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Gary Hart rally 1984 Washington Square

September 11th, 2016 · 12 Comments · New York City, Politics, Real-life Adventure Tales

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How Rock Concerts Led To Politics

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For most of ’80s I lived in Phyllis & Eddie Condon’s palatial apartment on Washington Square North.  The NYU Program Board from where I ran the concerts was in the Loeb Student Center on Washington Square South — about a 3-minute walk away — if you didn’t dawdle in the continuous circus that was Washington Square Park.  I halfway lived over there in what was my first “office” — and could do anything I wanted.

At this point I knew very little about American politics or how government worked at all, having grown up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The first time any of this entered my fort-building hockey-playing childhood was the Watergate hearings that preempted all four of our TV channels that summer of ’73.  Then there was the newsflash of seeing the giant “NIXON RESIGNS” headline in a newspaper box in as big letters as the “WAR IS OVER” or “MAN ON MOON” headlines I’d seen in books — and realizing this was the first historic event of my young conscious life.

We were taught virtually nothing about American politics in Canadian schools.  Prolly about as much as Americans were about Canada.  I knew they had Presidents, and George Washington was the first, and 1776 was a big deal for some reason, but that was about it.

Unlike all my friends in Winterpeg, after reading Rolling Stone and other music magazines, I knew I wanted to live in America — a universally unpopular opinion in a small Canadian prairie town.  As soon as I finished my mandatory service in high school, myself and a couple buddies loaded up the van and drove to Californey with visions of bikini beaches and waving fields of pot dancing in our heads.

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The First Presidential Candidate

At one point on that crazy trip we were down in San Diego and climbed over the wall to sneak into their famous zoo there.  Just after we got inside, who should come walking right past us in that spring of 1980, but Presidential candidate John Anderson!  The white-haired bespectacled Republican had just started running Independent as a counterpoint to Reagan’s ultra-right-conservatism.  But we weren’t really too hip to the details.  All we knew was he was throwing a monkey wrench into American politics and that was good enough for us.

My fellow Canadian runaway, I’ll call him Joey, was about the only other person I knew who was really into American politics & culture, and of course we’d never seen a real-life American Presidential candidate in the flesh before and rushed right over in our 18-year-old enthusiasm and shook the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan.  Even got me a bumper sticker from his entourage of maybe a half-dozen people — my first bone fide campaign ephemera!

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World War III

A week or so after that, we found ourselves in yet another first — hanging with a real-live Vietnam War veteran — something that just didn’t happen in Winnipeg.

We were at his house somewhere around L.A. on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.  It was only 5 years since the end of that failed war, and a few more since Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and we all knew the government lied to us and was up to no end of nefarious no good.  This vet was much older and wiser than us, and had fought in the heart of one of their most heinous lies, and he was filling our impressionable young minds with fresh sinsemilla and juicy details of the latest conspiracy theories.

He kept all the lights low as though he was still hiding in the dark in the jungle.  And as he was regaling his wide-eyed captives with elaborate tales of how the world really worked, the silent flickering rabbit-eared TV in the corner suddenly broke away from the regular late night broadcast with Breaking News of a secret rescue mission to free the American hostages in Iran that had gone horribly wrong.  Or was it really an invasion?  Helicopters crashed, soldiers were dead, and another war maneuver by the U.S. government had ended in death and disaster.  We sat up for hours in a pre-CNN world manually flipping the round channel knob to get any information we could.  We were sure, in our vividly stoned Everything-Has-Meaning minds, that there was a grand “reason” why we were hanging with a real front-line war soldier the night World War III started.

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The Reagan–Carter Debate

A few months later — fall of 1980 — was the Presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Rayguns.  In more Le Grande Synch Dept.:  It just so happened their one and only debate was scheduled on one of The Grateful Dead’s only two nights off during their 8-show run at Radio City Music Hall — which I was attending pretty much all of.

I knew I had to experience this because it seemed to be a very big deal in this new country I found myself — a month into what would become a decades-long Adventure in America.  And I was determined to understand this place.

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I went to the historic counterculture Judson Church residence hall on Washington Square South and watched it in the common room full of smart young politicos making observations so far beyond me that I realized I was an utter neophyte in a very complex but exciting world.  I still remember where I was sitting — on the right side, half-way back — as I listened for the first time to a roomful of funny, wise-cracking American college students with politics and history surging thru their veins.  I’d never been immersed in that culture before — or even knew there was such a culture!  Politicos — in the flesh!  “So this is what that world’s like!”

I barely had a clue who the candidates were — but I knew if that crazy right-wing guy got elected things were gonna be really bad.

