Ned Sublette Introduces Los Van Van at World Music Conference in Cardiff, Wales

Thanks to Rock and Rap Confidential for sharing this piece:


This presentation was made yesterday by our good friend Ned Sublette in Cardiff, Wales at the international world music conference known simply as WOMEX:

How many of you have been to Cuba?
How many of you have seen Los Van Van play?Los Van Van

You’re in for a treat today. Every Van Van concert is a historic experience, and today they’re going to play with the intensity of an impending storm.

In this kind of recital presentation in a seated auditorium, you get every note of the music, but it’s one level shy of the full experience. For that, you’d have to be standing on Cuban soil, preferably at the outdoor Havana dancehall La Tropical, with thousands of young Cubans putting their hearts into singing along with all the coros, experiencing the nuances of the lyrics in their faces, expressing the polyrhythms by moving different parts of their bodies in different directions, pushing the band to drive them harder. I saw this many times.

I came to Los Van Van late. Their official date of foundation was December 4, 1969, and I first heard them play live in January 1990 in a television studio in Havana, my third day ever in the country, at the taping of a TV special in honor of their twentieth anniversary. All that time already they’d been the maximum institution of Cuban popular music. I’d heard their records, though their records weren’t easy to get, given the pariah status of Cuba in the United States, which is why I subsequently started a record label called Qbadisc, at a time when there existed maybe five or ten CDs of Cuban music in the world.

You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba. Havana was the first great music capital of the hemisphere. Already in the 16th century, musical ideas traveled from Havana back to Spain and up through Europe. Cuban influence has been heard worldwide ever since then, and Cuba’s a world power in music today. But following the change of government in 1959, after Cuba declared independence from the United States, a whole world came crashing down. Many musicians left, but more stayed. Technical resources vanished. Spare parts couldn’t be gotten. Impresarios fled. The country was embargoed, and, unfortunately, still is, by the United States. Cuban music had to be rebuilt, phoenix-like, out of the ashes. That process took years, out of earshot of most of the world, and it took until the 90s for Cuban music to reclaim its place on the world’s music stage after disappearing for decades into the memory hole.

During those long years, especially after the disappearance of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, during the austerities of what the Cuban government called the Special Period in Time of Peace, it seemed at times that Cubans were surviving on music. A popular song carried a lot of weight in Cuba, where media channels were few but far-reaching. A coro didn’t attain its full meaning until the entire country, from children to seniors, had sung it for a few months. People didn’t come out to hear old hits. They came to hear something new, something that would speak to their situation, and bands competed furiously to provide it.

Juan Formell began putting his coros into the Cuban air in 1968, when he first came to prominence as music director, composer, and bassist of Elio Revé’s group Changüí ’68. After a year and a half or so, he left that band to start his own group, and was joined by a number of musicians he had worked with in Revé’s band, who wanted to be part of the new thing. The first Van Van album sounds fresh today. Despite the technical limitations of the time and place, it’s a fabulous record that already contains the basic elements of the Van Van project. It was utterly experimental in the way it broke with the then prevailing harmonic and rhythmic practices. I love salsa, which is based on prerevolutioary Cuban music, but this is something else. This music took an alternative path, drawing on deep Cuban roots not to answer, but to ask, contemporary questions.

There’s a song they opened their sets with in the 90s: Qué tiene Van Van que siga ahí? What does Van Van have that it keeps going like this? What does it take to be not only the greatest dance band in Cuba, of all places, but to stay on top for almost forty-five years in that highly competitive musical environment, which among other things depends on continually being able to please the teenage dancing public?

Formell updated the band’s sound constantly – not to be trendy, but to take advantage of new instrumental and technical possibilities, as individual musicians came and went. I count twenty-three studio albums over forty-four years, and, despite an almost total turnover of personnel, if you listen to their first album from 1969 back-to-back with the last one, La Maquinaria, from 2011, despite all the changes, there’s a unity to it. Nobody else in Cuba or anywhere sounds Los Van Van. They’ve exerted an enormous influence over the bands that came after them, but nobody could copy their sound. They have a peculiar, original orchestral texture: a charanga instrumentation of flute and violins, but with trombones to fill in the tenor register. They sound like deluxe produced music when they play live.

But that’s just the surface of what’s different about them. Formell changed the rhythmic matrix of Cuban dance music. There’s a steady pulse, which people raised on rock and roll can identify with – cha, cha, cha, cha, easy for anyone to dance to. But then there are all these internal polyrhythms. Formell brought in the rhythms of the great classical music of West Africa, the batá rhythms of the Yoruba religion, into the basic dance texture. He reconceptualized the rhythm section. He popularized the use of the electric bass instead of the upright in Cuba. Los Van Van were brought electronics into Cuban music in a different way than any other band I’ve seen. They used a drumset, something you only previously saw in Cuban jazzbands and rock bands, but they used it differently. Los Van Van has had in forty-four years, only three drummers – Blas Egues, the mighty Changuito, and for the last twenty years or so, the drummer’s been Formell’s son, Samuel Formell, who’s presided over an era in which the present-day members of the group all grew up listening to Los Van Van.

