A Little War Music
Each day the news grows darker: An invasion of Iraq seems imminent. Witness the anticipation in the eyes of the anchors and correspondents; smell the impending slaughter in the newsprint of columnists banging their war drums. Steel yourself, because it's almost midnight in Bush and Cheney's Garden of Evil Oil Interests.
No amount of mental preparation will be enough to shield you from the soon-to-be-reported images of smart bombings, bloodshed and body bags. But it helps to have the right music on hand to assuage the psychological trauma. And by the right music, we mean pop songs that aren't merely protest anthems, but that strive to grasp the full complexity of war.
Don't look for anything like Dylan's "Masters of War." It makes no sense these days to fall back on acoustic guitars and nasal whining. To tackle credibly the subject of what Ambrose Bierce deftly described as "a by-product of the arts of peace," a pop song requires unfriendly guitar fire, infrared drumming and irony-enhanced lyrics. These cuts contain it all.
1. "War Pigs," Black Sabbath
Right now it's hard to gaze upon Dick Cheney and ignore his nose: It's turning upward. That's because he's a prize-winning war pig with a failing ticker whom the administration has sequestered in some safe, warm bunker in Mysteryville, USA. The lead track from Black Sabbath's 1970 album "Paranoid" sounds more relevant today than ever. It begins with ghostly air-raid sirens and a doom-laden riff courtesy of Tony Iommi, at the time a 22-year-old guitar wizard from the industrial slums of Birmingham, England, whose musical career nearly ended after an accident at a sheet-metal factory that severed the tips of the fingers on his right hand. (Fortunately, a gypsy instructed Iommi to attach soft plastic tips to his fingers.) Meanwhile, a young Ozzy Osbourne sneers: "Politicians hide themselves away/ They only started their own war/ Why should they go out to fight?/ They leave that all to the poor."
2. "Bombs Over Baghdad," Outkast
This song, from Outkast's 1999 "Stankonia," is completely nonsensical and ridiculous, like Bush's foreign policy. The lyrics, like an average Bush speech, make no sense whatsoever. The saving grace, though, is that it makes you want to shake your ass and get rowdy, which is a key feature of any serious war anthem. And it offers sound military advice to those proud Americans who will be traveling halfway round the world to defend our right to cheap, readily available fossil fuels: "Don't pull the thang out unless you plan to bang / Don't even bang unless you plan to hit something." Donald Rumsfeld couldn't have said it better.
3. "Mercenaries (Ready for War)," John Cale
After supplying the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" with some terrifying electric viola playing, Cale was forced out of the band. He went on to produce now-revered first albums by the Stooges, Jonathan Richman and Patti Smith. As a solo artist in 1980, though, he was down to a low-budget live album, "Sabotage" on New York's tiny Spy label. It remains his finest effort, a nightmare of jackbooted left-right-lefts: "My rifle is my friend/ I clean my rifle every day/ Let's go, let's go to Moscow." And the shrieked-through-a-bullhorn countdown -- is it a bomb falling or a plane crashing? -- will give you the chills.
4. "Lawyers, Guns and Money," Warren Zevon
We had originally chosen another appropriate Zevon song, "The Envoy," until we realized that this better-known track perfectly captures the cynical, nepotistic shitheadedness of the Bush administration. "Send lawyers, guns and money," the narrator whines. "Dad, get me out of this." Need we say more?
5. "Rock the Casbah," The Clash
Belaboring the obvious, we know. But "Rock The Casbah" is a kick-ass track from the band that brought us "Straight To Hell" and "London Calling," both of which are also great songs about people dying in wars. We're including this one partially out of a proper sense of history: "Rock the Casbah" was, according to our inside sources at the Pentagon, the official theme of Gulf War I. It's also the Punk's First Primer on Middle Eastern politics and culture, and as such should be required listening for the Armed Forces.
6. "Death Trip," Iggy and the Stooges
Not the best song off the seminal Vietnam-era "Raw Power" album (that would be "Search and Destroy"), but it boasts a malevolent crudity that allows it to linger in the back of your mind like that grade-school bully you worried might actually kill you. Two chords and a drugged-out Iggy espousing the lie that oblivion is a collective effort when even Leonard Cohen knows it's always been an individual desire. "Death Trip": two words Saddam Hussein never has to utter, because his dream of death is the black hole sucking us into the density of Bush's foreign policies.
7. "Baby Got Shot," Verbena
"I really don't care/ I really don't mind/ but my baby baby baby got shot," sneers singer/guitarist Scott Bondy over a bludgeoning riff. 1999: "Into the Pink," its cover flaunting a leaking plasma bag, is the heaviest full-on, balls-out rock album in the twilight of Clinton's presidency. Produced by no less than Nirvana's Dave Grohl, "Shot" is on the soundtracks to the movies "Ramush II" and "The Day the Twin Towers Fell and People Died." It's also the soundtrack to "Ballistic: Bush vs. Saddam." Bondy sings each word like it's a razor blade, and bassist/femme fatale Anne Marie Griffin throws it right back at him with cooing derision: "Don't you ever wish/ for a pretty pair of wings?"
8. "Lone Star Song," Grant Lee Buffalo
Originally written in response to the ATF's botched Waco raid, this song continues to lurch forward like a derelict slave ship in flames, set loose and left to burn along the ancient Mississippi. It's a guitar line that John Lee Hooker might've figured out after reading and rereading Revelations (and nothing else) for many years. Grant Lee Phillips is the crooner, a cross between Bono and Uncle Remus, sensual and prophetic, and also full of doom: "Hurray, the holy war is ending/ like in the films of Hollywood/ and the choppers are descending."
9. "God Is a Bullet," Concrete Blonde
"Blame each other, blame yourself/God is a bullet, have mercy on us everyone." The riff, Peter Gunn stripped of its swingin' sixties machismo, conveys a single existential truth. Yes, the truth hurts, but at least the pain is self-inflicted.
10. "Peace in Our Time," Elvis Costello
Hemingway's 1924 short story debut was sardonically titled "In Our Time." Costello reinserts the "peace," but he also adds more than a dash of quiet horror (even as he's busy punning on a later novel by Papa): "And the bells take their toll once again/ in a victory chime/ and we can thank God that we finally got/ peace in our time." If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear those bells above a beat turned subtly military, the drummer tapping as if on duty at a funeral.