It is pretty hard to beat “Which Side Are You On?” – whether sung by Pete Seeger or the Dropkick Murphys – in terms of getting right to the point. The lyrics are explicitly political, drawing a line in the sand. You’re either with miner’s union or you’re with the exploitative bosses. You can choose to be on the right side of history or the wrong side, but you have to choose. As Howard Zinn memorably suggested, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. Additionally, as a folk song, fans have multiple versions of the song to listen to. Which would you choose as your favorite? Do you like the Seeger version? The Dropkick Murphys’ version? Both? Neither? And what do you think your answer suggests about you more generally? Given its lyrical content and sonic mutability, “Which Side Are You On?” allows us to simultaneously take sides through music and take sides about music.
Sometimes choosing sides when it comes to music is explicitly about positioning oneself in broader cultural discussions. For example, for several decades fans divided themselves up on the basis of whether they were Beatles fans or Rolling Stones fans. I was born too late to take part of this debate while both bands were still active, but in my youth I tried to parse the lines that were being drawn. I understood the Beatles’ side to prioritize pop craftsmanship and the Stones’ side to privilege the supposed danger and rebellion of rock and roll. This was hard to see when the Stones were putting out tapioca tunes like “Start Me Up,” but from the historical iconography of the bands I could see where people were coming from even if I didn’t experience it that way. Ultimately, it felt like a choice with few real world ramifications or much existential weight. Siding with the Beatles didn’t get me into trouble and I never knew anybody who got into a fistfight because they chose one of those bands over the other. Perhaps that happened before my time.
Once I got into new wave and punk, however, things shifted for me. All of a sudden, my choices in bands had a real world impact. Literally. The fact that I liked the Clash rather than Led Zeppelin (for example) meant that moving between classes in high school was much more complicated. My choice of music and bands meant that I was now a target for physical harassment and verbal abuse. Not surprisingly, this made me double-down and become even more public with my choices. In some ways this was my first conscious political activity (other than sending Nixon a supportive letter in second grade, but that is a story for another time). I didn’t know it at the time, but I believe this experience predisposed me for some time to understand listening to music in terms of choosing sides. The Clash, my favorite band at the time, were ludicrously nicknamed ‘The Only Band that Matters.” From the distance of a few decades I’m not sure how tongue in cheek that label was.
Of course, feeling like you need to choose a side when it comes to music is in no way unique to me, and it is not just the behavior of music fans. Musicians themselves often ask their audience to take sides. When Kool Moe Dee stages a photo with L.L. Cool J’s iconic kangol hat under the wheels of his jeep, he is letting you know that he thinks neutrality is not an option. Which side are you on, Dee’s or J’s? Since I wasn’t a total hip-hop head I understood a line was being drawn, but I didn’t really get what it was all about. I knew that Dee felt like Cool J had stolen part of his musical style, but my limited knowledge of hip-hop meant that I wasn’t in a position to make the call. In terms of haberdashery I’m not down with either of them.
I often feel like I can recognize that people are choosing sides, but that I don’t know what exactly what the sides represent. When I look at my jazz collection, I have far more be-bop (Love you, Charlie Christian!) than post-bop (Hey there, Coltrane), so I know what side of that line I’m on. I understand that post-bop was radically shifting what jazz was expected to do and sound like, and that’s cool, but at times I feel that I’m listening to a music theory argument rather than a song (I’m talking about you, Ornette Coleman!) Historically I get that it was worth fussing over, and that in preferring be-bop to what came afterwards I may be associating myself with a superceded musical style and may be displaying certain amount of musical conservatism, but I know what I like.
In some ways this is also the case for John Cage. Reading what Cage had to say about music always expands my understanding of the world and I enjoy engaging with his thinking. I see the point in critiquing western musical sensibilities that seem too narrow and to narrow, but I don’t often find myself listening to his work. I applaud his willingness to stand up to public ridicule for his beliefs and I think he helpfully questions our commitment to surface dichotomies. That is a great project, but I still prefer listening to a groove, or to this, or to this. The last two are almost Platonic ideals when it comes to pop songs as far as I’m concerned. So intellectually and philosophically I suppose I am on Cage’s side, but my listening habits tell a more complicated story.
