"Ian Rankin once explained to an interviewer (the head of the Indian Communist Party!) that crime fiction is a way of talking about social inequality. Ron Jacobs applies that same maxim to the Sixties... in his wonderfully noir trilogy of those exhilarating and troubled times. And what Rankin does for Edinburgh, Jacobs amply illuminates for the Movement. Much much more than ripping yarns (though they are that too), from a master who's been there, done that, and lived to tell a tale or two."

--Ramsey Kanaan, Publisher PM Press/noir enthusiast

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tearing the Whole Building Down: The Dead in Greensboro, NC.

Sonic waves. Rock and roll sensibilities. Psychedelic blues guitar and rhythmic creativity that very few manage. Superlatives do not exist to describe the sonic treat that met the audience at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina the night of April 12, 2009. I rode from Asheville with a friend and a buddy of hers from high school to the concert. The anticipation was great, but no one knew what to expect. The typical Dead crowd was partying in the parking lot; the bazaar selling everything from beers and burritos to stained glass, t-shirts and intricately designed pipes (plus the stuff to smoke in them). The police maintained a constant but low profile. No major incidents in the parking lot. About an hour before the show I headed indoors. Bought a beer and wandered around, running into a couple friends from various locales.

Once the show began all bets were off. The band began with the song "The Music Never Stopped"- a rock and roll stomper dedicated to those who always hear the music, even when the band has packed and gone. Next was "Jack Straw," one of the classic Robert Hunter tales of the outlaw who is part hustler, part loser, and an essentially good guy who finds himself in situations that have nothing but morally ambiguous endings. The band's work in the first thirty or so minutes was tight yet meandering in the way that one expects a jazz combo to be on a great night. Or, it was like the Grateful Dead was on a good night when Jerry Garcia was still alive. Taking the honors from Garcia was Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes. Haynes is a blues and rock guitarist extraordinaire whose legend just continues to grow with each gig he plays. As the set progressed into the sometimes sarcastic, sometimes celebratory "Estimated Prophet" and then the Dead's paean to its fallen inspirations (from Beat legend Neal Casady to Jerry Garcia and beyond) "He's Gone," the music began to reach that space where the best Dead music has always gone. I can't tell you exactly where it is, but it's not of this earth yet is positioned firmly on the firmament the audience is dancing on. Finishing off with what might be termed the Dead's Top 40 hits, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir led the band and audience through "Touch of Grey" and "I Need A Miracle." Replete with the almost mandatory singalongs to certain songs and verses that each listener has hung their own special meanings to, the first set ended in a celebratory version of "Truckin'."
The rhythm section of Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart remain much more than a mere rhythm section. It's not just a backbeat, it's a melodic riff. This would become even more apparent in the second set when they took over the stage for close to half an hour when the rest of the band took their leave in the middle of a jam that began as soon as they hit the stage after intermission. The disco tinged "Shakedown Street" broke the ice and, while folks made their way to a place where security wouldn't insist they sit down instead of dance, the first strains of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" unleashed themselves from Haynes' guitar. From there it was back to the early psychedelia of the Dead's catalog. A jam that began with Haynes singing "Caution, Do Not Stop On Tracks" from the Anthem of the Sun album proceeded into a rhythm section performance that had its roots in the place in the human soul that resides somewhere between the Garden of Eden and the future we do not know. That's a mighty big space, but this rhythm crew can fill it like no other. Entwined in the rhythm section's recital were guitar notes that seemed to come from that space Sun Ra called the place. The rhythm section solo came back around with another hippie classic titled "Cosmic Charlie" from the 1969 album Aoxomoa and then bassist Lesh lent his vocals to "New Potato Caboose"--a song that sometimes sounds like it was written by Arnold Schoenberg after he attended a blues club on acid.
The set continued with a sonic adventure lifted from the first side of the 1975 Blues for Allah album. This series pf songs, which begins with the jazzlike "Help On the Way" slides into the instrumental "Slipknot" and releases itself in the anthemic "Franklin's Tower" with its directive to "roll away the dew." It was during this part of the concert that I was reminded of John Coltrane's album Ascension. The music that came from the stage in Greensboro during this segment came down in walls without dimensions. Walls that overwhelmed the structure they were meant to contain. Walls that crumbled from their own depth and breadth of sound. Walls that became waves of musical substance without limit. Walls that resolved themselves in the dance that "Franklin's Tower" insisted on.
And then, it was over. The band played the blues classic "Samson and Delilah" for an encore. This is a song that claims that "if he had his way, he would tear this whole building down." Although the Greensboro Coliseum was able to contain the Dead this evening, if they continue to perform as they did the opening night of their tour, there may come a time when no building can.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Daring to Struggle, Failing to Win: A Review of The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People

Much has been written about the German leftist guerrilla group the Red Army Fraktion (RAF). Naturally, most of what has been written is in German. Most of what has been written (or translated into) English has generally been of a sensationalist nature and composed mostly of information taken from the files of the German mainstream media and law enforcement bureaucracy. The reasons for this approach include, among others, the nature of the RAF's politics. Leftist in the extreme, they lay beyond the realm of what can be expressed in media that exists to support the capitalist state. Add to this the criminal nature of their actions and the way lay clear for media coverage that ignored the intrinsically political reasons for the group and its acts. We see a similar type of anti-political coverage today when the capitalist media covers the actions undertaken by anarchists and others at international meetings of the capitalist governments and imperial defense pacts like NATO. By deemphasizing the politics of the protesters, the actions of the State seem to be a rational response to the average reader.
Although it is difficult to separate the RAF's theory from their actions--actions which included murder--if one does so they find an application of left theory that perceived the anti-imperialist resistance in the advanced industrial nations (First World, if you will) as just another part of the worldwide anti-imperialist movement. It was this conclusion that the RAF used to rationalize their attacks on US military installations in 1972 during their anti-imperialist offensive.. They did not believe the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) to be in a revolutionary situation, but justified their attacks via the argument that the US and other imperial forces (German and British) should be attacked wherever they were, not just in Vietnam or another country where they were engaged in overt warfare. This approach echoed the slogan popularized by the Weatherman organization in the US-Bring the War Home.

I lived in Frankfurt am Main, Germany during the period described in this book. I attended protests against the Vietnam War, in support of the burgeoning squatters movement (and against property speculation) in Frankfurt, against the Shah of Iran, in support of gastarbeiters rights and against the repressive regimes in Turkey and Greece. I also attended concerts and street festivals where the German counterculture mingled flamboyantly with the US servicemen and adolescents that abounded in the country then. When the IG Farben building and Officer's Club in Frankfurt am Main were attacked by the RAF, a serious security effort became part of our daily lives. School buses taking us to the American High School in Frankfurt were boarded by military police who checked our bags while other GIs used long-handled mirrors to check underneath the buses for explosive devices. German police and military set up shop at airports and train stations, holding automatic weapons. Autobahn exits were the site of roadblocks. Wanted posters featuring the faces of the RAF members appeared everywhere. The Goethe University in Frankfurt came under increased police surveillance, especially after the playing of a tape-recorded message from RAF member Ulrike Meinhof at a national conference there. A protest held against the US mining of northern Vietnamese harbors and intensified bombing of the Vietnamese people was patrolled by police armed with automatic weapons. Nonetheless, many of the protesters chanted "Fur den Sieg des VietCong, Bomben auf das Pentagon!" (For the victory of the NLF, bomb the Pentagon). The following day, the Pentagon was bombed by the Weather Underground.

Recently, PM Press in California published the book The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People. This voluminous work includes virtually all of the communiques and theoretical pamphlets published by the RAF from 1970 to 1977. This period is considered the first period of the RAF--an organization that saw its original leadership imprisoned after the aforementioned bombing offensive against US military installations in Germany. These members were followed by another set of individuals drawn to the RAF mostly through support organizations that developed to protest the conditions of the RAF's imprisonment and their eventual deaths that many still believe were state-sanctioned murders. Over the next two decades , hundreds of others would join the organization to replace those imprisoned and killed. Besides the text written by the RAF, the editors have written an accompanying text that provides a take on the history of post World War Two West Germany that has been mostly unavailable to English readers.

The RAF was an intensely sectarian organization. They saw most of the rest of the German Left as revisionist or opportunist, unwilling to make the commitment armed struggle required. Besides invalidating the gains won by the autonomist squatters' movement and other independent groupings, this analysis ignored the fact that other approaches might have been more effective in the long term. By positioning itself to the left of all other leftist groups in Germany, the RAF insured its limited effectiveness. Once the State was able to capture its primary membership and literally isolate them in prisons, the RAF's purpose moved away from challenging the imperialists to one of staying alive inside a draconian and psychologically debilitating prison environment.
Indeed, as this book clearly demarcates, the bulk of the work of the RAF in the 1970s centered around the nature of their existence in prison. In what would become a harbinger of the future we live in, the German prison authority and its departmental ally the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) developed an architecture and series of mechanisms designed to destroy the minds of the RAF prisoners. Isolation cells painted completely in white where the neon light never went off. No contact with any human for months at a time. The use of informers and ultimately a trial held in a specially designed prison courthouse that took place without the defendants or their attorneys. In addition, laws were passed that criminalized not only the act taken by the attorneys to defend their clients but also the acts of any individuals who opposed the actions taken by the State against the RAF prisoners. Of course, this enabled the RAF to point out the unity of purpose between the right wing CDU-CSU West German government and the SPD (with obvious comparisons to the role played by the German Social Democrats after World War I when they used the rightwing militia known as the Freikorps to kill members of the revolutionary Spartacists). The special laws enacted against the RAF and its supporters contained many elements of laws now in existence in the US, realized most fully in the Patriot Act.
While the RAF was certainly successful in exposing the fundamental authoritarianism of the modern capitalist state through their hunger strikes and other actions, they did nothing towards rebuilding the anti-imperialist movement that the 1972 actions were conceived in. This created a situation where their developing analysis of imperialism and the struggle against it became essentially moribund. In other words, the repression by the German government and its allies was successful.
The editors of this work, J. Smith and André Moncourt, have created an intelligently political work that honestly discusses the politics of the Red Army Fraktion during its early years. Their commentary explains the theoretical writings of the RAF from a left perspective and puts their politics and actions in the context of the situation present in Germany and the world at the time. It is an extended work that is worth the commitment required to read and digest it. More than a historical document, The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People provides us with the ability to comprehend the phenomenon that was the RAF in ways not possible thirty years ago.