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ISIS, Kid Rock, and the Death of Compassion

March 4, 2015

Today, we talk about two wars. Both challenge essential freedoms we have long taken for granted.

In troubled times, both globally and personally, we rely on one factor to provide hope and establish stability: our belief in the essential humanity of man. Often, there’s another factor that provides comfort: music, and our belief in the essential humanity of the people who make and love music.

Listening to music, loving music, gives us common ground with our fellow man; it means that not only are we engaged in the special energy and beautiful empathy implied in songs new and old, but it is also implies that we understand, implicitly or explicitly, that

the sound of American music is the sound of America’s disenfranchised, empowered by song.

But first, let’s talk about War.

We have always believed in the humanity of the common man, even if we have disparaged the humanity of their leaders. We believed that when we looked the enemy in the eye, we would see men and women like ourselves; we would see our brothers, our friends, our fathers, the sons of mothers. We hated the leaders, not the led.

We believed that the “enemy” was a government, misguided or cruel, but the armies were made of men and women much like ourselves. This is the essential faith we have in humankind, the one that compels us to not just fight, but to also rebuild: we separate Hitler from the Germans, the Kaiser from his soft-faced armies; behind the uniforms, we see men who dream of football, Christmas, and girls back home. We separate the cold, didactic hysteria of Mao or Stalin from the millions who suffered underneath them; we believe these ordinary citizens dream of freedom, dream even of the tabula rasa once implied by the American dream, just like we do. We separate leaders from the conscripted, and we hold on to the truth that we are all born the same, even if the flags that fly over our cradles are different.

This kind of thinking sustains us, leads to beautiful moments of history like the 1914 Christmas Truce and the 1948 Berlin airlift. More importantly, it makes us believe that war is an atrocity, an aberration, not the standard modus operandi of man. It even makes us believe that Lynyrd Skynyrd would probably defend the rights of Rosa Parks, but more on that shortly.

However (and this is a big goddamn ‘However’): The next war will be different. The men of ISIS have a core of belief absolutely alien to us; I am not here to either delineate or condemn their thinking – I will do neither, they are men, they are born of mothers, they are victims of indoctrination, deprivation, and oppression, just like us – but I will make some assumptions about the way they think: they are serving a fundamentalist belief that lies deep in their hearts, and does not come exclusively from the well-guarded sanctum of some governmental palace or limestone’d capitol. Their belief comes from the same part of their soul that compels breath, hunger, survival. They are not conscripts; we will be fighting an army where every soldier holds in their bosom the heart of a leader. We will be fighting the Borg. This idea is completely alien to us; we associate armies with pawns; but

when we fight ISIS, we will not be fighting pawns. We will be playing on a chessboard where every man is king.

So be fucking careful out there, okay?

Next: War, the cultural kind.

We have always believed in the good intentions of our pop stars, even if we have disparaged their corporate overlords or the excesses of their stardom. We have believed that we were all on the same “side,” regardless of musical taste; I mean, whether you were into (or in) Buffalo Springfield or Grand Funk Railroad, no one wanted to get drafted; whether you were Jeff Buckley or the Carpenters or Ice T (or one of their fans), no one wanted their head bashed in by a cop. The “establishment,” whether it was personified by Reagan, Nixon, Bush, or Thatcher, was a country without empathy; we, the children of rock, stood on opposite shores, observing and jeering at the “establishment.“

When we saw other members of the Fraternity of Music, long hairs, short hairs, pink hairs, and suede heads, we intrinsically believed we were seeing others who believed in the capacity of art and music to make peace, achieve equality, empower the disenfranchised. We assumed other members of this Fraternity stood for compassion, tolerance, and equality. The occasional affirmation of a right-leaning stance from a member of Generation Rock was considered an aberration.

So, here we are, dear reader, 778 words into this piece, and hopefully comfortable in the bosom of an idea or two, which I now recap: first, our general belief in the essential humanity of the Family of Man, the framework that has guided is through the centuries of war and reconstruction; and secondly, our general belief in the essential humanity of the Family of Pop, which made us see a lover of freedom in the face of every silky-haired singer and spiked-hair guitar-slinger.

Both ideas are no longer valid. Both can no longer sustain us.

Instead, we see the face of Kid Rock, and we see the face of ISIS.

Rock has been Kid Rocked. And this has happened at the worst possible time, just when we need to temper the extremist intolerance of the coming war with compassion and empathy.

Each group – ISIS and Kid Rock — fails to recognize that mercy and compassion is a great form of justice in and of itself.

And the highest, most ideal aim of government is compassion, and the highest aim of musicians and artists is to insure that compassion is enforced.

As I have stated before, everything about our culture of American pop – and I mean everything — originated with the disenfranchised people of our country; and every moment you listen to music (and every moment you create music), this genesis must be recalled, because this reinforces compassion and empathy. From Stephen Foster’s faux-slave songs to the modified Appalachian howls of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams to the sex-calls of Elvis to the rhymes of Run DMC and all the manifold descendants of all these pioneers,

American music was the creation of those forgotten by the American dream: truck driving sons of Parchman convicts, the urban and rural poor, the immigrant Jews and Italians and Irish, all the people who had nothing and built America…they built American song, too, American pop, American rock’n’roll.

Every song you hear, whether it is the retching machinery of death metal or the most superficial EDM, contains the musical DNA of America’s bruised, insulted, exploited, poor, and oppressed.

The Buddha said that you should see the face of your mother in the faces of those who abuse you; at some point in the tumble of eternity, reaching eons into the past and unknown millennia into the future, everyone has been your mother. Likewise, every time you listen to a song, any song, you should see the faces of Ledbelly, or Big Mama Thornton, or Irving Berlin, or Lee Hayes, or Maybelle Carter, or any of the other citizens who turned their suffering into song, and translated oppression into joy.

There is zero room in the pop landscape for the racism and proto-fascist teabaggery of Kid Rock (who I will target specifically, as Ted Nugent is just a useless old windbag, grasping at the straws of the Fox News culture to sustain an income). I am tired of this shit. The stakes are too high.

We will fight the lack of humanity with humanity; we will fight hatred with the ubiquity of love; we will fight the ignorance of fundamentalist prejudice with the awareness of the common empathy of all humans of all sexes.

Jesus Christ I sound like a hippie.

And why not? We need them more than ever. Hippies, that is. Especially if they listen to Rudimentary Peni and the Mekons and not crappy jam bands.

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Remix: Is Music Ready For The Apocalypse?

February 23, 2015

Listen, no person, no matter how much they froth with opinions, should be above an occasional mea culpa, and here’s mine: I should have known a bit more about Mr. Kanye West’s catalog before jumping to some of the conclusions I espoused in last Friday’s column. Having said that, pray allow me to state this: I had some very important points to make in that column, and the stuff about Kanye was really just a small part of it – goddamn small, actually. In fact, waving my arms about Kanye was honestly just the equivalent of a carny barker trying to get you through the door of the tent.

 So, here’s the remix. I want to re-state the stuff from that column that was actually important, without the distraction of the fumbling Kanye stuff. Thank you for listening – I mean that.

America, I am a member of your luckiest generation: Those of us born between (roughly) 1956 and 1975 were born into an era pregnant with prosperity and endless invitations to escapism, and we came of age in a time when this nations’ penchant for invention and daydreaming soared without the clouds of impending disaster and involuntary conscription. We are the luckiest generation: we have lived the rough bulk of our life in the downy-soft years after the threat of Vietnam yet before the apocalyptic Goliath of the caliphate wars and environmental catastrophe. Personally: I was 9 when the shadow of the draft ended, and it is likely I will live most – and perhaps all – of my active life before things become really dark, both figuratively and literally. Our children, our grandchildren, and you (if you are under a certain age) are going to grow up and grow old in a very, very different world than the dynamically inventive and often wonderfully trivial era that has is ending.

