Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Gathering Together: Mike Watt's Common Ground

They're calling it 'hellride east,' but when Mike Watt comes to NYC Wednesday May 2 to the Poisson Rouge, there'll be more than your regulation  'hoot, jam, thud and stooge' work going down.

The way I reckon it, it'll be a chance to gather with those who dare to dream as individuals, but travel together as a clan. With tolerance. To celebrate, as Mike Watt terms it, The Big Love.

If that sounds like making much of a thing, listen to Mike Watt's take on Walt Whitman

That's right, Whitman. 

Art Rock/Post-Punk/Jazz/Improv credentials aside, I was sold on this guy Mike Watt the minute I saw the Youtube of him at Whitman's grave in Camden NJ. (

Watt articulates a vision of Whitman and Leaves of Grass that, even filtered as it is through the crackling imperfections of a homemade Youtube vid, is as startlingly visionary as the Good Gray Poet himself. 

Leaves of Grass, says Watt, has got this tolerant open mind. When I'm reading it, it's like goddamn, my life's in this stuff. I thought about this stuff, the very pragmatic things to be done to make it work. Put a record together a tour together play with my bands. 

 Watt's keenly attuned to the historic context.  (Whitman's) first goal was to stop the war that was coming. He wrote it in 1855 -- the war was in 1861 -- but it was a slow slide the country was going in. Everybody knew it was coming and they felt helpless but he said, 'I'll write a poem to try to heal us, somehow, from warring.

This cat is like, you know what, you gotta be tolerant if you really want to make the real dream he saw. The one that resonates in me, the only one that makes sense if you're gonna call it a country, the idea of a place where we all live. 

You gotta dare like this man to dream big.

Rather than herd, the more generous idea is common ground. Then you have respect. That's a lot different from conformity and goosestepping. What Whitman's saying is if you want real togetherness then you have to have tolerance because we are separate cats, we don't dream by committee."

If that's not some cool shit, then you're not paying attention.

Mike Watt's music is a thing to behold, too, if you haven't heard it. Here's a great example, 'Chinese Firedrill."

living this life
is like trying to learn latin
in a chinese firedrill

The thing at Poisson Rouge itself on May 2 is a celebration of a most excellent book by Watt, put out by Three Rooms Press and having its NYC debut prior to being launched May 5 at Beyond Baroque in LA.  The book's called "Mike Watt: On and Off Bass," it's got poetry and a lot of pictures Watt took while kayaking off the coast of San Pedro where he lives. Jack Black likes it.

I'm not into kayaks, but I like this guy. I think what he said about Whitman is the shit. And I'm going down to Poisson Rouge and hear from the man himself. 

Why not? Like Mike Watt says, it's common ground.

(Three Rooms Press & CEP Presents: NYC launch for “Mike Watt: On and Off Bass” at Le Poisson Rouge. Featuring HELLRIDE EAST with Mike Watt + J Mascis + Murph, plus Appomattox and Dead Trend, and a reading and signing by Mike Watt along with additional very special guests. Book available for purchase at event. Advance Tickets ($20):

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Night I Opened For Levon Helm

I still remember the cold February night in 2003 I opened for Levon Helm at a honkytonk down by the railroad tracks in Huntington, LI, called Leavy's Last Stop.

About half a block beyond where urban renewal in the '60s stopped, leaving some empty old buildings for the down-and-out and honky-tonkers to continue to exist in an otherwise gentrified town.

"Leavy's Last Stop," not the end of one road or the beginning of another, just some place which was no place at all -- but at the same time square in the heart of some unexplainable thing or moment in time and therefore a vital, necessary place.

A bar for ex-cheerleaders and washed up boxers, firemen and their wives, landscapers and truckers and lean looking country and western types, plumbers and paving contractors and a psychiatrist with a porsche or two also mixing in, because he remembers what it was he loved about being alive and in the world before he stopped loving the world and started "working" in it -- something he loved in the blue smoke of a honkytonk in a college town he went to and before he had to settle down to a lifetime cutting away at the rot in people's minds or paving it over.

And a number of beat musicians with no gig to go to even though it was Saturday night, and besides they heard that Levon Helm was in town and playing with a pickup band and maybe they might just get asked to sit in for a song or do a set, or either they already had been asked and were waiting their turn.

A legend! Levon Helm in a honkytonk in Huntington Station and no spotlight on the man and not even a miked drumset. You could probably hire him for your kid's birthday party, yet he played with Dylan, his wheel was on fire he was driving ol' dixie down -- big pink last waltz Levon Helm, made songs that Joan Baez covered but which grew out of something funky and true blue Arkansas cotton roots.

