PERMANENT RECORDS: BUT WHERE'S THE TRUTH TO FIND THE TRUTH?
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
36. JOHN WESLEY HARDING - WHY WE FIGHT (1992)
Personnel: John Wesley Harding, vocals/acoustic guitar; Greg Leisz, guitars; John Leftwich, bass; Ephrain Toro, drums and percussion; Steve Berlin, organ and various horns; Chris Cavacas, pump organ; Scott Mathews, John Rubin, & Andy Paley, additional vocals
Producer: Steve Berlin/ Label: Sire/Reprise
Historically speaking, the last five years have not been so great for America. I'm not going to couch this in apologetic language or emphasize that this is an arguable opinion by adding indicators like "some people feel," because this entry is about speaking up and speaking plain. So, no bones here: our President is a bully, a villain, and a liar; his government is full of cheaters and crooks; our country has lost respect around the world, and economically, we seem to be sailing down the river Styx in a handbasket made for less than market value on the other side of the ocean. We're stuck in a war that looks increasingly unwinnable. Good men and women are being asked to fight it, and our leadership has pulled a fast one by convincing a good portion of the populace that the most despicable thing a person can do is point out that the powers-that-be aren't giving these soldiers the support and guidance they need to get out alive.
The state we're in is a real damn mess.
Some of us have tried not to take it lying down. We write about what we see as injustice, and we go to protests and call our congressmen and try to direct money to the right places when we can. I am sure there is more I could be doing, I have fallen down on the job more than once, but I've put my foot in and said I won't move. I have friends who have relatives in the war, and I want to see them returned to their families. I want to see George W. Bush and his cronies put things right and to answer for how they ignored things like the unsafe levees in New Orleans while listening in on our phone conversations.
Sadly, this is all I can do. I am just one of the little guys, and I've often sat and pondered with other little guys where all the big guys were. We try to get together and add ourselves up to a larger sum, but we could sure use a hand. For instance, where is all the protest music? Where is the subversive art? Are we so scared of the '60s that we aren't going to use popular entertainment to try to shape a dialogue? Sure, some people have spoken up, but the other side shouted them down. The common refrain is, "Who are these celebrities and this cultural elite to tell us what to think?" Well, I ask, since when is being elite a bad thing? Look it up, it means "the best or most skilled members of a given social group." I always thought the American Dream was that all of us could be part of the elite if we tried. If you want to see it as a snobbish few who think they're better than the rest of us, then how is Dick Cheney not tarred with the same brush? Where did Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity get their credentials to express their opinions, and how do their big salaries not make them separate from the common man? Since when have us big, bad, stubborn Americans become so weak-willed that we're scared of another person's opinion so much that we dare not let them express it lest we no longer know how to form our own?
It's all ridiculous. Art exists to reflect society, to inform it. So writers and actors and musicians are required to speak about what is happening, or they break the covenant they have with their supporters. At least they speak for themselves, which is more than can be said for the scripted commentators on cable news. So, God bless the select few who have spoken their minds--Sean Penn, the Dixie Chicks, Bright Eyes, Green Day, Margaret Cho--and refused to back down. But what's wrong with the rest of you? What kind of wimp do you have to be to let the Dixie Chicks have a stronger courage of their convictions than you? Madonna may have caved in like a paper house in a rainstorm after her American Life debacle, but at least she stood up. The other side of this argument has no problem saying what it thinks. Toby Keith has been cutting the American flag into dollar bills ever since 9/11, and no one ever asks who the hell he thinks he is. And if they did, he'd have the balls to say, "I'm Toby Keith, who the hell are you?"
Thankfully, the climate seems to have finally changed. Neil Young, for instance, is releasing an anti-war record precisely because he feels his peers have been quiet and meek for far too long. He hoped that the younger generation would rise up, but he can wait no longer and now must set an example. Bruce Springsteen has released an album of Pete Seeger covers that doesn't touch specifically on current issues, but it reminds us of a tradition of addressing injustice through music. Bob Dylan is apparently at work on a new record, too, one with political teeth. I am sure they will all meet with opposition, but then, that's the point of debate, isn't it? My history books always told me that our country exists because we weren't going to let tyranny steamroller over us and all views would be given voice.
