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Posts Tagged ‘Protest Music’

Remember where you were the first time that you heard that first punk rock song? The first official punk song that I heard was We’re Only Gonna Die by Bad Religion, I had however  heard many metal covers of punk classics like Last Caress/Green Hell by Metallica. The first song by a punk band though belongs to Bad Religion, and I will always remember where I was and the feeling that came over me. I was at my friend Brandon’s house and he had taken a dub tape from his brother’s room, the sense of urgency just wanted to make me go out there and fuck some shit up! That summer afternoon forever changed me and began the journey that I have been following ever since for truth and change. It got me to thinking, what is the true essence and purpose to this social movement? As we all know, here in North America at least, it has pretty much been co-opted and become just another flavour/option in your closet. We are now caught up in debates over what is “real” punk and whatever commercial radio is telling us what punk is, I’m looking at you the Sum 41’s and Simple Plan’s of the world, so what is this real punk that was so dangerous 35 years ago? This weekend is the 35th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ arrest because of their attempt of playing their version of God Save The Queen down the Thames river on a boat, it was at this moment that punk rock’s political snarl had never been louder. You will not hear of these types of actions in the US and the UK these days, the birthplace of the punk rock movement, the snarl has become nothing more than a whimper.

Look to Moscow, where three women have been detained and face up to seven years in prison because their band, Pussy Riot, staged an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in a cathedral. Amnesty International now classifies them as prisoners of conscience. Next is Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where six months ago officers hauled more than 60 punk off to re-education camps, sheared off their Mohawks, removed their piercings and forced them to bathe, change clothes and pray. Or Iraq, where human rights groups report that dozens of emo kids, the followers of punk’s tender-hearted offshoot, have been slain by extremists since February, when the government’s interior ministry released a statement equating emo style with devil worship. Burmese punk bands have to practice in secrecy to avoid arrest. Rebel Riot told a German magazine Der Spiegel, “In Burma, punk is not a game.” At the top of Cuba’s dissident music scene, Porno para Ricardo play nose-thumbing punk anthems despite years of police harassment, including lead singer Gorki Aguila’s latest arrest in February. Members of the Iranian punk rock band The Yellow Dogs have recently won asylum after fleeing from Tehran two years again, where playing rock music is punishable by flogging, fines, and jail time.

I am then remembered of the last time that I was down on the Bowery in Lower Manhattan, when I was shocked to see a high-end menswear boutique with 1 000$ jackets hanging against brick walls covered in seditious scrawls and yellowing concert posters.  The bored-looking clerk sitting on a small stage that looks like a replica from a club, but this use to be a club: the former home of CBGB, the club where American punk was born, now a temple for commerce and nostalgic kitsch! A visit at the ancient site will leave most a little depressed. While punk’s heirs around the world continue to defy autocrats, risking their freedom to stand against social injustice and economic polarization, it has been years since British and American punk has had this raw influence. There are still bands out there that sing for change and standing up against the system, but these voices are getting more and more silent in the former scenes. It seems that even the Occupy movement has been co-opted by major label artists trying to make a buck, Miley Cyrus with her Occupy Wall Street flavoured video for “Liberty Walk”, Jay-Z’s Rocawear profited by selling 22$ “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts; which he never donated any profits to the Occupy movement and they called fouled, he did not even blink. What this means is that, if you don’t print your political message on a T-shirt, your message won’t sell. It should be said that the Sex Pistols don’t sell either, not that Universal is not trying when they reissued “God Save the Queen” as a 7-inch to celebrate the anniversary mentioned above and to cash in on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Fans even tried to push it up the charts, which flopped, but the refrain – “No future, no future, no future for you!” – seems relevant as ever thanks to the global economic crisis and widespread unemployment happening in North America and Europe.

Punk today belongs more to Russia and Iraq, Myanmar and Indonesia, than it does to its birthplaces. Like any movement steeped in dissent and nonconformity, punk’s moral force grows with government suppression. As authoritarian regimes crack down on rebel rockers, their efforts to censor subversive voices often backfire by attracting attention from international media and human rights activists. I am sure that you are maybe wondering how can we inject punk with that moral force that we all felt during the first summer of musical discovery?

Living in Montreal, I am feeling some social unrest in my city and feeling like it is reaching a boiling point; and I have no idea how it is going to end honestly. People protesting the F1 Grand Prix for their blatten disregard for human rights, their glorification of the objectification of women, and this being a party for the rich by the rich. People are getting fed up with the further widening of the gap between the rich and poor, and they are starting to stand up to tell us that it will no longer stand. The whole student protest mouvement is much too complicated to briefly mention here, go check it out for yourself on the internet (just don’t trust solely the major media outlets and look around), see what this all about. Briefly, it’s about people entering the work force already drowning in debt and never being able to get out of it. But since the implementation of Law 78, it has become everyone’s fight for human rights and their rights to protest their government, I mean even the UN is saying that it’s not cool and they are keep an eye on the situation. It was even responded by the Education Minister who told the UN to fuck off and that they have other things to worry about like Syria instead, I am curious to see how this is all going to end. This weekend there has been about 30 arrests by day at the Grand Prix celebrations and scenes of blatten police brutality. So what is the state of punk in Montreal?

The Pussy Riot detainees have inspired protests and fundraisers in Berlin, Krakow, London, Melbourne, Prague, San Francisco and beyond. They’ve made headlines around the world. Expected to face a judge on charges of “hooliganism” in the coming weeks, the bandmates will soon be performing on a larger stage than they ever could have imagined. A global audience will be watching their trial. Some of us wish our own countries still made music that could rattle the windows in, say, the White House or on the streets of Montreal. Real punk — cheeky, risk-taking, rude, sloppy punk — belongs to fighters. Let’s hope they remind the rest of us how it’s done. I have always lived my life by asking “What would Joe Strummer do?”, and I think that he would tell me to take to the streets and inject punk with the fight that made it so great!

 

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Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, probably the most famous singer to come out of the counter-culture folk movement of the 1960s. Some of his songs have become so ingrained in American culture that we think they are traditional songs (Blowing in the Wind I thought, when I was young, was a traditional hymn that Bob covered in his early years). There are few singer/songwriters that get to become icons in their lifetimes and leave such a rich and beautiful catalogue: Elvis Presley, Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and a handful of others. I know a lot of people who have told me that Bob Dylan actually opened the door to Buddhism, it is through him that many, including me, were introduced to the Beat Generation: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums), Allen Ginsberg, etc. Bob Dylan has opened many doors to many people, I still remember the first time that I read his book Chronicles, which I believe is one of the great American commentaries to this days. I was engulfed by his words and observations, I remember being struck by this quote the first time that I read it:

“Folk songs are evasive — the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be.” — Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

What I enjoy of Bob Dylan is his many personae (“A folk song has over a thousand faces, and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.”), Bob Dylan has become a great cultural figure, maybe one of the most important. But what made me fall in love with him? Obviously his music, but mostly his politics that were wrapped in his songs. My first love in music was punk rock, but Bob Dylan is the first songwriter to wake me up! I still remember being a kid and my dad putting on a Dylan record and hearing the song The Times They Are A-Changing, those words spoke volumes to me and a generation.

Bob Dylan premiered this song on October 26th 1968 to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall, I always felt connected to this song and it was fitting that it saw the light of day on my birthday. The song is founded on the conviction that social change is unstoppable, history will conform to morality; its second verse sends out a challenge to the punditocracy:

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

It is thanks to the unexpected achievement of the civil right movement, a grass-roots movement that changed the American political landscape, this made the message of this song possible or even plausible. He was articulating the universal spirit animating this moment in history. The protest songs that made Dylan famous and with which he continues to be associated were written in a brief period of some 20 months – from January 1962 to November 1963. Influenced by American radical traditions (the Wobblies, the Popular Front of the thirties and forties, the Beat anarchists of the fifties) and above all by the political ferment touched off among young people by the civil rights and ban the bomb movements, he engaged in his songs with the terror of the nuclear arms race, with poverty, racism and prison, jingoism and war.

Dylan gave us songs like ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ (class rule as the root of racism), ‘With God on Our Side’ (rejecting American fundamentalism), ‘Masters of War’ (taking on the military-industrial complex); he was able to offer us a clear eyed account of a single injustice that becomes an indictment of a system and its liberal defenders. Dylan had a sharp-edged radicalism and a poetic charm that helped bring the protest genre to a more mainstream audience. When the Times They Are A-Changing record came out, at the young age of 22, the young singer-songwriter from Minnesota was crowned the “voice of a generation”. This is not what Dylan wanted, the new Woody Guthrie had other plans, he is maybe not the most known protest singer of his time but more the greatest renegade. He stated in 1964 “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organisation…”.

In his song My Back Pages, Dylan offers us a dense critique of the movement that he had celebrated in The Times They Are A-Changing. Sneering at “corpse evangelists” who use ideas as maps, who spout “lies that life is black and white” and who fail to understand that “I become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Alarmed by the discovery of authoritarianism at the heart of the movement for liberation (and within himself), he rebels against the left’s self-righteousness. He pours bile on the “self-ordained professor/ Too serious to fool”. He scorns what he sees as the dead culture of political activism: “memorising politics/ Of ancient history”.

‘Equality, I spoke the word, as if a wedding vow But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ Most people (for Dylan it would be the whole yuppie vs hippie kind of evolution) will “evolve” to the giving-way of rebellious youth to responsible maturity. Dylan reversed the polarity. For him, the retreat from politics was a retreat from stale categories and second-hand attitudes. Dylan did break form the political landscape as we had known him, but he freed himself of outside events to explore his inner landscape. What most people might not realize is that this inner-reflection was often explored as inner studies of his reactions to outside events. A great example is ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – booed by purists at the Newport folk festival – fuses class and generational rage in an uncompromising renunciation of wage labour. Here the power of the employers is propped up by ideology (“She talks to all the servants about man and God and law”) and the state (“the National Guard stands around her door”.) The social order is experienced as intrusive, deceitful, inimical to the individual’s need for self-definition. “I try my best to be just like I am/ but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

I will leave you on this note, Bob Dylan is still to this day very much part of the musical landscape. His influence is still felt with many great singer-songwriters, his spirit has taught us so much and more is still to come. I encourage you to take some time with his music and explore your own inner landscape as these words pierce us, music has been one of my greatest teachers and Bob Dylan is one of my greatest teachers! Bob Dylan might be 70 today, he is long from leaving our communal consciousness! Music is a powerful thing! Like Springsteen said “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.”

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