Category Archives: autobiography

My Music Career (Part 9) Word

(This is the 14th chapter in this semi-autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on September 24, 2020. It has been slightly edited for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Digital “Album Cover” for Word

I wrote the 3 songs of Word at different times, and recorded home demos of them.  In 2015, in parallel with my Total Flower Chaos recording project, I took these 3 songs to Brian Hunter, engineer at Sawtelle Studio at Swallow Hill, to remix at professional-level quality.  Brian had engineered Me and The Other Side of Nowhere, so I trusted his expertise.  We also re-recorded the vocals, and, in some cases, we edited and/or added some things to the songs.  I then released the 3 songs as a digital-only EP called Word.  Here’s a description of the 3 songs.

Wave the Flag and Give ’em God (2006)

I got the idea for this song in 2006, while walking with my handheld digital recorder to a Chinese restaurant near my house.  I was thinking about how politicians use patriotism and religion to manipulate people.  I wrote in character of a cynical campaign manager advising his rather dull candidate;  it was obvious at the time that my models were Karl Rove and George Bush.  I also referenced Bill Clinton, during the verse where the campaign manager advises him, “you need to start going to church.”  When Clinton was impeached, I noticed that, all of the sudden, there were photos and videos of him and HIllary attending church, which we had never seen before.  To me it was an obvious attempt to suck up to the religious right that was calling for his impeachment.

For the music, I programmed a hip-hop beat on my drum machine, and recorded electric bass and two electric guitar layers.  I then recorded the spoken word vocals.  I mixed it myself.  I included it as a hidden track on my first acoustic CD as a songwriter, Some Songs I Wrote

While re-mixing it with Brian Hunter in 2016, I sampled the ending of speeches by the last three presidents, saying “God Bless America.”  In the song, the campaign manager advises the candidate:

I want you to end every speech by saying
“God Bless America”
Those 3 words are so powerful
Those 3 words alone will get you millions of votes
Those 3 words combine the two things
patriotism and religion
that allow you to manipulate the common people.
So that’s why I say:
Wave the flag, and give ’em God.
Wave the flag, and give ’em God.

You can listen to, and download, the remix of Wave the Flag and Give ’em God on my Bandcamp site.

Indigenous  (2008-2009)

I’m not going to discuss the lyrics of this song here, because it has a surprise ending, and I don’t want to give it away.  But also the politics of this song need an explanation that would be too lengthy for an email.  Someday I will write a separate blog about it instead.  Suffice to say that the topic is the impact of European colonial settlements on indigenous people.  But not the indigenous people that you think, hence the surprise.

They ridiculed our religion
They ridiculed our way of life
They said we were backward people
They said they brought “civilization” to a backward land
They lied about our history
Some of them even said we were never here when they arrived
But we
were here.

The music of Indigenous is perhaps my most creative and adventurous.  I used a synthesizer to simulate non-western instruments.  It’s definitely the best synth playing I’ve ever done.  I created beat on GarageBand that wasn’t a typical kick drum/snare sound.  Then I added western instruments that I know how to play– acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass.  For the song outro, I play a guitar solo on a heavily distorted electric guitar.  My model for this solo was Carlos Santana, because he plays with so much emotion, and you can hear it.  I think it’s one of my best– if not my best– guitar solo.

Like the other two songs, I took the tracks I recorded at home to Brian Hunter at Swallow Hill.  I re-recorded the vocal, and Brian remixed the tracks.  Check it out on my Bandcamp site.

Accept, Embrace, Surrender (2012-2013)

There is a 4-day class series given every year at the Song School by Paul Reisler, called Directed Writing.  In that class, Paul pairs everyone up with a random person, and you exchange stories about “something that changed you as a person.”  (It was at this class in 2004 that I met Lori Cook, and she wrote “Little White Boy.”)  My friend, Nancy Farmer, took this class in 2011, and was paired up with a singer-songwriter by the name of Joe Stevens.  Joe’s story was that he had been born a girl, but it never felt right.  He always felt like a boy.  As a young adult, he decided to make the change.  This was the story Nancy had to write a song about– and she did– but she felt like she had not done the story justice, and wanted to write a new song for Joe.  I met Nancy at the Song School the following year, in 2012, and she told me about it.  I was intrigued by the challenge, and offered to co-write, and she accepted. 

We began work on it at the Song School in 2012, and continued into the fall.  I had recently seen the documentary movie “Free Style,” which is about free style rapping.  People gather in small groups and take turns rapping.  It all has to be improvised on the spot– nothing can be previously written– and it of course has to rhyme.  And around the same time I saw the Eminem movie, “8 Mile,” which is about “battles,” another form of improvisational rapping. 

