Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
– Victor Hugo
I meet David Rovics outside his host’s apartment building. I recognize him immediately from the pictures I’ve seen of him. He is tall and slender with closely cropped hair. He is dressed in casual attire with a black t-shirt that says “Gaza on my Mind” on it.
It’s June 2009 and images of the Iranian protesters are being broadcast everywhere — on Facebook, through Twitter, BBC, CNN, Fox News. Rovics can tell that I’m Iranian: “Tell me your take.”
He is not one to wait for his turn to talk. He listens intently and when I’m finished asks another question. After all that Rovics has seen and heard during more than 20 years as a singer-song writer who has performed all over the world, he has yet to act like a self-proclaimed expert on anything.
Rovics was born in New York city to parents who were “progressive and counter-culture in their own way.” His earliest experience of music mixed with politics came in 1979 while attending a Unitarian-run camp in Western Massachusetts in a town that at that time had the oldest nuclear reactor in the United States. At this camp Rovics learned about vegetarianism, sex and the wickedness of nuclear power by anti-nuclear activists who were invited to speak to the children — he was 12 years old. He had up until that point been playing the cello and living a middle class life in a mostly Christian town with non-religious parents who were both classical musicians, but would be marked forever afterwards with an inclination towards political activism: “That was the first time I heard music that had a political orientation to it and I guess I’ve gravitated to that kind of stuff ever since.”
Rovics’ youth is not unconventional among independent musical artists. He was in many ways the stereotypical, long-haired, pot-smoking hippie during his teenage years, but would discover radicalism and intellectual thought in his early twenties. While living in Berkeley, California, Rovics was exposed to anarchists and Marxists, and the music of revolutionary artists like Phil Ochs and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Their inspirational spirits would send him to open mikes in the streets singing their songs, while working “depressing occupations” to make a living.
In 1993 Rovics would experience “the single most seminal event” in his life. He wrote about it in “Song for Eric”:
San Francisco at night
And the warm summer breeze
Walking back alleys
Just as free as you please
And I think of those poor boys
Who drove up to say
“Give us your money”
And then they blew you away
With one pull of a trigger
Your sweet life was through
Every time I see that street, I think of you
The experience of losing his close friend in a gang shooting that was intended for someone else broke Rovics and made him all at once:
Losing Eric like this was an experience of such grief, nothing like anything I’d ever experienced, and it opened my eyes to the kinds of things the majority-world goes through so predictably. I suddenly understood so much more viscerally the looks in the faces of the Central American refugees populating the Mission. For me, the definition of the word “us” suddenly got dramatically bigger.
Rovics had been writing songs prior to that event, but the passing of Eric stirred something in him that would become impossible to suppress. His lyrics went from “preachy” to provocative. He was no longer writing for an audience or intentionally reiterating an ideology or specific worldview: “At that time, songwriting became a survival mechanism, my main way of dealing with life.”
Since the mid 90s Rovics has been touring the world playing concerts for audiences not unlike the one I saw him perform for in Vancouver, BC. The Baptist Church venue was full with a 50+ crowd made up of peace activists, Vietnam deserters, those that harbour them and a few younger writers and musicians. In this church Rovics would sing about those that the Western media was at that time vilifying as the Somalian “Pirates”: “Here’s to the pirates of Somalia / I’ll raise the Jolly Roger to you,” and the attack against an American doctor who had been performing abortions for desperate women despite constant harassment by Christian fundamentalists.
“In the Name of God” was written for Dr. George Tiller who was shot to death (he had already been shot in both arms in 1993) on May 31, 2009.
In the name of God
This is not Afghanistan
It’s the Heartland USA
Where a girl has to wonder
If she’ll get acid in her face
Where they bomb the women’s clinics
Because the preacher told them to
Where the man there on the TV
Tells them that’s what they should do
In the name of God
Although Rovics’ songs also touch on traditional musical themes like love found and love lost, most of his fans are drawn to the political nature of his work. I ask him about his take on recent statements made by former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters, who was accused of being an anti-Semite after referring to Israel’s Apartheid Wall as an “exercise in colonialism” during a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories. Rovics responds that politics and music are inherently mixed, whether artists want to accept this it or not:
The music industry has been trying to separate music from politics for years now, trying to get artists to believe that politically oriented music is not attractive for mainstream audiences so they produce work that is safe and preferably only between two people. But artists are part of society too, so they can’t expect to be above politics. Whenever they make a decision to play in a certain country, they are making a political statement. In this case Waters made a direct statement about Israel and because he is a very prominent member of society it reached many people and touched them in different ways. I think that’s wonderful. Especially for an artist who recorded an album called The Wall, it makes perfect sense!
