Wild eyed and gesturing like a highway flagman, the aging, nearly forgotten rock star joined a scholarly debate on Fox News’ Your World With Neil Cavuto, introduced by this respectful graphic:
TED NUGENT OUTLINES HIS PLAN TO FIX ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
Recalling for Cavuto a telephone interview that we’d had the
previous week, Nugent deftly maneuvered our conversation as though he were arranging raccoon sausages on the grill. “I said, ‘Jeff, Jeff, hang on a second,’ ” he said, deconstructing our encounter. Parentheticals spilled over each other like salmon struggling upstream, in search of 72 virgins in the Heaven that is Nugent’s smoker. “ ‘Let me make sure if I know if you’re just being devil’s advocate, or if you’re really just this stupid.’ Neil — write this down — I said, ‘Do you believe, I need to know where you’re coming from, do you believe that during World War II, the Americans were the good guys and the Nazis were the bad guys?’ Neil, he paused, and his final answer was, ‘Well, Ted, it’s not that cut and dried.’
“IT’S THAT BAD! IT’S THAT BAD! They’re out of their minds! They’re dangerous!”
Perhaps you didn’t know that Nugent is an expert on immigration. No, and I’m not one either. I am merely a “journalist,” as Nugent described me during that seven-minute segment, rolling his eyes in much the same manner as I might when using the phrase “rock star” to describe a fellow who hasn’t mattered since 1974 and “Cat Scratch Fever.”
Nevertheless, Nugent’s most-recent book made The New York Times bestseller list. A conservative treatise by the only person I’ve ever interviewed to make an offhand reference to “my automatic weapons dealer.”
Musicians are a rebellious lot, and most of us know the larger history: Guthrie, Dylan, Baez, Ochs, Havens, Woodstock. More recently, Bono. It would be dishonest to not probe their feelings about the issues of the day. And quite frankly, it’s been musicians — not our political leaders or journalists — who have led me through the early years of this new century. Musicians are creative, smart people who have time on their hands before sound check to read, talk to real people or surf cable on the hotel-room TV. There’s more than porn there. There’s Your World With Neil Cavuto.
Where were the great protest songs of the past decade? They were out there, a vast Katrina floodwater whose scope was difficult to assess, as though seen from the window of Air Force One, circling over the disaster, and then moving on.
If you were listening, you heard both sides of the Iraq invasion coming. I saw a minor country singer named Darryl Worley opening for Alan Jackson one night in early 2003, singing his hit, “Have You Forgotten?” The song chastised any American who’d forgotten Sept. 11, equated international diplomacy with a bar fight. No matter that Worley had forgotten, or was never aware, that Iraq was simply an innocent bystander. “It got a standing ovation as Worley left the stage,” I wrote in my review that night. “Looks like we’re going to war.”
Less than a month later, we did. Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was the soundtrack. But as the Iraq occupation went bad, hand in hand with Bush policies on torture, domestic spying and the economy, even Keith skittered off down the street, like a tumbleweed. All you had to do was check the weather vane to see which way the wind was blowing. Barack Obama had Bruce Springsteen crooning on his behalf before a rally in Cleveland just days before the election. John McCain’s musical backing was less noteworthy, particularly after ingrates such as Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp insisted he stop using their songs in commercials and at campaign rallies.
As the election neared, the swan song of the conservative movement was not easy listening. Crow-barring “Left-wing liberal media” into a song lyric, as Hank Williams Jr. did in his non-hit “McCain-Palin Tradition,” which he debuted while on tour with the Republican presidential ticket, wasn’t quite to the level of Gershwin. “The Democrats bankrupted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just like one, two, three,” Junior crooned, suggesting math isn’t his strong suit (and that talent does indeed skip a generation), before going for the talking point that I’m astonished was missed by the Grammy nominations committee: “They don’t have terrorist friends to whom their careers are linked.” You can also bet two drill bits that Aaron Tippin’s “Drill, Baby, Drill,” often heard over the howls of “He’s a terrorist!” at Sarah Palin rallies, won’t have the shelf life of the continental shelf.
Of course, these weren’t terribly informed opinions. Obama doesn’t have terrorist friends. We don’t have enough oil in this country to feed our addiction, let alone have an effect on the price of a barrel of oil. Although Ted Nugent was anointed by Fox News as an expert on illegal immigration, that’s not what we were talking about during our 2007 phone interview. Like most Americans, I recognize Nugent as what we on the left call “a gun nut,” and I was letting him take his best shot at one of the weapons rampages. “I would have liked to have seen,” he said of the shootings a few months earlier at Virginia Tech, “what would have happened if one of those kids had a concealed weapons permit.”
Indeed. What if a big, wild-eyed man with a gun — a fellow who’s been in Saddam’s brothel and claims to have deposited a bowel movement in the dictator’s bidet — forced his way into my classroom that morning, and I had a loaded gun? What might I say then?
“Oh my god, I just shot Ted Nugent!”
Fortunately, nothing goes to waste: Like Nugent, I make my own sausage.
Yet, despite these intellectual backbeats, in general musicians were far ahead of the media in telling the awful truth of the last eight years. Perspective, Neil Innes concludes, has drowned in the mainstream. “Look around the mainstream, and it’s wall-to-wall noise,” the fellow who wrote many of those marvelous Monty Python ditties told me. “I think you could blame the media, because it is a business. And obviously there is a market for people who love to see road accidents. Look at Lady Diana’s funeral. Or Beatlemania. The media is not content to wait for these things to happen, so they manufacture them. There’s a tendency to crank things up that aren’t really there.”
Patti Smith defined her duty for me in a 2003 interview, as the Iraq occupation was still being celebrated. “In truth,’’ Smith said, “at most of our concerts, all last summer in Europe, we were appealing to people to get into the streets and protest this war.
“We weren’t able to stop a strike in Iraq. All the efforts we tried to make were crushed. But you can’t get demoralized about it. We have to keep working for the rest of our lives. Only the people in great numbers can stop all of the governments in the world from using their war toys as an answer.”
Smith is an energetic conversationalist, offering torrential downpours of answers to questions, then apologizing for rambling so. She expressed shock that we had invaded Iraq, and was stunned that anyone who questioned that decision was labeled unpatriotic. “We are not a nation of sheep,” she said defiantly. George W. Bush allegedly had copy of the Constitution on his wall; so does Smith. I have my suspicions as to which of them has read it.
Of course, some folks don’t want to hear the opinions of Smith. Bill Payne, co-founder of the Dixie-chicken rocking Little Feat, is disdainful of this oft-heard criticism of, “ ‘You’re just a musician. Shut up.’
“What do you think I write about?” he asked rhetorically during an interview as the 2008 election drew near. “What do you think shapes my view?”
Payne says Little Feat was there for a Robert Kennedy fundraiser in 1968, George McGovern’s run against Nixon in 1972 and the two Clinton inaugurations. And in the summer of ’08, he was saying, “I’ve been actively campaigning for Barack Obama. We had a big fundraising party at my house. It wasn’t on the level of people like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, people I admire. When Barack is elected, we’ll finally get a president who knows who Miles Davis is, and Stevie Wonder, and world music.”
That qualifies lots of guys who work at record stores for the job, but what Payne really means is, “He’s a nuanced individual.”
As is the scat-singing jazzman Kurt Elling, who told of playing host to a fundraiser that collected $60,000 for Obama. “I worked for the Kerry campaign, too,” he said. “As a citizen, you have to do what you can.”
And he has the extra vantage point, once superbly stated by a fellow I am damn sure was never on one of those alleged George W. Bush summer-reading lists released by the White House, William Burroughs: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”
“An artist,” Elling said, without a trace of a trace of elitist liberal snobbery, “is going to see, many times, what a culture needs before other people will.”
