I once believed in causes too

Prelude/Angry Young Man

There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl,
He’s always at home with his back to the wall.
And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost,
He struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross,
And he likes to be known as the angry young man.

Give a moment or two to the angry young man,
With his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand.
He’s been stabbed in the back, he’s been misunderstood,
It’s a comfort to know his intentions are good.
He sits in a room with a lock on the door,
With his maps and his medals laid out on the floor
And he likes to be known as the angry young man.

I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness & righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view,
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right.

And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.

– Written and performed by Billy Joel, 1976

From the album Turnstyles, this Billy Joel song illustrates the watershed moment when sixties idealism became a “passing fancy” and the practical world reinstated its dominance. And of course, by practical world I ironically refer to disco and cocaine abuse. I’ll return to one of those topics in a minute.

Turnstyles was Joel’s 4th studio album as a solo performer. The high point of the album (for me) was New York State of Mind.  That song represents Billy Joel singing from his personal point of view, where others, including Angry Young Man and Say Goodbye to Hollywood seemed more aimed to the strictly commercial side of the music market. Joel’s (and much of the generation’s) transformation is seen in the album cover art (below) from his first solo album, 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor to 1976’s Turnstyles. Nice tie, Billy! You have to wonder what would have happened if Billy Joel would have had a career with thoughtful and personal songs, shifting his career to pursue private “vision” as Bruce Springsteen has done. Instead he married and divorced a supermodel, wrote some hits and some very disposable songs, whined about the media a la Van Morrison, drank too much, and stopped recording pop music for 2 decades (one album of classical music was released in this time, and several compilations that Columbia Records put together to fulfill Joel’s contractual obligations).


Today Billy Joel seems to be in a pretty good place. But his career has to be characterized in the light of fighting back to find himself after selling his soul in pursuit of fame and fortune. Today he performs a little, writes for himself, lives a quiet life, and teaches in master class fashion. There’s a pretty extensive NY Times piece here.

And a video of the song:

Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind:

Turning back to the notion of an activist generation derailed at its peak, I cited two reasons: cocaine and disco. I guess we could add Quaaludes. Quaaludes were eventually removed from the market by reclassification as a schedule 1 drug, but I think their addictive properties were overstated–users felt relaxed, confident, and in love with the world and that’s a good way to feel. They weren’t for everyone because they were relaxants and some people were looking for stimulation instead.

Pot was the drug of choice for the later boomers. (As an aside, if my state legalizes marijuana then I’m pretty convinced that the boomers will revert en masse after 40 years of abstinence to the kind of stoned behavior that characterized the early seventies. No convenience store will be safe from the giggling, rambling, zombie-like crowds hunting for chips and a Slurpee while struggling to remember what they’d just thought of a second before.) Weed was supplemented by hallucinogenics like the mind-effing LSD and milder relatives like mescaline (from the peyote cactus) and Psilocybin (from certain mushrooms). But, as in the turn of the century, cocaine raised its wicked head. While snorting was the most popular ingestion method, the late seventies found highly addictive free-base trending. As a point of reference, Richard Pryor burned himself nearly to death in 1980 while free-basing.

At the height of this round of cocaine popularity, 10.4 million people used the drug (1982). Due to legal and financial difficulties, i.e. the cost of cocaine use was unsustainable, the number had dropped in half by 4 years later and continued to fall until crack’s rising impact around the turn of the millennium. Free-base is  high-quality smokable cocaine, crack is  low-quality smokable cocaine. “This round” refers to the way that cocaine use had first been rampant in the 2nd half of the 19th century. There’s a lighthearted examination of cocaine use here.

I call the transition period (mid-seventies to mid-eighties) the “Drug Wars.” Veterans will have experienced the high of being a part of a progressive youth movement that threatened to stop wars, promised to treat all people equally, and fought to protect the environment. Many will then have been distracted and derailed by the Drug Wars, and finally found themselves putting ideals aside to make their place in a world where the only valued ideals were selfish and capitalistic. That “capitalism rocks” mindset has guided us since 1981 when the great manipulator made his way into the big time and handed the country to the elites on a golden platter.

Today, progressive politics focuses on the Democratic Party, with the Greens considered as an afterthought. Both major parties were considered “establishment” in those days. Today, many progressives cling to the Democrats as the only hope, and anyone daring to call themselves a Socialist could be investigation fodder. Progressive Eugene McCarthy ran as an independent in 1976 and garnered 1% of the popular vote. Four years later Illinois Congressman John Anderson ran and pulled in 6.6% of the popular vote. Anderson had some appeal to progressives because he was a fiscal conservative and a social moderate who was bucking the entrenched power structure. The best the Greens ever did in Presidential politics was the 2.73%  Nader received in 2000 muddying the results of a contested election. While both parties today are far to the right of the establishment that the hippies fought there’s one thing that experience teaches us and that is that the pendulum always swings back.

