Tucson Plus Two Months: A Concert for Civility, Respect and Understanding
Photo by Elliott
Last week an acquaintance took her mother shopping in Oro Valley, just northwest of Tucson in Congressional District 8. When she came out of the mall, her carefully preserved bumper sticker had been stripped from her car. It had read “Gabrielle Giffords for Congress.”
This was last week. Saturday, March 7.
During her campaign last fall, it was the rare Giffords sign that survived 24 hours in northwest Tucson, an area that fans out roughly from the corner of Oracle and Ina roads. Signs scrawled in hate, though, were on every corner. Giffords won the District 8 election by less than 1%; she lost northwest Tucson precincts by large margins.
At around 10:25 a.m. local time, Jan. 8, word came via text and Facebook that she and several others had been shot minutes earlier at the Safeway on the corner of Oracle and Ina roads. Nearly everyone close to local politics assumed, almost without realizing it, that the psycho who shot her (it would be a psycho, obviously) was motivated by the substantive-content-free, attack-style messaging prevalent in the northwest and in the more lurid, local talk radio commentary during her campaign. In an unguarded moment, way too soon after the event, when even the number of victims was still uncertain, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik gave voice to that hyper-local, gut-level sentiment and spawned a firestorm in a national commentariat not from around these parts.
We may never understand what motivated Jared Loughner. Within hours, Tucson Weekly’s Dan Gibson had uncovered internet postings, including YouTube clips, that revealed Loughner’s personality as a dense tangle of dark edges circling back on themselves from left to right and off into various shades of simply bizarre. No information uncovered since has altered that impression.
But even let loose from its original, fault-seeking moorings, the sense that the hate thing really had gone too far found a life of its own. The sprawling tributes and ad-hoc shrines remembering the dead and encouraging the wounded were thick with hopes for peace and decency between and among us all. And Giffords’ stricken, twice-shot district director Ron Barber lay in the ICU characteristically thinking about ways to turn the tragedy into something positive, a way for all of us to get along.
By the following Friday, Jan. 15, local activist and musician Ted Warmbrand was talking about putting in a call to Jackson Browne, with whom he’s acquainted via progressive causes. Maybe he’d be willing to have a role in helping Tucson come together and heal. What were the chances?
Jackson Browne could’ve done a solo-acoustic show at Club Congress and we’d have been grateful for his kindness and support. Instead he helped recruit a high-powered cast, a top-of-the-line production crew and a host of local businesses and professionals to create a moving and unforgettable concert at the Tucson Convention Center arena, all focused on a single message: We are our best selves in community, looking after each other even, and perhaps especially, when we disagree.
The “Concert for Civility,” as it came to be known, benefited The Southern Arizona Community Foundation’s Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding—a fund established by Barber’s family based on the ideas he hatched in the hospital. Right now, the fund pays for medical expenses and psychological counseling for victims and their families, and for witnesses, responders and others affected emotionally by the tragedy. It’s also intended to support efforts to identify, prevent and treat mental illness that could lead to deadly violence. It will also fund programs that promote civility and respect in public discourse, schools and the community.
A review of the concert follows, but if you are so moved, you can contribute $10 to this effort by texting the word tucson to 50555. You can do it three times.
You don’t send a boy to do a man’s job. That’s the thought that rang through my head halfway through an evening about which, I confess, I had a couple vague doubts. Not even the most hardened cynic could fault the idea of the concert, or the sincerity, not to mention skills, of the folks involved at every level, or the heart of the people in the audience, or the stubbornness of the stain that’s been fading too slowly from our lives the past two months. But the ridiculous hipster in me kept thinking the whole thing was a bit long in the tooth, entertainment-wise—maybe even sort of quaint.
It turns out we got exactly what was needed, whether we knew it or not – a gift from people who had been there, done that, and done it to perfection hundreds of times; folks who, if they didn’t know exactly how we felt, could make a darned good guess, based on personal experience; folks with musical knowledge encyclopedic enough to pick the perfect songs and sequence them for a live mix-tape tailored to the occasion.
