Bill Kauffman, in the latest issue of The American Conservative, makes the claim that the greatest antiwar pop song was “Galveston”, written by Jimmy Webb and sung by Glen Campbell.
That is a lovely song, about a young man dreaming, from Vietnam, about his home and his girl, afraid of dying without seeing either again.
I’m not sure how broadly he is defining “pop”, but if it includes raw rock, then it’s not the greatest antiwar pop song, though Mr Kauffman may be forgive for his error, as he probably never heard of the song that fits this title, The Bob Seger System’s “2 + 2= ?”.
Bob Seger, at the time this song was recorded in 1968, was a vibrant part of the music scene in southeast Michigan, my home place. He used to play at the teen dances at the Community Center in my home town, and I saw him once playing at an antiwar rally in Flint, which I had skipped school to attend.
I once commented that the hippies in Flint and Detroit carried sidearms, and I’m sure people thought I was joking. I wasn’t. I knew hippies from those places that carried guns.
My adolescence was spent in the gentler suburbs, where things didn’t get violent until heroin and barbiturates began to supplant marijuana and psychedelics, a few years into the 70s. But the local music always reflected the toughness of our bigger industrial neighbors: from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ white R & B of the early and mid 60s to the later stuff: The Stooges, MC5- the house band of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party- Alice Cooper, Frost, many lesser bands, and of course, The Bob Seger System.
My tastes in music have always been eclectic, and while I loved the folky stuff like Donovan, Dylan, Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band, I also had albums by the Stooges and the MC5.
Bob Seger hit the big time later, in the 70s, playing power ballads like “Against the Wind”, “Beautiful Loser” and “Main Street” (that would be Main Street in Ann Arbor, where Mr Seger grew up). But in his early days he rocked harder and rawer.
The song “2 + 2 = ?” did not get national airplay, though it was a big hit on the local AM stations, as well as a minor hit in neighboring Ontario.
In it, an unsophisticated working class kid is pondering the implications of what he sees. A guy he knew in high school – “just an average friendly guy”- had been drafted. He is dead now, “buried in a foreign jungle land”. His girl is grieving, and the young man is putting it together:
- And you stand and call me ‘upstart’ …
- Ask, what answer can I find?
- I ain’t saying I’m a genius;
- Two plus two is on my mind –
- Two plus two is on my mind.
The song builds from a subdued beginning to an angry crescendo.
This, to me, was the voice of the kids I grew up with, working class kids, not pretentious.
For that matter, though I was more a reader than my peers, and not free of pretense, it was also my voice: My cousin Walter had been drafted and died in Vietnam. And I had an older friend, an above average friendly guy, Donny Stotts, a talented musician and artist, with a lovely girlfriend, who had been drafted and killed in Vietnam.
2 + 2 was on my mind, too.
Here it is, with footage from the war:
And because it is lovely, and another, less direct protest, here is “Galveston”: