Kerry Shoots for the Hip

TALK ABOUT DESPERATE. The news networks succeeded only in embarrassing themselves by working way too hard to attract a younger demographic to their ass-backward coverage of the Democratic convention. A badly shaven but well-informed Ben Affleck blew the bow tie off conservative wanker Tucker Carlson. A flop-sweated Mo Rocca flipped lame one-liners to Wolf Blitzer. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart failed to get any laughs out of Tom Brokaw, who’s apparently now deaf as well as Botox-frozen. And there was something positively creepy about septuagenarian Larry King slobbering over the two Kerry girls while determining which daughter had appeared nearly naked in that photograph on Drudge. What a shame the only semi-serious coverage was on philistine Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly interviewed Dick Morris, one slime bucket to another.

But what about the candidate? Is there anything real there for young voters?

Well, he does a dead-on impression of Father Guido Sarducci from the old Saturday Night Live (while washing dishes on vacation). He watches West Wing (though logs more hours on the History Channel). He listens to Bon Jovi and U2 (but has nothing against rap and hip-hop). He puts up signed posters of Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead (but only on the walls of what’s known as his “hideaway” Senate office). He goes to concerts by Don Henley, Sheryl Crow and the Rolling Stones (during their Bridges to Babylon tour). And Paramount chairwoman Sherry Lansing, his longest and most loyal supporter in Hollywood, claims Kerry has “good taste” in movies. “Because he came to our Sum of All Fears premiere and loved it,” she tells L.A. Weekly while shamelessly plugging her studio’s product. “And he couldn’t wait to see Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers.”

It’s as if John Kerry wears popular culture as comfortably as his leather motorcycle jacket. Jeez, the guy actually knew John Lennon. But is he really feelin’ it or just trying to get one over on the kids?

“Unlike George W. Bush, he is not a square,” close pal Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary tells L.A. Weekly. “He’s very alert to what is going on. I’d say across the board in terms of pop culture — music, movies — he’s a very youthful guy.”


It may well prove a gigantic mistake come Election Day that Kerry waited until only very recently to demonstrate any purported hipness unless it’s been sports-related. The windsurfing, the snowboarding, the bikes, the Harley have all been duly documented by news cameras. But, whether out of shyness or insecurity or whatever, he has long eschewed any showy display of even rudimentary with-it-ness.

Yarrow recalls one night in 2001 when, at an intimate gathering at Kerry’s home in Washington, D.C., even close friends couldn’t convince the senator, a prep-school garage-band bass player (that’s garage, not grunge, ’cuz the guys wore blazers and turtlenecks), to pick up a guitar during a folk-song sing-along.

By the start of 2004, just as the Democratic presidential primaries were in full swing, Kerry seemed content to let the other candidates pander to the 18-to-34 crowd at an MTV Rock the Vote debate, like when General Wesley Clark flashed some superficial hip-hop knowledge about behind-the-scenes friction inside OutKast (pundits said later Clark’s son had planted it).

But that was then and this is now. Former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and Kerry’s Vietnam crew mate Wade Sanders, who is now a San Diego attorney campaigning full-time for the Democratic ticket, told L.A. Weekly that the senator recently stopped classical guitar lessons, bought an electric Fender and began brushing up on his ax skills. “So he could get up with a rock & roll band and at least be as good as Bill Clinton was with the saxophone,” says Sanders, himself a musician. At the celeb-studded July 8 fund-raiser for his campaign held at Radio City Music Hall, the senator strapped on a flame-red guitar and played along with an all-star rendition of ‘‘This Land Is Your Land’’ in front of pros like the Dave Matthews Band, Mary J. Blige, John Mellencamp and Jon Bon Jovi. It wasn’t a cringe-worthy performance, either.

“I can certainly speak to that side of John Kerry,” stresses Sanders, who at one time was a Hollywood music-industry attorney. “I know that he appreciates pop culture and contemporary music, and it goes back a long way.”

Way back to the Mekong Delta, where the officer in charge of a PCF-94 crew had orders to go up river and travel deep into enemy territory and try to win the hearts and minds of the Viet Cong as part of a psychological operation. Kerry’s boat was equipped with not-very-high-tech loudspeakers and unintentionally comedic tapes that when played were supposed to encourage the enemy to throw down their arms and give up. “The idea that anyone would think that would work is amusing enough. But the tape that was the biggest hoot had these legendary ghosts moaning and woo-hooing and telling the VC it was useless to fight,” Sanders recalls. “John took those tapes and threw them away.”


