“Jefferson, I think we're lost.”
–REM, “Little America”
When you look at the Cleveland skyline–say, in the middle of the night from the bed where you can't sleep in a corner room studded with tall windows on the 12th floor of the Marriot Hotel downtown on the first weekend of October–there's something balked and depressed about it. The high-rises, artlessly arranged on the city's grid, look grimy and don't gleam the way you'd expect; they seem altogether reluctant to rise into the air in that haughty way New York or LA skyscrapers do–those proud postmodern monoliths that, story piled on story, betray a cackling Trumpian triumphalism. Husks of old factories, some closed 20 years ago, continue their slow rust outside the downtown area. The pride of the city, insofar as pride shows, seems to be its squat sports stadiums–the Indians, Cavaliers and Browns each have their own hulking homes within a couple of miles of each other–but then again, they remind you of the curious blend of displaced rage and worship that characterizes so much of the sports world in the Midwest. (Someday, read James Wright's tortured poem “Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio,” which tells of young football players who “grow suicidally beautiful . . . and gallop terribly against each other's bodies” as the only way out of the dead ends and vast repressions of Ohio life.) Then there's the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame Museum, jutting its sharp gaudy angles into the sky against the backdrop of gray dirty Lake Erie, but Jesus, what a place that is: you can hardly imagine a more jaw-dropping shrine to the way rock capitulates to the twin lures of glitz and money. To an insomniac, the overall impression is of a sky, weighted and stifling, brooding over a city that seems like some broken-nosed, heavy-shouldered prizefighter who keeps going down, keeps getting up and fully expects to go down again.
In case you think it's just me being depressed here, not Cleveland, consider that I had flown into the city to see Bruce Springsteen and REM on the Vote for Change tour benefiting John Kerry's presidential candidacy, was nowhere near depressed, and was too excited to sleep. Consider, also, that Cleveland is the poorest big city in America: 270,000 jobs, 11,000 of them in August alone—which happens to be a quarter of all the jobs that have disappeared during the only administration since Herbert Hoover's to yield net job loss–have been lost in Ohio, many of them in its biggest city. Ohio's got one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, and Cleveland's got the highest poverty rate of any major city in the country. Virtually 50 percent of Cleveland's children live in households that fall beneath the poverty line. Almost half. No state's been hit harder by Bush's reverse-Robin Hood economic policies. Yet the state is still a swing state. Bush won it by four points in 2000, and up until Bush (refreshingly) fucked up the first presidential debate, he was up by eight.
Places like Ohio make you want to tear your hair out. It's hard to imagine a state whose citizens so repeatedly vote in ways diametrically opposed to their own interests. Losing manufacturing jobs? Okay, then, let's weaken labor laws, encourage outsourcing and give tax breaks to the superrich whose trickle down will feel like you're being pissed on. Worried about health care in your old age? Fine, let's reform Medicare so that the government can't use its huge buying power–can't utilize the free market Bush adores–to get discounts on prescription drugs from pharmaceutical companies that stand to rake in more billions as a result. Concerned that your government is sending your sons and daughters to fight and die in a war whose every stated reason for fighting has been undermined by the facts? Terrific, let's keep believing the administration's appallingly Orwellian insinuations that Saddam Hussein still had something to do with Sept. 11; that WMDs might still be found; that democracy will take root once fair elections take place in Iraq next January; that Iraqis feel liberated; that we have enough troops on the ground; that everybody who's not with us is against us; and that Bush's neocon handlers haven't since Sept. 12, 2001, been methodically angling for a way to twist the Twin Towers' fall into an excuse to crush Saddam's regime and turn Iraq into a compliant client-state, gushing crude for our Hummers.
Consider Ohio enough and the way it continues to cling to George W. Bush's arrogance of power and contempt for the facts, and you start inching toward the conclusion that Americans are gullible and lazy and would very much prefer not to have to do their own thinking. It makes you think that on the whole, Americans positively enjoy war and jump at almost any excuse to start blowing other people up. (We've got more than 200,00,000 guns in the country, and the pressure must build to start firing those fuckers.) It makes you think that a lot of people “love their country” and their leaders the way many four-year-olds love their parents–with a mixture of awe, blind need, complete trust and fear–which, to put it delicately, is not what Lincoln had in mind by “government of, by and for the people.” It's enough to make you doubt the plausibility of democracy itself. It's enough to make you want to sing along with REM's lament to the nation's architect of democracy in “Little America”–that “Jefferson, I think we're lost.”
But, to turn a phrase, that's what the terrorists want us to think. In Cleveland, democracy's in trouble, sure, but democracy has always been in trouble. In a vital way, democracy's supposed to be in trouble. Its health depends, in fact, on Americans repeatedly discovering that our politically complacent and irresponsible asses are capable of getting out of our seats, rediscovering the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, and realizing that what once was lost can now be found. Ohio, for instance, just completed an almost unprecedentedly successful voter-registration drive. The ratings for the debates in the state skyrocketed this year to their highest levels since the Clinton/Bush/Perot encounters of 1992. Partisan activity of the more rabid kind is way up (there are reports all over Ohio of, for instance, people stealing and burning political signs off other people's lawns), and newspaper editors are reporting huge volumes of angry but informed letters to the editor.
And then rock N roll got into the act. As we like to say around here, Hello, Cleveland!
2. Sky of Rage, Sky of Blessed Life
"Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen to tell anybody how to vote?”
–Ted Koppel, to his guest on Nightline
Back in August, Bruce Springsteen wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he announced that for the first time, he'd try to use his influence as a pop star not just in support of a set of ideals or causes–that he's been doing for decades–but for a political candidate, specifically John Kerry. He announced he'd be joining fellow artists such as REM, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, Jurassic 5, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others on a benefit tour called Vote for Change. The idea was that the nearly two dozen acts that signed up would split up–Bruce with REM, the Dixie Chicks with James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt with Jackson Browne, and so on–and play shows in 11 swing states, including Ohio, rustling up as many millions as they could for the liberal political organizing group America Coming Together, which would in turn use the money to get out the message–and the vote–for Kerry and other Democrats. On the night I saw Springsteen and REM in Cleveland's Gund Arena (along with Bright Eyes and a special appearance by John Fogerty), for instance, the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor were also playing in town, and Pearl Jam (and surprise walk-on Neil Young) was rocking a house across the state in Toledo. Other acts were playing other states from Iowa to Florida.
For the record, Springsteen's answer to Ted Koppel's testy little interrogation about the relevance of artists to the political process was this: "It's an interesting question that seems to only be asked of musicians and artists, for some reason. Big corporations . . . influence the government [their] way. . . . Labor unions influence the government their way. Artists write and sing and think, and this is how we get to put our two cents in.” This seems impressively restrained to me. Koppel was aiming for good confrontational TV, of course, but Springsteen, in his polite way, wouldn't take the bait (the way, say, Susan Sarandon might). He pointed out, simply and truly enough, that–blond Fox News analysts and right-wing authoresses aside–musicians are under no obligation to shut up and sing, that he's an artist-citizen, and he's got every bit as much a right–and, finally, the obligation–to use his clout to extend into the political arena the message he's been sending in his own music for at least 25 years.
If Koppel had had, I don't know, Christina Aguilera on his show, we might take his point, but Aguilera is even less Springsteen than Dan Quayle is Jack Kennedy. And it seems silly to have to point out that pop art by now is not only hugely more influential than forms of high art, but that it also can, in the hands of people like Springsteen, be as subtle, relevant and moving as any other form of discourse. Look only at Springsteen's “The Rising,” Bruce's elegy to Sept. 11, which he sang in Cleveland with enormous passion. The song was the first single from the album The Rising and on the radio briefly in late 2002, but given the vicious climate Bush and company were cultivating to get us to invade Iraq at the time, the song's expression of searing loss, confusion, vulnerability and wonder never had the chance to become the unifying, healing anthem it could and should have been.
Now, I have read, watched and listened to a great amount of commentary and art about the meaning of Sept. 11–from such writers as Joan Didion, Noam Chomsky, Jean Baudrillard, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Jacques Derrida, Tom Stoppard, Art Spiegelman, E.L. Doctorow and Nicholson Baker; from musicians such as Sonic Youth, David Bowie and (in an album that just came out) REM; from filmmakers such as Michael Moore and David O. Russell. Some of this material has been extraordinary in its analysis of global events, in its evocation of pain, in its cathartic rage or polemical anger, but with the possible exceptions of an essay by DeLillo and an interview with Derrida, none of it has affected me the way “The Rising” does. Nobody plays it on the radio anymore, so except for Springsteen fans, the song's gone down pop's memory hole. But it's the best art I know that's come out of that horrible day, and it's worth resuscitating here because the emotional tone it sounds is so humanly compassionate, its vision of sacrifice and heroism so meticulously measured yet transcendent, that if more of its sensibility had affected the war makers in Washington or rubbed off on an electorate that cared to make the war makers accountable, this election might not be about Iraq at all.
