America, the band, embodied the hopes dreams of a nation desperate to emerge from the desert and finally give their horse a name. In an edited extract from the authorised biography, celebrating the band's 50th anniversary, journalist Jude Warne goes into the desert of America, the nation. A story of the times, for our times.
A Horse With No Name
For the past several months, Dewey Bunnell had been working on a mercurial and distinctive tune that he called "Desert Song". Its lyrics told the story of a man who wanted to drop out of society and retreat into nature, where he could detach himself from his material possessions and realise his inherent identity. Now, there was no reason for Warner Brothers to worry that the single could sound "too British," as "I Need You" had. Its narrative tasted strongly of the great American West, of anonymity and solitude. The song, which would eventually become the band's smash hit "A Horse with No Name," spoke on behalf of the youth of the world, many of whom were disgusted and disappointed with society. They wished to follow that man, to live out the idealised dream that thrived on a fundamental principle much like the one that the United States' founders had established their nation upon: the birthright of human freedom. It was through this freedom that individuals could reach new heights, allowing for the betterment of society and its future generations. This generation knew that peace was not just a passing trend or a substance-induced invention of hippies. Lasting peace was real. It was possible.
"A Horse with No Name" encapsulated this hope in its hypnotic and repetitive, guitar-laden, musical tones.
The song's story and mood perfectly articulated the 1960s and 70s counterculture dissatisfaction with government and mainstream society and the concurrent inclination to retreat — to tune in, turn on and drop out. Communes were in vogue, with their organised living off the land. Dennis Hopper's 1969 immense hit film, Easy Rider, had been on the same wavelength as "Horse". Its central theme involved the individual's quest for freedom amid a universe of societal restrictions — a fitting tale for the end of the 1960s. And so was "Horse". "The story told by the river that flowed" was reminiscent of the river in the final scene of Easy Rider: God's road, the river and man's road, the highway. This was how nearly every young person felt once the 60s had ended. "It felt good to be out of the rain" — good to be away from the turmoil of the 60s, and into what would partly become the "Take It Easy" feel-good 70s.
The last verse of "A Horse with No Name" is the narrative climax, presenting its rawest truth: "Under the cities lies a heart made of ground, but the humans will give no love." Man-made cities, built right over and in ignorance of sacred and natural soil beneath. Impurity on top of purity: bulldozed-over, plentiful, earthbound elements meant to sustain human generations. People had lived off of the land for years and it had been enough. The land had loved them for years but now the humans had turned their backs on Mother Nature; they had placed their trust in chrome, metallic cities instead. Some humans, like Bunnell's narrator in "Horse", sought to "get back to the garden," to return to an awareness of their source. Nature seemed the quickest route home. Here, it is the desert, on a natural animal that has not been tarnished by human language. The horse has not been given a name but its value and worth have not lessened because of it: an achievement that post-hippie, early-70s youth, discouraged and frightened by the era-ending Manson murders of 69 but not destroyed by them, still sought for themselves.
These youths had been waiting for a re-articulation of their generation's ethos but one that sidestepped specific political and societal issues that seemed impossible to resolve. They had been waiting for a version that was simpler, more human, more difficult to argue with. They had been waiting for "A Horse with No Name".
Some of the song's lyrics seem awkwardly worded and almost grammatically incorrect. Some of them seem redundant, with words serving as placeholders only. "There were plants and birds and rocks and things ... the heat was hot ... 'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain." Yet none of these intellectually cringeworthy moments detracts from the song's power. Bunnell's narrator is an expert storyteller; he reveals each piece of his message bit by bit. The earnest message of an entire generation was the primacy of nature over machinery, community over isolation and love over hate. Bunnell's laid-back Gary Cooper–esque cowboy quality matched perfectly with his song's lead vocals. His beautifully dark eyes suggested that they saw nothing but simple and pure nature as it was — not in a judgmental or critical way, but in an enlightened and tuned-in one. His primal view communicated an inherent distrust of organised society, a distrust that ran rampant in the ideology of American youth of the time.
Fittingly, in Bunnell's song, such unwinding from societal ties can take time. Days, one after the other, must pass in order to shed the talismans, the chains of city life and the connections to organisations, corporations, institutions. But the song itself is in no rush; "A Horse with No Name" has time. Its tempo is confident, steady, knowing. This is reminiscent of the Beach Boys' "Do It Again" (1968), a song that maintains a steady, almost slow pace, that nearly disarms the listener by refusing to speed up at any point. It knows itself, it is relaxed, it feels good in its own skin. The musical progression is hypnotic, cyclical, and formally unique, suggesting the ongoing and unrelenting power of the desert. In many ways, "A Horse with No Name" is about the search for relief. Relief from torment, baggage, oppression, and chains of all kinds.
Excerpt from America, The Band: An Authorized Biography by Jude Warne (Rowman & Littlefield, US$24.95). Used by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.