November 19, 2009
Never underestimate the ability for pop culture to water down its
most firebrand figures--especially after they're dead. Luckily, there
are people like Antonino D'Ambrosio. His book Let Fury Have the Hour:
The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, released in 2003, is
essential reading for anyone who wants to learn who the Clash front
man really was. D'Ambrosio's new book A Heartbeat and a Guitar:
Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is a passionate
examination of Cash's album protesting the conditions for Native
peoples in the early 1960s.
Here, D'Ambrosio takes to Alexander Billet about the new book, his
influences, and his thoughts on music and politics.
THERE ARE a lot of folks who say that art, and specifically music,
doesn't mix with politics. But a lot of your writing, from Let Fury
Have the Hour to A Heartbeat and a Guitar and many of your articles,
takes a different point of view. What do you have to say to these people?
I THINK that's probably one of the most political statements you can
make. When people say that art and politics shouldn't mix, or there
are artists who say that their work doesn't reflect the current
political climate, that's more political than when Cash did Bitter
Tears in my opinion.
What I mean is that you're taking a very strong stance in support of
the current dominant political ideology or system--that you're
willing to remain on the surface in the hopes of not damaging your
career. It's kind of a crass opportunism.
I also think it's not a very sophisticated view, because we all live
in a political structure--we're all informed by it, we're all shaped
by it, and we all respond to it every day. The very nature of the
comment that says, "I'm not political," is very sad on one hand, and
it's also very harmful, because I think the most important thing
about art is its ability to try to achieve the pursuit of the truth.
That's what the power of art really is, whether it's Picasso's
"Guernica," or Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears--those pieces of art
respond to a certain human condition arising out of politics. And
they tell the truth about their situation!
DO YOU think a lot of that view that art and politics don't mix is
informed by the way we're taught about politics? You know, we're told
that politics is something you only do every two or four years in a
voting booth. Do you think that has a lot to do with it?
OF COURSE! There's a great deal of de-politicization that goes on in
this country. And that's one of the reasons why in my work I try to
uplift "popular culture"--not "pop culture" but "popular culture,"
because I distinguish between the two. Like the work of the Clash or
Johnny Cash, or "Guernica," or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--these
were popular culture works informed by politics that helped to change
things. I don't think art can change things on its own, but it can
help; it can create inspiration for people to aspire to get involved.
So, of course, there's a manipulation, and the media's very effective
in its use of a kind of soft power through pop culture. Even the way
the news is now; it's much more info-tainment than it is actual
journalism. Stories will be skewed, they'll be off-balance, and when
you have that, you undermine critical thinking.
When that happens then you really get into a situation where people
may shy away from fighting for change. They may get into a routine,
but again, that's where art like Bitter Tears comes in because it can
rip off the scar tissue and try to really heal the wounds that plague
WHAT YOU said about the news definitely rings true. Compared to
alternative media, mainstream news seems to be deliberately sealing
itself in a bubble. You can see that in a lot of pop culture, too--a
refusal to address the world at large.
ABSOLUTELY. TO me, it's part of the American exceptionalism that grew
out of the Reagan era. That notion that says, "America is the
greatest country in the world," is a big problem because real art is
made by what I call "citizen artists": people who can't help but see
themselves as citizens not just of one country, but of the world. And
that requires you to see yourself as interconnected and
interdependent with the people outside your door and the people that
are thousands of miles away.
I think any really good art--and you can apply this to almost any
area of society--manages to do that. You're not always going to be
successful, but you have to attempt. And that itself is a great
challenge to the divisiveness and the power of the elite that reigns
across the country.
THE POWER to break down divisions is something you go into with your
own experience in the beginning of Let Fury Have the Hour, when you
describe first hearing the Clash's song "Clampdown." It sounds like
that was one of the major moments that set you down the path you're
on now, and it's probably an experience that countless people have
had themselves with music. Could you describe that experience?
WHEN I was 12 years old, my cousin had this kind of audio
room--stereo systems were huge back then. And I remember that day
clearly, because it was also the first time I heard the Replacements,
the Jam and Elvis Costello--it was a transformative time for me. I
was like, "Wow!" because it was filled with the sounds of the world
to me! You could feel it! There was an energy and a spirit in that
music that had been lacking before.
That being said, my parents were immigrants and came here in the
'60s, and my mom was greatly informed by Elvis, the Beatles and also
by John Lennon, so I remember that very clearly. But the
transformative moment was when my cousin put the needle of that
record player down on "Clampdown."
Hearing that story about working-class struggle--you know "wearing
blue and brown," that's something my uncles would wear. I remember
thinking that they weren't just talking to me, but they were telling
my story. I was only 12 years old, so I guess you could say that at
that moment, my world became bigger than my one block.
It's something that set me off in trying to seek out the music that
influenced the Clash. The Clash was influenced by all kinds of
sounds. So that's how I got to Jimmy Cliff, and Toots and the
Maytals, and lots of different reggae. And I got into American roots
music because of the Clash: blues. I got into cumbia when I was 14
years old--music that I probably never would have heard in my life
where I grew up. And it's all because of the Clash in that moment.
I think music can do that the way other art forms can't. This is
something I write about in Let Fury Have the Hour and A Heartbeat and
a Guitar--that music is art's story about life. There's something
that's very transcendent about music, but also something that is
THE POWER to break down boundaries is something you go out of your
way to talk about when you examine the influences of the artists you
profile. In doing so, you show that so many of the most influential
artists in music have been people who stood for something.
TO ME, that's the very definition of humanism. You know, Joe Strummer
and [Clash guitarist/vocalist] Mick Jones are two very intelligent
and curious human beings. Johnny Cash was the same way; he was very,
very smart. And whenever you're able to explore yourself in relation
to the world, I think it's almost impossible to not seek out in
defense and in support of the very human conditions that trouble you.
If you really look at all the artists who have been influential in
their day, they can be progressive in their work and progressive in their life.
AND THAT'S not a coincidence either. I think a lot of people may
read that and think it's just happenstance, but I don't think so.
NO, I think that the more they drill down deep within their soul, the
wider their world view gets. And I think that Johnny Cash was a great
example of that. The "Walk the Line" metaphor is very interesting to
me, because everyone knows that song along with "The Man in Black"
and "Folsom Prison" and songs like that. But the line he really
walked and really kind of tiptoed on gracefully wasn't
love--although, you could say he had great love for his fellow human
beings--but he had this way of being clever and getting his message
out there that transcends political platitudes.
That's something that both Strummer and Cash share: a very real
sincerity and authenticity in who they are, and also a willingness to
be completely open. I think that kind of openness is important to
being creative because it's not always about the posturing of being a
celebrity or superstar. That's an important thing--especially with Johnny Cash.
While Strummer might have had a bit more of a comfortable life
growing up, Cash had the whole gamut: he grew up in rural poverty,
had struggles with his family, and he had his own battles with
addiction. And I think that complexity, that messiness in their lives
and how they created was important to show to people, because that's
the way we all are. That's the way the world is. It's not polished.
That's something I really try to pull out in my work. I want to cut
against "Johnny Cash the Hero" or "Johnny Cash the Genius." Same
thing with Joe Strummer or any of these artists. These guys don't
work in a vacuum. They live within a society just like we do, and
they're affected by the social upheavals that are happening around
them just like we are.
They tell the stories that need to be told. These are the people we
need; they create what I call "sonic documentaries" of an important
time in world history that, without their voices, we may not know about.
I mean Bitter Tears is 45 years old, and it's the only record that I
can really point to by an artist of this caliber that takes up this
issue, and the issues of Native people haven't gone away either.
Bitter Tears stands as a testament to that time and that struggle. I
mean, the Native part of our population is almost invisible in this
country--it's like they don't even exist. And that's troubling.
STRUMMER AND Cash haven't been dead that long, and yet there already
seems to be a push to mainstream their legacy--to sanitize them and
make them safe for consumption. Do you think there's a need today for
us to remember what set artists like them apart in the first
place--their rebellious nature and willingness to tell the truth?
