Nothing about Five for Fighting is what you would expect, starting with the name. It comes from hockey, indicating a five-minute major penalty for fisticuffs, and it would be a perfect moniker for a hard-charging punk-rock band. Yet the group’s songs tend toward piano-driven, lump-in-the-throat ballads, such as “100 Years” and “The Riddle.” Moreover, Five for Fighting isn’t really a group so much as a pseudonym for singer-songwriter John Ondrasik. In concert, there aren’t even five musicians on stage. The quintet is a quartet: just Ondrasik and three others. Is the fifth guy in the penalty box?
And one other thing: The title song on the latest Five for Fighting album, Two Lights, was inspired by a lunch with NRO columnist Victor Davis Hanson. In the history of rock music, surely this is some kind of first.
Even if it weren’t, though, Ondrasik would be a special talent — an entertainer uniquely suited to the post-9/11 world and one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
“A friend of mine was working with Victor and asked if I wanted to meet him,” says Ondrasik, aboard his tour bus before a show in Washington, D.C., last Friday. “I’d read a lot of his work and said I’d love to.” They met at a coffeehouse in Palo Alto and hit it off. Hanson invited Ondrasik to join him for lunch with one of Hanson’s former students, a Marine who was about to deploy to Iraq, and the young soldier’s father, a Vietnam veteran.
At lunch, Ondrasik sat by 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.”
From this encounter came the song “Two Lights.” It’s about a father whose son goes off to war:
One day he came to me, said
Freedom’s nothing to look over
Till each man can stand upon its shoulder
When the father hears that a member of his son’s unit has been killed, he goes for a nighttime drive and hopes that his boy isn’t dead. He asks his wife for a favor: If she hears that their son is alive, leave on two lights. Just before sunrise, as the man arrives home, he looks up at his house and says “my eyes burn.” What does it mean?
“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.”
Five for Fighting’s breakthrough came in 2001, with the single “Superman.” The song is about a hero wracked by self-doubt. It was a hit before 9-11, but it took on a new life in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Suddenly, Ondrasik found himself onstage at the Concert for New York, the benefit show organized by Paul McCartney and attended mainly by New York City cops and firefighters. “All of my influences were there, from McCartney to Pete Townsend to Billy Joel,” says Ondrasik. “Watching a 250-pound man in the crowd sing the words to your song with tears running down his face shows how much music can matter to people. Meeting the families of 9/11 — I still think about it everyday.”
It’s certainly on his mind when he writes tunes. Songs such as “NYC Weather Report” and “Johnny America” are best understood through the prism of 9/11. “That day made us aware that the world is not how we would like it to be,” says Ondrasik. “It’s not a liberal-conservative thing. It’s about having a world that’s safe for our kids.”
For Ondrasik, that means taking a clear-eyed look at America’s enemies. In “Freedom Never Cries,” which opened Friday night’s concert, Ondrasik sings:
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.
“The war trumps everything,” says Ondrasik. “We face a worldwide threat from Islamic terrorism. The obligation of the singer-songwriter is to say what he believes, and if we can’t have a conversation about the radical Islamic threat then we’re in trouble.”
Doesn’t this put him out of step with left-wingers in the music industry?
“I’m all for people espousing views,” says Ondrasik. “But they shouldn’t just rant. They need to back it up with some kind of argument. On Iraq, it’s so easy to turn on the president. If you want to withdraw, you still need to answer the question: then what? You need to talk about the consequences of Iraq’s turning into a terrorist staging ground, the possibility of needing to go back in with troops again in a few years, millions of Iraqis slaughtered. If you believe all of that is acceptable, then I can respect that. But you can’t just say we need to get out and President Bush is an idiot. I could say that attitude is childish, but it would be an insult to our children.”
“Freedom Never Cries” is one of his more pointed songs. “Freedom isn’t just a talking point, it’s who we are,” says Ondrasik. “It’s also the only long-term solution to what we’re facing in the Middle East.” The lyrics suggest that many Americans take freedom for granted:
I never loved the soldier
Until there was a war
Or thought about tomorrow
Till my baby hit the floor
I only talk to God
When somebody’s about to die
I never cherished freedom
Freedom never cries
Five for Fighting recently performed three shows for the troops at Guantanamo Bay. The backup band didn’t tag along — it was just Ondrasik playing a piano or strumming a guitar. “While I was on stage, I could see an American flag in the distance. That’s something I’ll never forget — watching the American flag flapping in the Cuban breeze.”
When he isn’t singing, Ondrasik enjoys watching hockey–he even writes an occasional column on it for the Sports Illustrated website. (He recounted his visit to Gitmo here.) He’s also active with a charity website, whatkindofworlddoyouwant.com, which allows people to help raise money for autism, military families, and other causes. (The web address comes from the chorus to Five for Fighting’s “World.”) For Gather.com, Ondrasik is trying to interview political leaders: His conversation with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee may be seen and heard here, and a discussion with Newt Gingrich should be available next week.
One of the friends Ondrasik made in Cuba was Navy Lt. Jason Hull, who just returned to his Maryland home and attended the D.C. show. “Because it’s Guantanamo, performers can get a black eye for going down there,” says Hull, whose favorite Five for Fighting song is the utterly apolitical “‘65 Mustang.” “Even more meaningful than John’s concerts was his willingness to stand around for two or three hours afterwards to meet the soldiers and sailors.”
Hull’s wife, Kelly, was not in Guantanamo but has become a Five for Fighting fan as well. “It’s really nice to see artists supporting the families,” she says. Her favorite Five for Fighting number is “I Just Love You,” which was inspired by a phone conversation that Ondrasik had with his young daughter.
In addition to Gitmo, Ondrasik has performed at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and later this year he plans to play for soldiers in Korea. He would like to visit Iraq, but so far he hasn’t gotten his wife to go along with the idea. “It’s an arm wrestling match,” he says. “I want to go, but we’ve got two little kids.”
Maybe that can be one of the benchmarks for judging the success of the troops surge: A successful Five for Fighting concert in Baghdad.
Ondrasik’s songs already have brought a little luck to the troops. Last month, Ondrasik received an e-mail from the father he met through Victor Davis Hanson in Palo Alto. “I’m not sure he knew that I had written a song from our conversation,” says Ondrasik. Either way, the father wanted the singer to know that his son had come back safely from Iraq. “It was maybe the best email I’ve ever received,” says Ondrasik.
It’s hard not to agree with Hanson’s assessment of Ondrasik: “I found him to be a breath of fresh air, unlike the usual celebs and songwriters, a very different guy.”
What kinds of songs might he write in the future? “When I was in Cuba, I learned about all the different morale-boosting efforts, including how they put on a big Fourth of July fireworks show,” says Ondrasik. “That gave me the idea for a great first line: ‘It’s Fourth of July in Gitmo…’”