I've been meaning to write this entry for some time now. I first opened this document back in February and set it aside as part of a handful of albums that I wanted to get to when the time was right. Back then, I wrote this intro:
Bob Dylan sang that the times, they were a'changin'. It's a sentiment that seems adorably naïve now, since it could be argued that they didn't change and maybe never will.
John Wesley Harding took his moniker from a Bob Dylan song, and though it certainly wasn't his intent to do so, his album Why We Fight kind of puts proof to my statement. Recording in response to the original Gulf War perpetrated by the original George Bush...
That's where I stopped. Everything else you're reading is brand new. Why did I wait nearly two months? I don't know. I guess my head was stuck in my own personal pile of shit, too busy rooting around in the detritus of my sappy emotion in search of some truffle of personal knowledge. I was going to make a point about how fourteen years ago a British transplant stood alone to show us how it was done and maybe we'd better take his cue, but now the zeitgeist has caught up with me.
And yet, there is still much we can learn from John Wesley Harding's protest record, and its eerie prescience is proof positive if we keep letting the governmental privileged get away with these shenanigans, they'll never stop until everything we believe in is gone.
As far as I know, no one else wrote music in opposition to Gulf War I. Hank Williams Jr. was the Toby Keith of his day, releasing some jack-assery about making camels run, but the skirmish was over and done so fast, Bush Sr. and his moneyed crew got away clean. While the general populace let itself be mesmerized by the rockets green glare on our television, Harding was paying attention to what else was going on. He chronicled his observations and made his third and most consistent album. Borrowing his title from Frank Capra's WWII documentary, the fight in Why We Fight is a one of civil discourse. We fight with words because if we don't, we'll lose the power to do so.
"Kill the Messenger" opens Why We Fight, perhaps a knowing nod on Harding's part to what he thought could happen to him. Read the first verse and tell me you wouldn't swear this was recorded last year:
"The messenger came with bad news from the front
Said 'The soldiers are starving and their swords are all blunt
They need a show of support or some futile sign
That's what they told me to tell you, not even the words are mine...'
The messenger came with bad news from the war
Said 'The fine young men forgot what they were fighting for
They don't wanna be stars on your TV screen
That's the general feeling, please don't blame it on me.'"
And, of course, the people he delivers the news to don't want to hear it. Bad news disrupts their good day. The whole scenario brings to mind soldiers questioning Donald Rumsfeld over the army's lack of proper equipment and then being dragged through the mud for it; of members of the White House staff insisting the worst thing any citizen can do is say the war isn't going well, because then somehow the terrorists win.
You have to remember, the original Gulf War is when the "Support the Troops" rhetoric was started as a way to keep people from questioning what was happening. It doesn't matter how many times someone points out that the best way to support our soldiers is to get them out of harm's way, this way of thinking refuses to die. It took guts to speak up. Yet, Harding's feet were planted squarely in the folk tradition (hmmm, that word again); that's what folks singers have always done. They've always been punished for it, too, and that theme continues on the album's best song, "The Truth."
In "The Truth," our troubadour is "arrested for disturbing the peace/ But, hey, I was disturbing the war...And they cut out my voicebox of course." Sung over an amiable acoustic twang and tambourine, Harding relates a narrative of a labyrinthine court system where guilt is presumed, and the corruption goes all the way to the top, where no one seems to see what's really going on. The citizenry applauds when he is convicted, and the TV news reports his crimes inaccurately. In this surreal, topsy-turvy world, everyone else is blind and the one-eyed man is shunned for his ability to see. The song's simple question, once again, is apt for 2006: "Where's the truth around here today?/ Where do fact and fiction separate?" When aluminum tubes can build nuclear weapons, when a terrorist attack can be used to justify regime change in a country that had no connection to that attack, when our President can tell us he will fire anyone in his employ who committed a crime but then fails to do so when they are caught and he may have even authorized said crime himself--just what the hell are we supposed to believe?