I SEE it as an act of cultural rescue. It's reclaiming a culture that
can get calcified in myth and cemented into caricature. I mean the
folk scene--I never paid attention to it! I used to think, "Oh my
god, this is so cheese ball" and things like that. But then I kind of
fell into it while researching A Heartbeat and a Guitar, and you meet
people like Peter La Farge or Tom Paxton or Buffy Sainte-Marie, who
are just phenomenal musicians and incredibly courageous and beautiful
human beings that care about the state of the world.
It's something that I see as an obligation in my own work--to say,
"This is not the way it really was." There are always certain things
that rise to the surface in looking at this history that become the
dominant way of seeing things because they're comfortable to see. And
that may be a part of the whole picture, but the other 90 percent is
unknown. That's certainly true with Johnny Cash. And what I tried to
do in my book is flip on its head the way that Johnny Cash is used today
A lot people think of him as playing at "Folsom Prison," or as "The
Man in Black," which is a phenomenal song, and what he did for
prisoners was great, too. But if you listen to Live From Folsom
Prison, it's essentially a greatest hits album. Bitter Tears is the
only album he made that is dedicated entirely to one social issue. He
made that in '64, at a time when the country was just awash with
division. And he made that album then! This was a risky venture for
Cash--unwittingly for him. But it was a creative obligation for him
too, because he considered himself a folksinger. Joe Strummer did, too.
ONE OF the things you really drive home in A Heartbeat and a Guitar
is that kind of folksinger tradition--not just the stories that are
told but, how effectively they're related in the songs. That kind of
storytelling is largely forgotten today in much of pop music. The
exception to this would definitely be hip-hop--and that's a pretty
big exception given how dominant hip-hop culture is today.
AT MY book launch recently, someone asked me, "Who are the new folk
musicians?" And my view, just my view about punk, is that it's much
broader than that one genre. I think that Chuck D and Public Enemy
are great folk musicians, because they're telling stories. And if you
listen to these records a hundred years from now, they're going to be
valuable, important and interesting.
Hip-hop today is most certainly the most vibrant kind of "folk" music
out there now. Of course, so much of it has been co-opted by the
system. But I think that anyone who aspires to really reach people
with their music has to be a storyteller--they have to be interested
in what's happening around them. Are people in love? Do they have
opportunity? Do they hope? Do they have freedom or justice? These are
basic elements that are key to survival.
That's why Bob Dylan found such success by being a folksinger first.
And that's why Johnny Cash returned to it with Bitter Tears--because
he was so influenced by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie and Pete
Seeger. These guys were the traditional musicians of the era and they
got that way by writing folk songs--songs about folks.
LOOKING AROUND the world, young people really are getting the shaft.
They say the recession is ending but unemployment is still going up,
and I can't think of a time when people are more in need of art that
reconfirms their humanity. Are there any musical rebels around today
that are carrying on this kind of tradition?
THAT'S A tough question. When you're talking about Johnny Cash and
Joe Strummer, you're talking about extremely successful musicians.
Are there musicians of that kind of level of success like them in
this country today? I'd have to say no. I could say Manu Chao, I
could say Rachid Taha, I could say Caetano Veloso, or Mercedes Sosa
who just died, or Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. These are huge bands with
big followings around the world.
Here in the U.S., though, the artists who are saying something are
not at that level yet: the Ted Leos, the Radio 4s, the Mos Defs. Mos
Def is more out in there in pop culture through his acting now, but
his music is incredible! Black On Both Sides is a tour-de-force
record. But when it comes down to how well-known he is in the
culture, Jay-Z just trounces him. I could walk outside my Brooklyn
door right now and ask 10 kids in one block, "Who do you like better?
Mos Def or Jay-Z?" and I'd be willing to bet that nine of them would say Jay-Z.
There are scores of artists that say something, but they're just not
at level where they're affecting the wider culture the way that
Johnny Cash or Joe Strummer did. Green Day is at that level, and
American Idiot is a powerful statement. I would say certainly Green
Day is there, but they're an exception. But we're also in a period of
transition right now.
