Crying like a baby: Women’s March NYC, 1-21-2017

I knew I’d cry, just not how soon and for the entire time—and that I’d be such a blubbering idiot about it.

I knew it because I was already so moved, conceptually, by the Women’s March on Washington—and just about everywhere else in the world where people who care about the planet and not just themselves exist, even including Antarctica! But as I walked east late Saturday morning on 42nd Street toward Grand Central Station, besides the significance of the Women’s March the day after the official consecration of evil, my thoughts ran also to the last time I marched: February 15, 2003, in opposition to the imminent Iraq War.

Jane Siberry was in town, maybe she played Joe’s Pub the night before. She met me at Grand Central, as did my friend Suri Gopalan, then maybe the top U.S. distributor of South Asian music and video. It was very cold that day as we marched up the East Side, and it was so crowded we never made it near to where the rally stage was. Indeed, Jane and Suri were long gone by the time I turned onto whatever the avenue was and caught sight of the stage many blocks down and could hear the speakers.

And then I cried. It was a cry of joy that after all these years, these decades after protesting the Vietnam War as a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin, when I’d come home from the University campus, once after being kicked out of high school for protesting Kent State, with tear gas seeped into my clothes and dripping down my hair in the shower (one time I needed to be treated at the Hillel foundation on Langdon Streeet when a can of National Guard pepper gas blew up right in front of me), that here I was, after all this time, right where I began, true to my idealistic younger self, where I was supposed to be.

I shouldn’t call any of this nostalgia, but I could feel the tears welling up once again as I crossed Sixth Avenue, and when I caught up with a girl carrying a sign and wearing a Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket, the floodgates opened and never really shut. Around 45th and Fifth a cop let me join the march from behind the sidewalk barricades, as I had neither registered for a start time at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at East 47th Street and First Avenue, nor gone there anyway. Rather, I figured on going to Grand Central, which was being used as a warming station–though it was warm enough for me to keep my medium jacket and heavy hooded sweatshirt open, thereby exposing the old red Janis Ian t-shirt I managed to dig out specially for the occasion.

The march would travel down Second Avenue and turn west on 42nd Street before turning north on Fifth and ending at Trump Tower at 56th. I was hoping to run into friends I knew would be there from tweets and Facebook posts—Rosanne Cash and Sandra Bernhard and David Johansen—but as it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t so much crying as bawling, uncontrollably: Poor Janis Ian t-sirt! Snot noodled down upon it continuously, tears streaming down my face.

Weird thing is, I don’t usually cry much—though I do cry at movies (I’m sure they’re still cleaning up the puddle I left at last month’s Dangal screening!) and whenever I hear Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee and Jane Siberry, or watch Barack and Michelle Obama. And I’m open about it, so that when I tweeted “Weeping openly behind protest gal with Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket,” a Facebook friend observed that I seem to cry a lot. “I’m a crybaby,” I responded.

It got so bad when I got in the middle of it that I couldn’t chime in on any of the chants, I was so overcome with emotion. Of course I wouldn’t have joined a Spanish one that I had a feeling was somewhat lewd since the gals were having so much fun with it, but when they ended with “When they go low, we go high” I was sniveling too much to form words. And I wouldn’t even attempt to add my voice to the little girls shouting out Planned Parenthood chant support.

I did try to sing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something I never do at sports events–when the church organ at St. Thomas Church played it, but nothing came out. Same with “We Shall Overcome”—by the way, a fantastic touch from the church. Even the signs had me boohooing (a word I’ve never used, that I picked up from Tanya Tucker’s hit “Down to My Last Teardop”–that shows I’m running out of “cry” synonyms): “Dissent is Patriotic,” “I can’t believe my daughters have to do this too,” “Hate doesn’t live here anymore” (when I got home I had to post Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), an iconic blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign that the woman holding it said was 15-years-old and used at five demonstrations, a “Keep your laws off my body” sign that an elderly lady said was 25-years-old.

A brief aside: So I was struggling to send out tweets through the tears and keep up with my Facebook and Twitter timelines, and on Facebook came word, though one of my friends and favorite singer-songwriters Maria McKee, that Maggie Roche of the most wonderful Roches had died.

“One of my favorite records of all time,” Maria wrote, in reference to the Roches’ self-titled 1979 album. “RIP Maggie Roche.”

“Crushed,” I responded, then tweeted, “Overcome now by sadness at news that Maggie Roche has died.” And I cried some more.

But Maria also posted “I’M SO PROUD TO BE A WOMAN TODAY! WARRIORS I LOVE YOU ALL! #RESIST.” I tweeted, “Cue Lee Greenwood: ‘And I’m proud to be an American….'” and passed a couple old ladies with blue ball caps embroidered with “We’re still here.” “Talkin’ ’bout my generation,” I tweeted.

The Devil’s Tower was now looming large as we neared 56th and Fifth. And suddenly there was a new, softer chant: “Bubble!”

Actually it wasn’t so much a chant as it was an expression of wonderment. Sure enough, the most perfect five-inch soap bubble rose over the sea of people filling Fifth Avenue, evoking my thoughts of The Red Balloon and the plastic bag of American Beauty.

“Bubble!”

And we had reached the northernmost part of the march, police barricades preventing us from getting any closer to the Tower of Doom. I followed those marchers directly in front of as they turned off to the right and headed east, passing the cutest quartet of little girls holding up a “Girl Power” sign on the south side of 56th, halfway to Madison Avenue. I turned south at the corner and there were still marchers with signs everywhere, coming or going or just hanging out. Best one: “Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights.”

I looked at my phone and saw that Barb Jungr, England’s great pop/cabaret singer whom I’d seen just two weeks before at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton, had tweeted me, “In London doing same and fave sign I’m Quite Cross. It’s so English.”

I got to 42nd Street, turned right and rejoined the march, now with those who had started a couple hours after me. Here it was so packed that it took probably 40 minutes to get from Madison to Fifth. The best sign brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I used to work a block from Oscar Mayer headquarters, as it parodied the company’s jingle: “My vagina has a first name: It’s don’t fu%#king grab my pussy/My vagina has a second name, it’s seriously don’t fucking grab my pussy.”

Finally reaching Fifth Avenue, where the marchers turned right for the final leg, I kept going and headed home, thought not before finally finding at least a small part of my voice and uttering the old protest warhorse “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and the Obama battle cry “Yes we can!” And I thought of this passage toward the end of his final speech in Chicago two weeks ago: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans–especially so many young people out there–to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”

“Guess what? We didn’t lose!” I tweeted. “We are not alone!”

When I got home I saw that 25,000 were marching in Madison–the total since reported as between 75,000 to 100,000. That night I tuned into my old friend Rockin’ John McDonald’s I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison’s listener-sponsored station WORT-FM and heard him play in succession the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

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.

Jean Béliveau and Jane Siberry

For baseball there’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and, of course, “Centefield.” It’s Loudon Wainwright III’s “The Back Nine” for golf, and being from Milwaukee I think of “On Wisconsin” when it comes to football.

And for hockey, there’s Jane Siberry’s “Hockey,” as great a sports song as there ever was, though it’s about more than just sports—and newsworthy now in light of the death Tuesday night of Jean Béliveau, the legendary Montreal Canadiens captain who helped lead the team to an unprecedented five straight Stanley Cups during the 1950s and ‘60s, and 10 total in his career.

“Like millions of hockey fans who followed the life and the career of Jean Béliveau, the Canadiens today mourn the passing of a man whose contribution to the development of our sport and our society was unmeasurable,”team owner Geoff Molson said in a statement. “Jean Béliveau was a great leader, a gentleman and arguably the greatest ambassador our game has ever known.”

Indeed, Béliveau was so beloved that he almost became Canada’s Governor General in 1994.

But he’s immortalized in “Hockey,” in one of popular music’s truly great lyrics: “This stick was signed by Jean Béliveau/So don’t fucking tell me where to fucking go.”

The voice is that of a young kid playing hockey on a frozen river in Canada (“You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank/That’s how you stop/And you get your sweater from the catalog/You use your rubber boots for goal posts”).

Also invoked is Béliveau’s teammate Maurice “Rocket” Richard: “They rioted in the streets of Montreal when they benched Rocket Richard.”

Richard was suspended in 1955 following a violent altercation, touching off the Richard Riot in Montreal resulting in some $100,000 in property damage, 37 injuries, and 100 arrests. But the pro hockey references, indeed, even hockey itself, aren’t so much the heart of “Hockey” as Siberry’s magical conjuring of childhood (“Someone’s dog just took the puck/He buried it, it’s in the snowbank…Someone else just got called for dinner”) and its inevitable end.

The sun is fading on the frozen river
The wind is dying down
Don’t let those Sunday afternoons
Get away get away get away get away.

Concert Highlights: Jane Siberry, 11/18/14

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No, Jane. I didn’t mean, when I said it was like seeing you for the first time—30-plus years ago—that you aren’t any different now. What I meant is that your new band show is as spellbinding as the first one in terms of presentation—and music, of course.

At least, I think that’s what I meant, now that I think about it: That incredible show at The Bottom Line, when you came out with a band and the two female backup singers, and the three of you had those microphones that you wear around your head so you can move around. To this day it was one of the most memorable shows I ever saw.

Anyway, I told this to Jane Siberry in the Green Room after her hour-long show at the East Side apartment of prominent, if not notorious, New York criminal defense attorney Gerald Shargel. Said Green Room was really an office/study lined with incredible photos of Che Guevara, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Joan and Martin Luther King, and the like. Also framed on one end of the room was the famous Milton Glaser psychedelic poster that was included in the 1967 Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits album, which I used to have tacked up in my bedroom, you know, the one with the multi-colored hair on the black silhouette.

Framed on the other end were the somewhat famous—if you’re a New Yorker–New York Post front pages of secretly taped John Gotti quotes railing against his defense attorneys, of which Gerry—and I hope it’s okay to call him Gerry, since we’re all Friends of Jane–was one. Presumably, Gerry never turned the Teflon Don on to Jane.

But Gerry had previously turned on a number of his friends to Jane and other highest quality music acts by holding these “salon” concerts at his home. This was Jane’s second appearance, and she remembered one of the 25 listeners in the living room from her first one a couple years ago, and that legendary New York columnist Jimmy Breslin had been there as well.

She came out with longtime collaborator/bandleader/pianist/composer Peter Kiesewalter, cellist Kevin Fox, and backup singers Ali Hughes—who met Jane in her native Australia when Jane did a salon there—and Rebecca Jenkins, like everyone else, a Canadian—whom I saw with Jane that first time at the Bottom Line.

There! That’s what I meant about how it was like seeing you for the first time! Even though all the music was different—but just as great!

Gerry introduced Jane by noting that her biggest album, When I Was a Boy, which includes her most famous song “Calling All Angels,” was one of his Desert Island Discs. I told him later that I’m thanked on that album next to John Lennon. I also told him that I always say how when you think of John Lennon, of course, you immediately think of Jim Bessman, but in all honesty, I’ve never said that to May Pang.

Jane started by saying how her job was to make us all forget, the best we could, what we were thinking about for 60 minutes. She began with “All we like sheep have gone astray” from Handel’s Messiah, this salon being a preview of her upcoming Holiday Hoes and Hosers tour—though Jane explained that it’s really simply about garden tools. She also pointed out that in Handel’s case, the entire Messiah was written two weeks prior to its first performance in a pub—with people likely calling out for beer by the time they got to the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

“That’s the way I like things to be—real,” she said, and real it was in Gerry’s living room, where Christmas came early. Other seasonal songs included “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which she released on her 2003 album Shushan the Palace (Hymns of Earth), and a personal favorite, “Hockey,” from 1989’s Bound by the Beauty, in which Jenkins jingled a tambourine, and Hughes hit a block to the lyric “You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank–that’s how you stop.”

“People from Canada and cold climates really fly into it,” Jane said of the song. I’m from Wisconsin.

She also sang When I Was a Boy’s ethereal “Love is Everything,” so beautiful with Kiesewalter’s piano backing, and a few songs from her upcoming album Consider the Lilies, a single-CD summary of her three-album trilogy Dragon Dreams (2008), With What Shall I Keep Warm? (2009) and Meshach Dreams Back (2011), mixing music and spoken word in songs like “When We Are Queen” and “Then We Heard a Shout.”

“It’s about questioning how we keep ourselves warm–if we let go of everything,” she explained, noting that the title derives from the Gospel of Matthew’s instruction in regard to material provisions.

“Is there anyone who is Jewish who’s offended by ‘Savior’ songs?” she asked Gerry, who assured her no, to which she added, “They offend me, and I’m a Christian!” But she loves the “beautiful old Christmas songs, with beautiful melodies and images of donkeys and stars” that have long since been banned from public schools because of religious content.

“I wrote a song that I hoped was neutral that kids could learn—that’s been done by choruses,” she said, leading into and closing with her very beautiful and “neutral” “Are You Burning, Little Candle?,” from Child: Music for the Holidays (1997).

She encored, of course, with “Calling All Angels,” after relating that when she recorded it with k.d. lang in separate vocal booths, both realized at the same time that they needed to come out and sing together next to each other, despite the producer’s preference to keep them apart and stanch any audio bleeding.

“There’s so much more you can get when you’re singing and playing music in close proximity,” she said.

“Calling All Angels” over, I suddenly remembered what it was I was thinking about 60 minutes earlier.

Just like the first time, Jane.

Trust me: Don’t miss any of her Holiday Hoes and Hosers shows.


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