As Woody Guthrie once called himself, I am, in the end, a “hoping machine.” I can’t affirm that this is the best way to be and I can’t deny that neck-deep in trials and tribulation I don’t cling to hope with a tenacity that defies reason. So while I struggle to live with the Republican-light sensibilities of today’s Democrats, I can still see that the differences between the two parties are meaningful. All change will be incremental. Obama wasn’t the Great Left Hope, but he was far to the left of Bush, the Destroyer of Economies. He put in for marriage equality at a critical time and it mattered. He accepts the drone war as necessary because he thinks it keeps us safer. He struggles to keep the safety net in place, pushes for access to higher education, responds to the needs of our fellow countrymen affected by calamity, and pushes economy-stimulating infrastructure projects with passion and impotence.

For a long time now, presidential politics has been plagued by weak candidates. Be it Dukakis, Kerry, Dole, McCain, Romney, or even the Gore/Lieberman ticket we don’t get the candidates that transcend the status quo. We keep watch for a lion who has the wits and charisma to shift society to the benefit of the 99%. Meanwhile, the Republicans continue to work to establish a theocracy, take food from the mouths of the poor and aged, make higher education unreachable for the masses, dodge fair taxation, and enjoy the only kind of government subsidization they can bear–the kind that benefits them.


If you wonder how I got from Billy Joel through the cocaine epidemic to GOP bashing, I consider questionable segues to be the hallmark of these writing exercises. And while I may be a step late for this particular Internet meme, I can’t help but laugh watching Jenna Marble’s “Thanks Obama” video.


What do you think about the IRS/Tea Party drama? I’d like to attack the issue from another angle:

  1. 501 (c) (4) organizations are social welfare organizations. Their primary purpose must be social welfare, not political campaign support. They are not taxed, and the donors do not need to be identified. The way to understand that non-disclosure piece is to think of organizations like NAACP and ACLU whose supporters might actually be targeted by nut jobs for reprisals. The courts have elected to protect donors in those cases. Today, it has become a way to pump money secretly into organizations that promote political views while stopping short of endorsement of a candidate.
  2. Why any political groups associated with the Tea Party or patriot groups are considered to be social welfare groups takes a pretty large stretch of the imagination. They are instead “dark money” groups (supporting both major political parties but mostly right-wing) that support not social welfare, but political issues. 501 (c)(4) organizations can contribute to Super PACs. Super PACs are a new kind of political action committee created in July 2010 following the outcome of a federal court case known as SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election CommissionSuper PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums (over $800 million in the 2012 election cycle) to advocate for or against political candidates (as long as they don’t donate directly to the candidate). Super PACs must report their donors, but the identity of donors become hidden by virtue of the fact that the money comes from a 501(c)(4).
  3. It was not prudent for the IRS to single out the applicants associated with the Tea Party and to collect donor information from them. The only ill effects for those groups were slowed application processing. While the right over-reacts and over-acts with their well-practiced indignation faces the key facts are lost. First, it’s the IRS’ job to make sure that the groups are legitimate social welfare organizations. Second, the quantity of these applications ballooned after the ridiculous Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision that money was speech and corporations were people and scrutiny was warranted. And finally, starting with Newt Gingrich’s “reform” of the IRS in the 104th Congress the resources of the organization have been challenged and their ability to investigate reduced. So now they do what we’d want them to do-protect us from those cheating with phony tax-free status–and they get slapped down big time. I almost feel sorry for them.

 The right’s persecution complex is in full display, but the idiom “no harm, no foul” might be the best way to process this fiasco.


Last thoughts. Where I live, in the Chicago area, we are seeing some pretty stormy weather. Even in the mildest of years the wind is something to be dealt with. Recently, I’ve noted a number of hats pursued comically by their owners as they roll down sidewalks and across bridges, and the public trash cans downtown are spiny with wind-mangled umbrellas. I recalled the Lou Rawls song Dead End Street and his monologue about “The Hawk,” and found this performance from sometime in the late sixties. The setting looks like Playboy After Dark.


1 Comment

Filed under Music, Politics, Social Issues

One response to “I once believed in causes too

  1. The problem with choosing the lesser of two evils is that eventually you forget that it’s still evil. Obama is not “far to the left” of Bush. THAT is precisely the problem. He continued many of the same problems and policies that Bush did. You cite one of the VERY few examples of a policy that he pushed forward, but that he fought first. Had he really meant that, he’d have come out fighting for it in the beginning. No, he simply followed, like he has on everything else. Obama is either a spineless puppet following the dictates of a someone else, or he is a Machiavellian evil right wing bastard. What he is most certainly not, in any way shape or form, is a liberal. Th Democratic party as a whole is Republican light, or center right, yes, but Obama has shown a callous regard for life, and a willingness to continue the economy destroying, supply side economic policies of his predecessor.

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