Wisconsin's union protests got Ted Leo thinking.
"I wondered why we're always talking about 'labor struggles' and 'union battles,'" he says. "I think it's incredibly messed up. The captains of industry and the people in the head offices force workers into an adversarial position."
Leo has always been known for blending activism and music. The New Jersey vegan and songwriter plays punk rock that is part frenetic guitar, part political poetry. You can hear it on the rapid-tempo rock song "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" from his album Living with the Livng. "When you drop in and out of the white clouds in a blue sky," Leo sings on the 2007 track, "don't worry about them having to see the whites of your eyes."
Leo plays a solo show May 6 at the Memorial Union Terrace.
To salute Wisconsin union protesters, Leo covered Woody Guthrie's "Union Song, Union Battle" on his website in March.
"It's pretty rare in America to see the kind of sustained protests on the scale we saw in Wisconsin this winter," he says. "That told me how seriously people in Wisconsin are taking it."
Leo formed the rock quartet Ted Leo & the Pharmacists in 1999. Recently he's battled for his own fair salary. "There's been a tremendous degradation in people's willingness to pay for music," he says. "I'm 40 now, and I don't intend to stop making music, but I'm probably going to have to find something else to do, too."
Leo says declining sales haven't weakened his connection with his fans. "One thing that hasn't changed in music is the dynamic of live shows," he says. "My band and I have been able to take the warmth of small club shows and translate it to almost any context."
Beyond protests, Leo identifies Madison with something less inspiring. "I was in a band called Chisel in the '90s, and we played a lot of shows in Wisconsin," he says. "I still think of our day in Madison as the coldest day of my life."