Featured Column:War on War
Music and politics, September 2004
Last month, the Republicans came. They didn't even breathe hard.
The night before the protest, I'd gone to The Tank, a Hell's Kitchen arts space, for a party called "Sleeping With The Enemy," for which Democratic bar buddies Drinking Liberally cordially invited the Young Republicans for an old-fashioned mixer (red cups for those from the red states, etc.). It was a surprisingly tame affair. Tank management took down the sign by a gurgling motorcycle sculpture known as the Ronald Reagan Memorial Fountain and I turned in early.
Bleary-eyed the next morning, I knocked on my friend's door on the way to the subway. He'd escaped to a barbecue. Though many turned out to demonstrate in reaction to the Republican National Convention in New York during the last week of August, it wasn't universally without reluctance. There were fears. I had friends who cited both terrorism and the particularly unforgiving New York City Police Department as worries. (Neither turned out to be much of a problem.) More often, though, people had a litany of very valid complaints about the nature of the event — a massive demonstration, walking up Seventh Avenue, past the entrance to Madison Square Garden, down Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and back to Union Square.
"Well, what are we protesting?" my barbecue-bound buddy had asked.
I wasn't entirely sure. The Republicans, yes. But what, exactly? Their right to gather and have a political convention in a city (still?) known for being the world's melting pot? Nah, as tasteless as it was to base their gathering around the exploitation of the still-festering wound of September 11th, they remained well within their right to gather (though the Republicans Go Home contingent made themselves boisterously, if obnoxiously, known).
This, in fact, was a concern of many of my friends. A massive protest is certainly not a place for an articulate opinion, and many people – myself included – found themselves disconnected from the mass of issues lumped in. The still-going war in Iraq sickens and saddens me, as do the twisted justifications and rationalizations that get fired daily from the White House. But there is an occasionally violent tone to the return rhetoric that makes me cringe to be associated with it. And, like many on the Left, John Kerry and his treatment of this campaign as business-as-usual don't thrill me either (or, like Nellie McKay sang succinctly: "I'm with John-John until November, but my heart belongs to Ralph").
"What good will it do?" my neighbor grumbled. I didn't know. But, shit, the Republicans were coming to my town and, dammit, if they had a right to gather within a few miles of my home, I had a duty to register my dissent. And so I went to be an extra in another big movie, hoping that the mob, and a brief watered-down version of our Message, would somehow be transmitted somewhere.
The Black Dude in the Subway Tunnel With the Shaved Head Who Always Sings Early Beatles Songs was singing "All My Loving" as I passed, hoping to cut around the so-called feeder streets and come up from the subway right on Seventh Avenue. So, with a head full of trepidation (and a last bit of carefree Beatlemusic) I walked up into the full-bloom summer day. Within moments, Science Boy was on the phone, trying to convince me to brave the feeder streets and head over to 16th, where he was with a marching band organized by Sex Mob drummer Kenny Wolleson.
"We're behind the giant inflatable pig," Science Boy shouted over the din. "Just look there."
Sure enough, under a giant inflatable pig with some kinda incendiary message scrawled on it, stood a packed crowd of musicians, some of whom I recognized from various configurations that perform at Tonic, an avant-garde jazz club on the Lower East Side. Some were dressed in full-on Sun Ra space cadet regalia. Science Boy attached the sheet music to the brim of his clarinet with same clip from he used when he led the marching band back in high school (now he consults on solar energy and plays in klezmer and gypsy band) (yes, he does Bar Mitzvahs).
"Is this gonna work?" I asked Science Boy.
"I dunno," he replied. "But we'll sure make a lot of noise."
Wolleson struck me up one of the untitled numbers, and everything instantly clicked. The horn players hooked up in a joyous fugue of rhetoric and dissent. It wasn't a day for considered arguments. It was a day for inarticulate emotions. While the crowd seethed, waiting to begin the uptown march, a small dance party erupted in the packed territory of the band. They weren't exactly together, but they were close enough.
Wolleson handed me a small sound-maker. "It's for scaring off evil spirits," he said.
"Word," I nodded.
"Word," I said again, trying to sound grave.When the masses finally began to move, the band slithered along, occasionally losing itself in the swirl. Wolleson was at the center, a spinning ball of energy whacking a marching bass drum. Behind a trap set with Sex Mob, Wolleson looks hyper-kinetic anyway, as if he'd spin off if he only stood up. Actually standing up, he spun off frequently, dipping to the ground, blowing into his conch shell, and waving it high to gather stragglers who'd inevitably gotten lost in the crowd.
