Dark lyrics from The Clash, Bob Dylan, and the Mothers of Invention are a fine way to deal with America's dark days, says Tom Sinclair

By Tom Sinclair
September 28, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Clash: Caroline Coon/Retna

Song lyrics offer a way to cope with tragedy

”I’m about to get up sick/I been watchin’ my TV/I’ve been checkin’ out the news until my eyeballs fail to see/I mean to say that every day is just another rotten mess/And when it’s gonna end, my friend, is anybody’s guess.” — ”Trouble Every Day,” the Mothers of Invention (1966)

A week after our world was turned upside down, I found that old Mothers ditty running through my head for the first time in umpteen years. Frank Zappa wrote it about the racial riots in Watts in the ’60s, but I found the mood of the song strangely in keeping with my own: downcast, bitter, disgusted, sad.

For me, music has always been a friend in adversity. Lyrics, riffs, melodic fragments, ”messages” — there are a truckload stored inside my brain (”Need a dumptruck, mama, to unload my head,” sang Bob Dylan), and they spring forth as needed. Of course, there are plenty of songs to exorcise mental torment and soothe broken hearts, but relatively few that deal with the random destruction of 6,000-plus innocent lives. Oh, I suppose it’s nice that Whitney Houston’s ”Star Spangled Banner” is getting airplay, and I enjoyed a lot of the musical performances on the September 21 ”Heroes” telethon. Still, the music that speaks most emphatically to me right now is a little… tougher: Stuff like ”Trouble Every Day,” Dylan’s ”Masters of War,” the Clash’s ”London’s Burning,” and Black Sabbath’s ”Paranoid” — songs that vividly capture the vibe of this particularly horrendous time in American history.

As I absorb the ramifications of George Bush’s recent address to the nation — we’re at war — I can’t help but flash on another great tune from the Clash’s first album, ”Hate and War.” It seems even more apt now than when I first bonded with it as a screwed-up young malcontent some twenty-odd years ago: ”Hate and War/The only things we’ve got today/And if I close my eyes/It will not go away/We have to deal with it/It is the currency.” Like they used to say on ”Rocky & Bullwinkle,” truer words were never spoken.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t advocate that everyone adopt my dark-music-for-dark-times aesthetic. I believe each of us must turn to the art that provides the greatest emotional sustenance, and Lord knows we need emotional sustenance now. There’s been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the relative triviality of music — all entertainment, really — in the face of the horror we’ve just experienced. Indeed, this tragedy has given new meaning to the words ”guilty pleasure.” When, we wonder, will it be seemly to put on a record, go to a movie, read a novel?

The only answer: Any time you need to. And right now, I need to hear ”Trouble Every Day” again: ”I’m watchin’ and I’m waitin,/Hopin’ for the best/Even think I’ll go to prayin’, every time I hear ’em sayin’/There’s no way to delay that trouble comin’ every day.”

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