Bloody Crossroads 2020
“Let’s go Brandon!” The slogan that has gained traction across social media over the last few weeks was in full display as voters came out of the gubernatorial elections in my home state of Virginia and boasted on their social channels. The open rebuke to the president that somehow they viewed as progress was more telling about succumbing to the lie of critical race theory and angst that manifests itself in resistance to vaccines, disruptive school board meetings and open calls to ban (or burn) books from school libraries. At a time when the president’s popularity has plummeted and his legislative agenda is stalled, the same Republican party that refuses to support an investigation around the insurrection of January 6 threatens to blacklist and harm its very own members who voted for the bi-partisan infrastructure bill. Welcome to the United States of Crazy.
Against this regressive backdrop it was a pleasure to step away from the country’s civil wars and to tune into a virtual book chat hosted by the good people of Book Soup in Los Angeles. The occasion was the publication of author Danny Goldberg’s Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment, And Resistance To Trump. (Akashic Books)
The premise of the book is that the collective actions of artists and entertainers helped a record turnout of voters to rebuke Donald Trump with a greater moral authority that prevented a second term in November 2020.
The discussion was moderated by actor, musician and SiriusXM Underground Garage host Michael Des Barres. Des Barres is the subject of the documentary Michael Des Barres; Who Do You Want Me To Be? that chronicles his long-running career on screen and on stage. It’s a long-running stretch that began in To Sir, With Love and across American television in such shows as Macgyver, WKRP In Cincinnati, the Rockford Files and Seinfeld. He is a self-described progenitor of gutter rock with his band Silverhead and made two albums with Detective on Swan Song, the label founded by Led Zeppelin. Goldberg was Led Zeppelin’s publicist who went on to found several record companies, led Atlantic and Warner Brothers for a time and has spent the last few decades in artist management guiding the careers of Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana and Steve Earle to name a few.
The friendship runs deep with Des Barres quipping that it goes back to the 18th century. Des Barres, revealed in the documentary as the 26th generational descendant of the French knight Marquis Des Barres, now fills our mornings from Little Steven’s Underground Garage where he savors rock and roll sides, eloquently extolling their virtues like vintage wine. Des Barres was an early advocate for masking and his social posts created a sense of community as we waded through the uncertainties of the pandemic.
While recent events have seemed unique to history, It was instructive how Goldberg placed today’s events in the context of history. Racist politics didn’t originate with Donald Trump. It was a manifestation of a long timeline going back to the years after World War II when Republicans took over both the House and Senate and introduced Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. It led to the era of black listing. Ronald Reagan, who led the Screen Actors Guild, helped to enforce it, says the author. When he ran for president his message was more subtle than Trump’s would be decades later. But it was no coincidence that Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi where he decreed that the South would rise again and his message of state’s rights was swathed in the undercurrent of white supremacy.
In Bloody Crossroads 2020, Goldberg points out that the election infused an army of artists who had previously not commented, raising a level of urgency and intensity and galvanizing a turnout that ultimately defeated Trump. While the role of entertainment was heightened in the campaign, Goldberg observes in the book “Most political media still tended to treat art and entertainment as a sideshow rather than a meaningful current of ideological energy.”
Nightly comedy emerged as a new currency in the campaign. Goldberg notes that there hasn’t been a great lineage of protest songs citing the late Pete Seeger who said it’s hard to make a political song you can’t hum. In 2020 it was the activism of young artists like Demi Lavato who, the night after performing the song “Commander In Chief,” wrote to her critics and ninety-three million Instagram followers, “You do understand as a celebrity, I have a right to political views as well? Or did you forget that we aren’t just around to entertain?”
The book details the author’s conversations with artists like Bruce Springsteen, John Legend and Rosanne Cash. He acknowledges that not all artists want to be political but underscored the considerable influence in a fragmented society where we no longer have three television networks controlling the narrative. There is the need for artists to use their own channels to counter a well-funded machine of the right and meet the ongoing challenge of turning out the vote.
