Born in the Promised Land: When Politics and Rock and Roll Collide

By Ryan Hilligoss, September 2012

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Elvis Presley with Richard Nixon at White House along with aides Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, December 21, 1970

Fitzgerald’s quote above first appeared in The Crack Up, a posthumous collection of the artist’s work a few years after his death in 1940. The quote is often used by writers in an attempt to justify or rationalize the thought process or philosophy of persons who seem to carry extremely discordant views with nary a concern or thought to the irony and unsound mental footwork needed to keep from toppling over from the weight of mental dishonesty. Fitzgerald probably was being ironic, as I think another of his lines from the same work better speaks to the heart of his thoughts on the matter: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.”

A little known historical fact: during the height of the anti-communist McCarthy hearings in the early 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy listed Woody Guthrie as one of his favorite singers despite the fact Guthrie was known to travel in circles populated with well-known communists. OK, you got me. I dreamed that scenario after recently reading an article on Republican Vice-President Paul Ryan‘s love of the music of Rage Against the Machine. In an article published in the New York Times (my conservative friends can insert proper shudder here) on August 13, 2012, Ryan is described as follows: ” Yet even if he is viewed as politically pure by the modern-day standards of his party’s base, he is not without contradictions. The nation’s first Generation X vice-presidential candidate, he is an avowed proponent of free markets whose family has interests in oil leases. But he counts Rage Against the Machine, which sings about the greed of oil companies and whose Web site praises the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement, among his favorite bands.”

If this were a dance club and the DJ was playing Bombtrack on the turntable, the needle just jumped and scratched the hell out of the vinyl. Paul Ryan, the newly named Republican vice-presidential candidate, who is the ardent right-wing, fiscal conservative poster boy of the Tea Party and whose main focus the last few years has been in dismantling Medicare and other social services for the poor and disenfranchised likes the music of ultra left-wing Rage Against The Machine?? RATM, an LA based rap/metal/punk band released their first album in 1992 and played together until 2000, released songs such as Voice of the Voiceless, Know Your Enemy, Vietnow and People of the Sun which spoke out against, to name a few, the American  two-party political system being controlled by corporatist, cultural imperialism, and the treatment of Native Americans while supporting leftists rebels in Mexico, labor unions, the homeless, immigrants  and social justice for all here in America and around the world.

While I whole heartedly believe that all people have the right to listen and support the music of their choosing, I don’t understand the dichotomy of listening to the music of a band that stands in direct opposition to everything you stand for politically and philosophically. Ryan has said he likes the band’s sound but willfully tunes out the lyrics. This is like someone saying they are die-hard anti-war pacifists, but they like country music and can’t help be drawn to Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. While the band’s pounding beats, driving rhythms and guitar hooks can be hypnotizing, it’s hard to miss the meaning of the lyrics to songs such as Bombtrack:

Instead I warm my hands on the flames of the flag

As I recall our downfall

And the business that burned us all

See through the news and views that twist reality

Enough/I call the bluff/Manifest destiny

Landlords and power whores

On my people they took turns

Dispute the suits I ignite and then watch em’ burn

The thoughts of a militant mind

Hardline, hardline, after hardline

And it’s hard to ignore the lyrics and meaning in another Rage track, Killing In The Name, when lead singer Zach de la Rocha implies that some law enforcement and military personnel may also be part of the KKK, “The same that were enforcers, are the same that burn crosses.” de la Rocha then launches into the phrase “F$%@ you I won’t do what ya’ tell me” repeatedly at the top of his lungs, over and over. 16 times to be exact. This is why I think Ryan is being more than just a little disengenous, to borrow John McCain‘s description of Michael Moore at the 2008 Republican convention.

Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist who, since the band broke up in 2000, has been performing under the guise of The Night Watchmen, spoke out emphatically against Paul Ryan’s politics in Rolling Stone on August 16, 2012 in a piece entitled, Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against, in which he writes, “Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t  care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he  wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one  percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.”

“I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn  the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our  cover of “F$!# the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to  seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young  Republican meetings!”

Read the full article here:

And apparently, Rage and Morello are not the only ones who feel this way as in the past week alone, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister asked Ryan’s office to stop using We’re Not Gonna Take It and Silversun Pickups requested Ryan stop using their song Panic Switch.

In another political campaign song choice gone awry, last year Michelle Bachmann chose to open many of her campaign stops with Elvis Presley’s cover version of Chuck Berry’s The Promised Land. While not nearly as politically divisive or perplexing, but to me equally disturbing, given the original intent and meaning  of the song for both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, and Bachmann’s far right conservative views, Bachman misappropriated the song for her political agenda and, given her beliefs and statements in religion, meant the song to be thought of by her supporters as a biblical theme.

Elvis recorded his cover of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land in 1973. Berry wrote his version in 1963, ironically enough, while he was serving time in prison. Given that Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was given in August of 1963  in which he talked about making it to the “promised land”, it is very possible that Berry was influenced by King. Elvis Presley covered many of Berry’s songs, both in concert and in recording studio. Presley’s recording of Promised Land stands as one of his finest rock recordings ever, driven by the core of his touring band musicians, and was almost a telling of Presley’s own story of a poor boy from East Tupelo, Mississippi finding his way to the American Dream through sheer tenacity and determination.

During the Republican presidential race last year, Bachmann told a crowd of supporters that they needed to say happy birthday to Elvis despite the fact the date, August 16th, was actually the 34th anniversary of Elvis Prelsey’s death, not his birthday which was January 8th, 1935. She told the crowd, “You can’t do better than Elvis Presley.” Well, I guess there is one thing she and I can agree on.

But I digress. Back to Morello’s main argument about the inherent contradiction of Paul Ryan being an ardent supporter of RATM. I think his concern is the same of many artists who struggle, through their work, to reach their observers and fans and to truly communicate a part of themselves only to find out the message isn’t clear. Morello writes, “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage  Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine  that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn’t understand  them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce  Springsteen but doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his  favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.”

Morello’s use of Springsteen here carries significant weight for a few reasons. First, Morello is a die-hard  fan of Springsteen’s music and has guest appeared with Springsteen on stage to play scorching guitar solos on The Ghost of Tom Joad and appeared together again on  Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on Death To My Hometown from the Wrecking Ball album, for which Morello added incredible guitar solos on recorded versions to My Depression and Jack of All Trades. Secondly, Springsteen and Morello have similar thoughts on some political and social justice issues. But more importantly, Morello may have mentioned Springsteen’s name in this situation given what happened when Ronald Reagan misappropriated Bruce’s name and song Born in the USA during the 1984 presidential campaign.

‘Yankee Doodle Springsteen’

In June 1984, Springsteen, the self-described “hardest working white man in show business” (James Brown being the hardest working black man in show business), released the album Born in the USA, a collection of songs he had been working on since The River album was released in 1980. The album’s title track was a song he had originally written during the Nebraska project and which was recorded in a solo, acoustic fashion that leant great credence to the power of the lyrics which told the story of a Vietnam veteran who came back to the United States only to find there was no place for him anymore at work, at home or in society in general and was told by his VA man, “Son you just don’t understand.”

The album became a smash sensation, propelling Springsteen from a rock star into a world-wide phenomenon. The album sold 15 million copies in the US alone, peaked at #1 on the Billboard chart, spawned seven top ten singles, and remained on the charts for over 2 years. Speaking on this new stage of his career, Springsteen said, ” I don’t really think [money] does change you. It’s an inanimate thing, a tool, a convenience. If you’ve got to have a problem, it’s a good problem to have. (…) Money was kind of part of the dream when I started. I don’t think…I never felt like I ever played a note for the money. I think if I did, people would know, and they’d throw you out of the joint. And you’d deserve to go. But at the same time, it was a part of the dream.” Another part of that dream was getting unwanted and misunderstood attention from media members and even politicians.

In early September, 1984, conservative columnist George Will attended a Springsteen concert at the invitation of E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg and his wife. A few days later, his column, entitled Yankee Doodle Springsteen was published in papers across the country and contained this, “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times.  He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”

George Will alone cannot be held responsible for hearing the thundering, anthemic song as recorded on the album and performed in the same arrangement on that tour, as a patriotic, flag waving send up to Old Glory and all it stands for, because millions of other listeners made a similar mistake. The ‘cheerful affirmation’ Will wrote of was written specifically as a paean to the trials and tribulations of returning military personnel best exemplified by Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July about his own experiences. While Springsteen often played concerts on that tour with a huge American flag behind him, ala Bob Dylan in 1960s, that flag might have easily been turned upside down, which is the universal sign of distress for those Springsteen was singing about.

George Will had some friends within the Reagan White House who either were impacted by Will’s column or were whispered advice, and worked a Springsteen reference into a campaign stop speech within days of the column’s publication. In a stop in Hammonton, NJ, Reagan told the crowd,  “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.  And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” Reagan’s office also quietly reached out to Springsteen’s management about the possibility of using the song for their campaign interests, and the request was politely declined.

Playing a concert on September 22, 1984 in Pittsburg, Springsteen addressed the situation directly with his audience while introducing his song, Johnny 99, a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder.  “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been.  I don’t think it was the Nebraska album [about hard times in America].  I don’t think he’s been listening to this one” [“Johnny 99”].

To clarify his thoughts even further, Springsteen told Rolling Stone, “I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in.  But what’s happening, I think, is that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited.  You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.’”

