Doors drummer John Densmore recently wrote an essay in The Nation condemning corporate sponsorship of music. It centered around the Doors (over the objections of keyboardist Ray Manzarek) refusing to sell "When the Music’s Over" to Apple for a commercial.
Densmore offers every good argument against commercial sponsorship. The most important thing he says, though, is "I’m petty clear that we shouldn’t do it. We don’t need the money."
What if you do?
I’ve campaigned against rock bands getting in bed with corporations ever since the Who signed up with Miller Beer in 1983. It wasn’t hard, because it was ludicrously easy to spot the specious argument for sponsorship as a lie: It would keep ticket prices down. More important, but never really addressed, the ad agencies and corporations bought starpower, and this called allegiances into question: What would the Who have to say when the Miller workers went on strike?
Like the brewers, most musicians _do_ need the money. For someone like Iggy Pop, "Lust for Life" in that ridiculous Royal Caribbean commercial might represent indispensable income. Is it possible to begrudge him?
In mid-July, Michael Felten of Chicago’s Record Emporium wrote a Weaselworld column. expressing shock that Wayne Kramer had taken on "corporate partners" – Apple computers, Fender guitar and X-Large clothing-for his current tour.
Michael asked me what I thought. I wrote back, "The day is past and gone when we can trash every musician who deals with a corporation, especially on a simple, professional basis like this."
I meant that both Apple and Fender are tools of Wayne’s trade, and there has never, to the best of my knowledge, been criticism of musicians who endorse equipment. X-Large provides the clothes Wayne and his group wear onstage. None of this does more than let him get by without a day job. Nevertheless, had Wayne sold out?
When he got off the road last week, Kramer wrote Felten a scathing reply. (I hope Wayne will post this at his website, waynekramer.com.) Kramer, whose new Adult World continues his 35 years of making trenchant rock music, analyzes two of the most important issues. What are the needs of a musician and what does sponsorship (or "corporate partnership") do to meet them? Second, what is "the role artists can play in changing what’s wrong with the world"? (In between there is much angry invective, which amuses me more than it does Felten, who got his own licks in.)
You need to know about this squabble among my friends for several reasons. To start with we need to develop much more sophisticated ways of measuring cooptation. From the way some people talk about making major label records, you’d think the United Auto Workers Union betrayed American labor by allowing its members to work for General Motors.
Part of that means remembering that not all musicians live well, and that includes many, if not most, famous musicians. Kramer defines the role of musicians as being messengers and storytellers. But that begs the question of whose message and what stories.
This discussion can’t get off the ground until we acknowledge that we lost the battle against sponsorship. Turn on your TV and you’ll hear the Clash’s "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and "London Calling" selling beer and cars.
Does this mean we lost the war? Is music now so hopelessly compromised it can’t hold credible meaning? Kramer thinks that’s simplistic and I can’t disagree. Felten, upholding ethical purity, thinks we’ve reached the end of an ethical era and I can’t disagree with that, either. All I can see clearly is that our more important task is figuring out how to meet the needs of musicians-and everybody else-with justice and fairness. If there’s a solution, that’s it.
DeskScan (what’s playing in my office)
1. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony). Meditations on a line from what seems to be the silliest song: "Tell me, how do you live brokenhearted?"
2. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared). The real Neil Young.
3. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (MuscleTone))
4. Love That Louie: The Louie Louie Files (Ace UK)
5. Africa Raps (Trikont)
6. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (2KSounds/EMI). The boring new Solomon Burke album that’s been such a critics darling can’t compare to the high-energy testifying going on in Moore’s long-lost 1972 solo album. The highlight is an extraordinary "Part Time Love," but the whole album seethes with power both raw and refined.
7. Easy, Kelly Willis (Rykodisc)
8. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)
9. Down in the Alley, Alvin Youngblood-Hart (Memphis International)
10. Live in London England, Dale Watson (Audium)
11. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)
12. Viva El Mariachi: Nati Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos (Smithsonian Folkways)
13. American Breakdown, Troy Campbell (M. Ray). At its best, much closer to his rock band roots in groups like Loose Diamonds and the Highwaymen.
14. A Cellarful of Motown: Rarest Motown Grooves (Motown)
15. Playing with the Strings, Lonnie Johnson (JSP UK)-The blues guitar genius with Armstrong, Ellington, Don Redman, a jug band and Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four.
16. Starin’ Down the Sun, Red Dirt Rangers (Red Dirt Rangers). Pick hits: "Dwight Twilley’s Garage Sale" and "Elvis Loved His Mama." Sort of the Grateful Dead with a sense of humor and Okie funk.
17. Keep on Burning, Bob Frank (Bowstring)
18. Superbad! The Soul of the City (Time-Life)-Celebrating the ’70s while ignoring the Bradys, Kiss and the Osmonds.
19. Hard Candy, Counting Crows (Geffen)
20. Irony Lives, Paul Krassner (Artemis)
Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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On the last Nation cruise I was on a panel about nuclear proliferation. (Yes, even afloat off Baja California, the liberal conscience is always on guard duty.) Trying to juice up the panel a bit, I remarked that there was one bit of proliferation that seemed to me indisputably okay, which was when the Soviet Union acquired the know-how to make A and H bombs, thus ending the US monopoly on Armageddon, and in my view making the world a safer place. (My position, very shocking to Jonathan Schell, is that every country should have at least one thermonuclear device, if necessary donated by the World Bank along with the “national” flag.)
