(All photos taken by Hannah Cohen, Mary-Hope Beaulac, or Michael Elfman and used with the permission of Doug Ratner.)
Through the centuries, music has been used to promote a cause or simply to bring listeners’ attention to an injustice that needs correcting. Folk music has a history of tackling politics, labor rights, and civil rights. In my day, rock ’n’ roll took on the task of protesting against war and for peace. What better way to reach the youth than through their music of choice? It’s reassuring to know the tradition is continuing, with organizations such as Musicans for a Cause, joining together to support the fight against autism, homelessness, animal welfare, hunger, etc. In the words of the organization:
“Musicians for a Cause was founded to harness the power of music to inspire compassion and support for worthy causes. We engage songwriters with nonprofit organizations to provide music that brings life to the causes they support.
“We do that by bringing together artists who are interested in making a difference with their music and providing an effective platform for them to connect with organizations who can use their songs for a greater good.”
Then came Lady Gaga’s Born This Way organization, to fight “youth bullying, meanness, and cruelty”.
Now there is another voice being raised to take up the battle against bullying.
Enter Doug Ratner and the Watchmen, a self-described “down & dirty rock ’n’ roll band” from Northampton, MA, whose slogan is “Outsiders welcome. Weirdness encouraged,” and whose goal is to “make music that inspires young kids, and even adults, so they too may have hope in the dark corners of their minds. Rock n’ roll is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and we feel it’s necessary to stand up for what is right.”
I’m pleased to have the lead singer of the Watchmen, Doug Ratner, guest on my blog today to explain the group’s music and how they hope to make a difference.
I’ll never forget this moment until the day I die. We just had an assembly from a hilarious, African-American speaker named Mark Brown. The focus of his talk was on bullying and that old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Brown argued–and I agree to this day–that words are very hurtful, perhaps even more hurtful than any sticks or stones could be. Even as a 5th grader I could understand the weight of the message he was trying to deliver to us. Words can hurt.
After the assembly, I remember sitting in the lunch room with three other kids, one of whom was not the nicest. We’ll call him “Jack.” Jack noticed that another student, “Miles,” was sitting by himself, eating alone, and just minding his own business. Jack began to openly make fun of Miles for being weird and having no friends. I was in disbelief. After such an amazingly powerful speech, you would think that any child (or adult) could be a little bit nicer! Well no, not Jack. I got up from the table, walked over to Miles, sat down with him and we finished lunch together.
Over ten years later, being an accomplished song writer and the leader of a popular down & dirty rock ’n’ roll band, I certainly know the power of words. As a writer, you have a responsibility to write lyrics that satiate your own soul, but also connect with the listeners, whoever they may be. It’s a very tough thing. You can’t be too complex or too simple. You have to find the right combination of reality and fantasy to allow your fans to escape from their everyday lives, into somewhere greater.
For the past seven or eight months, my band and I have been in the studio, finishing up our newest release, “Lessons Well Learned.” This EP (musical term for extended play) is not just rock ’n’ roll. It’s rock ’n’ roll with heavy social commentary on it. It’s a concept EP, focusing on different societal issues that we feel needs illumination in today’s media. Issues like bullying, depression, teen suicide, gender roles, and greed. Rather than giving you a blow by blow of each song, I’d like to draw attention to two particular songs, “Bomb in the Backseat” and “Ghost in the Mirror.”
“Bomb in the Backseat” tells the story of a young, reclusive teenager, who feels the world has turned against him. As a result of his anger and paranoia, from an app on his phone he has learned to build a bomb and plans to blow up everyone. Right away, as a reader or listener, you probably think this is a sick and twisted notion. Why would you want to write a song about this? Enter, “Ghost in the Mirror.” This song has the same character as “Bomb in the Backseat,” but it explains how he became the way he did. The first lines tell it all;
You wake up today and get ready for school
Head to the bathroom, to find a way to look cool
Cuz lately the boys have been teasing you
And all the girls have been laughing too
You gotta find a way to change your face
You’re sick and tired of feeling out of place
This kid needed help, but he never got it, and you see what he becomes in “Bomb in the Backseat.”
And that’s the beauty of rock ’n’ roll. You can make taboo and topical statements because they need to be made. Why hide from the truth that overwhelms society? Kids need help and if they don’t get it, terrible things can happen.
My goal is to have listeners connect to the lyrics of “Ghost in the Mirror” and put their hearts in it. From the cover photo or at a live concert, they will see that the words are being sung by a 6’2” muscular lead singer, with insane hair and red jeans, looking as weird as can be. Leading a band of misfits and hooligans, but completely and utterly devoted to the idea that rock n’ roll has the power to heal your soul.
Here’s a salute to young people using their talents to make a difference in the world. Check out the website for Doug Ratner and the Watchmen and support them in this worthwhile effort.
Thanks, Doug, for being my guest and for doing what you do. Keep on keeping on.
Click to listen to “Bomb in the Backseat.”