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Ayn Rand

04:32
Bill Sunkel
Bill Sunkel

Story

DECODING “AYN RAND”

This song is not so much about controversial author Ayn Rand as it is about the people who hate her, many of whom have never read her work – a phenomenon which, as I say in the song, I don’t understand.

For me, the concept of a song about a figure like Rand has its genesis in Paul Simon’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (on whom, coincidentally, Rand partially modeled the character of architect Howard Roark in her novel The Fountainhead).  In early 2013, I read that book and Atlas Shrugged out of sheer curiosity, as Rand’s ideas were being co-opted (albeit selectively) by various political groups and, frankly, I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about.  I confess that I found myself drawn to the concepts articulated by Rand, in particular ethical egoism, a social construct in which each individual acting in accordance with his own self-interest theoretically results in the highest and best use of resources, and the most productive society.  (I believe that those who reduce this concept to mere “selfishness” miss the point.  Indeed, based on her work, it appears to me that Rand viewed philanthropy and generosity as being in one’s self-interest, so long as it is not compulsory.)  I also identified with certain Rand characters, and was fascinated by her prescience, in particular the uncanny relevance of her stories (written some 60 to 70 years ago) to recent history.  However, I also found Rand’s writings to be flawed, ridiculously verbose, redundant, self-indulgent and ultimately unsatisfying, as either literature or fully-baked philosophy.  So, I don’t see this song as the fawning “love letter” to Rand some have accused me of penning, but rather as a gentle defense against those who harbor rabid and irrational antipathy towards her and her work.

Nor should the song be misinterpreted as my “pissing in the soup,” as others have so elegantly opined.  I was not trying to tick anybody off by writing this song, although I appear to have done just that.  (Indeed, Local 802½, the sub-chapter of the musicians union dedicated to the elimination of all things Rand, boycotted my sessions, requiring me to dust off my trusty Epiphone Broadway and perform this track as a solo.  I’m kidding – sort of – not really.)  I do rankle, however, at the idea that songwriters should be confined in their messaging to that which is currently “politically correct,” or muzzled where their words might alienate some portion of a super-sensitive (and let’s face it, in my case highly theoretical) audience.  Judge this song on its merits, for sure; but please don’t condemn it just because it doesn’t comport with your personal beliefs, strongly held though they may be (especially if you haven’t read Rand, but only read about her). 

As for the lyric itself, like many of my songs, it is not intended to be taken entirely seriously.  By the opening lines, for example – “Ayn Rand, come take my hand/Come lead me to the Promised Land” – I mean to suggest neither that I view Rand as some Messianic leader, nor that I consider myself her disciple.  I suppose the “Promised Land” could be the myopically utopian “Galt’s Gulch” described in Atlas Shrugged, where the best and brightest reside and trade their high-end services to one another (kind of like the Village of Scarsdale), but for me that was where that book started to flag.  The true message is actually more accurately reflected in the lines that follow:  “Ayn Rand, let’s talk a while/I like your prose, I like your style/Sometimes you leave me cold/But I’ll keep running back to you.”  Indeed, I would have liked to meet Rand, to have a drink with her and to discuss her work, as well as to challenge a number of her hypotheses.

The first verse begins with a reference to quintessential Rand villain Ellsworth Toohey, the columnist who wields great influence over popular opinion (in particular, concerning architecture) in The Fountainhead.  Like Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, Toohey himself appreciates genius, but is so filled with contempt for his fellow man that he believes society is not worthy of it.  And so he seeks to snuff out true creativity whenever possible, using his influence to celebrate the mundane and to quash anything likely to challenge the status quo.  By naming Rand’s critics the “Tooheys of today,” the entirety of that complex character is collapsed into a single phrase:  “The Tooheys of today all hate you/Distort you and excoriate you.”  It is the next lines, however, that pose the real question, i.e., why would anyone trust what critics say about Rand’s books when they could just read the books themselves?  “They” – the Tooheys – “write their lies about your words/Which always seems a bit absurd/For those who’d truly know the score/Would surely go straight to the source.”  The next line is perhaps the most polarizing, as it places blame not on the shoulders of the pundits, but on those who blindly follow them:  “You’d say they’re lazy and it’s true.”  By playing on the slang meaning of the phrase “to get the best of,” the final line of that verse (also repeated at the end of the song), “They’ll never get the best of you,” combines my declaration that those who refuse to experience Rand’s work firsthand cannot effectively argue against her, with my lamentation that they also will never discover whatever goodness Rand may have to offer.

