By The Landlord
This may come as a surprise, but I used to shoot all the time. I confess it. I even made guns, and ammunition. It was a buzz, a massive thrill and a skill. I felt like a hotshot, a crackshot. And the guns I made could shoot with incredible accuracy – with sights precisely created from small pieces of wire. The trigger, the barrel, everything was home-made with tools I was given by my grandad, in our garage. And then I set off to find my target …
But widen the sights of this slightly, and in truth I was only 8 years old at the time. A young gun. The barrel and body of my gun was made of wood, the trigger from a clothes peg with a metal spring, and the ammunition was a form of rubber "bullet" – elastic bands, sometimes tied and stretched together. So, yes, this is of course just a shot in the dark, a flash of 1970s sepia or bleach-colour memories from my childhood, but an accurate recollection just to get your attention.
Yet it was a really fun hobby. My grandad was a skilled carpenter, and inspired by him, I made carefully precise rifles and hand gun versions of these elastic band weapons. With them I'd shoot at tin cans outside, and various objects around the house. I never shot at animals or birds, just occasionally at other kids for fun, but not in the face. This weapon was just a step up from a previous, and felt endless, hot summer when we all ran around the streets shooting each other with water from used Fairy Liquid bottles.
With my guns I never killed anything except, more by luck than design, perhaps a bluebottle that was buzzing around in the kitchen while my mum was cooking. It was probably not even dead, just stunned. More shocked was my mum, who shouted at me when the elastic ammo landed in the spaghetti. It was high noon and this was my own spaghetti western.
Then of course there were video games, from Space Invaders of course, as well as Tank, Asteroids and Gun Fight. Can you contain your excitement?
All that malarkey was played in arcades, so there was a finite time, not to mention pocket money to do it and get the hell out of Dodge. But I never got into more than that, from there to anything such as NIntendo onwards right up to Call Of Duty or other high-res material of today. It was absorbing, and addictive at the time, but I grew out of it all by the time I got to 12. In any case, the precise mechanical ping and thwack of those elastic bands was always more fun than the artificiality of plastic, electronic guns pointing at screens, analogue was always better than digital. Both of course are very different from the horrible reality game of metal bullets, with their penetrating hard edges, twisting into flesh and blood, shattering bone and sinew. But more of that later.
There's no smoke without fire, and the topic of shooting, particularly with guns, but also other projectile-throwing weaponry - bows and arrows, or cannons, as well as early muskets to modern semi-automatics, is always going to be a potent one. So this week, we're going to shoot the breeze by exploring how guns and other such weapons are mentioned in song. It's a powerful topic, one that comes with great stories – of tragedy, revenge, black humour, anger, melancholy, mistakes and heartaches.
And the music itself may also mimic shooting in sound, particularly with drumming, certain guitar styles and effects, and of course electronic noises mimic the sound of gunfire. When I lost interest in making wooden guns, I gathered new interests the saxophone and then of course, what is more of a gun replacement than the guitar? On the telly I distinctly remember seeing a certain, at the time much younger Dr Feelgood player doing this. Here's Wilko in action:
Bang bang! You're dead! This is what a lot of kids shout when playing with toys. But does gun violence come from childhood culture and video games and the desensitisation it brings? I don't think so. Shooting at screens or with elastic bands is nothing like the real thing. But I think there are better ways of learning colours than this:
And of course in some war-torn countries, such as in South Sudan, many children are never allowed to even be children:
But what would a psychologist make of the human fascination with guns? And what of guns in America, especially? Guns are certainly something to do with a frontier culture. But can a gun also be a phallic symbol?
"A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity" is a misattributed quote by Sigmund Freud. It's a bad paraphrase of a statement from the essay Guns, Murders, and the Constitution. But certainly Freud interpreted much of human behaviour in sexual terms–- seeing the gun as an extension of the penis, just as many tools. Men, and some women have always liked to carry a stick, a spear, then a gun. Now we are all armed with mobile phones to shoot at others on social media.
Lawrence Blum, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst from Philadelphia, does however point out a deeper truth guns: “Among many other things, Sigmund Freud is known for highlighting the comment that: ‘The first man to hurl an insult rather than a spear was the founder of civilisation.’ Anger that is put into words is less destructive than anger put into violent action. From this point of view, the widespread presence of guns undermines civilisation. Guns invite putting anger into action rather than conversation – they are a hindrance to impulse control and they shut down discussion."
There is a lot in this, but is it what has fuelled an increase in mass shootings in the US? Poorly expressed anger? Perhaps. During 2017-2018 there's been Las Vegas (59 deaths, 851 injuries), Sutherland Springs church (27d, 20i), and in 2018 no fewer than four major incidents so far, Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida (17d, 17i), Santa Fe high school in Texas (10d, 18i), in October Pittsburgh synagogue (11d, 7i) and only last week a bar in Thousand Oaks, California (13d, 25i). And Donald Trump still insists the answer is to arm the teachers in schools. It's ongoing madness and above all, corruption with the National Rifle Association and gun lobby backing many of the nation's political representatives. Here's one of those high school students making the point very powerfully:
And in the aftermath of the Columbine school massacre in 1999, in one extraordinary scene, Michael Moore's film challenged the formerly heroic Hollywood star turned NRA figurehead Charlton 'My Cold Dead Hand' Heston on the matter:
And from that same film, taking a more satirical slant, a brief history of gun culture in America, South Park style:
As Moore puts it: "The vast majority of the guns in the US are sold to white people who live in the suburbs or the country. When we fantasise about being mugged or home invaded, what's the image of the perpetrator in our heads? Is it the freckled-face kid from down the street - or is it someone who is, if not black, at least poor?”
So yes, the wild west still appears to be wild, as well as paranoid, not just about others with guns, but also far more about terrorism than the true killer, domestic gun violence. Here are some comparative figures:
From a British perspective, this seems insane. But I'd love to hear from American readers what they think about this. It seems people in America continue to love and cherish their guns like others may love their guitars. As well as this in film and TV guns remain glamorous, from westerns to gangster movies. Here’s a famous one: "Say hello to my little friend" says Scarface.
But Al Pacino in reality himself admits, that "I've never cared for guns. In fact, when I did 'Scent of a Woman' I had to learn how to assemble one."
But some famous people love their guns. Here's gun fan Hunter S. Thompson on it: "America... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
PWJ O'Rourke meanwhile reckons: "Guns are the ultimate bulwark against government misbehaviour."
William S. Burroughs also remarked: "After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it. I sure as hell wouldn't want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military."
And from a musical outsider point of view, here's Nick Cave: "Guns are part of the American psyche, aren't they? This is collateral damage for having a Wild West mentality. It's intrinsic to the American psyche. It's never going to change."
So is it guns or people? Both of course. Canada has plenty of guns, but gun killing (of people) is low. It's a different culture, clearly. Few people in Britain and most of Europe own guns at all, and even in troubled inner city areas, or in the relatively few mass shootings that have occurred, one gunshot is a major headline. Conversely Mexico, with a very high rate of violence, has only ONE gun shop. That's an incredible fact. So where are all those guns coming from?
But for all the political and cultural arguments, guns may be as much a mental health problem as something coming from frontier culture. Despite mass communications and having lots of online "friends", clearly many people are feeling more isolated and frustrated than ever before, while we are also in a online climate of being encouraged to shoot from the hip online all the time.
There's now heated debate in the Bar about this, so feel free to join in. "Nobody picked up guns in those days. You put on music, and it made you feel great," says Joey Ramone. But guns have killed many prominent musicians:
Here's Yoko Ono, her husband of course shot dead in 1980 in New York: "When I speak out against the guns or against the big corporations, some of my friends say, 'Oh Yoko, be careful. These people have all the power.' But, you know, most people don't speak out because they are frightened."
A culture of fear is indeed what puts guns in hands. Joseph Stalin, who mastered control by fear like no other in modern history, in fact said: "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?"
But it's time to turn those ideas, guns, bows and arrows, cannons or other shooting equipment over to you. And this week's shooting star, I'm delighted to say, is returning sensation and hotshot Suzi! Place your shooting-related songs in comments below for the last shot fired at 11pm UK time on Monday for playlists published on Wednesday.
Guns have been looked into in song before of course, but there’s so much to choose from. Here’s one that has come up in an old topic, so it’s my shot across the bow for a possible B-list:
But will your suggestions hit the target? I’m sure they will. Do you feel lucky, punks? Please give it your best shot.
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