Friday, June 16, 2006

Us and Them

I got my dark sunglasses,
I got for good luck my black tooth.
I got my dark sunglasses,
I'm carryin' for good luck my black tooth.
Don't ask me nothin' about nothin',
I just might tell you the truth.

--Bob Dylan, Outlaw Blues
I want to publicly thank The Viscount for two things.

First, to help me through my convalescence he very kindly sent me a copy of John Lennon: Imagine, the 1988 film directed by Andrew Solt. Peace on you, brother.

And second, watching that film just now has presented me the Royal Road to explore something that's been on my mind for some time now. Back in late May, the NRO posted a list of what they were pleased to call "The Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs of All Time." The list was quite risible, ripping songs quite out of context, taking as literal lines obviously intended ironically, and declaring sentiments expressed in the lyrics conservative on the most laughably absurd pretexts.

This list made me (and quite a few others) guffaw uproariously (and attracted Pete Townshend to come slumming in Lower Left Blogovia, to judge from comments he left with Blue Girl, Tom Watson and Lance Mannion). But it also set my brain a-ponderin': How can the right-wing mind be so utterly unconscious of irony as to lay claim to large swathes of music that is in every detail of its makeup patently, avowedly, and dedicatedly contrary to their world view, and shake their tightly clenched fannies to it?

That's not your music, the mind shrieks. Get your goddamned meathooks off it.

Partly, of course, the violence that's been done to Our Music by corporate cooptation has drained much of its original force. (That this cooptation has been done largely with in cahoots with the original artists is only more depressing.) I remember staring in mute horror at a television screen sometime in the late Eighties as the Beatles' single version of "Revolution" was employed to engender positive feelings toward Nike footwear in my lizard-brain. The daily insults to meaning in the "repurposing" of rock songs in commercials have the cumulative effect of deadening the listener's mind to any sort of passion this music may once have lit. If a sun-splashed Caribbean Cruise spot can be edited to the rhythms of "Lust for Life," Iggy Pop's anthem to kicking heroin, then fuck it. Nothing means anything anymore.

But it once meant something.
And that something is what we reflexively spring to defend when NRO stakes its grotesque claim.

And what was that something?

In the Imagine film, we are given a fascinating interchange between Lennon and Yoko (and a claque of admirers) and the liberal-turned-Silent-Majority-spokesman cartoonist Al Capp, at the Lennons' Montreal Bed-In in June of 1969. (Click to watch in a new window.) Both sides are quite obviously intensely aware that they are actors playing to ubiquitous and intrusive cameras in a staged media event, as they present their chosen roles in a set-piece that recapitulates the passionate intensity of the times.

I won't defend Lennon in this clip. He comes off as petulant and defensive, and seems a bit surprised when Capp attempts to score cheap points off vulnerabilities that a more prepared and thick-skinned public figure would have had easy (and funny) ripostes for.

But even less defensible are those cheap shots on Capp's part. Capp made his living not only as a cartoonist at the time but also as a radio commentator and campus speaker railing against the antiwar movement, portraying them as unkempt dangers to suburban workadaddy values, flouters of the eternal verities of home and hearth, hairy and disgusting trolls whose interest was not in ending a war but in the wholesale destruction of a treasured way of life. Watch Capp with this notion in mind, and his motivations become clear: His flaunting of the nude photos from the cover of Two Virgins is not an attempt at exposing some inconsistency in Lennon's antiwar argument, but simply to tar John and Yoko as sexual perverts, and render them thus ipso facto dismissable. (The fact that Capp was charged with the attempted rape of a female student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison a year later, with similar allegations from at least four other campuses, makes this innuendo on his part even more nauseating.)

Does any of Capp's scapegoating sound familiar? Let's see how the GLBT folks, undocumented workers, flag-burners -- and, naturally, their defenders, feel about it!

Lennon, in a time when artists and activists reached for the Dada values of shock and black humor in the service of awakening bourgeois apathy -- a time, that is, when levitating the Pentagon and other deliberately insane acts seemed to make perfect sense in a war-hungry country gone mad -- made a conscious decision to play the public Holy Fool to promote an unarguably laudable cause. Whatever you may think of Lennon's public antics at the time (and some of them, let's be honest, were downright embarrassing -- "imagine no possessions" coming from one of the world's richest men!) you can't argue with their sincerity.

