Phillips Performs on Facebook to Cope with COVID and Racial Divides
It was exactly one week since George Floyd died in custody of the Minneapolis Police when Glen Phillips and I talked earlier this week over the phone. The issue of institutional racism and police brutality was weighing heavily on his mind, and would show up six hours later in that Monday night’s solo Zoom show, one of three per week that the native Santa Barbara singer-songwriter has been performing on the platform during our period of staying at home during the pandemic, when he designates a different nonprofit to receive direct donations.
But Phillips, who generally has no trouble drawing from a wide swath of musical influences to augment his own vast catalog from his 1990s pop band Toad the Wet Sprocket, a significant solo career and several other projects, was struggling to come to musical terms with the week’s news events.
What is the role of a self-professed privileged white musician singing to an audience that largely looks like him, he wondered, when one more senseless act of a black man dying at the hands of police has spilled out in pent up anger into the streets, as peaceful protests turn into violent riots across the nation?
“I was already in a fairly fallow period, trying to take in what’s happening in the world, waiting for songs to come out,” he said. “Now, I’ve been listening to the news, going for runs, and doing a lot of crying. The agony out there from everybody is so profound… There are so many reasons to be upset but like David Whyte says in his book Consolation, respect your anger, it shows us what we care about most, what we love and are willing to protect. So it’s a time to have anger, but also to examine it, and its roots and our perception. And to listen to those who aren’t as privileged as we are.
“I need to marshal my own strength to find the center in me because a part of me wants to lash out. And I’m not that smart or helpful when I lash out. So I have to re-center, have heart, and ask, ‘What can I add? What can I do?’”
What Glen can do, of course, is sing, to offer his deeply resonant tenor on songs that matter just as he has since first forming Toad as a teenager at San Marcos High, when such early songs as the mystical “Walk on the Ocean” transcended the typical angst of the era. It’s a tradition that leads straight through his solo singer-songwriter career and now, during the coronavirus crisis, to his three-nights-a-week Zoom shows (plus one on Sundays on StageIt) in which he gets to interact more directly with fans than perhaps he might even on the road. But even that, in the days after Floyd’s death, was offering more dilemmas.
“The image from the Malcolm X movie that keeps coming into my head is when the white girl stops him on the steps and says ‘I’m on your side. I believe in what you’re doing. What can I do to help.’ And Malcolm X says, ‘Get out of my way.’ I don’t want to appropriate other people’s storytelling, but I do want to bring attention to those voices because they will help us understand why this is so important. This week there is debate in my head that I should just shut up and let voices that are heard less get heard more. But people have also come to count on these nights.”
So the second song on Monday night – for which Glen already announced donations will go to the NAACP – is a stirring, passion-filled version of Marvin Gaye’s unfortunately still timely “What’s Going On”: “Mother, mother there’s too many of you crying / brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today / Father, father, we don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate… Picket lines and picket signs, don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me, so you can see, oh, what’s going on, what’s going on…”
The chat box fills so fast it’s a challenge to read the messages as they scroll alongside a steady stream of hearts and thumbs-up icons.
“This is so lovely, I’m dancing in my kitchen and crying,” reads one, sharing a sentiment seconded as another adds “(The songs) have extra weight tonight, and I can’t help but cry.”
“A Change Is Gonna Come” follows, Phillips sharing his take on Sam Cooke’s anthem written after the legendary soul singer and his entourage were reportedly turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana in 1964. More than 55 years later, the words still ring as an urgent plea via the plaintive sounds of Phillips’ voice and gently strummed guitar.
Antara Hunter, fellow Santa Barbara singer-songwriter who years ago moved back East, chimes in “Great song choices, Glen! Does my soul good. Thank you!”
“When I started doing the show, people started making all these requests,” Phillips told me earlier in the day. “It’s forced me to relearn songs that I might not have played in ten years, and some that I never played live since recording them. I’ve also been digging deep, learning lots of covers.”
Back on Facebook Live, Phillips – who lived in Montecito for the better part of 25 years before recent relocations that have him now staying (and streaming) in Mission Canyon – is offering up “Gather,” from his 2005 solo album Winter Pays For Summer, and the verses pierce: “Let us be humbled tonight / In these depths show us the light / Give us peace, lay down the mighty / In these depths, show us the light, please / Oh God, I pray to thee / Don’t want to die before we’re free / Dive down inside this sea / And maybe at the bottom I’ll find some key… Oh God, will you hear me cry / Don’t want to see another innocent die / Dive down inside these depths / Keep my faith and hold my breath / The more we fight, the less it bends / Lay down your arms, gather your friends / Strengthen your heart and this will end / Lay down your arms, gather your friends.”
Meanwhile, the donation total keeps soaring as Phillips sings, passing $3,000 and still climbing quickly. (By the end of the night, the total reaches more than $6,200 from small donations from more than 220 people, the most yet for one of his Zoom events. Donations are also accepted during the playbacks available on Phillips’ Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GlenPhillipsMusic. The total had just hit $7,000 even as this article went to press.)
