When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, the week between Christmas and New Year’s was a week of psychedelic bacchanalia. The Grateful Dead were the house band for this festival and the cops kept their distance while hardcore freaks and more recent converts to the culture danced, smoked and otherwise shuffled, stumbled and tripped their way into the next year. Those who lived in the woods of this land brought their school buses into the parking lot of whatever venue the Dead were based at (usually the Oakland Auditorium, more recently known as Kaiser Auditorium), while the folks with more money booked their hotel rooms around the area well in advance. The latter included dealers of illegal substances, well-heeled scions of America’s better off families, and working people who had been saving up for the week since January 2nd of the previous year. Then there were the rest of us–locals and heads from far away. We took the BART home (or to friends we had in the area) after the shows or maybe just wandered around all night in the campground set up in front of the building and patrolled by concert promoter Bill Graham’s security forces. Whatever happened outside in the lot was fun, but the real fun was inside. I toked up with Ken Kesey one year on one of the Hog Farm buses, while another year I walked around as part of the force of volunteers whose job was to remind people that drugs were illegal and they shouldn’t sell them in front of the police. I got a couple tickets for my efforts. I saw one of my best friends give away his ticket to a lady he fancied one year only to move in with her not more than a couple months later.
Inside was a better story. The Dead played two sets a night for the first four nights. On New Year’s Eve they were preceded by at least one other group, usually two. I could list them here but that’s not the point of this piece. I do want to mention my favorite additional musicians, however. They didn’t open the show, but joined the Dead at midnight. While balloons and confetti showered down on the crowd, Etta James and the Tower of Power horns joined the band in a blistering rendition of the blues standards Turn On Your Love Light, Tell Mama, Baby What You Want Me To Do, Hard To Handle, and In The Midnight Hour. Ms. Etta praised the band after Turn on Your Love Light by saying that she never heard white boys play the blues like the boys with her on that stage that night. I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I haven’t celebrated New Year’s Eve like that since I left Oakland.
As far as I’m converned, they don’t make New Year’s Eve like they used to. This year I’ll be sitting at home with a couple friends, putting back a couple cold ones and thinking about 2005. It’s been a year when the antiwar movement has grown and is actually influencing the conversation over the debacle in Iraq, yet the war shows no signs of ending soon. George Bush’s administration has its lowest poll numbers ever, but continues on its self-serving quest to profit from the destruction of the world as we know it. Innumerable crimes have been committed by the aforementioned administration and it looks like they’ll get away with every single one. The misnomered PATRIOT Act was extended despite the efforts of radical militant librarians and their like. Sure, the extension was only one month, but you can bet that lawmakers’ arms are being twisted and perhaps even an event is being planned to convince the lily-livered members of Congress that this law should be made permanent. Integrity has never been a strong point of politicians, and the various indictments of 2005 proved this point once again. More alarming were the seemingly endless “revelations” about journalists who were either on the government’s payroll both in the US and Iraq or just planted its lies in their newspapers because they wanted to be on the side of power. To add insult to injury, these so-called journalists then used the US Constitution’s freedom of the press clause to defend their refusal to disclose the government official feeding them the lies. Ben Franklin, how many times did you roll over in your grave this year?
Oh yeah, did I mention that 837 US military men and women have been killed in Iraq so far this year (with two days left to go)? God knows how many Iraqis have met the same fate. In that forgotten war over in Afghanistan, there have been fifty GIs killed. Good thing that war is over, huh? As for acknowledged wounded in action, the total number of US WIA hovered near 4000 for the year of 2005. Needless to say, this is not a hopeful picture, but you’d never know that if you listened to George Bush’s latest national speech. Then again, you would never know it if you listened to the nonsense coming out of most Democrats’ mouths, either. Despite polls showing that more than one-third of the US population wants an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, one would be hard put to find one-tenth of the US Congress to support such a move. As for the military, many of its members keep hoping that the much-talked-about-yet-never-enacted phased wuthdrawal from Iraq will begin.
Natural disasters trashed a good portion of the earth this past year, as well. Unfortunately for those who lived where those disasters occurred, it was often the official response to the catastrophes that caused the most damage. this was especially the case in the nether regions of Louisiana and Mississippi, where thousands of people were left to live in the waste of a flooded city while the man who was supposed to be helping them emailed his secretary for advice on what tie to wear at his next press conference. From the few accounts that exist in the western media, many Kashmiris faced a comparable lack of official response after their part of the world was hit by devastating earthquakes. Of course, if one listened to the various holy rollers from all of the monotheistic religions, these disasters were just part of “god’s” wrath on sinners and infidels. Human indifference and negligence didn’t figure in these guys thinking. Why would it? Some of them are the same people who wage wars with (and on) other people’s children to keep their profit margins big enough. It takes more than a bunch of pomposity disguised as righteousness to decipher god’s will, if there even is such a thing.
Back to those days of yesteryear that I began this piece with. It’s not that the times I lived in the San Francisco area were not without their tragedies and disasters. It was still the same country, for chrissake. US-run wars were going on in Central America and Afghanistan and the rich were trashing the US economy for the sake of their bank accounts and greed. The religious right were beginning their power grab on US politics and taking down the nation’s moral compass in the process. Maggie Thatcher was doing a tag team attack with Ronnie Reagan on the world. That says a lot right there. Ronald Reagan was the the president of the US! That says even more. To be truthful it wasn’t that much better for most of us who couldn’t or wouldn’t play their game. Perhaps that’s why those days of bacchanalian denial were so welcome. They helped us all forget the reality we lived in. Hell, perhaps that’s the reason for New Year’s celebrations around the world and since the beginning of time, no matter what calendar we’re talking about. Erase the miseries of the year just past and start with a clean slate full of hopes for the new one. What I wouldn’t give for something like that now. That’s the trouble with getting old. It gets harder to forget.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org