Dave Marsh

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 31, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is one of America’s most respected music journalists, Dave Marsh. Great to have you here.

Dave Marsh: It’s nice to be here, Ken.

Paulson: I think I have more of your books than any other author in my entire library.

Marsh: Man, we gotta get you the complete Oxford Dickens. That’s what I have.

Paulson: You’re pretty prolific.

Marsh: Yeah, I am. Or I have been. You know, I’m slowing down a little bit, trying to — things get more complicated as you go along. But, yeah, I’ve done a lot of books.

Paulson: And you continue to publish Rock and Rap Confidential.

Marsh: Yeah, once a month for 20 years for no money, and still we pay for ourselves.

Paulson: That’s great, and that’s really about politics and music and the intersection of those.

Marsh: Yeah, and I think with the — you know, I mean, one reason why I’m glad to be here is because one of our focuses always has been on freedom of speech and freedom of expression and, and an end to hysteria about people speaking their mind.

Paulson: Right. We want to talk about that, and we want to talk about how rock ‘n’ roll makes people crazy, and it leads to —

Marsh: I know about that.

Paulson: But, I’ve read a lot of, as I said, a lot of your books, and I’ve read quite a bit about you. And people look for ways to describe you, and you’ve got one of the coolest titles in your biography: “‘Louie, Louie’ Expert.” Every song should have an expert. I’d like to be the expert on “You Really Got Me.” That would be, that would be my choice.

Marsh: Well, that’s just a subsection of being an expert on “Louie, Louie” —

Paulson: That’s true.

Marsh: — ’cause “You Really Got Me” is “Louie, Louie” —

Paulson: That’s right.

Marsh: — with different words.

Paulson: Well, I would specialize. It would be a subtopic.

Marsh: Yeah. You know, you get all the Ray Davies interviews.

Paulson: That’s right.

Marsh: Good luck. It’s like pulling teeth.

Paulson: This is a really entertaining book: Louie, Louie. It is the history and mythology of the world’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll song, as it says. And it’s a great read, and it also illustrates sort of the intersection of the First Amendment, free speech, and real crass commercialism in the form of a 45. All comes from a song by a guy named Richard Berry. What happened with this song after it was written?

Marsh: Richard Berry was an R&B singer in Los Angeles. Deep voice, bass singer. If people know “Riot in Cell Block Number 9,” that’s him saying, you know, “Roll Out the .38s,” or whatever it is. He wrote a song that was sort of based on “One for My Baby” and “One More for the Road” — you know, “Set ‘Em Up, Joe” — and sort of based on Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” and sort of based on a bunch of things like that about this Jamaican sailor who’s longing for his girlfriend and wants to get home. And the bartender’s name is Louie. So he says, “Louie, Louie, we gotta go.” These kids in Seattle pick it up — not the Kingsmen; they were in Portland. A band called the Wailers. And they transform the thing — “Louie, Louie,” the Richard Berry version’s kind of slow, kind of almost calypso. And the kids in Seattle pick it up and turn it into a rock song and yell out in the middle of it, “Let’s give it to him right now!” And every band in the Pacific Northwest starts doing the song. And, and this sort of just group of high school kids notices that the Wailers’ version’s on a jukebox someplace where they are, so they learn it off the jukebox. They don’t even have a copy at home. None of them really know the words, the chords, or anything. They go in and make a one-take garage recording, which, by a variety of comic circumstances, becomes this huge hit record. It goes to number two. Number one was “Dominique” by the singing nun, Soeur Sourire. Well, the reason it went to number two, or the reason it got to be so big, one of the circumstances was that some group of kids in a fraternity house in Miami, Ohio, somehow called — and I don’t know why they didn’t call the governor of Ohio — maybe he wasn’t a sucker — the governor of Indiana, who sends out a memo basically asking all the radio stations in the state not to play the record, which did two things. First of all, it was, like, an overt act of censorship, which he didn’t understand. And of course that made everybody who wasn’t in Indiana play the record more. And secondly, it initiated investigations by the FCC, which didn’t go very far — they’re the ones who came to the conclusion that “Louie, Louie” is unintelligible at any speed — and the FBI, which went on for almost 30 months, which is really kind of the crux of my book, is this, this ridiculous FBI, you know, investigation, which actually has memos from J. Edgar Hoover about “Louie, Louie.” ITOM: Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material. That’s the law under which they were gonna prosecute these guys.

Paulson: And it was multiple cities investigating it, right?

