Thursday, April 26, 2007

Corporate Amazonia

It’s a good time to get into a job situation I had a few years ago that was one of the stranger work experiences of my life. It ended weird. I’m just glad it ended.

Doing temp and freelance work, I’d often find myself going back to certain clients once I learned the ropes with their companies. Most places I’ve worked have needlessly byzantine systems that take weeks or months to master. So when these folks see a halfway intelligent individual who shows a glimmer of understanding for how to function in their corporate environment, they tend to remember the name and put it at the top of their list when the need for an extra set of hands arises. From a worker's point of view, once you get rolling with a certain company, it's usually a pleasure to come back, as people know who you are, are glad to see you, and there's a pleasant novelty of you being there for a visit that rarely wears off.

One of the first places I ever did temp work at in the early 90s was a fashion company on the far west side of Manhattan. There are more than a few over there – I mean past 9th Avenue between the 20s and 40s in terms of street numbers. Their neighborhood was much the same the last time I pulled a stint there two years ago as it was over a decade ago: two shitty delis, a lonely pizza parlor, a strange bar and a fast-food joint were the only games in town for lunch. I would sometimes use the check-cashing place with bars in the window a few blocks away to get money orders for my cash-only landlord; invariably, there’d be a pit-bull chained to the gumball machine in the waiting area. If people left work too late at night, they often ran the risk of being mugged (which happened regularly) or coming across packs of stray crack whores heading out to certain spots near the numerous entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel to ply their wares.

On top of being located in a truly shitty, hard-to-reach neighborhood, the building wasn’t geared to handle the hundreds of workers who came pouring in every morning. There’d be a steady line of 30 people every morning waiting to squeeze into two small elevators serving about 15 floors, each floor with roughly 50 workers on each. The actual office space was pretty cool – an old factory vibe with hard-wood floors and great views of the Hudson – but everything else about the place sucked. I’d have to map out an hour and 15 minutes to get there, much of that time consumed by walking from my subway stop to their far-flung office in the Manhattan equivalent of a suburban industrial park in terms of its isolation.

A strange coincidence happened in that first stint with the Human Resources department. When I walked into the office of one of the women I was helping, I noticed a framed picture of the man who ran the banking company I had just worked in for the past four years. It was his daughter! This temp agency had no connection to my old job – I was sent to this spot by chance, and you better believe in a town the size of Manhattan, that’s a very strange coincidence. (I later learned the fashion company was owned by one of the clients of the banking company. I’m forever running into that sort of nepotism all over New York. Not to take anything away from that woman – she was a solid worker and smart to boot. But you can see where some folks get a foot in a door you never will without a solid connection like that.)

I found myself coming back to the place for the occasional weeks/months long stint over the years, often in Human Resources. I’m not all that crazy about HR departments as a result. From what I’ve seen, they’re staffed largely by women who are trained in that touchy/feely way of dealing with issues, and the vibe is more cheerleading camp than highly-trained individuals. And they all think they’re Sigmund Freud in terms of understanding human behavior. Most of them were terrible at reading people and resorted to dimestore psychology easily found in shitty bestsellers about hiding cheese and learning all you need to know in kindergarten. So you had this aire of all these spunky, can-do women smiling toothily at each other, when the reality was they were thrusting daggers in each other’s backs at every turn. Women can function pretty easily in an environment like that, as they know the ropes, but guys, or at least guys like me, can’t stand that sort of shit. I work well with women in general, but when you get a department where there’s only two or three guys and 30 women, shit gets strange, at least compared to the predominantly male vibe in most corporations.

The whole company was much like that, since it was a fashion company. Neurotic debutante chicks from the suburbs and snooty gay guys. It was fashion – it wasn’t going to attract a flock of Pabst-drinking bears in sleeveless denim jackets and size 42 leather pants. Most of the guys looked like Moby in horn rims and had attitudes to match. But they were far out-numbered by women. And I don’t know what this accent is, but so many of the women had this recognizable accent I can only define as suburban Northeastern. They’d drawl their words as if they were bored. They’d say, “I’m going to the stooooooore,” and their voices always had a raspy quality. The words “like” and “you know” found their way into every sentence. There were dozens of women with this fucked-up accent, and they always seemed to have the matching attitude: snide, arrogant, hard to deal with.

Women used to tell me, “Ooh, you’re a straight guy, this must be like shooting fish in a barrel for you to work here. So many women!”

Well, no. The worst thing about the company was that because the work population was so predominately female, it was unofficially OK to be strongly anti-male, especially considering that the company’s fashions were geared mostly to women. The HR people would have denied this vehemently, but even there, it was not unusual to hear the anti-male invective fly regularly. Usually women talking about boyfriends or husbands. But I’d often hear stuff like “all men are pigs” or “honey, they have penises, they’re all liars and cowards.” This sort of banter was rampant in the place, sometimes in a ha-ha funny way, other times in a clearly unbalanced way that was creepy. I heard it in every department, on every floor of the building, all the time.

On one level, I accepted that as typical “blowing off steam” rhetoric between the sexes and didn’t frown on it. On another level, I thought it was absolute bullshit, because I’d never been in a male-dominated corporate environment where such blatant nonsense was tolerated. Sure, you’ll hear occasional stories about sexual harassment, but in general that’s not how most companies operate. Mixed with my knowledge of how touchy/feely HR was about most issues, save this one, I always got the feeling I should never let myself get caught off base there. Never hit on anyone. Never flirt. The few straight guys I knew in the place had that same constricted way about them, and I suspect as full-time employees, they knew the score much more implicitly than I did.

On top of all this, the entire company had the worst meeting culture I've ever encountered. They'd have meetings over which way the wind was blowing that morning. Every person I dealt with, usually between the hours of 10 and 4, had either a non-stop block of meetings, or maybe one or two half-hour windows to come up for air. Thus, the real work most of these people had to do wouldn't get started until 4:00, at which time, they'd be at it for the next four hours, at least. It was sick. I know corporate culture, and that a vast majority of meetings are worthless and time-consuming, that the same result can usually be reached with one email and enough cc's to cover all parties involved. Granted, I became an MS Outlook wizard as a result, but I could see that if you got anywhere from the mid-level manager on up in that place, your days would be an endless maze of shitty, droning meetings in which you fiddled while the Rome of your actual job burned.

My last gig there was in a department that was, typically, all women, 10 of them. Fill in for two months until a new assistant to the department head was hired. It was a pretty easy assignment, and I was getting along well with all involved. Even though the anti-male shit, again, was constant, with one woman in particular occasionally glaring at me for reasons I never quite understood. It occurs to me now the environment in some departments in that building was like an evil girl’s school from a horror movie. I suspect, as I do with most work places, that a vast majority of the workers are stoked to the gills on anti-depressants and other prescriptions meds, so that any given day, I’m working with people who are stoned. I can feel it, and I sure as hell felt it in that particular department.

The spot wasn’t bad, but one of the worst aspects of it was I had to page through countless weekly and monthly women’s magazines to find pictures of the company’s products used by chance in fashion spreads. This also gave me a chance to read women’s magazines, and I can assure you now, I would rather nail my dick to a burning building than read another women’s magazine. The sick mixed signals that were constantly sent (an article about how having a positive body image is a must for any woman, followed by a fashion spread featuring a 15-year-old thinner than an Auschwitz survivor), the constant reminders that wealth and status were all that mattered, the demented casual attitudes towards sex (how to discuss fellatio with your teenage daughter) – it became clear to me after a week of reading that mind-bending shit that women in our society are expected to be crazier than shithouse rats with all the mixed and wrong signals being foisted on them.

I’m terrible with fashions; if something has a logo on it, much less a status-symbol logo of wealth, I don’t want to wear it. I like blank clothes that don’t advertise a way of life or support of millionaires. Oddly enough, I could see that very high-end fashion had the same attitude as mine, save I didn’t see myself spending $1,000 on a dress shirt and black pants combo that didn’t look much different from what I normally wore for about $60. In short, I couldn’t spot the company’s wares in a magazine even if the fashion spread had flaming red arrows pointing at the items.

This became a running joke with the woman who used to have that particular position, but had moved to a new job in another department on the next floor up. She seemed pretty unhappy in that spot after a few weeks, as she had gone from a place where she had a less than nine-hour work day to one where it was expected everyone in the department would hang out until 9 or 10 every night. What’s even stranger was that on a different stint two months earlier in Human Resources, I had arranged the numerous interviews between her and the various department heads to get her this new job. When she learned I was coming back to temporarily take the spot she had vacated, she was glad to see me.

Since she knew the job inside and out, I often had to consult with her, mainly with the whole "spot the product" issue in magazines. (It seemed like an archaic function, but the scanned-in pictures of products would be placed on a website that their retail stores had access to, so if a customer came in rambling on about a coat she had seen in a particular magazine, the salesperson could easily find out exactly what she meant and make the sale -- it made sense.) I would scan in pictures of what I thought were company fashions, email them to her, and generally be told I had just scanned fashions from their direct competition. It got to be a running joke, with me responding, “Phew, thank you for re-affirming my heterosexuality.” It was a fun laugh between both of us. Every other day, I’d email a jpeg of one of these things, and always be told I was wrong, with me not really sweating it, nor her.

One day, I emailed her a picture of some shoes, got the unexpected response that I was right for the first time, and responded something like, “Phew! I better start looking at the fashion spreads in this month’s Cosmo so I can have some heterosexuality affirming erections!”

I didn’t think anything of it. The office was strangely quiet that afternoon. The woman I was helping out stayed in her office. 4:55 pm rolls around, I start putting my coat on. As I do, I notice this guy Jody from Human Resources sauntering casually down the hall. Jody’s a strange guy. It’s understood that he’s gay – as it is with 90% of the guys working there. But he’s a gay guy with no fashion sense working in a fashion company. He’s the size of a house, and he’s made his trademark look the “casually untucked dress shirt” look that came into vogue a few years ago. (I hate this slovenly look.) Jody doesn’t seem to realize he: a. looks like a standard-issue fashion victim; and b. looks like he’s trying to cover up his enormous belly by having his shirt always untucked. It’s a lose-lose look for him. He’s a nice guy in general, but this weird aspect of his lack of fashion sense, on top of his gayness, makes me not trust him.

He sees me and says, hey, Bill, can we step into this empty office here and have a word. This is strange. 4:55 on a Friday. There’s no reason to talk to me. And I don’t trust anyone from HR initiating a conversation that goes beyond the weather, as I know how full of shit these people are on a regular basis.

We sit down, and he pulls out a copy of the email I sent to this woman earlier. He tells me that I’ve gone too far, and that I have to leave the company immediately and never return, that he’ll escort me to the front door, and that I’m to never come back there again.

