The Magazine

Political Boss

Springsteen, REM, Bonnie Raitt, and other Democrats.

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THERE'S A REASON no one has marketed what I call the rock'n'roll diet. You go to a concert, crash at the hotel, doze through breakfast, drive all day in a caffeine-fueled frenzy, grab a bag of black licorice at some gas station, and skip dinner to make it on time to another concert. The next day, your stomach already seems a little flatter.

But the rest of your body feels like a dirty pair of jeans that has been balled up in an overnight bag. Trust me, this is how it feels even if you skip the illegal drug part.

It was only because of my failure to properly manage my schedule that last weekend found me on the rock'n'roll diet. I was on the road to catch a pair of "Vote for Change" concerts--Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in Cincinnati and REM and Bruce Springsteen in Detroit--organized by MoveOn. That notorious and well-funded 527 has enlisted these and other rock'n'roll acts to encourage voters in swing states to pull the lever for John Kerry. Such direct advocacy used to be illegal; now it's cool. Anyway, between concerts I kept getting lost and seemed to have no time to eat.

My only solid meal all weekend was at Arnold's (est. 1861) in Cincinnati, which is, appropriately, the kind of place where both NPR listeners and construction workers can feel at home. As the former marvel at its cozy, unmodernized décor, the latter can feast on its unpretentious kitchen fare. I try Swedish meatballs and the pasta special.

Then I join the crowd outside the Taft Theater, where most everyone walking through the doors accepts a Kerry-Edwards sticker for their shirt.

It's a boomer crowd. Everyone wears jeans and khakis, differentiated only by the messages on their T-shirts, and then only in the play on the word "Bush." They're clean-cut, though I notice a handful of mullets, suggesting at least a few Republicans.

The opening act, Keb' Mo', is good for a few laughs. He sings to those liberals who learned everything they needed to know in kindergarten. "Let's think about our behavior," he warbles, meaning: as opposed to our enemies' behavior. "And ask for a resolution," he continues, perhaps thinking of the U.N., before he returns to a chorus of "Why don't we talk to each other?"

Bonnie Raitt typifies the trend that's made it politically correct to celebrate the libidinal urges of middle-aged women. Thanks to the Lifetime Channel, Mrs. Robinson is now Mrs. Main Street. But Raitt has the chops to pull it off (thanks to the rock'n'roll diet, my guess is). From my seat in the fifth row, I would swear she has the body of a college girl.

She even talks like a college girl, one with a case of pottymouth. "I'm only giving it up for guys on the Vote for Change Tour," she says after a little riff on working with men she's been involved with romantically. Or not so romantically. She says that on her first national tour in 1974, with Jackson Browne, "there were 13 guys on the bus . . ."--she holds for a full beat--"and me."

During intermission, looking for swing voters, I avoid anyone wearing stylish eyewear or handmade garments. I fall into conversation with Jim, who's 24 and lives in Cincinnati. "Oil is the only reason we're in Iraq," Jim tells me. You don't think Saddam Hussein was dangerous, I ask? Of course he was dangerous, says Jim. "We knows he's got the weapons because we sold them to him." Weapons of mass destruction, I ask, seeking to clarify. "Yeah."

"I'd rather vote for Joe Walsh," jokes his buddy, Bill, more of the swinging type, also in his 20s, who complains that he doesn't really know who to believe in this election. He came tonight for the music, he says, a sentiment I will hear several times this weekend.

Jackson Browne, cigarette thin with straight hair and vacant eyes, is a low-intensity performer, cool in the Marshall McLuhan sense. For their part, the audience laps up his quiet songs and self-condemning lyrics.

Browne comments on the "change" in presidents he'd like to see. "This is about changing from a hedonist to a hedonist with a conscience."

The audience loves it, but they save their biggest hurrahs for Browne's riposte to a fan who calls out the title of an old favorite.

"Yeah," quips the almost motionless singer, "I could play 'Running on Empty' . . . for George Bush." Howls, applause, even some whoops.

As I exit, the guy on the corner selling anti-Bush stickers is doing the kind of business usually seen in the milk aisle before a hurricane.

IN DETROIT, where I arrive lean and grubby, the opening act, Bright Eyes, is playing to many empty seats. Their music is sad--no, devastated. Singer Conor Oberst sounds like he thinks breathing is not worth the effort. The microphone falls to the stage at one point, and Oberst, all 90 or so pounds of him, goes down too, not missing a note as he continues to howl with his face on the floor.