2012-03-28 / Opinion

This portable electronic device kills fascists

By Kevin Brooks

The late folk singer Woody Guthrie, icon to generations of American immigrants and union workers, was famous for playing a guitar upon which he had scrawled the credo, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Being an artist, Guthrie did not worry that this slogan would be taken literally. Clearly, the only way his beat-up old wooden guitar was going to be able to kill any evil-doer was metaphorically. In pictures, it doesn’t look like it would stand up to a stiff wind.

As an entertainer frequently featured on the powerful medium of radio, Guthrie knew he had a responsibility to keep his discourse civil because in the real world, words have consequences. Accordingly, he kept his most incendiary opinions confined to the front of his rarely-seen guitar and off the public airwaves.

Would that radio personalities continued to exhibit such restraint. But as only the latest Rush Limbaugh imbroglio reminds us, public radio airwaves remain the Wild West of modern communication. The internet may be more cutting edge, but one must be able to read to make full use of it, making talk radio the more desirable option for ingesting news and opinion among certain powerful voting demographics.

But to all those who have cried for the government to step in and remove Limbaugh from the airwaves (I’m thinking of you, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem), I say take a closer look at the First Amendment. It’s there specifically to protect vile and reprehensible speech, not Shakespearian sonnets or limericks about schoolgirls from Nantucket.

Rush Limbaugh is the current poster child for the First Amendment — that’s what Howard Stern gets for fleeing to satellite radio — because the awful stuff he says does not rise to the level of actionable speech. He didn’t move anyone to violence, or try to.

Sadly, Limbaugh is not alone. He’s just the loudest mouth with the largest number of acolytes. Thanks to this season’s GOP primary process, in the last month or so the political and social media debate in this country has swung from the war and the economy back to an increasingly heated rehash of the birth-control brouhaha that most people had thought resolved since the 1970s.

And as long as I’ve been alive (50 years and counting), when human rights issues are on the table, America’s artistic community steps up. For the first time in a long time, it looks as if they’re ready to rise to meet that challenge in a way that promotes positive, workable solutions instead of just listing com- plaints. Listing complaints was big during the Bush II years. (Who can forget Neil Young’s Let’s Impeach The President?)

So much for liberal nuance.

But today’s crop of folk/protest recordings is much more focused on looking for ways to heal the cracks in an increasingly fractured society than apportioning blame for the same.

Even late-night TV is yielding promising new surprises. I caught a young man on Letterman recently who blew me away. His name is Joseph Arthur and the song was We Travel As Equals (Or Not At All). Putting his payroll where his mouth is, Arthur’s musical entourage was a virtual United Nations of diversity, and his song lyrics speak eloquently for themselves.

Bruce Springsteen, whose E Street Band was a noteworthy — unique, really — model of rock band diversity, is attempting to launch his first tour since the death last year of founding saxophonist Clarence Clemons. As Springsteen has said in recent press interviews, when he and Clemons pooled their resources and tied their artistic destinies to each other in the early ‘70s, such a cross-racial relationship in a rock & roll group was unheard-of. White-boy rock bands a) didn’t have saxes, and b) they sure didn’t have giant Black dudes sharing the spotlight with the lead singer during every emotional peak on all the crowd’s favorite songs.

Springsteen honors Clemons’ memory and continues, and amplifies, that spirit of inclusion on his new album, Wrecking Ball, whose tour opened last week at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater.

Back in the ‘70s, Springsteen was touted by both Time and Newsweek as his generation’s answer to Bob Dylan, but over the years he’s grown into something more important: his generation’s Johnny Cash. The voice of the little guy, the condemned, the cast-aside.

This is not a slam against Dylan. For his moment in time, his impact was unparalleled. Unlike Cash, however — and now Springsteen — Dylan got burned out on all the attention, and instead of using his unexpected notoriety to continue advancing social causes, he retreated and licked his wounds. I can’t say I would have done anything different. He never signed up to be the voice of anything, except maybe Woody Guthrie.

But since Cash’s passing in 2003, it’s “Bruce Springsteen,” not “Bob Dylan,” that is the new two-word answer to why it is still good to be an American. Springsteen even seems to acknowledge the connection with flourishes of Cash’s distinctive boom-chicka-boom rhythm sprinkled throughout the new song We Are Alive.

From the opening track, We Take Care Of Our Own, to the last, Wrecking Ball is a call for apolitical unity and fraternity. Partisans predisposed to dislike Springsteen’s humanist bent will no doubt cry “class warfare”; for some reason, Springsteen’s radical notion of shared social responsibility scares the hell out of some people, but they are missing the point.

There’s a venerable gospel folk standard, This Train Is Bound For Glory, which lists all manner of scoundrels and scallawags who will not be invited on board the Express to the Pearly Gates: liars, rustlers, con men, women of easy virtue…

This train don’t carry no gamblers, this train

This train don’t carry no gamblers

Liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers

This train is bound for glory, this train

It’s a terrific old song, and one with which Springsteen is obviously familiar, but decided needed a major retrofit to remain relevant.

One of the new songs on Wrecking Ball — although he’s been playing it in concert for years, this is its studio-version debut, and one of Clarence Clemons’ last studio recordings — is called Land Of Hope And Dreams, and it point-by-point repudiates the chilly judgmentalism of the earlier song at the same time as it tips its hat to it:

This train carries saints and sinners

This train carries losers and winners

This train carries whores and gamblers

This train carries lost souls

This train, dreams will not be thwarted

This train, faith will be rewarded

This train, hear the steel wheels singin’

This train, bells of freedom ringin’

Again, Springsteen returns to themes of inclusion and universal brotherhood. In Springsteen’s America, nobody gets thrown off, or under, the bus. There are no lost souls, only souls seeking redemption. To make absolutely sure nobody misses the point, he even incorporates a snippet of the civil-rights classic People Get Ready into the coda.

It’s also worth noting that at the end of every chorus Springsteen sings, “Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.” By entreating the listener to “meet him” there, Springsteen acknowledges that we are not there yet.

Land Of Hope And Dreams posits that The American Experiment, and the struggle between our ideals and our convenience, continues. And if we are to stand any real chance of seeing it to full fruition, it will be by working together, not at cross-purposes.

From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party to the Arab Spring, there is something in the zeitgeist that suggests that the masses may finally be ready to get up from the sofa and do something about achieving social change, instead of just belly-aching about how bad things have gotten.

Because taking care of our own necessarily includes taking care of ourselves, too.

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