I think he thought I was going to go apoplectic, break down in tears or produce an ice pick from my gym bag and go after that woman. Or ask why, why, why. But I don’t think he realized how fucking tired I was of working in the place, for many of the above-noted reasons. I had a week to go on this particular stint, but as my 70+ year old mother was just getting out of the hospital after a serious operation, I frankly had little problem with blowing this stint earlier and heading directly home to see her.

I was annoyed that my character had in some way been called into question – I had made a joke, much like a few dozen other jokes I had made with this woman in the previous weeks. I never found out how that email reached Human Resources – whether this woman had somehow decided she was now offended at our regular joking, or whether the word “erection” had tipped off some internal word search in the company’s email system and sprung them into action without her knowledge or approval.

In either event, I didn’t give a shit. I was smiling at Jody and shrugging. Their way of dealing with this scenario was typically hypocritical. They pride themselves on sensitivity training and “talking things out” – nothing was being talked out here. I was being told to get the fuck out of there, not given any opportunity to sit down with that woman and clarify the situation or apologize, and being held to a radically different standard than a vast majority of the company was held to in the level of off-color banter that was openly allowed. (My mistake was that it was in writing, not verbal, i.e., evidence if this woman got strange and demanded some type of legal action if the company didn’t take appropriate measures.) On top of this, a gay guy was imposing this abnormally harsh judgment on me … when people sharing his sexuality have been experiencing centuries of equally harsh judgments and over-reactions over something that’s really not that big an issue.

I didn’t expect Jody to grasp that irony – HR folks are not about irony, they're about efficiency, save you could fire 90% of any HR Department, and the company would go on functioning just the same. (Oops, sorry for that inappropriate jab.) In all fairness, Jody was pretty cool with the whole situation. Since he was in HR, I’m sure he’d been privy to many freakouts and crying jags, and situations far more heinous and strange than this. On the way out at the elevator, he nodded sagely and said, “Learn from this, Bill. Learn from this.”

I laughed. But I did learn from this. I learned never to monkey around in email, because laws are such that putting something in writing takes communication into a whole new legal realm that doesn’t seem to apply with the spoken word. I learned to be real careful around apparently unstable young women, that they could easily create strangeness and misunderstanding at the drop of a hat if they so desired. Them’s just the breaks in corporate America today – things are slanted to cater to women, albeit in an ultimately meaningless way that has no effect on the real power in any given company. (I suspect if I was a key player in that company, which is run by men, the same scenario would have resulted in Jody sitting in my office with downcast eyes asking if I could “tone it down” and apologizing for any inconvenience … while I yelled at him about double standards and contacting my attorney, fuck you, get out of my office, etc.) I’m not sure what that woman was thinking, if in fact she did initiate that action. That I was coming on to her? Harassing her? Neither of these was true. I was indulging in a practice both of us had been engaging in over the past few weeks and that she had apparently consented to a few dozen times over … but the magic word “erection” suddenly made her suspect I was Jack the Ripper waiting to pounce?

You tell me. I laughed on the way out and am glad as hell I won’t be going back to that god-awful part of town to work in that strange company. Again, I didn’t much care for having my integrity called into question – I’ll put my work-place ethic and demeanor up against anyone’s. I gather the best plan of action for anyone is to turn yourself into such a bland, generic, vanilla worker that you couldn’t possibly offend anyone of any race, sex, creed or ethnicity – as if you were some new P.C. version of a caricature from a 1950s training film on how to get along in the office. But I’ve also found most work places aren’t as deeply confused and contradictory as that company is. I learned what I always knew: some places you should just stay the fuck away from, no matter how much money you stand to make in them.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bomb Iran (MP3 of the Week #10) and Some More Timely Novelty Items

Last week, there was a minor hubbub over Republican presidential candidate John McCain, when asked a question about Iran at a public appearance, referring to “the old Beach Boys song” and singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb/Bomb bomb Iran” – to the tune of the actual Beach Boys song, “Barbara Ann.”

What he was really referring to was a novelty song by Vince Vance and the Valiants called “Bomb Iran.” Which was “Barbara Ann” with new lyrics pertaining to the then-current Iran hostage crisis at the turn of the 1980s. I don’t know anything about the band – most likely a morning zoo DJ before the term “morning zoo” came into being.

The song itself, at that time, humorously tapped into the rage many Americans felt over the hostage crisis, which dragged on literally to the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election and included a botched military rescue attempt that sealed Jimmy Carter’s political fate. When Iraq rolled around again, I immediately thought of the song, but it didn’t quite apply. Whereas now, with the idiot running Iran doing his best to pick a fight with the U.S. (and I’ve seen a few stories implying that he was one of the student protest leaders in the hostage crisis, which makes sense) … let’s just say everything old is new again.

Below is a popular Youtube piece that works on so many levels, with the title of Hot Country Singer Has a Message for the Troops, apparently by a comedy group called The Dregs (although the tag line says “introducing Sandy Belle”):

The cheap production values are perfect, as are the slightly-used looks of the singer. But whoever wrote the song, hats off, a fine piece of work whatever level you want to take it on, however you feel about all this stuff. Accurate melody and arrangement, and great lyrics ("We'll be getting freaky like in Abu Ghraib.") Anyone from a die-hard anti-war protester to a bunch of guys in a barracks in Baghdad can enjoy this.

Finally, I came across this tribute song regarding last week’s Virginia Tech mass murder.

Phew. We’re all Hokies today? I'm afraid I didn't get that memo. Technically, I’m a Nittany Lion, but honestly, if some maniac murdered dozens of people at Penn State, I really wouldn’t classify myself as a Nittany Lion, nor would I make the larger assumption that “we’re all Nittany Lions today." Besides which, I don’t picture those words fitting into a good soft-rock format that sounds like the theme from Dawson’s Creek.

