Sunday, November 25, 2007

Who Killed Jaxx?

Been a strange few weeks here, portents of life’s inevitable ebb swirling through the days like the countless dead leaves I’ve been raking in two states. As you may recall, this time of year is now tinged with Dad’s fairly rapid passing a few years back. (Google my surname and “Blue Christmas” for that read. That’s a piece of writing I go back to every now and then to remind myself how strange those last days were. And I got the anger, sadness, confusion and thorny resolve down better than I thought I had at the time.)

There’s this woman I keep seeing when I’m out sweeping leaves in Astoria, and I’ve been doing that a lot lately. It seems like every week there’s a crushing load of newly-fallen leaves to be swept up and deposited in those sturdy brown paper eco-friendly bags. As I’ve stated before, I enjoy doing this, partially for the joy of seeing a finite job through to completion, partially because it makes me feel I’m part of nature in a small way, sweeping up after her, respecting the dead in an odd way, can’t just leave them lying all over the street.

She’s an old Indian woman – Hindu Indian, not American Indian. Wrapped from head to toe in swaddling white robes, her face covered with a white sheath. She moves slowly, shuffling, up and down the blocks around me, but never on my sidewalk as I’m sweeping. First saw her on that overcast Veterans Day, but I’ve seen her the last two times I’ve swept, including today. I take it this is just an old woman in the neighborhood stretching her legs. But with gray and windy late fall skies, her robes flapping in the wind, only seeing her eyes and hands … it fucking freaks me out! I expect her to pull a scythe from under her robes and beckon me with a bony brown finger, my time to leave. For all the pleasant, older dog walkers I’ve been meeting out there lately, people who stop and say hello, offering words of encouragement while they let me pet their feisty little terriers, she’s the one who sticks with me most.

When I was back home in PA for Thanksgiving, Brother J and I performed the inevitable big leaf rake in the yard, getting eight pick-up truck loads this time (and he’ll have that many more on his own in a few weeks). Andy S. mentioned awhile back that our adventures with the ill-defined dumping space between the local cemetery and township storage shed came off like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” with us fretting every passing car and stray glance. Well, Mom called up the township and found it was kosher for us to dump mounds of leaves in that craggy space, so this year was worry free.

Save that there was another strange vision this Thanksgiving afternoon. The weather was all over the place, like in Scotland, sunny and windy for an hour, then drizzly, back and forth all afternoon. We had to beat the possibility of rain and the certainty of sundown. We did, but as we did, we noticed while transporting each pick-up truck load that there was an old man sitting in a yoga pose by a grave about 30 yards from us at the cemetery’s edge. He looked like Howard Hughes: sixtyish, scraggly long gray hair and beard, sunglasses, and I’m not making this up, he appeared to be wearing a bath robe and slippers … in 40-degree weather. (We didn’t get close enough to see if his fingernails were a foot long.)

Having been raised by that cemetery, we knew to expect odd scenes from time to time. People blown out by emotion, weeping over graves, or hugging tombstones, or singing, or what have you when people visit graves and feel the full brunt of pain they can’t or won’t in their every-day lives. Nothing wrong with that – however you have to get that shit out, better to do so than not allow yourself to feel that way ever. This old man appeared to be meditating in that cold, intermittent drizzle. We thought it best to just leave him alone, go about our business, hope he wouldn’t get too strange, but we had business to do and went about it.

By the next-to-last load, we noticed he was lying down on his side and appeared to be slowly waving his left arm in a circle. At this point, we’re both thinking, what the fuck. Is this guy on acid? Is he preparing for the spirit world on his self-designated last day on earth? Again, I think our attitude was leave the guy alone. Wherever he was mentally, neither of us wanted to go there. If we came back for the last load and he was motionless, then we’d intervene to make sure he was alive.

The last load, he was still waving his arm. Luckily, we noticed an SUV pulling towards him as we pulled away, another (more sane looking) older man driving, wearing one of those natty old-man fur hats with a feather in the side flap. I’m hoping those two knew each other, otherwise, the guy driving was in for a memorable experience as he visited a near-by grave.

If you want an informal dividing line for growing older, you can safely say you’re older when you want to avoid graveyards like the plague, because you understand that one day, probably sooner than you think, you’re going to be in there. Whereas I can still recall kids, especially teenagers, craving the forbidden nature of hanging out in graveyards at night, think all those legendary rock-star graves where fans hang out getting high and pouring out the star’s share of Boone’s Farm on some moonlit night. Well, later for that shit! When you start putting family members and friends into the ground, you’re not going to find anything cool or romantic about these places any time of the day or night.

On my morning runs back there, I go up and down Spring Crest hill. Spring Crest is a small pond in a hollow off the top of the hill – you have to take a quarter-mile unpaved road to get there. I haven’t seen that pond in decades. The last time, it was being stocked with trout back when I was a kid in the 70s, my amazement at seeing all those big trout flopping around in the shallow water. On the side of Spring Crest hill I come down, there’s another small pond and a creek running from it that winds all along what used to be a deep woods area called the Milee, which has seen a fair share of single-family houses spring up over the past few decades.

As I was coming down the Spring Crest hill, I noticed color-copied pictures of a cat’s face, an average black-and-white dappled cat’s face, with the message of “Who Killed Jaxx????” written underneath it in big black letters.

