Rex Fowler calls John Lennon “a genius.” “Imagine,” for example, is “one of the simplest, most straightforward protest songs ever.”
But not all Lennon’s social commentary songs measures up. “Power to the People,” for example, is “one of the worst.”
Fowler should know. Since founding the folk-rock band Aztec Two-Step nearly 40 years ago, he’s written his share of political tunes. “Living in America” and “Naked” are 2 examples.
It’s not easy, though. Fowler — a Westport resident — notes, “there’s a temptation to preach, or use platitudes.”
Fowler and his wife Dodie Pettit — now part of Aztec Two-Step — avoided those pitfalls with their latest release.
“Breathe” was born out of this summer’s peaceful, passionate protests after the murder of George Floyd, and other unarmed Black men and women.
“I was proud of so many people — young and old, every color and creed — getting out and doing something. It really gave me hope,” Fowler says.
But he knew better than to try to force a song. A good creation must be “visceral, soulful,” he says. “Once it starts, it rolls out. But I can’t manufacture it.”
For a couple of weeks, Fowler fiddled with a guitar melody. He particularly liked Neil Young’s “Down by the River.” Pettit thought her partner was on to something.
“It’s such an iconic song,” Fowler explains. “‘Be on my side, I’ll be on your side … You take my hand, I’ll take your hand…'”
Fowler and Pettit included 2 of Young’s verses, then added their own.
They also drew on Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke’s soaring anthem “A Change is Gonna Come,” rapper Killer Mike’s rallying cry to vote, and a few notable slogans chanted by the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors.
The result was “Breathe.”
Aztec Two-Step could not use Neil Young’s lyrics without permission. They tried hard to get it. They hired a lawyer, and sent letters to his publicist and manager. They received a cease-and-desist order. Fowler and Pettit are sure the singer/songwriter never knew what they were asking.
“He rightfully doesn’t want people taking his music, and changing it,” Fowler says. “But I think if he heard ‘Breathe,’ he’d really enjoy it.”
In fact, Fowler adds, in January Young — a Canadian by birth — became an American citizen. He did it in part to be able to vote against President Trump.
Undaunted, Fowler and Pettit removed the “Down by the River” verses. They changed Young’s melodic ideas.
But the beginning — Pettit’s gritty lead guitar solo — sounds like a tribute to Young’s style. “He really resonates with us,” Pettit says.
The song was recorded here in Westport, in Aztec Two-Step’s home studio. Band members came in one at a time — because of COVID-19 — to overdub their parts.
At first, Fowler wanted to send “Breathe” out to disc jockeys and program managers complete with the back story. Instead, he and Pettit decided to let listeners hear it with “clear ears,” and figure the meaning out themselves.
All proceeds will go to Black Lives Matter. That’s controversial, the couple acknowledges. There’s been pushback on social media from some people they thought were friends.
Still, Pettit says, “this is a moral cause we’re proud to lend our support to. We’re setting down our marker. We’re standing up and bein counted. We have a voice, and people listen.”