I can pinpoint the nadir of rock music’s first half-century: That wire service picture of Bono standing with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, the two of them wearing local African costumes somewhere in Africa. Bono’s idiocy is here complete, since the most benighted tourist with a skin full of rum would know better than to allow this shot to circulate. But tourists are, for the most part, innocent of much beyond blind pursuit of pleasure. With his African junket alongside O’Neill, Bono practices actual evil. The trip’s purpose is to endorse the power of rich nations to control the fate of poor ones, so long as the occasional bone is thrown.
The junket also enhances the image of one of the rottenest characters in the Bush regime. Next time he goes to Jamaica, Bono might take a jaunt around Jamaica to see firsthand the depredations of Alcoa’s bauxite mining O’Neill ran Alcoa for 12 years. Before that he ran International Paper, devastating much of the Black Belt of the southern United States. That is, O’Neill played a major role in defiling the places where both the blues and reggae were born.
Bono portrays himself as the latest in a line of rock daredevils trying to change the world. In reality, everything Bono does-starting with his support of the Irish and English governments– attempts to *stabilize* the world, freezing the globe’s poor into subservience. All the rockers who changed-and are changing-the world go about it differently. Instead of spending their time pretending not to suck up to power at its most loathsome, they make music that delves into their own lives and the lives of the people they love. Those who truly work for a different kind of world use their talent and fame to tell the stories that aren’t being told anywhere else. They make records like Alejandro Escovedo’s By the Hand of the Father (Texas Music Group).
The album, based on a stage play Escovedo cowrote, offers beautiful, haunting music, using strings as well as guitars to offset rock riffs. Although a couple of the songs (“The Ballad of the Sun and the Moon,” “With These Hands”) appear on earlier Escovedo albums, much of the best music is either score, with cello as the lead instrument, or versions of specific Mexican idioms. (“Mexicano Americano” raves on regardless.)
The first time I ever heard Alejandro, he sang Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” the great ballad of the migrant farmworker. By the Hand of the Father sometimes feels like a first-hand expansion of that story, but a lot of it is tied up in issues as quotidian as homesickness, the hope of romance and the agony when life ruins it. That is, it is the life of the migrant made nearly universal-so universal that the detailed differences glare unmistakably from the tapestry.
Escovedo never stops noticing how poor these people-his people-are. That fact carries the weight of all his tales. But he puts his finger on the issue just once: “You see the wicked prowl across the border / They say death’s the only peace the poor understand.”
This is not anybody trying to “speak truth to power.” It’s a recognition that the powerful know the truth and that part of the truth is that nobody knows much at all about the poor as human individuals, and that if you’re poor enough, making a living from one day to the next may come to constitute a legitimate triumph. Those two bare lines contain all the things you never learn sitting in conference rooms and traveling from town to town with a potentate’s entourage.
Alejandro Escovedo speaks the power OF truth. Rock music cannot tell all of it, but for millions, all of it cannot be told any longer without rock, and the music that came after it, and the music that came before it. It certainly cannot be told while standing in the shadows, smirking an implicit endorsement of the way things are.
(expanded to 15 because everybody imitating it is only doing ten and anyhow, there’s a lot of great stuff out there right now):
1. The Eminem Show, Eminem (Universal) [Not just Detroit chauvinism; the boy *does* get it about bass lines, he’s smart and funny and who says you have to hate everyone he hates, such as himself.]
2. Human Being Lawnmower: The Baddest & Maddest of the MC5 (Total Energy) [I keep thinking there must be some exaggeration here, but these live tracks, outtakes, exhortations, do add up to a great document. Not to be missed: John Sinclair’s liner notes in which he declares that Rob Tyner had more political influence on him than he did on Rob and that this stuff has nothing to do with punk.]
3. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)
4. By the Hand of the Father, Alejandro Escovedo (Texas Music Group)
5. “This Land is Nobody’s Land,” John Lee Hooker (from Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues, Chess/MCA)
6. Mundo, Ruben Blades (Columbia advance)
7. You’re Gonna Need That Pure Religion,
Rev. Pearly Brown (Arhoolie)
10. Return of a Legend, Jody Williams (Evidence)
11. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)
12. Milky White Way: The Legendary Recordings 1947-1952, The Trumpeteers (P-Vine)
13. Talk About It, Nicole C. Mullen (Word/Epic)
14. The Beat of Love, Trilok Gurtu (Blue Thumb)
15. 2 Johnsons are Better Than One, Syl & Jimmy Johnson
Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists: