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While Justin Bieber performed to throngs of screaming teens across the street at Staples Center, and the presidential debate was watched by millions on televisions and online, thousands of union workers gathered at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live for a night of protest songs, classic rock and politically charged speeches that featured Crosby, Stills & Nash, Tom Morello and actor Edward James Olmos.
The event in opposition to California’s Proposition 32, the “Paycheck Protection Initiative,” was presented by the labor-backed research and advocacy group Working Californians and the Courage Campaign, a grass-roots organization that promotes progressive change and full equality in the state and nationally. Critics say the measure will cripple unions’ ability to contribute to political campaigns but leave massive loopholes for corporations to participate anonymously.
As the theater filled around 7 p.m., concessionaires roamed the aisles baseball game-style while Working Californians co-chairs Brian D’Arcy and Marvin Kropke took the stage to discuss the night’s cause.
“Tonight is not just about having a good time,” said D’Arcy, business manager for Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who last year the Los Angeles Downtown News named the 11th-most-powerful person in Downtown L.A. “It’s not just about great musicians, it’s about great working people in the area of Los Angeles. Tonight, we’re sending a message to the right-wing extremists that we won’t put up with it.”
Reminding the riled crowd that the building was built and powered by union workers, Kropke then introduced Morello, saying, “Are you ready for a great musician and a good union brother?”
Performing as The Nightwatchman, Morello — a 23-year member of the Los Angeles Professional Musicians Local 47 and “a proud red-card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World,” he said — stood with an acoustic guitar, wearing an IWW union baseball hat and T-shirt, suspenders hanging off his jeans. Through eruptions of cheers, he continued: “It’s an honor to be on this stage tonight. This first song I’ll play for you us a freedom song. This first song I’ll play for you brother and sisters is a fighting song. This song is an anti-Prop 32 song. And this song, my friends and FBI spies in the audience, is a union song.”
Opening with the aptly named “Union Song,” Morello’s music likely was new to most in the middle-aged crowd, but his message was on point: Stand by your brothers and sisters in the face of greed and injustice.
Passionate and chatty, he spoke between each song. Morello introduced “Save the Hammer for the Man,” which he wrote with Ben Harper, by saying they initially had hoped it would “turn wrong to right, evil to good, the song that was going to make the politics of America just and dignified for once. … We realized we couldn’t do it. So we wrote this song instead. This is very simply about the fact that if you want to save yourself, you have to work to save others, you have to save the hammer for the man.”
The Rage Against the Machine guitarist joked later about his relatively quiet set, “It’s all heavy metal hits the rest of the way, people.” Things did pick up during the second half with “The Road I Must Travel” and its easily repeated na-na-na-na-na chorus. Morello then played a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” saying he was “the only boss worth listening to.” The song — which Rage recorded in 1997 – featured a shrieking harpy of an electric guitar solo, with finger tapping, fluid arpeggios up and down the neck and even playing with his mouth in a bout of showmanship.
His set ended with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” noting the 100-year anniversary of Guthrie’s birth, singing the “radical class-warfare anthem” in its full “uncensored” version. For that, he called David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash onstage to sing along, as well as his mother, who recently turned 89 and, he said, “remains the most radical of the Morello family.”
“All right, as this is America’s alternative national anthem, I think it’s only appropriate that we turn the house lights on for this last song in my set tonight,” Morello said, taking a bridge toward the song’s end. After there was no response for several seconds, he riffed: “Somebody’s got a switch. Well, somebody work on that. I know there’s got to be a union man on that switch somewhere — turn the f—ing lights on, brother!” And just as he said that, the house lit up brightly, echoing with applause. Morello called everyone to their feet, leading the crowd through a final, verse and chorus of “This Land is Your Land.”
Between sets, D’Arcy and Kropke spoke again and, after showing a new video ad against Proposition 32, introduced Olmos to thunderous applause.
“If we do not stand united as a human body, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to sustain the greed, the corruption, the unbelievable denial that there’s anything wrong,” said the veteran actor.
He later cited one of his most memorable roles as Adm. William Adama in Battlestar Galactica. “I say to you, as the admiral of the Battlestar Galactica, I’ve stood on this deck before when we were completely wiped out and humanity was left hopeless, and I say to you one thing: There is hope in this room. There is a sense of dignity, triumph, self-esteem, self-respect and self-worth that permeates every single individual in this room today. As you walk out of here tonight, I say to you, take that with you, carry it strongly, and pass the word along.”
By the time Crosby, Stills & Nash returned to the stage, the crowd clearly was ready for them. As Morello had said earlier, “Hopefully your eyes and your ears and your hearts and souls will be radicalized with what you see here on this stage tonight, and tomorrow you’re going to head out into that world to fight injustice wherever it rears its ugly head — in your homes, in your schools, in your place of work, in your state of California and the country and the world at large. But The Nightwatchman’s going to let you in on a little secret: All that can wait until tomorrow because tonight we’re going to have a good motherf—ing time, am I right?”
Although CSN were far mellower and less talkative onstage, their amazing collection of folk-rock classics carried the night. Still’s voice has turned ever raspier with age, but his guitar playing remains exceptional, rivaling Morello’s with a smoothness and ease to his intense thrashing. Crosby and Nash, meanwhile, still sing impeccably, with a particular forcefulness behind Crosby’s belting on songs such as “Long Time Gone” and “Guinnevere,” which he dedicated to his wife, Jen.
“As unusual, as it is in the music business, I have been with the same woman for 35 years,” he said. “It’s because she has a good heart.”
A barefoot Nash introduced “Pre-Road Downs” by saying, “This is a song we just put on the set, one we haven’t done in a long, long time.” Later, Stills led the trio through a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” referring to Dylan as “weird old Bob.” In introducing “For What It’s Worth,” the Stills-penned Buffalo Springfield protest song about the 1966 Sunset Strip riots, Nash announced, “This is where it started.”
For the headlining act at such a cause-driven event, Crosby, Stills & Nash made no mention of Prop 32 until their set’s end, with a simple, “Thank you for supporting ‘No on Proposition 32’ and dedicating their final encore “Teach Your Children” to the union teachers in the audience. Perhaps they felt the message already had been hammered home by those who spoke before them. Regardless, it’s doubtful anyone forgot what they had come for that night, whether it was the music or the cause or both, and Crosby, Stills & Nash certainly delivered on their part of the deal.
House Gone Up in Flames
Save the Hammer for the Man
Garden of Gethsemane
The Road I Must Travel
The Ghost of Tom Joad
This Land Is Your Land
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Long Time Gone
Girl From the North Country
Just a Song Before I Go
Almost Cut My Hair
For What It’s Worth
Teach Your Children
Pictured below (from left): Working Californians Co-Chair Brian D’Arcy, Stephen Stills, Edward James Olmos, Graham Nash, Tom Morello, David Crosby and Working Californians Co-Chair Marvin Kropke.
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