Covering around a century, Music Is Power is a book by Brad Schreiber that takes readers on a tour of music that challenged social injustice and spoke to the masses during uncertain times.
Schreiber is an award-winning author, journalist, and screenwriter, whose past books include Death In Paradise, Becoming Jimi Hendrix, and Revolution’s End.
Music Is Power was released in 2019, and it is a finalist for a 2020 Foreword Indies Book Award. The book explores the impact of a number of musicians, including Joe Hill, Lesley Gore, Janis Ian, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, and Pete Seeger.
Over the next weeks, Shadowproof will release a series from a discussion that was recorded back in January between Schreiber and Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola, who curates Shadowproof’s Protest Music Project.
In the second part of this conversation, Schreiber discusses the impact of Jimi Hendrix’s iconic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. He also highlights Pink Floyd’s legacy and the ways Roger Waters has used the music to make political statements, especially in recent decades.
You can listen by clicking on the player at the top of the post. The book can be purchased from Rutgers University Press here.
Below is a transcript, with a few minor edits for clarity.
GOSZTOLA: You have a whole section in your book that covers Jimi Hendrix. Obviously, you get into the way in which he left an indelible impact on rock n’ roll music. He’s a black musician, but the way in which he records his music, there’s a post-racial element to what he does. I think you could probably argue that. And in fact, what you cover and highlight is something that is iconic from Jimi Hendrix’s life, which is the performance at the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in 1969.
It was the 50th anniversary last year. I actually wrote a little bit of a piece because I was curious. For the first time last year, I had an opportunity to go to Bethel, New York, and see this amazing site and how it’s just a natural amphitheater that everyone could gather in. It’s really the perfect place for gathering hundreds of thousands of people if there ever was such a place. But I ended up digging into how the people in attendance were responsible for imbuing the “Star Spangled Banner” with something that was hugely political.
It’s an interesting example of an interpretation of a song that is performed by an artist because of the moment in which it’s performed it takes on a political meaning.
SCHREIBER: I agree with you on that, and I would go one step farther. It was not only the people who saw Jimi perform the “Star Spangled Banner,” but it was also Michael Wadleigh, who created the documentary, “Woodstock,” so that the entire nation could see that incredibly powerful and emotional instrumental on the big screen.
Not surprisingly, a lot of musicians—I’ve read a lot of interviews of musicians, who say the first time they heard the recording of Jimi playing the “Star Spangled Banner,” they had tears spring from their eyes. John McLaughlin, the great electric guitarist who founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra after he left Miles Davis, is somebody I interviewed for Music Is Power. He told me he was just overcome. His friends were overcome when they heard it, the representation of the sound of bullets and bombs and controlled guitar feedback, not just noise but controlled guitar feedback that emulated the sounds of human screams.
There you go, Jimi Hendrix being one of the few people in the history of recorded music to make a political statement without lyrics. And if you ask me who has done that, there are certainly lesser known examples but not many. There’s a black jazz musician named David Sancious, who played “Dixie” (I wish I were in Dixie/Away, away), but he plays it in a minor key with synthesizers and other keyboards and it’s very ominous. So that is a political statement.
Isao Tomita, the Japanese synthesist, took Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and did an amazing version of “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst on synthesizers, and it too is just chilling and powerful. But other than that I can’t think of examples of pure instrumentals that make a comment that is political in nature.
And the irony, of course, is Jimi was already playing the “Star Spangled Banner” in club dates. I wrote a book called Becoming Hendrix. When we researched this, we found out he had fooled around with the “Star Spangled Banner” at club dates, and he probably played it 40 or 50 times live, but it was Woodstock, which of course was a huge event, and then Wadleigh’s film, exposing it to the entire nation and the world, that made Jimi playing the “Star-Spangled Banner”—
I don’t think it’s hyperbole. A lot of people say it’s one of the iconic musical events of the ’60s.
GOSZTOLA: Absolutely. At the same time, what it did for a black musician in 1969, who had rocketed to fame, who had this very legendary following already, he was immediately under this pressure to be this antiwar voice and to be someone. You could argue he came under the same pressure as Bob Dylan to be someone who could speak to all of this, but in fact, he really just wanted to play music. That’s the way I interpret [Hendrix’s] career.
SCHREIBER: I think that’s a very smart connection between Jimi’s reticence and Dylan shifting from the overtly political to more epic songs as it were. In the case of Dylan, he had so much pressure put up on him by society, and he also evolved as artists, as artists should be allowed to do. Then you throw in a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life in ’66, and while he’s convalescing, he’s starting to think of other ways to make music. Even though the folk people, the folk audience resented it, we derived a lot of Bob Dylan because of that.
Now, Jimi, I almost say don’t forget, but I don’t expect that everyone knows that Jimi was in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He had been caught joyriding in a car for a second time. He hadn’t stolen it, but the judge said, okay, this is your second offense. You can either go to jail, or you can join the Army. They actually offered that to people in the early ’60s. So, he joined the 101st Airborne paratroopers, did terribly, but in the process of being in the military, Jimi came to understand what we know today and what was talked about in Vietnam, which is the disproportionate number of men and women of color who join the military as a vocation.
Jimi used to write in symbols. He was never an on the nose kind of guy. One of my favorite songs of his is “Are You Experienced.” Not only for it’s sonic quality, but he was the only guy during that period, where there was a lot of drugs, a wider variety of street drugs than any time in US history—and a lot of psychedelic music, of course.
