They Got Fooled

Oh, Lord, sometimes, you make the fish so big and the barrel so small.

By now, anyone with both a pulse and a healthy sense of the absurd has seen the National Review's list of the 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs. It is entirely possible that someone has seen it and not laughed themselves down the hall, out the door, and into the street. (I didn't stop until I got to the Berkshires.) The author, a hepcat named John J. Miller, who apparently once spun stacks of groovy wax at the Heritage Foundation, a well-known Washington juke where he grew up watching such giants as Sunnyland Feulner and Blind Lemon Rector. He emerged from these humble beginnings to the position he occupies now -- the Alan Lomax Of The Beltway Buffet. I mean, it's not easy finding the essential conservatism of Led Zeppelin's “Battle of Evermore,” but our man teases it out of Robert Plant's addled Tolkienisms.

“The tyrant's face is red.”

“It's hard to miss the Cold War metaphor,” writes Miller, who perhaps has moved on to a study of those noted communist propagandists, The Cyrkle.

“The morning sun is rising like a red rubber ball.”

An Internationale for the bubblegummers, no doubt. And what about the captive Baltic states anyway?

Compared to Miller, Greil Marcus is Casey Kasem. I'm not kidding. This guy dug deep. He went SPELUNKING through these songs. In what may be a move to send Bono into seclusion for the next decade, U2's “Gloria” makes the list because it's about faith and has a verse in Latin. (What? No love for the “Rex, tremendae majestatis!” chorus from Association's classic, “Requiem For The Masses”?) Two songs -- “Der Kommissar” and “You Can't Always Get What You Want” -- that are wholly or partly about the difficulty of scoring really good dope make the list -- the former as a commentary about life in communist East Germany (where only the national swimming team got really good dope) and the latter, spectacularly, as a lesson that “there's no such thing as a perfect society.” Now, I guarantee you that not even Keith Richards ever has been stoned enough to interpret that song that way.

It allows him to slot The Who's toweringly apolitical “Won't Get Fooled Again” at No. 1, because of all the “disillusioned revolutionaries” haunting the gin mills and Legion Halls of modern conservatism. To be fair, he does seem to have listened to the song. He has all the right people playing all the right instruments. (Even though “Pete Townshend's ringing guitar” is right out of a Cameron Crowe starter kit. Do better next time, John.) However, alas, he seems to have missed every fourth word or so of the lyrics, perhaps due to “Keith Moon's pounding drums.” The song is a central piece of a song-cycle that can fairly be called Gnostic in its search for “the simple secret of the note in us all,” as “Pure and Easy,” the opening theme of the cycle, says. And, anyway, the great fun of being a Who fan always was the hock-a-loogie attitude toward monuments of propriety like, say, National Review.

It allowed Miller to establish once again NR's longstanding affection for the Confederate States of America with the inevitable “Sweet Home Alabama” and The Band's “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” While it's true that old WFB stood in spirit always with “the guv'nah” in that schoolhouse door, it's also plain that Miller can't possibly ever have listened to the devastation in Levon Helm's voice. Secession, as my friend, Roy Blount, once wrote, was a bad idea at the time and looks even worse in retrospect. Also, it's interesting that Confederate nostalgia rates so high as a conservative value that it rates two songs. None dare call it treason, I guess.

It allowed Miller to list some anti-government punk songs without noting that the government to which they were anti- was run by the beloved Maggie Thatcher. The freaking Sex Pistols as an anti-abortion band? The Clash as spokesfolk for adventurism in the Middle East? If anything can bring Joe Strummer back from the dead, this is it.

It also allowed Miller to find the only version of “I Fought The Law” that nobody's ever heard.

And it allowed him to include some songs that simply blow goats, to wit: “Pink Houses,” “Kicks,” “Get Over it.” Ghack. These are songs that get your car radio ripped out of the dashboard and hurled out the window. Miller is welcome to them, although he's going to have to deal with John Cougar Melonball personally.

It should be noted that Miller immunizes himself against family-values tut-tutting from his side of the aisle, and about 1 percent of the ridicule he deserves from ours, by admitting at the outset that many of the songs on his list were recorded by artists who were either “outspoken liberals” or “notorious libertines.”

Led Zeppelin? Notorious libertines? Who knew? Thanks, John.

This is how he can type, with a straight face, that “Wouldn't It Be Nice?” is pro-abstinence and pro-marriage, despite the fact that, at the time he wrote it, Brian Wilson was doing young ladies three at a time and Hoovering up Chinese heroin at an alarming pace, although it's possible that Miller sees Wilson in this light as having blazed the trail through moral consistency that Newt (“Got a cold, dear? I want a divorce.”) Gingrich, Rush (“Why Wasn't I Born An East German Swimmer?”) Limbaugh, and Bill (“Where The Hell's ‘Tumbling Dice' On The List, Anyway?”) Bennett could later follow. It also enables him to listen to the Kinks and be completely deaf to Ray Davies' sense of irony, which is roughly akin to listening to the “1812 Overture” and failing to hear the cannons.

I liked it so much better when conservatives weren't trying to be cool. I liked their, stern, iron-jawed parental disapproval of everything that happened since Calvin Coolidge blew town. I liked it when they thought it was all devil music sent by Khrushchev to take advantage of a young populace already weakened by fluoride in the water and Elvis on the electric television set. Becoming a young conservative meant you made a conscious choice to be the least cool person in your immediate social circle. You made a principled, rational decision to be a humorless little prig, and you were proud of it. People knew where they stood then. Now, though, we have boomer conservatives playing with popular culture and hurting themselves. Trust us, when you refer to some of the songs on your list as “little-known gems,” you're already pretty much blown what little cred you may accidentally have picked up on your shoe.

This is how we get Jonah Goldberg and The Simpsons. This is how we get “South Park conservatives.” This is how, a few years back, we got that completely hilarious sports issue of The Weekly Standard, a fall-down-funny catastrophe that actual sportswriters haven't stopped laughing at yet. It can be amusing, though, like watching a seal play the trumpet or, more precisely, like watching a fakir tie himself in knots and throw himself off a bridge into the raging torrent below.

Consider, for example, the bowline that Miller makes of himself over “Sympathy For The Devil,” checking in at No. 3, and described as “The Screwtape Letters of rock,” possibly because it has the word “devil” in its title, which would make the Duke basketball team The Screwtape Letters of next year's NCAA tournament. “The devil,” Miller says, “is a tempter who leans hard on moral relativism.” First of all, no kidding. “Sweetheart,” says John Milton in the Beyond, “get me rewrite!”

Perhaps flush with the knowledge that he's excavated a concept hidden in plain sight by 3000 years of religious tradition, Miller sails blithely on, “He will try to make you believe that every cop is a criminal/and all the sinners, saints.”


Of course.

In the song, the Devil SAYS that every cop is a criminal and all the sinner, saints. That's how he does some of his work here on Earth. Moral relativism?

Pleased to meet you.

Are you on mushrooms or what?

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer at The Boston Globe Magazine and a contributing writer for Esquire. He also is heard regularly on National Public Radio.