Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Living la vida... in the closet

So, Ricky Martin has now come out of the closet. Once again, plenty of folks are delivering all sorts of snarky comments about how "we knew all along." It's just a bit insulting if one thinks about it--the notion that if a man can dance and sing then he must be gay. Even in today's times, countless people of all walks spend their entire lives in the closet. Whether or not straight people get an inkling that they may be LGBTQ isn't the issue. In fact, these kinds of "gaydar" speculations happen in the first place because heterosexuality is largely assumed in our society.

Case in point: Martin's entire image was built up around him being a sex-symbol, which normally insinuates straight sex-symbol. Videos for his songs would commonly feature women dancing and gyrating. Whenever couples were part of his vids, they were never--ever--same-sex. It goes to show how manipulative the music industry can often be and how it normally reflects the prevailing prejudices. Martin, in fact, was essentially the kind of cookie-cutter star--albeit with a more Latin flavor--that the record companies love.

To be sure, Martin's daily experience isn't the same as the majority of the LGBTQ community. His self-description as a "fortunate homosexual man" is a bit of an understatement. He is financially well-off, for one, which means that he has no worries about how he will live if he gets fired as a result of coming out. Most non-straights don't have that luxury. In 29 states, it is still legal to fire someone for being gay, lesbian or bisexual, and in 38 for being transgender. And with most people living paycheck-to-paycheck, such consequences can be disastrous.

Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine Martin coming out if there weren't a large and increasingly confident LGBTQ liberation movement. That's the kicker. All over the country, conferences have been taking place of LGBTQ activists and their allies to strategize for the movement's next steps, and the beginnings of a national network (the first of its kind in decades) are in the works. If this momentum continues to build, then the kinds of rights we can win will eventually make Martin a footnote in something a lot bigger than him.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Makes the Walk Worth it

The initial response to The Brutalist Bricks is something akin to coming home after a long trip. It's all familiar, everything is just where you left it, but somehow, it all still feels so strange--comfortable, yet fresh and new at the same time. It's a feeling that fans of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are quite used to by this point.

Leo has spent the past ten years perfecting his own concoction of neo-mod indie-punk without ever falling back on a predictable formula. It's this that's earned him an almost unassailable respect among hip-shakers of all stripes. And while most other indie artists who dare to tackle the sticky realm of politics are bound to face the cry of "preachy," Leo's intelligence and personability have kept such accusations well at bay.

The Brutalist Bricks sees none of these elements fading anytime soon. While it may not be the strongest Pharmacists album to date, it nonetheless remains a rock-solid effort. Leo is playing with a smaller palette here, but after the wide expanse of Living With the Living, almost any followup is going to seem restrained.

True to form, Bricks is an album whose dynamics have been delicately balanced. The Jam-style crunch is laid on thick throughout most songs without ever slighting the value of a great pop hook. Leo's voice bounces effortlessly between wailing testimonial and angelic innocence. And the Pharmacists--guitarist James Canty, drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Marty Key--hold things down with a mixture that can positively be described as controlled chaos.

This kind of emotional and musical range captures what no small number of Americans must be feeling right now. Like most folks, Leo was excited about the prospects of the new administration, but unlike many other artists who threw their hat Obama's ring, he didn't consider the election an end-game. The statement on his website the day after the elections read "Deep breath... Feel good... Recognize and appreciate the significance... And let's get down to work!"

In other words, Leo gets the wonky mix of anger, frustration and hope that runs through the era of the Great Recession. In "Woke Up Near Chelsea," he reminds us repeatedly that "we are born of despair," but also that "we long for what's fair." The tense, piano-inflected rabble rouser is The Brutalist Bricks in a nutshell:

"Cold in the bones, rot in the teeth
Alone in the home, out in the street
All that you've grown, choked in the weeds
But older than stone, that's you and me"

Leo clearly has no time for cynics--indeed, he says so outright on "Ativan Eyes," easily the album's most infectious song. His infinitely refreshing faith in people is personified by his refusal to paint them with a simple brush. This is no doubt why he's dodged the normally inevitable eye-rolls that get directed at "political" artists. To him, the personal and political are bound to bleed into one another.

This has always been true of Leo's work, but while past albums like Shake the Sheets and Hearts of Oak relied a lot more on metaphor, Bricks' more outspoken moments seem to go for the jugular much more than we may be used to.

Acerbic lines like "the new millennium's tough, for some more than others (ridiculous understatement)" work in a one-on-one setting just as well as if they were delivered at a rally in front of Bank of America. Moreover, they're peppered throughout subjects that could easily be mistaken as much more pedestrian: love, loneliness, heartache.

Some are clearly uncomfortable with this kind of match-up. Pitchfork's Paul Thompson calls it "sandwich-board fodder."

"The otherwise lovely 'Ativan Eyes' begins with a too-clever nod to Marx" says Thompson. "'The industry's out of touch / The means of production are now in the hands of the workers' just isn't a line that belongs in a pop tune, particularly one that implores someone to lay their hands on Leo just a couple of stanzas later."

His stereotype of the po-faced Marxist aside, Thompson's criticism misses the entire point! If pop music is ever to reclaim its mantle as truly "popular" in this day and age, then artists need to be unafraid to inject a little bit of outright radicalism into their songs as they tap into popular sentiment--even if such injections might come off as a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Contrary to what some nay-sayers may insist, the starkness of these types of moments is what makes them work. Fewer songs on Bricks could be labeled "political" songs, but the ever-present sense of subversiveness makes the more blunt moments hit even harder.

"Mourning in America" gives the listener the feeling of being thrown in a cement mixer with a box of rusty nails. The sense of furious impatience is undeniable here--from the fuzzed-out bass and stutter-step drums to the wind-tunnel guitar work--as Leo lays out a vitriolic indictment of American conservatism:

"You summon ghosts we tried to bury in their white shrouds
With burning cross and bloody crescent in the White House
You come on something like the faces I remember
1980 Mississippi rising from the ash and embers

"Never now can I imagine me forgiving you
Never now can I imagine how to live with you
Another warning from the lake of people bleeding
There will be mourning in America if you keep it up"

Anyone sick of Glenn Beck and his Teabagging minions will find some well-needed catharsis in this song.

Taken altogether, The Brutalist Bricks is an effective continuation of what Leo and the Pharmacists have brought to the indie scene. His send-off back in '04 was "there's a whole lot walking to do," and while that's certainly still true, Leo hasn't let up in reminding us that there is also a whole lot that makes the walk worth it. This album leaves you feeling a lot of things, but hollow definitely isn't one of them.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"And I mean every word"

Earlier this week, a Mississippi judge found that Constance McMillen, a high school senior and open lesbian, had her rights violated by the Itawamba County School District when they denied her request to take her girlfriend to prom and wear a tuxedo. When McMillen persisted in her request and went to the ACLU for help, the school cancelled the prom altogether, which opened the student up to harassment from her peers.

