Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Wop-Boppa Loo-Bop a Wop-Bam Boom ( And other great songs of protest)

It's hard to pinpoint the moment when the lyrics of a song became vital to my enjoyment of it. It certainly wasn't when Frankie Laine let Jezebel know that "yes, it was her." (That song is my first real memory of listening to a 45 record and I loved it.) It wasn't The Four Seasons revelation that big girls in fact do cry, or Little Eva, echoing the words of Carole King in telling me that everyone was doing the locomotion. Listening to those 45's in my early teens, lyrics were part of the whole package, certainly not an essential element to my liking it. I enjoyed instrumentals equally: in fact, the all instrumental group The Ventures was one of my early favorite bands.

Eventually some bands began to deliver a message with the music: Buffalo Springfield's "For What's It Worth," The Byrds covering Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," Janis Ian's "Society's Child." I was surprised to discover that Janis was only 14 when she wrote this controversial-for-its-time song about an interracial relationship. While I liked those songs, they didn't resonate beyond the visceral pleasure of listening. At 14 or 15, I didn't have an appreciation or understanding of the poetry,  it was still just a song. In fact, the first song that actually made me pay attention to the content of the lyric was Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction":

"The eastern world it is exploding, violence flaring, bullets loading.
You're old enough to kill, but not for voting, you don't believe in war
but what's that gun you’re toting?"

The early 60s were filled  with dire warnings about an impending nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Movies were shown in class of mushroom clouds exploding, behind the narrative that people living within a 100-mile radius of that cloud would be incinerated. Not exactly a rosy outlook for a 6th or 7th grader. In addition there were routine air raid drills, in which we were instructed to hide under our desks in case of an attack. While those desks were sturdily built, this didn't seem to be the most well-thought-out escape plan. Add all that together and it seemed like old Barry was onto something. (Later, research revealed that the song was written by P.F Sloan, who penned a number of early hits including Secret Agent Man for Johnny Rivers).

As the 60s progressed, artists began to direct their anger and emotion towards the escalating Vietnam War. While some of the songs took the form of patriotic anthems, such as Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," which went to number one in 1966, the majority of the songs were anti-war. Anti-government and protest songs were not exactly a new phenomenon in the mid-60s. Bob Dylan had written the song "Masters of War" in 1962, long before Vietnam had escalated into a nightly news event, while people like Woody Guthrie Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs had been documenting social issues for years.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

Dylan, though, was still a relatively unknown folk singer in 1962, and artists like Seeger and Ochs had a niche audience at best. There is a world of difference between that and Country Joe McDonald performing "Fixin’ to Die Rag" as a 350,000 person singalong at Woodstock.


Slowly songs of protest moved out from the fringes and into the mainstream, propelled mostly by the growing popularity and prolific production of Bob Dylan. Dylan rejected this "voice of a generation tag" and after 1970 rarely ventured into the folk protest song arena again. Prior to that, songs like "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Blowin’ in the Wind," "Chimes of Freedom," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and "Times They Are a-Changin’" made it clear that Dylan had something to say about the country's condition, whether he owned up to it or not.


But Dylan moving away from that "voice of a generation" tag turned out to be not a bad thing, and in 1975 he released what many consider his signature album, Blood on the Tracks. It was a departure for Dylan both lyrically and musically, and put to rest the rumors that Dylan had somehow lost his creative mojo following his mysterious motorcycle accident in 1966. The album has been called "the truest account of a love affair ever put down on magnetic tape" but similarly to his disavowing  the voice of a generation tag ,  Dylan stated that he didn't write confessional songs and it was not autobiographical. In any event this wasn't "oh please stay with me, Diana" kind of love: the lyrical content was a little more weighty than that.

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
I thought you'd never say hello, she said
You look like the silent type
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue

My personal favorite song on the album does not seem autobiographical at all, but the landscape Dylan creates with his words and  music is so cinematic that whenever I listen to "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," I can see the movie in my mind. 

I also think this album contains some of the best vocal work of Dylan's career. Whether you like the sound of his voice or not, and it certainly can be an acquired taste, no one used phrasing and the inflection in his voice to convey the emotion of his words better than Dylan

It will be impossible to document all the great poets and singer/songwriters who flourished during this era. Paul Simon, the poetic genius of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, as well as some of the newer artists struggling to be heard in a market that seems to favor flash over substance, at least commercially.

So I will close the circle by moving ahead to 1984. The Vietnam War had ended ten years earlier and it seemed like the whole of America wanted to forget the tragedy of it. Unfortunately that resulted in a disregard for the returning veterans. I think it's safe to say that no group of veterans has been more poorly treated than those returning from Vietnam. In 1984, Bruce Springsteen released his most commercially successful album Born in the USA.  While Springsteen certainly had achieved a substantial level of fame prior to 1984, the Born in the USA album propelled him into the Michael Jackson mega-pop stratosphere category, which to be truthful didn't fit Bruce, or his long-time fans well.

The problem was that the masses who flocked to buy the record completely misconstrued the meaning of the title track, thinking of it as a patriotic anthem when in fact it was a scathing and angry indictment on the government’s treatment of Vietnam veterans. Conservative columnists like George Will and Bernard Goldberg heaped praise on Springsteen. Will even wrote a column about Bruce with the heading "Yankee Doodle Springsteen" and almost comically, President Ronald Reagan tried to buddy up to Springsteen at a campaign stop in New Jersey. To quote: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."
To be fair, it's easy to feel a sense of patriotism when 80,000 fans in The Meadowlands are raising their fists and screaming "Born in the USA" along with the chorus as Bruce performs. But the truth is that the song was originally written as a folk/blues protest song, much in the manner of Bruce's heroes Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Hard to mistake this version as a patriotic anthem.

Apparently Reagan hadn't listened to this version.

So while music is and always will be the vehicle that drives the song, it's very often the lyrics that will make me smack my hand into my forehead and say, "holy shit, that was incredible" 
It doesn't always have to be something weighty or deep that will make me do that: it often can be something as simple as clever wordplay that makes a lyric stand out.

Because so many artists that I love are not included in this article, I will close this blog with a few examples of that clever wordplay, in sort of a haiku compilation.

Aimee Mann "4th of July"

"Today's the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky"

Leonard Cohen "Alexandra Leaving"

Suddenly the night has grown colder
The god of love preparing to depart
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart
Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine

Green Day "Basket Case"

Do you have the time to listen to me whine
About nothing and everything all at once
I am one of those
Melodramatic fools
Neurotic to the bone
No doubt about it
Sometimes I give myself the creeps
Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me
It all keeps adding up
I think I'm cracking up
Am I just paranoid?
I'm just stoned

and finally the great Gene Vincent "Be Bop A Lula"

Well be-bop-a-lula she's my baby,
Be-bop-a-lula I don't mean maybe.
Be-bop-a-lula she's my baby
Be-bop-a-lula I don't mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula she's my baby love,
My baby love, my baby love.

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