Each couch by the street has a story
I wonder what this one maybe
Did they leave their home and move into a car
Or find a sofa to sleep on at a friend’s house
Did they stay near, or go far away
Disappear without a trace […]
When they come to evict your neighbor, what will you do?
— “Each Couch by the Street” song by David Rovics
When I checked the Street Roots archives by putting in the search window, “David Rovics,” I got one hit: a March 8, 2010 press release, “Peace groups, parents, children and folk musicians Steve Einhorn, Kate Powers, and David Rovics will all be at the rally outside Portland Public Schools headquarters.”
It was a protest against military influence in Portland’s K-12 Portland Public Schools. He was there singing to inspire parents opposing a $320,000 revenue contract for Starbase, a 25-hour educational program funded out of the Department of Defense recruitment budget.
Fast forward a decade: If you’ve been part of the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, you might have heard David Rovics perform social justice and protest songs outside Mayor Ted Wheeler’s condo or at Revolution Hall after the election.
The 53-year-old father of three (ages one, four and 14 years) has been working the protest concert circuit since 1993, helping lift spirits at WTO protests, environmental actions, antiwar events, and more.
Think of Rovics as an iteration of Joe Hill, a la Arlo Guthrie-Phil Ochs-Pete Seeger-Joan Baez. And Buffy Sainte-Marie, for sure!
Journalist Amy Goodman referred to Rovics as “the musical version of Democracy Now!” Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan called him “the peace poet and troubadour of our time.”
Accolades aside, we talked about the landscape before and now during (and post) Covid-19 being littered with dwindling hope for all artists. Many artists will not make it, study after study bear out.
“I definitely know folks who have either gotten on unemployment or gotten a job not related to their art, as a result of the pandemic. Of course, I also know a lot of artists who had to throw in the towel long before the pandemic, as a result of Spotify, Amazon, etc., and theses corporations’ cannibalistic orientation towards the arts.”
He came to Portland from Berkley almost 14 years ago, and he too, like so many artists I have spoken with, experienced a Portland that was a Mecca for artists – thriving music, theater and graphic arts scenes that allowed creatives to live and provided venues at affordable rents in order for artists to show their stuff.
That nirvana didn’t last long – “Artists started clearing out of the city, with most of the Black population from the inner neighborhoods moving to the exurbs.” That wave started around 2007.
Rovics is acutely aware that most of the thriving artists who might weather economic tsunamis are white artists, but there are thousands upon thousands of BIPOC artists who continue working but do not have those “safety nets” underneath them. The mainstream and commercial art scene will continue to be a white wave.
This gentrification is now coupled with lack of income(s), Rovics says, as artists who used to be able to show and sell their work (and bar-tend and wait tables), and in the case of musicians, perform and then peddle “merch” at venues, have zero options for in-person engagement.
Mounting debt, continuing eviction threats, and increasing vulnerability to disease and illness also are additional factors to the mental health stress of artists. David knows of artists who just have shut down, and can’t work. Others are manic, going through sleepless periods but producing a lot. For Rovics, he fits this latter category, but he admits he is not immune to GAD – general anxiety disorder. He told me he watches a lot more news feeds than he did before the pandemic, and doesn’t sleep through the night.
“The whole response of this country has been a disaster,” he points out. “Whole industries have collapsed. There have been anemic shreds of money, but it will not magically keep society as we know it going. What is it, the day after Christmas when unemployment benefits run out?”
We both agreed Charles Dickens, if alive, would be in a 24/7, 365 days a year flurry of creativity and commentary.
There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth! Poverty and oysters always seem to go together. To close the eyes, and give a seemly comfort to the apparel of the dead, is poverty’s holiest touch of nature.
— Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs Gone Haywire
It’s difficult to not keep circling back to the fact many people – artists included – are both depressed and inspired by the events that have unfolded since February. “I’ve talked to a lot of artists who tell me the isolation takes away that creative edge. I also know of people succumbing to more serious mental health issues. I have one friend in a psychotic episode who was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.”
Painting in a studio by yourself is one thing, but Rovics points out that because all venues for performing artists are shuttered, touring musicians are really having it hard. “They are addicted to performing, so this isolation has been devastating.”
The pandemic might be the last nail in the coffin for truly independent, thriving, outside-the-box artists. Rovics has studied the wave of predatory capitalists running Spotify and Amazon that has helped move the minuscule profits from artists to investors: millionaires and the billionaire owners like Jeff Bezos (Amazon).
The music industry has been trying to separate music from politics for years now, trying to get artists to believe that politically oriented music is not attractive for mainstream audiences so they produce work that is safe and preferably only between two people. But artists are part of society too, so they can’t expect to be above politics, he stated in a 2009 interview.
