Tag Archives: right

You Are an Individual: Songs of Freedom, Part 3 of 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2 for the beginning and middle, because this is the end, folks!

In “Don’t Take Me Alive”—another ’70s tune that was way ahead of its time lyrically and musically—we get the idea that the boys had more than a passing acquaintance with the militia movement:

Agents of the law and luckless pedestrians,
I know you’re out there with rage in your eyes and a megaphone.
Saying, “All is forgiven. Mad dog, surrender!”
How can I answer? A man of my mind can do anything.
I’m a bookkeeper’s son, I don’t want to hurt no one,
but I shot my old man back in Oregon—don’t take me alive.
Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night.
Well, I shot my old man back in Oregon—don’t take me alive.

There are scores of great songs and many, many individualistic and anti-statist lyrics in the Steely Dan discography. If you have some of their albums, you know that; in fact, I haven’t run across many serious musical folks who have only one. Once you start, and like it, you will end up with all of them. Like I did.

First of all, know this: The best musicians in the biz are on these dates. Everyone in the music business has a very, very high regard for Steely Dan; the stock answer among the cognoscenti when someone asks, “How do I learn how to produce records?” is, “Listen to Steely Dan.”

From the political standpoint, I couldn’t recommend any of their records over any other. However, my personal opinion is that Katy Lied is the ultimate early-to-mid-years session, while Aja and Gaucho are the later-date blockbusters. Steely Dan’s first album of the 21st-century, Two Against Nature, got them the Grammy that Aja should have won in 1978 over Rumors, Fleetwood Mac-flavored chewing gum for the ears. It would be a great first Dan album for the uninitiated. All of their records, new or old, feature first-rate musicianship, original compositions, wry and intelligent lyrics.

This is popular music the way the term was understood in George Gershwin’s day: the highest level of art and craft, arranged and packaged and delivered to an eager, informed, quality-conscious niche group. Most pop music is eminently disposable nowadays; Steely Dan records are keepers, and you will be astonished to hear material from, say, 1978 (“Peg”) that could be released today and still sound ahead of its time!

Anyway, yes, Virginia, there is music whose lyrics are individualistic, pro-freedom, pro-market, anti-war, and everything else that warms most libertarians’ hearts. You just have to look for it these days.

Full circle now: I was writing those new lyrics for the album closer, remember? And the tune that they accompany has a funky, upbeat, infectious Steely Dan-ish vibe to it, so I wrote identifiably libertarian lyrics, rather than another diluted sermon. That was the beginning of my exit from supernaturalism, but that’s another tale. As for that first liberty anthem, I’ll give you the intro verse and chorus:

I’m not Superman, but I sure would like to play him on TV.
Souped-up circumstances, rodomontade reality.
Buffed-up, bullet-proof, never falls to sinister conspiracy.
Launchpad on the roof, supersonic sandwich-board for liberty.
Don’t you tell me how to live my life,
and I won’t tell you what you gotta do.
You know that no one here is qualified
to rule the other members of the zoo.
And you don’t need no politicians
telling you that one size fits all.
You are an individual,
and you have to answer your own call.
I’m not Superman, I’m not going
to fly down to your rescue.

All right! Jamming with liberty! I hope you hear the music that your worldview deserves, friends, and to that end I do recommend Steely Dan for progressives, libertarians, independents, even non-Establishment conservatives, and anyone else who eschews the official news and views. Are there other liberty-leaning lyrics? Plenty, and you might know of some that I don’t. What good are they? Well, depending upon your audience, sometimes it’s easier to spread the word when it’s set to a good tune. If you know of any, please share!

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Only a Fool Would Say That: Songs of Freedom, Part 2 of 3

(Read Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3)

Well, okay then: Where are the liberty-lovers’ lyrics? Without going back to Sousa, or quoting favorite hymns, or dredging up Broadway show tunes, what can we listen to in the last few generations of music that won’t insult our political sensibilities?

Some of you who know the group I’m going to name may not even have gleaned the libertarian, occasionally even patriotic, slant of the lyrics; others of you may have heard the group’s name, but not realized what their message was; still others may not like the slick, funky jazz style of the music (which means you are not a musician). But to everyone, I heartily recommend—Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Whoa! A group named after the Naked Lunch protagonist’s marital aid? What?!

With these eccentrics, I saw (heard) it early on, in a song from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972—and even at that time I recognized it as being way out of the mainstream, message-wise. Riding atop a relaxed little Latin beat, propelled by a spare jazz-combo arrangement with first-rate guitar work by Denny Dias, were these lyrics:

A world become one, of salads and sun?
Only a fool would say that.
A boy with a plan, a natural man,
wearing a white Stetson hat.
Put down that gun, be gone!
There’s no one to fire upon.
If he’s holding it high, he’s telling a lie.
I heard it was you talking about
a world where all is free.
It just couldn’t be—and
only a fool would say that.

Holy cow! A far cry from “We Are the World” with its unmistakable message of global governance, wealth redistribution, and rule by (sensitive and nurturing) elites. Another great Steely Dan tune, “Babylon Sisters” from the 1978 Aja album, had this to say about young airheads with unregenerate musical tastes:

Drive west on Sunset to the sea.
Turn that jungle music down,
just until we’re out of town.
This is no one-night stand, it’s a real occasion.
Close your eyes and we’ll be there.
It’s everything they say, the end of a perfect day,
distant lights from across the bay.
Babylon sisters, shake it.
So fine, so young, tell me I’m the only one.

Yikes. Not only are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker good musicians and writers, they’re guys who don’t take themselves too seriously. Try to imagine Mr. Blue-Collar Produndity, Bruce Springsteen, poking fun at himself. This seriously average fella is called a “genius” by the PC critics in the national media—a genius who still hasn’t learned a few more chords to elevate somewhat the emaciated carcasses of R&B tunes past that he calls his original compositions. Self-parody? For the “musical conscience of his generation”? Goodness, no!

Not only do they mock big government, Fagen and Becker mock their own aging egos and the radio culture that enriched them:

Hey, nineteen [19-year-old], that’s Aretha Franklin.
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.
Hard times befallen soul survivor.
She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.
Hey, nineteen, we can’t dance together,
we can’t talk at all.

(Part 3 of 3 is up next.)

Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3

Going on 15 years ago, when I was finishing up my first original-music CD project, I had to write lyrics for the last tune on the album. Now, inasmuch as I was trying to be a “Christian man” at that time, committed to the ethics despite having jettisoned the supernaturalism, there was usually a message of love or hope or renewal in my songs. It was often quite sincere and sometimes quite contrived. Okay, fine.

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Walter Becker (l) and Donald Fagen not only brought jazz sensibilities and top players to pop music, they wrote, “A world become one, of salads and sun? Only a fool would say that,” in 1973. They went on to build among the best repertoires of music in the modern era, and spoke of liberty often.

But the lyrics that came along for that last song were different. Instead of being spiritual in nature, they derived from my other main self-tagging adjectives, the ones contending (not always cordially) with my baffled spirituality: libertarian and skeptic. And this got me to thinking about the dearth of sensible, sensitive, well-thought-out lyrics in contemporary music. Not a whole lot out there, frankly, neither then nor now, that’s very positive about liberty and individuality. It often seems there’s nothing positive at all, in any genre.

Well, okay, you have your country ditties and your lounge crooners. And, sure, you’ve got your gospel artists reminding everyone Who God Is and What Great Things He’s Doing in their lives, but I was thinking of the secular music segment, and the mainstream one at that. What are the messages that we, as a society, get from that cacophonous buffet? We have heard, and heard all about, the rap and the hip-hop and the twerking and the rest of it. But even among the mundane radio-daze tunes, where are the un-PC, or skeptical, or individualist, or non-conformist, or libertarian, lyrics?

Bubblegum for the Ears

No one needs any more evidence of the sorry state of modern songwriting than the playlist at any major-market radio station; tune in to the AM or FM powerhouses in your neck of the woods, whether rap or dance or techno or alternative or rock or who-knows-what, and you’ll get pretty much the same batch of tunes as folks do on L.A.’s undiversified outlets. And we don’t need to spend more than a few bullet points summing up the current state of affairs in pop music lyric writing. You have your

  • cop-killing misogynists of the gangsta rap school, where violence is banal and women are whores;
  • three generations of tra-la-la Lolitas (Madonna, Britney, Miley) winking and slinking to coyly and crudely sing their featherweight fables of sunny seduction and guiltless sensuality;
  • angry troubadours and troubadourettes across a number of musicologically primitive genres;
  • the discombobulated heirs of such musico-moralizers as Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl, and Melissa, correcting the benighted members of our Sick Society with profound pronouncements within their weighty warbles; and
  • those self-consciously Wizened Souls, like Sting and Paul Simon and these U2 characters, who find it incomprehensible that anyone young or hip or aware or intelligent would have any opinion outside the shallow orbit of Ellen or Rachel.

Did I leave anyone out? Of course.

I left out a lot, but I served up enough to make a meal. You know where I’m going with this, and you have enough examples of platitudinous high-school poetry, both in the above paragraphs and in your own memory, to sustain the following generalization: most pop music lyrics that touch on issues philosophical, or political, or spiritual, will rarely mention freedom except in the sorta-Southern-Rock semi-military style that patriotic football fans go for. We’re not just talking Bob Dylan here, you know? Yes, I’m sure you do.

And because you do, you will doubtless wait breathlessly for Part 2 (and there will be a Part 3, as well, so as not to weigh you down too much each time).