Where Have All the Protest Songs Gone?
Traveling on a crowded train through the wet Dutch country side -- where, sadly, not a cow could be seen due to the threat of foot-and-mouth-disease -- I came face-to-face with Joey Ramone, the legendary punk singer who fronted the trail-blazing Ramones. He was one day dead, but this was not a vision. Instead, I was staring at a large photograph of the leather-clad, fish-lipped, weak-chinned, bushy-haired, musical pioneer that had been published above-the-fold on the front page of de Volksrant, one of the prominent newspapers of the Netherlands. In between an article on Israeli's latest military attack in Lebanon and one on a government pilot program to employ high-tech identification procedures (such as iris-scanning) to identify people, there was a shot of Ramone wielding a baseball bat -- an appropriate pose, since an early Ramones classic urged listeners to "beat on the brat with a baseball bat." Underneath, the caption read, "Ramone's Last 'Gabba Gabba Hey' Has Sounded," a reference to what had been a popular chant at the group's concerts.
Since I was out of the United States, I was unable that day to check the front pages of the major dailies there, but I doubted that any of Ramone's native land papers afforded his early demise -- at the age of 49, due to lymphoma -- such prominence. The American obits I later perused via the Internet managed to assign Ramone (real name: Jeffrey Hyman) and his New York City bandmates -- who were not actually brothers named Ramone -- the credit they deserved for birthing punk music and influencing rock for decades. There were the usual descriptions of the Ramones music -- short explosions of stripped-down basic rock. The New York Times referred to the band's "frenetic three-chord songs," while The Washington Post cited the group's incendiary "four-chord songs." (Three or four chords -- which was it?) Of course, there were references to the band's juvenile nihilism, presented in such numbers as "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Gimme, Gimme Shock Treatment," and "Teenage Lobotomy." But there was only slight mention of one of Ramone's best songs: "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)," an anti-Reagan anthem that warrants inclusion on the best-of list of a subgenre of rock-and-roll protest songs -- the topical-reaction track. And we can thank Pat Buchanan, in part, for this wonderful tune.
About March of 1985, the Reagan White House announced that the old man would be paying a visit to West Germany. At a press conference, Reagan said he had no intention of visiting a concentration camp site. Doing so, he explained, would only guilt-trip a nation where there are "very few alive that remember even the war, and certainly none of them who were adults and participating in any way." (At the time of this statement, anyone over the age of 60 would have been an adult during part of World War II and the Holocaust.) Weeks later, the White House noted that Reagan intended to lay a wreath at a military cemetery in Germany which contained the graves of Nazi soldiers of the Waffen SS. This spurred an outcry from the American Jewish community and others. Defending the move, Reagan told reporters that the German soldiers "were victims, just as surely as the victims of the concentration camp." Holocaust chronicler Elie Wiesel urged Reagan to cancel the Bitburg stop. Inside the White House, Buchanan, a communications (!) aide, advised Reagan to hold firm and not be pushed around by those you-know-who's. Egged on by Buchanan -- and probably others -- Reagan refused to yield. "There is no way I'll back down and run for cover," he wrote in his diary. His White House did hastily arrange a tour of the Bergen-Belsen death camp before Reagan dropped by the Bitburg cemetery for eight minutes. During the Bitburg ceremony, he cited a letter from a thirteen-year-old girl who, he claimed, had urged him to make the Bitburg stop. (In fact, she had asked him not to go there.)
Joey Ramone flipped over the Bitburg mission. With Dee Dee Ramone and Jean Beauvoir, he crafted "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg." Backed by a power-pop beat and melodic hooks galore, Joey Ramone snarled, "Bonzo goes to Bitburg/then goes out for a cup of tea/As I watched it on TV/somehow it really bothered me." Unable to cope with this image, the narrator reported, "My brain is hanging upside down." Addressing Reagan, Ramone asserted, "You're a politician/Don't become one of HItler's children." And he crooned, "If there's one thing that makes me sick/It's when someone tries to hide behind politics/I wish that time could go by fast/Somehow they manage to make it last." He even took a swipe at Nancy Reagan: "Fifty thousand dollar dress/Shaking hands with your highness." In any event, the bang of the song is not in its lyrics -- hey, this is pop, not poetry -- but in the smooth, controlled anger of the music. Find it on Napster or elsewhere on the Internet to hear it for yourself.
I'm hard-pressed to recall a better head-on hit against Reagan by a somewhat-popular American rock artist. And the tune was a wonderful example of the reax-protest song, which responds directly to a specific event. Many protest songs kick out large, sweeping messages -- say, society-sucks. Think of "Blowing in the Wind," or Grandmaster Flash's "The Message." Then, there are those songs that concentrate their fury upon a single act of injustice. Crosby, Still, Nash and Young's "Ohio" (Kent State), Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" (the framing of boxer Rubin Carter). "Bonzo goes To Bitburg" ranks with these classic-rock staples.
Alas, there does not seem to be much reaction-rock out there these days. Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin" -- found on the "Live in New York City" album he and his E Street Band recently released -- is a new entry in the category. With a haunting repetition of the phrase "forty-one" shots, the song is both a harsh whack at the cops who gunned down Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in New York City and a contemplation of institutional racism. So -- gabba, gabba hey -- let's praise Joey Ramone for expanding the list of well-crafted rock agitprop songs with his romp on Reagan. Will the misdeeds of that gosh-darn-so-friendly George W. Bush arouse such passion among today's rockers? Well, what rhymes with arsenic?