Amid the hyper-Politically Correct climate that now prevails on campus, some of the best college bands of my generation would constitute a ‘triggering event’ today
By Mark Cromer
“In 1986, ok
All across the USA
In 1986, oh no
I gotta rock, I gotta roll
~ Mojo Nixon, from Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin
In late April, Pitzer College will kickoff its 44th annual Kohoutek Music & Arts Festival, one of the longest running and most respected showcases for bands on the university circuit and a gathering that used to be a social wigwam for students and locals to kickback, have a beer, share a joint and groove to a wide range of emerging musical talent.
Yet I have to wonder whether the two-day festival this year will resemble anything like the Kohoutek of my honey days of yore that unfolded on the gentle rolling slopes of the greenway at Pitzer known as ‘the mounds,’ a time and place when our studies were put on pause and our political activism dialed down as we indulged the casual collision of good tunes, sweet smoke, cold beer dispensed freely from kegs stashed in Sanborn Hall and made time with the freewheeling and free-thinking chicks not just from Pitzer and its sister campuses in the Claremont Colleges but the coeds that flocked to the festival from my own university, Cal Poly Pomona, and other nearby campuses like ULV as well.
Kohoutek was all about having a good time. And we did.
I first attended Kohoutek on the festival’s 9th anniversary in 1983 and through the rest of the decade it became a spring ritual for my friends and our extended tribe. Amid the Reagan Era and the dizzying Age of Wall Street with its Gordon Gekko-wannabe Yuppies, unwinding with concerts on campus was an integral part of our higher education and while Pitzer’s Kohoutek was the festival back then, Cal Poly Pomona held its own on the college circuit and we watched such bands as Camper Van Beethoven, Green On Red, The Long Ryders, Dramarama, The Beat Farmers and of course those traveling minstrels of folky mayhem: Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper all play the then still pastoral Home of The Broncos on Kellogg Hill.
Of course, this was an era on campus when Mojo Nixon could launch into his anthem “Burn Down The Malls!” in front of cheering, singing and dancing students on the Cal Poly quad, and a week later William F. Buckley would speak in the campus gym in front of equally exuberant students as well—many of whom had also been dancing gleefully to Mojo’s invitation to set ablaze the soulless commercial heart of chain-store retail America.
It was a time when colleges were, well, still actually colleges: intellectually open ranges offering free and unpredictable blends of opinions and philosophies that complimented the campuses mission by confronting students with the contradictions that life holds and challenging them to ask questions and seek answers even if they weren’t always so conveniently tidy. There were armband-wearing ideologues roaming the campuses back then too—not to mention the Mussolini impressionists holding forth at the front of their classrooms—but they were still mostly outliers, particularly among the student body, something more akin to sociopolitical landing troops that were focused on slowly expanding their bridgehead in faculty appointments and curriculum drafts while amassing their cultural shock troops in preparation of breaking out and overwhelming the campus balance in the decades to come.
The Politically Correct movement of the mid-1980s was like a slow-growing tumor, one that has now clearly metastasized into a Stage IV cancer and spread to virtually every vital organ throughout academia, so it’s not terribly difficult to imagine the reaction some of the biggest bands playing colleges during the 1980s would receive on campus today.
I think back to the first time I saw The Unforgiven in the spring of 1985 at Kohoutek, with the six-man band walking onstage in spaghetti western-meets-Gettysburg regalia as the banners unfurled behind them advised: ‘Better Dead Than Unforgiven.’ The band was fronted by Steve Jones, who had previously been in the punk band The Stepmothers before rebranding himself as ‘John Henry Jones’ as he conceptualized The Unforgiven as an amalgamation of country rock and power pop that unleashed a guitar army (the band had four guitarists) that blended KISS-style coordinated stance shifts and belting out anthems as drummer Alan Waddington stood behind a bass drum and snare a la Slim Jim of The Stray Cats banging and clanging a driving order to advance.
The Unforgiven looked and sounded like a band of outlaws on the dodge that had drifted into town intent on either taking over the saloon or burning it down trying and onstage they fired off a fusillade of songs with titles like ‘All Is Quiet On The Western Front,’ ‘With My Boots On,’ ‘The Preacher’ and ‘Cheyenne.’ During that first appearance at Kohoutek, Dweezil Zappa came out onstage with a guitar that he mentioned Eddie Van Halen had given him and played through a few songs with the band, making it a five-guitar onslaught for a spell.
Kohoutek 1985 proved to be a breakthrough performance for the band which soon found itself the subject of a bidding war among the major labels (Elektra prevailed), and they released an album the following year and went on to play some massive shows like Farm Aid before eventually imploding and vanishing as the ‘80s came to a close. But for a couple of years in the mid-1980s, The Unforgiven were a college band made at least momentarily big by playing campuses where today their mere appearance would be more likely to trigger a riot than a race to sign and record them.
