Unable to sing, Holly Near speaks to Warwick audience

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:14

    WARWICK-Well over 100 people filled the lawn in Stanley-Deming Park in the Village of Warwick waiting for Holly Near's performance in the Warwick Summer Arts Festival. They were initially disappointed when it was announced that Near had lost her voice and would be unable to sing. However, in a voice too hoarse to sing, Near gave an extemporaneous 40-minute talk that combined philosophy, reminiscence and politics. Singer/songwriter John Bucchino, who was to have accompanied Near on piano and Jimmy Gnecco, a singer/songwriter from New York City, filled in to complete the evening's entertainment. Holly Near, in addition to her long singing career, has appeared in numerous movies and television shows. However, she said, she did not pursue a full-time career in movies and TV because it was more important to make a statement about the world and to be an activist. "Activism is how we earn the rent we pay for living on this amazing planet," she said. While many people associate activism with the far right or far left, Near said, everyone could be an activist. Taking an interest in the local government or school board, for instance, is a form of activism that anyone can be involved in locally. For example, as a high-school student in Ukiah, California, Near joined a protest of the school's strict dress code. "I was naïve; I thought it could be accomplished with a few meetings. It took four years," she said. In her senior year, the school gave in - girls could wear trousers on Fridays on which a football game was scheduled. Likewise, she felt when she joined the peace movement that the effort would only take a few years. As a student at UCLA, Near recalled, she saw a group of antiwar protesters standing in a silent vigil holding signs. She wondered what they thought they would accomplish and felt embarrassed for them, she said. One thing they accomplished was to change her attitude, she said, and one day she made her own sign and joined them. People who have the courage of their convictions can sometimes accomplish what appear to be miracles, Near said. During elections in El Salvador in the mid-1980s, the government backed off its repression to create a showcase for foreign inspectors. During that "window of opportunity" artists held a large festival devoted to peace. When a soldier tried to stop a Mexican performer from reaching the stage, she told him she was going on. "He stood aside; this young man could not shoot this beautiful woman," Near said. Today we also have a window of opportunity - between now and Nov. 2. In a brief foray into electoral politics, Near made it clear that she finds the Bush administration a disaster. However, she told the audience that if the winner of the election - whether Bush or Kerry - doesn't find alternatives to war as a way of settling international disputes, people should be prepared to flood Washington in protest. Near exhorted the audience members not to lose their sense of awe and wonder at "this beautiful planet we live on. Don't take this planet for granted." One cure for a sense of despair at the direction the world seems to be taking is activism, she said. By becoming active, people can feel that they are doing something about the situation, however small. In a plea that people understand and accept others who may be very different from themselves, or who disagree with their opinions, Near spoke of her reaction to the current attempt to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Her initial response to homosexuality, like that of many people, was discomfort. Then she fell in love with a woman. "One of my friends told me that when she read my letter, she felt so sick she threw up." Near later had a relationship with a man and "one of my lesbian friends said she felt so sick she threw up." When you feel that someone is so different you cannot accept them, try to take a moment to realize that this is a wonderful world that has such a diversity of people, she advised. As Near apologized for not being able to sing, one member of the audience asked that she play one of her songs. "I'd be a little embarrassed standing hear while a record plays," she said. "Do you want me to lip synch?" However, she did have one track played at the end of her talk. Before turning the stage over to John Bucchino, Near promised she would return to Warwick when she is able to sing. The Warwick festival had its usual booth, at which people could purchase T-shirts and other festival gear. Near had a wide variety of her disks on sale at the booth as well. Unusual for a festival performance was that the booth was staffed by New Jersey Peace Action, which offered T-shirts and voter registration materials. Jo Sippie-Gora of New Jersey Peace Action said 40 to 50 people stopped by, and "a handful" registered. "In this crowd, most people are already registered to vote," she said.