Every Song Sounds Political

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Me, Danny Elfman and Samantha Allen backstage at Oingo Boingo show. 1988, Santa Cruz

I’ve been listening to some of my favorite albums of all time this week. Trying to let music do what it has always done for me my entire life: get me through the shit times. Whether it be when I was a teenager and feeling hopelessly awkward, dealing with an unrequited crush (at any age), a painful breakup, the loss of a job, a death in the family, general malaise….basically, any and all of life’s events have had songs to help me, and continue to help me, get through any sadness and pain, and move on to the next struggle. Not that music is a balm for only the hard times; but it’s more essential, more necessary when life dishes up plates of crap. When we fall in love, when we get that dream job, when good fortune falls upon us, music can and does often heighten this joy, but it’s less a matter of (and I know this sounds overly dramatic) survival. Every sappy love song on the radio, songs we previously couldn’t stand, suddenly speak to exactly what we’re feeling when we are in the grip of new love. Even a Bryan Adams ballad can pull at our heartstrings. We lose all sense of taste and perspective, and this is perfectly wonderful, in those fleeting moments. We don’t have to actively seek out music — it’s all around us, like animated butterflies.giphy But when we are despairing, we need to be alone in our rooms, stacks of records and CDs fanned out around us, determined to find the right song that speaks to our hurt. Not just any song will do.

And songs we know and love, they can take on new meanings at different ages, depending on what is happening in the world, in our world. What once felt like a song directed specifically to us as a young person–hearing it again ten, twenty, thirty years later can imbue the same song with a larger, more global  connotation.

Oingo Boingo’s “Grey Matter,” the opening cut on their brilliant sophomore album, 1982’s Nothing to Fear, is one of those tracks for me. Back when I was 15, I took this song to imply that stodgy and bitter old folks thought that we young people were stupid, spineless and worthless! The song starts off with the words: They say you’re stupid / That you’re too young to vote / They say you’ll swallow anything / That they shove down your throat /They say you can’t think / That you haven’t got a brain / That you’re just there to listen / That you’re just being trained

And then the chorus, repeating:  There’s something inside your head / Grey matter

 worthless-and-weak-imgurListening to these lyrics, I’d pictured the father figure in the Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video, screaming at his son “You’re worthless and weak!!” But the difference here was that Danny Elfman was on our side, warning us that those cynical adults didn’t believe we kids could contribute anything vital and worthy to the political conversation of the day. He used the “they” voice to ingratiate himself, perhaps to light a spark. Are you just going to let them say these things about you? being the not-so-subtle subtext in his lyrics. He was acting as the outsider instigator — not yet an “adult” but also too old to be a kid. Elfman was more like our know-it-all older brother; sure, he was an asshole, but it still felt like a good idea to listen to him.

Hearing “Grey Matter” again today, 34 years later — no longer a kid, and, in fact, coming from the point of view of an adult more likely to spout in a judgmental tone, “kids these days!” — the song takes on a new perspective. I hear it now as a direct challenge, a call to action: Prove to me that you aren’t just obedient, device-addicted sheep, following your leader off a cliff! I want to believe in the young people of today. I want to believe that these kids, who’d grown up in a country with more diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and cultural expression than ever before, will rise up against the recent trend toward intolerance, exclusivity and fear. cluelessI want to believe in the youth of today, and at times I do, especially here in the Bay Area where activism is encouraged and often birthed. But I also see, on a daily basis working in the tech gulch of San Francisco, throngs of 20-somethings glued to their screens, keeping to their silos, seeing the dangers in the world as some sort of game or movie they watch on a tiny screen and can ignore or defeat with their fast moving thumbs. The worst that can happen to them is that they forget to charge their device and have make eye contact with another human being.

I can’t help but think that maybe Danny Elfman was never on the side of the kids in this song after all; that “Grey Matter” was never a direct call to action, but was more likely a simple challenge, a dare to the youth of the day to prove him wrong. He’d watched the middle-upper class suburban kids around him whine and complain, expecting change to occur without having to get their hands dirty. He knew the power music had to get individuals and crowds fired up. How do you trigger a reaction? Tell your enemy/audience/fans that they are worthless and weak.

They say you lost the ability to even think
That your tiny little brain / Slipped down the kitchen sink
They say that you’ll buy anything / That they turn your way
That you’ll listen to everything / That they decide to play
There’s something inside your head / There’s something inside your head/Grey matter

Which is why this song seems so vital today. The technology may have changed, but the message is the same as it was more than 30 years ago, when Reagan took office and half the country was in an uproar. Those of us who were kids the first time “Grey Matter” played on the radio might have less hair, more perspective now, might claim we have seen it all before. We may be more tired, more set in our ways, have less energy, and have stiffer backs. We are still going to join in the fight, but we need to feed on the idealism and the fire that being young and determined provides. We greys do not matter as much as we once did. It’s just the truth. We may have more of the money, but, like Louie CK showed so eloquently in the below clip, sometimes you have to recognize when it’s time to pass the torch and let the kids have their turn.