The band struck up a mutated reggae/Dixieland fusion between the syncopated charge of Nigerian revolutionary musician Fela Kuti and the chaotic joy of the Saturnian free jazzer Sun Ra. Nobody was together. But, amidst the "Four more months!" chants and the whoops around us, it hardly mattered. Science Boy's girlfriend gave me a tambourine. Oh Lord, how I did bang it.
Several times, the band disintegrated entirely, stretching out beyond coherence, the shape of the sound dwindling to nothing, only to see Wolleson's conch shell at the foot of the inflatable pig, calling the band back to order. As we approached the Garden, two hours after we started, the musicians were more or less in one place. There was room around us in the crowd. In front of us and behind us, people hurled epithets at the suited men watching suspiciously from the Garden steps (though, more generally, at the building itself).
The cameras rolled, Kenny spun, and people cheered.
It was downhill from there, though. Over the next few days, at The Tank shouting back at the big-screen broadcast, and listening to President Bush's speech driving through far western Pennsylvania en route to a wedding, a great deflation occurred. I'd gone into the summer filled with high hopes for November. Of course John Kerry would win. Bush didn’t win the first time, and nobody who voted against him last time could surely vote for him this time. Right, I know, counting chickens and whatnot.
So, when the Republican National Convention actually went down in all its orchestrated glory, a symphony of fear and, er, compassion, it didn't make me happy. It made me sad. "Know thine enemy," I'd told myself at the outset of the week. So I tried. And – except when they were talking about gay marriage or ignoring the United Nations – so much of it sounded perfectly goddamn reasonable. George Bush seemed innocuous, presenting himself as a bold innocent, totally unaware of the mounting collection of very frightening charges against him and his Administration.
There is no doubt a great swell of discontent in the country, certainly among people in their mid-20s, and most assuredly in the state of New York. I feel strongly part of it. Like the '60s, that great historical epoch that misinformed fogies tell us we can never relive, there is a powerful sense that we are Right and they are Wrong. But what if we are Wrong? The dividing line, it seems to me, is positively theological. In the same way that a lack of faith might damn someone to Hell (were, of course, Hell to exist), then the same lack of faith – as pursued by the country – would damn us to a swift fire-bombing by a terrorist group possibly (but not necessarily) affiliated with Al Qaeda and Iraq. Believing in George Bush will deliver us from certain eternal doom (or, at least, that’s what Dick Cheney implied last week.) There is a leap of faith involved in atheism, too: being (literally) damn positive that there is no God. And the Republicans did their best to narrow it.
In studying the primary season phenomenon of the so-called Deaniacs, analysts spoke of the self-perpetuating frenzy within the blogosphere that caused the political equivalent of an old-fashioned dot-com bubble. It's hard not to worry that the same isn't occurring on a large scale around the Democrats' hopes in the upcoming Presidential election. I read the papers, trying to maintain a balance between what I perceive to be balanced sources (The New York Times) and more left-leaning outlets (Salon.com), but what matters until November 2nd (to me, anyway) is whatever emotion my gut produces. Not that this will have any bearing on the outcome.
But it was, inarguably, a deflation, and it seemed to affect lots of people. I sulked for a week or two, feeling a little lost when I read the news each morning, and trying as rationally as possible to imagine what a second Bush term could look like. Even Michael Moore – who, for better or worse, seems to have become de facto spokesman for the Movement in the wake of Ralph Nadar’s classic martyrdom – recognized it. "Enough of the handwringing! Enough of the doomsaying!" Moore wrote to his mailing list. "Do I have to come there and personally calm you down? Stop with all the defeatism, OK?"
The sulk started with George Bush's convention speech, which I listened to en route to Iowa for a friend's wedding. On the way, I passed through fellow swing states Pennsylvania and Ohio, where I picked up another college friend. On the highways, passing cars and slowing for tolls, and at restaurants, gas stations, and motels, I studied people's faces. Were they Bush voters? Were they bad people? Were they malevolent baby-eaters? Even the ones who clearly displayed Bush/Cheney '04 stickers on their bumpers? They probably weren’t.Driving east from New York on Interstate 80, Iowa is the first place where the sky gets big. Just west of the Mississippi, there is a perceptible escalation in the landscape's slow drama, the first bloom of the impressive desolation of Nebraska and beyond. I had driven the road before, including a solo drive to Colorado in early March of 2003, on the eve of the Invasion. The skies were an intense, distant gray and the fields were still barren. From the music-filled bubble of my car, it felt like a gigantic canvas. With so few obvious forms of life in the landscape, what could the Iowans be making of the embedded camera crews? Or reports of the protests? Or the tense transmissions from the United Nations?
