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.
Oberst tells the good people of Michigan, "I'm scared of what the world will look like after four more years of Bush." Being as young as he is, he's worried "they'll bring back the draft." And if you're female, he thinks you should also be afraid, because eventually Bush is going to do away with your right to an abortion.
Michael Stipe of REM is probably not on the rock'n'roll diet. The man is simply vanishing into thin air. If there's an Ethiopian version of the rock'n'roll diet, maybe he's on that, but there's no way he's even touched his licorice.
What becomes apparent as REM, possibly the best American rock band of the late '80s, plays one classic hit after another is that few people are here to see REM. Only when Bruce Springsteen comes on stage to sing a verse of "Man on the Moon" does any portion of the audience rise to its feet.
During intermission, I look for swing voters. At first, Megan Bond of Spring Green, Wisconsin, sounds a lot like one. She's voting for Kerry, she tells me, but not with enthusiasm. Rudy Giuliani was recently in Spring Green, she mentions, and she likes him.
I ask a couple more questions, and she comes clean. "Now I have to tell you I was lying when I told you I was going to vote for Kerry."
A diehard Bruce fan, she didn't want to be overheard saying she was voting for the president. And, boy, she doesn't like Kerry. When the senator recently visited a school in Spring Green, he "only allowed 50 children to attend." Bond is still steamed about the kids who didn't get to see him. "If you want to win friends and influence people," she says, "you make sure you see those people."
Springsteen finally takes the stage, and empty seats fill up. Few are actually in use, though, as the audience finally comes to life during the Boss's solo guitar rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which is not quite as ridiculous as the Jimi Hendrix version.
Springsteen and the full E Street Band then launch into a set of nine songs, mostly classics, without pause. They play with heart and energy and precision. Even the two tracks off Bruce's wimpy post-9/11 album The Rising have been souped up for the roadshow and sound good. By the third song (they'll play about 20 in all) Springsteen's shirt is soaked. Later on, he even does a running knee-slide.
John Fogerty then materializes on stage to play a few songs with Springsteen, including "Fortunate Son." Michael Stipe too returns to the stage, for a duet rendition with Springsteen of "Because the Night (belongs to lovers)," strictly speaking, one of the less heterosexual moments of the evening.
After about 16 songs, the Boss wants to talk politics. "We're here with a purpose. We're on a mission." He adopts the hammy manner of a revival-tent preacher. "Is there anybody in the house that needs to be saved from the burdens of Republicanism?" Before I can raise my hand or point out that nice woman from Wisconsin, I notice there's already a Republican on stage, a comic figure in pinstripes, bow tie, and nerd glasses. Bruce lays his hand on the unfortunate soul, who staggers backwards as the Holy Spirit of the Democratic party enters him. Then the guy holds up a sign saying "Bush Must Go."
After another song, Springsteen delivers a "public service announcement" in which he says "we remain the America of great promise," but now is the time to fulfill that promise. In short, as Springsteen says later, "Vote for John Kerry."
Some of the Boss's shtick is eloquent. "America's not always right," Springsteen says, "but America's always true." For his closer, Springsteen returns to the theme of America's promise: "The country that's in our hearts is out there waiting."
Seeing me take notes, the guy in the row behind me asks if he can photograph the page where I wrote down Springsteen's speech. I feel myself carried along by the tide of good feeling. Or maybe it's my low blood sugar. All I've consumed since my licorice lunch is a Rice Krispy treat I grabbed at the hotel.
But then Michael Stipe begins a song called "People have the Power." The Dixie Chicks appear on stage to sing along. Everyone's there, all the regular folk who happen to be rock stars, and Michael Stipe removes his jacket to reveal a Vote for Change T-shirt with John Kerry's name on the logo. Wait a minute, I think, I'm not a people-power person, and I don't like John Kerry. The spell is broken.
If Bruce Springsteen could perform for every American who hasn't made up his mind, this could be a significantly different race. Thank God he's only preaching to the choir--and to fans of his music who don't really care what he says between songs.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.