Sunday, July 4, 2010


There’s hardly a person born in the United States who would consider his or herself anything less than a true patriot of this amazing country.  Of course, there are cynics and sarcastics, consumers and capitalists everywhere you go, but genuinely our communal belief in the sacred history of liberty remains vibrant and strong. Patriotism is a communal strength and it is vital to our country.  Anyone mocking the intelligence behind a human’s love for country is either an elitist or an existentialist.  I’m both, but still I know that patriotism is an expression of our very souls, be they truth loving or twisted.
Patriotism is a definitely a theme you’ll find in piano rooms across the country.  Though we seldom plan for patriotic moments, oftentimes people request a song in recognition of their buddy, or brother, in the armed forces, just returned from war, or heading off to it.  The soldier boys themselves (make no mistake as to youth) are often getting drunk and boisterous.  But when we get veterans, they invariably possess posture and a sense of place.  Gravitas.  There’s a dignified power to those guys, it’s hard to explain but not to figure out.  I’ve never come a cross a war veteran acting an idiot, and by now I don’t expect to.   

Expressing love for this country, the good ol’ US of A, is among the very best reasons to be a singer of songs.  It’s totally cool and feels good.  Except when it’s not, and when it doesn’t. 

There’s any number of songs celebrating America that I love to sing.  It’s a joy for me to perform “Country Roads”, a huge sing-along favorite, and substitute the bridge with “This Land is Your Land”.  Everyone  knows the words and all sing along, happily.  There's the new song "Chicken Fried" by the Zach Brown Band that has a beautiful patriotic verse which hits just the right tone.  We get requests for the "Star Spangled Banner, "Dixie", and 
"America, Fuck Yeah!" from the puppet movie Team America.

When it comes to one of my favorite “patriotic” songs, I claim some bragging rights.  Some guys get to drive Austin Martins.  Some men get to screw the head cheerleader.  Some men actually reach the North Pole, simple sons of bitches.  My prize? I get to sing “Born In The U.S.A” on the Fourth of July to crowds of a hundred drunk Americans.  It’s just me, a mic, an amplified piano and a roomful of intoxicated patriotic knuckleheads.  

For Fourth of July shows, all the good old standards are fun for everyone.  Even the jaded old or cynical young will smile and sing along to “You’re A Grand Old Flag”.  And why would one not play “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, throwing in the classic revision of the last chorus:

“Yank my doodle, it’s a dandy…”

Armed forces songs are kind of cool.  My favorite by far is the “Marine Hymn”, with its smack of the jingo.  It’s like the most kick ass college fight song ever written.  From the Halls of Montezuma indeed. 

There are more somber and serious songs. “I Am a Patriot” by Steve Van Zandt worked once to great effect at an intimate piano bar.

“God Bless America” – not so much.  I can hear Rush Limbaugh’s pompous voice bellowing from bloated jowls - how dare I?  It’s almost sacrilege to not want to sing that song, some would say.  It is obviously a beautiful, emotional song.  It’s my semi-agnostic belief that gets in the way.  If only we could just leave “god” out of it.  Isn’t it clear to every critically thinking person that god just isn’t in the business of blessing nations?   If you’re holding on to that belief, I feel sorry for you. 

Then there's “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood.  Christ.  God and country again, served with six cups of saccharine.  There is so much wrong with this song that I can’t wait to get started, but this song succeeds if for only the single moment in which it manages to be absolutely heartbreaking.  By the second time Lee sings, “I won’t forget the men who died, and gave that right to me”, all bets are off.  It’s a pure expression of gratitude that has moved many a man and women, you already know, to the wiping away of tears.

For every decent sentiment in this song though, there’s a complimentary dingleberry.  When Greenwood’s not "thanking his lucky stars", standing up next to us and telling us it’s time we stand up too, or telling us that they can’t take away our freedoms (excuse me?), he’s outright plagiarizing lyrics, that, adhering to good form I won’t reveal.  On top of that, he name-checks every damn part of the country.  From sea to shining sea.

As if taking us way past agony with his flatulent chord changes and slavish orchestration weren’t enough.  The fact that Americans are so willing to endure the torture of this song, in order to feel and express our deep love for our country, is testament to that love!

There’s one patriotic song I refuse to learn, let alone perform.  “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”, by Toby Keith has been requested many, many times, and never more adamantly than by a violently drunk, born stupid, trained-to-kill marine in South Bend, 2003.  (Clearly pre-deployment.)  When I told him I didn’t “know” the song yet, he wanted to rip off my head.  When I told him I didn’t know any Toby Keith, well, shitting down my neck was only the logical first desecration of my body that I could see contemplated in his eyes. 

