The Ballad of Virus Van and COVID Clapton

Van Morrison is a cranky old man, and that’s okay. Eric Clapton is a crappy old racist, and that’s not okay. 

Van Clapton (Art: Ron Hart)

Personally, I believe publicly protesting lockdown laws is like shouting theatre in the middle of a fire.

I think protecting the personal well-being and safety of yourself and the people you care about needs to take precedence over getting a pint and a plate of mozzarella sticks. That seems freaking obvious to me, but this is not about what I think. Today, we are going to discuss the fact that Van Morrison, one of the most respected musical artists of our time, has made a big noise by releasing a series of anti-lockdown songs.

Here’s the thing: There’s not one single sentient human being on Planet Earth who is going to change their mind about masking, closures, or any other COVID-19 related restrictions because of something Van Morrison says. Seriously, not one. That’s why, at first, I couldn’t get too worked up about all this. I considered Van Morrison’s anti-lockdown songs as being akin to an over-heated rant from a cranky and over-fed old great uncle, the musical equivalent of that guy who comes to thanksgiving, mutters something about Jane Fonda, and asks your sister’s friend if she’s a boy or a girl. And your mom pulls you aside and says, “Oh, he really doesn’t have anyone else in the world, plus he consistently gives work to Georgie Fame, and Georgie Fame is bloody fantastic.”

 

VIDEO: Van Morrison with Georgie Fame “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

I am also heartily amused by the fact that the lyrics to each and every one of Van Morrison’s anti-lockdown songs sound exactly, and I mean precisely, like second-rate punk-era lyrics. Here’s some examples: 

 

No more lockdown

No more government overreach
No more fascist police
Disturbing our peace

(From “No More Lockdown”)

 

Do you want to be a free man?

Do you want to be a slave?
Is this a sovereign nation?

Or just a fascist state?
You better look out people, before it gets too late

(From “Stand and Deliver”) 

 

Admit your failure and decline with honor while you can
And you think you’ve got it sussed out
And you think that we’re brain washed
And you’re trying for a police state
So you can rule our body and minds

(From “Time for Truth”)

 

Don’t need the government cramping my style
Give them an inch, they take a mile.
Take you in with a phony smile

(From “Born to be Free”) 

 

Okay, “Time for Truth” is from the Jam’s first album, but it’s included here to show you just how convincingly Van Morrison, in 2020, can write prototypical Punk Rock lyrics. And like prototypical Punk Rock, it’s not going to make any goddamn difference, so I could totally write this all of as the cranky howls of a cranky man, except for this: The most recent release in Mr. Morrison’s anti-lockdown oeuvre, “Stand and Deliver,” is done in collaboration with Eric Clapton. And that’s a game changer, for all the wrong reasons. 

On August 5, 1976, in an extremely public setting (an arena full of fans in Birmingham, England), Eric Clapton proudly made the following statement. I post these offensive words in full, to serve as a reminder of an incident too many people have forgotten:

“Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands … So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white … The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man… This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck’s sake? … Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

This is a full and accurate transcription of Clapton’s statements. I have omitted only certain parts referring to Enoch Powell, a far-right political candidate Clapton urges the audience to support. In the week following the incident, Clapton not only refused to apologize for the remarks, but also doubled down on them, and emphasized both his intentionality in making the comments, and his belief in their contents. 

COVID Clapton (Art: Ron Hart)

It still stuns me that Clapton made it back from these remarks (which he has since renounced, but, I mean, still). Look at Seinfeld freak Michael Richards. Back in 2006 while on stage at a comedy club in West Hollywood, Richards went on an incoherent, racist rant of nearly Tourette’s-like proportions. For all intents and purposes, Richards’ career was over before he even left the stage, and he has not been heard from since, except for the odd cameo in projects featuring his old friends. Yet, we seem to overlook Clapton’s far, far worse statements, made in a much more public setting. 

