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A Scheme to Mix Politics and the Arts

by Bill McGaughey

 

The Vision

American politics is broken and part of the reason is that people’s most significant political relationship is with the radio receiver or the television set. We receive political information through those portals. It used to be that people gathered in groups to do politics. Political parties used to be actual communities which met and heard speeches. Now the parties have annual conventions whose proceedings are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. The experience is totally boring. Earnest citizens pass resolutions which amount to next to nothing. The real work is picking candidates and raising funds to pay for the television commercials which the candidates need to win elections.

I have been thinking how to revive the political process so that people are brought back into the equation and money counts for less. To do that, you need to make the meetings interesting so that people want to attend. Music and the arts can be part of the answer. Let persons versed in those skills help design the programs. Instead of engaging in parliamentary exercises as “Robert” prescribed, why not sing songs and listen to music? Let people enjoy themselves a bit. But we would need good political songs - songs like “We shall overcome”, “Blowin’ in the wind”, or “The times, they are a-changin’” during the Civil Rights era. A political party that learns to sing together can perhaps develop a momentum that will carry it to victory at the polls.

New Dignity Party was conceived in that spirit. Because of its origins (when, as a candidate of the Independence Party, I tried to irritate the Democrats by saying I stood for “dignity for white males”), some people think it is a party to represent white people as the Democrats have represented minorities. Really this party is about identity more broadly speaking - about all people having a positive identity or, at least, the right to define themselves. So instead of discussing economics or morality, we’d be talking about personal identity. We’d be searching for models of identity and playing with different persona. The arts could aid in that process.

I was listening to a program on Channel 2 (public televison) about a month ago when I found what I had been looking for. It was a performance of Leonard Cohen before an audience in London. I had heard this song before, but it was a perfect song for my purposes: “Democracy” or, as I call it, “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” Yes, we want democracy to come to the U.S.A. to replace the plutocratic politics that we have. Cohen expressed our aspirations perfectly. And his persona was remarkable - this 75-year-old singer with the brimmed hat and gravely voice whose songs were a mixture of poetry and compelling rhythms. “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” could be our political anthem to match what they had in the Civil Rights era courtesy of Bob Dylan and others.

Cohen had given us the song; but how do we turn it into a political anthem? The best way, I thought, would be to promote the idea of Leonard Cohen impersonators singing that song. If New Dignity Party ever developed a membership base, we would reserve a place for “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” at our meetings. But we’d need people to sing those songs so we’d need to cultivate persons in a particular role, which I call “Leonard Cohen impersonator” who would show up at the meetings to handle that function. Elvis Presley has a cadre of “Elvis impersonators” - Why not Leonard Cohen? His songs, especially “Democracy”, have a political edge. This type of singer-impersonator might wed music to politics.

Now, to encourage aspiring singers to impersonate Leonard Cohen, New Dignity Party would hold an annual contest. The contestants would each sing “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”. The audience would vote to select the best performer; this would be our Leonard Cohen impersonator for the coming year. We would issue a certificate to that effect. The winner of the annual contest would hold the title of New Dignity Party’s “official Leonard Cohen impersonator”, entitled to perform at our functions if he wished.

Of course, there would be no obligation to perform - I doubt if we could afford to pay much, if anything - and the winner of the contest would have no obligation to support New Dignity Party. But it would be a feather in someone’s cap to win that contest. By focusing narrowly upon Leonard Cohen’s song, we could build up a musical role that over time would mean something. If New Dignity Party became large and strong, being its official troubadour would become a meaningful identity that would help a person establish himself in a musical career. Personally, it could lead to other things.

Now, taking this project a step further, we would need contestants if we, as a small political party, held a contest to find the best Leonard Cohen impersonator. It would be nice if New Dignity Party could field a decently sized audience. But the big problem would be to find contestants. Perhaps we could advertise in music publications or try to interest high-school music students in competing for the impersonator title. Either the process of finding contestants for that first contest would be expensive or we would have to be lucky to connect with the right people in the music or arts community. I, unfortunately, do not have those connections. Therefore, the project sat for a time.

