This is a collection of eleven essays on the history of May Day written by Marxist historian Peter Linebaugh “during the decades of conservative repression” in the US when celebrations of workers’ struggles of the past “were few and far between”.
Some of the historical details Linebaugh uncovers are fascinating and the links to contemporary events are inspiring. For example, he recalls how when the black activist W E B Du Bois heard that the Irish who led the Easter Rising in 1916 were being called “fools” by some on the left, he appealed to the heavens, “Would to God some of us had the sense enough to be fools!” Linebaugh takes us right back to the early colonisation of America. Thomas Morton arrived in America in 1642. He wanted “to work, trade, and enjoy life with the natives”. Three years later he erected a giant Maypole at Merry Mount, under which recent immigrants like himself joined with Native Americans in a celebration of May Day.
William Bradford also landed in America in 1642. He sailed on the Mayflower. As a Puritan he was opposed to everything that Morton stood for. Puritans believed Native Americans to be “the anti-Christ”. They demolished the Maypole and had Morton deported back to England. His crime had been to celebrate what Linebaugh calls Green May Day. “May Day is very old, and nearly universal. It is a festival of planting, fertility, of germination. It is a community rite of social reproduction.”
Linebaugh describes well the Green side of the story of May Day — longing for “land once held in common” taken from the people during the enclosures in England and with the displacement of Native Americans from their common land. This fascinating book also traces the origins of Red May Day, commemorating the great struggle of workers for the eight-hour day that reached a climax in Chicago at the Haymarket. In 1886 the ironworkers of the Molders’ Union struck at the McCormick Works in Chicago. Someone threw a bomb, and four workers were convicted and hanged.
One of those hanged for the Haymarket bombings was Albert Parsons. He had been a Confederate soldier, but his consciousness was awakened by the reality of the American Civil War. He switched sides to join forces with the “former slaves and present wage slaves”. Expecting that he would himself one day be captured, Parsons foretold of “when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today”. Parsons was part of the massive working class rebellion in Chicago. He described all those assembled at the Haymarket as “representatives of the disinherited”.
Since that day at the Haymarket the voices and actions of the “disinherited” have been heard around the world every year on May Day.
Michelle Gonzales and I met when we were castmates in the 2013 Listen To Your Mother show in San Francisco. Sure, her sexy boob tattoos hypnotized the audience, but it was her story about joining her son in his elementary school talent show that hooked them (and me) for life. Michelle’s got a new memoir out about her life as a Xicana punk drummer for the punk band Spitboy and I asked her to make us a mixtape inspired by her book, The Spitboy Rules…
The Spitboy Rule Mixtape by Michelle Gonzales
Like everybody else, Perimeno punk rockers probably do get stuck in a rut. Many listen to music from their youth, not bothering to seek out new music. Some refuse to listen to new music produced by their old favorite artists because they’re afraid it won’t live up to the music they were making when you first discovered them. For these reasons, I am thrilled to get this guest spot on Midlife Mixtape – to play some of my old favorite songs and some of my new ones.
Like us mid-lifers, a lot of old music holds up really well and deserves being discovered over and over again, but that shouldn’t stop of us from continuing to discover new music, new sounds, and new ideas. Many of the songs on my playlist are only on vinyl, some are only on CD, some are only on youtube, and all feature Latinos. You probably know this already, but not all Latinos play mariachi music or sing in Spanish – some say Latinos invented punk. I’ll let you all debate that. In the meantime, I’ve got a mix tape for you to listen to that includes some of my music and music made by friends. “Take” The Shhh
The video depicts a closeted trans woman attempting to steal a skirt from a small boutique run by Garlika Stanx and Alice Bag. Let’s just say the punishment does not fit the crime and the whole thing will warm your heart.
The Shhh is a side project of the legendary Alice Bag and Martin Sorrondeguy (Garlika Stanx). I could watch this video everyday, and if they ever go on tour, I am going to beg to be their drummer. If you don’t know, Alice Bag is the most famous punk rock Latina in the world, and the author of Violence Girl: From East LA Rage, To LA Stage, a Punk Chicana Story. Her band The Bags formed in the late 1970s, in the early days of punk. She inspired so many of us. Martin Sorrondeguy is the singer of Los Crudos and Limp Wrist. I’ve been friends with Martin since the Spitboy days. You can read all about our friendship in the book. “Curiosidad” Los Crudos
Since I just mentioned Martin Sorrondeguy, I have to play a Los Crudos song, my favorite, “Curisosidad.” Turn your speakers down if you’re not used to pure hardcore punk, but don’t worry, like all Los Crudos songs, this one is short — just 50 seconds long. It’s about rejecting shame and gendered racial stereotypes, accessing our curiosity, and questioning everything, and it has a great guitar lick.
“Babylonian Gorgon,” The Bags
This song is a near perfect punk song. In 1979, if someone asked you what punk sounded like, you would describe this song: fast, loud, with a driving beat, and defiant lyrics about a woman who owns her anti-social behavior, who refuses to live up to anyone’s standards. The singer, Alice Bag, is a true punk pioneer for all women in punk and for Latinas everywhere.
“In Your Face,” Spitboy
I often think of “In Your Face” as one of Spitboy’s signature songs, but that might just be because I wrote it. It’s about the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies to sell products. The lyrics are particularly succinct, and I still can’t believe I wrote it in my early twenties. If you watch the video closely, you’ll see that I break a stick and barely miss a beat when I have to reach out and grab a new one.
“Love Like Murder,” Kamala and the Karnivores
I play guitar and sing back up on this track from the three song 7” Kamala and the Karnivores release, “Girl Band,” 1989. Kamala and the Karnivores was a pop punk band that, at the time, was loved by nerdy dudes who fetishisized female musicians, and just about no one else. I was asked to join Kamala and the Karnivores after my first band broke up and before I formed Spitboy. Ivy, the singer/song writer, painstakingly taught me to play each guitar part, which I’d forget easily, so she’d have to teach them to me all over again. I said “yes” to playing rhythm guitar player because I was already hooked on being in a band, all female bands. Kamala was the drummer, so I couldn’t have taken over on drums for the person the band was named for.
I’ve noticed that in recent writing about Lookout bands that Kamala and Karnivores are finally getting the respect they always deserved, and when you hear “Love Like Murder,” you’ll get what I mean.
“Seriously,” I Object
There are actually no Latinas in the female fronted hardcore band, I Object, but “Seriously” is a Spitboy song, our first song, a song that I wrote. It’s a simple three chord song (it actually may have four or so) that I wrote in advance of Spitboy’s very first practice. It’s a song about sexual harassment, and I Object ’s version is so great. There’s nothing like hearing your own song covered the first time and hearing a band improve on it too.
“Xicanista,” Bombon Band
“Xicanista” is the newest release on my playlist, and the latest by Bombon Band, a surf rock trio of Xicanas from San Pedro, California. It’s a surf rock meditation whose only lyrics are “Somos Xicanistas. Somos Feministas!”
We are Xicanas. We are feminists! “Gothic Summer,” Prayers
When fellow writer Tomas Moniz told me about cholo goth group, Prayers, I was all in without even hearing a single song. This song “Gothic Summer” sealed the deal, and then I heard singer Lefar Seyer/Rafael Reyes discuss the importance of self-love and how loving his band mate was a form of that love. I think I’ll be a fan forever.
You can see evidence of the affection he talks about it in the beautifully shot video. And who doesn’t love a video shot in a cemetery with black and Latino kids of various ages running around having the happiest water balloon fight ever? Prayers’ forthcoming EP is called Baptism of Thieves. The song “Gothic Summer” came out in 2014, but I’ll be rocking it all summer 2016. I hope you will too!
Want to read more? Michelle is giving away a copy of The Spitboy Rules to a lucky Midlife Mixtape reader! To enter for your chance to win, leave a comment below…we’ll use Random.org to select a winner on Wednesday, May 18 at 5 pm PST!
Want to see Michelle’s fancy tattoos in action? Join us on Thursday, May 19 at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland at 7 pm where she’ll read and dish about life as a Xicana punk rock drummer!
Gonzales’s new memoir illuminates that seldom-spoken time in punk history when Nirvana was not yet a household name and punk was still just another four-letter word to most people. The book also offers an important perspective on the narrative of feminist musicians of the ‘90s, a history which is often told only via white women and female-fronted punk bands are all labeled as riot grrrl. In the memoir, Gonzales describes how she felt like an outsider as a Xicana feminist in the mostly white, mostly male music scene of hardcore punk but also felt similarly estranged from the major feminist movement in punk at the time. Spitboy wasn’t riot grrrl or grunge; their music was harder, faster, more technical. Lyrically the band was tackling similar subject matter as their riot grrrl contemporaries, but their music and their politics were different. Much of this friction was a result of what she refers to as her "coming out as a person of color" in the willfully colorblind 90s punk scene.
Gonzales’s insistence that her genre was hardcore rather than riot grrrl was met with pushback from all sides. She says that her presence as a radical, feminist of color in the punk scene was discomforting to many. Status quo is still status quo even in a subculture that prides itself on rebellion and resistance. In mapping out her identity both musically and personally in uncharted territory, Gonzales chronicles a critical moment of change in the Bay Area punk scene and we are lucky to have access to it now.
Gonzales is an excellent storyteller and tour guide through this lesser-known territory of 90s music history. Her resilient love and affection for her Spitboy bandmates are one of my favorite things about the book, emphasizing their egalitarian tour dynamic well above any gossip or arguments. Stories of epic road trips, high-intensity punk shows, and dealing with sexist fans are told with phenomenal good humor and the wisdom of hindsight inserted wryly into the narrative. While Gonzales’s life and history are singular, her story is infinitely relatable to those of us that have felt outside of our own culture, or subculture.
These days, more and more pregnant people are starting to spend time researching birth before actually giving birth. They’re researching where they’ll give birth, who their care providers will be, who their support team will consist of.
And yet, as a society we still have a long way to go. A long, long way.
It’s easy for those of us who benefit from societal privileges to be completely blind to the advantages we have. It’s easy to forget that some birth givers don’t have access to the “good” hospitals because of location, insurance, or financial means. For some pregnant people, a higher risk of unwanted interventions or unnecessary surgery is unavoidable. For some, home birth is not an option. For some, hiring a doula is either impractical or impossible. For some, prejudice is faced at every turn due to skin color or gender identity.
For some, it’s a blessing simply to be able to give birth without being chained to the bed.
There are many issues that those who perform birth work need to be concerned with. Midwives, doulas, and childbirth educators are always learning, always reading. A new book to add to the “to read” pile is Alana Apfel‘s Birth Work as Care Work: Stories from Activist Birth Communities.
This anthology delves into a lot of sensitive ideas that are not often discussed in more mainstream birth communities, although there are certainly individuals and groups out there that are working in these areas.
“Ultimately the anthology is conceived as a platform through which to honor birth–in all its forms–as itself a profoundly radical act that holds the potential for deep transformative change.”
For example, many sections discuss the idea of white privilege with regards to birth, although those aren’t the exact words used. But there are discussions about how birth is experienced by racial minorities, and how marginalized groups have less options and less choice, and often face a certain amount of judgment simply for who they are. In addition, these people must sometimes deal with more affluent birth workers–because birth work often tends to draw in white, wealthier women–and the stigma of being “saved.”
“One such problematic narrative relates to the language of ‘choice’ within modern maternity care. The danger of celebrating the rise of choice within transactional birthing environments lies in masking ongoing forms of coercion that result in a denial of choice for marginalized communities and those with less access to the kinds of choice-making power enjoyed by more privileged counterparts.”
Also discussed is how birth is shaped by a person’s gender identity. Sure, plenty of white, hetero, cisgendered women give birth every day, but that doesn’t mean that birth is restricted only to straight women or even to those who identify as women. This book is sure to get readers thinking about ideas that some may have never encountered before.
And of course, Birth Work as Care Work talks about some of the issues that are widely known about among birth workers of all stripes, such as how the institutionalized medical model of care affects birth outcomes, the value of midwives, our society’s implicit (but not always well-deserved) trust in medical professionals.
“People see their doctors as authorities with complete control over their bodies and their babies–to the extent that they expect to be raped. The word rape might sound extreme, but I am quick to point out that when someone does something to your genitals without your consent, that is rape.”
Readers will get an overview of some basic herbal medicine–just a discussion of herbs, but no recipes–because of the importance of reclaiming medicine for ourselves. There is also a wonderful, straightforward glossary: the “Political Dictionary.” This gives readers an easy understanding of some terms they may be less familiar with, which makes this book even more accessible to everyone.
There are discussions of how doulas can serve different kinds of pregnant people, and readers will learn about groups they may not have heard about before: volunteer doulas, prison doulas, doula training programs, doulas that work in areas of reproductive health not normally associated with doulas at all (like abortion or adoption).
There are also a number of birth stories, which readers will love. Birth is beautiful, and these stories celebrate it in all of its messy, myriad forms. This is the kind of birth the author and others are fighting for, and readers will enjoy getting to experience it up close.
Overall, Birth Work as Care Work is a book that will leave readers thinking and questioning, and perhaps wanting to get involved (if they’re not already). This is a fascinating and thoughtful collection of stories, questions, and essays, and a book that any birth worker would benefit from picking up.
“Transformation happens when we come together and meet each other where we actually are, not where others perceive us to be.”
A new book reminds us that mothers are voices from the front lines that we all need to hear.
In February, Illinois lawmakers introduced a bill that would bar a woman from receiving state aid for her child if she refused to list the father or another financially responsible family member on the birth certificate. Unless she agreed to this intrusion into her family’s privacy, she’d be denied both public assistance and a birth certificate for her child.
News reports such as the one that brought this legislation to national attention often describe the problems mothers on the margins face, but it’s rare that we hear women who fall outside idealized notions of motherhood speak for themselves. The book Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, published earlier this year by PM Press, sets out to change that. It showcases the parenting experiences of people in poverty, teenagers, women with children in the court system, unmarried women, women committed to radical politics, and others too often overlooked in public discourse on parenting. The contributors to the anthology, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams, are not victims acted upon by policies or pushed into ill-fitting categories by politicians. Instead, they are experts on their own lives, presenting solutions for the challenges they face and stories of the transformations they’ve experienced through mothering or being mothered.
The focus throughout the book is on the verb rather than the noun. While we may make assumptions about the sex and gender of someone called a mother, the activity of mothering is less limiting. Early on, Gumbs describes it as “the practice of creating, nurturing, affirming and supporting life.” In an effort to separate notions of mothering from traditional ideas about who does it, Gumbs writes: “The practice of mothering that inspired us to create this book is older than feminism; it is older and more futuristic than the category ‘woman.’”
Still, the book is firmly in the tradition of earlier feminist works that presented the testimonies of women of color. In her preface, Loretta J. Ross, co-founder of the reproductive-justice organization SisterSong, describes how in the 1970s and ’80s Cherríe Moraga, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Toni Cade Bambara, and others articulated an evolving feminism that was relevant to and led by women of color. Ross writes of feeling as if books such as Moraga and Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back and hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman spoke directly to her as a black feminist in her 20s. Revolutionary Mothering attempts to do something similar for a new generation grappling with how race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other aspects of identity affect the way they love.
In the book, Mai’a Wiliams addresses the stigma attached to midwifery, particularly among members of the black middle class who consider out-of-hospital birth backward, a remnant of the Jim Crow days when the medical establishment left black women to fend for themselves during pregnancy and childbirth. Her short essay highlights the absence of black midwives, particularly the granny midwives that Williams writes were historically central to black communities, from today’s boom in the use of largely white midwives and doulas.
Claire Barrera writes about parenting with chronic pain and points out how the current fascination with so-called natural or attachment parenting can be exclusive. “One is expected to breastfeed, babywear, make all your baby food from scratch, unschool AND work, etc. etc. with a smile on one’s face,” Barrera writes. “I find this discouraging, not radical at all, and I don’t see myself, as a mama with a disability, reflected in that reality.”
Norma Angelica Marrun describes being 12 years old and separated from her mother by immigration policies that allowed her to stay in the United States but forced her mother to return to Mexico. Victoria Law explains in detail how she learned to mother while maintaining and deepening her commitments to organizing and activism. Lisa Factora-Borchers tells the story of giving birth, as she puts it, “to two things: a 9 lb. 7 oz. son and a new feminism.” While healing from a cesarean section, she decides that there are two kinds of feminism, what she calls “the feminism of issues and the feminism of our lives.” The former is concerned with whether people call themselves feminists and whether feminism is dying. The latter is concerned with whether women themselves are dying and the complexities of their experiences while they live.
