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Thursday, June 18, 2009

GMVW # 76: "Overcoming Adversity"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 76:  Overcoming Adversity
Song:  I Believe in You by Bob Dylan
Covered Here By: Sinead O’Connor
(Songwriter: Bob Dylan)
June 18, 2009

“Shut up and Sing”:  So declared conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham in the title of her post-911 period-piece book.  The book raged against musicians who spoke their minds on stage during that not-so-long-ago turbulent period in American history.  The most obvious targets were the Dixie Chicks, who supposedly betrayed the trust of some of their fellow country-music loving Americans.  And there were others in Ingraham’s cross hairs, including Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Kris Kristofferson. 

Springsteen, in particular was an interesting target.  Although not quite at the height of his popularity in 2002, he was still off the charts, so at some level you have to admire Ingraham’s boldness for taking him on.  It was that very popularity, however, that thrust responsibility on the outspoken Springsteen to speak up about where he stood on the big ticket items of the day: War, leadership and other touchy subjects. And since he was a pretty candid interview when times were relatively good, it would have been hypocritical of him not to be so in tougher times. 

Springsteen invariably has had plenty to say, not just between his songs, but in his songs too, which at face value are not always correctly interpreted (case in point: ‘Born in the USA’).  ‘Know thy audience’ is the first rule of thumb for anyone who takes center stage, and Springsteen knew that a fair number attending his shows were there because they had connections and cash, and were interested more in the spectacle and the bragging rights than the music.  Springsteen must have rationalized, “if this is how it’s going to be, then let me be perfectly clear why I’m here singing to you tonight and what I am singing about”.  Not always a good call, but appropriate at that time considering the convergence of musician and circumstance.

“Not fair”, according to Ingraham-like minds.  But what she and her audience neglected to recognize was that rock music has always had a rebellious, anti-establishment core.  There is no separating the music from the message, and if you enjoy listening, depending on your world view you may on occasion be forced to absorb that fact against your will.  ** On the flip side, I realize that on the rare occasion I want to listen to sports-talk radio after a World Series or Super Bowl win, the core audience of some shows are dominated by a different mind set, and I have to listen to the political viewpoints of Fred Smerlas, Gerry Callahan and others to get my Sox/Pats victory fix.  It goes with the territory.  **

Now this forum has never been about tossing vitriol, even if it’s a return volley, and I’m not about to start now.  So why lead off with this rant?  Well, the theme for this week’s Gem centers on musicians who have created and faced adversity, and as I zeroed in on the musicians I wanted to write about, the memory of that book came up.  Turned out to be a good intro, but I can’t dwell on it…. there’s more important business to attend to. 

Stirring the pot in general stems from bravery, foolhardiness, or both, but the results are usually the same:  Backlash.  Rebellion in music can be a luxury when you are surrounded by like minds, but when the tides turn, and you find yourself in the minority, or facing a hostile audience, how you deal with the adversity (and indeed your very willingness to take it on in the first place), can build character and open new avenues.  It can also tear you down, at least in the short term.  Very few musicians (or people in general) are willing to do this. I’ve always been intrigued by the few who have.  In the broader historical context, that short list would include folks like Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, William Wallace, Martin Luther King, and Charles Darwin.  Several musicians who immediately came to mind were the aforementioned Kristofferson (rock rebellion in conservative strongholds does not always click) and Cat Stevens (neither does jihad), but the two I can most knowledgeably discuss are John Lennon and Bob Dylan.  I’ll start with Lennon, since Dylan is the lead into this weeks Gem. 

Few have taken a greater leap of faith than John Lennon did in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Lennon had it made in all walks of life, but abandoned it all in search of his version of truth, which centered on his relationship with Yoko Ono.  An early sign of his self imposed exile from mainstream society was when he returned his British MBE award to Queen Elizabeth with the note, “Your majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against my single ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down in the charts” (though leaving much behind, Lennon’s wit remained intact).  Over the next few years he would:

              Move to Greenwich Village to live among the counter culture
              Pose nude with Yoko on the cover of their ‘2 Virgins’ album
              Host ‘Bed-ins’ and ‘Bag-ins’ to protest war, facing ridicule in the process
              Fund large bulletin board advertisements declaring ‘Give Peace a Chance’
              Practice unorthodox ‘Primal Scream Therapy’ as an antidote for losing his mother at a young age
              Write a slew of raw, no-holds-barred, non-conformist songs on his first two solo albums 

Lennon’s actions lead to FBI bugging of his phone lines, and they almost lead to his deportation:  Quite a departure from the mop-top grand entrance he made into the USA in 1963.  Looking back on some of his interviews during these days (easily tracked down on YouTube), it all seems somewhat comical and borderline absurd.  But it was very serious to Lennon at the time, and although he comes across awkward and occasionally 'out there', he would emerge from that period of adversity a stronger person, making his murder a few years later a very hard pill to swallow.  “What could have been?” has been a question on many minds since December, 1980.

And then there’s Bob Dylan.  Dylan has always been on the edge of controversy, but three periods in his career stand out as being particularly adverse.  The first was when he ‘went electric’ in the mid 60’s, and faced the wrath of his original folk-music loving audience.  On his first electric tour with The Band, he faced far more jeers than cheers.  I believe his recent resurgence of four fantastic albums in a row is another period, as he had been written off by many as well past his prime, and once again proved them wrong. 

