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Nothing Happening Here: Protest Music, Then and Now

You're feeling your freedom, and the world's off your back, some cowboy from Texas, starts his own war in Iraq."

So runs a line from "Some Humans Ain't Human," a song from John Prine's latest album, Fair and Square.

For Blanco resident Dave Collins, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam, that couplet was galvanizing. "I'll tell you, you can talk to a lot of politically active Vietnam veterans who became active after the war, and that one lyric describes the way a lot of us are feeling."

Collins says that it was only as the 1990s came to an end that the many of them had finally laid their troubles to rest. And then along came Dubya. "We'd established our careers and our families and buried our ghosts and demons, and we were cruising into late middle age and our early senior years."

The year 2003 was very tough, not just for the troops in Iraq but also for Vietnam veterans, Collins says. "Since 2003, there has been a huge spike in post-­traumatic stress disorder within the Veterans Ad­min­istration," he says. "For me, anyway, and I tell other veterans this, it was just exactly the way Prine described it. We finally thought things were going good and here came this shit."

The war in Iraq not so much picked at the scabs of many Vietnam veterans but opened fresh wounds. "It's a lot of things," Collins says. "It's watching the news reports and seeing yourself in those young faces. I spoke at the first [antiwar] rally in Crawford in the fall of 2003, and I told the audience about this photo floating around the Internet. It was a picture of a Marine rifle company in Iraq, and they had formed up to spell a message. And the message was 'We Remember 9/11.' And I told the audience that when I saw that message I wept."

Collins said that only the other veterans in the audience knew what he was talking about then. "I saw me in that picture," Collins explains. "Not in the sands of Iraq, but on the tarmac at Da Nang airport, fully believing that what I was doing was honorable, that I was defending the Constitution, the whole nine yards. And I understood what a big number of those young Marines were gonna be going through before it was all over.

"Not just the war, but more importantly, they were gonna come to discover that they had been lied to horribly, and that everything they had experienced had been based on a lie. And I knew what that was gonna cost them. I think that's a fairly common experience among Vietnam veterans."

In 2003, Collins reenlisted in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an organization he had joined in 1971 and mustered out of in 1973. Prine's song has brought great comfort and solidarity to him and his fellow vets. Such is the power of music.

Apparently, that lesson has not been lost on the ­powers-that-be. In contrast to the politically charged music of Vietnam era, the sound track to the Iraq war has gone mostly unheard.

And it is out there. Over the past four or five years here, I have been deluged with antiwar CDs, many from unknown artists. The vast majority of these have been terrible from opening note to final fade. Most of these singers hector and badger and let the message run roughshod over their music. It's hard to make words like "weapons of mass destruction," "extraordinary rendition" and "neo-con ­hegemony" ­really sing.

Some of the more famous examples of modern-day protest songs are almost as bad. Any list of these would have to include Internet/critical hits like Bright Eyes's "When the President Talks to God" and TV on the Radio's "Dry Drunk Emperor."

Sadly, the Bright Eyes tune sounds like a pill-headed 16-year-old pretending to be Bob Dylan, while "Dry Drunk Emperor" is little more than a babble of mock-­profundities scattered about on the feeble winds of a tuneless "soundscape."

Then there's John Mayer's "Waiting for the World to Change," which was a mainstream hit and actually is pleasant enough as a piece of background music.

Mayer claims this song was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. Yep, that's right. Mayer claims that lines like "One day our generation is gonna rule the population, so we keep on waiting, waiting for the world to change" were inspired by the guy who commanded his fans to "Move On Up" and told them to ditch self-pity in "We're a Winner." 'Cause, you know, that's kind of what, like, the whole Civil Rights movement was about, you know? Sitting back and waiting for the nice man to give you your 40 acres and a mule.

Given its sentiment of passive non­resistance, it's no surprise that Mayer's song is one of the precious few expressions of even mild discontent to slip past the ever-vigilant goalies guarding mainstream radio playlists. Another has been Green Day, whose American Idiot is more or less the exception to the rule. So far it stands as the only topical album of its era that is both a mainstream smash and ­actually good music.

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