The testimonies in Revolutionary Mothering offer readers a deep dive into the feminism of its contributors’ lives. The book is a necessary reminder that beyond the headlines, position papers, and generalizations made about mothers are voices from the front lines that we all need to hear.
Most people have heard of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) – the night when the Nazis targeted Jews throughout Germany – but most people do not know whose actions were used as the pretext for the attacks. That person was Jewish teenager Herschel Grynszpan who killed a Nazi diplomat in Paris. Joseph Matthews, in Everyone Has Their Reasons, writes a fictional account of Grynszpan as he escapes Germany and tries to hide in Paris as an undocumented immigrant.
Matthews writes from Grynszpan’s perspective in the form of letters to his court-appointed attorney in Germany. Although I was not sure about this style at first because it was a little disjointed, I eventually warmed to the approach. The letters are written in a formal manner that portrays a lot of information about Grynszpan’s experiences. The experiences vary from his constant struggles to find work and shelter to his pursuit of gaining legal status in France.
One part of the book that I find fascinating is the insinuation used in Grynszpan’s imprisonment. He complains to his attorney about the unhealthy air in one of his prisons – not realizing that the air is polluted by the cremation of Jews and other prisoners by the Nazis. It makes me wonder if any prisoners thought this way or if they knew the true source of the smoke.
The book also perfectly captures the tension (both class and nationality) in Paris in the 1930’s. Not only are the working class (led by Communists) in conflict with others, but there is also strife between native French and the migrants fleeing Germany and other areas in Eastern Europe. Matthews writes about these conflicts in Grynszpan’s interactions with other characters.
The book is an excellent look at the fictional musings of one of history’s little-known assassins whose actions created such chaos.
Gypsy is the first collection of Carter Scholz material in a dozen years, consisting of the centerpiece title novella, a pair of short stories, an essay, an interview with Scholz (conducted by editor Terry Bisson), and a bibliography. As compelling as the shorter pieces are, it is the novella that grabs and won’t let go. In the interview, Scholz characterizes ‘‘Gypsy’’ as SF ‘‘with the net up’’ to ‘‘let the story come out of the constraints of the physics.’’ And throughout it is constraints, human and physical, that define the story, which follows the progress of the first interstellar voyage to the Centaurus system. As each of the hibernating crew’s ‘‘stewards’’ is awakened to solve some problem, we also get the back-story of how the starship Gypsy came to be designed, built, and launched in secret by a conspiracy of scientists, engineers, and astronauts who despair of the home planet’s future.
That future already looks bleak by the story’s mid-21st-century opening. Sophie, the first steward revived, remembers a world in a tailspin, dominated by corporations, defense contractors, and the surveillance state. She and successive stewards must deal with the expected and unexpected hazards of interstellar flight, and as the errors and failures pile up, the chances of a successful planetfall diminish, and the gradually unfolding back-story makes a happy outcome for the homeworld seem increasingly unlikely. When Sophie recovers scraps of Earth’s network traffic, she catches fragmented glimpses of rolling disasters and the insanity of a civilization ‘‘speaking its poison poetry of ruin and catastrophe and longing’’:
Hurriedly autoimmune decay derivative modern thaws in dawn’s pregnant grave shares in disgust of high frequency trading wet cities territorial earthquake poison Bayes the chairs are empty incentives to disorder without borders. Pneumonia again antibiotic resistance travels the globe with ease….
Mankind is inwardly endocrine and afar romantic spaceflight.
Everything in the story’s science-fictional machineries emphasizes complexity and interaction and unexpected outcomes; and like the design of Gypsy itself, the story’s rolling, interconnected disasters are complex and comprehensively imagined. For example, the engineered-in sterility of commercial crops has jumped to natural species, so that ‘‘[t]here wasn’t a live food plant left anywhere on Earth that could propagate itself.’’ The starship’s necessarily minimalist design leaves only the tiniest margins of error in the elaborate and delicate systems that power and direct the vessel and sustain the sleeping crew. The stubborn resistance of the physical environment traveled by Gypsy – a set of cold equations – is the physics-and-engineering analogue of humanity’s perverse refusal to overcome the greed and power-hunger that drives the leaders of Spaceship Earth.
The most satisfying SF produces a world as dense and operationally plausible – as fine-grained – as the one we actually inhabit. Scholz’s future and starship design supply that kind of credibility for a quite non-technological set of observations about the failure modes of human endeavor. As I read ‘‘Gypsy’’, I kept thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson or Paul McAuley’s densely textured evocations of physical reality, of physics and chemistry in action. And it was quite interesting to read next to, say, Charles Stross’s various blog essays on the barriers to intra-solar-system, let alone interstellar, space travel and colonization, the executive summary of which is ‘‘space travel is shit.’’ (See Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood, reviewed in August 2008 and July 2013.) Sophie, last as well as first steward, recognizes humankind’s precarious perch in the universe:
So long for us to evolve…. So long to build a human world. So quick to ruin it…. Every last bit of it was a long shot: their journey, humanity, life itself, the universe with its constants so finely tuned that planets, stars, time itself, had come to be.
‘‘Gypsy’’ is a hard act to follow, but the rest is as compelling and (sometimes) angry. ‘‘The Nine Billion Names of God’’ (1984) starts out as one of those epistolary-story goofs that used to turn up in the magazines (an author-editor rejection exchange), but it develops a sharper bite as ‘‘Carter Scholz’’ explains the genesis and significance of his text, which only appears to be a word-for-word copy of the famous Clarke tale of the same title. Post-modern hilarity ensues. ‘‘The United States of Impunity’’ seems to be a new piece, a kind of op-ed essay driven by anger but expressed with considerable rational restraint: a reasoned case against the moral bankruptcy of our governing class and the moneyed, kleptocratic classes that run them. ‘‘Bad Pennies’’ (2009) is another narrative stunt piece, the answers-only side of a Congressional hearing that points up the strange banality of geo-politico-economic operations.
The volume lives up to the PM Press’s ‘‘Outspoken Authors’’ series label, and while the genial and often funny interview does not exhibit the anger behind the stories, it does supply some biographical, political, literary, and musical background – that early on Scholz was ‘‘drawn to the core modernist works’’ of Eliot, Beckett, and Pound, and that he has argued for the science-fictionality of Beckett, Borges, Calvino, Gaddis, and Pynchon. (The brief comments on the nature of genre are right on the money.) It also made me very curious about his music – anybody who admires Monk and gamelan is going to be very interesting.
Scholz is anything but prolific. The bibliography that closes out the book is only a little over two pages long, showing his most productive writing period to have been the 1980s, with two dozen titles, most thickly clustered in the middle of the decade. He is, nevertheless, a powerful voice in the field, and Gypsy and ‘‘Gypsy’’ both pack a lot of punch for their sizes.
After 60 years of making music, radical English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson turns his attention to the post-financial-crash political landscape in this new album, made up of original compositions and rescued old songs.
On the title track, 'Karl Marx is scratching his head/they ought to be shooting the bankers/But they’re giving them money instead'. 'Looters' finds Rosselson comparing the rioters of August 2011 with the industrial-scale, officially-sanctioned looting carried out by 'the Brutish Empire', while 'Sixty Quid A Week' takes aim at Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that he could live on the current level of unemployment benefit.
Other topics tackled include so-called welfare cheats, the looming climate crisis, and the recent Gaza wars on the moving 'Ballad of Rivka and Mohammed'. On the latter, Rosselson – a long-time supporter of Jews for Justice for Palestinians – combines the story of a girl killed in the Vilna Ghetto in 1942 with the Israeli bombing of four Palestinian boys playing on a beach in 2014. Throughout, Rosselson is assisted by a number of other musicians, including Janet Russell and Roy Bailey who lend a hand on the wonderfully-titled 'I’m Going Where The Suits Will Shine My Shoes.'
Long out of step with popular music and the British folk scene, Rosselson’s music and voice is something of an acquired taste. However, activists who take the time to listen will find a fresh and knowledgeable take on contemporary politics – often caustic, sometimes angry and always right on the money.
