Sunday, June 19, 2016

Rage, Bad Religion, and LSD

My son Jay tries to keep Laura and me high on the “knowledge of cool music” scale. Since the night the floor manager sneaked my friend and me into the last half of a Beastie Boys concert I had driven Jay and a friend to when he was fourteen, music has been one of the ways we’ve bonded. Jay updates us on the best, newest, and sometimes older and much-loved musicians and their songs.  Otherwise, I may be stuck forever in the 60’s, with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, and James Taylor.  There are worse things.

So when he handed us an envelope on Christmas morning, 2015, we had an idea that it might contain two tickets to see a band. For the two previous Christmases, he had given us tickets to attend a standing room only performance of - I have to admit – a fabulous young band called Lake Street Dive – Laura and I call them LSD for short.  We opened the envelope, and voila.  LSD, again.  “Listen, go in and stand right in front of the sound guy.  The sound is best in that spot, and you can lean against the railing.  Plant yourself there, and don’t move,” he said with his usual in-the-know enthusiasm.  The following March we headed for the show, planning to do what we were told. We navigated the Boston traffic and parked where he instructed us, and walked to the House of Blues where we queued up in a long line with a bunch of twenty-, thirty-, and even some forty-somethings. When we reached the venue, I was asked by a middle-aged security guard to open my purse.  I unzipped the center pocket, exposing a small metal pill case. 

“I assume you have some hard core pills in there,” he joked. 

“Yes, they’re for my blood pressure. Would you like to buy a couple?” I said. He sort of chuckled (or was it a gasp?) and waved me through. Had he asked me for an ID, I would have opened my shirt collar to expose my aging neck. The things I find I can get away with – or just think about getting away with - now that I’ve had my 60th birthday.

Let me back up and take a slight, but related tangent.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that being Noam Chomsky’s gatekeeper could at times feel magical. Recognition of my “people will offer me free things” superpower was concurrent with my sudden awareness of the political savvy of a good number of well-known punk and hard rock musicians who were contacting our office.  I say well-known because I had become familiar with their names through Jay. I remember being impressed by a letter from Noam to Jello Biafra when it landed on my desk in 1995, just over a year after I started working for Noam, thanking him for a packet of tapes he had sent to our office.

Many thanks for the tapes, which I’ll be listening to…though to be honest, I have to say that finding a moment to listen to tapes is a luxury I rarely have, Noam wrote.  (In other words, ‘There's not always room for someone named Jello’.) It would have further confused him to learn that Jello Biafra was founding member of a political punk band called “The Dead Kennedys.”  Never mind.

Once I recognized this superpower, I learned to keep my ears and mind open.  Jay moved to Colorado after college, in May of 1996, and soon after, I intercepted an email from Greg Graffin, co-founder, lead singer and songwriter for the band Bad Religion. In a subsequent phone conversation, I learned it was Greg’s dream to meet Noam, and after a few minutes of investigative correspondence (meaning I stayed on the phone with Greg as long as possible in order to impress my son with details), I mentioned the fact that my son lived in the Denver area. Greg said he would be sure to send him two tickets to the band’s upcoming concert at the Paramount Theater, and back stage passes. I pinched myself to be sure I was awake. I also learned from Greg that Noam’s political commentary had been recorded as a single by Bad Religion in 1991. 

When I talked with Noam later that day, he accepted Greg’s request to have a future “dialogue” (as he called it) when Greg was able to take a break from his doctoral studies. “And I think we have copies of that record around here somewhere,” Noam said.” I got him settled into his next interview and went off to the nearby locked space that we referred to as “Noam’s library” -- a huge, treasure-trove of a room in the old Building 20, filled with a collection of Noam’s favorite books -- many of them now valuable collectors items -- his bibliography, periodicals, reprints, and drafts of political and linguistics book chapters, which spilled from shelves or peeked out from cardboard boxes on the floor.  Walls of file cabinets were filled with correspondence, Noam’s articles and interviews, and other people’s articles, so I started looking in the boxes on the floor, returning briefly once or twice that week, and then the next, when I finally reached into one dusty box and all but danced a jig when I found a half dozen copies of the 7” vinyl record titled, “New World Order: War #1.” Find it here
As Noam signed a few of them for me later that week, he asked, “What are these?” His focus had obviously shifted since our conversation a few weeks before, and I was coming to know the glazed-over look that often followed anything longer than a brief explanation, so I kept it short, and moved on.

Guitarist Tom Morello, former Rage Against the Machine band member, is a surprising cross-over between my son and me.  Tom came into focus for me in 1996 as well, when he emailed me to ask whether I thought Noam would agree to an interview to be aired as a National Radio Broadcast.  (Tom was later prominent on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration cd, which was sent to me by one of Seeger's assistants.  I loved Seeger, but Jay had no interest in his music.)  Of course I pushed the interview, knowing how politically active Tom was, and ahem, also knowing my son would be impressed. And I was determined to get Noam and his politics to be a part of more household conversations.

A few years later, in 2000, I wrote to another Rage Against the Machine member, Zack de la Rocha, the band's former front man, singer, and songwriter, “Professor Chomsky has agreed to an interview with you… and I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to ask you a favor. My son has been following Rage for a long time, and he would love to meet you when you’re here.” Knowing myself, it’s possible that I jokingly told him he could interview Noam only if he agreed to talk with Jay, though I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law.

It thrilled me when Zack, who was just a few years older than Jay, readily agreed. One more notch on my “Cool mother” belt, on the shoulders of Noam Chomsky. Mea culpa. I was a repeat offender, but ask any mother how far she would go to add a notch to that belt, and you will find forgiveness.

Graphic designer Brad K. approached me in 2003 to ask me to convince Noam to have his likeness printed on the underside of a promotional skateboard deck for a series he was doing for the band Pearl Jam called “American Heroes.” I convinced Noam that his oldest grandson would be impressed, noting of course that my son thought Pearl Jam was an intelligent and increasingly political band.  In fact, Noam had recently written an article for Pearl Jam’s “The Manual For Free Living” newsletter. When I told Brad that Noam was fine with this, he arranged to send me a publicity package including the finished decks for Jay, me, and Noam’s grandson.  Yes, please.

For more than twenty years Jay and I have had the conversation about how to get Noam to realize that popular bands provide an opportunity for him to get his message out in large numbers to younger people.  As I write this, I realize he always has “gotten” it, especially as I stand back and see how many bands he agreed to interview with and write for, even before my enthusiasm helped sway his decisions in the mid 90’s, and for years after that.

Back to the present.

As the venue filled in anticipation of LSD’s performance, the space in front of us grew more crowded with young, tall people threatening our view.  For almost four hours, from the time the doors opened until LSD was winding down, we did as my son advised, leaving our post only once each to use the bathroom. It was a truly great show, but the railing was too flimsy to lean against, and we felt the burn walking back to the car after standing for so long in one spot. Next year I’m going to drop some hints to Jay about surprising us with tickets to an old-fart performance, like Joan Baez or James Taylor.  Actually, I really don’t care who they are, as long as the venue has seats.  Unless I develop another superpower – the ability to turn the clock back a few decades.