Sunday, February 28, 2010

Can You Hear Me?
For Dave, on his big Six O!
From the moment Dave Marsh countered the Rolling Stone review of Gary U.S. Bonds On the Line with something of his own from Musician or Record, I knew what I’d only suspected before. When he validated my impressions and even went so far as to isolate Steve Van Zandt’s guitar solo on “The Last Time” and try to explain why that four note progression was changing my life, he told me I could trust myself. While the rest of the critics always seemed to send me the same messages—“you may like it, but it’s not as good as the last one”; “what you like about it is what you should hate about it” and “you should have been around when this shit was really rockin’,” Dave said something else. “You’re here now, and that’s what matters.”

Of course, Dave was records editor at Rolling Stone, and he’d been building up to this message for some time, but that’s the moment I remember it taking. And, though I often give Bruce Springsteen credit for this, it was really part of a scheme that involved the two of them and several other insurgents—they all told me my time mattered, and my voice needed to be heard. I hadn’t lost something by not being a teenager in the ‘60s. In fact, thinking that way was the only real danger. I needed to not miss the value of my own time—a time when hip hop and punk (read everything from New Wave to ska) led a conscious insurgency against the remote superstardom of the late 70s. Soon, I got to watch pop’s former outsiders—Prince and Springsteen most glaringly—and those people dismissed as only pop—Madonna and Tina Turner come to mind—all take the center as the topics of a national debate about what’s pop and what’s not and what matters and what doesn’t like we’ve never seen before. Then there were a string of benefit records—probably starting way back with No Nukes, but really exploding with Band-Aid—which began to actively change music’s relationship to politics.

It would be the great “Sun City” record by Artists United Against Apartheid which would start me writing professionally about music, and it would be Dave Marsh’s Rock & Rap Confidential that would publish what I had to say. I was writing to draw a connection between the cultural apartheid on my local radio and the politics of the record, which barely got played on our college station. Meanwhile, we had racist traditions at our college, including something called Plantation Night, which celebrated fraternity minstrelsy as a sacred tradition at our school. Because of “Sun City,” I became involved with the protests against “Plantation Night.” Because of Dave Marsh, I wrote about it.

Dave had just visited Oklahoma State University a couple of months before this spring event. He taught me a lot during his stay. We talked about the politics of the deconstructionism I was currently involved in with my graduate work, and I would consider his critique in the last major paper I wrote that semester, which I sent to him. After that, he put me in touch with his associate editor Lee Ballinger, and I’ve spent the next quarter of a century writing for their newsletter.

But I learned more during that visit. He gave me a sheet of paper with his home phone number and address, which also had two names on it, Spiver Gordon and Leonard Peltier. Spiver Gordon was accused of vote fraud in an election in Greene County Alabama at that time, and Leonard Peltier, of course, was accused of killing two FBI Agents during a raid on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

I was a member of Amnesty International, and Dave was encouraging me to look more deeply into these domestic cases. I did, eventually, wind up working with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, and I’ve stayed mindful of the way college activist organizations may be geared to involve students without encouraging them to look at the bigger picture. In AI’s case, they didn’t want international activists getting in trouble in their home countries. And, while that may be helpful in some politically unstable environments, that element of caution meant the powers that be in the U.S. stayed remarkably unthreatened. As a teacher today, I notice the same thing. Many political campaigns that target my students have righteous causes, on the surface, but they ignore the underlying politics of the situation. Because of this, the student organizations rarely target the root of the problem. This is one of the sad ways politics have progressed since the 1960s—better diversionary tactics.

Dave got me thinking about these things—most elementally, that there are not just two sides to a problem but there are many angles to consider. And that would all be well and good (if not clich├ęd) if he didn’t teach me something else at the same time. He taught me that complexity was not excuse not to take action. He handed me the great responsibility of being awake and alive and aware to the urgency and the complex dimensions of every battle ahead. I’ve never regretted the difficulties of that stance.

I would help form the Kansas City Missouri Union of the Homeless, the Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, the KC Music Alliance, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the national Labor Party and the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, all as an effort to act, as best I could, despite the complexity of the battlefield ahead of me. I never drank anyone’s Kool Aid; I just committed myself toward what I believed was right every step of the way. Dave convinced me that was possible.

Now, of course, Dave doesn’t get exclusive credit for any of this. He always pointed me outward toward other longterm revolutionaries and musicians and even back toward my roots with my own nuclear family, a mother and father tied to the Civil Rights Movement and an older brother who has always been a guiding light when it came to music. And he found many ways to remind me, essentially through his way of being, to listen to everyone around me, so I always knew the many doors of music open to me—through my wife, my daughter and my friends.

And for Dave’s birthday tribute, as much as anything, I want to focus on that essential quality he has modeled for me, the ability to listen. He may not always be agreeable, but that means he isn’t patronizing me; it certainly means he’s taking me seriously. He’s given me a big ear, as big an ear as he’s helped me find for music. He’s let me know what I heard mattered, and that what he hears from me matters as well. Even without the wisdom I’m lucky he has, that’s more than I could have hoped for from a mentor and all I’d want from a friend. I feel very lucky to count Dave as both, and I never want this conversation to end.

Today, I teach English, trying to listen hard to about a hundred community college students a semester. I also work on a novel and a book of political essays, both of which Dave (perhaps unwittingly) encouraged. I’m also working on campaigns to highlight the privatization of water in the Rust Belt, the upcoming Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign march from New Orleans to Detroit and the fight for a new heart for my friend Eduardo Loredo, a 15-year-old undocumented Mexican living in Kansas City, Kansas, who could have a long life ahead of him if he only had 500,000 dollars (spare change to some in this unjust system).

And, of course, I can trace all of this work back to Dave. 25 years ago, when he was a decade younger than me and I was just a kid, I got to meet my hero—a man who knew to listen, listen well and never stop listening. I’d like to think I do the same much of the time. It’s not easy, but Dave never fooled me into thinking it would be. He just convinced me there’s really no other choice worth making.