To paraphrase the radical pamphleteer and world citizen, Tom Paine, we are living in times that try people’s souls. Under the disastrous administration of George W. Bush and a corrupt conservative Congress, we find ourselves in the midst of an unwarranted and devastating war in Iraq, regressive economic policies, a backsliding of civil liberties, and increasing environmental dangers like global warming. In Paine’s tradition, Tom Pacheco has been addressing our era’s most pressing issues with common sense and uncommon vision, steadily building a body of work that has made him one of the most urgent and compelling songwriters in America. Tom’s songs are filled with brilliant poetic phrasings, inventive imagery, humane progressive politics, unpredictable wit and humor, science fiction twists, and a deep well of historical knowledge. Emily Dickinson famously said that she knew a good poem when it made her feel that the top of her head was coming off–Tom’s work is packed with generous helpings of the kinds of surprise or “ah” moments that Dickinson was talking about.
Tom’s new CD began with “Memorial Day,” written and recorded to send to Cindy Sheehan and other peace activists camped near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. In “13 Stones,” Tom takes on a wide range of issues, from the war in Iraq to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, from the anti-science agenda of the Christian Right to misplaced priorities in our popular culture. Like the great political songwriter, Phil Ochs (who Tom knew from the 1970’s NYC music scene), Tom turns his social ideas and observations into memorable poetry. In “Nightmare,” a wounded Iraqi vet grows frustrated with televised discussions of the war until “the hook that was my right hand / goes through the TV set.” In “Ain’t New Orleans Anymore,” Tom sings plaintively in the voice of a flood victim, “All I want is food and water / And some mercy and some grace.” In “The Reckoning,” a haunting song that manages to keep its sense of humor, the impending bird flu is described as possible revenge “for every hungry crow an angry farmer ever shot / for every roasted Chinese duck adorned with orange sauce.” In difficult times, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, to wake up each morning for work (or to vote) and wonder “For What?” Tom’s song of that title beautifully conveys the human frailty and political disempowerment we all experience on occasion, as well as the subsequent feeling of “strength returning / like sunrise in a busted sky” that can come when individuals or activist groups have the courage, intelligence, and determination to persist.
One of the most powerful songs on “13 Stones” is a personal one written for Tom’s brother, Paul, who is battling cancer. In “Hang On, Little Brother,” Tom urges his younger brother to hold on to life: “I can almost feel your spirit / slipping from its skin / I’m telling you as your older brother / to draw that soul back in.” In this new CD, Tom Pacheco gives all of us another important work to strengthen our souls for the personal and political struggles ahead.
Eliot Katz, 2005