Why LGBT people fear Trump could erase our history

We must protect the Stonewall Inn:

The LGBT community has been quietly under attack by the White House since Trump took office

The Stonewall Inn’s status as a national landmark may be at risk following Donald Trump’s plans to review all sites similarly designated by his presidential predecessor

The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that Trump will sign an executive order Wednesday calling on federal authorities to revisit all such designations made in the previous two decades in order to “discern whether their size and scope” are within the original “intent” of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Established under Teddy Roosevelt, the law lets the president use the powers of his office to preserve any “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects” deemed of “historic or scientific interest.”

One of the 29 landmarks subject to review by the Trump Administration is the Stonewall Inn, which President Barack Obama designated as a national monument last year. Revoking the landmark status of Stonewall, the site of the 1969 riots that marked a groundbreaking moment for the nascent gay liberation movement, would amount to the ultimate erasure of a community that has been quietly under attack by the White House since Trump’s inauguration. The president has spent his first 100 days relentlessly rolling back the rights of LGBT people, even as he has insisted that he’s a champion for queer and transgender equality.

Stonewall is more than just a bar. It’s a symbol for the crucial progress that the LGBT community has made over the past five decades, as well as a reminder that we still must struggle to be seen as human in a country where queer and trans folks continue to be killed for living our truths. To take Stonewall’s landmark status away would be more than an erasure of LGBT people. It would be assault upon the very foundations of our movement.

The recognition of Stonewall’s historical import came at a devastating time for the LGBT community. Obama announced that the iconic establishment, located in New York’s Greenwich Village, would be added to the monuments list following the June 12 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in which a lone gunman killed 49 people. In a speech following the gay bar massacre, Obama remarked that Pulse had been a “safe haven” for the LGBT community. He said that the club was “a place to sing and dance, and most importantly, to be who you truly are.”

That is the purpose that bars have always served for LGBT people, as places to organize and build community but also to have the fullness of our identities recognized. The Stonewall riots, violence that erupted during a six-day standoff with police in June 1969, marked a watershed moment in the willingness of LGBT folks to fight for our visibility and our right to exist. The riots were a response to frequent police raids of gay bars across the country — disruptions that had provoked a similar demonstration at Los Angeles’ Black Cat Tavern two years earlier. That pervasive police brutality was a staple of gay life in the 1960s — with queer people being beaten and thrown into jail for doing nothing more than being themselves. And they had had enough.

Although LGBT folks had been organizing for decades, Stonewall forced a community that spent most of its history underground out into the open. The demonstration was commemorated the following year with the nation’s first Pride parades, but Stonewall would continue to serve as a symbolic site to which LGBT people returned for decades to come — in celebration, struggle and even mourning. It was the site where marriage equality activists cheered the legalization of same-sex unions in 2015, where we remembered the Pulse victims a year later, and where a community gathered in shock and sadness following the 2016 election. Last November crowds gathered outside Stonewall as the LGBT community struggled to figure out what was next.

Speculation that Trump will take action against Stonewall might seem to you like knee-jerk liberal outrage, and perhaps it is. We have no way of knowing what’s on the president’s agenda. But Trump has given the LGBT community every reason to be concerned that he will continue to do everything in his power to be applauded for being an ally while quietly working against our welfare.

During the 2016 election, Trump claimed he would be a “friend” to the LGBT community, but his administration has represented the greatest setback to queer and trans rights in decades. Shortly after taking office, the president announced that he would be revoking guidance issued by the Obama White House in 2016 on best practices for K-12 administrators in regard to respecting the identities of trans students. Although he has claimed he will not repeal a 2014 executive order that granted nondiscrimination protection to federal contractors, Trump has nixed oversight of those regulations, making the Obama order difficult to enforce.

Trump has done almost nothing to show the LGBT community he would be the defender of our rights that he claimed he would be. Under his watch, the government revoked questions about elderly LGBT people on two federal surveys, making it harder to gauge the needs of a marginalized and vulnerable population. Studies show that older LGBT adults are twice as likely as their peers to be single and live alone, as well as three to four times less likely than heterosexuals to have children to take care of them and offer support. This population needs our advocacy, not more isolation and invisibility.

That’s precisely what many fear is happening under the current presidency — that Trump is not only chipping away at LGBT rights but also erasing queer and trans people from public life.

It’s impossible not to feel that way when every single day Trump gives the LGBT community, which has weathered decades of struggle, a reason to be fear that his White House is no different from the police officers who kicked down the doors of Stonewall in the 1960s. Nearly every member of his Cabinet is a committed opponent of LGBT rights. This includes the secretary of state, who tried to block an LGBT student group from meeting on a public campus, as well as the secretary of education, whose family has donated millions to anti-gay causes. Most recently, Trump nominated as secretary of the Army,Mark Green, a Tennessee state senator who claimed that transgender people are “evil” and need to be “crushed.”

The president’s stripping Stonewall of its landmark status might appear to some to be an outrageous and absurd suggestion, but it would be no different than what happens on any other day in Trump’s White House. He might have waved a rainbow flag one time at a rally, but that doesn’t mean that the president cares one iota about what our community needs, wants or deserves.

If there’s one thing that could stop Trump from repealing Stonewall’s place among U.S. national monuments, it’s not his deep and abiding love for “the gays,” his preferred moniker for the community. It’s the limits of presidential power.

Robert D. Rosenbaum, the chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of the National Parks Conservation Association, wrote in The Washington Post that the president has the power only to make a particular site a recognized landmark, not to revoke the designation of previously recognized locations. Although members of Congress who want Trump to revisit designations like those for Utah’s Bears Ears Monument and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (both Obama picks) assert that he has “implied power” to take them off the registry, Rosenbaum has claimed the president does not. That power, Rosenbaum said, is allotted “exclusively to Congress.”

Stonewall, as it has for decades, will likely withstand this latest challenge to the LGBT community. But its future should be protected from people like Trump, who are the very reason that we must keep fighting for our liberty and our very right to exist. Our history is too important to erase.

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/04/26/we-must-protect-the-stonewall-inn-why-lgbt-people-fear-trump-could-erase-our-history/?source=newsletter

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism

Let’s get past the stupid Nobel debates: Dylan is not just a great poet, but a prophet whose genius can sustain us

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism
Donald Trump; Bob Dylan (Credit: AP/Getty/Ben Stansall/Salon)

Two weeks ago, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize in person; true to form, he did so not at the December ceremony (where Patti Smith performed in his stead), but during a previously scheduled tour of Stockholm. He has yet to deliver, on tape or in person, the acceptance speech that is a precondition for the prize money. When he won the prize it was just before the November election, and now we’re a few months into the unfolding disaster. Which makes you wonder: Does the Nobel Prize committee know more about us than we know about ourselves?

This may quite possibly be the best Nobel Prize choice ever for literature, right up there with the recognition of William Faulkner. It has been given to the right person at the right time, as the academy has made an urgent intervention into the vexing question of just what literature is, at a political moment when demagoguery is making a mockery of language.

Writers and critics know that nearly all the greatest writers of the past century — and we know who they are — failed to get the award. The Nobel for literature is most helpful when it brings someone deserving to the global audience’s attention. Such was the case with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk; he was already at a young age a world-class author, but the award gave him millions of new readers. And though Dylan has been a songwriter’s songwriter, or musician’s musician, for 55 years, there couldn’t be a better time than now for his poetry of prophecy to soak through to everyone’s consciousness.

Perhaps millennials in pursuit of the latest musical illusion will seek out the timeless instead, in Dylan’s music, which should lead them back to the abiding sources of American music: the origins of the blues tradition, for example, in such singers as Charley Patton or Skip James, or Blind Willie McTell, about whom Dylan recorded a memorable song in the early 1980s, or later Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, all acknowledged influences on Dylan, whom he transformed and reworked in his own idiom.

Dylan receiving the award at this point in time is a reminder for us to seek the ultimate sources of poetry — and I certainly consider the blues as poetry of the highest order — rather than be distracted by the next vulgarization that comes along.

Purity, of the most extreme degree, to the point that it is prophecy, is what Dylan manifested, particularly in his peak 1962–1966 period, which I think is unparalleled in the history of music for its sheer genius, its fecundity and its deep tapping of the mystical poetic roots, all of which defy comprehension as to how it could have come about in such a short period of time.

Is Dylan a poet? To me, the question is, is Dylan the 20th century’s Arthur Rimbaud? Or Keats or Shelley? Or Yeats? Those are the valid comparisons for me, not whether he is a poet.

The Nobel academy is also recognizing, as it failed to do when the time was right, the entire Beat tradition, into which Dylan flows and which flows into Dylan. Remember that Allen Ginsberg was more Bob Dylan’s acolyte than the other way around. All of the Beats alive at the time of Dylan’s peak productivity in the early 1960s were keen to associate themselves with him, and for good reason. If Beat poetry is poetry — and I suppose some academicists would question even that — then Dylan was its purest, most acute, most immortal manifestation.

I would make the same connection with folk music, too. There is a long tradition of American folk music, almost necessarily associated with the left, or rather programmatic left causes, that Dylan tapped into and revived and intensified, put into a language of pop music, and later rock and roll, or folk-rock or whatever you want to call it, an endeavor that had eluded the so-called “purist” exponents of folk music.

The question of authenticity is front and center in any evaluation of Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. He was always secretive and still is, even in a supposedly tell-all work like “Chronicles: Volume One“ (2004) — about his origins as a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, preferring to make up fabulous tales about himself when he first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, intent on becoming a “music star.” Robert Allen Zimmerman liked to claim to reporters then that he didn’t know his parents, that he had worked in carnivals around the country, that he had traveled everywhere as a hobo on freight trains — and in that era of impromptu reinvention, it was all taken in good spirit.

For that matter, Woody Guthrie, to whom Dylan rigorously dedicated himself early on, arguably mastering Guthrie’s oeuvre better than the master, was himself an act. A creation of the big cities, tutored by academic folklore experts, speaking for the “folk”? But he is as authentic as they come, right? Or Pete Seeger, how about him? Whenever you look behind any artist claiming to be authentic, you find the same story of invention, duplication, homage, unreality and indecipherability. Dylan, being perhaps the most lacerating of all the modern wordsmiths, represents these traits in the most intense manner.

Like the best poets or prophets, he is unknowable — to this day.

The 1967 movie “Dont Look Back — D.A. Pennebaker’s pathbreaking cinéma vérité record of Dylan’s 1965 English tour — remains the most astute example of its genre. Take a look at it to decide for yourself the issue of Dylan’s authenticity as poet, or prophet.

To me, Dylan’s dealings with the two journalists he meets in the film — the first of whom he treats in a Socratic or Wittgensteinian manner, questioning the very definition of such basic concepts as friendship or identity, and the second a Time magazine reporter Dylan interrogates about what is news (or fake news) — are particularly emblematic of the degree to which he was not a fake. He was immersed so deeply in all the intellectual currents of his time, in a purely intuitive manner — and this is where the obvious comparison with Rimbaud comes in — that he didn’t have the luxury to worry about such distinctions as fake or authentic, or to wonder about how he was learning what he was learning.

He acted a little put upon in that movie, but you can also sense that his degree of poetic intensity — poetry defining the person and persona of the artist, not just as a part-time or semi-habitual intellectual endeavor — couldn’t possibly be kept up for long, as was the case with Jesus, for example, and that the end was near.

It is said that Dylan’s first long-term girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, taught him much about poetry — and art and literature and radical politics — and that later Allen Ginsberg, especially after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, provided him with further reading material. But these are just ex post facto biographical explanations that don’t tell us much about where his poetry came from.

The motorcycle accident, oh yes. That was the dividing line, in 1966, in rural Woodstock, New York, after which the poetry and the music ceased to be what they were before the accident. I believe that, as any prophet-poet in his condition would have done, he terminated his prophecy at that point. The accident probably wasn’t serious after all. But Dylan retreated, didn’t tour for another eight years, and tried to rediscover himself, going back to the roots. Later, in his explicitly “spiritual” manifestations — the avowed Christianity, for example, or the reclaimed Jewish heritage — he tried to capture the spirit that had moved him, but the gift of prophecy had left him.

Of course, he had already committed the ultimate no-no, as far as folk purists were concerned, by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but now, after trying the amplified rock and roll sound, he went back to the basics, consciously limiting the sound in “The Basement Tapes“ that eventually came out as a result of work he did in 1967 in Woodstock, removed from the public eye. He didn’t release this work at the time, instead trying on different modes, with a brilliant reinvention of the pastoral in “Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait“ and “New Morning,” work that I find increasingly meaningful with the passage of time.

How great his poetry and music were in the 1962–1966 period can be understood by the fact that Dylan himself was never able to approach his climax, despite half a century of relentlessly trying.

I’ve been diligently exploring album after album of the post-motorcycle accident era, and they’re all gems in their own way, but Dylan himself recognizes that he could never again reproduce the magic of 1962–1966, a period that includes “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited“ and “Blonde on Blonde.”

Weary of hewing to expectations, he wanted to terminate, also, any programmatic association with the progressive/alternative/leftist folkies, having mastered their tradition quickly, and having decided to move on.

He had to move along; the direction his poetry was dictating compelled him to. Can we imagine “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an acoustic song? But “To Ramona” we can, and must. He had soaked it all up, the gentle radicalness of Joan Baez, the straight talk of Woody Guthrie, the surreal imagistic prolificity of Allen Ginsberg, incorporated it all in his poetry, and made something entirely new out of it in that climactic period, and then almost as quickly as he’d done it, he ended it and moved on. Isn’t that the way of all prophets?

His so-called Never Ending Tour, consisting of thousands of concerts since the late 1980s, still with no end in sight, seems to me a prophet’s impossible search for what he was and what he has lost, though he doesn’t necessarily want it back. In the process he has been discovering himself and his songs anew for the last four decades, without any hope of ultimate success. Long ago, he lost his “voice” — literally.

It has been his greatest sacrifice, I think, this never-ending tour, which fueled the bootleg industry, and in which every Dylan song is a work in progress, different each time, coming across as provisional poetry for our time that refuses to let us see poetry as fixed words with fixed meanings. Dylan was as postmodernist as Charles Olson, the never-ending tour his expressive manifesto of poetry as contingent and hopelessly derivative and unself-sufficing.

He distilled the best of our literary and artistic values in that period of profound self-questioning in American culture — we have been going downhill in every respect since then — and this is another reason why the Nobel committee’s recognition of him at this time is an important reminder of what was best about America (all of which is rapidly dying, as even Dylan will cease to be in a short while). What was best about us was our ingrained quality of doubt toward highfalutin theories and our conviction in the decency of the common man, as evident in Thomas Jefferson as in Mark Twain. This has become all the more important at a time when demagogic manipulation has taken us a long way from our founding ideal of democracy as a practice of stubborn skepticism of — well, of bullshit.

There is no better antidote for the box we’ve put ourselves in, in this age of distorted politics, than any of Dylan’s music of that early period. The Nobel committee is also implying, by overlooking the “literary” names that are perennially mentioned as American contenders, that we are not good enough in what we think of as the literary realm; we are too conformist there, and this too is a timely rejoinder to us, a reminder that the game may well be over for us.

But the question remains, is it poetry?

How can anyone listen to “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and seriously ask this question?

I think that the New Critical approach taken by British critic Christopher Ricks — breaking down each Dylan song according to conventional matrices such as rhyming and alliteration and assonance — is a bit reductionist and naive. It misses the point about Dylan’s poetry.

Of course all the techniques are there, the whole poetic arsenal, and also tremendous fluidity with transitions, handling meter in a way suited to both poetry and music (that is, reading and singing), giving complex intellectual life to the linguistically simplified blues and folk and country traditions by way of exploiting modern(ist) techniques, and exploiting images and metaphors to merge the personal and the political in a way that few writers have been able to do.

That’s all there, without a doubt.

But is it still poetry if it’s not put to music? I suppose that is the underlying question that bugs those who resent Dylan getting the award. (In asking that question we are also, by the way, questioning whether drama is literature, because it too is enhanced by or is meant for performance. It’s a point Dylan noted by mentioning Shakespeare as literature in his Nobel acceptance speech.)

I would argue that Dylan writes his poetry in a way that takes full advantage of the potentialities of performance. We cannot say that poetry is only that which is purely restricted to the page. Poetry can be written to take advantage of the latent possibilities of delivery and performance and spectacle and music and everything else we can think of doing with it. And it is the better for it.

Conventional modern poets — William Blake and W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost aside — have had a very difficult time with certain things. How can a ballad, especially one dealing with tragedy, not succumb to the weight of its form, and succeed instead in building a transcendent argument by repetition, or accumulation, making the story larger than the sum of its content? This dilemma, actually, is true of all conventional or academic poetry. When it is written down as poetry, it often loses form and flexibility. To what extent can a poet magically endow it with a life that refuses to die, once it’s written?

That comes from prophecy, or the kind of youth that is immune to ordinary views of decline and mortality (hence Rimbaud and Keats and Dylan), a beautiful youth that delivers the best of our human spirit without knowing what it is doing. It can condemn without being whiny. It can fall in love without being naive. It can exit politics or love without being coy. That is a much higher form of poetry that breaking things down by New Criticism methodology will not explain.

Consider how in his early composition “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” Dylan is completely unafraid — and this must have taken an incomprehensible degree of unselfconsciousness — to indulge in a form of satire that he knows must lead back to himself. In that period he often wrote very long poems, unafraid of the risks in doing so.

The Death of Emmett Till” is another condemnation, like the even better “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which presents racial oppression without self-consciousness (he sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the murder of Medgar Evers, in Mississippi along with Pete Seeger, and you can catch a glimpse of it in “Dont Look Back”). Perhaps this is why he needed what I would consider the crutch of folk music for a start, to convey his sense of the wrongness of things in a form that wouldn’t overwhelm him. His poetry contained the genre of folk music, rather than the other way around. Isn’t that amazing? But then, he was completely self-taught.

How is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as short and concise a Dylan poem as we’ve ever seen, any less of a poem than the best that Hardy or Tennyson or Yeats wrote? The hinge, of course, is the “answer” that’s “blowin’ in the wind” — an answer Dylan has no intention of revealing.

Why does “Masters of War” not indulge in didacticism and pettiness, as is true of most political poetry, despite being a curse going back to a classical form? We might as well ask if the Bible is poetry. Or if the great religious scriptures of East and West rise to the level of poetry.

