After carnage and grief, the worst part of life during wartime is the final loss of innocence. If anything was born in original sin, it's America, not humanity. Even after the fade-out of the Greatest Generation, beyond Vietnam and the lingering despair of the 1980s-spawned AIDS and homelessness epidemics, this nation's condition still has the power to shock. Bush America is rather like a classic Hawthorne novel amplified to 11, with the endemic cruelty of the Yankee scribe's closed-minded society scored to narcotizing fuzak.
It seems the chimerical prosperity of recent decades has left folk in the West just a bit too complacent, especially in my generation (X). So there's little truly revolutionary art -- no incendiary Hendrix to carpet-bomb battlefield airwaves, as there was in Vietnam. According to my Alabamian friend Louie, who's a trucker in Iraq, "We have a radio station, no protest songs and little TV news."
Imagine my surprise then to hear the Bushwhackers' EP, Beatin' Round the Bush
(Luxury;***), available at www.itunes.com. The satirical project of musician/songwriter/Box Tops manager Rick Levy, Beatin' takes politically incorrect aim at President Bush's milieu, armed with barbed wit, fiddles and steel guitar. The musicianship is generally good, but the disc's brilliance lies in Levy and his cohorts' deploying the language of classic country from within the culture that has most staunchly supported Dubya.
Recorded in Tennessee, all six songs could easily fit on country playlists. But lyrics from "He Swapped the Bottle for the Bible," "Buckshot Dick" (targeting Cheney), "The Daughters Love to Drink" and "He's a Puppet" amount to fightin' words: "He's a puppet -- without Daddy he'd be such a bum/What a puppet -- but Howdy Doody wasn't half as dumb/Send him back to Crawford, let him run the ranch ... /He's a puppet, and it's time to cut his strings."
This irreverent outrage might have suited Neil Young's latest. Of course, Young's renowned for his folk-bred polemics and unlikely to suffer reprisals on order of the Dixie Chicks. Nevertheless, his new Living With War (Reprise;***1/2) is a triumph of dissent. The "metal-folk protest" was first released streaming on Young's site and MySpace.com -- great usage of postmodern mediums from an artist who's famously been opposed to digital technology.
Kent State (36 years ago, the anniversary was on May 4) prompted Young to write the anti-Vietnam anthem "Ohio." He's now replicated this feat of hasty agit-prop, surprising his unaware label, and getting the songs directly to the people. Living With War is a 10-song set featuring such unambiguous tracks as "Let's Impeach the President" and "Looking for a Leader." Although not recorded with Crazy Horse, the disc's sound hews to their spare, gritty arrangements, supplemented by deliciously ironic martial horns and a 100-member choir. Highlights include "After the Garden," "Families" and "The Restless Consumer," but this work is more about words than Young's patented ragged glory.
Young has always been controversial and contradictory; this is the artist who retreated from overt Woodstock Nation solidarity yet penned "Ohio," whose early-'80s Geffen LPs extolled old-fashioned pastoral values while he supported Reagan only to indict Bush Sr. with one among his masterpieces, Freedom. Young's personal-is-political rock opera Greendale followed "Let's Roll," a cut embodying post-9/11 patriotism. Yet any veteran fan is not surprised by Young's swings. Living With War's import comes from an artist unabashedly speaking truth to power. As a reminder that pop needn't be reduced to distracting the American public from the Bush Mafia's criminality, this CD is invaluable -- even if it does come from a rich rock star instead of a mouthpiece anointed by left-leaning thought police.
What's really troubling is that it took a sixtyish, '60s Canadian artist to release such a complete musical broadside. Yes, Living With War might've resonated more had Young released it in 2001. And, yes, younger artists like the Coup, Dead Prez, Conor Oberst and even Eminem and Pink ("Dear Mr. President") have competed with such strong statements as Kris Kristofferson's recent This Old Road. But only Bay Area MC Paris has trumped all of these, and it still seems the dread Boomers possess a lot more bite than their pop successors.
So, as one prepares to hit the protest trail, it's worth uploading the reissue of Jefferson Airplane's The Worst of Jefferson Airplane (RCA/Legacy;***1/2) -- if only for "Volunteers." Scathingly sung by Marty Balin and Grace Slick, "Volunteers" precedes the Bushwhackers in using the language of Americana to lambast Nixon Nation. Sadly, the three decade interval has not lessened the need for such movement rock.