March 10, 2008
ONE FOR FREEDOM
Meet a popular musician who says he supports the troops — and means it
JOHN J. MILLER
On the night of February 9, more than a thousand people gathered in tuxes and dresses at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to pay tribute to Medal of Honor recipients. Forty-three of the 107 living medalists were in attendance, along with assorted dignitaries. The program began when John Ondrasik, a one-man act who goes by the improbable stage name of “Five for Fighting,” sat before a piano and sang about war and patriotism. When he was done, Ondrasik briefly addressed the crowd. “That song, ‘Freedom Never Cries,’ hopefully demonstrates the theme for this evening, which is that freedom isn’t free. But I don’t need to tell you that.”
No, he didn’t. Not to that crowd of heroes and their admirers. But in recent years, Ondrasik has conveyed this message to a broader public that surely can benefit from hearing it. Whereas many celebrities attack the president and bash the war with a relentless and numbing predictability, Ondrasik, the author of hits such as “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and “100 Years,” stands apart as a popular artist who supports the troops and their cause through his music and actions. And he is without a doubt the only rock star ever to write a song inspired by a lunch with National Review contributor Victor Davis Hanson.
The 43-year-old Vladimir John Ondrasik III was a math major at UCLA who might have led a perfectly comfortable life helping his family run a small business that manufactures shopping carts in Southern California. From an early age, however, his passion was music. Even as an adult, he dreamed of turning it into a career. “I put on a suit by day and went into the studio at night,” he says. “For years, I got nowhere.”
He finally scored a record deal in 1996, but there were problems from the start. An executive told Ondrasik that the days of the singer-songwriter were over and ordered him to come up with a name that sounded like he was a full rock band. Ondrasik proposed “Marketing Ploy,” which apparently wasn’t met with a smile. So he suggested “Five for Fighting,” a reference to the five-minute penalty a hockey player receives for on-ice fisticuffs. It might have been a better fit for head-bangers or punk rockers than for a guy who specializes in soulful vocals and piano-driven ballads, but Ondrasik is a sports nut, and it stuck. Unfortunately, his label didn’t — it shuttered in 1997, just as Five for Fighting’s debut album was coming out. “I think it sold about 500 copies,” he says.
So Ondrasik started over. The experience was agonizing, but he kept writing songs. Ondrasik says he can spend more than a year on a single tune, refining the lyrics and melody until he thinks they’re just right. At one point during this period, however, he composed an entire song in about 45 minutes. “It pretty much wrote itself,” he says. “I got lucky.” The lyrics expressed the vulnerability and frustration he was feeling at the time: “It may sound absurd / But don’t be naïve / Even heroes have the right to bleed.” He called it “Superman,” and he wasn’t sure whether he liked it.
Meanwhile, Ondrasik secured a new record deal — certainly not based on the commercial strength of Five for Fighting’s debut, but because a label thought he showed promise and was willing to take a chance. When choosing from among several dozen songs he had written for what would become his second album, America Town, he couldn’t make up his mind about whether to include “Superman.” At the last moment, he decided to use it.
This was perhaps the best professional choice he ever made. America Town came out in 2000 and produced a minor hit with a song called “Easy Tonight.” The next year saw the release of “Superman” as a single. It turned into a hit as well — not a huge one, but big enough. Then came 9/11.
‘SUPERMAN’ TAKES FLIGHT
“I was in London when it happened,” says Ondrasik. “All I could do was sit in front of a television in a hotel and watch in horror.” Before long, news channels started running montages of rescue workers amid the rubble of the World Trade Center — and they often used “Superman” as the soundtrack. The song went from small success to near-iconic status.
Ondrasik performs in New York.Kristin Callahan/Ace Pictures
Back in the States, Ondrasik was on tour when he received a letter from Earl Holland, a New York City paramedic, who described how much “Superman” meant to him. He asked Ondrasik to dedicate it to those who had died at Ground Zero. Ondrasik obliged and read the letter during a concert in Chicago. The cable channel VH-1 heard about it and invited Ondrasik to perform at the Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden, alongside some of the biggest names in popular music. “Every one of my living inspirations was on stage — Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Billy Joel,” he says. “I still can’t believe I was there.” During the show, held on October 20, Holland introduced Ondrasik, who performed “Superman” to thunderous applause.
By now, Ondrasik was a full-time musician on the periphery of stardom. His third album, The Battle for Everything, came out in 2004 and yielded another smash hit: “100 Years.” A couple of its cuts, such as “NYC Weather Report” and “Infidel,” were more topical — a trend that would continue two years later when his next album, Two Lights, came out.
The title track of Two Lights was born at a lunch with Victor Davis Hanson. “I had enjoyed a lot of his writing on military history and the War on Terror. A mutual friend asked if I wanted to meet him and I said sure,” says Ondrasik. They got together at a coffee shop in Palo Alto, Calif., and Hanson invited Ondrasik to join him for lunch with a former student who was about to deploy to Iraq with the Marines, as well as the young man’s father, a Vietnam veteran.
At lunch, Ondrasik talked to the dad. “I asked him how he was doing,” says Ondrasik. “He sat back, closed his eyes, and said, ‘It’s really hard on his mom.’ It was obviously hard on him, too. I saw the natural fear of a parent as well as pride in a son who is carrying on a tradition.” Afterward, Ondrasik wrote the song “Two Lights,” about a father who hears that a member of his son’s unit has been killed. The man decides to go for a nighttime drive and asks his wife to leave on two lights if she hears their son is alive. When he returns home just before sunup, he looks at his house, hoping for two lights, and says “my eyes burn.” The meaning is ambiguous. “I had to leave it open-ended, because sometimes the news is good and sometimes it’s bad,” says Ondrasik. “The song symbolizes the no man’s land that these families live in every day.”
Ondrasik says he has gained a special sympathy for military families through his work with the USO. He has visited injured soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and he has performed for troops at military bases in California, Guam, and Japan — and even at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. When he tours in the United States, he tries to make free tickets available to soldiers posted at nearby bases. “I don’t like it when artists let politics creep into their performances and I try not to make speeches,” he says. “But in my shows, I always tell the story of ‘Two Lights.’”
So far, Two Lights has produced at least a pair of certified hits, “The Riddle” and “World.” A third song didn’t make the charts but is starting to show staying power: “Freedom Never Cries.” It’s the song Ondrasik recently played for the Medal of Honor recipients. “I wrote it because I was tired of people raising their eyebrows whenever they heard the word ‘freedom,’ as if they don’t appreciate what we have in this country and what allows us to have it.” At the heart of the song is a line that embodies the idea that freedom isn’t free: “I never loved the soldier until there was a war.” The second stanza ties it all to the threat of Islamofascism:
I saw a man on the TV
In a mask with a gun
A man on the TV
He had a 10-year-old son
I saw a man on the TV
His son had a gun
He says that he’s coming for me.
And in case anybody still doesn’t grasp the point, there’s the just-released video, which features images of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Gen. David Petraeus, and purple-fingered Iraqi voters.
Last year, at Grammys on the Hill, a lobbying event for the recording industry, Ondrasik elected to sing “Freedom Never Cries.” “Everyone was expecting me to play ‘Superman’ and ‘100 Years,’ but on my way up to the piano I decided that if there was ever a time to play ‘Freedom Never Cries,’ and if there was ever an audience that ought to hear it, this was it.” As he left the stage, Republican congresswoman Mary Bono Mack of California rushed to him and held up her iPod. By coincidence, she had been listening to the song earlier in the day, while working out in the House gym. “I didn’t even know that he was going to be there that evening,” she says. “I knew a few of his other songs and was listening to this one, trying to figure out if he’s a conservative or a liberal — you know, one of us or one of them.”
A TONIC FOR THE TROOPS
As it happens, Ondrasik calls himself a “moderate Republican.” He has supported John McCain for president through thick and thin, even during the period last year when it looked like McCain’s campaign was on the brink of collapse. On February 5, he attended McCain’s Super Tuesday victory party in Phoenix. “I’d never been to something like that before,” he says. Rather than hopping on anybody’s bandwagon, however, he has tried to support the troops by taking advantage of his new political connections with the likes of Rep. Bono Mack and Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, who hosted Ondrasik at a GOP steering-committee meeting in December. The result is an unlikely musical collaboration between Washington and Hollywood, or at least those parts that are willing to honor military service.
In 2006, a non-profit group called Music for Troops asked Ondrasik to write the liner notes for a compilation of songs by unsigned artists that it was planning to distribute to the military. “That gave me the idea to do the same thing with popular artists and songs we know,” says Ondrasik. It sounded easy, but it turned out to be much harder than he had anticipated and occupied him for most of last year. “I thought we’d find a corporate sponsor, someone who would write us a big check,” he recalls. Instead, he approached about two dozen potential funders and struck out with each one. “After four or five months of this, I was getting frustrated.” Finally, Kraig Kitchin, an executive then with Premiere Radio Networks, convinced his company to pitch in $50,000. Ondrasik agreed to match it, and he began to envision an effort scaled back from his original plans.
But he didn’t give up entirely. Last summer, he sent out an e-mail to a few friends, asking them for assistance. The actor Gary Sinise, who got to know Ondrasik through Rep. Bono Mack and others, received the message. “We both support the troops and I wanted to help out,” says Sinise, who has visited Iraq three times and Afghanistan once through the USO. Sinise contacted David McIntyre, the CEO of TriWest, a company that provides health-care services to the military, and TriWest decided to donate $250,000. Later, Sony offered to press 200,000 copies of For the Troops.
Following this surge of support, Ondrasik still needed to recruit the talent. He had received a few verbal commitments from a handful of artists, but these needed to become formal contracts drawn up by lawyers. Not only did the musicians have to grant permission to give away their songs, so did labels, songwriters, and managers. “The list of who declined is a lot longer than the list of who agreed,” says Ondrasik. He won’t mention which performers turned him down, but he allows that “politics had a lot to do with it.”
The process was intense, and Ondrasik credits Mitch Bainwol of the Recording Industry Association of America with making it run as quickly and smoothly as possible. In the end, 13 artists and groups participated, including Billy Joel, Brooks & Dunn, Jewel, Josh Groban, and the Neville Brothers. “Some of the contributors actually oppose the war, but they all wanted to support the troops without respect to partisanship,” he says. For the Troops came out at Thanksgiving. Most of the compact discs have been distributed through the USO and other organizations. What’s more, a website run by the Army & Air Force Exchange Service allows active-duty personnel to download individual songs for free. So far, that’s happened about 250,000 times.
Ondrasik wants to spend much of 2008 on a new Five for Fighting album. But he’s also thinking about the next thing he’ll do for the troops — possibly another CD, and almost certainly more performances. “I feel an obligation to support the war effort,” he says. “This is the most important cause of our time. I can’t shoot a gun and I’m too old for service. But maybe I can help with morale, and with the morale of the families. We all have to do our part, whatever our skills are.”
Five for Fighting won’t ever earn a Medal of Honor — but at least John Ondrasik is available for encores.