Watching the two it was hard not to drift back through history.
In the documentary there’s a funny scene where Goldberg talks of how a photo of Des Barres got released showing a sleeping Jimmy Page. Page, the subject of the Detective song “Grim Reaper,” didn’t like it getting out and chided Goldberg for not protecting his image. But Goldberg survived the reign of the notorious Zeppelin manager Peter Grant and went on to guide the careers of artists and strike magic a few times on the way.
There’s a scene in the documentary where Des Barres’ former band mates from Silverhead come on camera like grizzled pirates who had been lost at sea since the Seventies. In the distant memory is the time he once filled in for Robert Palmer fronting Power Station at Live Aid in front of a billion viewers around the world. Des Barres, who doesn’t have the long dangling curls he incessantly twirled before going onstage when he fronted Detective, says that nowadays he fancies himself more like a Jimmy Stewart staying home with his girl. In the backdrop of his Zoom frame was his treasured Les Paul Gibson guitar.
As they spoke I made a note to go back and watch those old episodes of the Rockford Files where Des Barres was paired with Lauren Bacall and revisit Seinfeld now streaming on Netflix. My mind wandered. I remembered the time I prompted a discussion with Des Barres and Maureen Van Zandt on Twitter about what album we would bring to a desert island. Des Barres, who lives on Twitter and is prone to boast he hasn’t slept since 1972, immediately responded with Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. Van Zandt’s choice: Jimi Hendrix’s Axis Bold as Love. I offered up Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited. But Des Barres could see I was hedging. “C’mon Steve, you’re the one who started it. What’s it going to be?” I went with Blonde on Blonde and its four sides.
As moderator, Des Barres kept to the task at hand asking the inevitable question about what happens next. Goldberg, while savoring the forces that brought a democrat in 2020, invoked President Kennedy’s campaign manager who said there are no final victories. With no shortage of issues and a restless populace, the need to build a broad coalition against extended forces on the other side is a call to action. “We better wake up,” he warned. “We need to get the band back together.”
The next morning I put on Detective’s first album as I am prone to do every now and then. It’s hard not to turn it up as soon as Des Barres comes belting it out on “Recognition,” a gritty old analog recording and full of the r & b feel of late Seventies New York. It may have been a period piece and Detective a footnote in the annals of rock and roll but they captured something greater–and maybe it’s the sound of the famed Atlantic Records that distributed Swan Song. Dusting it off for a new era maybe there’s some gold still to mine as I’ve sometimes imagined a Nashville recast by a woman and the likes of a Carrie Underwood doing a sweeping treatment of the Detective gem “Nightingale.”
There was something Goldberg said about how his parents talked about the choices people made back in the era of blacklisting. Growing up my grandfather used to tell me about how America was an experiment and still young relative to history. Now forces are eroding the pillars of our country in plain sight. Within his analysis of the collective might that worked in 2020 is a message of hope that the author sees in the next generation.
For someone who came of age in the anti-war movement of the late Sixties, Goldberg looks upon the promise in front of him. “I am the parent of two millennial children,” he writes, “and am grateful that their generation is far more progressive than my own. I believe that young people have a unique moral authority in political matters because policy decisions affect their lives more than of the elders.”
As the program drew to a close, the old friends said their goodbyes.
“Thanks Mikey,” Goldberg said across the Zoom screen to his old friend who was 3000 miles away but whose Zoom made it feel like we were all in the same room.
I stopped for a second. Did he just call the 26th Marquis Des Barres Mikey? I suppose only an old friend could do that and get away with it They’d been through the trenches of rock and roll and lived to tell about it, a little older but all the wiser. On this night where we were trying to make sense of the world around us, a greater sense of history and a little wisdom went a long way.
For more information about Bloody Crossroads 2020, visit http://www.akashicbooks.com
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