BLUE SUNDAY: If You’re Travelling Abroad and Looking for Music, Don’t Expect To Hear “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in the Age of Trump
Complaining about the damage that Donald Trump’s campaign and eventual presidency has done to America’s global reputation rarely garners any sympathy from the MAGA crowd. When your idea of multiculturism is lunch at Chipotle or getting blind drunk in the middle of March while wearing a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” t-shirt, odds are you’re not reading The Guardian on a regular basis, or tracking astonishing record-setting heat that Africa (and the rest of the planet) experienced in July.
To the rest of us, however, it’s quite the priority. Every time he threatens our NATO allies or attacks a duly elected head of state in Western Europe or levies additional tariffs on our neighbors to the north under the guise of “national security“, another thread from the fabric of our American vision is torn. Those of us keen to history are well aware of the sullied history of isolationism. And anyone over the age of thirty should be able to remember how quickly, proudly and stoically the rest of the world stood with us at our darkest hour, some seventeen years ago next month.
But watching demonstrations from our desktop or reading foreign editorials can only do so much to paint the picture of just how angry our overseas brethren are at the United States. It’s akin to watching a hockey team on television or listening to a band in your car. You get it, you understand it, but you’re not in the arena.
I’ve written before about my ties to Europe. I am the child of an immigrant. Since I have no accent and I’m Caucasian, I’d seamlessly blend into a presidential Klan rally. I didn’t have the experience as my second-generation immigrant friends from South America, Asia and Africa have had. But that doesn’t change the fact that immigration has had a profound influence on my life. And because of these roots, my wife and I spend 50 weeks a year in America’s northeast so we have the opportunity to return to Europe on an annual basis.
This year marked our third straight visit “home” – as my Irish family calls it. And it’s been interesting to track the evolution of the reaction of both relatives and strangers to the um, situation in the United States.
We visited Dublin, Edinburgh, and Inverness in 2016. The questions we received were generally jovial about the disaster of the then-Trump candidacy, but they always ended with “But he won’t win, right?” A combination of The Craic and an inexplicable strong faith in the American people led me to answer the query each time with “No, he doesn’t have a chance in hell.”
Which meant I had to eat crow on our 2017 jaunt across the Atlantic. Hitting up Dublin and Edinburgh again and adding London to the itinerary, the prevailing opinion was along the lines of “Don’t worry, America’s strong enough to withstand this, you’ve been through worse.” With Brexit plans working about as well as “Making America Great Again”, there was a shared sense that we were all in this together, and we would, in fact, survive.
But this trip was different. After a year of the most disgusting campaign in American history and 18 months of realizing that it was, in fact, worse than anyone could have imagined, Europe has had enough.
As we made our way to Dublin, Edinburgh and – for the first time in our lives – Paris, we had no idea what kind of reaction to expect. We were coming off the disastrous Helsinki Surrender Summit and Trump’s deplorable treatment of our NATO companions. We were heading overseas a few short weeks after the “Baby Blimp” demonstration shattered world records for the largest protest ever against a foreign head of state. Judging international reaction to these events that we had seen on social media, we boarded a plane at Kennedy Airport with a much more subdued excitement than our earlier travels “home”.
We were heading into the arena.
It would be the most eye-opening experience of our ten days in Europe
Social media – correctly – is on the receiving end of criticism from just about anybody with an opinion these days. The left blames it for the rise of Trumpism. The right blames it for (what else) having a liberal bias. And there’s no longer any doubt that it was the primary tool used by Russia to attack the 2016 election. There are well-founded fears that its growth has not only reached its capacity, but that popular platforms are facing a possible decline in usage thanks in no small part to these factors.
While I don’t mean to sound like a parrot for that remarkably cheesy Facebook commercial about bringing people together, there IS an underlying truth behind the message. I have undoubtedly met new genuine, real-life friends – and I’ve also awoken latent friendships from years or even decades ago through the social network.
One of these new and tangible friends is a Scotsman named Will. Will began following me based on my work at Reverb Press. I noticed his thoughtful commentary on my often-unthoughtful ramblings and in one of those responses, he made a remark about living in Edinburgh. I made some sort of reply about my eternal respect for a Dead-Head living in Edinburgh (he maintains a profile pic of the universally recognizable Steal Your Face logo). And just like that, friend request sent, friend request confirmed.
I knew we had planned to visit the Scottish capital again this summer, so I made arrangements with Will to meet him for a drink.
It would be the most eye-opening experience of our ten days in Europe.
Will suggested we meet at one of his favorite local haunts – Captain’s Bar – which was, coincidentally, less than a block from the flat we had rented for two nights. July is peak tourist season and he assured us the combination of good drink and even better music would be an authentic Edinburgh experience.
Captain’s was a rather non-descript establishment. Nestled in the middle of a cross-street off one of the city’s busier roads, it lacked the bold, attention-grabbing signage that one would find on the more well-traveled avenues. No neon signs in the window advertising Guinness or Tennent’s. No outdoor tables or even food service for that matter. The thirsty traveler would easily miss this pub if he or she was not specifically looking for it.
And it would be their loss.
I must confess, I had a very faint idea of what Will looked like before we met. The aforementioned “Steal Your Face” profile picture was the avatar of my perception of him. My brain registered him as a kindred spirit more than it did any humanistic features. So I figured a burly, bearded American standing with his back to the wall of a narrow bar with a Kelly green Grateful Dead T-shirt would stand out amongst the locals and he could come to me.
“Passion is the wrong word.”
And about halfway through my first pint of Guinness, I heard “there ya are, ya fat American bastard!” (He would later explain to me that “fat bastard” was a term of endearment. Who am I to argue?)
I was looking at a gentleman roughly a decade older than me – though we both agreed we were the same age, 27 – with a bright print button-down shirt beneath a vintage-yet-timeless sportscoat. He donned a well-weathered newsboy cap that hung down towards the middle of his forehead. His appearance had a certain gravitas: here was a worldly man that would be as comfortable in a cozy off-the-beaten-path music club as he would be offering his views on global events at the Court of St. James.
Will quickly gave my wife and I a rundown of the amateur musicians who were holding a session, rattling off their names, telling us what kind of music each one plays, who they sound like and what types of people they were. As we got comfortable into our conversation about the similarities of what our native countries were facing, the drinks began to practically evaporate in our hands. Until he suddenly interrupted me and said: “You guys are going to want to listen to Baz“.
Baz Simpson is a local singer, songwriter and guitar player. He’s the founder of the Edinburgh band The Violent Mood Swings. He’s the type of musician who commands attention before he even strings a chord or sings a word. Dressed in different hues of black, and wearing a dark cap, not unlike Will’s, he approached a bench at the back of the bar with his acoustic guitar wrapped in black tape. It was hard not to think of Woody Guthrie entering some dust bowl saloon almost a century earlier. A pint (obviously for the quenching of thirst on yet another unseasonably hot day in Europe) sat on a stool next to him.
He began to tap his foot and play his opening chords. Maybe it was the brew, maybe it was the euphoria of vacation, but I quickly decided to film the performance. Baz quickly justified that decision.
In a Tom-Waits-ish, bluesy, raspy voice, the Scott started singing about the images that the world is seeing emanate from our fifty states: phony threats to North Korea, obvious capitulation to the Russian government, a Nazi-like scapegoating of Latino people, the extrajudicial killings of people of color by trigger-happy police, and perhaps our biggest national shame: the fact that our children are being gunned down in the classroom while we do nothing about it.
But nothing was as soul-rattling as the chorus:
Are you ready for the war?
Video used with the explicit permission of Baz Simpson, not intended for commercial redistribution.
“Will,” I said to my new real-life friend when the rousing applause concluded, “could you introduce me to Baz?”
He obliged, and I joined Will and Baz when they stepped outside to have a cigarette. Thought the point of Simpson’s song was impossible to miss, I needed to know just how prevalent the current state of America was in the minds of average Europeans. I asked him how long it took him to write the tune, which, to my ears sounded well-researched and thought out.
“About five and a half minutes” Simpson replied. No research required. This was all off the top of his musically inclined head. He then corrected me when I asked why America inspired such passion in him.
“Passion is the wrong word. Annoyance is more like it”.
People like Will, Baz, and the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who descended on London aren’t passionate about what America is doing to the globe. They’re annoyed. They’re angry. This is their planet too. And we are failing to live up to our end of the bargain as global citizens.
Like many of us, Simpson had a hard time digesting the fact that self-described Nazis are marching in the streets of America so openly. It turns out that both of us had grandfathers that enlisted to go to war against Nazis on the European continent many moons ago. We opined about what exactly their reaction would be to this new reality, and worse, an American president who routinely gave them aid and comfort.
Calling it “a disgusting house of cards“, Simpson went on to denounce what he calls “the bullshit” in America, as well as the Middle East and the UK. He went out of his way to remind me that he’s “Scottish” and doesn’t bow down to “no Union Jack”.
When I asked him why he felt movements such as Brexit and Trumpism gained so much power, he answered more brilliantly than most seasoned political analysts could ever dream of responding: “People aren’t awake. People need to wake up!”
Asked if that was the message he was trying to convey in his music, he disagreed.
“I don’t want to a get a message out. I’m just being me.”
And that was the prevailing opinion throughout our entire vacation. The rest of the world is not trying to beam a message across the oceans. They just want to go back to being themselves, which is increasingly difficult in this era of anxiety-inducing-tweets, and when they see the so-called “leader of the free world” cozying up to murderous regimes while disparaging the long-held-liberal order that defeated fascism and united against totalitarianism all over the map.
Europe has long looked to America for leadership. We have never been perfect – who has? – but up until now, we had a claim to a moral high ground. That’s why there was a bipartisan repudiation of our “torture” policies when they came to light last decade: we have a basic code that we agree we must abide by.
But that’s disappeared, and possibly for good. Those looking at America from the outside no longer see the Statue of Liberty or the Land of Opportunity. They see tyranny. They see racism. They see a gun culture that protects the trigger stronger than it protects the child.
They see uncertainty.
It’s hard to digest the fact that this continent, which has seen despots, madmen, absolute monarchs and fascists rise and fall continually over a millennium must ask themselves once again a very chilling question:
Are they ready for the war?
More importantly, are we willing to spend possibly the rest of our lives restoring America to its former station, where it can once again carry the mantle for liberty and justice for all?
Now That You Mention It
•Boy, this president sure does like to call people of color dumb, doesn’t he? Maxine Waters, Don Lemon, LeBron James? Calling LeBron James dumb is beyond hysterical. Just compare the two men. One of them was born into abject poverty and worked his ass off to the point where he’s worth almost half a billion dollars, and he uses his wealth and recognition to build schools and raise awareness.
The other was born a multimillionaire but still managed to go bankrupt multiple times, uses his wealth and influence to divide the country and enrich only himself and his spoiled brat kids.
But we know why he’s attacking LeBron. It’s the same reason he’s attacked the NFL with regularity.
The midterms are coming up, and his only way of avoiding a flip of the House that will likely lead to Articles of Impeachment against him is to rile up his base of rabid simpletons. And we know how his base feels about wealthy young men of color. Or any people of color, for that matter.
•Former FBI Chief of Staff Chuck Rosenberg shut down the debate over “is collusion a crime” once and for all. Speaking on MTP Daily, Rosenberg said:
“You probably won’t find the crime bank heist in the criminal code but bank robbery is a crime too, and so I am sort of perplexed that it has come down to synonyms.”
•There was one moment of our vacation that I wish I had filmed. The central basis for our trip was to attend a wedding of a relative in Ireland. There was about an hour’s distance between the church where the ceremony took place and the hotel where we would
drink ourselves into the poor house celebrate the marriage for two days. Naturally, we had no vehicle, and even if we did, I’d never drive on the wrong side of the road so we were reliant on our relatives for transportation.
We ended up riding along with the priest who married the lovely couple. He happened to also be my mother’s cousin (because every large Irish family needs at least one priest). He tepidly asked if, since this was the first time we met, my wife and I happened to be Trump supporters.
Man of the cloth or not, it was a race between the two of us to yell “Oh Fuck No!”
It was the ultimate icebreaker as we spent the next sixty minutes reaffirming each of our beliefs about just how dangerous this man is to the planet.
•I’m a sucker for musical biopics. So I’ve watched the second trailer for the upcoming Freddie Mercury biography Bohemian Rhapsody multiple times this week. I anxiously await its release, and I’d like Hollywood’s best and brightest to start the process of developing films about these following compelling artists:
- Janis Joplin (How has this not happened yet? I know it stalled in preproduction but get on it!)
- The Mamas and the Papas (The Manson Family moves to Sesame Street)
- Prince (Purple Rain doesn’t count)
- Syd Barrett (I mean, could there be a better working title than Shine on You Crazy Diamond? )
- Otis Redding (Think LaBamba with better music)
WHAT WON TWITTER THIS WEEK?
— Don Lemon (@donlemon) August 4, 2018
Donald Trump was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Sean Hannity.He made Donald look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Obama!
— #IamTheResistance. (@Anneredmond13) August 4, 2018
Thank you, and your family, for being the best that America has to offer…
Today marks the 11th anniversary of my nephew being KIA in Iraq. I will spend my day mocking and condemning this feckless excuse for a "president." Matthew did not die for this man to ruin our Country this way. Fuck you & your bone spurs @realDonaldTrump, From a Gold Star Aunt
— FormerRepublican (@usedtobearepub) August 4, 2018
— Ana Navarro (@ananavarro) August 2, 2018
I would trade all the MAGAs with immigrants any damn day.
— Ali (@realAliTweets) August 2, 2018
No, I’m not above playing in the mud…
What is 35 feet long and has 42 teeth?
The front row at a Trump rally.
— ImpeachTrump (@dumptrump33) July 31, 2018
Back to Lemon and LeBron…
Maybe it’s me but I feel like people who don’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its” shouldn’t be calling those who do know dumb pic.twitter.com/sj4DtaLLzp
— Jeff Yang (@originalspin) August 5, 2018
I’d buy it on pay-per-view
How about an awesome cage match between the Koch Brothers and Steve Bannon? They all go into a cage, we lock the cage and…that's it.
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) August 4, 2018
Songs Of Freedom
Building the ultimate #Resistance playlist, one week at a time. I’m always up for discovering new protest songs, if you have a recommendation, I’d love to hear it!
Another user submission! I love feedback from you guys, especially in this segment of the column. This one comes from loyal reader lakelady412 and I couldn’t agree more. The perfect fit for our Resistance Dance Party!
Speaking of which…
Till next Sunday, my friends!
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Private Collection of Ed Hanratty