Instead, Kerry played a steady stream of rock from Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. “John happened to really like Jim Morrison. Sure, our commanders would not have approved. But the enemy probably found it more pleasant. And the young Vietnamese kids would be running off the river banks, dancing and waving at us.”

More recently, Sanders has gone with the senator to see the Rolling Stones and other musician pals on tour. “We’re both friends of Stephen Stills, and John likes the Dead. John is also pretty good friends with Bono. He prefers traditional hardcore rock. I don’t think he has anything against rap and hip-hop, but that’s not part of his style.”

Record producer and civil-liberties activist Danny Goldberg, author of the book Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, is confident this translates into increased youth appeal for Kerry in the fall. “He declined to bash hip-hop even when baited at the 2000 congressional hearings. That’s one reason why I think Kerry is much better than Gore in terms of relevance with young people,” Goldberg tells L.A. Weekly. “And his special on MTV got more than double the rating of any previous presidential candidate including Clinton.”


Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Yarrow have all occupied prominent positions in Kerry’s political life.

Like Springsteen and Yarrow, Henley has been headlining fund-raisers for Kerry for quite a while. As for the The Boss — described by Sanders as a “fairly decent friend” of Kerry’s — the two men nearly had Vietnam service in common. Springsteen, who vehemently opposed the war, received an induction notice but found a way to get out of serving. (Ironically, Springsteen’s often misunderstood anti-war anthem, “Born in the USA,” was first misused by Reagan’s re-election campaign and then by GWB supporters to stir jingoistic fervor following 9/11. The tune is based on Vietnam anti-war activist Bobby Muller, yet another Kerry-friendly vet who contributed a chapter to Kerry’s 1971 anti-war compendium, The New Soldier.)

Since the earliest days of Kerry’s run for the White House, Springsteen’s “No Surrender” has been on the candidate’s official campaign song roster because of its angry lyrics. Sometimes taking the stage to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Kerry also successfully roused his thinning crowds during those bleak months before the primaries by using the Springsteen line “Like soldiers in the winter’s night with a vow to defend, no retreat, baby, no surrender” when Howard Dean was leading in the polls.

Also pivotal around that time was Yarrow, the longtime Kerry confidant who is godfather to Kerry’s first child, Alexandra, and was a performer at his wedding to Teresa Heinz. The two men are so close that Yarrow has seen Kerry in rare unguarded moments: the aforementioned Father Guido Sarducci imitations during vacations at the Kerry family’s vacation retreat on Naushon Island; reciting every last word of Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; building model ships.

The singer and the would-be senator first met on a plane three decades earlier and found they had more than just anti–Vietnam War activism in common. “We talked the whole time and became great buddies,” Yarrow remembers. “We saw many of the political issues of our time in the same way.”

That is, until Kerry voted to support George W. on the Iraqi war-powers resolution.

“He and I disagreed on that,” Yarrow says matter-of-factly about what was then a deeply emotional issue for the singer. “He understood why I felt it was a mistake.”


Falling behind in the polls to a Vermont governor no one had heard of before Labor Day, Kerry somehow had to woo the anti-war crowd before the all-important Iowa caucuses. He called on peace activists. He called on Vietnam vets. And he called on Yarrow, who so personified three decades of activism that just his presence bolstered Kerry’s anti-war bona fides. “I went there when he had nine points, and his candidacy was considered dead,” Yarrow recalls.

Yarrow would precede Kerry at campaign stops. He sang old songs like “Carry On My Sweet Survivor” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” at house parties and Unitarian churches, made up a musical poem about Kerry’s campaign, and convinced Iowa caucus-goers to give the senator a listen. “I wanted the groups of progressive peoples who came to see him to remember their own history. And by the time he got to them, they were emotional and excited.” There was one tense day when Kerry had to convince Yarrow to take out a favorite line in his ode, about “these bullies now in power echo fascists’ great tradition: Keep us scared, create a war and stifle opposition.” But the two men got past it, even if a snide New York Times article recorded their sort-of argument for posterity.


Many astute political observers credited Yarrow with helping Kerry win Iowa. “See, John knows historically how important music can be. He saw it in the anti-war movement. He knows it’s a mobilizing tool to connect hearts. It’s not just entertainment,” says Yarrow. “I think he knows it probably better than any candidate.”

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