In my mind, I immediately pictured a heart-broken little girl, and her angry mother, finding their dead cat by the side of the road at the bottom of the hill, so put out emotionally that someone would run over their family pet and leave it there to die that they went home, fired up the home computer, found the best picture of Jaxx, ran off a dozen color copies on the Ink Jet, and nailed them to trees and telephone poles in a 30-yard line leading up the hill from the small bridge at the bottom.

It seemed like overkill to me at first. I cynically thought, “Christ, cats get run over all the time, I know it sucks, but what’s someone driving a car going to do, stop there, phone the cops, tell them he just ran over a cat and wait for a shitload of recriminations once word reaches the cat’s owners? It’s a bad deal. Most cats in the country run free at night. They rarely die of old age. My family’s had a handful of dogs that have all died of old age, and about half a dozen cats over the years, nearly all of them checking out early.

The last morning though, I saw the main sign, which I hadn’t before, on a large tree by the bridge. It was on legal-size paper and had a more full explanation of Jaxx’s fate: “To whoever shot Jaxx on this spot and left him here to die, how do you live with yourself?”

I know the world is filled with people who are just no good, but reading that sign gave me a real twinge. I’d ask what kind of asshole shoots cats, but I know there are all kinds of assholes who shoot cats, and worse. Still, I put myself in the mind of a little girl who finds her pet cat with a bullet-hole in it by the side of the road, and now all the pictures on the trees make sense. The heartbreak over-shadowed by the rage. About 20 years ago, on a near-by hill, some kid (whose name I know but won’t use) killed the dog, a german shepherd, of a neighboring farming family with a few shots from a .22 rifle, simply because the dog, a farm dog that was known to wander, was on his family’s property. Causing some very bad blood between those families, which tends to happen when a simple angry phone call to the local cops would suffice instead of a bullet in a senseless animal’s brain.

But you live around farms, you sometimes see a very hard, senseless attitude in which “animal cruelty” doesn’t exist. I still recall one of the fathers of a friend out the road choosing to drown three kittens their cat had just given birth to instead of taking the minimal effort to give them to the local SPCA or find out if anyone would take them. Drowned them in a burlap bag in a wash tub, a day after my friend and I had been playing with them. Without a second thought. Looked at his eight-year-old son weird when he started crying over this news like the kid didn’t understand how the world worked.

To shoot a cat by the side of the road? That’s just Jeffrey Dahmer behavior. So to answer the wounded family’s question on the home-made sign, the only answer they’ll ever get: some cowardly asshole, one of millions in the world. I suspect they’ll never get a straighter answer than that, and that whoever shot Jaxx, and probably has seen the signs as this is a back road on which someone felt relaxed enough to shoot a gun, is too stupid to feel shame. The guy (kid?) is probably laughing when he sees the signs. But it always sucks to see a kid (I’m assuming there’s a kid involved here) be forced to recognize the inexplicable ugliness of the world a little too early.

Guy Clark’s “Queenie’s Song,” concerning his dog being gunned down by an anonymous jerk on a cold New Year’s Day in New Mexico, covers the same ground. So long, Jaxx, I suspect you will never be forgotten.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Indie-Rock Gordon Gekko?

A few days ago, the indie-rock leaning website Stereogum published an essay by Kevin Barnes, lead singer of the band Of Montreal entitled “Selling Out Isn’t Possible” which appears to be his answer to some fans leveling that charge against him for doing the music for an Outback Steakhouse commercial. (“Let’s go Outback tonight/Don’t think about tomorrow” – I thought it was The Boy Least Likely To as they have a similar sound, but it was Of Montreal.)

It makes for an interesting read, especially from the view point of an artist who has made that step and has no apologies. I like Of Montreal, became aware of them back in the 90s as part of the “Elephant Six” scene in Athens, GA which sprouted a slew of great Beatlesque indie bands. The band has always been a bit twee, but their past few albums have incorporated more dance-oriented/techno influences to a very positive effect – they’ve clearly grown artistically in the past few years.

The problem with his issues regarding “selling out” is that he positions them in extremes (which I gather are defined by his critics) rather than defining them for himself. Selling out is very possible, in many ways, not just in one emphatic “in” or “out” proposition. Here’s his best take on the issue regarding his band:

“I realized then that, for me, selling out is not possible. Selling out, in an artistic sense, is to change one's creative output to fit in with the commercial world. To create phony and insincere art in the hopes of becoming commercially successful. I've never done this and I can't imagine I ever will. I spent seven years not even existing at all in the mainstream world. Now I am being supported and endorsed by it. I know this won't last forever. No one's going to want to use one of my songs in a commercial five years from now, so I've got to take the money while I can.”

I’d feel a lot better if he could acknowledge that drafting a ditty for a commercial when that is not explicitly your job (they’re a rock band, not commercial jingle writers) is changing one’s creative output to fit in with the mainstream world. It’s the only exposure to his music that millions of people seeing the commercial on TV will ever have. That is phony and insincere, and he should openly admit it … unless he really did go to an Outback Steakhouse, come home and write a song from the bottom of his heart regarding this inspirational experience. (But I’d argue that writing about boy-girl relationships can be just as exploitative as writing about steakhouses.) He should also openly admit that by doing so, he gives the band exposure they could never get through an indie label marketing budget, or any number of critics singing his praises. It’s the “if only one person heard that commercial and wanted to know more about Of Montreal …” route, but I’m willing to bet thousands of people heard the song on the commercial, liked it, and followed up with a quick web search.

