Saturday, September 30, 2023

John Lennon, "Working Class Hero" (Track of the Week)

I've written less for this blog in the past month than I have since I first started writing it. The truth is, I am just too tired most evenings to sit and write, or I have other work to do. The start of the school year this year has been especially rough. 

Music is seasonal for me, and every autumn I keep coming back to a playlist I made of songs from the Beatles' first solo records. The shift from summer into fall is mirrored in these songs by the kings of the pop music scene descending out of Beatlemania. In the words of one of Lennon's songs from the era, "I was the walrus, now I'm just John." Fall is a time of reflection for me, and these albums are full of reflective feelings about spending a decade in the eye of the pop cultural storm. Lennon's Plastic Ono Band is the most famously reflective of these albums, with literal primal screams. While most of the songs are painfully personal, he gets political on "Working Class Hero." 

Like the rest of his generation, Lennon was the product of the long post-war economic boom in the West, one still not over when he wrote this song. In Britain, it was the era where PM Harold Macmillan could taunt a heckler by saying "you've never had it so good!" The class struggles of the preceding decades seemed to have been drowned in a tidal wave of cheap consumer goods. This song questions what workers actually got in the bargain. Instead of the sunny vistas of postwar consumerism, Lennon sees children cowed by punitive schools, locked early into unfulfilling careers, and working unsatisfying jobs leavened only by the opiate of television at the end of an awful day. 

Lennon uses an old folk riff on acoustic guitar, sounding like the finger-pointing Dylan of "Masters of War." The first lines still hit me in the face, "As soon as you're born they make you feel small/ By giving you no time instead of it all." This month, when I just don't seem to have the time or energy to write, I am feeling it really hard. 

This song does not lay out any specific political plan, but encourages the listener to dump the ideology that keeps them from questioning and changing the system. That's the first, crucial step. In the past decade, I have noticed more and more people refusing to reduce themselves to their job, a process that accelerated during the pandemic. Whereas striking workers were once treated almost as outlaws by normie types, there has been an outpouring of support for the picket lines in recent strikes. Many people are realizing the raw deal that neoliberalism gave them once the "boom years" ended. Over fifty years after writing this song, Lennon smirks from the grave. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

2016 All Over Again?

On my Substack I recently wrote about how many of the large factors influencing the 2024 election are similar to those in 2016. The point is not doom and gloom, but for progressives to act proactively to mitigate them instead of failing to see the issues. (This was the mistake of 2016.) 

I did not talk about the Dobbs decision in my piece, as a friend on Facebook rightly pointed out. It certainly represents a major change from 2016, but I am not sure it is entirely in Democrats' favor. The fact that Dobbs came AFTER Biden's election seemed to underscore the futility of fighting a conservative movement that has decided to use non-democratic means to stay in power. The young people I know seem more fatalistic now, and far less politically committed. One thing that can doom democracy is a feeling that participating in it just doesn't matter. 

Again, I am not saying that Trump will definitely win in 2024, but I consider it a coin flip, which is fearsome enough. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Catching Up and Thoughts on Rock Geezerdom

The start of the school year had me on the longest hiatus of my blogging career, I think. I have had a ten megaton stress bomb detonated on me and it's been hard to do anything other than just maintain. I have written a couple of things over on Substack, however. One essay gets into the ways that we have failed to reckon with 9/11 and the wars that followed. Another is about how seeing Bruce Springsteen live motivated me for the school year

That was such a fine experience that when Bob Dylan tickets for shows in Jersey this coming November went on sale Friday, I snatched them up. As I have written about before, people my age (born in the mid-70s) have a strange emotional attachment to the music made by the generation before us. It was a product not just of the long Boomer shadow, but of growing up in the 80s corporatization of the radio waves. I could listen to one station and hear "Sussudio," or another and hear "Whole Lotta Love." The choice wasn't hard.

These days it's easy to wonder how long my most beloved geezer rockers will keep running. I bought Springsteen tickets -despite disliking stadium shows- because I wondered if this was my last shot. I am hearing similar rumors about Dylan's upcoming tour. I am also beginning to think I need to find a way to see Neil Young soon, or to finally catch the Stones. 

In recent years I have gone out of my way to listen to new music, and most of what passes through my Spotify is indie stuff by people in their 20s and 30s. While I enjoy seeing new bands live on their way up, seeing the geezer gods live gives me a feeling on a different level. The Springsteen show, for instance, was like a religious experience. I felt the same way when I saw Dylan the day after the 2004 election and he played "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" and sang "Sometimes even the President of the United States must stand naked" with a barbed intonation. 

What I also find interesting is that some of the geezer gods still make great and interesting new music, and others don't. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one of Dylan's best albums, in my opinion. Springsteen's more recent songs did not sound slight when played live next to his oldies. I really enjoyed Paul McCartney's last album, especially how much he experimented. Contrast this with The Rolling Stones, who have not put out an album of new material since 2006. They just put out a single, "Angry," that is, shall we say, suboptimal. It sounds like an outtake from Voodoo Lounge, and very well might be. Mick's posturing is parodic, and the production sounds dated, but not dated to the Stones' heyday. 

It's telling that the video features the young actress Sydney Sweeney dancing beneath images of the Stones' glorious past. The Stones simply aren't allowed to grow old, and self-reflection is anti-thetical to their music. Springsteen's concert was full of references to mortality, aging, and dedications to the departed. I wonder if the next Stones tour will do much to reckon with Charlie Watts' absence. 

I still love those old Stones records, but as I age I have less patience for people who try to fool the world that they are forever young. Springsteen and Dylan have crafted some profound songs in their later years about being old, songs I bet I will keep with me when I reach their current age and they are long gone. Maybe just maybe we can convince Mick and Keef to be a little vulnerable and admit that death's cold hand is soon coming for them, too.