Listen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.
In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.
There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.
From the beginning of their careers, The Long Ryders traded in the rich tapestry of American myths and imagery. On the Paisley Underground scene, they distinguished themselves from their peers by mixing in country and other roots influences into the sixties psych mix. At the same time, it was the myths of America that made their way into their songwriting, creating sepia-toned soundscapes that sought to give shape to the American identity after the traditions of Bob Dylan, The Band, Gram Parsons, and Tim Hardin, the latter two of which are mentioned by name in this very song, heroic figures both.
As mentioned though, the band wasn’t trading in nostalgia in terms of their subject matter. In the middle of the Cold War Reaganite Jordan Belfort 1980s, there was plenty to talk about when it came to where the country was headed. There is a distinct sentiment in this song that the state of the union is in danger, moving further and further away from its founding ideals that balance individual freedom with prosperous community, and maybe more importantly away from the world of heroism that is meant to inspire Americans and the rest of the world.
That’s the real nature of the betrayal here on this song; that the American myth is being corrupted by self-seeking political agendas and under-the-table dealings that were the antithesis of those celebrated heroic ideals. Political power-plays were threatening to subsume and replace those ideals with narratives about trickle-down economics and Wall Street wizardry supposedly making everything better for all, even if those stories were more science fiction than historical. As we are seeing today in 2016, when you control the stories of a nation you control everything. Stories determine the quests that everyday people undertake to discover their own place in the country they call home. They’re powerful that way.
In this song, it’s the American spirit itself that the narrator is seeking, finding his own “Northwest passage” through the ever-darkening political landscape in which he finds himself. That quest is being subverted and obstructed by those in power. As bad as things are now in 2016, the roots of the current divisive atmosphere in America started in earnest while Reagan was president, when disenfranchised communities were being actively cut off from their cultural birthrights. The ideals of freedom from tyranny, heroism, and “the melting pot” upon which America bases its identity became the basis for manipulation, not inspiration. In this and so many other respects, many of those whom we call “conservatives” today are really no such thing.
The Long Ryders were a short-lived musical unit relatively speaking. By 1987, they ended their initial run together. By then, the Iran-Contra hearings were in full swing, with Oliver North and President Reagan still being heralded as paragons of American virtue even as the country was tied up in ideologically driven maneuvering to fund terrorism. It was as if The Long Ryders’ point was proven, even if that may have felt like an empty victory.
After many years of solo records, books, and other pursuits, the members of The Long Ryders came together again. They celebrated that coming together by cutting a live document entitled, knowingly, State Of Our Reunion in 2004.
They are on tour right now!
You can catch up to their more recent movements at thelongryders.com.
Speaking of myths and heroism, I heartily recommend Long Ryder guitarist, singer and songwriter Sid Griffin’s 2007 book about Bob Dylan and The Band during the Basement Tapes period. It’s called Million Dollar Bash, and you can buy it right here.