I can easily envision the type of bullshit artists who are denigrating him for his choice, as I know the scene well, where people who have no “cred” of any sort deign to judge who does or doesn’t exude this elusive quality. It’s the downside of any indie scene, be it movies, music, literature, etc. Reminds me of the Dylan line, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Bullshit. That’s the kind of thing that appeals to people who live inside the law and romanticize those who don’t (ergo, Dylan’s fans as opposed to Dylan himself). I strongly suspect lying your ass off on a regular basis is a necessary prerequisite to living outside the law. But that doesn’t make for a cool-sounding line in a song!

Selling out is very easy to do in music. The clearest example of this to me came in the 70s, when all those aging 60s rock acts, in the wake of the disco era, chose or were forced to put a disco song on at least one of their albums. To this day, it still rubs many fans the wrong way, probably because they recognized the act for what it was: artists known for creating rock music shamelessly trying to cash in and “stay young” in some sense with an audience they feared they were losing in passing time. “Miss You” by The Stones is a great pop song, no matter how you cut it. I’m not so nuts about “Superman” by The Kinks or “Goodnight Tonight” by McCartney or “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart – although the Stewart song now sounds like fucking Mozart compared to the “American standards” dreck he’s been selling millions of albums with lately. There would be a very cool compilation to be made of all those rock acts called The Disco Single featuring that particular song for each band circa 1976-78. Most bands were forced to do their disco single and found nowhere near the popularity level of the above-mentioned acts. The actual songs themselves weren’t horrible; it was the concept of joining obvious opportunists such as baseball player Pete Rose, Ethel Merman and Rick “Disco Duck” Dees in the same act of cutting horrendous disco songs to cash in on a trend that laid bare their intentions.

But as Kevin Barnes would probably note, they’re just people, not gods, or archetypes of virtue and all that is right in the world (which is exactly how a lot of teenage fans viewed their favorite rock bands and singers). Live and learn. As Barnes also notes in his essay, if you can go on creating art the same way you have, with the same level of commitment, reality is you can sell out on one hand and still do your thing on the other. If fans are offended, they can stop listening (although very few do check out that way). That was certainly true of all those disco single/rock artists in the 70s. The Kinks early 80s albums, in my mind, are on the same higher level of what they were doing in the 60s. Some Girls was the last great Stones album. Rod Stewart is another story, but what screwed him up was moving to L.A. from England a few years earlier.

I agree with a vast majority of what Barnes had to write, but he goes way off the rails occasionally:

“It isn't possible to be in chorus with capitalism and anarchy. You must pick one or the other. Very few people are willing to do it, though. The worst kind of person is the one who sucks the dick of the man during the daytime and then draws pictures of themselves slitting his throat at night. Jesus Christ, make up your mind! The thing is, there is a lack of balance. When capitalism is working on a healthy level, everyone gets their dick sucked from time to time and no one gets their throat slit. It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve.”

This is Barnes’ “Greed Is Good” speech a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, although a bit more muddled. “Capitalism” and “anarchy” are not polar opposites: one’s a financial term, the other a political term. I don’t think either word has a polar opposite, which I wouldn’t make such a big deal over save that Barnes seems to see the world as being a choice between one or the other.

I’m not sure where he’s going with all the dick-sucking and throat-slitting … which seems like the exact sort of overly dramatic, childish “opposites” his critics view the world in. I’ve never done either and don’t have any immediate plans to do so. Don’t know about you, but I’m not looking to “crack any code” or find myself “struggling” to do so. (It’s clear to me what I'd need to do to make a lot of money … and I’m not willing to do it, for the most part. Has as much to do with personal morality and lifestyle comfort as it does with however you want to define ambition.)

I’ve spent two decades in corporate environments that, on occasion, would make musicians like Barnes blanch over the questionable morality of every-day work scenarios. Like some of the golden parachutes I’ve seen designed for executives in failing companies, that gave them full mortgage payoffs, retirement plans guaranteeing millionaire status for life, full reimbursement for college tuition for their children, etc. … while the rank-and-file got laid off with two-weeks pay and a $15.00 gift certificate for a frozen turkey at the local supermarket. Or two companies merging (to the enormous financial benefit of a few key players), and management consultants with zero knowledge of either workplace coming in to decide which 60% of the staff gets laid off and which remains. (Rent Office Space again if you need a clear reminder of how that clusterfuck works.)

I don’t think Barnes has any idea on what he’s talking about when he gets into the merits of capitalism. He strikes me as naïve in a fairly typical musicianly way, but I’m also factoring in the enormous amount of horseshit being heaped on him, most likely by people who don’t support themselves in any real way. These days, I’m never going to give working musicians any hassle in terms of how they choose to make a living, up to and including selling to and/or creating songs for the advertising world. Why? Because they’re lucky to be making a living at all with the way things are going in the music industry. (What you’re not seeing with a lot of musicians is their spouses working hard at day jobs so they can be musicians.)

About the only other road bump in the Barnes essay:

“The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults. Our generation is insanely lazy. We're just as smart as our parents but we are overwhelmed by contradicting ideas that confuse us into paralysis.”

Barnes is just naïve if that’s how he sees the world. Most likely, he’s never seen the type of corporate carnage some of us have or just doesn’t know many people who have been laid off at various points in their work life for no good reason. I’d wager his generation is no more or less lazy than the ones before it. I shudder to think what would happen if a 150-lb. soaking-wet Indie rock star confronted a few dozen textile plant workers whose jobs had been sold out from under them to Mexico by the plant owners, got a bullhorn, sadly shook his head and addressed them with: “Capitalism is a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults.”

I think if he was smart, when Stereogum approached him to expound on this topic, he should have just said no. Not that he comes off looking all that bad in his essay – for the most part, I’m in total agreement with him. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, to be gained by trying to explain yourself to people who disagree with you regarding clear choices you’ve made. Sure, there is plenty to be gained by a healthy debate over issues you have an opinion on. But you’ve made an important choice in your life, you like the choice, you see and understand the downside, but see how it ultimately benefits you … and there will be people who hate you for making that choice. You’re not going to change their minds. And that’s all right. I get the impression Barnes feels under attack and sees this gray hipster cloud as his nemesis, when I have to believe most of those people don’t really care what he does, and, much like I'm doing now, are just blowing wind. If they’re ex-fans, he can probably count them on two hands. I can’t imagine not buying the next Of Montreal album because they did a jingle. (I can imagine not buying it because it sucks … but I suspect it won’t, judging by their last few albums.)

Shit, man. Let’s go Outback tonight. And not think about tomorrow, shall we? Wondering how many of those hipsters shit-canning him now are vegans and that’s the real problem here …

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Millennials Are Coming! The Millennials Are Coming!

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes ran a segment on “Millennials” in the workplace, i.e., Americans born after 1980. The concept being that this is the “never told no” generation of kids, who would be awarded just for showing up to play on a sports team, who were told that there were no winners or losers – the gist being that these kids are more spoiled than even their parents’ generation, if that’s possible. The larger meaning, of course, is that workers like this demand special needs that employers must meet, otherwise the worker walks in our flexible economy, as there’s always another job somewhere else.

I watch shit like this on TV, and I just throw my hands up. Not over “Millennials” – over the constantly recurring concept of younger people not knowing their ass from a hole in the ground, which is often true, but gets beaten to death by the media, and turned into bullshit trends that don’t really apply across the board. It happened with the Hippie/Me/Yuppie generation. It happened with mine, which was somewhere between “Me” and “Generation X” – although I recognize character traits of both in myself. Hell, I recognize a lot of myself in the way “Millennials” are described. (I’ve seen “Generation Y” as another catch-all phrase – this Wikipedia entry gets the point across nicely, as does this USA Today article.) If you google either slang phrase, you’ll come up with a bunch of entries about how to deal with these people in the workplace – this is some seriously strange shit.

Millennials look at their upper-middle-class parents, working 50-60 hours a week to maintain their suburban way of life, and they think, no, this is the wrong way to live, family is more important, you can’t say your family is important when you spend three hours with them on the weekend and think that makes up for everything.

I got news for you … hippies felt the same way in the 60s. The exact same way. There are countless songs and references in movies and television detailing this. Kids in the 70s felt the same way. So did kids in the 80s. Kids in the 90s had a whole negative spin put on that basic premise of lousy parentage with grunge rock. Basically, it’s the perfectly logical belief that the American way of life, as best exemplified by these Type A workaholics, is rotten.

It’s nothing new. It’s correct. And it’s one of those things that, unless you’re born outside that particular caste system (upper middle classdom), chances are no matter how horrified you are by that way of life as a teen and twentysomething, you yourself are going to start living that way, too, once you realize how much it costs to maintain that sick way of life: the mortgage payments, the insane school and property taxes, the bizarre need to have gigantic, gas-guzzling cars, all the other expensive toys we have in our lives. That shit costs money – serious money. And most people hooked into that way of life, sooner or later, want to maintain it after whatever pangs of anti-materialism they experience during or just after college.

It’s rampant materialism beyond reason: people in debt up to their necks just to maintain a lifestyle that, once the brief flashes of leisure are removed, is nothing but a grind that says more about feelings of self worth tied into status. Not tied into financial well being – that’s an important distinction to make. If that was true, you wouldn’t have so many millions of people desperately in debt, families with two parents working very well-paying jobs, and they’re still spending their entire lives behind the eight ball, because they want that appearance of status. And who are these people? They were the hippies in the 60s and the groovy kids in the 70s hanging in the high-school parking lot. Not all of us were geared to go through life with that same casual, common sense. Many of us became our parents. And many of our parents were assholes, ergo if A = B, and B = C, life goes on.

And when you get right down to it, it’s not a horrible way of life – it’s just one that I don’t respect for reasons noted above. The value system in it is fucked up, not right, dishonest beyond repair. What bothers me is this concept that the kids of these people are somehow going to rise above it, when it’s become clear to me that very few people rise above their ways of life, for better or worse. And I don’t know what “rising above” upper middle classdom implies. Moving to an ashram in Oregon? It’s been done, and I’m sure there are people out there living good lives in those ashrams, but that number is miniscule as compared to the millions of people who once were kids, would have looked at that way of life, put down the bong, exhaled, and said, “Yeah, man, freedom from this bullshit, prison way of life our parents are living, let’s do it.”

If these kids think they’re going to have typical 40-hour work weeks and maintain that foolish, forever-indebted way of life, they’re in for a rude awakening. And they’ll get it. All these articles and seminars about “Millennials” and “Generation Y” are going to seem like just what they are now to anyone with clear eyes: total bullshit. Another excuse for the polesmokers in HR to waste a few grand on catch-phrase seminars in the lunch room. I’m also pretty annoyed by the fact that these cultural trends, as they’ve gone in the past few decades, are defined entirely by the whims of upper-middle-class white people. No one else. If you think this “Millennial” horseshit applies to working-class people of any color, I suggest you watch C.O.P.S. one of these nights and recognize those folks didn’t get the memo about coddling their kids like temperamental royalty. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans in Iraq right now who, I can guarantee you, aren’t speed dialing their therapist because they didn’t get a trophy for not being blown up by a roadside bomb.

