Yesterday marked the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi Germany carried out a pogrom against Jewish-owned businesses, homes, schools and hospitals at the start of the Holocaust. Aside from the shattered storefronts and buildings, people were burned, and 30,000 Jews were carted off to concentration camps.
Of course yesterday also marked the election of Donald Drumpf as our new president, who, as you may be aware, is the father-in-law of our publisher. And while we Jewish employees are grateful to write for a publication that refuses to collude and censor different points of view, we also can’t ignore incidents like what went down in South Philly yesterday, when an abandoned shop was vandalized and tagged with a Nazi salute, “Sieg Heil,” along with a swastika and the name of our new president.
On election night my girlfriend and I had a discussion about the effects of terror versus horror. We came to the conclusion that terror capitalizes on the psychological, the subliminal and the unseen. So much of the dread from these presidential campaigns, on both sides, conjured terror—what are they hiding from us? Why has one candidate revealed absolutely no specific details about any of their proposals? Are these messages that mobilize the alt-right coded intentionally, or are we just reading into them?
But when someone is drawing a swastika in South Philly, that’s horror—grotesque, in your face and fully manifested. I keep playing in my head the rhetorical question posed by the great proto-punks Death:
This tune brought me a little peace and solace. I was born halfway through Ronald Reagan’s second term, and while I was too young then to understand what “trickle down” economics or the Contra were, the punk music inspired by Reagan’s time in office left an indelible impression on my teenage mind.
In times of illusory order and decency, sometimes chaos is the move. With that in mind, I’ve put together a playlist of songs that have brought me tremendous comfort over the last 24 hours. They’re not all from the ’80s, but I like to think these old and new classics tap into a narrative stronger than that of any fascist rhetoric or populist sea change. I also like to think that if they come for the artists, we’ll be ready.
The first track, “All You Fascists” finds the great Billy Bragg backed by Wilco, singing a Woody Guthrie cover on their epic collection of music they found at his old place on Coney Island. I find the repetition of “you fascists are bound to lose” soothing, and it makes me recall that MLK Jr. quote that Moby dropped on me when we recently spoke, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Guthrie, a tremendous labor advocate and workingman’s songwriter, famously adorned his guitar with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists”, which Anti-Flag would eventually co-opt. Fred Drumpf was also Guthrie’s landlord for two years, which adds a new dynamic to the Drumpf/Guthrie connection.
The third track is a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “The Partisan” by the now-defunct Brighton rock band Electrelane. The song, about a man running away from the SS in Nazi-occupied France, has always hit me hard—particularly the line “Freedom soon will come, and will come from the shadows.”
I have Cohen’s words from this song, “the frontiers are my prison” tattooed on my arm as half-reclamation of the forced ink my ancestors were branded with when they became cattle on a train, half a reminder that running all the time can become a form of imprisonment in of itself.
This version has a particular punk swagger that I love, sorry Joan Baez. The band leaves out Cohen’s French verse, which Baez sings in Greek, reminding us that the ugliness of genocide is not exclusive to one place. The most powerful line in those French words—”J’ai repris mon âme“— translates to “I have retaken my weapon.”
As an anti-capitalist entity unto himself, Steve Albini has been making politically charged music for years, but it’s the early ’80s sound of “Steelworker”, which Albini made himself on a drum machine while in college, that sounds appropriately anarchistic now.
“See, I’m like a murderer, I kill what I eat/ See, I’m like a, I’m a hunter-gatherer, see, I kill what I eat/ See, I’m a steelworker, I kill what I eat/ See, I’m, I’m a bricklayer, I kill what I eat.”
This next Common track, “Black America Again”, comes from his new album of the same name, and I had the pleasure of watching him freestyle most of these verses at Roots Picnic’s inaugural New York weekend last month. It’s a really powerful album, and these lyrics have been following me around since I first heard them in Bryant Park, pointedly evoking the school to prison pipeline, voter suppression, typecasting, and more:
“Lincoln or Cadillac/Drinkin’ or battle raps/Or is it God’s speed that we travel at/In danger in my own habitat/ The guns and dope, man/Ya’al can have it back/As a matter fact/We the lab rats/You build the projects for/now you want yo hood back/I guess if you could rap/You would express it too/That P.T.S.D/We need professionals/You know what pressure do/It makes the pipes bust/ From schools to prison, ya’al/They tryin’a pipe us/ Tell your political parties invite us/Instead of makin’ voting laws to spite us/you know, you know we from a family of fightas/fought in your wars and our wars/you put a nigga in Star Wars/ Maybe you need two/And then, maybe then we’ll believe you.”
Arcade Fire have never hid their strong, political views, be it about the rampant misappropriation of charitable funds preventing Haiti from healing, the Bush presidency, and now Drumpf. But it’s their second album Neon Bible, which borrows its name from John Kennedy Toole’s second novel, that really probes the darkness of institutional fuckery here at home.
Amidst the record’s making peace with the darkness of evangelism, war and greed, it’s the slow burn of this song “Windowsill” that best encapsulates the fear of imminent apocalypse:
“Don’t wanna give ’em my name and address/Don’t wanna see what happens next/Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more/Don’t wanna live with my father’s debt/You can’t forgive what you can’t forget/Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more/Don’t wanna fight in a holy war/Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door/I don’t wanna live in america no more.”