Cage questioning the definition of music was important because it expanded the number of things or sounds that could be considered musical. Moves in the opposite direction, to multiply the lines and sides, seem less productive. For example, in the 1980’s hardcore punk splintered into many sub-genres. At some point it was impossible for me to keep up, and at some level, impossible not to laugh when reading records reviews and debates in the letter columns of zines. Sample discussion: What genre are this new band? What adjective would you use to describe them? Grind? Crust? Power violence? (Which come to think of it sound more like settings on a blender than musical genres). From my perspective, this insular fighting and micro-genre slicing was not particularly interesting and limited the impact the music had on the larger society. That being said, I do not absolve myself of this tendency to raise relatively minor differences in music or the careers of bands and musicians to the level of existential threat.
Not being a knucklehead, the fights I picked were not physical or aggressive. In fact, they didn’t involve other people at all. Rather, my propensity to take sides manifested itself in outsized loyalty to particular musicians and bands. For example, I am a Phil Ochs guy, and for a long time that meant I was an anti-Dylan guy. Of course I liked some Dylan tunes (here’s a version of what might be my favorite), but for me the choice between Ochs and Dylan represented something more politically and ethically important than something like the Beatles vs. the Stones.
First, on the political front, Ochs remained explicitly supportive of various important causes during the 1960’s after Dylan had moved onto trumpeting the exploration of one’s own idiosyncratic imagination as the primary creative directive. Ochs kept going to the rallies, kept playing at the benefit shows, and kept flying the flag for the power of folk music. I was floored the first time I heard “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and it still gives me the chills. One reason I am so moved is that while Ochs is calling out the festering reality of systematic and institutionalized racism, he does so from a certain sense of idealism – he truly and deeply believes in the project of America. He was in Chicago when the 1968 Democratic Convention descended into chaos and many people have suggested that his experience there really started his downward spiral into mental illness. Compared to the earnest nature of Ochs’ songs and his explicit political activity, I felt like Dylan had given up when the going got tough. While listening to Ochs in high school and college I had no idea that by the early 1970’s many people thought his music and stance were seen as anachronistic or superannuated. For me, when listening to him in the 80’s I heard something far more inspiring.
On a personal level, Dylan certainly did not treat Ochs well (perhaps because Ochs revered him so). He famously told him to get out of a cab they were sharing after Ochs had the temerity to tell Dylan a song he played for him wasn’t that good. “You’re not a musician, you’re just a journalist,” Dylan is reported to have said. Years later, Dylan agreed at the last minute to perform at a benefit for Chile that Ochs had organized. He had not performed in public for some time, and the positive experience led him to organize his famous Rolling Thunder Tour. Ochs was not invited to join it, which I thought was a terrible thing to do. I figured that it played a role in Ochs killing himself. Knowing that history made it easy for me to choose sides. Ochs was the good guy and Dylan was the self-absorbed jerk. Of course, I only knew part of the history. Only decades later did I learn that by that point in his life Ochs was a real mess – schizophrenic and alcoholic. Given his condition, if I were Dylan I probably would not have invited him to join the tour, either.
