Songbook #20 tried to talk about the 9-11 interregnum and how it dealt a blow to rock’s radicalism, but in retrospect, it was really more about the nineties revival-of and eventual disenchantment-with such radicalism, with 9-11 seeming to serve as the final nail in the coffin. And Songbook #21 presented David Bowie’s revival-fearing album Heathen as one that well-captured the hesitant rock response to those post 9-11 days.
But, happy radical days were here again when it became apparent that the Iraq occupation was not going to find WMDs, when those photos from Abu Ghraib were released, etc. I have little stomach for reviewing those 2004-2008 times, although I will say that my memory recalls more of a gradual crescendo of liberal-boomer grousings and I-told-you-so’s than a youth-led movement against the war. Living in NYC at the time, there were several times at restaurants or right outside them, usually ones I could not really afford, where I could overhear such gray-headed guys goading one another on with the latest Cheney/Bush conspiracy-theory fodder or all-too-true bits of bad Iraq news. They were angry all right, they felt they had had to muzzle their opinions during the 9-11 interregnum (a number of my left-leaning Fordham students felt that also), and I knew they were very disgusted about the way America had turned out since the 60s, given its unbelievable Bush-and-Fox-News support, given the stubborn hold of its Christianity; but from 2004 forward you could hear entering into their disgust, exasperation, and alarm, a note of welcome excitement and relief. Conspiracies were afoot! Puzzles were to be solved! Their Vietnam/Nixon-era experience was now valuable, now needed!
My impression is that the rockers that embraced political statement at that time pretty much followed this wave of protest(and yes, hate) that emanated from Old Europe first, and shortly thereafter from our own left-leaning oldsters. Despite the undeniable importance of the younger lefty blogosphere, exemplified by the Daily Koz, the protest’s spiritual headquarters were found not in places where the young people were, but rather in the downtown news-buildings, the faculty lounges, and, in those restaurants. I don’t think most Millenials were, upon reflection, happy with this—if the “political” rockers tended to ape the boomer elders, playing “Masters of War” and such one more time, the Vietnam-era parallels ultimately felt, well… …awkward. My sense is that many of the younger bands held back, offering vaguer critiques of the times than was typical of previous rock radicalism. I can’t even recall a widely-known Millennial Generation anti-war anthem from the time—but there must have been at least a handful of such, right? But maybe not, because wouldn’t the MSM have eagerly reported upon any they knew about? Help me out, younger readers… …I’m doin’ my gen-X ex-hipster best here!
Joe Pug is a contemporary folksinger in the classic Dylan-esque mode. There’s always a number of these out there, but on the basis of “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” I’d say he must be one of the very best. It was written around 2008, and here is the first stanza:
When the party starts on Monday,
Christmas starts in June,
when no one minds I’ve just arrived and I’ll be leaving soon,
if I return with eyes half-opened
don’t ask me where I was,
I do my father’s drugs
Pug is saying there’s something odd about these times: we do things by rote, out of proper time. “Partying” is a daily occurrence, not connected to a work-week, not done to celebrate any particular event. The party (socio-culturally speaking, the “party” was originally a practice distinctive to bohemia, and only from the 1920s on adopted by mainstream culture) no longer seems even about cultivating friendships and connecting, for no-one really cares if our narrator is there or not. The party is on automatic. And this oddity is linked to the narrator’s doping out on his father’s drugs.
As for the rest of the song, things get “political”:
When every revolution
is sponsored by the state
there’s no bravery in bayonets
in tearing down the gates.
If you see me with a rifle
don’t ask me what it’s for
I fight my father’s war.
This might be a comment on Bush’s democracy-promotion in Iraq. Our state tried to sponsor a revolution, and the heroism that Iraq-war-supporters (like yours truly) tried to find in that toppling-Saddam’s-statue-moment seemed… …forced, too easy. Is that the idea? If so, it would grossly underestimate the dangers our–in retrospect “easily” victorious—troops did face and overcome during the initial invasion.
A more convincing reading is that whether or not any allusion to Bush’s democracy-promotion is being made, it is particularly the present-day radicalism that is the forced and sponsored thing. It’s the young lefty who gets extra participation points in her Service Learning or Peace Studies course for joining the rally or signature drive that these lines are really meant to speak for. It’s the sense a young protester has that his desire to protest against the Iraq war is all-too-welcomed by his elders. Their struggle against the Vietnam war hovers over everything, so that the cause he has been told heis crucial to turns out to be constantly framed and even organized as a refighting of his father’s “war.” Again, we seem out of step with time: to try to “have Vietnam” in 2004 is like trying to have Christmas in June.
Another reading could be that “he,” symbolizing his generation entire, finds himself unwillingly, following the footsteps of both his hawkish and radical fathers, and thus repeats their angry war-related division against one another. However, the emphasis seems more upon repeating the patterns of the radical father. The next stanza reinforces this:
When hunger strikes are fashion
And freedom is routine
All the streets in Cleveland are named for Martin Luther King
You will see me at the protest
But you’ll notice that I drag
I burn my father’s flag
That’s a truly brilliant lyric, that captures a real feeling out there. Even those who reject my following interpretation of it cannot deny that.
The last true excitement felt on the left was given it by the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War cause, and the Sexual Revolution, but now that the freedom sought by the first and last really has been basically achieved, and proves disappointing once it becomes routine, there seems nowhere to go, nowhere to direct those 1789/1917 desires. It was an excitement that had to burn the American flag, because it had to say that basic American democracy (even and especially after its mid-60s Civil Rights Act “completion”) Was Not Enough, that it represented a corrupting complacency. And so it had to do so repeatedly—certainly no rock band or edgy artist that would openly speak of an “America the Politically O.K.” (rather than of an “America Being Lost” or an “Amerika the Capitalist/Racist/Violent etc.”) could be trusted as an authentic rock band or artist. For one not to symbolically honor, via its various aesthetic equivalents, the “burning of the flag,” would be to betray the Rock Fathers. Pug the café folk-singer knows that the Counter Culture, so-called, has its own set of Patriotic rituals, whose informality and indefinability does nothing to lessen their mandatory nature.
I hold that our times are caught in a cultural cul-de-sac, ever-repeating the same freedom-seeking cycles and styles. The 90s saw the final consolidation, moderation, and normalization of the 60s cultural revolution. (Rock-wise, the Advent of Grunge we are now pathetically asked to commemorate the 20th anniversary of was actually the Admission that re-cycling and re-combination, and not avant garde progress, is the actual pattern of our music and our times.) And part of the established pattern is the free person “jumping into politics” from time to time, as Plato and Tocqueville both put it, and typically into leftist causes. But the bottom line is that the causes are tired and have felt ever more so since the late 90s. For a few years, the Iraq War and then Obama breathed new life into progressivism generally, and thus perhaps into rock’s radicalism also, but as Pug’s song witnesses, something about it felt forced, felt dictated yet again by the liberal-boomer culture-rulers.
But what to do now? To simply direct one’s frustration against the liberal-boomers (and especially if one also brings against them those bitter economic complaints we increasingly hear these days) is a temptation that “I Do My Father’s Drugs” suggests is fruitless and deluding. For there clearly was something about one’s own self that drew one into the (circular) paths they had blazed, into assuming the cultural world and political pattern they built was and would remain the norm. Into taking their “drugs.” After all, they could not really see what we X-ers and Millenials had begun to discern by the 80s, 90s, and 00s, and so how can we, with eyes so many of us deliberately made only half-opened, now demand to punish the hands that fed us the “drugs” we asked for? I suppose lifelong conservatives who never fell for the dream, who never wanted to be like Bono, Dylan, or a 60s protest leader, won’t entirely grasp what I’m talking about here. I salute your good sense if you’re among these, and thank you for your patience, but folks like Joe Pug and I have some Issues rooted in all this, in the “60s” and the whole rock kaboodle, that I suppose we’re going to be trying to untangle our whole lives.
I do stretch Pug’s meaning, hopefully usefully so, but let us conclude with what is obvious. The song’s narrator feels obliged to show up at the protest—the protest community is in some way his—but his heart is not in it: You’ll notice that I drag. Again, I say this drag was being increasingly felt within rock well before 9-11, and the angry excitement of 2004-2009 did not remove it.
It is unclear what may happen to that drag and that habitual radicalism if a yet more serious and more youth-unemploying failure of the economy now occurs. Still, my final question remains a politics-of-culture one, and not a politics-of-economy one: Will “the drugs” continue to do their work?
Will we, generation after generation, dutifully keep on rockin’ in the free world even as things drag ? Or can rock’s radicalism just settle down into a cozy liberaltarianism that drops the lefty Audacity of Hope instincts entirely? Or is, as conservatives like me obviously hope, a kind of resistance to these drugs gradually building up? That will eventually, among other things, transform or even put aside the rock phenomenon?