A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 9, 2009
Back in 1996, when Oliver Stone’s Nixon had just been released, I wrote a “Tune-Up” column listing my favorite Nixon songs. Now, with the recent release of the movie Frost/Nixon (which hasn’t made its way to Santa Fe yet), here we go again.
That’s right folks, as I observed 13 years ago, Nixon never will get his face on Mount Rushmore, but during his time in office, he sure made an impression in rock — and other kinds of music.
So in honor of Nixon’s birthday on Friday, Jan. 9 — and in the spirit of recycling — here’s a revised list of my favorite Nixon tunes of all time.
In 1996, it was a Top 10 list. But since then I’ve discovered a couple of others that deserve to be here. So, without further adieu ...
The Tricky Dick dozen
* “Nixon’s Dead Ass” by Russell Means. Former American Indian Movement leader — and former New Mexico resident — Means wrote this shortly after Nixon’s death in 1994. Co-produced by biker-rock monster Simon Stokes, it’s a slow-stomping boogie that expresses frustration all the flowery things said on TV about the 37th president in the funeral coverage. “The crook’s resurrection is nearly complete/Behind the Orange Curtain they worship the geek/It’s making me mad, it’s making me sick/Did the world forget Tricky Dick/What could be going through these people’s heads?/ Everybody loves him now that he’s dead.”
* “Watergate Blues” by Howlin’ Wolf. From Howlin’ Wolf’s last studio album, The Back Door Wolf (1973), this tune is a celebration of Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate complex who noticed a of piece of duct tape that was keeping a door unlocked, which led to the discovery of the burglary in progress. “Don’t do us wrong, if you do, don’t make no mistake/Or we’ll blow the whistle on you/Just like we did at Watergate.”
* “Superbird (Tricky Dick)” by Country Joe & The Fish. In its original form, the song was about LBJ. But after Nixon’s rise, Joe McDonald added a verse in which he urged the new prez to “Go back to Orange County and take off your pants.”
* “Last Train to Nuremberg” by Pete Seeger. Seeger lists Nixon among a large group of Vietnam war criminals in the first verse (along with “both houses of Congress” and “the voters me and you”). In the last verse, the singer blasts King Richard for watching a football game and ignoring an enormous anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C.
* “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Neil Young lays the deaths of four students at Kent State University squarely at Nixon’s feet. Amazingly, when The Isley Brothers covered this song, they took the president out of the song, making it “Tin soldiers with guns, they’re coming.” Even though they don’t give Nixon the credit he deserves, I still like The Isleys’ version the best.
* “We’re All Water” by Yoko Ono and John Lennon. “There may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and President Nixon/If you strip them naked.” That’s a happy thought.
* “Watergate Blues” by Tom T. Hall. Even though the Grand Ole Opry was one ofuld go without getting jeered at and spat on during his final days, not all country singers were true believers. Hall souped up the old ballad “White House Blues” (which was about the assassination of President McKinley). After a quick comic retelling of the 1972 election, Hall gets serious. He saw Watergate as a harbinger of totalitarianism. “Somehow my mind goes back to Betsy Ross/Nobody knows what this country has lost.”
* “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Here’s a simple-minded rebuttal to Howlin’ Wolf and Tom T. Hall. “Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?” Play that dead band’s song, as Warren Zevon would say. Of course, by the time this became a hit, Nixon was out of office.
* “Are the Good Times Really Over ” by Merle Haggard. The Okie from Muskogee was once touted as a spokesman for Nixon’s silent majority. But by 1981, in this song lamenting all kinds of decay and dishonor, Hag longs for a time “back before Nixon lied to us all on TV.”
* “One Tin Soldier” by The Dick Nixons. It seems only natural that a true weirdo like our 37th president should become an ironic punk-rock icon. After taking the man’s name in vain, these jokers hilariously mix up the stories of Watergate and Billy Jack as well as the tale told in the Coven’s original version from the late ’60s of this inane wimp-rock finger-wagger. “Go ahead and hate Dick Nixon, go ahead and cheat a friend. ... On the bloody morning after, Richard Nixon rides away.” This song appeared on the Star Power compilation, Pravda Records’ send-up of the old K-Tel compilations advertised on late-night TV during the ’70s. But The Dick Nixons also released an entire album in 1992, Paint the White House Black, that’s full of Nixon songs — and was produced by none other than Memphis giant Jim Dickinson.
* “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More” by Buck Owens. Ol’ Buck parodies one of Tricky Dick’s most famous pre-presidency lies.
* “Bad Moon Rising” by Credence Clearwater Revival. Critic Dave Marsh Fogerty wrote this in response to Nixon’s 1968 election.
What the heck, let’s make it a baker’s dozen:
* “Nixon in ’96” by Doodoo Wah. The political humor is dated, to say the least, but this funny California folk duo, consisting of journalist Ron DeLacy and his pal Dave Cavanagh, summed up the politicians of the day (there’s a great line about Bill Clinton’s Vietnam days: “Instead of eatin’ artillery/He was cheatin’ on Hillary”). The singers decide, by default, that Nixon should return. Too bad he was dead.