Tuesday, August 29, 2006
DAVID ROVICS: Political Singer to Play in San Diego September 8
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In the early years of the 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a combination labor union and revolutionary political organization, published a red-covered, pocket-sized songbook — mostly of radical political lyrics to traditional hymn tunes — which they called “Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.” America’s political folksingers have been fanning the flames of discontent ever since, from the IWW’s Joe Hill (convicted on trumped-up charges and executed in 1915) to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the 1940’s, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs in the 1960’s, Utah Phillips and Fred Small in the 1980’s, and now Roy Zimmerman, Dave Lippman, Charlie King, the Prince Myshkins — and David Rovics, who’ll be bringing his songs and stage raps to San Diego Friday, September 8, 7 p.m. at the Sherman Heights Community Center, 2258 Island Avenue.
Rovics has been active in political music since the early 1990’s and has played San Diego before in benefits for local independent media organizations. This time he’s coming on behalf of Activist San Diego and also to promote his new CD, Halliburton Boardroom Massacre, due out September 5. He’s released seven previous CD’s and one cassette, mostly on his own Ever Reviled Records label, and both his commercial releases and more than 200 free downloads (alternative versions of songs from his CD’s as well as some he hasn’t otherwise recorded) are available from his Web site, www.davidrovics.com
Zenger’s: How did you get interested in being a political folksinger?
David Rovics: I grew up in a musical family. My parents were both classical musicians, and so I’d been playing music since I was young. I got exposed to notions about all not being right with the world at a fairly early age, starting with the anti-nuclear movement when I was 12, right after Three Mile Island. I was going to this camp where there were anti-nuclear activists coming through, so that was kind of the beginnings of my political consciousness. It all came together for me when I first heard a whole bunch of musicians around the same time: Utah Phillips, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Jim Page, Buffy Sainte-Marie. I liked this stuff, so this was what I wanted to be doing.
Zenger’s: What was the last name you mentioned just before Buffy Sainte-Marie?
Rovics: Jim Page, who’s actually the least-known and the best of all the songwriters that I would ever mention. He’s phenomenal. He’s from Seattle and he’s been at it since the late 1960’s, and never achieved a great degree of fame outside of Ireland.
Zenger’s: When did you start writing and performing songs yourself?
Rovics: I started writing when I was around 19 and go more serious about it in my early 20’s. Many people accuse me of being in-your-face and not very subtle now, but it was a lot less subtle then. I think it developed a bit of three-dimensionality from me after1993, when my friend Eric Mark was killed. We were down in the Mission District in San Francisco on May Day, hanging out with Maoists, which I used to do quite often, spray-painting buildings with revolutionary slogans. There was a gang war going on between two different Mexican gangs, that none of us were aware of, not actually being very proletarian. Maoist kids didn’t know what the proletariat was up to around there, really.
Members of one gang hit up Eric and another guy for money, and then for whatever random reason, after having their money, were going to shoot the guy Eric was with. Eric stepped in front of the gun, in between the gun and the other individual, and they blew his head off. I was three stories up in an abandoned building, not able to see what was going on in any detail. All I could see was the gunshot, and I knew somebody had been killed but I didn’t know who.
Zenger’s: The stereotype is a conservative is a liberal who gets mugged. Why didn’t the murder of your best friend swing your politics towards the Right?
Rovics: It swung my politics towards three dimensions, really. I think this happens to a lot of people, somehow or other. There’s definitely the liberal-that-gets-mugged phenomenon, that’s for sure. We’ve seen that many times. But there’s also the phenomenon that you have a certain degree of understanding reality, and then it sort of punches you in the face and you understand it a little better and a little more intimately, a little more personally. So that’s the effect it had for me.
I wasn’t stupid. I was an active young radical and I knew the social conditions that people in the Mission District were coming out of, in theory. I knew that the District was and is largely populated by refugees from Central America who are escaping horrible war zones. I knew about the ways our Army taught their soldiers how to torture, and how many torture survivors, dealing with horrible traumas, are in San Francisco living as refugees. I knew about all that, but to be suddenly confronted so intimately with that reality actually for me made the suffering of people around there just a little more personal.
Also, I’m not a liberal, right? From the viewpoint of people who would call themselves radicals of one form or another, the term “liberal” is an insult. To me, it refers to people who talk a sort of semi-radical line in order to confuse the public and get their votes. People like Hillary Clinton. Somehow or other a lot of people think she’s against the war, but she’s not. She’s actually completely supportive of Bush’s invasion, but people have this idea about her that has nothing to do with her actual politics.
So maybe the liberals who get mugged and then become fascists are the ones who didn’t have much of a grasp of reality in the first place: the ones Phil Ochs wrote about in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” the ones who like Black people as long as they don’t move next door, that sort of thing.