In “Masters of War” Dylan shows that he has complete mastery of the logic of the Bible, whatever his actual degree of study of it at the time may have been, because it’s what makes the curse work, it’s what elevates it to the highest degree of well-wishing (by naming sin) one could direct toward the enemies of humanity: “But there’s one thing I know/ Though I’m younger than you/ Even Jesus would never/ Forgive what you do.”

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” takes off from a well-known Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” but consider the layers of transformation when Dylan gets to work on it. With his insistent play on “my blue-eyed son” and “my darling young one,” it is perhaps his most tragic song, his most ideally executed song. I have no clue how he writes something like this (and then pitches it in his incomparably poignant voice, the most penetrative musical instrument of the late 20th century): “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,/ I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,/ I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,/ I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,/ I saw a white ladder all covered with water,/ I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,/ I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

It would take a petty bourgeois (f)rigidity of murderous proportions, a zombie commitment to academic poetry driven by mechanical identity politics and anti-humanistic neoliberalism, not to see the transcendent poetry in this. This is poetry that means business, it is written from the depths of the mystical soul whose origins no one can perceive, and it is presented with zero self-consciousness, both on the page and in the delivery, and it works!

He does compression, of the pressure of mortality, in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” in a way that makes it a poem of cozy friendship, exploding the sonnet of mortality, if you will, into something else altogether. A dream of mortality, we are led to think.

Has any poem-song of our time managed to be as inclusive of the shifting paradigms of change, as consistently progressive, as beholden to the long long view, as “The Times They Are A-Changin’? With simple words like “rattle” and “battle” he cuts out all the excess and superfluity of “poetry.” “Admit that the waters/ Around you have grown,” he starts, which is as powerful today as it was half a century ago.

How is “To Ramona” any lesser than the greatest of Keats’ songs of love — such as the elusive “La Belle Dame sans Merci”? Actually, Dylan does one better, by wanting to fortify Ramona — though that is ultimately her own job — against the illusions of the world, which is not interested in love: “But it grieves my heart, love,/ To see you tryin’ to be a part of/ A world that just don’t exist./ It’s all just a dream, babe.”

Later, in “I Want You,” perhaps the most beautiful love song of our time, Dylan opens up that fissure between the distracting world and the purity of love, in simplified language that refuses to look at anything but love. Compare the burdensome language used to describe distraction — “The guilty undertaker sighs,/ The lonesome organ grinder cries,/ The silver saxophones say I should refuse you” — with the simple purity of “Honey, I want you.” This is a playful dialectic that shows full awareness of the potential of poetry in explicating deep philosophical quandaries by the weight one places on words, by where and how one places them, by how one combines strength and lightness in the same compact space.

The brief lines, the staccato buildup, the rapid-fire listing of traps and illusions in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” make for as great a poem of keeping your head under while the capitalists are out to get you as has ever been written: “The man in the coon-skin cap/ In the big pen/ Wants eleven dollar bills/ You only got ten.” Now we’re dealing with Apollinaire, or Tristan Tzara, or Mayakovsky, in the plangent refusal to go along with conformity, in seeing the unreal behind the real, in arguing against formal education and formal manners.

This is true also of “Maggie’s Farm,” which he sings, in early recorded versions, with a laughter in his attitude that makes a mockery of work as a nationally sanctified enterprise, of discredited puritan aesthetics, that is as valid as Kerouac or Vonnegut or Bukowski.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” takes on the “discovery” of America itself; but which America? Dylan sings, “He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort/ And start buying the place with beads/ Just then this cop comes down the street/ Crazy as a loon/ He throw us all in jail/ For carryin’ harpoons.”

This is argumentative poetry that should be sung on all our streets, poetry that is fortified with music on the mind, with Dylan’s or any other wannabe prophet’s whine (or wine) in mind.

Mr. Tambourine Man” is very artful in splitting the poet’s persona from his poetry, in seeing the divided self, in alienating him from his alienation — as Charlie Chaplin did in the movies, or as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were doing contemporaneously (Dylan loved Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”), making of the artistry of connectivity the greatest alienation of all: “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.// Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,/ My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip.”

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of our most conclusive modern poems. It is so good that you know that the end for Dylan can’t be far off, because this level of prophetic poetry just can’t continue: “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn/ Suicide remarks are torn/ From the fool’s gold mouthpiece/ The hollow horn plays wasted words.” Everything redundant about poetry, all of its wasteful tricks, has been done away with in this poem; its essence is pain, and because it is pure poetry, it does not come across as narcissistic, as none of his great poetry does. This alone sets Dylan apart from all postwar American poets.

He resorts to what I would call a surrealism not of cynical laughter but joyous present-mindedness when he considers his situation as an artist, or really a thinking person caught up in murderous capitalism, in “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/ Ain’t it hard when you discover that/ He really wasn’t where it’s at/ After he took from you everything he could steal.”

His poetic technique here illustrates, embodies, executes to perfection the “no direction home” ethos. It has been interpreted, this song-poem, as a revenge fantasy with particular entities in mind (as has “Positively 4th Street”), this one with perhaps the suicidal actress and model Edie Sedgwick as the target. But none of his poems of that era work at that reductionist level; they are all ultimately about himself, the fame and glory of being the prophet of his time preventing any narcissistic consciousness, which I find the most unbelievable thing about his poetry then.

Ballad of a Thin Man” reminds us of Ivan Illich and Herbert Marcuse and the great social theorists of the 1960s, who talked about how functioning amid capitalist conformity has reduced us to intellectual and psychological ciphers, the Mr. Joneses of the world having their throats handed back to them: “You’ve been with the professors/ And they’ve all liked your looks/ With great lawyers you have/ Discussed lepers and crooks/ You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.”

His poetic technique here, in posing relentless direct questions, as is true of so much of his work then, exemplifies the thinness of our personalities: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is.” There is zero poetic “technique” involved in this line; yet it is as high a poetry as Li Po’s in capturing the essential hollowness of our situation.

He plays on “stoned” (in both the Biblical and countercultural sense), with a duality of meanings opening up because of the unresolved tension, in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Here, as in so many other poems, the repetition doesn’t come across as a lament seeking something as prosaic as a political solution, but becomes the summation of our tragic condition, as is true of all real knowledge: “They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave./ But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.”

Do I even need to talk about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”? It is a bold reinterpretation of his own earlier songs in a wildly unpredictable surrealist landscape: “With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,/ And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,/ And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,/ Who among them do you think could resist you?”

