What If GOP Stood for Great Onstage Performance?

Apr 26, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Was I having a dream, or was that really John McCain in concert
last night at the Roxy?

I realize pop music and politics have been edging closer together
for many years. But who could have imagined that the senior senator from
Arizona, determined to expand his base of support, would be the first
presidential candidate to bring about the ultimate fusion of both worlds?

Give the man credit for doing his homework; from the moment McCain
hit the stage on this opening salvo of his self-proclaimed "Straight Talk,
More Rock" tour he kept the audience riveted on every detail of his newly
energized agenda.

A wave of incredulity swept over the crowd as people realized they
were witnessing a combination of music and campaign history. McCain stunned
everybody (including his own staff, we learned afterward) by strapping on a
white Fender Telecaster and ripping into a tear-down-the-walls version of
Golden Earring's "Radar Love."

"It's the kind of risk I didn't think John was willing to take,"
said columnist Robert Novak, who reportedly advised McCain against the tour
after watching some dismal rehearsal sessions. Similar thoughts were echoed
by NPR's Nina Totenberg. "When I realized he was going to play lead guitar,
I almost had a coronary," she quipped. "His phrasing and tonal control are
virtually non-existent, but he compensated by just cranking up the volume
and it seemed to work out pretty well."

In truth, McCain's performance was a triumph of style over skill.
His fingering technique ranged from hunt-and-peck to search-and-destroy as
he snapped out a series of iconic tunes including The Who's "Won't Get
Fooled Again" and Queen's classic "We Are The Champions." At times entire
notes were simply bypassed as the senator squeezed, stroked, and slammed his
way through long sets that often verged on melodic anarchy.

Johnny Mac used the closing segment to silence critics who say he
lacks imagination and intellectual nuance. With some daring two-handed fret
work he hammered out a credible rendition of the late '60s underground
favorite, "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by Iggy and The Stooges, which he
highlighted with a few ferocious moves on the wham bar.

Then, in a bold gesture of conciliation toward conservatives,
McCain was joined onstage by the writhing, undulating presence of onetime
Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan (clad in red vinyl go-go boots and spandex
leotard) for a simmering duet of Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown"
and then a shake-it-out finale of "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," a powerhouse
tribute to Bachman Turner Overdrive.

"We did what we had to do," a jubilant McCain said backstage, his
arms draped around bassist Mike Huckabee and rhythm guitarist Ron Paul (who
maintained his reputation as an unpredictable maverick by inexplicably
changing keys in mid-song several times without informing the other band
members, leading CNN's Anderson Cooper to quip, "He's definitely no
successor to Les Paul.")

"We can hit 50 or 60 cities before election day," McCain said
confidently. "Tonight we just opened for business. Now it's time to close the deal."

Some beltway insiders are wondering if the Democratic opposition
will respond to McCain's surprising gambit by organizing a rival tour. "Not
a chance!" the candidate exclaimed when asked about the possibility.
"Hillary, Barack, Howard Dean, all that crowd, their idea of hip is sitting on the
living room floor in a circle listening to bootleg tapes of Ian and Sylvia.
Who needs a four year gig with someone like that? If the voters really want
to hear sounds of change, I'm the one making that music now. This bus is
bound for glory!"

I think it was probably a long, strange dream. I just wish my ears
would stop ringing.