If you strip down the song to its’ bare essentials and look at the song in the stark realities of black and white by reading just the lyrics on the page, it’s hard to miss the true meaning of this enduring song:

I had a brother at Khe San

Fightin’ off the Vietcong

They’re still there, but he’s all gone

He had a woman that he loved in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

I’m ten years, burning down the road

Nowhere to run now ain’t got nowhere to go

I was born in the USA

I’m a long gone daddy now

You can also get a full sense of the meaning and emotion of the song by watching the clip below of the blues version, played solo with a slide on a 12-string acoustic taken from the Live in New York video.

Earlier this year, Springsteen released his 17th studio album, entitled Wrecking Ball, which partially plays as a retelling of what happened with our economy and society over the last four or five years. The first track on the album is We Take Care of Our Own. On first glance, the song plays as a scorching indictment of the Bush presidency response to Katrina and the aftermath with the following verse and chorus:

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

With pounding drums, guitars wailing a warning call, catchy guitar hooks and the refrain that “wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own,” the song is a perfect companion piece in the irony of Bruce Springsteen. What he really thinks is that we haven’t and don’t take care of our own, whether here or around the world, as a people and as a government. In 2008, Springsteen openly campaigned for Barack Obama and sung at many campaign rallies. Since then, like many who supported the president, Springsteen has quietly separated himself and has openly stated he will not campaign for the president this year. However, Obama has begun using We Take Care of Our Own at some campaign stops, apparently with Springsteen’s blessing as Obama has not been asked to stop using it. The past truly is prologue.

To bring this back around, in a 1987 BBC interview Springsteen said, “Born in the USA is not ambiguous. All you gotta’ do is listen to the verses. If you don’t listen to the verses, you’re not gonna get the whole song, you’re just gonna get the chorus. What you do if someone doesn’t understand your song is you keep singing it.” If that is true, then I guess Tom Morello needs to stand outside of Paul Ryan’s campaign headquarters with a boom box held aloft over his head, just like John Cusak in Say Anything, while blaring Know Your Enemy over and over until Ryan can no longer just hear the catchy beat but has to confront the verses.

I wonder what songs Paul Ryan likes from Morello’s latest album entitled Union Town that was recorded and released in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the demonstrations in Wisconsin last year surrounding Governor Walker’s actions against state employee unions, for which Morello travelled to Madison, WI to play and support the cause. Maybe it is Morello’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, or maybe What Side Are You On,  or just maybe it is the title track. I can’t quite remember the lyrics, something about if you live under a bridge, then all roads lead to  home and this being a union town all down the line. Not sure what that guys is saying, but it sure is a foot stomper and a catchy little ditty.

Notes of Interest:

Elvis meets Nixon– In true irony, Elvis Presley went to the White House on a whim a few days before Christmas without an appointment or prior notice to ask the President to issue him official documents certifying Elvis as an honorary member of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Elvis and two of his friends/body guards Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, flew from Memphis to Washington without notifying anyone else of their whereabouts. On the flight, Elvis met a serviceman returning from Vietnam who was in route to visit his family for Christmas, and in typical Elvis fashion, gave the soldier the only cash the three had on them, $500, so the soldier could buy his family and friends gifts, much to the consternation of his aides. After arriving in Washington, Elvis went to the White House and gave a guard a personal letter he had written to the President along with a gift of a pearl handled, Colt .45 pistol. Shortly after, a presidential aide reached out to Elvis at his Washington area hotel and made arrangements for the meeting. After some wrangling and arm twisting, President Nixon obtained the papers and DEA badges Elvis requested and presented them to him along with White House trinkets for Sonny and Jerry and their wives.

While Nixon was President, his office contacted Colonel Parker to request Elvis to perform at the White House. Parker demanded a performance fee of $150,000  which was declined as all such performances up to that time had been done gratis.

Vietnam/Light of Day/Born In The USA:

In 1981, Springsteen was asked to write music for a film by Paul Schrader called Born in the U.S.A. (Schrader’s movie would eventually be released 1987, entitled Light of Day, featuring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett). Shortly after, when Springsteen was working on a song titled “Vietnam,” he glanced at the script and sang the title. The song, entitled as the work-in-progress movie, was already finished during the sessions of Springsteen’s introspective album Nebraska, and Springsteen originally wanted to include it on the album. However, it was removed as it did not coincide with the dark feel of the rest of the songs.

Chris Christie on Bruce: Christie is an ardent, militant Springsteen fan who has seen him in concert more than 200 times and has the ticket stubs to prove it. Christie recently gave the opening keynote address at the 2012 Republican Presidential convention and dropped this line into his speech, “I was her son as I listened to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” with my high school friends on the Jersey Shore.”