Am I wrong to feel insulted by this song? I can understand the logic: a bunch of young guys in a band see an opportunity to capitalize on a tragedy, and thus hitch their wagon to Myspace with a song that they’d swear is 100% sincere, but is also deeply cynical and coldly calculated at the same time. (Another life lesson, folks: beware of those who are either completely unaware of their own ulterior motives, or claim to be. Either way, their moral compass is off. Then again, this character trait is a prerequisite for making it in the entertainment industry.)

It sounds like a parody song from South Park. Compare and contrast this song with “Bomb Iran.” Compare and contrast the 1970s and now. In the 1970s when something horrible like the Jonestown Massacre occurred, the fucking Doobie Brothers weren’t writing a tribute song a few days later. There’s something about that time, and I was raised in that time and have that frame of reference, that we would have seen right through a song like that and been deeply offended. Yes, we had stuff like “You Light Up My Life,” “Torn Between Two Lovers” and “Sometimes When We Touch.” But never the twain met between smarmy pop hits like that and mass murders, which probably happened as much in the 1970s as they do now.

The "heartfelt tribute song as meaningful social commentary" trend gathered steam in the 1980s with shit like “Do They Know It’s Christmas, “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” Great causes, terrible songs, this trend should have died right there. It’s not “political.” It’s a questionable mixture of career opportunism, fluff and cultural strong-arming – how could you possibly have an issue with starving children and AIDS? And now, victims of this maniac in Virginia? (When your real issue is these tragedies being used by entertainers for their own nefarious purposes.)

(Sidenote: just remembered a great send-up of the song "We Are the World" that neatly sums up the above sentiments: "They're Not the World" by Culturecide.)

Blame Bob Geldof. “I Don’t Like Mondays” may have been the first very bad, trite, poorly written song about a massacre: in 1979 a girl in San Diego going off her nut and shooting some people. Even then, The Boomtown Rats’ piano player always wore pajamas. You couldn’t take this stuff too seriously. Never was all that nuts about Sir Bob.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Well, the predictable media barrage over this genocidal nutcase killing and maiming dozens of people at Virginia Tech is underway. I have nothing pertinent to add – then again, no one does. Shit like this happens, has happened and will continue to happen. There’s no “unless” involved. But while reading a New York Times write-up on the situation, a few key sentences jumped out at me. I’d like to highlight them below and offer some comments.


He was a stranger in a crowd of 26,000.

I remember that feeling in college, too. Does that make me a psychopath? The first few weeks of college, coming from a rural area of Pennsylvania onto a college campus of about 30,000, I felt pretty strange and frightened. I’m not sure what the intent of a statement like that is – most of us have had that experience. (But that’s a sentiment you’re going to see me expressing a few times over before this thing is through.)

“He was my roommate,” said Joe Aust, a 19-year-old sophomore. “I didn’t know him that well, though.”

I wrote about this earlier. My first year at college, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a private house off-campus with an older student named Mike. As far as Mike was concerned, I was probably a nutcase in the making, as I spent most of my time in my room writing or studying (when not hanging out with my friends, whom I rarely brought back there). It’s just that the guy spent all his time camped out in the living room, watching M*A*S*H reruns and such. We got along in a vague sort of way. Neither of us knew each other that well, though, even after a year in the same apartment. And we were both pretty comfortable with that. Most people I knew had at least one of these awkward roommate situations, especially when they lived in dorms.

They never saw him with a girl or any friends for that matter.

I’m trying to figure out what this implies. If he had a girlfriend, he wouldn’t have done this? But if he had a boyfriend, he might have done this, because we all know that so many fags are filled with murderous rage, too, right? He was a loner? In a lot of ways, I am, too. I like having my privacy. Doesn’t make me a psycho killer. (But I guess this is one more all-important piece in the puzzle … that’s been the twisted media portrait of a killer, in which all these little details amount to one big psycho. Right. Just like in the movies. That’s how it works.

Although Mr. Cho told his roommate he was a business major, the university said today that he was an English major … “Sometimes some creative writing class students will say something that unnerves us,” she said. “I know that there was some intervention and I don’t know the particulars.”

There was this one guy in an introductory fiction class I took who always wrote macabre, Stephen King style short stories. One was a first-person narrative about a guy who worked in a slaughterhouse at the turn of the 20th century, with the job of killing dozens of cows each day by applying a sledgehammer blow to their heads. He really knew his shit about slaughterhouses, had researched it thoroughly, and he made the character out to be either Christ or a Christ-like figure trapped in this horrifying job. He was a chubby kid. A bit arrogant, too. An odd duck. The class hated him … although I now recognize he was a pretty good writer who took all sorts of risks most of those kids couldn’t even imagine. The other kids in the class hated him and would often insult him to his face. I gather Mr. Cho wasn’t functioning on that level as a writer, but I know the vibe all too well of volatile kids in the 20s coming up with some strange stories. What are we to make of Brett Easton Ellis for writing American Psycho ... much less William S. Burroughs writing Naked Lunch?

Mr. Grewal (his roommate) recalled how earlier in the year someone running for a student council position visited the suite to pass out candy and ask for votes. Mr. Cho would not even make eye contact with him, turning his head away and refusing to make conversation.

A show of hands. How many people out there would have done the same thing as Mr. Cho, and salute him in this situation for his common sense regarding politics?

