It has been almost 80 years since novelist Sinclair Lewis set his most iconic ﬁctional creation, a hell-raiser turned hellﬁre preacher named Elmer Gantry, loose on an unsuspecting America. For a clergyman in his 70s, Gantry has proven to be remarkably hale and hearty. Op-ed writers and columnists lean continually on Lewis' parson to represent a uniquely American type: the fundamentalist hypocrite serving up corn pone and brimstone to promulgate a strict public morality.
As Democrats flock to Boston to nominate John Kerry for president, few surprises will await them at the Fleet Center. Today's political conventions stay relentlessly “on message,” and they serve as mere heralds of the home stretch of a seemingly endless presidential campaign.
A key part of that unwavering message is a recounting of party values and triumphs. And just as the late Ronald Reagan will provide a thematic touchstone for Republicans convening in New York City, Democrats will recite a legacy that extends from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton.
On the demo tape that won him a record deal back in 1991, Bottle Rockets' leader Brian Henneman sang a song about Neil Young. Fittingly, Henneman's portrait (co-written with longtime collaborator Scott Taylor) was more of a woodcut than a watercolor. “Neil once voted Republican,” sings Henneman in one verse. “And that pissed off a lot of fans / He's just a guy who gets confused / He's a lot like me / He's a lot like you.”
The song nails both the confusion and the common touch in Young's politics. Ecology, poverty, the drug, and Richard Nixon are recurring themes, but the overall impression left with the listener is that of a man striking a series of eccentric postures. It is the politics of the wet middle finger held in the air to gauge the breeze.
The Mekons -- punk rock's aging but irrepressible street urchins -- have yet to surrender to time. Holding forth from the stage of a smallish rock club in Northern Virginia on a recent March night, one could never tell that the band had started its career way back in 1978.
Their latest release, Punk Rock, is a grab bag of songs from the band's early years as art school punks in Leeds, reworked (or "worked over") into more sophisticated idioms. Many of these songs ("Never Been in a Riot," "32 Weeks") have been rarities for decades, existing only as glorious rock hearsay in the writings of critics such as Lester Bangs. After a few singles and three records, the group imploded into an arty mess of shards sometime in the early 1980s.