“…the cradle of the best and the worst”.
Leonard Cohen, Democracy.
It seems to me now that America has always been mediated to the rest of us by way of song, and thus poetry, the lyric impulse. Bob Dylan in 1963, Leonard Cohen in 1993 – and if truth be told, Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954.
Rock Around the Clock – first heard on a 78rpm bakelite disc on neigbour’s front lawn in a State housing street in Christchurch, played on a windup gramophone using needles you could tattoo yourself with – was a long way from what Dylan would be doing in his 1960s protest mode. But the boy from Minnesota had drunk all that stuff down on radio way back in Hibbing MN.
Dylan radicalised my listening in 1965 when Subterranean Homesick Blues off the electric and electrifying Bringing it All Back Home hit the shops and the airwaves. But it was Only A Pawn in Their Game – released in 1964, actually performed live in Washington at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King was to give his deathless I Have A Dream Speech – that got to me first.
The song, which detailed the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson Mississippi on June 12 of that year, I played over and over and it is still alive in me today: “when the shadowy sun sets on the one who fired the gun/you’ll see on his grave carved next to his name/his name his epitaph plain/but it ain’t him to blame/he’s only a pawn in their game”.
Since the first slave ships from Africa started unloading their cruel cargoes of men women and children on the shores of what would become these United States of America, race has been the only game in town – and murder has gone hand in hand with the politics of it all.
That same year, 1963, three days before my sixteenth birthday on November 25th, another public figure was shot: a president this time. I’ll never forget the sight of my neighbour running across the road waving the tea towel she’d been drying her dishes with, calling out, “President Kennedy’s been shot!” Mrs Neilson was a Catholic, and JFK’s status as the first such believer to reach the Oval Office made him a powerful symbolic figure to such as her.
Today in Iowa, I am hoping to see the culmination of many these strands in my childhood: media influences on a young imagination growing and wondering in a world far removed from America, yet in some ways, a frontier childhood and a Huck Finn backdrop to all the sound and fury from the States. I am going to see President Obama.
Just think: almost fifty years ago, black men who got uppity were slain in the streets, mown down in motels and routinely murdered by the KKK. Now, in the most uppity job you can aspire to in the USA, sits one of their own. Some Americans just love it – and some just,well, hate and hate and hate it.
Watching the faces in the crowd at the Democratic Convention where Barack Obama has just been nominated as the Presidential candidate to run this November, I was struck by the sometimes childlike expressions of emotion on the faces of young and old alike, as first Bubba Clinton and later Michele Obama pressed all the right buttons in a heady mix of intellect, emotion, showbiz – and yes folks, good old preaching.
It seems to me watching our conservative public faces in New Zealand at such events that here was that best and the worst of which Cohen sings: a volatile brew of politics, show business, religion, rock and roll, homespun philosophy and appeals to an American Dream, one I can’t quite mesh with past realities it seems to have given birth to in nightmares.
These guys have got Hope written somewhere into their personal constitutions and DNA – it smiles and sighs and cries on their faces, as they they lift themselves to walk up that mountain Martin Luther King spoke from, like Moses, out of his dream.
Good luck to them I say: from Medgar Evers to Barack Obama in my short lifetime. That’s a lot of blood and and sweat, and that has to be some kind of miracle – one even Kiwis raised on pragmatism and anti-tall poppyism could applaud.
Meanwhile the thunder thunders outside again, the rain buckets down, old Bob Dylan has just released Tempest, his 35th studio album, full of dark prophecies about The Early Roman Kings and Leonard too is back on the road. Don’t these guys ever know when to stop?