Their cubanía shows up not only in the music, but also in the lyrics written by Formell and others, most notably including their great founding pianist and composer César “Pupy” Pedroso. If you want to know what it was like living in Cuba in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, listen to Van Van, who sang in the language of the people – memorably personified by singer Pedro Calvo, among a number of others — about the challenges and pleasures of contemporary daily life. Even though Van Van played all over the world, the meaning of their music was rooted in the breadlines of Havana, and their validation came at the level of the baile popular, the popular dance. Cabeza, corazón, cintura, lots of bands have two of the three, but Los Van Van has all three. One of Formell’s greatest, simplest lyrics, is a simple exhortation to dance with your heart: Dale con el corazón, muévete, muévete . . .

There have long been two streams of Cuban music – one for domestic consumption, another for export. But Van Van is both. Over the decades, they’ve lived on airplanes, representing Cuba with sabor and dignity in many of the countries that are represented here today. But back in Cuba, they always had a song on the radio. When they have a song out, it stays on Cuban radio sometimes a year and a half, until another Van Van song comes along. You couldn’t gauge popularity by record sales in the unique anti-market of Cuba, so the way you knew who was the most popular was to line all the bands up on the Malecón and see who draws the biggest crowd, and that would be Los Van Van.

In February 1996, with Cuban music at the peak of yet another of its cycles of creativity, I saw the band play six consecutive nights at the Palacio de la Salsa in Havana’s Riviera Hotel. By that point the band had been in existence twenty-six years, and they rehearsed every day, as Cuban bands do. I was present all six nights, and I realized: even with all those years behind them, each night the band was growing. I heard this happen. Each night the band was a quarter of an inch bigger, finding new places to go as they made their way through the complicated, stretched-out arrangements that they played without reading. The band that finished that six-night run was just a little better than the band that started it. This process had been going on, one gig at a time, for decades.

I asked Juan Formell yesterday what it was like – one of those dumb interviewer questons, right? – given the exceptional role of Cuba in the world, what it was like to be emblematic of Cuba both at home and abroad all these years.  He said, “to represent your country on a level like this — what more can you ask God for? I don’t think I could ask for more than that.”

I’m happy to bestow this honor on Juan Formell – composer, lyricist, bandleader, bassist, singer — but Cuba bestowed it on him a long time ago. This is Juan’s award, but it’s an award to the heroic musicians of Cuba who kept their country going, to the dozens of people who have played in and facilitated Los Van Van, and it’s ultimately an award to Cuba, which I highly recommend you visit. As Mayito Rivera sang in Formell’s apotheosic “Soy Todo,” Yo soy Van Van, yo soy Cuba.


PEN Releases Statement on Crimes Against Journalists in Mexico

[PEN International released the following statement about the disappearance and punishment of journalists and writers in Mexico that makes  Mexico “one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a writer.” — editor]
23 October 2013

Mexico: Step up measures to end impunity for crimes against journalists

The climate of impunity which allows attacks on journalists in Mexico to remain unpunished is contributing to the on-going high level of risk to the security of writers in the country, PEN International said today as it attended the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Mexico’s human rights record in Geneva.

The organization reiterated its call for increased and effective protection for journalists and writers by the federal government.

‘Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a writer,’ said Ann Harrison, Programme Director of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

‘We have joined many other civil society organizations in pressing the Mexican government for several years to end impunity for killings of journalists and provide effective protection for those still working, but the measures put in place are largely ineffective.’

Since December 2006, at least 49 print journalists, writers and bloggers have been murdered and at least nine others have disappeared. Few of these attacks have been thoroughly investigated.

Impunity for crimes against journalists is estimated to stand at around 90 per cent and whilst some of the attacks are perpetrated by organized crime groups, many come from government agents at a state and local level.

Despite the introduction of two mechanisms aimed at protecting journalists under threat, and the creation of the office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), fewer than 10 per cent of attacks against journalists and writers result in convictions.

‘Frankly, the Mexican authorities are paying mere lip service to these pervasive impunity issues,’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

‘Mechanisms and promises do not constitute action. Many journalists are dying, and others are intimidated into silence.’

Other legal reforms such as the decriminalization of slander and libel, which should have decreased the risk of journalists facing prison for their reporting, have had little effect. Thirteen of Mexico’s 32 states continue to criminalize defamation; these laws are used to intimidate journalists who uncover corruption.

PEN International has long campaigned for freedom of expression in Mexico. In 2012 a large <>PEN International delegation assembled in Mexico, led by its full executive team and including representatives of all seven North American PEN Centres. PEN put forward specific recommendations, met with key government figures and held public events.

In late 2012, PEN International published the anthology <>Write Against Impunity, a literary protest highlighting the escalating violence against journalists, writers and bloggers in Latin America – in particular Mexico, Honduras and Brazil – and the impunity enjoyed by those who commit these crimes.

During <>a follow-up visit in March 2013 PEN found that progress to protect writers and journalists had been slow. In a submission to the UPR process, PEN International joined PEN Guadalajara to outline its concerns for the safety of journalists and made the following recommendations:

Ensure that the 49 murders and nine disappearances of writers and print and internet journalists that have taken place since December 2006, as well as any other unsolved murders and disappearances from previous periods, are properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice;
Provide public information on the state of the investigations into the murders of writers Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez Ávila and Guillermo Fernández García;
Ensure that all attacks against writers and print and internet journalists alleged to have been carried out by government entities at any level are fully and promptly investigated as a matter of urgency;
Ensure as a matter of urgency that FEADLE is allocated sufficient financial, material and human resources in order to carry out its work, and support the office to make use of its newly strengthened powers to investigate and prosecute crimes against journalists and freedom of expression;
Address criticisms of the current protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders in consultation with these groups;
Ensure that steps are taken towards the complete decriminalization of defamation in all 32 Mexican states;
Ensure that the Article 33 Regulatory Law is enacted as a matter of urgency and to provide assurances that foreigners are not being expelled from Mexico in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

To see the full UPR submission click <>here.

The Pedagogy of Hip Hop: Media Consolidation, Black Manhood, and Art in America

A message from the Secretary of Culture in the Green Shadow Cabinet. 

September 12, 2013

Structurally, technologically and culturally speaking, there is no “music industry” any more. There is also no “movie industry” any more. Those two things have been consolidated into a more generic and all encompassing, “entertainment industry.” But that’s not even the kicker. The kicker is that technically, the entertainment industry is now a sub-division of a much larger and more insidious industry known as the “telecommunications industry.” This is the delivery system under which all media and cultural distribution is being consolidated. Some entities to look out for in this telecommunications act generated morass: Google, Apple, and Access One. This shift presents both new challenges and new opportunities. Those engaged in cultural struggle as well as those engaged in labor struggle are currently smack dap up against that. Chuy Gomez has been replaced by a robot, and the VMA’s? well…

I don’t have any beef with 95-99 percent of the artists who are making an effort to generate a living for themselves and their families. Most of them are just like me in a slightly different position, making slightly different choices.

When I talk about the industry, I’m not talking about the hardworking artist or the record producer who really believes in what he or she is doing. Artists need and deserve administrative and structural support. And folks who have made it to a certain position have earned their way there. It’s not fair or intellectually honest to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I am talking about the corporations and colonial structure that has been looting and pillaging cultural production since art, music and culture could be commodified. I am not talking about DMX, T.I. or Kendrick. I am talking about the CEO’s and large stockholders of Warner Bros, Comcast, Disney and the other rapidly consolidating future monopolies of media and global cultural distribution. I am talking about the larger imaginary structures that are spying on us through our Youtube surfing as we speak. The same ones that are complicit in not sharing the easily accessible truths about current issues like Syria and chemical weapons.

Hip Hop’s dream deferred

Artists are not the problem. In fact, as much as the world fails to really engage this truth, artists are the victims. And so are the people who benefit from healthy culture. Which might be most of us.

The reason it is economically important for our current corporate structure to ensure that you do not see yourself in the cultural production and exchange process, is because by separating us from the process, someone can determine and direct who and what is considered legitimate and valuable in the realm of culture. This way, not only can the creative thought of a society can be controlled, but then the rewards of culture can be organized and harvested by those who may or may not have even planted the crops. The reason it is ideologically important to separate people from the process of cultural production and exchange is because art is human. Culture, itself is how we socialize, interact with and collectivize our understanding of humanity.

Those who control culture, control definition. Those who control definition, control determination.

One of the primary challenges that American cultural movement in general, and the Hip Hop social and political movement specifically, still struggles to resolve is the question of the artist’s role in movement, industry and society as a whole. In general, our society is isolated from art and artists, even though our clothes, logos, commercial jingles and pop hooks tell a different story. In the industry, artists, in general are considered incapable of managing their own affairs. This is often chalked up to their inability to think in structured terms. While generally accepted as a truth, this is both historically inaccurate and extremely dangerous.

Look at it this way. In movement work, it is not considered ethical for an outside group to come in and lead the way, or to define the terms of the struggle. It would not be considered ethical for non-blacks to lead a black struggle, for men to lead a women’s struggle, for management to lead a workers struggle.

