Wednesday, January 31, 2007


One of the stranger aspects of adulthood is how people slip out of your life for no clear reason, and stay out. There are obvious falling outs that happen with some people. And I’ve found that old coworkers, for the most part, fade out over time. There are the people I’ve known for years who will be in it for the long run, and the older I get, the harder it gets to make new friends of lasting value. I think something shuts down in our systems that prevents this from happening – and just as likely that we don’t have the sort of “hang out” time we once had where these sort of lasting bonds took root.

I often wonder what goes on with my old pal Jose, whom I worked with at an advertising agency way back in the early 90s. We were both starting as assistants, and both our jobs kind of sucked. It was leaving that job that made me get into temp work for the first time, because I’d been pretty fed-up with the concept of getting roped into a lousy job that one felt obligated to keep. Of course, we were in a recession in the early 90s, and I nearly went broke in that year or two of moving around. At which time, I settled into a job with management consultants that paid me more than I’ve made since, but left me feeling burned out after about four years of Type A gunning it.

Jose left that job and took up an offer from his dad, who was the building super for a nice apartment house on the upper west side (where he, his dad and mother lived in a basement apartment), which was to start as an apartment building doorman. He thought it was silly at the time, but give it a few years, and your average doorman is making a reasonably good salary and getting great union benefits, on top of what’s usually a windfall take of cash at Christmas from building tenants. Knowing that Jose was like me, a very good, organized worker who treated people without any disdain or attitude, I assume he’s made out well for himself doing this.

At that time, we were pretty much kids in our early-mid 20s. Jose came from a rough background, raised in the Polo Ground projects on the east side of Harlem (named so because they were built on the site of the old stadium where the football and baseball Giants played). One of his favorite childhood stories was of how he and his brother, listening to the 1977 World Series on a transistor radio, realized the Yanks were about to win, got on their bikes, pedaled over the near-by Macombs Dam Bridge to the Bronx, broke into the stadium as the game ended, and ended up taking home huge chunks of outfield turf in the near-riot that ensued when the Yanks won.

Life wasn’t usually that ecstatic in the projects. His father was a binge drinker who often got abusive with the family, which was a shock to me. Once I started meeting his father, I found him to be extremely kind and gregarious, the kind of guy who smiles at you, and you smile back. Apparently, after a few years of being out of control, he started attending the local church, found Jesus, and was changed. He also took up distance running at the same time and became a competent marathon runner. A near total transformation – which is why I’ll never get too down on Born Agains, and will never quite understand left-leaning folk who write off these people without question. Jose’s dad is living proof that sometimes finding religion works, and lasts.

On top of that, it was the projects, and New York was a ragged town in the 1970s. Constant violence, gangs, drugs. Jose took up martial arts as a kid because he felt a need to defend himself in that neighborhood. Since his looks were vaguely white – he could easily pass for Italian – he often caught shit from neighborhood goons for the color of his skin. In short, if the guy had grown up to be a psycho killer, it wouldn’t have been totally unexpected. Instead, because of his saintly mother, and father who reversed his course in life, he turned out amazingly well-adjusted and normal … with plenty of stories about kids he grew up with dead or living in cages.

I think it was because of that similar working-class bond, only with me coming from rural Pennsylvania, that we understood each other pretty well. It was reassuring for me to see good people coming from an inner-city environment – and I find myself searching out these kind of people as I go on living here. Because there are so many losers, pricks and douche bags who live in the neighborhoods of New York, people who are really awful by any standard, much less my small-town one that appreciates good manners and civility. It’s always a pleasant surprise for me to meet people like Jose, who could fit in anywhere, but it’s even more impressive with people raised in environments where it’s normal to be anywhere from abrasive and coarse to a lost soul. After all these years here, you tell me – I have no idea why there are so many worthless pricks in New York. And I’ll never get used to that aspect of living here.

Jose and I became fast friends on that job, as we recognized ourselves as kindred spirits. He also had strange white-guy tastes that he often caught shit for. He was a huge New York Rangers hockey fan and loved listening to Pink Floyd. His main form of music, though, was ballady R&B stuff, Quiet Storm music, which I could take up through the 70s, but never liked the slicker 80s variety. The guy was a sucker for stuff like Al B. Sure and early Mariah Carey, on top of much better 70s stuff like Al Green and The Chi-Lites. I also got hooked into reggae at the same time as he did, trading a lot of that great old Trojan label stuff back and forth.

Our real bond, though, unfortunately, was doomed romantic relationships we both got ourselves into with beautiful-but-nutty coworkers. In my case, it was with Sally, an Asian girl from Denver who worked in the art department. A catty 80s art-chick whom I could make laugh just by looking at her the right way. Sally was known for having an attitude, and I was known for getting her out of it. Generally by teasing the shit out of her. Which should have been a sign to me that things were going in that direction. Sure enough, I made a move, and about three years of bullshit followed, with her never being able to make up her mind about me, while she had flings with older advertising guys, most of whom seemed like lizards. We had a real bond that outlasted all these guys, but it became clear to me long after it should have that I was spinning my wheels with her, and I opted out of her life, probably the smartest, sanest and hardest thing I’d done at that point in my life. Otherwise, we could still be engaged in that nutty gray area bullshit that plagues so many adults who just don’t know how to move on.

Jose had it much worse. He went for Dora, a fellow Puerto Rican who worked in another part of the company … and was already engaged to a Queens guido construction worker. Please see the above paragraph regarding losers, pricks and douche bags. This guy was all three, and no one quite understood why Dora, who was a nice, smart girl, would go for a guy like this. They both lived in Astoria, probably not far from where I’m typing this now, but neither Jose or I knew a thing about Queens at that time. So, I imagine there was some tight childhood/teenage bond going on there, but this guy was a nudge, and everyone knew it.

