Rallying cries

Pearl Jam and Neil Young respond to Bush’s war
By MATT ASHARE  |  May 15, 2006

IN THE FREE WORLD: Young’s “Lookin’ for a Leader” rocks as hard as it rants.

An increasingly unpopular war, a body count that grows daily even as our commander-in-chief touts our military triumphs, and an increasing sense of uneasiness as it becomes all too apparent that our leaders have been less than candid. Add to that the coded us-against-them rhetoric, a growing gap between the rich who planned the war and the poor whose sons, daughters, and weekend reservists die there every day, and a growing polarization between the right and the left. Ring a bell?

To Neil Young — a sometime folksinger who was there at the first Woodstock, and who stood proudly with his peers against Vietnam — “déjà vu” may not be a strong enough description. Yet Young, like so many other artists who’d addressed socio-political issues, has been remarkably quiet over the past few years. His first reaction to September 11 was “Let’s Roll,” a proud if somewhat hamhanded tribute to the passengers who brought down United Flight 93. But he followed that with the strange concept album Greendale, and then last year’s celebrated Prairie Wind, a return to Harvest-era folk and introspective songwriting that addressed the death of his father and his own brush with mortality and was, aside from a quick mention of 9/11 in “No Wonder,” devoid of any suggestions that military, social, or political conflict had overtaken our fair nation.

If Young was relying on a new generation of protest rockers to speak out, he was mistaken. Even the Rock Against Bush campaign to get out the vote in 2004, on two compilation CDs, yielded precious few songs that addressed the war in Iraq or any of the administration’s other policies. Doesn’t anyone remember the Reagan-era Let Them Eat Jellybeans?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the relative silence. The Bush administration has confused important issues with doublespeak and manipulative language. (When “No Child Left Behind” actually means less funding for schools, we’re beyond the Orwellian looking glass.) But cracks have begun to appear in the façade. When six decorated generals feel compelled to say that Iraq is a poorly planned disaster and a setback in the war on terror, people listen. And some of us still can’t dispel that image of Condoleeza Rice casually admitting she’d had a report of a terrorist plot to fly commercial airliners into the World Trade Center on her desk months before 9/11. The entire Iraq scam seems to be unraveling. There are just too many inconsistencies, too many questions about human-rights violations abroad, the erosion of civil rights on the homefront, the bungled response to Katrina.

And, finally, the music troops appear to be mobilizing. In different circumstances, Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album might be considered just a tribute to a musical hero; in the current climate, it’s a wake-up call. “We Shall Overcome” — which is so much a part of our cultural fabric, it’s hard to believe that someone wrote it, that it wasn’t just handed down from on high — means something to anyone whose lost a loved one to the war on terrorism or the wrath of Katrina. It brings to mind past struggles that have mobilized regular folks to stand up and fight for the greater good.

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Neil Young, "Living With War" (streaming audio)
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