Saturday, November 06, 2004

Some Sweet Music Behind the Barricades
David Rovics at the Wyoming Union, October 27, 2004

"And all the political poets/Couldn't think of what to say/So they all decided/To live life for today/I spent a few years catching up/With all my friends and lovers/Sleeping til eleven/Home beneath the covers/And I learned how to play the banjo/After the revolution"

Thanks to some friends well ahead of the curve, I started listening to David Rovics about a year ago. But until I looked at his web site, and communicated with other fans around the country, I had no idea how influential he was. Rovics is an heir to Phil Ochs, a reminder of the role that the political folk singer still plays in local discourse. Rovics's performances have run the full spectrum, from playing in front of tens of thousands of protesters in Miami, to house parties of 10-15 people, or in our case, a relatively small crowd of eager Wyoming students and activists.

Although a delayed flight into Denver made David arrive late, there were still 30-40 people waiting faithfully for him at the Union. He apologized profusely as he checked sound levels, and launched right into the hilarious (and scary) "Operation Iraqi Liberation," which, of course, forms the acronym "O.I.L." Like Ochs's more topical work, it was a funny and functional piece full of enlightening one-liners and clever plays on words, the kind of political satire that is sorely lacking in most corners of bourgeois political commentary.

What followed was a delightful, funny, sad, thoroughly envigorating and musically-skilled tour through current and past activism and critique by a charming and intelligent musician. He even covered one of Ochs's more well known tunes, "Draft Dodger Rag." I particularly enjoyed "Oppositional Defiant Disorder," a song about the DSM IV's classification of rebellion as neurosis. A couple of audience favorites were "The Alligator Song," which suggests that we can detect the effects of toxins in the environment by looking at the shrinking size of Alligator genitallia (a thesis confirmed by scientific research), and the very effective and sarcastic soon-to-be-classic "Who Would Jesus Bomb:"

"Maybe Jesus would bomb the Syrians/'Cause they're not Jews like him/Maybe Jesus would bomb the Afghans/On some kind of vengeful whim/Maybe Jesus would drive an M1 tank/And he would shoot Saddam/Tell me, who would Jesus bomb?"

Bob Dylan once accused Phil Ochs of being a journalist rather than a musician. Of course, Dylan proved what he really meant by that statement as he gradually abandoned most of his radicalism in favor of reactionary religious mysticism and trite love-story narratives. It was a shame, because Dylan's brilliant lyricism could have been combined with Ochs's political discipline to create some truly nuanced political music. For Ochs, as for Rovics, though, nuance is much less important than musical journalism: Both Ochs and Rovics take up the mantle of speaking for those struggling ordinary people in past and present who could use a helping hand, a voice and guitar, to publicize and immortalize their causes. What Dylan derisively called "journalism" is really the process of placing a human face on important social issues, a personalization of the political that does not innoculate the social with excessive individualism. A good example of this is "The Face of Victory," Rovics's deeply disturbing and angry song about an Iraq War veteran:

"A rocket launcher hit my tank/Started up a fire/Blew my legs right off of me/And now you’re looking at the face of victory.../They sent me back to Michigan/Put some plastic on my stumps/Sent me on my way/And now I roll on down the city streets/Looking at the people/While they turn their eyes away/Down at the Burren/They were talking about the government/And how it’s all a ruse/And I get a little madder/Every time I see the president/Smirking on the evening news/And I think of how they duped me/And so many more good people/And I think of the price we paid/The rich keep getting richer/And the bastards are already scheming/About the next nation they want us to invade..."

Rovics doesn't let his partisanship get the best of his humanism, though. In "The Dying Firefighter" he acknowledges the heroism of those who rushed into the WTC towers before they collapsed, and he does so in an unfiltered appeal to altruism and self-sacrifice. Similarly, in "The Death of Rachel Corrie," Rovics chooses personal lamentation over political posturing, asking only whether the Israeli bulldozer driver who killed Corrie has become what he once hated. (I must add that this song was particularly affecting and vindicating to some of us in the debate community after we had to endure the infantile and mean-spirited ridicule of Corrie's death by some folks over at Net Benefits who should certainly have known better).

Rovics's stylistic range is incredible. Unlike so many one-dimensional folkies and punks, he proves himself adept at various folk traditions, displayed in a range from the 3/4-time "Trafalgar Square" to ballads like "More Gardens Song" and "I Wanna Go Home." Similarly, he borrows from the Joe Hill tradition of creative ad hominem ("Butcher for Hire" is an attack on roving police chief John Timoney, responsible for the most efficiently reprehensible displays of police oppression in recent memory) and the Utah Phillips tradition of enlightening history lessons (before hearing "Saint Patrick Battalion" I had never known that a group of about 800 Irish-Americans had fought alongside the Mexicans to resist American Imperialism in 1847).

David Rovics closed his set with "After the Revolution" and the a cappella "Behind the Barricades," a delightful synthesis of love and activist politics--a synthesis we lovers and revolutionaries sorely need:

"As the movement grows/There will be hills and bends/But at the center of the struggle/Are your lovers and your friends/The more we hold each other up/The less we can be swayed/Here's to love and solidarity/And a kiss behind the barricades"

I left the show with a renewed fighting energy and more than enough strength to endure the debacle of an election six days later. As Rovics, and so many others, repeatedly and effectively point out, it's not about what goes on in the beltway (which will be evil no matter who is there) so much as it is about what goes on in the streets, and in our mutual interactive struggles. And I was reminded, once again, that music reflects an internal-social sentiment vital to political solidarity. You can download all of David's music for free at You should. You really, really should.

1 comment:

Russell Arben Fox said...

I just caught up with reading your blog, Matt; thanks for this post. You've mentioned David Rovics before, but your description of his music and ideas here was particularly engaging. I'm going to be doing some downloading soon.