After a week of crippling depression in which I could barely accept the election as a concept, let alone reality, I awoke thinking that well-meaning discourse no longer had any value. Neither did angry debate, partisan factualizing, or long-form essays about the relative bias of the Electoral College. In a world where sixty million people think Donald Trump would make a fine leader, it’s possible that music is all we have. Or at least have left. Our minds and how they process intervals and pitch, an understanding of percussion, the emotional impact of voice and lyrics upon the limbic system. In 2016 a song means more than any policy, since policies are usually measured by the degree to which they continue not to work. Musicians climb onstage, naked and vulnerable, any given bass player possessing more authenticity than a gerrymander’s worth of slick congressmen. While listening to Mose Allison’s “Swingin’ Machine” I was suddenly sure that the musicians who have recently left us did so with a wisdom we can never hope to replicate–of the eight billion people on the planet, it is only the dead who are no longer tormented by the rise of Donald Trump.
- Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat”
I found Songs of Love and Hate in my mother’s record collection in eighth grade. The small corner of the shelf she was allotted by my father held maybe a dozen albums: Seals & Crofts, the Doobie Brothers, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel. I was just graduating from KISS to Blue Oyster Cult and so didn’t have much hope for ampersands or Leonard Cohen, but the anger imbued in the title was promising. From the first baritone warble, I knew someone else in the world understood my pubescent depression, could sing it back at me as both taunt and comfort. Leonard crafted the lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat” using a stripped down version of Greek verse called amphibrach–basically a Once Was A Man From Nantucket ditty–about a woman, a brother, and a killer. Which perfectly sums up the 2016 election: the woman (Hillary) is constantly exposed to a looming pervert in a blue raincoat. Obama is the brother, her keeper and shepherd. Trump, of course, is the alley predator who thinks flashing his unwanted anatomy is a form of seduction.
“And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way.”
2. Devo, “Uncontrollable Urge”
Political parties and rote ideology are meaningless, the only side worth belonging to is AHA: Against Hypocrisy, Always. During the 80s, I ranted about Ronald Reagan’s cynical embrace of evangelism. Four years later, I chose Dukakis over the man who used Willie Horton as a cudgel. Bill Clinton had myriad problems, but after watching an impeachment led by Newt Gingrich, who spoke daily of “family values” while conducting his own secret affair, and whose fraudulent Contract With America remains the blueprint for cowardly obstructionism, there was no other option. In the 90s I twice voted against George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism,” which was neither compassionate nor conservative. In fact, it was cruel and avowedly profligate. Did I love Al Gore or John Kerry? No, but there’s little doubt they would have repudiated the neocon fantasy that Al-Qaeda could be defeated by invading Iraq, or that Nation Building was possible on a foundation of thousands of years of tribal hatred. I chose Obama over John McCain’s hypocritical defense of Sarah Palin’s competence, and then again over Mitt Romney’s smug classism. Which brings us, finally, to Donald Trump’s Uncontrollable Urge. Trump is more than just the epitome of hypocrisy, he’s the only man in America who the term cannot begin to contain. Devo warned us in the early 80’s that we were going to Devolve, most likely at the end of a whip, before being shoved down the gullet of a beast of pure egotistical need. And they were right. RIP Bob “Bob 2” Casale.
3. Earth, Wind, & Fire, “Shining Star”
So then, how to fight? Sure, blocking traffic while waving a sign that says “Build a fence around Mike Pence” or “You can’t comb over misogyny” or “Nigel Farage is a weaselly cunt” feels good, but is unlikely to dent the gilded edges of a Trump presidency much. The nation voted, leaving a 242-pound baby on our collective doorstep, a note pinned to its chest that says, Sucker! That we now have to live with this gluttonous bundle is both a tragedy and possibly karmic vengeance for failing to recognize the menace soon enough. The only prescription is to move forward with class and dignity. Or at least hold our ground until after the four most disastrous years in the history of the republic, at which time Malia Obama will be elected to her first term. It’ll be essential that we proved in the interim our institutions cannot be diminished, regardless of who occupies them. This country is indeed a Shining Star, the product of the only revolution in the history of the world that not only succeeded, but continues to hew respectably close to its original aims. Four years of Trump can’t change that. As impossible as it seems now, one day soon the incubus will be gone, but a slightly tarnished star will remain. RIP Maurice White.
4. Suicide, “Ghost Rider”
If Alan Vega were president, he would put Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court now. RIGHT THIS SECOND. The Senate’s deeply unpatriotic refusal to Advise & Consent have made Garland our national Ghost Rider: a man without a position, a vote, a seat, or a robe. It’s up to President Obama to appoint Garland immediately and without Senate approval. Let them sue. Let them protest. Let them scream and tear out their remaining hair. It is both legally and procedurally defensible, a move that would also serve to establish the much-needed precedent that nominees are impervious to parliamentary tactics and rote obstructionism. Hey, did you know that the great Chief Justice Earl Warren was also a recess appointment? Well, he was. RIP Alan Vega.
5. Leon Russell, “Tightrope”
I was for Bernie at the outset. Doesn’t matter much now, although it does hurt, because (shut up) he would have beaten Trump. So why didn’t I scream from the rooftops, volunteer for phone banks, hand out pamphlets at Safeway, and knock on every door from here to Reno? Because I was a coward. I was so terrified by the notion of a Trump presidency that I allowed myself to be convinced Hillary could better withstand Republican (FBI/Breitbart) opposition research (false), that she was the most prepared candidate in the history of American elections (likely true), and that even while flawed, she was still plenty smart and capable (no doubt). Unfortunately, none of her positive attributes were enough to override the fact that she was also a Clinton–and it should have been more than evident by Iowa that this country had come to loathe its royalty. Hey, Jeb Bush was the best of the 182 republican candidates–mild, reasonable, relatively sane. But he was also a Bush, and no one wanted any part of him. Over the last four decades we’ve had Reagan/Bush, then solo Bush, then eight years of Bill, followed by almost four of Clinton-proxy Al Gore, then eight years of Bush II, during which he defeated another Clinton-proxy in John Kerry. So basically the Habsburgs, but with less hemophilia. By the end of the primaries it was obvious, as Donald Trump gnawed on subway cars, snapped electrical wires, and stomped all over downtown Tokyo, that Establishment Candidates had zero chance in 2016. Say what you want about Bernie, but he was not an establishment candidate, and if we’d had the stones and foresight to stick by him, the country would this very second be basking in the glow of President Sanders.
6. Sharon Jones – “All Of It”
In retrospect, it was clearly Sharon Jones who should have been our first female president.
7. John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme”
It’s possible that “A Love Supreme” is the greatest album ever recorded. It’s almost certainly the most accessible and convincingly spiritual, a four-part suite that transcends genre. Coltrane insisted his saxophone was not under his control, but instead a instrument used as the expression of a higher power. The music itself is full of majesty and joy, alternately profound and abstract. Listening to A Love Supreme makes mockery of politics, denies the importance of temporal concerns, repudiates taking sides, vanquishes hatred and distrust and revenge. “Acknowledgement” says there are no leaders or political parties or policy prescriptions that will save us. “Resolution” insists that in the end there is only art. “Pursuance” asserts that creativity is humanity’s sole item of value, its only lasting pursuit, aside from caring for friends and family. “Psalm” concludes that all else is delusion–victory, money, acquisition, pride, approval, conquest. Fifty years after John Coltrane’s death, the intervals he played, the breath he expelled, the beauty he carved out of nothing–is more than enough to provide four years of solace. RIP Rudy Van Gelder
8. Prince, “Horny Pony”
At this point, why bother pretending the outcome of the election (or lack of an acceptable one) wasn’t almost entirely due to the deep strain of sexual repression, denial, and body-terror that is uniquely American? We finally paid the price for our national and profoundly childish need to disavow biological and carnal needs, to feign self-control over physical compulsion, and to embrace the truly erotic for the gift it is. Why do we insist our leaders pretend to be celibate? Why equate being vanilla to being honorable? Or insist that kinkiness is a measure of bad judgment while clotted appetite is the path to rectitude and virtue? Prince knew it was all about the fucking. The seduction. The rhythm, the back-beat, the ass-less yellow pants. He embraced desire without apology, his entire career the assertion that if we allowed ourselves to be unrepentantly Horny Ponies, Donald Trump and men like him would be outcasts. Trump has the veneer of sexuality, but it’s an underhanded eroticism, rooted in the insecure, in cruelty and fraudulent domination. No man as hollow, charmless, and ethically venereal as Donald Trump should ever hold office, anywhere. Prince knew that. Turns out he was trying to tell us for years.
