Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Steppenwolf -- "Monster/Suicide/America" (1969)


'Cause the people grew fat and got lazy
Now their vote is a meaningless joke

Only two weeks left in the 2012 campaign -- we're getting down to the short strokes, boys and girls!

"Monster/Suicide/America" is from Steppenwolf's 1969 album of the same name.    The group's first three albums all made it into the top ten in the U.S., but Monster peaked at #17 and was the first Steppenwolf not to feature a top ten single.


The three-part title of the song reflects the fact that it consists of three somewhat disparate segments joined together.  But let's just refer to it as "Monster" -- OK?

"Monster" is nine minutes, fifteen seconds long, and I remember hearing it on the radio a number of times the year it was released.  I'm pretty sure the station I heard it on was KWTO-560, an AM station in Springfield, Missouri, that played a lot of rock album tracks before that format had become popular.  (The other l-o-n-g song I remember hearing on KWTO was "Midnight Rambler" by the Rolling Stones.  KWTO was a great station.)

Songs with political themes were fairly common in 1969, and "Monster" is certainly a political song.  It  summarizes the entire history of the United States, warts and all -- it decries witch-burning, slavery, the displacement of native Americans, the Civil War, and so on.  

But the song saves most of its bile for contemporary American society:

The cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is strangling the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can't understand

Not surprisingly, the song alludes to the Vietnam War:

We don't know how to mind our own business
'Cause the whole world's got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who's the winner we can't pay the cost

In 1969, we had no idea that American involvement in Vietnam would drag on for several more years.  It officially ended in May 1975 -- not quite eleven years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001 -- so it has lasted longer than the war in Vietnam.  

The number of American troops in Afghanistan grew gradually under the Bush Administration.  There were roughly 34,000 soldiers in Afghanistan when President Obama was inaugurated.  Obama ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan as part of a planned "surge" in troop levels within weeks of his swearing-in.  

There were 71,000 American soldiers there at the beginning of 2010, and almost 100,000 there at the beginning of 2011.  The gradual withdrawal of those troops began late in 2011.

American troops in Afghanistan
Joe Biden got a little confused a few weeks ago, telling a New Hampshire audience that there were 650,000 troops left in Afghanistan.  There are actually about 68,000 soldiers left in Afghanistan.  

President Obama has said that the drawdown of American forces will continue through 2014, but about 20,000 troops will stay in Afghanistan -- perhaps for years to come.  (The week before the Democratic convention, Obama mistakenly said that "[w]e will have them all out of there by 2014," but his press secretary later said that "[h]e never said that all the troops would be out.")

When he originally announced the withdrawal plans in June 2011, the President declared that the U.S. had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan.  But everything that I've read indicates that the Afghan government will likely lose control over more and more of the country to local warlords as the Americans leave.

Here's what Michael Cohen, a former Democratic speechwriter, had to say about how Obama would likely handle the Afghanistan issue during the rest of the campaign:

He will take credit for winding down the war, he will claim that the surge blunted the Taliban's momentum -- which is partially true -- and he'll argue that Afghanistan is on its way to security and stability -- which is not really true, but isn't quite a lie either.  That things are falling apart and that the administration is making no effort to ensure that there is a viable political process after we withdraw combat troops -- I'm guessing that won't come up.
I'm guessing that's a pretty good guess.

There's been almost no substantive discussion of Afghanistan in the campaign to date.  It's an unpopular war, and both candidates seem to prefer just to pretend that it doesn't exist.  

The third and final presidential debate -- which took place last night -- was supposed to focus on foreign policy, so perhaps there was some discussion of Afghanistan during it.


I have no idea, because I didn't watch a minute of that debate.  I'm a big baseball fan, and I was watching the World Series.

You say the World Series doesn't begin until tomorrow night?  OK, OK -- I told a little white lie.  To tell the truth, I wouldn't have been watching the World Series even if it had been on last night. 

I was hoping for a St. Louis win so I could rant about a World Series matching the 5th-best team in the National League and the 7th-best team in the American League.

The Cardinals lost their division to the Reds by nine games -- their regular-season record was much worse than any of the other NL playoff teams.  If they hadn't added a second wild-card team this year, the Cardinals would have been on the golf course a couple of weeks ago.

And the Tigers were even worse.  If the Tigers had been in either the AL East or the AL West, they wouldn't have finished first -- or second -- or even third.  They would have finished FOURTH.  Their only hope of sneaking into the playoffs this year was to win the AL Central.  That shouldn't have been much of a test, considering that the other teams in that division are the White Sox, the Twins, the Royals, and the Indians -- whose cumulative won-loss record was 66 games below .500.

I vividly remember the 1968 Tigers-Cardinals World Series.  The Cardinals were led that year by their unhittable pitcher, Bob Gibson (who had 28 complete games, 13 shutouts, and a 1.12 regular-season ERA -- all of which were truly mind-boggling accomplishments).  They had a 3-1 lead in the Series after Gibson shut out the Tigers (and hit a home run) in game four.

Bob Gibson and Lou Brock
But the Redbirds proceeded to lose three games in a row, including Gibson's start in game seven.  It was the third-most shocking baseball game I've ever seen.

"Monster" ends with a plea for the United States to wake up and smell the cat food before it's too late:

America, where are you now?
Don't you care about your sons and daughters?
Don't you know we need you now
We can't fight alone against the monster

Sound familiar?  The campaign rhetoric of 2012 isn't all that different than what Steppenwolf was saying in 1969.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and all that jazz.

Steppenwolf didn't believe that America's problems were going to be solved in the voting booth.  When John Kay sang in "Monster" that the right to vote "is a meaningless joke," I'm pretty sure he meant that it didn't really matter whether one party or the other won an election -- politicians from both parties are phonies and liars and thieves.  But there's another possible meaning to that line.  

Which we'll discuss next Tuesday, when we focus another song that speaks to the interminable 2012 campaign.

Here's "Monster/Suicide/America":



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