February 19, 2003

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Extreme Measures
By J.H. Tompkins

God damn

"All I want is pussy / Give me some religion."
Cody Chesnutt, "Boylife in America"

"Christ, because he changed my heart."
George W. Bush, when asked "What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with?" before the 2001 Iowa Republican presidential primary.

I AM CONSUMED by an uncontrollable need to blaspheme. An army of Christian crusaders has seized the nation's social and cultural battlefield and turned my soul into a roiling sea of oaths and expletives. I shout my defiance at the morning paper and the six o'clock news, at faith-based initiatives, and at politicians eager for war. I curse stubborn, narrow-minded leaders and their dim legions who in order to prove flat-world theories would blow half of the planet to smithereens. My problem isn't new, and when language hasn't been enough, music has helped me through, providing comfort as well as an offensive weapon.

I can't recall exactly what was provoking me in 1980. But I do remember the noisy, smart, outrageous agit-funk called How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, by the British band the Pop Group. I recently pulled my battered copy from a storage locker. I asked myself, How long? Twenty-three years and counting. Could the Pop Group of 1980 have imagined how thoroughly hope could be leeched from today's soil? Will our tolerance end only when we ourselves are victims?

Music in post-WWII America – rock, hip-hop, R&B, soul, all of what could loosely be termed pop – has often provoked the same dull wits that threaten the world today. Not the overtly political work of artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, the Clash, Rage Against the Machine, or even Public Enemy; the sore spots lie in the elusive realm of "human decency," standards of personal conduct most often relating to sexual mores and religious beliefs that evangelical Christian activists have forced into the public arena.

Elvis's black-inspired music, John Lennon's boast that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, Sinéad O'Connor's insult to the pope, rappers trafficking in violence, and, amazing as it seems, the drug-taking, free-loving '60s bands, forgotten by most people, matter to our modern-day thought police.

Robert Bork, judge and author of a bitter diatribe called Slouching Towards Gomorrah, is among those shaping the conservative agenda. He remembers the '60s, and he's still mad. In her book Political Fictions, Joan Didion describes the forces that drive him. "[For Bork] the problem with rock music," she writes, "was that it encouraged 'subversion of authority.' Bork was also quoted in the Washington Post by Michael Powell as saying Kenneth Starr was using his position to 'kill off the lax moral spirit of the sixties.' "

God didn't matter much in music back then. In some ways, that's changed. Prince introduced the liner notes shout-out to the almighty, but he was a strange guy, and I didn't think it would spread. In fact, the '90s became the era of the ritual genuflection: entertainers, politicians, athletes, all dropping to one knee in one end zone or another. I have lived in the nonjudgmental confines of the Bay Area for far too long. Religious fervor has swept the nation, and I was the last to know.

In this dark hour, I have turned to Cody Chestnutt, an African American artist from Los Angeles, whose irresistible collaboration with the Roots, "Seed 2.0," and self-produced, self-distributed, and bent solo debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, have provoked a furor on Internet bulletin boards that praised him and then – as the backlash generated by boredom and critical ego set in – unmasked him.

I'll say this: Chesnutt's sometimes lovely tenor and gift for melody provides more than a few good moments, and his songs touch down all over the past 30 years of soul and rock. Had he signed a record deal, his pitch and time problems would disappear. But so would wonderful bits of weirdness on songs like "Daddy's Baby," in which he sings in a sweet high voice, "Lullaby take this so you can sleep tonight," continuing in this vein before interjecting and repeating four times, "No worries no stress you lucky mothafucka."

No doubt "Boylife in America" would have fallen by the wayside, too. This alone – indulgent or not – makes me glad Chesnutt spurned the labels said to be courting him. He sings: "All I want is pussy / Give me some religion / A brand new Cadillac and a winning Lotto ticket."

I sent the album to the president, but he didn't mention it at the recent press conference (in the Indian Treaty Room!) announcing the formation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. What he did say was this: "When government discriminates against religious groups, it is not the groups that suffer most.... For the sake of so many brothers and sisters in need, we must and we will support the armies of compassion in America."

I don't believe America's discrimination problem has much to do with religion, and yes, I've spent some time discussing it with the television. But music has gotten me through bad years before, and it's going to get me through this. Cody Chesnutt might be tweaked and overhyped. But if the evangelical army stumbles across The Headphone Masterpiece, they won't be happy. And besides, he's got a great song called "I Look Good in Leather." That's enough for me.

E-mail J.H. Tompkins at tommy@sfbg.com.