Harding wasn't punished for his efforts. In truth, Why We Fight passed by with little notice. That doesn't make the stance any less brave. Last I saw of Harding, when he played in Portland last year, he hadn't lost any of his courage. He spoke of the ills of Bush's America, knowing full well he might be told to go back to his own country--despite his longstanding residency in the U.S. What with the Patriot Act and other bureaucratic atrocities, it's probably more dangerous now than ever. I suppose he should count his blessings that he's a light-skinned immigrant, so he won't be as easy a scapegoat when Bush needs to pull a bait-and-switch.
It should be noted that not all of Why We Fight is straight up agitpop. As Harding's 2004 song "Protest Protest Protest" suggests, you can't be overly sincere all the time, and Why We Fight is a better album for being an all-around snapshot of the times, not just an anti-war record. "Kill the Messenger" and "The Truth" are as blatant as it gets. Yet, the other ten songs touch on the same sense of anxiety, the same sense that something isn't right. "Ordinary Weekend," for instance, is the first person story of a man desperate for work who resorts to desperate measures, only to discover the people promising to bail him out are only there to stab him in the back. It may have a film noir feel, but it could also be read as allegory for life amongst an oppressive regime.
In fact, there is a sense of noir throughout, the tropes of black-and-white crime movies used as a metaphor for shady dealings in the halls of government. (Even the back cover evokes Sunset Boulevard with the musician floating face down in a pool, making this the second in this series to do so.) "Where The Bodies Are" is from the point of view of a killer with a secret, and yet it's also about a society where bad is being done and no one can exactly say where. "Some people don't wanna know/ The facts behind the scam," he sings, once again noting our ability to turn away from what we'd rather not acknowledge. "To notice pointless death's become/ A brand new way of life." And a decade before Abu Graib, we'd have thought nothing of the lyrics "Pain's too difficult to prove/ They're not going to make pain illegal/ To think that we were once naïve;" now they seem as undeniable as stark photographs of torture.
"Get Back Down" is a jaunty rocker about living in a state of denial ("You're so high on higher purpose/ You don't know what you've lost"), and similar feelings of futility infuse a poignant throbbing into the wistful ballad "Into the Wind," though the song offers us the ability to carry on, vain or no ("'We have love to burn/ If it burns into the wind'"). And despite the political climate, Harding does not forget the politics of the personal that made his previous records so insightful. "Me Against Me" and its chronicle of self-destruction rates with earlier songs like "The Person You Are" and "You're No Good."
Still, as I noted in my assessment of "Into the Wind," Harding isn't ready to give up on humanity yet. "Ordinary Weekend" has a set of lines that serve as a rallying cry (even if there is a dark coda immediately after):
"So hear you desperate women and hear you desperate men
Don't take you life for granted
Don't live your life in vain."
This idea is given full flesh in the album closer, "Come Gather Round." Wes makes one last attempt to gather all sides in one place, be they ones who are willing to come out for the rally or just stay home and watch it on TV. Far less a hippy-dippy come together than the idea of smiling on your brother and loving one another, it's a cynical finger pointing at those who can't muster up the gumption, from the music industry rife with "rich kids trying hard to be sincere" to the liars on the throne, be it the seat of power or behind a news desk. It's shot through with a belief that in the end, people won't take it, and Harding sums it up best in the big finale:
"Come all you desperate rebels and hang your heads in shame
For those who live in self-contempt with just themselves to blame
And for those who can, who do nothing, and those who can't, who succeed
To cry out 'bloody murder' the moment that they bleed..."
It's a warning straight out of Dante: to have the power and the means, but yet still sit back and let it all happen, is the worst sin imaginable.
We've hit the breaking point, America. Silence can no longer be tolerated, nor can overzealous opposition to the truth. Which side will you stand on? How will you be classified? Will you "hold hands in a circle, or stare bored straight ahead"? The choice is yours, the time is now, and I've made mine.
It's time to give art back to the artists and rise up with fists in the streets. Are you with me?
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Current Soundtrack: Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Current Mood: irate
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich