Growing up in a house filled with the sounds of John Philip Sousa and Henry Fillmore, melody and rhythm came first. As I got older and delved deeper into modern music, I gradually began to listen to the singers and their lyrics. Sitting in the basement of my parents’ house, I was swept away by the three and four minute short stories contained in popular music. It was there in the basement that I first realized some singers were doing something else with music: they were delivering the news of the day. I’ll never forget the first time I brought home a warped copy of Legend from the library. My intention was to listen to “Jammin’.” Instead, I became mesmerized by Bob Marley’s chanting. “Get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights.” Something stirred in my soul.
I quickly learned that music isn’t just about love songs or heartbreak, getting drunk or driving fast cars. Music can inspire. Music can mobilize a group of people to take action. One night, I tuned in to a simulcast of the Amnesty International benefit concert, A Conspiracy of Hope Concert to hear The Police. Instead, I sat mesmerized by Peter Gabriel singing “Biko” and imagined the crowd of thousands, singing out that last chorus. I could see their fists raised in unison. This was a call to arms: End Apartheid!
I’ve had many unexpected moments like these in my life. One sunny afternoon, with nothing to do, I returned to the basement with Jackson Browne’s latest on cassette. There was a splendid love song, “In the Shape of a Heart” that I wanted to copy. Instead, I wore the tape down listening repeatedly to “Lives in the Balance.” I, too, wanted to know who the men in the shadows were.
I remember watching Neil Young perform “Rockin’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live and being moved to tears as this madman shredded his guitar and sang, “That’s one more kid who will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.” I received a copy of Bob Dylan’s Desire from my good friend, Blake (for the third time), and finally listened to “Hurricane.” I recall sitting in a fancy music hall in 1996, hearing Bruce Springsteen singing about “Youngstown” and the plight of the blue collar cities — not just in Ohio, but across the land. “We sent out sons to Korea and Vietnam, now we wonder what they were dying for.”
All of these songs were saying to me: Wake up, man. Wake up.
Something happened to me around the time Sophie was born. I stopped listening. I had too many things to worry about: A family, bills to pay, a career. I’d grown cynical. My vote doesn’t count. The debacle of the 2000 election only made matters worse, as did the 9/11 attacks and the two wars that followed. It was easy to shut down and take care of my own house. Let someone else worry about the bullshit of politics. What can one man do, anyway?
Then I heard the strum of a guitar, building and building, calling to me. The drums announced their entry with authority, and the distinct, twangy voice of one man declared: “The revolution starts now.” (download)
Steve Earle, my friends. Steve freakin’ Earle.
Standing at a listening station in Hollywood’s Amoeba Records, I punched the air and practically ripped the headphones from the stand. This is what the country needed, I thought. This is what I need.
Something in the gravity of Earle’s voice gave me pause. Something in the aching in the chorus made me stop thinking of myself and start thinking of others — in particular, my children. What kind of example was I setting for them by doing nothing? What kind of father would I be if I didn’t take some sort of action in trying to better the world for them? Living in a conservative city, I found the courage to speak my mind, even if it was something as small as putting a Kerry bumper sticker on my car. That tiny first step gave me confidence.
I thought the world would change in the fall of 2004. A song like “The Revolution Starts Now,” coupled with the star-studded Vote for Change tour almost ensured that George Bush would be ousted from the White House in ’04 and the chaos would settle.
We all know how that ended.
Yet, four years later, I’m not cynical. I am hopeful. There are candidates that I believe in (one in particular) and I feel that a real change is on the horizon. Steve Earle’s awesome album is once again playing in the living room and in my car. The small lessons I learned in ’04 have given me new confidence to become involved and to do something.
You may be wondering what one person can do, just like I did years ago. Trust me: one man can do a lot. In 2003, I decided to run my first marathon to raise funds for The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. My goal was $5,000; I raised over$10,000. All I did was run and write letters, but something must have inspired people to open their hearts. As we’re seeing with this year’s Democratic nomination, it could come down to one person’s vote deciding who is going to run for president. One person can do a lot.
Many people complain that celebrities like George Clooney and Bono should keep their political and social views to themselves. After all, they’re just entertainers. I disagree. Entertainment is their job, yes, but by voicing their opinion, they’re no different than a blue collar attempting to better working conditions or a group of students trying to spread the word about global warming, They are using the means at their disposal to try and better this country and the world. That’s what I’m trying to do today.
Popdose gives me the freedom to write about the music that matters to me. I do my best not to offend anyone in my musings about life. However, I can’t pass up the opportunity to encourage all of you to get involved and to take action. Whatever you believe, become a part of the conversation going on in the country and help shape the future so that our children have a better place to live.
The revolution has started, my friends. Whatcha doin’ standin’ around?