The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: For What It's Worth

Thoughts on conflict of interest and the staying power of Neil Young

By Louis Black, December 16, 2005, Columns

We stuffed into the car; the odor was soon nearly putrid, mixing the smells of the unwashed bodies of four boys and the stink of unleashed adrenaline, fear, and addictive self-righteousness, tainted with sweat and drenched with the lightest swirl of tear gas. We drove around Beacon Hill in Boston. It had just turned evening, making everything seem more unreal, more like a horror movie: police in riot gear everywhere, the wounded drifting home, the outraged working themselves up as their friends tried to calm them down.

We turned on the radio. They were playing Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth":

"There's something happening here

What it is, ain't exactly clear

There's a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound?

Everybody look what's going down"

The words were especially chilling and, though already about 4 years old, at that moment quite immediate. It didn't matter that they had been written about the Sunset Strip riots that were more cultural/lifestyle-oriented than political, which we knew because we all knew those kind of things back then.

"What a field day for the heat

A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly say, hooray for our side"

It was the Day After. Thousands had gathered at Government Center that afternoon, without notice, organizing, or much publicity. It was the day after the Chicago Seven verdicts had come in; five out of seven were found guilty (they had been labeled the Chicago Eight, but during the course of the trial Black Panther Bobby Seale's case was split off from the others). Every radical in the greater Boston area knew that the day after the verdict came in, whenever it came in, there would be a huge gathering at Government Center, and then a march to the Boston Common. All day, people arrived, until the Government Center Plaza was filled to overflowing. Toward evening, we began to march to the Common.

The left was already splitting into more factions than there had been colors on Joseph's coat. The Weathermen had already split off from SDS because they thought that radical group was too mainstream. The Revolutionary Youth Movement had splintered off into RYM II; the Spartacus League, mostly based in NYC, was gaining strength in Boston. Lyndon LaRouche, then a left-wing fascist rather than, as he is now, a right-wing fascist, led some radical group that would go around beating up other radical groups for not being as radical as they were. Most of these divisions were over ideological fine points, but at the time almost all concerned, in some way or another, the use of violence. The Weathermen had split because they felt almost "any means necessary" were appropriate and that it was time to make real war on America. They had already executed the Days of Rage, largely a failure except in the imagination of overly romantic, easily excited leftists. As you can imagine, in early 1970 the greater Boston area was like a mammoth, petri-dish experiment of expanding and conflicting ideologies.

This one was supposed to be a peaceful march, but by this time the most extreme groups, accompanied by only the craziest individuals, had worked out a formula almost guaranteed to result in violence. First, they issued lots of material and posted handbills attacking the established order, especially the police. Most importantly, during the course of the march they began to throw bricks and stones through businesses' windows. Again, some of this was organized, but a lot of it was quite spontaneous. They began by breaking windows at banks, but soon were hitting retail establishments as well. Many of the marchers yelled at them to stop, and some even intervened. Still, a lot of windows were broken. Someone would appear out of the crowd, throw a brick through a window, and disappear.

The march was down an urban canyon, a Revolutionary War-era, very narrow street lined on both sides with buildings that finally opened up on to the Boston Common. There was supposed to be another rally in the Common.

Except the police were waiting. Not just the police, but the TPF – the "tactical police force," the name given to specially trained, anti-riot police. Smashing windows – though only a small minority had done so and we were now in the Common, where it wasn't going on – was enough of an impetus for the police to treat us as a riot. Which is just what the radicals had hoped. After laying down a smog of tear gas, the TPF began jogging in formation, breaking the marchers into smaller groups, viciously swinging their batons at the marchers' legs and heads (the cops wore shielded helmets and gas masks and carried shields). It was surreal in a way: Evening was descending, and there were clouds of tear gas floating everywhere. Lines of battle-armed cops moved forward through the fog, attacking the marchers, who were running off in every direction. We had long figured out that if you got behind the TPF phalanxes and kept away from the command center, you could pretty much watch everything that was going on without getting attacked yourself. Still, we were shaken. It was dark and it was cold.

In the car, we drove around and around; we couldn't leave the area. On the radio, Buffalo Springfield continued:

"Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you're always afraid

You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound?

