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"let the song protest"

Pearl Jam & politics
and a brief history of protest in rock

by "c3"

It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is also very dangerous to come by.
-Ernest Hemingway
Thankyouthankyouthankyou...I wanta see a sea of hands out there... My Pearl Jam sisters and brothers, now is a time of upset and uncertainty, of hope and fear, of torment and dreams. In the best of times, art, and therefore music, can be mirror of our lives and feelings. When what is expressed in the music and the lyrics matches our lives and our feelings, there is no more downright transcendent scenario. When we can see ourselves or feel our emotions in art, it makes us GOOD. It makes us feel united. It makes us feel less alone.

But when art says something to us that we don't like, when we can't understand what the hell is being expressed or why it is being expressed, and when it doesn't correspond identically with what is inside us, all sorts of fireworks go off. When artists express opinions the diametric opposite of our own, when all this time we sat there and said "They're just like ME... They think like ME... That song could have been written about ME..." It shakes you up, don't it? It just plain old bothers you. It eats at you... It sits there in your brain, gnawing away at your thoughts.... What went wrong, you think? Why did they change? Why are they saying these things? I don't agree with these things and I've always agreed with them before....

Change! Change is bad and scary. Make it go away, please....

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
[Funny, innit. I never realized the word "grievance" was in there until I looked it up to get the text exactly right. That Vedder guy is one smart cookie.]

The result of the presence of that little paragraph in the law of our land is this: anyone, any one at all, can get up and speak their mind right out loud. And I equally can sit there and say that they're full of shit or they're the most brilliant theoretician in American political history. Either way, though, their voice is real. Their voice is valid. To quote Iggy, they got a right (I got a right) to SHOUT IT OUT LOUD.

[I think I just committed blasphemy there. I just mixed Iggy with KISS. Father forgive me for I have sinned grievously......]

"O well, this country's a getting to where it cain't hear its own voice."
--Woody Guthrie
Once upon a time, back when Elvis was just a glint in his momma's and pappa's eyes, long before this new-fangled rock and roll music even existed, there were people out there singing songs about what they thought. What they saw. What the government was doing and what they thought about that. Music was not just about enjoyment and something to listen to at the beach, it was downright political, and a way to give a voice, a method of communication. That was called folk music, and "it was a primitive tradition, carried through the ages by common people who wished to express their joy and anger and frustrations through music." [See: Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life]

The main fella known for singing this kind o' music was a guy named Woody Guthrie. You might've heard of him; he wrote a song called "This Land Is Your Land" which I sang in Girl Scout camp fairly every year of my damn life. What you probably don't know, and I know I didn't when I was a little Brownie sitting around the campfire, is that song, as beautiful and inspirational and just downright TRUE as it is, was originally an expression of anger and frustration. It was an answer to "God Bless America," which at the time was everywhere. Woody thought "God Bless America" wasn't doing a damn thing but encouraging people to sit on their asses and wait for something better, and so he wrote it like he saw it. And people did NOT like it. It made them angry. It made them call him names. It made them try their damndest to discredit him as an artist and dismiss his entire output of work because he was voicing opinions that they either didn't like, didn't agree with, or that touched that tiny hidden place in their souls that said, "Hey. Things aren't quite right here." But they were too scared to stand and shine a light on that dark spot and root through what was there to try to make sense of it.

[Is this starting to sound familiar?]

Way later on, a kid from Hibbing, Minnesota known to his Mom and Pop as Robert Zimmerman, but known to you and I as Bob Dylan, listened to what Woody Guthrie had done and tried to do the same thing in his own way. There were a lot of other people reviving this spirit of questioning and protest, but Bob was the one that seemed to sing the loudest and get the most attention. And then, after Bob got all these people to listen to him, he decided he was tired of strumming on his ol' acoustic guitar, got hisself a band and PLUGGED IN. That made some of his fans SO MAD that one yelled "JUDAS!" in the middle of one of his concerts, cuz they thought he was "ruining" their favorite plunk-plunk-plunk beautiful acoustic folk songs, so mad that fellow musicians, people who five minutes earlier thought Bob was the, well, next Bob Dylan, were ready to take an axe to the power lines just to MAKE IT STOP.

Later in the 60s, ol' Bob had a lot of company. Plenty of people with electric gee-tars were plugging in and singing songs that asked questions, that made statements, that challenged people to think and feel and reach their own decisions, and not just sit there and numbly watch the body count on the evening news night after night. It doesn't seem like a big deal now because we hear these songs every day now on "classic rock radio". "Blowin' In The Wind" fairly puts you to sleep, if you've even heard of the song at all. Can you sing Country Joe and the Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag"? In Detroit, the MC5 were flirting with John Sinclair and the White Panther Party and espousing a more violent solution than their West Coast bretheren - which, trust me, weren't too popular at the suburban dinner table. Even in Ye Jolly Olde England, former London School of Economics student Michael Phillip Jagger wrote a song called "Street Fighting Man" about his experience protesting the Vietnam War at the American Embassy in London, and his frustration at not being able to do anything that would actually MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Neil Young to this day doesn't believe that he had to write "Ohio," and that song upset an awful lot of people back when it was written and rush-released to radio, in order to make a LOUD AND VOCAL statement. These are just a few examples out of many many many.

"I was at the press conference in Los Angeles when the Beatles were asked directly about the Vietnam War and John replied, 'We think of it every day, we don't like it, we don't agree with it, we think it's wrong, but there's not much we can do about it. All we can say is we don't like it.' Then someone asked them, 'What's your opinion of American's who go to Canada to avoid the draft?' John's answer was a classic truth-said-in-jest Lennonism: 'We're not allowed to have opinions.'"
--David Crosby, Stand and Be Counted
Ah, that John Lennon guy, the same one who wrote "Gimme Some Truth," which hundreds o'PJ fans had no trouble singing along with and praising last year. He'd later become a target of the Nixon administration for hanging out with the White Panthers at his first NYC apartment down on Bank Street, for writing songs about John Sinclair, for taking out big-ass billboards announcing:
war is over if you want it

Our government was SO SCARED of his words and his opinions and his potential influence, the fact that people listened to what he had to say, that they did everything they could to try to keep him out of the United States. Probably because they knew he was RIGHT, definitely because they knew people would listen.

Outside of the artists who were overtly political, there were those who were simply making artistic statements of their own that went against the mainstream at the time. The Doors seem about as normal and boring as they come in 2002, but an oedipal mini-opera climaxing with "Father? I want to kill you. Mother? I want to FUCKKKKKKKK YOU" wasn't exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear on the radio (and they didn't). Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground wrote stories about the pale soft underbelly of the beast, about going to Harlem to score drugs and what it was like taking those drugs. They were violent and disturbing and the old joke that only 1000 people bought their first record isn't that far off. 10 years later, and punk rock rose out of the drug-sodden malaise of the 70s and just like anyone with long hair and different clothes could be in real physical danger if they caught themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time in the 60s, people with short hair and different clothes in the 70s found themselves in the exact same predicament... all over the same thing. All for the same reason. Because of music. Because of art. Because of music that made a statement, that was different, that didn't go along with the norm, that WASN'T COMFORTABLE.

This brings us to those five fellas we like to call The Artist Formerly Known As Mookie Blaylock:


Those boys gifted us with a righteous piece of art, a bold statement, a singularly beautiful, unique and brazen item of expression. I'm talking, of course, about the 2001 Christmas single. (And if SOMEHOW you don't have it yet this whole fucking thing is a spoiler so please continue surfing porn or wherever else you were before you cruised over to 5h for the 52nd time today in hope that Ed had set up shop on the corner of West 8th Street and 6th Avenue with his ukulele case in front of him and was busking for spare change.... Uh, I'm not saying that he has any plans to, so don't go setting up your lawn chairs and Ten Club line down in the Village, okay?)

Where was I? Oh yeah. The Christmas single. Not since "Olympic Platinum" got leaked to Atlanta radio, not since "Bronze Lighter" [if you don't remember that one, don't write and ask cuz I'm not telling ya], not since Stoney G. cut his hair off and bleached it platinum blonde, not since PJ finally told Mick and the boys "Yes, we will open for you," not since drummer 254 took over, has the Pearl Jam community gotten their panties in such a collective bunch than over the Christmas single. People screaming at the top of their lungs, HOW DARE THEY. People threatening to turn in their fan club memberships (please do, I could use some help moving up my seniority), people threatening to give everything they own that says PEARL JAM on it away, the 2,346 bootleg cds, tapes, videos, films of Mike and Stone tying their shoes (TREE THE FUCKER!), and let's not forget that underground footage of Ed and Chris Cornell taking a shower together...oops, sorry, I forgot I wasn't listing detailed fantasies. But hell, even if that (praise goddess) somehow existed, these folks were ready to cash it all in. End it now.

And why?

Because the boys were SPEAKING THEIR MINDS, and their minds don't match what Joe or Josephine Pearl Jam Fan think or want or feel or want to think or feel. Because Pearl Jam decided to make some statements and ask some questions and no one wants that right now. They would have been happier if Mike, Stone, Jeff, Ed and Matt had recorded a straight ahead orchestral version of the "Star Spangled Banner" with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on backing vocals and festooned the cover with American flags and bald eagles and saintly photos of Our President.

...or so it would seem.

last soldier

Have you held that single in your hands and looked at it, I mean REALLY LOOKED AT IT? "Last Soldier," most probably inspired by Mike's father who served in Vietnam, has become an expression of what war does to families. The picket fence turning into rows of bombs. The family image literally shattered. Lines of fire disregarding those who they fly over.


"Indifference" has never been more clear and more honest: "I care. I don't care. I care. I don't care." Wouldn't you be lying to yourself if you said that you didn't go through that thought pattern at least once over the past six months, if you didn't roll your eyes when the latest AMERICA'S FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM graphic flashed on the screen? If you didn't, then I admire your equanimity and wish to hell I could steel my mind that way.

gimme some truth

"Gimme Some Truth," graced with a trademark Ament collage that shows me something new every time I look at it, but essentially captures the torment and conflict caused by religion and the violence that has ensued for centuries as a result. Jeff hasn't shown us any art like this since the "Angel" single.

gabba gabba hey

And then, in the end, the last and the purest, I think, Joey Ramone standing guard over the New York island with those impossibly skinny legs in place of the Twin Towers, those legs that I wish to hell were still able to lean forward as he grabbed the mic stand in that way we've seen him do dozens of times. And instead of JohnnyJoeyMarkyDeeDee we get our five musketeers in that belovedly familiar Ramones logo, and backed to boot with this downright radical tribute to the Ramones. I haven't heard anything this revolutionary since Bob Mould strolled on the Irving Plaza stage with an acoustic guitar in his hand for a special Husker Du encore and was booed soundly by the crowd, only to have Bob answer, "You fuckers, I WROTE those songs on this guitar!" It don't get more punk rock than that.

The Christmas single is defiantly, passionately, righteously, totally and completely PEARL JAM in every single square inch of artwork and shiny black vinyl. Pearl Jam 2002, the deluxe edition, as loud and vibrant and thought-provoking as they have ever been. The morning I got the single, I held it in my hands and breathed an involuntary sigh of relief at the statement it appeared to make to me. The boys are back in town, and they have never been more essentially themselves then they are RIGHT NOW. Kick out the jams, motherfucker.


Ed Vedder, 2.26.02, Los Angeles, California. He removes the fedora and displays his new hairdo:
"You like it?"
*wild applause*
"I'll keep the mohawk until we stop killing people abroad.... You don't have to read the paper, you don't have to pay attention - but if you happen to see a picture of me and the mohawk's still there, you can just go - oh, yeah, we're still killing people."
Somehow that wasn't QUITE the explanation that everyone expected, was it? Oh, that kooky Ed, trying to be a punk rocker, people thought. Or some people did. But up here in the great Pearl Jam Think Tank, we saw that photo from the bowling alley and said, HMMMMMM. Something is clearly up. This isn't a lost bet or 'I'm bored'.

A conversation with my friend the Rabbi from the Brotherhood of Silence about that very statement:
"When Ed said that the other night, I thought, 'Ed, that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard you say."
Now, I was kind of quiet on the other end of the telephone line, because I guess I had made some assumptions about the Rabbi's politics and I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that statement.
Then he finished the sentence: "…because he'll NEVER be able to get rid of it!"
Truer words have never been spoken.

So after people stopped bitching about the fact that the setlist - which most folks hadn't even HEARD yet - was all songs on ukulele (another HOW DARE HE, HOW DARE HE MOVE OUTSIDE OF THE AREA WE ARE COMFORTABLE WITH!!! No!!! I don't want any more ukulele songs! They suck, even though I haven't heard them yet!), the Greek chorus of endless whining then moved to the level of HOW DARE ED'S POLITICS NOT AGREE WITH MY OWN!

Because that's what it's really about. And it masquerades underneath the veneer of patriotism, which is probably the worst kind of hypocrisy there is. All these patriots seem to have forgotten about that aforementioned FIRST AMENDMENT. Which is a neat little contradiction in terms. It provides an iron clad right to dissent, but it's also so brave and radical a statement that you have to fight to defend it. But it also means that you can speak out against the fighting. Around and around. Endless circle. How patriotic are you, really? How ready are you to hear opinion that you don't like? How willing are you to let that dissent exist? Considering that the press secretary of our very own White House was calling out comedians in public for having different opinions - "This is a time where you have to watch what you say" - I'd argue that the current government isn't all that down with the letter and the spirit of that amendment they are supposedly defending. But hey, what do I know - I'm a freaking music writer. But if I was an artist, god, I'd sure as heck be worried about that statement. It would keep me awake nights.

The dissenting opinion is as true to the character of our democracy as of Speech itself.
-William O. Douglas, supreme court justice

"Ed is an influential figure that a lot of people listen to": Oh, that's right. Someone might listen to Ed talk and start questioning their own beliefs about what the U.S. government is doing and might decide to go out and do some research of their own, and reach their own conclusions about how they think and feel instead of having it spoonfed to them. Someone might CHANGE THEIR MIND. Or they might end up in the same place they started out at, but at least they got there on their own.

"How dare Ed make fun of Jon Bon Jovi, who has donated to countless 9/11 funds!": Hey, Jon Bon Jovi actually has always been very active in his local community like on a Pearl Jam/Seattle level. And that is massively cool. But that doesn't make you immune from criticism. Everyone who lipsynched at the Olympic closing ceremonies looked like an ass, including (and especially) KISS. And it DOESN'T CHANGE THE FACT THAT BON JOVI IS A POODLE ROCKER WHO DOES THE WORST COVER OF ROCKIN IN THE FREE WORLD THAT EXISTS. IT HAS NO BALLS. EVEN WORSE, HE TURNS IT INTO THIS SONG OF BLIND PATRIOTISM WHICH IS NOT WHAT NEIL YOUNG MEANT. (God, it would be so nice to get up on a stage and say that. Now I understand Ed so much better....)

"At some point you can't write off Ed's words as just Ed being Ed": While I think that's exactly what an awful lot of people would like to have you do, I sure ain't. If we know one thing about Ed Vedder at all, it's that he is very fuckin deliberate about what he says and he chooses his words carefully. I just think he has the right to say whatever the hell he wants to say, provided he's prepared to stand behind his words. He doesn't seem to have a problem with this.

"Doesn't Ed realize that a lot of people died on 9/11?": I think it's clear as Antarctic ice that Ed Vedder realizes that, was profoundly affected by it, and is disturbed as hell by it. And it is rude and presumptuous as all get out to assume that he's not just because he's not reacting the same way you are, or in the way that you think he should react. And wasn't that Ed and Mike I saw on the Tribute To Heroes telethon? Or was that another Ed Vedder?

"It doesn't make any difference what he says so he should just shut up.": If Pearl Jam didn't give a shit about life, politics and their universe, they also probably wouldn't care about us or their music as much as they do. They care. That extends to everything they do, from the fact that concert tickets aren't $192.50 like ol' Pete T. is doing this summer, to the fact that t-shirts are good quality and aren't $45, to the fact that we each have the wonderful blessed right to one pair of amazing fan club seats every tour. But we can't say "oh, okay, that's fine - but only care about the stuff that matters to me." It don't work that way.