THAT'S DEFINITELY true; things are changing really quickly right
now. If you look at "indie" culture--which has come to include not
just rock but folk and hip-hop artists--it's becoming the dominant
culture among kids. Mos Def, Ted Leo and Radio 4 are all incredibly
popular in the indie milieu too. And I think a lot of indie's
popularity has to do with the crisis the music industry is in: kids
can go to the Internet to find a wider scope of music than the
industry is willing to allow. Do you think this might make it easier
for artists who are saying something to rise to a greater level of popularity?
I THINK that's absolutely true. And I would also throw in Thievery
Corporation and TV On the Radio. And I would definitely include
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra too! The reason I think they're one of
the best bands in the country right now is that they're reflective of
the kind of change we need in the world. You know, they've got a
20-piece orchestra with members from all over the world, they're from
all different backgrounds and ethnicities--and I think that's more
representative of where we're headed.
YOU MEAN something more all-encompassing and organic?
RIGHT, BECAUSE more people see that the consolidation and the
vertical integration of the capitalist system is not working, and
that goes for pop culture too. When I came up, when I was a young kid
in the '80s and going into the '90s as a teenager, 7-inches dominated
my life from all these independent labels like Touch 'N' Go. And
they'd teach me something new, I'd discover new music through them.
IT'S ALMOST as if the mp3 has become the modern-day 7-inch: it's
compact, it's just a snippet of an artist, but it's a lot more
accessible than an overpriced CD is, and it allows people to discover
I THINK that's a good way to put it. I think that this is a very
hopeful time that we need to seize. The window is starting to close,
but it's not closing as quickly as I thought it would. So we really
have an opportunity here to level the playing field and create a
reality where the hundreds and hundreds of bands that don't make it
or the bands that have something to say have room as artists so that
they can contribute to the wider culture.
YOU MENTIONED Antibalas. One of my favorite things their horn
section did recently was show up on Jimmy Fallon's late night show,
where the Roots are now the house band. And they appeared with Public
Enemy and the Roots doing a version of "Bring the Noise" that was out
of this world! The Roots have always had an incredibly political edge
to them, and that performance really illustrates what's possible to
me right now in terms of getting real rebel music out there to a wide
audience--and also some of the challenges.
IT'S INTERESTING that you say that because I've become good friends
with some of the guys in Antibalas, and one of the guys--Martin, who
plays the tenor sax--was giving me the background behind the Roots
becoming Jimmy Fallon's house band. And the reality was that it
provided them with the stability they needed.
For, years I've thought that the Roots are one of the best bands in
America, but it's hard staying out on the road when you get older and
you've got families. But I'd rather have the Roots around than not.
It's also that we can't be so rigid and slipping into thinking that
you're more pure than anyone else because when you do the same thing
as people that you're trying to oppose.
I think performances like that, when they reach a wide audience, can
be incredibly powerful. And you couldn't ask for better spokespeople
than the Roots, Chuck D and Antibalas. These are real musicians!
What I mean by that is that they breathe the history of music, which
means that they understand and contextualize that history--not just
by their music but by their very presence. That's so much more
powerful than Kevin Eubanks on the Jay Leno Show. I don't want to
diminish Kevin Eubanks, but the difference between him and the Roots
is kind of like the difference between Britney Spears and the Clash.
GIVEN ALL this, do you think there's room for the legacies of Cash
and Strummer to continue on and be revived?
I DO. I'm always ultimately hopeful and optimistic because there are
always going to be artists out there who respond to the moment.
They're going to produce work that becomes the next chapter in the
progressive movement of humanity. I think ultimately, in a way, music is that.
The very idea of making music is a rebellious act. The Reagan
ideology we were talking about has been proven as not sustainable.
And a lot of the kind of shallow pop culture that's out there today
for the most part is not sustainable. I'll put it this way: you're
not going to hear Creed or Nickelback 50 years from now. What you
will hear is TV On the Radio.
Alexander Billet's music blog is Rebel