Various women have been said to have been the intended subject of this poem — perhaps Joan Baez, perhaps Sara Lownds, Dylan’s first wife — but it sums up, better than any poetical venture of our era, what it means to maintain the mystery of one’s existence, its purity and innocence, in a time when everything militates against it. Our vision is enough to see it, is it not? Only poetry, only the song of poetry, cuts through to the indefinable essence of the beloved.

Here, Dylan reaches the peak of his mysticism, but despite the length of the song, so unusual for its time, there is nothing wasted. With each powerful metaphor — “your sheet metal memory of Cannery Row,” or “your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — he piles on his own inadequacy to deal with, on its own terms, the beauty of women, or the beauty of anything beautiful.

Each of Dylan’s masterpieces from his peak deserves an extended breakdown to understand what he is doing poetically, though of course I can’t do it here. But any poet today who wants to know the source of life in poetry can learn untold amounts from making the attempt.

Dylan lent intellectual substance to popular music for the first time, and he was the first to show that complex poetic forms could be commercially successful. Rock and roll was already moribund, and had become silly after its inspiration from the original blues, by the time Dylan got started. But it got a new lease on life from him. Rock and roll stars — the Beatles were overwhelmed by Dylan — from Mick Jagger to David Bowie tried to reproduce a little of what Dylan had done poetically, but to one degree or another, they all failed. Heck, even Dylan after 1966 mostly couldn’t do it, which shows you how great his poetic zenith was.

His later “personal” poetry is just as “political” as his earlier songs designated as such. More than any other poet-songwriter, he completely erased the distinction between the two, more than even Allen Ginsberg, I think. That is a huge contribution both to music and poetry, one that has not been exploited since then, because it is so difficult to do. One that perhaps requires above all the gift of prophecy, for which we might have to wait another 500 years.

To experience, even at the remove of more than half a century, a tiny bit of what Dylan’s poetry achieved when he was the master of his game is to be transformed in the way that only the highest forms of writing can transform us. Through this award, Ginsberg gets a posthumous freebie, as do many others of that period who were plowing deep into the intensity of psychic experience, like John Berryman and Ted Berrigan. We Americans were never that good before. We never will be again.

What we need, at this point in time, more desperately than anything, is to return to the root of love, that is to say, to stare blindly, and with the highest intensity, at our human reality. Dylan did that better than almost anyone else in the last hundred years, except perhaps T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Philip K. Dick. This is why he will be read and listened to and admired as long as the self exists in tension with the collectivity, as long as people fall in love and ponder their mortality, as long as they are oppressed or killed or helped or saved by society.

Poetry does all that, doesn’t it? It can deal with all that, can’t it? Of course I haven’t been surprised at the condemnation that has erupted on American social media since he won, the duly certified and credentialed writers asserting that Dylan is not literature, this is a slap in the face of literature, and what about the real writers? That tells you all you need to know about why he won the Nobel Prize, and yet why his poetry cannot truly be recognized as victorious.

On the Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

By Hiram Lee
15 April 2017

There are few singers today as powerful as Rhiannon Giddens, and fewer still with so commanding a stage presence. Born February 21, 1977 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Giddens first made a name for herself as a member of the folk revival group Carolina Chocolate Drops. In addition to her singing, Giddens is an accomplished violinist and banjoist.

Giddens’ 2015 solo album Tomorrow is My Turn was among the best of that year and featured a striking version of the traditional folk song “Waterboy,” often associated with the late folksinger Odetta (1930-2008). Her latest album, Freedom Highway, will almost certainly be counted among the best of this year.

Giddens wrote nine of Freedom Highway’s 12 songs. In these, she reveals a deep feeling for her fellow human beings, as well as a seriousness about history. Moreover, there is nothing, not one note, on this album that feels self-involved or trivial. That, alone, is something remarkable given the current state of both popular and “indie” or “alternative” music.

Rhiannon Giddens [Photo credit: Appalachian Encounters]

Accompanying Giddens’ originals are strong versions of “The Angels Laid Him Away,” by blues singer Mississippi John Hurt, and two songs associated with the Civil Rights movement: “Freedom Highway” by the Staples Singers, and “Birmingham Sunday” by Richard Fariña. The latter concerns the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which left four little girls dead.

Perhaps the most haunting of the many haunting songs on Freedom Highway is “At the Purchaser’s Option.” It was inspired by Giddens’ discovery of an advertisement from the 1830s announcing the sale of a young female slave. The ad mentions, in passing, that the woman has a nine-month-old child who is also available “at the purchaser’s option.” Giddens’ puts herself in the woman’s shoes and sings movingly of her suffering: “Day by day I work the line/Every minute overtime/Fingers nimble, fingers quick/My fingers bleed to make you rich”

Returning to modern day, “Better Get It Right The First Time,” sees Giddens turn her attention to police killings of innocent youth. She sings: “Young man was a good man/Did you stand your ground/Young man was a good man/Is that why they took you down/Young man was a good man/Or did you run that day/Young man was a good man/Baby, they shot you anyway”

Called a “Black Lives Matter” anthem in many reviews, the song doesn’t actually emphasize race. While many of Freedom Highway ’s songs do concern the history of what is commonly called the “African-American experience,” the poison of racialism does not make itself felt here. There is something far more humane and universal at work. Class, in a somewhat limited way, is also a part of many of the songs. This history, at any rate, is not the sole property of any one “race” and certainly not of the pro-capitalist Black Lives Matter movement.

The instrumentation and arrangements employed by Giddens throughout seamlessly blend a wide variety of influences. On many songs, the grooves of R&B meld with the growling, muted trumpets of 1920s jazz, while old-time Appalachian banjos thump out their always-mournful melodies.

Giddens’ banjo playing has none of the biting twang commonly associated with the instrument today. It has a thick, full sound. She uses slides to great effect in her phrasing. It’s perfect for the flirtatious “Hey Bébé” which resides somewhere between jazz, folk and blues music.

Freedom Highway and Tomorrow is My Turn before it are a step forward for Giddens. They are superior to her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, however interesting that effort was at times.

Folk music is easy to do wrong. A dull, pedagogical tone creeps into the work of many revivalists. The importance of certain songs is explained and then they are performed in such a way that one never feels this importance in the music itself. They become museum pieces. This is often combined with a silly sentimentality for the “simple lives” of “pure” folk. Period dress and exaggerated “folk” accents are adopted and exploited. It feels like acting, and bad acting at that.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were by no means the worst offenders in this regard, but neither were they entirely immune to it. Giddens appears to have broken free of many of these limitations. She retains her folk roots while singing and performing in a way that feels very much alive and relevant, both traditional and modern.

Unlike many folk revivalists (and occasionally her bandmates) Giddens does not pretend to be less sophisticated than she is. And why should she?

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/04/15/gidd-a15.html

NIGHTLIFE LEGEND JIM FOURATT TALKS WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT STONEWALL AND BIRTHING DANCETERIA

Hello, Jim. Let’s start with the famed Stonewall rebellion of 1969, which came to define the modern gay movement. You have said that the presence of people of color at the rebellion is actually overstated.

Yes, I have said that, and there is a reason for me saying it. The way the Mafia, quote unquote, meaning organized crime, operated gay bars in the ’60s and ’70s was they had gay bars for people of color, mostly black gay people, but they were on 42nd Street and up in Harlem. In the Village–except for Keller’s, which was specifically aimed at black gay people and rough trade—most of all the other gay bars in the ’60s had very little mix of races. Of course, if you were a great beauty, no matter what color you were, you got in, but people of color weren’t catered to. It’s called racism. There was systematic racism. The problem I have is people trying to claim to be a part of something which they weren’t. The whole question of both drag queens and people of color at Stonewall…

The Stonewall Inn was pretty well known as a place where closeted gay men, usually married men, went to make arrangements with younger gay men, and the younger men, for the most part, were certainly not drag queens. There was drug dealing and prostitution, so all these romantic ideas of what happened did not happen. It was not a bar I liked particularly. It did not have a good dance floor. The jukebox was like every jukebox in every Mafia bar in the city. It was not a specialty jukebox. I know this goes against myth, but putting a straight ’60s template on what happened that night robs us of who we are and what actually did happen, which changed how lesbians and gays saw themselves. By no definition can what happened that night be called a riot. I’ve been in riots. They’re very scary events—people out of control, looting and robbing, the breaking of windows and turning over of cars. That did not happen the first night of Stonewall. The Stonewall rebellion actually started out quite small. I happened to be coming home from my job at Columbia Records. I saw a sole police car outside of the Stonewall Inn. I was out in the New Left movement and the anti-war movement and there was an incredible amount of homophobia—in the old and new left. Like a good ’60s radical, I went to see why that car was there. There might have been 20 people around—this was 10:30 at night. The door opens and out comes one police officer and a “passing woman”—a biological female dressed in men’s clothing. I’m using the language of that day. “Bulldyke” was said if you wanted to put somebody down, while “passing” was a nice term. She had been handcuffed. By now, about 40 or 50 people had gathered. It was a Saturday night, warm, June, summer. Her bulky body started rocking the police car. To the cheers of the crowd gathering, one of the doors had not been locked. She got out, and as bulky as she was and acted, she had small female wrists and was able to get out of her handcuffs. Given the cheering, she stepped up to play her passing woman masculine butch dyke role. She started throwing herself against the police car and it started to tilt almost to turning over, and that was a flashpoint. Something happened in that crowd that I cannot describe verbally. That’s why I call it a rebellion–they finally rebelled against their internal and external homophobia and repression and started to cheer. A police officer came out, to look at the crowd and went back inside. From what I understand, he called for reinforcement. Within 10 minutes, a number of police cars arrived. Contrary to what David Carter’s Stonewall book describes, there were very few arrests. The only arrest I actually saw was a folk singer, Dave van Ronk. He was drunk and saying “What’s going on here?” The cops said, “Get away,” but he was persistent.

Thanks for the insight. Let’s move on to your achievements in nightlife. You were instrumental in the legendary club Danceteria, which started in 1979, along with your then-business partner Rudolf Pieper. That club is where new music was broken, along with art and videos. It was a veritable culture emporium. Did you realize how magical it was?

You’ve known me a long time and our paths have crossed many times. My political work I’ve always seen as cultural work. I’ve been an actor and appeared in plays and at Caffe Cino. It was around that period of time that was very fertile in terms of alternative culture. I took over the dead disco Hurrah and made it very successful and that became the template I was working on as to how to maximize culture–high art, low art, and politics. When I had the opportunity to take over the space on 37th Street (the first Danceteria), which had been an after-hours gay black bar, where there had been many killings, I wanted to make a club similar to what had happened at Hurrah. I hired people who had worked for me, including security people who looked like the people I wanted to come. People who were incredible but unemployable, I gave them jobs. Keith Haring was a busboy, and so was [artist] David Wojnarowicz. Keith did art on the walls the first three months. It all predates MTV, AIDS, and crack cocaine because what happened to nightlife was MTV changed how people went about seeing live music–they wanted to see the bands they just saw on TV, usually a British band which was incapable of recreating the sound live because they hadn’t played that much.

Photo by Rhonda CorteWhen you opened the second Danceteria (on 21st Street), video became more prevalent.

Yes, video art began to come out of Downtown. I hired Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanborn, who were part of that scene, and I asked them to curate. It became the people who are now at the museum level of collection. The thing about New York that was different from L.A. and San Francisco is we all live for the most part in small apartments, and we all go out for social interaction, hoping to get laid essentially, straight or gay. I wanted to create an environment that was safe—no fights—and that was the purpose of the door policy. I also wanted a mixed club, and anyone was welcome who could behave in that mode. We started branching out in different kinds of programs—Word-Beat (spoken word) with Patti Smith and John Giorno, and Serious Fun (with people like Philip Glass and Diamanda Galas). The first club was three floors, and the second club was three floors and a roof. Once you were in, you had the option to do what you wanted to do. We did a whole lot of benefits–this is where the political stuff came in. With my door people—Haoui Montaug and Aleph Ashline—gay boys and women got in without any hassle. With straight guys, the test was they’d have to wait a few minutes and see if they didn’t get hostile. We never had a rape or a fight, or any of those kinds of things that happened in those kinds of clubs. It took a long time for John Argento to destroy that template. Many people went to Danceteria 3 after I’d been locked out by Rudolf and Argento. Those people didn’t know about the backroom drama going on, they just wanted to have a good time. I never criticized anyone if they had a good time under those circumstances.

The music at Danceteria was thrillingly good.

