Published: Bad Subjects, #56, Summer 2001.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: Mat Callahan, 2001.
I’m sitting in a recording studio as I write this. I’m mixing an album of my own music, proof positive that I continued making music after the demise of Prairie Fire. There are two problems with writing about that experience: It was a long time ago, and it was not simply a band or musical project but inextricably bound up with political questions worthy of lengthy exposition in their own right. What I can say now is that what I experienced between International Women’s Day 1971 when Prairie Fire first performed, and the last half of 1980 when the whole thing unraveled, was extraordinary by any measure.
The backdrop, of course, was “the ’60s,” the struggles against the Vietnam War, for Black Liberation and the reemergence of Marxist politics amongst a new generation. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and it was rock ’n’ roll that got me into music that included the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, and Tower of Power. Just out of high school I met the woman who would become my wife and the other half of Prairie Fire. We got involved in radical politics through the Black Panther Party and were subsequently invited by members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe to help form a band that would function as an adjunct to the Mime Troupe’s own musical accompaniment, a sort of musician’s auxiliary. Thus began Red Rock, a large, unwieldy ensemble that practiced at the Mime Troupe’s warehouse and became wrapped up in all the political debates raging at the time, within the Mime Troupe as well as society at large. For numerous reasons Red Rock ended after six months but even after that my partner Sandy and I continued singing together.
I was a musician when I met Sandy but it is important to note that by the time we began what was to become Prairie Fire we were full-time revolutionaries; music was a weapon and we were among those with skills to wield it. This means that no ideas of “career” or having to get a gig were ever involved. They were simply not thought of or discussed at all. We sang some original songs I’d written and old pop tunes at a couple of parties. Sandy and I had listened to more soul and rock like War and Delaney and Bonnie than to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger folk songs. We were asked by members of an organization called the Revolutionary Union to sing at International Women’s Day. I wrote a song for the event, “What Have Women Done.” We went to the gathering with lyrics in hand and only one rehearsal under our belts, and performed the tune to a couple hundred like-minded folks. We finished and left the stage as quickly as we could, not even stopping to realize that there was bedlam in the audience. People were stomping and shouting, and it took us a few moments to realize that it was all for our performance. The political leaders came to us afterwards and said we had to take this task of revolutionary rock ’n’ roll seriously, and thus Prairie Fire came into being.
At first we only had a few songs of a political character. We dug up some old Wobblie numbers and a couple others from the book Hard Hitting Songs For Hard Hit People and started performing semi-regularly at various rallies, meetings, and parties. We never played exclusively for the Revolutionary Union or the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which we later joined. In the heady days of the early 1970s, when the radical movement was large and growing, we played for enormous crowds at antiwar demonstrations and for small gatherings, often called to meet and greet visiting luminaries of various leftist persuasions. Since we were pretty good musicians, we found ourselves in demand within a very short time.
Meanwhile, I was writing more and more songs, mostly to fit the needs of a particular event or landmark day such as May Day or in support of a particular issue or political prisoner. So many campaigns were being mounted at that time, there was an abundance of material for me to write about – always for a pressing deadline. By 1975, when we did our first nationwide tour, Prairie Fire was performing our own original material exclusively, with the frequent exception of our version of the “International.” I’d learned many Irish republican songs, Spanish Civil War songs and a few classics from Russia and Eastern Europe, but the needs of the present were such that the timely, topical style we developed was much more useful.
Along with the members of the Revolutionary Union, Sandy and I “went to the working class.” That meant I got a job, first on the docks – my father was a longshoreman – and later in the warehouses where I worked for 10 years. Our interests and venues veered sharply away from the student protests (although we still played plenty of those) to the strikes, rallies, and meetings of unions and embattled workers throughout the country. We were involved in the fight over the International Hotel in San Francisco, a long struggle to prevent the eviction of elderly Asian tenants and the razing of their residence. We played many I-Hotel rallies and benefits, as well as enjoying wild times on flatbed trucks out on Kearney Street to play for the workers of Chinatown. Sandy wrote a very moving song for them in Chinese, the only one she ever composed.
I remember counting once, just before embarking on tour, that we had been playing at least two times a week, somewhere at some event, for the previous two years. That is some indication of the level of activism at the time, when we were engaged with other musicians and artists who, like ourselves, were lending their talents to the cause of human liberation. Not all were like us in their particular view of how to achieve that lofty goal, for many were hippies, more into their countercultural opposition to the Vietnam War than revolution. Some were into women’s rights or trade-union activism. Yet a few were like us, dyed-in-the-wool Maoists with allegiance to an organization that had national and international ties.
Our tour in 1975 took us to 58 cities in 29 states. We played on picket lines in Milwaukee and at rallies in El Paso. We played at the tops of mineshafts in West Virginia and at union meetings in New York. We were escorted all over the country by young activists, of all nationalities, many of them working people. It was a humbling and enriching experience I will never forget. After four months on the road we were ready to get back to San Francisco and the organizing each of us was doing in our respective workplaces. Shortly after returning I was involved in a very militant and sometimes violent strike in the warehouses where I worked. Sandy, working as a seamstress, was involved in a rowdy garment-workers’ struggle. During the next couple of years we were even more active as organizers than as musicians, but we still continued to perform regularly and all over the country.
