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The True Believer: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Today’s Bizarre Social, Political and Crazy World – and it was published in 1951

January 14, 2019
bradspurgeon

My copy of The True Believer

My copy of The True Believer

PARIS – If you want to know what is happening in the world today, read this book first published in 1951. If you are shocked, confused, disgusted or even enamoured by Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, Orban, Gilets Jaunes, Salvini, Putin, Xi, and all this talk about making every country great again until there is no more world, then read this book published in 1951. If you haven’t got a clue about what I just wrote above, then read this book published in 1951. I have never been a person to seek to find all the answers in one place, but having just finished reading “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer, I have found just about all the answers to what is happening in our world – politically and socially – today. And I feel both a little better, and a little worse for it. But mostly better.

That the book was published in 1951 puts our world into perspective, of course. But at the same time, when putting human nature and its political systems into perspective, there should be no surprise for what is happening today. In a nutshell, “The True Believer,” puts it all into a nutshell: The psychology behind mass movements – looking at just about all of history up until 1951 – and sums up without favour to one side or the other exactly why mass movements find their adherents and their leaders. Here we see the common thread throughout human history between such things as communism, fascism, Nazism, as well as world religions like Catholicism and Protestantism and Judaism, and, yes, terrorism, and yes, populism.

Before the pro-Trumps or the anti-Trumps try to put a label on whose side Eric Hoffer is on, please, again, understand that he is not on any side: Hoffer was a longshoreman throughout his life and spent his free time reading, studying and examining both historical and contemporary movements. A longshoreman is a guy who works on the docks in shipyards, loading goods on ships, etc. A longshoreman is a worker. Hoffer was not part of any educational, social or political elite. He published “The True Believer” at nearly 50 years old – he was born in 1898 in The Bronx – and spent his life living his writing and his studies, and not seeking any particular status in society, beyond that of being a longshoreman – until his writing success gave him the possibility to leave the docks in 1964, and then become an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley until 1970, when he retired from public life.

The book, it turns out, became a bestseller, and was republished many times. “The True Believer” is still available if you go to Amazon, where you can even buy a Kindle edition. I came to this book last month as I was looking at my bookshelves and saw it once again (my 1966 Harper & Row, Perennial Library edition); I had picked it up decades ago from who knows where – I think in a pile of books that my fellow employees put in a pile at the office for sharing – and I had put it on my shelf and been attracted to read it many, many times, but never sat down to read more than the first page.

The book begins: “It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life. A revolutionary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change.”

That was it. This time, thanks to our crazy contemporary world, I was hooked from those words onward. I immediately began to think about the social movements the world is facing today, and the common thread that ties them all together: Desire for sudden and immediate change.

As I read the book, I found answers to most of the questions I have had about all the world’s biggest, most obvious social movements of today, but also and most importantly, answers to why people have elected liars, bigots, racists, dictator-leaning leaders, and how they can let such often ignorant, lying, leaders run their countries into the ground.

I cannot go through the whole book here, and prefer to give just enough of a taste that anyone who reads this will get the book and read it. It reads, by the way, like a treatise, or even a manifesto. But it is written in very simple English, and laid out in chapters, subheadings, and other bits and pieces that make it easy to pick up and read in short spurts – as I did – on the metro (were it not for the lack of good lighting these days in public transport built for backlit screens) or in down moments anytime during the day.

Among the fabulous, burning questions it answered for me were such things as why the “true believers” do accept a leader who is a patent liar who denies the truth on subjects that are clearly able to have their facts checked: The reason is because the believers are far more interested in having a person to believe “in” than having a person whose facts are true. The truth, in fact, means nothing to the true believer, only the fact of having a leader they believe will lead them to the change they desire. Ergo Trump, of course, and the fact that he creates his own “facts.” His followers do not care about his lying, only the change they believe he can bring.*

But there is much in the book to give me hope, as well. One of the things that Hoffer says a great leader must have to succeed in a social movement is the ability to develop a core group of close advisers and schemers and lieutenants around him (or her). This group not only sees the mission the way the leader does, but remains loyal – and he to them – and together they work to break down the system and create their new movement. Of course, while we know lots of stories about Trump looking for loyalty above all from government leaders around him, the bigger story of the Trump administration is his complete inability to keep for any length of time any loyal group of advisers around him. Mostly he is himself incapable of being loyal to any other individual, from what I have read in the news.