As is often the case in these scenarios, Dora really warmed up to Jose, recognizing that he was a great guy, and it wasn’t long before they were going out, while she was engaged to Peking Man. Of course, right there, we all can see that this was very bad news, and would end in flames. But in our 20s and full of hope for these kinds of scenarios, we all thought, “How wonderful and romantic, Jose is slowly going to win her away, and they’ll live happily ever after.”

Not. Predictably, shit turned sour, fast. For one thing, Jose got nuts. And I mean baseball-bat wielding nuts. I guess it could have been residual effects from his father’s dark days. But it got to the point where Jose found the home address of Dora’s fiancé, found out what kind of car he was driving, and then took a very early-morning train out to Astoria, found his car, and left a threatening note on the windshield. I can’t recall exactly how this guy dealt with it, but it obviously wasn’t good. What’s worse is that Jose and Dora would start having scenes at work, and that was just not going to be allowed to happen. The guy had slipped into that bad/crazy zone that all guys, myself included, have gone to at least once in our lives. Jose was eventually asked to leave his job after Dora filed some sort of harassment complaint against him. She was messing with him just as much, but that’s how the modern-day workplace handles these issues.

I had left the job a good six months before Jose's situation turned that sour. And it became my job to help pull the guy out of the funk he was in after losing his job and having this doomed relationship fall apart, which was ultimately for the better, even if it went down a little messy. And it happened over time. It became a Saturday afternoon ritual for me to ride my bike down from the Bronx, hit the great Chinese restaurant that used to be on the corner of 97th and Broadway for some take-out, then head back over to Riverside Park to watch the local Little League teams play in the summer. Slowly but surely, the guy reconnected to reality and got back on his feet. And that’s the point where his father got him hooked into being a doorman. Which, as I’ve noted, may have seemed like a goof to us at the time, but I’m sure isn’t now.

Two cool things happened later that demonstrate what kind of guy Jose is. One, the house I was living at in the Bronx, the old guy next door had a nasty habit of feeding cats for a week or two, and then stopping cold. This one winter, a spindly, three-legged cat turned up for this guy’s feedings, and it happened to be one of those cold-spell winters with temperatures rarely breaking the mid-20s. This poor cat was out on the porch every night, freezing to death, and not being fed after awhile. I took it in, but couldn’t keep it. I called the local SPCA’s only to find that the cat probably would have been euthanized in a matter of weeks – who wants a three-legged cat? I called my Mom, who’s into these kind of animal rescue scenarios, and she suggested I find some way to get the cat back to Pennsylvania, where a local pound had a strict no-kill policy for their animals.

How to do this without a car? That’s when Jose stepped in. I told him what was going on, and his immediate response: “What time do you want me to drive you back?” No questions, no hemming or hawing, bam, let’s do it. And the trip back was from hell. For one, the cat shit all over an expensive leather briefcase he had in the back seat, ruining it, and stinking up the car in the process – not a word of complaint. For another, Interstate 80 was packed with traffic, so we took a back route I knew about 50 miles from home, while the roads were icy and slow-moving.

It was a long trip, the cat mournfully howling most of the way, and Jose driving his car white-knuckled down rural roads he didn’t know most of the way. I remember teaching him how to spot oncoming cars on back roads at night -- by seeing their lights reflecting off the telephone wires long before you could physically see the car. But we got there. Jose spent the night sleeping in my brother’s old bed and left the next morning – freaked out by the whole experience. Going to small-town Pennsylvania like that was a first for him, and he had expected rednecks to be chasing him with pitchforks. Hell, most people didn’t even know he was Puerto Rican, and wouldn’t have done a thing about if they had known. But city kids tend to get paranoid out of the city and have to be weaned from that point of view. He left the next morning and never once took a dollar of money for making the trip or having his briefcase ruined.

The other incident involved driving, too – in this case, getting me out of the Bronx. I knew I was going to quit that job with the management consultants. Going on four years, I was burned out and not enjoying myself. I had similar feelings towards 10 years of living in the Bronx. That February, a 12-year-old girl in the ratty project just up the block had been shot point blank in the face in the laundry room of the building on a Sunday morning. For no obvious reason – robbery wasn’t it. The building was famous for crackheads congregating in the basement (I remember the constant stream and crunch of small vials on the sidewalk back then), and I suspect some crackhead or thug-in-training just shot her for kicks.

The crime went unsolved, which really pissed me off as someone had to have a clue on what happened, and I thought, “You know what? It’s time for me to get the fuck out of here.” Incidents like that had happened over the years. Infamously, a cop bled to death in one of the projects at the intersection of Kingsbridge Road and Sedgwick Avenue (just up the block) while investigating a domestic disturbance, with the husband throwing a mirror at the cop, smashing it, and severing that artery in the inner thigh that leads to death within minutes. (The husband was later acquitted of any charges – the kind of place the Bronx is.)

I knew I was in a bad place, and that “cool” sense of living in a bad place was really wearing thin. Aside from constant verbal crap and teenage goons spitting as I passed, I hadn't really caught any serious crap for being one of the few white people around. I knew this was luck as much as the street sense I had developed to avoid being out at times when shit like that could happen (i.e., just after school left out and late at night). It was time to go.

So, I checked out Astoria, could tolerate what I saw, found an apartment and arranged to move. Again, without hesitation, Jose rents a van on his own, then helps me move all my stuff on a Saturday. His response: “Man, Bill, you need to buy less CDs.” I still kept jewel cases at that time and had about 3,000 in varous little black plastic CD cabinets – which convinced me to throw out the cases and replace them with small, thin plastic slip cases, taking up much less space. You don’t realize how much shit you have until you have to move, and Jose pretty much was all the help I needed.

