© 2006 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
The best concert I've seen since the Beatles played Shea Stadium 41 years ago this month is on the road in America as we speak, planting sweet sound-seeds of intelligence, passion and plain common sense, fortified with patriotic anger, compassionate reproach, and a dogged determination to prevail that transcends any weariness or disappointment. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's FREEDOM OF SPEECH '06 show is moving across the continent like a tidal wave, turning heads, blowing minds, moving hearts, and shining a million-watt light onto some of the damp steaming piles of bullshit on which a great nation is presently gagging.
The Four Musketeers of Folk Rock http://csny.com/ have reformed to save the Republic-the Four Horsemen of the Apocrypha have saddled up one more time for us, just as we need them more than ever-the Sleeping Spirit of the Sixties has been raised once again by some of the very Wizards, Warlocks and Wonderful Weirdos who originally created it, shaped it, used it to stun the world, and then put it to rest the first time, and its power is undiminished and its light is brighter than ever. I was there and I saw it, burning Bush in a bowl in Hollywood. So, among thousands of others, did my wife Jeanne and two of our best friends, John Varley and Lee Emmett, last Monday night, July 31st.
When better music is made, Martians will be making it; humans just do not get better than David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young. Nor have they ever been better, or even as good, individually or in the aggregate: Sixties superstars now in their sixties, each happens to be in the full flush of a personal creative renaissance, each voice has aged like a Strad, each instrumentalist has learned some new things lately. In four part harmony they make the tiny hairs on your forearms stand on end, make your face hurt with smiling, make you and your wife squeeze each other hard enough to bruise.
On July 31, 2006 they hit the Hollywood Bowl together the way the DEA hits a grow-op, kicking ass and taking names, bellowing rude repetitive commands at scumbags amid a blizzard of smoke and bright lights, pulling the president's pants down in public and rubbing his and our noses in what they found in there, for three and a half glorious hours with one short pee break.
As they played, large screens at left and right showed closeup images of them soloing or dialoguing...and a stupendous screen right behind them displayed huge brightly coloured images many of which your TV news anchor is not permitted to show you because his ultimate employer is one of fewer than half a dozen corrupt pseudoconservative swine who have cornered that medium in order to conspire at treason-such images as:
--the coffins of dead young Americans coming home from a useless war, killed by liars for gain...a seemingly endless series of coffins, with not a mourner, relative or reporter in sight...
--a broken peace sign...
--bewildered victims of treachery and/or slipshod intelligence, coincidentally all swarthy, rotting as our guests at Guantanamo--all squinting northeast in desperate search for the Statue of Liberty, or some scrap of the Bill of Rights, or Constitutional guarantees, or a Geneva Convention, or even a third-rate Legal Aid attorney who can tell them if their loved ones are still alive out here...
--an American flag being pulled back to reveal the flag of a peaceful, compassionate, freedom-loving, multicultural, gods-respecting, self-respecting nation eclipsed behind it: Canada...
--a glorious series of TV newsclips of George W. Botch's straightfaced sequential lies about WoMDs...about mythical connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11...about Missions Accomplished, and other fictions--making it both clear and undeniable that the truth and the Cheat Consecutive are not merely total strangers who've never been in the same room even at different times, but natural enemies who dislike even hearing each other's name mentioned...
"DON'T NEED NO MORE LIES," Neil and David and Graham and Stephen point out together in front of the screen, while the overabundance piles up behind them.
--and then near the end of the evening, the unmistakable music of someone else is heard, music by a man 36 years dead that still has the power to shock and shame, and suddenly the screen begins to fill with faces...with smiling faces, headshots...hundreds upon hundreds of smiling faces, and then hundreds more of them, screenfuls of them...and all at once you know with sick horror what they are, what they have to be: the earnest, smiling, trusting faces of all the brave young people we've collectively killed so far to aggrandize a few fat rich religious fanatics...the butcher's bill as of today...the price we have paid to date for our pathetic national cowardice over a single minor incident of Diabolical Bad Luck five years in the past, and for our continuing pig-lazy refusal to seek out the true facts we know damn well we're not being given, and for our smug self-important assumption that anyone who doesn't automatically admire our supersized asses must be Evil incarnate, and for the intellectual laziness that allows us to commit all our precious dwindling resources to something as silly as a World War on Wackos that can never conceivably be over, one way or another, as long as there's one con-man left in Washington...the faces of the dead, so far...
Just the Americans, mind you. But all of them. Every face your TV news has shamefully failed to show you. Glance at the check, before you sign for it.
--and as all those trusting young faces smile out at you, a counter at the bottom of the screen keeps a running total of their number, and it doesn't stop until it reaches 2,574.
And below all those 2,574 smiling young dead faces, the four unsmiling aged faces of Neil and his friends propose the impeachment of the man responsible for their loss. "LET'S IMPEACH THE PRESIDENT FOR LYING," Neil suggests, as though wasting thousands of brave young Americans, Iraqis and other humans were a crime comparable to accepting a quick hummer from a tramp outside the Oval Office. "LET'S IMPEACH THE PRESIDENT FOR SPYING," Graham and Stephen and David urge, as if glancing through everybody's mail and bankbook were as unAmerican as glancing down a braless neckline.
Don't misunderstand me: this was not Popaganda, not a night of political rhetoric-well, not just a night of political rhetoric. The Freedom of Speech '06 Tour show is, above all and beneath everything else, a night of three and one half hours of some of the very finest, most melodically, harmonically and lyrically complex music made on this planet in the course of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, performed better than it ever has been before; unabashedly liberal political content is simply inevitable. Its absence would have been as hypocritical as, say, the half-dozen extremely "well" dressed nincompoops in some of the most expensive seats at the Hollywood Bowl, who cheered wildly for "Long Time Gone" and "Our House".....and then were offended enough by "Let's Impeach The President" to get up and walk out shouting obscenities on his behalf. What the hell could they possibly have thought they were paying more than two hundred bucks apiece to hear? (Nobody else minded; certainly not the young people who raced down from the $50 seats to take their places.)
Neil's volcanic anger being the primary engine driving this spacecraft into orbit this time, the Four Horselaughs are employing his latest great rhythm section, this trip: veteran aces Rick Rosas on bass, Chad Cromwell on drums, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Ben Keith on pedal steel, and Tommy Brea on trumpet. Google them all: you almost certainly already own hours of their work, and play it all the time. With that kind of backup, Croz, Graham, Stephen and Neil naturally cut in the afterburners, and played their hearts and lungs out. Stephen in particular sang better than he has in years, and he and Neil worked their guitars like what they were: worried wizards arguing about how to fix things.
Neil played so hard in fact that he literally wrenched his back during a particularly spirited guitar conversation with Stephen during the last number, "Rockin' In The Free World," and had to bolt directly to his car, costing all of us an encore-well shit, who needed one after over 200 minutes of such music?-and costing me a long-anticipated chance to finally meet him backstage, dammit. But after a set like that I would sooner have struck off one of my own guitar-fretting fingers than gotten between him and his Tylenols. One of the best songs on his fiery new LIVING WITH WAR album is called "Lookin' For A Leader," and he genuinely appears not to realize that he is one himself-the very D'artagnan we needed to galvanize resistance to the Pretender and the Cardinal. In him and his three friends-and their all-too-few courageous contemporary companions like Pink and Todd Butler and the dear Dixie Chicks-we are getting better musical heros than I suspect we really deserve.
How good was the show, exactly? Hype is hard to translate. I gave it a try in my very first sentence, but you may be too young for that benchmark to resonate for you. Let me try and calibrate this in terms that will mean something to you...
Okay, after the show? Backstage in Croz's dressing room, among the thousands of people we met and chatted up while they were waiting to speak with him, were the following luminaries and notables: first of all, the bravest woman in America today, Cindy Sheehan, astonishingly even more genuine, real, sane and sweet than one would have predicted; one of the loveliest and most talented women on earth today, Virginia Madsen, whom Jeanne and I had just seen in Firewall on DVD a few days earlier; her childhood friend and one of the best actors in The Perfect Storm, ravishing Rusty Schwimmer; the great actor/director Charles Haid (Sgt. Andy Renko in Hill Street Blues), of whom Jeanne and I have been serious fans since he co-starred with Judd Hirsch in Delvecchio when the world was young; the hopeably-immortal Billy Crystal; Carl Gottlieb, brilliant co-author of both LONG TIME GONE, Croz's famously harrowing autobiography, and SINCE THEN, the transcendently triumphantly joyous second volume thereof which is about to come out in hardcover in October...all in all, a considerably cooler bunch of celebrities than I or Jeanne are in the habit of hanging with, is what I'm saying.
Left photo, l. to r.: John Varley, David Crosby, Spider; photo by Jeanne Robinson. Right photo, l. to r.: John Varley, Cindy Sheehan, Spider; photo by Lee Emmett.
Seeing that show beforehand was way cooler, though.
Does that help you calibrate it? No, I haven't touched it yet. Try again...
