Ruminations of a Radio Therapist
By Arwulf Arwulf
Any amount of censorship is unsatisfactory, in fact 'Un-american.' If anything deserves that questionable censorship does.
1966 My brother brought home a 45 rpm record by the Doors , and played it loudly right before dinner. Instantly, my nine-year-old's ear was tickled by the stuttering, circus-brained rhythm, and pleasantly mystified by the lyric: show me the way - to the next - whiskey bar no -don't ask why- no -don't ask why...
This was definitely grown-up stuff, with special grown-up meanings. Judging from the expressions on the faces of my parents, they smelled depravity coming up off of the record. Certainly they didn't realize that the song in question was originally performed in 1930 as a satire on the Weimar Republic. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were the composers, and they called their show The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
The intellectual half of Jim Morrison's brain was giving us an update. Mom and Dad smelled depravity. My brother had no way of knowing that within fïfteen years he would be performing Brecht professionally. My little heart began to dance as Morrison lurched into the refrain, one of the most beautiful refrains of the twentieth century: O Moon - of Alabama....
But things were getting decidedly prickly in our house. The lyrics had offended my mother's sensibilities, and Dad looked uncomfortable. Defiantly, my brother flipped the disc and played the other side: Hello -I love you - won't you tell me your name - If alcoholism, (which was a terribly worrisome subject in this particular household) wasn't bad enough, now my parents' ears were being assailed by lewdness! It must have been frightening for them, the poor dears. Still, mother made a very distinct point on this occasion: the music was giving us some rotten messages.
Abbie Hoffman has described America as being, at that time, in the throes of generational warfare. That's pretty accurate. Like all budding upstarts, we would listen to whatever it was we wanted to groove on, and any objections from adults came across as disjointed gibberish.
But maybe there's a problem here, having to do with upbringings and lifestyles which do not adequately prepare individuals for Real Life, and the enigma of song lyrics that depict real life so candidly and deliberately. Impressionable young minds are given plenty of warnings, unless frightened adults get too protective, and even then the warnings seep through. The problem is how to interpret them.
As teenagers we thought it was really cool when Jim Morrison sang about having beer for breakfast, and you can rest assured that we followed suit, although we certainly would have done the alcoholism thing anyway, regardless of what records we listened to. Because alcoholism, I am convinced, runs through our genetic quilting. And America has one of the most effective alcohol advertising structures in the entire world. So Morrison's record was simply State of the Union.
But there weren't any songs explaining the fact that if you drink enough alcohol you will piss blood. See there: that's the whole picture. No frills. Singing with blatant honesty relative to the harshest of realities has since become somewhat commonplace, and some artists have managed to carry it off admirably. And there's certainly lots of precedent for our excesses. Baudelaire mentioned "regaining our vitality through alcohol and sport," and there was Rasputin's "quest for totality of experience through excess." Small wonder the subject looms up out of our music.
The contents of song lyrics are a perpetual source of bewilderment for our species. In 1969, we began to memorize every nanosecond of the Beatles' Abbey Road album. Soon we had a new assígnment: Paul was dead. At least for the time being. How strange the contrast between Paul McCartney's overblown imaginary death rumors, and the awful, lonely reality of John Lennon's violent, inane extermination. Having to face the 1980s without John. Did we deserve that? Do we deserve anything? Is anybody home?
Then there was the theory that Morrison's Light My Fire Inspired riots. Not injustice, certainly not a system rotting from within, but that rotating piece of vinyl: they like to blame the music. Heartwarming revivalists who bumed Beatle records after the example of books torched in Munich , simply because John said "We're more popular than Jesus Christ." That should have warmed us never to use the phrase We're Number One. Wrong attitude, man. "We're uber alles." That's Munich again. Watch yourself.
Then there was the radio personality who personally piloted a steamroller over piles of Cat Stevens records. Mr. Cat, being faithful to his chosen faith, sided with the Ayatollah on the question of blasphemy and something called The Satanic Verses. Not that I'd get along with the Iranian Elders, not even for a minute. What I'm talking about here is: Intolerance.
The one really unfortunate element in the Clinton Administration is the presence of Tipper Gore. This creature, you must recall, showed remarkable idiocy when she participated in censorship trials wherein rock lyrics were scrutinized at great length, and ridiculous demands were made upon the recording industry. Frank Zappa has immortalized those hearings in his Mothers of Prevention album. Zappa was fortunate in that he had the opportunity to insult the Tipper in person.
Censorship was brought into the twentieth century by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda for the Third Reich. Censorship has a charming history. We'll discuss it in depth sometime soon, I promise. Right now I'll say that any amount of censorship is unsatisfactory, in fact Un-american. If anything deserves that questionable label, censorship does.
But the question persists: are young people being given rotten messages through song lyrics, specifically Rock Lyrics? Recently I had the honor of projecting a video documentary on the notorious Judas Priest suicides. And here it was all over again. Why did the boys sit down and blow their heads off with a shotgun? Mom says: It was those darn records.
Actually one kid survived, having merely blown his face off. Great interviews with him, flapping his boneless blob as he talks about their infatuation with the lyrics. (Subtitles made his bubbling coherent) He and his pal were byproducts of rotten upbringings. You haven't seen how low America stoops until you meet the parents, whose positively empty lives became evidence when the members of Judas Priest were actually brought into the courtroom!
And it was nice to learn that these musicians had grown up in nasty industrial zones, near foundries, where the stamping of giant machinery shook the earth, and the smell of heavy metals hung in the air, to be inhaled on the way to school. That's a very logical source for Heavy Metal music. It was about the only logic presented.
The prosecution revived something I thought was endemic to 1969: playing the music backwards! (John Lennon chuckles softly in the hereafter.) It was getting really rather pathetic. Prosecution insisted that Judas Priest snuck the phrase "Do It" into their music. Nothing so clear and concise as that sort of thinking. Do What? Snuff it!
Then the defense quite rightly pointed out the vacuous, depressing, stunted lifestyles of these poor confused kids and their incredibly lost parents. You mustn't look for blame. Simply look in the mirror and face the music of your own existence.
There was a study published recently which said that listening to Country music all the time can lead to suicide. But it isn't the Country music makes you want to snuff and ditch it. What is deadly is the narrowness of the American perspective. Here, of all places, we should not be victimized by limitations. America is the land of Ornette Coleman, Eugene Chadbourne, Charles Ives, Muddy Waters and Jelly Roll Morton, of Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Why do you bore your children to tears, and potentially to suicide?! There is no excuse.
The word for today is: ennui. It means Boredom. If Americans will only learn to expand their attention spans to match the cultural opportunities that grow so profusely all around us in this country, then maybe there's hope for young people, maybe parents can do better than simply cringing and pointing elsewhere for some rubbery blame thing, and maybe song lyrics will be seen and heard as poetry rather than threats. Boredom kills. If you value your own lives, and the lives of children, pull your heads from the smothering squish of predictability. This is not a boring land. There is no excuse.
Arwulf Awrfulf's radio shows can be heard on WCBN,88.3 FM, at the following times: "You' Got To Be Modernistic"-Thurs., 7-8 pm; "Duke is on the Air"- with co-host Dave Crippen, Sun. 5-6 pm; "Open Letter to Duke" - Sun. 6-7 pm; :Real Black Miraces" - Sun.7-8 pm. And on WEMU: "Sunday Best:- Sun. 10 am-1pm.