Last night I went to a concert on the Vote for Change
tour, a musical event organized by MoveOnPAC consisting of various American popular musicians who want to get George W. Bush the hell out of the White House this November. Different groups of artists are on several tours performing in "swing" states. Minnesota was lucky enough to get Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. I was tipped off early by an email from MoveOn and bought my tickets as soon as they went on sale.
The concert was at the Xcel Energy Center, a hockey arena in downtown Saint Paul that our previous Republican mayor had built with our tax money (so much for small government). Event parking ranged from $10 to $15, but a hockey fan buddy of mine tipped me off to a hidden on-street parking location so we parked my political bumper-sticker festooned Subaru Forester for free and only had to walk four blocks. At the last minute my date's scatter-brained friend could not ride with us and, since I still had his ticket, arranged to meet us outside. Naturally he was late, so we had time to people-watch. Across the street were a handful of pro-Bush protestors holding very professional-looking signs extolling the virtues of killing Muslims and other core Republican values. One sign made fun of John Edwards for being a lawyer. Hm, millionaire trial lawyer (Edwards) vs. billionaire defense contractor (Cheney). Quite a contrast.
Several people were selling t-shirts and giving away buttons and stickers. There was the classic slogan "Buck Fush", a t-shirt with a photo of Bush wearing lipstick labeled "girly-man", and a photo of Bush and his national security team with the caption "war criminals belong in Abu Ghraib". I also saw a guy wearing a shirt with a picture of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld labeled "War Pigs" with the line "Evil minds that plot destruction" from the Black Sabbath song of the same name. My date doesn't listen to Black Sabbath so she didn't get it. Nobody's perfect.
Eventually our friend showed up and we headed inside. I had only been to the Xcel Center once before, for a hockey game, and I had forgotten about the totally abysmal beer selection. If you see the Twins or the Vikings at the Metrodome you can buy all different kinds of beer from many conveniently located vendors. At Xcel each of the vendors only has Bud Light. Even the lounge only has three kinds, all domestic macrobrews, and none brewed in Minnesota. To get a decent beer you have to go to the one booth per level called "Imported Beer" where, ironically, I bought a Summit which is brewed right down the street. They spend Minnesota taxpayer money to build an arena and they don't even make the effort to stock Minnesota brewed beer. But I'll rant about that another time.
Stationed inside were members of America Coming Together, the organization for whom this concert was a benefit. Their goal is to get people to vote who have never voted before, and the volunteers were there to help register people to vote. But voter registration in Minnesota is automatic when you renew your drivers license so they weren't doing much business.
The first act was Bright Eyes, which I think is the name of the singer, not the whole band, although he does have a backing band. Bright Eyes is a 24-year-old singer songwriter with the deep earnestness you only see in songwriters in their early twenties. He didn't do much for me, but I was glad they included a member of generation Y in the lineup. More on that later.
Bright Eyes played for about 30 minutes. Then there was a short break to set up the stage and R.E.M. came on. I had seen them once before, in 1989, and while they were tight they did not seem energetic enough for me. I felt the same way about this show. I don't know if it was the mix or where we were sitting, but the guitar and bass were not quite loud enough and hard to distinguish. One thing I really like about R.E.M. is the interplay between the sparse, tasteful bass and guitar parts, and that was hard to hear in this setting. I also think they might rock a little more without a second guitarist playing on every song. I should qualify this, however, by saying I don't know many of their songs from the 90s and much prefer their older stuff, so I didn't recognize much of what they played. They opened the set with "The One I Love" followed by "Begin the Begin", but from then on it was all newer material. The only other songs I recognized were "Losing my Religion", which I really like, and "Man in the Moon", which I loathe with every fiber of my being. Fans of their later material probably enjoyed it more than I did; it certainly seemed that way from the crowd reaction. It would have been nice for old-timers like me if they had thrown in one more older song - "Driver 8", "Can't Get There from Here", or even "Orange Crush", but when a band has twenty-four years worth of material they can only cram so much into a sixty minute set. And many of the songs came from their new album and speak, implicitly or explicitly, of the significant events of the last four years.
In the middle of the set Stipe surprised us by saying "Please welcome to the stage Neil Young." Neil Young? He wasn't on the bill! Sure enough, Neil Young came out in faded jeans, a t-shirt with a photo of Geronimo and two Apaches titled "Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492", and a "Canadians for Kerry" button. He only played one song with R.E.M., something called "Country Feedback". Springsteen joined the band for "Man on the Moon".
Michael Stipe is always entertaining to watch on stage, and he also made a few comments about politics and urged everyone to vote, even if not for the candidate he was supporting. He mentioned that he was born on an Army base and his father was a career army man - and he was also voting for John Kerry.
Then there was another break. Many in the audience went out into the halls to watch the Twins-Yankees playoff game. I got another Summit.
