"This song was about the decline of the American spirit," says John Ondrasik, leading his band Five for Fighting onstage at the El Rey Theatre recently. "But that doesn't seem appropriate anymore, so I wrote new lyrics for the end."
Indeed, "The Last Great American," as heard on Five for Fighting's "American Town" album from 2000, is an Ayn Rand-like allegory of an earnest man who, unable to fight a national tide of moral and cultural decay, finds the only way to stay true to his values is to bury himself alive.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 5, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Album title--A story in Sunday Calendar on Five for Fighting listed the band's album incorrectly. It is "America Town."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Album title--A story in the Dec. 2 Sunday Calendar on Five for Fighting listed the band's album incorrectly. It is 'America Town.'
But in the new version, rewritten following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, just as the hero is about to pull the lid down on his coffin, a calamitous turn changes the course of action:
\o7 The funeral pyre was \f7 s\o7 hattered
And the world became undone ...
[And] through the smoke and morning sun
Stands the Last Great American\f7 .
Arguably, many of the songs on the album--reflecting Ondrasik's often discouraging struggle to build a music career and stay true to his values through most of his adult life--would be candidates for rewriting now. The title song, for example, is about what he saw as stifling complacency in the nation. "Love Song" is a sad tale of divorce. And "Superman (It's Not Easy)" casts the Man of Steel as rejecting his role of hero.
Ironically, "Superman" has struck a chord in the revival of the American spirit post-Sept. 11. That cultural wave is sweeping Ondrasik to his first real success at age 33.
Radio airplay for the song picked up dramatically in the weeks after the attacks, and Ondrasik found himself onstage at the Oct. 20 "Concert for New York City" at Madison Square Garden--a situation he couldn't have conjured even when as a teen he dreamed of being like Billy Joel, with 20,000 people singing along to his songs.
"I walked out to the piano and people were holding pictures [of deceased loved ones]," he says, sitting in his tour bus before the El Rey show, a cable news channel tuned in on a TV overhead. "Backstage, big burly men, union guys, were crying. Moms were walking around with kids who now have no dads meeting the Backstreet Boys."
With his Slovak heritage and down-to-earth demeanor making him resemble a leaner version of actor John C. Reilly, Ondrasik could easily have been mistaken for one of the firefighters at the event rather than an artist in the company of his own heroes such as Joel, Elton John, John Mellencamp, the Who and Paul McCartney.
"I was holding my arm around Pete Townshend for 'Let It Be,"' he says in amazement.
With the boost from that exposure, "Superman" is a bona fide hit, and the album, a full 14 months after its release, has sold more than 360,000 copies, with more than two-thirds of that coming since the beginning of September. Ondrasik readily acknowledges that the recent sales boost comes in large measure from a mistaken impression of his song. It's a situation akin to Bruce Springsteen's biting "Born in the U.S.A." being taken by some as a jingoistic celebration of flag and country.
Unlike Springsteen, though, Ondrasik is willing to let the misinterpretations stand.
"We've seen everyday people we run into at the supermarket doing superhuman feats," he says. "That doesn't really fit the lyrics. But that's not important." What is important, he says, is that people are looking to songs for inspiration.
"It's very rewarding that 'Superman' has been able to comfort people and pay tribute to people," he says. "But lost in all this is that 'Superman' had comforting qualities before Sept. 11. Even now, 75% of the e-mails I get are not about [the tragedies], whether it's a 12-year-old girl who says, 'I'm the most unpopular girl at school' or a surgeon having a crisis of confidence after a bad day. No. 1 for an artist is to have an effect, whether the 'Concert for New York' and e-mails from policemen or just people across the country. The other stuff is small."
The small stuff, he says, includes the tragic fluke of timing that has made him an "overnight success" after years of struggle, and the real possibility that "Superman's" association with Sept. 11 could overshadow everything else to come in his career.
On the first matter, the fact is that the success of "Superman" was building months before the attacks. With its Billy-Joel-meets-Dave-Matthews tone, it was becoming a favorite on adult alternative radio stations, and the video was being featured regularly on VH1, which designated it an "Inside Track" buzz clip.
"We really believed since the beginning of the year that it would eventually be a hit," says Will Botwin, Columbia Records' executive vice president and general manager. "We just knew it would take some time to happen."