As an early 20-year-old, music was my world education. Geldof taught me about famine in Africa. Sting sang about Pinochet’s abuses in Chilé. Peter Gabriel revealed apartheid. U2 sang strident songs about Ireland’s conflicts. These artists were important and the songs they wrote mattered. For the first time in my life, I felt dialed in to the bigger worldwide picture, and my eyes were opening to the realization that everyone didn’t share in the bountiful excesses enjoyed by a minority of people. As we say now, for most people, the “struggle was real,” even in America.
I used to babysit for a couple in Oakland, the Rittermans. The husband was a medical doctor, and the mom was a therapist and author with a PhD. If you wanted a picture of the quintessential Berkeley couple, they looked the part. They were idealists. They questioned authority. They worked for human rights causes, and were active members of Amnesty International. They embodied the ethos of the artists I admired. They were all too familiar with the causes I was suddenly aware of. I wanted to impress them, so, when they mentioned that a movie was being released about the life of Steven Biko called Cry Freedom, I immediately began dropping (what little) knowledge that occupied my brain on the subject. Biko was the subject of a classic Peter Gabriel song cleverly called Biko. In fact, even though the song was on Gabriel’s third solo album that had been released in 1980, there was a new video on MTV with a remix of the song that featured scenes from the movie. I’d like to think that the Rittermans were impressed with my Biko knowledge; they suggested we go see the movie opening night at the Grand Lake theater in Oakland. I was in!
We all sat together in the theater. Denzel Washington’s depiction of Biko was mesmerizing, and although Biko is killed halfway through the movie, he still appeared in flashbacks for the rest of the film. I glanced over at Dr. Ritterman, and tears were lining her face throughout what seemed like the entire movie. I found that to be… unnerving. “It’s just a movie,” I thought. “What’s the big deal?” Dr. Ritterman asked me why I hadn’t been moved as she was by the intense drama. Revealing my immaturity, I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. Her disappointment was obvious.
I wondered why the movie had no effect on me. I liked the movie; even though the movie was told through the eyes of Kevin Kline’s character (as the newspaper man who escaped South Africa with his family and eventually wrote the book on which the movie was based) instead of Biko’s. Perhaps because I knew how the movie was going to end, it didn’t move me. But… others in the audience were clearly touched. Maybe it was me?
Around the same time, Dr. Ritterman had shirts made making fun of Chilé’s unpopular dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Known for “disappearing” those who spoke out against him, the back of the shirt read “Remove Bullets Before Washing,” and had streaks of fluorescent blood by what looked like bullet holes in the cloth. Ah! My chance to win back some favor with Dr. Ritterman. I asked what the shirts were for, and she said she and others were going to wear them when they presented the Mayor of Oakland a letter to sign, addressed to Pinochet, denouncing his rule. I casually mentioned that Sting had a great song about Pinochet’s treatment of his people on his latest album, called They Dance Alone. That failed to impress. I also mentioned that Sting was on tour. Nothing. Then, I came with the big guns; this had to work: Sting would be in Oakland in a few days to give a concert at the Oakland Coliseum arena. “You should get him to show up at Mayor Wilson’s office and sign the letter too!” Bam! Success! (Mind you, that was the extent of my knowledge. I had NO idea how to get in touch with Sting; I didn’t have his phone number, and I’m not sure he would have taken my call if he had mine)
Not a day or two later, Dr. Ritterman gave me a shirt and said, “you’re coming with me!” Ok. “Um… where?” She explained that Sting was going to come to Wilson’s office and sign the letter, and she wanted me to come and take pictures. I tried to play it off as no big deal, since, you know, Sting and I at one point had each other’s phone numbers and all. Inside, my head was exploding. Sting? Seriously? What do I say? What do I do? I don’t own a camera!
Dr. Ritterman and I made our way to Mayor Lionel Wilson’s office. I was dressed for the occasion in my brand-new t-shirt, borrowed camera in hand. I was eventually in a room with lots of, well… older people, many of whom probably had no idea who Sting was, including the Mayor, who looked pretty old in person, I must say. Of course, I had just turned 22; everyone looked pretty old in person.
We waited, and waited… Sting was apparently coming straight from the airport, having done a concert the night before in San Diego. There was a buzz of anticipation; clearly everyone in the room was used to being around the Mayor. That was no big deal. When someone finally said, “he’s here!”, there was a hush in the room. In walked Sting, looking like we all do when we get off a plane, only exponentially more handsome. He walked in and looked around… and no one said anything. It grew more awkward as the seconds ticked away, until I cheekily said, “welcome to Oakland.” “Is that where I am?” said Sting, and suddenly the tension was broken.
He sat down on a couch, with Dr. Ritterman to his right and Mayor Wilson to his left. As she prepared to explain the contents in the letter for all in attendance, I quickly maneuvered to a spot on the floor directly in front of the couch. I had one job – take pictures. I was too inexperienced to realize there was a protocol to these kind of proceedings, much to the chagrin of the Press behind me.
I sat on the floor, nervously prepping the camera. It was a nice, 35mm job, not the Instamatic I was used to. I screwed around with the lens, lost in the task at hand. “Man, his fingers are short and stubby,” I thought. He was a professional musician, a bass player, and their fingers are usually long and skinny. Oh, great… rugged good looks and the hands of a guy who works for a living! Snapping out of it, I began taking pictures. Back then, cameras didn’t wind automatically; one had to manually advance the film. It was noisy. Between the whir of the picture and the winding of the film, I was making quite a racket. A lady in the back of the room noticed Sting’s perplexed expression, and said loud enough for all to hear: “That camera is annoying!” The woman, I later realized, was his eventual wife, Trudie Styler. I was making no friends.
Sting signed the letter, as did Mayor Wilson and Dr. Ritterman. Sting answered a few questions from the press. Clearly, he wasn’t some uneducated pop star; he was the real deal, and spoke eloquently about the cause he was there to support. After too short a time, he was off. He made quite an impression.
It’s a fun memory to reflect on, yet another example of how music is such a constant part of who I am. However, for the longest time, thinking about that period has always been bittersweet. Why wasn’t I moved by that damn movie? What was the matter with me? I’ve never been able to erase the Ritterman’s disappointment in my seeming lack of empathy from an otherwise really cool memory.
I failed to realize that what I lacked wasn’t empathy; it was experience. I hadn’t really lived life yet. I hadn’t lost anything. I hadn’t really dealt with pain, which seems crazy because my parents divorced when I was seven. I think I understood even then that my parents, despite their no longer loving each other, still loved me. I didn’t have anything to lose yet; I couldn’t envision how bad loss would feel.
Becoming a father changed all that. Almost overnight, things that never scared me before were risky. I had to psyche myself to ride rollercoasters. I stopped drinking. I began to think about… the future. Me. The future. It had never been a worry before. Now, suddenly, everything mattered. Life had weight. Loss was palpable. Emotions became more extreme; the cliché about not really knowing love until you have kids is completely legit. Prior to fatherhood, my empathetic side was undeveloped. Now, the second I see George Bailey’s face for the first time in It’s a Wonderful Life, I’m a sobbing mess. I know he’s going to say, “you’re hurting my sore ear” and I’ll lose it. I had nothing at stake; in your 20s, you’re invincible. Once you have kids, you see dangers and pratfalls you never knew existed. You begin to understand the finality of things; Steven Biko wasn’t just a character in a movie. He was a heroic man who died because he spoke out against injustice. He left a wife and children, and he died alone in police room 619. I watched the movie recently, and cried like a baby. I hoped the Rittermans would be proud.