Salting The Wound: A Soundtrack For The Occupy Movement

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‘Salty’ mix tape below essay

If I had a hammer I’d break every fucking copy of “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song).” I got nothing against Pete Seeger but traditional protest folk music has always grated against my sensibilities – its abject earnestness, its flagrant moral superiority, its sing-along simplicity. The people writing and singing this kind of music are selling Bibles in a church parking lot. Without question it can be effective but if one hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid it’s not especially useful or even welcome even if one agrees with the basic sentiments.

The growing proliferation of classic folkies (and their modern descendents) showing up at Zuccotti Park – Joan Baez, Crosby & Nash, Tom Morello, Peter Yarrow, and Seeger himself – got me thinking about the differences between this movement’s character and the 1960s civil rights uprisings and where music fits in. The ideas of Seeger’s omnipresent anthem remain sound – “I’d hammer out danger/ I’d hammer out a warning/ I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters” – but the tone is all wrong for the young generation rubbing sand in Wall Street’s Vaseline. The cynicism and broad pop culture understanding of the majority of folks pitching tents and mic checking across the U.S. (and now the entire planet) can’t be underestimated. A profound distrust of ANY power structure is central to the Occupy Movement, seen most obviously in the adamant refusal to designate official leaders and figureheads. They understand how even a bit of power is almost always inherently corrupting in this messed up system we find ourselves awash in.

As someone whose political and social awakening was ushered in as a high school student during the Reagan years, I’ve always had a more combative attitude than most traditional leftie protesters. I’m not endorsing violence but I’m attracted to scrappers, people willing to get bloodied by the powers that be, smiling as they stand in the face of dumbness and overreaching authority, a posture that screams, “Come on, motherfuckers, let’s throw down!” without ever needing to throw a punch. Punk rock provided the coal for my young engine, particularly the snarky insights of the Dead Kennedys, the never-dumb-it-down polemics of Bad Religion, and especially the hugely diverse musical sweep and utterly wise yet often funny directness of The Clash.

I’m a generation removed from the college students and similarly dispossessed youth spearheading the Occupy Movement but it’s hard to believe they’ve grown more comfortable with traditional protest music’s platitudes and often painful sincerity. In a broad sense, folks involved in the Occupy Movement are pissed off – massively and achingly pissed off and not entirely clear where to aim their anger, fear and frustration. Some targets are easy – Wall Street, Congress – but at this early stage one of the only things there’s consensus on is there’s something wrong and something must be done about it. Simply giving voice to these feelings – a thunderous, wounded shout from the streets – is actually enough for now.

Ginsberg understood this, his famous Howl beginning, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” and concluding, “In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.” He’s describing the long road through personal pain that becomes public pain, a stabbing discomfort that must be expressed aloud, and in doing so one discovers that they are not alone, that they share common ground and common cause with people they would likely have never known, the “others” on the other side of our many fences that look and act and dream and suffer just like us.

It’s said the greatest lie the Devil ever pulled off is to make us believe he doesn’t exist. The power mongers in the financial sector and the government don’t want the system discussed. They don’t want to hear about the reality of their choices from the people living the society they’ve engineered. Nick Cave once observed:

Money, man, it is a bitch
The poor, they spoil it for the rich
With my face pressed in the clover
I wondered when this would be over
And at home we are all so guilty-sad

Right now at what is hopefully the start of real, immensely needed change for the 99-percent, what’s required are songs that angry up the blood, anthems to make the homebound hit the parks and plazas and lend their numbers and voices to a cause that might just overturn the apple cart so the majority can get a bite of the harvest…or simply feed their children…or feel like what they do and desire matters and is reflected in a larger sense by our culture. The values and concerns of the vast majority are at direct odds with the existing power structure yet a sizeable chunk of the populace remains unmoved, the suffering and crazy-making unfairness of it all still kept at a comfortable distance so reality doesn’t have to sink in, oblivious to how one job loss, a few late mortgage payments, a contested medical claim, or any of a thousand other inevitable turns of fate are the only thing standing between them and the laissez-faire, market-worshipping world outside their window.

