Saturday, May 29, 2010

Songs: Ohia - "Blue Factory Flame" from the CD Didn't It Rain

Didn't It Rain CD coverObviously it's all in the ear, all in the mind, of the beholder. No song has one concrete meaning applicable to all of its listeners.

People understand that, yet they still instinctively want to look up the lyrics, they still want to look up the interviews artist Y has done or read the story that critic Z has written, to try and fashion a knowledgeable interpretation of Song X.

Sometimes--a lot of the times--I think that I enjoyed the song, and understood the song, more powerfully *before* I read the criticism, before I found the lyrics. I think the crux of it is that your imagination can never quite encompass a song whose lyrics you're at least somewhat uncertain about. Whereas if you know all the lyrics--no matter how accomplished, your mind can then circumscribe the song.

And its all-powerful mystery has vanished for you.

A good recent example of this for me is "Fearless" by Pink Floyd. I'd known and loved the song for many many years without necessarily processing the lyrics all that well. Gilmour can be indistinct in his singing, and of course Meddle never came with a lyrics sheet.

So I got something about a very tall mountain and a very long climb. Maybe a spiritual quest of some sort. But nothing very specific, and the song remained therefore something very mysterious and very alluring. Then I went to one of these lyrics sites, and some of the things I'd imagined in the lyrics were confirmed, and some of the nameless things at the edges were not, and disappeared forever for me. You know, I liked it when the guy in my mind as I heard that song was perhaps an acolyte, or a pilgrim, maybe. Now that I know he's just an idiot, the song seems flatter to me somehow, less meaningful, not more.

A shame, really.

One of the best things about the Enoweb site is how they have a section for alternate hearings, to encourage a multiplicity of meaning in any one song. And I remember when I spoke with the guys from die kreuzen, they told me they specifically did NOT want a lyrics sheet included with their records, so that there could be a multiplicity of meanings taken out there.

I've long wanted to do a post about Songs: Ohia, and "Blue Factory Flame" is certainly one of the best in the canon. But instead of doing the research beforehand, and trying to get concrete as I so often insist on getting, I thought it might be interesting to try and tap some of the conscious and semi-conscious images that spring from listening to an evocative song where only *some* of the lyrics are clearly understood . . . .

Magnolia Electric Company tour postardSo Jason Molina and his buddies are big, big, Cleveland Browns fans. I bet they've all got season tickets in the Dawg Pound. I bet each and every one of 'em has one of those bulldog masks hidden in their closet, and I bet they each break 'em out for every Cleveland home game. Maybe Molina even brings one of the masks with him when he's on tour, always has to find room for it where it won't get crushed in the van, the drummer and the bassplayer are always pissed about it.

Anyway, he and his Brownfan buddies are also avid fishermen, so they decide that one of these fall mornings they're all gonna wake up early and go fishing on Lake Erie.

So they do it.

In addition to two fishing poles, they bring a Coleman lantern and a radio so they can listen to the Browns game, which for some reason is concurrently scheduled--even though it's four in the morning.

So they get out there on the lake, and the occasional bit of starshine notwithstanding, it seems like they've steered to the bottom of a vast bowl of murky empty dark. The only thing to be seen is the red lights of the iron freighters on the far-off horizon, and the only things to be heard are the staticky babbling of the self-important football announcers before opening kickoff, and the oil-colored Lake Erie waves slapping against the fiberglass sides of their boat.

Though they came out here to fish, everything seems swallowed by the enormous darkness out there on what is after all the edge of this enormous lake, their silly radio, their lantern glowing whitely, their conversations, all devoured in their insignificance by the cold black lake, and in the face of this, no-one can even muster the energy to pull out their fishing rods.

So they sit there on the lake, bobbing with the waves and with the current, paralyzed, and thinking of the bones they'll one day be.

That's when the Pirate ship all of a sudden materializes off their bow, a ghost ship winking into existence where there had only been the pitch predawn gloom before. A thousand years old it is, a relic of the iron age, bleeding hydraulic fluid, gasoline, and rusty water from its ancient bilges. No running lights, but the ship and its sails and the skull and crossbones flag flying above are all illuminated by a half-dozen or more oil drums on deck, by the orange trash fires burning smokily within them.

In response to the spectral ship under the spectral pennant, Jason hoists a flag of his own, the flag of the blue factory flame, the true colors of the vanishing rust belt machinists and mechanics, invoking ghosts of its own, and the invisible shuttered factories that line the Ohio shore, too far off in time and in space for Jason and his fishermen friends to see.

And that's it, that's all I've got. The imagery sort of fades out for me from there, and I'm not sure what happens to Jason and his buddies, not sure what happens to the ghostly pirate ship.

But I've left myself wondering what happened, which clears a bigger space for my mind in its appreciation for the song than if I had been told what had happened, or if I had checked out some lyric site--or some silly music blog--to find out.

Songs Ohia - Didn't It Rain - 5 - Blue Factory Flame.mp3

This file was removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.
File under: Alt-folk

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Public Enemy - "Welcome to the Terrordome" from Fear of a Black Planet and
Dynamite Hack - "Boyz-N-The Hood" from Superfast


So, where were we?

Late '80's, yeah, that's it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I still remember the first time I heard "Welcome to the Terrordome."

Holiday season, little bit before, little bit after, Christmas 1989. Before Fear of a Black Planet had dropped, for sure. I'd gotten in the Sloshmobile and drove myself to the mall to pick up a CD. Don't even remember which one it was. What I do remember is that as I'm at the counter, I see 1) that I've got a little extra dough after the CD, and 2) that the cassette single from the forthcoming Public Enemy album was for sale.


You may snicker at the mention of a cassette single, but the good thing about that was, while I had to wait until I got home to play my new CD, I could play my new cassette on the way.

Before 45 seconds had elapsed, I was pretty sure this was the greatest rap track I had ever heard. Chuck D's raps seemed to me to be like the guitars on a Minor Threat track: full of rage and WAY upfront. Or, if I'm doing the punk thing (and I clearly can't help myself), maybe the best comparison for Chuck D on the track is to Lee Ving: full of piss and bile, two hundred words a minute, loud, and you can clearly understand every goddamned one.

The interviews I'd read with Chuck D going back to Nation of Millions had impressed me. Chuck was more than a little bit skeptical about the ability of the mass media to communicate relevant informtion to inner city black youth, and he conceived of his band's music to fill that void. Public Enemy was a way to get around polluted or non-existent channels of communication.

I was able to understand that. That was how Neil Young's "Ohio" had worked, what had been so impressive about it. That's how Chuck and Flava wanted to operate--but on a regular basis.

'Course the other upshot of this method of operations is that Public Enemy's music could in no way be seen as "for" me. It was neither conceived, nor written, nor performed, with a white longhair in mind.

For a while, I didn't let that bother me. Later on, and with other artists, the gap would become harder to ignore.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One day at FIU Cerveza and I came across a bottle of cheap vodka that insisted to us it desperately needed drinking. So we took the bottle with us, and we walked into the woods that lined the campus, and followed a gravel path until we came to an open shelter with four log pillars and a concrete floor. Two picnic tables, painted brick red, sat complacent and obedient under a prefab roof. The sun shone brightly, reflected off waxy subtropical leaves, but a strong breeze blew through the trees as well, and kept things comfortable even as we later got manic.

Whoever it was that had the bottle placed it on one of the tables, and we sat down, facing each other with the bottle at eye level between us.

And we began to drink, what else? We drank and talked shit about punk rock and Bukowski and sci-fi and comic books. Erik might have talked some about women. I, knowing nothing about the subject, would have listened. I might have talked some baseball. Erik, knowing nothing about the subject, would have listened.

We talked endlessly as we passed the bottle back and forth; as we arose from the benches and paced around it in an excess of energy. Something now makes me think we found a baseball bat,or some like object, and began to bang on shit with it, nearby trees, the structure's pillars, the concrete floor. We were college students, who knew it all, who had the keenest insight, and the purest taste.

I was working for The Herald only part-time then, driving the Sloshmobile down to the Herald complex on Saturday afternoons, parking it at an auxiliary lot, then walking the couple blocks to find the truck I was going to work, to insert a couple or three thousand comics sections into the Lifestyle, stack the completed doubles on one side of the truck in rows so high and heavy that they would fully compress the truck's springs.

So late one Saturday afternoon (I told Erik that day), as I was returning to my car, having inserted those couple or three thousand, having stacked the truck so that it would lean dangerously as it always did when the driver that night inched it into the building to receive its hundred bundles of Sunday main section, I walked into the auxiliary parking lot and surprised a thief, who'd been trying to break into my car and steal my Sony stereo.

I told Erik, "some nigger . . . ." he cut me off, and that was the end of my car stereo story. From there on out, the discussion was about my language and my racism. We were both pretty drunk by this time, so the discussion was more of an argument. It didn't come to blows, but by the time we walked off, I understood what 'tears of rage' meant, and we both pretty much thought the other was an asshole.

I didn't think I was a racist or a bigot, of course. How could I be? Not only did I have a Malcolm X shirt hanging in my closet, I actually pulled the thing out and wore it!

More seriously, the way of it was, I figured, was that if you try to fuck with me, if you try to give me bodily harm or take my stuff, it's only fair that one of the things I get to do is insult you. Hence the N-word I'd used.

Erik didn't see it that way, and after a few days of thinking about it, after my hangover was through with me, neither did I.

Even before the N-word was called the N-word, I hadn't used it much, reserving it for those who failed to conduct their business with me in an upright manner. But after that vodka-fueled argument with Cerveza, chastened, and a bit ashamed, I was very very careful about its use again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Early one Sunday morn--this is '91 or '92--some friends and I, after taking in an evening's entertainment at Churchill's Hideaway, decided to head north out of Little Haiti, and stopped at a Liberty City convenience store for additional beer, cigarettes, etc.
There was a brother hanging outside who was, I suppose, used to seeing those who had been previously at Churchill's pull up.

I remember we engaged the guy in conversation; I guess he had asked us in in a friendly way about whoever it was had been playing at Churchill's (not sure, but I know it wasn't Scraping Teeth). And one of us replied, and we started talking outside, just another three o'clock in the morning bullshit session between three or four white kids and a brother in the bad part of town.

So, because they're on my mind, because I'm not terribly nuanced or clever, I bring up Public Enemy.

Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised at the answer, but I was at the time. I'll be paraphrasing, but the dude (older than me at the time, but younger than I am now) basically gave me a minute and a half of how Public Enemy wasn't real, or how it wasn't "street." How it was gangsta rap with its rhymes about guns and drug deals and crack whores that was the shit.

And I kept my whiteboy mouth shut, but I was like, you've got to be fucking kidding me.

If this had been '92, the most popular rap album of the year was The Chronic, but in any event, NWA was at least three years old at this point. And of course gangsta rap would go on to be the '90's breakout genre.

Leaving Public Enemy in its collective dust. Though Flava Flav occasionally went out and got some additional work, Public Enemy *has* continued to make music through the present day. But please do not pretend that their relevancy vs. the Snoop Doggy Doggs of the world has been all that high.

Anyway: I thought it throughout the '90's, but never more intensely than on that night in Liberty City: what a fucking waste, and what an example of mass stupidity, to reject positive music that addresses personal and social change in favor of this bullshit that glorifies thuggery and mysogyny and ignorance.

It'd be different if Chuck D was pussy or if Chuck D was a sucker. But he wasn't. And isn't. He was significantly harder core in my own opinion than many of the metal guitarists who had my respect.

Yet little from his target audience. It would have been different if what the brother had told me that morning was out of step. But it wasn't: the dude was mainstream. Mainsteam for about a decade, if not through the right fucking now.

So it was, that Sunday morning, that I began to wash my hands of rap. Bad deal all the way around.

I know I've missed Public Enemy's efforts since then, and I know there's thing called alternative hip hop that I might have found more palatable, but fuck it. Why wade through the shit when there's so much else of interest out there?

Ever since that day in the woods with Cerveza, I've understood implicitly that it's ridiculous for me to walk around like most sheltered white liberals do, with my head in the air, pretending that the problem is entirely external, that I myself am clean of racist attitudes. And I have realized since then that all you can do--all anyone can do--is to try and do the best you can.

Maybe my best here, in trying to explain why I no longer listen to this music that I find offensive, and more importantly, deleterious, is not good enough. It probably ain't.

When it gets down to it, I understand my own hypocrisy. I understand that I give The Dwarves a pass for "Skin Popping Slut," and that I don't call out The Prodigy for "Smack My Bitch Up." Or that 98% of the music that I listen to is, as John Peel called it, "white boys with guitars." Go to town on all that, if you want.

But it won't change how I feel about rap and its biggest baddest ugliest child, gangsta. It won't change my mind about the culture that surrounds it, where someone like 50 Cent plans a gunshot wound for the credibility it would give him within the twisted scene. And never mind Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur.

I've spent my life digging into the aural sludge that is The Butthole Surfers and Big Black and Ministry and Wolf Eyes and all the rest of it. But rap? That shit got much too dirty for me.

Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet - 05 Welcome To The Terrordome

File under: Blind alleys

Dynamite Hack - Superfast - Boyz N the Hood

File under: Covers where they get the words exactly right

These files was removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Black Sabbath - "Die Young" from the album Heaven and Hell and
M.O.D. - "The Ballad of Dio" from the album U.S.A. for M.O.D.

I continue to work on my Why I Don't Like Rap post, but the answer, it appears, is convoluted, and might take me a little longer.

In the interim, I thought this blog might make mention of Ronnie James Dio, who, I'm sure you heard, died early Sunday.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dio was 67 years old. Weird. Not only was he older than Ozzy, he was older than Jimmy Page. He was older than Clapton, older than Ritchie Blackmore.

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow album coverDio came to his renown late. The first album on which he ever appeared--not that it sold all that well--was released in 1972, when Dio was 29 years old. Ozzy, five years his junior, had already been a household name for three years. And Dio wouldn't really become well-known until 1975, when Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow came out. At the time, the question was whether this newcomer Dio could even hold a candle to the other vocalists Blackmore had worked with, Ian Gillan and David Coverdale.

Well, yeah, he could at that.

Never mind that Blackmore (Blackmore!) thought so much of Dio's musical instincts that he gave the singer an arrangement credit for the debut. And never mind the super-cool lyrics about temples and snakes and kings and men on a silver mountain. Just focus on the range of the powerful voice and the power of his presence as a frontman. At 32, and after 17 years of trying, Ronnie James Dio was finally a rock star.

Some people, like Billy Milano here, made fun of Dio's themes, and his go-to phrases. Some people commenting at the article about Dio on the Spin website the other day took offense in the way writer David Marchese even mentioned how some of those other people found Dio's themes and his go-to phrases funny.

But what the fuck, you know? It's rock and roll, you know? I'm sure no-one had a better sense of humor about Ronnie James Dio than Ronnie James Dio himself.

Rock and roll doesn't mind artiness; rock and roll doesn't mind pretensions or grand themes or wizards or elves or bustles in your hedgerows or any of that shit. What rock and roll DOES mind is not having a sense of humor about yourself. Shit, it's how ELP and Rush got away with all the highfaluting stuff they did. And why Radiohead didn't.

So maybe it's just because of how I've heard Dio was such a great guy and all, but I bet he didn't mind the M.O.D. song at all, and I bet he wouldn't have minded the Marchese appreciation, either, even if the comparison to Gollum might have been a little out of line.

Look out!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Truth be told, I never bought a Rainbow album with Dio on it. Never bought a Rainbow album at all. The only thing from them I ever purchased was the "Can't Happen Here" 12"--and that was with Joe Lynn Turner I believe.



In the ninth or tenth grade, Jose Gonzalez lent me some C-90 cassettes he'd made, compilations of Frank Marino and Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Deep Purple, Blue Öyster Cult and Ted Nugent and a bunch of hard rock others. Influential tapes, these were: I held onto them for a long time before Jose asked for them back, and I listened to them over and over again, scary at first, and enticing, familiarizing myself with the names and the music. As much as any of the albums I ever bought for myself early on, these tapes Jose lent me were the primers that I had in rock and roll.

And one of the C-90's had nearly a full side devoted to Dio-era Rainbow, "Kill the King," and "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves," and "Man on the Silver Mountain" and more, songs from the three studio albums, and from the On Stage live album.

To this day, I've still not heard some of this material again. But make no mistake: this was seminal stuff for me, and it affected me deeply. When I was a 14-year old nerd desperately trying to learn how to rock, as it were, Dio-era Rainbow was one of the select few showing the way.

I never owned the Heaven and Hell album, either. I was probably the only one in the neighborhood who didn't. Jose Gonzalez had it. Mark Gadol had it. Randy Schmidt had it. Of course, I borrowed it from one of them and recorded it to one of my Scotch brand cassette tapes so that I could play it at home when I wanted. But really, no need: it was *always* playing at Randy's house when we were hanging out after school, hanging on the patio in the wicker chairs, smoking cigarettes, playing chess or mankala, talking shit.

What needs to be remembered, and what I don't hear these past few days, is how Dio revitalized Black Sabbath. By the late seventies, Ozzy was a fucking wreck. I mean, how fucked up do you have to be to get kicked out of Sabbath for your excessive drug use?

Now I've never read any Sabbath biographies, but it's easy for me to think that a nonfunctioning Ozzy meant and implied a dysfunctional Sabbath. Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die are NOT great albums, let's just say that.

After four years of misses, (a most-likely sober*) Dio helped Sabbath hit that target again. Dio, and the album he helped them produce, Heaven and Hell, absolutely changed the band's career path. With the release of just that one album, they went from being nearly-has-beens to being metal band emeritus.

Dio-era Sabbath--touring off Heaven and Hell, natch--was the third concert I ever went to, and the only one I ever saw at the Miami Jai-Alai fronton. I remember seeing some kid on crutches outside before the gates opened. Later on, during the show, I saw that he had gotten up front, and somehow lashed his crutches together, creating a crude five-foot-high cross that he hoisted into the air at regular intervals.

Pretty sure the thing on the Holy Diver cover is a ShrikeFrom this comes the image that I will always have of Ronnie James Dio. To Dio's side is the aluminum cross that kid had made, high in the air, like a fucking battle flag. Smiling at the contraption, Dio leans over the stage into the crowd, one hand holding the mike, the other making the devil sign as he thrusts his arm out into the audience. He stares directly into a red spotlight and his face is the color of blood as he howls away at the lyrics, as 100 decibels of gloriously sludgy heavy metal pound the fronton walls.

Talk about a man purely in his element. I could see it plain as the horns on the devil's head: this was the shit Ronnie James Dio was born to do.

It's more than too bad that he won't be doing it no more.

Black Sabbath - Heaven And Hell - Die Young.mp3

File under: Devil Music

M.O.D.-17-The Ballad Of Dio.mp3

File under: Crossover

These files were removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

* I get the feeling Dio was a guy who liked his red wine at dinner, but kept it under control otherwise. (Return)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Run-D.M.C - "King of Rock" from the album King of Rock

For some time now, I've played with the idea of running a little slogan across the top or across the bottom of the main page here at La Historia.

"Proudly Rockist Since December 2008" is what it would say. 'Coz rockist is what I am, baby, and I am truly unashamed.

It goes way back, too. Not that I've still got any of this memorabilia, but let's harken back to the first rock concert I ever attended, back in November of 1979. Kansas, with Sniff 'N' the Tears at the late and lamented Hollywood Sportatorium. Long time readers will I'm sure be able to guess who I was there to see.

Anyway, this being my first rock show and not knowing any better, I bought one of those cheap Pakistani polyester T-shirts outside the glorious walls, and then was disappointed to find an *official* memorabilia table inside the Sport. I stepped up to the table anyway, and though I couldn't afford another, better, T-shirt, there was this bumper sticker I liked.

"Disco Sucks. Rock 'N' Roll Still # 1."

Sold. After the concert, after the acoustic guitar solo, after the lasers, after the tentative tokes, after I'd come home for the evening, smelling of smoke or not, I carefully affixed that sticker to my bedroom door. Sometimes I think that sticker so boldly placed was more or less an announcement to my parents that I intended to become a pothead, but either way, what can't be denied is that in that sticker you will find my rockist roots.

I've read often since then that the Disco Sucks Army for which I was such a proud footsoldier was formed from the forces of racism and homophobia. And, you know what? Steve Dahl's testimony notwithstanding, there might be something to that.

But all it felt like at the time, not yet a year past my Bar Mitzvah, with an unsteady grasp of style, a fear of girls, and a bad habit of picking my nose when nervous, was that I really, really needed to move away from this dork thing if I could.

That, and the metronome bassdrum thing, this Push push in the Bush thing, wasn't it all kind of, I dunno, moronic? Listen: I wasn't gonna find fraternity around the disco floor with these flashily-dressed assholes when I was into Tolkien and couldn't even match my clothes some days; fraternity could only be found, it seemed, in rock and roll.

Fast forward, through a lot of high school dopesmoke (and a closet full of concert jerseys) to 1985. If rap and I have have long since had an unamicable breakup, 1985 was before the divorce. I had seen the video for Run-DMC's "King of Rock" I guess late night on MTV or something, and I thought it was very righteous indeed.

Of course, what made "King of Rock" comprehensible to me was that it had guitars. Not Yngwie Malmsteen guitars, maybe, but yes, definitely: the solid crunch I have always looked for. I never would have thought to say something like this then, but the guitars in "King of Rock" were to those in mid '80's heavy metal as Miles' Birth of the Cool was to bop. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say the guitars were "laid-back," but this wasn't head-banging music, it was head-nodding music. And I was down with that.

The video sought to portray Darryl McDaniel and Joe Simmons as if they were the instantaneous leading edge of a wavefront that stretched back past the Beatles and Little Richard to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and then beyond. When Larry Bud Melman let the two into his Rock and Roll Museum, he was saying, these guys are rock, these guys belong. I, for one, was buying it whole hog.

I bought each of the crew's first four albums and saw them on the Together Forever tour with the Beastie Boys at the Miami Baseball Stadium in August 1987. I read Spin magazine, who at this time were incorporating more and more of the hip hop into what had been a primarily indie mission statement. And then I got into hip hop artists who used the guitar a little less than Run DMC had. I bought records by LL Cool J and by Eric B & Rakim. And Public Enemy blew me away so much with their Slayer samples and their Anthrax collaborations that I even even forgave them for Professor Griff's antisemitic remarks.

By 1988, Sonic Youth had been my favorite band for a couple years, and can't say 1988 was a bad year for SY, either, as Daydream Nation would one day spawn an anniversary tour. But Tougher Than Leather might have been my second-favorite from that year. As late s 20 years ago, rap was solidly in my ears and on my lists.

What the fuck could have gone wrong?

To Be Continued, as I work this shit out.

Run-D.M.C. - King of Rock - 2 - King of Rock.mp3

File under: Old School Rap

This file was removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Crosby Stills Nash & Young - "Ohio" (Atlantic 2740A)
Neil Young - "Let's Impeach the President" from the CD Living With War

CSNY 'Ohio' American 45 picture sleeveNeil Young Living With War CD cover

I was reading Smithsonian the other day, and it mentioned that Tuesday will be the 40th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre.

I'd had this half-gestated idea for a post about "Ohio" and the fuzzy nature of Neil Young's politics for a little bit now, so I took the Smithsonian snippet as a sign that it was time to sit down and write the post already.

The timing is a little unfortunate, I'm pretty sure. My last two posts centered around music that's almost older than I am, and this is gonna make it three straight, yikes.

People are gonna think I'm just an old fucking burned-out hippie or something.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I'm trying to think of other songs which might be as intrinsically linked with an American historical event as much as "Ohio" is.

There ain't many. "The Wreck of the Old 97," maybe. Or perhaps another wreck: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." But "Old 97" has been done so many times by so many artists that I think the impact has been diluted a little bit; it's just an old country music standard at this point. And the Lightfoot song is great*, but I'm not too sure that many people understand the song was based on a real event.

Everyone knows Kent State was all too fucking real. And everyone knows Neil Young wrote "Ohio." No mistaking the event, no mistaking its interpreter. No mistaking its call to arms.

Well, OK, maybe there HAS been some mistaking its call to arms.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thrasher's Wheat quotes a now-offline "Analysis of Music and Lyrics in Relation to American Culture in the 1960s"

One of the most outspoken songwriters of this era and calling was Neil Young. Whether it was with Buffalo Springfield or with his other group, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Neil Young expressed his opinion at every opportunity that presented itself.
A teacher at Rutgers writes about "Ohio" that
Young was one of the most adament [sic] protest singers, and through this song, he was able to use the events at Kent State to call into account the absurdity of the war in general
A recent story on the Cleveland Plain Dealer site says:
It was more than just another protest song. "Ohio" was a cry of anguish, penned by Neil Young after seeing pictures taken at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The famous story is that CSN&Y were hanging out in a cabin in the woods somewhere, and Crosby showed Neil the Life magazine with the photo of the 14-year old girl over the face-down body with the look of horror on her face and her hands flailing frantically in the air. Then Young either disappeared for a couple hours or wrote the song on the spot, but every story agrees that the band booked the studio time to record that very day. Crosby had provoked Young into a response.

It wasn't the first time that a member of CS&N had tried to provoke the Y into some political outrage. In late 1969, Graham Nash had gone to Chicago to join the protest outside the courthouses that were trying the Chicago 7 trial. Nash hoped to get Stills and Young--who both cut a less activist profile than Crosby and Nash--to join him, but Neil (and Stephen) had remained unswayed.

Neil was without question on what he would later call a "major folkie trip." But the focus always seemed to be on what the hippies of that era might have called "inner space," Neil prodding himself, seeing what happens. Isn't that funny, it doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you? or In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster? and Will I lay my burden down?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Young's buddy Crosby said that Young's calling Nixon's name out in the lyrics was "the bravest thing I ever heard," and would clarify by saying that people who were upfront about disliking Nixon had a way of getting shot.

Silly deluded hippie: the bravest thing about the song is not that it drops Richard Nixon's name, but that it calls for violent revolution.

Take a look at the lyrics again. Young himself has called them a "call to arms." They were neither about "the absurdity of the war in general" nor were they "a cry of anguish." They were angry, and they interpreted Kent State as a sort of Lexington and Concord, a place where the battles begin. "We're finally on our own" makes sense in no other context. The pretense of unity is dissolved, and it is the sound of military snare drums you hear. How can you run, when you need to engage?

Young had not been one of "the outspoken songwriters of this era," and he had not "expressed himself at every opportunity." He'd mostly looked inward, and mumbled to himself, truth be known.

But say this: once he'd been goaded into it, he held nothing back. "Street Fighting Man" doesn't hold a candle, not when you really peer inside. McDonough calls the "Ohio" "a lumbering D-modal death march," and as I've written this post over the last three days, I've found myself thankful that the dread Young conjured, and the war he called for never in fact happened. Crosby should have best let that shit lie.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
It's a testament to the power of Neil Young's work, and to his cussedness, that 36 years after "Ohio"--and 22 after he began letting anyone who'd listen know that he supported "a trigger happy cowboy"** by the name of Ronald Reagan--Young was still able to piss people off in a political way.

Living With War angered a bunch of people, Bill O'Reilly and 3/4 of the conservative blogosphere included. Neil Young News called LWW "the most courageous album of 2006," which made me think of Crosby, but also kind of bugged me. Maybe I prefer Young's cryptic weirdo lyrics about thrashers and llamas and shit to his straightforward confrontational ones (or maybe not), but it definitely does bother me that no-one talks about Living With War for what it truly is: a howling testament and tribute to the power of Old Black's front humbucker.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I think there is only one way to label Neil Young's politics. There's only one way to account for "Ohio" and "War Song" and "Campaigner" and his support both for Reagan and for Farm Aid and for "Rockin' In the Free World" and "Let's Roll" and ultimately for "Let's Impeach the President." It's not that Young is necessarily an activist folkie or a millionaire hippie leftist or a grizzled and disappointed conservative--although he has played all these parts.

It is that he is a reactionary.

Longtime manager Elliott Roberts told McDonough that
Neil's a that-day guy. If he sees something in the morning on the news, he'll talk about it that day--but a week later it's gone. Neil doesn't read newspapers, he doesn't really read Time or Newsweek very much. It's gotta be something he sees--if he watches TV on the road and there's a CNN special on Bosnia, Neil wants to do a record and a benefit within two days. Or he can ignore it forever if he doesn't see it.

Which is why "Ohio" and Living With War got done--and why they were so furious. But before Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert make Young a hero for all the wrong reasons, it's important to understand where the motherfucker's coming from. He did these records--he supported Reagan and did Farm Aid--not because of devotion to any ideology but because he thought Something Needed To Be Done.


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Living With War is good. It's real good. The lyrics are designed to provoke--just as Crosby and Nash once provoked Young--but what's awesome about the thing is how Young plays with visceral abandon, how he cranked up Old Black, recorded the whole thing quickly and loudly, then managed to resist any urges he might have had to overdub or layer, and just got the fucking thing out there. The speed with which LWW moved through its production process may actually be its truest congruency with "Ohio."

Living with War made me realize that the whole Red State/Blue State thing (that still has not gone away, even with Obama's election) is nothing more than the scar tissue left over from the sixties. Those wounds have never healed; I was taught in school thirty years ago that they'd healed, but they haven't.

If you search the web like I have over the last few days, you'll see that there are still the Love It Or Leave It types who still say that Neil Young had no right at all to pen his lyrics to "Ohio." Forty years on, people are still saying this, so it's no surprise that O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin have issues with Living With War.

The fact is though, as much as Young may have tried to goad people with that record, as much as it may deserve a reactionary label, it still comes nowhere near "Ohio," which was as dark and martial and scary a place as Neil Young has ever gone.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Ohio.mp3

File under: Nixon Rock

Neil Young - Living With War - 07 - Let's Impeach The President.mp3

File under: Metal Folk Protest

These files was removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

*Don't fucking try to tell me it's not (Return)

**Neil's words. (Return)