Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's Hard to Run With the Weight of Lead...

The last days of April 1970 seemed relatively uneventful. The first Earth Day occurred on April 22nd that year. For the most part it bore little resemblance to the green corporation festival many of today's Earth Days seem to be. At the same time it was not a radical showdown with police like that which occurred all too often. The most recent such episode had taken place in many US cities following the conviction of the Chicago 7 defendants in February. Apollo 13's failed mission was already over a week old and creating its own share of commentary in the nation's media. I was living overseas in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I had moved with my family in March. The Beatles song "Let It Be" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" were near the top of the record charts. I was mostly listening to The Band's second album, the Dylan bootleg The Great White Wonder, the Stones' Let It Bleed, the Dead and the Beatles. I remember watching Johnny Winter play a short set on the German television show Beat Club. Major League baseball was just warming up. Being overseas, the best I could do was follow the box scores in the morning Stars and Stripes newspaper. The Stars and Stripes also gave us the news on the Vietnam War which, according to them and Richard Nixon, was moving along just fine. Indeed, there might even be an end in sight. Letters from friends in the States talked about the Grateful Dead new tour with the New Riders of the Purple Sage in a show that featured Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel with the New Riders and three sets of the Dead, one of them acoustic. Over a hundred thousand members of the US radical movement were gathering the last weekend of April in New Haven to protest the trial of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins on charges they were eventually acquitted of. Even that protest was characterized as mostly peaceful.
Then April ended. Not with a whimper but a bang. The night of April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon told the world that US forces were invading Cambodia ostensibly to destroy the warmaking capabilities of the NLF and northern Vietnamese military. The speech was not even over before students and others across the US were in the streets. The protesters in New Haven issued a call for a nationwide student strike. A torrent of protest raged across the nation. So much for the halcyon days of April. In Frankfurt, thousands of protesters marched on the US Army offices known as the IG Farben Building. Besides the German protesters, there were GIs refusing to work and US military dependents walking out of their schools. Black armbands expressing solidarity with the protesters and against the war could be seen on many a young person on base—GIs and dependents alike. The authorities were naturally wary. May was to be the cruelest month this calendar year.

Back to the protests in the US and that Grateful Dead/New Riders tour. The tour had hit the East Coast earlier that spring and was now traveling through the northern climes. In the year 2000 the Dead’s archivist released a CD recording of one of those shows. This show, which took place at Harpur College in Binghamton, NY on May 2, 1970, is considered a classic. Musically, it shines. As an indication of the cultural and political climate of the time, it reveals more than just a good time. I wrote this about it not long after the CD was released.

This show in 1970 took place in between two events that shook America: the US invasion of Cambodia in a war that was supposedly winding down and the National Guard killings of four students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio. The Grateful Dead took the stage on May 2, 1970 not only with the knowledge that the audience was restless almost to the point of riot but that their job as a band was to take that potentially negative energy and transform it into one hell of a good time. Like the best Dead performances from any time of their thirty-year traveling medicine show and carnival, they did! The acoustic version of the traditional (and Dead standard)"I Know You Rider" has as much energy as any electric version they ever did. With a crowd eager to burn off their energy via an all-night dance-a-thon, it was up to Jerry Garcia and the boys to provide the music.

The first set is an acoustic marvel. Beginning with a bouncy version of "Don't Ease Me In," the musical trip wanders into the aforementioned "I Know You Rider", where Jerry's licks blend beautifully with the rhythm guitar backing of Bob Weir and the always sound bassman Phil Lesh. Stepping back, the outlaw ballad "Friend of the Devil" is rendered with a conviction felt by many of America's youth in the US of 1970. A bouncy "Dire Wolf" follows as the boys beat it on down the musical line to an evocative "Black Peter" that brings the pain of death to the concert floor. Five more songs--including two from the Dead's masterpiece Workingman's Dead and two traditionals: Deep Elem Blues and the bluegrass gospel piece "Cold Jordan" finish out the set. That's when the fun really kicks in.

The remainder of this three-cd set starts off with a ripping "St. Stephen" and ends an hour and a half later with a quiet take on the folk classic "We Bid You Goodnight." The highlights in between include Pigpen sounding like a male version of Etta James in "It's A Man's World" and a take of the post-apocalypse song "Morning Dew" that acknowledges the pervasive feeling of that week that the end might have been near. The lead guitar work of Garcia on this tune and the version of "Viola Lee Blues" that follows it goes straight to one's spine as the notes do not send chills so much as they become part of the nervous system--it's as if the music and the listener are one: something that happens rarely in any musical performance but, when it does, nothing else compares.

Which is perhaps the best way to describe this recording: nothing else compares.