Where we find ourselves today isn’t an accident. It is a series of fiendishly interconnected, heartlessly constructed systems designed to fuck anyone who isn’t privy to their inner workings. Lip service Christians and vote courtin’ politicians spouting truisms about the generosity and kindness of the American people aren’t talking about the dillholes at the top of the heap. No one who lives in that high place and refuses a 6-percent tax hike so that bridges don’t collapse and the poorest of us can eat breakfast and get an education has any claim to compassion. There’s still a resistance to call out the people who are working day and night to keep their white-knuckled grip on power and riches for being as callous and short-sighted as they are. Well, this soundtrack aims to do just that, and I hope it prods anyone who listens to it to some action for the greater good.

Track Notes

1. Know Your Rights – The Clash
“You have the right to remain silent/ You are warned that anything you say can and will be taken down and used as evidence against you.” Combat Rock arrived in 1982, and the subject matter of this track was old news then. America is still not living up to its ideals in reality. No one deserves investigation or humiliation to put bread on their table.

2. I Party All The Time – Gang of Four
“We are not prisoners – although we’re putting in the hours/ We are not innocent – although we’re singing in the choir/ If there’s a revolution then you’ll stay home.” It’s hard to stop living a carefree, oblivious existence, especially when it’s so easy to have fun.

3. Binge And Purge – Clutch
“I’ve got nothing to lose but my apathy.” Once you figure out that the guns – literal and metaphorical – are pointed at you it really focuses one’s attention. A fight song for those that don’t yet realize they’re in a battle.

4. Before You Die – Bad Religion
“Rewrite the morals, rectify the nation/ Now may be your time.” We’ve only so many hours before we shuffle off this mortal coil and what we do with them matters – for today and for the tomorrows those we love live after us. Think about it and act accordingly.

5. A Young Man’s Money – Ivan Julian
“See, we can get this and that in every which way/ But we get the same thing right or wrong/ I think about it all the time/ And wrap my cage around me.” A snarling inducement to knock the mold off musty, crippling systems.

6. Welcome To The Factory – Backyard Tire Fire
“You’re locked on the clock/ You’re ready to blow/ And nobody knows.” The grind and workaday desperation of repetitive labor whirrs in this gutbucket wail from one of Illinois’ best bands.

7. The Power’s Out – Flogging Molly
“Forgive me for dreaming it’s all I have left/ Except this pending foreclosure and mountains of debt.” Detroit shines as a beacon of what market/corporate thinking produces in the end, a cautionary tableau of where the rest of America is going if we continue on our current path. Kudos to Dave King and the rest of Flogging Molly for hunkering down in the Motor City to record their fantastically timely new album Speed of Darkness (Impound review). This is a thumb in the eye of blood sucking leech CEOs everywhere.

8. Zombie Blues – The Denmark Veseys
“Zombies in the blue states and zombies in the red/ Just another country of the living dead/ There are zombies of all colors, black and brown and white/ There are zombies on the left and zombies on the right/ There are zombies that have money and zombies who are poor/ And they’re brandishing Kalashnikovs and mopping up the floor.” Jerry Joseph is wise in many ways and the guy pulls NO punches, including the haymakers he throws at himself. Being honest about our own role in sustaining a poisonous system is important.

9. Hard Day On The Planet – Loudon Wainwright III
“Don’t turn on the TV, don’t show me the paper/ Don’t want to know he got kidnapped or why they all raped her/ I want to go on vacation till the pressure lets up.” Pretending things aren’t “tough all over on Earth” isn’t going to make the problems go away.

10. Things Goin’ On – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Well, they’re goin’ ruin the air we breathe/ Lord have mercy/ They’re gonna ruin us all, by and by/ I’m telling all you beware/ I don’t think they really care.” Ronnie Van Zant was a deeper rabble-rouser than his legacy suggests. This call to “stand up and scream” comes from the band’s 1973 debut and is but one of many insightful blows he landed before his too, too early demise.

11. Funky Dollar Bill – Funkadelic
“It’ll buy you a life but not a true life/ The kind of life where the soul is lost.” What do we value as a country? Is it a quarterly profit guarantee or is it clean water, art, caring for the sick and needy? The almighty dollar can be used for good or ill, but it’s only a tool for the humans pushing it around. What do YOU want to make with this tool?