Besides which, when I’m in the work place, I haven’t noticed people in their 20s being any more or less fucked up than their older coworkers. Sure, I’ll run into the occasional arrogant prick or annoying hipster, people who don’t seem to give a shit about anything and exude a certain smugness that would be well remedied by a sound ass beating. But I can recognize people like this are a minority. And I can also recognize I knew people like that in college in the mid-80s. And when I first came to work in New York in the late 80s. There will always be snotty kids like this. They become snotty adults. And you avoid them.

What grated on me about the 60 Minutes story was it used a woman who worked at J. Walter Thompson, a large New York-based ad agency, to give her impressions on not just studying “Millennials” for market research, but actually working with them, and the baffling encounters she’s had with apparently dozens of them as they use the revolving door at her work place. Excuse me, but I worked in advertising for a few years, and that entire industry is filled with shitheads. The worst work ethic I’ve ever seen: people would routinely show up for work between 10 and 11, take a two-hour lunch, basically screw around all day, and then “get busy” around 4:00 in the afternoon, then “pull an all nighter” to get some project done, complaining about how hard they worked all the while. I’ve never seen such sloth and waste – and this was in a handful of places I worked, big and small agencies.

The turnover rate in advertising was phenomenal. If you came back to a company of 80 people after two years, you might see 20 of the same people (the top 10 paid employees, the guys in the mail room, and the receptionist), assuming the company hadn’t merged or folded. Most of the creative-side people were unhappy, “trapped” in a job where they had to deal with hopelessly uncreative clients who didn’t really understand the nature of their products. I got along better with the “business side” people. The “business side” at least had no qualms about what they were doing, and they liked getting paid truckloads of money to spend 60 hours a week there. Every “creative” industry I’ve ever done time in has been the same: shitty, soul-destroying work hours, filled with unhappy “creative” people who recognized they weren’t doing what they wanted to be doing, yet couldn’t pull away because the pay was pretty damn good, they were used to it, and the concept of working a lesser job while having more time to write, paint or make music was a concept they found laughable after awhile. That laugh would sound like someone with a three-pack-a-day habit forcing out that early-morning hack to clear their throats.

Advertising should be one of the last industries anyone ever uses to serve as a barometer of corporate America. I’m not sure which one you should use – they’re all different in some sense – but most places, thank Christ, are not run like ad agencies. The only other major industries I can think of that must be are the federal and state governments, save they’re faster, more efficient and have a happier work force. Think about that next time you go to the post office and deal with a clerk who probably has a birthday party clown chained to a wall in his mother’s basement.

“Millennials” are noted for their lack of commitment in the work place, i.e., when the going gets tough, they leave. Gee, and usually when I think “25 year old” … “commitment” is the first word that pops into my mind. Come on. On top of the concept of people in their 20s who really should be careful about what they commit to, you have a generation of kids raised in a society with divorce rates over 50%, and probably a healthy percentage of couples staying married because divorce would lead to financial ruin for everyone involved. They’ve seen their parents work themselves out of relationships any sane person would abandon, wreck families because work was far more important to them, wage bitter, demented divorce wars that come down to control and revenge … why people like this even start families in the first place is a mystery to me, save it’s just part of the deal with status.

And these kids are working in companies that don’t inspire any sense of commitment to a sane individual. They have no financial stake in the company beyond a pay check. Very few places have pension plans anymore, just shoddy 401Ks that can go up in smoke with a downturn in the stock market. They see upper management making obscene amounts of money (with bonuses for more than they make in a year), while they don’t get paid enough to live on their own. (Another “Millennial” hallmark: kids living at home through their 20s: a simple reality in most places as it’s kind of hard to buy a house for $300K when you’re making $35K a year, or even twice or three times that.) They see what’s happened in our work place in the past few decades, that upper management is keeping an enormous amount of money for itself and not sharing the wealth with the work force. They see successful, profit-making companies laying off dozens, sometimes hundreds of employees just so shareholders in the company can see larger returns on their investments.

They see this? Fuckin’ A. I see this. We all see this! Yet we have to pretend this blind, obsessive greed, the elephant in the room of America, isn’t there. What happens with most people is they want to get married and settle down, have a few kids. To do so requires having a more stable sense of employment. So people are a lot less prone to moving around once they reach this state. Doing so could amount to financial catastrophe, as you have millions of Americans walking tightropes of debt in which one slip could lead to a huge financial fall. So you better believe someone in that position is going to be wearing the “More Shit, Please” bib to work every day. They’re not going to rock any boat, they’re never going to quit, and in many ways, that’s honorable, because that’s the responsibility they’ve chosen for themselves.

But you’d have to be nuts to have that same level of commitment to an institution that doesn’t return the sense of dedication and, at best, offers you a fair trade of money for your work and time. If you yourself don’t have that financial need to maintain that pace, there’s no logical reason why you would stay with many of these companies more than a few years. I’ve found that corporate America works in “pockets” – meaning you can find pockets of stability and sanity in many places, even companies that aren’t well run. I’ve also found that there are pockets of insanity and rampant stupidity in otherwise well-run company. It usually comes down to the sanity level and intelligence of your immediate bosses and coworkers. If that situation is negative, you can have a dream job, and it will feel like hell. Conversely, you can have a job that really isn’t any great shakes, but if you have solid coworkers, and a good supervisor, you can feel comfortable there (with the understanding that something as basic as a good boss finding another job could mean a plunge from heaven to hell in work-place environment). Or, Door #3, you can have a shitty job with a shitty boss and shitty coworkers, in which case, there's some good country songs on the jukebox you might want to make yourself familiar with.