Consider that last year at Pitzer College a mural painted by freshman Selena Spier that depicted a gun with flowers sprouting from its barrel prompted an immediate rebuke from Pitzer Student Senator Gregory Ochiagha, who fired off a campus-wide email that claimed his “black mental and emotional health” had been threatened by seeing Spier’s mural which he declared “extremely insensitive.”
If Ochiagha felt that merely seeing a painting of a gun growing flowers had endangered his mental health and emotional wellbeing, then imagine what his reaction would be if he stepped onto the mounds to find six rockers dressed in 19th Century garb and singing “Hang’em High!” The Southern Poverty Law Center would have to deploy a rapid response team to investigate whether The Unforgiven qualified more as a ‘hate group’ than a rock band while Pitzer College would rush crisis counselors to the festival site and cordon off safe spaces for marginalized festival goers of color (MFGoCs), a ripe new strata of the oppressed scions to be catered to at the $64,000-a-year college-turned-cradle.
But this assumes that Pitzer College is not already pre-screening bands hoping to appear at Kohoutek for lyrical compliance with speech codes mandated by the small liberal arts school as well as the random stylistic druthers of roving self-appointed speech and arts code enforcement officers like Ochiagha. That The Unforgiven’s song Hang’em High (which became the second track on their eponymous album released in 1986) is a sarcastic takedown of self-righteous mob mentality wouldn’t count for much on Pitzer’s campus today, certainly no more than the message of Spier’s flower-sprouting gun mattered last year.
Following his email to the Pitzer campus community informing them of the high anxiety he was experiencing as a result of seeing the mural—which he equated with police brutality—Ochiagha then met with the artist Spier who subsequently repainted her mural to better reflect his tastes, erasing the gun and replacing it with a black hand clutching flowers. It’s unclear whether Ochiagha stood over Spier’s shoulder and directed the mural’s reboot, but in a hostage-like statement published by the Claremont Independent after it was over, Spier was quoted as dutifully reciting: “I have absolutely no right to decide whether or not my artwork is offensive to marginalized communities—nor does anyone else in a position of privilege, racial or otherwise.”
So it’s a safe bet that The Unforgiven would face some trouble on campus today.
And they wouldn’t be the only ones.
The Beat Farmers rode their roots wagon further down the rock trail than The Unforgiven were able to, with the band recording three studio albums with its peak lineup during its heyday between 1985 and 1987 and eventually landed an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, but when I think back to their shows at Cal Poly Pomona during their heyday I wonder what would happen now when drummer Country Dick Montana stepped from behind his kit to sing California Kid, his baritone growl advising that he had waltzed into a saloon called ‘The Busted Bitch’ just to “drag a woman of the evening upstairs by her lower lip.”
Ol’ Country Dick beat Donny Trump to it by a couple of decades and far from a bullshit session that was surreptitiously caught on a hot mic in a private bus, Country Dick was standing center stage at a state university and in front of hundreds of dancing college students that were singing along with him.
If that wouldn’t be enough to trip the misogyny sirens across campuses today, a vintage performance by Mojo Nixon certainly would be.
Mojo’s opening riff on Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin offers his take on a phone call to original MTV VJ Martha Quinn, who explains to Mr. Nixon that he can’t appear on the music network as a result of his predilection to sing about sex (this was way back when MTV actually featured music and long before it converted its programing to shows featuring nothing but drunken sexcapades among dysfunctional cast members).
This in turn only inspires Mojo to inform her: “Martha Quinn! I wanna be doing some sin with you Martha Quinn! I wanna be gettin’ in Martha Quinn!…I wanna be stuffin’ Martha’s muffin!”
Back in the ‘80s that introductory riff produced hoots, hollers and laughter among male and female students alike (this was back when there were still just two genders that students identified by, which definitely dates it), but performed today, well, you can almost hear the cacophony of shrieking, wailing and rape whistles that would drown out Mojo’s ode to Ms. Quinn’s muffin.
Admittedly it has been a long time since I have caught a concert on campus, with the last time I attended the Kohoutek festival almost a decade ago. Sanborn Hall, among the first buildings to rise on the campus back in 1964, has been demolished amid the ongoing spa-ification of the Claremont Colleges and the free keggers replaced with a formal ‘beer garden,’ but the music was still good.
Perhaps the fitting coda from that era came in November 1995, when Country Dick Montana died literally onstage and behind his drums during a show at The Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, British Columbia, as The Beat Farmers performed ‘The Girl I Almost Married.’
So has campus politics killed the college band? Probably not yet, but it’s hard to believe that bands on the university circuit today aren’t in a cold sweat as they heed Ice-T’s bitter observation as the 1980s came to a close: “Freedom of speech…Just watch what you say!”
And when college bands or any other artists have to self-censor what they say or sing or paint, well then maybe old Neil Young got it only half-right: it might be better that we burned out before we’d gone to rust, but rock n’ roll can certainly die and it’s not entirely clear there’s anything more to today’s picture than meets the eye.
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