Music for a Friday

R.E.M. 1985 (Credit: Edward Colver)

A college campus in the early 1980s was an interesting time to become aware of “pop” music. To clarify, I knew it existed, I just didn’t listen to any until I got to college in 1982.

The musical environment of the home I grew up in was heavy on classical, leavened with Broadway cast albums and a bit of jazz. The musical environment of the community where we lived was saturated in what we now call “classic country” and bluegrass, neither of which I had an appreciation for at the time.

Sure, the sounds of mainstream FM radio were all around, but I had what I considered a healthy and justified disdain for all that. (As I wrote here, I came to an appreciation of Bruce Springsteen much later). But college, and college radio, was ear-opening.

Friends in my dormitory introduced me to metal pioneers Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin but also the so-called “New Wave of British Metal” from Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Saxon, and the like. Other friends were my gateway to punk: The Clash, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers.

MTV, which had debuted less than a year earlier, was a constant presence on the television in my dorm’s common room. (Yes kids, back in my day the only television in the dorm was in the common room. Deciding what to watch was an exercise in diplomacy and compromise.)

Our little college radio station, WLVR, opened up even broader musical horizons. By our senior year, a buddy and I were hosting a drive-time Friday morning show. Our musical choices were … eccentric.

R.E.M. is one of the bands that hit my consciousness back then like a thunderclap and has stuck with me ever since. And while there’s no end of songs I could single out in this space, I want to point to one, Driver 8, which captures for me nearly everything I love about the band, especially in its early years.

Driver 8 was the second single off the band’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, released in September 1985. In a long appreciation of the song posted at PopMatters, Robert Loss writes:

What if the song’s dream is about mobility? Freedom not as an ideal, but as the tangible freedom to move about, which might also mean the ability to participate, to argue, to be heard, to vote? Someone living in cities, plugged into the circuitry of the American Wow, might scoff at the uniqueness of this, but if you live somewhere else—a small town in the South, or anywhere remote; a dusty town in Kansas or a snowbound Montana mountainside village—it might be a breathtaking idea. So breathtaking that when the opportunity arises, you jump at the chance.

That’s how the song starts: a headlong jump forward, springing from one of Peter Buck‘s signature guitar melodies. The riff begins with a heavy downbeat, then races ahead, climbing, stumbling into syncopation, and just when it seems to have reached its zenith, it reaches a little higher before tumbling, and beginning all over again. The entire song has that impulsive feel, light and fleet, shuffling along on Bill Berry‘s simple backbeat and Buck’s arpeggiation, barely weighted by Mike Mills’ punctuated bass lines and the melancholy in Stipe’s voice. 

Like so many of R.E.M.’s songs, from “Chronic Town” through “Document”, including the album this song originally appeared on in 1985, Fables of the Reconstruction, “Driver 8” entwines words within the whole of the song. Stipe’s vocals barely stand out above the guitars and his delivery is almost off-hand, as if you just happened to catch him singing. It’s not that the words’ meanings don’t matter, but if you’re looking for a clear story, you won’t find one. You’ll catch images and hear flashes of dialogue instead, and sometimes even those are willing to risk coherency, for example, “He piloted this song in a plane like that one”. We hear this for the pleasure of the sound, for the emotion and beauty of the sum. …

“Driver 8” suggests a story more than it tells one, and it’s probably more correct to say that it suggests many stories. The people who live them in the song speak quickly, or someone speaks for them, about them, or they say the same thing over and over—the conductor’s words to the driver, which you can hear growing more insistent—and some don’t speak at all. (What does the woman “selling faith on the Go Tell Crusade” have to say about herself? Would she call it “selling faith”?) They’re a loosely defined community, which is to say, a nation, bound together by what can seem like not much at all, but bound together nonetheless. 

I actually included the official video release at the end of a post I wrote back in the spring of 2017, having been exhausted by the first three weeks of the then new Trump administration. I needed it as a mental break from what was then and has remained a virtually nonstop barrage of norm-breaking assaults on both democracy and basic human decency.

So here we are, almost three years later, and I still need this song. Driver 8, recorded live at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, in June 1984.

‘They didn’t help us with Normandy’

(Credit: Steve Breen, San Diego Tribune)

That’s how President Trump yesterday justified his shameless betrayal of Syria’s Kurds, who for years have been the sharp end of the spear in our fight against the Islamic State.

“The Kurds are fighting for their land,” Trump told reporters at the White House during an event in the Roosevelt Room.

“And as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing.”

There’s a lot of stupid that we could unpack here. I mean, how many Turkish battalions landed alongside American GIs at Omaha or Utah Beach? (And as an aside, Kurds did in fact fight on the side of the Allies in World War II, helping to stymie a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq then serving under British command in other theaters.) But then, the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of Trump’s justification is really beside the point.