This next song “Neighborhood Threat” is a stone-cold Iggy Pop classic that finds Pop talking to someone who looks down at a homeless person, surprised the person won’t be their to “catch your ash.” It’s a streetwise look at our ability to put empathy blinders on in this country, and our astounding ability to stay silent and ignore the suffering of others, even when it’s happening right in front of us.
Bob Dylan’s Street Legal classic “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” alludes to a shaman, possibly Castaneda’s Don Juan Matus who often spoke of yankees. Dylan’s both embracing the idea that indigenous peoples have more awareness of our world than we do, albeit slightly fetishizing that idea too.
And once Dylan’s singing about a woman with an iron cross on her neck, the narrative takes a turn: “Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled/Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field/A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring/Said, ‘Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.’ “
Parliament’s Chocolate City classic “I Misjudged You” makes the cut for obvious reasons, but taken in the larger narrative of the record as reclamation of black identity in Washington, it stings particularly hard. It also seemed to transition seamlessly into William Onyeabor’s long-lost African classic, “Better Change Your Mind”, a groovy tear-down of Manifest Destiny.
There are Spoon songs that fit the anti-fascist narrative more directly than “Paper Tiger”—the first two songs on Gimme Fiction, for example, conjure the duplicity of our political climate by evoking “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”.
But as a love song for uncertain times, “Paper Tiger” hits just as hard: “I’ll never hold you back/And I won’t force my will/I will no longer do the devil’s wishes/Something I read on a dollar bill/A paper tiger can’t tell you where he stands/We’ll go back tonight the way that we came/I’m not dumb, just want to hold your hand.”
Later on in the track, singer Britt Daniel drops more profundity—”the new war will get you, it will not protect you.”
Fellow Observer Music denizen Tim Sommer threw his smarts at me for a couple of tracks on here, the first being Vancouver Hardcore band D.O.A.’s “Smash the State”. “Smash the state/The fascist rape/The pigs are waiting.” Words powerful enough to reclaim “Oi!” from the Oi punks.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly already feels like a new classic, and while the DNC wonders why black folks didn’t turn out to vote for Hillary in the numbers they were hoping for, “Hood Politics” portrays the struggles and poverty of the hood as a polarizing political system unto itself, adjunct from a Washington that their ancestors built with their hands.
“The streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town/From Compton to Congress, it’s set trippin’ all around/Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans/Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?”
Another riotous Tim Sommer pick, Sham ’69’s “If the Kids Are United” not only captures his anglophile ways, but reminds us of the rising National Front movement in late ’70s Britain that threatened to bring Fascism to the Queen.
The Clash famously sang the next song, “White Riot”, at a Rock Against Racism concert held during the peak of these moments taking to the streets. The Clash would immortalize this ugly moment in U.K. history, an eerie period of pre-Brexit relevance, with their film Rude Boy. See it if you can.
We round off the talk of fascism by featuring an American band, Dead Kennedys, and their self-explanatory hit, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!”
This next song by Pavement, “Embassy Row”, evokes a street in Washington, D.C., where the wealthiest foreign diplomats and their families live, and you can practically visualize Stephen Malkmus boarding down the block while banging his head.
“In a netherworld of foreign thieves, I’m gonna take the crown” could equally sound as a reclamation of American identity or an attempt to usurp something from a perceived foreign threat. Either way, this one’s a thinker that you can rock out to, speaking to the conspiratory paranoia so many Americans are feeling right now.
Neil Young’s classic “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” fits for obvious reasons, but it’s message of weathering a paradigm shift feels particularly valuable right now. “It’s only castles burning,” indeed.
We find someone who’s turning because the throws of transition are tough fought alone, and we do better together. It’s been suggested that this song is about making the best out of a bad situation, but I’d challenge that interpretation to suggest it’s about realizing that no construct of superiority is eternal. References to “lorries” suggest the song was nodding to England’s political blight at the time, too.
The late, great Johnny Thunders classic “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” was supposed to close this playlist, but it was too bittersweet. Aside from the fact that it’s a great fucking song and gets me every time, the idea of “memory” as an intangible thing feels important now.
Wasn’t the whole Drumpf campaign ran on the premise of this lost, great America? The ‘good ole days’ when law and order ruled and people knew their place? Memory became a product years ago, the branding of nostalgia, and Thunders’ song reminds us that the evocation of memory for any gain—be it romantic, political, or both—is a useless endeavor.
Phew, thanks for sticking with me. I’m closing with Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Hope” not only because I think it’s a classic that gets left out of their canon when discussing their contribution to American psychedelia, but because it manifests the failed dream of the ’60s that we can organize as a people and practice a conscious refusal of our normative societal infrastructure.
All of which is to say, fuck fascism. Let’s stay alert and aware of rhetoric, dog-whistles and other coded language. Let’s catalog every new Pepe the Frog that the alt-right co-opts in their efforts to organize and execute White Nationalist agendas under the radar. And let’s remember that music can save us. All of us. Even the fascists.