It was Scotto's idea really. He got Levon to come and additionally had this notion that I belonged in front of a bar crowd, a poet in a rock setting can work okay he said, if you handle it right. That was his area and anyway I didn't mind. Scotto handles things, ska bands blues singers up and comers down and outers, he saw me back in the sixties when I was almost famous in an r&b band and figured I could still be worked into the bar scene and furthermore add some class to it.

Scotto said it'll go like this, he'll introduce George the poet, turn the spotlight on the stool and go! It'll add a little surreal moment to the evening, he said, cool the place down bring it into focus in the middle of the mayhem and beer and anger and sweat, anyway we're giving it a go.

I do know a crowd when I see one, and the place was jamming -- cars everywhere, hundreds of people inside the place. Scant attention paid to the warm-up group from NYC, a guy with his shirt hanging out and rubbing his hair while he sang, acting as if he just woke up and found himself in front of three hundred people and was surprised by it though not all that displeased, backed by his friend or roommate with an electrified acoustic guitar, whanging away with big stroking twelvestring chords. 

"That's a John Lennon guitar" said some guy in a checked shirt, near where I'm standing, quiet-like, practicing the phrase two or three times, when the two of them are done performing and get off the stage he says it again hoping they'll hear him, "that's a John Lennon guitar."

I am wearing a checked shirt too, everybody's wearing checked shirts, and I'm standing next to an amp and waiting for my cue, and Scotto is looking serious and anxious over the heads of all those people until he sees me and then he comes over leans forward grips my hand and says "a consummate professional! right where I need you to be, man!"

So I stood there in front of the band and Levon Helm in his lair of drums and snares and cymbals, and I looked out over the people, some crowd standing in front of the stage, and said the word cotton pickin' three times, and read a poem over everybody's head. 

Pointed it at the heart of some invisible imaginary person in the back of the room, some person who was attentive and really listening and maybe even hearing, though he or she didn't expect that to happen at all and furthermore couldn't see me, some person I could reach with my words, something that would go over easy.

And it did go over easy, though I felt like a preacher giving the benediction before a brawl. A number of the gals in the audience ooohed and ahhhed and some of the guys did too, but some others didn't, they coughed and looked at each other and pulled at their bottles and pretended I wasn't happening or really there. They weren't obnoxious about it just grimly polite and inwardly inattentive because it was an official sanctioned moment on stage, I was authorized to read them poetry, how long could it take anyhow, and besides they were patriotic god fearing people and not just because of 9-11, these were not brawlers, they had jobs to go to Monday morning, they just drank their beer and watched me and waited for Levon.

I didn't detain them long - they got their Levon and the rest of his band and I got to open for Levon Helm.

But the highlight for me was meeting old Levon beforehand, a very cool experience, with that Burgess Meredith glint in his eye like he's hip to the true energy going down everywhere around him, not just what ordinary people think is going down, which is false and petty and superficial. 

It happened like this: Scotto brought me downstairs into the basement for pictures. We sat in front of a white sheet that had been draped over an ice cooler as a backdrop, it was the basement where roaches and moldy couches and broken chairs go, low ceilings, stacked cases of Budweiser, leaky pipes, the lair of most bands really, from here to Cleveland and halfway back.

And Scotto tells Levon I'm a local poet and used to play soul music and Levon smiles and likes that. And we drink some of those beers in the bottles in the Budweiser cases. Levon and me and the band, subterranean and connected and silent.

The beer was warm. The cellar was cold. After awhile I figured I should ask him something, so I said hey Levon did you ever pick cotton on that Arkansas farm he grew up on but he said he hadn't.

Then it was time to go upstairs and go on stage and we did. It was all very peaceful and easy.  

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Langston Hughes: The Spanish Civil War Poems

'Fascists is Jim Crow people,honey...and here, we shoot 'em down' (Langston Hughes, Dear Folks At Home)
 A recent presentation at the Cervantes Center in New York City of the first books to come out of BAAM (Biblioteca Afro-Americana de Madrid, African-American Library of Madrid) -- Texts about Spain by Langston Hughes and From Mississippi to Madrid by James Yates -- offered ready access to the perspective of a cadre of activist mid-20th century African-Americans on the issues of fascism, colonialism, racism and freedom.

