Life Inside of the Song of History with Pete Seeger

By Al Giordano

Photo © 1983 by Leslie Desmond.

It is said that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes.

For a great many people, that was also the case when Pete Seeger died last month.

Almost everybody I know has a Pete Seeger story as compelling as any I could tell. The guy handed out meaningful exchanges like candy. That’s how he rolled.

I confess that didn’t always love Pete, and was skeptical about him until I got to see and hear him up close. His music was force-fed on me, and others my age, as children. “Go to church on Sunday, eat your vegetables, wash behind your ears, and listen to your Pete Seeger, because it’s good for you!” His most popular recorded tunes were either children’s songs or what, as an emerging adolescent in the seventies, I considered “lite” odes to hippie slogans which had already become over-baked, like “peace,” or “freedom.” Some had been popularized by more saccharine acts (we don’t need to name them, everybody knows who they are).

I figured this Seeger fellow was just a slightly older sixties hippie with a professorial salt-and-pepper beard. Hippies were a dime a dozen back then. Like the police officers and military men they professed to dislike, they sure tended to don the same clothing and hairstyles as each other. They were old news already. Similar to many of my own, younger, generation, I was on the prowl for something more original and authentic.

See, that was the media image of Pete, the aging folksinger with a banjo, washed clean of his radical backstory. The entire population in the 1970s seemed to be suffering a hangover and nobody really wanted to talk about whatever it was that happened the night before. All society was doing the walk of shame. My high school pal Philip Shelley’s father, I had learned, an actor, had been blacklisted during the decades-long nightmare of persecution of communists and their suspected sympathizers. Stories like that were whispered, but not really talked about in any kind of meaningful way. There was still a lot of fear (and a lot of commie-bashing) but I would learn, through Pete and others, that what had preceded it was a hell of a lot worse; a plague upon the land.

Pete Seeger’s music would – like alcohol and cigarettes – prove to be an acquired taste. (Pete, who did not like to drink or smoke, would probably find that funny.) At the age of 17, about a month after I’d been arrested with 1,400 or so others for camping out on the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, I heard that a lot of those folks with whom I’d lived that coming-of-age story were headed to Amherst, Massachusetts, for something called The Towards Tomorrow Fair, a convention and festival dedicated to alternative energy sources and where thinkers – from Buckminster Fuller to Helen Caldicott to Murray Bookchin – would present their ideas. There would also be a concert by Seeger at the 2,000-seat UMass Fine Arts Center.

Pete, at first glance, seemed older than his 58 years, already a grey eminence. And between each song he sang, he told stories. While introducing “Wasn’t That a Time” as the song he tried to play in the halls of Congress in 1955 when subpoenaed before the US House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), I looked at Connie Hogarth – who had brought some of us youths from New York up to Massachusetts in her station wagon – almost in disbelief. She explained that Pete had been “blacklisted” for refusing to name names at that hearing, and that his music had been banned for the following years on radio and television in the US. And that is probably the moment when I felt like a schmuck for having thought of Seeger as a mere hippie. I let my guard down, and started singing along.

Other stories he told, in the songs and between them, revealed pieces of his already long road saga: singing with Woody Guthrie and others to organize labor unions and strikes in the 1930s, enlisting in the Armed Forces to stop Hitler in the ‘40s (he and a group called The Weavers had a hit single during WWII, titled “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” which envisioned a public hanging of the despot), joining with blacks and whites in the Southern Civil Rights desegregation struggles of the ‘50s. I learned that it was a captain of a slave ship who had penned “Amazing Grace” - what I had considered a sappy church song – when in a burst of conscience he had turned the ship around to return the captured to Africa.

Even some of the songs I had considered “lite,” or corny or cloying, like the kid stuff, after some investigation, turned out to be those numbers Pete developed during his blacklisted years (roughly between the 1955 Contempt of Congress violation served upon him and the 1962 appeals court order that reversed it, and then another five years before they let him back on network TV), in which the seemingly innocent lyrics were in fact “code” for more subversive messages. “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a gospel spiritual, wasn’t taken from Bible verses, as I had wrongly presumed. Those were real instructions for escaping black slaves in the 1800s to learn how to read the constellations in the sky in order to head north toward freedom. To decode Pete was to learn the code of the secret history of the United States of America, of those troubling things that “nice” people only whispered about, if at all.

That night at UMass, he sang a song called “Acres of Clams,” based on an old sea shanty by the same title and rewritten by Charlie King, himself arrested at the Seabrook nuke site some weeks prior. The organization that had convened and trained us occupiers (receiving nonviolence training had been a requirement to be able to participate), was the Clamshell Alliance and its members had taken to calling each other “Clams.” Pete was suddenly singing about another chapter of American History, but a very recent one that I had taken part in. That’s when “the switch” went off in my head. I realized that these people who are mentioned in songs because they did something interesting or even heroic were people just like me. Every other story Pete sang about was suddenly in my reach. It was impossible to be cynical or even skeptical at that moment – looking around the hall, seeing all these folks who had risked arrest along with me, singing their hearts out to a song about them – and “getting” it that, holy shit, I’m in the song, and if I keep living my life that way, I’ll never be left outside of the song. That song was where I wanted to live.

That’s a dangerous thought. It led to a whole chain reaction of events and choices I soon made at early forks in the road of life. I left my teenaged punk rock band the day after we had been offered a record contract. I dropped out of university about as quickly as I entered it. I dedicated the next decade of my life to continued ventures of civil disobedience (27 arrests by age 27) and soon graduated to the harder, more meaningful, work of community organizing. I saw our fledgling movement against nuclear plants grow nationally and internationally, stop a new generation of atomic plants in the US, and even win the shut down of the particular nuke I had most organized against. That’s the song, baby, the one that never ends. And we keep working on the next verse of the story.

Three things about Pete surprised me at first, because they ran counter to his media image.

One, unlike so many of the “activists” who attended his concerts, he was unabashedly patriotic about America and what he considered its true ideals.

Two, he was really into winning (also distinct from many of the aforesaid types). He may have shunned other intoxicants, but, whoa, he was definitely hooked on “the buzz.” In his homage to Woody Guthrie, who had died in 1967, “Precious Friend,” he sang, “And when we sing another victory song, precious friend you will be there.” The whole point of it all – the music, the singing, the traveling, the organizing – for Pete, was to triumph. He didn’t sing and participate merely to be able to think of himself as a “good person.” He did it because those were steps toward concrete changes in society, toward the rush of that victory song, the greatest high there is.

Third – and I found this, as a young guitarist, a bit infuriating – was the astounding refinement of his musicianship. That night, on a twelve-string guitar, he played and sang “The Bells of Rhymney,” set to music from a poem by a Welsh miner-turned-poet, Idris Davies, who had lost one of his fingers in the mine. The “folk music revival” of my childhood had an air of “anybody can do it,” and a lot of those who did had only rudimentary musical skills; a very accessible and populist art form, worthy of its name. The sounds Pete got out of that instrument put the day’s revered rock axe-man guitar legends in their respective places, an entire orchestra and rainforest of cacophony put to order, in escalating and, alternately descending, rhythms. Add to that the perfect pitch of a voice that spanned multiple octaves, with the coordination between the vocal chords, lungs and hands on the instrument – “if, if, if, if, IF!” – and then whistling to hit even higher notes. I could go on, but instead I’ll share this video of a 1964 performance by a 44-year-old Pete, and you, kind reader, can find or write your own description.

A month later, then graduated from high school, I heard anew from Connie Hogarth, the 51-year-old director of the Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC) in White Plains, New York. She invited me to a benefit fundraising event for WESPAC on July 13, 1977, that would be held on a boat on the Hudson River called the Clearwater Sloop, a project founded by Pete to educate the populations along the 315 miles of riverbank from upstate to New York City about the need to clean it up from the industrial cesspool it had become, and also to train people in how to organize to do just that. We boarded the boat in Beacon in the early evening. Pete and other musicians shared songs and stories about the river and their work to save it. Young, volunteer members of the ship’s crew tended to the sails, and as the sky darkened it began to rain. At 8:37 p.m. the sloop was close enough to the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan to see it. And suddenly – WHAM! – a frightening lightning bolt zapped from the skies right down upon that nuke. Vox Populi. Vox Dei.

This was not a hallucination. It really happened. Everyone on the boat saw the blast and heard its thunderous roar. Millions of people remember that night from their own experience. At that precise moment all the house and road lights on the banks of the Hudson spookily went dark, and thus began the legendary New York City Blackout of 1977, marked by absolute chaos down in the city, where looting and rioting broke out in the darkness with no pretext of politics or protest at all. A prophecy, perhaps it was, of the eighties and nineties and next century to come.

There on the river, we didn’t know what happened, but the first obvious fear was that we were caught on the water, closer than anybody should be to the nuke if a nuclear accident were happening. The fear on the boat was palpable. So what did Pete do? Well, what do you think he did? He broke into song, and we all just started singing along. And I figured, hey, there would be worse ways to die young than to do so with experienced warriors like Pete and Connie and this boat’s crew, and to die singing. Right? The fear dissipated and when we got back to dock we set about investigating whether that lightning bolt had triggered a more serious accident at the nuke, which, thankfully, it had not.

Four or five years passed before I found myself in close proximity to Pete again, this time on the banks of another river, the Delaware, in Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania. It’s a longer story but in abridged form I had been there for less than two weeks, having arrived on Christmas Day 1982 with another such warrior of organizing, Abbie Hoffman. The residents of that valley were desperate, because construction was scheduled to begin on January 7 on a pumping station to divert millions of gallons of river water to the Limerick River, 40 miles away, to provide cooling water for a nuclear plant there. These were conservative people, mostly members of the Republican Party, who had fought the pump in court and lost, and were so desperate that they hired the notorious Abbie – formerly on the FBI’s Top Ten Fugitives list – as their one-dollar-a-year “consultant” to organize them into a campaign to dump that pump. I was 22, had just managed a successful statewide anti-nuclear referendum in Massachusetts, and was brought in by Abbie to be the hands-on organizer while he drummed up regional and national attention to the cause.

One of the first things we did after meeting with the local folks and hearing their story was to go off and come up with a strategy that might work with this conservative population. Abbie borrowed somebody’s car and drove me to Washington’s Crossing State Park, a few miles down the river, and we threw stones into the water while planning what would be a winter encampment and blockade of construction of the pump. I commented to Abbie that the imagery of a winter camp came straight out of the story from the American Revolution of another place in Pennsylvania called Valley Forge. (The song that Pete Seeger had tried to sing to the HUAC committee in 1955, but was prohibited from doing so, began, “Our fathers bled at Valley Forge/The snow was red with blood/Their faith was warm at Valley Forge/Their faith was brotherhood/Wasn’t that a time…/A time to try the soul of man/Wasn’t that a terrible time.”

