|365 Artists in 365 Songs: Day 5 (See How We Are)
May 1, 2020
I imagine that one of the great challenges of being a rock/pop musician is the unwillingness of your fans to let you mature. All fans have done this. We proudly assert that we were there when REM was touring in support of Murmur, which is infinitely better than the mainstream Document; we have argued endlessly that the bluesy sound of the first Dire Straits' album represented their true roots and not the poppy, full-on sound of Making Movies or Brothers In Arms; we have criticized The Clash when they had the audacity to use Sandy Pearlman, that guy who was producing all the Blue Öyster Cult albums, as the producer for Give 'Em Enough Rope. WTF?
For punk musicians, this seems the harshest limitation of a career path. The poor Clash were being criticized by their second album for selling out! X, the premier American West Coast punk band, actually stayed true to their punk origins for three great albums, but were attacked later, when they tried to mature with more traditional rock and roll records and broader lyrical range. Even with minor breakthroughs in AM/FM radio, their fan base generally criticized Ain't Love Grand and See How We Are. Both albums have some good songs, and, frankly, See How We Are's title track stands up there with any of their early songs. It shouldn't be lost in this stupid debate about staying to one's roots vs. selling out.
The reality is those early X songs reflect the anger and arrogance that is youth, spewing about social, racial, and any other injustice with a venom that is hard to ignore. That is perfectly fine, but punks, as well as all musicians, should be allowed to mature and convey deeper emblems of the anger and arrogance.
Take the high society racism and classicism that was at the heart of every X song from their first album Los Angeles. The title track throws racism and prejudice out in the form of a slap across the face: "she started to hate every n***** and every Jew/every Mexican that gave her a lot of shit/every homosexual and the idle rich." Every 18-year old fervently opposed to discrimination (or as we have seen with punk, even those devoted to discrimination) could embrace those lines.
However, "See How We Are" sparkles with more indirect references to the racism of mainstream society. If "Los Angeles" slaps you, "See How We Are" pokes you in the side. The second I moved to Detroit in the early 90s, the line "now that highway's cutting through/and you all gotta move/this bottom rung ain't no fun at all" resonated in a way that anyone who didn't live in a major urban area would ever understand. I am not sure I comprehend "Now fires and rockhouses and grape-flavored rat poison/are the new trinity/for this so-called community." I may not understand it, but damn I love it.
The "See How We Are" version I like is off of X's Beyond And Back compilation. It is a demo that I can't find a link to anywhere (the link below takes you to the "safer" album version). Maybe X did sell out if someone convinced them the last line below was too incendiary, since it is a subtler version of the "every Mexican that gave her a lot of shit" on "Los Angeles."
Last night in nightspot where things ain't that hot/
My friend said 'I met a boy and I am in love.'/
I said 'oh, really, what's this one's name.'/
She said, 'his first name is homeboy.'/
I said, 'could his last name be trouble?'/
See how we are/
Ah, homeboy, isn't that a Mexican name?
With that, the inherent ugliness of racism sprouts its head. In some live versions, singer John Doe asks in that last line if that is "one of those south-central ghetto names," which may be even more subtle in its nod to racism. In today's world, I find the direct Mexican reference all the more powerful about some people's underlying perceptions.
Throughout it all, the beauty of X is the vocal interplay between John Doe and Exene Cervenka, whose lovely voice shows up, almost as if catching up to Doe's, through some of the song's most memorable lines: "chiclets with no shoes on their feet," "ain't no fun at all," "for the so-called community," "why I can't be there," "and comb your hair," "could his last name be trouble," and then soars as "See how we areeeeeeeeee" provides an emotional intimacy that was the highlight of those early X songs.
In some ways, the "we" in this song does seem to be the band. It's sad that so few chose to see who they were by this album.
"See How We Are." X. See How We Are. Elektra. 1987. Link, even if the safe album version.
Day 4: Tanya Donelly "Oh Me Of Little Faith."
Day 6: Blondie "Picture This." ->
See full unfinished list here.