A Google thing reminded me that Steven Biko would have been 70 years old today. Which reminded me of this Peter Gabriel song about him called Biko.
I like some political songs, and don’t like others. The dividing line for me seems to be similar to the one I apply between songs I like and songs I don’t. Catchy, compelling, somehow feels like it means it.
In this case, Peter Gabriel’s Biko is an incantation, a testimony to someone who gave his life for the cause. It is understated and honoring, and it wins for me because I don’t hate it. I worry about a super rich rock star lending his power to the cause of a martyr, but what better use is there for rock presence? And what better use for an artist’s sense of style and grace.
Anyway, here is is:
And while we are here we should also think about the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government in Chile and an Arlo Guthrie song about a brave resistor then.
Arlo Guthrie’s Victor Jara is an earnest tribute to Jara, a folk song, and when I hear it today I’m still outraged by what happened in Chile in 1973. The song is more a marker for that outrage, but serves as a reminder.
A difficult topic, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. The capacity to move me with musical propaganda is vastly reduced since “Blowin’ in the Wind” actually moved me at the age of eight. Is it me or the world we live in? I don’t know. I do know that whenever I hear songs like these two – both decent songs with a decent message – my first reaction is “what is the artist’s true motivation?” In many cases – “We Are The World” is the most transparently offensive in this regard – the motivation is to demonstrate a decidedly discount moral superiority. “Look at how much we care, and what is it we care about today?” Cynical, you bet, because every time I think I’m being too cynical it turns out that I haven’t been cynical enough.
It seems to me that a distinction should be drawn between art and propanganda, but again that distinction is difficult to define. I think of Dylan, who at his best was capable of obliterating the dividing line, but who also succumbed to cheap grandstanding on several occasions. In the 70’s, when many of his fans were longing for the simpler days of the old Dylan, he responded with two such songs on his Desire album: “Hurricane” and “Joey.” The first is about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a promising boxer convicted of a triple murder due to questionable evidence and even more questionable witnesses. Carter was given a second trial, at which he was convicted again, but that verdict was eventually overturned and he was released in 1985, 19 years after the crime.
Nobody except those involved seems to know what really happened, but the whole issue of Carter’s innocence – and of Bob Dylan’s passion for the truth – is called into question by “Joey” on that same album, a sympathetic treatment of murdered mobster Joey Gallo, who by any reasonable standard was a sociopath and an utter thug. Here is that song, and it hasn’t lost its capacity to make my jaw drop. Dylan is scrupulous about keeping his songs off youtube (he hasn’t made enough money yet), but here is an abreviated version by my boy Johnny Thunders. It’s appalling.
Thunders’ cover is kind of like what Dylan might have done with the song back in the 90s, when he was remaking all his songs, often so they were unrecognizable.
Both Hurricane and Joey (and most of the songs on Desire) were co-written with a village character named Jacques Levy, who co wrote the grandly excessive Chestnut Mare with Roger McGuinn. Levy was a clinical psychologist and a theater director, too, which perhaps explains some of the amped up drama of these story-songs.
Gallo was a figure in the New York downtown scene in the early 70s, after he got out of jail, which is I’m sure where Levy and/or Dylan came across this heavily mythologized version of his life. From what I understand Gallo was charismatic and made friends easily. One of the black men he befriended in Attica was Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, another colorful New York gangster boss of the period, who tried to wrest control of the drug trade from the Italian gangs.
I always thought it was a somewhat goofy attempt (The judge asked Joey what time it was when they first met. Five to 10 said Joey, the judge said that’s exactly what you’ll get) at a historical outlaw song, though it goes way overboard in painting Joey as a thinker and wronged man. I think we know why they wanted to blow him away. The question is whether in a hundred years someone will care?
This is what your post evoked in me, Peter. But, before I post, it is is easy to be cynical with respect to the likes of Bono or Dylan or any other multimillionaire rock stars proselytizing for the downtrodden, but i find it hard to question the inner motives of those performing or spearheading cos I idon’t know what they are thinking inside. I want to believe their beliefs are real and genuine a la Bob Gelddof and Live Aid (which was an awesome day and show) and that the good produced outweighs our cynicism. And, fuck, I am a Berkeley Hippie.
But, just because I thought We Are the World might be self indulgent doesn’t mean it did no good any more than just cos Bill and Hillary have their issues, the Clinton Foundation does do very good work around the world.
I do think of Rage Against the Machine and Woody Guthrie’s guitar during such times, but here is what I really was moved to. And, Steve, I think this is another example of just cos it is acoustic, doesn’t mean it isn’t in your face and flecked with attitude and that is what is the essence of both art and rock’n’roll to moi.
And, I remember vividly hearing the news and being outraged when I heard the news about Biko. Sigh, not unlike Sandra Brown or Freddie Gray in our own land of liberty and justice for all.
BTW, I saw this incredible documentary on Hurricane, and both believe he was innocent, but thought parts where Carter discusses his transformation from hate and resentment to love and acceptance beyond riveting.
John Coleman turned me on to this fantastic Robert Wyatt cover of Peter Gabriel’s Biko today. https://youtu.be/1VEJXBIELRo
Wyatt is one of the most politically focused artists I know, but with an aesthetic that focuses on the artistic setting as much as the propaganda. There is no question about his cynicism, he doesn’t have any.