"What's the frequency, Kerry?" is your Benzedrine uhuh

photos by Tony Nelson

Top 20 moments from last Tuesday's 'Vote For Change' show in St. Paul (in chronological order)

1. Protesters shout, "Vote Kerry November 3!" I would have been disappointed if there weren't protesters. This concert is an arena benefit for America Coming Together, whose shifty tax status I wrote about here. It's Springsteen's rally for the Dems, albeit unprecedented. As he put it himself in Rolling Stone:

Sitting on the sidelines would be a betrayal of the ideas I'd written about for a long time. Not getting involved, just sort of maintaining my silence or being coy about it in some way, just wasn't going to work this time out. I felt that it was a very clear historical moment.

Best signs of the day: "Ten out of ten terrorists agree: Anybody but Bush," and "Don't tell us how to vote and we won't tell you how to sing." Worst sign: "Qerry for Ameriqa." So Arabic spelling now equals terrorism?

2. I am completely alienated from all political sides. Thanks for asking! My free ticket at will-call provides no money to ACT, which makes me a neutral observer. Mark Trehus from OarFolk/Tree House spots me and yells something funny about making the press pay. He knows what most of my friends don't: that I was less anti-war on Iraq than I have been on any previous war in my 34-year lifetime.

I won't go into my own politics except to say that I've never been less certain, and at a time when everyone around me seems more certain than ever. Good luck with that, folks.

I will also say that before the concert begins, I find myself thinking (and hating myself for thinking) that I'm glad D. Boon is dead. If the Minutemen were still around, they would become a part of the certainty that alienates me.

3. Springsteen and Stipe walk out onstage to introduce Bright Eyes. "Tonight has been declared an official 'no "Bruce"' zone," says Bruce. "If I hear any 'Bruce', I'm going to come out and get medieval on your ass."

He concludes: "We are here to fight for government that's more open, rational, and humane."

I've never seen Springsteen, R.E.M., or John Fogerty. Bright Eyes I've seen a couple times, though only solo. Tonight he has a band.

4. Somehow the third Bright Eyes song manages to include both a deflowering and a funeral. This is a sure sign he's trying too hard. Bright Eyes is really more of an actor than a singer, but his awfulness is magnetic and brave, and I can't hate him.

The next song is something about being drunk at a piano bench. There's a line about the tears of poets creating steam. Hoo boy.

At one point, Bright Eyes speechifies before a song called "I'm Looking For a Landslide, But I'll Settle for a Win." Myself, I'll settle for momentary engagement.

Then it comes: Bright Eyes insults his own Robert Smith-like voice and kicks his band into noisy rock 'n' roll. Yeah, there we go! I'm on my feet. I wish the whole set were like this. The audience doesn't "Bruce" him once.

5. Springsteen introduces R.E.M. "We rolled the dice backstage, so tonight you're going to hear pearls before swine."253.jpg:

6. R.E.M. plays "What's the Frequency Kenneth?"  A few weeks before tonight's show, I picked up a used cassette of Reckoning, R.E.M.'s third major release, something I hadn't listened to for ten years, at least.

It's on the player in my car, and man does it sound good. I listened to it through the summer of '84, and it probably suffered in my opinion compared to all the other great music that year. R.E.M. still suffers that way, I think, and they should. They've always sounded classic and nostalgic, things that rock 'n' roll should never be the first time around. (They are a tenth of the band U2 are.) Still, I like how these Southern guys just accepted their squareness and made gorgeous songs within it. And Mike Mills is the greatest backup-singer-bassist ever.

One question: When did Michael Stipe become David Byrne? He's like a wiggly rubber clown in a white suit.

And when was the last time he had hair? I like Stipe's stage persona, and there's no question he's a powerful singer, more clarion than Springsteen or Bright Eyes put together (though he's no Fogerty). Stipe seems to understand the visual dynamics of arena rock better than anyone else onstage. He uses the whole platform, for one thing, and makes gestures with his body that register a football field away.

The song "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" is a 1994 reference to the 1986 physical attack on Dan Rather one night in Manhattan. The guy kicking the anchorman on the ground kept yelling the question at him. It's also a song about disconnection in an age overwhelmed by signals, and I can relate. Sometimes I wish I could put a mental email filter in my mind, to keep out most of the crap I absorb. I don't need to know that Hilary Duff has a new album and movie, for instance, and resent the fact that I know that.

"Hey, Dan Rather, we're with you!" Stipe yells during the song. He's talking about the "Rathergate" forgery affair. If you don't know what that is, I admire your mental email filter.

There's an undeniably great new song called "Leaving New York" (that's a link to the video), and some mild speechifying. Then Neil Young comes out to play guitar on something called "Country Feedback," an older tune I don't know. (Tell the truth, I haven't listened to an R.E.M. album more than once since 1987's Document.) Not a great song, but they'll be more Neil tonight. I've never seen him before, either.

Stipe dedicates a new song, "I Wanted to Be Wrong," so his father, "a career-long military man" whom he says he's never been more proud of than today. Stipe also mentions, in case anyone misunderstands him, that his father has decided to vote for Kerry.

Springsteen comes out and sings on R.E.M.'s inexplicable hit "Man on the Moon," during which Stipe does his immitation of Andy Kaufman's immitation of Elvis, which sounds like Jello Biafra.

7. After the set, the PA plays Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," twice. I love the song, but it also makes me uneasy. Iraq is not Vietnam. I guess I better get used to old songs getting recycled for new causes tonight...

Chris Riemenchneider tells me that 400 Bar owner Bill Sullivan is the road manager for Bright Eyes, which explains the presence of the whole Sullivan clan in the two rows in front of us. One of the sisters recognizes me from the night I showed up at the bar with my nose punched bloody.

The arena audience is overwhelmingly white, and mostly male, like the performers onstage. (See The Onion's "Irrelevant Pop Stars Unite Against Bush.") I've never seen a year when black music and hip hop are more activated against an incumbent president, and many of the ACT activists are black, but their wider tastes aren't reflected in tonight's lineup.

8. Conversation overheard from the couple behind me:

"Isn't it great to be in a place where 15,000 people think the same way you do?"

"Well, they like the same music, and that's good enough for me."

9. Springsteen plays "The Star Spangled Banner" on 12-string guitar. Still the best possible national anthem, and Springsteen's instrumental interpretation is new and beautiful, so abstract that I wonder if the song is unrecognizable to some people in the audience.

Then Springsteen segues into "Born in the U.S.A.," which he rarely plays, anymore, Riemenschneider tells me. I listen to the words and think about my girlfriend's dad, who was in Vietnam. He lost a good friend there. "They're still there/He's all gone." I start tearing up.

Springsteen plays "The River," but the truth is, I'm getting tired. I don't want to be old. At one point, I try to take out one of my earplugs. The music can't be that loud, can it? When I do, all I hear is blinding sheets of screaming white noise.

I love noise, but I don't love volume. Why does live music have to be so loud? Every single club has gotten louder in the last couple years. Does this experience rock harder? For me, you need to feel the sound in your chest for it to be good. If your skull is vibrating, it's not good sound, just wasted electricity. Okay, I know, I'm turning into John C. Reilly in Magnolia.

Anyway, Springsteen plays other songs I don't know. There's kind of a car caravan aspect to his big band. I like the pageantry of it. But the music doesn't always slam with that instant feel of true rock. The sound at the Xcel is the best I've ever heard in an arena (despite the volume), but it seems to get muddier as it goes tonight. Only later, and (oddly enough) when the stage is overflowing with musicians, does the caravan turn into a freight train.

10. Neil Young plays "All Along the Watchtower." His guitar doesn't gently weep; it madly sobs. It's the kind of jam that could use some of the humming-bird drumming of Mitch Mitchell (or George Hurley). But Max Weinberg (great on Conan, great on Springsteen) is a little stolid when it comes to this stuff. Later on, he keeps filling over the chorus of "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," which kind of blows the power of that riff...

11. "John Fogerty is the greatest white rock singer alive." That's not how Springsteen introduces him. Instead he says, "I always think of him as our generation's Hank Williams." Which makes no sense to me, but then again, it's his generation.

Fogerty bounds out in front of 19,000-strong people, and says, "I got a final score for you: Minnesota Twins, 2; Yankees, 0." Then he plays "Centerfield" with Springsteen and the E Street Band. (As it happens, the Twins went on to lose the playoffs, so I wonder if the optimistic mood tonight isn't a similar precursor to electoral disappointment.)

One of the disarming things about Forgerty this evening is that he keeps fucking-up his own songs. "I've only been playing that song for 35 years," he says after forgetting the words to "Fortunate Son." Wyclef Jean and Sleater-Kinney have made this tune a Dubya-era protest hit, but I think it belongs to the Draft Age. Give me "Bad Moon Rising" or "Don't Look Now," which will fit my mood no matter who wins on November 2.

12. Springsteen plays "The Rising." It's powerful, maybe more powerful if you don't know the words, because you know what it's about, and you know what he's saying, and you know this will be the only time 9/11 comes up tonight (unless "Leaving New York" counts). This is the moment when liberals and leftists get to say, it was my country that got attacked, too.

13. Michael Stipe sings "Because the Night" with Springsteen. It's an uncanny fit for his voice. I saw Patti Smith at a mass antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., in January of 2003. She was also performing at First Avenue the night Steve McClellan was fired from the venue. There's a connection in here, somewhere...

