Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thirty Years of Sandinista!


When it was first released thirty years ago, the Clash’s Sandinista! blew minds in all directions. It was called “groundbreaking” and “unwieldy,” “revolutionary” and back to “self-indulgent.” Journalists in the mainstream had no clue how to peg the radical, genre-bending behemoth. Punk purists simply labeled it a betrayal.

Three decades later the triple album still confounds the music establishment. Case in point: Sony has quietly coughed up a thirtieth-anniversary edition of Sandinista! with barely a peep in the way of publicity and no plans whatsoever to release it Stateside.

Critically it remains divisive; popular consensus seems to dictate that somewhere in the two-and-a-half hour sprawl, there’s a coherent album; if only Strummer, Jones and company had bothered to trim the fat. Good thing they didn’t; if they had, we might have lost any number of threads in today’s best music.

Like most of the planet, the Clash were at something of a crossroads in 1980. They had taken a risk recording London Calling, and the risk had paid off. Having already broadened their musical palette into the reaches of jazz, rockabilly and Wall of Sound on a double LP. Calls of sell-out had already been leveled against the group, but as bassist Paul Simonon said in ‘81, “Punk was about change and rule number one was: there are no rules.”

The question remained, however. Where next? On that one the band waffled for some time. When they finally started the recording process for their followup, the group didn’t have a single song written! Initial recording sessions in Jamaica consisted primarily of heavy experimentation and largely went nowhere. It wasn’t until landing in New York City that what would become Sandinista! would start to take shape.

The NYC that they would cull their inspiration from was miles away from what we know today. Times Square was still dirty, the city had endured a decade of riots, blackouts and bankruptcies to now face the smug austerity of Reagan’s Cold War conservatism. It was a natural petri dish for the American punk scene.

But there was something else brewing in the five boroughs, namely drifting in from the Bronx and other communities of color. “When we came to the US, Mick [Jones] stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang,” said Strummer. “These groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.”

The rest, as they say, is history. “Magnificent Seven” and “Lightning Strikes” were the two songs that brought the influence of hip-hop to the group’s forefront. Strummer hardly had what you could call mad skills on the mic, and it would be an insulting exaggeration to say that the Clash mainstreamed rap all on their own, but they certainly helped. At a time when the amount of actually recorded hip-hop was still quite limited, disc jockeys seized upon “Magnificent Seven,” placing it in regular rotation alongside rap’s original trailblazers.

----------------------------------------

Rap would only be one element in the mish-mash of rebel music that would comprise Sandinista! Perhaps the most challenging aspect in writing about it is doing justice to the myriad incorporation of R&B, funk, mock-gospel, calypso and just about anything that the group could get their hands on. As such, distilling the album down to one unifying theme remains more or less impossible.

If such a theme had to be chosen, though, it would simply be the continuation of the advice of their former manager Bernie Rhodes: “write what you see.” The Clash had always taken that to heart ever since they recounted the Notting Hill Carnival riots in “White Riot.” The one caveat on Sandinista! was that now Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon were trying to write everything they saw!

Case in point is “Magnificent Seven,” whose lyrics start by simply recounting another alienating day at work for an anonymous laborer, then drift into namedropping Marx and Engels next to Nixon and Gandhi before spinning off into a surreal pastiche of mobsters shooting lobsters and vacuum cleaners sucking up budgies. It was almost as if reality had finally caught up with the absurdism of Strummer’s cartoon interpretation of the world.

And to be sure, the election of Thatcher, followed closely on its heels by the advent of Reaganism, seemed positively ludicrous. From the opening bell, this gruesome twosome put everything that the left held dear in their sights. The Clash’s response in “The Call Up,” though couched in a slow, creeping funk, was deceptively straightforward. It was the lead single from Sandinista!, and as such was blunt: if Reagan and Thatcher’s recruiters were sent to sign you up, then, well, “it’s up to you not to heed the call up.” The draft proper had been officially discontinued in ‘73, but in 1980 Congress had re-instated the requirement for young people of voting age to register with Selective Service. “The Call Up” was a wholesale rejection of the dead-ends being offered by the establishment.

Unlike much of the group’s early work, however, Sandinista! took a bold step in actually exclaiming what the Clash stood not just against, but for. Far from being incidental, this kind of affirmation and solidarity is what drove the whole album forward. As Reagan rattled his sabre against the Nicaraguan guerrillas who had toppled a corrupt, US-backed regime a year before, accusing them of being a “second Cuba,” the Clash held them up.

“Our support for the Sandinistas was the worst thing in the world we could do according to our record label,” said Strummer. “The label heads said our music would not sell--too political--especially in America where the Reagan administration was conspiring to destroy the Sandinistas.”

“Washington Bullets” was an encapsulation of this concept. On the long, long spear of this album, “Washington Bullets” was the sharp point. Pulling together the American-sponsored coup in Chile, the Bay of Pigs, and even decrying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Strummer’s lyrics seemed to build patchwork of global resistance:

“For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America
Human rights in America...

“And if you can find a Afghan rebel
That the Moscow bullets missed
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist
Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet,
How many monks did the Chinese get?
In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary,
And check the British bullets in his armory
Que?
Sandinista!”


Just as revolutionary as what the song said, however, was how it sounded. It was one of the most experimental on Sandinista! (now that’s saying something!) and the group’s signature guitar crunch was buried underneath a calypso-infused marimba beat. Keeping in mind that this was several years before the rise of “world music,” introducing these sounds to a mainstream audience was indeed a risk.

These are the moments that define what Sandinista! is all about: those countless points where the sound and politics don’t just collide, but create something greater than the sum of its parts. Be it the out-of-tune brass and bar piano of “Something About England,” the tension-filled dub of “One More Time,” the tightly wound abandon of Eddy Grant’s “Police On My Back,” or the Old World folk-tinged mania of “Lose This Skin,” Sandinista! is an album that instinctually gets the balance between the aesthetic and poetic.

----------------------------------------

So why not just have these songs on the album? Modern Clash lore tells us that upon delivering all six sides of the triple album to CBS, the record label sat on them, releasing the final product far under the radar. The opportunity was clearly there for the band to whittle it down, to cut a few tracks. Why keep songs like “Corner Soul” or “Mensforth Hill,” which consists solely of “Something About England” being played backwards? Why bother with the entire sixth side, almost entirely made up of dubs and remixes?

The answer lies in an artist’s right to not let the bastards screw them. CBS Records had toyed with this band of radicals throughout their entire time on the label, releasing singles without approval, remixing songs behind their backs, and now they were throwing every excuse at them to downplay Sandinista! Of course there were the claims that the album’s politics could get them into trouble, and the initial refusal to sell it for single-album price.

“The plan was to give people a whole heap of music and give it to them dirt cheap,” said Strummer. “We figured we’d show CBS--the mightiest record company in the world--how powerful we were. But we found we weren’t all that powerful. CBS showed us that they could put something out on their label and then just sit on it to prove a point. They didn’t just not promote it. What’s the opposite of promote? They *demoted* it.”

True to form, CBS stuck the Clash with the bill for the difference after grudgingly agreeing to sell Sandinista! at regular-album price. But in the end it wasn’t about the money or even the politics. It was about control--”Complete Control” if you will. Big labels hate it when acts try something new; the Clash had proven their own label wrong by doing just that throughout their entire career. Now they were delivering a work to their label that included child-renditions of past singles and weird tripped out waltz songs on top of large doses of dub.

If they couldn’t get away with it, then that would have been a blow to artistic freedom--the same artistic freedom that had always mirrored the steadfast rebel outlook that quite simply was the Clash at their best. What it came down to was being able to create art without rules decreed from the boardrooms and halls of power. And while this may not make these songs the Clash’s best, it certainly makes them worthwhile.

It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Strummer is dead, but so is Reagan. The system that the Clash protested with almost every note they composed found its footing again as the ‘80s dragged on. The boroughs that once proved fertile ground for the rise of rebel music have been papered over as thin, Disneyland equivalents of their former selves. But it’s hard to listen to “Something About England” without picturing the unemployment lines that have returned with a vengeance. Or “Washington Bullets” without being drawn to the struggles in the Middle East and Latin America today.

Likewise, the Clash’s suspicion of flaccid, out-of-touch executives is common currency among musicians and music lovers of all stripes. On the streets, in almost every musical quarter, true credibility is bestowed not based on how many units are moved, but on whether the content is real and original. It’s a penchant that leads acts to genre-bend and experiment with sounds well outside the confines of the Euro-American sphere.

Everywhere in indie culture, artists and music exist that prove how very right the Clash were in their daring to go outside the boundaries. And if that’s true, it can only be a vindication for Sandinista!

First appeared at SoCiArts.com

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Privatizing Entertainment in Chicago

It's no news to readers of RF that I believe culture is a right, not a privilege. That's a hard belief to affirm in the positive, but Chicago is actually one of the few places I can point to as proof. Every summer the city hosts some of the best music and arts festivals out there--and I'm obviously not talking about Pitchfork or Lollapalooza. The Chicago Blues Fest, Wicker Park Fest, Taste of Chicago and countless others are free (though they accept donations), and have hosted some truly original acts of both national and local profile. Wicker Park Fest in particular has been where I've discovered some excellent artists--Ebony Bones, Gemini Club and Hollywood Holt just to name a few. If I had been forced to pay some outrageous sum at the entrance, it's doubtful I would have had this opportunity.

All of this has helped put Chicago as one of the last few places in the country that still provides its citizens with decent music for free, even as the city has sold off everything from parking meters to toll booths off to private firms. Now, in the new age of increased austerity and privatization, this right is going the way of the dodo too. Jim DeRogatis has already reported of how public funds set aside for arts development have been increasingly going missing in recent years. The latest news is now that the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is being dismantled, its staffers laid off, its programs gutted.

And now, the long-held fear of the summer fests being handed over to private companies appears to be coming true. The Blues Festival, Taste of Chicago and five other high-profile fests have been offered up to bidding. It's put organizers months behind on booking acts for this summer, and the news has also surfaced that the new private owners will most likely be allowed to charge too.

The good news (if you can call it that) is that the fests haven't gotten any bidders that music fans know to dread. Live Nation hasn't stepped up to the plate, nor any of its subsidiaries. The one and only company to show interest has been Celebrate Chicago LLC. The only problem? Nobody seems to know anything about Celebrate Chicago LLC!

As DeRo points out: "The company does not turn up on a search of registered corporations in Illinois--possibly because it was formed specifically to respond to this proposal, either as a dedicated venture or a partnership with other entities to qualify for the city's women and minority hiring rules, and probably because it's too new to have been registered yet with the state, especially given the holiday."

