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MUSIC & POLITICS
The sound of change,
the power of changes

by Sam Smith

This was the chart used to riff some comments at a performance by the punk rock group Blowback on March 10,2006 at the Club Asylum in DC's Adams Morgan

Blowback playing on the National Mall, 2002
Photo by Martin


WHEN he was 25, Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider, a book about those who see too deep and too much. I suspect some of you are here tonight.

Wilson tells of a Jean Paul Sartre character who lives alone in a hotel: "There is his ordinary life, with its assumptions of meaning, purpose, usefulness. And there are these revelations, or, rather, these attacks of nausea, that knock the bottom out of his ordinary life. The reason is not far to seek. He is too acute and honest an observer. . ."

"Of the café patron, he comments: 'When his place empties, his head empties too.' The lives of these people are contingent on events. If things stopped happening to them, they would stop being. Worse still are the . . . pictures he can look at in the town's art gallery, these eminent public men, so sure of themselves, so sure that life is theirs and their existence is necessary to it. . .

A few days later he reflects that "the nausea is not inside me; I feel it out there, in the wall . . . everywhere around me."

Here is a metaphor for our own time, living as we do so near to all "these eminent public men, so sure of themselves, so sure that life is theirs and their existence is necessary to it." And finding the nausea out there in a war, an ecological crisis, and the collapse of constitutional government.

I feel it. . . like an exile in my native town, a town partly occupied by guards who demand I prove I am not a terrorist and partly filled with people who seem just to be passing through the place as if it were the world's largest Marriot Hotel lobby.

But then in Sartre's café somebody puts on a record, a woman singing 'Some of These Days'. The nausea disappears and Roquinten says: 'When the voice was heard in the silence I felt my body harden and the nausea vanish. . . I am in the music. Globes of fire turn in the mirrors, encircled by rings of smoke.'"

Wilson calls it art once again giving order and logic to chaos.

I have been a journalist and I have been a musician and one of the things I have learned is that there are times for words and then there are times when words fail (except the kind that are put to music), a time when music becomes the best politics.

For example, a few decades ago, a young boy named Andras was introduced to rock music while living in Denmark: " I didn't know what the underlying message was and I didn't care. I just thought this was something that I had to embrace."

Then he returned to his native Hungary to live with his aunt and uncle, who were conservative communists. And one night his uncle came in and took away the radio. Andras apologized for playing it so loud but the uncle said, ""The problem was not that it was loud. The problem was that you were listening to a Western radio station. . .

"Still, you had to keep going . . . It kept us sane. . . . As we listened to Radio Luxemburg, we were suddenly out of our bodies and our soul was part of the free world. . .

Someone would find a record in a shop and they would buy it and then make 500 copies. And Andras started a band. As he put it, "there was no way to stop . . . the message of freedom through rock and roll. . .

Andras told that story a few years ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, but no longer as a young man, no longer a rocker but the Hungarian ambassador to the United States.

Similarly, when the Czech leader Vaclav Havel met Lou Reed in 1990 he told him, "Did you know that I am president because of you?" The Velvet Underground's first record had become so popular in Prague it had given the rebellion its name: "the Velvet Revolution."

In short, punk politics.

And then there was Rage Against the Machine: 1993. . . stands naked for 15 minutes without playing a note or singing in a protest against censorship. . . 1997. . . Well before most college students knew about the issue, Tom Morello is arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor. . . 2000: the LA police close down a Rage concert seen as a threat to the Democratic convention.

Or take traditional jazz, my music. During much of the 20th century jazz clubs were among the few places that whites and blacks shared socially. . . My own civil rights involvement had its roots in part in a music I loved. Among my records as a student in an all white high school was a Louis Armstrong song:

Even the mouse
Ran from your house
Laughed at you
And scorned you, too
What did I do
To be so black and blue?

Even earlier I had found a song in a book on my parents' piano:

I dreamt I saw Joe Hill last night
As live as you and me
But Joe, I said, you're ten years dead
I never died said he. I never died said he

The copper bosses shot you Joe,
The killed you Joe said I
What they forgot to kill, said Joe,
Went on to organize.

And years later, holding hands with those I knew only from their souls singing:

Deep in my heart
I do believe
'We shall overcome
Some day

Or standing with tens of thousands on the Mall singing:

All we are saying is give peace a chance

Try it yourself. . .

You'll be amazed how much is in the MP3 playlist of your brain that has been guiding and driving you forward.

But there's another side as well. . .

About two weeks ago Itunes downloaded its one billionth song. Its one billionth reason for someone not to notice anything for awhile but to walk indifferently down the streets of our collapsing republic. One billion tunes and things are just getting worse.

It's a reminder that music can be a trap as well as a remedy, another way the system can take our minds off what is happening. Like the café patron, we can become contingent on events and if things stop happening, we stop being. The police state can come through sedation as well as suppression.

But you can't stop playing. Billie Holiday could not have foreseen the civil rights revolution when she sang 'Strange Fruit' nor Joe Hill the modern labor movement. The human story gets better when people surrender their telepathic presumptions and simply do the right thing anyway.

In February 1960, four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four cities in nine states.

If that response had not occurred, would their sit-in have been without purpose? Or just not blessed?

We can not control the future but we can control how we react to every moment that passes by.

This is the lesson existentialism teaches us. We exist by our actions, our words, our art, and our music, whom and how we love. Existentialism has been called the philosophy that no one can take your shower for you. Or, for that matter, determine how you are going to respond to Iraq, to Bush, to the melting of the Antarctic. It is the philosophy that said that even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. It is not a bad philosophy for our times.

Like a hit and run driver, America's elite has left the scene of the accident. They have become like those of whom Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby:

They were careless people -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together. . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

And through this all -- the unreal, the undemocratic, the cruel, the crowded, the rushed, and the uncritical -- the American outsider walks alone.

But it's always been like that. Behind every great social or political change has been the outsider -- those willing to seek to understand and alter what others just ward off with everything from religious sophistry to pop sophorifics, from IBelieve to ITunes. Those who find inspiration, globes of fire and rings of smoke in music rather than just a way to kill an hour. Those whose existence becomes the event rather than merely contingent upon the event. .

And if enough of us try hard enough and give our support to others who are doing likewise maybe one day we'll have our own Velvet Revolution, maybe we will find an asylum for our souls and our freedoms throughout the land rather than only in a few place like a club on 18th street.

Meanwhile thank those around you for what they have dared to think, thank the band for what it has dared to play, and thank yourself for what you have dared to be.

 

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