Of course, some things in history have changed. While Hoffer speaks about the leader’s need to control the media, and in the past this meant state control of the media, today, the new fascist dictators of the world no longer have to control newspapers and television stations when they simply discredit them through their own use of the social media – see Trump and Salvini as among the best examples of this. (Of course, Putin’s apparent setting up of a group of people to manipulate foreign social media could be seen as another kind of example.)

The True Believer in its own words

I have done far more talking here than I planned, and I have given far too few examples of the kind of writing this book presents us on every page. So I will here open the book randomly three times in three different places – I took no notes while reading it – and write down below the paragraphs that jump out at me on the random pages in order to give examples:

1) “It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt was a slave revolt, a religious movement and a nationalist movement. The militant nationalism of the Japanese is essentially religious. The French Revolution was a new religion. It had “its dogma, the sacred principles of the Revolution – Liberté at sainte égalité. It had its form of worship, an adaptation of Catholic ceremonial, which was elaborated in connection with civic fêtes.”

2) Imitation is an essential unifying agent. The development of a close-knit group is inconceivable without a diffusion of uniformity. The one-mindedness and Gleichschaltung prized by every mass movement are achieved as much by imitation as by obedience. Obedience itself consists as much in the imitation of an example as in the following of a precept.
Though the imitative capacity is present in all people, it can be stronger in some than in others. The question is whether the frustrated, who, as suggested in Section 43, not only have a propensity for united action but are also equipped with a mechanism for its realization, are particularly imitative. Is there a connection between frustration and the readiness to imitate? Is imitation in some manner a means of escape from the ills that beset the frustrated?

3) The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. But his appearance usually marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement. The war with the present is over. The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it. Whereas the life breath of the dynamic phase was protest and a desire for drastic change, the final phase is chiefly preoccupied with administering and perpetuating the power won.

The book is almost cover-to-cover such pithy analysis. Unfortunately, it happens to be so apolitical that it ends by actually saying that mass movements are a good thing for the world, despite the usual death and destruction that accompany them. They are bringing necessary change to a system that has become ineffectual, that has calcified.

But here, again, Hoffer does not make judgments. I know that in today’s climate Hoffer will likely be considered by many to be “on the side” of the establishment. Hillary Clinton has read this book and mentioned it in association with Trump. This will lead some anti-Clinton people to say the book must therefore be a plot by Hillary. But they would overlooked the fact that Ronald Reagan bestowed upon Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983, a few months before the longshoreman died at the age of 84.

So, again, I say, read this book first published in 1951, even, in fact, if you have already read it. It will resound with more meaning today in our world gone mad.

* Note: One of the fundamental theses of the book is that the believer is a frustrated person who longs for a movement to actually remove them from the constraints that a free society condemns them with. What constraints? The need to make decisions, to make choices, to face their own responsibility for their frustrated state within a free system. In other words, a mass movement, a dictatorship, a religion, tells the believer what to believe, how to act, no decisions need to be made. Life is “simpler.” So the believers are actually getting the repressive system they want.

Having a Great Laff in Ottawa, and a Fabulous Moonshine in Oakville

January 5, 2019
bradspurgeon

moonshine café in oakville

moonshine café in oakville

Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.

I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!

The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.

The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.

And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café

commandments of the jam at the moonshine

commandments of the jam at the moonshine

Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.

Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.

In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.

house rules at the moonshine

house rules at the moonshine

The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck's circus in 1976

mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976


By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!


The Little Happy Theater Open Mic in Paris

December 3, 2018
bradspurgeon

PARIS – It has been a long time since I’ve been to a new open mic in Paris, so it was a strange but exhilarating experience on Saturday night to finally get over to the open stage of a little, tiny, minuscule bar/venue/theater space in Montmartre, called the Petit Théâtre de Bonheur and perform in front of the absolutely jam packed space of about 25 square meters.

I had discovered this place while working on an article about Paris’s small theaters, but I wasn’t sure the place really fit in. One thing is sure: It only just fits into its Montmartre location on a stairway steeply climbing up the slope towards the Sacre Coeur. You find yourself, in fact, on simply a midway up landing on the slope, not even on any kind of a street as such.

