Hotel Madison

What's the role of music in Madison today?

The first week of the new year, as freshly elected governors around the country were being sworn in, The Wall Street Journal ran on its front page side-by-side pictures of Jerry Brown—one of him taking the oath of office, and one from his first term in 1976. In the second he is standing with his then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt and Eagles band member Glenn Frey. The headline above the pictures is one of the best I’ve ever read: “You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave.” The next day candidates for office in Wisconsin filed their nomination papers and Paul Soglin was officially—again—a candidate for mayor of Madison. Welcome to the Hotel California indeed.

While there are similarities aplenty in these two ’70s cultural and political icons returning to the public stage, that’s stuff for a different column, or magazine, or book, or reality TV series. Let’s just say the Madison mayoral election got more … interesting. But that’s not the train of thought I boarded when I saw the pictures. What caught my eye, and captured my imagination, was seeing Ronstadt and Frey in the photo and remembering how important music was to politics, and vice versa, back in the day. Of course there is political music today and some of it is very good and some of it is very powerful. But for several decades there, the ’50s through the ’70s, the two were pretty much inseparable. We worked through some pretty volatile issues of race, gender, generation, social justice and the environment in song.

But like I said earlier, what’s missing isn’t the music, it’s music’s place in our lives and, more specifically, our community. As we know (and keep telling ourselves) Madison has a lot going for it. Sadly a vibrant music scene isn’t part of the lot. And that’s where music and politics reunite for me, prompted by that picture in the newspaper and the spring elections coming up here. First of all, a tip of my hat to my friend, writer and former Isthmus editor Marc Eisen, who is passionate about this topic. Marc has written about, or at least talked to me about, his trips to Milwaukee to find good music and what that says about Madison. Here’s what it says to me: we are not going to achieve our goal—our necessary goal—of being a global city if we don’t attract and retain smart, creative people, especially young people. And we know those smart, creative people like certain things: good restaurants, for example, diversity, multi-modal transportation systems and music.

I’ll never not love seeing Lynette at the Brink. If Ben Sidran’s playing in town, I’m there. And Jazz at Five is as enjoyable an urban music experience as you’ll find anywhere. But I want a half-dozen clubs in a half-mile radius. I want lines to get in and upcoming national acts on tour stopping by. I want a Madison music SCENE, and then I want Madison music. I want ’90s Seattle. I know the industry is in flux, but Eau Claire has more trend-setting music than Madison and, yes, Justin Vernon likes living there but you get my drift.

So I’d like to hear some talk about this as part of the mayoral race. Music, like all the arts, is about economic development. It’s about creating an environment that welcomes new ideas, stimulates new ways of seeing our world and gets our creative juices flowing. Music is good for the soul, but it’s also good for places looking to establish an identity, a brand if you will. Ben Sidran says music will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no music. It’ll also put you on the map, and right now that’s where we need to be.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at

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