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And that was about it.  1980 thru ’84 was a sex drugs & rock n roll frenzy in college in Greenwich Village — while still pulling off 13 As and cranking out NYU in 3-and-a-half years insteada 4 so I could pay them less money and get out into the real world sooner.  During those years I rarely spent any time thinking about politics.  Reagan was President, yuppie greed was cool, and it was all pretty depressing.  Plus, I thought the whole science of politics was as far beyond me as chemistry — and it seemed like something we had no control over anyway.  Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

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The Moment Everything Changed

One day in early 1984 — yes, that “1984” that living under Reagan really felt like — I was finishing up some stuff in the office on the main floor of the Student Center, when I heard someone talking through a loudspeaker coming from LaGuardia Place — the little sidestreet off Washington Square South.  But loud speakers and loud noise were pretty much the norm around Washington Square Park — there was always crazy shit going on.

Then all of a sudden there were huge cheers for something — bigger than normal.  So I got up from my desk and walked into the lobby — which was about 8 feet above street level — and through the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows I laid eyes on my first political rally.

There was a man standing on a little stage at the end of the street with his back to Washington Square Park, facing south down the urban canyon packed with enthusiastic faces.  I can’t remember if he was on a trailer or if they did some quick stage set-up or what — cuz I don’t recall anything being there when I walked into the building.  But now the whole block was filled with excited, fist-pumping rock n roll people.  And they were cheering for what some guy was saying — not what he was playing.  But it sorta made sense cuz the dude looked kinda Kennedy-cool and was riffing with some cocky Mick Jagger confidence.

I’d been working in rock n roll since I was 15.  I knew this scene.  The stage, the PA, the crowd, the cameras, screaming fans.  Done.  Except I was looking at somebody who could be running the country.

This was the same crowd — the same energy — the same showmanship — as everything I’d ever done in my life.  It’s showbiz, man.  But this was for the man who could be the leader of the free world.  That’s even bigger than The Rolling Stones!

Turns out the guy’s name was Gary Hart.  This was not the “Monkey Business” campaign — that was 4 years later.  This was his first — which was actually a lot like Bernie Sanders’ in 2016.  He was a little-known Senator from a non-major state who galvanized the young while going up against the obvious party favorite — Walter Mondale — who’d been Vice President 4 years earlier and was the de facto nominee.

I got swept right up in it.  The underdog’s struggle.  The new ideas.  The new voice.  The challenge to the system.  The volunteers of America.

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Looking out that window, on that unexpected sunny spring afternoon in Greenwich Village, my life changed.

I walked down the steps into the cordoned-off street in open-mouthed awe taking in something I “knew” but had never experienced.  Like Judson Church, I remember exactly where I stood against the building next to the old guard I knew who let me stand there, as I looked left to the rock star on the stage, or right at the block-long crowd listening and cheering.  This was rock n roll.  This I understood.

These people had the same passion in their faces, the same guttural thrill in their cheers, the same intangible electric energy as all the best music shows I ever worked or attended.  It’s a buzz that can also be felt in a large sports crowd when the home team scores.  Or in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning.  There’s a few places to experience this collective positive-minded celebratory energy.  But a political rally is definitely one of them.

And I’ve been actively participating in every primary and Presidential election since this unplanned karmic sign of a life-changing-moment.

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As I riff this reflection in September 2016, a new alternate reality of this energy has manifested in rallies by the most prominent bigot since George Wallace or David Duke (who supports him).  I’ve even heard some scary seething in some Democratic ranks this campaign.  This fear-based conspiracy-centric vitriol may have been part of the political world in every cycle since forever, but it’s never been this extreme.

We’re living through an existential crisis as a nation — and there’s no grand simple quick fix.  But one place we can start is — not being part of the problem:  Focusing at least equally on positive things — and not the negatives about somebody you hate.  Being pro, and proactive.  Not no, and not active.  We gotta change the vibe in the room.  We’re better than this.

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And this politico / historian / storyteller’s long-range viewfinder tells me a year from now we’re gonna be in a much better place.  I’m already living there.

And 50 or 100 years from now every voter alive is gonna wish they’d lived through this Shakespearian campaign.  So soak it in.  Be part of it.  Live it.  There’s never gonna be another one like it.  And we’re gonna win in the end.  😉 

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Holding up my hand at the swearing-in as I became an American citizen.

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For an update on the Adventure circa 2016 — here’s my report from a Bernie Sanders rally in Bloomington, Indiana.

Or here’s my final report from the Republican convention in Cleveland this year.

Or here’s a crazy story from the 2004 primary — the Al Franken–Howard Dean story!

Or for what happens when we win — check out these Inauguration Adventures from Obama’s first.

Or here’s the night in Manhattan when he first won.

Or here’s what it was like at the first Clinton Inauguration.

Or for a whole Adventure book written in this same colorful language about a slightly different subject — check out “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac.”

Or here’s some people’s reactions to that book.  Or here’s a bunch more.  😉

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Brian Hassett  —  karmacoupon@gmail.com   —  BrianHassett.com

Or here’s my Facebook account if you want to also follow things there —

https://www.facebook.com/Brian.Hassett.Canada

 

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12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Link // Sep 11, 2016 at 8:50 AM

    For me it was the 1976 primaries & an end of the Summer event.

