Keep on rockin’ in the free world

One of my first ambitions in communications was to be a radio disc jockey, and to possibly reach the level of the greats I used to listen to from WLS radio in Chicago, which used to be one of the great 50,000-watt AM rock stations of the country, back when they still existed.

(Those who are aficionados of that time in music and radio history enjoyed a trip to that wayback machine when WLS a Memorial Day Big 89 Rewind, excerpts of which can be found on their Web site.)

My vision was to be WLS’ afternoon DJ, playing the best in rock music between 2 and 6, which meant I wouldn’t have to get up before the crack of dawn to do the morning show, yet have my nights free to do whatever glamorous things big-city DJs did. Then I learned about the realities of radio — low pay, long hours, zero job security — and though I have dabbled in radio sports, I’ve pretty much cured myself of the idea of working in radio, even if, to quote WAPL’s Len Nelson, “You come to work every day just like everybody else does, but we’re playing rock ’n’ roll songs, we’re cuttin’ up. What other people get in trouble for at work, we get to do.”

I still think it would be cool to do what Rush Limbaugh first set out to do — to combine rock music with conservative/libertarian political talk, or “rock and roll and the right!” (think of Mancow with more music) — but given what I know about radio, it would take a very large offer to get me to consider it.

I do, however, still listen to radio more often in the car than I listen to CDs. The radio industry will tell you about the phenomenon of “iPod burnout” — people looking for the variety that live people on live radio brings (where it hasn’t been replaced by satellite or voicetracking). If the area radio stations knew my listening habits, I would drive them nuts, seeing as how I rotate among more than a dozen radio stations on my commute to and from work. Song I don’t like? Next pushbutton. Four minutes of uninterrupted commercials? Next pushbutton.

(Now that I’m about to write about music, I am warned by the quote from the late musician Frank Zappa: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.”)

For whatever reason, I listen more to songs than artists, and I listen more to songs than CDs. (The daily “Presty the DJ” blogs here show off my music tastes.) Even artists I don’t like usually have something worth listening to — for instance, Michael Bolton’s “Steel Bars,” cowritten by Bob Dylan. (I draw the line, however, at Air Supply, a group so saccharine that I will not dignify them by linking to them.) And artists I really like, such as Chicago, still produce a fair amount of unlistenable music (in Chicago’s case, the sappy dreck they’ve recorded since the early 1980s, including everything on this CD except tracks 5, 7, 11 and 18).

Perhaps due to my musical background (which may be genetic, given my father’s role with southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band, or because I played in a group not known for its singing), I focus on the music, not the words. My political views don’t prevent me from enjoying Midnight Oil, the Australian band that advocates giving much of Australia back to the aborigines and is worried about nuclear destruction, yadda yadda yadda. (The raucous “What Goes On” is an excellent song to play really loud if you’ve had a bad day at work, or if you’re going to have a bad day at work.)

Consider Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” I can’t say I enjoy listening someone who sounds as if he took a cheese grater to his vocal cords, and of course Springsteen has made a ton of money over the years musically beating on those in his own income bracket. I wrote before Memorial Day that the live version of his remake of Edwin Starr’s “War” begins with these deep thoughts: “… Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.” As for the premise stated in Starr’s refrain — “War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — survivors of Nazi Germany’s variety of atrocities might beg to differ. However, independent of the title track, “Born in the USA” is a really good album, including “Cover Me,” “I’m on Fire,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Glory Days,” “My Hometown” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and even lesser known songs like “Downbound Train” and “Working on the Highway.” (I’m still trying to figure out his apparent fascination with bells and odd-sounding keyboards, as can be heard on “Born to Run” and numerous other tracks.)

Springsteen appears to have a sense of humor, based on this funny yet oddly poignant speech upon his induction to the New Jersey Hall of Fame:

When I first got the letter I was to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame I was a little suspicious. … But then I ran through the list of names: Albert Einstein, Bruce Springsteen … my mother’s going to like that. She’s here tonight. It’s her birthday and it’s the only time she’s going to hear those two names mentioned in the same sentence, so I’m going to enjoy it. … For this is what imbues us with our fighting spirit. That we may salute the world forever with the Jersey state bird, and that the fumes from our great northern industrial area to the ocean breezes of Cape May fill us with the raw hunger, the naked ambition and the desire not just to do our best, but to stick it in your face.

Five years ago, National Review’s John J. Miller compiled this list of what he considers the top 50 conservative rock songs, followed by this list of songs number 51 to 100. (Record number one: The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which includes a lyric that might have summed up my return to Marketplace: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”) I think it’s really a stretch to conclude that songs like The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” is a conservative song (whether or not it’s Limbaugh’s theme song) given that Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde once suggested one way to promote animal rights would be to blow up McDonald’s restaurants. Hynde then had to apologize when one of her fans actually blew up a McDonald’s. I’m skeptical about The Who too, although there was the occasion when ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman jumped onto the stage during a Who performance to deliver a political rant, only to be silenced by guitarist Pete Townshend’s guitar connecting with the side of Hoffman’s head.