Okay, before the show? That afternoon I had taped a video interview in LA with Cheryl Johnson, the uncommonly intelligent host of a prestigious show called Expanded Books, http://www.expandedbooks.com to promote my own forthcoming collaboration with Robert A. Heinlein, VARIABLE STAR http://www.variablestarbook.com . That's pretty cool right there, but wait. Croz, a serious lifelong Heinlein fan, volunteered to come and be interviewed with me. He showed up-before noon, during the most important tour of even his extraordinary life, awake, shaved and wearing a sports coat! Sitting at my side on camera, he spoke at length, eloquently, articulately and most insightfully, about Robert and his work and his dreams. Then he did the same about me and my work and my dreams. Then he stepped off the set and sat and watched and listened while I taped a solo performance for him and the world (accompanying myself on Lady Macbeth my beloved Gibson J-45) of my proposed "final-draft" version of the song we were writing together in Robert's honour, "On The Way To The Stars." (Its lyrics are quoted in the opening pages of VARIABLE STAR.) When I was done, David immediately and enthusiastically signed off on the song we've been fooling with for over a year together by e-mail video hookup-"That's it!"-and then said things about my guitar playing so outrageous I can't even type them, nearly a week later. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: I finished writing a song for Robert Heinlein with the man who not only sang on the Byrds' "Hey, Mr. Spaceman," but who also wrote the very first science fiction rock song ever that was more than just a novelty amusement, and still one of the best of all time, "Wooden Ships"-and I played our song for him, in public, and he said I done real good. Then we all went from the set back to the Hollywood Bowl for soundcheck, and from there to his incredible Magic Bus (which we'd visited last year in Vancouver), where Jeanne and I finally satisfied a year-and-a-half-long itch to meet the faces of some e-mail friends, Croz's transcendently beautiful and serene wife JanDee and their whipsmart 12-year-old bodhisattva Django, and to hang out with them for a short precious while, there and at a truly Lucullan catering tent. In return for this extraordinary generosity with his time, Croz himself made out like a bandit-because he went off to the gig with the best imaginable preparation: one of my wife's life-altering neck and shoulder rubs. They're like mainlining Zen. Oh yeah, and don't let me forget one final little grace note: before he headed for the stage, he casually tossed 3 hand-labeled CDs onto my lap-one of only two copies in all the world at that moment, he told me, of his own forthcoming new lifetime-best-remastered box set, VOYAGE, forty solid years of excellence, in better fidelity than the CD release will have. I have listened to it several times already, and it really may be the best three discs of music there are. Period. (It's tentatively scheduled for release just in time for Christmas on November 9; see http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000GUJYAQ/ ) So, a reasonably cool day, all in all, I think you'll agree.
Seeing the concert that night was cooler.
There are nineteen shows left in the Freedom of Speech '06 Tour. I recommend you sell your clothes, pawn grandmother, kennel the children, take out a mortgage on your best dream, slather sunblock on your hitching thumb, whatever it takes to get to one of those concerts. It's like nineteen chances not to miss Woodstock. There is still time to turn America around, and at those venues you will find many of the people who are going to try, all getting their blood up together. Go swap ear-to-ear grins and URLs and e-mail addresses and discreetly circulating doobies with them, as you listen to some of the most exquisite and powerful music that can be wrought from the ingredients presently available.
The set list will be something very like the one we heard at the Hollywood Bowl:
1 FLAGS OF FREEDOM
2 CARRY ON
3 WOODEN SHIPS
4 LONG TIME GONE
5 MILITARY MADNESS
6 AFTER THE GARDEN
7 LIVING WITH WAR
8 RESTLESS CONSUMER
9 SHOCK AND AWE
10 WOUNDED WORLD
11 ALMOST CUT MY HAIR
12 IMMIGRATION MAN
14 DÉJÀ VU
15 HELPLESSLY HOPING
16 OUR HOUSE
17 ONLY LOVE
19 MILKY WAY
20 TREETOP FLYER
21 ROGER AND OUT
22 SOUTHBOUND TRAIN
23 OLD MAN TROUBLE
24 CARRY ME
25 TEACH YOUR CHILDREN
26 SOUTHERN CROSS
27 FIND THE COST
28 HENDRIX: STAR SPANGLED BANNER
29 LET'S IMPEACH THE PRESIDENT
30 FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH
33 WHAT ARE THEIR NAMES
34 ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD
At one point before the concert, over dinner in the catering tent, Graham laughed and shook his snowy head and said to Croz, "God, who would ever have believed we'd still have to be doing this shit, thirty years later?" And they grinned together. And Jeanne said at once, "Thank God you are." And they grinned even bigger.
Jeanne, proofreading this, says I managed to completely miss the most important moment of the whole night, and she's absolutely right, one of thousands of reasons I haven't sold her yet. The most important moment of the whole night, the most significant artistic symbol evoked by that whole crew of media masters, came near the end of the second set, when two people I've foolishly mentioned only in passing as bystanders so far, Jan and Django Crosby, came out on stage past David, bearing between them an enormous microphone, a parody of an old Walter-Winchell-type radio mike that stood at least four meters tall. Reaching as high up as they could, between them they tied a giant neon-bright yellow ribbon around the mike-stand. And then with encouragement from Neil and help from Croz, they bent that mighty microphone toward all of us. And Neil glared around the vast amphitheater as if to say, Get it? YOU turkeys have freedom of speech in '06, too! You might not have it much longer. Why the hell are you listening to an old man man who nearly died of a brain aneurysm last year telling you this shit? What have YOU got to say? And when the hell do you plan to start saying it, so I can finally fucking retire?
When today's generation get to be old farts, will there be as much to be quietly proud of in their nostalgia-music as there is in mine? I certainly hope so. There's no reason in the world why not: as Django and Jan told us, and Jeanne reminded me, the microphone is open. Any fool can cut a record, now, and any fool can get it distributed. Freedom of speech is still loose in the land for a while longer. Let's use it while it lasts.
Time to stand and be counted, cousins. Again. It ain't over till it's over. Freedom of Speech is one of your very best muscles-and like any muscle, it needs to be exercised. Teach your children well. Teach your parents well. Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
And keep an eye out for the concert DVD that's sure to emerge soon. It'll give you heart...
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