The other night I drove down a side street in Lakewood, the most densely populated of Cleveland’s decaying inner ring suburbs, and I saw ground zero of America 2004. Almost every other closely spaced yard bore a Bush/Cheney or Kerry/Edwards sign, each placed to glare silently at its opponent, without a soul in sight to demand, “How could you?” Cleveland’s population is about half of what it was in 1950, so the streets have been empty for decades, but that only makes the ground zero metaphor more apt. In case you missed it in the vice presidential debate, the Census Bureau recently ranked my town the poorest large city in America, and according to Men’s Health, it’s also the most stressful. On the blue side of the divide, it’s all too clear why we’ve achieved these standings, with 64,000 jobs (one out of every 13 we have) gone from Cuyahoga County during W.’s regime and his lapdog Congress passing budgets that will yank more than half a billion dollars from Ohio over the next 10 years. No wonder most progressives feel isolated, embittered, and ready to move.
Imagine, then, Cleveland’s conflicted emotions over the past few weeks as East Coast activists have appeared to ask us if they could share our homes, as Kevin Bacon and Steve Buscemi showed up at the West Side Market to register voters, and as one-time-only political music tours have barnstormed through. The hope is that we left-leaning Ohioans can, essentially, save the world. The upcoming election might prove this hope naive in any number of ways. But in the musical world, at least, the action itself has proven transformational, as performers from Anti-Flag to Bruce Springsteen have staked their public identities on their dream, as Springsteen put it, “of realizing the America that we carry in our hearts.”
The October 2 “Vote for Change” double bill, featuring Bright Eyes, R.E.M, Bruce Springsteen, and John Fogerty at Gund Arena and the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor at the State Theater, was easily the season’s biggest music-and-politics story. Yet the most moving thing was how the headliners didn’t strive to live large—how they transformed pop into folk without unplugging a wire. But it was opener Conor Oberst as Bright Eyes, supported by five musicians in an ambitious emo-roots set spiked with articulate political spite, who delivered the night’s most memorable line: “Voting for George Bush is like shitting in your own bed.”
Dancing with gangly abandon in a white suit over a white Kerry T-shirt (can he know about a Full Cleveland?), Michael Stipe was more charged than he’s been since the Monster tour, as his implicit message added focus to semi-abstract songs both old (“Cuyahoga,” of course) and new (“Leaving New York”). As you’d expect, Springsteen’s set was tighter, and even his most pasture-ready warhorses, from politically charged no-brainers “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.” on down, were charged with fresh oats. They didn’t transcend their dated chord changes and hammy theatrics; they simply connected with life and how we live it. And then there was Fogerty and the E Street Band’s “Fortunate Son,” the one moment when the evening’s communion turned to pure protest, and the crowd felt like an army.
But how far does a feeling go? “The generation of the ’60s all shared the same values,” Mike Hollaran, a 36-year-old sales rep from Twinsburg, claimed before the show. “Now we don’t.” Hollaran voted for Bush in 2000, though this time he’s undecided. He agreed that Springsteen’s conversion to the Democratic camp had made him think harder, but he didn’t come to be converted: “I’m here for rock ‘n’ roll, man.” All the Kerry paraphernalia suggested a more partisan crowd on the whole, though, as most of the fans I spoke to attested. Even so, it wasn’t hard to find undecideds, like Vickie Collmar, a 47-year-old Canton collection agent whose husband had just been laid off from the steel mill after 23 years (“Now it’s her turn to carry us for the next 23,” he tried to quip). And I also ran into a trio of teenage, Bush-supporting Bruce fans, including 19-year-old Adam, who apparently was willing to shell out the $75 ticket price to ACT but still “fucking hates” all these “tree-hugging baby-killers.”
This streak of reticence-to-resistance might explain why “Vote for Change” predominantly featured older white performers—Kerry still needs to secure older white voters. In other communities, life goes on less feverishly. The next night, the Jay-Z/R. Kelly’s “Best of Both Worlds” tour arrived downtown to celebrate bling and skin before a young black audience, ignoring the personal as well as the political (it was as if the videotapes never happened). Still, I doubt that would’ve shaken the confidence of Damion Chatmon, the only African American I met at the Springsteen show. “You just watch,” he said. “Blacks are going to carry this fucking state for John Kerry. Blacks are going to carry this election.” The mood wasn’t as cocksure at Club Yaucana the next weekend, where a Kerry rally drew fewer than 100 Latinos to hear speeches and live salsa, but a Puerto Rican vendor still shrugged as she handed me my arroz con gandules, “Don’t worry, we’re with you.”
Ten days earlier, at the Agora Theatre’s disappointingly small “Rock Against Bush” show, the venom toward Bush didn’t always transfer into such allegiances. Twenty-year-old Jeff Wasilik, for one, seemed swayed by the flip-flop ads, and had never considered how a vote for Nader might be a bad idea in Ohio. Worse yet, not a single punk band on the bill uttered the words “John Kerry” from stage. It almost didn’t matter, considering how headliners Anti-Flag saved the middling lineup with their surprisingly jagged punk, but if lead singer Justin Sane could bring up a service employees union organizer onstage, why not a Kucinich spokesperson, say, to lay out the left’s agenda? A few days later, Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere explained by phone from Lancaster, Pennsylvania: “Let’s just say that it’s an amazing step that we could all agree that we need to promote voting as part of punk. We’re all conflicted about the system in general.” As for connecting with a broader stripe of indie fan, Barnett was wary: “A lot of people in their twenties and early thirties, they want a shelter, and they want some kind of justification for their cynicism, so they’ll cling to forms of music whose message is more evocative and abstract, as opposed to anthemic political songs.”
With that in mind, I went to see the Faint at the Beachland Ballroom on October 8—the weekend after the “Vote for Change” tour, the vice presidential debate, and the closure of Ohio voter registration. I’d always considered the Faint mere crafty ’80s revivalists, but live I heard menace and a bracing anti-authoritarian streak. Afterward, a few kids checked out the liberal literature at the musicforamerica.org table, but most were in the T-shirt line. Everyone I spoke to there rejected Bush with clear conviction, almost everyone was voting for Kerry with equal conviction (“You can’t afford to be extreme when it’s this urgent,” said Lindsey Rhodes, 21), many have Bush-voting parents, all toted un-pollable cell phones, and the crowd was twice as large as at “Rock Against Bush.” It was enough to keep me going for a couple more weeks, at the very least.