He commanded [us] to teach [our] children…
that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.
Psalm 78: 5–8
On Saturday, 2 August 2008, two firebombs exploded in Santa Cruz, California. These bombs were intended to kill faculty members involved in research on the University of California campus there. One bomb set aflame the home of a neuroscientist; the other blew up a car in a researcher’s driveway. Authorities immediately classified the acts as domestic terrorism. The first incident constitutes attempted homicide because the family was home when the bomb detonated.
Earlier in the week, a flier had appeared in a downtown coffeehouse identifying thirteen UCSC scientists as “animal abusers.” It provided their home addresses, telephone numbers, and photos. “We know where you live; we know where you work; we will never back down until you end your abuse,” the tract read.
It’s sick and sad that we still have angry students emulating the Weather Underground. One can expect a Dick Cheney to put power and control before any supposed value of human life, but presumably hip young people copping the same attitude is just asinine. And infuriating. Haven’t these kids read any history—or even back issues of Rolling Stone? “These unconscionable acts put the researchers, their families—including their children—and their neighbors in grave danger,” declared Chancellor George Blumenthal. “These are odious assaults on individuals and on the principles of free inquiry by which we live.”
Unconscionable acts. Odious assaults. Innocents in grave danger. Does anyone else hear John Lennon singing “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out”?
The summer of 2008 marked the fortieth anniversary of “Revolution,” a beloved Nike commercial recorded by the Beatles twice, once in a hilariously inappropriate 1950s-style arrangement for the “White Album,” and as the better-known screaming B-side of “Hey Jude.” Lennon’s desire to be counted out of the unconscionable aspects of the anticipated revolution was met with derision by those who imagined themselves its leaders. While “Revolution” is rightly regarded as John’s coming to terms with his political responsibilities as an artist—and beginning to do something about them—it is a song of refusal and not one of instigation. “You say you want a revolution,” it begins dialectically. What might this revolution consist of? If it’s for the benefit of people with “minds that hate,” if it’s modeled after such tyrants as Chairman Mao, if it doesn’t have at least an idea of how to care for those it wishes to liberate, then he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Let us remember that John was not yet the most compassionate of Beatles. It was George whose guitar gently wept as he considered the sad state of humanity—one can imagine Lennon’s axe snickering. The irony, humor, skepticism, and quick-to-judge sarcasm that made Lennon such a hero were the very characteristics that did not feel so good when directed at the Left itself. In 1968, John was asking necessary questions for which he did not yet have answers. He wondered if the revolutionaries did. His query was regarded as a “betrayal,” “a lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear,” and a song that Hubert Humphrey could have sung. Lennon researcher Jon Wiener thinks that, more than anything, what aroused radicals’ anger was that Lennon “took these genuine problems of revolutionary morality and strategy as an excuse for abandoning politics altogether and substituting in its place a quest for personal liberation: ‘free your mind instead.’”
What Lennon really meant was, “the only way to ensure a lasting peace of any kind is to change people’s minds.” The “sick heads” who have ruined every previous social movement would surely come to the fore again. “As far as overthrowing something… I want to know what you’re going to do after you’ve knocked it down. They don’t look further than their noses.” Yet he adds a clearly audible “in” to the “count me out” declaration on the shoo-wop version. “I put in both because I wasn’t sure.” Lennon’s subsequent identification with the radical Left would result in the “horrendous protest epics” on his 1972 album Some Time in New York City: a clumsy mea culpa for his earlier ambivalence. “The politics were witless and the live jams mindless,” wrote John Swenson. “After John’s ideological flip-flops of the previous years (from the Maharishi to ‘peace’ to primal therapy, each embraced as an absolute Answer), it was hard to take his new political commitments seriously.”
That hint of distrust is key.
Also in the summer of 2008, the film CSNY/Déjà Vu opened in select theaters. This documentary by Neil Young and television journalist Mike Cerre pivots on the issue of distrust and whether musicians and other artists have any right to ask questions of anyone in power—or even of their audience. Far from a typical concert film, Cerre returns from Iraq and imbeds himself in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 2006 “Freedom of Speech Tour.” Inspired by Young’s current record Living with War and occasioned by the war we’re still living with, the tour took off intending to give voice to those who wish to count themselves out of mindless, planless, hateful destruction. It is clear from the stage visuals featured on screen that the band wanted to do this while honoring and advocating for the families most affected by such violence. The film shows band members campaigning, connecting with Gold Star Mothers, Vets4Vets, Military Families Against the War, and other organizations and individuals with something at stake. It is CSNY who display the faces of the thousand-fold American dead every night in every city, while the government secretly sends them home in nameless, flag-draped boxes, not even allowing next of kin to view or receive their remains.
The various levels of outrage and acceptance the rockers run into make for great viewing. They get as many middle fingers as they do pats on the back, as many screams of ecstasy as shouts of anger, and nearly as many boos (especially in the South and Midwest) as they do cheers. Neil’s new songs are no more sophisticated than Lennon’s Some Time diatribes; in fact, their bluntness is even more offensive. Such attacks as “Shock and Awe” and “Let’s Impeach the President” insist that art cannot always afford to be “artistic”; it must sometimes appear as obvious as that which it opposes. The other members contribute songs thirty or forty years old that continue to express the appropriate dread, hope, and fierce love of truth—and elicit exciting guitar interplay between the four principals.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s reunion (its third since the dawn of the millennium) has a purpose beyond money or nostalgia. These four distinct personalities believe in their roles as artists. They are to carry the news, air the secrets, ask the questions, and provide the sing-alongs that will edify a community of listeners and send them home feeling less alone in their convictions. Brushing off the simple-mindedness heaped upon rock artists with a conscience, the “Freedom of Speech Tour” was interested in just that—expressing an opinion counter to the official line. Its resulting document upholds this principle of free inquiry far better than the television and radio detractors who appear in it.
If no one says they want a revolution anymore, perhaps that is because they don’t know what one would look like. Before the recent firebombings, “masked demonstrators” attempted a home invasion at the residence of another UCSC scientist. Masked demonstrators?! Play “Revolution”—loud. You can almost hear the song’s refusal to give revolutionary cred to anyone hiding behind a mask. “If you want peace,” Lennon said in 1968, “you won’t get it with violence. Please tell me one militant revolution that worked.”
We cannot. Each violent revolution in history has sought to replace one corrupt, self-serving government with another. Lennon’s acuity was echoed by Richard Foster in 1985’s The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power. Regarding the “powers and principalities” of this world, those forces that are themselves corruption and self-service, Foster wrote that they are the enemy. “The failure is to understand that the real battle has more to do with the powers of greed, vested interest, and egomania than with actual persons and structures of government.” “You tell me it’s the institution,” Lennon sings, “well, you know …” Foster completes his thought with, “we must focus our attention on both the institution and the spirituality of the institution.” Lennon saw that the spirituality of the institution and the incipient revolution both stunk. Such insight was unwelcome at the time and is apparently nonexistent in our own.
So “Old hippies” endure ridicule so that a new generation of idealists can fail at the same idiotic equation: violence equals peace, or the taking of life demonstrates that the taking of life is wrong. Whether it’s Iraq or Vietnam, capital punishment or legalized torture, the SLA or some new rodent liberation front, that equation has yet to produce any compelling results. John Lennon imagined it never would, and he and Yoko took to bed to make love and not war. Neil and his compatriots know it never will, and they took to the road to make music.
J. D. Buhl lives in Concord, California. He teaches English and Literature in the junior high at Queen of All Saints School.