Friday, March 4, 2011

'Street Fighting Man'

The Rolling Stones' song, "Street Fighting Man" came up again on Facebook lately. It makes sense. Given the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the political demonstrations in cities in the U.S., the atmosphere has suddenly become charged with the rarified air of protest.

And "Street Fighting Man" is a great song. With a driving beat and the opening line, "Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet/cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street"--the song appears a perfect soundtrack for upheaval. The wild melody of that line even has a chanting, marching contour--up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down ….

Jagger had participated in protest marches against the Vietnam War prior to writing the song, and the lyrics reflect the intensity of those events. In 1968, when the song appeared, it was touted by the New Left as a political anthem. I came across these articles a few years ago while I was doing research for my article on John Lennon's "Revolution 9" (published by the subscriber-only Perspectives of New Music in Volume 46 No. 2). Lennon's song, "Revolution" (the basis for the sound collage "Revolution 9") had gotten slammed by the editors of the Black Dwarf, a group that included the now-famous leftist author Tariq Ali. (A prominent activist in the youth movement of the time, Ali, in his memoir of the period, recounts publishing the lyrics to "Street Fighting Man" in the Black Dwarf after the song had been banned from the British radio.) The BD editors held up "Street Fightin' Man" as a proper anthem for the movement, while labeling Lennon's as a cop-out, feeding into the Establishment's desire for compromise and incremental change. In an open letter to Lennon criticizing "Revolution", they said:
In order to change the world we've got to understand what's wrong with the world. And then, destroy it. Ruthlessly. . . . There is no such thing as a polite revolution.

Lennon's position was more complex than that--more complex than a pop song could express and more complex than he could really articulate at the time. But his critics were right: the message of "Revolution", on its own, is relatively simplistic and appears to be saying "revolution doesn't change anything, so why don't we just all sit down and have a nice cup of tea?" In interviews and in the dense sound collage, "Revolution 9", Lennon got more to the heart of the issue--he didn't trust revolutions and mass movements--didn't trust any authority at all, in fact, least of all the authority of a mass movement--to come up with a better society than the faulty one we already had. In a public letter replying to the editors, he said:
I'll tell you what's wrong with the world -- people, so do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until we change your/our heads -- there's no chance. Tell me of one successful revolution. Who fucked up Communism . . . ? Sick Heads and nothing else. Do you think all the enemy wear capitalist badges so that you can shoot them?

He wanted change, and wanted desperately to be a part of the change. But he didn't see how rioting in the streets was going to effect constructive change. He thought a movement to change people's understanding of who they were, to convince them of their power as individuals, would be more useful. It was a thoughtful view of a complex, volatile situation. As such, it didn't really please anyone. It certainly did not represent the message of the New Left.

Looking a little more closely at "Street Fighting Man" though--the song the Black Dwarf editors preferred--we find the message is not entirely as simple as it appears. The singer is in character, sympathetic, nonjudgmental. Jagger's lyrics and voice are full of unfocused rage, not cries for political justice. He's all about tearing down the kings, but has no care for why or what the result will be. Meanwhile the chorus ("what can a poor boy do/except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band/'cause in sleepy London Town there's just no place for a street fighting man") seems to be saying, "I feel like raising a little hell, but nobody else really seems interested in smashing windows with me. So I'll go onstage and yell there."

This is the nihilist, punk viewpoint, ready to join the crowd to smash down the buildings, with no plan to rebuild. It was a widespread sentiment and the very thing Lennon was afraid of. The speaker isn't interested in marching in the streets out of some political motivation or a class-based frustration or the dream of a better society, but just because he sees the violence happening elsewhere--he feels it in his blood--and he wants to be part of it.

Revolution is exciting. "Street Fighting Man" captures that excitement--the thrill of the human stampede, of the battle against the police, the storming of the Bastille--without any clear political position.
Hey! said my name is called Disturbance
I shout I scream I kill the king I rail at all his servants

Ironically, by choosing not violence but "singing in a rock 'n' roll band", any political position that could be read into the song is mollified into something that works within the system. "I want to participate, I want to protest," it appears to say, "but instead of doing it alone I'll just use the means that I have at my disposal." With that, the singer finds himself more or less in Lennon's corner.

That same corner, in fact, is where the Stones as a group always find themselves. The band has a career-long aversion to mixing politics into their music. They view themselves and their role more purely as entertainers--they channel the energy of the crowd into the act.

You can read comments by Jagger about this song in Jann Wenner's 1995 interview in the Rolling Stone. He speaks of it as a visceral reaction to the situation in the U.S. and France, comparing it to his quiet life in London. He mentions the Vietnam War and the protests to end it, the threat to the French government. He doesn't talk about the song as a personal political statement.

And in my opinion, it just isn't one. Jagger, always a clear-eyed chronicler of the hypocrisies of human society, was doing what he always does and just putting out there what he saw: This is part of who we are right now; this is what we do. Channeling the power of that observation into entertainment.

In the Wenner interview, published some 15 years ago now, he questions whether the song could ever be relevant outside of the context of 1968. For better or worse (or more likely, both), history seems to be proving him wrong about that.

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