Though the judge found that McMillen's choice was "the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment," no order was issued to force the high school to hold the prom. It's clearly a mixed victory. McMillen's right have been vindicated, but if justice were really be served, she would be able to bring her partner to prom as originally intended.

Plenty of stereotypes are no doubt being thrown around right now about how backward Mississippi is. And though these jibes fail to take the complexity of the southern United States into account, moments like these certainly make it hard to deny at least some of their validity. The state's schools consistently rank among the worst in the nation. Smug Republican bigots like Trent Lott have spent decades slashing public funding and trying to reintroduce segregation by any under-handed means. Up until 2008, there were still schools that held segregated proms!

But there's another side to Mississippi's history, best embodied in this classic from Nina Simone. It's a history of protest and bold struggles for real equality. In some ways it's a shame that songs like this are still so prescient, but at the same time, the modern fight for civil rights is damn lucky to have them for inspiration.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The death of conscious rap

Few terms provoke so much debate among hip-hop heads today as the word "conscious." Ten or fifteen years ago, this might not have been the case. When the label first arose it was an attempt by those inside and outside of the scene to differentiate between the flashy materialism that had seemingly come to dominate hip-hop and those whose style and content seemed to take the genre back to its "purest" form.

Now, however, it's a term that most emcees avoid like the plague. Back in January, Omar Burgess of Hip-Hop DX wrote "An Obituary For Conscious Rap." Despite it's often simplistic faults (men aren't "emasculated" by turning their backs on sexism, for example), the article is thought provoking. Few can disagree with Burgess' assertion that "At worst, Conscious Rap was dreadfully corny and heavy-handed with the messages. From Tribe’s 'Ham ‘N’ Eggs,' a few dozen horrible imitations, and even my beloved dead prez with the throwaway 'Mind Sex.'"

A recent interview with Kidz in the Hall's Naledge promoting their new album found the lyricist rather perplexed to have the term applied to him--and indeed the Kidz' subject matter doesn't really seem to gel with what most may think of as conscious. True, Naledge's rhymes tackle social issues just as much as the next, but there really isn't much that makes him especially "conscious."

Which brings up an interesting question. What is it exactly that makes a rapper "conscious?" In the most general sense, conscious rap has been counterposed to the "mainstream" of the genre in its aesthetic and content. As a starting point, conscious was supposed to be far less materialistic than its MTV-hawked counterpart. Instead of Diddy flashing wads of cash and driving in Bentleys or Jay-Z touting how much he's spent on his suits, we had Talib Kweli poetically relating how hard it was to "Get By," or the Roots placing their emphasis on their organic and soulful sound.

Back during the hey-day of conscious rap (which I consider to start somewhere around the early-to-mid '90s and peaking around '03), knowledge that something like this existed could really be a breath of fresh air. While the militancy of Public Enemy had dominated a mere few years before, its replacement seemed at first glance to have "sold out." All sorts of conclusions about conscious rap could spring from the insistence that it was less materialistic and still somehow true to the genre's early years. Folks insisted that conscious rap was less sexist, less homophobic, less violent, blah, blah, blah. The implied assertion was that rap had somehow lost its way and these artists were here to help it get back to its roots.

But hold the phone! Is the lack of these elements really truer to rap's roots? Didn't Grandmaster Flash use the word "fag" in some of his songs? Didn't Run-DMC have a little track called "My Adidas?" At times even the much-revered Public Enemy would loosely throw the word "bitch" around.

Furthermore, there have been no lack of "conscious" artists with their own ideological contradictions. Mos Def's "The RapeOver" insists that "quasi-homosexuals is running this rap shit" (and no, there's no way he's being ironic here). A Tribe Called Quest's lyrics have sometimes drifted into lauding promiscuity and objectifying women. Close examination will yield that few of the sub-genre's best-known artists pass the litmus test.

As the divide between "conscious" and "mainstream" became more pronounced, it also became more of a liability. Talib Kweli spoke around the turn of the decade about how the label had made it harder to get several gigs because he might not "fit in" with more mainstream artists. This reveals something rather insidious about the term itself. As its prominence increased, it became a tool for the record industry to sideline artists whose content might have proven a marketing quandary.

It also allowed the suits to distract attention from some of the very real consciousness that existed in even the most mainstream artists. When NaS' Stillmatic hit the shelves in '02, the tracks that sharply protested war and police brutality were ignored by the marketeers in favor of songs that included homophobia and sexist language. The press papered over his engagement as an activist with his much overblown beef with Jay-Z.

In short, "conscious vs. mainstream" became a way for rap to be more easily controlled, marketed and ultimately segregated. What may have started out as a vague, casual description was now a tool in the hands of the folks whose only concern with rap's content was how many units it could move.

The past few years, however, have seen a marked shift in the dichotomy. In fact, it would be pretty disingenuous to say the divide even exists on any kind of real level among today's artists and emcees. The sharpest political statements have increasingly come not from the "conscious" emcees, but from the likes of Bun B and Young Jeezy, the latter of whom has been more associated with crack rap than anything else. The reckless abandon and muscularity that conscious rap often kept at arms' length definitely jives with the outpouring of urgency and energy that the Obama campaign provoked.

On the other end, many of the most "conscious" artists have taken steps that would previously be considered to fly in the sub-genre's face. The Roots are now Jimmy Fallon's house band. Common and Mos are both pursuing big acting careers. And musically, many artists seemed to have been pulled out of rhyming about consciousness and into the realm of actual activism.

In some ways, this was always an area in which more "gangsta" sounding acts had a leg-up. While so many conscious artists would rely on "uplift"--an individualistic take on self-empowerment--acts that were more "thuggy" were never interested in denying where they came from. The rage they felt against poverty, the cops, the rich was visceral and uncensored (unrefined as it might have been and as backwards as it could come across). The instinctual outrage has always been more intact in the sub-genres like gangsta, crack rap, crunk, etc.

And that's what is actually so encouraging about today's rap. Is any working person out there not angry? This is what has always connected folks to rap, why they have resonated with it. The first glimpses or real resistance have been seen over the past year and a half, and has already started to influence rappers of all stripes. And just as we cannot expect artists to consciously turn their backs on sexism and homophobia without the presence of a real and vibrant movement against oppression, the opposite side of the coin is that the class anger has opened the door for just such a movement to rise up and for artists to play it back for us.

Basically, the wall between "conscious" and "mainstream" has proven to be false. At best, it was impressionistic. At worst, it was the industry attempting to placate rap's rebel instinct. Now, with the internet, with any emcee able to put their work out online directly to the listener, the industry is in trouble, and rap has the potential to go well beyond what the execs might otherwise have planned for it.