In some way, it'd be unfair to say they interpreted these matters any differently from their counterparts in New York. After all, people are people. But in another, more statistically accurate way, a good case could be made. In the 2000 Presidential election, nearly exactly the same amount of people voted for Al Gore and George Bush (around 635,000 each) in Iowa. In New York, Gore's numbers nearly doubled those of Bush (4.1 million to 2.4 million). The split will likely be fairly similar this year, give or take those enigmatic swing voters. On the whole, people in Iowa do perceive things differently than those in New York — or, at the very least, they come to different conclusions. What are they seeing that’s so different?
Driving home, we listened to John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album, whose fourth track, "Working Class Hero," is guaranteed to play the heartstrings of any guilty liberal city mouse wondering how the country mice live. Lennon happens to makes the split along economic lines, but the effect is the same.
From the first verse, the song is delivered in a heartfelt second person. As it begins, it feels like thousands of other earnestly strummed numbers (peaking with R.E.M.'s proto-emo "Everybody Hurts"): a comfort song. "As soon as you're born, they make you feel small," Lennon sings, the same achingly familiar voice of dozens of reassuringly optimistic Beatles songs wrapping around you with a childhood-like warmth (especially if you're the product of some of the millions of hippie parents who veritably raised you on Lennon and The Beatles).
But this isn't the Lennon who was the Walrus (or even Not the Walrus). This was the Lennon of 1970, who sang on the same album, "I don't believe in Beatles… I just believe in me. Yoko and me, that's reality" And, so, during the chorus, Lennon introduces ambiguity into the equation: "A working class hero is something to be." Perhaps it is, but Lennon's use is unclear. Does he mean a hero to the working class (someone from outside the group) or a hero of the working class (someone who rises to significance under those conditions)?
The question hinges on whether or not Lennon is really singing in the second person or not. Plastic Ono Band is a confessional album. "Working Class Hero" follows several intensely personal songs, most (such as the disc-opening "Mother") punctuated by the primal scream therapy Lennon was undergoing. Everything he sings in the second person ("they hurt you at home and they hit you at school") is very much in the vein of what he confesses elsewhere. For the first three-quarters of the song, it seem as if that’s exactly how Lennon is singing. It’s less comforting than the song’s beginning, but still a number of solidarity.
But then Lennon gets accusatory: "Keep you doped with religion, and sex, and TV," he sings pointedly, "And you think you're so clever and classless and free." And then he pops into the first person for the first time – "but you're still fuckin' peasants, as far as I can see" – and with a sneer at that! There is no question that this line is an attack, but who is it on? Who is delivering it? Is it Lennon attacking the working class roots he long claimed? Or is it Lennon attacking the middle-class peace movement of which he was a part?
Ultimately, as the songwriter, Lennon is doing both, because he is both. "If you want to be a leader, just follow me," he concludes, and goes on to sing "Isolation," and a half-dozen other songs clearly written by the deeply pained man described in the second person during the opening verses of "Working Class Hero." He is addressing himself, and reaching no conclusions other than more doubt. "These are the facts I know and understand," Lennon seems to imply. "See if you can do anything with ‘em."
I couldn't, and we kept driving.
This year, especially, I have a strong urge for the music I enjoy to seem meaningful and significant in some way — and usually not literally, either. It's a strange distinction to make, but even very intelligent "protest" music, as sung by the likes of Michael Franti, Dan Bern, Ani DiFranco, and others, rarely speaks to me on any deep level. In the days following September 11th, it was Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" (released that fateful Tuesday) that acted as the best summation of my temper.
Certainly, there were ominous Dark Side/Wizard of Oz-like coincidences scattered about, but – mostly – it was just a mood that Dylan articulated. It was in the way his characters (and musicians) interacted with one another (the full-swing fade-in at the head of the disc-opening "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum"), and in the tone of his language (the central image of those characters dementedly throwing knives into a tree).
In 2004, "Love and Theft" still seems current, but I’m looking for more. It’s hard to even know where to start, primarily because it’s a bit specious to even call music "significant" in the way that it once was. Furthermore, at this point – right in the thick of election season, the War, and the like – nobody can really tell. Any "significance" an album has is surely a psychological byproduct of listening — just as much an emotional effect as love, sympathy, trippy ambience, or anything else an artist might try to convey. Therefore, for an album to feel significant to me, it has to feel as if it is probably significant to a lot of other people, too. It has to make me feel as if I’m connected by invisible bond to some massive listenership that shares not only my political beliefs, but also my aesthetic ones.
It also lays down the first requirement: that it be a Big Album.
The Antibalas Afrobeat Orhestra's Fela-inspired Who Is This America? certainly hits the spot, addressing Bush and his cronies directly, but it mostly uses them to channel the players’ muscular (and necessarily abstract) instrumental skills.Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, my favorite album of the year so far, has done so, too, though I’d be hard-pressed to put my finger on exactly why. For starters, it sounds current, in terms of Jim O’Rourke’s spare production, as well the occasional avant-garde/progressive touch (such as the 10-minute drone that follows "Less Than You Think"). Lyrically, Jeff Tweedy’s language feels contemporary, the same way Dylan’s did on Highway 61 Revisited. "Spiders are filling out tax returns," Tweedy sings on "Spiders (kidsmoke)," caricaturing a weirdly obscure version of corporate America.
But widely listened to, prescient-seeming releases like "Love and Theft" and A Ghost Is Born (and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief) are few and far between. A reason for all of these discs’ creative successes, I think, rests in their size. In a bit of a Catch-22, Thom Yorke is allowed to speak for tens of thousands of fans only because he already has them. Frankly, "Working Class Hero" wouldn’t have had the same impact had it been sung by an unknown singer-songwriter.
These were Big Albums — designed, recorded, and promoted to (relatively) massive audiences to huge acclaim. And, after all, I wonder, how many more scruffy dudes can realistically speak to or for me via major multi-national conglomerates before I stop believing it?
And why do I let sods like Dylan and Tweedy and Yorke speak for me, anyhow? I mean, they don't really speak for me, so why should their music? If any musician actually speaks for me, it’s more likely my roommate. Or my next-door neighbor, and good friend, who I hang out with every day (and who is recording a new album down the hall, in our mutual neighbor’s loft, as I type). Shouldn’t they – who share so many of the same life circumstances as me – be the ones to articulate what I’m feeling? Shouldn’t I reach for their albums when I want music that expresses how I feel?
Here's what fundamentally bothered me about the protest of the Republican National Convention last month: I realized that I didn't actually know who spoke for me. I suspect that many of my fellow protestors didn’t know either. I take deep and daily umbrage with the events of national politics, but I don’t know jack shit about the politics of my Brooklyn neighborhood, about zoning laws, about school board elections (let alone meetings), about local crime rates, about any of that. While surely I should be worried about the War, about George Bush, about all of that, I should also be concerned with nearby decisions that impact me on a daily basis.
It bothers me that I don't, for the same reason that it bothers me that I don't reach for my friends' albums more often than I reach for Wilco or Radiohead or Bob Dylan (or many other acts). In my heart, that's what my values point to, and listening to Wilco and caring more about the well-being of the Kerry campaign than the local school board, seem like excuses not to get involved in the messiness of life. Of course my neighbor’s album won’t be as perfect as A Ghost is Born, and of course the local school board won’t be doing anything as exciting as invading any other countries, but they will both deal with things far more real and ambiguous and articulated.
But Iraq and Wilco seem far away, dream-like, and my building and neighborhood both seem like fairly okay places right now. Even if my neighbor's album won't make high rotation, it's really inspiring to watch him record it, and very nice to hang out with my friends who live in the rooms around me here. It's warm and nice in this building. It's the outside world that seems fucking insane.
It's late September now, and my windows are being pounded by the remnants of the hurricanes currently ravaging Florida. The meteorological turmoil from that state seems auspicious — some literal manifestation of the sub-democratic voting conditions that former President (and frequent United Nations elections observer) Jimmy Carter recently observed in that state.
For now, though, I've got Blues For Allah ("The ships of state sail on mirage, but drown in sand") a bottle of white wine that my roommate ganked from his job, and a few strange months ahead filled with mountains of yet-unresolved questions.
These are the facts I know and understand. See if you can do anything with 'em.