[Part of an ongoing series about protest songs; we'll resume 'regular' rock talk at some point...]
In 1993, in high school, I discovered Sam Cooke. I brought my CD boombox into the living room upstairs and lay on the carpeted floor with my head next to it. It was cold – California-winter cold, with a dry crispness even under the gray of morning’s clouds. Later it would be bright sunny and still crisp, quiet with no waves. Maybe later Mom would make a fire in the fireplace.
I had heard his hits, of course, grew up with them in the canon of American popular music that came embedded in radio stations and car rides and movie soundtracks and old records belonging to grownups. On my own, I came to Sam Cooke via a CD re-release in the 1990s of an earlier record (Night Beat) that placed Cooke perfectly between his gospel beginnings and his pop appeal.
And I was sold, entirely. I bought all the greatest hits compilations, searched shops for the original albums on vinyl, tried to sing along and realized there are some voices too good to sing with. I told my friends about the amazing vocal arrangements and the smart lyrics. I read books about 60s soul music and began a deeper discovery of other artists of the era.
It was on that floor, in the boombox, that I first heard “A Change is Gonna Come.” It’s a famous song, I learned later, made perhaps generic by its own fame at this point. This song, released in the early 60s just after Cooke’s death, became a frequent soundtrack to the civil rights movement. But to listen to it for the first time, closely, with your head next to it and the crackle from the carpet and the heater humming beneath its strings, is to feel its power– to understand viscerally how a piece of music can effect in its listener a feeling of change, even without all that context stuff.
The song consists of Sam Cooke’s purest-of-the-pure voice backed by dramatic orchestration. It builds and crests and rides an obvious sense of its importance. And it works. You can’t deny the existence of potential, of change, in the way Cooke revolves this phrase:
It’s been a long,
a long time comin’
but I know
A change gonna come.
Oh yes it will.
But here is what makes this song a protest song: it is personal. It is lyrically ambiguous; it mentions intimate events that could be read either as “small” emotional experiences, or large moments lived in history as they are occurring. This song never once mentions by name things like racism, segregation, economic brutality, violence. It never calls out the context in which it became a major song of the civil rights movement. But it’s in there.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to nail down a way to make art about politics is because we experience injustices as people, not as headlines or as slogans on cardboard signs. Cooke didn’t say, “meet me in Alabama and we’ll do some civil disobedience to fight for our rights!” He said, “I was born by the river in a little tent.” He said, “I go downtown and somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around.” He says it’s been too hard, living like this. So let’s not do it anymore.
And this happened:
In 1995, I went to Paris and a boy broke my heart. It was cold in Paris, colder than home but still possessed of that sort of dry precipitation less-extreme winters give us. The sky over pointy rooftops and grand facades was always grey, a few times dusting my nose with snow, but mostly just grey. I walked a lot. In an old woolen military pea coat I walked.
The faithless boy who left me there gave me Paris like I hadn’t imagined I could have it: entirely, mine, alone. And a general strike gave me Paris like I never would have it again, shutting down the subway, all but the fewest of long-distance trains, and even museums. Workers from every sector struck for weeks, delivering to me a city filled with people: people in numbers large on streets, walking, people who would normally be in taxis, walking; people who drove opening their vehicles to even more people, hitchhikers standing on every corner as the new image of rush-hour traffic…
There were no subways, no trains, and museums were either closed or closed early. So I walked around. From the apartment I found with a generous friend of my mother’s, located in the 19th arrondissement in an immigrant neighborhood on the outskirts of “central” Paris, I walked all the way across town. I crossed the Seine at least twice a day. I walked when it rained and I walked at 2am when it was not very safe and I walked in the morning when I didn’t know where I’d go that day. When it was cold or wet, I stopped and drank coffee or ate a kebab or crepe. When it was lonely, I stepped inside one of the many small repertory movie houses that dot the city, watching my old American friends Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood portray macho black-and-white versions of the romance and the home I sometimes missed.
I had a cassette walkman and just a couple tapes, and I would sometimes meet up with a group of students to play cards. Whoever won the first round got the walkman as a prize, sitting out the rest of the game in a headphoned state of musical reverie. This often took place in a ‘maid’s quarters’ apartment up eight flights of stairs with a bathroom in the hallway complete with pull-chain toilet. The view from the apartment was amazing, with Dickensian sights onto the peaks and valleys of external-versus-internal city existence: a corner of the Arc de Triomphe, a cat crossing a rain gutter, a woman’s profile steamed in distant bathroom windows, and the anciennes themselves, the Parisian buildings, each one older than the state in which I was born.
I listened to Sam Cooke sing “A Change is Gonna Come” and other songs out that window and other windows, moving, always moving around the city that winter in Paris. But it was “Get Yourself Another Fool” that I felt closest to at that time. As a recently dumped young lover, this was my personal protest song, a masterful breakup song to an oppressive situation. The song’s loving fuck-you lyrics and the ghostly organ beside them ushered away an era, a relationship, and a method of assumption now dead to me.
And this also happened:
It was in Paris on one of those cold grey mornings that I attended my first French demonstration, by accident. Turning down the rue de Belleville, I approached the Place de la Republique and even in the daily crush of urban bodies made thicker by the transit strike, it seemed to me that there were more people than usual. It seemed like they were wearing matching colors, some of them, and then I saw their signs and heard their chants. Hundreds of thousands of people, multiple mornings a week during that month, demonstrating against public sector cuts.
I remember the press of bodies feeling warm and I was feeling cold. I remember not really understanding what people were talking about. I remember being startled to see the everydayness of the protesters– people who looked like my friends’ parents and my friends and middle managers and cab drivers and mechanics and doctors (not nurses—doctors). As I pressed in to the heat of the crowd, the face of Marianne de la Republique poked over the crowd. Someone had tacked a sign on the sculpture’s chest that said “solidarité” and I wondered if that word means something different in French culture, where the concept of “brotherhood” and “equality” are right up there in the national slogan along with the classic “liberty.” Where professionals protest in the streets right alongside those who work for them. Where there is a middle class who feels comfortable shutting down a city to make their power known, who not only isn’t afraid to ask for more, but feels they have a right to. Where solidarity is a cultural quality, not just a term used within the specific context of labor movements.
I walked on, along my daily route, through the iconic daily existence of Paris. Past shady bars near Bastille where one night walking home at 2am, two young men tried to grab my arms and I yelled them away from me before running all the way home. By the plaza outside the Hotel de Ville where that famously misleading iconic photo was taken of that couple kissing, and by Notre Dame, whose minimal statue of Joan of Arc I would visit and sometimes whisper to when I felt sad and cold. I walked near the English-language bookstore of legend, Shakespeare & Co., where I asked a strange man for a light in French and he replied “I don’t speak French” in an New York accent and then later I saw him busking on the street and he sang better than Dylan and we became friends. I walked to the area around the Sorbonne as some kids broke the windows of the Macdonalds where I frequently went to use the toilet. Past the Turkish guys at the café I liked, and the closed-for-strike newsstand owned by the two Algerian dudes who always tried to talk to me about surfing when they found out I was from California. The streets were smokey, people were running, the beep-beep of European sirens blared. Snow formed and failed, and tried again to form. I walked.
And I kept walking. And I felt it, there, in a private moment of my own personal pain and in a public political moment: Something bigger. Something huge, if we can only do this in America – make our personal pains public and make them outraged and make them matter. It’s protest, it’s heartbreak, it’s something big that is also something tiny and inside you. Something like a change, coming.