“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”
–William S. Burroughs
In a recent article, Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica- the only director to win the Palme d’Or twice-said:
“Hollywood cinema was bigger than life in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, it is inferior to life. If you compare American cinema in the 1940s and 1950s with now, it’s devastating. You ask yourself, ‘Has humanity really progressed in such a stupid, idiotic way?’ My problem is not just that they make bad films. They do not even include human beings. The only criterion for them is the box office, and when you have box office as a criterion, you cannot speak seriously about cinema.”
He could’ve added in the 1930s…because that’s when Katherine Hepburn brazenly defyied fashion and social convention by shunning the girdles, petticoats, stockings, garter belts, and high heels considered “normal” for women of her time. Hepburn wore pants. She even wore sneakers. In 1930s Hollywood, such behavior was deemed scandalous…to say the least. Her bosses at RKO went as far as commandeering Hepburn’s slacks…in the hope of forcing her to wear a skirt. Unmoved, Kate strolled the studio lot in only her underwear. Her point was made… her pants were returned.
Kusturica needn’t have limited his comments to Hollywood. Sitting here in the age of Celine Dion and “American Idol,” we might want to remember “Strange Fruit,” which began as a poem…written in the 1930s by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx by the name of Abel Meeropol, after viewing a photograph of a lynching. Under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan,” Meeropol set the poem to music and saw it first performed at a teachers’ union meeting. When Barney Josephson the manager of Cafe Society, a popular, desegregated Greenwich Village nightclub, heard “Strange Fruit,” he arranged a meeting between Billie Holiday and Meeropol. After some initial hesitation, Lady Day wanted to record the song but her record label refused. Her persistence landed the song on a specialty label and Holiday began performing it regularly in live shows in 1939. Her passionate interpretation of “Strange Fruit” introduced white audiences to powerful images of racism, inequality, and hate crimes…images that were now impossible to ignore.
Not long after Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit,” the Kansas city-born Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) ushered in a music revolution in mid-1940s New York City. Labeled “bebop,” Bird’s style built on earlier innovations by players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Armed with revolutionary musical vocabulary and style, Parker teamed with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, and Miles Davis…making Harlem the jazz capital of the world and changing music forever.
One could describe Parker’s sound as fast…for certain. One could explain that bebop introduced rhythmically asymmetrical improvisations and a new tonal vocabulary. One could also talk about the use of “9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords” or “rapidly implied passing chords” or perhaps “new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions.”
For the intuitive Bird, however, it was “just music.” He said all was doing was “playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.”
Not playing clean at that time was the New York School of Action painters. When Jackson Pollock dripped his way onto the cover of Life Magazine, Willem De Kooning put it simply: “He broke the ice.” Therein lies the rebellion. Pollock and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries painted what they felt with little concern for rules or conventions or critical understanding. When one critic wrote that Pollock’s paintings lacked a beginning or an end, the painter replied, “He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.”
Another contemporary of Pollock’s was Marlon Brando…and when he stepped onto the stage in his white undershirt in 1947, he revolutionized American acting. “He burst onto our consciousness wearing a torn T-shirt, mumbling, growling, scowling, screaming for ‘Stel-la!’ as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ first on Broadway, then on film,” wrote Lawrence Grobel in his book “Conversations with Brando.” “From the beginning, Brando unleashed a raw power that had never been seen before on the screen.”
Or, as Jack Nicholson once said of Brando: “He gave us our freedom.”
Such freedom is not only revolutionary, it’s threatening to some. That McCarthyism appeared shortly after the above-mentioned artistic breakthroughs is no coincidence. That box-office-ism is rampant today is, in no small part, a reactionary response to the artistic revolutions spawned in the 1960s and 1970s…from New Wave cinema to Pop Art to rock and roll and punk.
“Rock ‘n roll was revolutionary for me,” says godmother of punk, Patti Smith. “Songs were weapons.”
Weapons of mass deconstruction, I’d call ’em.
“I wanted to be like Paul Revere,” Smith told William S. Burroughs in 1979. “That was my whole thing I wanted to be like Paul Revere. I didn’t want to be a giant big hero; I didn’t want to die for the cause. I didn’t want to be a martyr. All that I wanted was for the people to fuckin’ wake up.”
If it’s difficult for you to reconcile Patti Smith’s revolutionary roots with her recent, more mainstream political efforts, well, so it is for Smith herself.
“That rock ‘n roll has evolved into something else is everybody’s fault,” she says. “We all have to take responsibility. You can’t say ‘I had to do that, because the marketing people said to’. It’s the artists’ fault. It’s MTV’s fault. We’re all guilty of forgetting what a great and powerful weapon rock ‘n roll is.”
We are also guilty of forgetting these verses from “This Land is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie’s 1940 radical response to Irving Berlin’s saccharine “God Bless America”):
As I was walkin’ I saw a sign there And that sign said “No tresspassin'” But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin Now that side was made for you and me
In the squares of the city/In the shadow of the steeple Near the relief office, I see my people And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ If this land’s still made for you and me
And let’s not also forget the words scrawled on Woody’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
As Ani DiFranco says: “I sing sometimes for the war I fight/’Cause every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”
MICKEY Z. is currently writing a book on related topics, “50 American Revolutions: People’s Patriotism Since 1776,” to be released by Disinformation in fall 2005. He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.