Spotify is another beast Rovics condemns. According to Rolling Stone’s Tim Ingham, “In total, at the close of last year, SEC documents show that exactly 65 percent of Spotify was owned by just six parties: the firm’s co-founders, Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon (30.6 percent of ordinary shares between them); Tencent Holdings Ltd. (9.1 percent); and a run of three asset-management specialists: Baillie Gifford (11.8 percent), Morgan Stanley (7.3 percent), and T. Rowe Price Associates (6.2 percent). These three investment powerhouses owned more than 25 percent of Spotify between them — a fact worth remembering next time there’s an argument about whose interests Spotify is acting in when it makes controversial moves (for example, Spotify’s ongoing legal appeal against a royalty pay rise for songwriters in the United States).”
The problems artists are facing are part of a many-headed Hydra Rovics calls “vulture capitalism.”
He also confronts this problem from renter’s and the affordable housing lenses. He naturally comes to the conclusion that Capitalism in this sense is fraught with parasites:
“The way forward is about solidarity, but achieving solidarity will require moving beyond the false consciousness that says it is okay to run a society like this,” he states. “That housing is a privilege, whose cost is to be determined by profit-minded individuals and corporations, protected by the state’s armed enforcers. We must collectively come to realize that housing is actually a right, that we must demand, as a society. And that a rent strike is an activity to engage in not only if you can’t afford to pay the rent, but if you believe that it is wrong to pay the rent, when so many others are unable to. That an injury to one is an injury to all. That the parasites in this society are not the unemployed, the homeless, the recipients of meager government aid programs, the housing insecure, the couch-surfers, the car-dwellers. The parasites are those who own multiple properties, and profit off of renting them to people who need housing. This is a parasitic activity, whether hiding behind the fig leaf called ‘mom and pop,’ or whether ‘mom and pop’ has successfully managed to turn their little operation into a bigger one.”
The people who control the rents for galleries, theaters and cinemas answer to the owners, the investment boards and many times to behemoth property management entities, he states. And while artists’ careers will pile up by the wayside like those couches in Portland he wrote a song about, what is worse is that the “art” that is and will be coming out of the corporations controlling culture will be narrowed down and basically “crap.”
The reverberations of artists not making it go way beyond the axiom of “where you find one successful artist, you will find a thousand starving artists behind them.” The hoarders of capital are the dream hoarders, and these Titans of Predatory Capitalism are galvanizing a highly commercialized, denuded, lowest-common-denominator “arts.” Disneyfication, infantilization, consumerist, apolitical and anti-working-class pabulum might be another way to couch what is happening in the arts.
Rovics and I talk intensely about these series of preventable events in a Time of Covid.
No matter where the reader stands on this question of what is art, the fact of the matter is people need housing to not just survive and shield themselves from the elements, but to be dignified, spiritually available to the world and to be creative.
Rovics is part of Artists for Rent Control (ARC) and a more recent group, PEER – Portland Emergency Eviction Response (his creation). When I went to PEER’s website, I found a plethora of information, podcasts of mostly Rovic’s songs and ways to stave the flow of blood that both artists and non-artists living in Portland face with their housing.
PEER is definitely grassroots, sort of a network with no financial backing or lobbying clout. It has one clear strategy, and one tactic.
The goal is the abolition of forced eviction as an option for landlords and police forces. The implementation of the goal is to form a large and militant rapid response team that can respond quickly to attempted evictions as they are occurring, and at that point either stop them from happening, or move the tenant back in to the property after the police leave the scene,” Rovics states. “Specifically, or at least ideally, the process we’re talking about goes something like this: Tenants facing potential eviction because they’re pretty sure they’ll be unable to pay the back rent due when the eviction moratorium is over are faced with various decisions. They may have family they can move in with — a majority of young adults now live with their parents in the US, for the first time since the 1930’s. A tenant will often prefer to move into a vehicle or do any number of other things other than attempt to stay in their home after receiving an eviction notice. Forgive the harshness of this sentence, but these are not the tenants that are tactically of interest to PEER. We are looking to work with tenants who want to challenge their eviction notice by attempting to stay in their homes. We realize the stakes are high, and you do, too. People may decide to try to stay in their homes because they have no other options they want to consider, or because they want to challenge the whole system of forced eviction, or both.
Seeds of Creativity, Germination into Activism
Rovics grew up in New York with two musicians as parents. They also taught music, and they were progressive and anti-establishment. He started touring in the 1990s dialed into groups like Students for Environmental Action. He did a lot of college campuses concerts. He worked as an activist songwriter/performer in the anti-war and Occupy Wall Street movements. He was a long hair white guy with a guitar and anger.
“In places like Germany and Scandinavian countries, unionism has always been strong. I’ve performed in trade halls, union halls, theaters. Take a country like Denmark – the government supports the arts in a big way.” Even punk rock squat concerts were financed by governments and unions.
Before the pandemic, Rovics toured Europe two months in the Spring and two more in the Fall. He said he was paid well. “Students and activists would come in for free, drink cheap beer and my merchandise sales were significant.”
So, Spring would have Rovics crisscrossing nine countries, mostly in Scandinavia. Then in the Fall he would tour in Britain and Ireland. Each concert, each interaction created a bigger and broader group of adherents and fans. Getting people’s emails is like a gold mine, the musician tells me.
While the gigs attract a wide variety of people, he emphasizes it is mostly left-wing idealists and organizers unified in the anti-war, anti-imperialism, global justice, environmental movements. Not all left-wingers fit the same mold, though, so socialists, anarchists, hippie environmentalists and even in Ireland Sein Fein members would populate the audiences in his concerts.
Even though Rovics — before he started his own family — lived out of a vehicle as he toured, and was homeless for two years in his youth, he knows he came into the world and into the arts with a boatload of white privilege and that his two musician parents and his life back east provided him with untold advantages.
“I play for people across the board, from wealthy to the homeless.” He has written and performed songs about homelessness.
When I asked him about artists forced onto the streets because of the pandemic, Rovics said he wasn’t aware of any in Portland who hit that far into rock bottom land. “I was just talking with a panel discussion of artists — one in Detroit who got a job as a welder, another in New York who got on unemployment, another artist who has felt very inspired by the pandemic, and one who has not done anything in months, because of the negative impact of the isolation she’s experiencing.”
Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
— Victor Hugo
We talk much about activism welded to the arts – “Activists, many of whom are barely making a living or working two jobs just to make ends meet, are also stressed out for a variety of reasons, but they tend to be among the happier people in society because they are trying to do something. That is empowering. My line of work permits me to travel around the world regularly and I meet people like that all the time and they’re lovely.”
Not so ironically, the murder of a friend in 1993, was to him, a seminal moment in his life: a gang shooting that was intended for someone else. He was moved to action on a global justice plane. He composed a song about it in “Song for Eric”:
San Francisco at night
And the warm summer breeze
Walking back alleys
Just as free as you please
And I think of those poor boys
Who drove up to say
“Give us your money”
And then they blew you away
With one pull of a trigger
Your sweet life was through
Every time I see that street, I think of you
As a final (side note), I contacted David to help facilitate another piece for this column about two artists and two others associated with the arts concerning their thoughts on Art in a Time of Covid. What unfurled was a deep discussion with this inspiring man, active in Portland on many levels. While he is not “down so long everything looks up to him,” David and his family have been on a rent strike and are having issues making ends meet.
“As of November 21, just in case it’s of interest to your editor, my family’s situation is that we have been denied unemployment since last April, inexplicably, so other than the $1,200 per adult and $500 per kid we received from the feds early on, we have gotten no federal aid.”
They’ve also been denied food stamps because they make too much money, but they’ve been getting the supplementary food aid ($500 for a family of five) Oregon has added to the usual amount people get over recent months.
The reality is an anarchist like David Rovics is optimistic and less hopeful in the same breath He tells me social democratic countries are faring far better than capitalist countries like the USA. He believes system change is best taught through storytelling. “People get turned off if you tell them what should and should not be.” Being a troubadour allows him to relate to the individual struggles of our time, set forth universalities hardcore lectures on the ills of war, capitalism and climate change can’t facilitate, he believes.
This statement Rovics made in 2019 in response to the “concentration camps” set up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) highlights this dichotomy of hope and struggle:
“We all had that conversation when we were kids about how if we could go back in time and shoot Hitler, even though we’d be sacrificing our lives in the process, we’d do it, but we probably wouldn’t, and we don’t. The overwhelming majority of humanity, quite sensibly, according to the historical record, don’t stick their necks out like that unless they think there’s at least some remote chance of coming out the other end with their heads intact, along with a victorious social movement and an end to the fascist dictator they’re trying to get rid of in the first place. Social movements are based on optimism, and this isn’t an optimistic moment in America. So, this is what it’s like.”
Check his music here, and these are David’s top picks of his current work: Say their Names; Anarchist Jurisdiction; Essentially Expendable; Each Couch by the Street; Wear a Mask. David Rovics music —