But Lennon's Holy Foolery didn't just spring fully formed from his forehead one day in 1968. To play the Holy Fool to inspire human liberation is to embody absolutely the single founding principle of rock-and-roll. To stand in front of an audience with a weird haircut and a loud guitar, wiggle your hips and go WAAAAAAAAH! into a microphone: how does that differ in any material way from trying to levitate the Pentagon? The two acts may differ in quality but they communicate exactly the same message: free yourself! The man who sat in bed in Montreal and allowed himself to be called a pervert by a neanderthal rapist is exactly the same man who, some three years before, stood in front of a screaming crowd of teenyboppers in Shea Stadium playing electric organ with his elbows, laughing to the point of tears at the glorious absurdity of the situation.

(Seriously. Watch it, especially Lennon. Best Beatles Live Performance Ever.)

This, then, is what we rush to defend as our own. This is what they must never be allowed to take away: Rock and roll frees your ass. To attempt to enlist the Holy Fool, the jibbering maniac with the guitar and the haircut, in the service of a cramped and crabbed and ugly ideology shows that you don't understand rock and roll. What's more, you will never understand it.

You might hear the beat, you might tap your toes -- but there is a jagged, bleeding hole in your mind. Go back with Al Capp, where you belong, and equate John and Yoko's Holy-Fool honesty -- their nudity, if you must -- with turpitude. You know you will, in the end. You always do.

20 comments:

Smashed said...

Bravo! Irony is only dead among part of the population - the other part enjoys it proportionally for them.

And it's nice to see you back in fine form so soon after the knife.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

I remembered that bit with Al Capp from the first time around.

Fucking creep.

Lennon was obviously flawed, like the rest of us. What we learned from him was brutal, unrelenting honesty, and the value of turning that honesty inward. What the right doesn't ever understand is that we must first accept reality as it is and fight the contrived, pervasive and hypocritical facade that masquerades as reality.

Mike Kretzler said...

Thanks, Neddie, for that wonderful post. Lennon was infuriating and inspiring at the same time. We've got a lot more infuriating around us these days.

cleek said...

How can the right-wing mind be so utterly unconscious of irony as to lay claim to large swathes of music that is in every detail of its makeup patently, avowedly, and dedicatedly contrary to their world view, and shake their tightly clenched fannies to it?

lonely desperation, grasping at straws. there's so little explicit conservatism in popular culture that they have to inflate and exaggerate anything that even implies it, to come up with a list that long. seeing the kind of contortions they needed to do it, i almost felt sorry for them. it must be lonely out there.

i forget who it was, but i once heard an interview with one of those early big-name sell-outs talking about why he sold his song to Nike, or Ford, or whoever. his answer was along the lines of: i'll make more from that one commercial than that song has made me in the [ten, fifteen?] years it's been out.

it would take quite an idealist to turn down that kind of money.

lonesomepolecat said...

Christ, you know it ain't easy--

sorry abt the obviousness of that, but the ignorant cynicism of anyone who would use anything Lennon to promote
rightish politics nauseates.

Nice post

Kevin Wolf said...

Beautiful, Neddie.

God, they're having so much fun in the Shea clip. Would that any other rock singers could scream like Paul.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

(Seriously. Watch it,...)

What also is striking is just how Paul was able to be the textbook Paul -, ALWAYS. He doesn't miss a beat.

Would that any other rock singers could scream like Paul.

I still think John should have sang "Oh! Darling" as he stated in the famous Playboy interviews weeks before his tragic murder. One of my, ahem, Darkhorse Beatle prejudices that very few can suffer.

Decatur Dem said...

Irony.

I remember a conversation several years back with a surgeon I was working with, a Texan, arch-conservative, arch-fundamentalist, graduate of Texas Christian if I recall correctly. Somehow the Joe Walsh song "Life's Been Good to Me" came up:

I have a mansion, forget the price
Ain't never been there, they tell me it's nice
I live in hotels, tear out the walls
I have accountants pay for it all

They say I'm crazy but I have a good time
I'm just looking for clues at the scene of the crime
Life's been good to me so far

My Maserati does one-eighty-five
I lost my license, now I don't drive
I have a limo, ride in the back
I lock the doors in case I'm attacked...


"I can't stand that man," he said. "What kind of life is that?"

"Er... Irony? I think he's just being ironic."

"I don't believe in irony." (Said in a tone that invited no further discussion). "Where I come from, you say what you mean."

Stunned me right into silence, then changing the subject. Pretty clearly, he saw himself and all right-thinking Texans as straight shooters, and all irony users as duplicitous pantywaists. Even though the song is, actually, kinda conservative, since it points out the silliness of rock star hedonism, and does it so well, too.

Neddie said...

"I don't believe in irony." (Said in a tone that invited no further discussion). "Where I come from, you say what you mean."

Oh, ya. Like no Texan has ever employed irony. Be news to Dan Jenkins and Lyndon Johnson.

And that "straight-shootin'" bullshit: "In Texas, we call it 'walkin''": Why'nt'cha just go ahead an' call it a goddamned Crusade, then? God the way they wrap stupidity in a flag of rectitude and call it "homespun wisdom" -- JESUS CHRIST those people piss me off...

SV said...

This is why Colbert is so popular - these people don't even realize how hilariously CLUELESS they're being.

The Lust for Life reference reminded me of a classic Onion article from 2001, Song About Heroin Used to Advertise Bank:

"The 30-second spot, which premiered Monday during Everybody Loves Raymond, features images of gleaming skyscrapers, money changing hands, and businessmen on cell phones striding confidently down marble hallways. Notable absent from the ad is any footage of a shirtless, bleeding Iggy Pop in skintight leopard-print pants, repeatedly bashing himself in the face with a microphone onstage at the legendary New York punk venue CBGB's." http://www.theonion.com/content/node/38780

MIke said...

"I can't stand that man," he said.

I used to live two blocks away from Joe. Would run into him at the gas station buying beer. By no means do I hate him, but even when you're a fuckin genius, three o goddamn clock in the morning is not the time to fire up more than one Marshall.

adshdmm, that got annoying after about the fifth time.

(on an unrelated note, coming in after the word verification joke, does anybody else have "Eeny Meeny" by Jim Noir stuck in his or her head? Three world cup games per day and now in my sleep I hear, "If you don't give my football back I'm gonna get my Dad on you". An earworm, that one is.)

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

"Partly, of course, the violence that's been done to Our Music by corporate cooptation has drained much of its original force. (That this cooptation has been done largely with in cahoots with the original artists is only more depressing.)"

I'm glad you added that parenthetical, as it says quite a lot. I agree with Cleek's comments, above.

Plus, there's the whole "group" aspect of rock groups; Robert Plant may not need to hawk Cadillacs for a living, but I'm sure there's some family member of, say, John Bonham's who'll do anything for an occasional bump in the monthly royalty check.

Others like Smash Mouth seem to have written songs specifically for commercial background music purposes. I can't count how many ads I've heard with that "Might As Well Be Walking on the Sun" song. The lyrics are always edited down to that one line, "So don't delay, act now, supplies are running out."

Neddie said...

The lyrics are always edited down to that one line, "So don't delay, act now, supplies are running out."

Yeah, that's the thing, ain't it. If one line of a song fits the sales pitch, you go with it, no matter if the surrounding lyrics might be about puppy-slaughter or the Bubonic Plague....

My right arm just fell off
And my daughter has chlamydia
My home's been repossessed
My son's new name is Lydia
Think I'd like to die
And my poor wife, I just pity 'er
But taken all in all
I feel fine
Taken all in all, I feel fine...

(Desert scene, bright day. Sere landscape is broken by a column of dust rising on the horizon. A car approaches, very fast. We see that it is a Hummer 3, tearing up the desert-scape. Music up and over: "I feel fine (woah yeah!)"...)

Bobby Lightfoot said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bernard Purdie said...

Mah got-damn honky drug-dealin' witch publicist just put my fly-ass comment about me playin' under the stage at Shea Stadium under yo' goddamn soccer post.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

I can scream like Paul.

Then it turns out my prostate's O.K. and I'm back all sotto voce.

Anonymous said...

BSUWG: The whole "group" thing is probably best exemplified by the surviving members of The Doors. John Densmore has vetoed multimillion dollar deals for Doors songs to be used in ads, several times.

jaaxoti - the drug that the Doors were trippin' on in that Oliver Stone movie.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Others like Smash Mouth seem to have written songs specifically for commercial background music purposes.

I don't know specifically about Smashmouth, but I do know that lots of groups signed away their publishing rights, recording rights etc. and have no say as to what their music is used for.

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