The rock and roll benefit show has a long and storied tradition going back to the 1960s when rock first became a force for social change. The benefit show came out of the idea that music for a cause could raise money, influence people to learn more about an issue and perhaps even become devoted to the cause. But in recent years, many artists have shied away from such action out of fear they might polarize their audience and lose fans. This is particularly true when it comes to politics, since many anti-authoritarian artists don’t want to be in the position of trying to tell people what to think or do (not to mention the lack of inspiring candidates.)
But it’s been quite a long time, if ever, since a candidate for president of the United States has fanned the flames of patriotic rebellion by calling for a political revolution against the establishment politics that have seen our nation sold out by both major parties to the heartless bottom line of the Corporatocracy. Enter Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has the progressive wing of the Democratic Party fired up around his call to break up the big banks, raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, tax the Wall Street wolves to pay for college and healthcare and move America toward an egalitarian society where everyone has a chance to thrive instead of just struggling to survive.
Sanders’ campaign has been surging since last summer when he drew huge crowds to his rallies around the country, demonstrating a strong appetite for his truly populist message. A group called Artists and Cultural Leaders for Bernie Sanders quickly formed, with an impressive array of progressive artists pledging their endorsement to the campaign. These include actors such as Will Ferrell, Juliette Lewis, Jeremy Piven, Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, Sarah Silverman and Wil Wheaton; classic rockers like David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne and John Densmore; punk and alt-rock musicians like Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Jeff Tweedy and Wayne Kramer; modern rockers like Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman from Phish, Chris Shiflett from the Foo Fighters and all four members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Hence the Chili Peppers were the first major band to throw down a benefit show for the Sanders campaign, in between the first two primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bassist Flea related how the band offered to donate some $30,000 to rent out the Ace Hotel theater, but Sanders had to turn them down since the campaign only accepts small donations from individuals. Hence tickets priced from $40 for balcony up to $2,700 for VIP went on sale a week before the “Feel the Bern” benefit show and sold out quickly.
Fans were lined up around the block from the 1,600-capacity theater as 4 pm approached, the time when tickets would be issued on a first come first serve basis at each price level. Perhaps there were some who were only there to see the band, but there was a palpable vibe of anticipation from most who were eager to rock out in support of Sanders’ political revolution. The merch stand was mobbed when the doors opened at 6:30, with fans eagerly laying down $40 for a t-shirt and/or $60 for a limited edition poster. Both featured the patriotic artwork of legendary artist Shephard Fairy, with all proceeds benefitting the Sanders campaign.
The artwork mimicked the style of Fairy’s “Hope” and “Change” posters for the Obama campaign in 2008. Yet many of those who eagerly voted for Obama in 2008 have come to feel short-changed, having witnessed little in the way of true political change over the past eight years. It’s no wonder then why Sanders’ message about taking the power back from the corporate driven establishment has struck a vibrant chord across America, with fans eager to obtain some Fairy art in support of a more pronounced change movement.
DJ Z-Trip struck a chord with fans during an opening set that was specially tailored for the occasion, featuring a number of relevant revolutionary soundbites mashed up with appropriate songs. He opened his set with a clip from the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”, blended soundbites of Sanders criticizing Wall Street during Pink Floyd’s “Time” and sampled Robert Plant promising to “make you burn” in Led Zep’s “Black Dog”. Samples from Tupac’s “California Love”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” also reverberated with a timely tone.
A short video message from Sanders aired during the intermission, where he thanked Fairy, Z-Trip, the Chili Peppers and everyone who had come out for the event. He concluded by saying, “We cannot accomplish what has to be accomplished unless there is a political revolution in this country… That’s how change comes, it always comes from the bottom up…” A huge cheer of approval followed from the audience, which exploded again moments later when the Chili Peppers hit the stage with “Can’t Stop”, the dynamic first single from their 2002 LP By the Way.
The song’s closing lyrics seemed to reference one of the larger issues facing humanity, yet one largely unspoken of by the campaigns: “Comin’ from space, To teach you of the Pleiades, Can’t stop the spirits when they need you, This life is more than just a read-through.” The concept of a UFO cover-up and extraterrestrial visitation to the Earth is rarely mentioned in presidential campaigns and it’s little wonder why, with Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich having been ridiculed by national media during the 2008 campaign for merely confessing to having had a UFO sighting.
Yet it was Hillary Clinton who recently responded to a question about UFOs from a reporter at New Hampshire’s Conway Daily Sun by responding “Yes, I’m going to get to the bottom of it” and “I think we may have been visited already. We don’t know for sure.” She added that her campaign chairman John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and “X-Files” man, had made her personally pledge to get the information out. Podesta famously tweeted at the end of 2014 (as he was preparing to move from Obama’s staff to Hillary Clinton’s) about his regret at “once again not securing the #disclosure of the UFO files. #thetruthisstilloutthere”.
Presidential UFO knowledge researcher Grant Cameron, a leading voice in the UFOlogy field, questioned Sanders in a recent post at his “White House UFO” blog for having a “flippant” attitude about UFOs. But Sanders has enough on his plate selling the masses on democratic socialism and political revolution without giving corporate media an opportunity to demean him for UFOs, as they did Kucinich. That same corporate media has yet to follow up with Clinton on the matter and the issue remains a potential fire starter, especially with Podesta’s surprisingly outspoken views on the topic. Some pop culture observers feel this year’s revival of Fox TV’s The X-Files could hint at disclosure to come. Only time will tell but there’s certainly been more general chatter about the UFO topic in 2016 than there has been since perhaps 1997.
The Chili Peppers surprisingly failed to play their song “The Power of Equality”, which would have seemed tailor made for the event. But the band’s short but sweet 12-song set reverberated with an electrifying vibe, charged by the sense of supporting Sanders’ political revolution. The slinky groove and powerful chorus of “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” was a clear highlight, as was the turbocharged “Give It Away” encore. The band also took a stab at David Bowie’s “Cracked Actor” in deference to the recently departed music legend. Actual political speak was minimal, save for a pronouncement from Flea before the encore in which he declared, “We love Bernie Sanders, we are honored to be here, thank you so much for supporting.” Juliette Lewis was spied on the scene at the bar near the end of the show and graciously offered chit chat and photo ops to a few fans, adding an extra celebrity aura to this only-in-Los Angeles event.
Three big questions now loom in regards to the music community and its potential political impact. First, how many more bands will be bold enough to jump on board and help raise funds for the Sanders campaign with benefit shows of their own? Second, will any of Hillary Clinton’s mainstream pop star endorsees play for her? These include the likes of Katy Perry, Clay Aiken, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Jon Bon Jovi, Pharrell Williams, etc., as well as rappers Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent who seem to have dropped their street cred with the endorsement. Third, how much political power does the music community have? Many musicians rallied around a “Vote for Change” series of concerts in support of the John Kerry campaign in 2004. Kerry ultimately failed to secure victory in that tight contest against his “Skull and Bones” brother George W. Bush, although much has been reported on evidence that the 2004 election was stolen through a variety of dirty tricks in the crucial swing state of Ohio.
It’s also worth noting that progressive enthusiasm in the 2004 election centered more around an angry sentiment for defeating Bush, rather than supporting Kerry per se. The Sanders campaign has generated an enthusiasm for the candidate’s policy platform that is unprecedented in modern times. 2016 is therefore ripe for all elements of the progressive community to rally around the campaign. Sanders walloped Clinton in polls of youth voters in the 18-29 age range in Iowa. This is a demographic that historically votes in low numbers. Turning out that block of the national electorate in record numbers could be the key to victory for Sanders, giving rock ‘n’ roll a chance to help push the wave for political revolution over the top this time.