Today's new crop of emcees take a cue from both sub-genres. Pac, Big, NaS and Jay are mentioned in the same breath as Black Star, Kwe and Blu. What this means is hard to predict, but the key element in rap's future will have to be the struggle we create on the streets. We've seen what it's like when anger and ideas are separated. Now let's see what happens when we mix them up!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

They come for the youth...

On top of how much else took place this past weekend, Chicago also saw a definite victory against racism and hatred on Sunday. With the economy still on the skids, the Illinois National Socialist Front announced their intention to demonstrate publicly in Chicago, to point the finger at folks of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. Their slogan was "diversity--can you afford it?" They failed to spread their message for the simple reason that folks from all over the city showed up to push them out.

True, only four showed up the day of. But these aren't the times when Nazis can be ignored. Thought they failed on Sunday, they have announced their intention to return. Their ilk have already won elected offices in Europe. But just as the far-right is bigger and better organized on the other side of the pond than it is here in the States, so is the response to them. A couple days before the action here in Chi-town, an attempted march by the English Defence League in the English town of Bolton was met by thousands representing organizations like Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism.

What does this have to do with music? Well, see the vid below. Is it any wonder why there are musicians and artists coming out to oppose these clowns in the UK? Giving fascists any space means allowing them to get one step closer to this:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

RF at UMass Amherst in April

"We Want Rebel Music: The Sounds of Crisis and Resistance"

Thursday, April 15, 2010
7:00pm - 8:30pm
UMass Campus Center, Room TBD

We are told that music and politics have nothing to do with one another, that artists can only entertain and politicking is best left to the politicians. History is full of examples of musicians who dared to stand up and allied themselves with struggles against oppression and exploitation.

From Billie Holiday to the Clash, from Public Enemy to M.I.A., the evolution of music cannot be separated from the fight for liberation. What does this mean for us today in an era of economic crisis and inequality?

With Alexander Billet, music journalist and activist, contributor to Z Magazine,, New Politics and the International Socialist Review.

Keep tuned to RF for the room number, or check out the Facebook page.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The times they are a changing... still.

A big weekend politically: impressive mobilizations against the wars in San Francisco, LA and DC on Saturday, an immigrant rights protest in DC on Sunday. All of these brought out at least a few thousand people. On the other hand, the healthcare bill passed (get ready to lose even more money to the insurance companies). And, of course, this comes a mere two weeks after the March 4th actions against budget cuts in education.

For sure, there are a lot of dashed hopes from the Obama administration. And a lot of anger brewing too. Yeah, big difference from the last administration, right? But the difference here isn't necessarily just that most people actually believed that Obama was going to deliver, but that the disappointments haven't translated into a complete demoralization. True, there's confusion, frustration, a lot of folks who are sick of losing their jobs and homes, but there are also very real movements. Some have been simmering for a while, others in a lull and only recently reignited, some are still in their infancy. None have yet captured the national imagination the way that the movements of the 60s or 30s did. But they're there. No doubt about it.

It bears pointing all of this out because just as many of these movements have been brewing for quite some time, the past several years have also seen inspiring--if brief--examples of music profoundly influenced by the war, the upsurge of the immigrant rights movement in '06, and more recently the economic crisis. And of course, the run-up to the '08 elections saw the Obama phenomenon turned to a lodestone for artists to speak on myriad issues. Think back on the most definitive moments in music over the past ten years, and you're guaranteed to think of the Dixie Chicks ragging on Bush, Green Day's American Idiot, Young Jeezy being challenged on his voting choices, and the list goes on.

Whether any of these artists stick around is less important here than whether the strife and turmoil that caused them to speak out in the first place remains. And it has. Two wars continue--one of which Obama promised to end. Immigrant families continue to be broken up and scapegoated (and the rise of the Teabaggers has bolstered this). The LGBTQ movement still fights on and regroups. And underneath all of this runs the unstable economy.

Some writers on the left have speculated that any future upsurge in radicalism won't merely be a repeat of the '30s or '60s, but a rough combination of the two: a young and overexploited working class who in the process of fighting for its own economic rights will also have to take up questions of oppression, war and basic inequality. In a way, it's the moments that have defined the past ten years all being drawn together. How this will manifest in music is unclear, but it will. Hell, it already has.

Keep in mind that today's young indie generation is the most left-leaning in several decades. Hand-in-hand with this is the fact that their musical tastes are the most eclectic they have ever been. It is also the most tech-savvy, the most distrustful of corporate America--and this includes the music industry. The vast majority of kids now have the ability to put their singles or mixtapes online, free from the corporate middleman, directly to their audience. MTV and radio both have a weaning influence on what folks listen to.

This is a powerful mix. And while it has yet to really explode, you can already see it take shape. A question still asked of me today is "where is the protest music?" It's already being made, albeit often in fits and starts. But there is every reason to believe that just like in past eras, it holds the capacity to capture the imagination of millions. The Gil Scott-Herons, Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans of the future may not be here yet, but they are certainly in the cards.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The music industry's a joke...

From The Onion. Natch!

NEW YORK—The Recording Industry Association of America announced Tuesday that the combined revenue brought in by Warner, Sony, EMI, Universal, and countless independent music labels in 2009 totaled $18. "The music industry is back," RIAA representative Doug Fowley said. "Not only was Kenny Chesney's Greatest Hits CD purchased at a Knoxville, TN Borders for $12.99, but we also had two songs downloaded through iTunes, and our ringtone sales reached three." Fowley added that as long as no one returns or exchanges the CD, the music industry would continue to be a vital and creative force in American culture.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Celtic Rocker: An Interview with Black 47's Larry Kirwan

Another St. Patrick's Day has come and gone. The green beer hangovers have subsided, the countless renditions of "Danny Boy" have been sung, and many are no doubt asking whether all the swill actually amounted to a real recognition of Irish culture.

According to Larry Kirwan, there's is indeed a lot more to it than that. A native of Wexford, Ireland, he has spend the past two decades fronting the New York group Black 47, whose blend of traditional Irish music with rock, jazz and blues runs under a thoroughly bottom-up lyrical point of view. Here, Alexander Billet talks to him about music, politics, and Black 47's new album
Bankers and Gangsters.


There are plenty of US-based groups that pull influence from Irish music and culture, and we've been bombarded with plenty of it this past St. Patrick's Day. What is it that you think sets Black 47 apart?

From a lyrical point of view we're the ones who deal most directly with particular political issues. From a musical side, our instrumentation is a bit different. We use brass and uilleann pipes and that tends to set us apart. Because of our improvisational background and experience we tend to be a little more out there musically. None of us were influenced by the Pogues; they tend to have a huge impact on many Irish-American bands. Not that we don't like them - it's just that they weren't particularly relevant to us when we were forming.

To some, the radical politics in your music might seem to be a bit out of left-field--especially with the watered-down version of Irish music that is presented to us today. But I'm assuming you see things differently?

