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Joseph Arthur has just recorded a new protest song, and it's unlike anything he's done in his 25-year career.
Called "Stop the Shot," it opens with Arthur repeatedly singing, "We will overcome" before adding, "what those fools have done."
Accompanying himself on bass, guitar, drums and every other instrument, the indie-rock singer-songwriter in one verse name-checks the drug Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic that the FDA has publicly declared has not been approved to treat or prevent COVID-19, and in another makes a reference to a debunked vaccine conspiracy theory: "So take me uptown, baby / I don't want to make a fuss / And keep your graphene oxide out of me / Baby, I don't want to rust."
The uptempo rocker — it's "jokey," Arthur says of the lyrics — sets to music his argument, made repeatedly on his Instagram, YouTube and Facebook accounts, that the COVID-19 vaccine represents a danger to humanity, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.
The Brooklyn-based Arthur, 49, believes that a coordinated effort is afoot — "end-times type of stuff,” he calls it — by pharmaceutical companies, the medical-industrial complex and the government to silence those like him who are "questioning" the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines. Last year both he and his girlfriend, Anna Sophia, contracted COVID-19. Arthur said it was "like a three-day bad flu." Both, he says, have fully recovered.
Being the relentless voice of what he considers a disaffected minority has cost him. This year his longtime music manager dropped him as a client, followed by his booking agent. Arthur's newly formed band quit en masse and he says he lost a record deal that would have distributed a new double album to his fans. “I wish him the best,” said Arthur's former manager, Keith Hagan, declining further comment. Arthur’s former longtime booking agent, Steve Ferguson of Paladin Artists, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
“It’s a heavy thing to deal with right now,” Arthur tells me by telephone of the shake-up. "It's not easy. It's going to take me in a different direction, for sure."
Arthur, who once counted such luminaries as Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck as mentors and friends, is not only against receiving what he calls “the jab” but has taken to Instagram to declare, “If the clubs and venues force it, we’ll take it to the streets."
In truth, the COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be remarkably effective against the virus, including the more communicable Delta variant that has overtaken the country. As of July 19, unvaccinated people in L.A. County accounted for 99.8% of COVID-19 deaths; and between Dec. 7 and June 7, 99.6% of the region’s coronavirus cases, 98.7% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 99.8% of deaths were among unvaccinated people in L.A. County. As reported in The Times, L.A. County Health Services director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the county Board of Supervisors in July, “We have not admitted any single person for COVID who is fully vaccinated — with either the [Johnson & Johnson], Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.”
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told The Times that most fully vaccinated people who later tested positive “only experienced either no illness or very mild illness.”
She added, "These vaccines are — even with the Delta variant — are holding up really well."
By going public with his anti-vaccination position, Arthur has aligned himself with a small group of like-minded musicians, including Eric Clapton, M.I.A. and Van Morrison. Last week, the Offspring's drummer Pete Parada announced via Twitter that he'd been kicked out the band for being unwilling to get inoculated.
An advocate of fitness, wellness and homeopathic remedies — he recently documented a five-day water-only fast and a series of "dopamine fasts" — Arthur has gone so far as to use the term “segregation” while discussing the blowback that he and other vaccine-hesitant artists have been experiencing.
"If you say 'segregation,'" Arthur says, "the woke crowd comes at you with knives out."
Arthur, who's tall and yogi-lean and wears his brown hair long, aligned the pro- and anti-vaccination camps with Nazis and Jews on a video on his Facebook page. He says forces are conspiring to muzzle questioners and "chastising them as evil or vile or below consideration — evil even worthy of total annihilation, disregard and disrespect. This is what Nazis did with the Jews when comparing them to vermin before rounding them up and taking them to camps.”
Long before a pandemic divided the nation, Arthur was a well-regarded musician with some famous benefactors.
First earning attention in the 1990s as a key member of Peter Gabriel’s label Real World, Arthur has issued more than a dozen albums, most recently a 2018 collaboration, Arthur Buck, with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and 2019's “Come Back World." On another collaboration, the band Fistful of Mercy, Arthur teamed with Dhani Harrison and Ben Harper for a 2010 album. Arthur's best-known song, 2000's “In the Sun,” a sublime spiritual ballad with the refrain “May God’s love be with you,” was covered by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and Coldplay's Chris Martin for a Hurricane Katrina benefit collection.
And he's a critical favorite: Ken Tucker has praised the "searching, beseeching quality of Arthur‘s music." NPR's Ann Powers wrote in her review of "Arthur Buck": "Joseph Arthur lands in the middle of whatever new project he takes on like a benevolent tempest, a lopsided grin forming below his third eye and an oil pastel pencil in his hand."
A quest for enlightenment has long been Arthur's thematic driver. "The Ballad of Boogie Christ Acts I and II" (2013), which he has described as "a fictionalized character loosely based on my own journey," is a concept album on faith, ego and doubt. "I am here and I am humble / For I know not which way to go / I used to know how to walk on water / Now I sink in the dirt / No kind sun or holy laughter / Seems to reach beyond the hurt," he sings on "I Used to Know How to Walk on Water."
Though he considers himself a Christian, Arthur doesn't like the word "religious," he says, "because of the negative connotations." He then cites a Bob Dylan lyric to explain his beliefs: "'You're gonna have to serve somebody.'"
Arthur’s solo career started when a demo landed in Gabriel’s hands via a mutual friend whom Arthur, who has struggled with alcoholism, knew from AA meetings. Not long after, Arthur played a show at the now-shuttered New York basement club the Fez. Gabriel's plus-one was Lou Reed, who brought a digital recorder to capture the set.
“I remember going into the bathroom and locking the door behind me and literally praying,” Arthur recalled in a 2018 interview.
Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Arthur went to the same high school as musicians including the Black Keys and Chrissie Hynde. His parents still live in the home where Arthur and his older sister grew up.
"We’re a dramatic bunch. We’re crazy," Arthur told Marc Maron on Maron's "WTF" podcast in 2016, adding later that he was "alive because of alcoholism. My parents met in a bar." When Maron asked Arthur about his own sobriety, Arthur said, “I got the issues," and noted, “I quit drinking again.” More recently, Arthur discussed "Come Back World" as a creative response to being on the receiving end of a family member who, he said, has narcissistic personality disorder.
For much of the 2000s, Arthur was a regular performer on the late-night talk show circuit. His visual art, which he began creating in his early 20s, earned him a Grammy nomination for the packaging of his 1999 EP, "Vacancy.”
"Joe's not a virtuoso musician, but he has no fear when it comes to writing songs," says Rene Lopez, a multi-instrumentalist and friend who played in Arthur's band for more than a decade. He joined, Lopez adds, because "I loved Joe's free spirit. I loved how creative he was." He, Arthur and Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone recorded a project as Holding the Void in the early ’00s.
“I was inspired by how much Joe was putting out there into the universe," Lopez explains, "whether it was his music, art, poetry — constantly creating and having no fear. Just jumping into the ocean head-first."
Lopez characterizes Arthur, whom he considers a friend, as an artist with "a good, good soul" who has struggled with extremes. "I saw the change happen right in the beginning because he started sending me videos of different dudes talking about conspiracy stuff," Lopez recalls. "I've seen him go through so many phases. This phase is worrisome, of course. It's just so uncomfortable. I feel like, 'Man, where's he going?'"
Arthur has always been an extremist in his actions, notes one former member of Arthur's music team, who declined to be identified to protect their friendship. “He's an addict, right? So he was either a full-on addict or full-on clean and very preachy. This is part of the extremes that he struggles with."
Arthur sent the first of many posts against government masking mandates early in the pandemic. "Whose [sic] in control here? / Are we part of a social experiment? / Always and forever / Don’t listen to fear," he wrote on April 17, 2020. Six weeks later, he went further, writing: "Dr. Anthony Fauci should go to prison not just be fired. I’d bet that’s where this is going."
"I started speaking out when they talked about giving it to kids," Arthur says when asked about the genesis of his opposition to the vaccines. "That's when I finally said, 'Nah, I think that's wrong.'"
Helping Arthur spread the word is a publicist, Trevor FitzGibbon, who in 2015 closed his former PR firm, FitzGibbon Media, after a Huffington Post story reported on numerous sexual harassment accusations against him. He has denied the allegations.
Arthur and FitzGibbon announced an initiative called Artists United Against COVID, which Arthur said is "about the treatment for COVID-19 that is safe and effective." Arthur and Dr. Peter McCullough, a Texas physician who has become a voice of the anti-vax movement and works with FitzGibbon, discussed the issue during an episode of "Come to Where I'm From," Arthur's podcast. On it, Arthur called the pandemic "a well-orchestrated plan," one that has "captured people's minds."
One look at the comments on Arthur's various declarations proves the extent to which his shift has alienated his music fans and endangered his touring career.
A poem that Arthur posted on Facebook included the lines, "Derangement jealous and hatred / Come with shining your inner light on the world," to which one commenter replied: "Be brave enough not to disguise your anti-vaxx conspiracies in poetry. Be brave enough to respond to posts here asking why you're peddling conspiracy perpetuating viral mutation, anti-scientific consensus and more deaths. You are an artist. Not a doctor."
“Don't get vaccinated if you don't want to, but please stop spreading misinformation,” wrote @festivalfreak.
Earlier this year, Arthur and R.E.M.'s Buck finished recording the second Arthur Buck collaboration, but New West Records, which released the first album, did not pick it up. A representative for New West confirmed the album won't be issued through the label but declined further comment. Through R.E.M.'s management, Buck declined to comment.
Arthur's only upcoming in-person public concert is scheduled to occur on Aug. 21 at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb. The 200-capacity venue does not require proof of vaccination to perform. He also will be performing at two private house concerts, he said.
Despite the certainty that has driven him to speak out against what he considers to be a historic scientific miscalculation, Arthur does confess to misgivings. Would it have been less professionally damaging to debate the efficacy of the vaccine in private? “That very well could prove to have been the smarter call,” he says, adding, “People warned me. People who were on my side told me, ‘Stop. This ain't your fight.’ And they very well might be right.”
Just last week, Arthur's girlfriend gave birth to their first child, Alessia. Asked whether their daughter will receive the recommended round of standard vaccinations that children get at 2 months, Arthur didn't have an easy answer. "We're looking into all that," he says.
For the record:
3:46 p.m. Aug. 11, 2021: An earlier version of this article included Morrissey in a list of musicians who have gone public on anti-vaccination views. Although Morrissey has made negative statements about the pandemic, he hasn’t actually come out against the vaccine.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.