Nation and MSNBC mini-pundit Eric Alterman was chairing the session. He immediately shed any pretense of neutrality. Was Cockburn, he snarled at the audience, seeing something commendable in the transfer of atomic secrets to the most evil man the world had ever known?
Which shows just how dumb Alterman is, since at least 2/3rds of the audience of Nation seniors, the only subscribers who can afford to pony up for these cruises, were either in the Communist Party or in close sympathy with it. A chill silence greeted Alterman’s ill-mannered interruption and then one old boy piped up angrily and said that it was the Red Army which saved the day for the Allies at Stalingrad. Then Jonathan Schell remarked that my position was identical to that of Sakharov.
Alterman ended up looking silly, and so I wasn’t too surprised when one of the Nation guests sitting next to me at dinner reported Alterman was going around saying I was an anti-Semite.
Now, being called an anti-Semite these days isn’t what it was. The term has got cheapened. As Michael Neumann writes in his brilliant piece on this site, anti-Semitism is “action or propaganda designed to hurt Jews, not because of anything they could avoid doing, but because they are what they are.”
But these days people don’t flourish the charge of anti-Semitism because they’ve heard someone quoting the Protocols or saying that the Jews kill Christian babies. Anti-Semitism has become like a flit gun to squirt at every inconvenient fly on the window-pane. It’s a tool of convenience, used mostly to whack critics of the disgusting conduct of successive Israeli governments and security forces and settlers towards the Palestinians.
Maybe Alterman began to think of me as an anti-Semite after, years ago, I wrote that he was three quarters brown-noser and one quarter cheeky chappie. I came to this conclusion after being invited by the spring-heeled Alterman in his Yale days to go and talk about the press. Since in those days I was the in-house critic at the Village Voice of the policies of the Begin government young Eric knew what he was getting, but nonetheless positively fell over himself with pleasantries as he led me towards the seminar.
These days, at the Nation and on MSNBC he patrols the Democratic perimeter, nipping at the heels of any view over-stepping the bounds of decorous mainstream conversation. The word “Nader” brings an angry flush to his cheeks. “Greens” make him bilious. The cheeky chappie of yesteryear is getting the sour edge that mini-pundits acquire when they realize that mini-pundits are what they are always doomed to remain. When Sharon’s F-16s blew away some kids in Gaza, collateral damage in the effort to kill a Hamas leader, Alterman had this to say on his MSNBC site,
“I don’t know if killing the military chief of Hamas, together with his family, is an effective military measure-as surely someone will rise to replace him and it will make a lot more people angry, perhaps even angry enough to become suicide bombers. It may not bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to peace or mutual security. But I don’t have a moral problem with it.
“Hamas is clearly at war with Israel. Hamas feels empowered to strike Israeli civilians inside Israel proper and not just on the war zone of West Bank. Sheik Salah Shehada could have protected his family by keeping away from them. He didn’t and owing to his clear legitimacy as a military target, they are dead too…So tough luck, fella.”
Which is presumably what those Palestinian suicide bombers say, as they press the button on their built-in bombs amid a crowd of Jewish kids.
I guess the blatancy of the evictions of Hilliard and McKinney has people like Alterman worried. Suddenly, I’m not just an anti-Semite. I’m shackled to Louis Farrakhan. Here’s what Alterman put up on his site a couple of days ago.
“Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that “at the grass roots” among African American voters, there is a growing perception that ‘Jewish people are attempting to pick our leaders…here is some concern about that. It’s concern about any candidate being targeted by a special-interest group for voting on any one issue.’ I think AIPAC et al are being very stupid by targeting black Congressman who don’t vote ‘right’ on Israel. Congress could not be more pro-Israeli if it were taking orders from my (late) bubbe and zeida. One vote, one voice, here or there makes no difference. Because it plays into anti-Jew stereotypes, this kind of heavy-handed financial intervention to pick the winner of a largely African American race is actually a boon to anti-Semites of the black and extremist left-wing varieties. (See under: ‘Louis Farrakhan’ and ‘ Alexander Cockburn.’) What AIPAC et al appear to be saying is ‘We will tolerate no dissent of any kind on Israel in American public life.’ They do Israel and America’s Jews no favor.”
Now, behind the colorful conjunction of “anti-Semitism” with the F word and yours truly’s name, what’s Alterman saying here? That by defeating McKinney, the Jewish lobby is providing fuel for anti-Semites? That therefore it’s a bad thing? Not that it’s bad to defeat McKinney, per se. Merely that it’s a strategical error because then the real enemy can rant and rave about it? It’s not the display of raw power so much as how flagrant the display is? What’s wrong with McKinney’s defeat (so Alterman seems to be saying) is that it reveals how much Congress is controlled by the Israeli lobby.
Sad, no? Here’s Alterman using the term Anti-Semitism to attack people outraged by the way McKinney and Hilliard were driven from Congress, and by the horrible persecution of Palestinians in Israel. It’s a debauch of a term that once meant something awful, a term that once set the milestones to Auschwitz, now bandied about on MSNBC and on a Nation cruise as Eric’s little paint brush.
A final note to Alterman and the Nation’s or MSNBC’s lawyers: Careful how you go here. I’m placing you on notice that though I think Alterman and those like him have cheapened the term almost to meaninglessness, the slur of “anti-Semitism” is still intended as a fatal charge; and so the motivation and rationales for its usage are susceptible of examination in a law court.