The American Ruse
Photo courtesy Capitol RecordsSunday is the rottenest radio night of the week—please don't make me name old sad names—and just when it couldn't get any rottener: the right-wing talk scene discovered rock & roll, and the Drudge Report "broke" (fun word, huh, Matt?) the new Bush-bashing Rolling Stones song "Sweet Neo Con," and also broke a lot of confused callers so far out of their depth you could hear the bends setting in. "Well, I'm not much of a . . . music fan," they'd all say, before hee-hawing into that argument about me-like-music-me-not-pay-for-politics, and then mispronouncing words like "aesthetic"—just kidding; how would that word even come up? Because the people who think pop artists shouldn't be political are the same people who tend to yell at the TV screen; there are some serious miswired control issues there, and they knew the Rolling Stones in the same way someone might know the surface of the moon—secondhand memories of media fallout. And then the one guy who made sense called in: "Free speech means you can say what you want, but that's beside the point because this is a bad song." "Oh, but you gotta admit, it's gotta good beat!" says Drudge—do these people get everything in the world wrong?
Or does anybody get anything in the world right? Because "Sweet Neo Con" is a bad song, a way-past-expiration Police-style pop exercise—cut-down counterpoint guitar, basic dubby bass—with Stones-trademark harmonica slop on top to blooze it up and condescending toss-off lyrics ("You call yourself a patriot/Well I think you're full of shit!") that reek of the leather chaise longue on which they must have been written. The Stones have nothing to lose and tons of press and sales to gain by pushing out this publicity stunt, which is why the song is so weak—what do they care? And because there was an American kid who really DID write an anti-war song that came from his real life, a song that was arguably the first explicitly political rock & roll song of the 1960s: a guy who came in after jokey folkies Dylan and Country Joe and the Fish (and Barry McGuire, the best alternate contender for the honor, probably) with a vicious electric guitar line and a Detroit rhythm section and beat the Doors ("Unknown Soldier," May 1968) and Edwin Starr ("War!", 1970) and Steppenwolf ("Draft Resister," 1970) to major-label release. He got a song tougher and meaner than the MC5 out through the same big-time corporation that was pressing Beatles and Beach Boys 45s, and you don't have any idea about it because that's the kind of bold statement of principle that can—and did—ruin a career. Bob Seger, salute. It's time the world remembered what you did.
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"2 + 2 = ?" came out in January 1968, the first single off the Bob Seger System's then-not-quite-released first album for Capitol Records, and the first shot the Hardest Working Man in Detroit—Seger, whose favorite LP was James Brown Live at the Apollo Vol. 1, outsold the Beatles in hometown record stores—would have at making it big, at hoisting himself out of the worst bottom end of the working musician's life (where Bob and his band would drive 25 hours to Florida, play for thousands, then drive 25 hours HOME because they couldn't afford the hotel rooms) and really getting somewhere. And he used it to shoot a pistol through the roof: "Yes, it's true I am a young man/But I'm old enough to kill," says Bob, his band tiptoeing behind a bass line, waiting for their cue, and then the drums rolling in as Bob takes it up a register: "I knew a guy in high school/Just an average friendly guy/And he had himself a girlfriend/And you made them say goodbye/And now he's buried in the mud/Of a foreign jungle land/And his girl just sits and cries/She just doesn't understand/So you say he died for freedom/What if he died to save your lies?"
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Supposedly, Bob's manager didn't happen to mention what the song was about—hey, it's gotta good beat!—and Capitol didn't understand what they'd paid for until "2 + 2 = ?" was already in stores; that's a little suspect, since they'd asked Bob to add some extra guitar to the end of the song to fill in some dead air, and because "2 + 2 = ?" is instantly a potent and considered protest song, anger and menace built into its minor-key melody line, and that's even before you get the lyrics—but who listens to lyrics, then and now? Maybe they thought it was about how Bob couldn't get laid, a universal topic of the sort that really sells a first single. Not like a war song: "Capitol was real conservative back then," remembered Bob's manager. "They got real bent out of shape about my even suggesting that people should be questioning the war. I was literally thrown out of the office, and the record did a quick dive."
Ahead of its time? By a few months, academically. By 40 years, honestly, because it's still a sickening listen, invested with an obvious desperate authenticity that the Rolling Stones—who wouldn't have been drafted for anything, not like the teenage kids getting yanked out of Detroit every week—never touched or even copied convincingly. "2 + 2 = ?" is one of those songs that grew beyond the band who played it, recorded at one of those intersections between luck, fate, sincerity and opportunity—or missed opportunity—that abandon something timeless into history. It doesn't sound old; it sounds futuristic, more terrified now than people even have the energy or cognizance to understand: the engineer did something to the levels so Bob is just howling, fighting through the rest of the band because he's mixed too low, getting more and more faint and panicked ("I just want a simple answer/Why it is I got to die?") with the band up too loud around him, chanting like monks around the guitar line ("Two plus two is on my mind!") and cymbal wash (Keith Moon technique) all mixed in crazy spirals, sweeping in and out of the speakers, pouring over poor Bob in messy waves, and just as the guitars start to push out of tune—snap!—a sudden total frozen stop that echoes like a bolt dropped into a bucket—and 4-2-3-4 BANG! a hard snare crack from a drummer's clenched fist, or if you have the redubbed version Capitol asked for because they didn't want four seconds of dead air on a radio single, Bob peels instead into the most bitter overdub of the '60s, a fret-bent air-raid dive-bomb plane-crash power chord—if you could gut open an electric guitar like a fish, it would make this last dying sound—and an arbitrary high-speed fade-out that slides the band off into the dark in about five seconds, smashed to silence after Bob's last ragged high-register cry: "Two plus two is on my mind!"
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But who heard it, then and now? Bob got one more single off that album when it came out—"Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," which is pretty good too—and then sank back into the sweatbox circuit until his more palatable retro-rock shtick finally bought him a little security. I bought both my copies of "2 + 2 = ?" in thrift stores for about 25 cents each, passed over for years by scavengers who thought they were too smart for Bob Seger—by the kids of parents who might have heard "2 + 2 = ?" and looked at each other in a certain worried way when the mail came each morning in 1968. "No one has more of a right to sell out than Bob Seger," wrote Lester Bangs, which was exactly sadly right: he'd tried it his way, when he really did have a lot to lose, and . . . he lost. And by the time he got it again in the mid/late '70s, he was all hollowed out, and the Rolling Stones were millionaires. Which is how it is today. Too much too soon, Bob, but thanks for trying anyway: "All I know is that I'm young/And your rules, they are old/If I've got to kill to live/Then there's something left untold. . . . It's the rules not the soldier/That I find the real enemy."
TURN THE PAGE: A TRIBUTE TO BOB SEGER WITH DESPERADO: A TRIBUTE TO THE EAGLES AND ONE: A TRIBUTE TO U2 AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930; WWW.THECOACHHOUSE.COM. FRI., 8 PM. $12.50-$15. ALL AGES.
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