ROCKERS RALLY ‘ROUND THE FLAG
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll almost two decades ago, the American flag was an endangered species. Auditorium managers were known to take down Old Glory on concert nights because they were afraid that fans would rip it down and set it on fire.
To alienated youth who delighted in the protest music of Bob Dylan and Country Joe MacDonald, the flag was a symbol of corrupt authority. In fact, almost everything American had the smell of hypocrisy and deceit.
Disillusionment over Vietnam and then Watergate led many young people to simply disdain the political process. Activism gave way to apathy. The only solution to the world’s conflicts seemed to be some distant day when people would be able to exist without governments. John Lennon expressed this sentiment in song in 1971--"imagine no countries"--and it went to No. 1.
But there’s a New Patriotism in rock.
To the casual observer, the music of Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, the Blasters, X, the Textones and the Minutemen seems as critical of America as anything produced in the ‘60s.
Springsteen warns in much of his recent music that a loss of hope and values in the country has pushed some people to violent extremes. From “Johnny 99" on “Nebraska”:
Well they closed down the auto plant in
Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he
He came home too drunk from mixin’
Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun and shot a night clerk now they
The Blasters’ Dave Alvin bemoans what he sees as an absence of compassion and common purpose in the country, and--in “Common Man"--portrays political hypocrisy and public disillusionment.
With one hand on the Bible
He swears he’s only here to serve
While everybody says for better or worse
We get what we deserve.
There’s also a questioning, critical attitude in songs by such varied mainstream and/or new wave or post-punk attractions as the Textones, Miami Steve Van Zandt, John Cougar Mellencamp, X, the Minutemen and the Del-Lords. Even Bob Dylan is warning again about how immoral acts undercut the country’s spiritual health. In “Clean Cut Kid,” he tells about a young Vietnam vet having trouble returning to civilian life:
Everybody wants to know why he couldn’t adjust
Adjust to what, a dream that bust?
These voices see the patriotism in calling attention to the problems of America. But they aren’t echoing the hard-nosed confrontation of the ‘60s. The tendency then often was to believe that your job was done as long as you wore the right political button or marched in the right parade. The emphasis this time is on grass-roots responsibility.
Start with your neighborhood. Get involved with local issues. Make sure your neighbors have food. This isn’t as glamorous as a controversial national movement, but it’s in keeping with the country’s earliest town-hall ideals. Ironically, most of these musicians shaped their attitudes in part while living or performing in Europe--where the distance from America threw a new light on their country.
Explains John Fogerty: “I remember going to Europe after Watergate and feeling this shame just sweep over me. I just kept thinking, ‘Look what they (Europeans) see us doing. . . . Look at who they see we’ve got for a leader.’ I was terribly ashamed of our country.”
Fogerty continued thinking about the country and its problems after returning home until he finally said, “Wait a minute. He’s (Richard Nixon) not my country. He’s those guys--over in Washington.”
That’s when he started feeling a closer connection again to the country’s history and ideals.
“First thing I thought was the Grand Canyon and my friends and neighbors--and the people all across the country,” he said. “The people in power aren’t my country any more than a bunch of gangsters are my country.
“And that’s the way I think a lot of people are thinking nowadays. They are realizing they do have a responsibility to improve things--that it’s time to stop just being disillusioned.”
Who could have imagined in the ‘60s that the biggest selling rock album of the ‘80s would be titled “Born in the U.S.A.” and feature a photo of an American flag on its cover?
The cynicism of the time about patriotic symbols remains so engrained in parts of the rock culture that many misinterpreted the Springsteen’s cover photo.
Because Springsteen is facing the flag with his back to the camera, one theory was that the pose was a sly suggestion that he was urinating on the flag.
Asked about this shortly after the album’s release last year, Springsteen laughed. “No, no,” he said. “That was unintentional. We took a lot of different types of pictures. I didn’t have a secret message.”
Message, however, has played an increasing part in Springsteen’s music--and it’s his unique position as the most popular and respected figure in contemporary rock that helped him spread it. Springsteen didn’t start the New Patriotism in rock, but he drew attention to it.
Several artists have tried in recent years to re-introduce social awareness in rock, but many fans are as wary of rock stars as of politicians because so many performers have betrayed their trust through indifferent works and indulgent life styles.
Yet Springsteen brought integrity back to rock by living up to his ideals on stage and off. It’s easy to see why President Reagan would want to be associated with the New Jersey rocker during last year’s Presidential campaign. The problem was that Reagan--or one of his speech writers--felt free to imply that he and Springsteen shared similar views of America.
Springsteen was upset by the obvious ploy, but his response underscored a major difference between attitudes today and two decades ago. In the ‘60s, a leading rocker would have used the President’s mistake to launch a counterattack. But Springsteen isn’t interested--at the moment--in political debate.
Springsteen merely disassociated himself from Reagan’s remarks, noting sarcastically during a concert that the President must not have listened to the “Nebraska” album, Springsteen’s brooding 1982 portrait of alienated and victimized Americans.
However, Springsteen did begin exploring his political sensibilities in concert. The night after he chided Reagan, he dedicated a song in Pittsburgh to the United Steelworkers of America’s Local 1397, which has been described as the “most activist steel union local in the country.”
In other cities, he pointed to local groups that are helping needy families through food banks or environmental campaigns. He often donated $10,000 to such organizations, a practice that he continued as his tour moved to Europe.
Springsteen’s music didn’t always contain social comment. In his early albums, he wrote about trying to hurdle obstacles to achieve your dreams. Increasingly, however, he began to concentrate on the tarnished edges of the American Dream.
Songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” and “My Hometown” were multi-level looks at the way American ideals have been distorted.
From “My Hometown”:
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t never coming back
To your hometown.
On his last U.S. tour, he introduced “My Hometown” by pointing to the responsibilities of citizenship. At a concert in January in Greensboro, N.C., Springsteen spoke about this responsibility as eloquently as he has in any of his songs:
“I used to think that once I got out of my hometown, I was never going to come back. But as I got older, I’d come home off the road and get in my car and drive back down into town . . . (and) I realized that I would always carry a part of that town with me. . . .
“When I was a kid, one of the things I think I was afraid of was belonging to something, because if you admit you belong to something that means you’ve got some responsibility. If you’re going to stand up and say, ‘I’m an American,’ that means you’ve got some responsibility to America.”
The audience cheered, but Springsteen was just warming up.
“In this country, we’ve got plenty of things to be proud of and plenty of things to be ashamed of. Unless you look at the bad stuff, there’s no way it’s going to get better. Tonight, when you go out into the lobby, you’re going to see some folks (the local food bank) trying to hold up their end of their responsibility to their community. . . . Every year. 20% of the food that gets produced in the United States gets wasted or thrown away, and, meanwhile, in every city there are people going hungry . . . old folks whose Social Security doesn’t get them through the month. . . .
“What a food bank does is get them food. They need some support. Sometimes it seems like people going hungry is something that happens a long way away. It’s hard to believe it happens in a country so rich as ours. That’s something we ought to ashamed of.”
In the dressing room after the concert, Springsteen expanded on this message:
“Even though the show is filled with fun and life and wildness, there also has to be ugliness and brutality (in the themes). It’s got to have all of that. If you don’t have all of that, you’re not doing it. You’ve got to recognize the horrible things (in life) because you can’t turn away. If you turn away (from problems and responsibilities), that’s the beginning of the end. That’s the challenge: trying not to turn away.”
As the media and rock fans took note of Springsteen’s commitment, they began picking up on similar threads in the music of other U.S. groups.
These groups--from the Textones to the Blasters--are working independently, but they share certain philosophical views. They are generally liberal and anti-Reagan, but they do not appear especially enchanted with the leadership of the Democratic Party. Their endorsements can not be taken for granted.
(When Walter Mondale aides tried to suggest last year that Springsteen’s rebuff of the Reagan speech was an endorsement, Springsteen specifically denied the suggestion. Asked about the candidates last year, he replied, “I think there are significant differences, but I don’t know how significant. And it’s very difficult to tell by pre-election rhetoric. It seems to always change when they all of a sudden get in.
(“That’s why I don’t feel a real connection to electoral politics right now. . . . I want to try and just work more directly with people; try to find some way that my band can tie into the communities that we come into.”)
The momentum isn’t all along the liberal path. Surprisingly, a segment of the punk crowd has adopted a strong pro-Reagan stance, perhaps as a reaction to the failed ideals of their liberal parents. Sammy Hagar went through some macho posturing last year in the title track of his “VOA” album, indignant over the 1980 Iranian hostage situation. And Prince came up with a song this year--"America"--that has been seen in many quarters as conservative rhetoric. Sample lyric: “Communism is just a word / But if the government turns over / It’ll be the only word that’s heard.”
Mostly, however, the New Patriotism is the cautious, wary piecing together of ‘60s liberal tenets. Summarized Springsteen last year: “I guess my view of America is of a real big-hearted country, real compassionate. But the difficult thing out there right now is that the social consciousness that was a part of the ‘60s has become, like, old-fashioned or something. You go out, you get your job, you try to make as much money as you can and have a good time on the weekend. And that’s considered OK.”
The Textones’ Karla Olson, one of the most articulate of these New Patriots, went through much of the same idealism-turned-to-disillusionment of many in her generation.
In the early ‘70s, Olson was exposed to music and politics in about equal amounts during her early teen years in Austin, Tex., where she spent much time in coffeehouses and the student union building of the University of Texas campus. The biggest impression on her, however, involved a friend of her 16-year-old brother.
The boy was upset over his parent’s divorce, so he joined the Marines. “They didn’t even check his ID because they were so desperate to get people in those days,” she explained. The boy came home in a box, and Olson remembers watching her brother and his 11th-grade pals serving as pallbearers at the funeral.