Everybody look what's going down"

Music has always been a balm of enormous healing properties for my soul and well-being, but for a half-decade or so around that time, it was also reporting from the front. The relevance was beyond rational and not even rooted in reason. By its very nature, it was not a typed broadside, a considered political opinion, or an ideological speech; it was a chunk of unconscious reaction ripped up from all of us and offered as a way of dealing with all that was going on around us. Too many tried to marry specific political meaning to the music, but it always turned out to have more to do with the eyes (and ears) of the beholders than the politics of the writers. It was foolish to regard any of them as political thinkers, though I did. I remember how betrayed I felt later when Bob Dylan embraced Christianity or Neil Young was rumored to have said kind things about Ronald Reagan. They kept telling us this every chance they got, but we didn't listen: They were just people; they weren't leaders, but more akin to impressionist poets, offering complex, emotional snapshots of a truly blasted environment. The very best had talents greater than themselves, creative visions fueled out of the depths of the Earth or of the Jungian, universal unconscious, or because they had old souls, or they somehow just knew – depending on one's personal slant.

In the car, at that moment, I thought there would be a revolution and that rock would be its literature. Later I realized it was all of an amazing endless piece, without start or ending, without specific truths and not even confined by universal limitations.

Even then, the music from Springfield that most struck me was more Neil Young's than the band's. There was something almost prophetically observational in his work; it seems rooted in timeless visions. I wasn't that interested in Stephen Stills; I bought all of Young's solo albums, beginning with the first one, The Loner. It wasn't the specifics – the concrete political imagery – that mattered, but the emotional connection – a connection to the systemic and personal environmental changes reshaping American society. Within a couple of years, no matter how vivid that evening had seemed, the moment of possible revolution and the accompanying songs became fading Polaroids of some ancient family trip. The songs that were less political and specific maintained their vitality. The Jefferson Airplane's catalog of "take to the streets" incantations had begun to seem quaint, while their other songs resonated as strongly as they ever did.

Now, even 31/2 decades later, Young's emotional weather reports seem as accurate as ever; "Mr. Soul," if not as startling as it was on first hearings, still seems awash in menace and succumbing to confusion:

"Stick around while the clown

who is sick

does the trick of disaster

For the race of my head

and my face

is moving much faster

Is it strange I should change?

I don't know,

why don't you ask her?"

Last week, I announced that Neil Young would be the keynote speaker, in conversation with Jonathan Demme, at the South by Southwest 2006 Music Conference. Someone bitched that, rather than sing Young's praises, I had focused on the SXSW staff. To that person, this was a case of misplaced priorities and a failure of responsibility. I don't know; I'm sorry, but if Young's extraordinary genius, brilliant music, and inspirational career aren't just so obvious and almost unquestionable, there really is nothing I can say or suggest that would even begin to make a difference.

Conflict of Interest

No. 2 in a Series – Collect Them All

Background: Conflict of interest is in the eye of the beholder. It is never your problem, as you always have a good, fair reason for feeling and reacting as you do. It's other people who are corrupted by their conflicts of interest.

Few alternative weeklies concentrate on or provide as much coverage about their local music scenes as the Chronicle does. Yet our coverage is biased, worthless, inadequate, sadly dated, out of touch, bought off, compromised, and stupid – at least that's what so many bands tell us. Roughly the five ages of a band that lasts, in relationship to the press, are:

1) Early on, the band several weeks old, still no cover story: "The [name of publication] sucks. Why don't they ever write about anything that's happening?! About new music! About our music scene and all the bands in it? Why don't they write about us?!"

2) For the first review only (and only if it is positive): "They've written about us, miracles happen, even the blind can see. Although perhaps it should have been a longer piece."

3) Any negative review: "Who cares what they say? Screw 'em; they don't know anything!"

4) Glowing positive review for a band that the publication has long supported and has now made it big on the local scene: "Who cares what they say?"

5) When the band becomes even more solipsistic (if that's possible), they enter the realm where every review – good, bad, and indifferent – is greeted with: "I'd like to see them in a band. Yeah, I've never heard that reviewer play!" As though their audience should be only other musicians, restaurants reviewed only by successful commercial cooks, and books only reviewed only by established authors.

Next Week: Part 3: Dead Kittens

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