RAGE AGAINST THE (BUSH) MACHINE
Reading your editorial “Songs of Protest” [May 15] I had to chuckle. Did you really refer to the musicians as “courageous”? (I have to look again, just to confirm. OK, you did.) In what way are they courageous? Oh, you mean because they wrote pop lyrics criticizing the President and/or the war? Boy, that is courageous (shivers down my spine)–no one else would dare do that. And they did this in America? In America? Are you sure? And they got away with it? It’s a miracle they survived to collect their gawdy royalties. I’ll tell you what courageous would be: an Iraqi singing a Saddam Hussein protest song just four years ago. Or a Cuban singing a song to protest Castro’s treatment of gays. Now find me that artist, and I’ll be the first to call her courageous. (If you need help with her bail or exhumation expenses, just let me know.) Well, I’m inspired by these courageous troubadours of yours. I feel like doing something equally courageous. I think I’ll go to the grocery, buy sixteen items and stand in the express checkout lane. Or tip 14 percent the next time I dine out. I’ll let you know how it goes, if I survive to tell about it.
The Dixie Chicks, Neil Young and Pink do deserve credit for adding their voices to the dissent. However, you overlooked an incredible protest song by Dar Williams on her recent album, My Better Self. The song is titled “Empire” and its poetic lyrics are some of the most powerful statements I’ve heard on the policies of the Bush Administration.
Heber City, Utah
The Nation overlooked one of the clearest, most powerful voices against the reactionary policies of Bush and his cronies. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes has been composing protests for a few years, culminating in his 2005 anthem “When the President Talks to God.” To wit: “When the President talks to God,/Does what God says ever change his mind?/Which voter fraud must be concealed, when the President talks to God?/While they pick which countries to invade,/Which Muslim souls still can be saved?/When the President talks to God, does he ever think that maybe he’s not?/Does he ever smell his own bullshit when the President talks to God?”
JOHN MARK KRENKEL
How could you omit Steve Earle from the list of artists? Someone needs to listen to the albums Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now.
I was all set to complain that no one ever mentions the punk rockers, who have been singing (or screaming) against Bush since the day he was selected. Then I saw that you named my favorite political band ever, Anti-Flag–a simply fantastic band. Other punk bands that do great political music are NOFX, Bad Religion, Propagandhi and the Descendents. (There’s more, but that’s a good start.) The album cover for The War on Errorism by NOFX is hilarious.
You must include James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here.”
You should also check out “Bring Them Back,” written by Mona Abboud and recorded by Chicago actors, singers and musicians. More info: www.bringthembackfromiraq.com.
Don’t forget Merle Haggard’s “America First” (listen and view for free on his website). Maybe a bit nationalistic, but it should help pull some conservative-leaning Americans away from the Bush camp.
Perhaps Bob Dylan would get involved enough to re-release “Masters of War.” I can’t think of anything more befitting today.
Hermosa Beach, Calif.
You left out an important musical protest. Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra recorded the album Not in Our Name in 2004 and have recently toured the nation presenting that music. The Liberation Music Orchestra, composed of top-drawer jazz musicians, re-forms whenever there is an urgent need to speak out. They made their first album in 1969 to speak against the Vietnam War, the second in 1982 about El Salvador, the third in 1989 about Bush Senior and the most recent about Iraq and The Shrub. The music is beautiful, emotional, powerful and haunting–no words necessary. All four albums are a must-listen for us antifascists.
Falls Church, Va.
You made one unforgivable omission: Radiohead’s explosive “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)” from their 2003 album Hail to the Thief. Frontman Thom Yorke was frantically shouting “You have not been/paying attention” long before some of the bands you mentioned spoke out against the Iraq War.
YOU’VE GOT A LOT OF NERVE
Richard Goldstein’s May 15 cover story, “Satellite Dylan, From Icon to DJ,” aroused admiration and ire. It was characterized as “condescending,” “respectful,” “sanctimonious,” “admiring,” “moronically reductive,” “making fine points,” “fair-minded,” “misguided” and “crap.” –The Editors
Not every middle-aged white guy who likes Dylan’s music, even in its more recent incarnations, reveres him as some kind of guru, leader, “icon,” role model or instructor in how to live or think about one’s life. Some people enjoy Dylan’s sound, his range, his wit, his artistic integrity and his indifference to the praise or disdain of critics.
Bob Dylan “hasn’t had much influence on literature. Few contemporary poets write like him,” says Richard Goldstein. He might consider asking some major contemporary poets whether or not Dylan has influenced them. I suspect he’d be surprised by their answers.
And beyond the poets, he may want to reread much of the fiction that’s been written here in America these past forty years or so (Denis Johnson and T.C. Boyle, for starters). Dylan, at his greatest, creates effects that are the equal of many of the greatest poets in the language. Yes, these effects usually derive from the whole package–the music, the whining, the lyrics, the phrasing. And no, the words on the page don’t usually suffice. No matter. Dylan quite simply expanded the definition of poetry. His greatest work is alive and well, and eventually the cultural establishment will accept him as the equal of Whitman, Blake, Wordsworth and the rest.
The songwriters of the past forty years have become our national poets–the definition of “poetry” has expanded to re-absorb “song,” where it all began in Homer’s day anyway. There is simply no way anyone can knock Dylan down to size: For all the missteps of much of his later work (though there have been some wonderful additions as well), for all his inconsistencies and flaws, Dylan’s greatest achievements are among the greatest achievements of our age. We’re blessed to be alive in the days of Dylan. Go ahead. Call me a hagiographer!
“What do women think of this shit?” asks Richard Goldstein. Well, I can hardly speak for all women, but I can speak for myself. There are more female Dylan fans out there than Goldstein acknowledges. He could find them by hanging around the Dylan online message boards and newsgroups. And by going to concerts. He’d discover that current set lists don’t include only 1960s classics but are heavily laced with songs from his latest albums.
He’d also find songs subversive of the patriarchy and machismo he’s so sure permeate Dylan’s work. For example, in “Summer Days”: “I got my hammer ringin’, but the nails ain’t goin’ down.” Or in “High Water,” where the protagonist looks to a woman to save him (as many Dylan protagonists have) from the deluge: “Don’t reach out for me,” she said. “Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?” Women, he acknowledges, are in the same leaky boat as men. Or in the monumental “Highlands,” where the narrator wanders, lost and indecisive, a self-mocking figure. None of these make a convincing picture of a machismo patriarch. As for writing songs about corrupt love, please. That’s been one of the staples of love poetry since the genre was invented.
But people often pull “Sweetheart Like You” out of the hat with a triumphal flourish as proof of Dylan’s misogyny. I think it’s a minor masterpiece, and probably his most misunderstood one. It’s not a love song at all. Like most of the Infidels album, this song struggles with the question of the apparent absence of God in a world given over to evil. Dylan the writer is not the narrator, who is indeed an amoral and sexist character, a liar, cheat and a thief. Dylan the writer plays with the hackneyed pickup line (“What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”) to launch an exploration of what happens to a good person in a world where virtue is not rewarded. This song has nothing to do with love, but I suspect the lines about women staying home have sent up so many red flags that most people don’t really hear that. Judy Collins has a nice cover of the song, if you want to hear a woman who seems to think this shit is worth the listen.