Change of the Century: A Campaign Playlist

Last Thursday in Denver, at the rousing convention finale held on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the most gifted orator of his generation finished the most important speech of his life before a crowd of more than 80,000 and an international audience of millions. And what music did Barack Obama choose to accompany his exit? “Only in America” by Brooks and Dunn, a song recycled from the Republican convention four years ago. If there’s one act that deserves to be put in the slammer with the Oak Ridge Boys, it is Brooks and Dunn.

This can’t be the musical change America needs. I love my country too, but “Only in America” reminds me of the speech a generation ago in which the elder mayor Daley of Chicago pontificated that “together we will rise to ever higher and higher platitudes.” The song choice was especially puzzling because Obama, with the possible exception of Ralph Nader’s 2008 running mate Matt Gonzalez, has the most interesting musical taste of any candidate for the Oval Office in recent memory. Stevie Wonder was in the house, and stadium-worthy Obama fans ranging from Wilco and Kanye to Springsteen and U2 couldn’t have been more than a phone call away. If they were all unavailable, couldn’t Obama simply have put his iPod on shuffle?

I suppose you could view the commandeering of “Only in America” as a defiant gesture aiming straight for the hearts and ears of red state line-dancers and wearers of enormous hats. But I still think the song is too weak to work, especially now that John McCain has thrown down the gauntlet by selecting Alaskan yodeler Jewel Kilcher as his running mate (or was it Lisa Loeb?). Can we attempt to lay out a campaign playlist suitable for a year of change? As Bob the Builder would say, “yes we can.”

Lee Dorsey, “Yes We Can”

The Pointer Sisters added an extra “can” to the title for their hit version of the Allen Toussaint-penned New Orleans funk classic, but I prefer Lee Dorsey’s earthier 1970 version. As storm waters head toward the Crescent City yet again, it’s a good time to emphasize the need to back up the song’s optimism with real resources and hard work.

Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”

Where some see struggles between red and blue to control the United States map, I simply see a struggle for the soul of Merle Haggard. Most famous for decades-old hippie-tweaking fare, Haggard is also an underdog troubadour whose ear for the poetry of the working man sometimes rivals Guthrie and Springsteen. I was surprised to discover buried alongside the ABBA ditties on John McCain’s all-time Top Ten was Hag’s bleak seventies weeper “December.” The laid-off father in the song has a bank account in the red and a serious case of the blues.

Neil Young, “Campaigner”

The ultimate crossover anthem: “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”

Parliament, “Chocolate City”

As George Clinton says here, “they still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too. 
Can you dig it, CC?” This one might not have been used because Obama had already given two nights to the Clintons.

Kanye West, “Touch the Sky”

You have to love that one of Obama’s all-time Top Ten songs, according to Blender, graces the video in which Kanye West does an Evel Kneivel impersonation, with Pamela Anderson as his sidekick. Never underestimate the power of the Evel Kneivel vote. Isn’t Nevada a swing state?

Aretha Franklin, “Think”

As George Clinton used to say, “think, it ain’t illegal yet.”

Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”

Sure, you could gripe that “Step Right Up” is too cynical and arch to stand up as a campaign theme. On the other hand, talk about a candidate of change: “Change your shorts, change your life, change into a nine-year old Hindu boy, get rid of your wife.” And then there’s his empathy for the downtrodden: “Heartbreak of psoriasis? Christ, you don’t know the meaning of heartbreak.”

Ted Leo, “The Sons of Cain”

Having questioned the “land of fungible convictions” in his 2003 foreign policy opus “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” Ted Leo brings it all back home on this one, which previews the No American Left Behind Act of 2009.

Uncle Tupelo, “No Depression”

It’s the economy, stupid. But it’s also our collective memory.

The National, “Fake Empire”

This is not a bumper sticker song, but it would make a great one: “We’re half-awake in a fake empire.”

Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”

Self-explanatory and timeless.

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

One thought on “Change of the Century: A Campaign Playlist

  1. Wonder whether Obama chose “Yes We Can” for the title/motif, or because the music is so great. Had forgotten about the magic of Lee Dorsey, thanks for bringing that back.

    Though I’ve enjoyed several of Tom Waits’ later year performances, I would give anything to have seen him in that era. Amazing.

    Coinkidink: Currently enjoying a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” by cellist/folk/protest artist Ben Sollee.

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