Totally Live, and oh, so concerned
November 8, 2001
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
As with people in every walk of life, Sept. 11 has weighed heavily on the minds of rockers--though not all of them have addressed it with the same artistry.
Bob Dylan singing "Masters of War" at the United Center and Billy Joel performing "New York State of Mind" at Madison Square Garden seemed to offer moving commentary on recent events. But Paul McCartney's new anthem "Freedom" and Fred Durst's rewritten version of "Wish You Were Here" just seemed crass and shallow.
For this reviewer, the nadir came when Ed Kowalczyk, the frontman with platinum-selling alternative-rockers Live, literally wrapped himself in an American flag while opening for Jane's Addiction at the Allstate Arena last month.
"Even now the world is bleeding/But feeling just fine," sang Kowalczyk, who is as well known for his Buddhist proselytizing as his Eddie Vedder baritone. "All numb in our castle/Where we're always free to choose."
Live was playing "Overcome," a maudlin ballad from the group's new album "V" that has been ubiquitous on MTV and VH1 in a video that pairs it with footage of rescue workers at the World Trade Center. Was the song, the video, and the flag-as-shawl routine an example of rock opportunism at its worst? Or was this genuine emotion, clumsily expressed?
Kowalczyk addressed these issues last week as the group geared up to perform here again tonight.
Q. How did "Overcome" come to be a single?
A. The story is that I got stranded in Minneapolis [on Sept. 11]. I got one of the last rental cars and started to drive home to [Los Angeles], and we were about midway there when I got a call from my manager, who said that a lot of people had been writing in and posting to various places [on the Web] about "Overcome" and how eerily poignant it was. I said, "Let me listen to it again." I had the record with me and I listened to the song, and the three of us who were in the car were totally overwhelmed by how sort of perfect in some bittersweet, strange way it was for that moment. I didn't really think anything else of it, but then my manager called back and said, "Look, I have an idea: There's so much love coming through this song; let's give it away." I think everybody at that moment was like, "What can I do?" So we put it up as an MP3 and people just started to download it.
A couple of radio stations started to play it and it really just steamrolled from there. Our intention was never to put it out as a single, because of the type of song it was. But I would say that before I'd even made it home to L.A., I'd already done five or six on-air interviews with stations that were playing it a lot--WHFS in Washington, D.C., was playing it because the Pentagon was hit, and KROQ in New York, and Q101 in Chicago. I was actually in the car while this thing started to unfold.
Q. What about the video?
A. When I got back home, the weekend after the weekend after [Sept. 11], somebody called me on Saturday morning and said, "Hey, turn on VH1." There was this video from something called CameraPlanet.com, which was this guy Steve Rosenbaum. He was semi-aware of Live, but wasn't really a fan--he was just driving home one night and he heard "Overcome" on KROQ in New York and he downloaded the MP3 from the Live Web site, put that video together in a couple of hours, and gave it to VH1. And they played it like 40 times in a couple of hours.
The thing about that week was that shipping was so [messed up]--like UPS and FedEx--that even if we would have wanted to deliver it as a single to radio, we couldn't have, so it really just became this thing where the MP3 went wild.
[In fact, Live subsequently shot footage of Kowalczyk singing the song under an artificial waterfall in a Los Angeles studio to incorporate in the video.]
Q. There's a fine line in rock 'n' roll between a heartfelt expression of emotion and taking advantage of people's emotions as a marketing tool. Did you think about that at all?
A. We were definitely hit by the magnitude of that event. Even though it was a grass-roots thing and we never designed it as a single or anything, it was really just this sort of magical eruption of grief. I was talking to a woman who's a DJ who was saying that she's never had people calling up in tears requesting a song over and over again like this. We were just really trying to walk the line and help it along ; it wasn't really anything [our label] MCA did. They were like, "We don't want to bring our big corporation to bear on this; that would not be cool." And I totally agreed with them and said, "Let's just let this do what it's doing."
Q. When you wrapped yourself in an American flag onstage in Chicago, what was the message you were trying to convey?
A. I've never been ultrapatriotic or anything like that in my music or my lyrics. I've never taken sides. But I don't think we've ever been in a situation like this before. I'm sort of in it with everybody else. My position on it is that I'm American and to me what the flag represents at this moment is unity and the need for compassion and discrimination and intelligence with this whole unfolding war on terrorism. My feeling with the American flag is not really one of "Let's go get 'em!'' But put together with the ending of "Overcome," it's more of a show of, "This is a new world, and it's very scary, but we have each other." I also dedicate that song most nights not only to the heroes of Sept. 11 but the Afghan refugees as well and anybody who's struggling for freedom.
Q. Are you concerned at all that what you're doing with the flag could be misinterpreted?
A. You're always going to have misinterpretations of anything. It's such a huge symbol, and it can mean so many different things to so many different types of people. But I think that the Live fan in the audience who knows my history and knows what I'm about and what I've stood for in the past, I think it could put a twist on it for him that we are in a new world. Hopefully nobody thinks that I'm ready to get dressed in camouflage and start shooting people. There's subtlety in that symbol.
I think of the words of Thomas Jefferson: All of our forefathers were like totally artistic, creative, free-thinking libertarians, and that to me is what we have to remind ourselves in these times. The whole development of this country was really an artistic statement. It was put together by guys who were, like, smoking weed. That's what I'm trying to say.