I think that move may have been the beginning of the end, though. I was living literally only a few blocks from where he had the “threatening note on fiancé’s car” episode, and this spooked him. Also, the N Train doesn’t go directly to the Upper West Side. I’ve since learned it’s really not that bad a trip to do so. Just get on the last car, get off at Time Square, and you literally walk up and down a small staircase, and you’re on the Uptown 1/2/3 platform to that neighborhood, probably an extra 10-15 minutes travel time. But I didn’t understand that at the time.

As it was, when I moved to Astoria, that’s when Jose started fading out of my life. To the point a few years on, where there was no contact at all. No reason. Just that slow fade people sometimes do with each other. I suspect some of it was because he didn’t want to get anywhere near that neighborhood for obvious reasons, and it wasn’t easy for me to pop over to the upper west side of Manhattan, as it had been when I lived in the Bronx.

Two summers ago, I was on a job at Columbia University, just north of the apartment building where Jose’s dad was the super, so I figured I’d get up the nerve and walk down there on lunch break, to see if Jose was still around and up for hanging out. Who knows?

I went down there, told the doorman why I was there and he told me Jose was at work (so he was still living there … and you would be, too, for free rent in a fairly ritzy Upper West Side apartment building). But his Dad was around. At which time, his Dad turned the corner, saw me, his face lit up and he said, “Long time, no see. How you been?” I told him fine, and the situation, that Jose and I had simply lost touch over the years, and I’d like to see if he was still around and up for hanging out. I gave him my phone number and left it at that. A strange feeling – not just because of the meeting, but because I rarely get up to that neighborhood, and it had changed so much from about 1995 to 2005. More upscale stores, banks, restaurants along Broadway. It added to that sense of dislocation, of time moving on, I was already feeling in trying to contact an old friend who had gone by the wayside.

And I never heard back from him. That job ended after six weeks, and I’ve only been to that neighborhood once or twice since. Not sure if Jose believes I had done something wrong, but it seems to me more like a situation where two friends simply lost touch with each other, which I’ve learned happens in our lives. No great crime, but I’m still left with this puzzled feeling, as there’s no applicable logic – fallouts or fights – to this situation being the way it is. Just have to write it down to life being strange at times, and maybe it’s for the best to let it go on being strange.

Monday, January 29, 2007

I Know Who They Are

In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, occasional reference is made to “they” or “them” whenever a bank forecloses on a farm. The concept is to paint the process of a farm foreclosure as being conducted by this faceless, formless, powerful entity that is inherently evil. “They” come and take everything away. Thus sending thousands of families on a near-doomed trip west in over-crowded, broke-down, flat-bed trucks. Steinbeck was writing what he was seeing during The Depression – the scenario played out repeatedly in the 1930s all over America. A farmer and his family got far behind on home and business loans to keep his farm running, the bank offered repeated warnings, the farmer just couldn’t pay, so eventually the family was evicted from the land, while a bulldozer ploughed down their ramshackle house, and the bank took over the land.

The reader is left to ponder, who are they? Who are these people to be so heartless and unfair, to do something like this, repeatedly, to be so disconnected from humanity?

Well, after doing a stint in a bank for a few months, I know who they are. They are a white guy named Chuck from Piscataway who has a wife, three kids and a mortgage. He has three black women working for him, all of whom are using the job to either get out of rough inner-city neighborhoods, or simply stay afloat in whatever suburban home the now live. While they can be loud, nasty and obnoxious on the phone sometimes with equally verbose bank customers falling behind on loan payments, I would hardly call them evil.

They’re not “they?” Who are they then? In The Grapes of Wrath, it was some bank employee who showed up at the farm with a shotgun and a work crew with a bulldozer to tear down the house. When it came to the bank, this person was most likely the only physical, human evidence of the bank’s power. With the bank today, these people I mentioned handle the cases on the phone. When it comes to handling property, they have a long list of repo men and repossession agencies all over the country, and these people go out, armed with bank papers and tow trucks, to let people know they have to reclaim the property these people can no longer make payments on. And, boy, some of the speakerphone calls I heard of this process going down would blow your mind.

This is still not them? Them is also the bank officer who works in the branch office who would meet with the customer and approve the loan, not knowing that one day the customer would stop making payments and force the bank to either reclaim property or bring legal action against the customer. When things get that far gone, a loan administrator within the bank would be contacted by the bank officer, and he would assign this account to Chuck and his women to contact the customer and see if there’d be any way for him to make some kind of payment, or, more likely to arrange for equipment reclamation, or, just as likely, find the customer totally hostile and incommunicative, thus the need for the bank to start legal proceedings.

I’ve just outlined who “they” are. All of these people, if you take them out of the context of their jobs, have families, homes, often kids, the same concerns most people have. Some of them are nice, some are nasty. No one had horns or hooves. There were no gray storm clouds wandering the hallways. These were all real people involved in the process of ensuring the bank got back at least part of the money it loaned to the customer.

Don’t get me wrong. Ultimately, I’m on the farmer’s side. Farming the land is a much more honorable, decent profession than working in a bank. That’s a simple fact, not an opinion. Not just putting food on tables, but pulling the food from the land in the first place, is about as basic and honest as it gets in terms of work. We’d starve without farmers. Their jobs are often a dice roll depending on so many factors they have no control offer. Crop failure can occur for any number of reasons: flooding, drought, freezing, plagues of various insects that damage crops, competition from larger farming conglomerates, market values decreasing the value of a crop in a given year, equipment failure, etc. The old adage “shit happens” truly applies to farming as a way of life.

