Friday, May 1, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: The Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera

In this morning of May Day, a day devoted to the rites of spring and the rights of working people, it is time to approach Hippies vs. Punks from a different angle.

My tendency of late has been to lean heavily on the recordings of one of the most productive and creative bands of the last 15 years. I speak here of the Drive-By Truckers.

For the last month or so, on the train ride home on Friday after another debilitating work week has been crossed off the calendar, I have plugged into Decoration Day (2003).

If you want a stepping-off point for an introduction to the Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day is a good place to start. It is the band's fourth album. From there I would move backward or hop to the first record, Ganstabilly (1998) and then move forward to Pizza Deliverance (1999):

Before arriving at the third album, the masterful Southern Rock Opera (2001).

Southern Rock Opera is a two-disk tour de force exploration of Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Wallace, classic rock, and the "Southern Thing." It is worthy of lengthy study. The first disk is the more analytic, dense one of the pair. You can kind of get it all in one gulp with the cut "The Three Great Alabama Icons":

Disk two is a straight-up display of pure power. I have probably played disk two as much as any album over the last five years. It speaks to the enduring power of classic rock. Patterson Hood sums it up perfectly in the first track, "Let There Be Rock":

And here we have arrived at a golden truth of Hippies vs. Punks. The clash between Hippies and Punks in the late 1970s is more a mirage of historical perception than an actual moment in the Zeitgeist. Though I think such a moment does exist, and, as I have argued elsewhere, it takes place during the summer of 1976 and then plays out primarily in the years 1977 and 1978, the real clash is earlier in the 1970s. It's less a clash than a retreat from the field of battle.

Southern rock rises, first with the The Allman Brothers Band, and then with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top; as does Glitter/Glam and Disco. All enervate the Hippies, or point to an abandonment of the belief in a broad social transformation.

This coincides with the rise of classic rock. "Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." Hedonism absent the goal of liberation from capitalism.

Classic rock is perfectly exemplified by two massive radio hits from 1974: Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and Eric Clapton's cover of Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff":

I remember driving along in a Chevy El Camino pickup truck with my father and sister listening to both the summer of 1974. I remember one evening pulling into the driveway of our home, and my father turning off the engine but leaving the radio on. The three of us sat in the dark and listened to "Sweet Home Alabama." It was a powerful new narcotic in 1974.

Nixon was on his way out of the White House. But his "Southern Strategy," as promulgated by a young Kevin Phillips, remains in control of the country to this day. Phillips' idea was to co-opt for the GOP George Wallace's third-party American Independent Party electoral base by tapping the rich vein of white working class resentment and paranoia over any modest material gains for the African-American underclass.

Now, nearly half a century later, the cities are still burning and Dixie has a stranglehold on Congress.

But if you listen to the Drive-By Truckers and the band's truth-telling about white Red State America -- the failed marriages, the alcoholism and drug abuse, the dead-end jobs, the girlfriends faking orgasms, Santa Claus raping his reindeer -- you realize that the white underclass is no different than any other underclass, black or brown, red or yellow.

It is the politicians and the Fourth Estate that pit us against each other so that the plutocrats can continue to call the shots. Maybe there is enough room left within the exhausted neoliberal paradigm -- maybe there is enough juice left in classic rock -- that we can undergo a shift in consciousness, and social transformation will once again become an aspiration of the masses.

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