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"I Raq and Roll" vs. "We Can't Make It Here"

Two Houston-connected musicians offer up different takes on the war. One veteran tells Racket which he thinks is better and why.

Last Tuesday, the Pentagon announced the "America Supports You Freedom Walk" to honor those slain on 9/11 and the armed forces and, as the military press release put it, to "celebrate freedom."

This coming September 11, in Washington, a march will commence at ten in the morning near where the hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon on 9/11. (Oddly enough for an event that celebrates freedom, you have to show up early to register.) The procession will file through Arlington National Cemetery (where there is currently a month-long backlog of American soldiers awaiting burial), cross the Potomac and end at the National Mall, near the reflecting pool in the long, thin shadow of the Washington Monument.

And then they will have a good old-fashioned honky-tonk hoedown. Houston's own Clint Black will regale the marchers with songs. "I am proud and honored to be part of the America Supports You Freedom Walk to honor the victims of 9/11 and to support our men and women in uniform," boilerplated Black in the press release.

"Every year since the September 11 attacks, Americans have commemorated that anniversary," said Defense Secretary/concert promoter Donald Rumsfeld in the same release, adding that the walk and, presumably, the concert would "[remind] participants of the sacrifices of this generation and of each previous generation that have so successfully defended our freedoms."

And to "perpetuate the illusion that we attacked Iraq because Saddam Hussein personally ordered the September 11 attacks," Rumsfeld did not add. But you might think he did say that, because star attraction Clint Black seems hell-bent on making that case. Or at least he did back in 2003, when he wrote the song "I Raq and Roll."

Now, you might think that title is one of the dumbest declarations you've ever seen, but just wait until you hear the lyrics. Here's one chorus: "I rock, I rack 'em up and I roll / I'm back and I'm a high tech GI Joe / I've got infrared, I've got GPS and I've got that good old fashioned lead / There's no price too high for freedom / So be careful where you tread." (Notice how Black didn't embarrass his buddy Rumsfeld by having his soldier boast about his thin-skinned Humvee?)

Elsewhere amid that jingoistic claptrap, Black mutters that if "they won't show us their weapons, we might have to show them ours." (Did Ty Herndon co-write this? Inquiring minds want to know.) And he's not done bragging about our high-tech gear: "It might be a smart bomb / They find stupid people too / And if you stand with the likes of Saddam / One just might find you." (Or in other words -- "My daddy's bigger than your daddy and he can beat your daddy up.")

Okay, so that is what's going on this September 11. Now for a more important question. Why? Why will Clint Black be spouting his rootin' tootin' "I Raq and Roll" on the Washington Mall this September 11?

Take it away, FAQ section of the event's Web site: "Since September 11, 2001, the Pentagon has provided citizens with opportunities to commemorate September 11 in meaningful ways. The America Supports You Freedom Walk is the fourth September 11 commemorative activity sponsored by the DoD. The goal for the 5th anniversary in 2006 is for each state to host a Freedom Walk in order to provide an opportunity for as many citizens as possible to reflect on the importance of freedom."

Is it just me, or does that smack of a North Korean directive from the Dear Leader? And man, does the city of Houston have to get involved in every aspect of this war? Is it not enough that the commander-in-chief used to live here (and his parents still do) and that KBR and Halliburton, two of the main profiteers of this fine little mess, are based here? And now Clint Black is the official Rumsfeld-approved Gulf War II/Remember 9/11! entertainer. Great. The two-thirds of the country that is anti-war now must really get warm and fuzzy when they think about Houston.

What those people might not realize is that a trio of artists with strong Houston ties is also at the forefront of the Americana anti-war movement. Steve Earle once told me that he regarded Houston as the place where he formed as a musician, and his anti-war views are very well-known. Now, two more -- Rodney Crowell and James McMurtry -- have joined in. Crowell's politically charged The Outsider came out this week, and McMurtry's Childish Things will be out on September 6.

We'll get to Crowell's album in a couple of weeks when he comes through town. As for McMurtry, he says that the war has made a protester out of him, pretty much against his will. "I've always been a little put off by activists," he says in the press release that comes with Childish Things. "So you know it's a dire situation when I have to become an activist myself."

Last year, in the run-up to the presidential election, McMurtry cut and recorded "We Can't Make It Here." Folks, this is a great, great song, everything that the name "Americana" should evoke, by which I mean an artful presentation of what ordinary Americans see, hear and think in today's America. And sadly, all too often today what you see, hear and think makes us desperate, depressed and/or nervous. The song reflects on good jobs vanishing to faraway lands, homeless veterans begging in the streets, gang graffiti on boxcar doors, a war raging on our TV sets, credit card bills we can't pay, syringes lying in gutters...Who but the most sheltered suburbanite doesn't see stuff like that every day?

"That's the one the vets had me come sing," McMurtry says. I caught up with him the day after he had gone to Crawford to drop off a camcorder and a tent for Cindy Sheehan's supporters outside of Dubya's ranch. A couple of days before that, he had been asked to play at the Veterans for Peace convention in Irving. McMurtry says the media's coverage of both of these events has been suspect -- most sources fail to mention that many of the anti-war protesters at these events are vets as well.

In Irving, McMurtry met 25-year-old combat veteran Mike Hoffman, the co-founder of IVAW (Iraq Veterans against the War). McMurtry said Hoffman has lived pretty much every aspect of "We Can't Make It Here," which is less a song about the war itself than it is about the shattered lives of the people who are fighting it. "He grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and his dad worked at Bethlehem Steel his whole life and had a host of health problems from breathing that shit," he says. "So he doesn't work anymore. Mike didn't have the grades to get in to college after high school. Bethlehem wasn't hiring and Mack Truck -- the only other big factory in town -- closed down after NAFTA when they moved all their production to Mexico. So he went into the Marines. He said it was like rolling the dice or spinning the roulette wheel -- you hoped you could get in and out before the next war and get some skills.

"And he missed that by two days. Two days before he was gonna get out, the sergeant called him in and told him that a stop-loss order had been issued and nobody was going home and everybody was gonna go to Iraq. So he goes, and then when he gets back home, the whole world comes apart. Bethlehem declares bankruptcy, his dad lost his pension and all his benefits that he had put his life in. All of a sudden they are faced with things like, 'Do we pay the mortgage or pay for the medicine?' So his life imitates my art in a big way."

So perhaps it's no big surprise to learn that Hoffman is a big fan of the song. "Yeah, I did kinda live that song, and I think a lot of people at the Veterans for Peace conference had gone through what he was talking about in it. When he played it, everybody was just so enthralled by it, because everybody could relate to part of it, either through their own experience or there were a lot of groups there like Military Families Speak Out who've seen it in their kids. Or people who've seen it in their friends. It really brought all of that together."

And what did he think of the America Salutes Your Freedom Walk? What does this real-life "high-tech GI Joe" think of "I Raq and Roll?"

"Yeah, Clint Black. Don't even..." The scorn in Hoffman's voice is almost palpable. "Yeah. All that 'Shock'n Y'all' and 'I Raq and Roll' just made me sick. You know, I kinda lump that stuff in with all that other stuff that's going on -- like that new Fox show Over There. For me, that stuff is almost like war profiteering. These people are making money off the fact that me and my friends are getting shot at and killed over there. It drives me nuts! There's this whole new form of war profiteering -- today, it's not just people making money off selling the government bullets and bombs, it's people making money off the war itself through 'artistic' things. I've got an e-mail account absolutely full of people asking me to help with a reality show about returning war veterans. It just makes me absolutely sick to see these things."

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