After seeing those movies, I decided to try free styling while walking around my neighborhood with my handheld digital recorder.  I had no plans to be a rapper, but I thought it might help me generate some lines for songs, particularly for the song I was doing with Nancy for Joe.  It was very fruitful– I got a lot of potential lines from it.  But in hearing myself back on the recordings, it occurred to me that this style– hip hop– seemed to fit the subject matter.  Hip hop rap has attitude;  it’s defiant.  And what is more defiant that transforming your gender, and becoming who you really are?

I told this to Nancy.  She was less acquainted with hip hop than I was, but she was willing to give it a go.  I drove up to Jamestown, Colorado, where she lives, and we walked around Jamestown free-styling and recording it.  Nancy took to it like a fish to water.  She came up with great lines.  We soon had enough material, and now just had to put it together in a coherent form.

For the music, I decided to make it a blend of hip hop, folk and rock.  I programmed the drum machine, and recorded it all the instruments at home.  I rapped the verses, and Nancy sang the chorus.  Nancy also doubled some of the rapped verse lines for emphasis, in true hip-hop style.  I then mixed it, and we played it for Joe at the 2013 Song School.

I don’t know who I am
but I’ve got my suspicions
What you see isn’t me
and the signs point in both directions

In 2015 I took the tracks to Brian Hunter at Swallow Hill, and he added some effects and remixed it.  Please have a listen to Accept, Embrace, Surrender by Rob Roper and Nancy Farmer on my Bandcamp site, and download it if you like it.

The Release of Word

Word was released in January, 2016.  Given the decline in CD sales, I decided to release the 3 songs of Word in digital form only, for download and streaming.  You can listen to them on most of the streaming services, such as Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Prime, Spotify, etc.  But please consider buying the downloads, since even a $1 download pays 500-1000 times more than a steam.  And Bandcamp allows you to pay more than a dollar if you want to help the artist.  All download money helps me pay for future recording projects.

Word Artwork

Since I didn’t release Word as a CD, I didn’t hire a graphics artist to design the CD artwork.  But I needed a pseudo-album cover for the digital release, so I created a simple text cover, as you can see above.  Boring.  I’m hoping to find a fan who is a graphics artist who would like to volunteer their time and skills to design an “album cover” for Word. Better yet, artwork for each of the 3 songs. It could be a different artist for each song. I would love that. But alas, I have not found such a person yet. Email me if you’re interested: rob@robroper.com

Next: I go back to school to study music theory.

My Music Career (Part 8) Total Flower Chaos

(This is the 13th chapter in this semi-autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on July 29, 2020. It has been edited for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Music Full Time!

In March, 2014, I was laidoff from my day job as a field service technician for an IT company.  I volunteered for the layoff, because I had saved almost two years pay over the past several years, and wanted to do music full-time for awhile.  I knew I would have to take another day job when the money ran out, but I was going to take advantage of this for as long as I could.  I was now a fulltime musician.  It felt great;  it felt natural, waking up in the morning and going to work, not for The Man, but for my music. 

Colorado Gigs and a Vacation to the Northwest

Around this time, my acoustic trio, Scupanon, was making progress, playing more gigs in more venues.  Dorian had completed its demo recording in February and was finally ready to gig.  In early July, I took a 3-week vacation to the Pacific Northwest.  Having never been in that part of the country, I took my time and drove through Wyoming and Idaho. 

I wanted to check out the music scene in Portland and Seattle.  Not having a day job, I was considering touring as a solo singer-songwriter, so I brought an acoustic guitar with the goal of playing a couple of open mics and testing the waters.  In Portland, I played an open mic at the Artichoke Cafe, a folk music venue.  I was then invited to play a set at a show later that week.  I was also invited to play a short set at a singer-songwriter showcase at the White Eagle in Portland. 

The White Eagle in Portland, 2014

Then I drove to Seattle, where I had an interesting little epiphany.  I went to live music bar, and there was a guy playing solo acoustic.  A person sitting at the bar next to me asked, “Do you know who that is?”  He said the guy’s name and that he was in such-and-such rock band, who I hadn’t heard of.  Frankly, I wasn’t impressed; I didn’t think he was any better than me.  But everyone in the bar sat in raptured silence, as if it was Kurt Cobain playing solo acoustic.  That got me thinking about my musical image.  I never really wanted to be a solo singer-songwriter.  I always enjoyed playing with people in a band.  I realized that I wanted to be like that guy– a guy who is known for his rock band, and plays solo occasionally.  That ended my flirtation with being a touring solo singer-songwriter. 

