“I’ve always loved George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, those kinds of guys,” said Kevin’s smiling, catastrophically Caucasian father from his overstuffed recliner, as I waited for the boy to come down the wide, oak stairway with the sheets of music he had scribbled his ideas down onto, but which he had mistakenly left upstairs in his room — so excited had he been that I was coming to interview him. “To take that kind of street, you know, that sort of gutter level, ah, urban violence, and to wrench such, you know, poetry from it,” the father continued, “To take barbarism and really, you know, spin it into, ah, this sort of very sophisticated. . . .” He trailed off, the light suddenly out inside his still-present smile, twisted slowly now into a grimace. “Fight writing, you know? Writing up boxing matches and the like? Do you ever do any sort of sports writing like that?”
“In a way that’s almost like what your son’s doing, isn’t it, Mr. Sykes? By writing a national anthem for the Iraqis, isn’t Kevin sort of wrenching poetry and civility out of barbarism?”
Mr. Sykes smiled embarrassedly, thrilled, as though he were George Plimpton himself effeminately pursing a choice simile behind his lips like a sour candy. He gargled a failed, enthusiastic and grateful reply in the back of his mouth, folded his paper back over in his lap and laughed as he flushed. For my part, I smiled back at him as though nesting a turd underneath my tongue as I wondered how in three years I had gone from penning wild Trotskyist diatribes in the pages of Militant Labor to interviewing suburban teenage angst-rockers who’d turned their phosphorescent mediocrity onto the task of composing an anthem for what the press release(s) called “the emerging democracy of Iraq.” Of course, Militant Labor, unlike the Woodentree Springs Voice, never had an “Our Community Pride!” section — or any section, come to think of it, whose heading had included an exclamation point. Exclamation points marked the kind of energy that none of us could muster. Briefly, I guess, during the Rectification Process. Otherwise, only the Sparts used exclamation points.
“Our new drummer, Trevor Lim-Schultz, is half Korean,” Kevin had told me coolly over the phone. “I think that gives us a certain, sort of, like a flavour of multi — people coming from all sorts of different kinds of backgrounds and stuff often bring, like, their own musical instincts to the table, right? And so I think Trevor, and his experiences as being half Oriental, I think that they will, like, help the group to grow, and maybe find a more international sort of world sound, you know, with still, like, American sensibilities.”
Woodentree Springs is the sort of sharply pleasant suburban community wherein bands such as Kevin’s — the “E-mail Females,” known as “Papier Maché Guevara” in the bygone days when the group’s drummer could trace himself back to four ethnically Scottish grandparents — thrive, or fester. Kevin’s face is flushed like his father’s as he sits down across from me at the thick mahogany table in his family’s opulent dining room, his cheeks pocked with scars left by the vicious acne now banished by the harsh and expensive medications paid for by his parents. I set up the tape recorder in the middle of the table as he smiles at me, hoisting the papers that he’s fetched up into view. Nodding.
“Kevin, maybe you could just start by telling me why you decided to write a national anthem for the people of Iraq. Is this your gift to the world’s newest democracy?” He pretended to think for a second.
“I think that a lot of people in America and in the rest of the world are sort of — they’re like looking at the mission in Iraq and they’re wanting to tell the troops and the president and also, right, the people of Iraq that like, ‘We’re totally with you two hundred percent,’ you know? And so, my feeling is sort of, ‘What can we do to show them all our support?’ And since my country, and our president, since we’re sort of giving a new chance for democracy to Iraq, and a whole new hope and like, we’ve captured Saddam and everything and we’re fighting the terrorists, then maybe I’ll try to give the gift of a national anthem. And so, we thought, like, I could write the anthem, and give it some good music in the background, and then send it in to the president or the White House or whatever, maybe the army, and, you know, see what happens.”
Kevin smiled, taking a long pull from his glass of milk, and wiping his lips with the hair of his forearm. “One thing that I’m worried about is that when they, like, translate it into Iraqi, some of the rhymes might get sort of ruined. But we’ll play it by ear.”
Fine, play it by ear, then, I thought. Wouldn’t be the first time. Negotiating his smugness, that smarmy and innocent confidence — percolated, trickle-down swagger of empire shining through the certainty of his every facial gesture and his cadence — I pressed with what I thought, wrongly, would be a more embarrassing question. Forget post-modern, post-industrial; who’ll be the one who defines the post-shame world that we live in? In heaving Christianity into the 21st century, how is it that we managed to keep the plastic first-trimester action figures they wave at girls getting abortions, but we couldn’t hold on to even a thimbleful of shame? Who realized we needed it so bad? The most Catholic years of my life were spent in the Party, I thought. Shameless, sure. But we had guilt.
“What kind of research about Iraq have you found it necessary to do in writing the anthem?”
“I’ve, you know,” he said, exhaling a smile, “been reading pretty much every newspaper article that I can get my hands on, right? There’s a lot to know about Iraq and it’s climate, and you know, its environment and its people. And a lot of the symbols and stuff that you always would just sort of naturally associate with a country, things like eagles and whatever, you forget that a lot of the time some of these countries don’t even have them, except in zoos or whatever, aquariums and stuff. And you learn a lot about a thing when you research it, and countries are no different, in a way. There are three religions in Iraq, which are the Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, which is weird because you just always assume that those guys are just Muslim, like plain Muslim. So you want the anthem to reflect those kinds of facts. So that’s why I wrote the line ‘ Whether our churches are Sunni, Shiite or Kurd / We stand up to make our voices be heard.’ Like that.”
Mr. Sykes was standing, now, behind his son’s chair, watching the tape slowly turning in the black recorder that I had placed in middle of the table and which Kevin, leaning up on his knees, would dip towards as he spoke with exaggerated enunciation. Sykes’s hands were on his hips, still holding and now crumpling the newspaper that he had been folding in his chair.
“Kevin,” I asked, “Do you view this sort of thing as a way in which the people of Woodentree Springs can help contribute to the War on Terror, and the struggle to liberate Iraq?”
“Here in Woodentree, we don’t have a lot of guys my age that are in the army. But that doesn’t mean we don’t support the troops, and the war, and the president. So yeah, like, I do consider this to be my contribution to bringing democracy to the rest of the world. Because every country needs an anthem. That’s a big part of what democracy is. That’s central to a democratic nation”
The words democratic and central brought me to thinking very sourly on some of the people with whom I had been working all those years at Militant Labour, before the party had essentially fallen apart, and I’d left to take a series of jobs that had now brought me to the community desk of the Woodentree Springs Voice. I wondered what the comrades I had known then were doing now, during the war, trained as they were in the sort of routinized demoralization that passed for revolutionary currency — as those even further disfigured by the strange turns of history were advising the war president, spinning their Trotskyism into neo-Conservatism like Norman Mailer translating Ali’s blows into tap-dances for white readers. Kevin smiled up broadly at his father with the learned middle class confidence that would always be his, no matter what he was singing, and he looked back at me as he took another long pull of his milk.
“Kevin,” I asked, “Did you ever hear the joke about the Siamese twins in the Fourth International? Two brothers ended up on different sides of a split?”
“The one grows his hair down long, to his shoulders, because it tickled his brother? Just to spite him?”
“What did the other one do?” he asked, his face folding, creased with confusion for the first time since I’d arrived. “What’s the Fourth International?”
“He got a buzz-cut,” I said, and laughed, ignoring his second question for a moment, then waving him off. “Never mind, sorry. I think we’re done here, guys. Thanks Kevin. Thanks Mr. Sykes.” The tape whirred in the recorder at the center of the table, clapping to a loud stop in a miraculous feat of punctuation. Startled, Kevin knocked his milk to the floor.
Charles Demers is a writer, activist and stand-up comic based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is a founding editor of the online journal Seven Oaks Magazine.