to do and most of the rest come to have expectations affirmed. But it’s not that simple either. I had the best fun of the last twenty years just asking four questions, sitting and watching Little Richard rave for (I timed it) 17 and a half minutes without pausing for breath. Then he turned to me, clearly winded, and said breathlessly, “Ohhh, Dave! You’re still here. I bet you want to ask me some more questions.”

But it’s not that simple either. The best moments can also be absolutely pedagogical: Smokey ended with a seven minute spiel telling people how to find and deal with stardom, beginning with an admonition (“Thicken your skin”) and ending with a parable about the invention of show business. Since 2010 that last part’s gotten almost half a million hits on YouTube. Richard, who appeared in ’08, seemed to just rant but in reality he was preaching a sermon on the same theme as Smokey, offering all kinds of nuggets but coming back to the main point over and over again: “Sign your own checks!…Sign your own checks!” Afterwards, a young woman came up to me, eyes a brimful of tears, and said, “Thank you, thank you, that was everything I came here to learn.”

Steve Earle began by lecturing his audience: “Let me make something extremely clear. Kiss is not cool, Kiss was never cool, Kiss will never be cool.”

But Bruce Springsteen, this year, was something else again. He offered career advice wrapped in biography, history complete with instructive examples of where he’d swiped a couple of his classics: the doo-wop crooning that led to “Backstreets,” the way the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” provided the core of “Badlands,” and how and why “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is “every song I’ve ever written including the new ones.” Rocker he may be, but not rockist: “The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.” Bruce wrestled with Lester Bangs and Woody Guthrie, post-authenticity, the transformative self, Roy Orbison’s paranoia, Phil Spector’s musical violence, the cover of Meet the Beatles as “the silent gods of Olympus,” the barely comprehensible existence of Nintendo-core, black death metal, and the yearning needs of soul. It was as if someone had managed to translate “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom tutti frutti” into a comprehensive treatise on the development and meaning (or lack thereof) of the past sixty years of Anglo-American popular music.

He avoided the hard political realities at the core of his new album, Wrecking Ball, in favor of talking eye to eye with an audience he assumed (correctly) consisted of people who either knew these things or needed to find them out. It was a practical speech, aimed at a specific group of people. He didn’t even know it was being broadcast live or, as far as I can tell, imagine that it would wind up all over the Internet, words stuck in the heads of millions of listeners. (The full audio’s at <http://npr.org>npr.org. It’s also worth looking at the segments posted on YouTube, particularly the stuff about the Animals.)

Raves arrived immediately, but I don’t think anyone’s used the term that best describes it for me: Generosity. The speech gave far more than it took and it held back on self-promotion (granted that the entire speech was wrapped in Bruce’s persona, but I’ve already quoted the only reference to his new album.)

Springsteen never has opening acts. That day he had five. Before the SXSW speech, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and Juanes sang Woody Guthrie songs (plus one original by Juanes). It was beautiful and loving, and all the things that a tribute to a great artist on his centenary ought to be. The highlight for me wasn’t Juanes singing a verse from “This Land Is Your Land,” which he told me later was the first time he’d ever sung in English onstage, but Juanes stepping up to challenge the audience when it didn’t sing along heartily enough. LaFave sang wonderfully as he always does, his Oklahoma roots deliberately on display, and his commentary on Woody’s music and life more trenchant than ever. And Eliza, firebrand that she is, kept the music contemporary, insisting on its relevance—or rather, insisting on her listeners paying attention to its continuing relation to the world descended from the one Guthrie described. Eliza has been the best female singer-songwriter for several years now, LaFave has been the best interpreter of Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen for longer than that, and maybe this performance will help the news spread from Austin. Juanes, of course, is a rock star of Springsteen’s magnitude throughout Latin America and much of Europe; imagine John Lennon in Spanish.

That evening at the Moody Theater Springsteen had two openers–Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo with his full band each did about 45 minutes. (Springsteen had done a couple of numbers with Alejandro the night before at the Austin Music Awards show.)

The Austin show was only Springsteen’s second since the release of Wrecking Ball and, like its predecessor—an Apollo Theater benefit in honor of SiriusXM’s tenth anniversary—it contained some beautiful one-off wrinkles. Instead of invoking Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett and Smokey Robinson (and James Brown by way of a lunatic climb into the rigging), this time Woody Guthrie framed the action. Bruce opened with his now-17 member E Street Band doing “I Ain’t Got No Home” a cappella and closed with “This Land is Your Land” with Escovedo, Low Anthem, Joe Ely, and a couple members of Arcade Fire helping out.

Is there another performer in our culture who operates in both the folk-rock and soul-gospel traditions? It’s as fashionable lately to evoke Springsteen as a literary figure as it once was to display him as an articulate pseudo-gas station attendant. But what’s most remarkable is the ability to move smoothly among soul and gospel music and the folk and country tradition in the way that Springsteen does. He has reached the point now that on Wrecking Ball’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” he does both in the same song. Generally, one is lurking in the background of the other in any of his songs, especially live. (Which can’t be discerned if all your attention is on the lyrics which is where, I suppose, the shade of the Great American Poem lurks in the minds of the critics who think it’s mostly about the words.) Yet in pulling these sounds together, Springsteen is capable of convincing more than a few that the beloved community truly could be in our future.

The Wrecking Ball songs (at the Moody he played eight of the eleven) have the strongest connecting thread of any Springsteen album since The River–from the furious social questions of “We Take Care of Our Own,” through the economic despair and determination of “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown” to the glorious anthem of hope “Rocky Ground”—with its invocation of God, who does not answer—to the final, unambiguous call to action, “We Are Alive.”

I don’t suppose Bruce Springsteen has a much clearer vision of where, exactly, that action must lead to prevent the “hard times come and hard times go” cycle that he pounds away at six consecutive times in the song “Wrecking Ball.” But you can glimpse what it might feel like in any great musical performance, not just one of his. And, from my perspective, that is the real purpose of SXSW. Truth is, there hasn’t been a commercially important act that broke out of the conference since Hanson, fifteen years ago. But so what? It’s still the biggest, best music school in the United States, maybe the world.

And while Bruce’s show couldn’t offer the kind of community that he evokes in songs like “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it did evoke a sense of musician solidarity that’s essential to what happens with SXSW at its best. It’s a glimpse, but even a full-on Bruce and the E Street Band show is just a glimpse of what it would be like to live with equality and justice every day.

SXSW is as imperfect as any other human project. The sheer size of it has outstripped Austin’s transportation infrastructure and its deficit is ever-widening. The business panels are just the record industry trying to talk itself into believing it still exists. Hip-hop, dance, and ethnic music never get an equal shot in the press coverage and Austin’s local Mexican/Chicano community is invisible.

But.

What SXSW offers is a chance to attend that music school not only as student but as teacher. Not to study music but to observe and participate in the stewing mess of it. I have gone to Austin for this peculiar rite of March madness for the past, I think, nineteen years. I went to speak, I went back to listen. I keep going back not because I think I’m going to find any next big thing, but because I might run into musical glory.

This year, I got it in half a dozen ways—from Bruce, of course, but also from Eric Burdon, whose surprise (even to him and Springsteen) appearance to sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” at the Moody was a fiery proof of every accolade heaped upon the Animals’ frontman earlier that day. Where else could I interview, in the space of forty-eight hours both Juanes and Eric Burdon? Where else could I see old Austin friends like LaFave, Gilkyson, Michael Ramos, Michael Fracasso, Joe Ely and the Krayolas? Where else could I spend an afternoon and evening at a taqueria with Alejandro, Jesse Malin, Lenny Kaye, Rosie Flores, and new favorites like Maren Parusel?

Where else could I (with massive help from David Alvarez at KUT-FM and my producer Jim Rotolo) put on a live Sunday radio show, from nine to eleven AM, with seven musical guests? None of them played a record or sang a song I’d ever heard before. And all of them were flat-out great. None of them got paid—at SXSW no artist at an official gig ever gets paid, and very few get paid at any of the others, either. It is, most of the time, music for the love of music.

I go to SXSW to recharge, to remember why I love music, why we’ve still got a chance. And this year, like that young woman said, I got everything I came to learn.—D.M.

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[Graphics added by editor of this blog]

Chris Mahin Writes On The Anniversary Of The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King

[Chris Mahin, whose writing appears on this blog often, contributes the following on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.]

April 4 is the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Below you will find the text of an article I wrote in 2006 about the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968 during the Memphis sanitation workers strike. It was written for the regional website of the union I worked for at the time. It describes what happened in the sanitation workers’ strike, the role played by AFSCME, and the attempts of the FBI to slander and isolate Dr. King. I thought it might be useful background material for anyone involved in events commemorating the anniversary of the assassination.
Thanks,
Chris
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April 1968:
Dr. King Is Killed Defending Labor’s Rights

Murder in Memphis: Life Magazine Cover

April 4 is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. While many events are held each year to honor Dr. King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned — why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr. King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes April 4 an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in U.S. history in general), but in the history of the labor movement as well.

On February 12, 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 an hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions, and a viciously anti-union mayor.

The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours a day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.

This dire situation came to a crisis point on Feb. 1, 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

"I Am a Man" became emblematic of the strike

Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.

The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city council to recognize the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs which read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognized around the world.

Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On February 14, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.

It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organizers appealed to Dr. King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to protest poverty. But when AFSCME organizer Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.

Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people, and called for a citywide march.

On Thursday, March 28, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s headquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, Mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people, and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.

On Friday, March 29, some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks, and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.

In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organizers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life, and his place in history.

In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction:

“[S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”

At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI, and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Murder at the Lorraine Motel

Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.

On Tuesday, April 16, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached.  The agreement included union recognition, better pay, and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.

It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory, but at a terrible cost, the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions, and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign which Dr. King had been
working on when he went to Memphis did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites.

Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps

Carrying on Dr. King's Legacy

the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labor leaders have an official position with a union — and that labor comes in all colors, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honor what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.

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