Taking that trip back to 1970 can be a tricky thing. It wasn’t always a sunny day with one glorious tune after another pouring from the radio.
I was reminded of that the other night as I watched “The War at Home,” a 1979 documentary about the anti-war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was nothing sunny or glorious about cops clubbing student protesters.
The war in Vietnam was a constant presence then, even for a seventh-grader in a Wisconsin town along Lake Michigan. My weekdays went something like this: Get up, watch the CBS Morning News, go to junior high school, come home, watch the CBS Evening News, have dinner, listen to the radio until turning in for the night.
The war dominated those newscasts, yet the radio allowed you to escape from it all. Nothing heavy there, save for two songs.
Forty years ago this week, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young dreamed of bombers turning into butterflies and getting back to the garden.
That week, millions of Americans also embraced a song that declared:
“I don’t need your war machines. I don’t need your ghetto scenes.”
“American Woman” by the Guess Who endures, a great song on so many levels. Think of the song and you think of Burton Cummings spitting out angry lyrics and Randy Bachman grinding out freaky guitar fills. True enough, but the pulse, the cadence, the urgency of the song comes from Jim Kale and Garry Peterson, who drive the whole thing on bass and drums, respectively.
What’s it all about? Bachman explained it this way in a 2008 interview on the Gibson guitar website:
“A lot of people thought ‘American Woman’ was addressing the woman on the street, but it wasn’t at all. The band had witnessed all the desolation going on in America, where there were hardly any young men in any of the towns we went to. They had all been drafted. We would see 18-year-old guys at the airports, with their buzz cuts and their uniforms, with their fathers telling them how proud they were, and their mothers and sisters in tears. It was heartbreaking. So instead of singing ‘Uncle Sam, stay away from me,’ or ‘Richard Nixon, stay away from me,’ it was ‘American woman.’ … Fortunately, by the time radio and the government understood that the song was an anti-war song, it had already reached No. 1.”
The outrage vented in “American Woman” hasn’t diminished a bit. It was there when Lenny Kravitz cranked out his terrific cover in 1999. (That video with a smoking hot Heather Graham didn’t hurt, either.)
It was there when Bachman and Cummings got back together and did it as an acoustic blues shuffle in 2007. Enjoy.
“American Woman 2007,” Bachman Cummings, from “Jukebox,” a 2007 Canadian import. This is the only Guess Who cover on an album full of vintage rock covers.
Speaking of lyrics: Everyone loves “Vehicle” by the Ides of March, which was at the top of the charts with “American Woman” at this time in 1970.
But think about it. This is a song about “the friendly stranger in the black sedan” who winds down the window and leeringly asks “Won’t you hop inside my car? I got pictures, got candy. I’m a lovable man, and I can take you to the nearest star.”
That chorus — “I love ya, need ya, want ya, got to have ya, child” — a little obsessive? What played then as a passionate guy might play today as a stalker. Could you get away with that today?