Zenger’s: In the early 1990’s, what issues were you singing about, and how does that differ from what you’re singing about now?
Rovics: The things that were catching my attention in the 1990’s were actually not that different from the things I’m concerned with now and writing about now. They tend to fall into three vague categories: the global justice movement, the anti-war movement and the environmental movement — all of which, of course, were happening then as they are now, and as they were five years ago, but in very different forms in all those different periods.
I was a big fan of Noam Chomsky and was really wondering why there weren’t more people in the streets confronting the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] after reading so much about what they were doing, and how opposition to these institutions is potentially something that could unite people so much around the world, because they stand for everything that’s wrong with the sort of modern monopoly capitalism. I was so excited when finally in the United States in 1999 that global movement against these institutions for a more equitable, just economic division in the world started up in a big way in the streets of Seattle and elsewhere. But that’s something I’d already been writing about for a while.
Then there were the sanctions on Iraq. The anti-war movement, to the extent that it existed then — which was not much at all — was chiefly concerned with the sanctions on Iraq that were killing hundreds of thousands of people. So I was writing and thinking about that a lot, and about the deterioration of the environment, and global warming. That’s something I write about a lot: suburban development, sprawl, “Song for the Earth Liberation Front.”
Zenger’s: I noticed that on the compilation CD Behind the Barricades: The Best of David Rovics you had a number of what I might call “wise-guy songs” on that disc, like “Song for the Earth Liberation Front” and “Song for the Biotic Baking Brigade” [a group of anarchist vegans who threw pies at political and corporate leaders]. You don’t seem to be quite so much of a wise guy anymore. Have you really moved away from that kind of songwriting, and why?
Rovics: I guess I’ve moved away from it. I do a bit less of it, proportionately. I like songs like that, but their only real audience is the activist community. It’s fine to write songs for that audience, but I’m more interested in and more thinking about writing songs that have more of a potential for universal appeal and understanding, things that are more based out of things that people know about.
I’m also doing less of it as a reaction to the global justice movement in the U.S. pretty much collapsing after 9/11. Certainly it’s going strong elsewhere, but I’m mostly in the U.S. writing about stuff that’s happening in the U.S., and that movement is not doing the kind of inspiring things in the U.S. that it had been doing around 1999, 2000, which was inspiring more “Go get ’em, fight!” songs. After 9/11, it just seemed harder to write these kinds of flippant songs. The atmosphere in the country changed, really, so joking about some things just became less funny somehow.
Zenger’s: A number of your songs are about subjects and stories that most people have never heard of. For example, the song “St. Patrick’s Battalion” was about an event I had only read about in two sentences in a book about Mexican history. [They were a group of Irish-American soldiers in the U.S. army in the 1846-1848 war against Mexico that deserted and joined the Mexican side.] I had to ransack the memory tapes when I first heard that song to remember what that was about. How did you find out about the St. Patrick’s Battalion, and what moved you to write a song about it?
Rovics: It was in a lecture by Howard Zinn, author of the book A People’s History of the United States, and I think I read about it when I read that book many years ago. I thought, “Wow, what a neat story,” and I did a search on it on the Web. There were a number of Web sites dedicated to the memory of the San Patricios, and they’re quite well known on the Left in Mexico and among Republicans in Ireland. I thought it was just a great story, really right, just perfect ballad material for a song.
With a song like that you can just tell the story and people learn something new. There are a lot of basic archetypes involved: the notion of having so much dedication to a cause that you not only desert from your own army but join the opposing army, simply because they’re the ones being invaded — not even because you have some kind of a commitment to their country or to their government, which was at times really tyrannical, but just being willing to die for the lesser of two evils, when it comes down to it. It sends chills down my spine just to think about it.
Zenger’s: One other song that struck me about a more recent event, the “Spanish Journalists’ Strike.” I think of myself as well informed, and I hadn’t heard of that. [It was a protest against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, which then included Spain, deliberately targeting and killing journalists.]
Rovics: Yeah, that was another obscure event. I think it was headlines in Spain and other places, and it certainly made the news in the U.S., but if it made it into the New York Times it was probably somewhere at the very end of the World News section. But yeah, that was a neat little event; there’s something about the concept of people who are actually the news reporters not reporting the news.
Aznar [then the prime minister of Spain] was about to give his major national address, and just as he’s about to do this all the people with the cameras, all the people with the notebooks and pens, all the people with the microphones, just put them down on the floor and turned around and walked out of the building. I loved it. It was beautiful. And nobody was there. The entire room emptied out, and they all went over to the U.S. Embassy and had a protest, because of course the U.S. had just killed a number of journalists in one day, in different locations, fairly clearly on purpose.