By this time the Vietnam War was over and the schisms and splits that arose in the “Movement” had separated us from many while aligning us more tightly than ever with the Revolutionary Communist Party and the issues it considered paramount. Years before we had all been reading Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” of collected quotations, for the Black Panthers sold thousands of them at the time. One of my first organized political discussions centered around the section on “people’s war.” Involvement with the RCP led to the high points in the Prairie Fire story: the Bicentennial, the African struggles, and finally the Iranian revolution. During the American Revolution Bicentennial in 1976, there were demonstrations all over the country against the snow job being sold by the Powers That Be. We participated in the big one in Philadelphia, a wild melée of grossly outnumbered demonstrators pitted against the cops and many right-wing “middle Americans” still smarting from the Vietnam debacle. Our contribution to the festivities included singing over megaphones to a throng of protesters and, later, singing at a party where people engaged in “the Bump.” This booty-contact dance was hotly debated among communists because many of our purist ilk were deeply concerned that its promulgation was a capitalist plot to subvert proletarian morality. Kind of silly in retrospect, but it gives some idea of what mattered to reds in those days.
African Liberation Day demonstrations were just picking up steam in the late 1970s, along with the struggle against South African apartheid. Prairie Fire played at several of these events, including one just across the street from the White House. We were involved with numerous different political factions fighting each other over the correct line to take vis-á-vis Africa, liberation, and the role activists in the United States should play. We made a record of two songs composed for these struggles, our third record. The first of our records had been called Out of Gas about the energy crisis in the early ’70s. The second was a full-length album called Break the Chains, released in time for the Bicentennial demonstrations. The third record, entitled Stop the Krugerrand, was our contribution to the struggle against apartheid and the regime in South Africa.
Prairie Fire was also involved with the Iranian students and the struggle to overthrow the Shah, an involvement that was exhilarating on many levels. We toured the country again, this time to colleges all over the U.S. that had large numbers of Iranian students. I had written a song called “Death to the Shah.” Hearing a thousand militant Iranians join in on the chorus everywhere we played was a terrific inspiration. When we went to play at a rally in downtown San Francisco, we got to the site and found only a couple people there. We got on the stage, set up and were getting ready to play when we heard a slow, increasing roar coming from somewhere up Market Street. It got louder and louder until we saw the first ranks of Iranian students come running around the corner, arms locked, fifteen abreast, chanting Machbar Shah! Machbar Shah! (’Death to the Shah!’). Wow, this was our kind of crowd! Not long after, we had finished our performance at a giant Iranian Students’ Association convention at Kaiser Auditorium when it was announced that the hated Shah had abdicated and fled Iran. The place erupted like nothing I’d ever seen. Revolution! This was it, and it was an honor for Prairie Fire to have had our music play some kind of a part.
By the late ’70s Prairie Fire had become a rock band. Punk was starting to happen and thrive in San Francisco. We looked to London and were inspired by the Clash, but some who caught us also noted a lot of Who-style leaps and power chords, and some Springsteen-like storytelling; Sandy’s vocals sometimes soared alone or in duets like Grace Slick’s in the Jefferson Airplane.
Yet it was at that time that the Party’s direction was becoming more and more desperate. Predictions of imminent revolution and/or massive repression created an atmosphere of anxiety. That anxiety masked the reality that the great wave of revolutionary struggle that had risen worldwide around 1968 – Tet, Paris, Prague, Chicago, etc. – was now in full ebb. What had been possible earlier was not possible any longer, and all the yelling and screaming of punks, anarchists, or Maoists was not going to change that. The band Prairie Fire reflected this situation and consequently was no longer as good musically, lyrically, or in social effect as we had been. The musicians were good enough and there were some great shows but overall it was a misguided attempt to “turn up the volume.” In the political milieu in which we operated, this did not produce the best results.
For all the satisfaction of being an artistic contributor to liberation struggles, I came to have profound differences with the Revolutionary Communist Party and other parties, prompting an eventual break from them. The first difference is around the issue of agreement and disagreement. For the RCP, humanity is devided into three groups: the enemy, the masses, and party members. If you were the enemy there could be no discussion. If you were the masses you could disagree because you were limited in your awareness, innocently ignorant and naturally encumbered with false consciousness. If you were a Party member you could not disagree because disagreement meant challenging the superior grasp of truth by the leadership and implied disloyalty, a threat to unity and, potentially, enemy action. This is illogical and incompatible with a worldview claiming to be scientific. The difference between science and religion is precisely that hypotheses must be tested in practice and submit to all challenges before being generally accepted as true. Religion makes its truth claims based on what cannot be known, requiring faith as the basis for communication and knowledge of any kind. It is therefore illogical and irreconcilably contradictory to claim scientific rigor while stifling debate, experiment, error, and failure, which are all necessary components of the scientific method.
