Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Flowers Are Better Than Bullets": Edwin Starr: "War"

“The United States recognizes ‘membership in good standing’ in the Mennonite church as a justifiable reason to bestow exemption from military service.  Being a Mennonite is like having a note from your mom.  This exemption is due to the fact that throughout their history Mennonites have defined themselves by their refusal to fight.  Pick a war, any war, and the Mennonites have opposed it.  In Mennonite doctrine, there is no such thing as a Just War.  Moreover, we believe that violence leads only to more violence…Mennonites traditionally called themselves Die Stillen im Lande (the Quiet in the Nations) – meaning that civil resistance could be achieved through the twin activities of thoughtful active nonparticipation and farming.  Both of these activities involve practical action.  If it’s worth believing, it’s worth doing.”      Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite In a Little Black Dress

War is such a huge topic that I feel it only possible to write about my father; to use his experience, or what I know of it in any case, as one tiny facet of war.
My father was supposed to be – in the Mennonite tradition of family patterns, I suppose – a preacher.  Yes, Mennonites have preachers – those who lead exemplary lives and are of course highly religious.  But my father, since he was a kid, had the drawing bug; by the late 40s he had done the illustrations for his high school yearbook, so good and obsessed was he by taking pen, pencil and paper and observing and then drawing.  By 1948 he had decided that as good as this was, he wanted to get to know something else, something a bit more modern – the motion picture camera.  Such things were much harder to come by in Reedley, Ca., and so he joined the army, just so he could, eventually, take classes in how to use one and then go and film something.
As you can see, my father was a rather single-minded man whose ambitions lay far away from being a preacher; the visual arts were his thing, whether drawing, painting or the movies.  Staying in a small town was not something of interest to him, when the big wide world was out there.  Voluntarily joining the army was also, as you can see, something of a rebellious move; he even went to church in his uniform once, a gesture that may well have gotten him kicked out of church altogether, for all I know.  (He was also a budding agnostic, I should note.) 
And so he joined, and got sent to Fort Benning in Georgia, where on Sundays he would go to a local church there to see a very different service from the ones he knew, ones he would refer to when playing me his James Brown album – what he heard in Brown’s music in the 60s was what he’d heard there in ’49.  He never talked much about his pre-war days, though he did say he lost weight, as back home on the farm they ate four times a day (the last a meal near midnight, in case you were wondering), in the army, three.  And then the Korean War began, and my father was sent over as part of the motion picture camera division, responsible for filming action in all weathers, for newsreels back home. 
He never talked very much about his war days, either; but I could sense that they were maybe something that had changed him, how much I don’t know as he met my mom years afterward and they had me years after that.  He had lost a good friend by a random sniper shot in an alley somewhere; he had made it across the alley, but Pete didn’t .  My father had made a tough bargain for himself – do all this and learn about cameras, angles, lenses, etc. – ‘this’ being stuck in the endless cold of Korea, day in and day out…but he came out of it in one piece, if not emotionally and otherwise scarred in some ways.  I have no idea if my father’s grumpiness, depressive streaks or moody moments came out of being brought up in the Great Depression or having seen war; he had a mean teasing streak and yet was oddly non-preachy with me.  He was rarely angry with me, but he could be bossy (Mennonite fathers definitely rule the roost) and silly by turns. 
By the time my mom was pregnant with me, he was a skilled animator of many years, and was at this time (he’d worked at Disney amongst other places after returning from Korea) working for the military.  The Vietnam war was looking to be more and more unwinnable, which didn’t stop the military one bit in piling on money and effort to get more and more technologically advanced weapons into battle.  My father grew uncomfortable with this and decided that by the time I was born he would go back to civilian work, and the short film he did just before I arrived he was very subtle in showing others the reason why.  The film is about a super-duper new plane that can swoop and dive easily; in one swoop in the film you can see two ribbons of air from either wing, one blue, one pink.  I arrived in January 1967, pink, and named by my mother after my father’s mom, Lena.  After that point, my father did not work for any military anywhere, and instead animated various Nasa activities, including the Moon Landing and the Mars explorer.  
The one thing he would tell me about war was how he thought – he knew – it had turned men into machines.  I think he even showed me some pictures he'd drawn – incredibly dense and depressing ones – of humans literally turning into machines, losing their bodies and souls in the process.  He did the military animation as it was a job; but his conscience told him that this was wrong, morally wrong.  The Mennonite anti-war stance was fashionable in some circles in the 60s, but my father was not a hippie; he had seen war – he had filmed it, after all – and knew the whole process.  As much as he had to support my mom and me, he couldn’t do it by working for the military in any way.  Vietnam was just too awful, and I can imagine his anguish at coming home to watch the news every night, and seeing the war, and then going back to work to animate a machine designed to kill quickly, every day.
My father’s taste in music was mostly for jazz, some Romantic classical and whatever else took his fancy; anything that swung was okay with him.  What he thought of this song I don’t know, though once in a fit of letting me actually play what I wanted on the stereo (usually I had to wait for him to be out of the house to play anything I wanted) I played the huge four-album Motown box set I got from the library.  Was this on it?  I don’t remember, but the only song on it he didn’t like was “Baby Love” (“Too many ‘babys’” was his verdict).  By 1970 the anti-war fervor was building to a head; four protesters had been killed at Kent State University in Ohio in May*and the Hard Hat Riot was just a few days later.  I am too young to remember any of this of course, though there is a picture of me around this time wearing overalls with a peace dove patch on the front, and mom’s key chain – which she had for years - was a metal rectangle, with the slogan “War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things” engraved on it.
This song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969; it was first recorded by the Temptations and appears on their Psychedelic Shack album.  Motown got tons of requests to release it as a single, but the label and the group were a bit nervous about releasing something so anti-war, and thus possibly alienating fans.  (Even though most of “young America” was against the war, the Temptations were not about, I’d imagine, to do this in a supper club in Middle America.)  Whitfield wanted it to be released, but got nowhere, so he decided to re-record it with someone else; Starr, who had just joined Motown the previous year, volunteered himself for the job.  Whitfield got to do the song his way (the Temptations version is more laid-back); wailing guitars, the Undisputed Truth on backing vocals, clavinet, marching drums, the works.  None of that would have worked if Starr’s vocal wasn’t the most furious one – not nobly pained, but angry – that Motown had yet released.  Starr comes across as the righteous preacher, knowing “there’s got to be a better way” even as he sees the relentless machine of war eating humans alive – “Induction, then destruction – who wants to die?”  That Starr does this song with a mean grin on his face – a complicated one, as if to say, hell yeah I’m doing this song, just try to stop me, this is the greatest anti-war song and I’m doing it right now – makes it even clearer, in a way, just as this is a bright, tight production that points to what anyone could see on the streets – the young men, veterans, broken and damaged, or the families of those that lost loved ones, struggling to keep it together.  “Good God, y’all” snarls Starr at the whole situation, saying what the Mennonites had been saying for centuries; war is good for nothing, absolutely nothing. 
Whitfield had his way, the song went to #1 in the US – the only openly anti-war one to do so – and #2 here, where the Troubles were showing that they too weren’t going away any time soon.  Young America – and perhaps some of Middle America too – were beginning to see that this war was not going to be won, that it was indeed pointless.  Kent State was seen by some as the turning point in events, leading to the end of both the Nixon administration and Vietnam itself, though I like to think of this song's success as part of that process as well.
That Motown would have such success with this still didn't exactly pave the way for the more laid-back - if no less heartfelt - What's Going On by Marvin Gaye in '71 (that Gaye had to fight to record an album based on the point of view of a Vietnam vet shows how Motown would grudgingly release "Ball of Confusion" and "War" itself just to show it knew what time it was, but strangely balked with Gaye's far less openly strident work).  If I associate the early 70s with anything it is the socially-conscious soul/r&b that, as Greil Marcus puts it, was "nervous, trusting little if anything...driven by great physical energy, determined to get across the idea of a world - downtown or uptown, it didn't matter - where nothing was as it seemed."  He names this as one of the songs that helps to start this new era, a song that plainly and frankly tells things as they are, not as some would wish them to be.  A song about the pointlessness of war must be alive, super-alive in a way, leaping from the radio to startle an unwary listener.  That my parents would have agreed with him is obvious, that the grieving students would buy this is also obvious, but that this would not just be a song of its time, forgotten by future generations, was unthinkable**.  Whitfield, Strong and Starr helped to get the anti-war message out with that fierce smile; a complex look to match a record that took the military march and effectively threw its propaganda right back in its face.  It will be a long time before I get to another song as uncompromising as this one.

