Tom Morello Starts a ‘Guitarmy’, Thousands March On May Day in New York City

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It only took about fifteen minutes tops – five blocks south of Bryant Park – before the “illegal” Occupy Wall Street and “Guitarmy” march to Union Square broke through the tight NYPD formation corralling protestors to the sidewalk along 5th Avenue in New York City. Across the country 135 cities planned similar May Day related action.

The formation had been meant to keep the swelling ranks of protesters to the sidewalk. Cries of, “c’mon, we’ve got the numbers, let’s take the streets!” pierced through the sound of whistles, chants and drums, as small groups of enthusiastic occupiers broke through and encouraged their comrades to follow them into the middle of the broad avenue as generations of rabble-rousers have.

The cops fought back with shoves, shouts and even a few baton thrusts, but they couldn’t stem the tide and by the time the march crossed 33rd Street, 5th Avenue belonged to the protesters. Jay Manzetti, a self-described AFL-CIO member from “Occupy Long Island” who had been talking-up breaking the NYPD cordon since before the march started was one of the first to bust through. “Fuck yeah, I want the whole fucking city taken!” he cheered.

Smack in the middle of this chaos, wearing a cap marking his membership in the stately old I.W.W (Industrial Workers of the World) and coolly strumming an acoustic guitar, Tom Morello—frontman of socially-conscious headbangers, Rage Against the Machine, and longtime OWS supporter—chanted: “this occupation is not leaving,” and, “these are our streets.” 

As he readied to run through a quick rehearsal with his “new band” of what he described in a slight exaggeration as “10,000 guitarists,” a short while earlier, Morello shared his ideas on the respective significance of International Workers’ Day—a May 1st holiday for progressives and organized labor since the late 1800s—during the current economic crisis and OWS.

Morello, a Harvard graduate descending from an impressive transcontinental leftist pedigree, speaks with a perspective markedly more global—and critical of U.S. foreign policy—both economic and military, than the average OWS denizen, who mostly worries about the shrinking middle class and corporate money in politics. Answering a question about his patriotism, Morello says that America is not a “homogeneous” block. “There’s an America of the Napalmers and the lynchers; that sends missiles to kill civilians oversees and forecloses on farms,” he says. “Than there’s the America that fights back against it that’s the country I’m proud of.”  

But even the most parochially minded OWS supporter nodded along with Morello when he said that the most pressing message for Americans to take away from Occupy is that “gross economic inequality” is not just an accident of market forces, as the consensus-oriented media and our moderate politicians would have them believe, but the result of a massive theft of wealth from the middle-class by “criminals who should be prosecuted,” in the very top-economic tier. Once people know the score, he added, “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.”

As the protest moved downtown, gaining steam, white-collar workers watched from office windows above. At one point when a gap in the march grew too long, the group out front called a “sit-in.” Despite of all the smart technology in attendance and concomitant social media it was left to a runner to be dispatched to find out how far behind the next clump of protesters was.

People chanted and waved banners, some obviously dusted off from last fall, but there were new ones as well. (A memorable one juxtaposed a headshot of NYPD police commissioner Ray Kelly with that of notorious southern racist sheriff Bull Conner.)  A few handed out flowers, but there would be no photographs of lilacs gingerly placed into the barrel of NYPD guns. One flower giver, 26-year-old Emily Hosmer-Dillard of Brooklyn, said her offerings were decidedly not for the boys in blue. Like many others who were marching yesterday, Hosmer-Dillard still remembered the mass-arrests, late-night evictions and all-around authoritarian tactics that marked the NYPD’s treatment of OWS last fall. Laughing at such a “60s type image” she said, “I’m not here to make the cops’ job easier.”

While nothing approaching the anger directed at millionaires, bankers, the GOP Congress or the NYPD, several OWS supporters had harsh words for the “mainstream media,” (but especially Fox News), which they felt deceived the majority of middle class Americans against the movement even though they shared common interests. Sitting on a bicycle Fred Gates, a 39 year-old “self-employed web designer,” was arguing civilly with Phil—a middle-aged “auditor” who would not give his last name but works near Union Square and was for the moment at least stuck in his car—who told him that if someone’s unemployed he should be “looking in himself and looking for a job,” instead of out marching.

Effectively summing up the grumbling heard that day directed towards the fourth estate, Gates told Phil that they’d be on the same side if it wasn’t for the  “media coverage,” which back in October “started making us look like dirty hippies with nothing substantive to say.” Indeed the two certainly agreed on one important idea, that as Phil the auditor put it, “the economic pie is shrinking and we’re getting squeezed up down and sideways.” 

By the time the “Solidarity Rally” (featuring Tom Morello and Das Racist) started after 4pm, the sun was shining and Union Square was filled with thousands of activists and onlookers (video below). With free food, a “free store,” a library and representatives of a different far-left political party thrusting literature in your face every time you turned around the scene had strong echoes of the Liberty Plaza occupation. But there was a stronger union showing, especially of domestic workers, and a more international vibe.

Morello climbed the makeshift stage with his acoustic guitar and “guitarmy” comrades and kicked off into “Rebel Songs.” Looking around at the crowd and flags flying from every color of the rainbow (but especially red), one couldn’t help but think that minus the NYPD helicopter circling low overhead and the ubiquitous smartphones, this could have been May Day during the Great Depression. As if on cue, Morello announced that this year would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and that he would end his short set on a song that “we all learned in school,” except for the fact that we were taught it wrong. Then Morello played a version of “This Land is Your Land,” with a last verse about the speaker seeing “[his] people, as they stood there hungry,” waiting for government relief. This angrier version with its raw “censored” last verse ends with a plaintive question, rather than a patriotic statement. “Is this land made for you and me?”

Courtney Love and Hole Rock Impromptu Reunion On Anniversary of Grunge

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For an hour or so before midnight on Friday April 13, three key former members of Hole, the 1990s grunge-pop sensation—Eric Erlandson, Melissa Auf Der Maur and Patty Schemel (billed as the “Trinity Jam” to celebrate Hit So Hard, a rock-doc about Schemel screened earlier that night at Cinema Village in New York City)—tuned their instruments and hung loose at Public Assembly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But at the strike of midnight the three band mates looked nervous. Word that something serious “was up” seeped out from the band’s hangers on to the publicists and to a few reporters, and one by one eventually the whole audience got the message: Courtney. Is. In. The. Building. (!!!)

So by the time the three kicked off a short set that included The Smiths’ Paint a Vulgar Picture—crooned by the stunning Auf Der Maur—and a noise-rock jam, the darkly lit room crackled with nervous energy. After toying with the crowd to the point that her own bandmates seemed to despair whether Love would actually show up (After a few initial cues Der Maur joked: “Does someone want to check the boiler room for someone smoking?”) a side door bolted open and Love was whisked up to the stage wedged between a burly black bouncer and a kid dressed a little like Justin Bieber.

Dressed in a prim black vest and white shirt, Love slid several strings of colored beads from her arm onto her designated mic stand name checked British indie kids The Cribs, who had played earlier in the night. Then she picked up a beat-to-shit Fender Stratocaster. Crouching down, she strummed it rhythmically–almost violently–to warm up and be photographed as members of the band rushed around to find a strap for her guitar. “Strap me in Eric,” she joked, stifling a flash of minor annoyance. “Oh yeah Daddy.” Then they launched into Miss World, the biggest hit off their Billboard number one album Live Through This, released 18 years ago last Thursday, seven days after her late husband, Kurt Cobain was found dead, a shotgun shell through his head and a suicide note nearby. 

Despite long being a favorite target in the mainstream press—for her public tantrums, plastic surgery choices, and serial drug-abuse issues—it had been a tougher week than usual for Love, given especially the bleak anniversary. After lobbing accusations over Twitter at ex-Nirvana guitarist Dave Grohl to the tune that he made a pass at Love’s 19-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, Bean released a statement referring to Love tersely as her “biological mother” and suggesting that Twitter ban her. So some of the people in the crowd may have been expecting to see a train wreck. (As of Sunday, Gawker posted Love’s Twitter apology to her daughter, "Bean, sorry I believed the gossip.. Mommy loves you.")

At the Morrison Hotel gallery recently rock photog, Jesse Frohman stressed that grunge can be strictly a nostalgic commodity. His prints, last portraits shot of the grunge icon before his death, ranged in price from $1,500-12,000. But Frohman, who only dealt with a “very stoned” Cobain for twenty minutes—after he had shown up to the shoot 3 hours late—couldn’t escape the dark aura that surrounded the singer either. “There was just something very sad about Kurt. I’ve never seen someone so sad,” Frohman related. During the after party at the Tribeca Grand, in which the Virgins played a set and Jarvis Cocker DJ’d, pr-types wondered if Love would show up and either create buzz, pandemonium or both. As it turned out they needn’t have worried. 

Love delivered the goods at Brooklyn Public Assembly as she sang “I made my bed I’ll lie in it/I made my bed I’ll die in it”— the chorus to Miss World—each time with increasing emphasis and even the most hardened cynics suspected she meant it. And for a moment at least, the audience of mostly 30-somethings were teens again sitting in their parent’s living rooms watching 120 Minutes on MTV. This was the other Courtney. The good Courtney; the strong-female archetype who bridged several different species of rock genus—from Garage to Laurel Canyon glam to Punk and Riot Grrl; who can pop her eyes open as wide as Alice Cooper.  

Of course, Love’s relationship with her daughter wasn’t always tragicomic, but it was probably never carefree. While overall the scenes in Hit So Hard (which runs all week at Cinema Village) concerning mother, daughter and Cobain—filmed with Schemel’s camcorder in the apartment Love, Cobain and Bean shared on Spaulding Ave. in the Hollywood Hills—convey a hippie communal vibe, the most arresting visual sequence shows Love “talking” to a diaper clad Bean while Cobain listens. Practically whining she says, “We were worried about daddy tonight weren’t we? We thought he died. Is daddy going to leave his girls?” Cobain cracks back in a southern drawl: "I’m going out for a pack of cigarettes and I’m never coming back."

There is no question that Cobain’s suicide, one week before Live Through This hit record stores and catapulted the band to stardom, cast a pall of darkness over Love and by extension, Hole, that never receded. Asked to join the band, the then 22-year old Auf Der Maur recalls having wondered if she could psychically afford to join an outfit that was “so dark.”

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Schemel, who knew Cobain from back in the mid-1980s when he was a roadie for proto-grunge outfit the Melvins, had already been dabbling with heroin and was on and off the wagon until finally disappearing to “crack and heroin island” when she was literally drummed out of the band by control-heavy producer, Michael Beinhorn—in 1997 during the recording of Hole’s third record Celebrity Skin—who replaced her with a hired hand she refers to as “Johnny one-take.” Eventually she landed up living in Macarthur park wearing a “crackhead windbreaker” and pleading for Love to Western Union her money.  Love’s response: “I’ll only do it one more time.”

Two months after Cobain’s death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who was also Erlandson’s on and off girlfriend died of a heroin overdose when he was (at least according to Love in Hit So Hard) on his “first date” with Drew Barrymore.

Asked whether he and Pfaff were using together at the time of her fatal OD, Erlandson, who admits he has “many regrets” over what went down with Pfaff that night, will only say, “I was still close to her at the time. She had her problems and I had mine but I wasn’t doing what she was doing and that’s why I’m alive.” While Cobain’s death had caused both Love and Erlandson in his words to “just say fuck I don’t even care about music,” the death of Pfaff “galvanized us and we knew we had to keep going.”    

As late as Thursday, Erlandson strongly suspected he would never play with Love again. Sitting over iced tea in a greasy spoon West Side diner, he said with a sigh, “Things would have to change a lot for that to happen.” Erlandson, a tall bony man with long blonde hair, was wearing an old burgundy cardigan. His thoughtful, unhurried demeanor conveys a brand of slacker-masculinity that served as a perfect foil for an otherwise all female group, whose fan base consists of, in Love’s words: “mostly girls, gay guys and a handful of advanced straight men.”   

He spoke at length about forming Hole with Courtney, his friend Kurt’s suicide, and the maelstrom that was his twelve years of rock stardom and excess. Then the twelve years of “self-imposed exile” afterwards to “process everything that had happened to [him.]” Its all grist for his book of prose poetry, Letters to Kurt, which hits bookstores tomorrow. The volume takes the form 52 free-associative letters to different people in his life, most noticeably Kurt and Courtney. Like Hit So Hard, Letters is the story of a regular person taken in the tide by extraordinary personalities.

He understands why so many alternative theories have arisen around Cobain’s death, which male impersonating rocker Phranc likens to “our generation’s Kennedy assassination”—an event so stark that everyone in a specific generation can recall where they were when it happened. “With suicides especially you want to create a murder or a conspiracy,” Erlandson says. “You just do! You start doing all this stuff in your head and its just natural.” He adds that it is especially difficult to accept given the method Cobain used—swallowing a shotgun and pulling the trigger—“is such a harsh act.” Before trailing off, without elucidating further, he adds, “in some ways [in the book] I’m trying to say there are some deeper truths here.”

A sense of failed belongingness, which leads to isolating yourself and alienation as well as numbing yourself to pain are a number of textbook signs that future suicide victims exhibit. “Well throwing yourself into a drum kit every night, numbing your pain with heroin and what does that do but forces you to isolate further,” he says. Not to mention Cobain would write “50 times ‘I hate myself and want to die,’” in his journal. Asked if after he got famous Cobain felt he couldn’t match up to his stage persona, Erlandson looks at me intently and says: “that’s fame. You go out on stage and you have all this adulation and then you go back into your private moments and you think ‘I’m not that person, I don’t deserve this’ and that causes fragmentation and you need to numb yourself further.” And Cobain had all those issues going on “even before the record blew up.” 

He explains that only a choice few that were actually with him at the time of the events of the book—“which were mostly a blur at the time”—will be able to connect the dots and interpret the book literally. “It came out in coded language, I wasn’t comfortable talking about all this stuff directly.” Even so: its difficult not to look in a certain direction when lines like, “under the knife one too many times and no amount of money will fix you.”  Or that he is including himself when he writes: “The survivors get to edit history to their liking. And then call each other names.”

While acknowledging the gravity of the unmistakable tragedy that marked the death of Cobain, who he calls “the voice of a generation” Erlandson writes, “I’d hate to see you wasting away in digital nostalgia like the rest of us.” Try as he might he cannot place his old friend in a modern context. “Can you picture Kurt on Twitter? No way. I can’t even picture that guy on a computer.” Cobain had something “ancient, old and wise even backwoodsy—yet still of this world—about him.” Moreover he’s emblematic of something society is especially yearning for now—gleaned in the fashion aspects of grunge, which have been popping up lately—and the fact that twenty years later teens are still interested in the Cobain mystique. That seems like a something of a sift from when he was a kid and “connecting” with musical styles much “less distant,” like punk, then only a few years old. “We need that more than ever as we’re becoming more robotic, the internet is changing us man, its heavy, heavy, we just don’t realize it because we’re in it,” he says.  

One of the only non-coded revelations in Letters, which comes early on in the books short introduction, is that Erlandson and Love lived together for “almost two years” between ’89-91 during their first years of the band. According to one LA scenester at the time, Paul Koudounaris, a typical early Hole gig would have been when they opened at Natural Fudge Company for his local Dadaist cult favorite band, Imperial Butt Wizards. Koudounaris recalls Love once telling him and a friend that she wanted to be “gold record famous in a year” and he and his friend bursting out laughing because it seemed so unlikely. “No one even thought about crossover success. The idea was preposterous, like an elephant flying,” he says, adding, “until Nirvana.”

The seeds for Love and Cobain’s relationship were planted one night after the unknown couple met the soon-to-be grunge god outside a Butt Hole Surfers concert. Later that night, “goaded by a British rock journalist” Cobain called Love when she was in bed with Erlandson. Laughing, he says, “the media was already in bed with them from day one, no courtship – you go right to the magazines.”

As anyone at Brooklyn’s Public Assembly on that fateful Friday night who saw the two share a long hug before Love hurried off stage and back into her insular world of unknowable celebrity, all is not just animosity between the two. While he laments the fact that Love is potentially “wasting her life collecting fashion junk, doing Etsy, and eBay, Tweeting and slandering people left and right,” he is quick to acknowledge another “true” Courtney Love who “most people have only gotten glimpses of.” Letting out a long sigh, he adds, “the essence of that person will last forever.” Perhaps it is in the nature of Love’s perpetual rebellion never to fade away.