The next day the tour moved to Wesleyan College. Protests and riots raged across the nation. At the University of Maryland and dozens of other colleges and universities, authorities called in the National Guard. The bands played on, aware of the maelstrom growing all around them. No one, however, except for the perhaps the most apocalyptic members of society, saw what was coming next. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard murdered four students and wounded more than a dozen others during a protest at Kent State University. The Dead were not playing that day and most likely heard the news when everyone else did. Their next show was scheduled for MIT on May 7th. Organizers working with the Boston-Cambridge anti-imperialist group the November Action Coalition (NAC) were among the many Boston area antiwar organizations organizing a never-ending round of protests. In a conversation with NAC organizer Peter Bohmer many years later, he told me how the Dead became involved in these efforts. It seems that some fans of the band had the ear of the Dead and the band wanted to do something to express their state of mind about the escalation of the war. So they set up on Kresge Plaza on the MIT campus during a May 6th protest and played a nine song set. Bohmer wasn’t a fan, but remarked that Garcia and the other band members seemed like nice guys with their hearts in the right place.
The maelstrom of war, racism, and rebellion unleashed in the wake of Nixon’s words on April 30th took at least eight more stateside victims in the weeks following that Grateful Dead concert in Cambridge, Six blacks protesting racism in Augusta, GA. were gunned down. On May 14, 1970 two more young people were killed by Mississippi state troopers while protesting the war. The forces of law and order were resorting to the one card they could always pull from their sleeve: raw, murderous violence. Black and Brown-hued Americans knew this all too well. White ones were rediscovering it. Neither the war nor the racism of US political and cultural society was near an end. The music could only do so much.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Did Capitalism Destroy China's Democratic Stirrings?

Back in 1989, the world was captivated by media images of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and workers camped out in Tienanmen Square in Beijing. Most were horrified as they watched elements of the Chinese People's Army attack and kill hundreds of these protesters. The series of protests that are now summed up in the words Tienanmen Square were but the most public presentation of the struggle between the Maoist legacy and the move towards capitalism that has been going on in China since the 1970s. For many Chinese, it represented the end of a popular democratic urge for greater political freedom and its replacement with an authoritarian capitalist paradise (for the capitalists and their government facilitators). In other words, the result of the protests and the government reaction was that the only freedom that would be allowed in the post-Mao China was the freedom of global capitalists to exploit the Chinese people and reform its society to their benefit.
Chinese writer and Professor of Chinese Literature Wang Hui was one of those hundreds of thousands in Tienanmen Square in 1989. He is a critical observer of Chinese culture and politics and is a member of what various western media call the Chinese New Left. His newest English release, titled The End of the Revolution is a collection of essays mostly dealing with the effects of China's pugnacious pursuit of an essential role in the global capitalist order on its people and politics. Academic in its approach, Wang Hui's text details the demise of Maoism and its replacement by a political structure and culture that is socialist in name only. He discusses the separation of the democratic impulse from the pursuit of profit, the resulting curtailment of political freedom and an explosion of what passes for personal freedom in the capitalist nations of the West--the freedom to consume.
The End of the Revolution is more than a study of the new China. It is also a captivating study of the effects of global capital on a nation. Many of the situations described by Wang Hui could easily be describing the situation in almost any nation that is part of the neoliberal world of the twenty-first century. In addition, it is a discussion of the meaning of modernity in the world of capitalism and a convincing argument that the world of neoliberal economics is a world whose mechanics thrive best under authoritarian governments. According to Wang Hui, democracy is not a beneficiary of this economic system, but a hindrance that the financial world believes it must undermine to survive. Furthermore, it is Wang 's contention that China is the ultimate laboratory for hypothesis.
What about that protest in Tienanmen Square? Did it represent a true desire for democracy? Wang says yes, it did. However, like so many grassroots popular uprisings around the world, the symbolism of the moment was appropriated by some of the same powers that the original protest opposed for other purposes. The impulse for freedom and democracy mutated into a free market that ends up only freeing the pocketbooks and wallets of the managerial class while relegating the workers on the shop floor to poverty and in some cases a life of near slavery. The peasants, meanwhile, are forced by economic conditions to leave their villages for a life that cycles between low paying wage slavery and unemployment. When the work ends they are left to find their way back home or fend for themselves in urban streets. Tragically, the modern worker's plight often resembles the industrial workplaces of Charles Dickens' England. This is the nightmare of modernity Mr. Wang boldly questions.

Can the phenomenon Wang calls modernity exist together with democracy? What about political freedom and personal freedoms not defined by the marketplace? It is the opinion of the author and millions of others that they can but will require a fight by those opposed to the domination of the market. The global capitalists will tell us that it already does, but the truth contradicts that. In fact, the global capitalists have little taste for democracy when it gets in the way of their profits, which they believe it often does.. In China, this goes so far as censoring the Google search engine and forbidding Bob Dylan from performing. It also means that certain municipalities (Shenzhen being the best known) have become surveillance states on a par with the most fantastic of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's most paranoid tales.
The discussions Wang Hui presents are discussions that all of us should be having. They do not apply only to China. Indeed, it is easy to conceive that the aforementioned Philip K. Dick surveillance states that exist in China are mere test runs for the future US metropolis. The march of corporate capitalism is not a benevolent one. As any observer who has not bought the myths of the capitalist faith can see, those who sit in the boardrooms of finance and industry seem intent on expanding their ever-growing control of the planet, no matter what the cost to human freedom, life or the environment.