Abbie replied, “Nobody in the rest of the country knows exactly where Valley Forge is! It’s in Pennsylvania, that’s all they know. We’ll tell ‘em that a national landmark is about to be destroyed and they’ll believe it!” We decided then and there to call the planned encampment “Valley Forge II,” and giggled a lot as we tore through the Washington’s Crossing State Park gift shop buying hundreds of small American flags and other revolutionary war era paraphernalia to dress up the protest in red, white and blue. “I think I’ll call Pete up,” Abbie said, putting the newly acquired weapons on his credit card, “and ask him to come to Valley Forge II and sing that song!”

And he did.

The plan by the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) and its lackey county government to have a glorious groundbreaking ceremony for the pump on January 7 quickly went awry. Abbie went on radio programs to announce a $1,000 cash reward “for anybody who steals the silver shovel” and thousands of local citizens showed up to block construction. Pete came and sang and absolutely loved all the American flags and patriotic imagery that we had laid out as backdrop to the protest. Although he had a long drive home ahead of him, he then came out to the Applejack Tavern and Rustic Cellar with the organizers after the event, sipping water while most of us drank to our first victory among many that would come.

America was still, even in the early ‘80s, stuck in the hangover of blacklists and the polarization of the sixties that followed, and had just elected a notorious anti-communist, Ronald Reagan, as president. Protesters against or for anything were still seen as anti-American by much of the public, and protesters rarely did anything to deter from that idea, and yet this was the first big protest in an environmental struggle that had wrapped itself so blatantly in the American flag. And it worked. Pete was beside himself laughing and enjoying the moment, which some perhaps thought surreal, but some of us saw as a new move in designing social movements with a strategy that Abbie and I called “capture the flag.” That was the first time Pete noticed that I existed. And for the next 27 years, through the last time I saw him at his 90th birthday party in Beacon, New York, whenever our paths would cross he always made a point of coming over to me and asking a lot of questions about whatever it was I was up to at that moment. (I’ve never been the sort to rush upon someone else’s fame; if you stand off to the side or back in a corner and do interesting things, the quality folks will eventually come to you.) And he usually had some organizing stories of his own to share that would shed light on the current problems I’d be trying to solve.

In 1987, at a gathering then called Songs of Freedom and Struggle (later the People’s Music Network), I had performed a little ditty I called “The American Revolution,” an acoustic rock and roll number with a poppy chorus, telling a people’s history of the war of independence and the community organizing that historic figures like Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross had done to win public support for the revolt. Songwriting, then and now, has not been a career. It’s just something to do for fun and because some things can only be said with rhyme, melody and humor because if one says them any other way one will probably be chased down by a pitchfork mob and hung in the village square. The chorus’ tag-line was, “It was a revolution/But it ain’t over yet.” Pete was there and came up to me afterward asking if he could publish it in Sing Out magazine.

A few weeks later I received a letter from Pete, asking again for the tune. “Do you have a tape of it or a record I could buy, or even a lead sheet with the words? I think it is one of the greatest songs I ever heard in my life.”

Some musician friends to whom I showed his letter urged me to take those words by America’s premier folk god and parlay them into a music career. But I was busy organizing at the time, to shut down a nuclear power plant. Even after Pete sent a follow up postcard thanking me for sending him the lyrics but insisting I send him the tune, I never got it together to record it. I guess I’ve always been more comfortable doing the work that makes the histories that songs get sung about than being their constant performer on stage.

In any kind of entertainment business, one has to suffer a lot of fools. I saw it time and time again whenever accompanying Pete at a protest or backstage at a concert or during the funeral of a friend. Everybody seemed to want and demand his personal attention all the time. I’d just stand there and marvel at his patience with them, and a lot of people concluded he was the nicest guy in the world and an absolute saint for the way he gave that dose of personalized attention to virtually everybody he met. Then they’d walk away, with an autograph or a story to tell, and Pete would shoot me a look, sometimes roll his eyes or shrug his shoulders, as if to say that this was the price he paid for chasing the buzz of “one more victory song” day after day, night after night.

I’ve long had the sense that underneath Pete’s everyman persona lurked a misanthrope who had to spend exhaustive energy repressing his inner big green rage machine in order to be able to do the work he loved. He lived at the end of a dirt road, and spent considerable periods of down time there with his family, because, I think, he needed lots of solitude to gird up for the public forays that were so much part of his life’s work. I think that paradox is the thing I most admire about him, still.

My friend Greg Berger remembers when one day, as a child, his father took him for a drive up the Hudson from Manhattan and stopped in Beacon, sixty miles north, to look at the river. Greg asked his dad why the river was coated with an ugly green substance. A lone man who had been walking along the riverside, picking up trash, overheard the child’s question and stopped to explain that the green gook was algae caused by pollution, but that people were organizing to clean up the river. Then the man continued walking, alone, and picking up garbage and Greg’s dad said, excitedly, “Son, that was Pete Seeger!” It was like an episode of The Simpsons. Thousands upon thousands of people have similar stories to tell, stories that changed their lives. We’ve heard many of them in these weeks since Pete passed.

Another paradox comes in a story that my friend Stephan Said, a singer-songwriter, tells, when he had written, in 2002, a song against the Iraq War called The Bell, which Pete liked enough to record the spoken word part to it. Pete had invited Stephen up to his home in Beacon to share more music and Stephan left original scores of sheet music of his compositions there for Pete to read. When Stephan returned for the next visit, Pete had taken the liberty to hand-scrawl a copyright symbol with Stephan’s name atop of each page of his music, explaining that musicians and industry people are notorious thieves and as an artist and worker Stephan needed to protect his work. Stephan had lived for years in a squat on New York’s Lower East Side, a subculture where copyright was considered “bad” along with every other kind of private property. Pete’s different conclusion was parallel with a lot of his views, those of someone who cut his teeth in the labor movement: that an artist is a worker and has the right to the fruits of his labor.

Many people who liked Pete and his music were probably not aware of some of his impulses like that which were contrarian to the usual activist fare because, unlike "activists," Pete had an intense dislike for political debates, and if one popped up anywhere near him he'd go chop some wood, play his banjo, or tinker with the mast of the boat to avoid getting swept up into it. A master at persuading people by sneaking up behind their hearts with a story or a song, he had the wisdom to know that the usual political arguments rarely serve to convince anybody of anything.

One of the inspirations for the School of Authentic Journalism was a place in Tennessee called The Highlander Center. It’s where many nonviolence training sessions were held during the southern civil rights movement. Rosa Parks didn’t spontaneously step on a Montgomery bus in 1955 and refuse to sit in the back. She had traveled from Alabama to Tennessee first to be trained in how to do it. The Highlander Center was also where Pete reworked the old spiritual “We Will Overcome” into “We Shall Overcome,” what became the anthem of that movement. He did it precisely during the years that he had been blacklisted and banned from the US airwaves. His then-pariah status in white America gave him credibility and common footing with so much of black America then rising up for equal rights, and his experiences in earlier labor movement victories made him a valuable resource to that and also to other later struggles.

The most important day of Pete’s long story was when, at the age of 35, he was subpoenaed before a congressional committee and asked to provide names of alleged communists. Many well-known artists and others did indeed provide names, which were then used to blacklist so many talents out of being able to make a living. So many lives, ruined, along with those of their friends and family members. Some brave folks had also refused to snitch at those hearings. They invoked the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution against self-incrimination. But Pete took a third and different path. He didn’t invoke The Fifth. He insisted he had no crime to hide. He politely told the committee, over and over again, that he didn’t respect their questions and would refuse to answer them. The members of Congress, the press, and so much of the public were shocked at that brazen move by a young man, who even at the moment when his own life was being ruined potentially by that witch hunt, insisted aloud that he was doing it out of patriotism and love for the true ideals of his country. That took big ones. I frankly wonder that if Pete had not have done so, whether the red scare would ever have come to a close. It was a fateful day for his life but an even bigger one for that of the country.

It was that moment when he gained the moral authority that he deployed so splendidly for the rest of his life – for another 59 years! – and that made the songs he sang and the stories he told more than just mere entertainment. Pete had been through hell and back again, and had lived to tell the story.

And just as the clouds lifted and he started receiving invitations to play on TV or in larger concert halls, when a younger generation of singers and rock and folk groups began interpreting his songs and making them popular, what he chose to do then also marked a key turning point. Instead of parlaying that moment into music industry stardom, he dedicated so many more of his days to an idea so simple that a lot of his friends thought it was crazy. At minimum, they thought it overly romantic, feeble and much too simple. “There’s a war going on,” another folksinger told him at the time. “That boat is a distraction.”

That damn boat! Yes, Pete wanted to build a boat. He wanted to put it into the Hudson River, and use it as an organizing tool to build a movement to clean up that river. He used his own resources and talents to organize others to help him do that. And once the boat set sail, it became his own version of The Highlander Center. Like many truly great organizers, Pete understood that to be able to teach and train people to do it well, they have to be pulled outside of the other pressures and distractions of their daily lives and be given something else to do with their hands and minds to encounter the space to evolve. How many thousands of young people spent a week or a month on that boat, learning songs and stories and about the river and the tools and skills to save it, I don’t know. But I’m certain that it is larger in number than the standing armies of many countries. More than half a million school children have boarded the boat on class trips.

And the river is cleaner now. Today, one can swim in it. One could not do that in my youth.

I marvel even more at what he accomplished with those people. He made it fun to learn about organizing. And he established that organizing, by definition, is done in a geographic place at the most local level, where "that one big victory song" is constructed one small victory at a time. Many of those former Sloop hands were among the 20,000 of us that gathered at Madison Square Garden in 2009 for the concert celebrating his ninety years on earth. The sails of the Clearwater boat were displayed by strings of lights above the stage as legend after legend interpreted the songs that Pete made popular in darker times. Pete had gone from being blacklisted at the age of 35 to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a new US president’s inauguration earlier that year. That doesn’t happen for everybody who makes the brave and right decisions at the tough moments of life. But I sure am glad I lived to see it happen for Pete.

Last May, I visited Connie Hogarth in Beacon, where she was Pete and Toshi Seeger’s neighbor and best friend, to record her own significant life story for an oral history of the No Nukes movement. After various hours she invited Laura Garcia, my right hand on that book project, and I out to dinner at a local Asian restaurant. Connie dialed up Pete and Toshi to invite them to come, too. Pete reported that Toshi wasn’t feeling well enough for it, and two months later Toshi passed away. Six months after that, Pete went.

Earlier this year, Connie had contacted me about coming up in May for Pete’s 95th birthday. “I think he can go to 100!” she said. He’d been reportedly out chopping wood just days prior.

As for the rest of us, the ones who Pete put into the song of history, we’re still writing it, together, with our deeds. It’s our daily actions that determine whether these verses and choruses rise to the ecstatic high that Pete always sought, the full elation of the victory song. I choose to live inside a permanent victory song because, thanks to Pete, I would find it utterly impossible and unpleasant to live anywhere else. And that song is a lot like his boat: One can wave to it from the riverbank. Or one can come aboard.

A Letter Worth Reading Before the Year Ends

Dear Friend,
So much has changed since a little online newspaper named Narco News was born almost 14 years ago. On the first day of publication, in 2000, it made the bold assertion that Latin America would be the place where the so-called “war on drugs” would be toppled, paving the way for the rest of the world and even the United States. “The movement will be multi-national, involving many Latin American nations,” I wrote. “History is in the making.”
Many people thought that was nuts: Maybe you were one of them. Well, 2013 will now go down in history as the year that it happened. The first country to legalize marijuana, Uruguay, did it from South America, and it is only a matter of time before its neighbors - and then the rest of the world - do the same.
Narco News started the ball rolling with hard-hitting investigative reporting and the creation of a language conducive to the birth and growth of a social movement. A lawsuit that attempted to silence us in our first year by a narco-banker didn’t hurt. It actually helped the project gain global attention and grow from one online muckraker to, now, an international network of hundreds of journalists, organizers and change-makers who train each other and have each other’s backs. One story at a time, we created that language that the rest of the Americas adopted to begin the end of drug prohibition. Should we be jumping up and down declaring victory and dancing in the end zone? We’re proud of our unique role in that chapter of history, but we’re not ones to rest on any laurels. We take each triumph along the road and always do the heavy lifting to make sure that the next victory is even larger.
Narco News was never content to be a one-trick pony. We expanded our reporting to expose and confront so many injustices, not just those of the drug war (although we continue to do that, too). And we started a school to train new generations of authentic journalists and history makers, a program that after ten years is still the only one of its kind on earth.
In our third year when we ran out of resources and briefly stopped publishing, our own readers revolted and formed The Fund for Authentic Journalism, the 501c3 nonprofit organization that has supported our journalists – and the School of Authentic Journalism – through many small donations that have added up to make so many great works possible.
In these final days of the year, you’re probably receiving emails and letters from many organizations seeking your help. This is a time of year when people make tax-deductible donations that can also help the donor reduce his and her own coming tax burdens. Many of those projects are very worthy. Let me give you my view on why this one is so unique and deserving of every cent you can give it that it is worth prioritizing over others.
In almost any discussion about the state of the world and its countries, the conversation eventually turns to “the problem of the media.” Everybody complains about the media, and almost nobody does anything about it. Part of the problem is that most of the publications and projects that call themselves “alternatives” to big media end up replicating its worst vices of pack journalism, sensationalism, pandering to advertisers or trying to shock you, the reader, in order to get more hit counts and thus more advertisers. 
Narco News has a very wide and influential readership, and in two languages! Advertisers come to us all the time offering obscene amounts of money if we would only let them put ads on our pages. For more than 13 years we have said “no” each and every time. We believe that advertising is the worst villain in turning what used to be a free press into one that is bought and paid for. And over these years while so many flash-in-the-pan “alternative media” operations had to close up shop, we’re still here, because we didn’t crash on the rocks seeking the siren call of the easy buck. If a media organization doesn’t have absolute integrity, it can’t be trusted on any other matter. Our own definition of integrity has no price. That’s probably obvious after so many years.
And what are we doing about “the problem of media” that nobody else is doing? This year we held the sixth School of Authentic Journalism. We’ve trained hundreds of young people intensively in the martial arts of investigative reporting, online journalism and the making of “viral videos” on urgent problems and solutions that in only a few days receive more views than most long-form documentaries will ever reach. Narco News began doing that before YouTube existed! We’re pioneers in that field and continue to stay a step ahead of the pack, always innovating and improving how we do it. If you haven’t seen the latest from Narco News TV, make sure to check out “Frack U. Mexico” for your year-end enjoyment and ongoing political education:

Another thing that makes this project unique is that you, the reader, are not a spectator or a consumer, but, rather, a core participant in the project. It’s you that makes our videos and news stories “go viral” by sharing them on social networks and talking about them with your friends. It’s you who points young talents of social conscience toward us and encourages them to apply for the School of Authentic Journalism. And it’s you – and only you and people like you – that make the many donations that add up, year after year, into a tsunami of creative and effective action that reliably changes history for the better time and time again.
Those small donations have been our insurance policy from ever being tempted to sell out or dealing from a position of weakness. When we have been fortunate enough to draw larger support for our school and other projects, those organizations have always had to respect that we’re going to do things our way with fierce independence and they know that it’s true because our network of individual supporters is large enough to sustain our work with or without major grants.
We’re not a dry “nongovernmental organization,” nor another “activist mag” that preaches to the converted and tells people only what they want to hear because of the tendency to confuse hit counts with relevance. Narco News and the School of Authentic Journalism are projects with personality! We’ve never stopped being feisty and daring about our work and we never will. It’s not on our DNA to do so. As such, we regularly piss some people off. Well, that’s part of the work of authentic journalists, too. Anybody who is not doing that is never going to make real changes in this world.
One has to be a rebel to change the world. We’re rebels with staying power. That includes our reporters, our professors, our scholars and, as importantly to all of us, our readers and donors. Just donating to this project makes you an authentic rebel, too. And it feels good, doesn’t it?
Now, “the pitch.” It’s simple enough:
To make the 2014 School of Authentic Journalism happen (you can read all about it here) and for another year of investigative reports and uncommon analysis to occur on these pages, we need your help to do it.
Please make as generous a contribution as you can (and for many people, ten dollars is as generous as ten thousand would be for someone else). You can do it right now via this link online:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
P.O. Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
Finally, I’d just like to personally thank you. I planned this project in my 30s, grew it from an "I" to a very big "we" in my 40s, and now, in my 50s, I get to be the ringleader of what I consider the most fun way to do meaningful work possible. Every day I see the seeds we planted with stories we reported years ago, or through the work of a younger journalist or organizer who refined her and his talents at our school, bear positive fruit for a better world. Our own role in bringing about the Latin America-led changes in drug policy is only one of many such victories. 
And not a day goes by that I don’t think about you, the reader, and how you’ve made it all happen. I may be the director of the project, but I have one, and only one, boss and that’s all of you together. I hope you’ve enjoyed this “annual report,” Chief, and with your continued support I look forward to giving you another one next year.
From somewhere in a country called América,

Mandela's Paradoxes Made His Journey Even Greater

By Al Giordano

Two of the paradoxes surrounding the late great Nelson Mandela are on my mind today.
One is how our celebrity-focused culture virtually ignores the work of the rest of his colleagues during Mandela’s 27 years in prison (1963-1990) that ended Apartheid. The official media picture is as if a man went to jail and solely by example toppled an entrenched system of mandatory racial segregation. That’s not at all how it happened. The organizing – and, in particular, the evolution of it – by so many others remains one of the epic collective heroic stories of the twentieth century.
The other is Mandela’s absolutely unique evolution on questions of violence and nonviolence and their efficacy in struggle. Mandela began, by his own words, as an expressly Gandhian leader. “I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could,” he later reflected, “but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.” He then helped lead the military wing of the movement, received training in guerrilla warfare and sabotage in Algeria, and was arrested when back in his own country for that activity. He was kept in prison longer than his original five-year sentence precisely because he refused to renounce armed struggle, right up through his release in 1990.
But while Mandela was in prison, his colleagues in the African National Congress and related organizations changed their strategy from one of armed insurgency to one of nonviolent civil resistance. One former ANC official, Howard Barrell, has described a turning point that came when a delegation from South Africa went to visit Vietnamese military general Vu Xuan Chiem and others who had defeated the US occupation in the early 1970s. The South Africans laid out their situation and sought advice, telling how many trained soldiers they had, how many weapons of each kind, etcetera. They believed they were ready to escalate to a guerrilla war. It was the Vietnamese, according to Barrell, who convinced them otherwise. I’ll paraphrase because I don’t have a recording of his remarks, but the Vietnamese reportedly told the South Africans: You haven’t done the most important thing yet. In Vietnam, we were not ready to fight a guerrilla war until first we had educated and organized public opinion to support us. That is the most important first step. Without that, nothing else is possible.
The movement changed its strategy, returning to its Gandhi-influenced roots, and set about organizing and educating to build public support. It wasn’t the gun that defeated Apartheid – and those who claim it was are being willfully ignorant of the authentic history of events – but, rather, the strike, the boycott, the training of participants in how to organize such things, and a full arsenal of nonviolent civil resistance tactics that won the day.
Mandela told his jailers that he would renounce armed struggle only when the State – which had committed serial massacres and violence upon civilians – would do the same. Yet during his 27 years in prison, the movement simply found that nonviolent resistance was more effective than armed struggle. It wasn’t a question of “morality” as society understands the word. It was a question of what worked and what did not work (which to me, I suppose, is the highest moral question for any aspiring change agent out there).
Once out of prison, Mandela’s position evolved anew to advocating nonviolent resistance and crediting it for his release and the toppling of Apartheid.
"In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi's message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century,” Mandela said in 2007, adding that Gandhi “rightly believed in the efficacy of pitting the sole force of the satyagraha against the brute force of the oppressor and in effect converting the oppressor to the right and moral point."
This was a leader who paid close attention to his fellow and sister organizers, and to the everyday struggles and opinions of the people (that explains, for example, his keen interest and use of sports – something many of today’s hapless “activists” consider somehow “bad” because sports are “competitive” and have “winners” and “losers,” gasp! – as an organizing tool to heal the wounds of so many years of imposed racial segregation). 
I admire Mandela, first and foremost, as a shining example of a leader who was “in it to win it.” He sought concrete, historic and “big” change, knew that it could not be achieved without the support of public opinion, and proved expertly flexible in, through trial and error, discovering what worked and what did not work, and embracing what did work.
People who confuse the question of nonviolence as one of “violence or peace” – this includes those who fanaticize pacifism and those who fetishize armed struggle, who to me are mirror images of each other’s most authoritarian impulses – don’t seem to get what I take as the real lesson of Mandela and the other great heroes of social struggle of the twentieth century, including Gandhi himself: Choosing what works over what does not work is not a question of ideology. It is one of life or death. Mandela will always be one of history’s great role models in the art of building public opinion to win victory, instead of suffering defeat after defeat.
I dedicate these reflections to my dear friends and colleagues of the School of Authentic Journalism Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack and Anele Mdzikwa, for whom the struggle brought extreme personal sacrifices and also great meaning.

