Of Piercings and Protest Songs

Human Rights

What started innocently enough as a band of Boulder High punks using the Nov. 12 school talent show to make a political statement has sparked a national free-speech debate and led to an unexpected civics lesson complete with red-faced school officials and humorless federal agents.

Sure, they may not be Rage Against the Machine, but for one glorious fleeting moment the punks at Boulder, Colo., ruled the high-school auditorium.

It all began last week when the impromptu band of students and one teacher was rehearsing Bob Dylan's Vietnam-era protest song "Masters of War," a bitter indictment of those that deal in death. An unidentified female student claimed that the musicians – who she said were calling themselves the Tali-banned – had modified the lyrics to say, "George Bush, I hope that you die/And your death will come soon," all set to a provocative slide show with images of war and President Bush.

Masters of War, by Bob Dylan
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

The student told her mother – and mom did what every red-blooded American should do when the president's life is in danger: she called a local talk-radio show. Before you could say "First Amendment," U.S. Secret Service agents descended on the campus to investigate the alleged threats.

Principal Ron Cabrera insisted no such threats were made.

According to a published report, the band had planned to call themselves the Tali-banned, but, at the urging of faculty, later changed the name to Coalition of the Willing (wouldn't Unwilling have been more appropriate?).

"We were misunderstood," singer Allyse Wojtanek told the "Daily Camera" after the talent show, while news vans packed the school parking lot. "People thought we were like communists, and that was not it at all. We have a peaceful message."

It's a message that even the song's author managed to muddle during a previous Bush administration. In 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War and with protesters clamoring to air their views, Dylan performed "Masters of War" so unintelligibly during the national broadcast of the Grammy Awards show that his band members were uncertain what song they were performing. In his recent autobiography "Chronicles, Vol. 1," Dylan writes that he detested being foisted into the role as a spokesman for the protest generation and took every opportunity to sabotage that status.

The Boulder punks have proven the power of protest music is, indeed, bigger even than Dylan.

Meanwhile, the ringing in the ears has faded and the talent show is just a sweaty memory, but the Secret Service investigation goes on and repercussions may just be starting as the feds seek to make the world safe from piercings and protest songs. After all, everything in high school goes on your permanent record. One can only imagine a tattooed Boulder High grad applying for a job as a teacher a few years down the road in a society rife with compassionate conservatives: "You seem like a bright young woman and your qualifications are impressive," the interviewer might explain, "but our policy is not to hire terrorists who threaten the president.

"I'm sure you understand."

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