The force awakens


Rich Mattson and his gang of love terrorists at the Turf Club in St. Paul last Thursday night. Photo by Joe Fahey


Thursday night in St. Paul, Minn., sandwiched between suicide bombings in Beirut and Paris, Rich Mattson and a gang of local love terrorists took to the Turf Club stage to celebrate Neil Young’s 70th birthday.

The good communal vibe climaxed around midnight in front of a packed house of about 300 zealots, as Mattson and a frontline co-commandeered by Run Westy Run/Iffy/Jayhawks guitar man Kraig Johnson ignited like an uber-urgent reincarnation of Young’s raggedly glorious band Crazy Horse, especially when howling, as all concerned did with real gusto, the Young-penned manifesto of, “Hey hey my my/Rock and roll will never die.”

At that moment I was standing in front of the band on the Turf’s storied dance floor, the very same spot I stood on when Ike Reilly and his band came to lift spirits and help make sense of the senseless just hours after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. in September 2001. Sharing the microphone like a couple of flannel-clad Rolling Stones, Mattson and Johnson grinned hard at one another as they sang the lyric, which could’ve been heard as a quaint fist-pumper from a time long gone, but that was before hundreds of rock fans attending an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Concert Hall in Paris were gunned down in the name of Allah.

In the ISIS missive that claimed responsibility for the attacks the next day, the terrorists essentially declared war on rock ‘n’ roll, referring to the concert hall as a place where “apostates” had gathered in a “profligate prostitution party” (rock concert) in Paris, that den of inequity targeted for its history of  “obscenity and perversion.” Clearly, rock ‘n’ roll and all the mind- and soul-blowing freedom it has stood for is at the top of the hit list for ISIS, which runs sex slave camps, enforces sexual repression disguised as religious purity, and fancies its soldiers as chosen enforcers of the apocalypse.

Probably because of extremism like that, and an overall sanctimonious trickle-down effect from those who know The Right Way or The Only Way, the closest thing I’ve ever had to religion in my lifetime has been rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a huge sect, made up of countless antiestablishmentarians who were raised on sounds that make us feel alive, joyful, angry, sad, rebellious and inspired in a way I believe our creator intended us all to feel as often as possible amidst life’s natural sorrows. As such, we seek out experiences that affirm the good things in life, all that love and infinite infinity and wild abandon best achieved via the ritual of gathering together around an altar of rock and the sacraments of kick drums in your chest and Marshall stacks spitting aural flames of salvation, redemption, catharsis.

Music lovers who go to concerts like Eagles of Death Metal find their own people and customs, and for the most part I’ve always found rock ‘n’ rollers to be the sort of thoughtful non-joiners who would, if you suggested joining a stupid cause or believing in a hate-spreading god or killing another person in the name of anything, would look at you sideways and say, “Nah. That’s a really stupid idea, you bleeping piece of sheep. I’m gonna go listen to some records and expand my mind and heart.”

They think for themselves, in other words, and they naturally find others who do the same. In the wake of Friday’s attacks in Paris, NPR rock critic Ann Powers created the hashtag #livemusicheals and asked her followers to cite their all-time favorite concert experiences as a way to combat Friday night’s numbing newsfeed. Several of my music biz friends focused their grief on the killing of Eagles of Death Metal merchandise manager Nick Anderson, and Ed Ackerson, leader of Minneapolis rockers BNLX and Polara, whose business as head of the Susstones Records label and Flowers recording studio often brings him and his wife Ashley to Europe on business, had this to say in a Facebook post:

“Ashley and I are in Paris a couple times a year, and of course every time we’re there we go out and see rock shows. Paris doesn’t have as many indie rock fans proportionally as a US or UK city of the same size, but the people who are into it are REALLY into it, totally committed. I’m devastated about any and all victims of the attacks in the city today. But the events at Bataclan have left me stricken with horror and grief. This was an attack on our own tribe, people who listen to the same sounds, wear the same clothes, are moved by the same beat and noise as us. I think about the people I stood next to at shows last April. Were any of them at Bataclan tonight? Very likely yes. I don’t know what to say, except this feels very very close, despite the 4000 miles distance.”

A war on rock ‘n’ roll? My money is on the likes of Ackerson, Mattson, Reilly, the Clash, Gramma’s Boyfriend, Doomtree, the Ramones, Bad Bad Hats, Joan Jett, Public Enemy, Atmosphere, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Sleater-Kinney, Parliament-Funkadelic, Soul Asylum, the Monkees, and Madonna, arguably the West’s most adored love-and-sex goddess and therefore certainly the bain of ISIS’s existence, who said at her Saturday night concert in Stockholm: “That is exactly what these people want us to do. They want to shut us up. They want to silence us. And we won’t let them. Because there is power in unity, and I do believe that as much chaos and pain and senseless violence and terrorism that occurs around this world, not just in Paris, there is much goodness in this world. We are here to prove it. Only love will change the world, but it’s very hard to love unconditionally, and it’s very hard to love that which we do not understand, or that which is different than we are, but we have to, or this will go on and on and on forever.”

In other words, as always, to quote those incendiary infidels the Beatles, “Love is the answer.” And as the military jingoism and xenophobia ramps up here and abroad, I take solace and guidance from “Rent” author Jonathan Larson, who wrote, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” That’s for sure, and I know from experience that that helpless feeling deep in our guts can be mitigated by setting our intentions every day to make something beautiful and create our own weather and reality.

To that end, just in time, next month sees the release of the new Star Wars film,“The Force Awakens,” in which Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Hans Solo do battle once again with The Dark Side. The Force, of course, is the all-powerful life-love-creation energy that every religion known to humankind has recognized as an allegory for their god, and as the religious divides between us become more pronounced and violent, I’m left with the hope that merely having a pop-culture meme out there and being repeated over and over in the collective consciousness — “the force awakens ” — will kick-start a new world.

I know, I know, I know. But… what if…?

What if all the people who eschew fundamentalism but who believe fervently in rock ‘n’ roll and Star Wars marshal their good freaky energy naturally and obliterate these new Dark Ages with an unprecedented volcanic eruption of music, art, smarts, love, and kindness? What if the terrorists are bombarded by love, love, love, love and light and more love, love, love, love and light and — voila! — we achieve peace in our time, although anyone with half a brain or historical perspective knows that human beings being human beings, worldwide peace is but a figment of utopian imaginations.

Or is it? Me, I’m hitching my wagon to the very real hope and sustenance that can be found in guitars and stars. The haters can have their AK-47s and poverty of the soul; I’ll be over here, imagining all the people living life in peace and you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. May the Force be with you. 

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]