Rosselson’s detailed and amused introductions to his songs in the liner notes – with repeated references to the privileged background of the austerity-crazed government – are worth studying in themselves. In addition, his nimble, humorous wordplay will provide activists with some light relief. And like his most famous song, the left-wing anthem 'The World Turned Upside Down', the music here will surely inspire anyone involved in struggles against established power.
I end with bad news. Now 81, Rosselson has announced that this will be his final recording. But there is good news too: the brilliant Where Are The Barricades? is a fitting end to a rich and humane recording career that will no doubt continue to entertain, nourish and enlighten progressive activists across the world for years to come. And luckily much of Rosselson extensive back catalogue is available through the PM audio series.
Five years after his 4-CD compendium The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010 the radical English singer/songwriter Leon Rosselson has released a new album, Where are the Barricades? Rosselson turned 80 in 2014, so his announcement that “after some sixty years of songwriting… this is my final recording” is hardly shocking, but will nonetheless distress those for whom his consistent advocacy of social change and support for the underdog has long been an inspiration.
Rosselson, the son of communist Jewish immigrants to Britain, made his name contributing satirical songs to the classic 1960s BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was, and he has never abandoned a very English form of political satire. Indeed some more po-faced purists may well be aggrieved by the sheer frivolity of the first song on the album (the earliest version of which dates back to 1986):
Full Marks for Charlie.
He’s the bugbear of the bosses.
Workers of the world unite!
Charlie Marx is dynamite.
In fact the transmission of serious political comment through the medium of cheek, conveyed in a voice that in an earlier review I described as possessing a “vaguely Monty Pythonish quality (Eric Idle comes to mind!)”, is so characteristic of Rosselson that the listener’s response to his music may depend on her/his tolerance of the combination. To which I must add a further comment from that review: “When Rosselson sings, the vocal idiosyncrasies are inseparable from his intractable and endearing integrity.”
The satirical mode is conspicuous in Looters (“You smash up the shops and you get free stuff/ It’s all about the money nowadays…innit?”), Benefits (“Come all you skivers, welfare cheats...”), and the title song, Where are the Barricades? (here making its fourth recorded appearance) which effortlessly manages a direct quotation from the Communist Manifesto:
See how the bubbles are bursting
‘All that’s solid melts into air’
The stairs are beginning to rattle
And the rats are beginning to stare.
However, Rosselson’s range is wider than this. While he has admitted to avoiding love-songs (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”), he has instead composed what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…” Active Ageing is a comical example of this, while Marital Diaries are bitter-sweet slices of married life spoken by Rosselson and Liz (Elizabeth) Mansfield. To the latter (minus Rosselson) is assigned Paris in the Rain, an “attempt at an English French-style chanson”, beautifully accompanied on piano by Fiz Shapur. Fair’s Fair, originally recorded by Roy Bailey (who participates in a couple of songs on this album, but not this one) is a seemingly apolitical celebration of the fun of the fair, rollercoaster, dodgems and all. For Rosselson, it’s
“a song that suggested revisiting the past in order to recapture those more innocent, stress-free days, represented by a trip to the fairground where ‘smashing plates can be a lot of fun’ and ‘you’ll see it can be easy to pretend’ and we can ‘dream of sunny days that never end’. An exercise in nostalgia, in fact. (Private communication.)
Four Degrees Celsius, opening and closing with a line from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman (‘On a summer season when soft was the sun’), is an enigmatic allegory that may or may not evoke ecological apocalypse.
I have previously described Rosselson’s anti-Zionist Song of the Olive Tree as “perhaps his most beautiful composition”, and perhaps the most powerful song on the new album isThe Ballad of Rivka & Mohammed, the note on which in the CD booklet is almost an essay on Israel’s persecution of the people of Gaza.
In a sympathetic interview with Rosselson, which is much more than an interview, the English Jewish blogger Robert Cohen describes the song as follows:
A Nazi soldier smashes the head of Rivka, a seven year old girl wearing her new red dress in the Vilna ghetto in 1942. An Israeli soldier fires a shell onto a Gaza beach and kills Mohammed, an eleven year old boy playing football with his cousins in 2014. In the songwriter’s dream, Mohammed and Rivka take each other’s hand and “leave this world of war” – together. The Polish ghetto has been twinned with the Gaza Strip. Nazis are on a parallel with Israelis. And in life and in death, Rivka and Mohammed are together and equal.
Cohen asks: “Isn’t such a coupling of victims a dishonest slur against the state of Israel, a gross exaggeration, and an offence to the memory of the six million?” Rosselson replies:
The racism of the Nazis, dehumanising Jews (and so making them disposable), is matched by the racism of prominent Israelis and government spokesman dehumanising Palestinians, calling them ‘little snakes’, ‘two-legged beasts’, ‘drugged cockroaches’ and suggesting – as in an article in The Times of Israel – that there are times when genocide is permissible.
What is most remarkable about the song, apart from its courage, is its understated simplicity: the message is clear, and requires no rhetoric to hammer it home:
And I saw children still being slaughtered
The monster must have its fill
While the people with power turned a blind eye
And supplied the weapons that kill.
Rosselson’s decision to revisit the title song suggests that he sees few grounds for optimism in his country’s – or the world’s – recent history:
The plebs should be storming the ramparts
And whetting the guillotine’s blade
Singing capitalism’s in crisis
So where are the barricades?
However, the last song on the album, At Dawn (inspired by Yves Montand’s C’est à l’aube but replacing “its somewhat generalised imagery” with a “focus on the specific, the particular, the visual, which is what I always try to do”) rebuts any such fatalism. If this is truly Leon Rosselson’s farewell to the recording studio, then it is a stirring one indeed.
It’s many, many years since I read this. For those who don’t know, The Last Of The Hippies was a lengthy essay that was published in the insert that accompanied the CRASS album ‘Christ The Album’. It’s quite a sprawling narrative to included with an album and, while CRASS was always about ideas and the dissemination of ideas and information, it did get a bit lost within the context of the booklet that came with the album, as it was sandwiched between song lyrics (if I recall correctly at least). Here, in book form, it should certainly be easier to ‘digest’ for those who aren’t CRASS obsessed.
The main core of the essay is an analysis of Wally Hope. Hope organised the Windsor Free Festival between 1972-’74 and was among the founders of the Stonehenge Free Festival. He was also a bit of a visionary and activist, which lead his incarceration in a mental institution for the possession of a small amount of LSD. He allegedly committed suicide, but Rimbaud’s investigation discovered evidence he was murdered by the State. The narrative here only touches on the subject of Wally Hope and, if you want a more in-depth analysis of the events, it’s well worth picking up Rimbaud’s Shibboleth also.
The remainder looks at the power of Rock ‘n’ Roll as a medium of social and political change, of the ethics and ideals behind Anarchism (as viewed by Rimbaud), of the power of pacifism and peaceful protest and ultimately the then occurring Falklands War. This last issue certainly gives the narrative placement and compensates for ‘Christ The Album’s lack of songs about it. Add in religion, the banality of Oi, journalistic lies, CRASS and many more peripheral matters, and you have a convincing essay on the fundamental beliefs of what Anarcho-Punk represented.
What is hugely interesting is Rimbaud’s new introductory piece. It carries particular weight for those who already know what the core text concerns as Rimbaud mentions he is greatly embarrassed by his then-belief in the power of Rock ‘n’ Roll as a force of change. He also states that throughout his life he has swung between the pacifist stance that the original text represented (which ran in parallel to the stance of CRASS) and a more militant form of activism, which is where he currently sits. There’s definitely a sense of self-analysis and progression in this new piece.
The contrast between the two narratives makes for great reading, especially for those who think of CRASS as more than just a band and realise the power their songs could wield in a socio-political sense.
A few subtle alterations have been made to the original text; nothing that changes the actual meaning of it or acts as either contradiction or emphasis, but just some minor updates. Most notable of those is the bold, headline print of some of those iconic statements: There is no authority but our own, We have the strength but do we have the courage? etc.
If you’ve got ‘Christ The Album’ then you have the core of this; however I reckon it would be well worth your time picking this up primarily due to the new introduction and the fact that in book format, the narrative does take on a slightly less-laborious tone.