***

Some more Oingo Boingo thoughts….

I’m pretty sure the first time I’d heard Oingo Boingo was in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Their song “Goodbye, Goodbye” played over the ending credits, and I remember really liking the fun, party vibe of the tune. I was just transitioning from my hard-rock/hesher phase into a more punk and new wave persona and the FTARH soundtrack was a great album to help me cross over. Just take a look at the bands and songs on it. It was a soundtrack to please everyone. It had classic rock, sensitive singer-songwriter ballads, hard rock, new wave, disco….It was the perfect teen-sex comedy of the day, and in my opinion, has never been topped, in terms of genius casting, wide-ranging music, mix of comedy and serious issues. And it holds up 35 years later.

And then there’s this – the early, early beginnings of Oingo Boingo, when they were called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The group started as an avant garde performance troupe led by Danny Elfman’s brother, Richard. This clip does have Danny, but not sure any of the other members of Oingo Boingo are in this band.

Needless to say, I’m a huge Oingo Boingo fan, especially of their first four albums (Only a Lad, Nothing to Fear, Good for Your Soul, Dead Man’s Party) and even though they sold out stadiums across the country and knew how to market themselves better than most of all the other bands of their day (soundtracks, movie appearances), delfmanI still feel that they never received the critical acclaim they deserved. I know Danny Elfman is mostly embarrassed by his early catalog — maybe it was the muscle-revealing wife-beaters he rarely strayed from wearing in those younger days — but, for me, these albums hold up remarkably well and Boingo’s mix of ska, punk, rock, soul, dance, polka and circus music kept them from sounding like any other band during their day and ever since.

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No songs. No sleep.

I’ve been writing 30 stories in 30 days as part of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) this month and my project is essentially 30 therapy sessions, with the same protagonist at various stages of his life. I came up with this idea without (consciously) thinking about the election and the state of the world. But now I’m using this format to work through my feelings and I highly recommend any of you other creatives out there do something like this too. I have a feeling that some truly important art is going to come out over the next four years.

Here’s what I wrote last night.therapy—————————————————————

November 9, 2016 11am – Jason & Susan

The room feels different to Jason today. Darker. Although the sun is shining, Jason figures that it must be hovering directly over the medical building and therefore bringing minimal light through the east-facing window. There is a slight grey haze hovering around the room. Jason is convinced he can see it, but knows all of this is in his head. The room, the placement of the furniture — the couch, the recliner in which his therapist, Susan Hecht, sits — it’s exactly as it always has been over the year he’s been coming here.

Susan takes a deep, audible nasal inhale, closes her eyes. Blows it out and opens them. Smiles at Jason. She can feel the change too.

“So, Jason.”

“Well…” The word blurts out like the start of a sentence, but nothing follows. What is there to say, really?

“How are you doing…?”

“OK, let’s just agree to not pretend that we are even remotely in the same world as we were 24 hours ago.” Jason had considered postponing his therapy session, but having agreed, in writing, to pay in full for any cancellations made within 24 hours of an appointment…well, he didn’t want to waste a hundred dollars.

“I can probably guess what you’re talking about, but for the sake of assumptions, do you mind telling me what you mean?” Susan didn’t want to show up to work either. Jason was her second patient of the day. Her first, a 50 year old divorced business woman from France, never even mentioned the election during her session. This surprised her, but didn’t shock her. She expected a reaction from Jason though.

“We are all fucked.” Jason leans forward, holds his head in his hands, his greasy straight-brown hair falling over his fingers, hiding them. He suddenly sits back up, straight, his bloodshot eyes aimed right at Susan. “I’m not fucked, really. I’m a straight white guy with a skill set that will net me work in pretty much any market.” He half smirks, half trembles. “But what about everyone else? What about Juan, who comes to my house once a month and weeds and trims the goddamned bougainvillea? I don’t know if he’s here illegally or not. I’m probably being a racist just saying that, but the whole concept of racism has changed now. Hasn’t it? I mean, is Juan calling his family back in Mexico? Making plans to leave the U.S? Or is he saying his goodbyes, imagining that visiting his cousins and his abuelo back in Huatulco or Oaxaca or wherever he’s from is no longer a possibility?”

What can Susan say to this? She worries that her marriage to her wife, Sandy, will soon be ruled invalid once the Supreme Court sways conservative in just a few short years. She decides she will tell this to Jason. They can both express their worries to each other on this day.

“I hear you, Jason.” Susan stands up, heads over to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. “I’m right there with you. The rules of decency and empathy, they no longer apply, do they?”