In Memoriam of my father, Dietrich Peter Friesen, 1930-1988
*A future subject of mine was there at the time and knew the four killed, was perhaps even friends with one of them; but that is for a different blog. 

**Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band did this live with Edwin Starr back in the 80s, as did Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  I'm not sure if that makes Starr a friendly forebear, but he did move to the UK to record and perform, just as Desmond Dekker did. 


David Belbin said...

Great piece, Lena. Edwin lived near Birmingham and came on to sing it when I saw Bruce at the NEC arena on the 99 E street band reunion show - highlight of what was, otherwise, my least memorable Bruce show.

Kordian Kuczma said...

I guess it's an excellent occasion for me to step up, because I live in the area of northern Poland where Mennonites lived in XVI-XVIII c. before the partitions of Poland when the Prussian occupants started to disrespect their pacifistic stance. Then many of them moved to Ukraine and then, when the Russian authorities became impatient with conscription in XIXth century - to America. Of course numerous were called Friesen (the proof are remnants of the cementeries I've seen) though I sense that the surname "Wiebe" was the most common :) (and Claasen, too). For half a year I've been working in the museum that was devoted mostly to the Mennonites and I had a very good time with the Mennonite trips, mostly from California and US in general.

I enjoy your blog very much (Marcello's, too). I also have a blog about pop music but so far it is more occupied with the present than history and only one or two entries are in English.

One thing bugs me for a long time - could you elaborate (in the comment) why exactly Adam Faith was a prototype singer of New Pop (except for the golden suit)? I love 80s music, so I would value your response very much. BTW, have luck with the book on New Pop you're planning - must be very interesting read! Greetings from Poland.