(Sevens, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song. From now through the election, Sevens will focus on political songs)
While the environment shouldn’t seem like a political issue, it has become one of the nastier ones of the past half century. The conflict between capitalism and conservation is, at times, a brutish one. And in one case, the problems became so obvious, the lack of consideration so egregious, that the seemingly impossible happened: a river caught fire.
The Cuyahoga River, whose mouth was inviting enough that Moses Cleaveland decided to start a settlement there, winds its way around Northeast Ohio and eventually empties into Lake Erie. Pollution from factories and sewage run-offs, among other specific causes, littered the river with oils and debris of a combustible nature and in 1969 a stray spark from a blowtorch lit a portion of the river on fire. The river would catch fire several times that year and would call national attention to the serious environmental problems that plagued it. The river has gone through some serious clean up in the past nearly 40 years, but is still considered an area of concern by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Randy Newman, someone we could spend this entire month of political-themed Sevens entries on, went after the Cuyahoga disaster on his 1972 album Sail Away with the song “Burn On.” In his own inimitable way, Randy constructs a song that sounds like a fond reminiscence of a great geographic landmark and the city it raised. An oil barge, somewhat picturesquely, floats down the river on its way to Lake Erie. “Even now I can remember,” sings Newman, “‘cause the Cuyahoga River goes smokin’ through my dreams…Burn on, big river, burn on.”
Newman has always juxtaposed facade and content so well, and here he presents the song as an ode to Cleveland and the river. You envision Newman walking alongside the river, looking at the lights of the city across the water, smiling, perhaps arm in arm with a sweetheart, enjoying the scenic beauty. All this while the river’s water burns, flames and smokes behind them. A pleasant evening constitution in a futuristic hellscape where the environment is turned on its ear. Burn on, indeed.
R.E.M., on the other hand, uses the same reminiscent tone as Newman, but instead of summoning a darkly satirical vision, “Cuyahoga” builds into a smoking rage at experiences denied. The song, from 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant (also home to acid rain/environmental-themed song “Fall on Me”), recalls images of youth – swimming in the river, skinned knees – and the memories of it all. “This is where we walked, this is where we swam, take a picture here, take a souvenir,” sings Michael Stipe, evoking memories lost. Cling to what you have, because it may be gone. “Let’s put our heads together, start a new country up, underneath the river bed we burned the river down…Cuyahoga, gone.” The song is in turns maudlin, angry, forward thinking and possessive. Where Newman sarcastically mocks the desolation, R.E.M. summons its result into something more. words/ j. neas
MP3: Randy Newman :: Burn On
MP3: R.E.M. :: Cuyahoga
Amazon: Randy Newman – Sail Away / R.E.M – Life’s Rich Pageant