Occupying Wall Street … With a Trombone

Protesters at Occupy Wall Street, October 2011. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.

“Absolutely,” David Rovics told me. “I think that’s a terrific idea.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, cringing, wondering if he was actually making fun of me. “You don’t think it’s stupid?”

“Oh no, no, not at all,” he assured me. “Showing up to an Occupied protest with a trombone is highly advisable.”

I couldn’t argue with him. Rovics’ expertise in this area was exactly why I’d called him in the first place. This is a guy who’s made a career playing protest songs — or, as he calls it, “socially conscious music.” He’s become the de facto folk-singer-in-residence for the Occupy movement, performing at ten Occupy events across the United States and counting, from New York to Washington D.C. to Oklahoma City. He’s even written a song about it, called “Occupy Wall Street,” in which he rhymes “one percent” with “pay the rent.” It’s the kind of song that heats up the blood and makes you want to shout at cops and guys in business suits. And it’s why people like me want to be protest singers.

If Erin Burnett was confused by what the Occupy movement was about now, just wait till she got a load of two 40-something dudes playing the soundtrack to a Peter Sellers movie for no good reason.

Only problem is, I can’t play the guitar. I can only play the trombone, an instrument I haven’t touched since the late ‘80s, when I was regularly blurting out Sousa compositions in my high school marching band and just generally not being sexually active because of it.

I’m ready to admit defeat. You can’t be Joe Strummer with a trombone. “Clampdown” just wouldn’t have the same urgent, angry energy if you’re pausing every few verses to empty your spit valve. But Rovics doesn’t share my negativity. “A trombone is a loud instrument,” he reminds me. At many of these occupations, he says, protesters aren’t given sound permits, so any of the participating speakers or musicians aren’t legally allowed to use microphones. “It’s a huge problem when you’re trying to get the attention of large groups of people,” Rovics says. But it puts a trombonist at an obvious advantage. “You don’t need to mic a trombone. Only a masochistic would mic a trombone.” If the whole reason for playing music at a protest is to get noticed — and let’s be honest, Occupy Wall Street may have noble ideals, but it’s also amateur night at the Apollo for the world’s wanna-be Dylans and Odettas — then it doesn’t make sense for any self-respecting protest musician hoping to stand out in the crowd not to show up with a trombone.

Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t still rather be a guitarist. I fully admit to having guitar envy. Before attending my first (and thus far only) protest back in 1990, a Chicago rally against the first Gulf War, I borrowed an “axe” and tried teaching myself a few Bob Dylan songs. I didn’t need to be a virtuoso, I just wanted to play “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and maybe catch the eye of any female protesters who resembled Edie Brickell. But chord changes are difficult. I could get the G chord, but going anywhere beyond that was just not something my fingers were capable or willing to do. I tried rehearsing a stripped-down version, just strumming a G chord over and over. But doing the entire song with one note sounded ominous, like a zombie Dylan giving his victims fair warning. “For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled.” So I went to the protest without any musical accompaniment, just a hand-painted sign that read “Go to Iraq? You Must Be Whack!” Needless to say, I did not win the hearts of any Edie Brickells that day.

I can’t blame it all on laziness. I did learn how to play the trombone in my youth, and I was pretty good at it for almost a decade. I just picked the wrong instrument. Even the most amateur guitarists probably have at least one fond memory of a public performance or dinner party hootenanny where he or she briefly felt like a god. That never happens to trombonists. Most of our performance memories are like stories of getting caught masturbating in a Target dressing room. The experience was mortifying, and we’re just glad it’s over. My biggest moment as a trombonist was when I played the Pink Panther theme, with my brother accompanying on piano, for a potluck of our parents’ friends. Did I mention that I was wearing a white fedora? Yes, that happened. And as it was happening, I had about five seconds of feeling like I was sexy and cool, but then I saw my reflection in the stunned eyes of our audience, and I realized, holy shit, I’m a teenager in a fedora playing the Pink Panther theme on a trombone. I am going to die alone.