Now, making a choice to collaborate with a man who publicly and loudly proclaimed, “Keep Britain white,” is a deliberate action. It is a choice to publicly align your cause – in this case, the belief that lockdowns violate all manners of personal and political freedoms – with someone who has proclaimed that “the coons” should be kicked out of the country. Although working with Clapton should not necessarily be seen as an endorsement of those beliefs, it is a conscious decision to look the other way. And personally, I choose not to look the other way. I hear those horrifying words in my head every single time I hear Clapton’s name. I hear them any and every time I accidentally come across one of his mewling little songs, which sound like someone stepping to the counter of Ye Olde Rock’n’Roll Tea Shoppe and saying, “Just put some boiling water in a mug, and dip in the tea bag exactly once, that’s how I like my rock ’n’ roll, good sir.” 

I choose to boycott Clapton. That is simply my choice. It may not be yours. I do not wish to boycott Van Morrison. He is expressing an opinion different from my own, but if anything, I actually applaud the courage he shows with his willingness to put the force of his good name and credibility behind an unpopular and politically incorrect point of view. 

Now, why does this matter? Shouldn’t we just say, “Man, they’re just singers and guitar players, they make me happy when I am driving home from the CVS and I am listening to the ol’ Sirius machine, what difference does their political opinion make, if they even have one?”

A musician’s political opinion matters when their lyrics explicitly deal with a political subject. We see this in Van Morrison’s latest body of work, not to mention everything from John Lennon to Dylan to the Clash to Green Day. Screeds about race, class, and real or perceived oppression are an absolute common subject matter for musicians. Whether they choose to back up these opinions with instruction or directions for engagement, well, that’s another story entirely. 

A musician’s political opinion matters when their public image regularly personifies the attributes or the interests of a particular class, and this is a significant factor in their appeal. In other words (to cite just one example), if you make millions off of the workingman by portraying yourself as “one of them,” it would be nice if you were actively engaged in the issues that concern the workingman. 

Virus Van and Covid Clapton (Art: Ron Hart)

A musician’s political opinion matters when their persona or lyrics, regardless of the times, at no point addresses the issues of the times. Here are two examples of this, with opposing results: the Undertones, from Derry, Northern Ireland, emerged during the worst times of the Troubles, in a town profoundly impacted by the events on a daily and mortal basis. Yet their lyrics virtually never touched on the Troubles, instead dealing, almost exclusively with “normal” boy/girl/social stuff. This in itself was a profound statement: It was a way of saying that for the majority of young people growing up in the midst of a brutally contested civil war, normal adolescent things still really mattered. Life must go on. To be apolitical was political. On the other side of the coin, a week before the most important and contentious Presidential election in a century and a half, Jack White appeared on SNL, the most visible platform for live music in American media, and fellated some old Led Zeppelin riffs. He chose to completely avoid using rock ’n’ roll to make any statement whatsoever. This omission was, very much, a choice. It was a declaration that whatever was happening in America, it did not matter enough to him to use this extraordinary platform to take a stand. At best, it was an act of cowardice, and at worst, an act of collaboration. Can you imagine? Can you imagine having that kind of platform, with the WEAPON of rock’n’roll in your hand, and playing/saying nothing? My God, at least Eric KKKlapton had the courage to say something. 

So, in other words, all music is political, whether it’s Miley Cyrus or Phil Ochs. 

But most of all, all music is political because the architect of rock ‘n’ roll is suffering. That’s because the building blocks, and the builders, of rock ‘n’ roll had this in common: They were America’s disenfranchised. They were those subject to profound economic, social, educational, and workplace discrimination, those on the outside of the turnpike to the American dream. Rock ’n’ Roll is the sound of America’s disenfranchised, made electric. It is that simple. There is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in modern pop and rock that cannot be traced, in some very direct way, to the noises made in shacks, cotton fields, hollows, and tenements by America’s willing and unwilling immigrants. 

No other art form was born of more suffering, and brought us more pleasure. 

 

VIDEO: How Clapton’s Bigotry Begat Rock Against Racism

Sadly and joyously, we announce that rock ’n’ roll is the only good thing to come from the American stain of slavery and the institutionalized race hatred of Jim Crow. Make no mistake: What we hear on our radio, what we make with our own fingers on Amazon-bought guitars, is the product of the pain of our immigrant ancestors, those both willing and unwilling, made electric. Everything we acolytes of rock, casual and intensive, have ever listened to has DNA that can be traced back to the stinking hulls of slave ships, the blistered and bleeding fingers of bent-backed children in the hell-hot cotton fields, the black-lunged miners in grim Appalachian shacks, and so on. 