Total Flower Chaos

Dorian played its first gig at the Larimer Lounge in Denver on July 27, 2014, and would continue playing gigs into the fall and Spring of 2015.  I continued co-writing songs with them, but at the same time, I was writing other rock songs that didn’t fit the Dorian style.  I decided to make a solo rock record, and, in December, 2014, I contacted Evergroove Studio in the mountains outside Evergreen, Colorado, and scheduled sessions for June, 2015.

Evergroove Studio

At this time I only had one finished rock song with lyrics, “The Voice of Doubt.”  Everything else was just rough ideas– a chord progression or a riff.  I had hundreds of these.  I had read in interviews that The Cure, The Church and Sonic Youth– 3 of my favorite bands– all wrote songs by writing and recording the music first, and then the lyricist would write lyrics.  I decided to try that technique.  So my first goal was to get the music composed and recorded in demo form for several songs.  I would write lyrics later.  I worked furiously on that for the next 5 months.  Meanwhile I was not only gigging with Scupanon and Dorian, but doing all the promotional and admininstrative work for both bands.  I was busy.  But I had no day job!

By May, 2015, I had a handful of song demos recorded, without lyrics.  I was ready to go into the studio.  I ran a Kickstarter Crowdfunding Project and raised $4,000– about half of the projected cost.  I covered the rest from my savings.

The Recording of Roses

The engineer and co-producer, Brad Smalling, brought in Cameron Hays to play bass and help with the song arrangements, and Ben Waligoske for lead guitar.  I recruited Dorian’s drummer, Jon Cox, to play drums.  We met a couple of times and rehearsed.  I told the “band” that I was open to suggestions on the arrangements, and the songs were changed even while recording in the studio.  I decided to record the basic tracks live in the studio– drums, bass and two guitars.  That was done in late June, 2015.

After the basics were recorded, I came back in July and recorded more guitar layers, and Ben recorded guitar solos for all the songs except “Carmine’s Dream.”  Brad brought jazz keyboardist Adam Bodine in to add keyboard parts.  He mainly played Evergroove’s Hammond B2 organ with the rotating Leslie speaker. 

Setup for drums, bass and rhythm guitar recording
Adam Bodine

I mentioned before that I wanted to use the technique of some of my favorite bands and write lyrics after the music was completed.  But I struggled with that, and decided to compose melodies on guitar instead, and make it a pure instrumental rock album.  One of the songs, The “Voice of Doubt,” already had lyrics, written years before.  It didn’t make sense to only have one song with lyrics on the album, so I I decided to hold it for a later album.  In 2019 I released it as a Total Flower Chaos single.

I spent the second half of the summer and the early fall composing and recording melodies and other guitar layers for the songs.  Mixing and mastering was completed in February, 2016. 

Album Title and Artwork

Many years before this, I was walking past a neighbor’s house, and their yard was all flowers.  And the flowers weren’t neatly arranged like a landscaping company would do.  It was wild, chaotic and natural-looking.  I stopped and looked at it and smiled, and said to myself, “this is total flower chaos.”  I then immediately said to myself, “hey!  That’s a good name for a band!”  I decided to make this new album with the Total Flower Chaos bandname, with the idea that I would form the band with that name after releasing it.  But the band idea took a detour, as we will see in a future chapter in this series.

Photo I took of my neighbor’s yard. “Total Flower Chaos”

In March, 2016, I hired Nick Jackson, who did the artwork for my second CD, Me, to design the artwork for the album.  I sent him photos of my neighbor’s yard, as well as photos from my front yard flower garden.  Nick chose a photo of the neighbor’s yard that featured roses.  He used software to distort it and I loved the design (see photo).  I decided to name the album Roses as a result of his design.  I also used his design for a Total Flower Chaos tshirt.  The tshirts were completed in May, 2016, and finally everything was in place for the release. 

On June 7, 2016, Roses by Total Flower Chaos was released. 

“Roses” by Total Flower Chaos album cover

How was Roses received?

The $8,000 I raised for the album was just enough to pay for the cost of recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, replication of 300 CDs, and digital distribution.  There was no money for promotion. 

As for the reception from my fans, the truth is, it was largely ignored.  I sold less than 10 CDs and downloads.  But actually, I expected a cool reception because most of you had become fans because of my acoustic performances and albums, and were probably bewildered by this instrumental psychedelic, hard rock album.  I realize that most people aren’t like me– loving both hard rock and folk music.  But I have met a few people who really like it.  “Black Mountain” seems to be the favorite song.

What I learned from Roses

I’m quite proud of Roses.  As a music composer and guitarist, it was a major step forward for me, another step beyond what I had done with Dorian.  I used 5 different guiitar tunings on these songs.  I blended hard rock and metal with Cure-like clean guitar melodies, Church-like psychedlic music and Sonic Youth-style noise.  I learned how to compose melodies on guitar– check out what I did with “Carmine’s Dream.”  If you had told me a year earlier that I would make an instrumental rock album, with composed guitar melodies, I would have told you you’re crazy, I could never do that.  But I did.  And it’s good!  And Roses was a step towards the original goal I had when I took up songwriting in 2004– to write rock songs and lead a rock band. 