Marsh: Oh, yeah, they were in Chicago. I mean, I’m sorry — they were in L.A., they were in New York, they were in Detroit, because — which is where I’m from. You know, it was like they could see Iggy Stooge coming, Iggy Pop, I guess he is to everybody else. You know, they could see Iggy and the Stooges — they could see the MC5 coming if they didn’t squelch this right, right now. But they go to Richard Berry, and they say, “OK, you got this dirty song. You’re going to jail for writing a dirty song.” Richard’s like, “Wait a minute — here’s the lead sheet. You know, here are the lyrics. You know, what are you gonna put me in jail for? It’s about a sailor.” But the funniest part of it to me is — this is the great competence of the FBI. I knew things way before last September. I knew about the FBI, because the FBI — they interviewed the Kingsmen, of course. Well, the problem with interviewing the Kingsmen is that it took about six months for “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen to become a hit. And in that time, the drummer, who owned the copyright or the trademark to the band name — fired the lead singer and became the lead singer. And they never did interview the guy who was actually singing on the record. So they don’t know to this day what he really sang. If you talk to Jack Ely, if you talk to Jack, Jack doesn’t play games about it. I think Lynn, Lynn Easton, who doesn’t sing on it but is the person, you know, from old film clips, does play games about it. But Jack’s just like, “I wouldn’t do that.” He breaks horses out in Oregon now. That’s what he does for a living. Great guy.

Paulson: What, what is it about a 2 1/2 minute song that, that can just kind of captivate the federal government for 20 months? What are they afraid of?

Marsh: Well, you know, I, I have been writing about this kind of thing since I started out with the MC5, who were a very political rock band in Detroit, whose manager, John Sinclair, was one of my mentors and is the guy who ended up going to jail for 9 1/2 years — 9 1/2 to 10 years for two joints, that John Lennon wrote a song about. And what it is, is, I think, partly, it is the beat. You know, it’s just plainly that beat, which implies license, which I think authority is scared of. From, from you know, crazy jackleg preachers back in the ’50s to Tipper Gore, it just terrifies them. And — but the other part of it is that, you know, the notion — I mean, we’re just so repressed about sexuality and the notion that — because the lyrics — the dirty words are in my book. And in fact, in some ways I wrote the book because when I was 14, somebody gave me a copy of the lyrics, the dirty lyrics, and I thought, “Well, if I read the FBI file, maybe they’ve got ‘em.” And they did have ‘em, and they had about three different versions of ‘em.

Paulson: Somebody’s mother actually sent some in.

Marsh: Well, she probably was — yeah, she was a mother. She was a concerned mother around Flint, Michigan, whose name is blacked out in the FBI materials to protect her … from my scrutiny. Although I did talk to Matt Welsh, who’s the governor of Indiana. And that was one of the funniest interviews I’ve ever done in my life, because he was sort of saying to me, “You know, I did a lot of other things when I was governor.” And I think as I told him my, my, about my other research, I think it sort of dawned on him what the headline when he dies is gonna be, you know? But, you know, I think that — I think just this whole idea of it was sex, it was, you know, and, and in 1963, you could not talk about sex on TV or the radio the way that you can talk about it now. I mean, nowhere near, right?

Paulson: Yeah.

Marsh: I mean, the stuff that gets on MTV, let alone what they censor off it — but the stuff that actually gets on MTV you couldn’t have, you know, they would have — that would have launched an investigation in 1963.

Paulson: You talk about the beat, you know, causing people to lean toward censorship, but of course music censorship goes — transcends, transcends rock ‘n’ roll, transcends cultures.

Marsh: In America, the earliest incident I’ve been able to find of it in America is with Cotton Mather’s Puritan congregation, who were singing cacophonously. People like to sing cacophonously. Working people and just the Joe off the street, they don’t want a well-tempered, you know, music. They want a music that’s as riotous as the insides of themselves, I think. And so there is this thing where Cotton Mather attacks his own congregation for the license with which they’re singing. So it’s, it’s all the way back to the beginning of the country, absolutely, you know. And, you know, Alexander’s Ragtime Band was banned in New York City. Mainly the Catholic Church found that far too licentious. And it goes on everywhere. And things that people think are respectable, you know, “I get no kick from cocaine.” Well, you know, and it’s really — actually, one of the things I like about it is, it really shows you the illogic of the censors. Because of course it’s all context. You know, of course it is. And, and they don’t have a problem with Frank Sinatra singing that, but let it come out of Eminem’s mouth —

Paulson: Right. But, but those parents who are today saying that Eminem is evil or those who were startled by Marilyn Manson — many of them had Alice Cooper’s Dead Babies in their collection. Where’s the learning curve? Why is it that every generation is determined to protect the next generation from popular culture?