Zenger’s: I’ve noticed that recently you’ve been writing quite a few songs about the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. How did you get interested in the Palestinian situation, and what have you gone through to be able to turn that into material for songs?
Rovics: I first became aware of what the reality of Palestinian and Israeli history through reading Noam Chomsky when I was a teenager, but it became more of an intimate thing for me after I did a tour in Israel, organized by the Israeli Folk Music Society. I was kind of suspicious of them in the first place. I felt like I was doing a tour of apartheid South Africa and only playing for whites. I was already aware of the situation, but I thought I’d do it anyway, just to see what it was like.
I hadn’t written any songs about the Palestinian struggle at the time. I had written songs against the bombing of Iraq, but I hadn’t done anything about Palestine. So I was kind of undercover, in a way, and after my experiences there, especially with Israelis, I realized it is the most racist society I’ve ever come across. I’ve been in quite a few, but that really took the cake in terms of the way that people refer to Arabs — and of course the Palestinians don’t exist in the minds of the Israelis. They’re just “Arabs,” and the way that they talk about them just reminds me of the way the typical whites might have talked about Black people in Alabama in the 1960’s.
It was just the next year that [former Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon, the butcher of Shatila, on the anniversary of the massacre went to visit the al-Aqsa mosque that set off the second intifada. I was in Europe at the time, and unlike the American media, the European media you were seeing bloody images of children being gunned down by Israeli soldiers with machine guns. It always helps to have that really graphic kind of media coverage to start writing a decent song. Having the images there is not as good as being there, but having been there and having seen these images, I wrote a song about it called “Children of Jerusalem.”
That started the process, because suddenly I started hearing from lots of people who hate the song — and then, about a week later, lots of people who love the song wrote. It trickled out to different circles at different times, but it quickly got to both the Israel supporters and the Palestinian intifada supporters. Then I started meeting more people from the region, especially Palestinians, and hearing their stories about their lives, which are so powerful, horrific and very well told, and so intimately related to U.S. foreign policy and also so intimately related to my own family history.
My father is Jewish, and I grew up hearing about the Holocaust and hearing about how we shouldn’t treat people badly, and how supportive Jewish people of their generation were of the civil-rights movement in the U.S. and Israel. And to see what such an abomination [Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is]. There were so many Palestine songs.
Zenger’s: Have you ever thought of doing a totally non-political album: Another Side of David Rovics, as it were?
Rovics: I have thought about it, but I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get around to it. I’d do it if somebody wanted me to. I’m only doing one CD a year, and I don’t know if I’ll ever make a non-political album enough of a priority to do a whole CD of love songs, but I have thought about it and I’d kind of like to do it. I agree with what Dick Scoggins says that they’re all love songs, and I’ve written a song to that effect as well. But I think at the same time there are songs that are really not political: songs about life and personal experiences.
I tend to like to combine them more. I think that’s a nice way to deal with it. But I’ve thought of doing a non-political album mainly because I don’t like the way I combine them. I much prefer the way Jim Page combines them. With him it’s more like two-thirds political, one-third non-political; and of the two-thirds that are political, many of them are more personal stories too. I think that kind of songwriting really does it for me. His body of work, the way it varies like that, is great. I wish I wrote more like that.
Zenger’s: Especially since I think it’s when you have written like that that you’ve done your best songs, like “The Key” on the Return CD or “Four Blank Slates” on the new album, where you can bring the issue home emotionally and show how it affects real people, how it tears people apart.
Rovics: Right, making it personal, making it relate to things that people can relate to, because just living on the planet, you know, songs like “Jenin” and “The Dying Firefighter,” songs that are about actual people in situations that are familiar, like in “Jenin,” a kid going to high school and just having all these things happen. People can relate to that because he’s a kid going to high school.
Zenger’s: I particularly liked the song “I’m a Better Anarchist” because we’ve had experience with those people just trying to top each other on all the different numbers of things they’ve been against. My partner had joked that you score brownie points in the anarchist community by the sheer number of things you can be against, and your song was basically the same joke, set to music.
Rovics: Absolutely. I love these young people and their dedication, but they are definitely worth teasing and they definitely need to maybe take life a little less seriously — not necessarily take life less seriously but take themselves a little less seriously. They think they have the last word on everything, and it’s typical teenage-type stuff, but it’s well worth teasing people about having that kind of attitude. It has a detrimental effect on groups that people are trying to work with. Too often people feel like they’re just stabbing each other in the back and feeling betrayed and bogged down in ridiculous little discussions about every detail of everything that’s happening. I can understand where they’re coming from, of course, but it’s got to be poked fun of. Plus I wrote another song teasing the Communists, called “Vanguard,” so I felt I had to have one to balance it out and tease the anarchists.