 

The Reality

I am the candidate for mayor of Minneapolis running under the auspices of New Dignity Party - in fact, the only candidate who will appear with that party’s designation on the ballot this year. In that capacity, I received an invitation from a woman named Elena Erofeeva at radio station KFAI to come into the studio on Riverside Avenue for a fifteen-minute interview. The station wanted to run two-minute profiles on each of the mayoral candidates based on the taped interviews.

I had my interview starting at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, September 18th. As I was leaving the studio, I happened to glance at literature on a shelf near the door. Among the items was a black-and-white printed card announcing a “Leonard Cohen Tribute” featuring “Mean Larry and friends.” KFAI would be hosting a show on Sunday evening and then, starting at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, September 21, there would be a live performance of Leonard Cohen music at 7th Street entry on downtown Minneapolis. This I knew to be part of the First Avenue entertainment venue made famous in Prince’s 1984 film, “Purple Rain”. Formerly, the building had been the Greyhound terminal in Minneapolis. It was where I first set foot in the city when I arrived on the bus in 1965. Tickets were only $7.00 apiece.

The wheels started spinning in my mind. As an aspiring politician, I wanted to hook up with the arts community. In particular, I wanted to find people interested in singing “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” Where to find such people? At a concert of Leonard Cohen music, of course. Fate had delivered this opportunity in my hands. To communicate my idea to Cohen fans, I would print a number of fliers to be handed out to people as they entered 7th Entry to attend the September 21st concert. This would be an efficient way to begin to find people who might be interested in competing for the title of New Dignity Party’s “official Leonard Cohen impersonator.”

So I typed up a short message for the leaflet. This is what it said:

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

Looking for a Leonard Cohen Impersonator

Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” is a political anthem expressing the aspiration of many Americans. New Dignity Party is a Minnesota-based political party which wants to take up that challenge. It is running three candidates in the 2009 Minneapolis elections. We believe that a strong personal identity is a key to political strength, and we want to help all types of people find a true identity in their own terms.

As part of our program - should we gain stature and structure in the current election - we would like to hold an audition for an “official” Leonard Cohen impersonator (hopefully, with the hat) who would sing “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” and other Cohen songs at events that we might arrange in the coming year. There is no obligation, of course, that the winner of the audition do any performances or support the New Dignity Party; we just want to confer recognition on someone who wants to step musically and artistically into the Cohen identity, knowing that an audience awaits him.

If you’re interested in auditioning or know someone who might be, please send an email to 2wmcg @earthlink.net, asking to be put on the list for the audition. We will contact you when this event is set up. In the meanwhile, enjoy tonight’s performances.

New Dignity Party, P.O. Box 3944, Minneapolis, MN 55403

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

I photocopied fifty sheets with two such messages on a sheet and cut them in half, making one hundred fliers. Hopefully, that would be enough for all the people lined up outside 7th Street Entry for the Tribute to Leonard Cohen performance. Since the performance itself started at 6:00 p.m., I would have to be at the venue a half hour early to catch the people going in to buy tickets. I would have to leave my house by 5:00, drive to a parking spot close to 7th Street Entry, and then walk to that site.

Just a few minutes late, because a friend unexpectedly stopped by my house, I made my way to First Avenue, near the Target Center (where President Obama had spoken a week earlier). About a dozen young people were lined up at the door. I was wearing a dress shirt, jacket, and trousers, as I thought befit a candidate for mayor and, perhaps, a Leonard Cohen fan (being a bit older than the average rock-concert attendee). They were mostly wearing tee shirts or other clothing that suits today’s rock fans. I quickly passed out my literature to the assembled group which was polite but non-communicative. I then took my place at the end of the line expecting that we would be let into the building before long.

The door to First Avenue was locked. When I asked a young man ahead of me in line about this, he said that the doors would open at 8:00 p.m. Here it was, around quarter to 6, with the Leonard Cohen Tribute scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes. Something was wrong. I soon discovered that the line of people on the sidewalk were not waiting for the Leonard Cohen Tribute but for another performance by a group called “Alice in Chains”. Tickets for that event cost $25.00 and a sign said that the event was sold out. So where were the people waiting to hear Leonard Cohen music? I had leaflets for the first hundred of them.

