05 August, 2005

from the cradle to the seat of power

last night the TRiO played in chapel hill NC and now we're on our way to greenville SC. i am in the van, as usual. it seems right now that i am truly on tour, and what i mean by that is that i have reduced my life down to the barest essentials: sleep, a little work, no friends, and a lot of driving and playing music. this usually happens about 6 weeks in, and this summer is no different than the past 8 (!) in that regard. and yet, something new is forming, something i have barely had time to notice. everyday is so completely new that it's hard to have time to look past the newness to see its deeper effect on yourself.

in the last month, i have played with my band, in a duo, and solo to audiences ranging from 3 people (really!) to 5 thousand. i have opened for my heros and had openers i just met that day. i have introduced new songs and re-vived some that are more than 10 years old. yet all these extremes seem to make more sense to me than at any other point in my career. this is just what i do and how it happens. i am letting things roll off my back that in the past would have sent me in a spiral, and i am fighting for things i never cared about before. is this what growing up is?

i think part of my new-found peace of mind has come from some extra-musical experiences i have had lately. in mid july, i had been on tour opening for ani difranco (an unbelievable experience in its own right- another day another blog). i left that tour for a couple of my own shows in canada and in philadelphia. at the show in philly, an outdoor festival, i was watching the indigo girls play from the side of the stage when amy ray invited me to come out and sing "closer to fine" with them. i actually looked behind me, because i was sure she was motioning to someone else. by the time i realized it was me, the first verse had gone by, and i raced up for the chorus. the roar from the audience was something i will never forget. the ladies asked me to sing the third verse, and even though i have been singing that song forever, i couldnt remember it. i had to ask emily how it started... once i got going it was easy, but for a second, i truly thought i was done... here's a picture of emily leaning over to tell me how the verse begins. you would NEVER know i am terrified, would you?

photo by alex lowy

the next day, ani, the indigo girls, actor james cromwell, and several nuclear and native american rights activists were descending on capitol hill for a lobby day. ani's tour manager, susan alzner, had organized the whole thing, and she invited me to come along and participate as much as i felt comfortable. rep. dennis kucinich was our host for the day. and as he led us around capital hill, i was struck by the rarity of the occasion- and also the irony. shouldnt it be easier to come to the seat of power and participate in YOUR government? and yet for many of us that day, as well as most people, it was the first and perhaps only time we would get this close to where decisions affecting our lives would be made. we began with a briefing in a room on the hill called HC-5. usually this room is controlled by the speaker of the house, right now dennis hastert, a republican not sympathetic to our side of many things. the briefing was causing so much interest, however, that the sheer size of it demanded we use HC-5. a coup! ani, the indigo girls, james, and several others all gave two minute statements on the causes for the day: our opposition to the coming energy bill and a proposal to dump 44K tons of nuclear waste on native land in skull valley UT.

as i sat in the back of the room, taking it all in, i looked around and realized that 80percent of the people in the room were my age. late 20's interns and aides to the more wellknown movers and shakers. it is people just like myself, the kids i grew up with, that are filtering information that comes into the senators' and representatives' offices. it was actually inspiring because it made the walls seem less impenetrable, although i also recognized that peculiar brand of late 20's arrogance which can often keep you from admitting you dont know something or are wrong. cough. cough.

after the briefing, we split up into 2 teams and went to meetings with individual senate staffs. the office buildings were generally pretty swank- two are even connected by a little railway, but it was interesting to see each senator's individual tastes come through. hillary clinton's office looked like a movie set of what a senator's office should be, while harry reid's looked like it got a lot more use and bought a lot more office supplies. dick durbin's was claustrophobic, yet we had our most spirited meeting there. most of the time the staff would listen to our specific requests, taking notes (what were they writing down?) and then suggest that they couldnt speak for the senator. both the energy bill and the waste dump were politically hot issues, which made the staffers extra polite and extra evasive. i understand their game, the system is set up in such a way that only at the very last minute will anyone take a stand or take responsibility for an issue... this last minute was approaching fast for the upcoming energy bill vote. we were on the hill on monday and the vote was to be pushed through before friday. so we heard a lot about back room deals, extra provisions, riders coming and going by the hour, literally. unbelievably, no one had read the full text of the bill and probably wouldnt before it got voted on. still in the midst of this frustration, i was blown away by the positivity of everyone in our group. people stood their ground, asked pointed questions, stated glaring omissions and falsehoods.

after an extrememly long day (briefing at 11am and meetings til 7pm) we all went out to dinner together. dennis joined us again and ralph nader showed up too, but i camped out at the end of the very long table with emily from the indigo girls, tyler littman (ani's lighting tech), rebecca lichtenfeld (who works with the organization Witness) and todd sickafoose (ani's bass player). the 5 of us drank a lot of wine and tried to put into perspective all the things we'd seen and heard that day. emily and rebecca have a lot of experience in these situations, and they felt like the day was a sucess on many levels. meanwhile, i was still trying to unstick my tongue.

while i was invited to speak as much as i wanted, i spent alot of the day listening. and listening hard. i wanted those most educated on these issues to take center stage, and i felt truly like an apprentice, watching how artists i admire carried themselves in a politcal situation. i was given a gift that day, a chance to see how to talk in a politcally useful fashion about radical issues. how to present your passions in an articulate and open manner. musicians and celebrities are often criticized for taking stances on issues outside their chosen fields. i have always thought that an unfair and dangerous line of thought. who better than an artist (whose job it is to communicate) to take the lead on issues affecting all of us, to speak for those who dont often have the opportunity or the agency.

as a coda, we went 1 for 2 with our lobbying efforts. the state of UT is now on the side of the skull valley native americans, hiring a top end washington lobby firm to take up the cause of stopping this dumping. however, this monday W will sign the energy bill we were fighting against. many of the senators we visited (including clinton, mccain, and reid) voted against the bill, yet some of the most promising visits (durbin, dorgan) voted for it. still, the simple act of getting to capital hill and shaking things up with our presence was progress in itself. everyone is now turning their efforts to the congressional elections of 2006, a chance to shift the balance of power in congress.

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