What Happened to Protest Art?
In September 1975, The Grateful Dead released what was to become its highest chart-topping album for the next twelve years, Blues for Allah. In an interview at the time, the group’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, described the album’s title song as “a requiem for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a progressive, democratically-inclined ruler (and incidentally a fan of the Grateful Dead) whose assassination in 1975 shocked us personally.” Hunter went on to note proudly that the lyrics of the album, inspired as it was as much by Bach as by Eastern influences, were printed in Arabic on the back of album.
This remarkable, trance-like title track referenced Biblical prophecy, Ozymanides, and A Thousand and One Nights. But most of all, it brought attention to the death of one of the Middle East’s then-universally acknowledged enlightened rulers who disdained excess displays of wealth and who opened the first schools for female students in the country. The construction of this vast, progressive-rock tone-poem is a straight line of discursive guitar themes later superimposed by poignant, haunting vocals. It includes two sections, ‘Sand Castles and Glass Camels’ and ‘Unusual Occurrences in the Desert’, in which powerful political statements were woven into the artistry. “What good is spilling blood?/It will not change a thing”, observes one line; another is a plea for a resolution of Muslim/Jewish conflict: “Let us meet as Friends/the Flower of Islam/the Fruit of Abraham”. Prophesizing the geopolitics of the region, the song grimly warns: ‘The ships of state sail on mirage/and drown in sand.”
Such compelling protest art could have been written today in view of the interminable geopolitical situation in the Mideast. Yet, it hasn’t been, and it won’t be. We are bereft of any near equivalent; the integrating instinct of music, politics and passion nowhere present, nowhere promoted. Certainly, there is no shortage of ‘unusual occurrences in the desert’— or anywhere else for that matter — to inspire truly creative works of radical brilliance. Yet none of that kind of meaningful protest that defined the eras of the late sixties and the entirety of the seventies is to be found in our current rock/popular music groups. Why? How have we missed this? Where were the songs to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Where are the poignant ballads against the spread of terror or the failures of the so-called ‘War on Terror’? The sixteen-year occupation of Afghanistan? The high rates of American soldier-suicides? Consider the power-lyrics of Vietnam-era anti-war works by such groups as Buffalo Springfield or as found in Joan Baez’s “Where Are You Now, My Son?” (“Yours was the righteous gun/where are you now, my son?”). Why are we incapable of this? Where are the artists of impact and deep intelligence to make sense of a world in which the irrational is the new and newer normal? Must we only be satisfied with Pearl Jam performing a bland cover of Bob Dylan’s “Master of War”? Are we just to accept that these talented groups cannot come up with meaningful statements of their own?
In terms of civil and social issues, there is rather rich soil for influential expression to take root in the United States, yet we are seeing none—nothing riveting, complex, or thrillingly angry. One thinks of Blues master Archie Shepp’s hyper politically-conscious Attica Blues (1972) during the height of racial riots in the country. Shepps’ full-tilt, blues and funk anthem to that era immerses a pensive refrain — “I keep worrying about the human soul”— inside the fire of his out-for-blood female vocalists, whose sexy, enraged energy is so captivating it could recruit a Steve Bannon to their cause.
One thinks also of the Velvet Underground, who dealt with the tumultuous social and sexual issues of their day. Having struggled for years to attract attention given their ‘inaccessible’, experimental style, they nonetheless would eventually be named one of the top three most influential bands of the 1960s, after The Beatles and James Brown. Their music even influenced the anti-communist underground of poet-dissident turned national leader Vaclav Havel, who became president of the first Czech Republic in 1993 and who invited Velvet co-founder Lou Reed as amongst his earliest of state visitors.
Neither on the literary front does this level of impact exist. If there were ever a time for a Heller or a Huxley to take on the state of the world the time is now. Yet publishers, like the music producers, are strangely overly cautious; they will not take risks and appear to have a narrow view of what “the market” wants. Worst of all, misguided commercial considerations overwhelm the nurturing of original talent.
Commercial success was not the principal motivation of the great anti-war artists, yet substantial material success came to a great many of them — and very often for the most obscure of their masterpieces. In the notes for Tales of Topographic Oceans (1974), Yes band-leader Jon Anderson recalls being inspired by work of Buddhist mysticism exhorting man to ‘dazzle the world’. Dazzle he and his group certainly did, with an album comprising three twenty-minute anti-war ballads of highly complex, thematic layering; beautiful instrumentals, signature guitar riffs and solos, and lyrics drawing upon classics of Western and Eastern philosophy. “The band’s only concern was to make a statement”, said Anderson, citing the lines “Where does reason stop/and killing just take over?/Does a lamb cry out just before we shoot it dead?” from the track “The Ancient” as the key message of the entire work. Tales became the first no. 1 album of 1974 in the United Kingdom.
So the question is: why did markets and consumer tastes change so drastically? Thought the progressive-rock and anti-war rock groups were not primarily motivated by profit, their record labels were, thereby begging the question as to why artistic risks were taken by those companies, unlike today? To be sure, there are outstanding contemporary ‘indie’ rock groups to be found, but these have achieved nowhere near the combination of moral-political force and commercial impact that their forebears did. What has happened?
The reasons are complex and varied, but may be summarized by two major developments in recent decades that have come to define art as commerce and popular taste inclinations. First, on the producer side, there has been a seismic corporate-cultural shift from an entrepreneurial approach to the arts and risk-taking in creativity to a managerial outlook that emphasizes playing it safe and deep risk aversion. This latter has occurred largely in the wake of the rapid rise of multi-national record labels made up of formerly independent ones. On the public market side, modern tastes tend to be less educated, less historically-aware, and far more politically apathetic such that “depth” in art is not deemed essential. Both developments are deeply unfortunate.
All popular arts have felt the hit. For example, several noted actors and movie producers were interviewed a few years back by PBS on the nature of change in the film industry, their comments across the board underscoring the phenomenon of this shift. Peter Bart, the editor of Variety who was a long-time studio executive, said of the spirit of movie making forty years ago in an interview with PBS: “In those days if the passion of the filmmaker was intense, and the studio liked the script and the cast was interesting, it didn't have to have superstars, and the budget was not outrageous, people by and large were willing to take a gamble on that, on the passion of the filmmaker”. Lucy Fisher, a former executive at MGM, stated: “[T]hey bet on talent, and thought if we respect you enough, we read the script, if we respect your work, go make a good movie and we'll see you later. And from that point of view came Rocky, Annie Hall, Cuckoo's Nest — it was one good movie after another.” Not to mention such politically-charged works as Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter.
In the same way, the record producers of the 1960s and 70s were entrepreneurial visionaries who sought out risk. Jac Holzman, who founded Elektra Records in his dorm room, took risks on protest singers such as Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. His next venture, Nonesuch Records, a budget classical music label, was so profitable, that it allowed Holzman to further concentrate on experimental artists on the Elektra label. Later, that profitable company was bought out by Atlantic Records. Virgin Records took risks by signing the Sex Pistols, whom all other labels deemed too controversial, as its very first artist; so many years later, that label sold for $1 billion to EMI.
We have come a long way since the days when classical rock music, drawing upon the influences of Bach, Lord Byron, classics of philosophy and historic figures, could inspire songs of political protest that would influence generations. In the Middle East, as well as few places else, one does not easily find visionaries of the quality of a King Faisal to dare to lead their countries to a civilized future. Back home, despite so many channels of self-expression and communication, we have not produced the artistic visionaries to protest their absence and the devastating consequences of that loss. The loss, a great one, is ours.