“The Rising” is told from the point of view of an emergency worker climbing the stairs of one of the World Trade Center's towers in the minutes before it collapses. He can't see anything for the choking smoke that fills the stairwell, and he's
Lost track of how far I've gone . . .
How high I've climbed
On my back's a 60-pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line.
As the first chorus comes in–“Come on up for the rising”–it seems like he's calling for more help, for other firefighters to rise through the tower to help him get at whatever victims have been trapped in the floors above. And that's part of it, but what we soon learn is that the higher he rises, the more dangerous it is, and that our emergency worker is actually rising to his own sacrifice, that he's working up his own courage to face the annihilation he's going to suffer alongside the trapped ones he's hoped to save:
There's spirits above and behind me
Faces gone back, eyes burnin' bright
May their precious blood bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light.
Suddenly, the fire around him isn't the terrorists' doing or even Osama bin Laden's; it's the Lord's–it's God's, it's Fate's–and the song all at once bursts the bounds of politics. Springsteen imagines a man being consumed by flame and reaching out to the others dying beside him, praying not for personal deliverance but to be bound to the others' blood–love for other strangers is his last living feeling. The worker's heroism isn't addressed, and the guy is all the more heroic for it not needing to be.
Then, in a second remarkable and daring shift, we see what the worker envisions in the afterlife:
I see you, Mary, in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There's holy pictures of our children
Dancin' in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mixed with mine
Springsteen hasn't ever imagined in song what happens after death, but Sept. 11 evidently spurred him on to break the binds of realism that has always solidly encased his songs. Then, rising beyond this affecting vision of family love, Springsteen has his worker feel “a dream of life” come upon him. The dream is a vision of Manhattan's sky after the towers' fall:
Sky of blackness, sky of sorrow
Sky of love, sky of tears
Sky of glory and sadness
Sky of mercy, sky of fear
Sky of memory and sadness
Your burning wind fills my heart tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life
These are only lyrics, and of course you need to hear the searing barrage of guitars and synthesizers behind them to get the effect—mostly you need to hear Bruce's voice, which fully embodies the abstractions of the words and wrenches their contradictions until the tears, the sadness, the fear, the burning wind rise up, transfigured, and are redeemed into a sky of fullness and blessed life.
I go on like this because a song like “The Rising” is the kind of response to Sept. 11 that does full justice to what Lincoln once called “the better angels of our nature.” Which, to put it simply, means staying human in the face of horror, remembering the ties that bind us to each and all, keeping alive the hope that shared suffering is the basis for love, and knowing that evil has every bit as much of a chance to set up shop within us as it did in the terrorists who savaged the country's heart that miserable day. (If you don't think so, consider that the U.S. has killed many more innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians than were killed on Sept. 11 and that almost nobody cares about this.) Everybody remembers–and John Kerry has lately been reminding us–of the world's solidarity with us in the wake of the attacks. After Sept. 11, it was as if the U.S. finally began to share in the world-sorrow Europeans, Asians, Africans and South Americans have suffered always and which geographical distance, luck and a certain impervious disdain for suffering had always protected us from. As a nation, we were facing, on a smaller if still spectacular scale, the ravages—genocides, plagues, the awesome senselessness of war–the rest of the world has endured for centuries. We were finally one with the world–still a beacon of hope, but one now firmly set on history's slaughter bench and, remarkably, glowing all the brighter for it.
And then we blew it. We blew it because we have an administration that looked up into the empty sky where the towers used to be and saw only a sky of rage. Who panic the way ignorant xenophobes panic, which is by instinctively resorting to force to kill the Other. Who in their circling of the wagons don't care that in doing so, we are excluding our most trusted allies. Who are driven to war in the end not by courage, but by fear. Who respond to terror with terror. And who in invading Iraq gave great momentum to the cycle of terror that we'll no doubt now be living with for decades.
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.”
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.