Originally published in Interchange Magazine, and TransForum Magazine, Jan. and Feb. 1993.
“We march to the music of our time.”
……………………………………….Bill Clinton at his Inauguration
Little Dorothy Washington slowly snuck up to the Iron Curtain of Oz, and peaked behind the screen. Her eyes popped when she discovered only a hungry old woman hunched over on a stool, pulling what levers were left of The Evil Empire. It was kind of embarrassing. You spend half a century and all your money preparing for battle, only to find your enemy’s a broken down old matron.
And Dorothy was pissed. Four-Star Ike, Dick the Magic Dragon, John Wayne Raygun, and Stormin’ Norman George suddenly looked worse than silly. There was no “there” there, and the paying customers were talkin’ refund. There were riots, poverty, and incurable diseases at home, while they’d sat spellbound at the feet of the their elected monarchs listening to tales of tigers in the jungle.
You should have seen the look on their tiny faces when the curtain peeled back and they discovered they’d been sitting out in the cold (war) for decades while last year’s losers were all in school attending class.
“Those damn foreigners were sitting around getting smart again while I was listening to Bonzo’s bedtime stories. Am I ever stupid!” Dorothy whined, hitting herself upside the head with a ballot box.
The Grand Pendulum reached its apex during the hundred hour ground war in Kuwait, and the recess bell clanged for change. Dorothy was picking at a daisy, wondering, “Uhmmm, if Iraq has the third biggest army in the world and can’t even last longer than a long weekend, what are we doing this for?”
Enter: the swing era, the sea-change, electricity, spring in the step, new life, blinding fireworks, cascading karma, oh my god — Elvis is in the White House!
“What a weird dream!” Dorothy says, waking up.
Those crazy Americans have done it again. They couldn’t be content with a Paul Tsongas or a Bob Kerrey or some other respectable guy in a suit. No. They had to pick a pot smoking sax player from a state most of the country couldn’t find on a map.
As an expatriated Winnipeger who’s been caught in the gears of America for years, I decided to rent a van, convert it into a jack-proof mobile fort, and drive to Washington to witness the passing of the spliff.
The nugget of the whole week was the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the Sunday before the swearing-in. It was televised on HBO, so check local listings. (It cost them a bundle — they’ll repeat it a lot.) It had the first all-star performance of “We Are The World” since Live Aid eight years ago, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Aretha, and a cast of many who I think just sort of wandered out there.
But it was the spirit of this very black and white audience that transcended. Kids, grand-couples, middle class families on blankets — and everybody in a really good mood. And no idiots. When was the last time you were in a crowd of half-a-million people and there were no screaming idiots?
So there you are, and there’s these giant TV screens, and there’s James Earl Jones reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the point where, when he reaches the climactic line, singing America in his rich baritone, and stressing the words “the people,” half the crowd is just bawling their eyes out:
“That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
Then Jack Nicholson strolls out and the crowd starts howling and laughing and falling over. His hair is blowing straight up off his head like his toe’s stuck in a socket, and he’s reading Lincoln all serious-like but the whole field is just roaring and laughing along with His Freakness.
Then Aretha Franklin comes out, the queen of living soul, and man, can she still hit it. She sings “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” and the whole time you’re going, “Yeah, this is cool, but I wish she’d sing ‘Respect.‘ Not quite the gig, though.” Then Boom! She does it! Aretha’s honking on “Respect,” and the whole crowd of America starts shaking its collective black ass under a clear winter sky. It was so funky you forgot you were at an historic event.
Then, whoops, Dylan appears out of nowhere! And by his reaction, it’s even a surprise to Clinton. He wasn’t even rumored. You can see Bill on the giant screen just bopping in his seat like a little kid, and he’s hitting Al Gore, going, “Hey Al! Right on! It’s Bob! Haw-haw. Did you set this up?! Pi-i-i-ig whiskers!” And Dylan’s up there massacring “Chimes Of Freedom.” Brilliant song choice, Bob. Too bad no one could understand a fucking word you mumbled. The screens that were showing the large text print of what was being said/sang, started scrolling ahead, and then back, trying line up some syllable they could identify.
Jack. Aretha. Dylan. These are the artists that the President of the United States identifies with!? Jack “Here’s Johnny” Nicholson? Aretha? The touring soul goddess of love? Dylan? The poet laureate of the music of revolution? The guy didn’t even show up at Woodstock, and here he is inaugurating a President? You think the times have changed? I mean, is this possible? I don’t think so..
