Tuesday October 21, 2008
Jim Walsh and the Wellstone World Music Weekend
The following column was written by my friend Jim Walsh a year after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in Oct. 2002. It was a bad time. Our country gave into fear, it gave into lies, it set us on the path we're currently on. How does that path feel now? In two weeks, we may be able to begin to get off this path. We may be able to elect a leader who offers smarts,and hope, and unity; a leader who can make friends out of our enemies rather than enemies out of our friends. But it's still two weeks away. The McCain camp is stirring up old fears, promulgating new fears, disseminating misrepresentations and outright lies. They're throwing whatever shit they can against the wall and hoping some of it sticks.
Here's to not giving into fear and lies. Here's to hope, and smarts, and unity. And here's to Joe Henry, Vic Chesnutt, Dan Wilson, the Tropicals, Prince, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Green Day, Jenny Owen Young, Leonard Cohen, Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Joan Armatrading, Randy Newman, Loudon Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright, Jonathan Richman, Teddy Thompson, Antony, Iron & Wine, R.E.M., The Beatles, Paul Simon, A3 and Nina Simone. And here's to the Mad Ripple.
An E-Proposal From Me to You
By Jim Walsh
I am standing in the northwest corner of Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, in front of a silver monument that looks like a heart, a broken heart really, and I am thinking about how wrong the world has gone, how Minnesota Mean it all feels. I’m thinking about how much everyone I know misses the man I’ve come to visit, how sick I am of sitting around waiting for change, and about what might happen if I ask you to do something, which is what I’ll do in a minute.
Like most Minnesotans, I met Paul Wellstone once. It was at the Loring Playhouse after the opening night of a friend’s play. He and Sheila were there, offering encouragement to the show’s director, Casey Stangl, and quietly validating the post-production festivities with his presence: The Junior Senator from Minnesota and his wife are here; we must be doing something right.
The year before (1990), I’d written a column for City Pages encouraging all local musicians and local music fans to go vote for this mad professor the following Tuesday. He won, and, as many have said since, for the first time in my life I felt like we were part of something that had roots in Stuff The Suits Don’t Give A Shit About. That is, we felt like we had a voice, like were getting somewhere, or like Janeane Garofalo’s villain-whupping character in “Mystery Men,” who memorably proclaimed, “I would like to dedicate my victory to the supporters of local music and those who seek out independent films.”
After the election, Wellstone’s aide Bill Hillsman told me he believed my column had reached a segment of the voting populace that they were having trouble reaching, and that it may have helped put him over the top. I put aside my bullshit detector for the moment and chose to believe him, just as I choose at this moment to believe that music and the written word can still help change the world.
When I introduced myself to Wellstone that night as “Jim Walsh from City Pages,” he broke into that sexy gap-toothed grin, clasped my hand and forearm and said, with a warm laugh, “Jiiiiim,” like we were a couple of thieves getting together for the first time since the big haul. I can still feel his hand squeezing my forearm. I can still feel his fighter’s strength.
For those of you who never had the pleasure, that is what Paul Wellstone was--a fighter—despite the fact that the first president Bush said upon their first encounter, “who is this chickenshit?” He fought corporate America, the FCC, injustice, his own government. He fought for the voiceless, the homeless, the poor, the little guy—in this country and beyond. He was a politician but not a robot; an idealist, but not a sap, and if his legacy has already morphed into myth, it’s because there were/are so few like him. He was passionate, and compassionate. He had a huge heart, a rigorous mind, a steely soul and conscience, and now he is dead and buried in a plot that looks out over the joggers, bikers, rollerbladers, and motorists who parade around Lake Calhoun daily.
Paul and Sheila Wellstone and six others, including their daughter Marcia, were killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. I remember where I was that day, just as you do, and I don’t want to forget it, but what I want to remember even more is October 25, 2003. So here’s what we’re going to do.
We’re going to start something right here, right now, and we’re going to call it Paul and Sheila Wellstone World Music Day. It will happen on Saturday, Oct. 25th. On that day, every piece of music, from orchestras to shower singers, superstars to buskers, will be an expression of that loss and a celebration of that life. It will be one day, where music—which, to my way of thinking, is still the best way to fill in the gray areas that the blacks and whites of everyday life leave us with—rises up in all sorts of clubs, cars, concerts, and living rooms, all in the name of peace and love and joy and all that good stuff that gets snickered at by Them.