The coming weeks will no doubt give us more info on who these guys are. But given Chicago's long history of corporate corruption, the current secrecy doesn't bode well for the future of the city's arts and music scene. A growing number of US cities and states are facing bankruptcy, and rather than doing the obvious thing by raising taxes on the rich and powerful, most governments seem poised to rather take it out on working people. It's our jobs on the chopping block, our homes, our social safety nets, and now our culture.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is Gaga a Feminist?


There is a lot to think about with Lady Gaga for sure. This is nothing new to readers of this website--I've commented on the meaning of her political and artistic stances quite a few times. In fact, to my mind (and this isn't self-important ego talking here) Rebel Frequencies has been one of the few places to defend her consistently while most other outlets both mainstream and of the left have been quick to write her off as nothing more than a sensationalistic pop star.

And yes, much of the left has been very quick indeed to simply put her in that corner. Many appear to believe that being on a mainstream label and selling millions of albums is enough to relegate an artist to the realm of empty-headed schlock. It's a frustratingly glib litmus that ignores the actual subversive content of her art and music, which cannot be separated from her public activist work.

Which is why it's refreshing to see this recent article appear on AlterNet. The writer, Nona Willis Aronowitz, doesn't force the subject matter, but rather addresses it as an open question. Is Gaga a feminist? Does her rather rocky relationship with the word itself put her at odds with being an icon of a modern women's lib movement?

"At first, she clearly had no idea what the word meant; in an interview with a Norwegian journalist, she called out double standards in the music industry, then balked at being called a feminist, saying that she 'loves men, hails men!' Later, she told Ann Powers she was 'a little bit of a feminist' in the L.A. Times. At that point I perked up, but then she annoyed me and a lot of other pro-sexual liberation feminists when she said, while promoting her Viva Glam campaign, 'It's not really cool anymore to have sex all the time. It's cooler to be strong and independent.'"

This is really more of a statement on the current position of feminism than it is on Gaga herself. Over the past thirty years the term has become so watered down by both mainstream liberals and conservatives that it's come to be almost a scarlet letter. That an artist who stands for LGBT and women's liberation would nonetheless balk at the label is understandable; the music industry loves to pigeonhole people. In so doing, they can often kill careers.

So if we're not to fall into the media's trap of dismissing her outright, where does that leave us with Gaga? The answer lies with simply regarding art as we are supposed to--not as politics before culture, not as something that happens independently from the rest of the world, but as a form that evolves on its own accord while still being affected by a broader society.

It means looking at the actual content of Gaga's music and performance. Says Aronowitz: "She's not afraid of ugliness. In fact, she embraces it." That by itself is a major shift from the kind of frail songbirds that mainstream pop has been cramming down our throats for the past two decades. Gaga turns the norms of female pop stardom on their head. Her music often veers into such abrasive territory that it's hard to not hear it as subverting the pop formula, and her much-debated costumes deliberately exaggerate the ways in which women are already objectified in mainstream culture.

All of this is to say nothing about her strident advocacy for LGBT equality and outspokenness in favor of immigrant rights. This is the kind of stuff that most pop commentary skims over, if they mention it at all. But in the end, the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics can't be separated from each other.

Does all this make her a feminist? As Aronowitz points out, it's a debate that continues, and that by itself is miles ahead of where most female-focused pop can be found nowadays.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Back in Action, Yet Again...

Happy holidays! After taking a week off Rebel Frequencies is back to its regularly scheduled posts--including the promised Sandinista! retrospective and the top 25 releases of 2010. Plus, in the New Year, a roundup of 2010 in music and prospects for rebel music in 2011. As always, stay tuned!

Friday, December 17, 2010

R.I.P. Captain Beefheart


Never a star, but an undeniably crucial influence. Don Van Vliet, better known as "Captain Beefheart," died today at the age of 69. It's easy to see how one might not be familiar with his music, but there's really no excuse for not knowing the myriad acts whose output he shaped: Tom Waits, Devo, PJ Harvey, Talking Heads, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"He was the one who goes ahead and shows the way... He drew in the air with a burnt stick. He described the indescribable. He's an underground stream and a big yellow blimp." That's the way Waits described him (in a way that only Waits can really manage). Listening to Waits' music side by side with Beefheart's, it's easy to see where the former got his far-out musical sensibilities. Oblique labels like "art-rock" or "fusion" as we know them today wouldn't exist if not for Beefheart.

Here's the kind of artist that still keeps post-modernists up debating well into the night. Hearing his music I'm reminded of the quote from Trotsky: "Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them... Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity."

Trout Mask Replica, his best-known album, barely made a blip on the radar in 1969 when it was released. Today, it's considered one of the best albums ever. Little wonder why; it drips with the sounds that were being disassembled and integrated into the most avant-garde segments of the music community. It's definitely rock, most certainly jazz and blues, and yet something greater than the sum of its parts.

Weird and disjointed at times, often cacophonous and confusing, its songs are the kind of thing that you are completely unable to put your finger on, and that's the beauty. Lyrically, he was the kind of free-form writer that didn't so much attempt at constructing stories as just absorb the world around him and relate it back in a kind of chaotic spray.

One can definitely hear his revulsion to the ongoing war and genocide in Vietnam, but it's more of a send-up than a statement, and if taken in the right way is more profound than any kind of musical manifesto--the integration of far-out subject matter with far-out composition. Really, in a time when countless artists were trying to figure out a way to break free of the stale, synthetic categories of the music industry, these kinds of songs were nothing short of revolutionary.

Here are a few in his memory:





Thursday, December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks, Net Neutrality, and Our Endangered Right to Culture


There are more revelations than you can count in the now-infamous WikiLeaks cables--a fact highlighted by the arrest and all-but-imminent extradition of Julian Assange. But here's another one that's been buried, and it definitely hammers home the need to defend not just WikiLeaks but freedom of speech in general.

According to 35 of the documents that were released in the latest diplomatic spill, the US entertainment industry is actively seeking to influence--if not directly write--copyright law of other countries. Specifically mentioned is the law in Spain that is being debated in that country right now. Spain has previously had a rather lax attitude toward peer-to-peer file sharing, in contrast to the rather cutthroat laws here in the States that have lead to the bankruptcy of countless folks for the "crime" of downloading music and films.

The new law much more closely resembles those Stateside, and according to WikiLeaks, that's not an accident. In fact, the US Embassy in Madrid actively put pressure on the Spanish government, and even strong-armed officials to allow drafts of the law to be reviewed by executives and lobbyists of major entertainment companies--though which ones have not been made clear.

The malfeasance here is obvious. Spanish journalist Esperanza Hernandez declared that her own government "behaved in a way that was subservient in defending the interests of the United States to the detriment of the rights of Spanish citizens to access culture and knowledge through the Internet."

By now it's become apparent that the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper than this. If the US succeeds in getting their hands on Julian Assange it will more or less deal a deathblow to WikiLeaks. The reportage of war crimes, diplomatic trickery and the utterly shameful kowtowing of the world's governments to corporate interests is something that people deserve to know, and that's precisely why the US is up in arms about it.

Assange and WikiLeaks are only the leading edge, however. If companies like Google and Comcast have their way, then the entire Internet will most likely go the way of television. The most viewed sites will become those that can afford it, with alternative sites being buried beneath, and the democratic free exchange of ideas will be eliminated from the web. Comcast is, of course, the most compliant of ISPs with the record industry's demand that they assist in cutting off "pirates" from service. If net neutrality becomes a thing of the past, then that job will also become a lot easier for that crowd.

So too will it be easier to bury the most recent video from M.I.A., shut down some of the best hip-hop blogs without any notice or reason, or to cut the live feed of a concert because AT&T doesn't like what Pearl Jam has to say. If they can silence WikiLeaks, then they can silence any voice they feel like and twist it back into a way to make a bit more cash.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Das Racist and Da Racists


Bad news for Das Racist fans last night: the hip-hop trio, who were supposed to play their first-ever show in the England, were instead detained by immigration for eight hours and deported to their next stop in Switzerland. The group's website carries a statement:

"Sorry to everybody who was planning on coming to Cargo last night, it was a show and city we were all incredibly excited for and it was a shame yr govvy doesn't like us! Because of our POLITICAL VIEWS! We'll be back soon, maybe we'll leave the airport next time."

UK customs are of course notoriously strict (though the TSA is probably catching up real quick), and though Dapwell later posted an update clarifying that the political views comment was a joke, the whole thing does smell a bit fishy.

Let's take a step back here: Three brown-skinned rappers who have made a name for themselves by mocking the Tea Party in their videos, name-dropping Arundhati Roy in their songs, and calling Dinesh D'Souza a punk in interviews were denied entry into a country that has been second only to the US in its gung-ho attitude in the "war on terror," currently gripped by a student uprising that has even put the royal family on edge.

Something tells me that there's a bit more to it than just a paperwork snafu. Even the update on DR's update on the site made the connection: "We were removed due to paperwork and visa issues that are being enforced more strictly than they had been in the past. ASK MIA ABOUT IT, YA’LL."

I rest my case.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lennon vs. Bono

A pretty solid article from The Washington Post this past Friday. Easterly's main conclusion is basically sound: that while Bono is normally trotted out as the musician-activist heir apparent--not only for Lennon, but Marley and Strummer too--he is nothing of the sort. As the author points out, "Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not."

It's not merely a rhetorical difference. While Lennon used his art and the platform it afforded him to speak truth to power, Bono has spent his time cozying up to that very same power. Bush, Blair, Larry Summers, even the thankfully departed Jesse Helms. Perhaps the most telling section of Easterly's piece is when he quotes the U2 frontman saying "My job is to be used. I am here to be used... It's just, at what price? As I keep saying, I'm not a cheap date."

Which is precisely why the public's trust for Bono remains on tenuous footing in the age of economic instability and austerity. Readers know well by now that he's stirred quite a bit of ire by not paying taxes in his native Ireland. Even if one disregards his smugness--and that's a big "if"--the political content of his positions has become all but impossible to ignore.

Lennon, on the other hand, remains relatively immune to being co-opted even in death. As I made a case for in my article last Wednesday, his legacy as a real and true radical is ultimately what people find most satisfying about him. That says a lot in this day and age.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

RF Holiday Picks

SocialistWorker.org recently asked me for my holiday gift picks. There's a lot more I could add in, but with a limit of 300 words, I worked with what I had.

----------------------------------------

This past year has seen a bevy of veterans really take the music world by surprise.

There's Massive Attack's
Heligoland, praised by many as their best effort since 1998's Mezzanine. Paul Weller, formerly of the Jam and the Style Council, released Wake Up the Nation this past April. Full of some of his trademark vim and vitriol, it's become one of the year's most acclaimed releases in the UK. Even Devo released their first album in 20 years, and it's gone on to be called their absolute best!

