Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lou Reed Riots in Italy 1975

Following the recent death of Lou Reed, I could write a lot about his influence on me and the many hours of my life spent listening to him and the Velvet Underground. Intense student nights discovering chemicals whilst listening to 'Berlin' ('The Bed' still makes me shiver), hitch hiking to Amsterdam and getting a lift in a BMW playing 'Venus in Furs', all that indie pop taking its cue from 'Pale Blue Eyes' and 'What goes On' - indeed all those nights at How Does it Feel to be Loved? in Brixton, taking its name from the fade out of 'Beginning to see the light'. But I guess most of us could tell such stories.

Instead of going any further down my own memory lane I'm going to write a bit about a lesser known episode in Lou Reed's career: the riots at his gigs in Italy in February 1975. In Milan, Reed fled the stage after just two songs (Sweet Jane and Coney Island Baby). In Rome, there were clashes between police and young people trying to get in to the concert for free. Tear gas was fired, bars were looted, and many people were injured and/or arrested.

Rome 1975
These weren't anti-Lou Reed riots as such though, rather they were moments in a wider social movement. As Robert Lumley outlines in his book 'States of emergency: Cultures of revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978':

'Between 1975 and 1979 young people in several major Italian cities entered the political scene as the protagonists of new forms of urban conflict. In Rome, Bologna, Turin, Naples, Milan and other cities, they organized themselves into collectives and ‘proletarian youth groups’, squatted in buildings and carried out autoriduzione (that is, fixed their own prices) of transport fares and cinema tickets, set up free radio stations. At the height of the movement in 1977, tens of thousands of young people were involved in mass protest and street battles with the police'.

As well organising their own counter-cultural music festivals, the movement contested the cost of commercial cultural events: 'Autoriduzione of tickets at pop concerts had already been carried out ‘spontaneously’ in Milan in the early seventies. In September 1977, at a Santana concert in Milan, the practice became formalized; youth groups assured the organizers that the event would not be disrupted in exchange for a fixed price reduction. Earlier, in October 1976, youth groups launched a campaign to force cinemas to reduce ticket prices. A leaflet of the youth groups of zona Venezia declared: "The defence of the living standards of the masses also means establishing the right to a life consisting not just of work and the home, but of culture, amusement and recreation"'.

The 'autoriduttori' movement was promoted by the Milan-based Stampa Alternativa (Alternative Press), who set up stalls outside concerts organised by promoter David Zard - including Lou Reed's 1975 gigs. There's some misleading information about these events online - one source claims that 50 people died in Rome, but in fact there were no fatalities. You may also find mention of 'fascists' being involved - again, this does not seem to be true. It was common practice at the time for the Communist Party in Italy to denounce militants of autonomia and the extra-parliamentary left as 'fascists', even as these same militants were fighting in the streets with the actual fascists.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Free Pussy Riot Banner at Champions League Match

Great to see this Free Pussy Riot banner at tonight's football match between Manchester City and CSKA Moscow. It may have been swiftly removed by stewards, but the image of it is already going round the world.

This week's the family of Nadya Tolokonnikova  complained that she has been 'disappeared' in the prison system. According to the Independent (2 November 2013):

'A Pussy Riot member imprisoned at a Russian camp hasn't been heard from for 10 days, her family has said. Nadya Tolokonnikova was moved from her prison colony in the Russian republic of Mordovia on 21 October. She is currently serving two years for her band's performance of a crude song in a Moscow church in February 2012.She had been on hunger strike over conditions in the prison.

Her father, Andrei Tolokonnikov, told Buzzfeed: “No one knows anything. There’s no proof she’s alive, we don’t know the state of her health. Is she sick? Has she been beaten?” Her husband, Petya Verzilov, has been protesting outside the colony regularly. He said: “We think they moved her to a big city to hide her. It seems they got sick of these protests. They want to cut her off from the outside world. When they moved [political prisoner Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, he was also kind of absent for two weeks. Nobody knew where he was, then he suddenly appeared in Chita."

During the offending protest the all-female punk band ran into Moscow's biggest cathedral sang a song calling on the Virgin Mary to kick President Vladimir Putin out of office. Tolokonnikova and fellow member Maria Alyokhina are serving sentences for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following the performance'.

Meanwhile 28 Greenpeace activists and 2 journalists remain in prison charged with hooliganism after a protest at a Russian offshore oil rig in the Arctic in September. These high profile cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Last month (27 October) thousands of people took part in a rally in Moscow in solidarity with political prisoners.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Octoroon Ball, from WEB Du Bois' The Crisis

One of the most exciting sites I have come across recently is the Modernist Journals Project, a joint project of Brown University and the University of Tulsa that is digitising key early 20th century English language magazines. There's some astounding material there, not least numerous issues of 'The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races', the ground-breaking journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.

From Issue no.5 (March 1911), here's a poem by Rosalie Jonas entitled Ballade des Belles Milatraisses. Its subject matter is the Octoroon Balls of 19th century New Orleans where white men would meet 'mixed-race' women (octoroons were defined as one-eighth black, quadroons as one-quarter), and from which black men were excluded - or almost. As often in the history of American music and dance, black people were both excluded from fully participating as equals while simultaneously being central to it as musicians and performers. In this instance it is the fiddler who is "the one man of 'colour' admitted" but with the instruction "Play on! Fiddler-man, keep your eyes on your bow".