The house lights come up, and I think maybe we're being kicked out at midnight. But they get brighter and brighter, then go back down. Was it a mistake?

14. Springsteen performs a "healing" using "the purifying waters of democracy." He invites a guy with a bow tie onstage (who appears to be an actor) and baptizes him by having the audience say "Haliburton" five times, real fast.

These people put way too much faith in Kerry. There are other companies whose names we will be chanting once the Democrat is elected...

15. Springsteen gives the best political speech of 2004. It goes something like this: "America is not always right. That's a fairytale for children. But America is always true. And searching for that truth is what will make America great."

He and the band play "Mary's Place," and Bruce slides across the front of the stage on his knees, a signature move.

Stipe is on his knees, too, at one point. He's looking up and bouncing deferentially to one of Springsteen's guitar solos. Am I wrong in seeing the homoeroticism of this pose? Did I mention he played "Losing My Religion"?

16. "Baby we were born to..." Springsteen is really singing now, not just working hard. I don't quite feel like I'm seeing the show I've read about over the years, but I'm swept up. When it's over, I'm wanting more.

17: Fogerty and Springsteen sing "Proud Mary." Like I said, Fogerty makes mistakes on his own songs. He jokingly hangs is head for a moment after he goes into the guitar turnaround too early, almost cutting off Springsteen's verse. When the song's done, Bruce comforts him sweetly: "Gee, I wouldn't have minded writing that one."

18. Neil Young plays "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World." More musicians bound onstage for this number. Stipe's on cowbell. Max Weinberg leaves enough quiet for an extended, dissonant climax that builds slowly. Young keeps repeating the line: "We've got a kinder gentler machine gun hand."

Then he throws in a contemporary addition: "Losing boys every day because we never had a plan."

Suddenly Young is battling Clarence Clemons's sax, then Springsteen's guitar. Bruce is a great, droney soloist.

For a coda, Young plays "Taps" on his guitar. Earlier in the set, Springsteen played a lesser known song of his called "Souls of the Departed," and these two moments have gelled in my memory. If Bush hadn't recently fucked-over veterans in so many countless ways, these moments would have far less power.

19. "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding?" This song is overplayed, much as I loved it in Lost in Translation, and its sentiment seems out of place these days. But hell if it doesn't bring together this massive band into the locomotive unity I was talking about.

Springsteen even brings out Bright Eyes for a verse, and in this context, the kid's a stun gun. (He's what, 24?) He switches off verses with Fogerty (all the previous bands and musicians are onstage now) and I can see why the old guys want young Bright Eyes here.  He's beautiful and angry and youthful and cool, very un-Kerry.

He also looks shy, a part-time janitor who has just snuck into a living Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame exhibit. He seems to want to hide in plain sight. But Stipe taps his shoulder and brings him out onto the platform behind the stage to shake maraccas. The spotlight stays on Stipe, probably much to Bright Eyes' relief.

It's the kid's last gig, it turns out. At some point between songs, Springsteen presents him with the gift of a brown jacket and a hug.

20. Stipe sings Patti Smith's "People Have the Power." Though the song blandly applies to the event, it makes me wish somebody had mentioned that voting has more power than in just this election.

Stipe takes off his white jacket to reveal a white t-shirt that says "Kerry," with a military star below it in blue and red.

Stipe is clearly the oddball out. He doesn't move like anyone else onstage. He has smooth, dancer's movements, and he claps a lot. But I'm not sure Vote for Change would have worked as well without him: He takes the stuffing out of it.

One complaint: Near the end he begins stretching out his t-shirt and showing it to every side of the room, nodding idiotically. Yes, it says Kerry. We get it. That's who you're voting for.

But I can't dislike Stipe. He's the least pretentious rock singer I've ever seen. I might actually pick up the new album.

On the way out of the arena, there's some shouting in the crowd at Cheney's face appears on the TV. It's a rerun of the Vice Presidential debates earlier in the night. Now follows the magical time of the four-year cycle people actually feel like they do have the power, and aren't just sports fans cheering their side.

Outside in the crisp St. Paul air, there's a distorted slide guitar being played by a guy with wild blond (or white) hair in a hat and cowboy boots. He makes everything I've seen seem a little bit, how shall I put it, planned?

But if the message of the show was overly simple, it was never simple-minded. Neil Young might be a Canadian guy who voted for Reagan, but he had a point about no plan in Iraq. All the speeches were short, and they didn't reach. Maybe Springsteen coached everyone about keeping things honest, something people will remember in 50 years more than the electoral race itself. He could do the same for Kerry.

Bonus: Here's a review of the same show by Jim Walsh. And here's a review of the Philadelphia kickoff show by David Corn. The consensus: irrelevant my ass.

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