February 5, 2003

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Liner Notes

Traditions

WHEN I MOVE to Finland and have accustomed myself to polar nights, established a socialist free-love commune with whomever I emotionally blackmail into joining me, and recovered from my lengthy citizenship in what must surely be the most despised nation on the planet, I will sit on my socialist free-love front porch, stare at my breath, and remember one weekend shortly before my tax dollars were used against their will to invade Iraq. That, I'll tell the children, who will all have multiple parents and hide bootlegged American Idol reunion concert albums under their futons, was the weekend I protested the onset of war, went to a party, and rediscovered traditional music for the third time, with the help of James A. Michener, Joan Baez, my mother, a group called Constance Town, my housemate's boyfriend, and the Bush administration.

I'm always considering dropping out, especially on days when I start brooding about where my tax dollars go and how seldom the people I vote for win. On the other hand, I rarely listen to classical music and therefore don't know if it would save us now to have grown up like Finland, which, while chilly, raises its kids on music appreciation and orchestral dreams, according to a recent New York Times article by Warren Hoge.

Of course, if it's World War III we're traveling toward instead of Finland, I might not get to send my kid to Helsinki's Sibelius Academy to become a symphony conductor and will know exactly whom to blame when I narrate from some astral plane a few miles above the earth. At which time pointing fingers might be far less useful than refusing to pay taxes would have been.

At the last march in San Francisco, the people's noise made Market Street sound like it was drowning, and there was a moment when I almost understood why people do the wave at football games. Later I walked by a group of kids raving for peace near Civic Center Plaza, suddenly wondered where any of this was getting us, and felt strongly compelled to sit down in the street next to the pink-clad queer anticapitalists and bawl. That night, inexplicably tired from marching forward glacial inches at a time, I lay in bed and thought about Finland. And folk music.

It's dawning on me that, in knee-jerk fashion, I keep turning back to old-time songs when things get noticeably worse on the geopolitical front. A week before the march, I started humming traditional ballads off a Joan Baez record I stole from my mother. A few days later I bought a used copy of The Drifters, a drecky novel by Michener I discovered at the crap-permeable age of 14, when I became convinced I was destined for a VW pop-top and a beach life in Torremolinos, a dropouts' paradise at the southern tip of Spain. Michener, on the other hand, was convinced that the young people in his novel, set in 1969, were drawn to the old ballads because the reasonless betrayals, fateful deaths, dishonest charmers, and heroes struck down in the flower of their youth rang a bell for those who'd dropped out and given up, presenting them with a way to react to and recognize the tragedies in their own times: the Kennedy assassinations, the police brutalities at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the war.

When a group of young, banjo-picking traditionalists called Constance Town opened for a night of rock and roll by Tartufi, San Andreas, and Boyskout at Cafe du Nord, I could see it for a second. They looked so sweet and earnest up there, I could imagine them walking the precincts for "Clean Gene" McCarthy, though I'm not sure whom they would walk for now, passing by street posters for Fake in which fashionable, shirtless women look unconcerned about the headlines in the daily papers. But people in the crowd kept talking over them, and the lack of interest made me nervous, and everything felt like a long string of unrelated impulses again, kind of like my decision to move to Finland based on a newspaper article.

The night after the rally my housemate's boyfriend, Eric Landmark from Numbers, got dressed up in a suit for a party in a Mission District backyard and performed old familiar songs, as he called them, songs about fires in Baltimore and crimes of passion, old-time numbers delivered in slightly aggressive tones that sounded almost punk rock but marked the places where hillbilly bands once sang. It had nothing to do with the war and everything to do with the past – songs sung for the sake of preserving history rather than now or the future.

The third possibility, somewhere between Finland and World War III, is that things will just continue like this until I die of natural causes or walk off the top of a tall building with a beautifully worded note of despair in my pocket. There will be so many wars that I'll find myself having these thoughts like a skipping record and coming to the same dismal conclusions at least once in any given presidential election cycle, at which point I'll take out my old records and listen for ringing bells, though no matter how well their messages resonate, nobody who matters will be listening.

E-mail Lynn Rapoport at lynn@sfbg.com.