What his comment shines a bright spotlight upon is his overarching tendency to view all relationships in purely transactional terms. The question isn’t what have you done for us before, or even lately, but what are you doing for us right now? The idea of loyalty to an ally is completely irrelevant in this calculus.

By Trump’s entirely self-serving logic, stabbing the Kurds in the back is the perfectly natural thing to do. When they were fighting for us on the frontlines in the war against ISIS, losing nearly 11,000 of their own people in the process, keeping Turkey at bay was the smart play. But now that Trump has declared the caliphate “100% defeated” we don’t need them anymore. So the Kurds are on their own.

As Elliot Hanlon explains at Slate:

The Kurds were an ally worth defending when we had a common strategic interest in defeating ISIS, the argument goes, but now that the U.S. feels it has accomplished that, there’s not much use for the Kurds anymore.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues on this second day of the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. But it’s not that Trump bears the our one-time allies any ill will. Far from it:

“With all of that being said, we like the Kurds.”

In Syria, our betrayal is complete

American armored vehicles in Syrian Kurdistan. (Credit: AFP)

Last night, to the surprise of both the Department of Defense and State Department, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its military forces from northern Syria, opening the door for neighboring Turkey to stage the invasion of the region it has yearned for.

Turkey’s target: The Kurdish militias that have been our staunchest allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This completes the American betrayal of our allies there.

First, in June 2017, Trump killed the program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels who had been battling both ISIS and the brutal government of Bashar Assad. This was an outcome long desired by Russian president and Trump patron Vladimir Putin, who is deeply invested in seeing his client Assad retain power. I wrote then:

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

And now the Kurds get to experience what happens when America abandons its proxies. Perhaps they should ask the Montagnards or Brigade 2506 how things turn out.

Music for a Friday

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Credit: Mountain Stage)

I tend to like my music the way I like my coffee: strong, hot, and pretty dark. Maybe that explains my love of the murder ballad.

Murder ballads as we know them are a part of an ancient European ballad tradition that predates both the printing press and standard musical notation. Colonial settlers brought the English versions of many these with them when they came to these shores. Preserved in the isolated hills and hollows of the southern Appalachians, they quickly became embedded in the American folk music tradition.

This is such a deeply rooted form in traditional music that the publication Sing Out! had a regular blog feature called Murder Ballad Monday at their website, which they described as “Reflections on the tougher side of old, weird America … (and the British Isles.)”

Murder Ballad Monday reflects on music and mortality. We explore the murder ballad tradition of folk and popular music, with a deliberately broad definition of the genre. We pursue conversation on the power of music to create meaning and beauty in response to the toughest of times.

Murder ballads share some common characteristics. They tend to claim to tell the tale of a true crime and its consequences, identify both victim and killer, describe the motive and how the deed was done, and often end with the killer in prison or on the way to the gallows. And yes, these are almost always tales of women being victimized by scorned, jealous, or simply rapacious men. Sometimes they conclude with a morality lesson in which the listener is entreated not to go down the killer’s path.

Most, like Pretty Polly, relate the story through the eyes of the victim, though some from the perspective of her killer. Occasionally these examples are sympathetic to him, like Tom Dooley or Sam Hall. Others, like Banks of the Ohio, not so much:

I asked my love to take a walk
Just a walk a little way
And as we walk, oh, may we talk
All about our wedding day 

   Only say that you’ll be mine
   In our home we’ll happy be
   Down beside where the waters flow
   On the banks of the Ohio 

I held a knife against her breast
As into my arms she pressed
She said Willie, don’t you murder me
I’m unprepared for eternity 

I took her by her lily white hand
And dragged her down that bank of sand
There I throwed her in to drown
I watched her as she floated down 

Was walking home tween twelve and one
Thinkin’ of what I had done
I killed a girl, my love you see
Because she would not marry me

Seldom does the woman get the last word in these stories. A notable exception is the modern murder ballad Caleb Meyer, written by Gillian Welch and appearing on her 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. In a long Murder Ballad Monday post about the song at Sing Out!, Ken Bigger writes:

Some people call “Caleb Meyer” a murder ballad. We will too. I’ve also seen people call it a “manslaughter ballad,” perhaps because they are overly persnickety about legal definitions. I’ve been there. As a species of murder ballad, though, I’m inclined to call “Caleb Meyer” a “survivor’s ballad.” 

In short, it’s a murder ballad with a twist in which the victim not only survives, but gets the best of her would be assailant, and does so in a very satisfying and true-to-the-genre way. It’s one of my favorite songs.

You can watch Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings perform it live in the video below.