When Jackson Browne released Lives in the Balance in 1986, critics reckoned that its contemporary content, the USA’s bloody meddling in Central America, limited its appeal and long-term significance. And yet, here in the early twentieth first century, with the wars of the Arab Dissolution dragging the world into its vortex, the Great Power politics and proxy wars that taxed intellectual and actual imaginations in that seemingly distant decade jump back into the frame like some dystopian jack in the box. As Mark Twain noted, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.
Lives in the Balance was certainly a record for and of its times. Months before the Iran-contra scandal broke, Browne sang “I want to know who the men in the shadows are, I want to hear somebody asking them why. They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are but they’re never the ones to fight or to die”. After the “arms for hostages” deals hit the news, increased public awareness of the US’ secret and dirty war in Nicaragua inspired him to produce a video for the title track well after the album had passed its sales peak.
The album’s other songs sustained the assault. Soldier of Plenty condemns America’s paternalism towards its poor Latin neighbours. Lawless Avenues, with poignant Spanish lyrics by Browne and Warren Zevon’s old friend and collaborator, Jorge Calderón, takes us down the mean streets of Latino Los Angeles before sending its young anti-hero off to die in America’s wars. In the driving and ironic For America, Browne regrets his prior indifference and qualifies his conflicted patriotism: “I have prayed for America; I was made for America; it’s in my blood and in my bones. By the dawn’s early light! by all I know is right, we’re going to reap what we have sown”. in Til I Go Down, he sings “I’m not gonna shut my eyes, I’ve already seen the lies on the faces of the men of war leading people to the killing floor”. This song aptly plays out the end credits of the harrowing academy award winning The Panama Deception which documents the US’ invasion of that unfortunate country.
Browne was not the first mainstream singer and songwriter to address America’s long and troublesome relationship with its Latin American neighbours. In his 1983 Stealing Fire and 1984 World of Wonders, Canadian Bruce Cockburn gave us the tragically beautiful Nicaragua and Santiago Dawn and the visceral If I Had a Rocket Launcher. On The Trouble With Normal (1983), there is Tropic Moon, with its cinematic imagery, and the lyrically deceptive Waiting For The Moon. The theme is the same as Browne’s – the North’s intervention in the politics of the South – particularly when comes to financing and arming rogue militias and warlords, and pliable, vicious and corrupt dictators: “Yanqui wake up, don’t you see what you’re doing, trying to be the Pharoah of the West bringing nothing but ruin…You’re my friend but I say Yanqui go home!”
In this sad world, whenever Uncle Sam (or Uncle Ivan for that matter) plays his hand, something wicked this ways comes: “Little spots on the horizon into gunboats grow – waiting for the moon to show. Might be a party, might be a war when those faceless sailors come ashore. Whatever’s coming, there’s no place else to go, waiting for the moon to show”.
Cockburn’s poetic muse trumps Browne’s agit-prop. These lines from Tropic Moon are nonpareil: “Away from the river, away from the smoke of the burning, fearful survivors, subject of government directives. One sad guitar note echoes off the wall of the jungle. Seen from the air they’re just targets with nowhere to run to”. And: “the light through the wire mesh plays on the president’s pistol like the gleam of bead of sweat in the flow of a candle”.
Very little has changed since Browne and Cockburn sang their Tales of Yankee Power. “But who are the ones that we call our friends? These governments killing their own? Or the people who finally can’t take anymore, and they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone. And there are lives in the balance; there are people under fire; there are children at the cannons; and there is blood on the wire”. And if you were one of those people, why wouldn’t you say “If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate!“ As Cockburn sings in Santiago Dawn, “military thugs with their dogs and clubs spreading through the poblacion, hunting whoever has a voice, sure that everyone will run. They come in strong but its not that long before they know its not that easy to leave. To keep a million homeless down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve”.
From Petrograd to Palestine, the story-line endures. The eighties were also the years of Russia’s Afghan quagmire, which led, ideologically if not geographically to the Chechen pogroms; and of a decade of bloodletting in Lebanon and in what in reality was the First Gulf War, that between Iran and Iraq. The Berlin Wall fell a few years before the events that drove these records, inspiring an outpouring of optimism as the countries of Eastern Europe broke free of the Soviet thrall. But this was not the Kumbaya moment that dreamers yearn for. Ensuing decades have seen a cartography of carnage: Bali and Beslan, Gaza and Grozny, Kabul and Kigali, Manhattan and Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Srebrenica.
We witness the anatomy of the new world economy in which millions of souls are on the move and everything can be traded for value. Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more besides. False prophets and bad dreams, broken promises and forlorn hopes, obscured visions and false horizons. “Many have perished, and more most surely will” – a line taken from WH Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in transition between the wreckage of The Second World War and foreboding for the impending armed peace that was itself to endure for another forty five years.
It is sadly ironic that our present world is passing through another time of uneasy transition, between the fixed certainties of great power rivalry and the intractable and bloody asymmetrical conflicts of today.
Paul Hemphill, November 2015
The other day, I was listening to Dire Straits’ excellent 1985 album Brothers in Arms, and was reminded that several of the songs thereon refer, albeit obliquely, to the “bush wars” of Central America, and possibly also, to the US and Soviet Union’s proxy wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan. There is Ride Across the River, with its Latino mood, and the beautiful and haunting title track. And there is The Man’s Too Strong, a powerful indictment of the cult of “the big man” that plagues countries all over the world. How often have these tyrants “re-written history with my armies and my crooks. Invented memories. I did burn all the books”. And how often too have they been tolerated, supported and bankrolled by Uncle Sam and Comrade Ivan.
This post is very much a companion piece to my recent post, Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas, another tale of Yankee power, and its subject matter echoes that of A Brief History of the Rise and the Fall of the West, and my poem E Lucevan le Stelle.
Listen to Lives in the Balance in full be clicking on the blue text. Amid the its hard-hitting political commentary sits In the Shape of a Heart, considered to be one of Browne’s finest love songs. Yet this too might be regarded as controversial with regard to what it may or may not imply about the doomed relationship it describes. But like “the ruby she wore on the chain around her neck”, it is a finely cut gem.