The next verse lauds Rand’s prescience, likening her to “a gypsy who time travels.”  My “amaze[ment]” at her ability to “predict” “the headlines on my TV screen” “in 1956” (the year in which Atlas Shrugged was first published, as well as the year of my birth) is tempered by some mild criticism of her writing (“The labored tales you spin unravel”).  Nonetheless, that verse culminates in the conclusion that, notwithstanding the flaws, Rand’s broader concepts continue to hold water:  “They call it flawed philosophy/Doesn’t seem all that flawed to me.”

In the bridge, I confess my affinity for Rand’s heroes, in particular the independent, self-made industrialist Hank Rearden and the uncompromising creative genius Howard Roark (“I can see myself as Rearden/Or an architect like Roark”), as well as my infatuation with their respective leading ladies (“With a Dagny Taggart in my bed/Or a Dominique to court”), who let me tell you were some formidable (and, at least in my fertile imagination, long-legged and breathtakingly sexy) dames.  The bridge closes with a reiteration of my wish to have engaged Ms. Rand in some heavy tête-à-tête, along with my gentlemanly concession that I never could have bested her in our inevitable debate:  “And I would have liked to meet you/Though I know you’d make me cross/And I’m certain we’d have argued/And I’m sure I would have lost.”  Frankly, I’ve always been attracted to women who could clean my clock (or at least go toe-to-toe with me) in conversation.  So, maybe this is just a crazy little love song after all.

Parenthetically, I have come to believe that this song is unlikely to find an audience, not because it’s unworthy, but because it’s not extreme enough for either Rand’s fans or her detractors, i.e., it neither lionizes nor demonizes Rand.  At the urging of well-meaning friends, I briefly considered substituting a different set of lyrics about some random couple on the run, even drafted a set and went so far as to record them (for release on the inevitable “Rarities” collection).  But, in the end, that song was far less interesting, so I ditched the “inoffensive” version, declaring (to no one) that I would rather be hated for doing something I like, than liked for doing something I hate.  In the iconic words of David Crosby, who would likely be mortified to be mentioned on the same page as Ayn Rand, “I feel like I owe it to someone.”

Lastly, for the churlish few who would pick at nits:  Yes, yes, I know it’s pronounced “Eye-n” and not “Ann.”  But the former elicits a singularly unappealing nasal tonality when sung (at least by me), and so I am invoking my artistic license on this one.  Really, that should be my biggest problem with this song.

Lyrics

AYN RAND
 
Ayn Rand, come take my hand
Come lead me to the Promised Land
So many men won’t understand
No matter what you do
Ayn Rand, let’s talk a while
I like your prose, I like your style
Sometimes you leave me cold
But I’ll keep running back to you
Running back to you
 
The Tooheys of today all hate you
Distort you and excoriate you
They write their lies about your words
Which always seems a bit absurd
For those who’d truly know the score
Would surely go straight to the source
You’d say they’re lazy and it’s true
They’ll never get the best of you
 
Ayn Rand, come take my hand
Come lead me to the Promised Land
So many men won’t understand
No matter what you do
Ayn Rand, let’s talk a while
I like your prose, I like your style
Sometimes you leave me cold
But I’ll keep running back to you
Running back to you
 
And like a gypsy who time travels
The labored tales you spin unravel
Still, I’m amazed that you’d predict
All this in 1956
Almost as if your eyes had seen
The headlines on my TV screen
They call it flawed philosophy
Doesn’t seem all that flawed to me
 
And I can see myself as Rearden
Or an architect like Roark
With a Dagny Taggart in my bed
Or a Dominique to court
And I would have liked to meet you
Though I know you’d make me cross
And I’m certain we’d have argued
And I’m sure I would have lost
 
Ayn Rand, come take my hand
Come lead me to the Promised Land
So many men won’t understand
No matter what you do
Ayn Rand, let’s talk a while
I like your prose, I like your style
Sometimes you leave me cold
But I’ll keep running back to you
They'll never get the best of you