Originally published in: Village Voice, 1976?

Let's String Up the Outlaws

"We are all outlaws in the eyes of Amerika" -- Jefferson Airplane, 1969, way back in a time of imminent revolution. Lots of us fell for that line then, and some of us have even survived to think better of it. Times have changed and nearly every sphere of daily life has been hit by reaction. It's been necessary to rethink many things: the old romance of we the outlaws seems almost quaint now, a conceit of simple immaturity.

In fact, the situation seems to have deteriorated so much that Arista Records, with the nasty arrogance of counterrevolutionaries secure in their power, has promoted as its "first full-tilt rock 'n roll band" a group called the Outlaws. Well, if that's what they are, they should be tracked down and strung up.

Vigilante justice has always had a popular thrust: good citizens assuming responsibility for their own safety and welfare when the established authorities are amiss. With a little collective consciousness it might even be called revolution, though it usually limits itself to the piecemeal -- more likely a gesture than an earthshaking deed. But even a gesture would be nice, a first step.

The Outlaws are something of an overnight sensation, with the powers that be, at least. And these powers are doing their best to inflict their sensibilities on us, with no small margin of success. The Outlaws' first album is an FM staple, with a single called "There Goes Another Love Song" threatening to degrade AM as well. New stars on the rise, they ought to be doing something right, huh? Nope.

The thing is, most people aren't dumb, nor do they simply fall for hypes. So there's a chance that this flurry will pass quickly enough, that nobody will be taking any. But people are isolated as well, and well nigh helpless against a billion-dollar industry operating beyond their knowledge and control With no drive toward revolution, the only effective class consciousness is that of those in power, those who gauge the market and control what's available. So if you happen to like MCA's Lynyrd Skynyrd and Asylum's Eagles, why not Arista's Outlaws? With three guitars and the same bogus romanticism, they're the best of both worlds, right?

Hardly. Three guitarists don't mean much when all they do is try to ape your standard Dixie rock fare. And the romanticism is little more than a cheap way out of any original thinking. Their models, themselves well-wrung through the commercial mill, at least had some sense of their roots, both in the South's music and in the appreciation of their audience. And most of those models -- the Eagles in particular -- can at least play their instruments, sing harmony, and write halfway decent songs. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Ballad of Curtis Loew" is an example.

The Outlaws show none of that: they're essentially a creation of the music conglomerate, tight as the regimentation of a factory line. That's what makes them so ominous. The industry has thrown out its ploys before, but with few exceptions have been able to draw upon and maintain their simple humanity. Not that sensitivity or rage or whatever else cannot be packaged and peddled -- that's been happening aplenty all along -- but at least those qualities entail real emotion and relate to the lives of those who listen.

Emotion is foreign to the very conception of the Outlaws. Their name itself insists on the anti-social: their offering is in the riff, those clear, sweet guitar tones, and and that stupid, mechanical drumming, an offering that both woos and demands submission, that abolishes history and community alike. Outlaw music has no content: the voices betray no depth of feeling. It is music to waste oneself to; it is loud, it fills up space and time, and isolates you in its void.

So, what now? The prospects are grim, which is what I take to be the Outlaws' own hidden message. They are a bad omen: The bigger they hit it, the more thoroughly is extinguished all hope of setting society aright. The best thing about popular culture has always been the people who made it and lived in and through it. But no matter how many people are suckered into buying this trash, it can never be popular, it can never be part of the common sense of people in touch with their lives and history.

The destruction of popular culture is part and parcel of the destruction of the people: if anything, the Outlaws are aimed at destroying that common sense. Which brings back the whole idea of vigilantism, nowadays the better side of that old metaphor. For what it suggests is the affirmative action, rooted as it must be in a better understanding of our lives and what affects them, of a mass of people bound together by their history and community.

The Outlaws are hardly the whole problem, but they are a damn good example of it. And it is pretty well evident that people of such habits are not likely just to fade away of their own will. They need to be strung up; now's the time to lay down the law.

Archaeological notes: May 10, 2002

This is retyped from a couple of pieces of typesetting film. It looks and feels unedited, and bears a title ("Outlaws Are a Menace to the Public Good") that I don't remember. Need to find a clipping here.