Why then, was the center of the Hip Hop social and political movement, not the artist? And when I say the artist, I do not simply mean the ones who are signed to record labels. I mean the ones playing local bars, tagging your block, designing your flyers, opening up for T.I. and Hiero all over the world?

If we were to look through the lens of the artist, we would see that what is at stake now is what was always at stake. It is what every graph writer, dj, emcee and b-girl have in common. It was what record labels, radio stations, police and other institutions have struggled to rob of for centuries.

The struggle of the artist of America, is the struggle around the means of ownership and distribution of cultural production. The contradiction between the origin of Hip Hop and the current state of on coming fascism is the question of who will wield the power of cultural democracy and self-determination. Hip Hop, in it’s instinctive rejection of corporate domination, both in the industry and movement work was a natural target of the fascist state. A culture that, when healthy, challenges the institutions of capitalism and colonialism by virtue of it’s very existence, can’t just be allowed to exist untampered with.

When keeping it real goes wrong

At the heart of the conversation around cultural self-determination and Hip Hop is the Black male: young and old. Many, today, refuse to accept this reality. In fact, the well documented process of cultural neo-colonialism, affectionately referred to as “cultural appropriation,” contributes directly to the erasing of the story of the relationship between cultural movement in America and the Black male.

Here is the question that real “kings of comedy” have had to resolve since transitioning slaves into modes of racist and emasculatory modes of cultural production known as “minstrel shows.” How do we capitalize on and profit off of the cultural potency of Black manhood, while simultaneously undermining that potency?

For many years, they have answered that question. And for many years, artists and leaders have re-invented themselves. And for many years, they have adjusted to that re-invention.

Hip Hop, being a manifestation of many years of “a dream deferred,” literally being born out of fire, water, blood and love, spoke the truth in a way that neither US, nor global culture had ever experienced so directly. Hip Hop said, “Fuck the Police” but it also said “Be a Father to a Child.” It was able to take on the topic of “OPP,” but it also asked, “Who you calling a bitch?!?!” It simultaneously told us to “Slow Down” and to “Stop the Violence” while telling us to “Fight the Power” and to “Protect your Neck.” Before the industry was fully able to sink its’ dirty paws into every nook and cranny of Hip Hop, Hip Hop told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. It was one of the rules.

And so the natural Black male inclination to reject the shackles of the music industry wasn’t simply a matter of the artist wanting all of their royalties. It was outright rejection of the values which had guided the hand of black entertainment of culture for years. And this is not the first time it had happened in history, for sure. Paul Robeson is one of the Godfathers of the alienation of the Black male artist with a brain and a backbone. And, of course, it came on the tail end of the Black Arts movement.

But Hip Hop was comprehensive. It could hit you from a million angles. And it was responsible for the creation of artists like Dave Chappell. Artists who reflect that struggle of the Black male artist in America. The struggle that writer, artists and educator, Jeff Campbell, refers to his upcoming play, “Who Killed Jigaboo Jones.”

Recently, Dave Chappelle stopped during the middle of show. Some say that the audience was just cheering Dave on, and he over reacted. Others say that the audience was not respectful, and did exactly what Dave asked them not to do. One thing is for certain. Dave Chappelle has made a choice. Whether you agree or not, he has proven again and again that he will not be a jiggaboo. That he will not be the butt of a centuries old joke about the purpose, pressure and power of Black cultural producers in a colonial entertainment factory.

Dave Chappelle is Hip Hop. And it would make sense that he would walk away, because really, that is some Hip Hop shit to do.

And as he pointed out, in this environment, keeping it real can go horribly wrong.

But that’s the thing. This isn’t over. Quite the contrary. The landscape is both global and infinite. And humans are genetically wired to fight or flight. And what will happen when there is nowhere left to run to? When the truth is too overwhelming to ignore, because it’s right on your doorstep, in your living room, sitting on the edge of your bed?

~ Shamako Noble serves as Secretary of Culture in the General Welfare Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet of the United States.

Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest, Occupy, and MORE! Events

This weekend, August 16, 17 and 18: Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest:GAAF2008_1sm

Lew Rosenbaum will be exhibiting (as usual) at the Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest with a wide variety of books. Features this year include remaindered copies of the acclaimed autobiographical Black Radical by Nelson Peery; Heartfire, he recently issued dynamite second volume of poetry by the Revolutionary Poets Brigade; and selected works of fiction by Barbara Kingsolver, Jose Saramago, Jorge Amado and many others.  We’ll of course have copies of the Chicago Labor Trail Map that offers a self guided tour to places of interest in working class history. And we have limited numbers of copies of the important books on education in a time of austerity, written by Bill Watkins, Willie Baptist and Todd Price.

