Tom Waits’ New Song of Anti-Fascist Resistance Needed More Teeth
Waits and Marc Ribot's cover of the Italian partisans' anthem "Bella Ciao" should've honored modern revolutionaries, not a milquetoast march.
Tom Waits photo courtesy of the artist
Up until this week, when I chanced upon his new music video with guitarist Marc Ribot, I didn’t know much about Tom Waits. I knew he had a raspy, knowing scruff of a voice that rattled out like Satan on a cigarette break. And I had a vague idea of what he looked like, thanks to an old boyfriend’s record collection: his gnarled, crooked grin; his leonine head with wizened cheeks and dark eyes. Beyond that, he occupied a sort of “weird folk demon” category in my head, hovering somewhere between Amigo the Devil, Jandek, and Merle Haggard. I certainly didn’t know squat about his politics—but now, all of a sudden, I want to know all about Tom Waits.
The Jem Cohen-directed video accompanies his rendition of “Bella Ciao,” a classic Italian folk song that became a revolutionary anti-fascist anthem during the Italian Civil War. During WWII, hundreds of thousands of partisanos and partisanas fought like wildcats against the occupying German Nazi forces and the Italian Social Republic, a puppet government engineered by the Nazis and led by Italian Fascists. Between 1943 and 1945, backed by the support of the common people and armed with weapons wrested from enemy hands, the Italian resistance undertook a guerrilla warfare campaign against the fascists and their Nazi allies, liberating cities, creating aid networks to help save POWs and Jews, and slaughtering the German invaders. The red carnation was their symbol, and “Bella Ciao” was their song of freedom.
Their astonishing acts of resistance against bloodthirsty fascist forces have inspired countless radicals, revolutionaries, and liberation-minded fighters since, and “Ciao Bella” has been adopted worldwide as an anthem of anti-fascist struggle against tyranny and oppression. Ribot’s version is sparse and understated, its acoustic slides leaving plenty of space for Waits’ voice to bring the lyrics to the fore. Here, Waits’ trademark snarl softens, rendered almost wistful as he croons a tribute to the anti-fascist revolutionaries of old, the words reverberating like a prayer in his prophet’s mouth.
The song comes off Ribot’s new album, Songs of Resistance 1942-2018, which is out September 14 via ANTI- Records and features contributions from Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, Justin Vivian Bond, Fay Victor, Sam Amidon, Ohene Cornelius, Tift Merritt, Domenica Fossati, and Syd Straw. The record includes originals as well as songs from the U.S. civil rights movement and Mexican protest ballads. But this Waits collaboration has hit me particularly hard, especially coupled with its visual component, which shows scenes from D.C. before and after Trump’s cursed inauguration on January 20, 2017, and the Women’s March the next day.
What strikes me is the stillness of it all. I remember the stillness that beset D.C. the morning of the inauguration, the calm before the storm that would engulf the city that day and land hundreds of my comrades in jail for donning masks and protesting the arrival of a new dictator. On that fine morning, we woke up early to find the fascists at our door—and then we did something about it.
The video deftly shows the banality of evil in the boots of U.S. Army soldiers—there for our “protection”—gathered around their armored vehicles waiting for something to shoot, and the idleness of bored cops checking their phones and leaning against barricades lining the streets of D.C. Flags with Trump’s bloated visage wave as tourists nervously perambulate around the capital. Instead of carnations, roses tremble in the breeze, their petals as red as the partisan blood spilled long ago, and as the bloodshed that’s still to come as their heirs continue the fight.
Later, signs of resistance flare, as the Women’s March snakes through the city the next day. Huge crowds of marchers don pussy hats and hold signs aloft calling to abolish ICE, empty Rikers’ cages, end family detention. A tense scene in which protestors of color confront cops flashes by. American flags flutter. Night falls on the Rotunda, and the roses dance in darkness. Ciao, bella.
I do appreciate the implied critique of the Trump administration seen here, with its connection between our current fascist regime and that of the historical Italian Fascist movement. My major quibble with this piece is the pairing of Women’s March imagery with this song of militant rebellion. I understand the impulse to use such a universally recognized symbol of anti-Trump resistance in this video, but given the song’s message and history, it would have carried far more weight to have instead shown images and footage from the day before, when hundreds of anti-fascists rallied to disrupt the inauguration.
That’s where I spent my time; I barely witnessed any of the Women’s March itself, because my comrades and I had been up so late the previous night, waiting for the hundreds of protestors who had been rounded up, kettled, abused, and mass-arrested by D.C. police to be released. It was more than a little jarring to watch the scenes unfold in this video, because it brought with it the realization that this is history now. What happened that weekend, what happened in Charlottesville, and what happened in D.C. earlier this summer— all of it is going to be cited as a major event in anti-fascist history, and in American history in general. It’s strange to think about the next generation of children reading about these things in their school books (or, perhaps more realistically, on their school-issued tablets, unless Betsy DeVos succeeds in gutting the entire American educational system before then), having seen these things with my own eyes.
I don’t really know how to process the magnitude of it yet—of this idea of living through history. Seeing these things filter into pop culture like this—into a Pitchfork-hosted music video—is surreal, as is seeing moments from one of the scariest weekends of my life reflected in a serene, artfully directed music video with Tom Waits’ voice tumbling by. The video’s peacefulness feels so at odds with the fire and pepper spray that marked the events of that weekend in which the song’s inspirations would have taken part. Is that what history will remember? The signs and pink hats? God, I hope not. The sanitized version of history is seldom the truest, but perhaps that’s an inevitability when things like this are depicted in mainstream culture.
The past few years have been so hard, and so intense, and so violent, that I still wonder sometimes if I’ll survive this presidency. There is no way of knowing the answer there, but now, at the very least, I know what I’ll ask to have played at my funeral.
“If I die a partisano, bury me upon that mountain beneath the shadow of the flower, so all the people, the people passing, can say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful flower…”
Kim Kelly is still alive on Twitter.