Smell the Roses!

If you haven’t yet, please give a listen to the 5 songs of Roses.  You can listen for free at the Total Flower Chaos Bandcamp site.  (Note that this is a different site than the Rob Roper Bandcamp site.)  If you like the music, you can buy the Roses CD with it’s beautiful artwork on the Bandcamp site. You can also buy the CD at any of my live shows, whenever things get going again!  I will autograph any CD if you request it.  You can also download the album or individual songs on the Bandcamp site.  Bandcamp allows you to pay more than the listed price, if you want to help me recover some of my investment, and raise money to record my next album.

Total Flower Chaos songs are also available on all the streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc..  I have created a Spotify playlist of the 5 instrumentals plus the single, “Voice of Doubt.”  But keep in mind that a $1 download pays 1000 times more than a stream, so please consider downloading your favorite songs on the Bandcamp site.

Coming next:  my 3-song spoken word EP, Word, released in the same year as Roses

My Music Career (Part 1) Tucson 1988-1994

(This is the 7th chapter in my autobiographical series. It overlaps with, and supplements the previous chapter. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 3, 2020. I have expanded on it for the blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Music Moves to the Forefront of my Life

While working at National Semiconductor in Tucson, I had become friends with Gary Roberts, another technician at work, and played casually with him. Gary was a much better musician that me at the time, and was playing some paid solo gigs in Tucson. Here’s a photo of me playing with Gary at a birthday party I organized for myself at my apartment clubhouse in Tucson.

Towards the end of the years at National Semi, I got an idea for a song about the work environment while driving home from work. I wrote it as a parody of the old Muddy Waters blues tune, “Hootchie-Cootchie Man.” When I got home I got out a pen and paper and wrote down as much as I could remember, and then added to it. It was my first song. The company Christmas party was coming up, and they were having a talent show contest. I rounded up Gary to play bass, and another guitar player/technician to play lead guitar. I sang and played harmonica, in my best Muddy Waters imitation. The song ridiculed the company management and got a huge applause. It drove home lesson I already knew from 60’s rock music: the power of combining music with political organizing.

Early Attempts at Joining Bands

I remember auditioning for a New Wave cover band, and playing “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls. But they never called me back, and I realized I needed to get better as a guitar player if I wanted to be in a band, so I took some advanced guitar lessons. I learned songs by The Police and The Church. Up until then, I only knew how to play triad chords– major and minor chords, at the root position and as barre chords. But now I was learning what I was told were “modal” chords– chords that had other tones besides the root, third and fifth. I remember reading an interview with Andy Summers, guitarist for the Police, where he said his motto is to “avoid the 3rd at all costs.” The 3rd is what determines if a chord is major or minor. If you leave it out, the tonality is ambiguous. Andy’s chords would have the root, 5th, and maybe the major 2nd, suspended 4th, and minor 7th. I found out later that Andy had been playing jazz before he joined The Police; these were jazz chords. It opened up a whole new world for my guitar playing. It was the secret to learning how to play the music I loved.

I ran an ad for a band and met a young woman singer. We then recruited a drummer and bass player. I was very clear in my ad that I wanted the band to cover melancholy New Wave songs by bands such as 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure, etc. But after a couple months of practicing and learning the songs, the drummer and bass player said we should do happy dance songs. I packed up my guitar and amp and walked out.

I also joined a band during this time that played original songs– generally melancholy songs. I liked that. There were 3 songwriters in the band– the drummer, bass player (a married couple) and keyboard player. The bass player and keyboard player sang. I played rhythm guitar and there was another guy who played lead guitar. We played one outdoor gig on 4th Avenue in Tucson, and then the band broke up.

Tucson Bands in the Late 80’s and Early 90’s

Meanwhile I continued going to see local original bands in local Tucson venues. Some I especially liked were If…, The Onlys and the Sand Rubies. I remember seeing the Phoenix band The Gin Blossoms before they got signed.

I was searching. Trying to figure out what to do. How can I get into a band? A band that will play gigs at Club Congress and other places? I didn’t care about making it “big.” I just wanted to be in a band that played locally at the small clubs. Even that was proving hard to do, if not impossible. Why is it so hard? What do I have to do? How do I find people?

My Silly Search for a “Career”

I mentioned in the previous chapter (The Missing Years, Part 4), that I had quit National Semiconductor and taken a job at Burr Brown in Tucson, in 1990 or 1991. But after only working there a year, they were hit by layoffs, and being the new guy, I was laid off.  The layoff package included free career counseling. I met with the counselor, and took various tests, such as the Briggs-Myers, and followed the exercises in the book, What Color is Your Parchute?

I had made the conscious decision to end my career as a radical political activist– a “professional revolutionary.” What should my career be now? I didn’t want it to be electronics, or anything technical. I had mainly become an electronics tech for the purposes of union organizing. I had no great passion for it; it was practical, that’s all. It was paying the bills.

You walk through this world, but you can’t find your song
Doing what you should, not what you want

–from the title song on my 2012 album, The Other Side of Nowhere

In hindsight, it’s obvious that I had chosen a new career– music! In fact, I remember the counselor telling me at one point, “Seems to me that your career should be music.” But I dismissed the idea; I saw no hope of making a living playing the kind of music I loved. I didn’t know how the other bands did it. I didn’t know any of the people in the bands, and I was too shy to go up them after a show and introduce myself; I didn’t “network.” To me they were stars, and I assumed they would never talk to a nobody like me. In hindsight, that was a mistake. Some of them might have had rock star pretensions, but I bet there were some who would have helped me. Maybe one of them would have served as a songwriting mentor, or helped me find people to start a band with.

It wouldn’t be until 2007, at a class at the Rocky Mountain Song School, that it finally dawned on me– you need a plan. While you have a day job to pay the bills, you work hard at your music career, build a fan base, and then maybe eventually you can transition to doing music full-time. I wonder how much more I I could have accomplished, and how much further along I would be, if I had realized that in 1991 instead of 2007? If I hadn’t been too shy to ask for help?

You just need a little help
but you’re too shy to ask
You don’t want to be a burden
You’re afraid they wil laugh

–from my song, Apollo’s Little Bastard, on my 2011 album, Misfit

A Fun Job

After going through the career counseling– and rejecting music as a career– I took another electronics technician job at a small company in Tucson in March, 1992.  The company was called Lightning, Location and Protection (LLP).  They made lightning detection systems.  My plan was to work there for just a few months until I figured out what I wanted to do for a “career.”  I was also thinking about moving to another city, since the whole reason I had moved to Tucson was no longer relevant (see the previous chapter).  But I ended up working there for 8 years.  Unlike my previous jobs, this was a small company.  Thanks to my previous year of work with the engineering department at Burr-Brown, I was now a pretty good electronics technician.  My input was valued, and I was allowed to use my creativity on this job.  There were 3 other technicians in our group, and we got along great and laughed a lot.  My boss was David Firestine, a mandolin player who ran the Irish jam sessions in Tucson.  Dave was the greatest boss I ever had, probably because he never wanted to be a boss in the first place.  He kept the environment fun and loose.  That’s why I kept working there for so long;  that’s why I never decided on a “career;” I actually enjoyed my job.     

Meanwhile I continued my efforts to get into a band.  I also began composing music ideas on the guitar and recording them to cassette. I tried to write lyrics but struggled. I needed help with lyrics but didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know any songwriters. I didn’t know about any lyric-writing books. I didn’t know about any “song schools.”

Then, in 1994, my music career would take a big step forward when I met songwriter, singer and bass player Kurt Loken and we formed Faded Innocence. That will be the subject of the next chapter in this series.

Next: Faded Innocence

The Missing Years (Part 4)

(This is the sixth chapter of my autobiographical series. It covers 1983-1991, after I moved from Phoenix to Tucson and resigned from the SWP. The others can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning. This chapter was initially sent to my music fan email list on September 12, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

Independent Political Activist in Tucson, 1983-1991

After resigning from the SWP in the fall of 1983, I continued as an independent activist for the next several years.  At the time I resigned, there was a copper workers strike going on in Arizona.  The other copper companies had reached settlements with the Steelworkers union, but the Phelps-Dodge corporation demanded more concessions from the union.  The union went on strike, and for the first time in decades in the copper industry, the company tried to continue operating during the strike with scab labor.  The scabs were met by mass picket lines by the workers, and the liberal Democratic governor of Arizona, Bruce Babbitt, called out the National Guard to keep the mines open and break the strike. 

The two mining towns in Arizona where the strike was based were Ajo and Clifton/Morenci.  (Morenci was a company town, entirely owned by Phelps-Dodge, and Clifton was an adjacent independent town).  These were close-knit communities, where generations of people had worked in the mines.  The majority of the labor force was Mexican-American.  The importation of out-ot-town scabs made the strike not just a labor issue, but an issue of defending one’s community from outsiders trying to destroy it.

The union leadership, being tied to the Democratic Party, didn’t see the danger, and didn’t really do anything to rally support for the strike.  So my best friend, Eduardo, and I formed a support organization.  (Eduardo had quit the SWP right after I did.)  We organized a food drive for the striking mineworkers, helped tell their story to the media, and organized support rallies for them.  I wrote a series of articles about the strike for Labor Notes, a newsletter of the progressive wing of the labor movement.  But despite the soladarity of the workers and people of the communities, and the efforts of us and others, the strike was eventually broken, and the unions destroyed by the partnership of the New York-based Phelps-Dodge corporation and the Governor Babbitt.  It was yet another lesson in the treachery of the Democratic Party.

Union Organizer

When I moved to Tucson in 1983, I took a job at National Semiconductor, an electronics factory.  The job paid barely over minimum wage, which I think was $3.75/hour at the time.  That’s because the electronics industry in the US was largely non-union.  I decided to go back to school at the local community college for a two-year degree in electronics, so that I could become an electronics technician.  I didn’t have much interest in electronics;  I’ve never had a technical personality;  but I did it for two reasons:  one, since I didn’t want to use my college degree to teach, if I didn’t want to work shitty low-paying jobs the rest of my life, I would need to learn a skill.  The other reason was that I had decided to try and organize a union, and technicians moved around, fixing machines, so I would be able to meet and talk to a lot more workers.

By 1988 I had my electronics degree and had been working as a technician, and had an underground organizing committe of about a dozen workers.  We launched a petition campaign to get a refrigerator in the break room to store our lunches, and won.  But soon after that, layoffs began.  During the 1980’s, the deindustrialization of America had begun.  Electronics and other factories were being moved overseas.  Even the pathetically low wages we got were much more than the companies paid in other countries.  Many of our organizing committee were laid off.  The union drive fizzled out. 

Music and Fun!

After the union organizing committe ended, I decided to give up political activism and be “selfish” for the first time in my life. I was now 34-35 years old. I had given my youth to the “movement.” It was time to live a little before I was old. I was now free from the incessant SWP meetings and activity, and– with my Associates Degree in Electronics completed– more free time, I started to make up for what I missed the last 10 years.  The workforce at National Semiconductor was young.  The factory was on Tucson’s southside, which was mainly Mexican-American.  So were most of my co-workers and new friends.  I made a lot of friends there, and we partied together.  I was digging the New Wave music of the 80’s– The Cure, The Church, Modern English, Berlin, Missing Persons.  I was started going out to hear more live music in Tucson.  There were only a few live music clubs in Tucson, but I made the rounds of them.  The main one was Club Congress downtown. 

I was also dusting off my neglected acoustic guitar, electric guitar and amp, and starting to play more music. I wanted to get into a band. I took guitar lessons, and later, vocal lessons. This will be covered in more depth in the next chapter.

Coming out of Activist Retirement to Protest the Iraq War

In 1990 or 1991, I quit National Semiconductor and took an electronics technician job at Burr-Brown. This was a better job– I was working as an engineering technician, assisting the engineers. While I was working there, the first President George Bush decided to invade Iraq.  Although I had sworn off political activism for music a couple years earlier, I was so angry that I got back into it, and joined the Tucson coalition of people and groups to organize protests, this time operating as an independent.  I became a leader of the group.  We organized a march and rally in downtown Tucson.  I created a mixtape cassette of political songs to play as the marchers entered the rally site, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s antiwar anthem, “Born in the USA.” 

The antiwar coalition ended with the war.  I decide to really quit political activism for good, and focus on music, and joining a band. 

This concludes the chapters in this series called “The Missing Years,” so-called because I was reluctant to talk to them about anybody I met after 1991. I suffered a mid-life crisis when I turned 39, in 1993. I felt that I had wasted my youth, pretending to be a revolutionary, accomplishing nothing. I became very depressed. I had a great girlfriend, and she broke up with me because she didn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who was depressed all the time. I can’t blame her. But I snapped out of it six months later, deciding that what’s done is done, so why not make the best of the years to come? And that meant moving music to center stage.

Next: My Music Career, Part 1.

The Missing Years (Part 3)

(This is the fifth chapter of my autobiographical series. It covers 1978-1983, after I moved from Houston to Phoenix. The others can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning. This chapter was initially sent to my music fan email list on September 6, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

Phoenix 1978-1983

In my last email I mentioned that I had gotten away from rock music in the 70’s.  I still hate most 70’s rock.  But after I moved to Phoenix in the Fall of 1978, I got back into rock music, thanks to the arrival of Punk and New Wave music.  Punk bands like The Clash were raw rock with angry political lyrics.  I still remember being at a friend’s apartment when he put on The Clash’s first album.  I had never heard anything like that before but I loved it immediately.  “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”  Hell yeah.

