James McMurtry — “We Can’t Make It Here”

Released: 9.6.05

Peak: Did not chart

In the ’00s, blaming blinkered God-fearin’ hicks for all of America’s problems became the acceptable liberal alternative to blaming welfare moms, the ingrained impulse to lash out any which way but upward proving itself the most bipartisan element in U.S. politics. If nothing else, “We Can’t Make It Here” returned a prole’s-eye perspective to a political rock given over to a privileged snottiness. A novelist’s kid he may be, but McMurtry pares his language down to essentials–even the mild wordplay on “make it,” referring to both industrial output and middle class success, is rooted in everyday speech. Over a fatalist snare-beat and a guitar as evasively snaky as Richard Thompson’s, “We Can’t Make It Here” explores those few working class opportunities that remain over the course of a bleak seven minutes, with every wrong turn proving a dead end.

The U.S. trade deficit may not be at the root of all our domestic ills, but it’s a fair place to start. Springsteen’s “My Hometown” charted the decline of manufacturing industry; McMurtry signs off on its post mortem two decades later. Stocking shelves at Wal-Mart inadequately replaces the life once made possible by now long-gone textile mills, which have themselves become spots to score heroin, a solitary high that’s taken over for the social kind the struggling neighborhood taverns once supplied. And if military service is the last remaining career, don’t expect much help afterward, with “the V.A. budget” slashed. (A fine American tradition, that is, the screwing over veterans, instituted by St. George Washington himself.)

One of democracy’s greatest pitfalls is the willingness of the disadvantaged to direct their rage toward the closest targets. McMurtry rightly sees the antidote to a faux-populism that blames big government for everything is one that focuses on “the men who sent the jobs away” whose “kids won’t bleed,” the corporate powers that have sold out their country’s vitality. And with a chorus that’s barely inarticulate chant. “We Can’t Take It Here” is bleak enough that no demagogue could mistake it for a patriotic anthem–though Bernie Sanders, God bless him, enlisted it as its 2006 campaign theme.

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