Marsh: Well, you know, I think, I think there’s two parts. One of which is, not everybody bought — you know, maybe the Alice Cooper Dead Babies album sold maybe — let’s say it sold 4 million copies, right. And that’s 4 million households. There are many, many households that it didn’t sell to. And there is, you know, the other thing is, for politicians and preachers, this is a very convenient target. You know, these people look weird. You know, if you know the story of the West Memphis Three, that’s a kid who’s on death row today largely because he’s a Metallica fan. So, you know, it is the outsider thing, and, and for many people, it does violate their values. And one of the hardest things that we have to learn about in society about freedom of expression is, it’s about the people you disagree with. It’s not about the things that are controversial that you’re saying that, that you know, you like, right? It’s about the people you disagree with. And we don’t do very well with that, you know? And I think that’s just, you know, and it’s easier to do, to do that to somebody who looks strange and is sort of acting obnoxious, which you could say about both Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson and maybe even Eminem.

Paulson: You do hit a good point, too, which is that censorship, A.) is repressive, but, but it’s often motivated by a desire to protect young people; that we are concerned that they’re going to be misshapen. And then of course —

Marsh: And I totally — you know, I raised two kids. And I love my kids. And actually wrote Louie, Louie while one of them was dying. And she was like — she was making sure I finished the book. It’s like, I’d go to the hospital every day. She’s like, “Are you finishing that book?” So, so you know, she’s, like, an important part of that story. So I know what it is to protect a child and fail, right? I mean, even — because whether it’s a record or a disease, it doesn’t make any difference. And the thing is, I get to choose how to protect my child. And to me, the way I can protect my child is to teach them good judgment. I cannot teach them good judgment if Tipper Gore won’t let them be exposed to the things that Tipper Gore thinks are dangerous, whether I think they’re dangerous, too, or not. I can’t do that. I can’t do what I consider my job as a parent. And you know, I’ve talked all over the country about censorship, and it’s when you get to that point that even the most hostile audience – or all but the most hostile audience – begins to pay attention. Because everybody does know that the one thing that you gotta teach your kids is judgment. Well, how, how can you teach them not to cross the road if you put a barricade at the end and there’s never any traffic? What if they go on some other street some day? They’re not gonna know what to do.

Paulson: Well, Tipper Gore and company in the ’80s would have said, “We’re not interested in censoring. We just want to provide guidance to parents to help decisions be made properly.” What’s your take on labeling?

Marsh: Well, I just go with the American Library Association, which says labeling’s a form of censorship, and it is. The fact is that that’s a completely disingenuous thing to say. The purpose of the labeling, and in fact the effect of the labeling now that it’s here, is restricted access: either it’s behind the counter; it’s not in the store at all at Wal-Mart. The parent punishes the kid — I asked a legislator in Pennsylvania sometime — I said, “If I came to my father’s house and I had a labeled record and he saw it in my hand, he would beat me. That’s a fact, OK?” I said, “Are you respon — ” I said, “What do you feel about the fact that you’re gonna get a bunch of Pennsylvania children beaten up by their angry parents, because they think that the beating protects them?” Or at least that’s one thing they think. And you know, there isn’t a good answer for that. The good answer is, “It’s a dangerous world out there. You can’t rope everything in. You certainly can’t rope the kids in.” And to be perfectly cruel about it, my kids were never arrested or got thrown out of school. That was Al and Tipper Gore’s kids that got arrested and got thrown out of school for drinking and stuff. My kids didn’t do that, because my wife and I had an open dialogue with them about many things. My kids came to me when I didn’t like “Papa, Don’t Preach” and said, “You don’t even know — ” This is really funny. They were about 16 and 17 at the time, too, and they went, “You don’t even know how to listen to this record. You don’t even know what this record’s about. This record’s not an anti-abortion record. This record’s about somebody who’s trying to talk to her father. You don’t even know who the baby is.” And they were right. And so, you know, if you’re not open to that level of dialogue with your kids, your kids are in much more trouble than if they’re exposed to things that — you know, hey, if it’s family values, then the family gave them the values, right?

Paulson: Right.

Marsh: And, and theoretically, you know, in this country or this part of the world, we’re free to reject our family values, but mostly we don’t. And, you know, it’s not like there are hordes of Marilyn Manson fans out there slaughtering their parents or their, their cats and dogs or something.

Paulson: Right. It kind of goes back to “Cop Killer” and the controversy there. I think at the time, people said, “Where’s the body?” I mean —

Marsh: Yeah, well, you know, I mean, some people did, and some people said, “Well, you know — ” You know, the issue of criticism of the police comes up over and over and over again. It comes up, you know, as far back in the civil rights movement as Robert Williams in North Carolina in the ’50s. It comes up with “Cop Killer.” It — but nobody connects that to what happened with Amadou Diallo and Bruce Springsteen, because the Bruce Springsteen thing we can be more reasonable about. Why? Well, Bruce Springsteen’s a white guy, and he’s kind of respectable, and he used to sing in front of the flag, right?

Paulson: Right.

Marsh: I mean, the guy’s one of my best friends; I’m not trying to attack him here. But what is the difference between him saying that and, you know — and from — and there is a difference. Ice-T is imagining himself into the mind-set of a cop killer. Bruce Springsteen is imagining himself into the mind-set of a cop, the person he’s killed, the mother of a child who might be killed, right?

Paulson: Right.

Marsh: But it didn’t make any difference to the police. It didn’t make any difference to Rudy Giuliani, right? They were just, “You can’t, you can’t talk about this.” And that’s another problem with the censorship. If you say “You can’t talk about drugs in the songs or on TV,” what do you do with Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug message? She’s talking about it. This just came up in Czechoslovakia. In Czechoslovakia, a bunch of musicians went — they passed a law saying you can’t sing about these things. So a bunch of musicians who had made drug-oriented lyrics, all of whom, by the way, were deeply involved in the overthrow of the old communist regime, you know? They went to the police station and turned themselves in. And the craziest part of it is — you know, Vaclav Havel’s sick; he didn’t say anything. I don’t think he would have said anything anyway. But the craziest part of it is, the police seized the evidence and began an investigation.

Paulson: Hmm.

Marsh: Instead of appreciating the irony of this and the message that was meant to be conveyed, you know, well — that’s the police, you know? And, and they got a tough job. And thinking complex problems through is not one part of it.

Paulson: Yeah. Songs with political overtones — is it my imagination, or are there a lot fewer of them today than there were, oh, let’s say in the ’60s?

Marsh: Oh, no, there are many, many more of them than in the ’60s. First of all, you got hip-hop, which is a genre of music that’s basically based on social commentary. You know, maybe — all the parts of it that aren’t about what they call “bling bling.” You know, everything that isn’t about either sex or jewelry or money, you know — big cars, you know? But whatever’s left over, that’s all social commentary. So there’s a lot more there. You have bands like Rage Against the Machine.

Paulson: Sure.

Marsh: What there isn’t to go along with it, and the reason why it feels less, is because there’s not a movement.

Paulson: Hmm.

Marsh: There’s not a social movement in any direction, you know, that’s putting masses of people in the streets, or in the fields, in the case of Woodstock, you know, in the same way.

Paulson: Well, and it’s also not terribly commercial. I mean, it’s fascinating to look at the pop records in the ’60s. “Eve of Destruction” was a number-one record. And it’s simplistic, and I’ve had —

Marsh: There’s a scary thought.

Paulson: — I’ve had talented, I’ve had talented people say it should have been suppressed. But it was — it had a point of view. A year later, you had Barry Sadler and “Ballad of the Green Berets.” Kind of overtly political songs that actually could make the top 40.

Marsh: Well, one of the things that reflects is a greater degree in the society of freedom to speak at the extremes. And what happened, I think, was that not so much people — because if you go into any bar, or for that matter, any dinner table in the United States, you will hear people say very extreme things on all sides. But I think the media scared itself. And they’re inclined — you know, there’s that whole crazy Clear Channel memo — Clear Channel Radio Network memo that came out after 9/11, saying, you know, all — with a huge list of songs they weren’t supposed to air, many of which were just peace songs, or many of which were — you know, “Give Peace a Chance” was one of them. You know, and that isn’t so much because they’re against peace or think that peace ought to be censored; it’s that they’re terrified of dialogue. And that’s really the disintegration from the ’60s to, you know, the new century — to me it’s the fact that we can’t speak freely. And I mean really we can’t. We can’t find a place to do it. And if we can’t find a place to do it, then what happens is, people start throwing folding chairs at each other, you know? It becomes that kind of talk television. And — which means we’re not listening. And you know, I think that there are two necessary things that have to go along with the First Amendment, in which I believe absolutely. If you’re gonna have the First Amendment and you’re gonna believe in it absolutely, then you better support the Second Amendment, because sooner or later, people are gonna start saying things, and people are going to need to defend themselves, because action will be taken on those statements. I’m not one of these people who say, “Oh, it’s just words.” No, it isn’t just words; that’s why it’s important. And, you know, the second thing you need is sort of — well, actually, you could think of a number of second things, like, you know — but you need, you need to have a, you need to have a sense of humor. You need to have an ability to listen. It doesn’t do any good to talk if nobody’s listening. I mean, that’s the reason that when Rudy Giuliani says, “Well, you can demonstrate in front of City Hall, except you — that you’re gonna be two blocks away from City Hall.” That’s the reason that’s no good. That’s the reason that violates the First Amendment, right?

