Tales of Bessman: Volunteers of America

Paul Kantner’s death last week made me think of marching.

Marching past the dorms on the University of Wisconsin campus in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” blasting out of the windows along with “Street Fightin’ Man.”

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution

Co-written by Kantner and Marty Balin, “Volunteers” was the 1969 titletrack single that closed the band’s 1969 album, whose lead track was its B-side “We Can Be Together,” which was written by Kantner and inspired by the Black Panther Party’s use of the phrase “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” which appears in the chorus. Hence it was an uncommonly political two-sided single, and came out at a time when I was coming home at night reeking of tear gas that would drip down my long hair and into my eyes again when I showered.

Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution, got to revolution

I was a senior in high school, Class of ‘70. Kent State was May 4. My best guess was it was those demonstrations when a can of pepper gas or CS gas blew up in my face and I made it to a first aid station at the Hillel Foundation on Langdon Street to get treated. Maybe it was an earlier one.

One time we marched up State Street to the foot of Bascom Hill, where the National Guard was waiting. They fired a volley of tear gas canisters and I ran up the ground level ramp of the parking lot on the corner, only to find at the top that there were no stairs at that end—so I had to turn around and run all the way back down into the clouds of gas. I didn’t get caught, but I never felt so stupid.

Another time I was hiding from National Guard in the bushes along the shore of Lake Mendota, a helicopter above shining a searchlight down on us from above. That Saturday they gave free seats in the end zone to the Guard, who sat there in uniform and looked pretty harmless. But I was scared shit in the bushes.

“One, two, three, four! We don’t want your fucking war!”

“Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh! NLF is gonna win!”

I never did it, but it’s true that there were kids who threw rocks and smashed windows in the shops on State Street. One of them was a clothing store owned by a Concentration Camp survivor, who likened it to Nazi Germany. I felt sorry for him, for having his store trashed, and for being an idiot.

Ironically, the right wingers in town–mostly Republican legislators from Northern Wisconsin, blamed “outside agitators” who invariably came from New York—code then, and now, for Jews. Just ask Ted Cruz.

The day after Kent State I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School with 100 others—we were called “The Memorial 101”—for protesting. I showered the gas out again that night when I got home.

This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey, now it’s time for you and me

One of the first records I bought was “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” Lesley Gore’s hit from 1963, when I was 11. She had just turned 17 when she recorded it. She always said, “You gotta make your 16-year-old self proud.”

I was 17 in 1970 at the time of Kent State. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, there was a big protest March in Manhattan, on a very cold day. I met up at Grand Central with my friends Suri Gopalan, an Indian who owned a small chain of South Asian music and video stores based in New Jersey, and Jane Sibery, the renowned Canadian singer-songwriter, who happened to be in town. We marched somewhere on the East Side. I can’t remember where the destination was—it must have been the U.N.–but the turnout was so big we never got anywhere near.

I think I got close to it toward the end, when it started thinning out and Suri and Jane had left. I do remember that I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that 33 years after Kent State, I hadn’t changed—at least where it really counted. I’m not much of a crier, usually, but I did start crying. I had made my 16-year-old self proud.

I met Paul Kantner a few times, first a few years after I came to New York. It was 1986, and he was in town promoting the album KBC Band, KBC Band being Kantner, Balin and their Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. They were on Arista Records, and I was in their publicist’s office. Paul pulled out a joint, lit it up, took a hit and passed it to me. Of course I did the same, never thinking twice. The publicist did, though, and still rags me for it.

A few years later I was at a meet-and-greet after a Jefferson Airplane show at Radio City, and told Grace Slick how we used to march to “Volunteers.” She laughed–but she didn’t laugh it off.

My favorite couplet from “Volunteers”:

One generation got old
One generation got soul.

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