The DJs were the heart and soul of the club. The dance music that Mark Kamins and Sean Cassette did at the first Danceteria! I discovered Sean at the Mudd Club; he’s the one who introduced me to Rudolf. And Mark was recommended to me by Nancy Jeffries, who did A&R at RCA. Mark played every club I ever had. Sean stopped playing after the first Danceteria. Chi Chi Valenti was a bartender. These people needed jobs, and the bottom line is I was able to give people jobs. I had an open call like a Broadway show, and I was very proud of the staff.

Tell me something really offbeat that happened at the club.

At Danceteria 1, the boys in the backroom found a loophole where people would buy a ticket for liquor, and we’d stay open very late.

The mob guys?

Yes. You couldn’t do a club at that time that didn’t have organized crime involved. They’d apply for these one-day permits over and over again. It was quasi legal, but it was an abuse of the law. The headliner would play two shows and the opening act would play the middle show and the last show would go on around four in the morning, so people could come from the other clubs and see that artist. If I was the owner of the Underground [a rival club], I’d be pissed that I couldn’t do that. At the second Danceteria, the late show would be at three in the morning.

What’s your take on then and now?

It’s a different time. We don’t have those kinds of clubs I’m aware of anymore. It wasn’t as hard to survive in New York in the late ’70s and ’80s as now, though you still had to pay the rents.

Splash image: Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts

Laurel Lawson and Alice Sheppard performing in December 2016. CreditRobbie Sweeny

In 1937, ascending leaders of the Third Reich hosted two art exhibitions in Munich. One, the “Great German Art Exhibition,” featured art Adolf Hitler deemed acceptable and reflective of an ideal Aryan society: representational, featuring blond people in heroic poses and pastoral landscapes of the German countryside. The other featured what Hitler and his followers referred to as “degenerate art”: work that was modern or abstract, and art produced by people disavowed by Nazis — Jewish people, Communists, or those suspected of being one or the other. The “degenerate art” was presented in chaos and disarray, accompanied by derogatory labels, graffiti and catalog entries describing “the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.” Hitler and those close to him strictly controlled how artists lived and worked in Nazi Germany, because they understood that art could play a key role in the rise or fall of their dictatorship and the realization of their vision for Germany’s future.

“Degenerate Art,” a Nazi-curated exhibition, at the Haus der Kunst in Berlin, February 1938. CreditReuters

Last month, the Trump administration proposed a national budget that includes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA operates with a budget of about $150 million a year. As critics have observed, this amount is about 0.004 percent of the federal budget, making the move a fairly inefficient approach to trimming government spending. Many Americans have been protesting the cuts by pointing out the many ways that art enriches our lives — as they should. The arts bring us joy and entertainment; they can offer a reprieve from the trials of life or a way to understand them.

But as Hitler understood, artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism. Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.

Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly. The Stalinist government of the 1930s required art to meet strict criteria of style and content to ensure that it exclusively served the purposes of state leadership. In his memoir, the composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich writes that the Stalinist government systematically executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian folk poets. When Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, muralists were arrested, tortured and exiled. Soon after the coup, the singer and theater artist Víctor Jara was killed, his body riddled with bullets and displayed publicly as a warning to others. In her book “Brazilian Art Under Dictatorship,” Claudia Calirman writes that the museum director Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt had to hide works of art and advise artists to leave Brazil after authorities entered her museum, blocked the exhibition and demanded the work be dismantled because it contained dangerous images like a photograph of a member of the military falling off a motorcycle, which was seen as embarrassing to the police. Such extreme intervention may seem far removed from the United States today, until we consider episodes like the president’s public castigation of the “Hamilton” cast after it issued a fairly tame commentary directed at Mike Pence.

In its last round of grants, the NEA gave $10,000 to a music festival in Oregon to commission a dance performance by people in wheelchairs and dance classes for people who use mobility devices. A cultural center in California received $10,000 to host workshops led by Muslim artists, including a hip-hop artist, a comedian and filmmakers. A chorus in Minnesota was granted $10,000 to create a concert highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ youth, to be performed in St. Paul public schools. Each of these grants supports the voices of the very people the current presidential administration has mocked, dismissed and outright harmed. Young people, queer people, immigrants, and minorities have long used art as a means of dismantling the institutions that would silence us first and kill us later, and the NEA is one of the few wide-reaching institutions that support that work.

Ai Weiwei and remnants of an installation for the Venice Biennale in 2013. CreditGilles Sabrie for The New York Times

American observers shook their heads in disapproval when the performance artist Danilo Maldonado was arrested and jailed for criticizing the Castro regime, and when the Chinese sculptor and photographer Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest and had his studio demolished by the government. But closer to home, it is imperative that we understand what Trump’s attack on the arts is really about. It’s not about making America a drab and miserable place, nor is it about a belief in austerity or denying resources to communities in need. Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced.

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again.

Depeche Mode’s “Spirit” is a reminder of how political the band can be

“Grabbing hands, grab all they can”:

The group’s latest studio LP is a byproduct of and commentary on today’s global political upheaval

"Grabbing hands, grab all they can": Depeche Mode's "Spirit" is a reminder of how political the band can be
Depeche Mode (Credit: Sony Music)

The members of Depeche Mode spent the weeks leading up to the release of their 14th studio album, “Spirit,” fending off an association with the far-right movement. In late February, white nationalist Richard Spencer — a self-avowed “life-long Depeche Mode fan” — facetiously called the influential synthpop group the “official band of the Alt-Right.” The act swiftly issued a crisp statement through a rep: “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the Alt-Right and does not support the Alt-Right movement.”

The exchange was a reminder that Depeche Mode was actually tangling with politics more than it had in recent years. The Martin Gore-penned “Where’s the Revolution,” the first single from “Spirit,” encourages people to engage in mutiny against oppression. Although not explicitly liberal, a sampling of chorus lyrics (“They manipulate and threaten/ With terror as a weapon,” “Who’s making your decisions?/ You or your religion/ Your government, your countries/ You patriotic junkies”) points to a left-leaning perspective.

As many reviews have noted, the rest of “Spirit” also has an overt political bent. However, it’s more precise to say that the album features commentary on (and is a reaction to) the societal and cultural elements that led to 2017’s global political upheaval.

