“We hold these truths to be self-evident….” It’s the line at the very heart of the Declaration of Independence, and one that offers not one insight, but two. There’s a secret, folded message in the Declaration of Independence. But you’d need a lifetime of reading MAD to get at it…
Could the Founding Fathers have had an insight into what the Declaration of Independence would come to be in the world? What it would build in the world? Maybe. Or maybe the Founding Fathers simply expressed a hope that in working to build a certain kind of civil structure, something as-yet unnamable but essentially good might be wrought.
The Founding Fathers’ real intellectual and emotional yield can be seen bright as the light of day in the pages of Totally MAD 60, the book celebrating MAD’s 60th anniversary. This is a strange and savage assertion no doubt, but also an absolutely sober one. To fully understand the connection between Totally MAD 60 and the Declaration of Independence, you’d have to travel by way of Adam Duritz and the Counting Crows, circa 2008.
2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings sees the Crows release arguably their only high concept album. As with most high concept artworks, the idea at the core of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is a simple one—Saturday nights are about having survived the week, about the need for excess and the inevitable pursuit of self-annihilation, Sunday mornings are about re-composure and reinsertion into the everyday. It’s that ordinary and everyday routine that, unexpectedly, shields you from the spiritually necessary excesses of Saturday nights. And in an even stranger twist, it’s the Saturday nights that provide a necessary wildness to soul-numbing rituals of everyday life.
But that’s not the high concept. Not quite yet, at least. The real high concept is how Duritz and the Crows attempt to leverage this weird and intractable symbiosis. What if the Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy was a bold new conceptual tool for understanding American history, and not just history, but American destiny as a nation among other nations?
The Crows certainly gesture at such a hope. From the opening track of “1492” all the way to the last Saturday night song, “Cowboys” and on through the Sunday morning section of “Washington Square” (the Village, it’s Greenwich Village’s used-to-be name, like New York was New Amsterdam, if you need a decoder ring for Crows-speak) on until “Come Around”, Duritz and the band certainly attempt a rereading of American history.
But that’s not the real story of the album. The real story is how the album meditates on American destiny. Debuting at #3 on the Billboard 200, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings was probably the most important album in the week before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the Highest Office. By March 24th 2008, we were collectively wondering “where next?” how do we reassume the role of leadership among nations? And by April 3rd, Barack declared his candidacy. “I can’t see why you’d want to talk to me,” Duritz croons in a soulful tone on “The Walls of Michelangelo” track, speaking directly to that broken-ness of spirit the nation as a whole felt after a time after two simultaneous wars. “It’s ok, I am angry, but you’d never understand…”
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings runs the full gamut reviews—from Slant who rate it at 40% right through to Billboard who love the album. But it’s Paste that gets at the heart of Duritz’s personal story with the album. It’s the personal here, that motivates the political.
During the Paste interview, Duritz articulates how he’d been through a personal low. He’d suffered through the loss of his grandmother, and confronted what seemed perhaps the endless excesses of life on tour. Out of these sad ashes, he began to take a second, longer, harder look at the elements of the band’s previous album, Hard Candy, that had fallen to the cutting room floor. Elements like “1492” and “Los Angeles” that didn’t fit with the theme of Hard Candy, now began to make sense as the germ of an entirely new album.
There’s a statement being made here, a statement about American destiny. The idea that creativity is the proper response to grief and exhaustion. It’s this highly personal sentiment that seems to capture so vividly the collective mood in 2008 before Barack Obama walked the road to becoming President. And this deep emotional truth about creativity and exhaustion seems to recast the more savage view of the album and the band itself that suggests the Crows as “as a one speed band—that speed being neutral…”
A few months down the line and we’ll see Adam Duritz’s and the Crows’ exit strategy play out in full. With the release of Aural 6, a sampler of their five previous albums, the band simply walk out of the cage of fame like ghosts from history. It’s a more heroic act than it seems. Slant’s review of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings had perniciously fixed the Crows to their past successes. It’s a recurring theme in criticism that the Great Lester Bangs railed against time and again, but nowhere more vocally than in his John Lennon obit. How do you escape your past success? Greil Marcus wrestles with the same question but for Bob Dylan in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. And in the light of these, Duritz’s exit isn’t so much an escape, but the band pulling a Houdini—by the end of the Counting Crows, we discover their story has been a heist movie, and they make their getaway quitely, and happily.
But did it work? Did their grand finale of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings really effect that criticism they’d hoped for? Was there really an argument to be made about connecting that strange symbiosis of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings with American history and American destiny?
Maybe the exact links between that strange symbiosis and America could have been made a little more explicitly. But don’t blame the Crows for that. Blame the Founding Fathers. That struggle with explication is right there in country’s mission statement—the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, so you’re not really going to get much explanation from us. The Declaration of Independence instead is a work of political alchemy—it details the direct transubstantiation of ideas into action. But it’s also a document that speaks of a time before, a time when truth wasn’t self-evident. And the Declaration’s secret lesson is that when you think the right thoughts, the truth becomes self-evident.
This more than anything else is the heart of MAD’s contribution not only to the idea of America, but to all of human culture. The idea that when you look at things in just the right way, the truth becomes self-evident, just like the Founding Fathers told us it would be. And also, that it’s ok to gesture at things in the hope that one day you’d understand the full complexity more fully, just as Duritz and the Counting Crows did with Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. There’s no failure, no shame, you’re just in a holding pattern until you’re not. Because America, is everybody’s safety net. And nowhere better can this be articulated, than in the pages of a magazine peddling “humor in jugular vein”, produced by the Usual Gang of Idiots.