Every good songwriter eventually runs out of love songs and starts writing about killing people. Even David Bowie. It’s a long and star-studded playlist of songs about blowing people away with guns; or beating them to death with hammers; or cutting up their bodies and putting them in the freezer; or just vaguely threatening them with violence. It certainly wouldn’t be complete without a David Bowie entry. It’s also an increasingly problematic topic, but that’s hardly the writer’s fault. Obviously, this fantasy of bloodshed was written in a very different place and time from our own. Bowie was referring to news stories of violent and delusional veterans who commit crimes because in their minds the war never ended. It’s a song about PTSD and ties in with The Man Who Sold the World‘s theme of mental illness and psychological distress. No one knew that it would play very differently a few decades later. No one knew that shooting dozens of unarmed strangers for funsies would become our time’s quasi-acceptable violent bile-letting, akin to what lynching and burning down the neighbors’ village used to be. Not something to write lighthearted songs about.
Bob Marley offers a plain and pithy truth: you can’t run away from yourself. End of story. That’s a truth that a lot of people are in denial about, and no amount of reggae songs or life experience will convince them to stop trying. If you know what’s good for you, though, take some life lessons from Marley. He has a lot of them to offer, about being a strong and righteous person.
Now feels like a good time to revisit Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It has always been Floyd’s bleakest and most challenging record, and the accompanying film, well, it has always made my skin crawl. However, it needs to be seen again, because it has become relevant in ways its makers did not intend. It was, I think, intended as an inward-looking project, an attempt by its creators to come to terms with a chunk of history they were born on the tail-end of. Roger Waters was writing as a member of a post-war generation whose early life was imprinted by horrors they couldn’t remember or understand, who grew up dealing with the trauma and guilt of atrocities they had no part in. The Wall was supposed to be a generational reckoning, but it was dismissed in its own time as a rock star vanity project, then later as fodder for dorm room stoners who think they’re, like, deep, man. Today, unfortunately, it’s come to reflect reality, and it needs to be reevaluated as a work of art that has something to teach us. For one thing, it effectively illustrates the radicalization of a disaffected young man, a social problem that we’re grappling with and seeing the real-world effects of. Although it was made years before the technological leaps that have made radicalization so insidious and easy, it’s a story ripped from the headlines. A young man who is unloved, socially unsupported, mentally ill and at loose ends in his life quickly finds himself marching in lockstep just because it gives him a momentary sense of purpose and an illusion of control. It shows that self-destruction, violence and hate are, for many people, a natural reaction to feeling dehumanized themselves. A society that devalues humans and treats them as dispensable cogs creates people who want to burn down society and destroy themselves and each other. We are seeing it happen, in real time.
It’s hard to believe that in 1972 Cat Stevens’ albums were the kind of bestsellers that nearly everyone went out and bought. I mean, that’s hard to imagine just logistically, because in their day they had to physically walk to the record store, in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. But also, it’s weird to think of a time when it was guileless thoughtfulness and gentle melody that floated people’s boats. Songwriters like Cat Stevens still exist, people who want to write about love and finding meaning in the world. But being thoughtful and spiritual and positive-minded and just nice is not what you’d call the dominant aesthetic. Maybe it’s because our times are more troubled than 1972 was. The early seventies were all peaceful and golden, right? RIGHT??
I still can’t tell you quite what it means to be a rude boy. Because, you know, culture gaps. I know it’s a bit more than just a guy who likes ska. I also know that it was ska music that brought its own cultural youthquake from Jamaica to the United Kingdom to California. You can trace that history through pop culture from the 1950’s well into the 90’s. Here, we can concern ourselves the late 70’s, when ska was intertwined with punk and socially conscious British youth cared a lot about political instability in Latin America. We think of punk rock music as being a simplistic genre, probably because a lot of its practitioners never stray from the three-chord, three-minute structure. But if we try to understand the social context the movement sprang from, suddenly we’re learning about things like Thatcherism and it’s Late 20th Century History 101. Sountracked by The Clash, of course, them being the anointed ultimate punk rock band – the the antithesis of ‘ignorant punks’. Their music is loaded with global political context, so much so that fans who weren’t lucky enough to have been there personally need a study guide to really understand what they’re pumping their angry little fists about.
What rock music has always needed is more bouzouki. Just step away from the three-guitar format and let some other instruments take the spotlight. Obviously, I enjoy diversification, which rock’n’roll sometimes needs a good shot of. Up steps Cat Stevens with his Greek heritage and bouzouki. Stevens liked to inject his music with touches of Greekiness, including singing in the language, using instruments not usually heard on the Top of the Pops, and the occasional cultural reference. It never made his songs any less accessible, but it definitely made his seem deeper and more interesting than other folky singer-songwriters around him. Win-win!
“The carpet’s all paid for, God bless the TV”
Elton John wouldn’t know what it feels like to be resigned to a tiny, meaningless life confined by carpet and television. He had a bigger destiny. But if he hadn’t made it as a rock star, he would well have been facing a miserable lifetime of conformity and complacency. Alcoholism, depression, divorce, alimony payments, poverty, all of the fun stuff. If he’s any sort of a reasonable thinking person at all – and I’m certain that he is! – he’s thanking the skies above that he had the talent and the drive and the luck not to end up a sad lonely little man with nothing to lean on in life but the westerns on TV. But he has a ton of empathy for those people who did end up like that. And he’s saying that there ain’t nothing wrong with it. It’s a sign of Elton John’s empathy as a performer and Bernie Taupin’s empathy as a writer that they don’t use the small person’s small life as a metaphor for some grander point about the general meaninglessness and unfairness and grinding ennui of a society that dehumanizes and isolates even as it comforts and tranquilizes etc. etc. Lots of people’s lives revolve around small comforts and familiarity and dumb entertainment and they’re not really aching for anything more. They just want to settle down and watch Roy Rogers reruns in peace, and that doesn’t make them bad people and it’s not an indictment on all of society.