At 19, when not at home avoiding school and work, John Lennon could be found in Hamburg, Germany, performing for locals by mocking the disabled, goosestepping about the stage and calling the audience Nazis. And possibly pissing on nuns and beating up a sailor or two.
A rock and roll legend in the making, folks.
In recent weeks, a 19-year-old pop star has been much maligned by a mocking media (alliteration, that), in an enthusiastic display of mass schadenfreude. This filthy-rich teen has seemingly gone off the rails, reportedly egging a neighbour’s house and allegedly engaging in a bit of drunken drag-racing on a deserted street. Oh, and smoking the dope. Unacceptable behaviour from a North American teenaged boy, right? Certainly, not activities to which any of us can relate. Here’s hoping they throw the book at this delinquent.
I mean, sure, I don’t care for the kid’s music either. Not that I could name you even one song from his extensive catalogue. Nor have I been confronted by any such music in recent memory. Indeed, it’s far easier to avoid the Stratford sensation’s sounds than it is to maintain a Nickelback-free life. And so long as John Cougar is still active, the kid has a long way to go before he tops pop music’s list of most annoying performers. For now, let’s just caution the kid with a stern, “Grow up!” And allow him to do so.
After all, who ever heard of a professional musician living an exemplary life? A genuine role model who truly walked the walk? Not in popular music, thank you.
Actually, one does come to mind.
At 19, he too was a troublemaker. Having squandered a college scholarship, dropping out amid poor grades and poorer attendance, this vagabond fell in with a crowd of New York outcasts and radicals. Within months, he would descend to the level of travelling from town to town with a roving band of puppeteers. And proudly calling himself a communist.
All the while, Pete Seeger carried with him a five-string banjo and the courage of his convictions. And for the next 75 years, Seeger would devote his life to America’s — and the world’s — huddled masses. An idealist — indeed, for all of us, an ideal — the once-blacklisted Seeger maintained his admiration for communism even as he sang for Poland’s Solidarity movement. “Communism,” he explained, “is no more what Russian made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” A man whose activism spanned the eras of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Pussy Riot, Seeger believed as perhaps no other entertainer does in the power of song. He brought those songs to migrant workers and striking farmers at the beginning of the Great Depression, to civil-rights advocates in the 1950s and ’60s and to optimistic Occupiers in the 21st Century. Throughout, efforts were made to silence the artist who asked only to be able to sing about the love between our brothers and our sisters. All around this world.
Pete Seeger backed up that music — those words — with action. It’s a rare quality in a person, let alone in an entertainer. Here was a man willing to face bans by venues, radio stations and television networks, and widespread boycotts of his recordings, in order to follow his conscience and to do the right thing. A boycott for positive behaviour? We won’t see the likes of that again anytime soon. But positive is what Pete Seeger was. He believe in the power of song to change the world, and in the will of the people to make that change for the better.
Would that he were here today. Or at least that people everywhere take a moment to reflect on that music, those words and the selfless actions of one man.
A man who, at 19, made the right choice. For all of us.