Thor: The Dark World, and the Comforting Universe of Marvel

By Al Giordano
In 1967, I was seven, and my parents granted me a weekly “allowance” of a whopping 25 cents. Other kids I knew received as much as a dollar per week, but I was thrilled to enter the ranks of consumers even with limited purchasing power. My chums and I would go together to the candy store to spend these riches on on packets of cards with our favorite baseball, football and basketball players, each containing a stick of chewing gum.
At the store, there was a rack of magazines and comic books, and I noticed some titles with the names of super heroes I had seen on TV cartoons. After school, on weekdays, on the black and white television, there were five such programs. On Mondays, there would be a half-hour adventure of Captain America, the World War II everyman who had been converted into a super-soldier by an experimental serum. On Tuesdays, the millionaire playboy and arms-dealer Tony Stark would suit up as Iron Man. On Wednesdays, the Hulk would fly into fits of rage and smash the same kinds of tanks that Cap rode and that Stark manufactured. In very Catholic form, there was fish on Fridays, as Prince Namor, the Submariner, would rule and protect the seven seas, harassed by humans and their governments whose stupidity was destroying the oceans.
Thursday was “Thor’s Day,” a different kind of hero, because he was a god from another realm, named Asgard, straight out of ancient Norse mythology, and his story reflected the generation gap that was raging throughout society in the 1960s. I found the Thor myth irresistible. Thor had long, flowing blond hair and an authoritarian father who forbade him his love for an earthling, Jane Foster (a metaphor for the struggle for racial integration that defined those times). Thor rebelled from his dad, King Odin, adopting the humans of earth and protecting them from super-villains, intergalactic monsters, and even from rival gods. When not saving the world, he disguised himself as a handicapped doctor, Donald Blake, who needed a cane to walk, and at times when his vengeful father stripped him of his powers he would be stuck in that limping body. When danger appeared, Blake would strike his cane into the ground, it would transform into the mighty hammer Mjolnir, and the longhaired God of Thunder would jump into action.
The suggestion that there were many “gods,” and not just the one I was dragged off to church on Sundays and Catholic school on Wednesdays to be instructed in how to worship, presented an extremely liberating idea. Kids naturally identify with and want to be heroes. But Thor suggested an entirely new heresy: that we could aspire to be as gods, even if, like him, we had personal problems, societal taboos, and family expectations to disobey in order to do so.
When I noticed, at the candy store, that there were comic books featuring these heroes, and that they cost 12 cents apiece, I realized I could purchase two a week on my hefty allowance. I’d take them home, read them over and over again, save them like treasures of gold in a trunk in my room, and lament that I couldn’t afford all the titles. Not only did those five books come out each month - Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and The Submariner – but there were other titles like “Tales of Suspense,” which that year featured team-ups of Cap and Iron Man, and “The Avengers,” which had an ever-changing ensemble of those guys and others, including heroines like the former Soviet super-spy, Black Widow, and The Scarlet Witch (an introduction to the concept of mutant heroes who had genetically evolved beyond human limitations, and which alerted me to another book, X-Men, where she and her speedy, overly protective, mutant brother, Quicksilver, also appeared), and, from Africa, Prince T’Challa, the Black Panther. Around the same time, new programs began appearing on Saturday morning television, featuring Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, whose exposure to nuclear radiation gave them freakish powers, and those books were on the stands, too.
There had to be a way to be able to read all those amazing stories. I set to work convincing my friends – especially the ones with larger weekly budgets to expend – to watch those cartoons and to begin buying the books, too. Then we’d lend and borrow and trade until each of us was able to read every title each month.
The common theme of each Marvel book was that of the flawed hero. These guys and gals were markedly different from the protagonists of the rival DC Comics brand – the most well-known DC stars were Superman and Batman, each of which had TV series, not cartoons, in which they were played by human actors – in that while the DC canon of heroes were iconic, bigger than life figures, they also seemed predictable and one dimensional to me. The Marvel cast’s lives all revolved around the annoying problems each faced in their home, school and family lives. In other words, the Marvel heroes were a lot more like us kids, trying to navigate an era in which technology and mass media had begun to outpace humanity’s ability to cope with it all. They seemed more attainable and accessible. 
Guys like Peter Parker would save the city as Spiderman, but would always lose the girl, get mistreated by his boss, screw up in his school studies because he’d been out all night fighting crime, and Spidey would be demonized by the Daily Bugle as a menace despite his good works.
Spiderman was the prototype for the “flawed hero,” and became a huge success among young comic consumers, so Marvel’s creators quickly doubled down on the genre, and began to produce super beings not merely plagued by bad luck, but whose own powers, and their difficulty controlling them, made them downright neurotic. Hank Pym was a scientist who, in the comics, invented a helmet to reduce him to the size of an ant, and later another to make him many stories tall, and the legend of “Ant Man/Giant Man” was born. He was obsessed with his wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant debutante girlfriend, Janet Van Dyne (she always seemed styled after Jackie Kennedy, with her purses and hats), who – through the use of “Pym Particles” invented by Hank - could reduce herself to the same insect size, sprout wings, and sting rivals who could not see her coming, “The Wasp.” Hank flew into jealous rages every time another man even talked to Janet, and she calculatingly sought his attention by flirting with other heroes. Their domestic squabbles – and Hank’s cockfights with other Avengers - filled years of pages of the Avengers books. But when evil threatened, they’d bury their differences, suit up, and defeat the monsters. The characters were just like people one found in any project. They may have had extraordinary powers or talents, but they were ordinary people dealing with the same personal weaknesses regular mortals deal with every day.
If you grew up in the New York metropolitan area, these Marvel heroes were your neighbors. The aforementioned Daily Bugle was at 39th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, and Peter Parker took the subway to work there from his Aunt May’s triple-decker at 20 Ingram Street in Forest Hills, Queens. The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, The Baxter Building, was at 42nd and Madison. Up Mad Ave was the SHIELD headquarters, at 59th Street, near Central Park.  The Stark Tower, where Iron Man’s uniforms and weapons were made, up the block at Columbus Circle. On the east side of Central Park was the Avenger’s Mansion at 890 Fifth Avenue, at 70th Street. In the then hardscrabble zone of Hell’s Kitchen, south of Times Square, a blind public service attorney, Matt Murdock, who had lost his sight as a kid from a collision with a toxic waste barrel and saw his other five senses sharpened by it, would go after mobsters and other ill-doers at night as the acrobatic Daredevil. And down in Greenwich Village, where the folk song hippie culture was thriving in those times, at 176A Bleeker Street, lived the oddball master of magic, Doctor Stephen Strange. Out somewhere in Westchester County, in these books, was the classroom to which I dreamed of being able to attend: Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, at 1407 Greymalkin Lane, a mansion where Professor Charles Xavier trained young mutants to control and use their powers for good, and formed the team called X-Men.
In each month’s comic books, these guys and gals would save New York City and its residents from terrible and evil attacks and threats (only in the next century would life begin to imitate art, except that there were no heroes to save it).
So much of the Marvel Universe took place in New York, and the comics themselves were also penned and inked there, at Marvel headquarters, where Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the other pioneers of the genre would invent new heroes and villains, float new titles, and communicate hyperactively with their young fans. Each comic had a letters section – Stan “The Man” Lee would answer many of the letters there – and the frames of the comics themselves would be filled with little notes, one-liners, inside jokes, and clues from Lee, Kirby and other writers and artists, dropping little Easter eggs of hints about what might happen next, or how the same storyline was playing out that same month in another of the titles. In all this swirl of activity, they had created a subculture of nerdy, bookish kids, who found the Marvel Universe more comforting than the often-banal, and sometimes tragic, circumstances of our own daily lives.
Marvel Comics created a world where values mattered, but they were more evolved values, more attractive to me, than those we got from school, Church, television or family. Nobility and self-sacrifice was the mark of each hero. Inner independence and willingness to disobey family or societal norms to save the day was their trademark. Overcoming personal problems and the obstacles placed by such institutions in order to do so provided much of the adventure and journey of the books.
And these books mirrored the societal tumult of the 1960s. When Charles Xavier and his old friend Max Eisenhardt, the super-villain Magneto (in the movies he is named Eric Lensher), a survivor of the Holocaust and Nazi death camps, debated on whether mutants should separate from or integrate with the human race, their arguments provided a platform for the then-current debates embodied by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on the direction of the civil rights movement. Captain America, while he had the most jingoistic red-white-and-blue uniform and shield, frequently questioned and challenged the policies of the US Armed Forces and its government, arguing that might did not make right, that the ends don’t justify the means, that peace was always preferable to war, and that a soldier must never be a bully. Tony Stark developed inner conflicts and guilt about his work as a weapons inventor and magnate, and fell into bouts of alcoholic stupor so messy that at times others had to don the Iron Man suit while he was passed out drunk. The Hulk was persecuted by the military industrial complex and simply smashed any weapon it would send his way. The same US government whose citizens these heroes saved time and time again persecuted not just The Hulk, but also the Submariner (the themes often involved the environmental destruction by man of the seas and the earth, and the efforts of heroes to stop it), the X-Men, and all mutants. The comics were a teach-in on power and its abuses. The message did not “protest” or “denounce” such societal ills, but, rather carried the strong, repeated suggestion that they were violating the true “American Way,” which was not to be a bully but to stand up to such villainous behavior in a nation born, after all, out of an anti-imperialist revolution.
At some point, my young friends and I moved on from comic book heroes to rock and roll stars, guitars replaced baseballs and footballs, and girls became more interesting than being nerds alone in our rooms. But speaking only for myself, I have felt since those days that so much of my own values system was instilled thanks to Lee and Kirby’s Marvel Universe and its Campbellian heroes’ journeys. As I grew older, I felt certain nostalgia for that universe. From time to time, mass media would attempt to make grist from those characters. A particularly bad “Hulk” TV series came out in 1978 starring Bill Bixby, who seemed to have been spray-painted green, but was completely non-credible and untrue to the book, stripped of its warnings about mechanized and militarized society. And I had turned 18 anyway and was off on my own “anger management” journeys by then. 
All the problems those heroes confronted – greed, imposed sameness and persecutions against being “different,” environmental and military destruction, and evil figures who plotted world domination – began, year after year, to encroach upon the real world we lived in. But there were no gods from Asgard to come down and save us from these monsters, no superhero teams to fly out from an Avengers Mansion to protect New York or anywhere else. And yet when, upon the realization that nobody else would save us, I threw myself into the anti-nuclear movement in my teens and twenties, and found a new kind of hero called an organized people, the storylines from those comic books would come back to me and suggest tactics and strategies, as well as clues to finding the inner strength to overcome my own weaknesses and difficulties in that work.
The most compelling of those comics to me were the “teams,” particularly X-Men and the Avengers. Each featured a group of talented individuals with gigantic egos to match their powers, different cultural roots and norms, and serious personality conflicts between them, who would have to overcome those differences to be able to work in a team and confront an urgent crisis that none of them could solve alone. And as life marched on I found in all my ventures the exact same situation to overcome. After all, what is “community organizing” other than the art and science of getting people to put down their petty differences and pool their diverse talents to save the day from evil impositions?
Fast-forward three decades to the turn of the century. I found myself forty years old, self exiled to Mexico, disillusioned with a media career from which I had burned the bridge behind me. Speaking a language that was not my native tongue in daily life, far away from anybody I had known for more than a few years, and using dial-up Internet to post writings that no other publication would touch about the macabre world of the drug war, with a tiny online portal called Narco News, which had only about 3,000 readers a day. That summer, the motion picture X-Men hit the cinemas worldwide. Well, I thought, that’s interesting, and took a bus from the indigenous town I lived in to a nearby city to see the premier. A box office success, grossing almost $300 million dollars, X-Men gave birth to 13 more years of big budget movies from the Marvel Universe, including two sequels. Ushered back, in that cinema, to the imaginary high school of my dreams – Xavier’s School for Gifted Children – it struck me how very alone I felt, and I longed for the days when I used to organize others to right great wrongs. I missed the camaraderie of organizing. A writer has to be a bit alienated to see the world from outside of it, but I had taken the lone writer thing too far.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the cinema where X-Men premiered filled with young Mexicans, who laughed at those moments in the film when inside jokes known only to those immersed in the Marvel Universe were told, things like references to a yellow spandex uniform that the Wolverine character had worn in the early X-Men books. Really? I thought. These kids are as much into this myth as I was at a younger age? It infused me with a certain hope, that maybe my own values system, which had led to my self-expulsion from United States culture, in fact would someday “go viral” and cease to be such a lonely domain.
Three weeks later, I found myself sued by the richest narco-banker in Mexico, and his bank, for reports I had posted on Narco News. This was a super-villain worthy of Marvel comics, except he really existed in life, and really was bent on world domination. I thought, damn, where is my team of super heroes to stave off this menace? When very powerful people go after you, you find out who your reliable friends are, and how few they are while most duck and hide at moments of moral crisis. What little funding support I had to keep writing on third world wages dried up very quickly. A lot of folks were quietly betting that I would lose that fight. It was evident that as marginalized and small as I already was, that someone very powerful was trying to destroy whatever little shred of life I had left.
Damn, I wished I had a team like Professor Xavier had in the comics! And then I looked around and thought, well, maybe I do. My codefendant, the Mexican journalist Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, once trained alongside Che Guevara in Cuba and elsewhere, and fought legendary battles he still has not written about. He knows something about heroism in the face of grave threats. My lawyer, from back in my no nukes organizing days, Tom Lesser, had become over the years one of the most successful defenders of the First Amendment in the United States. Thirteen years prior, we had collaborated with the late Abbie Hoffman, presidential daughter Amy Carter, and others, to put the CIA on trial, and won. Other outsider (mutant!) journalists, suffering as I was and alienated from the industry, began getting the word out that this monster was suing us. Readers of Narco News began donating for a defense fund. 
And as word spread across the Internet, I began receiving emails from young people I’d never met. They said things like, “I got my first job at a newspaper, but they won’t let me print the truth.” And, “I’m paying $20,000 a year for journalism school, but they’re teaching me total crap.” And they all said, “Can I come work as an intern in your office?” That was pretty funny, since there was no office.
I went back to New York – hometown to the Marvel Universe - to confront the libel charges against me. And I confess that many of the stunts I pulled to defend our press freedom from the super-villain narco-banker and his slimy lawyers came straight out of the Marvel canon. We not only won the case, but we did it with swagger, verve, and in a manner that increased Narco News’ global audience a hundred fold, and that suddenly moved me from the “no longer relevant” category back on stage in this over-mediated world.
Winning was great. But with it came a debt: what to do for all these, by then hundreds, of young people who emailed me asking if they could come work for this project? And with Xavier’s School very much on my mind, the School of Authentic Journalism was born.
So, you see, I’m basically still seven or ten years old, dreaming of attending a school like that, where somebody with experience can help me control and best utilize whatever mutant talents I might have. Except by the time something like it became possible I was the guy with experience, and victories under my belt. I never got to attend Xavier’s School. But I got to start one, and over the past decade we’ve built an international team of talented individuals whose first weakness was that we had to learn to work together to defeat evils greater than any one of us could do alone.
For ten years now, we’ve taken in hundreds of young talents, many we’ve been able to help, some we could not, some even fell into the side of evil: Just like the X-Men school! Yes, I’m still ten. Get used to it.
Which brings me to the new movie, Thor: The Dark World. It is the twenty-ninth major motion picture based on the Marvel Universe since X-Men came out in 2000. Hardly a night goes by on cable television when you can’t find one or more of these movies playing anew. Their success at the box office with younger generations guarantees there will be many, many more. And suddenly that obscure little comic book universe has infiltrated popular culture in every land.
Thor: The Dark World is part of a specific series that began with the first Iron Man movie, followed by The Incredible Hulk (both in 2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (both in 2011), which each served as prequels to Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), the highest grossing film of that year, the third most watched film in human history, and the most viewed movie ever produced by Disney. My little childhood nerd universe now infiltrates the minds of the next generations, and these films have been so very true to the values taught by the original 1960s comic books they were based upon. If I could boil down their combined message into a single axiom it might be: You have super talents? So what? Learn to work as a team!
The Avengers prequel I most identified with was the first Thor movie. Its money moment was nothing less than a treatise on the efficacy and spirit of nonviolent civil resistance. Thor, the arrogant warrior-prince and heir to the throne of Asgard, had been stripped of his powers and of his mighty hammer, Mjolnir (“forged in the center of a dying star”), plunged down to earth by his father, Odin, and pursued even there by his whacked-out brother Loki, who sought to destroy the human race along with Thor. In the town of Puente Antigua (“Ancient Bridge”), New Mexico, the giant robot sent by Loki to destroy Thor and everyone else was leveling the town to ashes. Not even Thor’s comrades, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, could stop it. Thor – powerless, and stuck like the Dr. Donald Blake of comics lore, in a mortal human coil – instructs his friends to return to Asgard and stop Loki, saying, “I have a plan.” As his new human friends and his Asgard colleagues look on, shocked and scared, the unarmed Thor walks toward the robot monster, and speaks directly to his insane brother through it. “Brother,” he says, apologizing for having offended him, “take my life, not theirs.”
When Odin had cast Thor from Asgard, he also threw his powerful hammer down to earth, which – very much like Arthur’s Excalibur sword – nobody there could lift from the ground. Odin spoke into the hammer saying that, “he who shall be worthy of this hammer shall have the power of Thor.” But as this drama unfolded, Odin was stuck in his “Odin Sleep,” a kind of semi-aware comatose state necessary to old Asgardians who live an average of 5,000 years, and thus are seen as “gods” by earthlings. While in the Odin Sleep, Thor’s father (played by Anthony Hopkins) still sees and hears all that happens in the “nine realms,” one of which is earth, or “Midgard.” The robot monster swats Thor like a mosquito and leaves him to die in New Mexico, with his human love interest, Jane Foster (represented on this earth by Natalie Portman) crying over him as he breathes his last breath. What Thor has just done – saving earth from the robot monster by giving his own life – suddenly echoes the words of Odin (“he who shall be worthy shall have the power”), the hammer flies from the ground and into Thor’s hand. He earns back his worthiness through selfless sacrifice. His flashy Asgard cape and uniform return to him. Natalie Portman cries out “Oh. My. God!” Thor destroys the robot, saves the planet earth, and returns to Asgard and his birthright. And there you have it: Civil Resistance 101, in a single movie scene.
Thor returned to earth for The Avengers movie to defeat – this time in a team with Cap, The Hulk, Iron Man, The Black Widow, the archer Hawkeye, and under the leadership of Nick Fury and his Agents of SHIELD – Loki once more, and save New York City from alien invasion.
So how do you top that in yet another sequel in the series?
Here in the realm called Mexico, we got to see it a week earlier than denizens of the United States. At the midnight premier the cinema was filled, young people were in fact almost fighting over the scarcity of seats.
Having now established, in the first Thor movie and in the Avengers, the basic origins of this super Norse god and his miscreant brother Loki, Thor: The Dark World brings the viewer right back to the earliest comic book versions of the 1960s when the comic book, “Tales of Asgard,” preceded and gave birth to the Thor books. The origin story out of the way, now we get to hear from the top actors of the Motion Picture Academy, as the roles of Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Rene Russo as Frigga (adoptive mother of Thor and Loki, and a powerful sorceress), and Idris Elba as the all-seeing Heimdall are deepened exponentially. Natalie Portman – like Hopkins, already bestowed with the Academy’s highest honor – also steps onto center stage, as Odin’s sneering contempt for Thor’s descent into intergalactic miscegenation provides a Romeo-and-Juliet forbidden love story for the saga. And the very funny Kate Dennings (of the TV series, Two Broke Girls) returns in the role of Darcy Lewis as the audience’s representative and interpreter of these strange gods and realms. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Middleton reprise the sibling rivalry of Thor and Loki. That’s a lot of resources expended as many of the top actors on earth are now part of the international teach-in on the Marvel Universe that these films are bringing forth.
We live in a time when the world’s dominant religions and their myths have lost credibility and terrain. It’s no wonder that religious fundamentalists loathe science so much: new discoveries keep decimating their claims. If past is prologue, this is an hour of history when new myths will begin to overtake the dominant ones. As I watched and enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, these movies and the comics they are based upon may be grist for an emerging, more relevant, mythology for humanity’s current and future struggles.
In 1990, Harold Bloom, deploying the ancient Hebrew translation services of David Rosenbaum, published The Book of J, a new translation and interpretation of the oldest known text upon which the Judeo-Christian Bible’s Old Testament and its first chapter, Genesis, were based upon. Bloom concluded that the original text was not intended at all to be part of any religious canon. He posited that it was written as a savagely funny parody of how rulers used myth to establish order through religions and bureaucracies. The comedic work – penned soon after the fall of King David and with it the golden times of an empire gone awry – would later be appropriated by rulers and sold as a religious text, and became the new, dominant mythology for centuries to come. Judaism, Christianity and Islam would eventually be built upon it. The J book was the first draft of the simple story of Adam, Eve, a serpent, and a “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” in which the original sin of the first man and woman was to disobey authority and eat a consciousness-altering plant that permitted them to “be as gods,” infuriating a jealous monotheist god.
Bloom also concluded based on an analysis of the writing style that the author of this parody of religions that got turned into the mythological basis for the three major religions of today was most likely… a woman.
History teaches us that old orders and creeds fall to new ones at those moments when technology outpaces humanity’s ability to believe what it previously thought gospel. People have always turned to myths – their gods, monsters, and super-powered beings - to explain the inexplicable. 
The current cycle can be traced to 1882, when Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms.”
In 1966, as some guys were having fun at Marvel headquarters creating comic books about gods and super beings, TIME magazine put the Nietzsche quotation on its cover. The rest has been society catching up with the concept.
If we humans were truly capable of the great evolutionary leaps described, say, in X-Men comics, we might blessedly jump into an advanced state in which we no longer need gods or myths to explain our circumstances to us. But my money is more on the idea that history keeps repeating itself, and that humanity – ill-served by its present set of religions and myths – is groping around for a new mythology to hang its believer hat upon. I would prefer the former, bet on the latter, but thankfully I’ll be pushing up daisies and so will all of you before this matter is settled decisively.
Perhaps the need for myths and grand stories is what defines us as human, and later our attempt to bureaucratize and institutionalize them into creeds is what gets us into trouble as a species.
Technology has always played a role in the belief systems of our species, and motion pictures and cable television are surely dong their part, for better and for worse, in forming the next ones.
But if a sarcastic text penned by a woman upset over the fall of the Davidian renaissance thousands of years ago can become the basis for what today are the three major monotheist belief systems on earth, who is to say that children’s comic books cooked up by some fun-loving New Yorkers in the twentieth century, later boosted on the silver screen and television reruns for the entire world to see and contemplate, won’t be the source material for the emerging and new dominant myths?
I am inherently distrustful of bureaucracies and institutions, and iconoclasm is the highest calling I know, so I won’t be promoting what I’m about to suggest: that the Marvel comic universe and its vast global popularity among the newest generations is very well positioned in the competition of ideas and between myths to become the seed from which new widely-held belief systems sprout.
And yet, at the same time, I find that idea comforting. If we are going to have myths and “gods” and all that fuss, there might as well be some new and improved values attached to them. 
Thor: The Dark World is not only a great rock ‘em, sock ‘em, action flick and Shakespearian drama all at once. It is also true to the values promoted by the original books: Values read by children who today belong to the fifty-something generation that has begun to run the world. The values of the two Thor movies and the entire series of Avenger-related cinema include: Be yourself, disobedience from those who don’t want you to be yourself is the highest calling, plotting of world domination is for fools who always lose, and, most importantly, you may have talents or special powers, but if you don’t learn to deploy them as part of a team, all else will be lost. 
The climax of the movie – during which portals between earth, Asgard, and seven other realms briefly open as a super-villain from an extinct realm tries to use the moment to impose permanent darkness upon all of them – involves that very kind of teamwork between Thor and his human friends. All hell breaks loose as our protagonists keep falling through those portals and the fight extends to the entire universe. Paradoxically, at this moment of extreme danger come some of the funniest laugh-out-loud moments of the picture. The scenes remind much of some episodes of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, produced by Joss Whedon, who had directed the Avengers film but not this new Thor movie. Whedon was another kid who grew up on Marvel comics, and he’s often acknowledged their influence on his Buffy series. Directing the Avengers was a childhood dream come true for him. In Thor: The Dark World, even though Whedon isn’t behind the camera lens, it’s as if the teacher – Marvel – has also learned new tricks from its apprentice, Whedon. The result is some of the fastest, most adrenaline producing, fifteen minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen. During that climax, it’s not just Thor who is heroic, but the motley crew of ordinary humans around him, all teaming up to literally save the universe, and in a big, chaotic hurry. This “god” truly helps those who help themselves.
Remember, also, if you see this magnificent movie, something that is true for all the Marvel motion pictures: You must sit through the credits to the very end. Without offering spoilers, suffice to say that there is not just one, but two, scenes that prequel future episodes from the Marvel Universe on the silver screen. One includes the stunning appearance of Benicio Del Toro in a role he’ll play in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The other involves Thor, Jane Foster, and some clean-up yet to be done from the opening of the portals between realms, suggesting strongly that the Thor movie franchise is here to stay.
Among the lessons of Thor: The Dark World are that Gods don’t exist. And neither does justice. They must be organized. So be it.

Nelia's Story - and Yours - in an Oral History of the No Nukes Movement

By Al Giordano

Nelia Sargent and Al Giordano, June 2013, Claremont, New Hampshire. Photo D.R. 2013 by Laura García Rodríguez Blancas.
In 1976, Nelia Sargent was 20 years old, recently blind, and wanted to participate in the first nonviolent occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power plant construction site in her native state of New Hampshire. An organizer told her that a blind woman would be a burden on the other occupiers and therefore could not participate.
Three years later, as the 400 ton nuclear reactor pressure vessel rolled slowly on 96 wheels toward the construction site, and hundreds of opponents sat in its way, Nelia walked directly in front of the truck. Seacoast community organizer Renny Cushing came up to her, and hooked her white cane to the vehicle's grill. It took numerous police officers 20 minutes to peel Nelia's ten fingers off her cane, and at that moment she was the most important person in the entire movement, the one who physically stopped construction.
Nelia's coming-of-age story is just one of many about real people who came together to change American history in the movement that brought a then-thriving nuclear industry to a grinding halt. She told that story last month in a half-day interview at her farm in Claremont, New Hampshire. Ninety-two more people have so far, like Nelia, generously given us their time and allowed us to record their stories.
There are hundreds of books about the Civil Rights and other movements, but very few historic works on the American anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. The No Nukes Oral History Project is now resurrecting that story.
When the movement began, then-president Richard Nixon had promised 1,000 new nuclear plants in the United States by the year 2000. By the early 1980s, all new nuclear power plants were cancelled, and some existing ones have since been decommissioned. The anti-nuclear power movement also had a profound effect on revitalizing a nuclear disarmament movement, and the US-Soviet nuclear arms race also ended in the 1980s. This project draws an arc from the first small resistances to the Montague nuke in Massachusetts through the mass civil resistance against the Seabrook nuke in New Hampshire, the Clamshell Alliance, all the many organizations and campaigns that came out of it in New England and nationwide, to the massive 1982 march in New York City for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze.
This oral history covers the years 1973 to 1982. Memories from before or after those years are welcome but will only be used if they are relevant to explaining what happened in those nine years.
If you (or someone you know, make sure to send them a link to this page) were part of, or witness to, any of those events, we'd like to hear your story, too. Here's how you can be part of it. We provide 45 questions below, some of which may be relevant to your story. You may interview yourself, or have someone else ask you the questions, and send us the digital audio file or transcript. Or you may write your answers and send them to me at
Please keep in mind that we are not looking for arguments against (or for) nuclear power. Those are already widely published and for this project will be left on the cutting room floor. What we seek are stories of what you saw, heard and lived with your own eyes, ears and actions during the first years of the No Nukes movement. Speak please from your lived experience. Also, when answering (or asking) the interview questions, try to stick to the chronological timeline order below. Important dates are already remembered for you in the questions! Don't worry if your memories are partial or fuzzy: the collective memory of all your colleages also giving their testimony will fill in the details and we'll correct the dates of the timeline.
These questions of course do not encompass all the events that happened. Feel free to add important stories that might not be directly asked by the questions. Also feel free to skip over questions about events that you were not aware of at the time. Stick with what you directly lived or thought about as it was happening.
Between December 2012 and July 2013, we have conducted 93 extensive interviews, and also have received 38 interviews recorded from 2005 to 2009 (including with the late Seacoast New Hampshire organizers Guy Chichester and Diane Garrand) by veterans of the Clamshell Alliance, but every interview mentions somebody else that we have yet to interview. To facilitate the most inclusive project and cast the widest net, we invite all who were involved in or witness to the No Nukes movement from 1973 to 1982 to record (or write) your own stories of what you saw, heard and did in it. We also invite you to ask these questions to others who were involved. Please follow the precise instructions at the bottom of these questions to ensure that we can use your stories in this work of oral history.
Thank you. We hope you enjoy this walk down memory lane as much as we have been enjoying it!
45 Questions for The No Nukes Oral History Project
1. Please tell us your name, what year you were born, and where.
2. How and when did you first hear there was a conflict over nuclear power?
3. Do you have any memories of Sam Lovejoy toppling a tower in Montague in 1974 or the struggle in Western Mass. in the early to mid 1970s against a nuclear plant? (If you were involved at all in that struggle, we’re especially interested in organizing stories, about how things got done. The same goes for the next series of historic events in the following questions: not just the stuff that was covered by the media, but the behind the scenes grassroots work. Even for people not directly involved, their memories of hearing about things from a distance are valuable and provide important context.)
4.Do you have any memories of Seabrook ’76, from Ron Rieck climbing the construction site tower to the August 1 action with 18 arrests to the August 22 action with 180? Did you go door to door canvassing – and if you did, tell us some stories about it – for the Granite State Alliance?
5. Were you part of or witness to the Continental Walk for Nuclear Disarmament and Social Justice in the summer of 1976? If so, tell us your memories of that.
6. Were you involved or witness to any of the organizing and planning for the April 30, 1977 Seabrook occupation? If so, please tell us your stories from that.
7. Whether for actions at Seabrook or anywhere else, did you ever attend a nonviolence training session? What do you remember about it? Who conducted it? What did you do there? Did you become a trainer yourself? Tell us all about that experience in as much detail as you can.
8. Were you at the Seabrook ’77 action? Before you speak what happened in the armories where more than a thousand people spent two weeks incarcerated, let’s focus on that event: arriving at campgrounds the night before, the walk to the site… How did you feel when you and so many others entered the site? What did you see and hear at that moment? What did you do while camping overnight on the construction site?
9. If you were arrested the next day, tell us what happened. If you were a support person for the occupiers, please explain to our readers what that job entailed. If you went to jail, tell us all your armory stories. Who did you meet in the armory? What workshops did you attend and what did you learn? Do you remember the armory visits by attorneys Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein? If you were in the Manchester Armory, did you attend any workshops by Bill Moyer? What happened there?
10. After the Seabrook ’77 actions and the two weeks in the armories, how had the world changed? How did your life change? Do you remember any of the press coverage? How did people receive you back home?
11. The fight went national after Seabrook ’77. Were you involved or witness to the start up of any alliances in other regions against nuclear power? What happened there?
12. In the summer of ’77 national nuclear disarmament organizations founded the Mobilization for Survival in Philadelphia. Do you have any memories from that? If you were already part of a peace organization, do you remember any of the debates about merging the nukes and bombs issues? Who said what about that? If you were strictly part of the anti-nuclear power cause, what did you think about the attempt to merge the two issues at the time? Do you remember any of the tensions or conflicts between grassroots No Nukes people and those from national peace organizations? Again, tell us stories.
13. Were you at the November 1977 Clamshell Congress in Vermont? What do you remember about the debates over a next action at Seabrook? Do you remember any discussion about property destruction (fence cutting) or violence? If so, what did you think about that? Again, we want stories.
14. Were you at any of the following Spring 1978 actions in Barnwell, South Carolina, Rocky Flats Colorado or at the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in New York? How about any actions at nuclear facilities in other regions? Tell us your stories!
15. On May 11, 1978, NH Attorney General Tom Rath announced to the media that he would offer the Clamshell Alliance a “deal” to have a three-day legal occupation of the nuke site instead of the planned mass civil disobedience scheduled for June 24. What did you think of that? Were you at any meetings that discussed it? Who said what?
16. Where were you when you heard the deal had been accepted? What did you think about that? Were you on the Solar Rollers bicycle caravan to Seabrook? Were you in contact with Seacoast New Hampshire people – particularly those who were providing their land as occupier campgrounds – and what were they saying? If so, tell us stories about that or whatever else you were doing that week.
17. What memories do you have from the Seabrook ’78 legal occupation? Were you witness to the Clearwater Sloop and boat armada that came? What did you see on stage and what did you see off stage? Do you have any memories of Jonathan Richman there? Do you remember a group named “Clams for Democracy” and the long meetings they held there on the site? Were you part of witness to the attempt by some there to convince people to stay beyond the three days? What did you see and hear? Why did you think that in the end everybody left after three days?
18. In the Summer of ’78 “Clams for Democracy” held its first congress at Hampshire College. If you were there, please tell us your memories. Do you have any memories of Murray Bookchin there or elsewhere?
19. Were you part of or witness to “the Wave Actions” of summer and fall 1978 at Seabrook, including the occupation of the construction crane? Did you go to jail? Do you have any memories of Dr. Benjamin Spock at one of those actions? Tell us your memories from those events.
20. In 1978, NH governor Meldrim Thomson was defeated by challenger Hugh Gallen, largely because of Seabrook-related issues. Do you remember any of that? What about the "CWIP" ("Construction Work in Progress") rate hike and the organizing against it? Please tell us your stories.
21. Were you involved in or witness to the blockade of the reactor pressure vessel as it was transported to the Seabrook nuke site? Tell us your memories from that. Do you remember what Nelia Sargent did on that day? Tell us about it in your words.
22. Where were you on March 28, 1979 and how did you hear about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island? What did you do in response to that? Did you leaflet the cinemas that showed the movie, The China Syndrome? How did that change the movement? Did you attend the national rally in Washington with Ralph Nader? What memories do you have from that?
23. On April 7, 1979 – right after the Three Mile Island accident – there was a mass civil disobedience at the Trident nuclear submarine factory near New London, Connecticut. Do you have any memories from that?
24. On June 2nd and 3rd 1979, the International Days of Resistance Against Nuclear Power brought many actions at nuclear facilities throughout the nation, including a mass action at the Shoreham nuke construction site on Long Island, New York. Did you participate in any of those events? What happened?
25. Did you attend the Clamshell Alliance Congress in January 1979 at Hampshire College? Or the Clam Congress in June 1979 at the Marigold Ballroom in Amesbury, MA? Both events were greatly affected by debates over the nature of future Seabrook occupations and particularly the proposal by some to cut fences or otherwise destroy property. Who said what about that? And what did you think about it at the time? The June gathering was the last Clam Congress ever. Why do you think that happened? The big debate was over a proposal for the Clamshell to endorse an action that would involve fence cutting by the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook. Chuck Matthei and a small group blocked consensus for a while but eventually stood aside. What memories do you have from that meeting? (You get bonus points if you attended the January congress at Hampshire College and have any memories to share of the small polemic that ensued when Al Giordano entered wearing an American flag lapel pin.)
26. Do you have any memories of the MUSE concerts for No Nukes in New York or elsewhere? Did you work anti-nuclear tables at any Jackson Browne concerts? Tell us your stories!
27. The Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook held its first action on October 6, 1979, and another one on May 24, 1980. Did you attend either of them? Why or why not? What memories do you have either from being there or observing from afar? What lessons can be learned from those events?
28. Two weeks prior, on September 23, 1979, the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance held a mass civil disobedience in Vernon, Vermont. Do you have any memories of that? How about subsequent Vermont Yankee shutdown activities? In particular, the Spring 1980 seven-day occupation, the December 1981 occupation of the governor’s office in Montpelier, and the large door to door canvassing effort in the tri-state region collecting signatures for newspaper ads against the nuke. One polemic decision made by VYDA members in 1980 was that only people who had done door to door canvassing could participate in its decision-making meetings. Do you have any memories of those campaigns?
29. Three weeks after the direct action at Seabrook, on October 28 and 29, 1979, on the 50th anniversary of the crash of the NY Stock Exchange, were two actions to take it to Wall Street. They were preceded by a sit-in at the Bank of Boston boardroom, and actions at other financial institutions. What memories do you have from those events? Do you remember the legal rally in Manhattan on October 28? What was different about that rally from previous No Nukes rallies? Do you remember a speaker named Jim Haughton of an organization called Fight Back of Harlem and what he said? Do you remember any other speakers? The next day, more than 1,000 people did civil disobedience. Do you have any memories from that? Did the language of the No Nukes movement change as a result of those actions, particularly regarding the economic problems of nuclear power? Were you involved in efforts to divest the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Companies (MMWEC) or other power companies from Seabrook? Soon after that, the financial industry began divesting from nuclear power. What impact do you think the movement had or did not have on that?
30. In early 1980 there was a first-in-the-nation presidential primary in New Hampshire. Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown challenged president Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan won the GOP primary. There were efforts to use that national spotlight to organize against nuclear power. Do you have any memories from those events? (You get bonus points if you attended or demonstrated at a concert in Concord for Carter’s reelection campaign featuring musician Stephen Stills.) Also, speaking of elections, if you have any memories of Randy Kehler’s 1976 campaign for Franklin County Commissioner or Bill Benson’s 1978 campaign for state representative in the Greenfield, Massachusetts area, please share them.
31. Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, the Traprock Peace Center was formed at Woolman Hill and made a nonbinding referendum on a nuclear weapons moratorium (later called the Nuclear Freeze) its first project. Were you involved in or witness to any of that organizing? What did you see and hear? How did you feel on election night in November when the nuclear freeze won, giving birth to a nationwide movement, but so did Ronald Reagan?
32. Also in 1980, the Rowe Nuclear Conversion Campaign formed in western Franklin County to shut down the Yankee Atomic nuke. Do you have any memories from that? The RNCC decided to make a “home rule” policy that only residents of ten west county towns could participate in its decision-making. Did you have an opinion on that? In the fall of 1980 the RNCC held its first public event, a march in Greenfield, MA, at which marchers carried 300 American flags and photographs appeared in the news media. Did you have an opinion on that or do you remember any of the polemic surrounding it?
33. Also in 1980, Maine voters cast ballots on a referendum to shut down the Maine Yankee nuke. It began right after Three Mile Island at a mass meeting in North Edgecomb, Maine, and Ray Shadis emerged as its main spokesman. The referendum was defeated by a massive industry spending campaign, but had also involved a much wider spectrum of people than the anti-nuclear movement had ever had before. Were you involved in that campaign? What memories do you have from it?
34. Also in 1980, labor unions marched in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania against nuclear power on the anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident. If you attended that march, or any labor conventions or union events where nuclear power was addressed, please share those stories. Likewise, if you leafleted workers at Seabrook or other nuclear facilities, tell us those stories.
35. In the Spring of 1981, the Massachusetts government began a search for a low level nuclear waste dump site. An organization named MassAlert formed and organized at 106 Town Meetings to pass zoning and health bylaws against nuclear waste dumps. It also collected signatures for a statewide referendum demanding voter control over future nuclear plants and waste dumps. Along with other organizations, they collected 110,000 certified voter signatures. Were you part of any of that? What do you remember.
36. In June 1982, 1.4 million people (according to police estimates) marched in New York City for a nuclear freeze, and there were civil disobedience actions two days later at nuclear nation embassies. Please tell us your memories from that day. What kind of people did you see there? How had a movement become this big in so few years? What do you think that the Russian people felt when they saw images in state sponsored media of this massive march against the nuclear arms race championed by then President Reagan?
37. In November 1982, the Massachusetts Nuclear Referendum Campaign was victorious. The campaign included cylindrical lawn signs that looked like nuclear waste canisters, and a TV ad with a talking nuclear waste barrel. Were you involved or do you remember voting on that? Tell us about it.
38. In subsequent years, all new nuclear power plants that had been planned were cancelled, and the nuclear arms race ground to a halt when the Soviet bloc fell. Do you feel your actions in the anti-nuclear movement contributed to either or both of these? How so? Or how not?
39. How about the music and art of the movement? Do you remember any songs in particular? Can you sing us a verse or a chorus? Do you have specific memories of Bright Morning Star or its members? Of Dean Morgan? Of Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips at Seabrook? Do you have any audio or video recordings you can share for us to publish?
40. Likewise, do you have photographs, images, posters, news clippings, minutes of local anti-nuclear organization meetings, or other archives we can share with the public?
41. There were many colorful personalities in the No Nukes movement. Which ones do you remember most? Tell us some stories about them.
42. The 1970s included a lot of extreme postures, both in the political and the personal. There were many internal conflicts in the movement and in people’s lives. Relations between men and women changed dramatically during that era. The sexual revolution was still in full bloom. Please tell us any stories of extreme moments – good or bad – that you experienced, and the lessons you learned from them.
43. Although this work focuses on the years 1973-1982 there were subsequent events that will be included in an epilogue. We’re particularly interested in any stories you have of the following: The Maine nuclear referenda of  1982, 1985 and 1987 and the eventual shutdown of Maine Yankee. The Massachusetts referenda of 1986 and 1988 and the eventual shutdown of Yankee Rowe. The resistance in Hillsborough NH and Sebago Lake Maine to the Department of Energy choice of those areas as finalists for a high level nuclear waste dump. The continued nuclear freeze campaigns. The Whistleblowers Campaign at Seabrook.
44.In addition to this work of oral history, Al Giordano is writing his personal memoir of the same years. That memoir will include events within the No Nukes movement, but also his early work with Abbie Hoffman, with John Kerry, his experience when some of his friends went underground in an armed revolutionary cell group (which guided his own tactical commitment to nonviolence), as well as his high school years, his work as a musician, and the experience he and other teens had at the New York punk rock club CBGB. Do you have any “Al stories” to help refresh his memory?
45. Finally, were you changed by your involvement in this movement? How so? What did you learn from the experience? What were the most effective tactics and strategies? Tell us as much as you can about how you or others implemented those tactics, explaining it for people not experienced in such activities (i.e. if you knocked on doors, what did that involve?) Which tactics were counterproductive? Was your involvement worth it? Why or why not? Also, please briefly tell us what you went on to do after your involvement in these stories.
NOTE: You may answer these questions via audio recording or in writing, but if you choose to write, please do so in storytelling manner, as if you are speaking to a friend. Academic treatises will not be part of this work. You must sign the projects release form to have your stories included in the oral history. If you do not have a copy of the release form, write to Al Giordano at and he will send you one. You may also interview yourself or others. If you do that, please audio record the interview in digital format and send it to the same email address via a Dropbox account, along with your stated agreement (and that of the interviewee) to the release form. And send us a current photo of yourself, as well as any you have from your involvement in No Nukes activities in the years 1973-1982.
Thank you so much for helping to tell this story, the story of how many people came together at a key moment in history to change the world. It is a story that will now be told.

I Dreamed I Saw Jeff Buckley Last Night

By Al Giordano

NEW YORK CITY, MAY 4, 2013: My expectations were rock bottom when I walked into the Village East Cinema (original headquarters of the Yiddish Art Theater back in 1926) last night, in the shadow of Stuyvesant Town, grasping my ticket and holding my nose to watch “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” which has received sparse attention and ho-hum yawns from those few critics who bothered. I expected to hate it because I have detested almost every motion picture I’ve ever seen about people who I knew in real life. My loathing was on speed dial, entering the old cut-stone theater building at Second Avenue and Eleventh Street, as was my usual unease about ghosts: My friend Jeff Buckley, whose relationship with a father he barely met was purportedly the “theme” of the film, lived around the corner from that very same theater during his end times in New York, before leaving for Memphis in early 1997, where he would die at the age of 30.

I wanted to go to the film on its first night in theaters. Then I didn’t want to go. I decided to see it. Then I decided not to. I went back and forth indecisively until my colleague, a film school refugee who sometimes goes by the moniker of Miss Grumpy Cat Herder, said she would accompany me. Since one of her mutant powers is the rare abiity to keep me from causing scandalous scenes of the sort that Jeff and I sometimes threw in public spaces, I figured that even if the movie made me want to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, Miss Cat Herder would get my straightjacket fastened in time to whisk me away from police detention and a corresponding night on Riker’s Island.

The East Village on a Friday night is not the ideal set and setting for calming one’s nerves before exposing one’s self to the late-chums’-life-as-commodity circus: Loud bridge and tunnel boys who crowded every bar with a TV blaring during a Knicks-Celtics game made it necessary to circle a few blocks before remembering that the Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place has no television set and still maintains a modicum of old New York not-nice civility. A gulped pale ale and a maple Manhattan cocktail later, we were ready to brave the theater. (“Don’t yell ‘fire,’ don’t yell ‘fire,’” was the mantra I kept whispering to myself as we crossed the threshold and handed in our tickets.)

The first relief came upon entering salon three of the Cineplex: there were fewer than two-dozen people attending the 9:50 p.m. screening of this movie on the night of its in-theaters premier. Even if I had shouted “fire,” nobody would have been trampled. However terrible this flick may turn out to be, I thought, at least it is not so successfully hyped that it will corrupt an entire generation’s memory of a late comrade in arms. The second relief was that there was nobody I knew in the theater: no eyewitnesses to tell the world I had been there, or that I’d left, disgusted, in the middle of it, which figured would be the most likely trajectory of the evening. But a funny thing happened on the way to the EXIT sign.

“Greetings from Tim Buckley” segues between scenes of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley circa 1965 being the kind of hapless hippie asshole that most members of his faux-peace-and-love generation embodied and then, a quarter century later, his adult son Jeff’s arrival to New York City where he’d been invited to perform at a tribute concert to the father he never knew. At the age of 18, Tim had knocked up his 17-year-old girlfriend, married her, and then skipped out on the road leaving yet another single mom behind with a little darling to play “you and me against the world” together, which is pretty much the entire story of the so-called “sixties,” beginning, middle and end, despite the era’s charming soundtrack and media-fed iconography. If director Daniel Algrant’s intent was to make the senior Buckley an unsympathetic figure, he succeeded very early in the narrative. It could have been easily titled “Bullshit from Tim Buckley.”

For actor Penn Badgley – known to the world so far only as Gossip Girl’s young-writer-from-across-the-tracks Dan Humphrey – taking on the role of Jeff, with a voice of five octaves and who left only limited archival footage behind for any actor to study of how the songwriter really lived, seemed a mission fraught with peril from the get-go. No actor (or vocalist) alive can sing as well as Jeff sang: that was a given going into the project. But through the composite and fictional muse in the form of an intern for the 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, named “Allie” and performed so spritely by the charismatic Imogen Poots, Badgley succeeded in capturing the essence of Jeff, the human, on screen.

My main complaint about movies and TV these days is that so few screenwriters and actors succeed in making me actually care about a character. Badgley, in the only two roles I’ve ever watched him play, is so far batting 1.000. And this time he got to take on the role of an authentic, not fictional, “lonely boy” of New York.

“Do you think Jeff would have liked his portrayal?” Miss Cat Herder asked me after the screening.

“Yes, he would have,” I replied. “But he wouldn’t have admitted that to anyone, and would have changed the subject had anyone asked.”

Jeff Buckley was one of the first and best mutants who wandered into what would eventually become this modern-day X-Men academy that fights the revolution against the media. In truth, he was a co-founder of the academy. But that is a story for another day. Jeff was one of the least linear people I’ve ever met. Planning was not his strong suit. Jeff would float through his days and nights aimlessly, clinging to the notes and chords and words in his head and finding refuge in his guitar, until he would stumble regularly upon a shiny bauble in the form of a beautiful and disturbed waif-of-a-muse or a genius idea that would capture his attention, and his mutant talent would then surface to traverse a straight line between the present and the future as he would saddle up to the shiny object or person, look it in the eye, and orbit around it while also changing the other person’s or thing’s spatial course. The daily life adventures that this power created then became the materia prima for his songwriting. Rehearsals weren’t really Jeff’s thing. Stages and microphones were the shiniest of those baubles and they pulled him onto them gravitationally. And from that fulcrum position, he became, at moments, a sun god that shot off solar flares and storms and gathered up armies around him. Unfortunately, those troops mostly consisted of flatfooted users, middlemen, groupies and glommers, too many of them from his father’s generation, who sucked his blood dry and, with it, I still believe, his will to live.

After Jeff’s death, when I was telling people that he had been “suicide by SONY,” the callous company to which he had been indentured, Penny Arcade put me on the phone with the great defender of musical talents, Danny Fields, and we agreed to disagree on that point. To Danny, early demise was like a lottery ticket that simply descended on random personas. To me, however, Jeff's death was, and remains, personal, and an injustice yet to be righted.

There are two scenes upon which “Greetings from Tim Buckley” pivots. One takes place in a record store where the money graph pops out of Jeff’s craw. He expresses his total contempt for “sixties music” and Penn Badgley, now his representative on earth, pulls off an acapella vocal-and-dance performance that rivals Jon Cryer’s music store serenade of “Try a Little Tenderness” to muse Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.” It is in fact more impressive than that 1980s classic scene because Badgley sings the audio part and pulls it off.

The second scene – and the point in which I turned to my companion and confessed, “oh, I LIKE this movie” – takes place on a train from Grand Central Station to Jeff’s ancestral burg of Amsterdam, New York, north of Albany (I believe in real life those trains leave from Penn Station, but we’ll allow a little artistic license since Grand Central is more cinematically compelling). There, the prodigal son of the absentee father delivers the best, most stinging, indictment of “sixties” nostalgia I’ve seen on the silver screen. He wonders aloud if his late father had one day found the diary of “a hippie on an acid trip,” stole it, and turned the prose into songs until he got to the last page, ran out of material, and then it was “time for him to die.” How long have I waited for that sentiment to be expressed aloud in the media datasphere? The contempt which Jeff’s character expresses for his father (and with him, the man’s entire generation) thus meets the very definition of a “negative pleasure,” for which there is a word in the dictionary: Sublime.

That basically is the entire narrative of “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” a movie without a plot, or with so minimal a plot that the dialogue serves to make a single crystal clear point while essentially serving as a pretext for the music of the film, which itself is very compelling. The musical scenes –so many minutes based on the 1991 tribute concert, and its haphazard rehearsals, from which Jeff Buckley emerged as a victim and product of what Joni Mitchell once labeled the star-maker machinery of the popular song – are where the movie comes together and begins to make sense out of the chaos of his, a non-linear life. In that sense, “Greetings from Tim Buckley” is true to how Jeff really lived his 30-year sentence on earth, one that only made sense to him when the music was actually happening.

A third super performance deserves recognition in this film, beyond those of Badgley as Buckley and Poots as his (and our) composite muse, and that is Frank Wood’s portrayal of guitarist Gary Lucas and the musical conversation between Jeff and he. I don’t know if it is historically accurate or not – the movie ends five years before I met Jeff, and I always made a point of never asking him the kinds of questions that everybody else always peppered him with about his backstory – but a scene in Lucas’ apartment, cluttered with stringed instruments, and a brief guitar jam between the two composers, captures a universal moment of what happens when two musicians recognize each other and begin to collaborate together. And that scene finally makes all the musical components of the film unite into a seamless overture for the music that would come out of Buckley in his final years.

Not knowing much about the presumably ugly sausage making of movie production, I asked my film school graduate companion whether it was possible for a motion picture to succeed without a plot. “Yes,” Miss Cat Herder replied. “It is a portrait, and therefore it doesn’t need a plot.”

As a portrait, “Greetings from Tim Buckley” succeeds in sharing a little piece of our fallen friend with those who might be curious as to the man behind the media myth. In the final scenes, at the tribute concert, young Jeff steals the show and that led to a New York Times write up that launched his too-brief musical career. The elder friends, colleagues and fans of his late father glom onto him and applaud, they hug him on stage as if to squeeze out one last drop from his late father, but when it is time to get in a taxi and “go dancing” they leave 24-year-old Jeff behind, by himself, to walk the Williamsburg Bridge back into lower Manhattan, late at night, alone again, searching for the next shiny bauble, as was his habit in life.

We exited the theater much in the same spirit, walked past Jeff’s last address in New York, and the muse struck me. I was suddenly able to put into spoken words some memories so beautiful and painful that I’ve not yet, even sixteen years later, been able to write them down; of Jeff’s final night in New York and of what might have happened next had he not drowned in a tributary to the Mississippi in May 1997. His was a death with consequences. I’m still not ready to write it down. But the movie inched me perhaps a few steps closer toward doing so. And isn’t that the stigmata of any work of art’s success?

Art only succeeds when it inspires action from other humans to dig a little bit deeper, to walk alone over the proverbial bridge, and take the journey of life and creation away from the linear and planned path and toward the next shiny bauble. No, I did not hate this movie at all. I am even grateful for it. Perhaps nobody else will see it as I do, as a big, overdue, “fuck you” to the 1960s people and the horse they rode in on, and therefore anthem for those of us who came later and had to clean up after them. I’m not assigning motive here: It’s quite possible that its creators did not intend it to be that. But Jeff would have wanted a film about his life to say so, and Penn Badgley, who did not lip sync, channeled that point memorably onto the screen. And for 99 minutes, it allowed me to pretend that a special conversation cut short sixteen years ago this month was somehow still ongoing. That’s what an authentic movie should do: expand the terrain of the imagination, and smuggle the seeds of “secret history” into the future, to be planted, cultivated, and harvested, because tomorrow is another day.


User login


RSS Feed