Cleveland Rocked

Vote for Change and Vote Often

The Bush administration has no better angels. It's almost impossible to imagine Bush, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle—any of them—seeing that Manhattan's empty sky could be transfigured into a sky of blessed life, that human solidarity could be the result of Sept. 11. But transfiguration is what the imagination and art help us to accomplish, and so it's understandable why artists might give some thought, these dangerous days, to telling people how to vote. They're just looking for a better angel.

3. . . . Meanwhile, Back in Cleveland

"Let's put our heads together/Start a new country up."

--REM, "Cuyahoga"

The Cleveland concert on Oct. 2, the second night of the Springsteen/REM leg of the Vote for Change tour, didn't heavy up on its audience; the politics were there—in between-set video footage of people such as Bonnie Raitt and Peter Buck explaining patiently the tour's intentions, and in occasional and brief comments by the acts—but the atmosphere was largely and consciously celebratory. The opening act, Bright Eyes, hardly registered. All I remember about them is that the lead singer, which my wife tells me is Winona Ryder's new boyfriend, has the same kind of hair that Dave Pirner, Soul Asylum's lead singer and one of Winona Ryder's former boyfriends, had. (Also, as the girl sitting next to me told me when I got back from getting a beer, Bright Eyes' lead singer announced, before abandoning the stage, "A vote for Bush is like shitting in your own bed." Not exactly better-angel talk, but hey, he's young.)

REM helped focus the emotion of the evening. It wasn't easy because Cleveland, rock-&-roll-wise, is Bruce country, and Michael Stipe found himself in the odd position of being one of the world's premier rock stars playing in front of an audience that was kinda hoping his band's set would be over soon. But Stipe was engaging and funny and weird, moving like an old ballet dancer with rheumatism, doing his ironic rock-star posing in a resplendent white suit, clearly conveying that the $75 ticket price was all he'd be extracting from the crowd for the evening's political cause—the rest was his and the band's pleasure. They opened with a crowd pleaser, "The One I Love," and sprinkled three songs from their new album, Around the Sun, throughout the set. One of them, "Leaving New York," was simple, soaring and beautiful, in Peter Buck's old arpeggio'd style, and was immensely moving. Another one, "The Final Straw," was about and directed toward George W. Bush, and though lyrically hampered by Stipe's scattershot impressionism, it gives a surprisingly complex sense of the fear and even hatred the man can inspire in us and of the necessity to convert those feelings into something positive. Which, in a way, was another way of stating the purpose of the evening.

Joined onstage by Springsteen--who contributed a couple of hilariously wicked guitar solos and had Stipe standing agog and looking like he was thinking, "Are you kidding me with this guy?"--REM closed with "Bad Day," a recent, reckless rocker about the collusion between politicians and a complacent media, and "Man on the Moon," which is about Andy Kaufman but which might be construed as being about the clown in the White House.

After a short break, Springsteen came on, solo, to do a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his 12-string. If you've heard his acoustic version of "Born in the USA," with its thick strumming and all-over-the-neck slide blues positioning, you get the idea. The sound is both anguished and idealistic, the aural equivalent of waving a tattered flag--one we've tattered ourselves. Rather than deconstructing the anthem altogether, as Hendrix so famously did, Springsteen kept the land of the free ideal intact while letting the bombs burst in air around it.

The set he played with the E Street Band was high-spirited, and though you can't go to a Springsteen concert without being ushered through a dark night of the soul on the way to the promised land, he never underlined the darkness, dwelling instead on celebrations like "The Promised Land" and "Mary's Place." Still, "The River" seemed as relevant as ever, given Ohio's persistent economic woes, and the band's version of "Youngstown"—about the despairing history of a town only a couple of hours from Gund Arena—was overwhelming. E Street band guitarist Nils Lofgren and drummer Max Weinberg came together for a pounding, soaring finale that was so good it was unbearable when it finally ended. John Fogerty came on to do a few songs with the band and performed a blazing version of "Fortunate Son," which now reads like an eerie foretelling of Bush's own history. And "The Rising"—well, that was gorgeous and dignified and absolutely kick-ass--and in the screaming aftermath, man, angels were flying everywhere.

Nobody has any illusions about the political effect of benefit concerts like this. Beyond the money they raise to help deliver the Kerry message and the Kerry vote—not insignificant, but certainly canceled out by any number of the Right's grassroots efforts—what remains for most is a good time, which Cleveland certainly could have used, though that good time carries within it, as honest good times do, the seed of some hope that it feels good and passionately right to nurture. Saw a bumper sticker the night I got back to town that read, "I love America too much to vote for George W. Bush." That says it about as well as a bumper sticker can. The Vote for Change tour is about loving the country—not like the four-year-old with his mother, though, in awe, blind obedience and fear of a spanking—but, you know, real love that's based on respect and responsibility and passionate dedication. Here's hoping there's enough of that going around on Nov. 2. Let's put our heads together, start a new country up.

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