Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Festival Days: Earth Day

April is like a clock ticking. The student celebrations get frantic as that scene winds down. Meanwhile greater Berkeley had a few Spring events in the parks including Earth day deferred to Saturday and People's Park's 4oth anniversary on Sunday. As ever the Flaneur is there and herewith reports on what went down.

Saturday morning and the lone pathetic taiko drummer on lower Sproul blams out bursts of uninspired rhythm every so often. There seems to be a sporting event or some other chauvinist pageant for them to say they are drumming about. Actually the increasing nuisance of the taiko idiots is more about Asian triumphalism and about individuals calling attention to themselves than anything else. Here it is eight hours later as I write, the drums drag on with utter disregard to the peaceful enjoyment of others.
"Boom boom da-boom boom, boom boom boom"
It's the same dumb marshal tattoo over and over, again and again, no music, no expression except, "here I am I have a drum and I make loud noises"--strictly low chakra stuff. Then they slow it down to just "boom-boom-boom..."-- our army is approaching, fear us and surrender.
The taiko drums along with the increased alcohol-driven mayhem late at night--the screaming drunk girl at 2AM this morning for example-- are the two most sickening developments in social behavior in the area. Both are tied to the onslaught of the new student majority.

I get to my feet around noon and make ready for a minor excursion. Celtic songs concerning the love of the natural world waft from the radio as I roll me a shorty with the latest blend. Then it's off, not in a hurry but rushing nonetheless. A beautiful, cool and windy but sunny day--the temperature doesn't break 60 degrees. I drop by the library to return DVDs and divert past the post office to drop another one in the mail. I'm headed for the Civic Center park where the Earth day program is in full swing. I pull up a bench and sit down for one of the most charming parades of passing humans you can find. Lots of sweet children in states of enjoyment, little ones look at me seriously from strollers and I give them all a smile. Older kids and adults also wear their springtime finery. Two lovely girls walk by with a guitar, tiny flowers in their hair, wearing wispy dresses that look like slips. I'm beaming and in general I get a good return on the vibration.
Background music is provided by an anonymous band on a stage way down at the far end of the park. The lawn is loosely filled with folks camped-out in the grass. Young men exhibit lion-like manes of chestnut dreadlocks. Near me is the hemp clothes booth, and I can see the sign for the Cannabis Action Network from where I sit. I also spy some old acquaintances of mine at a table hawking their new book. A husband and wife team, they had already done a book on eccentrics, and one on loners. The new one was a scavengers handbook with a market eye on the new trend in poverty. "Another holiday in someone else's misery," as the old Situationist shibboleth sung by the Sex Pistols put it. I am tempted to go over and say hello, but I don't want to break up the tranquility of their signing table.

I notice that some anticipation seemed to be collecting over on Alston way. The street is cordoned off and a swelling cluster of cops is in evidence. I read a large hand-made banner in the wind from behind--what, "Berkeley Welcomes the Dalmatian"?...wait, "the Dalai Lama"? Who knew?
I learn from two lovely young women that he is in town for his speech on campus and apparently he is putting in an appearance at an unpublicized event at the Berkeley Community Theater. He'll be arriving across the street at the stage entrance so I find a little grassy knoll directly across from it with a nice sight-line.
More cops show up, more than twenty-five in all. In the type of grossly unconstitutional invasion of of privacy that people have resigned themselves to in America, one lard-ass cop starts panning over us with a video camera. I very much want the Dalai Lama to be protected from his vicious detractors but there is no sign of protest or even any Chinese people who might turn hostile. Well, maybe there is one annoying couple. The diminutive male comes and holds his camera directly in front of my face a few times until I tell him to fuck-off in a decidedly un-Buddhistic manner. More gently, I have to tell a little boy to stop what he was doing too--methodical pounding a rock on exposed tree roots to strip away the bark. His Earth day-attending dad ignores or apparently sees nothing wrong in the activity. "That hurts the tree," I tell him.
There's mainly just parents and kids around and a few Buddhists, all Earth day types. But of course, as a lone male in sunglasses and black beret, I can soon sense these armed and mustachioed officers mildly directing their scrutiny at me. What else to they have to do, really? And I do have the logistical sweet spot. It's between me and the little girl in the tree branch overhead.
Then a fire truck blocking the street is moved and motorcycle cops roar up with sirens on. A black SUV arrives followed by a limo. Ceremonial items including a bread basket stupa are in position and a troupe of snow leopard dancers kick into their act. A half-dozen men-in-black hit their marks and the limo door opens. I recognize the Dalai Lama first, the shape of his head, the unmistakable color of his robe, and I hold up my arms in a pranam greeting. Everyone cheers and applauds--maybe a hundred people in all scattered around watching. Certainly, many in the park don't even investigate what's going on. The old school R&B group just grooves on without notice.
The Dalai Lama turns to onlookers and gives us all a warm, smiling pranam turning in three directions. A final round of applause and cheers after he stops at the little altar. He waves and then proceeds inside escorted by city-councilman Worthington. Then it's just a battery of easy-paycheck cops and secret-service guys with frozen hard looks behind shades. We get to leave them to their duties and mosey away to nibble on free Clif bars.
I am reminded of the time I caught a glimpse of the Queen of England in Newport, Rhode Island for the Bicentennial. As that happened Ford and Kissinger flew over in a helicopter adding to everyone's anxiety-level. The Queen came out of the rear door of Trinity church and slightly waved. My glimpse of her was at around same distance for about the same length of time as my glimpse of the Dalai Lama. Only this is better by far, and unexpected, uncrowded, and painless. This is a blessing for us all. Everyone feels it, it is plain to see.