The venue is also jam-packed into the tiny space, and the open mic takes place in front of the seated spectators, seated in rows of available chairs as in a theater. These are moveable chairs, so while it is cramped quarters for everyone if the open mic is as well attended as it was on Saturday, you can move the chairs about to find the best squeeze…!

While I call it an open mic, they have another name for it: Cabaret Voltaire! It is open to anyone, musicians, comics, you name it. We saw several comics and the rest musicians – even some who had no instruments but just sang their texts unaccompanied.

The place is so small and intimate that I decided to perform without a mic or pickup on my guitar. It was one of the first times that I actually really enjoyed that, since it was so intimate a space, and I knew I did not have to strain my voice (or guitar) to be heard.

Anyway, it was really unlike any open mic I have attended in Paris so far. If you are looking for “different” then this is it! Not to mention the fabulous location on the hill leading up to Montmartre.

PS, This open mic was the last before they close down for a few weeks for renovations – so be sure to check the web site for the program to make sure they have reopened.

An Update to My Paris Open Mic Guide

November 26, 2018
bradspurgeon

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Just a note to say that I have updated my open mic city guide, The Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

In fact, the only update is to bring back a listing for the fabulous Paris Songwriters Club open mic of Paddy Sherlock, which has already had five editions at its new location, O’Sullivans Rebel Bar. It had previously been at the Tennessee Bar before seeking a new home for many months, and finding this fabulous, intimate place. Check it out!

Today’s Long Lost Interview is a 1996 One with Frazier Mohawk / Barry Friedman, the Record Producer, Circus Impresario, Farmer and all the rest

October 31, 2018
bradspurgeon

Frazier Mohawk and Nurit Wilde

Frazier Mohawk and Nurit Wilde

PARIS – For the second day in a row I am stunned to have found in my archives an interview I never knew I had. This time it is a long and wide-ranging one with Frazier Mohawk (born Barry Friedman), who is best known as the founder of the Buffalo Springfield band, and producer of many other albums of the 60s and early 70s. He was also the director and founder of Puck’s Canadian Travelling Circus, and a friend of mine from my teenage years. I wrote about him for a special article in the Careers section of the International Herald Tribune in January 1997, and this interview – which I had forgotten I had – was done for the article. What makes it valuable to anyone interested in Frazier – and I see lots of hits for my other articles about Frazier Mohawk, like about his death in 2012 – is that it covers much of his life that has not already been covered by all the usual interviews focusing on his work as a record producer in the 60s. It focuses much on his recording studio at Puck’s Farm, and on his childhood and youth. You really get the sound of his voice here too, so if you knew Frazier Mohawk / Barry Friedman, or want to know what he sounded like, read this interview in my articles (as opposed to posts) section of this blog.

Fantastic Find of My Never-Before-Published Interview with A.S. Byatt, the Booker Winning Novelist

October 30, 2018
bradspurgeon

A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt

I was quite astounded today as I was going through my huge archive of 35 years’ worth of my writing in my computer (my first computer was a 1982 Osborne), and I discovered an interview article I did with the Booker Prize-winning author, A.S. Byatt.  Strangely – or not, given the ravages of age – I had completely forgotten that I ever did it.  I performed the interview and wrote the article in 1991 and it was immediately rejected by an editor and immediately, for some reason, relegated to my archives as of no interest to anyone.  Because it was 1991, the only way it COULD be published at the time was to submit it to print publications, and I probably had gotten tired of all the submissions I had already made for the article that inspired it:  my article about the world’s most prolific writers of books in English (which was eventually published as the lead essay on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.  So I “trashed” this Byatt interview, which I also had tied in not only with the theme of prolificacy, but also with the centennial of George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street.  In fact, finding it now, I see it was a lively, fantastic interview with an important British author who is still alive today, at age 82.  So no sooner did I discover it today than I decided to add it to my collection on this blog of “Brad’s Rejected Writings.”  Check it out, this 1991 interview with A.S. Byatt.  

Discovering Sharón Clark, Mattias Nilsson and the Cercle Suédois in Paris

October 19, 2018
bradspurgeon

Sharon Clark and Mattias Nilsson in Paris

Sharón Clark and Mattias Nilsson in Paris

PARIS – I grew up with jazz.  My father was an aficionado who not only built his own hi-fi equipment and had a sizeable collection of 78s and 33s of jazz from the beginning of time, but he also made sure to take me to concerts to see some of the masters.  So it was that I saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and I heard play and then met at the age of seven, Gene Krupa, the great jazz drummer, in a small club in downtown Toronto in the mid-1960s.  The aural wallpaper of my childhood included voices like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.  So it was that my jazz sensibilities, whether good or not, were accustomed to hearing the highest quality.  Perhaps it was for this that I have never much cared for listening to amateur jazz singers, and I go extremely rarely to jazz jams.  I just mention all of this as background to saying that I was bowled over last week attending a concert at the Cercle Suédois in Paris and hearing the astounding voice of Sharón Clark.  

It was all about her phrasing, her control, her range, her nuances.  It was all about authenticity.  About hearing so many of the songs she sang – lots of Sarah Vaughan, as she is a specialist on that one – in a way that sounded both familiar and new.  

So who the hell is Sharón Clark, and what was she doing at the Cercle Suédois of Paris?  And what brought ME there?!?!  

It turns out that Sharón, who is from Washington D.C., is on a tour of Europe – and Taiwan!! – accompanied by a fabulous, versatile young pianist named Mattias Nilsson, who is Swedish.  He is the boyfriend of an acquaintance of mine, and I was told he’d be doing this gig in Paris, maybe I’d like to go.  

I really did not expect much of anything – Mattias, Sharón OR the Cercle Suédois.  It turned out to be discoveries in every area, and proved once again how if you just get off your butt and check something out – outside of your regular stomping grounds – then you might find something really revitalising.

First back to Sharón.  Her story is fabulous.  Although she has sung all her life, starting out in church, as has often happened with American jazz and gospel singers (and she sings some gospel too), she only really emerged in recent years after she was fired from a full-time job – that she had as the mother of a now 15-year-old girl – and decided it was time to dive into the world of her passion and see if she could make a career out of her singing.  This answers the question that some media have asked, “Where has she been hiding???”  

No sooner did she fix her mind to it, than she scored a tour in Russia, and she has now made many contacts in Europe, with, in this case, Mattias Nilsson working hard with her – last week selling out the famous Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.  And to quote her web site bio, “Ms. Clark appears regularly in DC at Blues Alley and Loews Madison Hotel. A featured soloist with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, and the Baltimore Symphony, Clark has headlined the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, the Cape May Jazz Festival and the Savannah Music Festival. Both the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and The Ludacris Foundation chose Ms. Clark to perform for their separate tributes to Quincy Jones.

As to Nilsson, I am no more aware of his age than I am of Clark’s, but he looks around 35 and has already had a 15-year long career as a pianist, playing all around the world, and from jazz to classical and everything in between, including Swedish folk music.  In fact, while it has taken me a while to write about this Cercle Suédois evening, that also gave me time to listen to his CD, “Dreams of Belonging.” 

As I told him myself in a message after listening to it, it’s real mix of different styles, even some touches of Satie sound, jazz, everything.  Moments Keith Jarrett, Scott Joplin, hints of all this, but then the main thrust which is his Swedish sound.  

At the Cercle Suédois, the two were accompanied by a French bassist they had never played with before, but he added a fabulous layer of sound behind the piano and Clark’s voice.  It was a wonderful relaxed evening in this place I had never even known existed, but which has been in Paris in the same building since the 1930s, and prior to that, in another place since it was founded in the 1890s!

The current place is in one of the iconic looking buildings lining the Rue de Rivoli, near the Place de la Concorde – which is the last place I ever expected to find a jazz concert.  It is above all a private club for Swedish people, but it offers these concerts every Wednesday, and even if you are not a member you can attend, paying 15 euros for the music.  You can also order drinks, or even a meal. (Ornella and I had the salads, hers a salmon salad, mine the haddock salad.)

As  you can see from the photo and my short video excerpt, that the place is a beautiful ornate classic mansion inside – but as I said, the atmosphere is relaxed, and it also gave me naturally a taste of Sweden, including being able to touch the desk that I was told was the one that Alfred Nobel used to sign the decree launching the Nobel Prizes.  

Now that is class!  Like Clark, Nilsson and the place itself.  

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