The Saints of Good Intentions

So, I had kind of been off social media for a while, and then Covid-19 started, and I wanted to be in touch with folks. And then all of this chaos began, emotions got heated, and... you know how it goes. So, yesterday on Twitter, the dude from American Aquarium misread a tweet of mine and accused me of "whitewashing" the memory of MLK in a tweet of his that reached a far larger audience than I have for my own music. Me. A "white washer" of history?  The one white guy who has been writing about racism and police brutality for close to a decade. The guy that lived in the heart of Newark, NJ during the OJ trial. The person who has seen, firsthand, what white privilege is by the way I was treated in that city's jail compared to black and brown kids who had committed lesser crimes than I did. I'm the guy who has worked side by side with ex-cons and victims of police brutality on the back of garbage trucks and in restaurant dish pits and factory assembly lines from New York to Texas. The guy who has driven through every state while on tour playing to very small audiences, not in the back of some $2,000-a-day tour bus, but in my own car, going out of my way to stop in places like Jonestown, MS, one of the poorest towns in America, or the Piney Ridge Reservation, where 3rd world poverty is a way of life. I have seen this country in a way few people have. So, when I pointed out the fact that I have been writing and singing about these topics for a long time, and that American Aquarium seems to have just become "woke" this year, he responded by insulting me and the status of my music career. When his fans pointed out that he had misread my tweet, I didn't even get a fucking apology. And because I don't have the power of thousands of fans and followers, or the platform afforded to more famous people, I am being branded, at best, as complicit to the race problems happening in America. And I'm really pissed about it because it could not be further from the truth. 

I started writing protest songs in 2002, but when I started singing songs about race and politics in 2009, I took a lot of shit from people, especially comfortable-ass middle-aged white people. "Why are you angry?" is the blanket bullshit I would get from these people. "Oh, I really liked EXILE ON WILSON STREET, why can't you do something like that again?" I took shit from people on the right who didn't like it. I took shit from people on the left for calling out their bullshit. I was told by people in the music industry (a term I'll use loosely to describe both the Folk and Americana world) that politics in music was more or less not a welcome topic, or that I was just writing songs like that to get attention.(Yes, look at all the attention!) I was rejected for the Folk Alliance conference that was celebrating Woody Guthrie's music. They celebrated Woody Guthrie by having a singer whose record label was financially backed by the guy who built the Keystone Pipeline while I toured by myself in Idaho, where I was threatened by a tattooed preacher for being a "commie". But I did not let any of these setbacks deter me or my message, because nobody else in the folk and rock and Americana world was doing or saying anything. Mind you,  ALL  OF THE SHIT THAT IS HAPPENING IN AMERICA NOW WAS HAPPENING IN AMERICA THEN!    (Check out 2012's Talkin Revolution Blues or 2014's Poor Man's Bible

When I was a kid I wanted to be either Batman, a member of KISS, a priest, or the centerfielder for the Yankees. Since I traded my once promising baseball career to shoot dope, listen to John Coltrane, and study literature when I was 19, I guess I settled for a budget-rate combination of the other three, and I'm just doing the best I can. I've never had a manager. I've never had a publicist. The one agent I had fucked my touring life up like Covid-19 did for others, but without the actual disease or associated lockdowns; just a canceled record release tour that, unlike the Covid-19 situation, nobody donated money to me for after it was cancelled or #metoo'd the agent for being a lying scumbag. I was on a record label for one record, but that's a story that deserves its own blog post. I hate social media. I don't like taking photos of myself. I have less than 40 monthly listeners on Spotify. Basically, as the guy from American Aquarium pointed out with glee, nobody has ever heard of me. And nobody knows that I'm a nobody more than I do, trust me. But the truth is that I am just not built to be successful in today's music industry. But that doesn't stop me from playing music. It doesn't stop me from writing songs about things that matter to me or telling stories that nobody else is paying attention to. It doesn't stop me from writing really smart, catchy, deep, meaningful, pretty damn good songs that don't dumb shit down. (Yes, I am going to blow my own horn for once) It doesn't stop me from working my ass off in a soul-wrenching blue collar job to make money so I can keep making records and going on tour. This is what I do. This is who I am. I know your question: "Has it ever occurred to you that you maybe aren't that good?" My answer: Yes. I think that every day of my life. Every time I pick up a guitar or a pen, I'm haunted by the genius of my idols. Every time I hear my voice in a studio, I cringe. Every time I look at my checking account, I question my life choices. But then I go out and play a gig and realize I can stand toe to toe with any motherfucker making music today. I look at my tiny fanbase and see some of seriously brilliant writers, musicians, and artists that enjoy my work and it helps me know that I'm doing the right thing, even if that feeling is only fleeting. 

Long story short: It's really easy to be political when it's fashionable. Everybody is "speaking out" now that Trump is in office. In the late '60's and '70's, there was a period where protest music was hip, and it produced some of the greatest records of all-time, including my all-time favorite, Marvin Gaye's "Whats Going On". But do you know what happens to singers who sing politics when it isn't fashionable? Look up Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, Phil Ochs...it's a list with quite a bit of tragedy attached to it. Unfortunately, bad shit goes on in this world even when famous people aren't singing about it and the news cameras aren't rolling. Singers have been the reporters for a forgotten world that the media doesn't see since the dawn of society.  And we still need that. The question is, who is it going to be? Bruce Springsteen, flying over the country in a lear jet? Bands that sell their songs to clothing companies that use child labor so they can "get exposure"? Singers who sell their songs to car companies that continue to pollute the earth? People whose songs become anthems for beer commercials? Fuck no. It's going to be some kid who maybe doesn't have the social skills, or the media tools, or the financial means, or the ego to do the thing necessary to become a star. But if that kid has a voice, a conscience, and a desire to make the world a better place we should encourage it. We need those people. Encourage them and their work. 

Listen, I don't know what the point of this piece is. I guess I'm just venting over the situation and coddling my bruised ego. I  guess I want to defend myself from being accused as a "whitewasher" by someone who doesn't know me or my music on a forum where there are no retractions, corrections, or apologies . Yes, I do feel a little sanctimonious writing this at a time when so much bad shit is happening to much better people on a much grander scale. This is a fractured world. The world is hurting. I am hurting. We all are hurting, This is me showing you my hurt. My vanity. My disgust with myself and the world I live in. It is what it is. 

I guess the moral of the story is one that Pete Seeger told many times (Pete got blacklisted) KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE. I'm going to be keeping my eyes on the prize, long after these artists are back to singing songs about trains and drinking. If that's for you, then buy a record, sign up for the mailing list, make a donation to me or to a good cause, and most of all, spread the word. If not, best to you and thanks for reading! 

 

Peace, 

 

MJ

15 comments

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