Republican Convention: Day Two

Terry Sawyer

Tuesday's show felt like one long lull, a string of clichés tepidly delivered. I kept chugging Starbuck's espresso-and-cream cans, wishing Jerry Falwell would come on to talk about how God hates fags and the ACLU.

Day Two of the Republican Party that's kinder, gentler, and won't make you sleep in the wet spot.

This night, the women were out shilling for their man, George W. During the pre-speech chatter, one of the PBS talking heads noted that people like Laura Bush because she occasionally says things that place her at the left end of her party's spectrum, such as her few choice pro-choicey comments. I find it baffling that a party would sell itself based on the fact that some people in it think quite a bit like the opposing party. If Republicans need to comfort themselves with sugarplum dreams of their powerless moderates, perhaps they should vote for John Kerry.

Elizabeth Dole likes to hold out her arms in a messianic bear hug, as if shafts of light might shoot out of her cuffs. Smiling as much as the botox would allow, she glided through a long list of things "Republicans didn't invent," but that they'll defend against Democrats' efforts to plunge our lives into decadent experimentation. A dance of veils, her speech proclaimed Republicans' desires to protect the unborn without using the word "abortion," to affirm marriage as a cornerstone of civilization, without directly referencing the homosexual barbarians storming the gates. She got her God on, highlighting those issues that resonate among the faithful: compulsory pledges to God in schools and God draped over every inch of our public interiors. "It's freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," she ominously reminded us heathens. Translation: nothing can save you from us.

The speech was vicious at its core, reframing our cultural disagreements as "war," where only Republicans are defenders of virtue and right. She found ways to slip in every demon on the Right's checklist, including an opening salvo aimed at Clinton, couched as a reference to George Bush's 2000 campaign promise to "bring honor and dignity to the White House." She used that most effective phrase, "despite what you might hear on the news," to remind us of the media's bias. Her address was the most obvious concession to religious fundamentalists I've seen at this Convention. Even her frosted halo of hair and the neckline (that said, "Republicans do it with their clothes on," intimated the tacky consumerism that conservative Christians have embraced, revealing that this form of High-End Jesus Mall politics looks the same in Dallas as it does in North Carolina.

At this point, I realized that much of what is inspiring about rhetoric is alien to the Republican Party. When Democrats talk about equality, they're referring to that romantic sweep of "everyone." But implicit in every ideal announced by the Republican Party are allusions to dangerous Others. In Dole's speech, these were the media, gays and lesbians, and those misguided people stalling the Christian government that's central to Republicans' definition of freedom. Such pronouncements lack seduction, asserting definitive right and wrong sides.

Senator Sam Brownback arrived at the podium to remind us that George Bush has done much (though not as much as he said he would) for AIDS in Africa, even while the Federal Government has slashed its assistance for poor people with AIDS at home. Bush is compassionate. Nearly every speaker mentioned that the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and abolition, eliding the fact that it was much more recently the party of Jim Crow, segregation, and dogs unleashed on Civil Rights demonstrators. The crowd was murmuring during Brownback's speech, barely applauding when he made a couple of references to abortion. Tough crowd. Millions of people dying of AIDS wasn't their issue. He should have brought up the fact of God's name on our cash.

Senator Bill Frist (a doctor, yes, we know) did an infomercial for the prescription drug card. He gave out the phone number to call if you have questions, like he was selling a fucking George Foreman grill that doubles as a defibrillator. And he interjected another anti-Kerry-Edwards campaign theme: lawyers are evil. They're the only capitalists Republicans hate because they're the only ones who stand between corporations and citizens and defend the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Damn them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his one-liners by c-section without anesthesia. The former gay icon and gang bang legend milked his immigrant past and, to my mind, revealed his shallow intellectual commitments. Richard Nixon, once the moral blight of the Party, was resurrected as Arnie's hero, in contrast to the Democrats, who remind Schwarzenegger of socialists and communists. As he put it himself, the Governor of California embodies the immigrant's dream, the make citizens. The worst part of Schwarzenegger's speech was the sausage-fingered insertion of movie lines and skit quips. He wants to terminate terrorism and eliminate economic girly men. What a cheesemo. The future of the Republican Party is a collection of script scraps from TBS Fridays.

Laura Bush, by contrast, wants to sit down with us for coffee, to tell us all about her husband. She steered clear of making arguments about policy, and focused instead on folksy anecdotes read from a letter or stories about the President that might have been clipped from a Family Circle cover story. She talked about the big changes they've endured over the past four years, like losing their dog Spotty. If Democrats pulled something this treacly, we'd be subject to lectures on the Oprahfication of America and the loss of our masculine vigor. But the First Lady makes us feel "safe."

She reminded us that her knowledge of the President is personal. She can offer insights into the drunk she met stuffing brisket into his craw before she licked a napkin, cleaned the corners of his mouth, and got him right with God. He didn't really want to go to war (though he'd planned to even before September 11th). Her evidence? She watched him walk with furrowed brow, back and forth across the lawn. Oh, well, if he paced for a good 15 minutes, he's got my vote. I actually remember very little of what she said. I could almost smell the perfume through the television screen. Will she come tuck me in?

Tuesday's show felt like one long lull, a string of clichés tepidly delivered. I kept chugging Starbuck's espresso-and-cream cans, wishing Jerry Falwell would come on to talk about how God hates fags and the ACLU. I like my hate honest and vibrant. Someone grab one of those Medicare cards and see if we can bring this Convention back to life.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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