The government tries to make people think music is not important or relevant in every way that they can because they know it’s one of the only things that can shake them up and make people come together and share one voice – in a much bigger way than one politician can.
story by Sara Farr
photo by Ken Schles
During the tour for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s second album, Take Them On, On Your Own (Virgin, 2003), it seemed like the band was in a race toward implosion. Between rising tensions and petty arguments, it looked like the group was headed straight for an episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” Drummer Nick Jago walked off the stage during a concert in the U.K., their record label dumped them, and the band members indulged in the kind of self-destruction that rock bands are famous for.
As vocalist Robert Levon Been puts it: “We went through some dark shit as a band and we’ve gone through it publicly. I was as guilty as anyone else.” But Been had been working on some songs and decided to start recording an album in a last-ditch effort to see if there was still something worth saving. “We had songs that needed to be heard,” he said. “We walked the plank, not knowing what it was going to end up sounding like. I looked at each song individually and for some songs, the simplest method was the best acoustic guitars, voice, maybe a little harmonica. With others, it felt like it could and needed to be more. Our style of writing changed, and we had to adapt to it rather than the other way around.”
Like the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same name, the resultant record, Howl, was a primal scream. It was an outraged sinner’s cry for redemption, a plaintive whisper in the darkness, and a triumphant yawp rolled into a gorgeous amalgam of walkabout country blues and stripped-down rock. It mixes the simmer of Johnny Cash’s first album with Rick Rubin with the frantic grasp of a crazed Hunter S. Thompson story. Though primarily an acoustic album, it retained the familiar fuzzy gray tones of classic BRMC tunes like “Red Eyes and Tears” and “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll?”
Which is why it frustrates Been when labels approached Howl as an anomaly. “When we were shopping the record, a lot of people said they would sign us, but they said they saw the record as a kind of throwaway that comes in between two ‘real’ records,” Been said. “I think this record is as real or as important as anything else.”
It also paved the way for reconciliation with Jago and a chance for a new beginning. “To sing a song is a pretty redeeming thing if you can pick yourself up to do that, because it’s not a very easy thing,” Been said. “It’s hope that someone will recognize something in the voice that they can relate to and they feel as well. Right now, it still feels like it’s our own struggle and we feel isolated from other people sharing the same story, but maybe we haven’t figured out the right way to say it yet.”
Finding the right words isn’t something you can plan. Sam Cooke’s inspirational “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Been asserts, is an example of music’s power to bring people together and inspire them to action — a power he strongly believes the government would like us all to forget, despite the fact that politicians exploit the power of songs as campaign slogans.
“The government tries to make people think music is not important or relevant in every way that they can because they know it’s one of the only things that can shake them up and make people come together and share one voice — in a much bigger way than one politician can,” Been said. “So it’s dumbed-down and more about the ‘product’ than the actual words being sung. But you should take art and music seriously. It’s a part of your culture and as important as any other product.”
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club :: with Elefant and The Morning After Girls :: Metro :: February 8.