Sunday, May 22, 2011

"And I believe it could be
someday it's going to come..."

Although (obviously) there was no prelude-to-the-end-of-the-world rapture on Saturday, there was a cosmically significant event for 10,000 Maniacs fans, of which I am one: at their Chesapeake, Virginia show the band played "Peace Train" for the first time in 20+ years! Seeing as I am around the world, about as far on this sphere as you can possibly be from Chesapeake, Virginia, I got to watch it in a 2-inch video on Facebook. I am not complaining!

I consider 10,000 Maniacs one of the greatest bands of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. They are hard to categorize, although they hung out comfortably in the alternative-folky-college-rock category for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Their sound was unique and interesting. In My Tribe, in particular, is a strong desert island disc candidate of mine.

As it happens, that album contained a cover of "Peace Train" when it was originally released circa 1987. Shortly thereafter, Cat Stevens famously spoke out about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Obviously, that or any other fatwa is insanely stupid, and Cat Stevens' comments have been subject to debate and interpretation, but at the time, circa 1989, many people interpreted the comments of newly-Muslim Cat Stevens to be supporting the death of Salman Rushdie. This led Natalie Merchant, then-lead singer of the Maniacs, to refuse to ever perform "Peace Train" again, and the band had the song removed from In My Tribe. I originally listened to In My Tribe on cassette, but in 1994 when I found myself wanting to replace the cassette with a CD, I used the then-new internet to search for someone selling a copy that had "Peace Train."

There's an episode of my beloved sitcom Designing Women in which Julia protests pornographic exploitation. At one point, Mary Jo questions whether Julia is wrong to want to "censor" porn magazines. Of course, Julia clearly explains the difference between protected speech and commerce, in a great Designing Women exchange with the magazine's publisher. Elsewhere in the episode, Mary Jo talks to Charlene about censorship and mentions the Cat Stevens kerfuffle. Of course, it has precious little to do with the pornographic-magazines-point of the episode, but Mary Jo does make an interesting point that when Cat Stevens uttered his possibly misinterpreted remarks in favor of the fatwa, people protested by burning his records, which essentially meant that they were advocating freedom of speech for Salman Rushdie's art by destroying Cat Stevens' art.

Then again, people should have the freedom (I think) to burn things as their own symbolic speech - so on and on the layers go. Julia Sugarbaker is totally right that the porn proprietors are not expressing themselves artistically and would shut down their magazines (etc.) tomorrow if they weren't turning a profit, so the whole high-and-mighty freedom of expression argument is basically bullshit. But Cat Stevens is so totally separate in my mind.

And now 10,000 Maniacs have performed "Peace Train" again!

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