As it approached 6:00 p.m., I nervously left the line and walked around the building to the First Avenue side. Some young men who appeared to be staff were sitting in chairs next to a line of trucks. I asked one of them about the Leonard Cohen event. He had not heard of it. Then I showed him a flier which said that this performance would start at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, September 21st, at the 7th Street Entry. That rang a bell. Yes, the time and the date were correct, but the problem was that I was waiting at the wrong door. 7th Street Entry has its own entrance on 7th Street just up the street toward Hennepin Avenue. Go there and I would find what I wanted.

I did find a small door in the same building marked 7th Street Entry and there was even a poster announcing the Leonard Cohen Tribute. The problem was that the door was locked. No crowds were lined up for this particular event. The beat-up door had a small pane of glass. Looking through it, I could see staff people from time to time. I knocked on the door several times but no one responded. Security for rock concerts are probably used to ignoring over-eager fans. However, in this case, it was after 6:00 p.m., when the performance was supposed to have started, and I could not get in the door to buy tickets. Maybe this was a private event for KFAI listeners. The announcement card I had picked up in the studio had said: “Win free tickets! Tune in Chelsea Hotel: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen the radio show, hosted by Mean Larry.”

My luck started to change around 6:15 p.m. when a middle-aged couple joined me in line. Yes, they, too, were interested in the Leonard Cohen performance. The man’s name was Joe; I did not catch the name of his wife. We talked for a bit and then this couple decided to take a walk down the street. Evidently, today’s music concerts run on a loose timetable.

I walked around the building again to the place where the staff people were seated. A young man said that he thought the doors ought to be open by now. He knew the Leonard Cohen performance would be held because his wife would be serving drinks at the bar. In fact, he accompanied me back to 7th Street Entry and knocked on the door, and was assured that customers would soon be admitted to the building.

And then, suddenly, the door to 7th Street Entry swung open. Event security asked to see my ID. I bought a $7 ticket from the ticket counter to the right and was given a plastic wrist band. My wrist was stamped with washable ink so I could be identified if I went outside during the performance and wished to be readmitted. I asked the woman at the ticket counter when the performance would begin. It would begin soon, she assured me - perhaps in half an hour, or an hour at most. It was then around 6:30 p.m.

The venue itself was down a short hallway to the left where six tables were set up on the main floor. A stage for the performers was along one side of the floor. On each table, there was a lighted candle and two guides to tonight’s program. I saw an opportunity: In this empty room, I walked to each of the six tables and placed my leaflet, headlined “Looking for a Leonard Cohen Impersonator”, on top. Then I sat down at one of the tables toward the back. Fortunately, I had not attracted the attention of security; or, perhaps, they saw me but didn’t care. Another six of my hundred leaflets were now in circulation.

In a short time, a video began to be shown on the wall across the floor. It was accompanied by recorded music. I recognized the music as Leonard Cohen songs. It took me awhile longer to realize that the video was also of Cohen. I knew the singer to be an elderly man with a brimmed hat, similar to what businessmen wore in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but this was Cohen in his younger years. He appeared in various scenes ranging from a bathtub to hotel rooms to residential streets. The singer was a Canadian who grew up in Montreal.

I just sat alone at my table taking in what was available. Before long, Joe and his wife sat down at a nearby table. Then another couple sat down. Finally, there were two middle-aged women who sat first at a table and then along the railing in back of me. I took pleasure in observing that each person at these tables would pick up my flier along with the program and give it a good read.

Finally, after the video had ended, a tall man dressed in black, with glasses and a pony tail, began fiddling with the sound equipment. He turned out to be “Mean Larry”. Larry untangled the wires and adjusted the mike to a proper height on the floor just below the sound stage. Then he asked for an alcoholic beverage to sustain him during the performance. The bar tender handed him a glass.

Mean Larry warmed up the audience with some small talk. He seemed a bit nervous to me. Or perhaps he was disappointed by the size of the audience. But he forged bravely ahead. At one point, he remarked, “I’m intrigued by this idea of a Leonard Cohen impersonator.” I hadn’t realized that Mean Larry had seen my fliers. Sneaky as I had been, some of the other audience members knew who had put the fliers on the tables. So I just waved and said amiably to Mean Larry, “I think you will win the contest”.