But maybe it was just the time, The Depression, with its rampant poverty, that made Steinbeck position banks as this faceless, evil empire. With this job, I was a little put off every time I heard a farmer getting dragged over the coals on the phone. But I imagine if you do this for a living, you’ve been in this position many times before and turned off some important switch that would make most people pause and question the value of foreclosing on a farm.

To be honest, many customers defaulting on their loans were devious. Private investigators occasionally had to be contacted to track down these people, as they’d take out a loan, then close the original business their loan had been for, move to another state, and open up another business with that money, probably changing their names in the process, too. Case files often had a handful of names and business names. One thing I learned there – the bank will always find you. They may not get their money back, but they will make every effort to do so, and probably take a chunk out of you monetarily through legal fees in the process. It just aint worth it to try and beat the bank. The only people I saw do it were customers whose loans were so small that it would cost the bank more to legally pursue the matter than recover the loan.

A larger number of customers just weren’t very smart. We live in a society over-extended on credit, which has become an acceptable way of life. People expect to be in debt all their days. It’s my attitude that you should only be in debt to get an education, buy a home, or start a business. Everything else, if you can’t pay for it directly, don’t buy it. Of course, this would bring the auto industry to its knees, put a serious dent in the fashion industry and spell doom for large-screen TVs. People know the difference between want and need – they just can’t seem to acknowledge or in any adhere to the things they need. The Rolling Stones wrote “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” before millions of people lived their entire adult lives on credit. People get what they want all the time now, even if it means they can’t afford it. A lot of us receive gratification from owning ultimately meaningless physical objects, as opposed to gratification from living by any moral code or reward.

A small number of customers, like the farmers, are honest people who simply go under. Being that this was a New York bank, it was also still dealing with residual 9/11 financial fall-outs, businesses south of Chinatown finally closing after six years of struggling. Not many – there were probably a lot more from 2002-05 or so. On top of people like that, you had cases of bread-winning spouses falling deathly ill for months or years on end, thus a loan that was taken out to keep a business running before the illness would go unpaid while these people lost their main source of income, on top of the nightmare of watching a loved one die. Awful stuff to hear about.

(I also often heard people defaulting on loans use this as an excuse, when the person who had become ill had virtually nothing to do with the loan and were in no way tied to the customer's financial well being, .e.g. a tearful woman on the phone blurting, "Will you vampires leave me alone, my Uncle George is dying from brain cancer right now, and all you people can do is hound me on the phone, you heartless bastards." People will do strange and desparate things when they get cornered like this.)

So, if you want to know, this is the kind of thing “they” deal with all day long as part of their jobs. Sympathy for the devil? Well, the bank really isn’t the devil. I still don’t particularly like banks. They’re in the business of making money. Period. And they make a lot of it. At first I was shocked and appalled by how these folks operated, but after awhile, I could see that a vast majority of the time, they were dealing with bullshit artists looking to burn the bank. What I didn’t agree with was that these situations, which became easily identifiable even to a neophyte like me, were handled no differently from that of a farmer going under. I don’t know how you explain to the bank that you can’t make payments because it didn’t rain for three months. Could Mother Nature be named in the law suit? I gather whatever insurance farmers have to cover these sort of issues goes only so far, and that to be a farmer is to most likely be in debt much of the time, assuming a farmer is even able to operate independently without getting swallowed up by a huge conglomerate and reverting to the days of tenant farming.

Some part of you either turns off to do this kind of work, or more likely, you get so hardened to the situation, and realize that pausing to look at the accident by the side of the road is done so only to ponder your own mortality, and it’s best to drive on. Short of picking up a pitchfork and strapping on a pair of bib overalls, there’s not much you can do personally to stop a financial situation gone that far south.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

MP3 of the Week #5

Since I recentl put together a mammoth collection of 60s pop, I'll pick three of the songs that I find myself hitting repeat on with the MP3 player. Enjoy.

1. Out in the Street by The Shangri-Las. The great thing about girl groups: they were constantly carrying on about what pussies their hard-assed, "uptown" boyfriends were really like underneath the leather jackets. "Be My Baby" has to be the best girl-group song. For my money, "Out in the Street" has to be #2. That ghostly vocal intro, those first few beautiful lines, the shuffling beat -- it underlines the urban toughness that's the real draw of girl groups.

2. It's You That I Need by The Temptations. Motown takes too much crap these days for being too soft and poppy, as compared to grittier soul like Stax/Volt. But when I hear a song like this by The Temptations, forget it. Holland/Dozier/Holland had such a propulsive build from verse to chorus in some of their hits, like a jet taking off. (I believe this song was written by one of the Holland brothers and Barrence Whitfield.) For years, I had a different version of the song on which the vocals had an echo effect. For some odd reason, the version that came out a few years back on a Temptations 2-disc hits compilation didn't, and I love the more raw sound of the vocals on this take.

3. Nova Slum Goddess by The Fugs. Been on a huge Fugs/Holy Modal Rounders kick as of late. New York City hippies, into acid and banjos. A lot of their stuff goes right by me, just way too nutty, it sounds like these guys were perpetually stoned from about 1965 onwards. But with The Fugs, every now and then, they'd get into it and really nail something down -- as with this song about a beautiful hippie chick from the Lower East Side. This version is from a live show the band did at the Bottom Line in the 1980s, but the sound and vibe of the track feel vastly superior to me than on the original 60s studio take. Fun stuff that rocked. If the left was still like this, I'd still be on the left.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why I Don't Like Hiphop Music

With all my years listening to music, the thousands of albums and CDs I’ve bought, the countless MP3s I’ve downloaded and traded with other like-minded music fanatics, it’s generally accepted that with this mass of music in our lives, crossing dozens of genres, it’s perfectly all right not to like a given genre – often for no other reason than the sound of the music isn’t to your liking.