Jackson Browne didn’t bring first aid to Tucson. He brought the artistic, musical and production-team equivalent of the Tucson and Pima County fire, police and sheriff’s departments and the University Medical Center trauma team: Alice Cooper, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Nils Lofgren, Sam Moore, Ozomatli, Calexico, Dar Williams, Keb’ Mo’ and more.
The show began when a single figure walked to a microphone and began chanting. The arena quieted instantly. It was Milton ‘Quiltman’ Sahme, offering a native American invocation. After a brief welcome from promoter and producer Danny Zelisco, who deserves much credit for the evening’s success, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, a popular Arizona band that lavishes love on their fans, followed with a two-song, seated acoustic set. Tucson’s mayor and the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said a few words; and, powerfully, the citizen-hero of Jan. 8, Giffords’ intern Daniel Hernandez, Jr. reminded us that Tucson will not be defined by the events of that day. Emily Nottingham, mother of Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ fallen director of community outreach, spoke with incomprehensible dignity and kindness. In between were performances by singer-songwriter Joel Rafael, backed for one song by Crosby and Nash; Leonard Cohen-interpreter Jennifer Warnes, singing the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” backed by Browne; and Dar Williams whose stage patter was dear, especially when she talked about how she she was a huge fan of Alice Cooper “from the music theory standpoint.”
All in all it was a lovely show so far, and then Sam Moore of Sam and Dave came to sing the soul. He sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and hearts began to crack in a hundred places. Then he sang “America the Beautiful,” starting with the third verse: “O beautiful for heroes proved /In liberating strife./Who more than self their country loved/And mercy more than life!” Tears started falling all over the arena. It was all but impossible to sing when he urged us to join him on the verse we all knew — almost impossible, but 4,000 of us softly made it through, and it was the most beautiful sound I heard all night. Ron Barber and his family walked in, then, and Moore’s standing ovation turned into a deafening din that seemed like it would never end once he started recognizing other victims and their families, first responders, hospital personnel and other heroes of the day. Barber talked about his hopes for the fund, and closed by urging us to take the message to every school, church and place of business, and to urge everyone we know to be more civil, respectful and understanding.
What was left to do then but to rock! Nils Lofgren lost little time in taking us there. From the mini-piano-concerto in his opening ballad, he burst into guitar-god mode with the star-spangled banner blazing on the back of his leather jacket. Two technically brilliant guitar solos later, he closed with an early Beatles cover, with a twist in the lyric: “I’ll be there, any time at all, Tucson, any time at all you’ve got the blues.”
Next were video messages of support from Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, followed by Calexico, with what could only be called the orchestral version of Mariachi Luz de Luna. This line-up included a full-size harp, and John Convertino wore a jacket and tie for the occasion. The band opened with “Inspiración,” and followed with the rousing “Across the Wire,” which perhaps few fans outside their home understand is an empathetic take on migrant suffering. People began having trouble finding room to dance among the chairs. The night was nearly stolen away when the Calexico orchestra backed Browne on his Latinesque lover’s lament, “Linda Paloma,” an early ballad written for his late first wife. Then Calexico et al drew the entire room to its feet in a frenzy of gritas with the song everyone knows Giffords picked to waken the shuttle astronauts, “Crystal Frontier.”
Whew! Awesome first half. Time to pick up the concert T-shirt Giffords’ synagogue was selling and to make donations to the cause, but mostly to get some beer and do some socializing. The room dissolved into clusters and cluster-hopping. So it was that Ozomatli more or less walked onstage and into a party. The crowd went wild.
It’s fair to say there’s some strain in Tucson’s relationship with Ozomatli just now. They are much-loved, here, especially by the people of Mexican lineage, many of whom travel for miles to see Ozomatli shows in Tucson. Giffords had a blast at their last Tucson concert. She danced out right along with the throng they led to the streets. But Ozomatli has boycotted Arizona since last summer’s passage of SB 1070, notoriously the harshest anti-immigrant legislation in the country. For the record, SB 1070 would never have passed in Pima County, let alone Tucson, so they’re only hurting their fans. For that, we might be a little resentful, but it just meant that much more to us that they came for this concert, almost as if it were a USO show behind enemy lines.
