Rocktober: Get Out And Vote!

Brian Stoltz - Porter Batiste Stoltz, The Neville Brothers

Is this election different than past elections, why or why not?

Brian Stoltz by Sam Friedman
In some respect it will be different. The upcoming election in November holds the possibility of realignment - a time when ideas and stale patterns of policy can shift. Americans have the opportunity to break away from the old, stagnant way of looking at things and begin to influence those in power with a new, think out of the box mentality - creating new paradigms. But this will not be easy. There may be some difficult lessons to go through in the process. America has been riding the wave for a long time. In many ways, delusion and deception are drawing to a close. There is a growing consciousness among us. Things that were in the past hidden are now easily exposed. Much of what we have taken for granted no longer works. You can see things beginning to unravel. Banks and insurance companies are failing due to greedy accounting practices and republican deregulation, while their CEO's take home huge severance packages. The government bails out billion dollar corporations at the tax payer's expense, while veterans and people down on their luck are left homeless in the street, including people still suffering the effects of Hurricane Katrina three years later. We, the tax payers, are paying for the bailing out of the failed home mortgage industry (so we now all own homes that we can't live in). They have privatized wealth and socialized debt. Soon all this will be seen as a case of massive fraud and manipulation by the banks, brokerage houses, and sub-prime lenders.

Some American soldiers deployed to Iraq are making $800 a week while Washington pays mercenaries between $650 and $1000 a day. Human beings continue to be tortured while the White House says, "America does not torture." Private Security Company's like Blackwater USA are not held responsible when they cavalierly murder innocent Iraqis. Company's like Halliburton and Bechtel are pulling in billions in profits nation building and constructing schools in Iraq while at home ours crumble – and most on the right want to do away with the Department of Education. Oil prices are increasingly on the rise, making it impossible for some families (and for bands to tour), while Exxon shatters their quarterly profits record at $11.7 billion. Environmental changes are taking place. The Bush/Cheney Administration, and those tied to the president, ratchet up the rhetoric over Iran's nuclear capabilities in the same way that they did in regards to Iraqi WMD – and we know how that turned out. And the irony here is that America has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world and is the only nation to have ever used them on other human beings.

When the structure falls apart, the soul is revealed.

This is just a few of the many problems facing America today - and I am not sure that anybody has the cure for all these ills. Some things just may have to play out. One thing I am sure of is that in the 21st century, it should no longer be valid to stand up with your hand over your heart, waving a little Chinese-made American flag with tears in your eyes and think that this is patriotic without questioning these policies and the practices that have been induced on us and on the rest of the world. In a global society, we will not survive by continued unilateral thinking. It will become increasingly difficult to hold your head high and say that you're an American without including the entire planet in your good intentions and actions. There was a time when most of the world looked at the U.S. with respect - that no longer exist, but all the more reason for us to work to become good stewards to the entire planet.

We are living at a unique point in history. Time is speeding up. You can feel the pressure building. Calculations that once took decades now take seconds. Communication around the globe is instantaneous. The Internet has put the world in our lap. We can no longer separate ourselves from the rest of the world. I am not an expert in finances, but it seems to me that with all the money the U.S. spends on bailing out the fat cats, and with the three trillion dollars that will be spent in Iraq, much of it to private contractors and administration cronies, and with all the money we divert to prop up dictators around the world so American corporations can exploit cheap labor and so oil companies can have their way, we could feed and clothe the entire planet. But few in power are interested in that.

Some aspects of this realignment will take place with or without our involvement. Writer, Thomas Friedman, expresses this as "The World Is Flat" - the planet is balancing out. India and China are rising as a global power. Africa will begin to flourish. America will have to find its place in this new scheme of things and the more we make an effort to influence things in a positive direction the better.

I feel that this election will be different from the rest because we are living at a crucial time in history and we do have the power to influence this global re-balancing. But it will take hard work. Individuals have to speak up and get involved on a local, state, national and world level. We can no longer feel like the little guy who can do nothing.

What is the relationship between music and politics - and how, if at all, has this relationship affected your music?

There has always been a relationship between music and politics. Every country has a national anthem and what are considered patriotic songs. We also have protest songs, anti-war, anti-establishment and pro-establishment songs. These can be found in most genres of music including rock, folk, punk, classical and hip-hop.

For a long time politics did not have much of a role in my songwriting process, although I would occasionally slip in a comment here and there, but only in a line or two, and it was usually some word-play that brought humor to balance out the statement. Back then it never felt right to take a political side no matter how strongly I felt about an issue. But then in March 2003, when the Bush/Cheney Administration invaded Iraq and began its occupation, I felt a growing anger. I was in the studio recording a batch of songs, preparing for a new release. I remembered a song that I had written years before called "What Is Real?" I was never satisfied with the verses so I decided to rework them for this album. The song ended up reflecting much of what was going on at the time with the war and ambiguity in America. I re-recorded the song and was content with the results. Even then I continued to record from my previous catalogue which was mostly love songs and bluesy pop songs. Shortly after, my younger brother serving in the National Guard got deployed to Iraq. This caused fear and sadness for my family, especially for my parents who are getting up in age. I became angry due to my opposition to the war and to my brother's compliance to be a part of it. I felt completely hopeless over how the Bush/Cheney Administration had brainwashed the public and our soldiers into believing that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. How could anybody believe this? I found out that the military commanders had strongly urged soldiers to vote for the re-election of George W. Bush in the 2004. "Isn't this illegal?" I thought. But there wasn't anything anybody could do about it. It was disheartening to fully realize that the Bush/Cheney Administration, and those who goosestep behind them, simply do what they want. Shortly after my brother's deployment to Iraq I wrote "War Song," expressing much of my feelings about the situation and how it affected our family.

