Tag Archives: Rob Roper

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 2)

1975-1978 Age 21-24 The Houston Years

(This is the fourth chapter of my autobiographical series. 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 1, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

In the previous chapter, I said that the City of Dallas had transferred me to a job where I worked alone, on the graveyard shift, and my days off were Monday and Tuesday.  Whether they did this because they were worried I was trying to organize a union, or because of my socialist activity, I don’t know.  But it definitely cramped my style, both in terms of political activity and social activity.  Having to go to work on Friday and Saturday nights at 10pm sucked.  Really sucked.  No more hanging at Mother Blues– or anywhere.  And what girl wants to go on a date on a Monday or Tuesday night?  The SWP had been urging me to move to Houston, where there was a branch of the party.  I had no desire to move to Houston, which had a well-deserved reputation as a redneck city, but given that I was no longer going college, and my social life killed by the new work shift, I gave in and moved in January, 1975.

Confronting the KKK in New Orleans

Soon after moving to Houston, I agreed to be part of a 3-person team of Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members who travelled to various college towns in Texas and Louisiana to recruit new members.  We would typically setup a literature table and sell the Young Socialist newspaper, books and pamphlets.  We would also organize a meeting where we took turns giving a speech and hopefully recruiting new members.  While visiting the University of New Orleans, a white student came up to our literature table, identified himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and threatened to attack us if we held the meeting.  It was my turn to give the speech.  The University of New Orleans was a community college;  most of the students were from working class or middle class families, and there were a lot of Black students.  At our literature table we met members of the Black Student Union, partly because we sold books of Malcolm X’s speeches.  I told the Black students of the threat made by the KKK, and asked if they would be willing to sit on the front row of seats and serve as security.  They readily agreed.  By 1975, things had changed in the South.  These young Black students were itching to kick some Klan ass.

Because of the threat by the Klan, and the response of the Black students, this was by far the best-attended meeting we held on the tour.  There were 80-100 people in attendance.  I was fired up and gave a good speech;  it’s the same high I get now when I play music for a big audience.  The Klan members, after seeing the first three rows filled with Black students, wisely chose not to attack me, and remained in the back, and limited themselves to hostile questions and comments after my speech.  The FBI had an undercover agent there, too.  Their files on me confirm that we recruited 5 new members there, enough for a new YSA chapter.

University of Houston:  School, Work, Political Activity, Music

In the fall of 1975 I enrolled at the University of Houston and was a leader of the YSA chapter there.  I also became a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).  I lived with a girl named Ellen, who I had met in Dallas, for all but my last semester of college in Houston.  During all my college years I either worked part or fulltime.  I had various jobs, but the one that last the longest was at UPS.  I unloaded and loaded trucks in the horrible Houston heat and humidity, and UPS foreman were constantly pushing us to work faster.  The work sucked big-time, but it paid better than any other part-time job a college student could get, so we put up with it.  Eventually I got promoted to an easier job of sorting packages coming off the trucks onto conveyer belts to be loaded into other trucks.  I led a organizing drive by the Teamsters, but that failed.  The workforce was students, and so there was a lot of turnover.  Nobody considered this a permanent job.  And the Teamsters staff was never very serious about it.

Between work, classes, homework, and political activity I had little time for partying like most college students.  I would invite a friend or two over to our apartment on Saturday nights to drink beer and listen to my records.  The 70’s were bad for rock music, in my opinion.  I found the music of bands like Aerosmith and Journey boring, and their vapid lyrics about sex and parying even more boring.  I still hate that shit.  Instead I got into other types of music– Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Maria Muldaur, Ricky Lee Jones and Alt Country/Texas songwriters– Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willie Nelson, B.W. Stevenson.  Occasionally I would go to small live music bars to see people like Shake Russell play.  Shake would play his songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a seeming random group of local musicians.  I was thinking:  that looks like fun;  I wish I could do that.

My political activity at the University of Houston campus consisted of selling the YSA’s monthly newspaper, the Young Socialist, and the SWP weekly newspaper, The Militant, and staffing our literature table once a week.  We would also hold forums where one of us would speak on current issues, and sometimes sponsor guest speakers that the SWP and YSA had organized national tours for, such as Tsietsi Mashinini, leader of the Soweto student uprising in South Africa, and Leah Tsemel, Israeli human rights lawyer who defended Palestinians.

We also participated in broader coalitions around various issues.  Antiracist work and coalitions were a top priority; more on that in the next paragraphs.  The women’s rights movement was focused on getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed, and our women members participated in the National Organization for Women and the campus women’s group.  We supported and publicized the struggles of people internationally living under US-supported authoritarian regimes, such as the Shah of Iran, the Blacks living under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Palestinians under occupation by the Zionist government of Israel.  But results were minimal;  by 1975 the “Sixties” were long gone, and the University of Houston was hardly a Berkeley even in the Sixties. 

I dug out my souvenir box and found these buttons from 1975-1991.

The Anti-Racist Movement in the 1970’s

After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, legal discrimination ended in the South.  Gone were the white and colored water fountains of my youth in Jackson, and Blacks could now vote without fear of KKK violence.  The Black struggle moved to a new level– ending illegal, defacto discrimination.  Now the South became like the North, where Blacks were legally equal with whites, but in practice suffered discrimination in all walks of life.  The schools in black neighborhoods received less funding that the schools in white neighborhoods.  Real estate agents refused to show homes to blacks in white neighborhoods, and if they tried to buy one, the banks would deny the loans.  Qualified blacks were turned down for jobs in favor of less-qualified white job applicants.  Blacks were not admitted to colleges but whites with lower test scores were.  And so on.  This type of discrimination was harder to prove, and resulted in the demand for affirmative action, with quotas, to force racist institutions to end discrimination.  White police in black neighborhoods were far more brutal and violent than they were in suburban white neighborhoods (sound familiar?).  Then there was the death penalty, which was disproportionately used against Black defendants.  The SWP and YSA supported all these struggles against racism.

Please allow me a short digression here to talk about my mom again.  In order to combat housing discrimination, in 1968 the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, which included an enforcement agency.  My mom took a job with this agency.  They would first send a black person to inquire about renting an apartment, and if they were told there were none available, they would then send my mom, a white person.  If they offered my mom an apartment, they were busted.  I remember my mom was proud of this work;  she was sort of an undercover antiracist activist.

The Boston Busing Crisis

In 1974, a judge ruled in a favor of a lawsuit file by Blacks ordering the Boston schools to end defacto segregation.  Whites in Boston rioted when black students were bused into the formerly all-white schools.  I have to admit, this southerner could not help but notice the hypocrisy of the white Yankees.  The whites in the north supported the Civil Rights movement as long as it was confined to the South.  But, as I told you in my previous chapters, my school in Jackson, Mississippi was peacefully integrated in 1967, and the schools in Dallas peacefully integrated in 1971.  Southern white kids of my generation– most of them, at least– changed their attitudes and became friends with Blacks.  Yet when the schools were integrated in supposedly progressive Boston– the heart of the Abolitionist movement before the Civil War– the whites rioted rather than accept Black students into their schools.  Now who’s superior, Mr. and Ms. Yankee White Liberal?

It was around this time that a YSA member turned me on to Randy Newman and his brilliant album about the South, Good Ole Boys.  Randy Newman liked to write “in character.”  It’s like an actor playing a bad guy in a movie, except in movies, everyone knows your acting.  With songwriting, a lot of people assume all your songs are about yourself.  So it takes a lot of courage for songwriters to write “in charracter.”  The opening song, Rednecks, is written from the point of view of a southern racist redneck, who Newman ridicules, but he also uses that character to blast northern hypocrisy.  I immediately went out and bought my own copy of the album, and I listened to it over and over.  In addition to the brilliant satirical lyrics, the music is beautiful.  I would rank it as one of the Top 10 albums of all time, and probably one of the Top 5.

The Anti-War Movement and the Anti-Racist Movement

You must permit me another digression here.  In the Sixties, the SWP and YSA played leadership roles in the anti-Vietnam War movement.  Their strategy was to form broad-based coalitions open to all individuals and organizations who favored peaceful marches demanding the troops be brought home immediately.  “Out Now!” was the slogan.  They were highly successful, organizing the largest marches against the war, which, along with the soldiers refusing the fight, pressured Nixon into ending the war.  The SWP and YSA-influenced antiwar coalitions embraced the troops, both active duty and those who had returned, and many of those ex-soldiers played a leadership role in the antiwar coalitions.  This history is well-documented in Fred Halstead’s book, Out Now!  Fred, himself a veteran, was the SWP’s main leader in the antiwar movement, and, to my knowledge, his book on the antiwar movement is still the best.

Many years later, when the government was trying to head off opposition to its new wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, a myth was created that the anti-Vietnam War protesters were against the soldiers.  This big lie is easily disproved in Halstead’s book, and documentary movies such as Sir! No Sir!  Even in the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam war, which is weak on the antiwar movement, some of the soldiers he interviews note that they joined the antiwar movement when they got home from Vietnam, some of them forming the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  In GI opposition to the Vietnam War, 1965-1973 historian Howard Zinn, a leader of the antiwar movement, is well-worth reading.  This article and this one (the latter has great photos), also effectively refute the big lie of the antiwar movement being against the troops, and the fact that soldiers, or “G.I.s”, as they were know then, were an important component of the antiwar movement.

The SWP and YSA tried to apply their successful anti-war coalition-building strategy to the anti-racist movement, centered around the Boston busing crisis.  As part of that strategy, the YSA initiated the National Student Coalition Against Racism.  I travelled to Boston to attend the founding convention.  I met with members of the Black Student Union at U of H and helped initiate a local chapter.  After the Boston crisis died down, we tried to expand the coalition to other antiracist issues, such as affirmative action and police brutality.  But unfortunately, this attempt to build an antiracist coalition failed.  Part of the reason was, no doubt, that the most gifted Black leaders of the time– Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and some of the Black Panther Party leaders– had been assassinated.  Most of the rest had be co-opted into the Democratic Party machine. The SWP and YSA were unable to fill the void, because they had few black members, having recruited most of their members from the mainly white antiwar movement, and Blacks were not inclined to join coalitions with predominately white organizations.  Their mistrust of white liberals and white radicals was understandable and justified.  And I think the fact that there was no central issue in the antiracist fight at the time was a factor.  Today, there is a central key issue– the issue of police murders in the Black Community– and, as a result, there is a national coalition–Black Lives Matter.

When the email series about my discography morphed into a semi-autobiographical essay, I mentioned that I had been observing the Black Lives Matter protests with interest, because I used to be an activist myself.  Now you know. 

Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education, History and Spanish

I majored in Secondary Education, with a focus on History and Spanish.  I didn’t want to teach high school;  I was too shy and afraid of how to handle discipline problems.  But at the time I thought that was the only career open to me in the social sciences, especially history, which I loved (still do).  In my final Spring semester, I did the required student teaching which confirmed I did not want to teach high school.  I needed two more Spanish classes to graduate, and found that the UofH had classes in Guadalajara, Mexico.  I signed up for that, and lived with a family that spoke no English.  I had to speak Spanish all the time.  I had a headache the first three days because my brain had to work 10 times harder just to communicate.  But by the 5th week, I noticed that I was thinking in Spanish.  I passed my fluency test and remained fluent in Spanish for a few years, but as the saying goes, “use it or lose it,” so I’ve forgotten a lot of Spanish since then.  I can just get by now.

Goodbye Houston, Hello Phoenix

I graduated from the University of Houson in the summer of 1978.  At the time the SWP was growing and expanding into new cities.  I never really liked Houston anyway, and was ready for a change.  I asked if they could use help starting a new branch, and the SWP leadership suggested Phoenix.  I quickly agreed, and moved there in August. 

Next:  1978-1991:  Phoenix, Tucson, Qutting the SWP/YSA, Independent Political Activity, Music

The Missing Years (Part 1)

1972-1974 Age 18-20

(This is the third chapter of my autobiographical series. Go here for Chapter 1 and here for Chapter 2. It was initially sent to my music fan email list on August 29, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

The previous blog, “LIttle White Boy Part 2,” ended with me graduating from high school in 1972.  This blog is the first of what I call my “Missing Years.”  You’ll see why I call them that.  This one picks up with after high school graduation and covers the next 3 years of my life. 

My First Two College Years in Dallas, 1972-1974

I had started college in the fall of 1972 at Mountain View Community College in Dallas.  I was the oldest of 7 kids (my mom was Catholic, remember) and my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a university.  I didn’t put forth much effort in applying for scholarships because I was so shy that the idea of going to a university in another city where I didn’t know anyone was a little scary to me.  So I stayed home and went to the community college where many of my other closest friends were going.

1972:  My First Election

In May, 1972, I graduated from Kimball High School in Dallas.  Three months later, I turned 18 and was eligible to vote for the first time.  That summer, George McGovern had been nominated by the Democrats to run against Nixon for President.  He had used the anti-war movement to get the nomination.  But when I watched his acceptance speech, live on TV, rather than praise the Americans who had protested the war– including the soldiers– he sucked up to the pro-war crowd.  I was appalled and angry at this utter betrayal of the people who supported him.  He lost my vote right there. 

The League of Women Voters used to send out a voting guide with information on all the candidates before an election.  There were socialists running.  Now I had somebody to vote for.  They were called the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).  They were against the war, anti-racist, pro-labor, pro women’s rights, and condemned the duplicity of the Democrats.  They got my vote.  To this day, I don’t vote for Democrats or Republicans.  I don’t play the lesser-evil game.  I only vote for candidates whose platform I support.  Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1920, said, “It’s better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”  The lesser evil is still evil.

Not a Democrat, or Republican
    –from Misfit by Rob Roper 

Work

I’ve worked jobs since I was eleven years old.  My first jobs were mowing neighbors’ yards for money.  After moving to Dallas, I got jobs delivering newspapers early in the morning.  My first on-the-books job was in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I was 15.  I worked as a lifeguard at a City of Dallas swimming pool.  Then, at some point in my junior or senior year of high school, I got a job at a Target store, unloading trucks.  Most of the money I made was stashed in a savings account.  Some went to buy a good stereo system and records.  Money well spent!

Vietnam and the Draft

At some point in 1973, I took a full-time job at the City of Dallas water department.  I was working second shift, 3-11pm.  I only had to work about 3 hours of the time, so I had time to do homework.  There was one other person working second shift with me, a Black man in his early 20’s named Charles.  Charles had been in Vietnam and told me stories of what it was like.  Lieutenants right out of West Point, clueless about the reality of Vietnam, making soldiers stand for inspection each morning in the jungle when there were snipers around– stupid and dangerous.  This lieutenant was “fragged”– killed by his own troops.  I learned later that the majority of US officers killed in Vietnam were fragged.  Charles told me that he once saw his sergeant shelling a Vietnamese farmer’s crops with mortars just for sadistic fun.  Charles aimed his M-16 at him and told him if he fired one more round he’d kill him.  Charles’ best friend was killed in battle right next to him.  Life was cheap, and it was largely random luck who lived and who died.  The Hmong people sold heroin to US soldiers.  This was allowed by the US military because the Hmong were pro-American and anti-communist, and the US had few friends among the Vietnamese they were supposedly protecting from communism.  Charles started using heroin after seeing his friend killed.  I think he had gotten off it by the time I met him.  Now he just smoked pot.  We would talk politics and music at work.  Charles turned me on to the legendary comedian Richard Prior.

When I turned 18 on August 31, 1972, I had to register for the draft.  At that time, they had gone to a lottery.  Birthdays were randomly picked.  I was worried about what I would do.  By 1972, even in conservative Dallas, Texas, most young people were against the Vietnam War.  There were only 3 choices if drafted:  go into the army, go to prison, or go to Canada.  They were all bad choices.  If I was too shy to go to a university in a nearby Texas town, I definitely couldn’t imagine going to Canada.  Going to prison was scary.  And I definitely didn’t want to join the army.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t the risk of being killed that scared me, I was terrified that I would have to kill people– people who I had nothing against.  But I never had to choose;  my birthday was a very high number in the lottery;  only the first 13 birthdays were chosen.  Nixon had been steadily withdrawing troops, due to pressure from the anti-war movement, and because the troops were rebelling and refusing to fight.  An agreement would be signed with North Vietnam in January, 1973, and the rest of the troops would be withdrawn.  Without US troops doing the fighting, the puppet South Vietnamese government would fall two years later.

Music in Dallas

Working full-time at the City of Dallas allowed me to move out from my parents and get my own apartment.  I loved being on my own.  My apartment was just north of downtown Dallas, where there was a great record store and several live music clubs.  What more do you need?  I lived near the now-legendary Mother Blues, now immortalized by Ray Wylie Hubbard in a song.  Check out this video of Ray performing the song, it’s funny.  I saw Ray perform there as well as a lot of other people.  And there were other live music venues in the area as well, although I’ve long forgotten their names.  I remember seeing Jimmy Buffett playing as an acoustic duo in a small bar near my apartment, before he became famous.  He was hiliarious.  It was just before his great album A1A was released, so I heard those songs first at that little bar.  When he played “Door #3”– a co-write with Steve Goodman, I thought I would die laughing.

Joining the Young Socialist Alliance

The 1972 League of Women Voters voting guide had listed the address of the SWP campaign office in Houston.  They had a youth group called the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA).  I wrote to them and asked to join.  In early 1973, I became a member.  Throughout 1973 and 1974 I read the newspapers of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), as well as a lot of books and pamplets.  I became aquainted with their brand of socialistm and Marxism.  The SWP and YSA were Trotskyist;  their origin was in the factional fight between Stalin and Trotsky after the Russian Revolution.  As you know, Stalin won that fight and Trotsky was exiled and eventually murdered by Stalin.  Trotsky and his followers said they supported socialism and democracy, which appealed to me.  There was no way I would have supported any anti-democratic or repressive form of socialism.  I was someone who liked to read different ideas, analyze them, and debate them.  I liked to think for myself and form my own opinions.  Still do.

The FBI Spies on Me

After I completed my second year of college in 1974, I took a break from college.  After 14 years of school, I was just tired of doing homework.  Later that year, the City of Dallas water department moved me to the graveyard shift, 10pm-6am, which included weekend nights.  That ruined my ability to go to the music clubs.  Nobody played on Monday and Tuesday nights, my nights off.  It also made it hard to have girlfriends.  Looking back on it, I wonder if that was done because of my politics.  Or maybe it was because I was trying to organize a union.  (In going through my old stuff, I found a union card from February 1974.  I don’t remember that.)  So maybe they were trying to get me to quit.  If so, they succeeded.

I found out later that the FBI was spying on me.  After the Watergate scandal which caused President Nixon to resign, Congress passed the Freedom of Information act.  Activists and journalists had previously exposed the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which showed that the FBI was spying on civil rights, antiwar and other groups engaged in peaceful, lawful political dissent.  I was curious what they had on me, so in 1980 I requested my files.  I found out that the FBI had interviewed my teachers at Mountain View Community College.  The FBI agent wrote, “ROPER has been characterized by his teachers as being intelligent and idealistic, but is a person who will, in most probability, re-evaluate his purpose in life and will establish himself as a useful member of society working within acceptable parameters.”  Obviously they were wrong lol.

Now the government’s unconstitutional spying is even bigger.  In 2013, an employee of the CIA, Edward Snowden, revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was tapping into information from Google, Facebook and other internet companies, including cellphone data, to spy on not just activists, but all Americans.  Snowden had to flee the country, because he knew that he would be imprisoned and possibly executed for being a whistle-blower, but he believed that Americans had a right to know what their government was doing to them.  His autobiography, Permanent Record, is well worth reading.  I wrote a song about this, Metadata, which I plan to include on my new album.

We’re watching you.  Watching everything you do.
    –from Metadata by Rob Roper.  To be recorded and released on my new album.

In the next chapter, I move to Houston, attend the University of Houston, and become more active in the SWP/YSA.