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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2006/11/18
by Jesse Jarnow

War on War (What’s it Good For), parts 11-13

BRAIN TUBA: War on War (What’s it Good For), parts 11-13
parts 1-6
parts 7-10
The expression "war, what’s it good for?" (ab-so-lute-ly nothing) has become so entrenched in our culture that a simple Google search for the phrase reveals nothing definitive of its origins. The top link goes to the entry of the 1970 Edwin Starr recording, yes, but it gets quite blurry with a quickness, linking to papers on urban policy, editorials about popular culture, tee-shirts for sale, and several blogs (including one that might have something to do with zombies). It is as if the phrase were always there, always part of our vocabulary, and — therefore — always part of our thoughts.
All of which is to say: I didn’t know who wrote "War (What’s It Good For?)", and got very frustrated trying to figure it out. The answer, praise Wikipedia, is Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. But the answer doesn’t matter, because I have an answer for their question: songs like ‘War (What’s It Good For?)’
Last week, after the Democrats overtook Congress and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned, a friend of mine described the feeling — or the first blush, morning-after part of the feeling, anyway — as being like a global vibe shift. And, at least that afternoon, the description felt pretty accurate. Indeed, politics and reality seem to have taken a few steps closer to one another.
Future polices aside, we’re still a long ways from peace and prosperity. Even so, it’s worth considering that — by some rationales — the last six years have seen the remarkably unified establishment of a counter-culture, from user-generated video sources like YouTube to anti-journalists like Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and — er — Borat to hordes of hoodlums violating copyright with impunity (and both willfully and inadvertently trying to redefine the hierarchy of the popular media), to — well — anything you see fit make an argument for. Of course, one could just as easily say that all of these events could be traced back to the most recent tech revolution. And maybe so. But, hey, time is a tough thing to parse.
Can one really look back at the term-and-a-half of the Bush Administration and say that great art came from the strife that they caused? At this point, probably not. "War" ("the song," as Wikipedia clarifies) first hit the charts during Vietnam, and — I can imagine — felt quite relevant. The next time the tune appeared in Billboard — #8 in 1986 — it was after Bruce Springsteen used it to protest Ronald Reagan’s policies. I’m sure it felt quite relevant then, too, but now seems a bit silly (though, I suppose, no wars, no matter how small, are ever silly) (and Bruce Springsteen, no matter how earnest, is always silly).
In another universe, where Al Gore is peacefully serving out his second term, those dudes still invented YouTube, that guy still started Wikipedia, and both are touted as typical examples of self-obsessed American largesse. What it comes down to is that there are always radical advances in technology. There are always new musicians, writers, and artists. The only bit that’s different now, with George Bush in the office, is that all-mythic vibe that’s created, well, when there is war in the world and even an outside chance that potential audiences might be blown to smithereens. It’s possible that music just sounds better under those circumstances. Vibes are funny like that.
In a very real way, it is probably not a coincidence that I discovered the Spin Doctors in October 1992, when I was in eighth grade, and they came to C.W. Post, a local college. That’s what those shows were for: new audiences. Nor is it probably a coincidence that the show was a few weeks before Bill Clinton beat the electoral piss out of the first George Bush and became President. And it’s probably not even a coincidence that the Spin Doctors got their picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone just two weeks before Clinton was inaugurated in January. Had the Google Zeitgeist existed, you can bet both would’ve made it. So began — more or less — the jamband movement as a viable commercial entity, and one of those periodic rebirths of mass optimism in the United States.
This month, November 2006, as the tide began to shift again, String Cheese Incident announced they were breaking up (though their economic infrastructure, Madison House Inc., will surely live on), and electro-lite jammers Particle visited New York City and played at the Knitting Factory, a venue much smaller than their previous Manhattan engagements. I am not sure if there is any connection between any of these events, or the fact that the organizers of Bonnaroo have consistently started focusing their attention on non-hippie acts, or that Phish and the Grateful Dead have effectively consolidated (with Trey Anastasio playing with regularly with Phil Lesh, and Mike Gordon with the Rhythm Devils), or anything else. Still, something seems afoot in jambandia and it’s sure not expansion.
Perhaps the meme has been established, inserted so thoroughly into American culture — like "War (What’s It Good For)" — that it no longer needs to exist in anything resembling its original form. Or maybe it means we just have to wait two more years for the next Phish reunion.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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