"We gonna pitch a wang-dang-doodle," sings a big gospel lady on stage projecting sort of a mellowed-down, middle-aged notion of what a wang-dang-doodle consists of.
Some more people-watching from my bench. A westerner walks past wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk. He is escorting a glitzy lady in a golden spangled skirt who looks more like a Thai prostitute than a Tibetan nun. Two kids go by in camouflage fatigues, one with an army helmet. Were they out to embarrass their liberal-looking dad?
Two teen-aged guys in amusing costumes ride up on scooters. The shorter blond kid has a long cape, and a plastic Roman breast plate, other kooky stuff. The taller kid wore things like a loose-knit tunic and a cowl over his head that gave him teddy bear ears. They chat with the straight arrow at the solar-panel table across from me. I love how young people can be so casually non-conformist in these times, in these parts. They obviously don't fear being made fun of, but believe in having fun regardless of what squares may think.
As I leave the taller one is crossing Milvia at the same time I am. He stops at a vehicle-- driven by a parental unit I'd say, and removes his mad gear, tossing it into the hatch. As he comes round to get in next to the driver, he faces me a second and we smile. I say to him, "How Berkeley can you be, baby?"
"Yee-ah" he laughs.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Festival Days: 40th Anniversary of People's Park

Sunday rolls around peacefully. KPFA is also having a round birthday--their 60th. Mary Tilson spins "America's Back Forty" one of my favorite programs. She reminisces about migrating to Berkeley from Michigan during another hard scrabble period in the USA--the early 90s.
I don't have time for a louche brunch today--festivities await out of doors.
It's cool again, less windy though. The park is very pleasantly full of people. On the east side of the lawn, there's a large gold-lame "god's eye" on a pole with dry reeds radiating out from the central orb. I go on up to the Southeast corner near the peace pole, a white column printed with messages of peace in several languages. Some slices of tree trunk arranged in a peace-sign next to it make good seats. Remarkable flowers abound here--big, upthrust, purple-blossomed flowers.

I think back to my first encounter with People's Park in 1979. I was on my way to see an apartment for rent on Benvenue. After a few months staying with my brother's family in a suburb, I was eager to get closer to where the action was and to have my own place to partake in it. As I made my way there, along with the impressive architecture of the Julia Morgan church across the street and a red brick school of divinity on Dwight, I noted the absence of architecture and the humanist divinity in a bordering park. Music was in progress on a small stage in front of a crowd of hippies, real hippies in those days.
My own days of enjoying such outdoor rock boogies were decidedly behind me at the time. I was intent on more thoughtful and avant-garde a pose than in the frivolous rut this represented to me. I remember sitting in the grass briefly and thinking such things.

Over the years, though, I have forgiven myself and others for our hippie ways. In the process I've gained some affection for good old People's Park. It was only ten years old back in 1979, and this weekend it is forty years old. I applauded its foundation in 1969 and it was a cause celebre in underground newspaper everywhere. Many communities with youth populations across the country saw similar attempts to create "liberated zones" where free music and food, pot-smoking and free speech, replacement of the smothering concrete with democratic seedlings could take place. Police were decidedly not invited or welcome.
The Provos in Amsterdam, the Diggers in San Francisco, and the Yippies in New York, all tried to organize something Utopian that could last a while. For the most part the communes, the free food, and the idealistic ideology faded out. Yet somehow People's Park, a prize morsel in every university vulture's eye, remained in the hands of the populace. This alone is reason to cherish it and to celebrate.
The marginal and the down-trodden that make up its more constant residents and visitors, can also provide a useful social barometer of how hard the haves have made it for the have-nots. The battle to discourage these people being waged by the UC and Berkeley police includes continual removal of the free box where clothes are donated for those who need them. They insist that foliage and shrubbery always be cut to a minimum so they can enforce a Draconian no-visitors-after-dark policy. And they try to disrupt or ban the feeding of the poor by groups like Food Not Bombs and the Catholic Worker.

Today the feeling is so bright it is hard to recall such issues. It came easier on all the recent overcast wintry days I walked through and just the usual alcoholics and monochromatic down-and-outers were here.
On this brilliant afternoon, a guy strums out songs of freedom away on the stage. Once again, I'm listening to it but I'm more interested in people-watching.
The sheer preponderance of colorful weirdos ain't what it once was. It is really mostly young people in their twenties and younger who are sympathetic with the hippie ethos and can use some free entertainment. There are also quite a few families with small children, which I like. Happily all are being fed regularly today with yet more free Clif bars. But whereas yesterday you went to a booth where generous pieces were available, today several strapping young guys go around giving away as many as people will accept. They are even dumping piles of the various whole-grain-and-fruit energy bars in the grass. I remember someone doing that with joints one year. So far I haven't seen that happen today, but the pot smoke is delightfully steady.

I decide to take note of remarkable freak-flag-fliers as they pass me by. The guy I notice straight off and want to award People's Park man of the day, is about 60-65 dressed plain to shabby, sunglasses, and with a sloppy but radical black-dyed "Mohawk" haircut. There are several other more flamboyant panache-style haircuts around but this guy is punk.
Dying one's hair jet black is back it seems, as seen on the next guy I spy. I'll call him, in his dark renaissance fobbery, "Brian Jones noir."
Another apparent mat-black member of the court shows up just then. Wearing a purple and gold monarch's crown, a black ballet dress and fish-net stockings, he provides his own high contrast with very blond hair and fair skin. He walks past me to rest out of the sunshine, sitting cross-legged on a rail in some nearby shade. Quite refined really.
Then there's a young hipster girl with tawny sylvan braids and a large cookie basket. I guessing it's cookies rich in cannabis-butter, there little red riding hood.
Assorted others add local flavor to the scene--there's the old gray woolly hippie wearing an American flag jacket over a priest's chasuble bearing a full-length Easter cross. There's another younger bearded guy who has a furry animal-ears get-up on top of his straw hat. He may be from the same tribe as the teddy-bear headdress youngster from yesterday .
A lonely guy with enormous hair, whom I couldn't help but notice yesterday as well, asks me if I have a bottle-opener. I would attempt to describe his hair as a farah-fawcet hairdo needing a trim caught in the wind after a shower. I regret that I don't have an opener. As with matches or rolling papers, I enjoy supplying such things. I have been many times in a similar position.

Next a young cat handing-out the local anarchist tabloid Slingshot comes by. One of their loose collective was nearly-killed by an IDF-fired high-velocity tear gas cannister at the apartheid wall in Palestine very recently. Tristan Anderson was a brave Berkeley tree-sitter last year and is now in a vegetative state in a hospital overseas. The table they operate offers massage for donations to his fund. May God bless him.
This group the Long Haul Collective also had a grossly unconstitutional police raid on its premises and computers in the last year. It was stated to be in connection with recent animal rights activity, but it was a fishing-expedition for information on such things as grassroots protest plans for last summer's GOP convention.
Then, on page 2 of Slingshot there's an obituary for an old colleague of mine, Franklin Rosemont, Chicago's lion of labor history and surrealism. We were in touch for quite a long time beginning around 1975. I admired his example of surrealist subversion and we collaborated on a few projects.

An obese rainbow clown is inclining down toward the stage. I figure this is Wavy Gravy. It's him alright and before long he is on the mic from a seat stage-side. I don't understand what he says but I do recognize the voice following his. It's Jonathan Richman strumming an acoustic guitar with a drummer backing him up. I make the proverbial bee-line to this nectar, right to stage front. Only a few people are dancing so it's easy to join without jostling. Naturally, considering where we are, a few of the dancers are quite smelly or somewhat lacking in self-control, or both. One bearded porker is fairly omnipresent at such hippie remnant events. He seems to be vying to be elected bull-goose hippie when Wavy departs. A very eager dancer, he franticly moves to the other side when he can't get the ground that others and I occupy. And a lot of the body odor seemed to go with him. I later see him getting shoddy-looking body paint with other flabby exhibitionists.
But it's all in hand and it would take a great deal more to spoil the good feeling Jonathan Richmond puts out without fail. He runs through a short set with his arabesque grooves, his witty lyrics and warm voice. His stage moves are really good too--a very seasoned performer. He keeps acting as if he only had been given a brief amount of time. Wavy keeps him from cutting out too fast though. He requests a song, a poor choice for dancing but one that goes over very well with the infants. Several parents are holding them aloft near me. (I think I represented a safe dance zone). It's a children's song about a dinosaur. A mom standing next to me signs the song for her baby who pays avid attention. Another tot sitting on her dad's shoulders behind me is really into the music, entranced by it. The way Jonathan sells his lyrics with facial expressions and schtick really puts him over with the kids.
Richman has always had a child-like demeanor himself and seems born to perform. He looks incredibly young and healthy. He's a year older than I am too. Staying happy has carried him a long way. He is a subtly swank dresser to boot in his cool rock-a-billy jacket. Too soon he calls it a set and waves bye-bye. He justly gets a sizable cheer from the mob.
A carpet is rolled-out next and a rather amateurish troupe of belly-dancers go to work to canned music. They have a slow hip-hop section but it seems to me to defeat the whole idea. While I'm watching this, Jonathan walks by for the second time, this time by himself. I can't resist and reach out to say hello. He's from Natick, North shore of Boston. I tell him he's a hero to me.
"I'm from Massachusetts and I remember when Roadrunner first came on 'BCN in the mid-70s...music hasn't been the same since." He smiles graciously and wants to know where I'm from. When I tell him Fall River, he says he's playing there soon.
I mention that I was just checking out Josh Ritter on YouTube and he had a video that was made in Fall River. I said, oh, Fall River's hip now. More laughter. Actually it always was, I add, but nobody knew it.
As we say goodbye I tell him, "You're like a beacon to me...like a buoy...you buoy us up...you're like a life jacket, that's it." Thinking out loud I'd hit on the right simile. A big smile and sincere thanks from a real sweetheart. He has lovely eyes.

After this I find an incline that's fit to recline on and have some more of a Clif bar. A Belgian girl takes the stage for one French song in a nice voice. Others are not as easy on the ears when they get the stage for their statements. Rarely do they seem to realize that they needn't yell into a microphone. Often they adopt a tone of such nervous urgency that they render their spiel ridiculous.

There's half an acre of people of similar age who all seem like they know each other. Seated close together they are charming to me the way a flock of birds or a family of lowland gorillas can be. Recent studies have proven that young people who smoke cannabis have better social skills than those who do not.

The next act is a blues band modeled on the Hendrix experience with the effects-laden guitar in the hands of Shelly Doty. The prominent bass resonates especially well with the assembled stoners. Acid flashback music still rocks a lot of souls, it must be said, who stand up and dance.
There's that old white hippie in a dashiki from years gone by. While dancing he walks back and forth portentously while playing psychedelic charades. There's a fat gal with a rat's head hat--she's available and her standards are easily met, I'm guessing.
There's the huge guy with a long white beard, leather vest, and pirate's hat, handing-out flyers of some sort--for the Biker-Pirate-Burner Ball perchance? There's an aging black queen with a flaming red hat and the brightest clashing colors of anyone here. There's that pale retired rock-star guy with dyed-black hair of course and today some flowery out-door pajamas. There's an authentic-looking railroad hobo.
And these are the people of People's Park.