I can’t fathom any list of conservative- or libertarian-leaning rock songs that doesn’t have as number one the obvious choice: The Beatles’ “Taxman,” followed by Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me” (“To secure peace is to prepare for war”), the Eagles’ “Get Over It,” and, of course, Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55.” Many songs by the Canadian group Rush qualify too, including “Anthem,” “Freewill,” “Heresy,” “Something for Nothing,” and their answer to “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Red Barchetta.” (If you grew up in a suburbanish subdivision, as I did, you would find “Subdivisions” appropriate too.) I’m not sure that Ted Nugent’s “Fred Bear” (which could be the official rock song of Wisconsin, or at least the official non-Packersrelated rock song of Wisconsin) expresses a political point, except that without gun rights, hunting is rather difficult. (So, one would think, is doing a double album about hunting, but Nugent did.) Nugent is well known for hislibertarian views, which is interesting given that he appears to be one of the very few rock musicians whose career dates back to the ’60s who didn’t chemically float through the ’60s.

The irony is that “conservative” and “rock song” really don’t belong in the same sentence, although “libertarian” can fit. Rock music — an amalgam of blues, jazz and old-time country music, as the pop charts of the ’50s and pre-British Invasion ’60s shows — has usually been about rebellion from the mores of your parents, as in Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” when not about the usual subject of the opposite gender. (Some things are universal.) Most rock songs that discuss government are anti-government in general, which today could be considered a conservative or libertarian view, I suppose, but wasn’t the case in the ’60s or ’70s. That would also explain why such groups as Genesis, known as a progressive rock group when Peter Gabriel fronted the group, are labeled as sellouts when they veer in a more commercial direction, as Genesis did under Phil Collins. (Some people can’t fathom why 23-minute-long songs such as Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” aren’t considered commercial. The first Genesis album for which Collins sang lead vocals outsold all six of Genesis’ Gabriel-led albums combined.)

There are political musicians, there are apolitical musicians, and there is at least one omnipolitical musician — Neil Young, whose political views have, to put it mildly, wandered, manages, in “Rockin’ in the Free World,” to cover the entire American political spectrum in one song. Young’s “Southern Man” was answered by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (“Well I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow”) , the tribute to which is Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which sounds like a cross between “Sweet Home Alabama” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” Others have shifted politically over the years, including Charlie Daniels, who went from “Uneasy Rider” to “In America,” and, for that matter, his apparent answer to his earlier work, “What This World Needs Is a Few More Rednecks.”

One phenomenon of ’80s rock music was the ensemble benefit song, begun with the British Band Aid effort “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for victims of famine in Ethiopia, popularized by USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” for the same cause, and then crashed into the ground by Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” — in each case, a noble cause supported by a bazillion-selling song that, due to the musical variation of the old saw that too many cooks spoil the broth, was, musically speaking, a chaotic mess. (The Doonesbury cartoon had one of its characters contribute to “We Are the World” by singing one word: “The.”)

Were I interested in music for political reasons, I would listen to country music, since dumping on your country is not in the country mainstream, unless you are the Dixie Chicks and your lead singer decides to shoot her mouth off. (It is one thing to exercise your right to free speech; it is quite another to exercise your right to free speech and then complain about the consequences.) For musical reasons, I don’t listen very much to country, unless it’s the country/rock of, say, the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or greats like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Johnny Cash. I’ve never gotten into the stereotypical my-dog-died my-girl-left-me my-truck-broke-down I’m-gonna-keep-drinkin’-’til-I-can’t-even-think brand of country. (Then again, that’s not what’s played on country radio today; for about the past 30 years, much country music has been indistinguishable from what used to be called “top 40” or adult contemporary.)

If you’re wondering why one should pay any attention to the political thoughts of rock musicians, or for that matter any musicians, the answer is the same for the question of why one should pay any attention to the political thoughts of celebrities: You shouldn’t. I do not lose sleep wondering how actress Jessica Lange feels about the Iraq war, but apparently Lange believed the graduates of Sarah Lawrence College did, so she made sure they knew how she feels at their commencement.

I don’t have any problem enjoying music that expresses different political sentiments from mine. Then again, the phrase “the personal is political” didn’t come from the right side of the political aisle. What does bug me is when politicians appropriate songs for their campaigns. The Clintons ruined Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” forever. (I’d argue that “Little Lies” was more appropriate.) Republicans particularly seem to be tone-deaf about what rock songs are about, dating back at least to when John Mellencamp told the Ronald Reagan campaign to stop using his “Pink Houses,” and when other Republicans were unable to discern that Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” doesn’t really express love of country. (Mellencamp similarly prohibited Republicans from using “This Is Our Country.”)

My opinion is that musicians should follow Cash’s advice (from “The One on the Right Is on the Left”), but I don’t care whether or not they do:

Don’t go mixin’ politics with the folk songs of our land
Just work on harmony and diction
Play your banjo well
And if you have political convictions, keep them to yourself.

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