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GP 4 February 2009: Yes We Can—Yes We Can

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak
--William Congreve

Yes We Can. Chances are that President Obama will never achieve the oneness with his audience that John Kennedy enjoyed in Germany when he uttered, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Nor crystallize in a few words the foreign policy goal of his administration as did President Reagan who challenged the Soviets, “Tear Down This Wall, Mr. Gorbachev.” While we admire Obama’s often-too-long speeches, we recognize we are inspired not by their content or their phrasing, but rather, by their ministerial cadences.

It is the music of the Obama campaign that has stirred the world. “Yes We Can,” as set to music, best captures his movement. In our world at this moment, as words have been trivialized and images found to be deceptive, we find that it is only music that can get past the cerebellum right into our hearts, that it is music that can cross divides no matter how high the walls or how rigid the ideologies. It is music, when well wrought, that is antidote to the verbal and visual pollution that is every bit as universal as the smog that has touched every hamlet on earth.

“Yes We Can” speaks loudly to America and the world now, since it is not just the impoverished classes, but a broad swathe of the population that today has to confront seemingly impossible challenges. The people need to escape fear and disappointment. People are looking for someone who says that rocks can be pushed up hill.

Red Dog Saloon. In the mid 1960s, events converged to produce the Haight Ashbury and a hurricane of music that dashed across the United States and then migrated about the globe. It got its start at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, where a band called the Charlatans spent a summer. Their last night was wild, as we remember. There were just a few people on the dance floor, particularly a few Marines from some near outpost. Three lads from California even rode a horse into the bar that night. The following week the Charlatans were back in San Francisco, the real kick-off of the Haight Ashbury and, later, the Summer of Love. The band never hit it big, but it seemed to be the goad that got things going, culminating in strains of music and a psychedelic culture that infected the world. Ever since, in one way or another, American music, whose jazz and blues had already washed up on many shores, has proven irresistible in all parts of the world. It has since spawned a host of talented devotees who themselves perform in a host of capitals, many tapping into the American lingua. It is striking how the music profession has made each performer we encounter here so very global, in spite of the narrow compass in which each was born.

Silvan Zingg. A for-instance might be Silvan Zingg, a Swiss piano prodigy who is not only enthralled with Boogie Woogie but is now an entrepreneur and producer of the International Boogie Woogie Festival in southern Switzerland. To many of us Boogie Woogie would seem to be a thing of the past. However, when one consults a list of performers, it’s evident that it is firmly seated in the consciousness of many nations for all time—yet another American cultural export. One should not miss his Dancin’ the Boogie. With Zingg on the scene, it is hard to say if Boogie be American, or is it really Swiss?

Robert Palmer. Robert Palmer, the son of a British serviceman, was a little at home everywhere and never settled anywhere. He early spent time in Malta, grew up in Yorkshire, lived in London, New York, the Bahamas, finally moved to Lugano, and met his untimely death from a heart attack in Paris. At first a graphic designer, he had a wide range of interests and moved easily across several musical genres. He was a dapper sort of fellow. His performances and his music videos were very heavily stylized. He is much remembered for Addicted to Love and Simply Irresistible, backed up by lady performers who appear to be animated mannequins and who strut their stuff in several other music videos.

It was in America where his career achieved liftoff. His first solo album Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley came together in New Orleans in 1974—New Orleans and the United States forever after strong influences in his work. Despite Nashville, poor New Orleans is probably our most musical city. Palmer is most interesting for integrating so many kinds of music into his repertoire, and for so artfully blending together music and visuals both onstage and in his videos.

André Rieu. André Rieu, almost a chameleon, can adjust his music and his style to the climate and soil of the country in which he is performing. We were reminded of this by his performance of Auld Ang Syne, which we were watching on the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. Pan European, he can be discovered playing Strauss, Greek and Israeli folk music, Irish favorites, etc. More than one critic has had at him, but he’s a host of fun. He comes from Holland, the most international of the European countries, in some ways the most cosmopolitan country in the world. In Amsterdam it is not uncommon to find that a waiter in a seafront restaurant speaks 5 or 6 languages. “Non-Western immigrants make up approximately one in three residents of Amsterdam and more than 50% of the children in Amsterdam have a non-Western background.” It’s not surprising that Rieu, in his own way, is multi-lingual.

Piercing the Iron Curtain. There’s a Finnish rock group, the Leningrad Cowboys, who got behind the Iron Curtain before it was ripped down. Fun, indeed, is the spectacle of them performing an eminently American song, Sweet Home Alabama, in concert with the Red Army Choir in the fastnesses of Soviet Russia. Both groups, performing together, seem to be surrounded by an unearthly comic aura that is in stark contrast to the Cold War Russians. Music seems to have an uncanny power. Plato thought, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Red Square. The Leningrad Cowboys are sure evidence that Western culture as symbolized by both rock and blue jeans got through the chinks in the wall well before the fall of the Soviet Union. It is not surprising, therefore, that Premier Putin himself welcomed Paul McCartney to Red Square in 2003. Even if the Beatles, the group from which McCartney hailed, were once banned from Russia, Putin well knew they were well established with Russian audiences. According to Wikipedia, “McCartney is listed in Guinness World Records as the most successful musician and composer in popular music history, with 60 gold discs and sales of 100 million singles.” It is ironic, of course, to think of McCartney belting out "Back in the USSR," well after the Soviet Union had disintegrated. The crowd greeted the raft of songs with utter abandon. It would seem that there could be no more strident symbol of the power music enjoys in the twenty-first century.

I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke. It’s fair to say that any institution, or company, or government that wants to be a global force needs to use music to present itself on a global stage—a fact that musicians have made self evident—but a notion that has only been seized on by a very few corporations, none better than Coca-Cola. Paul Austin was chairman of Coke from 1962 til 1980, and he took the company global, conquering one nation after another. Even now, it is not widely understood that he more than set the stage in spades for his wildly successful successor Roberto Goizueta who took over in 1981. In 1971, as part of its world push, Coke distributed an ad with the song I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke which eventually turned out to be a huge success—an ad campaign which a wiser Coca-Cola would still be using today. As sung by the New Seekers, it went:

“I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honeybees, and snow white turtledoves.
I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.
[Repeat the last two lines, and in the background:]
It's the real thing, Coke is what the world wants today.”

This was the ultimate way in which a global company could put the right sort of brand on itself. Ever since, Coke has been more of a success as a global colossus than a U.S. company.

Apple. Apple Computer has had its ups and downs. The highs are very high, and the lows are nerve wracking. Apparently this is a company meant to perpetually expand and contract, much as light and darkness oscillate in the world pictured by the first existentialist, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Even at its low points, it has one foot in the future. Though its share of the personal computer market has shrunk at times to a few points, the company survived by offering superior graphic capabilities (over Windows) in the twentieth century. Its visual capabilities saved it in a world that was devaluing the word, and exalting pictures. In 2001, it brought out the iPod, an invention that has made it an overwhelming force in the music business, ironically enough at the very moment when global record companies have encountered very rough turf. This personal music player, which can store a very complete library of tunes, not only has put zip in Apple’s sales and profits, but has been a catalyst for its computer and phone businesses. It probably should be called the Apple Music Corporation. Apple, uniquely, shows us how music is intertwined with business success and global interconnectivity in the twenty-first century.

The Great Globalizer. As Alan Paul explains in the Wall Street Journal (September 26, 2008), music is the true agent of globalization. He’s a member of a Chinese-American rock band that plays throughout China, who finds that people in Beijing and across China entirely understand and enjoy all its riffs. Music perhaps is the most popular form of cultural currency, something that unites countries on opposite sides of the globe, ties foe with enemy, weds sect with cult, links the poorest classes with affluents who have a fistful of change. Pity the governor or businessman or scientist or even gangster who does not understand that music is the silicon on which human circuits are mapped. Without this knowledge one is not playing with a full deck.

P.S. A fairly detailed history of Coke can be found at http://www.answers.com/topic/the-coca-cola-company. Goizueta has come to be idolized, his many flaws forgotten. The virtues of his predecessors are much neglected, to include both Austin and Robert Woodruff. As time went by, Coke fiddled with its formula, substituting corn syrup for traditional sucrose in the United States. Much to its chagrin, there is a vibrant trade in Mexican Coca-Cola which is smuggled into the United States for those who want a taste of ‘real Coke.’ The company continues to shoot itself in the foot in other ways. It is taking the ‘Classic’ off its label, a wording inserted 24 years ago when Coke came out with a lousy ‘New Coke’ which the market rejected—a huge marketing blunder. Apparently bottlers pulled off the switch to corn syrup as part of supposedly bringing back ‘Classic’ Coke, which, as it turns out, is only half-Classic. After a quarter a century, the Atlanta people should know to leave well enough alone. We have said that the Company is now more of a global than domestic success: after a company goes global, then the challenge is to put some ‘plumb local’ back in each country business. H.J. Heinz mastered that.

P.P.S. The Haight Ashbury, long since gentrified, is now just a memory. But it still has its moments. For instance, we have heard a few good things about Alembic: we have been conversing recently with its owner, David McLean, and will be reporting more on both the proprietor and his establishments. He has a nice blog which mostly seems to pump his food. The Haight confirmed San Francisco’s new identity—a magic place to visit along the way which progressively lost its commercial vibrancy after the 60’s.

P.P.P.S. Years ago a very astute environmental equipment company named Peabody International (not to be confused with the coal company) did all sorts of smart things in presenting itself to its various publics, which we never have seen duplicated. At public meetings, in a very low key, soft way, it played a Beatles song to provide mellifluous background. It was Good Day Sunshine. That sure set the right tone for a ‘green’ company.

P.P.P.P.S. For those of you burdened by the decline and fall and further fall of the economy and the world financial system, there were wonderful distractions aplenty last week. Robert Burns had his 250th birthday, and his huge following raised a glass all over the world at 9PM Scottish time on Sunday. We barely had time to recover from our single malts: on January 26 came the Chinese New Year—Year of the Ox. To get us in the mood for endless friviolity, our Fort Worth correspondent sent in a striking photo from Bulls’ Night Out, which took place the previous week on January 21. You will find it on Scenes from the Global Province.

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