Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Patriot and Arc

Returning after a brief hiatus ...

(A Guided Tour of Riot Act)


Before we close the record I want to take a moment to look at I Am A Patriot, probably the most important PJ cover of that period. In particular I want to compare two performances, the one from the MSG Nader rally in 2000 and the performance at Uniondale (an hour or so before the Bu$hleaguer incident) in 2003.

There is a seemingly irrepressible sense of optimism and of moment in Eddie’s 2000 performance of the song. I was fortunate enough to be there for that and you could feel it in the building. No one there seriously thought Nader had a chance to win an election in 2000 but there was a powerful and profound sense that we were there to witness the start of something big, the birth of a new America, a new way of looking at the world. Probably the most telling moment of the entire song was during Eddie’s introduction, talking about the way the media, opinion makers, politicians, and the rest of what C. Wright Mills called the power elite have to stand up and take notice. “They can’t ignore this.” And with that Eddie launches into what is arguably the most powerful cover he’s ever performed, and the song is lifted by the optimism of the moment until it practically soars during the final lyrics “and the river will open for the righteous someday…”. That day isn’t here yet, but if you were there for that moment you KNEW that it was coming.

The depth of the collapse that Riot Act chronicles, the nearly complete loss of faith, needs to be understood in this context. It falls so low in part because expectations were so high. The more powerful the hope the more total the disillusionment. And the song Eddie sings at Uniondale is almost unrecognizable. The music is somber, almost dirge like, as if Eddie is burying a dream instead of living one. It climaxes earlier than MSG, during the moment where he asserts his identity “I only know one party, and that is freedom…” The moment is cathartic and inspiring, like a shaft of life shining through a seemingly impenetrable darkness. But the moment doesn’t last, and Eddie chokes it off, strangling the promise of redemption in it. The light goes out and the final lines “and the river will open for the righteous” are somber and bitter. Self-assertion may not be enough in a world that just isn’t prepared to recognize it. The lesson Eddie learns on Riot Act is that freedom isn’t something that can be experienced in isolation. It is something that must be shared—we find it in communal expressions of solidarity (which is why a good concert is so liberating, and this is what the band understands so well), and solidarity is just not possible in Bush’s America. At least not then.

And this brings us to Arc. We all know that Arc is dedicated to the lives lost at Rosklide. It is a farewell to them, their 21 gun salute. But Eddie is burying more than their memories here. Arc tries to encapsulate what words cannot---the bewilderment, the absence of hope, the alienation, the nearly totalizing loss of faith that lifted us so high that moment in MSG just 3 short years ago. Arc is music for dying dreams.

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