“Going Backwards” juxtaposes technological progress with decaying morals and devolution to “a caveman mentality,” while “Worst Crime” calls for people to own up to corrupt behavior: “We are all charged with treason/ There is no one left to hiss.” The electro-dirge “Poorman” is specific about its stance: “Corporations get the breaks/ Keeping almost everything they make/ Tell us just how long it’s going to take/ For it to trickle down.” And “Scum” pulls no punches in how it portrays a faceless person presumably abusing their position: “Hey scum, hey scum/ What are you going to do when karma comes?”

Speaking to Rolling Stone about the album, Gahan didn’t necessarily reveal inspiration specifics. “We called the album ‘Spirit,’ because it’s like, ‘Where’s the spirit gone?’ or ‘Where’s the spirit in humanity?’” he said. Earlier in the article, he admitted he “wouldn’t call this a political album, because I don’t listen to music in a political way. But it’s definitely about humanity, and our place in that.”

One could argue that the latter idea — someone deeply considering where they fit in the world among their fellow citizens — is inherently political. However, Gahan has a good reason for demurring on specifics. In a recent Billboard interview, he discussed not just the Spencer incident, but also how his band’s music has been misunderstood. “I think over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted — either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.

“If anything, there’s a way more sort of socialist — working class, if you like — industrial-sounding aesthetic to what we do,” Gahan continues. “That’s where we come from. We come from the council estates of Essex, which is a really s—-y place, just 30 minutes east of London, where they stuck everybody when London was getting too overpopulated in the late ’60s.”

From a sonic perspective, Depeche Mode’s early music captures the cloistered existence Gahan describes. The fogged-up-window synths of 1981’s debut, “Speak and Spell,” give way to sharply modern keyboards on 1982’s “A Broken Frame.” That record’s programming conjures textures that are simultaneously drab and chirpy: dripping faucets, a dull church service or a melodramatic sitcom theme.

On subsequent records, Depeche Mode employs clanking production and scraping sound effects, as well as midnight-hued keyboards and generous slathers of reverb, to convey increasingly hollowed-out angst. The sounds of industry remain an aesthetic influence on a song such as “Black Celebration,” which resembles a bustling, belching factory, and on the “electronic metal” the band embraced as the ’80s progressed. But although modern technology and different production techniques changed the band’s sound — giving it a sleeker, dystopian and minimalist vibe — Depeche Mode has never lost its utilitarian, greyscale synthpop essence.

What’s more intriguing is how the thematic bent of “Spirit” revisits and amplifies aspects of the band’s past. Notable parallels can be made to 1983’s “Construction Time Again,” the record containing the greed-demonizing “Everything Counts.” That LP’s cover image features a chiseled, real-life ex-Royal Marine hoisting a sledgehammer. From an iconography perspective, it was a striking statement — even if its intent had many layers.

In a documentary about the record, Martyn Atkins, a longtime Depeche Mode-associated designer who worked on “Construction Time Again,” said “The kind of political look of the things was more fashion than a specific statement. If you look back, you’ll see a lot of those kind of elements creeping in, of both fascist and communistic kind of iconography. It was exciting looking stuff. And I think that nobody had really plundered it to market an everyday product like a record.”

Yet in an interview with NME journalist X. Moore, the members of Depeche Mode were firm about their political awakening and how the concept of “The Worker” dominated the record.

“The general tendency of the album is very socialized and The Worker sums it up — it’s the obvious image to get across socialism,” said keyboardist Alan Wilder. “It’s like, the first thing you think seeing the cover is that the hammer is smashing down the mountain, but not to destroy. Because he’s a worker, it’s to rebuild it, it’s positive. That was the overall idea of the album, to be positive — that’s why it’s construction time, not destruction time.”

Later in the article, Gore was more explicit about the ways his lyrics dealt with greed and money, and the disproportionate way wealth is distributed. “The thing is, the people in power don’t care about someone with a low wage, they only care about their own power. But I think people should care about other people, y’know, ’cause from the moment we’re born we’re put into competition with everybody else.”

Going forward, that kind of direct commentary emanated from Depeche Mode’s catalog only occasionally, although these moments resonated. “People Are People” somewhat clumsily (but sincerely) addresses bigotry: “It’s obvious you hate me, though I’ve done nothing wrong/ I’ve never even met you, so what could I have done?” The murky “New Dress” criticizes tabloid frippery (“Princess Di is wearing a new dress”) that is focused on to the detriment of more important matters: “If you change points of view/ You may change a vote/ And when you change a vote/ You may change the world.” And uproar over the sexual overtones of “Master and Servant” obscured the song’s coded societal commentary: “Domination’s the name of the game/ In bed or in life/ They’re both just the same/ Except in one you’re fulfilled.”

Still, it’s not like the group was an apolitical entity the rest of the time. Mat Smith’s excellent essay about the band’s political nature points out how ’80s Depeche Mode reverberated “in places like East Germany or Russia that were divided and separate from the West by ideology. Depeche Mode’s music spoke to a generation of young people that felt betrayed by Communism, capturing the hearts and minds of a youth who heard something in this music that we’ll probably never fully appreciate unless we were living through it with them.” And Gore’s lyrics very much politicize personal matters: His vignettes about spiritual struggles, romantic turmoil and internal battles with the self are charged with divisive emotions.

Depeche Mode might have been seen as comparatively lighter, because ’80s synthpop tended to deal with surprisingly weighty issues. Industry’s “State of the Nation” condemns needless (and deadly) wars, as does Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes.” The Human League’s monstrous “Dare” LP features “Seconds,” a song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy from the perspective of the shooter. Bronski Beat’s sociopolitical statement “Smalltown Boy” is about someone leaving home after being bullied about his sexuality. And nuclear war or nuclear apocalypse were popular thematic jumping-off points; Ultravox’s “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” OMD’s “Enola Gay” and even Modern English’s “I Melt With You” all fit into this category.

These topics might seem quaint or retrograde now, but as Depeche Mode cautions on “Spirit,” political backsliding is lurking around every corner. Speaking about new song “The Worst Crime” to NPR, Gahan says “The way we divide each other — you know, racial divides. [It’s] kind of calling out to really question that, to kind of check yourself — me included, everyone else included.

“Like, where do you really stand, what are the choices you’re really making? Do you really love thy neighbor, and are you willing to accept the differences? We just seem to be slipping backwards.”

 

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.