In The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron wrote, “It is always astonishing that a thinker should appear indulgent to a society which would not tolerate him and merciless to the one which honors him.” In a slightly more colloquial fashion, Eric Hoffer echoed this with his observation that “people who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.” Hold that thought for a moment; we’ll come back to it.
Recently, I was reading some old interviews with the members of Alabama 3, one of my favorite bands. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at parts like these:
I ask him if he believes that the Sopranos helped them to cultivate their outlaw image, something which reflects itself as clearly in their music as in their personal politics: “It certainly did. I tell you what – we never had any trouble at any gigs in America. We’ve certainly been known to hang around with a few naughty characters both in the states and around London…we formed Alabama 3 with a certain set of beliefs in mind and they’ve always been a part of us right from the start.” Although Larry also points out that they view a lot of the revolutionary spirit within their music as being reflective of a lot of the unheard opinions within UK society as a whole: “A lot of the time we’re not explicitly saying ‘go out and grab a gun,’ but what we are saying is, as our song goes, ‘Mao Tse Tung said change must come through the barrel of a gun.’ The messages are already out there.”
Most of the other interviews contain similar examples of typical rock-star radicalism, a sort of non-denominational Marxism seasoned with Romantic self-destructive decadence (or maybe that should be the other way around). I don’t expect my entertainers to be sensible or level-headed, of course, especially when they’ve written as many brilliant songs as these guys. It’s just that I can’t help but marvel at the cognitive dissonance involved in yearning for a revolutionary left-wing society, as if it wouldn’t immediately execute a bunch of drug-addled, antisocial musicians as socially degenerate elements. For all their clichéd complaints about the bourgeois stupidity of American and British society, at least those tolerate and provide a comfortable living for malcontents who would otherwise, come the revolution, be slaving away in the fields or dead in a mass grave. Ah, well. Hoffer also wrote about the mysterious alchemy of the human soul, in which the base materials of our flaws could be miraculously transformed into the precious metals of art and nobility of spirit — “the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.” Likewise, people who might sound stupid and trite when speaking somehow become inspiring when they pick up an instrument and sing. Only the naïve expect a harmonious symmetry between motive and result. I don’t need to understand how the ingredients combine. It’s enough to just appreciate the magic.