I came from a political background and have always been interested in politics. That's part of what I am. And being the songwriter that ensures that political thought is important to the band. Besides I've always believed that music is an agent for social change and the band was formed with that idea in mind. Even as regards Irish Republican standards, I came more from the [socialist] James Connolly wing rather than the more nationalistic one. I'm not even sure just how left-wing the band is in standard left-right terms anymore, it's just that the US is so right-wing these days, any thought that is even slightly left of center tends to be seen as extreme.

What are the experiences that influenced you in writing the music on Bankers and Gangsters?

The title is a bit misleading--it would seem to suggest that all the songs are about the current financial crisis, whereas just the title track deals with that issue. On that song, I just use some humor, both lyrically and musically, to point out the human cost of the crisis and how the actions of a few people can have a deep impact on the rest of us. But in many ways, we're using the actual musical arrangement to highlight the situation rather than just the lyrics.

How so?

Well I don't normally use straight narratives like "Johnnie's on a hot ledge, just out of college..." I usually internalize and speak from first person. To counter that and make things more human, I decided to go for a real jaunty horn line that would highlight our brass players - you don't get more human than two guys really blowing into a sax and ‘bone.

There are other political and historical songs on the album but they tend, as usual with Black 47, to deal with characters, and tell their story. For instance, “Rosemary” deals with the assassination of Rosemary Nelson, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights lawyer; and “Red Hugh” looks at the life of Red Hugh O'Donnell who fought Queen Elizabeth I back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Oddly enough, I was finally able to understand and delineate O'Donnell's character by studying Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This might be one of our less political albums, probably because IRAQ was just so focused on one issue. C'est la vie...

How was it that Massoud's story helped you understand that of Red Hugh?

They shared much of the same experience--both were religious fundamentalists, living on the border of great empires, with time running out for their way of life; each had great personal courage, they were tenacious fighters and infighters, they had little mercy for traitors, both were deadly afraid of assassination, both were killed by their enemies, and both live on in the hearts of their countrymen.

There are plenty of songs that may not be "political," but have a story-telling aspect that is very populist in nature, which is another tradition very widely associated with Irish music and culture. For example, on "Celtic Rocker," you mention the protagonist's dreams of going to see the lands of her heritage. What do you think the value is in these stories?

Irish society was very communal and retains some of that quality to this day. From the 17th century on the Irish were persecuted, forbidden education and the practice of their religion. Throughout this they managed to pass on their traditions orally. I grew up in Wexford, an area that treasured the "long song," as we called it; that would be a song of many verses that would commemorate a battle or the noble deeds of a hero. I decided early on with Black 47 to take that form and drag it into the then 20th Century by introducing it to some of the trends and practices of our times, psychology, method acting, etc. Thus in, say “James Connolly,” I try to enter into the head and soul of Connolly and see why would a very practical man like him rise up against the might of the British Empire. He knew the consequences and that he'd leave a widow and children without a breadwinner. So, apart from adding a big rock beat to the equation, I was also looking at it all from different, more modern, perspective. But it came from the very old Irish oral tradition.

Finally, what do you think are some of the fundamental changes that need to take place for folks to get a fair shake? What do you think is the role of music in making this change happen?

On the face of it one would have to be very discouraged right now. We came through eight disastrous years that included an unnecessary war in Iraq and a favoritism towards the wealthy that was often astounding. And yet, the country is turning towards conservatism again. We live in a time where a twenty-four hour news-cycle media can muddle and distort what is actually happening. Consequently, people can be led like lemmings. At the same time, progressives lie down at the first hint of bellowing by various right wing clowns. There seems to be little backbone in the left. Still, at times like this, I have no choice but to return to the words of [Irish political prisoner] Bobby Sands for they always they always help me to remain optimistic: "no one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play." If each of us takes care to look out for their particular sphere and turf, then we will turn things around.

Check out more of Black 47, or sign up for their monthly newsletter at their website.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ghosts of San Patricio

If history is written by the victors, then the imagery crammed down our throat every St. Patrick's Day should come as no surprise. Leprechauns replace the harp, plastic shamrocks overtake the starry plough, and a long history of brutal colonialism and brilliant resistance is literally trampled by parades of cops playing bagpipes.

The Chieftains, however, have a very different idea of celebrating St. Pat's. Their new album San Patricio, recorded with the iconic Ry Cooder, is dedicated to reviving an incredible moment in this forgotten history.

The San Patricios, also known as the St. Patrick's Battalion, are the subjects here. If you've never heard of the San Patricios, you're not alone. The story of Irish immigrants joining Uncle Sam's army during the Mexican-American war might be the kind of thing Bill O'Reilly would celebrate--that is, if they hadn't defected en masse to defend Mexico from the invading forces!

In the liner notes, head Chieftain Paddy Moloney confesses that "[f]or years, I have been fascinated by this story and the lost trails of history, wondering what it must have been like for the San Patricios...With land and liberty at stake, did the common Mexican not seem so different from themselves?"

The answer is heard in the weaving together of the two countries' vibrant folk traditions. It's no secret that the people of Ireland and Mexico have produced some of the most stunning music. Bringing the two together raises beautiful possibilities.

Speaking of the rebel Irish soldiers, Moloney continues: "If the Mexicans were there, there must have been music. I know for myself, if the Irish were there, there would most certainly have been music. And in the music there is always another history, another way of remembering the past, an older remembrance concerned less with battles and imagined borders and more with the ageless themes of love, loss and dreams of what might be."


The suffering that came with Ireland's Potato Famine is almost unimaginable. The British Crown ruled over the Emerald Isle with ruthless force, and when the poor farmers' key food source was struck by a devastating blight, the indifference of Queen Victoria led to the death from starvation and malnutrition of over a million people.

Irish farmers who managed to flee to the United States on squalid coffin ships were expecting a land of greater opportunity, but instead, they found a country wracked by a xenophobic, anti-Catholic, Nativist movement.

In his book The Rogue's March: John Riley and the St. Patrick's Battalion, Peter F. Stevens estimates that by the time of the famine, America already had "over 400 mass-circulation Nativist newspapers and magazines." Irish Catholics were denied all but the lowest-paying jobs. Epithets like "paddy," "boghopper" or "Mick" were common parlance in respected circles. Anti-immigrant riots, specifically aimed at Irish Catholics, took place as far and wide as Michigan, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts and Indiana.

Just as key to the national makeup at the time was the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The U.S. had been rattling its saber against Mexico since well before the annexation of Texas in 1845, but matters came to a head in June of that year, when President James Polk began to send troops to the Nueces River to "defend American territory." By May 1846, a full-scale war was declared on General Antonio Lópiez de Santa Anna's Mexico.

Nativist racism aside, large numbers of Irish immigrants were drafted into the American Army to swell its anemic ranks. One of these immigrants was John Riley, a native of Clifden in County Galway, who had come to the U.S. in 1843 after a stint in the British Army. In 1845, he found himself serving in the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment. By spring 1846, he was commanding a detachment of fellow defectors in the Mexican Army--the St. Patrick's Battalion.

There were plenty of reasons to defect to Mexico. The discrimination and poor treatment that ran through American society most certainly extended to the army. Irish Catholics no doubt saw the potential for more equitable treatment in Mexico, itself a Catholic nation. Mexico granted citizenship to those who fought; the U.S. did not.

Though the San Patricios were composed primarily of Irishmen, their ranks included German Catholics and immigrants from all over Europe. Notably, a few escaped Black slaves also participated in the battalion.

But there was likely another, more basic motivation: solidarity. The same country that had dashed the dreams of the Irish immigrants was also seeking to plant its boot on the necks of the Mexican people. The formation of the San Patricios represented an amazing example of oppressed immigrants shaking off the shackles of their oppressors.


That spirit of solidarity is embodied in spades on San Patricio. The Chieftains' rousing Irish folk is complimented not just by Ry Cooder's inimitable guitar work, but groups and artists from throughout the Mexican-American music scene--Los Folkloristas, Los Camperos de Valles, plus legends of the Nueva Cancion movement like Chavela Vargas and Lila Downs. Even Linda Ronstadt makes an appearance.

The musical results border on the miraculous. Songs like "Cancion Mixteca" and "El Caballo" have Irish instrumentation applied to Mexican songs and styles. Vice versa for others like "Sailing to Mexico" and "Danza de Concheros." Uilleann pipes and maracas, tin whistles and Mariachi horns all play off each other with effortless grace. And though the difference between the two cultures is never jarring, there are frequent moments when the gap is seamlessly closed.

That's especially true on "The Sands of Mexico," where Cooder sings of the emotional struggles and bravery of the St. Patrick's soldiers over a folk-inflected cowboy ballad:

"Now the army used us harshly, we were but trash to them
Conscripted Irish farmers, not first class soldier men
They beat us and they banged us, mistreated us you know
But they couldn't make us killers on the sands of Mexico

"That's why we call it faith
That's why we call Him Lord
That's why I threw away my Yankee sword
Our John Riley seized the day
And marched us down the road
And we wouldn't slay our brothers on the sands of Mexico"

While the San Patricios have been all but erased from the American history books, in Mexico, they're the stuff of legend. A plaque in their honor hangs in Mexico City's Jacinto Plaza. A statue of John Riley was erected in his native Clifden by the Mexican government. And the battalion is considered an organic part of Mexico's long fight for self-determination.

That one of the songs on San Patricio is "Persecucion de Villa," about legendary revolutionary General Pancho Villa, reflects this high status. In fact, hearing the way in which their bravery is lauded, their relative obscurity in America is even starker.

But the San Patricios' story is also tragic. The battalion fought alongside the Mexican Army in several victorious battles, but at Churubusco, they faced defeat. Thirty-five San Patricios were killed, and 85 taken prisoner, including John Riley.

Seventy-two of the captured soldiers faced court-martial. None were provided lawyers. Because they had caused heavy casualties to American forces, the Army sought to make an example of them.

Their fate is chronicled in "March To Battle (Across the Rio Grande)," a steadfast, bagpipe-driven poem read by Liam Neeson (who has possibly the most beautiful Irish brogue of any famous actor):

"But when at Churubusco we made our final stand
No court of justice did we have in the land of Uncle Sam
As traitors and deserters all we would be shot or hanged
Far from the green, green shining shores across the Rio Grande"

In all, 50 San Patricios were executed. The worst was at Chapultepec, where on September 13, 1846, in what was called by one onlooker "a refinement of cruelty," 30 were hanged. When it was reported that one of the condemned, Francis O'Connor, had had his legs amputated the previous day, Col. Winfield Scott replied, "Bring the son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30, and by God I'll do it!"

The pain and sorrow of this injustice can clearly be heard in "Lullaby for the Dead." Though no direct reference is made to the events of September 13, the mournful strings and pipes and emotive lyrics sung by Moya Brennan conjure the image of the soldiers thinking of their far-off loved ones and saying their final Hail Marys as the gallows wait outside:

"I can hear now the pipers calling
On that far distant shore
And my tears now like leaves are falling
And I will see your face no more"

Even in the face of death, the prisoners remained defiant. Eyewitness accounts from the day report that the men cheered the Mexican flag as it was lowered in the moments before the horse-drawn carts were pulled from under their feet.

As for the remaining San Patricios, they had a "D" for deserter branded onto their cheeks and were eventually released. Among these was John Riley, though it remains unclear why the Army didn't execute the rebel soldiers' commander. He died in the Mexican city of Veracruz in 1850 at the age of 45, having drank himself to death.

For sure, one man's traitor is another man's freedom fighter, but the San Patricios were most definitely heroes. They turned their back on a war for empire and joined with those fighting for sovereignty.

The resonance of their stories can be heard today quite clearly. Almost half of what was once Mexico is now the western United States, and the long history of exploitation continues. As the U.S. continues to be committed to two foreign wars and deny basic rights to Latin American immigrants, it is worth remembering that the first U.S. soldier to die in Iraq was a Guatemalan seeking citizenship.

It is also worth remembering that these stories are kept from us for a reason. The songs on San Patricio bring them to the forefront in a way that only great music can. They show how the human spirit runs deeper than borders or languages.

And though their present obscurity may keep any Irish-American Tea Partiers safe in their ignorance, the San Patricios are a better reason than most to raise a pint this St. Patty's Day. Theirs is a story much truer to the Irish legacy in America. One of pain and suffering, yes, but also of bravery, resolve and rebellion. As the Chieftains and Ry Cooder make clear, it is a story whose ending has yet to be written:

"Faith and righteousness was all in vain
Irish blood was spilled once again
As I stand upon the gallows it cheers the soul to know
History will absolve us on the sands of Mexico
The sands of Mexico
The bloody sands of Mexico
La historia me absolvera on the sands of Mexico"

This article first appeared on


Monday, March 15, 2010

It looks like it'll be worth the wait

As folks will remember, I've been waiting for the release of NaS and Damian Marley's Distant Relatives with baited breath. The last tentative release date set was April 20th, but now it looks like it's been delayed almost another month until May 18th. Still, all indicators point to this being an important release.

For one, there's the breadth of the guest artists that are to be expected. The recent announcement solidifying the date also mentioned that Lil Wayne would be appearing on the track "My Generation." This is on top of the already confirmed presence of K'Naan, Damian's brother Stephen, and reggae legend Dennis Brown.

More significantly, however, is the feeling that this project is bringing forth the common rebel spirit that runs through both reggae and hip-hop. Though it's pretty much accepted today that rap would not have happened at all without the advent of dub music and sound systems, decades have obscured exactly what the two hold in common.

Back in December, Nas and Marley did an event discussing Distant Relatives in Washington, DC. The panel also included, among others, Rakim, Daddy U-Roy, Jeff Chang and DJ Kool Herc (who, of course, is a native of Jamaica and is more or less considered the godfather of hip-hop). Such a wide array of key figures in both genres being pulled out to this event (especially the reclusive Herc) says something.

"Everybody feels like it's an important project," said dancehall legend Big Youth, who was also on the panel. "Not just because of the music, but because of the whole idea behind the project, the focus of the project itself--both in aspects of it being related to Africa and us tryin' to shine a light and educate our generation on that a little bit more and also from the fact that two genres, which we've been saying, come from similar beginings and their destinies are intertwined."

So yeah, it's going to be pretty hard to have to wait until May, but it seems like the end results will be more than justified.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

The heart of country music

Crazy Heart has become one of the year's biggest "it" movies. With a doubt, Jeff Bridges' performance is stunning in its portrayal of the down-and-out singer stepped over by the music industry--and there's a lot of them out there. The following is an excellent review of the film by's Jim Ramey. Past the flashy world of country superstars, there is an underbelly that reveals the pain and promise of music itself.


Country music has always roamed the open borderland between authentic and phony. There are many artists who lean one way or the other, but the interpenetration is undeniable.

Listen to the great Hank Williams sing "Kawliga," about a cigar store carved wood Indian long for an "Indian maid over in the antique store," and you'll hear the clash.

Buck Owens, one of the best songwriters and innovators of country music had a career riddled with the question of whether he was a fool or a prophet in songs like "Act Naturally" and "Together Again." The show Owens hosted in the 1970s and '80s, Hee Haw, an impossibly corny and chauvinistic show, was one of the great showcases for Roy Clark's superb and often stunning guitar banjo and fiddle playing.

Crazy Heart, the film about fictitious country singer/songwriter Bad Blake, displays this contradiction throughout the film as well as in its production.

The lead is played well by Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar and multiple other awards for the role. Key to this much-heralded performance, however, is the music itself. T-Bone Burnett, who's credited as producer and songwriter for the film, also worked on the music in O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk the Line, as well as playing a large role in Bob Dylan's legendary tour The Rolling Thunder Review.

Burnett's depth of knowledge of American popular music is frequently sought after in Hollywood, and you can see why very clearly in Crazy Heart. The original music, which in the film is said to be written by Bridges' character Bad Blake, is the driving force of the film and what gives the film its authenticity. The fact that most of these songs are not a reflection of anyone's reality and were made up to shape a fictional character was a delight to watch--"a walking contradiction," as Kris Kristofferson might say.


Bad Blake would certainly fall into that category. He is a songwriter with quick wit and emotional depth, but one who hasn't written a song in decades and is stuck performing in bowling alleys, where the patrons don't stop bowling when the concert starts. His band is a mix of whatever can be thrown together from the local music scene.

His manager has stopped paying his bar tab, so he trades song requests for drinks to feed his addiction to alcohol, justifying it with the adage: "I learned long ago that if you don't give the people what they want, they won't want anything." After his performances, he's usually able to find someone who wants to sleep with the Bad Blake, but the name recognition skews much older since he hasn't written a song in years.

Stumbling into one of the hundreds of tour stops he makes in a year, he hears the sound of a well-played keyboard, and hope springs forth from him once again. He knows a good piano player when he hears one, and it may be that the gig on this night will hold some redemption for the weary musician and his weary audience.

This piano player is played by the tragically underused Rick Dial, who was given his first role in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade at the age of 40. In every role he's been given, he brings an everyman's wit and charm that plays directly in the face of the often-used working buffoon in Hollywood. All too often, we see head-scratching bumpkins infest movies that take place in the Deep South, and Dial has made a career out of the antithesis.

His part in this film, like most of his other parts, is brief but transcendent. It is through Dial's character that Blake meets Jean, a younger single mother who is trying to make a career as a journalist. She interviews Blake briefly before a show and then attends the "table thumping smash" of a bar show (another Kristofferson line).

The bar show is a fantastic scene, showing Bad Blake feeling it--feeling the redemption that music offers when you aren't sure what's missing, but know that it's something; feeling the thrill of the crowd all gathered to forget the misery of the workday and itching for him to make them forget; feeling the longing eyes of a person in the crowd who just might be the one.

When the camera pans over the stage, you'd swear it was Waylon Jennings at the mic, with his dark sunglasses, cowboy hat, long greasy hair, goaty beard, handsome face and out-of-shape body. The sweat pours off him, and the movie audience can truly feel the honkytonk.

Jean, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is attracted to the older man and probably feels more comfortable about it after that night's performance.


At the same time that all this is happening, Bad Blake's protégé, Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell, has offered him a lucrative gig opening for him in a 15,000-seat pavilion. There are ill-defined tensions between Blake and Tommy that have to do with Tommy making it big while Blake now has to drive to his own shows in his own truck.

The choice that all artists face between "selling out" and "doing it your own way" is played out in these two characters in a mostly familiar, but interesting, way. When Blake swallows his pride and makes it clear that he would do a record with Tommy, Tommy says his contract won't allow it, but that he'd love a few of his songs.

After telling him he hasn't written anything in years, he tosses a country music insult at his cowboy boots, asking, "Did the salesman threaten to shoot your dog?"

Blake's hard-traveling causes him to break his leg in an car accident, and Jean offers to take care of him. Here, Blake grows close to Jean's child and begins writing songs again, writing what he calls his greatest song in Jean's bed. His drinking becomes a problem for Jean, and they part ways when he heals, with the intention of seeing each other soon. His addiction persists and becomes even stronger in Jean's absence.

Through a good friend and a somewhat clichéd "rock-bottom" sequence, Blake shakes off his addiction, and we are able to hear his greatest song called "The Weary Kind." It is a guitar-picking, melancholy country song dedicated to making your own path through life, not at the expense of others but at the expense of yourself.

Glorifying the risk-takers and encouraging them with, "This ain't no place for the weary kind / pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try." Rugged individualism for sure, but with a nod to solidarity among those of us who are forced to go it alone; a song from the bottom, for the bottom.

Harlan Howard, who wrote over 3,000 country songs, was asked to define country music. He famously stated, "Country music is three chords and the truth."

Like a great country music song, Crazy Heart isn't going to surprise anyone with its artistry. But what it tilled up from this familiar ground is a moving testament to hope and perseverance, and an homage to a genre of music that, while riddled with contradictions, has played an always noteworthy role in defining popular culture.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

BBU Blowin' Up

Fear of a Clear Channel Planet, the debut digital mixtape from Chicago rap trio BBU, is an act of cultural terrorism in the best possible sense. What else could you expect from a group who named themselves Bin Laden Blowin' Up? Even the "safe" version of their name, Black Brown and Ugly, screams that the three members--Illekt, Epic and Jasson Perez--are not ones to be fucked with. Check out, for example, these rhymes from "Somebody Watchin' Me" (which yes, samples the Michael Jackson joint... and seamlessly to boot):

"See I'm a product of slavery
The '80s made me, so I'm shady
And you could say I get it from Daley
Cold flow, a nigga got hard in the '80s
Got a Lil Bush in me saying 'fuck you, pay me!'"

If these lyrics seem to walk a thin tightrope between fierce street cred and political radicalism, then BBU have proven their point. Mixed by DJ RTC and released by, FOCCP is pure Chicago. Not Mayor Daley's Chicago, not the Chicago of the Mag Mile, but the Chicago where hard militancy and 808's run side by side. "I think that one of the biggest things for us was pushing the idea that we have to bring those worlds together," says Perez, "the conscious and the club, because they've been so separated."

Ever since "Chi Don't Dance" created a buzz in the underground, heads have been nodding at what these cats have to say. Their timing couldn't be better. Most of today's "conscious hip-hop" seems to have lost its teeth. Most high-profile artists--including some of the subgenre's pioneers--deliberately distance themselves from the term. A far better term might be "militant hip-hop." Class-conscious, outwardly directed, and angry as hell. And BBU most definitely fit the bill.

Beat-wise, BBU's juked-out sounds are a tightly wound cacophony of buzzes, clicks and booms. Very little relaxation is to be found here. In its place is a tension--sometimes menacing, often righteous, always fun. It is of course well recognized that Chicago gave rise to house music and its offshoots, but what isn't as well known is how many other genres it has influenced.

Says Epic, "injecting politics into juke is hard as hell! I can write a verse right now, you can put on any J Dilla beat and I can rap to it... But when you have these fast beats in juke, you have to carry a certain amount of energy." What's refreshing is how well this gritty, relentless energy dovetails with such brash lyrics.

Still, BBU's stated mission of bringing a message to the seemingly apolitical world of club-life might seem a stretch if not downright impossible. After all, when was the last time you saw the red flag draped from the front of a techno party (irony notwithstanding)? The answer to that might lie in how the Epic, Ill and Jasson approach the club in the first place--not as flashy, walking names plastered on a flier to bring the herds in, but as members of the actual herd.

Club tracks like "Who da Fuck is You" and "Black n' Plastic" paint a much more contradictory picture. Fun, yes, but also full of pricey drinks, long lines and apathy. One gets the sense that they could definitely have a good time in this scene, but it would probably be a bit more enjoyable if it got a few spoonfuls of "Sucker MCs" treatment:

"For all the GQ magazine coke fiend cover girls
And all the other girls who wanna look like other girls
Tell me, tell me do you really love yourself?
And when you do this are you thinking of yourself?
She say 'love me, love me, go 'head and deceive me
Pretend that you need me
'Cuz ain't nobody love me better, I hope this love will last forever
I love you like I love my sweater!'"

And then, there's the fact that what BBU actually have to say is bound to jive with more than a few heads, even in the club. This is when the group is at their best--taking all the pent up frustration and rage at life's worst excesses and directing it toward the powers that be. "I Do This For My Culture," "Jukin' On Landmines," "This is Chi-Town." Great lines like "power to the people in the motherland" and images of dancing in Palestine with Assata Shakur ride right next to the bravado and hype. It makes for a damned good mix:

"Here we, here we go with my silly little flow
But when I wanna rob Goldman Sachs' CEO!
Make that fucker know what it means to be broke
See that fucker's face when his condo gets foreclosed
See some paint pictures, I film Marxist porn
'Cuz if I didn't, I'd wish I wasn't born"

For the past few years, many have wondered what hip-hop's "next big thing" is. Most sounds have had their day. But if anything can be drawn from this stellar mix, then it's that the future doesn't lie in the false divide between "conscious" and "mainstream." It's a lot simpler than that. Maybe, for the new generation, the future lies at the bottom--and its potential to rise up.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cops kill another graf writer

On Tuesday night Jason Kitchekeg, a local graffiti artist who went under the name Sole, was running from police when he jumped into the river. The cops caught the other two artists they were chasing, but Kitchekeg wasn't so lucky. He was pulled from river later that night, and died at the hospital.

Naturally, most of the coverage of Kitchekeg's death reads the same way any story about a criminal killed by cops would. But he wasn't a criminal. He was an artist. If the cops hadn't been chasing Kitchekeg, he would most likely still be alive.

Michael Stewart. Jonathan See Lim. These are only some of the best-known examples of victims of the cops and the criminalization of graffiti. But there are plenty more, many of whom we may not even know about. The response of the newspapers is always the same: "if he hadn't been defacing public property then he wouldn't be dead."

That graffiti is even considered a crime, however, is ludicrous. It represents the sick double-bind that modern urban planning traps young people into. Jobs vanish, school budgets slashed, community centers shut down, entire blocks are left to rot. And when these kids who have nowhere to go start to make their own surroundings a more vibrant, hopeful and dynamic place, they are labeled hoodlums and gang members.

This is highlighted by the fact that the building Kitchekeg was tagging wasn't even occupied. It's a paint manufacturing plant that has sat idle for quite some time. There are no plans to tear it down, and no new renters are known at this point. It was sitting there rotting. And yet young people who take it upon themselves to brighten things up a bit are turned into common thugs by the cops.

Brian Lopez, a longtime friend of Kitchekeg made it clear: "He was painting an abandoned building. He wasn't hurting anyone. People think all graffiti is gang graffiti, but there's also graffiti art. That's what he did. For us, it's been a salvation. A lot of us have come from bad neighborhoods, and graffiti and hip-hop was something that was the opposite of that."


Monday, March 8, 2010

RIP Mark Linkous

Mark Linkous took his own life this past weekend. Better known as Sparklehorse, he first came to my attention back in the mid '90s during that era in between the apex of grunge and the moment when the music industry regained its footing. Sparklehorse's minor hit "Someday I Will Treat You Good" was definitely a marker of that short time--rockish, clearly situated in the indie milieux, much more focused on the music than riding on the coattails of a trend.

That was just the beginning for Linkous and Sparklehorse, though. Around '05 or so, I discovered what he had evolved into after I let him drift off my radar. This wasn't straight rock of any kind anymore, at least in the traditional sense. There was now a dominant and daringly experimental edge to his work. Atmospheric and tripped-out, roughly in the same vein as latter-day Flaming Lips, this music was like the sonic equivalent of a piece of fluxus art.

Dark Night of the Soul, the collaboration album with Danger Mouse, was ranked the second best release of 2009 here at Rebel Frequencies. The list of guest artists on Dark Night, from Iggy Pop to Suzanne Vega to the late Vic Chesnutt--reflects how widely respected he was. That respect is also marked by how many artists have been saddened by his death.