Ozomatli’s three-song set rocked the house, of course, and they kept telling us “It’s all right to celebrate!” For a few seconds, though, in the middle of an intense jam that mashed West Africa and the Caribbean with ancient Morroco and the Middle East, they slipped into poignant strains of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” and U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and resurrected our latent, collective pang. It’s still there, they seemed to be saying. It may always be there. But the thing to do about it is “Get ready for Saturday Night!”
I should confess that I’ve never found anything very interesting in Keb Mo’s easy listening soul sound. Thursday night, he opened with a simplistic but admittedly charming message: “The world won’t get no better/if we don’t change/you and me.” By the end of the set, though, he’d knocked the message out of the park. “Say it!” he exhorted. “Tucson! The land of peace. . .love. . . and happiness!” There were nervous chuckles. Some said it. “Say it!” he repeated. “From now on! Everybody loves everybody! In Tucson!” We said it. “Drunks!” he said. “Crazy people!” he said. “Everybody!” he said. And I don’t think any of us, least of all him, were kidding right then.
He followed up with “Just Like You” and the sentiment that will be essential to making this civility business work: ‘. . . I feel just like you/And I cry just like you/But I heal just like you/And under my skin/I’m just like you.” Crosby and Nash joined him to bring it home with a Stephen Stills song of the Buffalo Springfield era, “For What It’s Worth.” You know how it goes: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
Then Crosby and Nash had the stage to themselves, and the audience in their palms. Nash sang a new song that, as Crosby said introducing it, “gets straight to the heart of the matter.” Nash added, “No matter who you pray to, it’s the same prayer.” Verse after verse implores the Lord to stop all the damage done in His name (substitute the god or idol of your choice.) : “Can you stop all the sadness, can you stop all the madness, can you stop all the killing in your name?”
The duo followed up with a spellbinding “Guinnevere,” still magical after all these years, with harmonies circling and catching each other like silky, psychedelic smoke rings, and voices impeccably controlled but still lilting. Wow. Only at the end did we learn it was dedicated to the family of 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green–second baseman, dancer, student council member, born 9/11/2001 and died 1/8/2011. How could it have been other than perfection?
Nils Lofgren joined the duo and Jackson Browne’s uber-tight house band of the evening to rock out “Long Time Gone” with another stunning guitar solo and a verse filling in the third harmony part once sung by his former boss, Neil Young.
By the time Jackson Browne took the stage for his own set, the concert was heading into its fifth hour. A few people had left, but those remaining had remarkable energy. We needed it for the surprise Browne had in store – two gospel-soul back-up singers who deserve, and nearly had, a set of their own. Browne started out relatively mellow with “Doctor My Eyes.” When he got down to business with “About My Imagination” (“Calling out across the nation/It’s time for some kind of re-dedication”), the women began to shine. The production of the night came next with the subtly reggae flavored “I Am A Patriot.” Browne commanded a powerhouse of musical and emotional impact with lights, music, and a singalong, half gospel song in which the backing vocalists had a star turn and “the river opens for the righteous,” indeed.
It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone following that set but home-grown Arizonan Alice Cooper. He can seem to embody all the beauty, ugliness, and complexity of our state in one ageless, extended act of bellicose outrage. He demanded that we scream it right with him: “I’m 18!” “School Is Out!” And he did his best to insult us when we didn’t know the words. It’s all but certain that without Alice Cooper there is no Marilyn Manson. It’s possible that without him there’s not even a Black Sabbath, let alone a Judas Priest. But whatever his provenance or his legacy, there’s no questioning his sincerity, and he left nothing behind in bringing it to that audience at that hour, which was well past the time we’d all expected to be going home.
Incredibly, there was more — one thing, and everything. Every person who had performed that night, including the expanded cast of Mariachi Luz and several people who had worked in the background, gathered with Ron Barber and his family onstage to sing the closing anthem with the audience: “Teach Your Children.” It seemed an enigmatic choice at first, but its text may in the end light the most important path toward civility. We don’t need to understand, or even want to know. We just need to try to love.
Can we all just maybe at least try to be decent to each other out there?