18 May 2010 Main Posts The only songs that matter Stephen Wright When the Overland editors posted an off-the-cuff list of songs for a soundtrack for the revolution a couple of weeks ago, the comments board, which usually moves between the sedate and the lively, went berserk. Music videos were posted by the score, ranging from the Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ to Melanie’s ‘Psychotherapy’. Maybe for a second we all remembered something we thought we had forgotten. Perhaps all of a sudden we were back at some smoky party at two in the morning, with the music whammering out of the speakers in the next room, face-to-face with some crazy conversation about violence and injustice, and determined to stand up, come what may, in the maw of suffering and stare it down, as someone ramped the music up even louder and we refilled our glasses and plotted improbable dates with destiny. The thing about ageing is that it shows no mercy and doesn’t care if you’re good or bad, crazy or indifferent. And the thing about social norms – the things that gender us and organise our feelings for us and tell us how to be adults – is that if you don’t toe the line they will screw you over and burn your life before you can say Jello Biafra. The world, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Kingdom of Fear, is ‘a butcher shop full of stories … (there are) horrible savage beasts that lurk out there, most of them beyond the imagination of a ten-year-old boy or even a twenty- or thirty-year-old boy for that matter, or even beyond the imagination of a teenage girl from Denver being dragged away from her family by a pack of diseased wolves.’ The week after the Overland post, other songs that might comprise a revolution’s soundtrack kept coming to mind, and occasionally to my lips, often in the oddest places; standing in a queue in my local supermarket and finding myself humming ‘Kill the Poor’ ; digging in the garden and planting fruit trees and suddenly remembering a concert a few years ago in Brisbane by the string quartet, the Kronos Quartet, when having made clear their feelings about the illegality of the Iraq War to an audience of exceedingly well-dressed and none-too-happy classical music lovers, they launched into a blistering cover of Jimi Hendrix’ famous demolition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. And I remembered too, if remembering is what it is, that songs for a revolutionary soundtrack don’t just encompass political anthems. I remembered the first time I heard the Gang of Four’s anti-lovesong ‘Anthrax’, with its wonderful doubled-lyrics, when I was eighteen or nineteen and living in a house full of junkies in Adelaide, and feeling that my heart was being turned inside out. I remembered that the only songs that matter to me are revolutionary songs of one kind or another, songs that give me that remembrance. Of course all the heroic and supposedly revolutionary actions we imagine ourselves engaging in come with a personal soundtrack. In fantasy anyway. In reality, what is revolutionary gets carried on the bare bloodied bones of whatever shreds of integrity you can muster in times of utter desperation when your life has gone to pieces, your mind is paralysed with fear, the bottom has fallen out of your heart and you suddenly find yourself critically short of friends. Maybe for those of us with a kind of disposition sometimes called genius, a song or book is born in those terror-stricken moments, and for a shorter or longer time creates a rupture somewhere where no rupture seemed possible. For the rest of us, who are not so inclined, these are the songs and books we turn to, sitting on the floor of the empty house, or wandering dark streets in the rain wondering where the hell we’re going to sleep, or standing among strangers mindlessly unable to come to terms with whatever catastrophe has deprived us of the one we love. That’s when we might find ourselves singing silently, over and over, the song of revolution, the thing that find its way to us through our murky days. This is half a universe away from the song of nostalgia – the thing that happens to let you know your life has turned into some kind of lame rom-com – like a bunch of people at a sixties-themed cocktail party all drunkenly singing ‘Give Peace A Chance’, then sleeping off their hangovers and heading back to work on Monday to put the screws on someone on behalf of Centrelink. For those things to become possible, we have to have caved in somewhere, most likely to some politic of personal enjoyment, a politic in which we are free to listen to whatever we like, and indeed sing about whatever we like, as long as, in the words of the Clash’s ‘Know Your Rights’, we’re not dum enough to actually try it. Perhaps the song of revolution is the song that gets into our shattered dreams, helps put us back together, none too pretty, scars and wounds and all, and then enables us to stand and look at whatever evil situation or mood, or callous circumstance or politic or person is facing us, and say very clearly with all the sincerity we can muster, ‘Nazi punks…….Fuck off’. Stephen Wright Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction. More by Stephen Wright Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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