I don’t like most kinds of jazz. I’m not well-versed enough in classical, but what I have heard, aside from piano pieces and a few dozen orchestral and choral pieces, I can live without. Most kinds of latin music leave me cold, although a song will come along occasionally that hits me the right way. Polka, klezmer, ragtime, speed metal. Hundreds of kinds of “world” music from regions of Europe, Africa, South America and the Far East – although I sometimes like that stuff when I hear it, especially the African stuff that sounds like James Brown.

The list of music I like, or at least listen to regularly, is much shorter than the list of music I either don’t like, or like but don’t have the inclination to pursue more than a passing interest. I gather the casual music listener is totally unaware of the vast sea of music out there, spanning centuries and continents … and it’s all right not to have any interest in or despise some of it. It’s impossible to grasp all of it.

So why is it that when I say I don’t like hiphop music, some folks feel an urge to attach a racist stigma to my dislike? I liked hiphop for a year or two in the mid-80s – some of the Sugar Hill stuff that was floating around at the time, Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC’s first two albums, etc. I had the albums to prove it, although I let them go a long time ago. By about 1988 or so, hiphop seemed really tired and clichéd to me. Even the stuff I liked, I liked it because I was trying to shoehorn the music into my life. It seemed like the good liberal thing to do. Even now, I can hear one of those old hiphop songs and like it in passing, but in reality, I’m not rushing out to buy a greatest hits compilation or download the song. I can live without it. About the only hiphop song I have an urge to own, and do own, is “Just a Friend” by Biz Markie. When gangsta rap rolled along in the form of NWA, I thought, fuck it, had enough, I can officially lose any interest in this loathsome crap and go on living.

In the old days (in my case, the 70s), popular musical trends would expire in the course of a half decade or so. In other words, when I was in high school in 1980s, there surely were hippies around, but they were considered a bit musty, and a joke. If you were a kid pretending to be a hippie, you were way off, probably stoned much of the time, and clearly out of the loop with other kids. Chart-topping trends didn’t last more than a few years. With that musical upbringing, I thought for sure hiphop would be played out by the early 90s. Gangsta rap seemed like a real slimy, stupid kind of music that signaled the end.

But, lo and behold, the music industry figured out how to sell this junk to white kids, who didn’t and still have no idea what the music is about. So, here we are in 2007, with this mess still having a stranglehold on the Top 40, albeit the industry is dying partially because of it as, apparently, kids are finally getting tired of it. Imagine if disco had dominated the charts for 15 years instead of three or four. That’s the kind of desperate, inexplicably wrong-headed stagnation that has become reality for the music industry since the early 90s.

Hiphop, in many ways, is like any form of black-based music that came before it in that it’s perceived a cultural signifier. With forms of music like jazz and the blues, not such a big deal. The stuff may be a little raw in comparison to what white folks were listening to en masse at the time, but nothing really shocking. Ditto R&B, soul and disco. It should also be noted that these forms of music complemented each other – they were around at the same time and gave a very full, complex picture of black culture.

But hiphop made it a point of “keeping it real” by using the ruse of “this is how it is” in explaining why the music had to turn so violent, graphic, misogynistic, materialistic, profane, etc. And it had very little competition from any other types of black music. Wherever you do find black folks en masse living where those songs come from, most of them not rappers, they’re not having a whole lot of fun, nothing is glorified in their every-day lives. As for “keeping it real,” if you mean to tell me Otis Redding, Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan had easier lives because they chose not to document crime, greed and/or violence in their songs, you’re desperately wrong. (I’d wager their pre-Civil Rights lives were much harder than those of your average rapper. They just weren’t socialized to be obsessed with anger and misery.)

I have no problem with this hard-edged stuff existing, or even with it having a recognizable fan base. But it never should have become as popular as it has, for anywhere near as long as it has, especially when it’s been sold under false pretense, using that decades-old umbrella of black culture to sell a cartoonish way of life to both its own and all these white kids. The black kids will be overly influenced to see this way of life as acceptable, which must get old when you’re 25 and borderline unemployable. White kids will shrug it off, like a pre-adolescent fascination with professional wrestling, and place it in a rear-view mirror by college age.

Don’t get me going on phony white assholes pretending to be gangstas. It’s not fair to say they’re pretending to be black. They’re not pretending to be Bill Cosby or George Washington Carver. They’re mimicking the most over-the-top aspects of urban African American culture that are being sold to them in videos and magazines. I spend a decade in the Bronx, one of the harder urban environments you’re going to find in America, getting all sort of intricate, insightful, detailed takes on race relations that you can get only through personal experience, only to go to rural and suburban white America to find these slobbering buttholes pontificating on what it means to be black? Based on songs they heard on a CD? As opposed to having even the most minute experience of ghetto living, the kind of which I’d been around for nigh on a decade?

Negro, bitte.

Laughter and ridicule are the only sane options. I didn’t think it was possible, but they make their parents look cool in comparison. People wonder why I get particularly down on these buffoons, there’s your reason. They’re false. Kids are prone to being false, especially in the name of cool, I can forgive that, but race relations, particularly the loaded and misguided takes they’re being instructed to have on them, seem like a very wrong thing to be that insincere on. Everything about them reeks of white self loathing. The sense of privilege. The faux rejection of their middle-class culture (which they’ll openly embrace as adults). If there’s one breakthrough lesson black folks learn that alters their lives, it’s that self loathing gets you nowhere. That’s the main lesson we should all be learning from African American culture – as opposed to adopting a similar sort of self loathing that they've been culturally saddled with for far too long.

It’s this monochromatic, stifling sense of ersatz culture associated with hiphop, and shoved down our throats for nigh on 17 years, that makes me dislike the music more than anything. If hiphop had maintained that original sense of fun, and social critique without glorification of negative stereotypes, I’d be a lot more comfortable with it. But, Bill, it’s one of the few genres coming up with new production techniques. No – the electronic production touches and such were well-documented by white American and British bands in the 70s and 80s, sorry, it’s not new. There’s not a sound made in hiphop by its best producers that doesn’t have an antecedent in alternative and new-wave music. That’s more savvy producers doing their homework with new-wave albums. But, Bill, you haven’t heard the good, grass-roots stuff. You can play me the good, grass-roots stuff, and my verdict will most likely be that these guys simply didn’t get signed by a major label. Over 20 years of hearing this stuff, motherfuckers, stop trying to convert me. But, Bill, you can’t truly understand current African American culture without understanding hiphop.

I got news for you. I can’t understand it anyway because I’m not black, the same way they’re not going to understand my culture. I’m fine with that. I can learn about it, read about it, talk about it with black folks across every social spectrum, empathize with it, take things from it, but I can’t be it. Nor do I want to. I don’t want to pretend to be it either. The only lasting lessons I truly learn about black culture are from personal experiences, thousands of them at this point, good and bad, not from a god-damned CD.

The only reality I’m willing to endorse is respect – that people can easily live around each other if they respect each other. Don’t even have to like each other. Just respect each other. And I’m not gathering that people into hiphop “culture” have a whole lot of respect for anything outside that, yet demand we all acknowledge it as legitimate culture – when it’s grown far too fucked up and misguided in very important ways to ever be that. It’s a marketing creation more than a culture, designed to capitalize on a teenage sense of dislocation than in any way define a great and lasting culture. There is no long-term plan for hiphop. It’s all about kids buying shit. Same way it’s always been in the music industry. Call it temporary culture, if you will – like some sort of Peter Pan fantasy world, it dissolves when kids grow up. The only adults you'll find keeping the faith are those making money off it -- or the hiphop equivalent of grown men attending KISS concerts in full make-up.

I recall in Prince’s prime, probably around the time of The Black Album, he had no compunctions about running down hiphop in the press – he just didn’t care for it. Seeing as how the guy plays dozens of instruments, is capable of playing any style of music and could make an entire album on his own, he’s entitled to his opinion. But son after that, during the great shift from basic music form to holy culture, he had rapping on various tracks. (I think “Alphabet Street” might be the first one – a great song, with a silly rap by his then muse “Cat” that adds nothing to the song.)

At that time, there were plenty of music critics ignoring hiphop because, like me, they just didn’t care for it, no offense. Now? You could surely freelance as a writer and get work. But there’s no way you can be an editor or staff writer and not deal with hiphop in some way that insinuates that you either like it and/or grasp it as a fan. Unless you work for a country magazine.

And speaking of country, you are perfectly free to find country music a load of shit and joke about it. Oddly enough, although country music probably sells as much or more than hiphop, publications don’t expect their staff writers or editors to be well-versed in it. No one’s going to can you for making fun of it, or think you’re a bigot, even though your intentions may be no different from someone disparaging hiphop out of pure bigotry. The things I’ve heard said about country music, supposedly by educated people, if you substituted the word “nigger” for “redneck” would be no different from a racist rant in a rural bar.

And you know what? I like it that way. I like that people have that sort of freedom to be able to have a negative opinion of a type of music, informed or misinformed, and not be branded a bigot. That sort of freedom is liberating, honest and right. Whether or not you’re a bigot for disliking a certain form of music mostly associated with a given race or ethnicity is irrelevant to me. It’s irrelevant to all sane people, even those who love that kind of music. I guess my ultimate point is that the music industry and media supporting it are not sane, and not right in positioning this one kind of music as being beyond reproach, when there is plenty to reproach in all kinds of music. Culture should be fluid, not a sacred stone we must all worship at the foot of. There's been very little fluid about hiphop over the past 20 years. Then again, the same could be said for a vast majority of popular music of any type. All I demand is the freedom to recognize that and not have anything but my sense of taste called into question.

Monday, January 22, 2007

January Notes

Been getting spanked at work, and wrapped up in various CD-making projects, thus haven’t had a lot of time to write. But I’ve been noting a few things over the past weeks.


Last Friday on the train, there were three bums on my subway car. I’ve written before about the bum wars that were fought in the late 80s on NYC subway trains, the penchant a lot of Bronx natives had for being brusque, to the point of physical violence, with these guys when they splayed themselves out over a few subway seats on crowded morning rush-hour trains. There were exponentially more bums back then – a few times, literally, they’d take up an entire subway car.

Well, there were three this morning in Astoria, and none of them stank, which is a rarity. I normally don’t see a lot of homeless folks these days on the train, but I guess with the colder weather, they’re looking for a warm place to sack out. Since there was no smell, I had no compunctions sitting directly across from one, a very big middle-aged white guy, obviously homeless by his clothes, but he was quiet, kept to himself, seemed a little ashamed. You look at someone like that, you see yourself on days when shit isn’t going your way and empathize. I had no problems with the guy.

But to get on that train, you’d think that guy was covered in burning shit. People would step on at our doors, take one look at him, register a mild frown, then bolt out of the door, or make a beeline for the other part of the subway car, which was packed with these arrogant pussies, so you had a car that was one-third SRO commuters, and two-thirds me and three homeless guys. Just ludicrous, and I got some insight into how it must feel to be homeless, that feeling of alienation beyond invisibility. Most of the people who blanched had that “not from New York” vibe about them – I’m not from New York, but have lived here long enough to know that demeanor when I see it. Homeless guy, doesn’t stink, minding his own business? Shit, I’d rather sit next to that guy than some little cellphone asshole, or my favorite, the Café Car people who eat and drink on the train, as if we all want to smell their toasted everything bagel and have them splash coffee on us.


January in the gym can be a pretty ragged time. Why? New Year’s resolutions and what must be gift memberships galore. Thus, the gym gets filled with people who really don’t want to be there, and they probably sense regulars grasp this and wish they’d go away. And most of them are long gone come mid-February. How many times in the past few weeks have I gone to the gym, only to find the circuit weights clogged with first-time users with a bad habit of zoning out on machines, so much that I’ll do two sets of 20 repetitions on two different machines, only to find them still spaced out on their piece of equipment, as if they were strapped into an amusement park ride that was broken.

Gym culture is a strange bird to begin with. In January, you get a lot of new people who, you can tell, just aren’t going to stick with this “working out” thing. I’ve never been much for resolutions – you can make one any time you want. But with gyms, January is always that special time, when people tell themselves, this is the year I get buns of steel, or six-pack abs. Six-pack buns of steel?

Something I’ve learned in my adult life: if you didn’t work out in any meaningful, self-regimental way as a teenager, chances are good you won’t do so as an adult. The key word in that sentence is “self.” Plenty of people went out for high-school sports. But if you didn’t have any urge to work out on your own, chances are as an adult, you won’t either, especially without that sense of a social status attached to it.

How many times have I seen people in my life who I knew never worked out, burn brightly in the gym for a year or two, then walk away and never work out again? A lot. Gyms and physical exercise just make sense to me, and they must if you’re going to incorporate them into your adult life. I didn’t like high-school sports, but I was a serious runner as a teenager and well into my adulthood. It was nothing for me to go out and run, and I mean a sub-six-minute mile pace, for six or 10 miles at a shot. I wish I could get back into that habit, but I just don’t have the time or inclination to get up early and run in the dark. (The only times I run now are when I go back to Pennsylvania, and I still have no problem doing seven miles a day for the 3-5 days I’ll be back there per visit, albeit I’m much slower now.) I also lifted weights three times a week as a teenager, but I think I was running so much that I found it virtually impossible to make my body bigger. (And now I wish I could be that thin again!)

As an adult, I find it very easy, and preferable, to work out nearly every day. It’s just a given, a solid gym membership the one luxury I allow myself. Another way to look at it: if you liked gym class in high school, you’ll have no problems going to the gym as an adult. I loved gym class – unless we were doing square/disco dancing or gymnastics (which are impossible to do correctly without serious training). The whole idea of it – getting into uniforms, engaging in sports I was good at, letting off steam in the middle of the day. About the only downside was taking showers with guys who were uptight about their penis sizes and whatever stray sexuality issues your average teenage male has in spades. (I don’t mind getting naked in front of other guys in a locker room, but I have issues with guys who take way too long getting dressed – any guy who dawdles in the locker room is either checking out cock or just plain weird.)

I just had a boxing class on Sunday that had 20 people, where we normally have from five to 10. The initial burst of ass-kicking calisthenics the instructor always does knocked out three of those people. Three more left after the shadowboxing portion, where you simply follow the instructor doing combinations. They all had that exasperated “don’t know I’m doing here” look as we went through the most basic of combinations. (The class is like a one-room schoolhouse with people functioning at all levels of expertise.) The rest stayed the course, but I can guarantee you maybe one or two of those people will come on any sort of regular basis after that first class – it’s just not something a casual gym-goer is going to do. These are January people, although we will get the occasional jam-packed class like that throughout the year, with the same predictable results.

I don’t want to portray too negative a picture. Frankly, if someone joins a gym in January, is raring to go, looks like they want to be there, has some idea how to use the equipment, I’m fine with them being there. Even with regular members, you get plenty of bozo behavior, especially from weightlifting guys, which would be better served by a life-threatening ass-kicking. But they seem perfectly content in their magical little worlds, in which some guy challenges you to a fight in a bar, and you bench press him in response.

The most human situations I see in gyms are when you get someone who’s really overweight either doggedly jogging on a treadmill or trying to use the equipment. Like the homeless guys on the subway train, they’re invisible to most of the people in there, because their physical presence is such an anomaly. The dorky “personal trainers” who wander the gym never talk to these people, as they’re too busy hitting on attractive women. I suspect a lot of them feel weird in the environment. But the truth is it’s an environment where it’s better off to be invisible, or so much a part of the place that they function within the environment without anyone else noticing. That’s the key to getting along and ultimately doing well in a gym.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

MP3 of the Week #4

One of the few albums to register with me as an adult in that rabid teenage way was Pulp’s 1999 album This Is Hardcore. I never quite understood the press and Jarvis Cocker (the lead singer) himself carrying on about how dark the album was. It was dark in an intelligent, morbidly funny way – emotional pop music with sweeping wind-ups to big choruses. There was no single song on the album as good as their earlier hit “Common People” (the best song ever written about classism), but the album held together better as a whole.

So, Pulp puts out another album a few years later that struck me as lacklustre. The band breaks up. Jarvis Cocker disappears for a few years, then puts out a solo album in the UK (don’t think it’s available here yet) in the fall of 2006. Through, uh, nefarious means involving the internet, I get a copy around Thanksgiving and find myself mildly disappointed – about three repeat-listen songs, one of them sampling Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” and a bunch of so-so songs that took him years to pull together.

But one song in particular, really grabbed me: “From Auschwitz to Ipswich.” A nice, breezy, little piece of melodic pop – wistful, mid-tempo, all the right things. Sounds like a hit to me. But, then, I pay closer to attention to the lyrics. I’ve reprinted them below:

They want our way of life.
Well, they can take mine any time they like.
Cos God knows, I know I ain’t living right.
I’m wrong. I know I’m so wrong.

So like the Roman Empire fell away
Let me tell you, we are going the same way.
Ah, behold the Decline & Fall.
All hold hands with our backs to the wall.

It’s the end.
Why don’t you admit it?
It’s the same from Auschwitz to Ipswich.
Evil comes I know from not where.
But if you take a look inside yourself
Maybe you’ll find some in there.

Not one single soul was saved.
I was ordering an Indian take-away.
I was spared whilst others went to an early grave
Got stoned. Yeah, went out and got stoned.

Well, if your ancestors could see you standing there
They would gaze in wonder at your Frigidaire.
They had to fight just to survive
So can’t you do something with your life?

Here it comes
Why don’t you embrace it?
You lack the guts needed to face it.
Say good-bye to the way you’ve been living.
You never realised you were on the wrong side.
And nobody’s going to win.

They want our way of life.

Well, they can take mine any time they like.

It’s the feel-good anthem of the year. The song is obviously about the terrorist bus attacks in London a few years ago. American listeners might think it’s about 9/11, and may be tangentially and thematically, but people in the United Kingdom, especially Londoners, were far more affected by the bus bombings. So, Jarvis wrote about how he handled the crisis … ordering Indian food and getting stoned.

And if you think I’m going to give a stern lecture about bravery and such, forget it, because his option is as valid as anyone else’s. That’s what I love about the song. The guy’s faced with crisis so heart-wrenching and immediate that the only possible reaction, to him, is to try to do normal things, which include getting high. For better or worse, his sense of normality is to avoid reality, which seems about right for a rock star. (As a New Yorker, I can tell you that once the shock of 9/11 started wearing off, the only thing I wanted to do was get back to my normal routine. Immediately.)

I love that Jarvis Cocker’s balls are big enough to not just take on a subject like this, but to then make clear that he has no answers, and getting lit up to temporarily escape the situation, while not recommended for everyone, worked for him. When’s the last time anyone wrote a sweet pop song about a terrorist attack? Never. And I’m glad the guy didn’t proselytise for any cause – he just stated how empty he felt, before and afterwards. And drew larger conclusions from his emptiness.

What don’t I like about the song? A few things. That whole “Islamic terrorists want our way of life” rhetoric went out the window pretty quickly, at least in America. They don’t want our way of life – they want to annihilate us and our way of life. That much should have been crystal clear after 9/11, yet I do recall some folks putting forth that the reason for the attack was jealousy over how much more advanced our society is than those of Islamic countries. Which is absolute bullshit. Those guys aren't jealous – they're genocidal maniacs. As far as they’re concerned, we’ve gone way too far and need to be brought back to (their) basics. Which, stripped of the genocidal intent, bears a small measure of truth, because our culture is warped, out of control and wrong in many senses. (Then again, the culture they aspouse makes our Christian Right look like the hippie desert farmers in Easy Rider.) But, of course, you try to kill mass numbers of us to get this point across, you’re going to lose the thread and change that kernel of sanity into a murderous challenge that needs to be thwarted.

I also don’t like Cocker’s easy self-loathing, which I suspect is no affectation. The strength of many of his lyrics is that he doubts and questions himself constantly, but usually knows when to make his point. “Common People” is about a rich college girl who falls in love with the song’s working-class protagonist's way of life because she thinks “poverty’s cool.” But he recognizes there’s a big difference between her slumming for a few years and the guy in his song always being poor, and gets righteously angry. That sort of self awareness is missing in this song – leaving just the self-loathing. Cool to a certain age, after which point it gets tired. I suspect a rock star's life comprises a whole lot of lazy down time surrounded by intense bursts of activity, which are immersed in a mini-culture of worship surrounding him. Probably a hard place to stay sane in, so I gather when the down time comes, a lot of laying around the sofa, getting baked, thinking bad thoughts, questioning one's motives, etc. I'd suggest it would be a good place to leave, save I can see how seductive it is to not have to work for months or years on end and still get by financially.

It’s also not “the end,” and he knows it. Frankly, in some ways, I wish it would end. Our society has entered a ramped-up phase akin to the Roman Empire spiraling towards a fall. You can write it down to politics and war, but I’d say it’s much more lifestyle. We’ve geared up a way of life that forces everyone in it to make large sums of money to live even an average existence. This sort of financial pressure didn’t exist 30 years ago, or if it did, was nowhere near as pressing. You have people in New York paying $2,000 a month for a living space the size of a one-car garage. From what I gather, this sort of mental illness regarding real estate has spread throughout most of the country. Turn on a TV set and you’re bombarded with images of wealth, all of them assuming that this is normality, and not to crave these things is to be out of step with society. People get in debt up to their necks all their adult lives and consider this normal.

And it isn’t! Or at least shouldn’t be. All I ask for are basic options, that I don’t have to choose between a ghetto or a penthouse, or a 60-hour work week or subsistence. I think if any “end” comes, it will be this sort of fiscal insanity imploding on itself, followed by a dark ages, not some dramatic war between middle-eastern and western values.

I like that Jarvis Cocker understands that our forefathers had truly ragged ways of life that make ours look like a pleasure palace, yet we appear far more troubled than these earlier cultures. But I don’t seen any “end” to this in the near future, especially with China gearing up to be just as materialistic as America. That’s probably going to be the cause of more shit this century than anything else.

I forwarded this song to pal Andy S. a few weeks back, probably raving a little too much about it, and he found the song to be too obvious – pretty sounding, but heavy-handed and sophomoric with some of the lyrics. And he may be right on that count. But I still think it’s an interesting effort, especially for a pop song. It’s the polar opposite of something like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I don’t see Chevy pick-up trucks looking to license it any time soon, unless they want to appeal to guys wondering what would happen if they drove their pick-ups off a bridge.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.