Diana Berek will also be displaying her art work in the adjoining booth, along with colleagues from the Greater Northside Artists Revolutionary collective (GNAR).  The tents will be located just south of Morse on Glenwood.

The Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest (GAAF) is a free, weekend-long arts festival that features 100+ artists, open studios, and live entertainment on three outdoor stages.  Experience art of all disciplines, music, theater, food and drink on the cobblestone streets of the Glenwood Avenue Arts District in Chicago’s historic Rogers Park neighborhood.

The 12th annual Fest will take place the weekend of August 16-18, 2013. Mark your calendars! Join us at the fest launch party, the Friday Night Cobblestone Jam, on Friday from 6pm to 10pm and the artists’ market on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from Noon to 9:00pm.

Wednesday, August 21:  Unfurling #8 with Dan Tucker at Spontaneous Interventions

Daniel Tucker will share some gems from the Never The Same archives, which document social, public and political art in Chicago. Unfurlings are show-n-tell events that Never The Same uses to highlight portions of their collections. In this instance, Tucker will share materials, selected specifically for Spontaneous Interventions, that show ways artists in Chicago have dealt with the politics of public space over the last 15 years.

Chicago Cultural Center  78 E Washington 5:30 to 7

For more information, visit and

Saturday August 24: Occupy Rogers Park Presents a Teach In: Understanding the History and Role of The State:

And no, we aren’t talking Illinois here.
Not really sure what people mean when they are talking about fascism? Curious about the historical emergence of governments? Not sure what governments are like outside of the United States? Join us for some opportunities to learn from one another! This is the first in a five part series.  We’ll be meeting August 24th, September 7th, September 21st, October 5th, and October 19th at the Rogers Park Public Library (in the conference room on the second floor) from 2:30-4:30pm. (The conference room is accessible)

ClickHandlerWith failures in our justice system, like the Zimmerman trial; with violations of our privacy, like the NSA and CIA collecting information from our emails and phone calls; and with abuse of police authority, like stop-and-frisk and targeting of activists, one has to step back and consider the true motivations of our government. This series is designed as a discussion forum to facilitate understanding of political ‘isms’ like socialsim, communism, fascism, and anarchism; to explore the history and origins of the state; to compare the nature of state power in the US to that of state power abroad; and to examine how our government impacts our daily lives.

Monday August 26: Political Repression, Here and Now

Michael Deutsch and Flint Taylor from the People’s Law Office and Dennis Cunningham, special guest and a founder of the People’s Law Office, will talk on surveillance, unjust imprisonment, criminalizing of environmental activists, indefinite detention, Guantanamo, voting rights, internet spying, drone killings and important human rights violations taking place, not yesterday, but here and now, in our own time, in the era of Obama.
What will be next?
What are you going to do about it?

Monday, August 26, 7 PM   Heartland Cafe  7000 N Glenwood

August 28:  Education Under Attack!! School Boycott

No more school closings, budget cuts and sabotage of our neighborhood schools! Join together with 25 other cities on August 28th! We want an elected school board! We want Arne Duncan to resign! We want real school improvement! Meet at 125 S. Clark at 10am on August 28. If you need to ride a bus, call (773) 548-7500. Public Education is Under Attack!

Taksim Square Book Club: George Henton in Aljazeera

In Pictures: The Taksim Square Book Club
published in Aljazeera, June 24, 2013
Protesters stand silently and read books in central Istanbul, in stark contrast with scenes of violence.

George Henton

Istanbul, Turkey – After weeks of violent clashes between police and protesters across Turkey a new form of resistance has emerged – the “Standing Man”.
Standing silently, and initially alone, Turkish performance artist Erdem Gunduz stood, with his hands in his pockets, facing the Ataturk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square, Istanbul, for eight hours.
With extraordinary speed, Gunduz become the latest symbol of the resistance movement. In days that followed, thousands of people would emulate his solitary act, standing silently, for minutes or hours, in places across Turkey.

The contrast with the images of tear gas clouds and water cannon could not have been greater. Faces obscured by masks and helmets were revealed to show expressions of quiet contemplation.
Violent scenes are still occurring around Turkey, including in Istanbul once again this past weekend, but the Standing Man protests continue unabated.
The following images explore one aspect of the protest in Taksim Square, ongoing since before the communal standing took off. Public reading and informal education has been notable since the earliest days of the protest, but has since merged with the Standing Man to form “The Taksim Square Book Club”.
The chosen reading material of many of those who take their stand is reflective, in part, of the thoughtfulness of those who have chosen this motionless protest to express their discontent. Click this link to find the photos.

