Last week at the Orpheum, singer-songwriter-shaman Nick Cave put on a hellfire performance with his band, The Bad Seeds. The Monday night show alternately felt like a gospel revival, a black mass, and a gymnastic event. Cave worked the audience like Moses directing the Red Sea. At one point, he strode across the backs of theatre seats into and above the worshipful crowd. For a young woman standing behind me, I was no more than a hairy handgrip in her technical climb toward the 56-year old rock god.
After witnessing this epic performance, I am convinced more than ever that public servants should be discouraged from song and dance.
Some political leaders have a tendency to overshare their creative side interests. Needless to say, they usually come off badly in the end. Living in a bubble doesn’t help; just as no Roman senator convinced Nero to put down the violin while flames were licking the corners of the Capitol, it seems there’s no one in Harper’s inner circle to tell him it’s inappropriate for a scorched-earth theoconservative to publicly sing songs by four peace-loving Liverpudlians.
It just seems wrong to fiddle with tunes while either Rome or the planet are burning.
in 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney hosted the “Shamrock Summit” in Quebec City, a post-Trudeau rapprochement of powers that prefaced three decades of outsourcing, downsizing, and pocket-lining. In an online CBC clip, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy are doddering next to Brian and Mila as the PM bellows the final line to “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”
The two leaders – a baritone ex-lawyer from Baie Comeau and the lead actor in Bedtime for Bonzo – set the musical precedent for politician-as-performer. Bill Clinton sealed the deal by playing saxophone on Arsenio Hall during his 1992 presidential campaign (not the last time a wind instrument would come up during Slick Willy’s two-term reign).
In 2002, US Attorney General John Ashcroft belted out “Let the Eagle Soar”, his looney composition about American exceptionalism, at a theological seminary function. Two years later, US Secretary of State Colin Powell busted a move at trade conference for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He sported a hard hat and tool belt while singing “ASEAN” to the tune of The Village People’s “YMCA”.
Not to be outdone by the glee club members in his administration, President George W. Bush clumsily danced and drummed (let’s call it ‘dunced’) with a group of African guests on the White House Lawn in 2007.
In January 2012, President Barak Obama managed to warble a line from “Let’s Stay Together” during a fundraising stop at Harlem’s Apollo Theater without bringing dishonour to the family of the Reverend Al Green. But a month later, in a PBS broadcast of In Performance of the White House, OBomber’s effort to carry “Sweet Home Chicago” in the presence of blues greats Buddy Guy and B.B. King went the way of a Tehran-jammed Predator drone.
To quote Samuel Johnson slightly out of context, a politician tackling a popular song in public is “like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
This brings me back to Prime Minstrel Harper, who has taken to interpreting sixties music with his in-house band of Conservative conscripts – a team whose musical palette stretches from paint-by-numbers to painful.
In a video taken during a January 2014 state dinner in Jerusalem, even Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks unimpressed with Harper’s butchering of “Hey Jude”. Like Pinnochio’s efforts to pass himself off as something more than a wooden puppet, the PM’s na-na-na’s came off as another shnozz-stretching misadventure.
Anyone remember the 1992 mockumentary, Bob Roberts? Tim Roberts starred as a Conservative Republican folk singer – yes, folk singer – who takes an electoral run at the US Senate. In his travels across Pennsylvania, Roberts strums his guitar and sings songs about drug abusers, welfare cheats, and the victory of family values over sixties counterculture.
Bearing Bob Roberts in mind, things could be worse for us in Canada. Instead of ransacking the catalogue of boomer-era rockers, the Prime Minstrel could be performing songs of his own about the dangers of science, the virtues of asbestos, and the glory of shrinking the CBC down to a five-dollar smart phone app. Imagine, indeed.
The Vancouver Courier, July 4
For your edification, I have stitched together some of the jaw-dropping political performances mentioned above: