Rocking the Casbah
John Logan, lead singer and guitarist for the Phoenix guerrilla rockers the MadCaPs, has been performing a song as part of his band's sets lately called "Happy Baghdad." His composition strongly opposes military action in Iraq and makes military aggression seem like a mortal sin.
"You got nothing to be ashamed of but you got everything to be afraid of," goes the opening line, addressing the Iraqi people. The song changes tempos and moods several times, changing from surf pop to jazz to dissonant chaos by song's end. The next verse flips the script: "You got nothing to be ashamed of but you got everything to be afraid of." The next line is a grenade toward the White House. "We got a president without a brain in his head."
Logan wrote "Happy Baghdad" in 1991. His target then was George Herbert Walker Bush, liberator of Kuwait and one-term president. Now that Bush's son has waged his own campaign against Saddam Hussein, the song has taken on renewed meaning.
"It's kind of come in and out of vogue," says Logan of the song, a hit on the band's monthly flatbed truck odysseys through central Phoenix.
Logan isn't alone. Other Valley artists have found themselves dusting off their old war-conscious work to fit the times. Music that only tangentially has to do with the "shock and awe" -- now turning into "rebuild and democratize" -- has become a hot button for audiences.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that athletes have begun using OutKast's brilliant "Bombs Over Baghdad" as patriotic warm-up music, even though the song has nothing at all to do with war and the group publicly opposes Gulf War 2. While the locals aren't exactly in that kind of polarizing situation, they find themselves explaining themselves a little more and refining their presentations.
"That's pretty much an al-Qaeda song," says singer Danny Marianino of "Choke on Your Blood," a none-too-subtle anthem played by his punk band North Side Kings. Marianino put together the 87-second rumble following the September 11, 2001, attacks on America. The singer inarticulately roars his revenge fantasies, but the sentiment couldn't be clearer: "Fuck Jihad/Fuck your bullshit ways/You fucked up and now you're gonna pay."
Much has changed in the 19 months since those attacks, obviously. For many, going after Saddam with nothing to tie him to the al-Qaeda attacks is a sore point. But for Marianino, a patriot's patriot, nothing's really changed: Osama and Saddam are interchangeable bad guys in his mind.
"As far as I look at it right now, that's also the case with the Baath Party," Marianino says. "It's all the same shit anyway. I don't see a difference."
The song still resonates, and Marianino says he recently received feedback from several troops stationed in the Middle East. The soldiers, according to Marianino, discovered the song through the Kings' Web site (www.northsidekings.com), where the band has posted an MP3.
"They wrote me e-mails saying we thank you for your support," he says. "That made me feel pretty good. They're out there risking their necks to preserve, I think, our freedom, against terrorism. To get e-mails from a couple guys over there fighting right now makes me feel like I made their day."
David Glazier of the hard-rock quartet Soul on Strings says his melodic emo-core song "War" gets a rise out of his audience, too. But unlike the North Side Kings, their input is much more visceral. The song, which appears on the upcoming Soul on Strings record Kissing Kali, is about Vietnam, another war with cathartic images of POWs, rubble and soldiers in the trenches.
It's inspired by a friend's father who lost an arm and a leg in combat, and looks at the resulting grief. "It's just like a romance torn/And it's just like when he dies at war." The song name-drops the Vietnam Memorial and asks a basic question -- when death comes, will you want peace or war? They take no real positions, sticking instead to philosophy and pain.
"We're taking the approach of love, and no one can argue against that," Glazier says. "It's not a Rage Against the Machine kind of style. It's let's get to the roots of what we all care about.'"
The band may be neutral in song, but Glazier says they do take the time to say "Fuck war" in introducing the song, and that the crowd generally approves. So do radio programmers. KUPD-FM is contemplating adding the song to its rotation in the coming months.
Then there's the all-inclusive approach to revving up a crowd. Rapper Pokafase says he wrote his song "Politics," a three-verse rant of the kitchen-sink variety, last May in Los Angeles, where he recorded his upcoming major-label debut. He says he woke up, picked up the newspaper, skimmed the headlines and immediately said to himself, "What the fuck?"
From that came an especially intense second verse, which Pokafase began performing a cappella at shows last month. He swings from the anti-Clinton couplet "Better than mustard gas/Or whatever else Saddam has conjured up since the U.S. chose to trust his ass" to the Bush-griller "They made it clear that it wasn't for soil/But is anybody really sure it wasn't for oil" in a matter of seconds. The verse also touches on Enron, homophobia and drug laws, making it a stream-of-consciousness armchair sermon. But when the tanks start rolling, why not dust off your outtake (legal reasons kept it off the album), which Pokafase says puts him in an awkward position.
"People just go crazy at the shows, responding to the individual lines," he says of the reaction he gets. He also gets some negative feedback, and that makes Pokafase contemplative, since he doesn't necessarily oppose the war, but he doesn't necessarily support it, either.
"There's a tendency for people to tend to say, Oh my God, I can't believe you just said that,'" he says. "You should be supporting the troops.' But I do."
Besides, Pokafase (born Alafia Long) says he has family stationed in the region amid the fighting, so that personalizes matters for him more than for others on the mike.
Marianino also says he's gotten grief from the more traditional anarchic punk rockers in town about his hawk jones. He hastily dismisses them.
"If you don't like this country, then leave," says Marianino. "All these punk-rock kids, they're all kind of trendy. They say, George W. Bush is not my president.' Then get the fuck out of here."
These folks all say the ongoing struggle in Iraq has their creative hamster wheels spinning once again, and that they're working on new real-time volleys (coincidentally, only one new war-related song of any note, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers' scathing "God Gave Me a Gun," has surfaced so far; more on that in the coming weeks). For now, they're leaning on older stuff. But even that is too much for some audiences.
"To some extent, people are so inundated and CNN-ed out, when they go out to a bar, they just want to have a good time," says Logan, a self-described ripple in the pond. "People are sort of talked out on it, so there's an escapism there. But that's where musicians can step in."
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