Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Love They Can't Defeat

The lead track on R.E.M.'s latest album Accelerate is one of my favorite types of album openers. It hits like a crack of thunder; it breaks the calm before the storm. There are so many wonderful examples: The Clash's "London Calling;" U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday;" The Sex Pistols' "Holiday In The Sun." And how about that snare drum that opens Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," the crisp hit that Springsteen said was like "kicking open the door to your mind?" Such a wonderful jolt.

R.E.M.'s "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" is a big fuck-you to everyone that belittles your life and undermines your chances of achieving your dreams. Lead singer Michael Stipe had the media's talking heads and short-sighted moguls in mind in this contemporary punk song. It's calling out those who would deprive millions of meaningful reporting in the pursuit of money and ratings as if we weren't deserving.

"All your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flair their nostrils
Choking on the bones you toss about
I'm not one to sit and spin 'cause living well's the best revenge
Baby, I am calling you out on that."

This is an angry song, and it harks back to the formative days of punk rock. This album is full of stormy guitar parts and a sense of urgency about the state of our country and our world. It could very well have been called "Yes, We Can," but not because it was Obama's campaign slogan.

The very words affirm that the hopes and dreams of the future belong in the hands of those who recognize the value of life and challenge those who do not. It is the momentum needed to move forward.

Stipe: "History will set me free, the future's ours and you don't even rate a footnote now."

What can music tell us about the dangerous reality we live with? If we are being honest with ourselves we know that we live day-to-day realizing that one terrorist attack could end everything. What do we do with that information? Live well.

Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that the reason his heroes, musicians like Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, had the incredible impact they did was because of the "atomic" energy and presence they brought to their craft and the stage. They became atomic because they lived in the shadow of the atom bomb.

They were both products and drivers of their environment. They took control and made something beautiful. Rock n' roll, the sound of possibilities, was born through the work of this spirit.

The closing stanza in Dylan's apocalyptic "A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" still echoes since its release in 1962 when a nuclear holocaust was one push of the button away. Still, it's as if the narrator searches for a place to speak his mind to the world, to think for himself, to stand vigil for the sacredness of life.

"And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,

Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',

But I'll know my song well before I start singin',

And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall."

Now amidst daily color-coded threat levels and the reverberations of suicide bombs all over the world people are stirring and redefining what it means to be an American citizen and a citizen of the world.

R.E.M.'s "Houston" summons this spirit. The narrator is waking up surrounded by the devastation Hurricane Katrina left in its wake. A new day dawns despite the despair that has come before.

"So a man's put to task and challenges
I was taught to hold my head high
Collect what is mine,

Make the best of what today has

Houston is filled with promise

Laredo's a beautiful place

Galveston sings like that song that I loved

Its meaning has not been erased

Places filled with promise. People holding their heads high. This is the human spirit rising to the height of the dangers and beyond. It was there across the country on 09/12/01 and on the day after Katrina hit and everyday in between.

It was why we have to close Guantanamo Bay and ban torture once and for all. One day the war on terror will end, but who decides what kind of country we will be when that day arrives? Do we let the fear decide for us?

The biggest fuck-you middle finger we can stick at Al Qaeda, and to everyone like them who would make human beings into chess pieces for political or theological gain, is attached to the open palm we extend to those in need.

We are seeing an unprecedented effort to alleviate poverty in Africa and beyond. Social entrepreneurs are brimming with great ideas the entire world over and planting opportunity. Microcreditors are giving people access to capital and the dignity of a life in their own control. Five million Americans signed on to the One Campaign to Make Poverty History as of 2007.

The world of the 21st century is increasingly being defined by the people with the courage to reshape the circumstances that define and limits lives. The big challenges might just only get smaller if this momentum continues through our generation.

Bono at President Bush's National Prayer Breakfast in 2006:

"After 9-11 we were told America would have no time for the world's poor. America would be taken up with its own problems of safety. And it's true these are dangerous times, but America has not drawn the blinds and double-locked the doors.

In fact, you have doubled aid to Africa. You have tripled funding for global health. Mr. President, your emergency plan for AIDS relief and support for the Global Fund—you and Congress—have put 700,000 people onto life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and provided 8 million bed nets to protect children from malaria."

There is certainly something to celebrate, and life should be celebrated shouldn't it? That's living well.

Just listen to gospel music. It must get closer to joy than many other art forms, and it was started by a people used to the lash, the chain and the fire hose. Despite the bleak black experience in America this joyful sound sustained one of the most beautiful movements for justice imaginable and provided the soundtrack for a changing nation.

We can find the sounds of change in the 21st century in R.E.M., in The Roots, in The Arcade Fire. U2's new album has been described as heartening, uplifiting, spiritual, and with one adjective not commonly attached to popular music- "uncynical."

I think this spirit is especially evident during the outro to "Unknown Caller" when The Edge's glittering guitar solo gives way and a soaring church organ speaks in its place. It could be the crux of the album's relevance.

There is one line in the song "Breathe" that also sums up this spirit for me.

"Every day I die again and again I'm reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street,
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat."

That's a song that can help you get out of bed in the morning and face the news and that is an idea that can sow a difficult truth in our society's worldview- that our future lies in the chances at peace and prosperity for our neighbors, friends and citizens, nearby and foreign.

It could be our greatest shot at revenge and hope all at once.