Oh shit, Jason thinks. She’s not searching for a gun is she? Not that he really believes she’s gone postal, but the thought does occur. Susan might be more wrecked by all of this than he is. When he sees what she pulls out from the cabinet though, he laughs and shakes his head.

“It’s noon o’clock somewhere, right?” Susan says as she sets a bottle of Maracame Gran Platino tequila on the table beside her chair. It’s not a new bottle. She pulls the cork from the top, smiles at Jason, tips her head back and takes a long, slow sip. A loud sigh as she rights her posture. She stands up and hands the bottle to Jason. “Highly unethical, probably illegal — but I know you aren’t an alcoholic, and I never drink alone.” Liar, she thinks.

Jason takes the bottle, turns it around to admire the label. “You don’t mess with the cheap stuff.” He takes a swig, pulls the bottle away from his mouth and a splash lands on his chin. He wipes it with the back of his hand. Then wipes his hand on his jeans. “Smooth.” He hands Susan the bottle.

“I have a feeling the alcohol industry is where we should be investing our money right about now,” Susan says, taking another swig.

“That is, if you have any money left to invest after next week,” Jason says, half-joking, half-despairing. “I actually think you’re in the perfect field for these times, Susan.” He’s got his legs slung over the side of the couch now, his upper body splayed across the cushions. “Your client base probably tripled overnight.”

“Ha!” Susan laughs, realizing that Jason is right. When the economy collapsed in 2007, she’d thought her practice would be ruined. Instead, she found that a lot of people chose to use their meager earnings on their mental health, forgoing meals outside the home and vacations.

“I never considered myself a political person.” Jason turns to look at Susan, who has her shoes off, the recliner leaned back as far as it can go. “At least not compared to most folks in the Bay Area. I’ve always leaned liberal, but I’ve never been an activist. I don’t go to marches. I don’t rally.” He says the word rally like it’s some sort of hipster terminology. “I always thought that I was slightly agoraphobic. I mean not to the point where I wouldn’t leave the house, but…”

“Enochlophobia.”

“What?”

“That’s what ‘fear of crowds’ is called. You aren’t agoraphobic.”

Susan sounds annoyed, Jason thinks, suddenly worried that he said something wrong. The tequila is hitting him hard. He’s not sure if he can stand up if he had to right now.

“Carol took the day off of work. I would bet that she’s still in bed.”

“I would bet that half of this country and three quarters of San Francisco are in bed right now.”

“I wonder if we can blame Facebook for any of this.”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around. Facebook deserves its share.” Susan wishes she could be herself like this with all her clients. Just two well-educated professionals with over-active brains, passing back and forth ideas. Confiding in one another. She tries to think of a close friend of hers that she feels she can talk to about things like this; not a single person comes to mind. A creeping sadness begins to fill her and she reaches over to the lever on the side of the chair and returns it to its upright position.

“Are you OK?” Jason asks, noticing a sudden change in Susan’s demeanor.

“No.” Susan can’t lie. When Bush Jr. won in 2000 she was terribly depressed, especially with how drawn out and sketchy the recount bullshit was. But this feels worse. George W. was an idiot, but he wasn’t a narcissistic, egomaniac, sexist pig with no political experience. And the Democrats had the Senate. Now with the Republicans running all three facets of government, Susan can only imagine what sorts of backward-thinking legislation is going to make its way through the house and senate, with no real recourse. “I’m just flabbergasted. I feel hopeless.”

“Yeah. It’s like the opposite of the Obama ‘Hope’ campaign. We can all hold up signs that say, ‘Hopeless.’ That’s a rally I might participate in.”

“I’m sorry for putting this all on you, Jason.” Susan feels guilty for using his time on her issues. “If my billing system wasn’t so automated and electronic, I’d not charge you for this session.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? This is probably the most productive hour — well, 50 minutes — I’ve had in your office.” She can tell he’s joking, knows he’s had several breakthroughs under her professional guidance over the past year.

“Speaking of which….” Susan tries to focus her blurred vision on her wrist watch. 11:49. “We have one more minute.”

“Use it wisely,” they both say at the same time and then burst out laughing.

They both wonder if it might the last time they laugh for a long while.

Yes- Leave It

“Leave it!” we say to Bernie, our new pit-mix puppy, as he stands before us with a slipper, a bath mat, a blanket, a toilet plunger in his mouth. “Drop.” We search for his bones, his already mangled chew toys to make a trade. None of them seem more appealing than the item he’s already got.