I’m not looking to paint too grim a picture of “Millennials” entering the work place. I’m hoping it’s a realistic one. Believe me, growing up with a father who worked decades in the same factory, had time for his kids every day, left a pension my Mom is still living on now that he’s gone, it came as a real shock to my system to enter the work force in the late 80s to see how most companies operated. I’m sure as hell not going to fault “Millennials” for their work habits. Sooner or later, you figure out what you will or won’t do for money, and what role money is going to play in your personal happiness. I’m just recognizing the fundamental difference between pundits and marketers trying to hype cataclysmic changes in the work place, when, really, there’s nothing all that new happening, and these kids will fall into line if they want to stay on that gravy train, which most of them will.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Levy's Still Dry

While putting together this Mellow 70s Gold MP3 project, I came across the M’s, and Don McLean in particular: “American Pie” was his biggest hit, followed closely by “Vincent” – about Vincent Van Gogh. I can tell what “Ms. American Pie” was about: about four fucking minutes too long.

The early 70s were the time of the Folk Pop Troubadour. Always a white guy, always hairy, with a lot of chest hair he’d show in open leisure shirts and vests, often sporting a beard or handlebar mustache, too, prone to jeans, cowboy boots and gold chains, the kind of guy who portrayed himself as the gutsy, sensitive acolyte of Woody Guthrie, but if you listen to their music, it was just as much Tin Pan Alley as the Dust Bowl. A very odd mix, I’m starting to realize, as folk pop, save for brief flashes like Michelle Shocked, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman (note: women), pretty much died after that burst of vaguely macho popularity in the early 70s.

With McLean, the really odd thing I’m remembering came years after the song was popular, and I recall liking the song a lot in the 70s. When it came on the radio, I’d think, “Jesus Christ, the guy was on fire to write a song like this.” An epic, the kind of things DJs would play when they really had to piss and needed a few minutes away from the studio.

By the time I was in college in the mid-80s, at Penn State, I was pretty much worn out on “American Pie.” The group of friends I had developed in my junior year at State College all congregated in Colin’s and Justin’ apartment downtown, which we’d call headquarters, a place of many strange nights, but a very healthy place, too, a bunch of like-minded, vaguely artsy individuals congregating to get drunk, discover Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, have meaningless fights over personal philosophies, and occasionally get really bombed or even stoned on any given Friday night. The “meaningless fight” thing happened a lot – Colin and Justin would have philosophical differences over which way the wind was blowing. But they were two characters I fit in well with and managed to serve as some kind of buffer/peacemaker, although “motherfucking fence-sitter” would be how both would often describe it when I wouldn’t take either side in a meaningless debate.

Right around the corner was a typical college town bar called the Shandygaff (conveniently located in Pig Alley). I don’t know what in the hell that name implies: it sounds nautical. The bar’s still there – if you google the name and “Penn State,” it has its own website. Nothing against the Shandygaff. All the bars in State College were pretty much the same: crowded every night with a bunch of kids in their early 20s who didn’t know how to drink or pace themselves, so abuse was the order of the day and a badge of honor. I’m sure that’s as much of the college experience now as it was then.

The back of headquarters was right over Pig Alley, and we’d often sit in the living room on a Friday night, minding our own business, when Colin would hear some drunk shitting, pissing or vomiting in the alley. The vomiting was obvious – even I could hear that. But since Colin lived there, he’d developed an ear for even the lightest zipper sound, the tinkling, or the flop of shit on a sidewalk. And it drove him nuts. He’d rain down newspapers, magazines, candles, pillows, anything he could find, and yell down, “Do that somewhere else, you fucking animal!” Half the time the person would scamper away, half the time he’d get into a verbal sparring match. (I'm surprised no drunken idiot savante noted the obvious: "Dude! It's Pig Alley! Cut me some slack!") It never got physical. Colin was a monster at the time, working out like a fiend, a few years out of the army and still real salty. I learned a lot about just letting my balls hang out and not worrying about it from him.

We’d catch people fucking, too; it was an alley behind a college bar. Filled with twentysomethings. Blind drunk. It was to be expected. If we caught people fucking, we’d just hang our heads out the window and quietly watch, maybe applaud afterwards. Such was college life circa the mid-80s at Penn State. It was fun. It was temporary. I honestly have a hard time remembering a lot of it, which I guess is a good sign.

But the thing about the Shandygaff was every night, some time during the night, someone would play “American Pie” on the jukebox, and it always lead to a sing-a-long. I don’t know if this was tradition before my time there – it probably was – or how long it went on afterwards (or if it still goes on, which I doubt). The sing-along usually meant humming along to the voluminous verses and singing the signature chorus about driving one’s Chevy to levy, though the levy was dry, etc.

This happened every night. I don’t remember Justin really giving a shit, but I somehow remember it annoying the hell out of Colin. “They’re singing that song again! Fuck Don McLean! I want to hunt him down and beat his ass!” I was in the Shandygaff once or twice when it happened, and while it seemed spontaneous, how could it be, it happened every night. Believe me, sitting in that apartment with the windows open, you could clearly hear the song being sung en masse by a few dozen drunken college kids.