Finally Bruce Springsteen took the stage. He started alone, playing the Star Spangled Banner on an acoustic twelve-string guitar, which segued into the band playing "Born in the USA", bringing the crowd to its feet. I had never seen Bruce Springsteen before, but I knew that when he played with the E Street Band he had a reputation for tireless crowd-pleasing rock and roll. The reputation is earned. What would be rock-and-roll clichés coming from another band, especially one composed of musicians in their 50s, still seemed genuine from these guys. They mostly played songs from the E Street Band era, rather than Bruce's slower, moodier (but excellent in my opinion) solo work.
Then there was a pause, and Bruce welcomed John Fogerty onto the stage, calling him one of the most influential songwriters of his time and "the Hank Williams of our generation". Fogerty came out with his baseball-bat shaped guitar and made an announcement. "I have the final score. Minnesota Twins: 2. New York Yankees: nothing
." The crowd roared in triumph and Fogerty jumped into "Centerfield" (his hit song about baseball for those of you who live in caves). He followed with a song from his new album, followed by "Fortunate Son". "Fortunate Son" was what this evening, this cause, were all about
: greedy rich people who don't pay taxes; flag-waving "patriots" who push for wars they know other people will fight; a political class who sells out the people they claim to represent. The moment was marred only a little by Fogerty forgetting some of the lyrics. "I've been singing this song for 35 years. You'd think I'd know the words by now!"
Bruce talked about politics too. He said the idea that America is always right is "a fairy tale". He said that by telling the truth about our country, good and bad, we can discover a deeper patriotism. He urged people to vote in November.
Then Neil Young came back to play "All Along the Watchtower" with Bruce. I'm a fan of Young's work and always enjoyed his sloppy but passionate guitar playing. Well he's been practicing or something because his guitar playing last night was out of this world, manipulating distortion and feedback almost as well as Jimi Hendrix.
Then Bruce brought Mike Mills and Peter Buck out to play along on "Born to Run". Then Fogerty returned to play "Proud Mary"; then Young returned to crank out "Rockin' in the Free World", a song he wrote while Bush's father was president that remains all two relevant (Springsteen sang one of the verses). He changed the last verse slightly:
"We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.
They're dying everyday because we didn't have a plan."
Finally everyone on the bill was on stage for the final two songs.
Ever one to find flaws, I wished that Fogerty had played more CCR songs and R.E.M. had played more old stuff, and I would have loved to hear Michael Stipe sing a verse of "All Along the Watchtower" or "Rockin' in the Free World". But musically this concert was incredible. Seeing those four icons on stage together would have been worth $75 even if the money weren't going to a good cause. As the man says, I know it's only rock and roll but I like it.
I was also struck by a feeling of unity. Here were Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, and Neil Young, all baby-boomer rock icons in their own way. Then there was R.E.M., a band whose members are on the leading edge of Generation X and whose music was in many ways a reaction against what 1960s rock and roll had become by 1980. While Springsteen was at the height of his popularity with "Born in the USA", playing big outdoor arenas with a large band with a horn section, R.E.M. was four scruffily dressed young men with the rock and roll core of singer, guitar, bass, and drums. In 1969 rock and roll was the free-spirited voice of the counterculture. By 1980 it was a carefully managed revenue generator for greedy men in suits. What had sprung from the working class as artistic expression was now marketed back at them as product.
By the mid 1990s bands like R.E.M. had gone through the transformation from outsider to establishment themselves, leaving it to the next generation to reinvent rock and roll again. But while many artists sold out, others evolved. Seeing them perfom on stage together showed me that these artists, from very different musical and social backgrounds, share many values in common, even if they express them in different ways.
In a similar way, the political and social idealism of the 1960s had degenerated by the 1980s. Stephen King says "We tried for world peace and settled for the Home Shopping Network". Much of that youthful idealism had turned out to be naive in the face of reality. The counterculture of R.E.M.'s generation (which is also my generation) reacted with apathy, cynicism, and nihilism. Like the farm animals in Orwell's Animal Farm
we had met the new boss, and found him the same as the old boss. While in a general sense many of us want the same things as our baby-boomer predecessors, we were convinced we couldn't get them by dancing around with flowers in our hair.
Naturally it backfired on us. Having decided that politics corrupts anyone who touches it, many of us stopped voting or at least lost touch with the political process. We took for granted things a previous generation had fought for - more rights and opportunities for women; government assistance for the needy; and end to official sanction of racial prejudice - and felt helpless to stop the conservative backlash that was rolling them back. It has taken the blatant excesses of the Bush administration to wake many of us up, and some among us are still sleeping.
And what of Generation Y? Frankly I don't know. It is the curse of the old not to understand the young. Many younger people I talk to have never been interested in politics. "It doesn't effect my life" is a refrain I hear often. Unlike my generation, many of them have never known a time when one person working 40 hours a week earned enough money to support a family. On the other hand, they have never known a major war, let alone a draft. The cold war is a distant memory; they may well not know what the US was doing to the people of Latin America in the 70s and 80s. They know few details of the Vietnam War, that crucial event in our history, because the generation that writes the history books still hasn't decided how they feel about it.
But last night gave me hope that, despite our different points of view and experiences with the political process, people who love America enough to want to change it and love freedom enough to want to protect and expand it can find common ground and work together.
In November we'll know if I'm right.