Tucked roughly in the middle was a late 70’s stretch of 3 albums, ‘Slow Train Coming’, ‘Saved’, and ‘Shot of Love’, which all emphasized Dylan’s Christian conversion to the teachings of Jesus (speak of someone who faced adversity!).  These records are as good as anything in his lengthy catalog, but because they were what rock critics considered a departure from form, the albums were marginalized at the time of their release.  Recently, I’ve been listening again to ‘Slow Train Coming’ after years of neglect (way back when, it contributed to my faith, even more so than most music).  The first rekindled memory I had as I listened again was that the album title is apropos: This music sneaks up on you.  As far as adversity goes, this comes through in the posted lyrics to this week’s Gem, ‘I Believe in You’ which is a song off that album, and is covered in the video by, of all people….. Sinead O’Connor, a name synonymous with adversity.  I did not plan this, but her cover was far and away the best version of this song that I could find (the song was a toss-up with the 2nd url link below, 'Every Grain of Sand', as one which I wanted to Gem stamp this week, but there was no good live footage of that song). 

‘I Believe in You’ is the song O’Connor was supposed to perform at the Dylan 30th Anniversary show in 1992.  She walked on stage to a chorus of boos.   Some in attendance that evening were reacting negatively to her Saturday Night Live performance weeks before during which she burned a picture of the Pope in anger to the lack of acknowledgement Rome was giving at the time to clergy sexual abuse (just then being uncovered but not yet receiving widespread attention).  Booker T futilely tried to jump-start her singing by playing the opening piano notes to the rehearsed song as she stared down boo-birds in the crowd.  She finally cut off Booker T, abandoned the song and sang (a better word might be yelled) a solo a cappella version of Bob Marley’s ‘War’ (the only non-Dylan song performed that evening, albeit unscripted).  Anyhow, years later (1999) she finally performed ‘I Believe in You’ at an animal-rights benefit show in honor of the then recently deceased Linda McCartney (this is the Gem video). 

I’d like to think Pope John Paul II could find empathy for Sinead O’Connor… they were both, after all, admirers of the same musician: Bob Dylan (The pope invited Dylan to the 1997 World Eucharistic Congress in Bologna, Italy, where Dylan performed several songs), and although troubled, she was still (in the words of Van Morrison) ‘seeking higher ground’.

Following ‘I Believe in You’ is a bootleg version of the previously mentioned ‘Every Grain of Sand’ off the 3rd album of that Dylan trilogy, 'Shot of Love'.  I like this version even better than the one that made the album (even with the barking dog in the background).  Below that link are the words to ‘I Believe in You’.  Dylan’s Gem of a song could also have been subtitled: “Blessed are the persecuted for righteousness sake, for they shall see the kingdom of heaven”, but I think that line’s already been used somewhere.

Adversity….it’s something most of us try to avoid, but often the rewards for facing it square in the face can be worth it…eventually.

- Pete

Gem Music Video ‘I Believe in You’

‘Every Grain of Sand’ still shot link

I Believe in You’ lyrics
They ask me how I feel
And if my love is real
And how I know I'll make it through
And they, they look at me and frown
They'd like to drive me from this town
They don't want me around
'Cause I believe in you.

They show me to the door
They say don't come back no more
'Cause I don't be like they'd like me to
And I, I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don't feel alone
'Cause I believe in you.

I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter
I believe in you even though we be apart
I believe in you even on the morning after
Oh, when the dawn is nearing
Oh, when the night is disappearing
Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart.

Don't let me drift too far
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed
And that which you've given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you.

I believe in you when winter turn to summer
I believe in you when white turn to black
I believe in you even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn't make me go back.

Don't let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don't mind the pain
Don't mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
'Cause I believe in you.


About the Video: From the Linda McCartney tribute show

Video Rating: 1

Best Feedback: Dad

PETE,  DON'T EVER CHANGE !
LOVE, DAD


And Jack:

Very good one Pete.  I didn't really consider the counterculture aspect of this.  If people are going to attend these concerts, they should at least have a pulse on what the singer's passions are...and EXPECT there to be some sort of dialog.  You go to an Amy Grant concert (in the 80s), you were going to hear about Jesus Christ.  I went to see McCartney at Sullivan I think back in 1990, (you were probably there too) :-), and much of his new stuff was for the green cause.  Of course I think the audience wanted to hear the old stuff...and they got plenty of that too!
The only two editorial comments I would make are the following....

1, The Dixie Chicks.  This was egregious for two reasons.  First, it was counter to their audience (Southern Country/Southern Rock crowd), and like you said Know thy Audience!  I don't really know the Dixie Chicks, but what triggered that off wasn't so much that the DCs denounced our actions in Iraq, but more that they did this in France of all places.   That just exacerbated the whole thing.  Personally, I could care less but there you have it. 

2. The dirty little secret about John Lennon.  Loved the guy...still listen to him from time to time.  He was a genius and definitely a man of conviction.  However, he once bragged that he took over 3000 acid trips.  If this is true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, my guess is he would have died not too long after...if for anything because of the tremendous strain that sort of activity puts on the mind and body. 

Just a couple of observations is all....hope all's well with you and the fam!!

-Jack

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