Then there's Distant Relatives, the collaboration between Nas and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley. Plenty of rappers have paid homage to reggae by taking it back to the source, but few have used the hybrid to elevate the struggles in the projects of Queens, ghettos of Trenchtown and slums of South Africa as one.

On that same global tip, the Knitting Factory has reissued the entire catalog of the late great Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose music over the past several years has experienced something of a renaissance.

But hey, CDs are expensive, and iTunes isn't much better. If you're one of the countless gift-giving music freaks who find themselves on the wrong end of the employment totem pole lately, then the world of free downloading is something of a godsend.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of their iconic Let's Get Free, dead prez released their Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz this past June on their Web site for the tidy sum of nothing. Same with up-and-comers of the Chicago hip-hop scene BBU, whose Fear of a Clear Channel Planet is finding its way onto plenty "Best of 2010" lists, including mine.

Of course, there's always the option of just making a mix CD with any combination of these artists on it. With a little help from YouTube and Vidtomp3.com, anything is possible... not that I endorse music piracy (wink-wink-nudge-nudge).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Guess Who's Back?


It was only a matter of time until I said something about this album--you know it, and I know it. Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is just that good. The reviews--almost universally positive--are right. Some reviewers have speculated that he very well may do for hip-hop what Radiohead did for indie rock. OkayPlayer's Jeff Artist says it well: "If cacophonic is the new symphonic than, like Radiohead’s Kid A or El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, Yeezy’s Fantasy is a musical milestone monumental for its refusal to trim back its noisy excesses."

Ye has always been incredible on the mixing board, but he's also been sometimes criticized for being not the greatest on the mic. With Fantasy, he's arrived. The balance between the two is near-flawless. It's especially surprising and breathtaking given the faltering of his past two albums.

More poignant is that Kanye has been able to release this kind of critically acclaimed work even after being turned to a near-pariah in the wake of the Taylor Swift incident. This, along with the fact that George Bush has lost a couple nights sleep because of him, reminds us why it's so damned good to have Ye back.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Re-Imagining Lennon


There’s a certain serendipity to the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Lately, and not entirely by chance, he’s been in the news a lot--especially in the money-making department. The Beatles’ long-awaited availability on iTunes has been unceasingly advertised over the past month. This fall a flurry of reissues hit the market in commemoration of both his death and what would have been his 70th birthday in October. None provide any added insight to Lennon the artist, and it’s hard to view them as anything more than a crass effort to make a buck off his ghost.

This is nothing new. Dead men can’t protest, and the past three decades have seen the man who once invoked us to “imagine no possessions” transformed into a commodity. In recent years his music has been used to sell fountain pens and cars. The blood-stained clothes he wore on the night he was killed have been put on display in museums--an act of almost literal calcification. Even his native city of Liverpool named an airport after him, and adopted the slogan “above us only sky.”

And yet, there seems to be a flip-side to Lennon’s inescapable popularity. Namely that it has opened the door for others outside the pop mainstream to take him off the pedestal and place him in a real human condition. From the troubled teenager who saw music as an escape from a repressed working-class reality (the recently released Nowhere Boy) to the man perceived by the United States government as a credible threat (2006’s The U.S. vs. John Lennon), this is the Lennon that really fascinates people. It also happens to make your average record executive more than a bit squeamish.

The contradiction is obvious: for as much as some would love the real Lennon airbrushed out of history, doing so would mean ignoring some of his best and most iconic work. Showing him for what he truly was--a man whose views and work was shaped by a changing world--might be to admit something very dangerous.

Tariq Ali knew this well. In 1970 he, along with Robin Blackburn, interviewed Lennon and Yoko Ono for The Red Mole, newspaper of the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist organization in Britain. Lennon was a reader of The Red Mole, and there are pictures of him selling it at demonstrations. The interview itself has, largely thanks to The U.S. vs. John Lennon and the re-release of Ali’s autobiographical Street Fighting Years, found a new audience.

“The whole culture had become radicalized, and it’s in this atmosphere that the Beatles were being forced to engage with the world,” says Ali. “The thing you have to understand which people don’t understand about John is that his thought processes were shifting. He was in a process of evolution.”

Even during his few remaining years with the Beatles, when he often felt his most hemmed in by fame and media expectations, that evolution was evident. In May of ‘68, while French workers were taking to the streets in the biggest general strike in world history, Lennon was penning “Revolution.” It’s a song that can’t stop generating debate even today. The version released in August includes the well-known lyric “don’t you know that you can count me out,” provoking a wave of wrath from the New Left. But within two months the words had been modified to include “in” on the album version.

“There were two versions of that song” said Lennon in the Red Mole interview, “but the underground left only picked up on the one that said ‘count me out.’ The original version which ends up on the LP said ‘count me in’ too; I put in both because I wasn’t sure.”

By the time the Beatles broke up, he seemed pretty sure. Ono had encouraged his rebellious, conceptual streak, and together their public artistic personae began to broaden. It might be easy to look at the “Bagism” and “Hair Peace” media stunts as silly out of context. But they were profoundly rooted in Ono’s background in Dada, Fluxus and other avant-garde movements as much as Lennon’s desire to use his platform to say something useful.