What Were Once Motifs Are Now Symbols, to update the Doobies. Saxophones — and shades. Okay, who wears sunglasses? Hip people, right? “Symbol of,” anyway. And where did that come from? The ’50s Beats — used to cover up stoned red eyes. “Originally employed as a drug aid — now handy as a presidential metaphor.”
And the saxophone. Not the clarinet. Not the bass. Not the grand piano. The guy has to wail on the saxophone — Charlie Parker’s engine. The rock horn. The horn that was too wild for big band jazz. The human soul pipe.
Let’s review: The sax. Shades. Jack. Aretha. Dylan.
Open discussion question: What type of person has these five things on the back of their baseball card?
Then out on The Mall, there’s two days of open tent free concerts featuring Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead and thousands of twirling Deadheads at the foot of the Capital building. Then, Los Lobos. Little Feat. Michelle Shocked. All officially invited mind you — playing on the Great Field of America, surrounded by Smithsonian museums, and literally in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Wynton Marsalis. Robert Cray. McCoy Tyner. Four on-going sound stages. For two days, besides the Lincoln concert. Taj Mahal. Linda Ronstadt. Blues Traveler. Food stands from 50 states. It was Folklorama, Yankee style. And these are the official functions.
Back in the alleys of D.C. lay copious dens of iniquity and schmoozing that were churning in overdrive. Refurbished warehouses, old banks turned into decadent lounges, TV screens everywhere, CNN, C-SPAN, open bars, here a schmooze, there a schmooze, everywhere the camera’s snap.
It’s out of control, of course, but there’s 12 years of pent-up frustration just bursting to get out. Or maybe it’s 30 years, or longer. The children of the Ozzie and Eisenhower Conformity Generation, who briefly blossomed during Kennedy’s spring of freedom, have finally grasped the reigns of power they had only dreamt of in the adolescence of the sixties.
The psychological spirit of America was born in 1945. That second world war victory established them as a true empire, greater than the old ones of Europe who were unable to curtail their own cancer within.
It was awoken by a splash of Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist painting, trumpeted by Charlie Parker’s be-bop musical revolution, and its journey narrated by Jack Kerouac singing Whitman’s song in the modern age. The young nation flowered, dreaming in the immensity of it. It was the Age of Aquarius. The Summer of Love. The Woodstock Nation.
But as a few of its heroes dropped, the optimism of youth disintegrated into cocaine-dosed debauchery of the ’70s. The country got sucked into the great temptation pit, like Adam, Achilles, Macbeth and Milkin. “Make me Big. Bigger.” Schwarzenegger. Schwarzkopf. “Bigger, Bigger. Kill. Kill.” Transfixed by its own muscles and glued to the mirror, it belched, “I love myself.”
America has rounded the corner of middle age, and put away its childish things. The hopeful intentions of the songs sung from the stage of Woodstock in 1969 were echoed from the stage of the Lincoln Memorial in 1993. America came home from the wars last year, and found that her family had split up while she was off becoming champion of the world.
A country rooted in Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman and Thoreau, had somehow degenerated into Nixon, Quayle, Trump and Tyson. Not even America liked what it saw. So it changed. No matter how dramatic and funky and symbolic this Aquarian Coronation was, it’s only a reflection of a much bigger change that’s taken place in the mind and body of America.
For more writing like this — check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac.
For the tale of Obama’s first Inauguration, check this out.
Or here’s where Woodstock inventor/promoter Michael Lang quoted me about the Inauguration in his memoir about creating the legendary concert.
Or here’s Obama’s election night in Manhattan — the greatest party there ever was in that town.
Or here’s how I first got started in politics.
Or here’s the story of a wild altercation between me, Howard Dean, Al Franken and a heckler on the 2004 campaign trail.
Or here’s a piece I wrote a long time ago that addresses the recent Repugnant anti-immigrant hate-speech — Great Americans Not Born In America.
Or for another story with Bob Dylan in the middle of it — check out The Day I Heard The Tambourine Man.
Or here’s one of his Bobness showing up at the Bruce Springsteen concert at Shea Stadium.
Brian Hassett firstname.lastname@example.org BrianHassett.com