But the second we give up, the second he realizes we aren’t going to play his game, he drops the shoe/blanket/mat and we grab it and move it out of harm’s way. He’s a good boy, our Bernie. He’s supposed to want to chomp on everything in sight. That’s what puppies do. And as far as that goes, he’s rather mild about it. He hasn’t destroyed anything that isn’t a toy; his preferred activity isn’t tug-of-war. It’s napping.

bernWhen either my wife or I wakes up in the morning, heads to the kitchen to start coffee -clearly making noise, the house adding in more light – Bernie remains on his dog bed on the floor in the bedroom, snoring away. It isn’t until the other parent gets out of bed, raises a blind, lets in some sun, that Bernie begins to stir. A steady thumping of long, heavy tail against the hardwood floor signals he’s awake and happy. “Morning, Bernie.” I say, and lean down and rub his belly, already aimed upward and on display for the world. He’ll come out to the kitchen after a few seconds of being left alone, his eyes red and bleary, slowly adjusting to the new day and plop down on the floor. We coax him to the front door with a treat, say “wanna go for a walk?”, put his harness over his head. He immediately lies down. Ugh – that again? Eventually the pull of more treats or the push on his bladder motivates him to follow us out the door. He wants to smell everything, wants to watch every person that’s getting in their car, heading to work, wants to observe and participate. Wants to hang out, maybe have a cup of tea. As soon as we near home again, he speeds up, starts to run, can’t wait to get in the house. The torture is almost over.

14606366_10154268589954748_8814313682533427202_nHe’s mostly figured out his name (it took us almost a week to decide on one – we put out a Facebook post/contest, but with the flexibility – Bernard, Bern – and the political times, Bernie was the clear choice), he sits on command (most of the time), he loves to snuggle for hours and is without a doubt the best looking dog in the world. He’s got a tan-brown body and a white belly and a white face with a tan circle around his right eye that extends over his head. One of his eyes is brown and the other is an otherworldly light blue.

What he’s mixed with is unclear. Maybe some sort of hound? Maybe, though after almost of month of being his permanent parents I’m less convinced of this, Great Dane. Probably something else entirely. He’s already, at 7 months, taller than most pit terriers and his enormous paws imply a fair amount of growth to come, so something big to be sure. Either way, our 900 square foot home, already a mine field of chewed up rubber and rope bits and plastic squeakers and fuzzy white toy innards, is about to appear a whole lot smaller.

***

Many people are unaware that I am a not-so-closeted prog-head. Prog-nog? Prog-rock aficionado? But if you look closely at my 600 plus record collection, you’ll find an extensive library of classic progressive bands such as Rush, ELP, King Crimson, early Genesis, Yes, Marillion….as well as more obscure bands like Captain Beyond, Gentle Giant, and Porcupine Tree. I do in fact, keep up with newer progressive bands, like Torche and Pineapple Thief, which I’ll get into more deeply in a later post, but one of my favorite albums of 2016 happens to be 4 1/2, from the lead singer/guitarist of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson.

Prog Rock usually gets lumped into the bombastic, capes and gowns, banks of keyboards, orchestral universe of the 70s, which is partially accurate, but ignores how much the genre has evolved since then. Many in the proggosphere (I wonder if I coined a new term) believe that the death of Prog Rock was due less to the rise of Punk and New Wave and more to the forefathers abandoning the sound for greater riches.

Perhaps part of this perceived death was the fact that in the early to mid 80s, many of the world’s prog-rock icons found commercial success by “going pop.” Bands like Asia and Yes and Genesis had number one singles and ruled the charts for a short time. Asia was really a prog-supergroup, with members of King Crimson, ELP, Yes and Buggles comprising the band. Though this time the focus was on hooks and melodies. not bowl-you-over musicianship. Some fans were outraged; how could their heroes be on heavy rotation on MTV? For me, I was thrilled.asia I’d moved on from my hard-rock specific younger self and was becoming a big fan of new wave and electronic dance music. And just the fact that mulletted 45 year old men were sharing the same airwaves as slick 20 year old pop stars made me giddy. This could never happen today.

With Yes, their sudden commercial popularity with the release of 90125 in 1983 was a bigger surprise. They’d had a bit of radio play, mostly with their 1972 hit, “Roundabout,” but that song was 9 minutes and radio back then was more open to longer tunes. Nothing in the rest of their 70s catalog suggested that they had a song like “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in them. But after Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman left and the band added Trevor Rabin on guitar and Trevor Horn to produce, a slicker, more pop-oriented approach took hold. People who hated – and I mean hated – progressive rock of the 70s were now buying Yes’ new album in droves. I liked “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” but not nearly as much as the vocally layered “Leave It,” the 2nd single from the album. To this day, I think it has aged the best of all the songs on 90125 (I keep wanting to type 90210).

I listened to the entirety of the 90125 album this week for the first time in probably 25 years. Partly because “Leave It” was my earworm this week, but also because I wanted to honor Yes’ bassist Chris Squire, who passed away last year. I have reconnected to my inner ProgHead in recent times, but I hadn’t played much Yes, and hearing Squire’s masterful and unique bass playing again, has reminded me of just how much progress he and Yes had made in their 45 year musical career.