“Give Peace a Chance” was one musical outcome of these experiments. The live hotel room recording included along with Lennon and Ono such counter-culture figures as Allen Ginsberg, Tommy Smothers, Rosemary Woodruff Leary and Dick Gregory. Lennon said that he intended it as an anthem for the anti-war movement, and sure enough, it was later sung by half a million who marched in Washington demanding U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

Says Lennon: “I felt an obligation even then to write a song that people would sing... on a demonstration. That is why I would like to compose songs for the revolution now.”

By the time he was interviewed by Blackburn and Ali, Lennon had released Plastic Ono Band and was hard at work on Imagine. The former contained “Working Class Hero,” whose dark acoustic simplicity blended with a scathing hatred of the repression and exploitation doled out by capitalism, and remains one of Lennon’s absolute best.

It was with Imagine, however, that Lennon struck an almost-perfect axis between music and radical politics--and not just in the iconic title track. Though not as experimental as its predecessor, its sound seems to nonetheless walk the gamut between subtle delicacy and chaotic swirl. His lyrical outlook is uncompromising, but never veers into the realm of blunt propaganda, retaining a solid personality throughout. Lennon and Ono had been aware of the fragile interplay between art and activism; never mistaking one for the other, they nonetheless saw what was going on in the outside world, chose a side, and integrated it wholly into their musical evolution.

When the two arrived to live in New York City in August of 1971, the radicalism in the United States had fermented, permeating into most walks of life. It was a qualitatively different kind of radicalism than that which had influenced Lennon in Britain, colored much more by the vague “youth rebellion” of Yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (both of whom befriended Lennon).

Still, Lennon and Ono both remained committed to using their art as a platform for their first few years in NYC. It was here that they recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and conceived of the global billboard campaign to promote it. They took advantage of their week-long stint co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show by bringing on such guests as Rubin and Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale. His appearance at a Michigan concert-rally supporting imprisoned radical John Sinclair was the final straw for the feds, who initiated deportation proceedings against him soon after.

The best musical expression of where Lennon’s head was at, though, is represented in 1972’s Some Time in New York City. Leaning heavily in the direction of straight agit-prop, it championed women’s liberation through songs like “Sisters, O Sisters” and the infamous “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” and called for the freedom of Angela Davis. Two songs denounced the British presence in Northern Ireland, and one was written in tribute to the prisoners who had risen up at Attica the previous year.

Some Time was a commercial flop and almost universally panned by critics, who complained of its musical and lyrical bluntness. To be sure, it still divides journalists to this very day, but has also in retrospect been credited as a key influence in the nascent punk movement. Still, Lennon was devastated by its failure, and didn’t record any more music for over a year.

When he finally did return to the studio, the radical wave had begun to recede and he and Ono were heavily embroiled in the legal battle to stay in the States. Lennon wouldn’t be granted permanent residency until 1976. By then he had started to distance himself from the far-left, and the next year he and Ono were guests at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball.

A month after Lennon was gunned down in front of his New York apartment on December 8th, 1980, Ronald Reagan took the White House. Margaret Thatcher was already Prime Minister in the UK, and the New Left that had once inspired him was a shadow of its former self.

It’s no stretch to say that the collapse of those same movements has provided the space for countless opportunists to make a mockery of his work. On her Washington Post blog, Alexandra Petri--on the anniversary of Lennon’s death no less--claims herself to be a fan of Lennon, then dedicates the next thousand words to explaining why “‘Imagine’ is a terrible idea.” The whole post is little more than snarky cynicism posing as vague analysis.

Unlike Petri, Lennon was never the kind to condescend to his audience. Facts are stubborn things, and for all the attempts to separate his best work from the wave of revolt sweeping the planet at the time, there are bound to be plenty of folks who see through the marketing. With a new revolt stirring in Lennon’s native country today, dreaming of an alternative doesn’t seem so fantastical. One has to imagine--if you’ll pardon the pun--that the world Lennon dedicated his best work to isn’t just possible but necessary.

First published at SoCiArts.com.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Hip-Hop View On Ethics


To be clear, the Republicans who pushed for Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel to be censured don't care a lick about "ethics." They're all feeling the high of the elections and feel like they can get away with damn-near anything. These are of course the same people who have vowed to filibuster every other bill until the deficit is covered (translation: get ready for more public cuts). Any charge that can be leveled against Rangel is probably on the rap-sheet of countless other congresspeople--both sides of the aisle included.

That doesn't mean that the liberal Rangel necessarily deserves the support of progressives. The day after he was censured by Congress, Davey D put up a post on his own blog where he quotes Rosa Clemente:

"...the man has three rent stabilized apartments in Harlem, where half the population is poverty poor... Rangel deserves to be censured, as most of those cats do.. The problem is particularly black men in politics think they can act like white men.. History shows that never works, but being from NYC him and 90% of all Black and Brown politicians need to go. They are rich ass millionaires pimping our communities. You do not get a pass because your Black. How many brothers right now living in Rangel’s district are being stopped, frisked and arrested for a nickel bag or for other petty crime? I bet they wish all they were getting was a tongue lashing..."

And that's the deal. Rangel has taken housing from poor people in a literal sense--not to mention the indirect sense by supporting the gentrification that pushes these same folks out of the neighborhood--and he's gotten a slap on the wrist. His own constituents don't get that kind of consideration. They get the harsh end of austerity.

