Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
“Absolutely,” David Rovics told me. “I think that’s a terrific idea.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, cringing, wondering if he was actually making fun of me. “You don’t think it’s stupid?”
“Oh no, no, not at all,” he assured me. “Showing up to an Occupied protest with a trombone is highly advisable.”
I couldn’t argue with him. Rovics’ expertise in this area was exactly why I’d called him in the first place. This is a guy who’s made a career playing protest songs — or, as he calls it, “socially conscious music.” He’s become the de facto folk-singer-in-residence for the Occupy movement, performing at ten Occupy events across the United States and counting, from New York to Washington D.C. to Oklahoma City. He’s even written a song about it, called “Occupy Wall Street,” in which he rhymes “one percent” with “pay the rent.” It’s the kind of song that heats up the blood and makes you want to shout at cops and guys in business suits. And it’s why people like me want to be protest singers.
If Erin Burnett was confused by what the Occupy movement was about now, just wait till she got a load of two 40-something dudes playing the soundtrack to a Peter Sellers movie for no good reason.
Only problem is, I can’t play the guitar. I can only play the trombone, an instrument I haven’t touched since the late ‘80s, when I was regularly blurting out Sousa compositions in my high school marching band and just generally not being sexually active because of it.
I’m ready to admit defeat. You can’t be Joe Strummer with a trombone. “Clampdown” just wouldn’t have the same urgent, angry energy if you’re pausing every few verses to empty your spit valve. But Rovics doesn’t share my negativity. “A trombone is a loud instrument,” he reminds me. At many of these occupations, he says, protesters aren’t given sound permits, so any of the participating speakers or musicians aren’t legally allowed to use microphones. “It’s a huge problem when you’re trying to get the attention of large groups of people,” Rovics says. But it puts a trombonist at an obvious advantage. “You don’t need to mic a trombone. Only a masochistic would mic a trombone.” If the whole reason for playing music at a protest is to get noticed — and let’s be honest, Occupy Wall Street may have noble ideals, but it’s also amateur night at the Apollo for the world’s wanna-be Dylans and Odettas — then it doesn’t make sense for any self-respecting protest musician hoping to stand out in the crowd not to show up with a trombone.
Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t still rather be a guitarist. I fully admit to having guitar envy. Before attending my first (and thus far only) protest back in 1990, a Chicago rally against the first Gulf War, I borrowed an “axe” and tried teaching myself a few Bob Dylan songs. I didn’t need to be a virtuoso, I just wanted to play “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and maybe catch the eye of any female protesters who resembled Edie Brickell. But chord changes are difficult. I could get the G chord, but going anywhere beyond that was just not something my fingers were capable or willing to do. I tried rehearsing a stripped-down version, just strumming a G chord over and over. But doing the entire song with one note sounded ominous, like a zombie Dylan giving his victims fair warning. “For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled.” So I went to the protest without any musical accompaniment, just a hand-painted sign that read “Go to Iraq? You Must Be Whack!” Needless to say, I did not win the hearts of any Edie Brickells that day.
I can’t blame it all on laziness. I did learn how to play the trombone in my youth, and I was pretty good at it for almost a decade. I just picked the wrong instrument. Even the most amateur guitarists probably have at least one fond memory of a public performance or dinner party hootenanny where he or she briefly felt like a god. That never happens to trombonists. Most of our performance memories are like stories of getting caught masturbating in a Target dressing room. The experience was mortifying, and we’re just glad it’s over. My biggest moment as a trombonist was when I played the Pink Panther theme, with my brother accompanying on piano, for a potluck of our parents’ friends. Did I mention that I was wearing a white fedora? Yes, that happened. And as it was happening, I had about five seconds of feeling like I was sexy and cool, but then I saw my reflection in the stunned eyes of our audience, and I realized, holy shit, I’m a teenager in a fedora playing the Pink Panther theme on a trombone. I am going to die alone.
I called Alex Henderson, a professional trombonist who’s played with Brian Setzer, No Doubt, Green Day and most recently Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the first thing he did was tell me a bunch of trombonist jokes, most of them about how trombone players are always out of work. “What’s the difference between a dead trombonist in the road and a dead snake in the road?” he asked me. “The snake was probably heading to a gig.” I laughed a little too hard at his jokes, like I was trying to prove that I knew what it was like to be an unemployed musician (I don’t). But he wasn’t bonding with me so much as making a point. I’d called him to ask if playing a trombone at an Occupy protest was as inherently dumb as I feared, and he was trying to demonstrate why trombone players, more than most musicians, have more reason than most musicians to be upset about economic inequality.
“In a time when a lot of people are cutting budgets, a trombone is always the first instrument to go in any band,” he says. A guitarist gets all the money and attention, but a trombone player is like the migrant worker of the music industry. “It’s kind of a rebellious instrument in that way.”
We debated hypothetical song ideas, as if one or both of us were seriously considering Occupying Wall Street trombone-style. I argued for “Fuck tha Police,” which I think would sound amazing as a trombone solo, but he wisely cautioned me against it. Henderson suggested Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” or Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” — anything with a simple chorus and repetitive melody. “I’d definitely go with the Twisted Sister song,” he finally decided. “Plus, it has a double meaning. It’s not just about corporate greed and financial suffering. You’re saying we’re not going to take it anymore as trombone players!”
“So I’d be like Pete Seeger for bitter trombonists?” I asked.
Henderson just laughed. “Well, why not? Somebody should be.”
Things kind of spiraled from there. When a trombonist who’s been on Gwen Stefani’s payroll tells you to make your grasp for trombone glory, you’d be a fool not to listen. I called my mom and asked her to drag my trombone from the attic and ship it to me. It’d been close to 20 years since I’d picked up the old girl, but you never would have known it to hear me play. You would have thought, “This guy has never touched a trombone in his life. Jesus Christ, it sounds like an angry, retarded orangutan.” Then there was the small matter of finding sheet music for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” for trombone, which apparently doesn’t exist. So I had to learn it from memory, which is tough when I barely remembered how to play the trombone at all. After a few hours of frustrated blaring that led nowhere, I realized that I could still play the theme from Pink Panther, which I guess got burned into my subconscious. Momentarily thrilled that I could produce any recognizable sounds at all, I called my brother and asked him to join me at the nearest Occupy protest for a “Pink Panther jam.” If he brought the synthesizer, I’d bring the white fedora and trombone, and we’d show these fuckers how it’s done. Our performance might lack any recognizable political or social message, but that’s what would make us so unique and challenging. If Erin Burnett was confused by what the Occupy movement was about now, just wait till she got a load of two 40-something dudes playing the soundtrack to a Peter Sellers movie for no good reason.
My brother declined to participate. His exact words were “I’ll tell you where you can stick that slide trombone.” Well, no matter. I traded in my trombone for a guitar, and I’ve been practicing ever since. It’s coming slow, because I have a short attention span and get easily frustrated by things I can’t master immediately. But I’ve already learned the second chord in “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” I can now sing up to “Come gather ’round people….” In another twenty years, after the middle class learns to trust the banks again and they gets screwed again and there’s another round of protests on Wall Street in which a lot of people show up with guitars, I’ll be ready, dammit.