    I remember being enamored of Jerry Brown & his Zen like attitude (well, at least compared to the rest of the crowd & it was all pretty heady for my 12 year old mind…for all his limitations, contradictions & humanity & despite some good things he’s done in CA this time around, he’s done plenty of awful stuff & his recent comments on Cannabis are the equivalent of Archie Bunker talking about “them blacks”) … so I followed that horse race & my, late in the game horse (who dated Linda Rondstadt & had more Rock ‘n’ Roll connections than any other candidate, which counted for close to everything, since I trusted any Beatle more than any politician, to be a compass for truth & peace & justice etc. … still do 😉 ) rallied hard & lost.

    Then it was the last week of summer, the bi-centennial no less & my parents were divorcing & my pappy refusing to pay support, so there we were at Hamlin Beach State Park on Lake Ontario. We gathered a few toy plastic boats & mom randomly poured out her change jar into our boats & we went to the State Park store to buy goodies during the labor day weekend.

    I got the new MAD magazine, maybe a MAD paperback or two, a bio of JFK, which sucked & I only read the first couple of pages of.
    AND… the book that made me stop reading the JFK bio once I started it & couldn’t put it down, “Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72” by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
    Reading Creem & Rolling Stone & The New York Times (Sunday Edition) prepared me a small bit….but, I remember thinking he was an M.D.? Then mom chiming in that he was more likely a professor some sort, maybe a doctorate degree in journalism. I soon discovered he was a Dr. of Gonzo & that, more to the point, he was a Physician for the Truth (as in never let the facts stand in the way of the truth 😉 ) …

    Onward with the Evolution Revolution!! <3

  • 2 Jeanne Masanz // Sep 11, 2016 at 12:04 PM

    Thanks for sharing your story, unique perspective, with humor, panache and literary passion.
    I read everything you post, of course, beatbro.

  • 3 Michael Craig // Sep 11, 2016 at 1:17 PM

    I wish I had stories like that. But thanks for lighting the fire for me to collect some this year.

  • 4 Cindy Wilkinson // Sep 11, 2016 at 6:07 PM

    You’re the most American Canadian I know. I guess that’s always been the case, eh?
    Glad you’re still on the case. So many seem to not be.
    Keep it up!

  • 5 Tom Brunner // Sep 11, 2016 at 7:47 PM

    As a 6 year old living in a mostly republican area it was obvious to me that Nixon was going to be our next President. Everyone on the bus and at school were supporters, like their parents. This was my first failed political observation! LOL

    At 9 when Kennedy was assassinated the teacher was a bit dismayed to learn no one in the class knew who the VP was and now our President. I decided then and there it was “important” to know the VP’S name and take some focus off of just astronauts, regional ball players, TV stars and historical icons.

  • 6 Brian // Sep 11, 2016 at 8:17 PM

    Thanks, Tom! So cool. And so funny — of course at first I thought you were talking about Nixon in ’72 … or maybe ’68. 🙂 You gotta be one of my few friends with firsthand memories of the 1960 election! Wow! Not only do I wish I was born when you were for the music of the ’60s that I missed — but it was equally as exciting and transformative a political time. And extra double credit for not ending up like everyone else on your school bus! 🙂

  • 7 Joe Myles // Sep 11, 2016 at 11:52 PM

    Great stuff! It sure brought back some memories from that wild spring of 80.
    I think I still have that Anderson sticker somewhere in the archives!

  • 8 Brian // Sep 12, 2016 at 12:27 AM

    Great, Joe! Glad if worked. 😀
    I wonder if our trio brother Dom has seen this yet?
    And also — you knew well the Loeb Student Center, with the floor-to-ceiling windows, and that little LaGuardia Place street right next to it. You and the band just about lived there for 2 months. 🙂

  • 9 Tom Brunner // Sep 12, 2016 at 11:54 AM

    During election day of the primary 2008 I was canvassing for Obama and stopped into a Star Bucks and started a conversation with a woman who turned out to be the Daughter of John Anderson ! Her mother’s name was Kiki (something like t hat). Anderson was retired living in Fla and teaching some law or political science classes.

    I also remember sitting at a intersection in local town of Norristown waiting for …a motorcade with Kennedy whizzing by… his sister was very active in local politics…Ihave a pic of Herbert Hoover my father took from the 30’s at a dedication of a memorial arch in Valley Forge National park.

  • 10 Brian // Sep 12, 2016 at 12:20 PM

    Wow! How cool is that?!?! Small world . . . Six Degrees . . . Brother Tom on The Beat!!
    It’s an honor to know a front-line soldier such as yourself — with war stories from every campaign since Eisenhower! 🙂

  • 11 Tom Brunner // Sep 12, 2016 at 12:39 PM

    For a moment your making me feel old!….but I can do that on my own…My mother’s Father (and twin like me) was born in 1866!…1 year from the end of Civil War!!

  • 12 Brian // Sep 12, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    Wow! We come from old stock! One more reason we’re connected I suppose. 🙂
    My Dad’s dad was born in 1859!

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