Every freedom we have taken for granted, whether it is the freedom to practice our religion, the freedom not to practice any religion, or the freedom to drink fresh water, will be assaulted.

Will your music, your art, and your culture rise to the task?

From Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Ragga, Syria, from the West Bank to Paris, from Manhattan to your hometown, the corpses of those killed in the name of religion are going to pile high in the streets; the bodies of 88,000 and more children, slaughtered hysterically because of the country or creed of their birth, will be laid at the feet of 88,000 mothers; hysterical statesmen, waving testaments old and new, will demand allegiance to a holy land; weapons created by cold-blooded scientists in the last century to defend freedom will be used by hot-blooded hysterics in this century to end freedom; the flashing, shattering scythes of the middle ages and the darkness of the Toba Extinction will return to our world, grim twin revelators riding the pale horses of virulence and deprivation.

Will you be watching the Kardashians?

It is entirely feasible that we will soon find ourselves returning to the constant state of religious war that existed throughout most of history (remember, as recently as 1683 Ottoman troops were at the gates of Vienna); simultaneously, assaults to the environment will force our children and grandchildren to radically alter the way they live and ration things their ancestors took for granted; and continuous breaches of internet security will compel us to redefine the word privacy, and even more likely, force a sizable portion of the wise men and women of this planet off the grid, into an existence that both denies and combats progress.

This is our future.

Will music meet the challenges of this new world? Will music motivate the people of raped Gaia to fight for positive change? Will music mobilize armies to stand up for the disenfranchised, the hungry, the frightened, the abused? Will music provide amiable distraction that somehow creates joy but avoids numbing? Will music incite courageous and productive dissent? Will music underline atrocity and suggest solutions? Will music rouse brotherhood, and combat ignorance?

The model for a utile, user-friendly, informative and provocative pop has existed in the past, and must be recalled and implemented again. Let us consider Phil Ochs and the MC5, performing in Lincoln Park in Chicago during the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention; let us recall the theories, screeds, pranks, and radical distribution models of Penny Rimbaud, Crass, Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Billy Childish, Alan Ginsberg, Paul Krassner, the Mekons, and everyone else who thought that art could inform, balm, spotlight the truth, highlight hypocrisy and witlessness, provide facts, and inspire accord.

In the future, entertainment can continue to feed escapism and act as the clown distracting children on the way to the death camps; or it can be a utility, a bridge to unity, information, and power. From the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement to the cotton fields of the old South, from Welsh mines to lunch counters in Mississippi, from Lincoln Park in Chicago to the Compton, the story of music and the story of activism is inseparable. And the story of every single aspect of our pop, whether you listen to country, death metal, or rap, is synonymous with the story of America’s disenfranchised. Seriously, friends: the DNA of every goddamn thing you listen to can be found on slave ships and in the hollers of Appalachia. American music is the sound of those who had less, the sound of those who had to fight to be heard, fight to eat, fight to vote, fight to survive. Whether you’re Jack White or Lightning Bolt or Bon Jovi or loathsome Paul Simon, when you make music, you are echoing the noise of America’s disenfranchised screaming to be heard, or seeking joy in their toil, or setting a melody to the fight for equality.

Our music is a talking drum, passed down from the disenfranchised of the past for the use of the desperate of the future.

And that future is near. Our children, our grandchildren, ourselves, will need the Utility of Music more than ever. Music must mean something, say something, fight for something, take risks, announce agendas, denounce lies, and tell the truth.Music is beauty and power. Do not fucking forget it. Honor it. Playtime is over. Rock’n’roll is just beginning.

Be Woody Guthrie. Be Crass. Be Phil Ochs. Be Jon Langford. Be Victor Jara.

You owe it to the future.


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