“So, sure, I was political because of things like that and the country’s position on civil rights and other issues,” she continued recently. “I moved to Europe for a year (in the early ‘70s), and I just became an un-American for a while. When I got back home, I worked in a travel business all year round just to get enough money to get away from America for a month. I was not proud of being an American.”
As Olson, who now lives in Los Angeles, got more involved in music, the less she thought about politics. It has only been in recent years that she regained a sociopolitical sensibility.
“This is a great country,” she said. “There is so much opportunity here. Our bass player (Joe Read) is English, and he marvels at how easy it is here to go to work and become someone. And that’s something we should all be be proud of. We have developed a system whereby people can go and realize their dreams.”
About the political scene in America today, she said, “The sad thing is that the vast majority of Middle Americans are ill-advised, ill-read and totally deaf to the problems around. We’ve got to get back and care again. We tried to do it last time (in the ‘60s), but no one listened.
“Now we’re 15 years older, and we’ve got to realize there is a way to change things in this country and that’s by getting out and voting and making sure all your friends vote. If you are concerned over what is happening with the farmers and the homeless, it’s your duty to think about issues, not just walk away and say it (politics) is all stupid.”
Like Olson, Dave Alvin is a Los Angeles musician who got tied into politics early. Alvin, who writes the Blasters’ songs, remembers the times he and brother Phil (the lead singer) traveled as kids around the country with their father, a steelworker’s union organizer. But the nightly news probably had as strong an impact on him.
“When I saw people (on TV) getting hosed in the South, it made me wonder what was really going on in the country,” he said, recently. “The same with the Watts riot. You couldn’t help but feel things were a lot different out there from what I was learning in school.”
Music helped Alvin put together a deeper understanding of the country.
“To be an artist, I think you you have to sort of understand where you come from,” he said. “You have to feel some sort of bond to your blood--if that’s the word--or at least your country. I started reading about the country and listening to the music of people like Hank Williams and Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and I could see a tradition there . . . a history and idealism and striving for personal freedom. It made me realize that I’m part of something.”
He points to “Border Radio,” a song on the Blasters’ first Slash album, as his first political song--though many might not see anything political in the tale of an abandoned woman who turns to the music from a distant radio station at night for her only comfort.
“That song was political to me because it was just about alienated people, and to me the biggest problem today in the United States is alienation,” Alvin explained. “I’ve read about the mood the country was in during the Kennedy Administration, when it didn’t seem so selfish. But I think people eventually lost it. One thing is, there weren’t very many good leaders or charismatic leaders . . . on either the left or right.”
The theme of alienation was expanded upon in the Blasters’ subsequent albums, “Non-Fiction” and “Hard Line.”
“When I was writing songs for ‘Non-Fiction,’ we had been on the road for about two years, and for the first time I sort of saw the country.
“Take a song like ‘Boomtown.’ When you travel in the Sun Belt cities, you see that kind of scene--that line about ‘skyscrapers rising from the desert floor, 18 people in a shack next door.’ It’s the same in downtown Houston. There’s also the alienation. It can really make you depressed because people don’t seem to be pulling together at all. You go to New York, and it’s like a different country from Texas.”
Much of today’s music has an understated feel rather than the angry us-against-them attitude of so much ‘60s protest music. In many ways, that’s a continuation of the tradition associated with John Fogerty’s songs for Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Though the group was not considered a political band, several of Fogerty’s songs--including “Who’ll Stop the Rain"--remain telling reflections of the national character in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In fact, many of his songs are played today as protest songs. Springsteen opened many of his concerts last year with “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” while Lone Justice frequently uses “Fortunate Son” as an encore and the Minutemen have recorded “Don’t Look Now.”
Much of Fogerty’s recent “Centerfield"--his first album in more than a decade--is a celebration of returning to rock action, but the album also has its social moments. In “I Saw It on TV,” Fogerty traces the political mood of the country--from the idealism of the Kennedy years through the tragedy of Vietnam and the corruption of Watergate. The song ends with a teasing guitar reference to “Who’ll Stop the Rain"--a reminder that the “rain"--or governmental rhetoric--continues.
But Fogerty views the song as a challenge to stop history from repeating; not an expression of helplessness or defeat.
“I was very strong into the quote movement unquote in the ‘60s,” he said. “How could you not be into it growing up in Berkeley? . . . But it was easy to let what happened in the world sour you and make you think you should just look out for yourself. It seems like we’ve been manipulated by government so many times in this country--in just my lifetime.
“But that doesn’t mean we should just give up. This really is our country, and we’ve got to stand up for it. That’s one of the great things about the United States. No matter how demoralizing it gets sometimes, there is something in our spirit that keeps insisting there is a real light at the end of the tunnel.”
Like Fogerty, Dave Alvin refuses to rule out better days. “I think certain music gives people a reason to continue,” he summarized. “People see a lot of my songs as dour, but I don’t want to sound to depressing because I am kind of optimistic about the country. It’s the cowboy mentality, I guess . . . the notion there’s always something over that next mountain.”