I turned out that this was the thirteenth annual “Tribute to Leonard Cohen” which Mean Larry had arranged. But it was a special one. This was Cohen’s 75th birthday. An associate of Mean Larry had baked a birthday cake in honor of that occasion. We could go back to the bar and help ourselves to pieces of cake. Leonard Cohen was currently on a European tour. A few days earlier, Mean Larry revealed, Cohen had collapsed on stage while singing “Bird on the Wire” at a performance in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps he had food poisoning. In any event, he was now recovered.

Cohen had also performed in Minneapolis a year or two earlier. He might have performed at the Orpheum Theater on Hennepin Avenue. The tickets were expensive - $250 apiece, I believe - and there were scalpers asking for much more. I had the impression, from what he said, that Mean Larry himself might have been part of the warm-up act, but did not get as much performance time as he wanted, perhaps because of union regulations. It was clear, however, that Mean Larry’s career was focused on Leonard Cohen’s music. He was not just some Johnny-come-lately who had heard the music on Channel 2 a month earlier and had developed a temporary infatuation.

Promising that other musicians would soon join him on the stage, Mean Larry sang the first five or six songs solo. Leonard Cohen songs tend to last eight to ten minutes apiece. There were twenty-three songs listed in the program. That meant that each group of songs, and, of course, the entire performance, could eat up a considerable chunk of time. Mean Larry was on for perhaps forty minutes. Then came a female soloist, Diane Martinson, accompanied by a man at the keyboard. In the concluding segments, we had the entire group of performers - seven in all - up there on stage. Mean Larry was the male vocalist. Diane Martinson and a younger woman, Jennifer J. Holt, who had recently been married, made up a female duo. Then there was a young man who played the violin and other instruments. There was a man on the drums. There were a man on the keyboards and a man playing the guitar. Did I miss anyone?

Still recovering from the flu, I was content to sit by myself at a table in the back for the entire evening. Occasionally there would be an intermission when I stretched my legs a bit and handed “Leonard Cohen impersonator” literature to some young women way in the back. No, the music scene has its own timetable and I would take in that experience.

My only troubling thought was that my wife was waiting back at home. I had asked her if she wanted to accompany me downtown and she had declined the offer, preferring to work on a sewing project. On the other hand, evenings of this sort are meant to be shared. If I stayed too long, my wife would think I was ignoring her even if she would not say it out loud. Throughout the evening, I therefore kept hoping that the performance would move right along and I could leave at a decent hour.

Being a Johnny-come-lately fan of Leonard Cohen with an unrelated agenda, I was not familiar with all the songs on the program. Notably absent was “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” Did not Mean Larry like this song? I was dying to ask him that question but never managed to catch him alone. Since he had said he was “intrigued” by the Leonard Cohen impersonator idea, that would also have been a good topic of conversation. I thought I might catch Mean Larry and some other performers after the show. It was not to be.

The last song on the program was “First we take Manhattan (then we take Berlin)”. I had heard this song before and it was a good one. As the evening drew to a close, I thought the group was finding its groove. I particularly liked the way that Diane Martinson got into the spirit of “Joan of Arc” and several other songs. Mean Larry, too, was out there belting out the music. I sat there mesmerized by the experience, even if my ears later were ringing.

After the last song on the program, the group came back for encores. Or maybe this is just how rock concerts operate these days. The musicians do their own thing until all the audience is gone. One of the encore songs was “Alleluia”. This, too, had been on the program of Cohen’s London concert. But still, “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” did not make its appearance.

After about the fourth encore song, I knew I had to leave. Although I did not carry a wrist watch, I knew that my wife would become angry or suspicious if I stayed much longer. It was around 11 p.m. Before calling it a night, I left a generous supply of my leaflets on adjoining tables.

The exit to 7th Street was closed so event staff let me out the door through the area next door where “Alice in Chains” was performing. I caught a glimpse of the rock musicians performing before hundreds of excited people. I could have stayed longer at this higher-priced concert but instead exited to the street and walked back to my car past the newly constructed Twins stadium and Sharing and Caring Hands.

My wife was sitting up with her needle work when I finally returned home. Where had I been for the past six hours?

 

Hear Leonard Cohen singing “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

 

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