“He was always really, really quiet and kind of weird, keeping to himself all the time,” he said. “ … He said it was a creepy quietness.

What exactly is “creepy quietness”? As opposed to “reassuring quietness”? I’ve seen his roommates interviewed on TV. They got ESPN Sports Center written all over them. Backwards baseball hats, keggers, Dave Matthews Band on the iPod. I’d rather not trust their take on quietness. Or anything, for that matter. Because the same quietness with a girl they’d want to fuck would come out as, “We don’t have to say anything around each other, and it’s really OK, dude.”

“I would notice a lot of times, I would come in the room and he would kind of be sitting at his desk, just staring at nothing,” he said.

Boy. That never happens at a college campus. I’d say so long as you don’t catch your roommate masturbating, you’re way ahead of the game.

Mr. Aust and Mr. Grewal, 21, said he was often on his computer.

Gulp. So am I!

“When he was in the room, he would spend a lot of time on his computer, downloading music and stuff,” Mr. Aust said. There was no single style of music that he particularly liked, from rock to country to pop.

Jesus Christ, so do I. Again! And I have no single style of music I like either. Alert the media! And gun sellers south of the Mason-Dixon line!

Mr. Cho was often out of the room.

Again, hate to overly identify with a stone killer, but I’d have done the same.


I’m in no way looking to lessen the impact of this story, which would be impossible. This kid did a horrible thing, and I hope he’s burning in hell right now. To judge by snippets of his insane video – which is sort of the western equivalent of a suicide bomber tribute tape – the guy was just insane. Probably driven there by circumstances in his life – kids harassing him in high school and such, probably also feeling very out of place as a Korean in what I suspect was a lily-white, affluent DC suburb. But there are plenty of other people with similar stories, and there’s something far beyond circumstances that cause someone to commit this sort of heinous crime. (I once dated a Korean girl who was raised in a small town outside of Nashville. When I asked her if she had dealt with racism -- she had, to say the least -- she replied, "Dad always said, when you see a piece of dogshit on the sidewalk, step around it, not in it.")

What bothers me most about the media coverage, as noted above, is this predictable picture that’s always purposely drawn of the killer(s) in this scenario. I find myself strangely identifying with a lot of the characteristics of the killer – whether that’s some inexplicable relation to underdogs in our society (these kids are always portrayed as rank outsiders), pure chance, or something I should blow about $10K on with a psychiatrist 10 times crazier than I'll ever be, I have no idea. I do know I don’t have it in me to gun down random strangers on a killing spree as some misguided statement of purpose against the world. That’s not saying much – a near 100% majority of people on earth feel the same way.

But it seems to me as if these stories are a strange form of propaganda to maintain some semblance of normalcy in our society. Friends. Girlfriends. Sociable. Easy to get along with. Talkative. Warm. Inviting.

If you’re not all these things – and I know very few people who are, full-on, all the time – then you must read stories like this and think, “Jesus Christ, the things I have in common with a mass murderer … does that mean there’s something wrong with me, too?"

I’m a grown man, and I still get this uncomfortable chill that I’m somehow supposed to toe some line of normalcy presented in these stories. What is normal is never stated directly, but implied by all the thing the killer is not. And that magical, fantasy person seems to be a very popular fellow on campus, with a girlfriend (if he has a boyfriend, yeah, that’s cool, dude, but there’s still something wrong with you, but don’t sweat it, we’ll never address it to your face), dozens of close, loyal friends he spends all his time with (although I haven’t quite cracked the nut on how you cultivate deep relationships with dozens of people when there are just so many hours in the day, and a radical difference between acquaintances and friends that most people don’t seem to have the balls to acknowledge, lest they realize how lonely they are). He’s into sports, of course, playing and watching, hopefully something like lacrosse, because this sort of thing builds character and dependency on others. He’s into joining – charity organizations, fraternities, churches. Whatever. Be a part of something.

(I grew up worshipping The Kinks. With songs like "A Well-Respected Man," "Shangri-la," "Autumn Almanac" and "David Watts" -- all of which champion individuality over the pleasant sort of conformity of English suburban life Ray Davies simultaneously loathed and loved. It says something about our society now that both overtly and subtly, we're all being encouraged to become the sort of over-achievers and landed gentry a person like Ray Davies regulary sent-up and mildly loathed. I'd rather not be the Big Man on Campus. Nor a murderous psychopath. My point being that the inference in these stories is that there isn't much choice beyond those two options, although I damn well know there are thousands of options.)

It grates on me that there are people out there in the media who think they could comb through my life, cherry pick statements from me and people in my life, some of who don’t really know me very well but will say anything with a microphone shoved in their face, and create some fantasy picture based on all these preconceived stereotypes to fit whatever kind of story they’d want to write. If I saved a family from a burning building, they could make me look like a hero. If I killed someone, they could make me look like a time bomb waiting to go off, while everyone around me ignored “the warning signals.” (What warning signals would there be that I'd run into a burning building and save a family?)

I’d rather not have these folks pass judgment on me – or more accurately, create the rules of public court in which the verdict – hero or killer – would be made painfully obvious by what they chose to report, and how they chose to frame it. These people write like lawyers knowingly and willfully trying to sway a jury to their point of view, which must be right, as there is no other possible answer.

In the past few days, I’ve been overwhelmed by that feeling with this kid and the awful things he did. And all I can say is when you’re that fucking crazy, there are no set answers – probably dozens of little threads that lead to that horrible point, and the X Factor of total insanity that the kid had no control over. (He obviously had control over his situation, as he planned it – I don’t think he had control over the circumstances of his life he created leading into that dark place.)

No answers from me. But no stacked decks either, where I present you with a bunch of vignettes and purposely highlighted quotations and facts to create a narrative framework that must make sense to you … and make you respond as a human must, in total disgust and revulsion, but wise in that you can now see all the “warning signs” and the crooked path. If I had a dime for every crooked path I’ve come across in the past 20 years since I left college. And not one of them has ended in murder.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

MP3 of the Week #9

Again, with the country music ... I just seem to be on one of those jags.

But a good point to drive home with country: the reason why I like it is because it openly addresses the problems of adulthood, and either finds depth, sadness or humor in these things that I rarely hear any pop or rock artist getting anywhere near. In other words, some of the best songwriters going these days, as has always been the case, work in the country genre. Granted, a lot of the fluff you'll see on CMT or hear on a Country Top 40 station often presents the other side of adulthood: overbearing sentimentality and pride, and a self-seriousness that would put a 15-year-old with a mohawk to shame. I don't like that kind of country, and I suspect that's what most people are openly exposed to, thus they never develop the urge to seek out other stuff, the sort of stuff I listen to all the time.

So, I've picked four songs from my recent playlist that hit home with me: good songwriting, good melodies, just good music as far as I'm concerned, whatever the genre.

"Strip Mall" by Jesse Irwin presents a neat snapshot of what's gone wrong with America since the advent of shopping malls in the 60s. It's not a particularly sad song, although it starts with the singer noting a bunch of indian burial mounds being bulldozed at the edge of his small town so a new strip mall can be built. On the contrary, the amazing litany of shitty chain stores and restaurants Irwin reels off is pure genius. Just hearing the names strung together like this in a Guthrie-style protest song is a pleasure. If only all protest music was this smart.

"Combover Blues" by Todd Snider details the aging process and the mild depression that often accompanies it. I love the way he mimics Hank Williams' singing on the classic "Honky Tonk Blues." I think Snider is a bit of a pussy for feeling guilty over despising the tastes of teenage kids. Shit, this is a badge of honor with me -- it's my duty as an adult. When I was a kid, I thought other kids were full of shit: why should anything be different now? Youth is not a holy shrine -- it's a time in life too many people tend to romanticize as they get older. No need to piss on it, but no need to kiss its ass either. Still, the song uses a nice analogy -- the comb-over haircut of a desperate balding man -- to deal with aging, which is really mortality, the realization that we all must die. Fun stuff!

On a similar note, "I'm Never Gonna' Be a Rock Star" by Tommy Womack contains the classic line: "The hair might go/But the dream remains." The song is Womack realizing he's grown too old to achieve any sort of fame as a rock star and accepts his fate as a tasteful cult alt-country singer. This is the heart of country -- not just getting your ass beat, but what happens after your ass gets beat. What do you do? Cry? Grow bitter? Or let it sink in, learn from failure, alter your course and move forward the best you can? I think you know the answer I prefer. (It's worth tracking down Womack's rambling song "The Replacements" -- a beautiful tribute to the great 80s band lead by Paul Westerberg. Drop me a line if you'd like a copy -- every Replacements fan should own that song. It strikes me that Womack is now writing the sort of songs Westerberg should be writing a lot more of these days.)

To get the irony of "Live Free or Die" by Bill Morrissey, you have to know the state motto of New Hampshire (which is the song title, and the best state motto, by far). I often picture myself with about 30 more lbs., a handlebar mustache, wraparound shades, a sleeveless t-shirt with "Burn This One" emblazoned in angry red letters over the American flag, a screaming eagle forearm tattoo, and all I can say, in a gravelly voice, is "Live free or die." The song is about a guy in a New Hampshire prison who stops to ponder his place in life while making license plates embossed with the state's "live free or die" motto. He's not living free or dying. And while he's a bit pissed off over his situation, it makes him laugh. (As with Womack, Morrissey has another song that everyone should own: "Birches." It's about a young married couple in their chilly New England house on their wedding night, and how their choice of what kind of wood to put on the fire -- oak to burn longer and more sure, or birch to burn more brightly but fade out faster -- represents an unspoken void the wife senses. It's one of the best songs I've ever heard, a work of genius.)

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.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

My Illogical Penchant for Clint Eastwood's Shitty Chimp Movies

I’ve always been a solid Clint Eastwood fan, going back to the long-running Dirty Harry series and the brilliant Kelly’s Heroes, although Donald Sutherland as the prescient hippie tank commander stole that movie from him. I also like some of the more interesting choices he’s made as an actor: Bronco Billy, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Honky Tonk Man, Escape from Alcatraz. I like that he’s a Republican and was actually the mayor of an affluent California town: it makes sense in the context of his career.

What I’m trying to figure out, and have had little luck thus far, is determining why I’m so enamored of his two shitty chimp movies, Every Which Way But Loose and its pointless sequel, Any Which Way You Can. I know they’re truly terrible movies. But I noticed something a few years go. Every time one of these movies came on TV, usually on the weekend or a listless Tuesday night, I wouldn’t just watch it, but would find myself laughing along with the stupidity. It’s grown so bad that I’ve bought both on DVD and watch them a few times a year to remind myself how much I like them.

