The images of police in full riot gear and protesters shrouded in tear gas filling our TV screens in recent days were beyond disturbing for many of us.
In the middle of one sleepless night, my mind flashed on an image from the cover of an album I have long cherished: Naked Raygun’s “All Rise.” It depicts a shadowy paramilitary figure in a gas mask shrouded in white fumes. The album opens with “Home of the Brave,” a song that in three short verses functions as sort of a mini history of the U.S. — the one you don’t usually read about in the textbooks but that lives in the work of scholars such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and W.E.B. DuBois.
Their writing, and the music of artists like Naked Raygun, helped me process what was happening in America during the Cold War 1980s, when the threat of nuclear war and the specter of police-state suppression around the world couldn’t be escaped.
For us, as we started to figure out what it meant to be grown-ups, it brought to life the notion that music could be not just a reflection of our world but a catalyst for re-examining how that world worked — the distinction between what we were being told by the people in power and what our own eyes and ears were telling us.
It’s a lens through which I saw music as a critic for the Chicago Tribune, and a perspective that Jim and I share when we converse on Sound Opinions. The personal is political, and when times get tough, the music often becomes a voice we can count on to amplify what we feel but can’t necessarily express.
As Mike Watt of the Minutemen once said, “When young people feel that wall pressing against their shoulder, they push back in their music, their art, their self-expression.” Seeing the Staple Singers mesmerize with their version of “The Weight” in the movie The Last Waltz led me back to the group’s music in the 1950s and 1960s, when they became a traveling soundtrack for the civil rights movement, often ushering in speeches by their friend Martin Luther King.
As a new chilling reality unfolds in America, I hope that Sound Opinions can provide some context by identifying, discussing and celebrating the music that helps us come to grips with what it means. In that spirit, here are a few examples of shows I can recommend from our past that speak to what’s going on now:
- An overview of the music that under-girded the civil-rights movement
- An extended interview with Mavis Staples: Part 1 and Part 2
- Modern protest music