I also disagreed with the RCP on the issue of ends and means. The practice of a group which organizes itself around the principle of the liberation of humanity, to be achieved via mass revolution, demonstrates the very definition of liberation and revolution in how the group actively pursues those goals. What the RCP and all other groups do in daily life shows us exactly the kind of society that they envision. These are not just mistakes or shortcomings, but these acts are, by their own admission, the embodiment of the future in the present. So where are love and laughter in the future? Where are compassion and tolerance? The Marx I read did not sound like the Marxism I witnessed among these people, or the kinds of social relationships they fostered every day. I witnessed all the same damn hierarchical and privileged structures of knowing, being, and assigning social tasks that have been the identifiers of a class society for the past 10,000 years. No one can fault an individual for being a product of his or her times, but the individual can strive to act in accordance with the liberatory principles he or she espouses in order to exemplify in deed what is expressed in word. I’ve seen this disjunction between theory and practice in various people on the left over the years, but I saw more of the blatant hypocrisy I despised in society at large manifested by its most vociferous and committed opponents, people who called themselves revolutionary communists. Again, this is illogical, unscientific. Not to mention disillusioning. To raise such criticism would find it given a label like “idealist” or “petit bourgeois” and dismissed without meaningful discussion.
My final point of difference with the RCP was in regard to art, culture, and spirituality, things I might’ve found more important than did many activists, communist or otherwise. A basic disconnect happens between specificity and generality among leftists of all stripes. This takes many forms, but in the case of the Maoists it meant that there is only one idea and all others are either part of that idea or not. The failure of the RCP to grasp the dialectics of Karl Marx himself and his mentor Hegel, let alone to grasp that there are different cultures, languages, media, and perspectives, meant a crippling and flattening out of the expressive potential of the rebellious spirit. There is – and few would dispute it – a profound contradiction between creative expression and control. This dynamic is precisely what gives rise to powerful art and culture and to the most uplifting moments of experience and insight. These are the moments of the freest imagination. It is not a matter of choosing between expression or control, one or the other. It is not a choice of free spirits vs. control freaks. It is the two states in conflict that produce the sparks of inspiration and creation. And it is the vast number, variety, and complexity of these sparks emitting from conflict that lead to unexpected outcomes and therefore bring promise to those who can expect nothing in their lives but more drudgery and suffering. The left has generally failed to grasp this in its long and often glorious history of struggle. This is a major reason we have all so often found ourselves surrendering the very terrain on which we are the strongest, that of the imagination, the experiential and the spiritual. I do not use the term spiritual in the depoliticizing way New Age spiritualists do. I mean it in the concrete sense that is used in everyday life, the sense of soul, feeling, connectedness, inspiration, and aliveness. An aliveness whose next step is activism and the fight for more aliveness, for all.
In the late 1970s the Clash were riding high – advertised as “the only band that matters” – and the RCP was touting them as the spokesmen of radical youth, anointing them the vanguard of proletarian culture. I loved that band but they were not what the RCP thought they were at all, and my disillusionment with the whole political scene I was involved with probably began with a long, intense discussion with Clash guitarist Mick Jones. Jones told me that they were just musicians, saying what they wanted to say but with no illusions about leading any kind of revolution. He didn’t think much of the materials I had given him about Prairie Fire and our politics. He didn’t dis our music, he just said our whole posture and image was too literal and that when the Clash sang “Guns of Brixton” they were not advocating anything, just commenting on a situation.
I think there are a lot of positive lessons to be gained from the period during which Prairie Fire made a positive contribution to revolution. And then there are some mostly negative lessons to be taken from a later period during which we, frankly, didn’t know what we were doing. As subsequent events have demonstrated (no one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union) the RCP and much of the radical left didn’t know what they were doing either. The sad thing is, too few have stopped to reexamine the major lessons of the 20th century and earlier. If we are going to gain perspective during a period in which triumphant capitalism cloaks itself in the mantle of a liberalism and democracy given political and historical weight by events in Paris 1789, we must do better.
There are many, many more tales to tell about Prairie Fire, and lessons to benefit other musicians and activists. There were profound political issues that underlay our choices about what we sang, and what we did and why we did it. These political issues remain mostly unresolved by subsequent events. The band Prairie Fire ended at a time when the movement which had spawned it was in decline, when sectarian politics replaced solidarity and dogma replaced critique. With many political leaders dead, in prison, or sold out, a lot of folks became just plain disillusioned. The brief resurgence of energy that was punk rock simply could not and did not prevail against the larger, global forces at work. Nevertheless, I did not stop doing what I was doing then. I am still doing it and hope to continue the rest of my life. If there is a value to resurrecting these memories of power chords, fists in the air, the study of Mao, and righteous rock ’n’ roll shouted out from the hearts of a duo called Prairie Fire and their friends, it is in the service of all struggles against oppression, injustice, and suffering everywhere.
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Mat Callahan is a musician, composer, producer, author and community activist residing in Bern, Switzerland where he’s employed in A&R, production and international marketing for COD Music AG. His works include five CDs with The Looters (Island Records), two CDs with The Wild Bouquet (COD Records), compositions for dance, film scores, and theatrical pieces. Mat’s book Testimony was published in 2000, and he is currently completing a solo CD.