“Why can’t musicians run the country?” asks a fan in the chat, then another admits “My soul needs this tonight.” Other comments quickly follow, taking note of a subtle change in Phillips’ typically upbeat demeanor: “I appreciate that you are somber tonight” and “(You’re) a calm, beautiful voice in a sea of insanity.”
Phillips pauses to offer an intro to the next song: “Don’t Need Anything” also from Winter Pays for Summer. “It’s funny, because it’s supposed to be how I don’t have much but I don’t need much,” he tells the viewers watching on Facebook Live. “And I realized as I was looking through the lyrics how privileged the things are that I take for granted. In times like this, it’s good to remind those of us who are privileged just how privileged we are.”
I’m reminded of our talk six hours earlier when Phillips told me he has yet to write a song in response to the pandemic, let alone one about the current “Black Lives Matter” protests all across America, and he’s aching.
“I’m still digesting. I go fallow for long periods of time where I just need to be with me and figure out what’s not reactive. There is so much to think about right now, and write about, and it keeps changing. The pandemic is such a huge impact. And this era of bullying and intolerance at the highest level, giving us cues of how we are supposed to be acting in the world, normalizing cruelty and insulting others. I don’t know how to respond to that in a song. Throw on institutionalized racism and it’s a big sandwich. I’m having to remind myself to respond in ways that are less political, and more universal, and then still ask myself the question if that’s too privileged a stance.”
The song starts, the notes on his acoustic guitar quieter than ever, the words coming out almost as a prayer: “I’ve got gardens growing, got quiet days / Clothes on my back, food on my plate / Got friends to help me if I call for them / I don’t need anything that I don’t have … / I’ve got eyes to see this beautiful land / And feet to take me where I want to stand / If there’s work to be done there’s these two strong hands / I don’t need anything that I don’t have.”
The comments start flowing in the chat box almost immediately again. “This is my go-to attitude-check song,” one listener offers, seeming to affirm Phillips’ choice. Another notes, “Glen, you look so sad,” which someone else follows with perhaps some healing advice: “Glen, feel proud of this great community that you’ve created.”
Next up is “Come Come Whoever You Are,” which was adapted from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi, which Phillips learned from a fellow song leader of a community choir – another of the non-commercial endeavors that has been soothing his soul. It’s the song that brought such a lump to my throat the first time I heard it that I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth without choking.
“Come come whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,” Phillips sings, his eyes gently shut. “Come come whoever you are, this isn’t a caravan of despair.”
The chat buzzes immediately.
“I’m thankful for you, Glen,” writes Leslie Conner. “You are a light.”
“Thank you for singing to us in isolation,” adds Lisa Bartels.
“I just want to keep hitting the heart button,” a third fan gushes.
Phillips smiles and switches gears.
“I should probably play something fun now. And maybe keep playing until we get to $5K for the NAACP?”
“Make it $10,000,” a chatter suggests.
Phillips plays “Rare Bird” from the 2013 Toad album New Constellations, and follows that with a version of Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It,” ending with a wry smile. “It felt a little better when I was playing it earlier,” he admits, looking at the chat, then brightens when he sees that the donation total had topped $5,000.
“Thank you for your kindness, your goodness,” he says, looking directly into the camera. “We need lots of that right now, lots of understanding, and stretching your boundaries.”
He seems to get a jolt of energy when he arrives on the next song to share, “Love Is Stronger Than Death” by The The.
“In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch / All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed / Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath / But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak… / Here come the blue skies, here comes springtime / When the rivers run high & the tears run dry / When everything that dies shall rise… / Love Love Love is stronger than death.”
Phillips then sees a request, in all caps, for the Toad song “Windmills.” But, he says, “All caps remind me of someone I don’t like to think of right now.” He chuckles. A Cat Stevens request also goes unanswered. “Yeah, there are so many songs I need to learn.” Quickly though, he arrives at a fave by the female duo MaMuse that seems to sum up the sense of sadness, hope, and community.
“We shall be known by the company we keep / By the ones who circle round to tend these fires / We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap / The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth / It is time now, it is time now that we thrive / It is time we lead ourselves into the well / It is time now, and what a time to be alive / In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love.”
Phillips sings the tune a cappella, harmonizing to his own tracked vocal using a looper the second time through – a digital tool he’s also been employing in the online version of his community choir – and it’s so evocative that shivers are sent down my spine.
The concert has come to a close, and, it turns out, it’s the last one for this week, as Phillips announced at the beginning that he’s going dark on Wednesday (which is usually dedicated to having a single guest share the Zoom space, which Phillips calls “Song Pong,” or has visits from his now back-at-home daughter, Freya). The chat has been filled all hour long with messages of understanding but also admissions that they’ll miss the music and Phillips’ presence in their homes as people continue to shelter in place.
“It’s been a lot of fun to sing so much, and to feel like it’s doing something for people, to have some purpose,” he told me. “It’s been incredibly hard on the country and a lot of people, and my experience has been much easier. So I’m grateful that this idea is both doing good for other people and – because people are so generous with the separate donation area for me on Venmo — that I’m miraculously able to pay my rent too.”
Back on Facebook, the comments are also coming to a close.
“Thank you for the peace amid the chaos tonight”, ““Hearing your voice always makes me feel better”, and “Thank you, Glen. You are a gift.”