Music has been a touchstone in my life. There is always a musical reference point, even with politics.
In the fall of ‘04 my wife and I attended an R.E.M. concert with our kids at The Murat in Indianapolis. At one point R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe pulled off a button-up shirt to reveal a John Kerry for President t-shirt beneath. Bush supporters in the crowd tried to shout him off the stage.
That was around the time country stations boycotted the Dixie Chicks after their lead singer made negative comments about President Bush.
At a Steve Earle concert in 2005 in Bloomington with my friend, Charlie, the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Bluebird nightclub was suffocating. Beneath a low ceiling, amid a shoulder-to-shoulder standing crowd, blanketed in a haze of cigarette smoke we listened to the numbing concussion of guitar chords. In the ear-ringing silence between songs, conservatives in the audience taunted an angry, swaggering Steve Earle for his politically charged lyrics. After, The Revolution Starts Now, a call to arms against Bush administration policies, a heckler yelled at Earle, “Your team lost, Dude. Get over it.” Earle locked eyes with the heckler and launched into the machine-gun opening rat-a-tat of the Beatles’, “Revolution.”
Though it was only 4 years ago, that world might as well be a million years away. With barely one in four Americans approving of Bush, he leaves office the most unpopular president in modern history, less popular even than Jimmy Carter. Standing in the balcony of the Murat four years ago as some in the crowd jeered Michael Stipe, such a reversal of fortune was unimaginable.
And if anyone had told me then that in a few short years Americans would elect a black president with the middle name “Hussein” I would have referred them for mental health counseling. And if they told me he would carry Indiana, I would have driven them to the treatment center myself.
But it did happen.
In October of last year, I sat in the grandstands at the State Fair grounds with two of my kids, waiting for Barack Obama to speak. Sitting in the misty drizzle, searching 38th Street for the Obama entourage, a country version of, Life is a Highway, blared from a bank of speakers suspended from a crane. An expectant crowd swayed and bopped to the music.
Watching my kids eat nachos in the rain, I thought back to the first time I ever sat in those stands. I was 15 years old. It was 1975. Nixon had resigned the previous August and Ford was president. On that warm summer night, the Ferris wheel and tilt-o-whirl spun in the distance while the band, Chicago, played atop scaffolding erected on the dirt racetrack. It was my first concert.
Scanning the racially mixed Obama crowd, I thought how odd it felt. Living in such a conservative community I have so often felt like the odd-man-out, wondering at the preferences of my friends and neighbors. Yet here I was with my kids and a huge crowd of people who felt the same way we did, who wanted the things we wanted.
I suppose color sometimes gets in the way. That day a part of me feared that many Americans wouldn’t vote for him simply because he was black.
A couple years ago while in New York with my family, we took the subway to Harlem and walked to the Apollo Theater, a Mecca for jazz, blues, and R&B fans like me. As we paused on the sidewalk a moment, I saw the unease in my 19-year-old son’s eyes. He was scanning the crowded streets, teeming almost entirely with black faces.
“You feel uncomfortable being a minority for the first time in your life, don’t you?”
He nodded, “Yep.”
“And you feel guilty for feeling uncomfortable, right?”
He smiled, “Yep.”
I looked back at the Apollo, thinking, “We all love that music. How different could we all be?”
Watching Sunday afternoon’s Obama celebration in front of the Lincoln memorial, I saw Betty LeVette and Jon Bon Jovi sing my favorite Sam Cooke song , A Change is Gonna Come. Appropriately, they changed the last line of the song, singing, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change has come.”