Saturday, December 7, 2013

"Nelson Mandela" - The Specials

Music can be dangerous for an overly-idealistic, bookwormy teenager. There's something about the adolescent swirl of hormones that makes one painfully (or is it wonderfully) susceptible that all the answers to life can be found in a truly great song.

Before I ever touched a beer or knew what weed smelled like, I would spend many a long high school evening getting absolutely blitzed on music.

Punk was the most effective delivery vehicle for the combination of righteously angry idea and amphetaminic effective music that would flood my body with the rage, indignation and misguided zeal of a teenage radical.

This is probably especially dangerous for the young, fairly shielded, upper-middle-class liberal such as myself. Growing up in Hyde Park and other mixed-racial communities, surrounded by self-selected people who are generally nice, well-intentioned, etc, it's always a shock to start paging through your first Chomsky or Zinn book because it's hard to conceive that things this bad would still be possible in what you had thought was this enlightened day and age.

And so I would often imbibe heavily of the Clash or Specials or Stiff Little Fingers and do things like pen vitriolic letters to the school newspaper about missing votes in Ohio or craft bitterly critical pans of US IMPERIALISM (all caps!) in Latin America for APUSH. The anger in those songs, ballasted by the unstoppable logic of their speed, hooks and volume was overwhelming. They seemed like blasts of truth from on high, felling scales from the eyes of the newly-enlightened converts.

I've been thinking about the intoxicating fervor of those nights a lot recently. As you might have noticed, my musical writing output, both here and elsewhere, has taken a notable drop this year. Although there are many reasons I could cite, a large factor has been the lack of that kind of zeal that I've felt listening to music. Being even an unpaid music writer means you're constantly bombarded with more music than you can ever listen to. There's some that you have to listen to process, and express "considered" opinions about on deadline, there's others you should listen to in order to stay relevant and then there's the every-growing list of bands you feel obligated to stay current with.

Combing those expectations with a life that inevitably makes more demands on the body and mind while allow less time and energy to accomplish them has meant that my experience listening to music generally fails to capture the transcendence of those nights with the Clash. I know that all experiences get less vivid with repetition but it's one of those twenty-something realities that's been dragging me down.

I had all these things floating in the back of my mind yesterday when I heard about the death of Nelson Mandela. The news brought me back to the first time I heard the Specials' "Free Nelson Mandela". The song was so ridiculously catchy, so insanely joyful that it shamed me into learning more about the man whose name and smiling face evoked a vaguely musty, Mother Theresa-ish vibe in my mind. Everything I found out about the man (a revolutionary, freedom fighter, outspoken critic of imperialism right up to Bush II) and the band (politically activist pop, the bold racial stance of 2 Tone, unabashedly angry AND celebratory music) blew my mind. It was like the truth come down from on high, the perfect marriage of people living their ideals, changing the world and making life-affirming music to boot.

As I got older, I learned more about Mandela, about the many obstacles his movement still hasn't overcome, the sanitizing of his politics, his many personal flaws, especially towards wives and children and for a while, all those facts would leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Somehow the idea of his less-than-perfect record combined with his virtual canonization by people unwilling to see the full picture tainted my perception of him. It made me feel stupid and horribly naive to have allowed myself to get so carried away by a song and the idea of a man that it represented because the reality was far murkier and filled with half- and quarter-victories than I could have ever imagined.

But recently I'd like to think that I'm coming around. Nelson Mandela was a great man who did undeniably great things even though he didn't do all the great things, even though some twist his life into a lesson into how racism was solved, even though the man known for Christ-like feats of forgiveness was at other times far from perfect. I now see how much better it can be to have imperfect heroes. That imperfections are what make heroes believable and remotely useful for assholes and sinners like me. And sometimes assholes and sinners like me are allowed to put all the bullshit and pressure and everything else aside aside and just let ourselves feel embarrassingly, naively happy enough to believe that a truly righteous song can make everything all better.


"Free Nelson Mandela" - The Specials  Buy The Singles Collection

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