Monday, March 30, 2009

Changing of the Guard

Something odd occurred to me while shopping in Best Buy the other day. Best Buy … even in Manhattan, you want to buy physical product of a CD or DVD, unless you go to J&R Music World, or one of the few indie stores in the Village, that’s all there is. That is what occurred to me. This is how life was circa 1975 or so, when I bought most of my albums at Woolworth’s.

I’m talking purely retail here, of course. You go online now, you can find just about anything for free. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s been a recent explosion of blogs putting out RAR files of entire albums for even the most obscure artists – I’ve found everything I’ve been looking for on recent spelunks for out-of-print material … and realized there was plenty of in-print albums on these blogs, too. Each blog will have page after page of complete albums -- hundreds of albums in a lot of cases. If you feel like paying, you can go to Amazon or Half and get it used at reduced cost. Like a quirky new single you hear on a commercial? Go to Hype Machine … chances are, more than a few blogs will have the single posted.

It’s a radically different world for music from 1975. But in terms of retail, that’s how it feels to me. (Best Buy even had a row of vinyl albums for sale – Van Morrison’s Moondance staring me right in the face.) You want to physically buy product, you go to what amounts to a department store having a sale. I bought many great albums at Woolworth’s – the building blocks of my rock years, Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Elton John, Bowie, etc. And then there were Listening Booth and Record World in the local malls. Listening Booth had surprisingly deep catalog – they’d always have at least one copy of rare or punk albums I’d read about in Creem or Rolling Stone. These were infinitely cooler places to hang than Woolworth’s. But Woolworth’s often beat them on price. I didn’t discover truly cool record stores until I went to college.

I buy about a dozen CDs a year now. I used to buy a dozen in a month. Nearly everything is downloads now, be it my 90-per-month take at Emusic, or whatever I stumble on going around the web, which these days is a lot. (Emusic features only indie artists, which suits me fine, as the major labels put out very little of what I want -- usually older artists, thus the "dozen albums a year" edict I made earlier.) With the Emusic stuff, I rarely download an entire album – I cherry-pick tracks. Think I always wanted to do this. Even with great albums that held together as albums, there were always one or two duds that I could live without. Ziggy Stardust? I don’t need “It Aint Easy.” Abbey Road? Don’t ever need to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or “Octopus’ Garden” again.

But I’m starting to realize the real changing of the guard going on with music now isn’t how we purchase it. Sure, that’s a whole new world, but if you’ve been following along and listening to music in the past decade, what’s going on now has been slowly flowering and is not new to the experienced web surfer. We’re seeing the waning days of the CD as the dominant format, which is a shame, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the best physical format, and I got a few thousand stored away in my six-drawer dresser as proof.

The real change going on is how we “see” music, especially for kids. It’s just not the same anymore, doesn’t hold the same cultural value it once did. Even me … once upon a time, if any of my favorite artists was putting out an album, I’d be up on it weeks in advance, would have that Tuesday release date burned in my mind, and that day, would make a beeline to the record store after school or work and nail that album, rushing home to listening to it. There are a few albums like this that I have distinct memories of hunting down like that: Ian Hunter’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, The Clash’s London Calling, Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I had heard The Wall being played on WMMR in its entirety on Thanksgiving morning, 1979. The following Tuesday, man, I was on it down at Woolworth’s!

How did I get that fanatical? By reading magazines and books about the artists. Creem. Rolling Stone. Biographies about The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Dylan, etc. There was no MTV. I’d never miss The Midnight Special. Or Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. Or the various pre-MTV video shows, like Night Flight and Radio 1990. I recall seeing cool British shows late at night on the weekends that would hip me to stuff like Alex Harvey and Roy Wood. I’d listen to Rock Over London every Sunday night and pick up on all the cool British new wave stuff that was going on in the early 80s. The local rock stations would play live concerts of my favorite bands, the King Biscuit Flower Hours and such. Radio didn't pick up so much on new wave, but it solidifed and constantly reinforced all those classic rock artists, often playing music that would be considered deep catalog now.