At this time, the reasons behind Linkous' suicide are unknown. But the tragedy is palpable. Linkous was the kind of artist who consciously pushed his own boundaries and the limits of music itself. In a musical landscape where cookie-cutter mediocrity is valued above experimentation, projects like Sparklehorse reminded us that something else lies beyond the walls of the market. The possibilities are endless, and they're also beautiful.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

He ain't Wyclef, and that's a good thing

Given the way in which so many artists' take on Haiti seem to have been engulfed into the Kipling-esque "We Are the World" remake, it is amazingly refreshing to see an emcee who isn't swallowing the propaganda. Binh over at Prisoner of Starvation turned me onto this vid. I already thought Joell Ortiz was one of the most underrated and honest players in the game, but his song "Exhibit H" reveals how sharp he really is. Folks looking for encouragement in the seemingly unabated sea of "US as liberator" should definitely prick up their ears for this one.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

It's bigger than Weezy...

Does anyone else find it odd how much attention is being spent talking about the beginning of Lil Wayne's prison sentence? Not because of how many times it's been delayed (three), not because of the weird reasoning and timing (dental surgery and a fire in the courthouse), but because how many folks a lot more powerful than he is have done the exact same thing?

I won't comment on the charges, trial or sentencing themselves. He pleaded guilty to his gun charge, and has been, at least publicly, accepting of his sentence. There are also undoubtedly other folks out there who have been screwed over a lot harder than Weezy has been.

What is really absurd, though, is that media commentators are acting like this is the first time that someone has been able to dodge jail with shady reasons. Think back on every time a rich, white CEO has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar--and you know just as well as I do that there's no scarcity of these scenarios. The embezzlements, the book-cooking, the malfeasance. There's no denying that these people are treated with kid-gloves during their trials and in the lead-up to their sentences.

So what is it that makes Lil Wayne so different? Why is so much ink being spilled on the delays in his sentence? Well, it could very well be that Weezy is one of the biggest hip-hop icons to emerge over the past few years--which makes his face and personality a lot more recognizable than the average Fortune 500 honcho. But there's also a streak of thinking out there that somehow, jail is where Wayne belongs.

"Wayne is from the streets, from the Magnolia Houses in New Orleans," said retired NYPD detective Derrick Parker, "so I'm sure those guys have been in jail or locked up at some point. So being in prison is no big deal to them."

Right. Being sent to jail is "no big deal" to Wayne because he's Black and comes from the ghetto. The only thing missing from that statement is "those people."


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A quick plug...

And a good followup to Monday's review. A version of my article reviewing Antonino D'Ambrosio's new book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears appears in the new issue of the International Socialist Review. Once again, this is an excellent book for any fan of Johnny Cash--old or newly inaugurated.

The book has gotten excellent attention, and this is certainly welcome. It reveals that past all the media hype built up around Cash the legend, there remains a real thirst for knowledge about Cash the man. The artist, the rebel, the sharecropper's son who was always profoundly affected by the injustices of the world.

D'Ambrosio is currently speaking in cities around the country promoting Heartbeat. Check out his Facebook page to get info about any stops in a town near you. He is also, significantly, a leading voice among those calling for Sony to undertake a wide re-release of Bitter Tears.


Monday, March 1, 2010

A Rebel To the End

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

So asks the book of Corinthians 15:55, which Johnny Cash chose to reference in the one original composition that appears on American VI: Ain't No Grave. That the Man in Black was by this point facing the imminent reality of death should be surprising to nobody. The ten songs that make up this final installment in the American Recordings series were recorded with Rick Rubin mere months after Cash's wife June had passed away. He was so frail that he spent most of the sessions sitting down.

And yet, it's hard to imagine another artist able to greet the reaper with such graceful defiance. To be sure, death had always played a large role in Cash's repertoire. But with his health deteriorating, the gravity of the situation seems to drip off of American VI. The pared-down arrangements, Cash's weathered singing voice, even the release date--what would have been his 78th birthday--all convey a haunting sense of mortality.

Or is it immortality? The album's title track sees a rapturous gospel song retooled into a slow, plodding dirge. The song's tone is far from resigned, however. Rather, it sounds as if Cash is defying death itself to keep him off this mortal coil as he declares that "there ain't no grave can hold my body down."

It's a lyric chilling in its profundity. Since Cash's death in 2003, there have been no shortage of forces who have sought to manipulate and reclaim his legacy for themselves. It might seem an easy task. After all, dead men can't argue, and figures on the conservative right have been notably smug in morphing this most rebellious of country legends into one of their own.

It's easy to imagine the likes of Glenn Beck squirming at this batch of songs, though. Like the other parts that make up the American records, American VI is mostly cover versions. But notably missing are the unique takes on modern artists' work (the version of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" notwithstanding). Old favorites feature prominently here--songs that Johnny had long loved to perform and record. And in their own way, they reveal a stunning answer to any confusion on whose side this artist stood.

One thing that is never in doubt is the deep love and knowledge that Cash held for American music. Several songs are taken directly from the rich history of country music's golden age--Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind," Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore." Others reflect how truly eclectic and far-reaching Cash's influence could be.

In May of 1962, after a horrific performance at Carnegie Hall, a despondent Cash found himself approached by Ed McCurdy, a socialist and folksinger who had just barely escaped the grip of McCarthyism into the thriving Greenwich Village folk scene. McCurdy ended up taking Cash to the Gaslight Cafe, a favorite hub in the Village.

McCurdy was a major figure in his own right. In 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World War, he penned "(Last Night) I Had the Strangest Dream," a stirring anti-war missive that became such a hit that other folks mainstays like Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan would record their own versions.

"Strangest Dream" also held a massive resonance with Cash, and appears on American VI. His most famous performance of the song was at Madison Square Garden in 1969, where he recalled for the audience a recent conversation between himself and a reporter who asked about his visit to the troops in Vietnam. "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" asked the reporter. "No, no, that don't make me a hawk," Cash told the crowd. "But I said if you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, and then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer 'em up, so they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."

Johnny never did say what his thoughts were on the war on Iraq, but songs like these, recorded in the months following the initial invasion, make it pretty clear what he thought.

Then there's the version of "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," a gentle rambler originally written by Tom Paxton. Another player in the Village scene, Paxton essentially became recognized at "Dylan before Dylan." Still writing songs today, he's applied a deft song-writing skill to protests against war, racism, poverty and corruption. Knowing this places songs like "Can't Help But Wonder" in a different light, as if Cash himself is asking not just where he is going, but more broadly what is to become of us, the human race.

In all these respects, American VI represents an unmistakable statement on what kind of artist Cash really was. Far beyond the borders of the country mainstream, he stood as a living, breathing example of American music's indefatigable humanity. It's a tradition that's been hidden from us, no doubt about it. Much like Cash's own legacy, it's been obscured under half-truths and omissions.

Cash himself would have looked at these manipulations with clear disdain. But then, he never really did have much time for the accepted orthodoxy. American VI: Ain't No Grave shows that even in death, Johnny Cash can't stand being silenced.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.