New Wave music was totally different than punk, both musically and lyrically, but I loved it also.  Musically it was much more interesting than the boring 70’s rock music, and lyrically the songs, while usually not political, tended to be  emotional and introspective.  When I first heard The Police on the radio, I was blown away.  They didn’t sound like anything I had heard before.  The guitar style was so different and cool.  And I still remember being in my apartment when U2’s “New Year’s Day” came on the radio.  I had never heard that style of guitar playing before.  It was so different, and so cool.  Other New Wave bands I loved included The Pretenders, Berlin, Modern English, 10,000 Maniacs, Missing Persons and A Flock of Seagulls.

But playing music then was an impossible dream.  All my time was spent going to meetings and doing political activity, and working.  A couple of Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members turned me onto political folk music, and I would sometimes get out my acoustic guitar and play at parties but that’s it.  But when I would go see a New Wave band at a local club in Phoenix, I couldn’t help but think “I wish that was me up there.”

Political Activism in Phoenix

In 1978, the SWP leadhership realized that the Sixties were over, and began a campaign to get members to take jobs in factories and join unions to build the party among blue-collar workers.  Since I didn’t want to teach high school, and needed a job anyway, I took a job at Capitol Castings, a steel foundry in Tempe, just outside of Phoenix.  I worked there for the next 3 years and was a member of the Steelworkers union.  I was pretty freaked out the first time I saw a giant bucket of molten steel being poured into sand molds.  The work was hard and dangerous;  I went to the emergency room twice because my fingers had been smashed by the machinery.  I shudder to think of that now;  I came close to never being able to play the guitar again.

I got a one-room apartment
and a beat-up old car
I work in a factory
a disgrace to my family

–from my song None of the Above, to be recorded on my new album

The Sandinista Revolution in NIcaragua

In July, 1979 a popular uprising led by the Sandinista guerilla movement overthrew the longtime US-backed Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua.  The Sandinista revolution generated a lot of hope and enthusiasm around the world.  The Sandinistas setup a coalition government of all those who had opposed the Somoza dictatorship, and scheduled–and held– free elections for a new government.  There was freedom of speech and press.  Opposition parties were not suppressed.  The Sandinistas were for a mixed economy, with some industries nationalized but most private enterprise.  The death penalty and life sentences were abolished. 

Sandinista leader Tomas [ add accent ] Borge had been imprisoned and tortured by the Somoza dictatorship.  He became Minister of the Interior in the new government.  But rather than do the same to his torturers, he forgave them, and wrote a poem, My Personal Revenge, explaining why.  Jackson Browne turned the poem into a very beautiful and moving song.

I Travel to Nicaragua for the Revolution’s First Anniversary

A year later, I travelled to Nicaragua with two friends from Phoenix to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution.  My second teaching field in college had been Spanish, so I was mostly fluent at that point, and one of my friends was a fully bilingual Mexican-American.  So we were able to converse with the people there.  It was great to see what an actual revolution was like.  That could be the subject of an entire chapter in this email series, but for now let me just say what impressed me was that the revolution was led by young people– teenagers even.  I was 25 at the time, and I felt old.  They told me stories of erecting barricades in Managua, the capitol city, to repel the dictator’s army.  I travelled to two other cities, including Estelí, where some of the fiercest fighting had taken place.  It was sobering to see all the bullet holes in the walls of almost every house there.

I had loaded my camera with color slide film and took a lot of photos there.  When I came back to Phoenix, I put on a couple of slide show presentations about the trip.  Unfortunately, I can’t post any here for you because they’re slides, so I can’t scan them.  Maybe someday I’ll take those slides to a shop and have them converted to digital photo files.  You’ll have to settle for these old buttons I found.

Reagan Organizes to Destroy the Revolution

The Reagan administration began re-organizing, funding and training the former dictator Somoza’s army in the border nations of Costa Rica and Honduras.  These groups conducted terrorist operations against civilians inside Nicaragua.  The Socialist Workers Party and YSA formed coalitions with other organizations and individuals to protest the US government’s actions.  The pressure from our efforts and internationally was enough for Congress to cut off aid to the counter-revolutionaries, or Contras, as they were known.  Reagan’s team, headed by Oliver North, then organized a scheme to allow the Contras to smuggle cocaine into US cities, especially Los Angeles.  The CIA/Contra leaders used Black street gangs to sell it.  This led to the crack cocaine explosion in Black communities in the US.  All this was exposed by the journalist Gary Webb.  The Reagan administration organized a slander campaign against Webb, which resulted in his death, officially pronounced as a suicde.  His articles were published as a book, Dark Alliance:  The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.  The movie, Kill the Messenger, was made based on the book.  The movie is excellent.

The Iran-Contra Scandal and the Overthrow of the Nicaraguan Revolution

Another aspect of the Reagan/North fundraising campaign for the Contra terrorists was to secretly sell arms to Iran and fund the money to the Contras.  Arms sales to Iran was illegal.  So the Reagan/North gang was breaking a whole series of US laws in order to raise money for terrorists– drug smuggling and illegal arm sales to Iran– not to mention organizing and directing mass murder.  When this became exposed, Congressional Democrats held hearings and pretended to be outraged, but, of course, they did nothing about it.  To this day, Oliver North heads a company that provides mercenaries to the US military.  Other key operatives in this criminal operation, such as John Negroponte, served as US Ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush from 2001-2004 and helped orchestrate the fake “weapons of mass destruction” excuse for the US invasion of Iraq.  Another, Elliott Abrams, continued to hold responsible posts in the US government, and is currently serving as President Trump’s Special Representative for Iran. 

The Nicaraguan government finally caved in to the terrorist campaign, and new elections were held in 1991.  The US government funded an opposition party linked the Contras.  (The Democrats did not object to this.)  Naturally, they won, and began reversing the gains of the revolution, and restoring Nicaragua to a third-world country serving the interests of foreign corporations.  So when the Democrats profess outrage at “Russian interference” in US elections, I call bullshit.  And I call them what they are– hypocrits.

Rob Roper:  Socialist Candidate for US Congress

In 1980, the SWP chose me as their candidate for the US House of Representatives, running against John Rhodes, the long-time leader of the Republicans in the House.  The Democrats didn’t even field a candidate.  I participated in a live TV debate with Rhodes, and with the other candidates for national office.  A former Democratic staffer who had recently come over to the SWP did research on Rhodes voting record, and so I was prepared with notecards on various issues.  When someone from the audience asked Rhodes about supporting veterans, Rhodes claimed he did.  I countered with the exact bill number and date when he had voted against an increase in veterans benefits.  I swear I could hear Rhodes audibly groan.  I then stated that I was in favor of supporting veterans who had been wounded physically or psychologically in this country’s wars.   

I enjoyed being a candidate, and public speaking.  I worked hard at it.  I learned from listening to recordings of the speeches of Malcolm X.  I also learned from hearing the speeches of Peter Camejo, the SWP’s Presidential candidate in 1976.  Camejo was the greatest public speaker I had ever heard in person.  Both Malcolm X and Camejo used humor and historical anecdotes to make their points.  And they didn’t read their speeches.  I tried to do that, too.  I prepared my speeches in outline form, with historical anecdotes (easy for me since I was a history major) and left room for improvisation.  Most of the other SWP candidates wrote out their speeches word-for-word, without humor or anecdotes, just giving the party line.  Boring.  My speeches were more like musical performances.  Needless to say, I got a better reaction from the audiences that the other candidates, and recruited more members.  My popularity grew, and I was now a leader of the YSA and SWP.  I was oblivious at the time, but my popularity was viewed by the national leadership and their local followers as a threat to them.

The Decline of the Socialist Workers Party

The national leadership of the SWP had mostly come from college students active in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960’s.  From there they went straight on to the SWP full-time staff.  They had no experience working real jobs with real workers.  By 1980, they had been “going to work” in their office in New York City for the past 15 years or so.  They were completely isolated from the American working class.  But they styled themselves “proletarian” leaders and handed down decisions to the local branches that were increasingly out-of-touch with reality.

Despite my conflicts with the party bureaucrats, they still chose me as the SWP’s candidate for US Senate in 1982.  I guess nobody else wanted to do it.  That was fine with me, it allowed me to speak to union meetings and at other events, and bring working-class people around the SWP.  But as members began to question the NYC leadership’s policies more and more, the New York leaders became more paranoid and repressive.  Two years later, they cancelled the party convention in 1983 rather than face criticism of their policies, which was a blatant violation of the party constitution.  They expelled members who expressed opinions different from the leadership.  But mainly members just quit.  The workers I had recruited began dropping out.  I tried to work within the SWP to reform it, but by 1983 it had become clear that was impossible.  The organization I had joined at 18 and devoted the last 10 years of my life to– the best years”– according to most people, was dying and I had to admit I couldn’t save it.  All that was left was the out-of-touch and paranoid NYC leadership and their local ass-kissers who did what they were told.  Not the kind of organization that would ever make a difference. 

I Move to Tucson, Resign from the SWP

I had moved to Tucson in 1983, because tension between me and the local leadership and reached toxic levels.  I wanted to get out of that atmosphere and make sure that it wasn’t just a local problem.  It quickly became clear that the problem came from the top, and I resigned from the Socialist Workers Party in the fall of 1983.

Next:  Tucson 1983-1991:  I continue political activism as an independent, but eventually end my career as a political activist in favor of a new one in music.