The Buck Stops Here - Do we walk the line?

The tee-shirt I bought at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reads, "if it's too loud, you're too old." Rock is, by definition, loud, even if it is a whisper. It is a shout of fire in a theater, the laugh in the back of the room, the voice inside us that does not shut up. It speaks in the language of the street, not that of the courtroom, classroom or home, in the only way it can.

Anyone can take it anywhere, and, because of that, it is often seen to be threatening. "A voice can go somewhere uninvited," Samantha Mathis tells Christian Slater in the movie Pump Up the Volume. "Find your voice and use it." That is why we cannot get enough of it. Anything can be possible it tells us. "Under the Paving Stones the Beach" was the slogan students adopted as their own during their rebellion in the streets of Paris in 1968 to characterize their need to find a way to live that was free, fulfilling, just. Or nothing is. "Everybody knows the dice are loaded," Leonard Cohen sings. But even the nothing it tells is something. They can't take that away.

The democracy of the song - its freedom - puts democracy on the witness stand. During the first Gulf War, the BBC banned fifty songs, including Joan Baez's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier," Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff," and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire."

Since "Shock and Awe" began, Springsteen, Eminem, Pearl Jam, Pink and Neil Young have written songs in opposition to the Iraq war or George Bush. In the case of Springsteen, Eminem and Pearl Jam, their songs rocketed to the tops of the charts. Only The Dixie Chicks have suffered from their opposition to Bush, and not for a song, but for a comment they made at a concert. "Not Ready to Make Nice," a song on their new album, is their answer to their critics. Songs are the only answer rock can make.

If rock music always contests its time, its democracy precludes politics, even though its songs may be political. We find what we want. The National Review lists the top 50 conservative rock songs in its last issue, including The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," The Stones's "Sympathy for the Devil," The Clash's "Rock the Casbah," and the Pretenders's anthem for Cleveland, "My City was Gone," songs that radicals would also include on their list. Rush Limbaugh uses the bass line from the Chrissie Hynde song as his theme song. (Rumor has it that George Bush likes the music of The Dixie Chicks, and that he, too, is not ready to make nice.)

"What form do you suppose a life would take," Walter Benjamin writes, "that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song on everyone's lips?" In fact, we know that our lives altered by street songs, that they imprint themselves on our lives - how she looked at me the last time we saw one another, a song in the background, or that moment captured later by a song We know that song helps us understand the present or past, even if it would be foolish for us to say so.

Victor Jara, the singer of the people in Chile, was imprisoned with thousands of other Chileans in a soccer stadium in Santiago by the Pinochet regime, which had overthrown the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. Soldiers cut off his hands, gave him his guitar, said, now play something, and laughed. He cradled his guitar with his stumps and sang power down. The president of Chile today was also imprisoned in that stadium with Jara.

"I Walk the Line," Johnny Cash sings, and if his song tells us we can too or that there are those like Cash who do walk the line, who tell us it can be done. Cash's song also asks a question we must answer. Do we walk the line?
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Volume 2, Issue 12, Posted 1:01 PM, 06.01.06