Any coffeehouse pontificator will tell you that the personal is political.
But Midnight Oil, a rock band consumed with politics, seems to be struggling to find a voice that is more intimate, more personal.
The Australian band has devoted most of its 15-year recording career to songs inspired by the social and political currents around it.
The Oils, as their home-country fans affectionately dubbed them, have sung with dread and anger about nuclear threats and environmental dangers that shadow the world at large, and about the march of industrialized, politically connected greed across the landscape of its own country.
It has sung against racism while taking the part of Australia's aboriginal peoples, whose disastrous historical encounters with European colonists parallel those of American Indians.
That may sound like an agenda for a left-leaning editorial page rather than a rock 'n' roll concert stage. But Midnight Oil has been able to marshal impressive resources that make it a bracing rock band rather than a very loud debating society.
The stunning, singular front man, Peter Garrett, is a towering, shaven-headed figure who St. Vitus-dances his way through concerts. Behind him, guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, drummer Rob Hirst and bassist Bones Hillman play and harmonize with a musical acumen that calls to mind the Who in its merger of pure power with pure pop.
The result is politicized rock that emphasizes the emotions behind the issues andseeks ultimately to energize and uplift a listener rather than merely to point an accusing finger at perceived wrongdoers.
As Hirst put it in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in San Francisco, "No one would be in any way interested in what we were saying politically unless there were some killer melodies and good rhythms where you could move your feet."
What has been missing, though, are songs in which hopes and heartaches are played out in a more intimate arena, where the issues aren't so much about social equity and species survival, as the thorny business of living, one human being to another, with the transaction of sorrows and joys and frustrations that entails.
Most of rock's front-rank songwriters--Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, John Lennon and Robbie Robertson, to name a few--have been at home with the personal as well as the political. For them, the problems between two people do amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Hirst is well aware that Midnight Oil, which headlines tonight at Irvine Meadows, hasn't attained that balance over the course of its 11 albums and EPs.
"Some people write great love songs. It's not something we've been able to do convincingly because of the preoccupations of the main writers," said the drummer, who, with Moginie and Garrett, is part of Midnight Oil's core songwriting troika.
"I feel there should be a place in our repertoire" for love songs, Hirst added. "There have been a couple that approximate love songs. 'Shakers and Movers' on the 'Blue Sky Mining' record was a fairly personal song." That song's refrain went, "I can shake, I can move, but I can't live without your love." But it also contained verses about rapacious real-estate developers.
"There have been a few," Hirst said, "but most people wouldn't (recognize) it."
One of those personal/romantic songs that escapes easy recognition is Midnight Oil's latest single, "Outbreak of Love."
Hirst, who wrote it, said that he wanted the stately, yearning song to portray what happens when people fall suddenly out of love. He meant to write about "day-to-day personal relationships, where everything is rosy, then suddenly it's abolished."
But the song's broad imagery, full of falling stars, hungry sharks, walls closing in and a world crashing down, could easily lead a listener to assume that "Outbreak of Love" is one more vision of dangerous forces at large on the earth, with a fragile human race hanging in the balance.
In writing it, Hirst said, he had to decide whether to be direct with his lyrics, or to "turn it around" and allow for the more global slant that is Midnight Oil's specialty.
Hirst said that the band doesn't have any rules against outright love songs: "As long as you've got a killer hook, you could get almost anything through," he said with a laugh.
But in 1991, when Midnight Oil was taking a break from touring and recording, he got together some friends from the Australian bands Do Re Mi and Hoodoo Gurus and recorded "Ghostwriters," a side project of "more personal" songs he had written that had not found a place on Midnight Oil's albums. The album is available in Australia, Japan and Scandinavia, Hirst said, but there are no immediate plans for a U.S. release.