What struck me most, then and now, was this is a song that came out in 1971, when nearly all of us were a few years out of diapers. This whole thing about nostalgia being an old man’s game: the most nostalgic people on earth are in their 20s. They constantly recall moments from their teen and childhood years, and attach an aura of innocence to them that they sense or believe is no longer present in their lives. Mourning the loss of innocence, to be more hammy and inaccurate. (Delusional and not grasping how time works would be the more accurate descriptors here.) I recall that vibe being very much true of my time in college. The one night, Justin and I went cruising in my yellow Hornet station wagon. I was on a huge Van Morrison jag at the time, and “Brown Eyed Girl” came on the tape deck. “Shit, man, I remember hearing this song on the bus all the time back in Erie” (where he spent part of his teen years). I could tell this was a misty morning memory type deal for him, although the reality probably was masturbating in the green grass behind the stadium.

When I hear “Ms. American Pie” now, I don’t recall those thousands of times I heard it back in the 70s when I was a kid, or even the first time, which I’m certain was an awestruck moment. I remember drunk-ass kids in Izod and LaCoste short-sleeved knit shirts and painters hats, chicks who looked like they were in The Go-Go's, with symmetrical haircuts and parachute pants, all blotto on pitchers of cheap beer, drunkenly wailing words they couldn’t recall for the most part, and creating a sort of instant, baseless nostalgia that, I am certain, would find more than a few fortysomethings in their offices now, thinking, “Oh, for the days, when I’d sing ‘American Pie' in the Shandygaff back at dear old state.”

And I can’t knock that – better to have good memories than bad. Just strange how music, nostalgia and memory works together, and the weird, disjointed pieces it throws together to mark a time that’s long in the rear view mirror – which is really a good feeling!


In honor of all this shit, I’ll pick three songs I’ve pulled together thus far for Mellow 70s Gold as some kind of peace offering for making you read this far. Enjoy.

“Sweet Painted Lady” by Elton John. This is an album cut from his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album: the legendary “first album I ever bought.” Bernie Taupin often wrote awful, maudlin lyrics, but this one starts, “I’m back on dry land once again/Opportunity awaits me like a rat in the drain” and stays on that level. A damn good song. Elton later re-tooled it as a nostalgic ballad called “This Train Don’t Stop There.” Go to Youtube to see the mind-blowing video (featuring Justin Timberlake as 70s Elton) for this song.

“Dialogue Part II” by Chicago. I was shocked by how many memorable hits Chicago has when I got into their stuff. I’m not sure this one was a hit. Why do I remember it? Because cheerleaders have a habit of taking popular songs of the day and changing the lyrics to suit their team. Instead of the repeating “We can change the world now/We can make it better, yeah” chant the members of Chicago sing, our cheerleaders came up with, “We’re the Spartans, we play tackle, we’re the best man, yeah.” It worked pretty well … well enough that I can remember it clearly 30 years later!

“Could We Start Again Please?” from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. That’s Yvonne Elliman, doing her thing as Mary Magdalene. This song was added for the motion picture soundtrack, as it hadn’t appeared in the stage version. I’m not sure why, but the song really gets to me, even now. I guess it’s that feeling of a situation – a relationship, or even somebody’s life – spinning out of your control and most likely ending. You could apply it to Christ dying on the cross, or breaking up, or someone dying. Definitely one of those “what the fuck” songs for me, where I should be somehow above it, yet it pulls me in, every time.

Just a small sampling of the ass-backwards journey I’ve been on the past few weeks!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Darkest Door

Sorry to have been AWOL – been working on another MP3 project. For this one, I’m opening the darkest door. Most of these massive projects I pull together, the over-riding concept is to gather the best possible music I can find for a given genre. In some cases, particularly the 70s, nostalgia is surely a main ingredient. It’s a great pleasure for me, at this point in my life, to be able to gather hundreds of songs that I’ve known and loved most of my life, and have total access to them at any time. If you had told me back in the days of eight-tracks that one day I’d have this ability, I’d have considered that a very nice dream. Stunning, unbelievable stuff to my 70s mind.

But I decided it’s time to open the darkest door. This recent project has made me feel like one of the Roman centurions who nailed Christ to the cross: a nasty job, but somebody’s got to do it, and I’m the one. I’m going to my Waterloo, where Napoleon did surrender, oh yeah: Mellow 70s Gold. A massive collection of all those cheesy one-hit wonders and soft-rock classics that one is generally loathe to admit liking publicly, but secretly, like alone listening to a car radio, will listen along intently and think, “Jesus Christ, this really isn’t that bad a song.”

When I told a friend who was a teenager in the 60s of my intentions, he scoffed, told me to get out of this Yacht Rock state of mind, the 70s were a desert of creativity compared to the 60s. Of course, he’s right: being a teenage pop music fan in the 60s had to be one of the more pleasurable endeavors of the past 50 years. Music was firing in all directions, the great pop/rock bands of the 60s were making incredible music daily, and I can recognize, as a child of the 70s, that the 60s were a great time for music, case closed.

But that doesn’t concern what I’m doing with Mellow 70s Gold. Conversely, as my friend mildly chastised me for the project, he noted he was listening to a lot of Connie Francis lately. Connie “Stupid Cupid” Francis. Along with the culture altering classics of the 60s, there was plenty of stuff like this. And I don’t fault my friend for liking, or even developing an obsession for it. I hope to do the same with Mellow 70s Gold.