Rangel may have a voting record better than most, but he's still part of an establishment dedicated to protecting the richest of the rich. The Republicans are undoubtedly hypocrites for censuring Rangel, but the issue is a lot bigger than the vague notion of ethics. It's about who holds the power and who doesn't.

Monday, December 6, 2010

SoCiArts: Looking Good


Most people who frequent this site are probably at least familiar with the name "Society of Cinema and Arts." They're perhaps the site that I write for the most frequently. Based out of LA, they describe themselves as "a production company and online community dedicated to socially conscious artists to promote positive social change through the arts and media." They're definitely some good folks.

Well, they've got a new site layout, and I gotta say that it looks pretty damned fly! Anyone who hasn't checked them out definitely should.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

It's Bigger Than Weezy


Here’s a newsflash for you heads who have somehow spent the past month under a rock: Lil Wayne is out of prison. That’s right; Weezy was sprung November 4th, after spending eight months of a year-long sentence inside on a gun conviction.

Hard as it might have been to miss the news of his release, it’s not impossible. Much more ink was spilled in the spring chronicling his trial and the run-up to his arrival in jail. Compared to the media frenzy that followed him eight months ago, mention of his release is being treated with a shrug of the shoulders.

Maybe it’s because celebrities in trouble sell more tabloids than celebs paying their dues. In any event, that’s how it looks. In the wake of the relatively easy treatment of Paris, LiLo and Martha, Lil Wayne became the entertainment rags’ golden whipping boy–proof that sometimes, despite the privilege of fame, celebrities do indeed do hard time. This wasn’t a suspended sentence, nor was it time in some white-collar, minimum security prison. This was Rikers! Wayne was in a cell! He even did time in solitary confinement!

Now, mainstream writers all seem content to wax sanctimonious, saying it’s good to finally see a celeb get his and hoping that he’s “learned his lesson.” What none of them point out is that Weezy’s conviction wasn’t about fame, connections or even money. It was about good old-fashioned American racism.

In “post-racial” America, we aren’t supposed to mention these things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that the facts somehow lie. Those who get in a huff over the insistence that race had anything to do with it should have to account for more than a few discrepancies when the whole thing is put into context.

First will be those who point out that Wayne was in possession of a pistol that wasn’t registered to him when he was arrested in July of 2007. True, but is there any comparable police presence at the shows of arch-conservative rock musician and gun-nut Ted Nugent? Here is a man who admits to having transported weapons across state lines many times during his tours, and yet Nugent--whose opposition to gun laws might be enough to make Chuck Heston blush and who has appeared on white nationalist radio shows in recent years--has never even been so much as pulled over by the cops.

Then there will be those who shout that the cops wouldn’t have had reason to stop and question Wayne if he hadn’t been getting high outside his bus, and that it was “stupid” for him to be doing it in the first place. The stupidity of marijuana laws aside (and they’re pretty damned stupid!), this rationale doesn’t bear scrutiny either.

Take, for example, the recent drug arrest of country legend Willie Nelson. Nelson was found with 6 ounces of weed on him, charged with possession, and released on $2,500 bail. Compare this to the arrest of rapper Wiz Khalifa five days after Weezy’s release. Khalifa had 2 ounces on him–a third of what was discovered on Nelson’s tour bus–and yet was charged with distribution (which carries with it a heftier sentence), and wasn’t released until he posted $300,000 bail! Combine this with the NYPD’s history of “keeping tabs” on hip-hop, and the case against Wayne becomes a lot less clear-cut.

Just as absent as the topic of race from the discussion has been the shameful state of America’s prisons. Moral sadists prattle on about Weezy getting “special treatment” by being separated from the general population at Rikers Island, but one wonders about the condition of a jail where inmates have to be separated in the first place. Recent years have seen repeated lawsuits filed against Rikers accusing the detention center’s guards of acquiescing to or encouraging violence among the population. Special treatment this ain’t.

Then, there’s the time — perhaps more publicized than any other episode of Lil Wayne’s stretch — that he spent in solitary. This in particular was harped on by many a commentator with a disturbing amount of glee. None of these same journalists bothered to point out that the inhumanity of solitary confinement have been well documented by human rights activists, psychiatrists and prisoners themselves. As Charles, a prisoner at Tamms Supermax Prison in Illinois who had been held in solitary confinement since 1998, says: “Lock yourself in your bathroom for the next 10 years and tell me how it will affect your mind.”

Lil Wayne didn’t do ten years in solitary; he did a month. His quick return to the studio shows that he’s been released with his mind obviously intact. Still, if he can be separated from human contact for the crime of possessing an mp3 player, what might have happened to him if he’d been caught for a far more egregious transgression?

Of course, there are countless Black men who are suffering the brunt of the American criminal injustice system far worse than Lil Wayne. But that’s the point; if that system can get away with all of this while the cameras are rolling, then the horrors it commits against millions of anonymous human beings are enough to boggle the mind.

This could have been an opportunity for music scribes to ask some basic questions. Like why hip-hop gets such a bad rap while the illicit behavior of rock or country stars barely gets a mention. Or why it is that Black men are arrested and convicted at twice the rate of their white counterparts for the same crime. Or how it is that world’s “greatest democracy” can lock up more people than any country on the planet and allow its cops to shoot anyone they like without reprisal.

Instead, those same writers resorted to easy punchlines. Perhaps it’s a testament to what a volatile powder-keg we all are sitting on.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Message From the Sound Strike and Zack de la Rocha

With the holidays around the corner, the Sound Strike is stepping up to help out families who have been affected by raids and deportations. It's worth taking some time to get in touch with them.

