John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“I Blew Up The United States”

It’s 30 years old but this classic by Was Not Was could have been written yesterday.

By - Nov 22nd, 2019 04:52 pm
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Statue of Liberty. Photo by William Warby (originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Liberty) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Liberty. Photo by William Warby (originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Liberty) (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

About 30 years ago Was Not Was wrote the nihilist’s national anthem. It sounds as fresh today as the morning frost. Donald Trump and his minions are dragging the country to the brink of a full fledged constitutional crisis just because they can. They’ve set a burning bag on America’s front porch while they hide in the bushes snickering. What fun. The song that that anticipated this reckless era is “I Blew UpThe United States.”

It captures the cruel glee of down-punching jokers and the paranoia of manifesto scribbling loners. It’s Randy Newman with a dance beat. Fortunately, it’s only a song and when the needle comes off at the end of it, we still have a country. Who’d want to live in that reality? Not me, but I have no choice.

Was Not Was, one of the great reasons for being alive in the square-shouldered 80’s, did four albums of super catchy pop funk. It was formed and informed by non-brothers Don and David Was, high school pals in Detroit. I consider that town one of the attitude capitals of this country. With Motown Records, Mitch Ryder, John Lee Hooker, The MC5, The Detroit Cobras and The White Stripes, its rich history includes a lot of people who seem to have a serious chip on the shoulder. Does Lake Huron contain some secret potion? Lead? Who knows. Though Was Not Was came together in L.A., they remain Detroit wise guys the bone.

They were memorable not only for the tautness of their grooves (they used members of Funkadelic), but also an off-center sense of humor. A good example of that humor is this wicked little number “I Feel Better Than James Brown,” which could have been written by Steven Wright — in fact, the singer, David Was, kind of looks like him. It’s Borscht Belt comedy set to 80’s art funk and I still laugh every time I hear the exaggerated boast in the title.

And Don Was’s real name is Don Edward Fagenson. My tin hat tells me he has a lot in common with Donald Fagen, the voice of Steely Dan. The aforementioned tight grooves and a penchant for beat poetry. What’s going on here? Are they the same person?

But back to anarchy and our topic for today, blowing up countries. Here are the lyrics:

I set charges in Maine and Florida
In Washington and California
I gave fair warning and lit the fuse
Right at the beginning of the network news

All I did was listen to the Fates
I blew up the United States
Now little bits of Texas
Are floating up in space
I blew up the United States

I put plastique in the Statue of Liberty
And my nerves got a little bit jittery
Poor little lady, there goes her head
Her arm is melting and her eyes turned red

All I did was listen to the Fates
I blew up the United States
Now little bits of Texas
Are floating up in space
I blew up the United States

It’s a free country
I’m within my rights
Every child should have a weapon
And a ton of dynamite
My hand is steady
And my eye is cold
A voice inside my head
Keeps saying “Do as you are told”

© David Was / Don Edward Fagenson

I think I know the Unibomber’s favorite song. He was probably dancing to this as he mixed ingredients in a cozy mountain lean-to.

Doesn’t it seem like comedy gets so much better when the GOP is in control? Are you, like me, now ready to stop laughing and live in a stable world? If we can wind our way through the minefield Trump’s reshaped GOP has laid out, we might be able to look back in a happy future and wonder what is was like to live in a time when laughing was necessary for survival. We’re not there yet, and the most chillingly predictive and yet funniest lines in this song describe this moment: “It’s a free country / I’m within my rights / Every child should have a weapon / And a ton of dynamite.” Like my friend Lonesome Bob once sang, “It’d be sad if it weren’t so funny, it’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.” Trude dat.

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