"If you grew up in the 60s, you grew up with war on tv every night. A war that your friends were involved in...and I want to do this song tonight for all the young people, if you're in your teens... because I remember a lot of my friends when they we were 17 or 18, we didn't have much of a chance to think about how we felt about a lot of things. And the next time, they're gonna be looking at you, and you're gonna need a lot of information to know what you're gonna wanna do. Because in 1985, blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed. Because what I'm talking about here is:

What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing....

--Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, Los Angeles, 9/85.

So far, to my bleary eyes, Ed Vedder has been massively successful in doing exactly what he set out to do, and that was to make us THINK. To make us UNCOMFORTABLE in our warm little nest of assumptions and opinions. To light a tiny spark of question. Ooooohhhhh, it is so uncomfortable to have your beliefs challenged, isn't it? He's not supposed to do that. JUST SHUT UP AND PLAY YER GUITAR.

Uh, hello viewers: HE HAS ALWAYS DONE THAT! Why does Ed's reaction, or the band's reaction surprise anyone right now? He's just gotten better at it and he's now talking about issues that are hitting really really close to home. It's not that the issues the band addressed before weren't important, they just didn't hit us all straight in the gut on a monumental level. Ticketmaster, we whined that they didn't tour, didn't tour our city, it was too hard to get tickets. Pro-choice, how many fans who were pro-life still camped out all night or sent in their postcards to get tickets to those shows? Let's just ignore the issues. Nader: I will be the first one to raise my hand and testify that Ed didn't really handle the speeches with the grace he is well capable of and they got well tiresome, but I agreed with the basic point: get involved. Vote. For the love of the universe, please please please go out and exercise your right to vote. And he didn't just pay lip service, he went out there and played for Ralph. He stood up for what he believed in. That alone is a lesson that was worthy enduring a million bad tirades for. Let's see action, indeed.

Being a rock star does not necessarily give you any better set of tools to deal with horrific events and a jumble of incredibly intense emotions. It does not make you immune to anything, it does not insulate you, it does not mean that you will not be upset and disturbed and affected by what is happening in the world. They are human beings, just like us. They have feelings and thoughts and opinions and they feel them as deeply and fiercely and with the same amount of conviction that we do. We would not love them as much as we do if they did not step right out there and speak their piece. Their music would not be as moving, their words would not be as powerful if they did not come from a pure, real place deep inside of each of them.

I'm not preaching blind obedience here; fans that shout down the fans who question the band's actions and statements are just as bad. We don't have to like what they say. We don't have to agree. We don't have to listen. But they do not have to cater to us, they do not have to keep their mouths shut and their voices silent just because we might not like it, or that it might make us upset or uncomfortable. And we are free to sing or dance or shout or scream or tell them to fuck off. If you don't like the Christmas single, that is your supreme right and privilege. If the artwork upsets or disturbs you, get out there and talk about it. Tell your friends. Post to ampj. If you think Ed is full of shit, then I invite you to speak out against it. But so help me, if you stand there and try to discredit their entire body of work or dare to imply that they have NO RIGHT, no right AT ALL to emote, to express, to give voice... I will be the first one in line to tell you that you are full of shit. You hate the Christmas single? Give the fucking thing away. Shoot skeet with it. I don't care. But they don't have to shut up because they're your favorite band and you don't like what they're saying, and it scares you because if they're not your favorite band any more, what will you do???

It is their right to put out the Christmas single. It is Ed's right to express his outrage and opinion in any way he sees fit. It is their right, their duty, and their only responsibility to us as fans to be true to themselves, to never silence that voice, that impulse, that spark within. They may not get it right; they may change their minds later. "Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes," to quote Mr. Walt Whitman, another American artist that caused a heck of a lot of stir way back in his day.

Trust me: I do not agree 100% with every word in the Pearl Jam Platform 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time some days, depending on who's doin' the talkin'. But the minute Pearl Jam keep quiet and don't speak their minds is the day that I give up on them, is the day they let us down, is the day they cease to be special and become just another rock band. Until that day comes, I say: people have the power. Bring it on.

"The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the Need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss The unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable," wrote a historian named C. Vann Woodward in the early 70s. "To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily deprives others of the right to listen to those views."
Yours in struggle, I sign myself as:
Play c3.
Let the song protest.

Copyright © 2004 Five Horizons