I only came across this crucial information much later in my life. For decades, any conversation that happened to touch on Dylan or Ochs would nearly inevitably include me castigating Dylan for what I perceived were his faults. I wanted to let people know that I was on Ochs’ side, even if they didn’t know or care about the history. Other people had given up on this Ochs vs. Dylan fight a long time ago, but I was sticking with it. I felt compelled to repeat the list of slights, stress Ochs’ commitment to the cause, and argue that he was a forgotten genius. Just hearing a Dylan song on the radio was enough to spark a jeremiad on my part about him. I think I’m better now, and I try to approach Dylan on his own terms, but I have to be honest and admit that some unresolved animosity lingers. I’m still with Ochs, even if the meaning of taking that particular side has changed for me
As another example of this I turn to Big Country. I love the first few Big Country records. They are the best soundtrack for driving around New England in late autumn, just as the cold in the air starts to bite a bit. I think their second record, “Steeltown,” is powerful from beginning to end, with nary a weak track. If I had to pick one, my favorite song might be the title track or “Tall Ships Go.” At the time they were dismissed a bit as one hit wonders and seen as riding U2’s coattails for doing the big chiming guitar thing. For some reason this pissed me off as if I had some personal stake in it. I would tell anybody within earshot that Big Country’s lead singer and songwriter Stuart Adamson’s early work with the Skids (such as “Into the Valley”) basically became the template for U2’s guitar sound. This is nowhere near a solid analysis. Nowhere. The guitar sound has some passing similarities, but I can hear more Big Country in the Skids than U2. However, getting a chance to complain about how U2 ripped off Stuart Adamson was yet another reason I enjoyed talking about how I disliked U2. That attitude was certainly misguided, especially since there are plenty of actual reasons to dislike U2 (such as how they avoided paying taxes in Ireland and Bono’s championing of friend-to-dictators Mother Teresa).
U2’s compromised political resume aside, it was particularly pointless of me to try and act like I was choosing sides when praising Adamson’s work. Unlike the situation with Ochs and Dylan, there were no interpersonal squabbles for me to build a case around. U2’s guitarist the Edge was always quite open and gracious about the influence Adamson had on him. If other people didn’t know about this, it wasn’t U2’s fault. In fact, after Adamson passed away, the Edge donated a guitar to a fundraiser set up to honor Adamson. With Ochs and Dylan I was working with some facts, but here I more or less made up a conflict whole cloth. My beef should have been with fans and music critics who mistook Big Country for a U2 rip-off, not U2. Mind you, it would have been equally a waste of my time and energy, but at least I would have had the right target in sight. These days I can talk up the first two Big Country records and their awesome early EP “Wonderland” without falling into some anti-U2 screed. I don’t need my commitment to Big Country to trash talk U2, I only need U2 to do that.
Clearly, for some music fans it is fun to take sides, or even make sides up. These choices do help to position us in the world, and unless you’re beating people up it is probably ultimately harmless. However, I do think of Joe Bussard as a cautionary tale. He has been called the “king of the 78 RPM record collectors” and he famously refused to listen to anything that wasn’t a 78. If that was far as it went, his stance would just be quirky and a demonstration of some odd kind of commitment. However, in a documentary about him his daughter talks about one time when he threw her 33 RPM LPs out of the window because they were sonically inferior to 78s. That’s not being eccentric, or bravely choosing a side, it is just being a dick. I’m sure I was never that bad. At least I don’t think I was. Well, I hope…
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Links in Order
Pete Seeger https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbyaliQP-x0
Dropkick Murphys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVMZUwFFJCc
The Beatles https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaSrxHcqzPc list=RDaaSrxHcqzPc
The Rolling Stones https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6d8eKvegLI
The Clash https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttJBdr6eBuo
Kool Moe Dee https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDdwyhaFtpw
L.L. Cool J https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hh5x3MeIwoQ
Charlie Christian https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ce9Jtl9D6FQ
John Coltrane https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=681-mXSMAj8
Ornette Coleman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbZIiom9rDA
Looking Glass https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep7FWnbAaCI
The Raspberries https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfgnc6Ey0q0
John Cage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSulycqZH-U
The Loi-Toki-Tok https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CPrt2WSwyo
Bob Dylan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a3ERxzuh80
Phil Ochs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7fgB0m_y2I
Tall Ships Go https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_X0D_OuU7w
The Skids https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9udxbvHiqGw
Big Country / Wonderland https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ESerVXQ_2E