Of the two books, Hughes’s is the more interesting for devotees of poetry, consisting of an impressive collection of chronicles, poems and excerpts from his memoirs.

Hughes was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and after six months there, came back with the material experience for a series of six poems inspired by what he saw.

While not considered the poet’s most well known work, some critics call these poems some of Hughes’ most bitter social commentary, uniquely immediate and intense.

The politics is palpable. In them, he pointedly links racism with fascism -- but also, links both to colonialism, offering a singular perspective on where the culpability lay in what was arguably a mid-century struggle between established and incipient imperialist European nations for colonial power.

'I looked across to Africa/and seed foundations shaking' he writes in "We Captured A Wounded Moor Today." ‘…Cause if a Free Spain wins this war/the colonies too are free…'

I guess that’s why old England
And I reckon Italy, too
Is afraid to let a worker’s Spain
Be too good to me and you
Because they got slaves in Africa
And they don’t want em to be free.

There’s plenty of compassion and pathos in the poems, as well. ‘…the dead birds wheel East/to their lairs again/leaving iron eggs/in the streets of Spain…‘ he writes in "Air Raid: Barcelona," ‘…the stench of their passage/remains when they’re gone.'

In "Song of Spain," Hughes reaches to the raw, dark power of the Spanish notion of ‘duende' and calls on the common people to ‘drive the bombers out of Spain/drive the bombers out of the world…I must take the world for my own again.’

This theme -- driving out the violence of war -- reaches a crescendo in "Madrid, 1937"

Put out the lights and stop the clocks.
Let time stand still.
Again, man mocks himself
And all his human will to build and grow!

The fact and symbol of man’s woe,
…the ever minus of the brute,
The nothingness of barren land
And stone and metal,
The emptiness of gold.

The horror and emptiness of war fought for gold is a tale told by many over the centuries. But in hammering home the notion that fascism, racism and colonialism, in the middle of the twentieth century, were different faces of the same animal, Langston Hughes was offering a challenging synthesis of view.

'We are the people who have long known in actual practice the meaning of the word fascism,’ he told an international gathering of writers in Paris in 1937, at the height of the Jim Crow era of racial discrimination in America. 'In many states Negroes are not permitted to vote or hold office…freedom of movement is greatly hindered, especially if we happen to be sharecroppers…we know what it is to be refused admission to schools and colleges, to theaters and concert halls, to hotels and restaurants…In America, Negroes do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know.'

Langston Hughes' Spanish Civil War poems may not be his best known -- but they offer critical dimension to our understanding the complexity of the politics, perception and social witness of one of America's most important 20th century poets.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

ONE SMALL PEBBLE: Upset the placid waters

From the sacred bones,
of the Hellenes arisen,
and strengthened by your antique bravery,
hail, o hail, Liberty!

                                    --fr Hymn to Liberty, Dionysios Solomos, 1824

On April 19 1824 George Gordon Byron died the death of a poet of conscience, in the besieged town of Messolonghi Greece, having given ‘his means, his health, and his life‘ to the cause of liberty in the place where Democracy was born.

The empire against which Byron committed himself to join the Greek people in defying no longer exists. But nearly two centuries since, eleven million people in Greece are being forced to swallow the poverty and enslavement forced on them by the Empire of Money.

Byron’s struggle -- and poet Dionysios Solomos' words, enshrined to this day in the Greek National Anthem -- is a reminder to people of conscience of the need to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who battle for the emancipation of the human spirit wherever it is upset the placid surface of the waters that drown the freedom and dignity of a people.

God knows I'm not Lord Byron, or Dionysios Solomos. But on April 19th and in my own small way, I'd like to toss one small pebble into the pond and upset the placid waters of empire -- on behalf of all those who have fought in the past, and are fighting now, to emancipate the Greek people and the people of the world.

It's a global battle really, from Wall Street to Syntagma Square, and in every square and public park in between. But l
ike the message carved at the entrance to Messolonghi says - "every free person is a citizen of Messolonghi."

This is a new era to stand with the besieged Greeks of Messolonghi, against the forces which threaten them.

           The beauty of nature which surrounds them
           increases the impatience of the enemies to conquer the region
           and the pain of the besieged losing it.

That's Dionysios Solomos talking, in his great epic The Free Besieged.

It takes courage to do like Byron did. Or Solomos. But for people of conscience -- in Byron’s day or our own -- to stand on the sidelines and say nothing seems impossible.

Where do you stand on April 19, 2012? 

(As seen in GreatWeatherforMedia.