Above us only sky

Embed from Getty Images

Eddie Vedder stirred up a minor controversy at the end of Pearl Jam‘s 2014 European tour. Over the outro of ‘Daughter’, he got the crowd chanting ‘no more war’, before launching into an angry anti-war tirade, and then leading the crowd into the chorus of Edwin Starr‘s famed pacifist song ‘War’. It’s not the Gettysburg Address, but it’s undeniably impassioned (and red wine-fuelled). If you’re offended by the f-word, you may wish to look away.

So what the fuck? What the fuck? We can have this many people having a peaceful time. We can have modern technology. We can reach our friends. They know what we’re thinking before we’re thinking it. The advertisers know what we’re thinking before we’re thinking it. We have technology – all this in our hands.

But at the same time as something this positive is happening, at the same fucking time, not even that far away, they’re fucking dropping bombs on each other. What the fucking fuck?

And I get if war is the last resort, if they’re coming on your [word unclear]. I get it. You don’t want to be in that situation. But I swear to fucking god, there are some people out there who are looking for a reason to kill. They’re looking for a reason to go across borders and take over land that doesn’t belong to them, and they should get the fuck out and mind their own fucking business.

Everyone wants the same goddamn thing: live our lives, have our children, eat, procreate, draw a painting, make some art, listen to music, fuck some more, have another baby, eat, work, eat, work, love, love, love. Everyone’s the fucking same. So why are people at war? Stop the fucking shit, now! Now! Now! We don’t want to give them our money. They don’t get our taxes to drop bombs on children! Now! No more! Now!

You can watch it here, at about 4:10 – do listen to ‘Daughter’ before it though.

(Unsurprisingly, the comments section below the video is pretty lively; the small sample of comments that I read suggested that many are simply talking past each other – not unusual, it has to be said, for comments threads on the web.)

14-07-11 Milton Keynes

PJ, Milton Keynes, 11 July 2014.

The Jerusalem Post reported on the speech in an article in their Arts and Culture section that referred to Vedder’s “harsh anti-Israel diatribe”; acknowledging that Vedder doesn’t refer to the country by name, the media outlet saw in some of his comments clear reference to Israel. The West Bank and Gaza are often considered as separate (but closely related) issues, the former being run by Fatah (as the leading element in the Palestinian Authority) and the latter controlled by the terrorist organisation Hamas, and that conflicts caused by Israeli settler land grabs occur in the West Bank only; strictly speaking, Vedder’s reference to those who “go across borders and take over land that doesn’t belong to them” is inaccurate within the context of the tragic situation in Gaza, although within the broader context of Israeli–Palestinian relations it remains pertinent. Furthermore, Vedder’s comments, if one accepts they were made about the Middle East, were directed at both the Israeli government and Hamas: “they’re fucking dropping bombs on each other”.

Leaving aside the JP‘s failure to draw a distinction between criticising the current Israeli government’s actions and being anti-Israel, one can understand, not least because of the timing, why the comments stirred up the reaction they did. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been a long-running, desperately tragic affair, one in which thousands of civilians on both sides have suffered at the hands of military or terrorist actions. On the one hand, Israel is surrounded by hostile states, many of which refuse to acknowledge the right of Israel even to exist; on the other, those Palestinians not living in refugee camps in neighbouring states endure appalling and heavily restrictive living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. All the while, the two sides – along with the UN and other involved third parties – seem further than ever from negotiating a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict. The situation has worsened in the past two weeks since Vedder spoke out: the rockets continue to be launched at innocent civilians, Israeli forces have entered Gaza in search of Hamas and a series of ceasefires have failed to take hold. The number of casualties is already over 1000 (the vast majority Palestinian, it has to be noted). One can only hope that this escalation in the conflict will end soon and that meaningful negotiations can begin again.

All of which is a digression from Vedder’s anti-war comments, which were intended to refer to war in general and not one conflict specifically, and he reiterated this in a post on the Pearl Jam website. It’s worth reading in full, not least because he presents his thoughts with more coherence – though no less fierce moral clarity – than he did at Milton Keynes:

Imagine That – I’m Still Anti-War

Most of us have heard John Lennon sing

“You may say I’m a dreamer, … but I’m not the only one.”

And some of us, after another morning dose of news coverage full of death and destruction, feel the need to reach out to others to see if we are not alone in our outrage. With about a dozen assorted ongoing conflicts in the news everyday, and with the stories becoming more horrific, the level of sadness becomes unbearable. And what becomes of our planet when that sadness becomes apathy? Because we feel helpless. And we turn our heads and turn the page.

Currently, I’m full of hope. That hope springs from the multitudes of people that our band has been fortunate enough to play for night after night here in Europe. To see flags of so many different nations, and to have these huge crowds gathered peacefully and joyfully is the exact inspiration behind the words I felt the need to emphatically relay. When attempting to make a plea for more peace in the world at a rock concert, we are reflecting the feelings of all those we have come in contact with so we may all have a better understanding of each other.

That’s not something I’m going to stop anytime soon. Call me naïve. I’d rather be naïve, heartfelt and hopeful than resigned to say nothing for fear of misinterpretation and retribution.

The majority of humans on this planet are more consumed by the pursuit of love, health, family, food and shelter than any kind of war.

War hurts. It hurts no matter which sides the bombs are falling on.

With all the global achievements in modern technology, enhanced communication and information devices, cracking the human genome, land rovers on Mars etc., do we really have to resign ourselves to the devastating reality that conflict will be resolved with bombs, murder and acts of barbarism?

