When you get to be my age, you find yourself doing more and more reminiscing about the good old days. I never understood this when my parents did it back when I was growing up. I mean, what little I knew of their generation was things like the Depression and the war, and what possibly could have been “good” about those old days, right?
But like a lot of folks my age, I find myself yearning for those younger, more innocent times — which for me, means the seventies, and especially the sixties. This is particularly true when it comes to music.
Now, before you go leveling the charges of “old fart” and the like, I’m not one of those folks who gave up on music after Woodstock was over, and Hendrix or even Kurt Cobain were dead and gone. Nor am I one of what I like to call those old “Steve Miller” guys who look like Homer Simpson, and never quite got past their worn old vinyl copies of Fly Like An Eagle or “Free Bird.”
Nope. You won’t catch me grousing about how “all today’s music is crap” like a number of my contemporaries have. On the contrary, I listen to and actually like quite a bit of the music out there right now. I could probably do with a little less Justin Timberlake and a little more White Stripes if I’m being one hundred percent honest. But for the most part I’m okay with most of what I hear these days.
One thing I’m not so okay with though, is the lack of political activism in music. I mean think about it. We are living through times which in many ways run directly parallel to the sixties — they had Vietnam, we have Iraq; they had Nixon, we have Bush — and yet, there is precious little out there in the way of musical reaction or resistance.
There are exceptions, of course. Tom Morello’s former work with Rage Against The Machine, and currently as the Nightwatchman, as well as Serj Tankian, and some of the more politically aware hip hop artists like the Roots and Erykah Badu spring most immediately to mind here.
But I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the few musicians out there fighting the good fight are the old duffers. Guys like Springsteen, Neil Young, Pearl Jam — hell, lets throw the Dixie Chicks in there too, ever since they more or less fell into the role of musical politicos courtesy of an unfortunate onstage quip about George Bush.
The other thing though, is that despite all of the publicity people like the Chicks or even Neil Young got after he released Living With War, I can’t think of one song now that so captures the incendiary (or what should be) mood of this time, the way that this particular one did back in its day:
When you hear the words “Stop! Hey, what’s that sound?” there is no mistaking what the Buffalo Springfield were singing about. That’s why the song is used in so many movies today dealing with that time period. And that’s just one song. I can rattle off several more without even thinking about it. Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance,” and just about anything by Dylan back then come most immediately to mind.
Not that the mix of politics and rock and roll was by any means confined to the sixties and seventies. By the time the eighties rolled around, that battle was still being waged on a number of fronts. The punk-rock of bands like the Saints, Tom “Glad To Be Gay” Robinson, and especially The Clash on albums like Sandinista is the most obvious example.
The reggae music of artists like Third World and especially the late, great Bob Marley and The Wailers also served as a political flashpoint during the seventies and well into the eighties. Marley’s anthems like “Get Up Stand Up” and “Exodus” not only made him a God at home, and an international star abroad — they also nearly got him assassinated.
But there was also a lot of that revolutionary spirit during the embryonic, early stages of hip hop in the eighties too.
Grandmaster Flash was the first to voice it on the landmark single “The Message,” where Melle Mel’s lyrics “don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge” captured the rage of an entire generation of disenfranchised black youth. Chuck D’s Public Enemy would later take that same anger to an entirely new level on albums like It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet.
In fairness to today’s music however, one simply can’t overlook the fact that not just the times, but the actual climate is quite a bit different than it was back then. So while Tom Morello, Erykah Badu, or even Radiohead may be making music that is crying for change, it is also unfortunately crying for airplay.
The songs may in some cases be every bit as powerful as the anthems of the sixties were. But unlike yesterday’s top-forty radio — where it wasn’t at all uncommon to find “For What It’s Worth,” “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” or “Street Fighting Man” sandwiched together with something by the Monkees or the 1910 Fruitgum Company — that type of music just doesn’t play well today next to Justin, Mariah, and the rest.
But it is out there.
It just comes in a different variety of shades and forms, and you may have to look a bit harder to find it. You’ll find it on songs like “Last To Die” and “Livin’ In The Future” from Springsteen’s Magic album. You might also come across it at a System Of A Down concert. Or maybe, you’ll hear it on some out of the way underground podcast on MySpace or elsewhere on the internet.
Whatever the case, it is there.
And a lot of it — from Neil Young’s Living With War, to Tom Morello, to Public Enemy’s “Son Of A Bush” (Chuck D is still at it, God Bless Em’), is as direct and in your face as so-called “protest rock” has ever been.
I promised my good friend, rap-music promoter Nasty Nes that I would post a video by an artist he’s promoting called Tha’ Brain when I got around to writing something where it would fit. Since Tha Brain’s song does deal with a political theme (it supports Obama’s presidential bid), I figure this is as good a spot as any to do that.
Besides, with all the flack Obama is catching right now over the Rev. Wright deal, I figure he can use all the help he can get.
Okay, so that wasn’t exactly “Fight The Power” or “The Message.” It’s still pretty damn funny in its own way.