How Rock Concerts Led To Politics
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
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.”
Brian Hassett — firstname.lastname@example.org — BrianHassett.com
Or here’s my Facebook account if you want to also follow things there —