'Do I dare disturb the universe...?' T.S. Eliot 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'
After the past year and a half's touring, and performing from San Francisco to Montreal with readings from 'Critics Who Know Jack (Urban Myths Media and Rock and Roll)' , many in the audience responded to the work by asking for more of the same. A look at the world of pop culture as it relates to traditional arts, media and criticism. But what more to say? I looked back over the text as I sat drinking a morning espresso and thought that if the book had to go further, I would delve into aspects of Protest, be it in music or the wonky present political climate. Certainly in the history of pop music, protest has been a staple for many bands and singer-songwriters. Be it personal or political, protest seems to be the big brother or sister to lament and complaint. The adult to the child in the realm of trying to change what one is not happy about or put things right in the world. The action to the thought.
In Canada, the 'Idle No More' hunger strike by Aboriginal tribal chief Theresa Spence brought to mind the tools that protest movements utilize. Though removed in years and continents from IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, there is something common in the zeitgeist of protest. Wrongs must be righted. From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada to 'Black Lives Matter' south of the border - all aim to create a balance against the inequities of history and re-establish the dignity of human experience. And, in the pop music realm, Beyonce's Superbowl 50 Panther-esque performance, brought again to light the power of song and image in the awareness of history's gravitational waves. At the time of this writing, the Great Butterfly passed on. 'Ali Bomaye!' (with apologies to George Foreman).
For this initial installment I've decided to take a look at a few music icons from distinct generations and genres.
Oddly, last night I received an email inviting me to take a 'favorite band' quiz. Anyone with a brain and moody came up with Pink Floyd by the end of the quiz. Anyone cheery came up with The Beach Boys and early Beatles. But among friends who took the quiz, there was no Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix or even The Doors or Kinks, Public Enemy or female performers. Not even truth-telling Bruucce?!
To begin with, think EDWARD SNOWDEN. DANIEL ELLSBERG. ABBIE HOFFMAN MARIO SAVIO. BOB (not Thomas) DYLAN! The former three not artists but political activists and citizens who actually paid/PAY with their lives or ways of living. The latter, a truth teller of sorts. But who's truths? And as a friend asked me one day as we were discussing the history of protest - “What about FRANK? What if anything, did SINATRA have to do with protest music?
Snowden, Ellsbeg, Hoffman, Mario Savio
FRANKIE: Reference 'The House I Live In' recorded earlier by Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson, and his affinity with African-Americans throughout the civil rights movement. Frankie worked hard to include the marginalized yet his intolerance of Sinead O'Connor for protesting the Pope was certainly retro-tinged and 'real greaseball shit!' (as Ray Liotta's character says in martin Scorcese's 'Goodfellas' ). However I have to say that 'It Was a Very Good Year' was an honest reflection from Frank. As for 'My Way' – God bless Sid even it means Paul Anka could buy more Brill-cream and sun tan lotion!
Sinatra pals, Sid Vicious, O'Connor, Paul Anka
Yet when you listen to Frankie (the early years) you can sense something young and warm of heart – smooth and getting things started. Then, when you listen to Frank – (the Chairman of the Board years) – oil drips from the microphone and we hear a crusty old man, mean at the world. As for a more integral protest, you have to go to Woody Guthrie. But for 'hip' protest – for the middle albums (1965-66) comes a voice from Minnesota that then fades away into odd career moves and imitations of Frankie by 2014. What's really happening Mister Jones? Is gravity really so strong as to take a brilliant conjurer of language down the road to becoming a slow-spinning curmudgeon, once renown for great poetic, if not political risk? 'C'mon ref!!??' (as the sports guys say). The protest gods though smile on Pete Seeger, and always will. On John Lennon too, for that matter.
Richard Farina or Where Bobby Z Dylan Learned Some Stuff
BOBBY Z DYLAN (NOT THOMAS):
What a contender!– The early work. The 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' voice - – and sure the rest is cool and engaging in maturation of subject matter until - 'Neighborhood Bully' on 'Infidels'. His poetic commentary defending state terrorism, being the victim of mean cowboy states in burnooses all around it in the Middle East. This isn't 'Blowing in the Wind'. It's not even a good gunslinger song. And what's with the Christmas and Frank Sinatra songs? And the Letterman performance thing a short while back?
If we need a crooner to sing a protest song listen to Bobby Darin's (who worked hard in the late sixties to soap off the oil) attempt from '68, 'A Simple Song of Freedom', or even pushing it a bit, Elvis singing 'In the Ghetto'. But a protest voice turning crooner ?– that's a stretch and Bobby Z probably knows it while he chortles, surprised only by the timbre of his own vocal chords. This stuff ain't the shamanistic laurels Beat poet Allen Ginsberg enthroned Bobby with early on. It's not even the crooney sweet 'Lay Lady Lay', his first croon-country attempt with the best pick-up line ever written 'You can have you cake and eat it too.' And though one has to grant Bobby Z some give for later pieces on 'Blood on the Tracks' and 'Desire' with the flare of 'Hurricane', and the brilliant 'Mississippi' from 2000's 'Love and Theft', is there nothing left to protest against except for the bad loves you've had in your life? 'C'mon Bob!!!'
Elvis, Bobby Darin
Still, there is hope in the long ether. If not in words, then in the sound of the music. Give me the sound of THE WHO –PUBLIC EMEMY - METALLICA – EMIMEN – RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE – JOE STRUMMER'S CLASH - KURT COBAIN, TRACY CHAPMAN, EDDIE VEDDER AND NWA. And get out and feed the hungry and house the poor. Stop buying that crap at fast food joints and the like. It could be you or someone dear to you dying of a heart attack from being greased to the gills! You could be ending your career before it gets started. And the later years Frankie? He'd probably have smacked Woody in the head and said : 'That's enough of that crap, Jack! Love your country!' As if Woody didn't.
Woody Guthrie, Zuccotti Park, The Sleep of Reason, Bury (My Heart at Wounded Knee),
Buffy Sainte Marie, Chuck D, N.W.A
Bottom line - Protest is born from a difference of opinion. Protest music is born from a need to communicate that difference of opinion and celebrate the freedom to do so and the freedom that breeds equality, anti-racism, challenges world hunger and holds greed and poverty at bay. As protest has crossed over with entertainment it is inevitable that protest is subject to becoming a matter of taste and aesthetics and the superficial, antithetical consumerism of 'fad'. ( The fashion in which one chooses to protest). But let's not mistake protest with merely being 'hip' either. Radical chic is not enough to make changes in substance and policy. Though the 'fashion' of protest can be a collective stepping stone, it takes sustained voices to confront and effect the powers in society that thrive on inequities and the like.
(NEXT MONTH -'THE TEMPLE OF PROTEST')
Take the Protest Quiz HERE!!