My main problem with music as I age, and since the advent of MP3s, is that if I don’t have the music on MP3, chances are I never or very rarely hear it again. This struck me about a year ago with all my 70s favorites, which I’d put aside for a very long time as I explored and developed stronger tastes in blues and country, along with simply keeping track of new alt country and indie music. There was a time, circa the mid-80s, when I was glad to bury anything from the 70s. I’m not sure what turned the tide. I think it was some time in the early 90s, I was killing time in a record store, when I came across my first Rhino “Have a Nice Day” collection in a Various Artists bin. And this particular one had “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, one of the best pop songs of the early 70s. Hadn’t heard it years. Bought that CD, and realized I knew every song and wanted to hear this stuff again. I nailed down much of the “Have a Nice Day” series in the next few years. Backtracked more, fleshed out all the stuff I used to have on vinyl, many a hipster record store clerk snickering at me. (I'm OK with guys like this snickering at me, as they have so little to snicker about in life.)

I have to underline how crucial it was for me as an adult to come across that series: never before had there been such a comprehensive representation of a type of music – blatantly commercial 70s pop – that approached the decade honestly. These were the real Top 10 hits, the unspoken truth of the 70s. Not Bruce Springsteen. Or The Stones. Or Led Zeppelin. Those were album artists for the most part in the 70s, as were most respectable rock acts, with very few hit singles. This also marked the beginning of a trend that is now horribly over-bearing: mediocre music geared towards kids dominating the charts, while better music made by serious recording artists died on the vine. You look at charts from the 60s, much of the time, the best music being made was in the Top 10. That wasn’t true much of the time in the 70s, and it’s really not true now.

Still, that 70s Top 10 dreck is irreversibly tied into my child and teen years, and for that reason alone, I can stomach the stuff and make no apologies. I had been approaching the Mellow 70s Gold project with a kitchen sink attitude. Feelings by Morris Albert? England Dan and John Ford Coley? Fuck it – throw them in the mix!

But now that I’ve started pulling it together, I find myself holding back. The ultimate goal of any of these huge collections I put together is to have music I want to listen to – not so much to accurately document a musical period in time. The truth is, I don’t ever need to hear “Feelings” or “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” again. They’re not horrible songs to me – they’re just bland pop songs that made it big in their time. I’m surely going to include dozens of songs like that, but for me, there will always be some sort of connection to the song, usually deeply personal, or something about the song will hit me the right way. I just threw in “65 Love Affair” by Paul Davis – certainly of a piece with the songs I mentioned – but something about the song hits me the right way.

I find myself veering away from ballads and towards more upbeat material. You can’t do a 70s pop collection without having huge ballads: “Without You” by Harry Nilsson, “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen, “Superstar” by The Carpenters. It was a great time for pop ballads, and I respect that. I just don’t want this thing to become plodding and ballad heavy. Lord knows, pop-music wise, the 70s were a very upbeat time. One of my favorite bands from then, Cheap Trick, was like a huge, rocking smile. The band emanated fun and happiness in their music.

And I like that – still do now, and thought the 90s were an insipidly dogshit time in rock music, that may have killed rock forever on a pop-cultural level, with its mewling “daddy doesn’t love me” lyrics and goat-boy brayings of all those fucking terrible, faux depressed grunge and rap rock bands. God, I hated that goateed, backward-baseball-hatted shit and what those whining slobs did to rock: they turned it into an ersatz therapy session for spoiled 15-year-olds. As opposed to the way I understood it as a kid: 15-year-olds saying fuck it, we’re going to be adults one day, that doesn’t look like fun, let’s rock, let’s have as much fun now as we can, instead of being mopey dickwads. About the only thing that allowed me to keep faith in teenagers in the 90s was the MTV series Jackass, which showed me there were still some real kids out there with the right attitude. Other than that, the 90s looked like a desperately bad decade to me for kids, where your options were pretend you’re ghetto and/or be depressed all the time. Later for that morbid shit (and I have to wonder how these kids are going to age ... what kind of values they'll internalize and carry forward from all this fake bullshit ...). The 00s haven’t looked recognizably different to me either.

But I digress. Mellow 70s Gold will be it for me and the 70s musically, as I’ve already fleshed out a massive pop/rock collection that covers a vast bulk of the rock acts I was raised on. 70s Soul, which gets that great last gasp of soul (Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield) and a fairly good cross section of disco that’s held up pretty well for me. And the Alt 70s collection which dealt with “alternative” 70s acts (like Captain Beefheart, Zappa, Iggy Pop, etc.) and also covered punk and new wave. I think most disco holds up better than most punk (despite punk having a handful of much better individual artists). I hated disco at the time – it makes much more sense to me now than punk does, most of which sounds like wildly over-rated garbage to me.

I’m not quite sure what a guy in his 40s is supposed to get from listening to “Please Mr. Please” by Olivia Newton-John. Or “Anticipation” by Carly Simon. Or “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” by the Captain & Tennille. Or “Crazy Horses” by The Osmonds. But I guess I’m going to find out. At worst, I’ll have created my own private soft-rock, office-friendly radio station. If there’s something more to be gained by listening to “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols, I’m not quite grasping it anymore. Listening to music you already know by heart (but haven't listened to in ages) isn’t the same as discovery, but I gather it serves a purpose.