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Digression on a Monster

I recently attended my 30-year high school reunion. (Yes, I’m that effin’ old!) As I listened to a couple classmates blather on about how we should “turn Iraq into a parking lot” because of what “they” did on 9-11 (gee guys, I don’t remember there being any Iraqis on those planes), I started thinking about how our political views are formed. For me, it wasn’t family or community influence. After all, my parents were active in the dominant county GOP and adored Nixon (against whom Dubya competes for most despicable president of all time). I think it was the news and mass media that perhaps influenced me the most and certainly music had a great impact. As I thought music I recalled listening to when my views were being formed, one continued to come to mind — a tune called “Monster” by Steppenwolf.

On the original album of the same name released in 1969, “Monster” is actually part of a three-tune composition. “Monster” reviews the history of the United States to a point where “its protectors and friends have been sleeping” and it’s become “a monster and will not obey.” “Monster” segues into “Suicide,” a commentary on then-current state of affairs. What is frightening or disheartening or depressing is much of it could have been written today (just as you would be hard-pressed to limit the words to Jackson Browne’s “Lives In The Balance” to the Reagan policies it condemned). Among the lyrics that strike me as sadly pertinent today are:

The cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin’ the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can’t understand
We don’t know how to mind our own business
‘Cause the whole world’s got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who’s the winner we can’t pay the cost

“Suicide” segues into “America,” which repeatedly inquires, “America, where are you now? Don’t you care about your sons and daughters? Don’t you know we need you now? We can’t fight alone against the monster.”

This was followed by a song called “Draft Resister” (whose protagonist actually is an Army enlistee who deserts to Sweden). Then came “Power Play,” whose opening lyrics were “What gives you the right hey you/To stand there and tell me what to do/Tell me who gave you the power?” Since this was the days of vinyl, these roughly 18 minutes completed one full LP side. And while I would be among the first to admit that this was not the apex of rock songwriting or musicianship, it went far beyond folky protest tunes. This was straightforward rock n roll with some of the most strongly expressed, no holds barred political commentary I had heard.

I vividly remember staying up late in my parents’ basement hoping to catch Monster/Suicide/America on a late night weekend show called “Beaker Street” that boomed out of a 50,000-watt AM station. (My memory says it was on KOMA out of Oklahoma City but the linked interview and other sources indicate it was KAAY out of Little Rock). Here was access not only to political ideas but rock music that just wasn’t common or readily available around here.

The historical context cannot be overlooked. The album was released in October 1969. It seemed society had become highly politicized in the preceding year or so. There was the tumult of 1968, including the Kennedy and King assassinations, the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Nixon’s election. In addition to the ongoing and increasing uproar over Vietnam, the album was being released almost contemporaneously with the trial of the Chicago 7 and the beginning of the Weathermen. Thus, not only did Monster reflect a highly political period in time, it fell on young, fertile ground. It’s sad that it remains relevant today.

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