Sitting in my car in the traffic on Wilshire Blvd., I think to myself, how appropriate to hear William S. Burroughs “A Thanksgiving Prayer” in these days. A song released in 1990 makes more sense now that it ever did before (PolyGram 1990). It makes me feel this strange sense of appreciation, anger, hopefulness and hopelessness at the same time. Burroughs' murky monotonous voice with the background music that is just as dark and twisted intensifies the cynicism of his words. He talks sincerely and sarcastically and that's what makes this track perfect for a gloomy November afternoon in a time saturated with feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.
Dead Radio City was recorded in 1988, produced by Hal Willner and backed by John Cale (from the Velvet Undergrounds), Sonic Youth and the early 60s NBC symphony orchestra. The album (mainly readings from previously unread pieces) puts Burrough's acerbic tone to its finest and “A Thanksgiving Prayer” is, perhaps, the zenith of the album subverting the solemn tradition of thanksgiving, thanks the land of the free for bombs, AIDS, homophobia, domination over Native Americans and the KKK: a sinister mockery of the American democracy.
” … Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison…Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger… Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin leaving the carcasses to rot…Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes…Thanks for the American dream, to vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through…Thanks for the KKK…” reads Burroughs.
The words drill into my mind and I feel like I am more aware of my surroundings as I stop in traffic again on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood Blvd. where hundreds of protestors frequently take up the space in front of the Federal building to display their thoughts and expectations on the current socio-political events. From the anti-war, pro-war and the California gubernatorial re-call protests to the “Support the democratic student movement in Iran” and “Stop police brutality against Latinos” protests. I've seen it all.
I pass the Federal building twice everyday; once in the morning on my way to work and once in the evening going back home and I keep a good mental image of all the gatherings that I see throughout the year. Sometimes I hunk my horn and light up my headlights for them, sometimes I drive away pretending that I didn't see them, sometimes I smile and waive at them, and in a couple of occasions, I've given them the middle finger! In a cheap yet convenient way, that has become my way of expressing my thoughts.
I drive pass the Federal building and, in this case, I pretend as if I didn't see the protestors. At the very next traffic light a police car pulls up next to me and the officer looks over and gives me the typical everything-is-fine-and-I-am-here-to-protect-you smile and I, in return, do the thank-you-officer-for-protecting-us-against-all-evil smile. The light turns green. The officer takes off and I can not help but notice his “D.A.R.E. to fight drugs” bumper sticker and repeat Burroughs' words… “Thanks for prohibition and the war on drugs”!
A few weeks ago, at the same time that President Bush shook Schwarzenegger's hand as the new governor of California and a number of anti-American suicide bombers killed a number of American soldiers in Iraq, Travis (the Scottish rock band) released their fourth album “12 Memories” worldwide (Epic 2003). Travis's “12 Memories” is similar to their previous three albums in that they all share the same sentimental lyrics and the melodic rock and roll that had been missing from our lives for a long time but, different in its approach to portray the time that we live in now. The sweet love tunes of “The Invisible Band” (Sony 2001) have been replaced by the poignant melodies reflecting the violence and the hope for peace in a post-September 11th world, in “12 Memories”.
Travis' “Beautiful Occupation” is a bittersweet statement demonstrating an indifferent and media-obsessed America and the political choices of its administration. The band delivered a provocative performance of this song at this year's MTV Awards, where they appeared on stage alongside 130 naked protesters. The power of visual images has always been a vital element in the delivery of a message; after all, isn't that what MTV is all about? Travis used the center stage of the American pop-culture to critique the war, the media, the political censorship and an ignorant public.
Another song on Travis' new album “Peace The Fuck Out”, obvious in its title, puts the British foreign policy on the spot and criticizes Blair's decisions in supporting the U.S. in the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. In the words of Fran Healy (the lead singer of Travis), “[this song] is an open letter to Tony Blair and a plea to the people, saying: …You have a voice, don't lose it…You have a choice, so choose it…You have a brain, so use it.” The song ends with a live recording of thousands of Travis fans shouting repeatedly: 'Peace The Fuck Out'.
I've been playing “12 Memories” constantly both at home and in my car. Travis' music has this amazing way of drawing me in like a magnet and making me stick to it until something else pulls me apart and today that 'something else' just happens to be Burroughs' “A Thanksgiving Prayer”, which takes me far from Travis' romantic and sentimental way of dealing with the world's problems and into the blunt and sarcastic words of a Beat generation man.
I wonder if Burroughs would have added a few more lines to his thanksgiving prayer, had he lived to see the year 2003; a year filled with terror and moral decadence. Regardless of our political views and personal opinions, the truth is that our world has become a fragile place and we all, in one way or another, contributed to what has become the year 2003. Some have lost their lives, some have lost their loved ones, some have lost their courage, some have lost their dignity, some have lost their dreams and some have lost nothing but time.
William S. Burroughs finishes his thanksgiving prayers by offering “Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind their own business…Thanks for a nation of finks…Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams”; a hopeless disgruntled statement to everything that's been destroyed. Yet, there's a staggering notion of hopefulness in Travis's words: “Oh please don't give up…You have a voice, don't lose it…You have a choice, so choose it…You have a brain, so use it…The time has come to peace the fuck out”.
I'd like to think that I can trust Travis and believe that somehow with all the frustrations and ugliness that's going on, there's still hope for better days.