Another one of these rocking souls made himself known just then. He is my selection for first runner-up People's Park man-of-the-day. A dready and beaded black man he wore a huge rainbow flag-winged cape with an Obama family portrait on a velvet rug attached to the front. Each color stripe was separate like feathers. There was also a "No on Prop 8" gay marriage-ban election poster attached somewhere in his spreading penumbra. Frolicking around with a huge grin, he was chanting, "Freedom at last." I only wish the first black president could actually be the super-hero of this guy's vision.

Younger folk are out in regalia as well---there's the guy on stilts in black silk chinese pajamas, or the girl with pink fairy wings. A cute young girl with fuchsia hair alights on a group sitting around a "911 Truth" placard. She has classic body painting and a wild paisley hippie-dress. And of course there's the very hip little kids who always take to the Aquarian vibe without hesitation. They don't even seem to be alarmed at all by a few saggy nudes around them. And the free food thing is their expectation. I watched with amusement as one little boy walked up to a Mexican ice cream-vendor's cart and opened the cooler. The sharp-eyed ice cream man sitting close by on a bench shooed him away firmly.

A black girl lying next to me was snoring away under her coat--I moved away a little. There, a line was forming a short distance away. From it all sorts of people emerged with paper plates of free cooked food. I had eaten several energy snacks and decided to leave the food for others. This is not to mention my fussiness. I'd actually had some lentils and vegetables from this group recently, hardy but gloppy. But it is a blessing for the hungry and for those who serve them.

Diamond Dave next seizes the mic to deliver his mummified rap. He was an early friend of Bob Dylan and may well have been Bob's first source for works by Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and others integral to his trip. Bob also kidnapped Dave's actual carnival experiences to fold into his own early fictional bio-notes. When Dave is motoring away like this, it leaves little doubt that he was in fact the one who left home and found work as a carnival barker.
After yet another impassioned plea follows, that this crowd personally stop the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's dangerous expansion in Strawberry canyon. That left only one more performer on today's bill. I moved down behind the stage to listen better.
Country Joe MacDonald, internationally known for cheer-leading at Woodstock, came on with his fascist-killing acoustic guitar. When I first moved here thirty years ago, his dad used to set up a table on Telegraph to sell a book called "An Old Guy Who Feels Good." Joe, who I first saw as the radical-edgy young front-man of Country Joe and the Fish in the late 60s, is now the age his dad was then. He mainly performs the old songs that feel good by Woody Guthrie these days. Today he plays "This Land is Your Land" as one of a fairly brief handful of tunes. He also performed the Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth", demanding and getting a sing-along out of the crowd. One can't help but wonder why he doesn't do any of the more lyrical stuff from the first Fish LP. Instead we get the most obvious choice and the best-known of their songs, "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." Yeah, let's stop this Viet Nam.

That happens and it's getting past my bed-time for this affair. I bid fond farewell for another year and start home. In front of the empty carapace of the old Cody's, the same tropicalia jam band that was here last year is playing again. A little lady sings and shakes her maracas and seems to be good at getting the party started. I linger on the opposite corner and listen a while. They launch into an Amazon-inspired number replete with vocal impressions of birds and monkeys.
As I wonder why this scene can't be at least this funky and fun all the time, the singer asks, "How many of you want music to be here every week? Raise your hands!"
Everybody put their hands in the air and wave 'em like they just don't care.

Yes, it was bedtime for the park that Bonzo built and that in turn built Bonzo. By Bonzo I of course mean the late Ronald Reagan, c0-star of "Bedtime for Bonzo" and former Governor of California. He built the park by rallying its supporters after his initial brutal repression of it. He called in the National Guard, many were injured, and James Rector was killed.
People's Park in return built Reagan by making him a national reactionary hero. This led to critical mass for his presidential ambition. He was then able to spearhead through congress his "trickle-down" economic policies that vastly widened the gap between rich and poor. This insured that there would be a sizable permanent underclass for whom such a place is a haven of last resort. Without a doubt, the casualties of Reagan's whole crack-for-Contras thing sure beat a path to this place.
Today, while the merchants and neighbors may rail against the "nuisance" of People's Park, the police make regular use of it, telling unfortunate people to get off the street and go there.
"Go sleep it off in People's Park," I heard a cop instruct a guy passed-out on a Berkeley sidewalk near Peet's coffee shop. That kind of society leaves everyone with an ashtray heart.

(Note: Each part was written and originally posted the evening of that day's events. I'm re-posting them separately to make them into columns that are easier to read.)