9. David Bowie, “Sound and Vision”
The great David Bowie, with this endearingly upbeat and positive song, reminds us that we must forgive ourselves. For being too inward, too dismissive, too derisive, too complicit in the adherence to a false narrative. David says that it’s time to open our minds to a way of seeing the world that Trump-ness inspires in our fellow Americans. To deny the concepts of red and blue, left and right, right and wrong. David says we should accept humanity for all its unique imperfections. Which brings us to Caligula, probably the most deranged leader in the history of the western world. His actual name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, but was called Caligula, which means “little boot,” because after his father had won yet another battle across the Rhine, Young Caligula was told to stomp on the heads of wounded enemies, ensuring they were dead. It’s not hard to imagine how this might have affected a boy’s relative level of sanity later in life. I’ve come to think of Trump in the same way. What chance did Young Donald have to become other than who and what he is? Bullied by his father, raised in ostentatious wealth and decadence, privy to the affairs and adultery of his parents, unloved and abandoned, a scion pawned off to military school, a man who romped through the decadence of the eighties with nothing to increase his sense of humanity or ethics except, perhaps, a slight pity for those who desired his cash. Is the Sound and Vision of Young Donald enough to make you love him now, just a little bit, for the needy harlequin he has so clearly become? David Bowie says that if perhaps love is a little strong, there’s always compassion.
10. Bad Brains, “Banned in DC”
It was a bleak and culturally empty time, the mid-80’s. I was deep into hardcore for any number of reasons, but mostly because its rawness and energy and anger seemed the only viable response to the intellectually dead presidency of Ronald Reagan, and the sterile music and movies and literature of the time. Hardcore was a big middle finger to absurd hair and Bruce Springsteen and the “Greed is good” mentality that stretched from Chess King to T.J. Maxx in malls across America. The most important band of the 80s was unquestionably Bad Brains, who fused reggae and hardcore in a way that actually made sense. By their mere existence they tore the heart out of nationalist skinheads and racist punks by easily being the most talented musicians on the scene, if not the most dynamic, aggressive, and original band in America. The warp speed at which they played destroyed Synchronicity and Howard Jones and Hungry Like The Wolf. It was exactly the speedball that sweaty, hormonal teenagers needed jabbed into the crook of their arms, the perfect accompaniment for slamming into one another in abandoned houses and random basements, throwing elbows and knees, jumping off of stages, and, for some, managing to stay in the closet just a little longer. The chaos was liberating, and while you could make a case for Minor Threat on different terms and for other reasons, everyone knew Bad Brains were the Kings Of It All. I was eighteen when I first saw them and it changed my life, in turns liberating and terrifying, which is just how a true cultural tilt should feel. There was a palpable sense, while crushed against the wall at the 930 Club, that we were about to emerge from a regressive stasis like the baby Alien gnawing its way out of John Hurt’s chest, and that HR and Darryl and Earl and Dr. Know would lead us there. So then how have we managed to throw away all the gains in justice and personal liberation and social consciousness that the redemptive dub of one band laid out so clearly for us thirty years ago? How have we returned to Reagan’s America in the form of Trump, which, as it turns out, is vastly more dangerous, dim-witted, and morally vacuous than the worst days under Cap Weinberger and Ed Meese? Madness, that’s how. The great advantage of Fascism is that it does not require coherence. In fact, it thrives on a lack of comprehensibility. Our New Kleptocracy requires a leader who is unintelligible, muddled, disjointed. The fact that Donald Trump made it through an entire national campaign without being able to successfully articulate a single goal or policy position was an evil but possibly genius strategy. We are in the midst of a second Big Take Over, and the only prescription is to Rally Around Jah Throne. Meanwhile, Lazarus may actually exist. Stay strong, Dr. Know
11. Merle Haggard -“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
Merle Haggard did three years in San Quentin because he refused to be told what to do. The time for mourning and self-pity is over. The Left needs to repudiate Trump and everything he stands for, including the notion of having forgotten a small-town “real America” filled with people who Trump clearly doesn’t stand for. So more apologizing for liking artisinal cheese and Last Day at Marienbad. No more quoting statistics on Arctic permafrost during F-150 commercials. No more asking forgiveness for failing to fully appreciate the pain of Rust Belt workers and their disdain for coastal elites, which they showed by electing a man busy assembling a cabinet of the most elite, out-of-touch, greed-driven oligarchs in the world, not a single one of whom will ever give a flying fuck about the pain of Rust Belt workers. Let’s just take a moment to admit that what “elitist” really means is the ability to jettison bad ideas and received wisdom, of embracing science in place of retrograde dictates, of acknowledging your Destiny was not so Manifest after all, and of no longer allowing your life to be dictated by the ravings of a 2000 year-old book. It’s time for the Left to embrace its inner chilled Sancerre and raise a glass to Merle.
12. Kay Starr, “Around the World”
I’m old enough to remember black and white TV, with bad sound and blurry images, when programming shut off at midnight and most of the content was either game shows or variety hours. And I remember Kay Starr. Sitting on my grandmother’s lap, watching a orchestra play behind this woman and her astonishingly beautiful voice. It’s a nice memory. Well, we’re going to find out what we voted for, and soon. Kay Starr knew it under Truman in 1952, and six decades later she passed away, leaving us with this.