Music for a Holy War Holiday
While mix tapes often make excellent (and economical) holiday gifts, confronting one's record collection became a daunting proposition in September and October. It's been said, and aptly, that everything has changed; not least among that everything is the meaning and solace to be found in songs. This particular mix tape is, like all good mix tapes should be, a kind of personal time capsule of the last few months. All the songs compiled here were favorites before America was struck, and struck back, and all have taken on new significance in the aftermath. Side A deals directly and abstractly with war as complicated reality. Side B is concerned with the vagaries of life before and after.
A: The Thing Itself
"There Is a War," Leonard Cohen (New Skin for the Old Ceremony): "Don't be a tourist." A certain atavism has always run through Cohen's work, never more literally than on this call to arms, which outlines "a war between the rich and poor, a war between the man and the woman," only to demand that the listener "get in it" because "it's just beginning."
"Divide and Conquer," Hüsker Dü (Flip Your Wig): The repetition of that snaky guitar figure leads to a massive payoff of angry countermelody. The war at home.
"All Souls Day," Unwound (New Plastic Ideas): "Graves don't talk," but death-dread and screaming guitars do.
"Hit the Plane Down," Pavement (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain): Obvious, yes, but not for obvious reasons. The bobbing Fall bass line propels the nervous tension to a breaking point. "No survivors, no survivors."
"Do You Remember?", John Vanderslice (Time Travel Is Lonely): An anthem to the heroism of resistance.
"Green Shirt," Elvis Costello (Armed Forces): The erotic paranoia of this song echoes the fear that attends the slippery slope of the USA Patriot Act.
"Man the Ramparts," Botch (We Are the Romans): The screaming hell of ennobled imperialism. "We are the Romans."
"Some Mother's Son," the Kinks (Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire): Lest we forget about the bodies.
"The Partisan," Leonard Cohen (Songs from a Room): A French Resistance song about when not fighting was not an option.
"The Red Flag," Billy Bragg & Dick Gaughan (The Internationale): Sometimes you just need a good socialist folk song.
"Underneath the Bunker," R.E.M. (Lifes Rich Pageant): Um, duh.
"Calling over Time," Edith Frost (Calling Over Time): "Now you are in paradise...." This haunting campfire lament sounds eerily like a suicide bomber's widow testifying to faith against hope. "Loving hand turns burning sand to water."
B: Befores and Afters
"Mountains," Prince and the Revolution (Parade): A brief respite of perfect glory.
"I Miss the War," MK Ultra (The Dream Is Over): In the absence of conflict, the singer remembers how when the bombs were falling, "we held each other tight."
"Story of Isaac," Leonard Cohen (Songs from a Room): Cohen citing the Bible to caution against the unholy urge to follow the leadership of false prophets (Christian and Muslim alike) who demand vain sacrifices. "A scheme is not a vision." Damn straight.
"False Alarm," Yo La Tengo (Electr-O-Pura): Sexual anxiety punctuated by nervous blasts of distorted organ.
"Anthrax," Gang of Four (Entertainment): No more obvious choice on the whole tape. Love as disease, "and that's something I don't want to catch."
"Men Who Died of Nothing at All," Crooked Fingers (Crooked Fingers): A reminder that before the war malaise, there were plenty of ways to feel shitty.
"Worrier King," Warren Zevon (Learning to Flinch): Set to neurotic slide guitar. "I been up all night, wondering what November's gonna bring...."
"Outcome," Beck (One Foot in the Grave): Beck and Sam Jayne waxing apocalyptic in a creepy-pretty consumption rant that looks at America and sees "a mouth full of rotting cavities, drinkin' Coca-Cola in the streets."
"All Things Must Pass (Demo)," George Harrison (Acetates and Alternates bootleg): Transcendental beauty unencumbered by Phil Spector's overbearing strings and horns.
"City of Dreams," Talking Heads (True Stories): A substitute national anthem. "If we awake to find it gone, remember this, our favorite song."
"Wake up, Niggers," The Last Poets (Performance soundtrack): Plainspoken admonition about the ways people find to do themselves in, beating their enemies to the punch. The Poets were addressing urban blacks of the late '60s, but the warning applies to all: "Wake up, niggers, or you're all through!"