“I just watch what’s going on, and I care,” R&B singer John Legend told me during a discussion on his support for health-care reform. “Sometimes you have to speak out. I speak out not because I’m a celebrity, but because I’m a citizen. Obviously I have a louder megaphone, being who I am. We need informed discussion, by people who are informed and have something to say.”
Legend not only has informed opinions, but the poor state of U.S. health care has hit people close to him. His mother can’t get insurance, because of her age and that staple of denial for the U.S. health-care industry, the pre-existing condition. A close friend of his girlfriend, the model Chrissy Tiegen, has cancer. “She switched insurance after changing jobs,” Legend said. “She went to get her new insurance, and not too long after that had a check-up, and the cancer turned up. Her insurance was canceled because they won’t insure a pre-existing condition.
“People are tormented by the actual disease, and then they’re tormented by the insurance company. Why is America the only developed nation without universal health care?”
Over the past few years, I’ve found much music that spoke to me more directly than our divisive elected representatives have. John Mellencamp loves his country, hates what it’s doing to us. “This is the road of madness and trouble, it’s paved with intolerance, ignorance and fear,” he sings on “Someday,” lamenting the anger he hears today. “I look at your face, you look just like me. Hey brother, I’m not your enemy.”
Thankfully, many musicians weren’t intimidated into silence. Thirty-five years after he wrote one of the finest of all anti-Vietnam War anthems, “Ohio,” Neil Young’s 2006 album Living With War presented concise arguments in a human context that were echoes of “Ohio” and its most-chilling line: “What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground?” His “Let’s Impeach the President” borrowed the tune of “City of New Orleans” to underscore the point that the Bush administration’s inept response to that city being wiped out by Hurricane Katrina was an unforgivable crime. “Lookin’ For a Leader” suggested we needed someone to lead us out of this mess, and Young didn’t shy away from making suggestions: “Maybe it’s a woman, or a black man after all.” Driven by Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” Young posed a difficult question to any self-righteous patriot in “Flags of Freedom,” asking, “Do you think that you believe in yours more than they do theirs somehow?” Young’s “Shock and Awe” noted the overconfidence and Bush-fed illusions that led to war, and how, “We had a chance to change our mind, but somehow wisdom was hard to find.” Of the casualties, with no resolution in sight, Young sighed, “Both sides are losing now. Heaven takes them in.” And when, on the war-as-marketing of “The Restless Consumer,” Young sang “there’s no mission accomplished here, just death to thousands,” we understand just how important it is for musicians and artists to use their voices: They speak for us, where our officials have let us down.
Randy Newman speaks for me. In his latest album, Harps & Angels, the country’s going to hell but no one cares except Jackson Browne, the curmudgeonly Newman notes on “A Piece of the Pie,” offering as proof, “living in the richest country in the world, wouldn’t you think you’d have a better life?” Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is pure genius, as he points out how fear is now patriotic and, “in fact, color coded.” He bemoans the political makeup of the Supreme Court, and if you take comfort in the fact that at least one of those nine is African-American, “Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore, either.” He concludes, “The end of an empire is messy at best, and this empire is ending, like all the rest.” But hey, Newman says, in defense of our country, at least it’s not the Spanish Inquisition.
Latching on to Newman’s “Louisiana,” when Willie Nelson laments — in that prairie-dog-scratching-in-the-dust way of his — “They’re trying to wash us away,” he’s not talking about Katrina’s floodwaters, but a president who can only say, “isn’t it a shame.” But Guy Forsyth had the most-damning Katrina song: “Teeth” was a dark, half-growled epic about people dying on rooftops, with the ivories of the title referring to the words of government officials “lying through their teeth.”
Ian Hunter cast his haughtily superior eye on America and saw what, deep in our hearts, many of us now know to be true. We abandoned our countrymen in New Orleans, abandoned our American soul to three-piece suits “Feathering their nests while they’re rallying the troops.”
Like Nelson, James McMurtry is another Texan who refused to carry George W.’s water: “See how far $5.15 an hour will go,” he drawled to CEOs in 2005 with magnificent cynicism on “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” an anthem for “the poor who slip through the cracks.” His disdain continued in a handful of songs on his album, Childish Things. McMurtry, the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, labels Bush “Cheney’s Toy,” as he reminds us of the sad toll from this administration’s pointless war of choice: “Another unknown soldier who don’t know his own name. And he won’t get any older, and he can’t see for the shrapnel in his brain.” Similarly, in “World Wide Suicide” Pearl Jam couldn’t stay away from the events of the day, humanizing Iraq through the death of a single soldier reported in the news. “Medals on a wooden mantel, next to a handsome face that the president took for granted.”
Bruce Cockburn’s “Tell the Universe” is a short but devastating comment on Bush’s invasion of Iraq, in which Cockburn’s 12-string guitar adds a chiming elegance to the dreadful message:
Tell the universe where you’ve been
With your bloodstained shoes and your dunce’s grin
Consequences of the war weighed heavily on the Drive-By Truckers, and the sleepless Iraq vet who can’t get “That Man I Shot” out of his head. “Exactly what we’re fightin’ for is sometimes hard to tell,” the late Chris Gaffney of the Hacienda Brothers sang in “Uncle Sam’s Jail.” While the setting is Vietnam, it seems pretty clear that Gaffney had modern-day references in mind. “Most of us are losin’ while the rich folks run the game.” Same idea from another musician who recently passed away: In “Rich Man’s War,” Stephen Bruton noted, “This one ain’t about right or wrong, it just makes good business sense…. It takes a bucket of blood to buy a barrel of oil.” I’ve never heard it explained better. Steve Earle’s own “Rich Man’s War” takes the same idea, with a final verse that reminds us that Iraqi kids are fighting a rich man’s war as well.
“Who are these people that keep telling us lies?” and “What kind of leaders can’t admit that they’re wrong?” Elvis Costello sings in a guest vocal on Burt Bacharach’s album, At This Time. They say when Walter Cronkite turned on him, Nixon knew he’d lost the Vietnam War. Perhaps Bush should have known the jig was up when he lost the guy who wrote “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
The truth hurts. On immigration, Tom Russell asks experts like Nugent, “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” Russell muses on the anti-illegal immigrant fence along the Mexico-U.S. border, “like in Berlin, eight feet tall.” He wonders, Who’s gonna mow your lawn? Cook your Mexican food? Wax the floors at the mall? And he comes down squarely against the pure meanness behind it: “The one thing that I most fear is a white man in a golf shirt, with a cell phone to his ear.”
These words will resonate much longer, I hope, than the empty declaration of “Mission Accomplished.” Words such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Last to Die,” evoking John Kerry’s testimony as a Vietnam veteran before Congress, applied to Iraq: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?”
The nation’s watchdog media rolled over, but musicians spoke truth to power. The Dixie Chicks were the enemy when Natalie Maines famously told a London audience, as the Iraq invasion drew near, “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Merle Haggard, whose “Okie From Muskogee” 40 years ago defended a place where “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do,” came to their defense. “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks,” he told the Associated Press a few months after Maines spoke her mind, “but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.”
Over time we have seen, as the Pennsylvania folk singer Steve Brosky says, “The Chicks Were Right.” Just as time has sided with Guthrie, Dylan, Baez, Ochs and Havens. Over the Rhine, an elegant Cincinnati band, posed the question “If a Song Could Be President,” wishing for a world with guitars on the White House lawn. “All our best foreign policy would be built on harmony,” they sing, John Prine would run the FBI, Emmylou Harris would be an ambassador because “world leaders would listen to her” and, with America sorely in need of someone to tell it like it is, “Steve Earle would anchor the news.”
True, a political quiet has settled over our songwriters since Obama moved into the White House. But history tells us that an ambitious Green Day rock opera like American Idiot, with George Bush as the title character, is always within reach in today’s world. Guitars don’t lie. “Doesn’t anybody speak about truth anymore?” Hayes Carll laments in his Arkansas drawl. “Maybe that’s what songs are for.”