It was the unquiet dead, whispering in the dark, who set John Cobbett on his path.
In December 2001, Cobbett a longtime Mission District rocker and guitar hero with such notably heavy outfits as Slough Feg, Ludicra, and Hammers of Misfortune was on the East Coast visiting his identical twin brother, Aaron, a photographer living in Brooklyn, just across the East River from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center.
"I visited the site. It was at night and freezing cold," Cobbett notes. "I remember the sounds of the cranes and demolition machinery wrenching huge slabs of twisted metal and concrete from the wreckage. All through the night these eerie, mournful sounds reverberated off the surrounding towers. It was an incredibly haunted place."
The wound at that time was still so fresh, you see. But the grief, fear, and uncertainty were being transformed, alchemically, inexorably, into something very different: a television spectacle and a justification for war far removed from the dust, the heat, and the stench of burning corpses that Cobbett says lingered in his brother's neighborhood for months.
As the tragedy played out the dead painstakingly named and numbered, the TV newscasters falling easily into the cadence of wartime rhetoric Cobbett realized he had to respond. But the methods of political rock seemed far too self-righteous, and even patronizing, given the scale of bloodletting and demagoguery.
The way forward was finally revealed one month later, during the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, which included a performance by U2 and a remarkable moment of patriotic kitsch: at the show's climax, Bono, with the names of the 9/11 victims scrolling overhead on a huge banner, opened his leather jacket to reveal the Stars and Stripes beneath.
The crowd went wild, but for Cobbett it was shameless propaganda. The phrase "trot out the dead" leaped into his head, and music and lyrics quickly followed.
"I got so fucking pissed," Cobbett says. "These victims are rolling over in the superheated rubble below Ground Zero. It was so cheap and so tawdry. I decided, 'I'm going to take these motherfuckers to task.' "
Gloriously rocking and extraordinarily angry, "Trot Out the Dead" would become one of several jaw-dropping centerpieces of The Locust Years (Cruz del Sur Music), a record that took five more years and several new band members to complete and may well be one of the most urgent and affecting works of rock 'n' roll not to mention protest music produced by a band in San Francisco or anywhere else. It is the soundtrack to the George W. Bush years, a musical wail of sorrow and fury all the more overwhelming for its mythic metal lyrics and its seamless blend of prog rock ambition, hard and heavy bombast, and massively killer riffage.
If this sounds over the top, well, it is, a fact to which Cobbett gleefully cops.
"No matter how ridiculous we are, no way can we get more stupid and ridiculous than the real thing," he says. "No matter how grandiose I can get with a metal song, there's no way I can go to Iraq and start a war. No matter how sanctimonious I get, there's no way I could match what was coming out of Rumsfeld's mouth. The shit coming out of those people's mouths it was gold."
HAMMERS COME AND GO
One of five siblings born to a middle-class Rochester, NY, family ultimately sundered by divorce, the teenage Cobbett wound up in Washington, DC, in the 1980s and quickly fell in with the breakthrough hardcore scene of the era.