Ballad for the Occupation: interview with Spencer Livingston

While it seems like ages ago, the Occupy movement was just born last fall. Beginning in New York City’s Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, the act of occupying public spaces to protest gross inequalities fostered by our economic system soon spread to cities across the nation. It was clear from the start that Occupy Wall Street was going to be a political game-changer; the true scope and nature of the change has yet to play out.

Another aspect of the movement still in development is its impact on the arts and culture. Occupy has inspired scores of performers to embrace the movement by entertaining and inspiring the occupiers with music, and by writing songs dedicated to the movement.

One such artist is singer-songwriter Spencer Livingston. Livingston, who is a member of Los Angeles-based rock bank “The Alternates,” also performs as a solo artist and wrote a song inspired by the events at Zuccotti Park. His song, “Occupy Wall Street,” is a mellow, melodic meditation on the feelings of economic injustice that sparked the movement. The song’s soft-spoken vocals and haunting blues riff are uncharacteristic of a “protest” song, and its melancholy tone strikes an interesting contrast with the strident lyrics.

He told Yahoo News that writing “OWS” “was definitely a spur of the moment thing, I’ve never been big on writing political songs, but I had to write about this because I feel passionate about it.”

I recently spoke with Livingston about “OWS” and his motives for writing it.

Why did you compose a song for Occupy Wall Street?

“I’ve always been interested in politics and environmental stuff…and wanting to see more people getting involved. I hope to see more things like this. It’s the biggest movement I’ve seen. Getting involved in this is the right thing for my sanity – it’s the right thing to do. Seeing this happening, I wanted to do something-a benefit show or something…I ended up writing the song.”

Are there any politically themed songs or artists who inspire you?

“Neil Young is one of my idols. He’s my favorite guitarist, singer, and songwriter. I like Bob Dylan, too. I don’t know if they’re “political,” but Wilco. Neil Young – he doesn’t have to have the greatest voice; he’s captivating. He means what he says, and that’s all that matters in the end.”

Have you performed “Occupy Wall Street” at any of the Occupy sites?

“I haven’t performed it. I’ve been to Occupy L.A. several times, and I’ve played at venues close to Occupy Wall Street. I played two or three shows out there. The first day, I went to New Jersey. I was going to play, but I got snowed in – the trains stopped. I played at ‘The Living Room’ and ‘Pianos.'”

Where do you think the Occupy movement is going? What is the role of artists in the movement?

“Artists aren’t the ones who solve the problems, but they can be the ones who identify them. I hope the movement continues and grows. People need to find a foundation of what needs to happen. It’s complicated, with a lot of issues.”

“OWS” is pretty melodic and mellow for a protest song. How do you feel this fits in the tradition of “protest music”?

“It was based on observations. I was trying to interpret what I’m seeing into words. Political songs tend to be in the moment, but a really good song should be timeless.

“The stories the media reports on are used for propagandistic purposes. The news media doesn’t report on positive things about Occupy – they focus on the police actions, or ignore other things that were big news stories months ago, like the BP oil spill – it’s forgotten about by the news media, but it’s still out there.

“The environmental and the political can be seen as separate issues, but both are important.”

Will “OWS” be on your solo album?

“No. I did “Occupy Wall Street” as a single. I’m going to leave it as it is. As a more political song, “OWS” is set in a certain time period. My other songs are more universal. People from any generation can relate to them.”

Photo: Singer/songwriter/guitarist Spencer Livingston.

The Alternates official site