Rovics’ own political statements touch on a variety of topics including labor history, the Bush Administration’s self-serving “War on Terror” and gender relations. Many of his songs are also inspired by the hundreds of cities he’s visited, from no-name small-towns in the USA, all the way to the occupied Palestinian territories. In his 2008 release of The Commons, Rovics’ song list includes titles like: “Halliburton Boardroom Massacre,” “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” and “Falluja.” Also included on this list is “Jenin,” named after a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank. Sings Rovics:
Were you thinking of the taunting of the soldiers
Or of the shit they smeared upon the walls
Were you thinking of your cousin after torture
Or Tel Aviv and it’s glittering shopping malls
When the fat men in their mansions say that you don’t want peace
Did you wonder what they mean
As you sat amidst the stench inside the darkness
In the shattered City of Jenin
Rovics has never been one to shy away from controversy; this is how “Jenin” concludes:
And why should anybody wonder
As you stepped on board
The crowded bus across the Green Line
And you reached inside your jacket for the cord
Were you thinking of your neighbours buried bodies
As you made the stage for this scene
As you set off the explosives that were strapped around your waist
Were you thinking of the City of Jenin
Humour is also a constant element of Rovics work. During his performance at the Baptist Church he pokes fun at Leftist conspiracy theories and tells the audience about how he almost died in Lebanon — after slipping to his death in the bathtub. The death of an activist in a country like Lebanon would have no doubt stirred all kinds of alternative explanations considering the geographical context. At the end of the lyrics of “Moron” which can be found on his songbook which is available for download on his website, Rovics adds this instructional note for those who are using his song sheet to perform:
*Insert here the name of whichever moron appears to be the Democrats’ lead candidate
Significantly, Rovics is adamantly against the corporate music industry’s brutish intimidation tactics against anyone who engages in promoting or downloading music for free. Although he makes a modest living and could probably make at least a little more by subjecting his work to copyright, he has intentionally made his songs and lyrics available on his website for download. Fans can indeed choose to pay, but that choice is optional and not forced at every opportunity. Such are the actions of someone who lives by what he believes in. The life of a musician is hard and exceptionally so for one like Rovics, but he doesn’t see things that way:
If I wasn’t trying to do something about the state this world is in today then I would be going crazy. I often ask people who are depressed (and there is a tremendous number of them especially in the US) if in addition to the steps they’re taking to battle their depression, whether they’ve considered becoming an activist. Many people feel powerless in the face of everything being so messed up in this world because they have empathy and compassion for their fellow humans and this tends to stress people out. Activists, many of whom are barely making a living or working two jobs just to make ends meet are also stressed out for a variety of reasons, but they tend to be among the happier people in society because they are trying to do something. That is empowering. My line of work permits me to travel around the world regularly and I meet people like that all the time and they’re lovely. There is nothing I would rather be doing than writing songs and singing them for them and anyone who wants to listen.
During a conversation after the interview Rovics offhandedly mentions that he is grateful to have a bed to sleep in at his host’s apartment. He explains that he has encountered organizing members of his fan base who have scoffed at his request for a guest room as opposed to just a couch. While some other types of musicians sleep in thousand dollar a night hotels, Rovics is stuck trying to educate his well-meaning concert organizers about how to effectively market his shows and constantly accepting the short end of the stick when it comes to accommodations, but he has no complaints. “This is what I love to do” he tells me with a smile, “and there is of course a glass-ceiling in terms of how far a musician like me can get in terms of any kind of fame or fortune, but I didn’t start doing this because I wanted to become famous, I started doing this because I felt like I could make some kind of difference.”
Amy Goodman has referred to Rovics as “the musical version of Democracy Now!” and Cindy Sheehan has called him “the peace poet and troubadour of our time.” These are just a few statements that hold true to the social significance of David Rovics.