Where Have the Peaceniks Gone?
They don’t make antiwar rock like they used to.
By: John W. Payne
The best antiwar song of the Vietnam era—and probably any era—was written by Bob Dylan in 1963, before most Americans were even aware there were American troops in a strange Southeast Asian land still better known as Indochina. In “Masters Of War ,” Dylan took aim at those who profited from the country’s military industrial complex that President Eisenhower had recently warned about. It is four and a half minutes of pure vitriol set to nothing but the simple yet ominous chord progression of an acoustic guitar. Comparing a person “that build[s] the death planes” to Judas, Dylan claims that “even Jesus would never forgive what you do,” before wishing for the person’s death and promising to “watch o’er your grave/ ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead.” The song was a terrifying masterpiece, but Dylan would famously abandon direct political themes a few years after its release. Nevertheless, even without its leading voice, the Vietnam generation produced a fine corpus of antiwar music in the ensuing decade.
Not so our present generation of antiwar musicians. Certainly there were a number of good antiwar songs during the era of George W. Bush, but there seem to have been far fewer, and generally of much lower quality, than one would have expected from a war that is vastly more unpopular than Vietnam. The decline in quantity can be largely explained by the fact that music is simply less political than it was in the 1960s, which is not necessarily something to bemoan—after all, do we really want another Bono? The qualitative difference, however, derives from the inability of most contemporary musicians to deal directly and seriously with an issue without becoming either maudlin or didactic. Accordingly, the best antiwar songs during the Iraq War have typically distanced themselves from the explicit topic by resorting to satire; vague, impressionistic lyrics; or by shifting to a different war altogether.
When looking for recent antiwar music, it might seem sensible to look to those established acts that played so credibly against the Vietnam War. But that would be a mistake.
Take the Rolling Stones for example. They were never a political band, but they wrote a number of classic songs with obvious political implications. In late 2005, the band released A Bigger Bang, which earned much deserved praise and included the track “Sweet Neo Con .” It is not a terrible song by any means—the intermittent harmonica combined with Keith Richard’s guitar riff provides a definite menacing sound—but it lacks both the anger of “Street Fighting Man” and the sense of imminent doom found in “Gimme Shelter.” Moreover, the geriatric Mick Jagger ends up sounding like a petulant pubescent when he sings lines like, “You say you are a patriot/I think you are a crock of s--t.”
Maybe another legend from the halcyon days of political rock has fared better in the new millennium. After Bob Dylan and the Lennon/McCartney juggernaut, you could make a very good argument that Neil Young was the best songwriter of the ’60s and early ’70s. He has also demonstrated many times that he is fully competent at writing music with a political punch—most notably for our purposes, “Ohio,” his masterful and nearly immediate reaction to the Kent State shootings that warned of “soldiers cutting us down.”
Unfortunately, Young seems to have lost the golden touch. He released an entire album of anti-Bush music in 2006, appropriately titled Living with War. While the song “Shock And Awe” is a noble effort to grapple with the Iraq War, it still falls short of the brutal simplicity Young had on tracks like “Ohio.” (The album’s title track is best left undiscussed.) Young’s guitar licks are effective enough, reminiscent of “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” and the trumpet fills after each chorus are well placed, even touching. But the lyrics do not testify to Young’s best abilities. Lines like, “Thousands of children scarred for life/ Millions of tears for a soldier’s wife,” while perfectly apt, do not rise to the level of poetry. It should not come as much of a surprise that Young was reluctant to write the album. After it was released, he told the Toronto Star that he was “hoping some young person would come along and say this and sing some songs about it, but I didn’t see anybody, so I’m doing it myself. I waited as long as I could.”
Contra Young, there were a number of younger musicians who were making antiwar music. Perhaps he just didn’t have the heart to admit the whole truth: most of this music wasn’t very good. This is best exemplified by two bands that first made their marks in the early ’90s: Pearl Jam and Green Day.
“World Wide Suicide” is Pearl Jam’s tirade against the war in Iraq. In it, lead singer Eddie Vedder sings (or, more accurately, mumbles) about seeing in the newspaper the picture of an acquaintance who was killed in Iraq and realizing it was a “face [he’d] never see again.” The song is supposed to sound angry, but the music lacks the ferocity necessary to sustain emotion, so it only comes off as annoyed. Vedder’s lyrics do not help matters much. The phrase “tell you to pray, while the devil’s on their shoulder” is clichéd and preachy, not biting. Most unfortunate of all, Pearl Jam recorded a much better antiwar song over a decade and a half ago with “Yellow Ledbetter,” the understated and melancholy tune about a soldier killed in the first Gulf War. Sure, most of Vedder’s signing was indecipherable, but it was still an incredibly moving song, which gives it a leg up on their more recent effort.
Although originally written about the death of lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s father, Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” took on the status of an antiwar song after the 2005 release of its video. The seven-minute clip tells the story of a young man who enlists in the Marines, choosing to fight in Iraq over staying with his girlfriend, whom he had earlier promised not to leave. The problem is that the song that matches the video does not feel like it is describing someone facing death thousands of miles from home. The music and especially the lyrics seem like they were written by an angst-ridden 14-year-old who gets picked on at school. “Summer has come and passed/The innocent can never last” brings to mind a boy with a faux-hawk and mascara reading his poems in fourth-hour English—it is near impossible to take them seriously as any kind of political statement.
Of course, some songs are effective precisely because they do not take serious subjects seriously. This is the basis for all decent satire, and the stoner metal band Clutch used it to wonderful effect against the Bush administration in their 2004 song “Mob Goes Wild-Live in Flint.” Heavy guitar riffs combined with a driving but insouciant rhythm pounded out by drummer Jean-Paul Gaster (a donor to Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, incidentally) set up singer Neil Fallon’s thundering lyrics that mock the decay of American society. Fallon warns of “twenty-one guns, a box made of pine, a letter from the government, sealed and signed” being delivered to “your mother’s doorstep” before proclaiming “Condoleezza Rice is nice, but I prefer a-Roni.” Finally, he tells listeners to flee to Canada and “smoke lots of pot.” With tongue firmly in cheek, Clutch encourages a healthy disrespect for authorities that wage wars both foreign (Iraq) and domestic (on drugs).
Satire is not for every band, however, so when Metallica—always serious as a heart attack—decided (maybe) to grapple with the Iraq War on their 2008 single “The Day That Never Comes,” they succeeded by staying lyrically aloof from the topic. In fact, according to the band, the song isn’t necessarily about the war, but it can be if that’s what listeners choose to take from it, and the video centers around a soldier in Iraq. Whatever the case of the song’s origin, it excellently captures the new reality of war: days of tedium punctuated by moments of frenzied action and terror. The title could be understood to mean either returning home or some final showdown with enemy forces. Our protagonist vows to “splatter color on this gray,” a possible reference to spilling blood. After he swears that he will “suffer this no longer,” the song crescendos with a furious and lengthy Kirk Hammett guitar solo, which could be interpreted as a firefight or as the protagonist’s death.
But the band that produced the best antiwar music of the Bush era takes on the issue of war directly, even though very few of their songs are explicitly about Iraq. Just as “MASH” was a movie about Vietnam but set in Korea, many of the Black Angels’ songs are about Iraq but set in Vietnam. “Young Men Dead,” the opening track on their debut 2006 album Passover, tells of soldiers operating in one of Vietnam’s infamous free-fire zones. The song is based around an eerie bass line and a pounding guitar riff that fill the listener with dread. Singer Alex Maas warns that in war “[w]e can’t live if we’re too afraid to die.” The actions the protagonist takes to survive haunt him, however, leading him to wish for “thieves to steal the thoughts from our heads.” The song is one of many on Passover that memorialize the horrors of Vietnam and caution against similar adventures today. Thus Vietnam remains the touchstone for antiwar music nearly 35 years after the end of that war.
John Payne [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a social studies teacher at East Carter County High School in Southeast Missouri. He blogs at RoughOlBoy.com.