Paulson: Right.

Marsh: And part of the thing about rock ‘n’ roll is, it is right there in your face. You know, if, if somebody walks by you with, with Eminem, you know, coming out of their car, or drives by you, or coming out of a box or something, that music is meant to be in your face. And we have become very sheltered from people expressing certain kinds of ideas in our face. I mean, it’s, like, you know, where you get the “Rush Limbaugh Show” where no, no caller who disagrees, effectively, is ever allowed on the air. You know, I don’t know — I mean, do you do sometimes shows with people who really think free speech is kind of a seriously bad idea?

Paulson: Well, no one says free speech is a bad idea, but Charlie Daniels has some ideas about how it ought to be applied.

Marsh: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

Paulson: And, you know, there’s room for that. That’s part of the dialogue.

Marsh: Yeah.

Paulson: You — when was the first time you filed — just to establish some perspective here, when did you first file a story writing about rock ‘n’ roll?

Marsh: Well, I probably wrote a couple of things that were embarrassingly bad in high school. I went to college at Wayne State University, where the student newspaper was being run by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an important Detroit radical group. And I wrote things there. And then there was a magazine called Creem, which is now a legendary rock magazine.

Paulson: Sure.

Marsh: And they stole one of my South End pieces, my student newspaper pieces, and so I went down to talk to them about it, and I ended up running the thing for four years.

Paulson: So what was your first bylined professional review?

Marsh: Well, I guess it would have been this review of this pop festival up in Toronto, which was the one before the one that John Lennon was gonna do. You know, which I went up to see — I think I wanted to see The Band and Procol Harem or something. And I just kind of wrote about — well, you know, I mean, for me, instantly what’s interesting to me about it is first of all the music in a very deep way. You know, I’m interested in bass lines. But the second thing is, I’m always interested in that social context, and I think that’s probably what alerted people that I might have something to say.

Paulson: It would have been about ’68, maybe?

Marsh: ‘69.

Paulson: Yeah.

Marsh: I was 19. Not as young as Carl Bernstein, but close.

Paulson: The rock ‘n’ roll — so rock ‘n’ roll was maybe 15 years old, depending on when you define the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.

Marsh: It was young enough that you could know it from beginning to end pretty well.

Paulson: Right.

Marsh: Not that I necessarily did, but I knew all the major mileposts, you know, which is no longer true.

Paulson: Right. You could actually deceive yourself in 1970 into believing you knew the — well, you could have known the history of rock ‘n’ roll in 1970. And might have actually seen it as an evolution from, from Chuck Berry or Ike Turner to, to what you were listening to at the time. But in the 30-plus years since then, what has surprised you? What has truly come out of nowhere, musically, technically — technologically?

Marsh: Well, nothing comes out of nowhere. I mean, that’s — part of my whole premise is that nothing can — literally nothing can come out of nowhere. Everything comes out of somewhere. And so, you know, but the first thing off my lips is hip-hop, because you couldn’t see hip-hop coming. And, and that’s the reason hip-hop’s the most important thing — or it’s not — it’s the evidence that hip-hop is the most important revolution in popular music since the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Because it changed everything. It stripped the music down to the beat. It put a much more social voice in it. It made black voices much more autonomous than ever they had been before. That, that was the one thing, you know, much more than punk, which I could see coming. You know, that was like a train coming down the line.

Paulson: We’ve run out of time. I don’t want to leave without acknowledging this terrific book: 50 Ways to Fight Censorship. It’s a terrific handbook for people, and it really reminds people of their First Amendment rights.

Marsh: It does, and it also recommends listening.

Paulson: Right.

Marsh: And listening to people you disagree with, you know? Thank you. That, that’s my sort my — that’s, like, my favorite lost child, that book. And, you know, it’s meant to help people who are struggling to solve a censorship problem. But it’s also meant to just get — do the kind of thing this show does, really, which is get people thinking about the thing in general.

Paulson: Well, thank you for the book, and thank you for joining us today.

Marsh: Thank you, Ken. This is great.

Paulson: Our guest today has been music, political — what other topics do you write about?

Marsh: Well, you know, wine.

Paulson: Wine? That’s right. Well, our guest today has been Dave Marsh, a man who writes about everything and is not hesitant about sharing his opinions. The spirit of free speech here on “Speaking Freely.” Thank you for joining us.