Even the opening scene of Every Which Way But Loose gets to me: a long view of the San Fernando Valley on a summer’s evening, with the camera panning in on Clint as Philo Beddoe, driving his truck back to the depot as Eddie Rabbit croons the 70s-lite country theme song. Something about the song and the grittiness of a truck driver navigating through a no-frills California landscape registers. Eastwood was 48 when the movie was released in 1978; he looks to be in his early 30s and wears a dirty t-shirt and jeans with authority.

It doesn’t take him long to kick somebody’s ass: in this case, a fat redneck in a bar who taunts him as “a squirrel” for hogging peanuts from a bowl on the bar. Eastwood’s knock-out punch sends the redneck into the jukebox, a record clicks into place, and it’s magically the Eddie Rabbit theme song fading back-in. I don’t find it funny now, but I remember first seeing Dirty Harry movies in the 70s, and even this movie, and laughing my ass off every time Eastwood’s characters got into a fistfight. Something about the way the camera would frame his face breaking into that famous scowl, the pronounced way he’d rear back and ball up his right fist, the camera angle that would follow his hapless victim tumbling from the blow. The fistfights in his movies seemed like logical conclusions to perversely stupid situations – of course, an age-old myth of action/adventure flicks.

In short order we’re introduced to Philo’s wacky mother (Ruth Gordon), his brother Orville (the great character actor Geoffrey Lewis), and beer-drinking orangutan Clyde, who playfully pummels Philo when he goes out to Clyde’s shed to offer him the bar peanuts. (Philo may have won Clyde in a bar fight; I guess he kicked some carny ass when Ringling Brothers hit Burbank.) It’s clear from the scenery that Philo’s working-class: cars in disrepair in the front yard and a non-descript ranch house in which the family lives. The orangutan must shit somewhere – I suspect the yard holds more surprises than old carburetors and tires hiding in the tall grass.

The next scene, Philo does his thing: handily kicks a guy’s ass for money in an organized parking-lot fistfight. Philo has a solid reputation on the west coast as a bare-knuckle brawler to supplant his truck-driving salary. Orville serves as his manager, canvassing redneck bars near factories and cattle farms to scout out local talent willing to fight Philo, with their take being whatever the odds-on betting pool allows.

That night, we learn that this is all a lead-in to what Philo truly represents: the modern-day cowboy. Philo dons a black cowboy hat, Orville his sideways-turned trucker’s hat (pre-dating hiphop fashion by a solid decade), and they hit the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, the legendary country/western bar which was still going strong in the late 70s.

While there, Philo catches a rote country song from Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke). Cowboys are her weakness, she lets Philo drive her back to her trailer park, where we learn she has a weasly boyfriend who doesn’t mind her fooling around … and we’re off to the races. All you need to know after that is there’s a half-assed motorcycle gang called The Black Widows that Philo alienates when two of the gang disrespect Clyde while riding shotgun in Philo’s pick-up at a red light. (Bill McKinney plays one of the hapless bikers – you might remember him anally raping Ned Beatty in Deliverance?)

It turns into a road movie when Lynn Halsey ditches the trailer park with her errant boyfriend. Philo, Clyde and Orville follow her to Colorado, with The Black Widows in tow, and a pair of cops whom Philo beats the shit out of one night at the Palomino (although they were off duty at the time, but took the humiliation as a personal affront).

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath, as I’m sure this detailed synopsis requires the same intellectual dexterity as reading Joyce’s Ulysses while high on acid.

It’s a stupid movie, and that’s paying it a compliment. So why does it work for me?

Part of the appeal for me is Korean War vets, especially as represented in 1970s America. Which is to say, by and large, invisible men in their 40s who registered nary a blip on the cultural radar. The connection to Eastwood is his character in 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: a wayward Korean War vet who’s turned to a life of hustling, finding himself chased through the American west by fellow vet George Kennedy, who has a score to settle regarding a botched federal reserve robbery. Eastwood as Thunderbolt teams up with a young Jeff Bridges as Lightfoot, and they eventually join forces with Kennedy and his partner (Geoffrey Lewis, again) to re-rob the same federal reserve. It’s an Eastwood movie, but the odd chemistry between Bridges’ smart-ass kid/hustler and Kennedy’s gritty/cynical war vet is what makes the movie work. (And lest we forget the omniscient Bill McKinney, who has a brief role as a maniac driving a beat-up street rod with an exhaust pipe in the back seat and a trunkful of live rabbits. Eastwood and Bridges make the mistake of hitching a ride from him, with Eastwood eventually knocking out McKinney when he rolls the car, kicks open the trunk and starts shooting at the rabbits with a rifle.)

All these years later, I can see that the characters in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can informally represent that forgotten Korean War vet in 70s culture. Guys well along in years, living non-descript lives with little fanfare, listening to country music in redneck bars, drinking Olympia beer (or whatever cheap regional brew was available in their neck of the woods). I’m roughly the same age now (early 40s) and can see that this is the magic age, when we disappear. Marketers can’t target us unless it’s for a mortgage, Viagra or a funeral plot, we may have kids who are in our twisted youth culture limelight, and if not, even more reason for us to quietly fade away before everyone can make fun of us for being truly old in about 25 years. I suspect this held just as true in the 70s as it does now.

These 70s Eastwood movies pay tribute to Korean War vets, in a subdued, non-aggrandizing way that I like. Granted, the chimp movies are stupid, an embarrassment, but they also positively represent the kind of characters (truck drivers, factory workers, construction workers) who were and are often portrayed as rabble and racists in Hollywood. The 70s were also the time of the anti-hero – think Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon – and it didn’t occur to too many people to make a hero out of a truck driver living with his mother. Vietnam vets were portrayed as damaged, righteous, cool guys in their 20s trying to find their way after the insanity of a senseless war. (Think Jon Voight in Coming Home, or Nick Nolte in Who'll Stop the Rain.) Korean War vets? Who gave a shit? Have a beer. Punch up some Haggard on the jukebox. The war’s been over for a long time, buddy. How are the wife and kids? The job?

That sort of invisibility is actually a blessing in disguise, as the end result of being deemed cool in our culture is to have a severely romantic (and unfulfilling) myth built around a nondescript reality. Most Vietnam vets I knew (as a kid in the 70s) were quietly working in factories and moving on with their lives, much as their fathers had done after World War II and Korea. You don’t get that sense watching movies about them from the 70s, where they were portrayed as damaged, sensitive souls or deranged maniacs.

(Even a movie like 1989’s tolerably good Jacknife, with Robert De Niro and Ed Harris as old Vietnam War buddies reconnecting, revels in this sort of mild anti-heroism. The Deer Hunter? Why do I find that best parts of the movie are the long lead-in with the last work day at the factory and the wedding, and the subtle town scenes once DeNiro returns and finds everything amiss? The "Vietnam" scenes are necessary in showing what the three friends went through, but the real beauty in that movie is how well Cimino captured the look and feel of a Pennsylvania coal town, before and after war.)

This may all sound a bit off, but if you look at how well Every Which Way But Loose did at the box office (according to the DVD notes, it was Eastwood’s biggest hit of the 70s, grossing almost $100 million), there was an audience out there for these types of characters. Granted, part was Eastwood’s star power, and part was the idiotic attraction of having a chimp in a movie. But I suspect underneath that, the simple truth is characters like this were rarely portrayed positively in 70s movies, and there were millions of people out there who wanted to see this. Burt Reynolds massive success with Smokey and the Bandit supports this theory. (But Reynolds made far better, grittier southern-based movies before this: Deliverance, The Longest Yard, White Lightning, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Good stuff!)

I have to believe this is in some small way true … otherwise, it’s all about the lowest common denominator paying good money to watch a chimp drink beer, give the finger and makes faces. Granted, there are some funny scenes: Philo breaking into a zoo at night to get Clyde laid, the oft-repeated “right turn, Clyde” line, which allows Clyde to knock out various bad guys with a potent right cross, Clyde’s penchant for defecating on the front seat of police cars.

But there was something to be said for Eastwood’s star power in the 70s. The Dirty Harry series portrayed him as a murderous, hard-assed cop with a very dark sense of humor: a great image for an actor to have, and to play against. This worked in tandem with his similarly macho roles in spaghetti and 70s westerns. This bizarre chimp movie must have seemed like an extreme gamble at the time, but it worked. Bronco Billy, from 1980, may have been the best of Eastwood’s against-type movies, in which he played a New Jersey shoe salesman who reinvents himself as wild-west star in a traveling roadshow on the verge of bankruptcy. Instead of pandering to the audience with a chimp, he went for an old-fashioned appeal to sentimental values. It worked. Eastwood managed to play both anti and straight heroes, manipulating American stereotypes he sensed were not meant to be compromised or questioned in the context of a fictional motion picture. That didn’t happen much in the 70s, and no one was going to call you a genius or auteur for doing it, especially when it involved a fucking chimp.

The less said about the sequel Any Which Way You Can, the better. Every Which Way But Loose is a stupid movie; Any Which Way You Can is a really stupid movie. It’s basically the same movie, only this time the mafia are the fumbling bad guys who come up against Philo, and he inexplicably gets the girl, although it was made clear at the end of Every Which Way But Loose that she was batshit crazy and not to be trusted. The movie is redeemed somewhat by legendary Hollywood badass William Smith as Philo’s fighting nemesis who teams up with him to screw the mafia. And there’s a rolling Quiet Man-style brawl at the end that must have been great fun the first time I saw it.

What happened to movies like this? Thankfully, they disappeared, or went unnoticed without that Eastwood sort of star power. The only clear-cut contender for Eastwood’s brand of enjoyable stupidity was Patrick Swayze, with his equally brilliant 80s action/adventure trio of Point Break, Roadhouse and Next of Kin. (In Point Break, he made a skewed, Una-bomber type sense as leader of a renegade surfer gang who saw armed bank robbery as a logical antidote to a day job; Roadhouse is a perfect redneck movie that was the pinnacle of Swayze’s career; Next of Kin was the weakest of the three, and much like Donald Sutherland with Eastwood, Liam Neeson stole the movie from Swayze as his entirely believable Appalachian brother set on avenging their younger brother’s murder.) These tough, fun, entertaining movies don’t make up for chick-flick travesties like Ghost and Dirty Dancing, but they gave Swayze’s career a sense of balance that he never capitalized on as Eastwood did.

Still, like a 15-year-old discovering the joys of masturbation and rubbing his penis raw, I will watch Any Which You Can on occasion, a movie that was clearly meant to be watched only once. I’ll watch Every Which Way But Loose any time. I’ve had debates with friends that there are no such things as guilty pleasures – that if a piece of art or entertainment gives you pleasure, then there is no guilt involved. But god damn if I don’t feel guilty over liking Clint Eastwood’s shitty chimp movies. I get the vibe that I’ve set the bar too low for even a degenerate pop-culture kitsch hound, and it spooks me. If you catch me watching American Gladiator reruns on ESPN Classic, with no pants on and a can of Old Milwaukee in hand, don't say I didn't warn you.