“It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate son,” sang “Creedence Clearwater Revival.” “Four dead in Ohio,” whined Neal Young in “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.” “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you cryin’,” crooned Marvin Gaye. I could go on and on. You almost certainly know many of the lyrics, even if you were born after 1980 . . . or 1990 . . . or born after 2000!
You see, the first obvious truth about American rock and roll is that it not only is the most dominating and prevailing music in the world, it now is close to becoming the most dominating music across time. Yes, there are still “classics” by Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin that everyone recognizes—but because they are instrumental, few can hum more than a few notes, and, of course . . . there were no lyrics! But rock is everywhere.
I once had a guy who had been bicycling through South Africa—something I do not recommend you do today!—and he said “I was in the middle of nowhere. On a hill trail, and suddenly I came around a corner and there was a little water stand with juice, fruits, and the guy selling it had on a Bob Marley t-shirt.” Of course, you might say “Bob Marley wasn’t American.” No, but he was in that long list of tree limbs that came from American rock and roll. Ever see “Lost in Translation?” It’s a great movie with Bill Murray playing a washed up American actor doing whiskey ads in Tokyo. He’s alienated and alone, so he goes to the bar every night where the “soft rock” band is playing “I’m So Into You,” by the “Atlanta Rhythm Section. When the Japanese kids do karaoke, they are singing to American songs, and Scarlett Johannsen sings (more or less) to the “Pretenders” song “Brass in Pocket.”
That’s the geographical dominance. But go to some high school graduations. Listen to ads on television—even to those aimed at younger people. What do you hear? Beatles, “Here I Go Again” by “Whitesnake,” and for years Bob Seeger’s “Like a Rock” was a major song used by one of the car companies in a pickup commercial. Rock’s dominance is undeniable. Kids who know no other English can often sing rock and roll songs in English.
So, let’s get back to the “revolutionary” part of rock. While many of us know the lyrics and are familiar with them, there is a major misunderstanding that rock and roll was somehow a leading voice in the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s. Again, this is because so many people are familiar with the songs (“War! Huh! What is it good for?” sang Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in one of the “Rush Hour” movies.) But few people realize that their timing is a wee bit off.
A study by Kenneth Bindas and Craig Houston in 1989 looked at all the rock and roll songs of the era in their pathbreaking article, “‘Takin’ Care of Business’: Rock Music, Vietnam and the Protest Myth.” They found, for example, that all the anti-war songs with which we are so familiar appeared after the public polling shifted against the Vietnam War! In other words, far from “leading” the protest movement, rock and roll followed along. In 1966 the #1 song was “Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. The same is mostly true about race relations music, although some more generic “love your brother” kinds of songs did appear before 1969. And some of the songs thought to be anti-war were not. “For What it’s Worth” by “Buffalo Springfield” was not written about Vietnam but about a riot on Sunset Boulevard. Grace Slick of the “Jefferson Airplane” insisted of their music, “There’s no f . . . ing message. No matter how much somebody wants to make out that we were saying something, we weren’t saying anything.” And, as the stars got more comfortable with nice cars, big houses, and the high life, their revolutionary zeal faded. As Bindas and Houston argued, turning to anti-war and revolutionary lyrics in the late ‘60s was as much as anything a commercial decision. That’s what they people were saying in polls. Or, as Bindas and Houston put it (echoing a song by “Bachman Turner Overdrive”), the rockers were merely “Takin’ Care of Business.” Most of them—at least on paper—had gotten into the famed 1% of the American (or British) wealthy class.
Even more surprisingly, rock and rollers were a decidedly un-revolutionary group. The Beatles, while looking for an island off Greece, were not bothered in the least they would be dealing with a brutal military junta, and George Harrison complained about high taxes in “Taxman.” Sometimes groups were divided in their political ideas: Jack Bruce, the bassist of “Cream” and Ginger Baker, the drummer, were on totally different political poles and fought viciously. Ted Nugent would emerge as a leading advocate for Second Amendment Rights. But even some of the expected names were not quite so “revolutionary.” Although certainly far left in their politics, “Jefferson Airplane’ steadfastly refused to appear at any fundraiser or political event for Democrats. At Woodstock, musicians stayed in luxurious hotels and took a helicopter to the concert site, praising the filthy, drugged-out, hungry audience with praises of how strong they were, only to leap in the helicopter with their paychecks and be whisked away the moment the music ended.
Perhaps no more complex a person existed than legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. He was an Army paratrooper (although he had already started playing the guitar and met future bassist Billy Cox in the Army). There are many versions of how Hendrix got out of the Army, and to date no one seems more believable than the others. But he did get out, and of course became one of America’s great performers. He took pride in the Airborne, and said “I’m in the best division: the 101st Airborne. That’s the sharpest outfit in the world.” In 1969 when European reporters badgered him about the Vietnam War, he shocked them by comparing Vietnam to D-Day. “Did you send the Americans away when they landed in Normandy? . . . No, but then that was concerning your skin. The Americans are fighting in Vietnam for the complete free world . . . .Of course, war is horrible, but at present, it’s still the only guarantee to maintain peace.” Another 60s-er radical, Frank Zappa, made fun of the “peaceniks” more than he ever did of Richard Nixon or LBJ. Bruce Springsteen had to be strongly pushed by his management to move into “social commentary” such as “Born in the USA” (which everyone, especially foreigners, think is a pro American song!)
Leftist author Peter Doggett would later complain that the sixties weren’t radical enough, and that the musicians had all been co-opted by the trappings of wealth. In many ways, Woodstock marked the end of whatever revolution ever existed in rock. While at the time Woodstock was hailed as a massive peaceful event, one participant recalled “what else would half a millino kids on grass, acit, and hog tranquilizers be? Woodstock, if anythning, was the point at which psychedelics [drugs] ceased being tools for experience . . . and became a means of mind control. By the time Hendrix played the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the final day, Woodstock was a “battlefield, [with] zombies crawling over a field littered with paper cups, plastic wrappers, and half-eaten food, gnawing on corn husks, slobbering over ketchup- and mustard-smeared half-eaten hot dog rolls sprinkled with ants . . . .” Predictably Woodstock generated the largest pile of garbage of any event in human history and few stayed around to show their concern for the environment by picking it up.
And, almost equally as predictably, within years on either side of Woodstock musicians such as Sly Stone, David Crosby, Keith Moon, Graham Parsons, Tommy Bolin, Sid Vicious, Mike Bloomfield, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, and Jim Morrison either died of drug overdoses or otherwise suffered severe health problems. Even “The King,” Elvis himself, died in 1977 of a heart attack, but many pathologists insist that “polypharmay” or large mixtures of drugs brought on the heart attack.
But Woodstock largely ended whatever revolutionary urges that had ever existed. As Joan Baez, the queen diva of protest songs, recalled, “it wasn’t any f . . . ing revolution. It was a three-day period during which people were decent to each other because . . . if they weren’t, they’d all go hungry.” Perhaps more poignant, when radical leader Abbie Hoffman mounted the stage to take the microphone from “The Who’s” Peter Townsend, the guitarist whipped off his guitar and used it as a club to knock Hoffman off the stage. (Townsend, it should be noted, was more conservative in his leanings.) Critic Peter Doggett complained in his book that artists “swapped their revolutionary idealism for self-obsession.”
Probably more ironic (and painful for radicals such as Doggett) is the fact that American and British rock was instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing down Communism, and virtually all of the young people behind the Iron Curtain listened to rock music. When Springsteen held his famed concert in East Berlin in 1988, he sang the aforementioned “Born in the USA” and the tens of thousands of East German (presumably communist) youths raised their fists in defiance as they sang. Because, as Hungarian protest leader and rock drummer Leslie Mandoki later told me . . .
“they wanted to be born in the USA. They wanted to be Americans!”