----------------------------------------

To our fellow organizations,

I'm writing to ask for your support for a family event on Dec. 18th.

Many children in Arizona will not be with their parents this holiday season due to unjust detentions, deportations and family separation. Many of these children are being cared for by friends, family and neighbors and live far below the poverty line.

On December 18, 2010 in Phoenix, AZ The Sound Strike will join local organizations for a traditional Posada Celebration with families suffering from immigrant attacks.

This event is being organized by PUENTE to address the needs of immigrant families while affirming their commitment to overturn SB 1070 and bring about reasonable immigration policies in Arizona.

The Sound Strike has committed close to $20,000 to help purchase staple foods and gifts for children and their families. But the need is much greater and we need your help.

Here is how you or your organization can get involved:

1. Make a donation to the toy or food drive
2. Help us collect donations by setting up a drop off location in your office
3. Travel with us (at your own expense) to help package and the deliver gifts and
food
4. Spread the word to your membership and social network

Interested? Contact thesoundstrike@gmail.com or leave a message at (323) 300-6404.


Thank You,
Zack de la Rocha, The Sound Strike

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Your Wish is Granted, Mr. Weller...


Paul Weller has a talent with bad timing. The former Jam frontman is on the cover of last week's NME, where he is quoted as saying "this generation needs to stand up and fight." I have no idea when the interview was conducted, but there's a good chance that it was before the ongoing student uprisings in his native Britain. And if that's the case, well... um... whoops!

Ever since the Jam were forced to retract their tongue-in-cheek endorsement of the Conservatives back in '77, Weller in particular has gone out of his way to prove his mettle as a man of the left. He was an integral figure of the anti-Thatcher Red Wedge back in the '80s, of which the NME was largely supportive. His most recent album Wake Up the Nation sees him as fervent as ever and has received wide acclaim.

There are parts of the album, though, that make Weller sound less like a dyed-in-the-wool leftist than an old man griping that kids today don't know how good they have it. Case in point: the title track, which berates its listeners to "get your face out of Facebook."

"I do think technology is good for certain things," says Weller, "but I do also think that the arse end of that is there's just a lot of time wasted, staring at a screen, talking to cyber-friends. And I don't get that, really." The article goes on to say that he is equally frustrated by the young generation's "seeming reluctance to challenge the accepted order."

It's a common argument, but one that seems to completely ignore what has become the elephant in the room of British politics over the past month: large, dynamic, seemingly spontaneous uprisings of college and high-school students over the past month in opposition to the Conservatives' imposition of increased tuition. Uprisings that were, for a great part, organized on social networking sites like Facebook.

It's unclear whether it's more on Weller or the NME that he looks like he's missing the boat, but one of them definitely is. Overall, they appear to be displaying the kind of cynicism that comes from years of frustration and retreat and can easily be channeled into easy answers like "the kids don't get it."

Thing is, the kids do get it. Possibly better than their parents. But there's no such thing as a predictable rebellion. I'm reminded of the French radical writer Andre Gorz, who released his book Farewell to the Working Class (in which he declared that workers had been "bought off" and were incapable of challenging the system) in April of 1968... a mere month before the French working class launched the largest general strike in history that threatened to topple European capitalism. When moments like this come along--moments that threaten to shake the structure to its core--folks like Weller can often be left with their foot in their mouths.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hands Off Hip-Hop Blogs


“By seizing these domain names, we have disrupted the sale of thousands of counterfeit items, while also cutting off funds to those willing to exploit the ingenuity of others for their own personal gain.” So said a clearly self-satisfied Attorney General Eric Holder about the shutdown of several blogs and websites. All of the sites were hip-hop sites.

Among those shut down were Onsmash.com and DaJaz1.com, two well-known sites in the hip-hop blogosphere, as well as YouHeardThatNew.com, founded recently by British rapper and activist Lowkey. The raids, which took place over Thanksgiving weekend, were a collaboration between the RIAA and Immigration Customs Enforcement and were aimed at shutting down sites that supposedly allowed users to share copyrighted material.

The problem is that many of the sites didn't actually have download features. The slapdash nature of these online raids, combined with the fact that all the domain names were noted in the hip-hop world, obviously makes them suspicious--almost as suspicious as a collabo between ICE and the RIAA is scary.

Michael Bainwol, CEO and Chairman of the RIAA, sounded almost as smug as Holder:

"Federal law enforcement authorities have now hung a ‘closed for business’ sign on some of the most notorious music websites that were havens for copyright theft. No anti-piracy initiative is a silver bullet, but targeted government enforcement against the worst of the worst rogue sites sends a strong message that illegally trafficking in creative works carries real consequences and won’t be tolerated.”

What Bainwol and Holder don't get is that this is how music nowadays--especially hip-hop--thrives and evolves. Without artists who are able to feed off of each other, bouncing ideas and rebuttals off the other's sonic contributions, music gets stagnant. The record biz is in a hell of a position here; it needs the aesthetics of hip-hop and other genres to stay relevant and vital, but its own priorities of profit hinder that very instinct.

The industry is getting the feds to do their dirty work for them isn't exactly unprecedented, but these recent raids certainly are an ominous turning point. If they're not careful, they're going to raid themselves out of a reason to exist. In fact, the more or less have already.