POP MUSIC / ROCK / COUNTRY / R&B; / RAP / LATIN / JAZZ : Looking Back, Actively

<i> Lorraine Ali is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

‘Spirit of ’73,’ an ambitious compilation of ‘70s music by such diverse artists as L7 and Rosanne Cash, benefits an abortion-rights group.

Lorraine Ali

V ietnam and the civil rights movement inspired lots of politically charged rock mu sic, both good and bad. More important, they served as catalysts for thought in the wider rock community. These towering issues gave both musicians and fans a sense of unity and purpose.

Those who say young people have nothing meaningful to unite against these days should take a look at AIDS and reproductive rights issues. For this generation, they are the parallels to those ‘60s and ‘70s concerns.


While musicians from every pop genre have made strong steps to raise awareness of the AIDS struggle in a series of compilation albums, dating back to 1990’s heralded “Red Hot + Blue,” there’s no galvanizing single issue a la Vietnam. Too much of today’s pop music remains self-absorbed--with risk-taking in the area of social comment often illusory.

Now, the “Spirit of ’73: Rock for Choice,” which will be released Tuesday by Sony’s 550 Records, makes a bold move into the reproductive rights arena. It’s not the first such compilation, but it’s the most ambitious.

Named after the year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal, “Spirit of ’73" (see album review on Page 63) is specifically designed to raise money for the abortion-rights organization Rock for Choice.

B ut the 14-track album, which also aims to raise awareness of reproductive rights issues, approaches a heavy-duty topic without suffocating listeners under an oppressively dry agenda.


The album features a wide array of artists--from hard-core rockers L7 and Babes in Toyland to R&B;/jazz singer Cassandra Wilson to country veteran Rosanne Cash--doing their favorite ‘70s songs by female artists.

Such old tunes as “Midnight at the Oasis” and “Cherry Bomb” may not be politically tinged. But the album’s liner notes take care of that, with a history of Rock for Choice and a summary of women’s rights in today’s political climate.

“When people think about activism and music, they think of people whining and being really precious and self-righteous,” says Kay Hanley, singer of the Boston alterna-pop band Letters to Cleo. “It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We as a band don’t write political material, but in the last year we have become far more politically aware and active.”

One thing the producers of the “Spirit of ’73" album wanted to avoid was the tendency of many musicians--Midnight Oil, for example--to subordinate good music to a message.

“Musically, the album holds its own,” says Joy Ray, who came up with the idea for the album with Julie Hermelin, her partner in a video production business. “Then there’s politics to give it some weight. We hope people will buy the album because they are interested in music, but will then look at the liner notes and become interested in the issue.”

The music is dynamic enough to stand on its own, which is a rarity in the world of tribute or cover albums. Highlights include L7 and Joan Jett’s live, bottom-heavy version of “Cherry Bomb” (originally done by Jett’s teen band the Runaways); Cassandra Wilson’s minimalist, soulful interpretation of the Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and a left-field approach to Maria Muldaur’s already surreal “Midnight at the Oasis” by the band That Dog.

Rock for Choice has been a big part of the alternative-rock world since 1991, when L7 hooked up with the Feminist Majority, a national women’s rights organization whose largest project is a national clinic defense project designed to protect patients, doctors and clinic workers. They teamed to put on benefit concerts featuring such bands as Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

But Ray and Hermelin didn’t want just alternative rock on “Spirit of ’73.”


“We wanted to show that the support for this issue wasn’t ghettoized by one constituency,” Hermelin says. “We also wanted to reach as many people as possible.”

That can be tricky with such a polarizing issue. Some artists, inevitably, fear alienating fans. But neither Jett nor Cash had second thoughts about contributing a track to the album.

“I’ve never been worried about losing fans [by voicing opinions],” says Jett, who has performed at three Rock for Choice concerts. “I just always hoped my fans would respect what I do and the opinions I have, as I would theirs, and know that I’m not trying to force anything down their throats.”

Cash, who is four months pregnant with her fourth child, is a little more nonchalant about the whole thing.

“I’m used to alienating fans,” she says. “I think I’ve made a career out of it. But what I do is what I do, and ultimately it’s important for musicians to have opinions. Otherwise, what’s there to respect?”

“Spirit of ’73" is a total do-it-yourself production. Hermelin and Ray, both 27, weren’t previously associated with Rock for Choice before they came up with the album idea in 1991.

“We were up all night dancing to ‘70s music, having a really good time, and this idea came to us the next morning as we were hung over drinking coffee,” Hermelin says. “We started telling people about the idea, and pretty soon we wanted people to be our lawyer, our agent, etc. It just took on a life of its own.”

But three years later, they still had trouble getting record companies to commit. Excuses, they said, ranged from “We’d never find enough female artists to fill an album” to “We don’t want picketers in our parking lot.”


“I never thought of it as being risky,” says Epic Records A&R; executive Judy Ross, who ultimately took on the project. “I looked at it as a great idea. Their concept was terrific, the artists that they already had were great and the music was fun. It seemed right on the money.”

For Letters to Cleo’s Hanley, the project had extra meaning, since as a child she was immersed in anti -abortion sentiments.

“My mom took me to pro-life rallies when I was a kid,” she says. “I was one of those 3-year-olds holding the sign with the fetuses on them. What did I know?

“People are gonna start realizing they can’t just sit back and punch in and out and ignore everything that’s going on in the world. It’s a reality now that our rights are being pulled away, and as a result we’ll go back to activism. I did.”