We are such a remarkable species. Capable of creating beauty. Capable of awe-inspiring advancements. We must be capable of resolving conflicts without bloodshed.

I don’t know how to reconcile the peaceful rainbow of flags we see each night at our concerts with the daily news of a dozen global conflicts and their horrific consequences. I don’t know how to process the feeling of guilt and complicity when I hear about the deaths of a civilian family from a U.S. drone strike. But I know that we can’t let the sadness turn into apathy. And I do know we are better off when we reach out to each other.

“I hope someday you’ll join us,…”

Won’t you listen to what the man said.

— Eddie Vedder

Support for Vedder has come from Krist Novoselic on his blog, in a balanced, thoughtful post, that concludes:

The people of Palestine and Israel deserve peace and prosperity. It is time to stop repeating the same old arguments, dogma and hate speech. It is the knuckleheads on both sides that should be criticized and not the singer from a rock band. In addition, both sides need to make hard decisions about finding a settlement to the catastrophe that is Israel/Palestine.

Thanks Eddie for sharing your feelings. I stand with you my friend!!!

14-07-18 EV Portugal

EV, Meco, 18 July 2014.

Since the Milton Keynes gig, Vedder played a solo set at Meco in Portugal, at which he covered John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, introducing it with reference to recent events:

If you’re anti-war it doesn’t mean you are pro one side or the other in a conflict. However it does make you pro many things … It makes you pro-peace, it makes you pro-human, it makes you pro-evolution, it makes you pro-communication, pro-diplomacy, pro-love, pro-understanding, pro-forgiveness. You know, some people don’t understand how you can be pro-soldier. If you’re anti-war, you’re pro-soldier, because you don’t want the soldier to be put in harm’s way to sacrifice himself or herself for no good reason. We’ve many, many friends of the group, and throughout our lives we’ve met, incredible people, in the armed forces, and we have an understanding, and they listen to our music and they get it. So I’m not sure. You know sometimes, if you speak out, people are going to misunderstand and they might take things a certain way or another. If you don’t speak out, you don’t know. If someone doesn’t like it, that probably means it has some kind of meaning. It’s not just bullshit. It’s not just nothing.

So this next song, … I think it’s the most powerful song ever written. Which is why I’ve never played it. It seems like maybe there’s a reason to play it. If you’d like to join me or use your voices or hold a light, there might be some people out there who need to know they’re not alone.

A friend of mine, who was at the Milton Keynes gig, said to me recently that musicians shouldn’t talk about politics onstage, that they have a responsibility to their fans not to impose their political opinions on the audience. The corollary to this is that a rock gig should be an apolitical affair, entertainment only. I fundamentally disagree with this, as I expect (hope) would Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Public Enemy, Pussy Riot and countless others. Politics has long been a driving influence in all forms of music: going as far back as for example, Beethoven’s symphonies and the substantial tradition of protest in folk music (especially at times when other forms of protest have been proscribed). Elvis Costello. Further, you cannot artificially detach the experience of seeing the music live from the intent of the music itself. Nirvana. There is no significant difference between an artist playing political music live and that artist discussing political issues between the performance of the songs. Bruce Springsteen. Or indeed, an artist discussing politics in an interview. KISS*.

And grunge music was notable for its revitalisation of the idea that the personal is political. Bikini Kill. That politics wasn’t just about what happened in Washington DC (or Westminster), but about what happened in your daily life and how people interact with each other within societal frameworks and accepted norms of behaviour. Neil Young. And no one is more aware of the responsibility of having a microphone in your hand and a large audience than Vedder, as he has himself previously admitted. John Lennon, The Clash, U2, Bob Geldof, The Manics, Mötley Crüe,** Steve Earle, PJ Harvey, Billy Bragg, Crass, Fugazi, Bad Religion, Living Colour, Propagandhi, Asian Dub Foundation.*** Hell, even the likes of Anthrax, Megadeth and Sepultura in their own power-chord frenzied way.

With immaculate timing, appropriately enough, an article by Daniel Barenboim appeared in this Friday’s Guardian. Barenboim, a world-famous classical pianist and conductor, has long been a critic of successive Israeli governments’ policies towards the Palestinians. In 1999, he co-founded with Edward Said the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an initiative to bring together young Israeli, Palestinian and Arab classical musicians and promote mutual understanding. In the article he reiterated “his longstanding conviction that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, and that the only solution lies in communication … “At the very heart of the much-needed rapprochement is the need for a mutual feeling of empathy, or compassion … We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights. Only from this understanding can we attempt to build a future together”.

Long may musicians continue to be political, and to be unafraid to express themselves. Politics should never be left to just the politicians.

28 July postscript: The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra played all of Beethoven’s symphonies at the Proms in 2012 to positive reviews – here is one of the Choral symphony. The Orchestra is back at the Proms on 20 August this year.

* KISS are political: they have always been open about their support for American capitalism and their wish to make as much money as they can out their music. If you think this is an economic issue only and not political, read this recent interview with Gene Simmons in defence of the ‘1%’, in which among other things he reheats some of Mitt Romney’s arguments (and erroneous facts) from the 2012 presidential campaign.

** Ok, maybe not Mötley Crüe, despite their sophisticated and insightful theories about gender relations.

*** The list could go on. And on. And then on some more. I’m not sure about more recent bands, giving away my age – please let me know any that I should add…


About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

4 responses to “Above us only sky

Share, if it makes you sleep, if it sets you free, if it helps you breathe…

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: