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Feel Free to Sing Me Down If You Find This "Message Music" Too Heavy Handed

19 March 2007

I have some musician friends who like to send me their lyrics, and want me to tell them what I think. Generally, I say, send me an MP3, or come over to my place and play it live for me, for a lot of lyrics that seem insubstantial, cliched, or even overwrought, over-thought, on the page, come alive because of the melody, the vocal inflection, etc. This doesn’t mean that song lyrics aren’t poetry, or are less than poetry, just that I come to music for an experience, even if for me a lot of times the words are, or seem to be, at least as crucial a part of that experience as the non-verbal aspects. With that disclaimer in mind, I’m going to post an excerpt of a recent song (and also post a very raw, rough, one-track recording of it at, lacking the means of being able to record it better right now, but hopefully it will be more an experience than these mere disembodied, if not naked, words on the page).

I need to ask, Do people like being preached to? Many say they don’t, but I know sometimes I like it, even need it, if the preacher is charismatic (or ROCKS or can laugh at himself/herself, etc). So, on one level it comes down to aesthetics; if a song has a seductive sound, some people might put up with its message (though sometimes it can work the other way, that the message can seduce me to like a song in a genre I might not have liked otherwise)—besides, it’s hard to draw the line sometimes, and accurately determine to what extent the words or non-verbal aspects are responsible for the seduction. All I know so far is that many people I’ve played this new song for (including The Big Takeover’s own SUZANNE BARAN) have found this one of their favorites.

It starts by talking about a conversation I had in Oakland with a 20-something scenester guy I really like, but who inspires in me a need to say something like “get up, stand up/stand up for your rights”:

Well he’s telling me that he feels shame
that he forgot to bow down before fame
So he made up for it and repents
Oh, just look at the money he spent

Well, he’s raving about old NEIL YOUNG
And he’s placing him high on the rung
And the food crowds his face on the plate
And it robs from the stuff he creates….

Later on, after such lines as “if you let me crash, I’ll pay you in JOHNNY CASH” (the song’s only about 3:20 in length, but is pretty wordy by contemporary white indie-rock standards), it builds in polemical fervor, or at least scope:

Well, the American dream’s doing well
If you’re living in history’s shell
But the ma and pa shops that succeed
Are forced into choking the seeds
Of the younger folks setting up shop
Coz there ain’t much room left near the top
And the old guys took more risks back then
Than most people your age they let win
So you’re tempted to side with the old
If there wasn’t this thing that you hold

Don’t walk, take bus, leave drive, to us
Sit in Back Seat and Google ROSA PARKS
Eat shit buy sell young old hear tell
Watch act ear lip love don’t make the world go flat
Love don’t make the world go flat

(end of lyric excerpt)

Yeah, it may not hold up to the standards JACK RABID so eloquently expressed recently in his column about NEIL YOUNG, in that this song is not specifically an anti-war song (and yes, I got some of those too), but some of the issues it raises definitely relate to why the Iraq war was allowed to happen, and also about why so many younger, even “cutting edge” critics, DJs, labels, and celebrated musicians of my generation (as well as those a little younger than me) have, even unwittingly, found themselves censoring others or themselves; how it’s okay for them to TALK passionately about politics, but not to put it in ART; or how it’s okay to like BOB DYLAN. GIL SCOTT-HERON, or JOE STRUMMER, but as relics of a past time the music merely reflected (rather than made); and how some people call themselves indie-rock musicians but are really too busy being consumers and critics, as this particular person was (and, I wouldn’t have written about him were he not emblematic of others I’ve met), and it at least can get a semi-public musical dialogue going (as, say, Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama” were answered by LYRNYRD SKYNYRD’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” to the glorification of both in the annals of classic rock history).

One thing that tends to not get mentioned too much nowdays is that the cultural climate in which Neil Young came of age, message music was in fashion as much as love songs. As he was forming THE THE BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD, Neil Young could turn on the Top 40 radio and hear #1 hits such as SGT. BARRY SANDLER’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” and BARRY MCGUIRE’s “Eve of Destruction,” and the seemingly pro-war song would probably not have been a #1 hit had not the anti-war song been one; they were in heated dialogue with each other. In subsequent years, allegedly for our own good, it was decided that such dialogue was not so important, and as the ‘60s generation, with their demographic muscle, got older and allegedly came to the conclusion en masse that the truest revolution is more inward, many younger folks internalized that history as a vicarious “lesson” (“well, obviously, the more mature stance is not to write finger-pointing songs about social injustices”), even as the myth that “a lot of those problems got solved in the late 1960s,” which shut people up for a while, is absolutely laughable today.

Well, I try to have fun with my anger, and be proactive, in the song. It’s up to you to decide whether my song (and not just the words, but the way I sing it) is too heavy-handed, but I’m gonna keep performing it because right now I’m feeling some good vibes between me and the audiences I perform it for.