At this point I had no intention of making a whole album of what some call protest songs. Even if I wanted to I didn't think I could write ten or twelve songs topical to the war. I continued to go to the studio every day. I recorded a groove that had been playing over and over in my head but didn't have lyrics. A couple of days later I read an article in the paper where a Catholic priest had been interviewed about the war. He said that the war was being fought because of the Military-Industrial Complex and the billions of dollars it would reel in for the Bush/Cheney Administration's cronies. He said, "The invasion of Iraq is the greatest armed robbery in history." That line seared into my brain, throwing me into a heightened state of awareness. I saw even deeper levels of this fiasco. I sat down as if taking dictation and wrote the lines that became the song, "The Greatest Armed Robbery In History."

Even then I was not planning on doing a whole record of these types of songs, but I would include these on the next release. Then Greg Barnhill, a songwriter friend from Nashville, came down one weekend. We were writing songs for a Christmas album on which I was producing a few tracks. I played him some of the songs I'd recorded. He especially liked the ones that pertained to the war and suggested that I do a whole record like this. Having only three of these songs, I couldn't fathom writing eight or nine more. As time went on, and as I continued to watch the news reports, my anger grew. It got to the point where I couldn't sleep at night. I sat up watching non-stop coverage of the rape and plunder of Iraq, wondering what my brother was doing at the time. Was he safe? Is he alive? Will my parents have to endure the pain of seeing a military guy walk stoically up to the front door? My brother told my parents that he had a desk job and would be safe on the base. But I knew better. He was a gunner and crew chief on a Blackhawk - so I knew that he was in the middle of the action.

During those sleepless nights, lines and verses shot around my head like electrical currents – sometime like lightening. Whole songs came in one shot, as if they were pushing through from some ethereal level, but not knowing if they were from above or below. I wanted to work on the old batch of songs, but my heart wasn't in it. All I could develop were these angry, sarcastic songs. I rocked back and forth between confidence and doubt as to whether I should keep going. Some days I couldn't get up the strength to go to the studio. I found any bullshit excuse I could not to go. When I forced myself to go, it was my engineer, George Cureau, who encouraged me to continue on (he laughed at me a lot during this period). Soon I had more than enough songs for an album. Even after it was completed, mixed and mastered I still had doubts about releasing it. I knew that it wouldn't sell and would probably keep me in debt for a while. I knew that very few people would want to hear it, but something kept pushing me. Despite the fact that I had reservations over putting out something so bitter, it felt right. In 2005 it came out under the title, God, Guns & Money.

To my surprise the CD got very good, and in some cases, rave reviews. Astonishingly, it received very little criticism. Only one local guy said that, "The record review section is no place for political discourse, and some would argue, neither is the record bin." But then he went on to praise it because he couldn't deny what he was listening to. I wonder what he thought a couple of years later when a flurry of records came out addressing the war by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, The Dixie Chicks and Billy Bragg – did they also not belong in the record bin? I never bothered to check if he reviewed any of those.

Of course God, Guns & Money was labeled as an anti-war statement, and I can't debate that, but I still don't look at it that way. I see it as a statement by a songwriter expressing what he and his family went through in a time of war. As disturbing as it may be, the recording marks a period in American history that should never be forgotten. It represents the sentiments of the majority. And in the tradition of writers like Howard Zinn, a people's perspective needs to be left behind to counter-balance the official pabulum that will be written into our children's history books. In time, all my doubts went away. People started telling me how much they appreciated the record. I remember the day that the doubt completely lifted. I was playing an in-store at Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans to promote the release. I was signing CDs at the end of the performance. Many of the people in line already had the disc and were bringing it to get signed. A woman came up to me with tears in her eyes. She said, "Thank you so much for making this album. I have been carrying around these hateful, hopeless feelings over this war since it began. You expressed perfectly everything that I was feeling and as a result I was able to let go of all this horrible anger." At that moment all doubt left me as to whether I'd done the right thing. Looking back, the only thing I wish I had done differently would have been to hold the disc a little longer. It was released prematurely. As I intuited, few were interested. If it had come out in 2007, or now, it may have had a bigger impact and more relevance. But having said that, I am happy that the people who did get it were affected positively.

If you could speak directly to all American voters, what would you say?

It is important to know who the candidates really are and what they represent. Do some research as to what they are about. Know what is important to you and listen for what others are saying is important to them. There are too many people in this country who judge a candidate by personality. I hear media hacks spouting polls as to which candidate you would most like to have a beer with. Or, who would you most likely hang out with at a bar-b-que. How stupid is that? But sadly, that is how many Americans vote. In 2000, many voters picked George W. Bush because Al Gore got labeled as stiff. Gore was ahead of the game with a book he'd written in 1992 called "Earth In Balance." They laughed at him and said that his warning of environmental changes was just leftist lunacy. Who's laughing now? In 2004, John Kerry got swift boated by a group of scrupulous partisans. They lied about his military record in the most cowardly fashion. They laughed at him too because someone released a photo of him windsurfing. I thought, "What's wrong with that?" But the corporate-owned media ran with it and soon he was labeled as not manly – they said he looked French. What kind of imbecile would think this way? But they miserably exist in all elections.

So, be aware of all the silliness. Don't allow yourself to be influenced by absurdity and folly. Discriminate whether the candidate is speaking from the heart, or is parroting what he or she has been told to say. And don't be trivial in the same way when debating for your favorite candidate. This is equally dishonest. Happy voting!

Porter Batiste Stoltz's next show is on October 29 in Georgia. Complete tour dates available here. PBS has also released their first-ever live album MOODOO, featuring special guest keyboardist Page McConnell.

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