Actually, Toby came very close to writing an excellent patriotic song, title aside. But he completely ruined it with the fourth verse. 

Ohhh Justice will be served
And the battle will rage … etc.
And you'll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American way

Ah, thank you for that, Toby.  It’s the American way.  I must intuit, the American way that makes no distinction between justice and violent revenge.  Calling for putting a boot up some nation’s ass is not calling for an “ass-kicking”, as you know Toby, you ignorant fucking hick.  You’re calling for war, and you’re greasing the way for cluster bombs, C-130 gunships, extermination campaigns, dead soldiers, and children without parents, limbs, skin, and hope.  It’s called military engagement and it’s an incredibly sad, tragic thing, and you played to the lowest common denominator and made it to the Top 40.  Congratulations.

While no pacifist will ever convince me that military response or war is never justified, I’d never use the power of song to advocate warfare.  Supporting military retaliation through music is a dismal accomplishment.  I won’t go so far as to say he made any money off it, I’m sure he donated every dollar.  But I’m also sure you’re right, Toby, they’ll be sorry they messed with the U.S of A.  I say we’ll probably all be sorry.  Put that in your song and choke on it.

The events of 7 Eleven were traumatizing to many.  The events of 9/11 were even worse.  
The Twin Towers attack of 2001 certainly pumped patriotic fervor to a new high.  The psyche of most individuals went into an aggressive, “not-a-simulation”-type reaction.  Many Americans were demanding some death and destruction.  I know I was.  (By the way, check out the Scientific American article “Swarm Psychology”, 2007 Issue 22. )  
I think everyone needed to show, in ways they could, how it made them feel.  The dueling piano show is a communal experience where freedom of expression is absolutely implicit, and with the added benefit of music and alcohol.  We achieve catharsis with the songs and soldiers, flags and tears, beer and hard liquor.

And, as with everything, the dark side.  In the year after 9/11, I once saw a table of patrons literally shouted out of the room when they did not comply with demands for displays of loyalty to the American course of action, that course being Afghanistan and Iraq.  The other piano player demanded that everyone “stand UP” (next to you and defend her still today) as part of his bit.  When the pacifists refused to stand up, he demanded that they stand up or “get the fuck out!”  The crowd went nuts.  They still refused, the audience turned on them, and by the next song they were gone.  

There was one display of patriotic emotion that I’ll never forget.  I was playing a piano show at a casino in the middle of Iowa.  Amongst the crowd was a thin and weak, white-haired man in a wheelchair.  He was wearing an olive green aircraft style jacket embellished with numerous military patches.  He wore an airman’s cap covered in pins and badges commemorating events I know nothing about.  He was a battle veteran, and it was his entire identity.  He carried a cane with him in the wheelchair.  When I got closer to him during break I read the patches and realized he was a Vietnam War veteran.  This shocked me.  He seemed too old.  The woman attending to him asked if we the piano players would wish him a happy birthday from the stage.  They were out celebrating at the casino, were enjoying the show, and it would be a nice gesture.  Absolutely, yes, anything for a veteran.  (Anything for the show.)

Of course I don’t remember his name, but I do remember his age.  Sixty three years old.  I would have guessed at least seventy five.  How do we celebrate this correctly?  My partner was a sexy female songbird named Chicago Rose, and she made the moment. 

“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies
for amber waves of grain…”

“America the Beautiful”.  Very nice, very nice.  From the stage, and now in the crowd of about sixty, the veteran was being honored not for his birthday, but for his service to our country.  The woman with the old man pushed him forward, in his wheelchair, to the front of the stage.  He sat in the wheelchair, listened, and looked agedly, uncomfortably around.  Halfway through the song, people started to applaud.  
(I know it sounds just maudlin.)  The music was slow and beautiful.  
The song seemed to flow over and around him, bathing him in its resonance.  His eyes turned red and began welling up with tears.  He raised his cane slowly, weakly above his head and gave it a shake, then another. He held it there above his head, and now he was trembling.

I looked out over the crowd.  Women were wiping tears from their eyes.  Every person was on their feet.  I was watching it all from a thousand miles away.  It was so real, it wasn’t real.  I wasn’t sure if I could believe it.

~ Steve Kouba