When people like Eric Clapton play this music, and bruise it, abuse it, insult it by using it as a platform to spew their own race hatred and prejudice, it is the worst sort of insult to those who created it.

What Van Morrison does is just, well, cranky, or ignorant, or petulant, or maybe even courageous. But doing it alongside Eric Clapton is vile. 

 

 

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

5 thoughts on “The Ballad of Virus Van and COVID Clapton

  • December 12, 2020 at 10:32 pm
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    So I here was, for once, ready to agree with you. While you often come off as pretentious and hypocritical (Working for a large, corporate record label and for MTV/VH-1 would seem to undercut your self-righteous, anti-establishment rants), I was all set agree with you about Van Morrison’s bullshit.

    But you undercut yourself once again by saying you “actually applaud the courage” of his being an ill-informed asshole who’s advocating ignoring safety protocols. Cranky, overfed old man doesn’t care about his own health? Fine. But his “freedoms” end when it endangers others. You really think Van is worthy of applause here?

    Marvelous night for a Loondance indeed.

    You’re right about calling Clapton out. I only learned of his abhorrent comments a few years ago. At first, I didn’t believe it. Wasn’t he always paying homage to heroes like Robert Johnson, Muddy, Wolf, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, etc?

    But yeah, he said it.

    Doesn’t matter that he was likely drunk, or smacked out of his gourd at the time. He said it. As much as I liked Cream, The Dominos, etc, there’s just no forgetting or forgiving that. Fuck Eric Clapton.

    But fuck Van Morrison too. Nearly 300k dead in the U.S., another 64k in the U.K., 1.6 million worldwide. And climbing. Those are just the reported numbers, of course, and who knows what the long term effects will be for anyone else infected?

    Van Morrison doesn’t get a pass here. He’s as bad as Clapton. They’ve both made A number of great records, but they’re garbage people. Garbage people aren’t worthy of anyone’s applause.

    Reply
  • January 5, 2021 at 6:39 pm
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    So the Undertones get a free pass (because you like them) for NOT addressing problems in Ireland, but Jack White (I’m assuming you don’t like him), gets called out for NOT making a statement? I don’t care either way (and I like both acts), but Jack White has no obligation to you, me or anyone else to make a statement at all. He’s a songwriter, singer and guitarist…..nothing more. I think you expect too much from some of these artists.

    Reply
  • January 6, 2021 at 2:46 pm
    Permalink

    Dennis, that’s a very solid point, and I appreciate you weighing in. Here’s what I was trying to say: The Undertones lived in a warzone, and by writing about “normal” boy and girl stuff, they were making a statement that life goes on; but Jack White, appearing on the eve of a vital moment in American history and saying nothing, wasn’t saying “Life Goes On,” but “I don’t care.” But I do think there is genuine gray area there, and it is entirely possible I am misinterpreting on either side, and I am glad that you pointed out that gray area.

    Reply
  • January 12, 2021 at 2:59 pm
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    I enjoyed reading this piece. But TV’s ratings are somewhat like the weather, everyone uses them but no one knows what they mean. I don’t have access to Nielsen books but SNL’s rating reportedly “soared” when Dave Chappell hosted. 2.6 for Adults 18-49. I don’t see Black’s ratings posted, but they’re not close enough to a 4.5 rating–rounded up to a 5.0–to “move the meter.” The continuing expansion of channels has shifted broadcast viewing to its cable and now pay options–11 channels of HBO and Showtime, etc.–to effectively reach a high rating (12.5 is what gets you 100% of a demo fast) of Adults 18-34, a better cell unless Black was on every NBC network simultaneously. Again, I enjoy your articles.

    Reply
    • January 12, 2021 at 3:01 pm
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      Actually 5.0 is the lowest significant number. 12.5 “moves the meter.” Sorry for any confusion.

      Reply

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