Glenwood Avenue Arts Festival Aug 18 and 19

IT’S GAAF Weekend — or Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest

August 18 and 19
12 Noon to 9 PM

This year featuring
*Booth 26 dedicated to continuing the work of
Chris Drew and the Art Patch Project
new patches printed on site!


**Booth 27 Chicago Labor & Arts Festival
the annual HUMOUNGOUS (great price) BOOK SALE
with books in all categories including kids, Spanish language, black history and literature, fiction and non fiction, Marxist and other political science; buy three, get one FREE.

***Plus we are a source of information about all things ré
Public Education Crisis:

  • Occupation Rogers Park Education Committee
  • Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign
  • Various community activities coming up
  • How to support teachers and the campaign for World class schools our communities deserve!

It’s not tax deductible, but your $$$ help tremendously!
Please make checks out to CL&AF
and mail to Lew Rosenbaum, 1122 W. Lunt 4A, Chicago, IL 60626

As always, thanks for checking in with us!

PS.  Have you heard about the Pied Piper of Rogers Park?  Ask us about this . . .

The Highway Is Alive Tonight: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball — Lew Rosenbaum

[In the following piece a few things might need to be clarified.  Greta, my sister, died almost 4 years ago, at 80 years old.  Often I want to have a conversation with her.  Occasionally I’ll write a letter, as this piece begins, because I still feel the loss and because there is something I want to say anyway.  She was a trained classical musician who listened to me because she said she envied my ability to appreciate so many genre’s that she could not.  Chris Drew has contributed to this blog and I’ve written about him in the People’s Tribune as well. Chris died on May 7, 2012 after a heroic battle with lung cancer.  Bill Glahn is a friend and music writer and jack of all trades who shared his insights generously to a community of political thinkers and music enthusiasts of which I am privileged to be a part. Clicking the link for each song will lead you to a video recording of the song.  The entire album may be heard by clicking on Wrecking Ball here.  And last, the comments in this piece reflect what I think of this music, what I take from it into my life, in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, when she wrote: “I give you my poem, it is my life, now do with it what you will.”  Because I do believe the Highway is Alive Tonight in ways I have never seen.  This is the most amazing time in which to live.]

Dear Greta,

May 10 is drawing to a close.  I wanted to wish you Happy Birthday, even if it is an abbreviated greeting.  There are just so many things on my mind now, things that I want to talk over with you.  Things like why I think this is such an amazing moment in history.  Things like how it has felt  — felt, not what I think about it, but felt — to wind up the artistic life of Chris Drew.  I want to tell you how that feels.  I want to tell you how when I looked into his eyes as I saw him dying, I thought every minute of you.  That will never go away.

And I want to tell you, perhaps most of all, about music.  I want to tell you about the Bruce Springsteen album, the one I have been listening to over an over again. Wrecking  Ball.   How I would have made you a copy, how you would have said the words were good, but the music is still too loud for your ears.  How we would have had a conversation about the structure of the album.  How I listened over an over to We Take Care of Our Own, learning by bits and pieces the irony and anger and ambiguity and hope in that song.  How my friend Bill Glahn made me understand, even before I heard it, the meanings of Jack of All Trades, how the dirge resonates with me more than any other song in the album.  How at the same time the travelers on the rocky road remind me so much of the rocky road we are all traversing, and how the bridge to Land of Hope and Dreams is so perfect.  And how the tribute to Clarence Clemons which illuminates each show this tour, makes it clear why I am writing this letter.  Bruce tells his audience:  if you’re here, and we’re here, then they (Clarence and Danny Federici also) are here.  And so it is with Chris Drew.  And with you.

But as with Clarence’s now stilled sax,  so it is with your stilled voice.  Rest well.

May 10, 2012

The Highway Is Alive Tonight

I admit to some confusion, some anxiety when I first heard “We Take Care of Our Own,”  the song that opens the new Bruce Springsteen record.   “We take care of our own, wherever this flag’s flown,” he sings. And inside my head I said “Wait a minute: from Fort Bragg to Baghdad, we are not taking care of our own nor of others — or we are taking care of them like the mob does.” More and more, though, the song resonates with questions, ironies, ambiguities.  Who are “we,”  who are “our own,” what is “this flag,” and where indeed is it flown?  This song cannot be taken at face value.

“The road to good intentions has grown dry as a bone.”  This line ends the first verse, that emphasizes the stance of the song and the album.  The “good intentions” –debatable of course, but rhetorically correct — of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” FDR’s “New Deal” have no promise left in them.  They came from knocking at the door of the throne room.  The throne! The uncrowned emperor of the USA.  So when the singer intones that we take care of our own, from shotgun shack to the Superdome, it evokes an abdication of responsibility during Katrina specifically, but a more general abdication, a boast that covers a festering reality.

Where are the eyes with the will to see . . . where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?”  This series of questions deepens the dissatisfaction with we take care of our own. We can’t really be doing what we are saying. And “this flag” — if it is the flag of the USA, that “wherever” also is an opening to a bigger question, since “this flag” is flown in the most distanced parts of the world, from countries in a crescent surrounding China and Russia, to the NATO countries to wherever there is an armed forces presence around the world, thousands of military bases.  Are we taking care of our own?  Even if “our own” is defined as US citizens?  The casualties, deaths, trauma just among “our own” soldiers.  But what about the question about who “our own” really is? Don’t we bear responsibility for the destruction of the countries we bomb, the people killed and left homeless?  Are they not as much “our own” as the soldiers we have sent to render that destruction?

These are all questions raised by this song not because the song is explicit, but because it is deliberately ambiguous.  And because of this it raises the ultimate question for me:  how do we get to the place where “we”  —  the working class — take care of our own, protect our international class brothers and sisters, wherever our flag, the flag of the international working class, is flown.  That is the challenge of this album and it starts from the first song.

Easy Money” seems like it doesn’t belong.  But here is this character in the bleak world, that is tumbling down without him even seeing it, already described, who takes his Smith and Wesson 38 to go out on the town looking for easy money.  “Put on your red dress,” we’re goin’ out on the town “lookin’ for easy money.”  Bravado without substance marks this song, it seems to me.  Can’t make it any other way, which then leads into “Shackled and Drawn.”   Bruce Prescott, in a blog he calls “The Mainstream Baptist,” writes about this song:

Bruce Springsteen describes the result of the inequities of our economic system in a number of songs on his new “Wrecking Ball” album. Here’s my favorite:

Gambling man rolls the dice,

working man pays the bill

It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill

Up on bankers hill, the party’s still going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn

Pick up the rock son, carry it on

We’re trudging through the dark in

a world gone wrong

I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.

The gambler and the banker are the ones making the easy money. The poor boy in a world gone wrong can pick up his smith and wesson, but that won’t get him anywhere.  The bankers rob you without a gun (or rather, with the armed force of the state behind them).  The song ends calling on you to stand up and be counted and pray tonight.

Prescott might like “Shackled and Drawn” best, but “Jack Of All Trades”   hits me hardest.  “I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain,I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain.”  I’ll do anything, I can do anything — pull that engine apart  —  “the hurricane blows, brings a hard rain,  when the blue sky breaks, feels like the world’s gonna change, we’ll start caring for each other, like Jesus said that we might, I’m a Jack of All Trades, we’ll be all right.”  We’ll be all right is still sung like a dirge, an enduring funeral march almost, a death march, a survival march.  But with a hint of possibility this time.  It’s not the fantasy of easy money, it’s not the despair of shackled and drawn, it’s not the sarcasm or irony of we take care of our own.  It is the bridge to possibility of taking care of our own.

Now, jack-of-all-trades, in my family recollection, was always followed by the phrase “master-of-none.”  Meaning not being able to do anything well.  You can always count on him, he can do anything, he’s a jack-of-all-trades;  versus don’t let him do anything too complex, because he can’t do the really tough jobs. Taken collectively, and referring back to “we take care of our own,” the working class is that jack of all trades.  All trades are found within the class, all are developed to their specialities within the class.  The class will survive.  The class will be all right.

I’m not writing an exegesis of each line or even each verse, but read these lyrics, listen to the patience and sorrow of “it’s all happened before, it’ll happen again,”  living through rough times and good times, and bad times of all varieties, and yet you see a chance, a possibility, a new world that hearkens back to a promise made before (the Jesus image), meanwhile living with what exists, making and re-making.

the banking man grows fat

working man grows thin

it’s all happened before

it’ll happen again

now sometime tomorrow

come soaked in treasure and blood

we stand the drought

now we stand the flood

there’s a new world comin

I can see the light

I’m a jack of all trades

we’ll be all right

so you use what you’ve got

and you learn to make do

you take the old

and you make it new

. . .And then there is that one line, coming near the end, where  frustration breaks out but where the tone is the same patient sound that has filled this song, the same dirge, and still the character says what he would do

if I had me a gun

I’d find the bastards and shoot em on sight.

No hint that that was coming.

The song ends with an instrumental wail of defiance. This is a Tom Morello solo, a scream of guitar sounds which says more than we’ll be all right, says we will triumph, foreshadows the challenge to those who wield the wrecking ball of the title song. Which then leads into “Death to My Hometown.”

This is not a quiet death, but it is accomplished without one shot being fired.  No blood soaked the ground.  No bombs from the sky. Still “they brought death to my home town.”  The singer mourns the destroyed factories and homes, the vultures picked their bones.  Intensity identifies the corporate enemy, and while others have commented about the allusion to Irish music, I hear a French carmagnole, the tumbrils of the mind filled with the bodies of the oppressor. In a workshop on May 13, leading up the the protests against the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, poet Matt Sedillo reminded his audience that the bombs raining down on civilians (and combatants) in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere were only part of the story.  The economic side of NATO, the G8 were carrying out murder in the cities of their own countries, but without weapons of mass destruction, other than starvation, deprivation of health care, and numerous other methods accomplished without soaking the ground in blood. The very point that this song intensifies.

Next comes “This Depression,”  another dirge.  And death to my home town is something to be mourned, to be depressed about.  I’ve been down, but never this low.  I need your heart, I need your love in this depression.  There is a depression of the economy, clearly spelled out in “Death to My Home Town,” alluded to in “Jack of All Trades” and “We Take Care of Our Own.”  And perhaps when he sings “I’ve been strong but I’ve never felt so weak” it’s both the physical and emotional toll of the overwhelming and matching depression.  I mean it is obvious that there is an emotional toll taken and sung about.  But when he says “I’ve never been so low,” it seems that is both.

Wrecking Ball,”  the title song, is a song of defiance.  Written about the destruction of baseball stadiums (Mets and Giants), these arenas assume a metaphorical relation to society, where indeed giants have also played the game and suffered the same consequences that we learned about in “Death To My Home Town,”.  The character in this song, having weathered the coming and going of hard times over and over again, refuses to accept this fate.  Bring on your wrecking ball is at once a voice of experience, coming from the depths of depression, and a challenge.  Here is a John Henry for the modern era. In the mythic past, men strove to compete with machines, to prove they were better, faster, harder working.  They could not be replaced.  But as the machine itself was replaced, so was the life of the town in which they were housed.  That death also squelched the lives of the people left behind.  Except from out of the rubble, people emerge to challenge the wreckers.

What is it that can tell the rulers/destroyers of our society “Bring on your wrecking ball”? From where does the defeat of the new world order come?  “No school ever taught it,” Springsteen sings,  “no one ever bought it,  Baby you’ve got it come on and give it to me.”   This is the real thing.  One thread running through all of Springsteen’s work has been trying to find out if love is real.  In the context of this record, what are we to think of this love song, “You’ve Got It”? There is a quiet intensity to this piece, sort of a parallel in intensity to “Jack Of All Trades.”   No school, because you can’t teach someone “this.”  “It” is not a commodity to be bought and sold.  We inherit this consciousness by our experience and by our devotion to exploring and learning.  It demands an engagement with new ideas that challenge our connection to what makes up the old society.  For me this means definitively a break with private property.  I say “for me” knowing I am treading on my ground here, not necessarily Springsteen’s.  But I would also argue that now that it is out in public, it is the responsibility of the listener to make of it what he or she will.  And I would argue that this is a love song to the collective, and “give it to me” is the only love that can transform society.

And then comes “Rocky Ground,”   which is my second favorite song on the album.  We’ve been traveling over the rocky ground.  We certainly have. From “We Take Care of Our Own”  to this one, filled with religious allusion without hope for religious redemption. There’s a new day is coming (repeated quietly in the background), but its up to us. Of course every song on the album is a collaboration.  But this one seems even more a collaboration of styles and artists, reinforcing the collective response to the collective experience of traveling on rocky ground.  Just the repetition of “we’ve been traveling” makes this a journey of suffering and of quiet redemption. In the midst of this comes a  gospel influenced rap segment that leads inevitably and seamlessly to the “Land of Hope and Dreams,” where all are welcome.

All of the cast out characters of the previous songs are welcome on the train leading to the “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  This train is filled with people who will take care of their own. Whores, gamblers, lost souls, saints, sinners, losers and winners. Don’t know where you’re going but you know you won’t be back.  Thankfully.  We’ll take what we can carry and we’ll leave the rest. We don’t need the baggage that drains us where we live now. It is a glorious celebration, reaching  back to “there’s a new day coming,” rescuing us from the depths of despair and misery.   (The album contains a version that includes the Clarence Clemons solo;  touring for the album and playing sax is Jake Clemons).

“We Are Alive” closes the album .  “We” are of course reading this.  “We” are listening to this album.  “We” are listening to Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, Clarence who died 6 months ago. “We” are the ancestors who died in freedom struggles, but who are alive and with us.  Bruce intones, in his concert performances, “If you are here and we are here, then they are here.”  We are alive if we are engaged in the struggle for the future that this album implies is possible.

In another song, from another album, one which he performs regularly with Tom Morello, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,”   Springsteen’s narrator sings “the highway is alive tonight.”  Indeed it is, it has not been so alive in decades.  And if you look in their eyes, those who populate the highways, you will see the ghost of Tom Joad everywhere.

The highway is alive tonight.