In “Are You Experienced,” he had the nerve to say “not necessarily stoned but beautiful.” He was the only artist who had the balls to say it’s okay to reach a higher state of consciousness through drugs, but it shouldn’t necessarily only be drugs that raise your consciousness. And that elevated consciousness is absolutely necessary to improve our world.
So “Are You Experienced” doesn’t mean, have you taken LSD? It means do you connect to human suffering, and are you willing to do something about it. For that reason, it’s just a phenomenal piece.
GOSZTOLA: Within the genre of psychedelic music and what evolves from it into being progressive rock music to some extent, you cover some of the music of Pink Floyd. Particularly, in our conversation, I want to focus on “The Wall,” as a concept and what was developed with Roger Waters being involved. In concert, this wall was setup brick-by-brick and incorporated into their performance.
I’ve had an opportunity, and I think everyone who likes music should see—it’s not the same as the live experience, but if you can see it captured in film form, the concert documentary of this “Wall” performance, and it’s a more recent performance with Roger Waters. To see the way that it was done and a representation of how it was all laid out, you can see this is one of the most important anti-fascist rock albums out there.
While it’s an intensely personal for Roger to have created, with some of the stories being so personal and tied to his grandfather and father, as far as all of us and what it means to us collectively, I think it speaks incredibly to the moment in which we find ourselves.
SCHREIBER: There is a channel called AXS TV, and Dan Rather of CBS does interviews. So here you have Dan Rather pushing 90, interviewing rock stars. But he’s one of the best interviewers there is, and his interview with Roger Waters—if anybody can catch that in reruns or on demand—is exceptional. You learn that Roger Waters’ grandfather and father both died in World War I and World War II respectively. So he was robbed of those relationships, and it, of course, shaped who he became in terms of a creative artist.
Before I get to “The Wall,” let me setup something else. Pink Floyd is probably the group in the history of rock n’ roll that spoke to more alienation and madness than any other group, more often and in an emotionally deeper way. The irony about that is Syd Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd, went mad. Now, there’s a question as to whether it was an organic brain problem that led him to what we assume was schizophrenia, although it was never diagnosed, and then it was exacerbated by taking lots of LSD, or whether the LSD created some kind of psychotic break.
So, I talk about that mystery in Music Is Power, but the incredible twist of fate is when they lost their leader. Now, it’s Waters and [David] Gilmour and the rest of the boys going, what is it that we want to do songs about? The songs that were written by Syd Barrett were charming little offbeat psychedelic ditties. Amazingly, after losing Syd Barrett, they cared so much about alienation and the loss of Syd Barrett, that they had songs like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” and we all know “Dark Side Of The Moon” was one of the longest charting albums in history.
Not only was it a beautiful suite of music, but it talked about alienation. It talked about a disconnection, feeling that you’re controlled from beginning to end. These are themes that are extremely important, especially to young people when they’re listening to music.
On to “The Wall,” it is a brilliant idea. It seems so simple that it can’t be profound, but it is because when you recreate a wall, it represents so much more than what we’re dealing with now with Trump’s wall on the southern border. It’s about barriers of sexual preference and color, socioeconomic differences, the difference between being a citizen and being the government. It works in so many ways.
Between 2010 and 2013, he did a number of tours of “The Wall,” Roger and his band. But the one I saw in Los Angeles, as they’re building the wall—this is so brilliant—they’re projecting the images of dead soldiers, not just in the Vietnam War but in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you’re seeing this continuity of lives that are lost in war, and you’re starting to think about what generates wars and who benefits and who does not. It was one of the most thrilling live concerts I’ve ever seen.
GOSZTOLA: I believe now—and this goes to Roger’s own activism—he’ll project images of the wall that was put up by Israel to keep the Palestinians out, that long barrier that is there. That’s part of his activism.
Also, I note that the music fits into just about any show that you would want to do to raise the consciousness of humanity because the “Us + Them” tour that Roger recently completed a few years back was about the refugee crisis and included a few new individual songs that he recorded for his solo album. But he did entirely, for the most part, it was tunes from “Dark Side,” a few cuts from “The Wall,” and then performed parts of “Animals.”
Pink Floyd is also responsible for this floating pig that Roger has used in his live shows to make incredible political statements for at least the last two decades.
SCHREIBER: You have a World War II fighter plane that “goes down” and explodes over the heads of the audience in “The Wall.” So, again, Roger is connecting to this incredible loss of his grandfather and father and the pig represents greed and the wall, as we discussed.
Right now, there is more mass refugeeism than at any time in history. There’s obviously a tendency for authoritarian governments to blame immigrants for the problems of those countries, and it’s incredibly tragic. Obviously, the United States is not the only country that is doing this and has done this. That goes back to Woody Guthrie, by the way. You know, “Do-Re-Mi.” If you ain’t got the do-re-mi, then you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
The Dust Bowl was in 1933 and a hundred thousand people a year tried to get into California and were turned away if they didn’t have fifty dollars. So, you start thinking about refugeeism as a tool of the state, to lay blame rather than accept responsibility inherent in the country.
Part 1 explored Dixie Chicks and Marvin Gaye. Part 3 will explore Black Sabbath and Gil Scott-Heron.