12. This Fucking Job – Drive-By Truckers
“Working this job is like a knife in the back/ It ain’t getting me further than the dump I live in/ It ain’t getting me further than my next paycheck.” The sense that we’re stuck and there is zero chance of improvement is creeping into our bones. We’re losing the belief that there’s anything else other than what we’ve got. It’s a lie, but changing the dynamics of day-to-day existence for the majority isn’t going to come quickly or easily.

13. ¡Let Freedom Ring! – Chuck Prophet
“Let there be darkness, let there be light/ As the hawk cripples the dove/ Over and over watch the dove die as they rip out the floorboards of love.” How we define a word is crucial. Even Fox News clatters endlessly about “American freedom” but what does it actually mean to be ‘free’ in the current context? Chuck dissects the double plus good rhetoric with humor and deft skill here.

14. I’m Gonna Assemble A City – These United States
“I’m gonna assemble a city right in the heart of their war/ I’m gonna sit in my lawn chair as the missiles and maggots bore/ I’m gonna sit in my lawn chair with a pointed but good-natured grin, letting the strangers that pass know they are always welcome to come in.” The launch of the Occupy Movement in New York City and the way the community evolved in Zuccotti Park is mirrored in this prescient number from 2009’s Everything Touches Everything, which is filled with hymns for kind revolutionaries everywhere.

15. Old News – Dr. Dog
“We’ve been toiling our tears hit the soil/ Taking up a voice from a flower field of noise.” A kiss to those sleeping in the street and dreaming loud enough for all to hear. It really is time to wrap up our old blues and toss them away.

16. Take ‘Em Down – Dropkick Murphys
“When the boss comes calling, don’t believe their lies.” This pro-union corker got some attention from NPR and elsewhere earlier this year but it’s not about one state or one boss – it’s about who we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with. The folks in power – almost to a one – aren’t interested in sharing that power and privilege, and it will take the might of the many to pry it from their hands.

17. Mean Streak – John Gorka
“No money coming in/ It’s all going out/ I’m standing on the corner/ In the shadow of doubt.” Things feel desperate for an increasing number of people. What stability we possess seems tenuous at best, and even if we don’t know how we’ll manage we cannot let the powers that be continue to take advantage of the 99-percent.

18. Is This Thing Working? – Todd Snider
“”You gonna hit somebody, today? You gonna hit me too/ In fact, you’re gonna hit me every day, because now I’m picking on you.” People who would steal pensions, starve the hungry and condemn the sick to die are bullies. People who compensate themselves to tune of thousands of times what the average worker in their company makes are bullies. The folks Occupy is confronting are thugs and jerks and bullies, and part of why they and the mainstream media and Mayor Bloomberg (and mayors like him) are upset is they’ve been exposed. They’ve been stealing our lunch money for decades and they don’t want to stop. Well, a hearty fuck you to all of them. Now we’re picking on you.

19. Can We Really Party Today? – Jonathan Wilson
“With all that’s going on/ shouldn’t we get started today?” Again, distraction and personal pleasure are wonderful opiates. The rise of video game culture and pocketsize entertainment in general is not an accident. It’s nicer to take a hike in the woods and pop open a sixer with one’s pals, but there’s important shit to be done. Let’s not forget that.

20. Last Year – Akron/Family
“Last year was such a hard year/ For such a long time/ This year’s gonna be ours.” A simple, open-ended chant for the Occupy Movement as 2011 nears its close. Keep up the charge and 2012 might just be our year.

2 thoughts on “Salting The Wound: A Soundtrack For The Occupy Movement

  1. Pissing on Pete Seeger does nothing for your ‘essay’ and “The people writing and singing this kind of music are selling Bibles in a church parking lot” just makes no goddamn sense. So I skimmed to the bottom and the list is surpringly good for what it is..

  2. Pete Seeger has done more for the progressive cause during the 20th century and into the 21st than any of the musicians you list below. You should check up on your history, my friend, and ask those same protest singers where they got their inspiration from.

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