Now. This is no corporate flim-flam or media boondoggle. This is me talking to you, and you and I deciding to do something about the place we live in when it feels like all the exits are blocked. So: First of all, clip or forward this to anyone you know who still cares about grass roots, community, music, reading, writing, love, the world, and how the world sees America. If you’ve got a blog or web site, post it.
If you’re a musician, book a gig now for Oct. 25th. Tell them you want it to be advertised as part of Paul and Sheila Wellstone World Music Day. If you’re a shower singer, lift your voice that day and tell yourself the same thing. If you’re a club owner, promoter, or scene fiend, put together a multi-act benefit for Wellstone Action! <http://www.wellstone.org> . If you’re a newspaper person, tell your readers. If you’re a radio person, tell your listeners. Everybody talk about what you remember about Wellstone, what he tried to do, what you plan to do for Wellstone World Music Day. Then tell me at the email address below, and I’ll write another column like this the week of Oct. 25th, with your and others’ comments and plans.
This isn’t exactly an original idea. Earlier this year, I sat in a room at Stanford University with Judea and Michelle Pearl, the father and daughter of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by members of a radical Islamic group in Pakistan in February of last year. After much talk about their son and brother’s life and murder, I asked them about Danny’s love of music. He was a big music fan, and an accomplished violinist who played with all sorts of bands all over the world. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Pearl was also a member of the Atlanta band the Ottoman Empire, and his fiddle levitates one of my all-time favorite Irish jigs, “This Is It,” which I found myself singing one night last fall in a Sonoma Valley bar with a bunch of journalists from Paraguay, Texas, Mexico, Jerusalem, Italy, and Korea.
The Pearls talked with amazement about the first Daniel Pearl World Music Day <http://www.danielpearl.org> , the second of which happens this October 10th, which would have been Pearl’s 40th birthday. I told them about attending one of the first Daniel Pearl World Music Day activities at Stanford Memorial Church, where a lone violinist silently strolled away from her chamber group at the end, signaling to me and my gathered colleagues that we were to remember that moment and continue to ask questions, continue to push for the dialogue that their son and brother lived for. I vowed that day to tell anybody within earshot about Daniel Pearl World Music Day, and later figured he wouldn’t mind a similar elegy for Wellstone, who shared Pearl’s battle against hate and cynicism.
Wellstone didn’t lead any bands, but he led as musical a life as they come. He lived to bring people together, to mend fences: Music. When he died, musicians and artists were some of the most devastated, as Leslie Ball’s crest-fallen-but-somehow-still-beaming face on CSPAN from Williams Arena illustrated. Everyone from Mason Jennings to Larry Long wrote Wellstone tribute songs in the aftermath, and everyone had a story, including the one Wendy Lewis told me about the genuine exuberance with which Wellstone once introduced her band, Rhea Valentine, to a crowd at the Lyn-Lake Festival. Imagine that, today.
So ignore this or do whatever you do when your “We Are The World” hackles go up. I’d be disappointed, and I suppose I wouldn’t blame you; in these times of terror alerts and media celebrity, I’m suspicious of everything, too. But I freely admit that the idea of a Wellstone World Music Day is selfish. That day was beyond dark, and to have another like it, a litany of hang-dog tributes and rehashes of The Partisan Speech and How It All Went Wrong, would be painful, not to mention disrespectful to everything those lives stood for and against.
No, I don’t want anyone telling me what to think or feel that day, or any day, anymore. I want music that day. I want to wake up hearing it, go to bed singing it. I want banners, church choirs, live feeds, hip-hop, headlines, punk rock, field reports, arias, laughter. I want to remember October 25, 2002 as the day the music died, and October 25, 2003 as the day when people who’ve spent their lives attending anti-war rallies and teaching kids and championing local music and independent films got together via the great big antennae of music and took another shot.
I am standing in the northwest corner of Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. In front of the silver broken heart, three workers stab the fresh sod with shovels and fumble with a tape measurer. Flowers dot the dirt surrounding the statue base. I pick up a rock and put it in my pocket.
The sprinklers are on, hissing impatiently at the still-stunned-by-last-autumn citizens who work and hope and wait and watch beyond the cemetery gates. The sprinklers shoot horizontal water geysers this way and that. They are replenishing patches of grass that have been browned by the sun. They are telling every burned-out blade to keep growing, and trying to coax life out of death.