There was a thriving culture dedicated to rock and roll, and it felt huge to a kid. Now? I’m aware of my favorite artists putting out new material – I’m still tuned in. But when I buy it, often not on release day, I’ll let it sit in its cellophane for a few days sometimes. That “buzz” of new product isn’t the same. It’s there. I know it’s there. I know I’ll like it and pull a half dozen tracks from the album into my MP3 collection. The music ultimately still has the same value to me. I get excited when I know The Gourds are putting out a new album. Or The Flaming Lips. Or Wilco. Or even older favorites like Dylan or Ray Davies. But it’s nothing like the thrill I’d get buying a new album in 1978 – and I mean nothing like it at all. Part of that is experience, of going through life, getting older, different priorities and what have you. But part of it …

It’s just not as exciting as it was once was. Lately, I’ve been wondering why that is. What have I come up with? The simple fact that the way rock and roll culture was constructed and, basically, worshipped from the 60s through the 80s, no longer exists, and we are now left with a more honest, albeit less exciting, musical world, where it’s one of dozens of options in terms of “coolness,” especially to kids. The music hasn’t changed as much as we have.

That old world doesn’t exist for a number of reasons. A key one no one can seem to admit or acknowledge is that the culture of printed word about rock and roll no longer exists on that exalted level. The really good magazines, like Mojo, write mostly about older acts. Rolling Stone still exists, but is a shadow of its glory days, where different strands of culture were weaved into that overall sense of being part of something. People who write about rock and roll no longer have the forums, or the cultural power, to spread their wings, to try something new, to inspire fans, or share in that excitement of discovery. That was crucial in its time: it was how the myths were made around many of these hugely popular bands. Newspapers and magazines are downsizing all the time. Now you get thumbnail reviews and articles about artists well under a thousand words. I was raised reading sprawling stories about musicians, with the writer tagging along on the road for days or weeks, and bringing back excellent overviews of a world that seemed romantic and exciting as hell to kids anchored in small towns or nowhere neighborhoods. It wasn’t so much heroic as just different from anything we had known. I may think Cameron Crowe is a lantern-jawed pussy, but he tapped into that vibe with his movie Almost Famous.

This has been replaced by websites and blogs. You have to know where they’re at. And they’re not into myth-making – they’re into bringing the artist and the music down to their level, to fit them down into our media-crazed world and find a usable place for them. The reviews are often snarky and damning with faint praise. There’s virtually nothing legendary going on – a lot of good music, but nothing legendary. Which is fine. But it doesn’t build myths. Or make you long for life on the road, or wish you were a star. You got bullshit like American Idol for that which strips down stardom to its most empty, base, temporary terms. We’ve made the mistake of separating that level of stardom from artistic quality – once upon a time, they peacefully co-existed. You better believe Jagger and Bowie and Springsteen and so on wanted to be stars on that level: it drove them as artists. They made themselves good enough to reach that level, through touring endlessly and writing songs until they got it right. Now, this shit is delegated to a panel of jackasses and 1-800 numbers to phone in your choice … for inexperienced cover-band singers who are not artists in any real sense. It’s sickening to see how wildly popular this show is.

This whole “less is more” vibe started with alternative rock in the 80s, which seemed like a good idea at the time, and was, but was never meant to overtake the whole rock culture, which it has. It was meant as what it claimed to be – an alternative, not the main show. Throw this in with hiphop and boy/girl bands taking over everything in the 90s … and a huge void was created … all these aging classic rockers still doing their thing, but no one coming up behind them with that same burning desire to exist on that high a cultural level. The 90s were a morose time for rock music in general, whether we’re talking the sickly grunge-influenced spate of “daddy hates me” goat-boy bands, or the realization that rock wasn’t meant to be fun anymore. Cheap Trick was fun. The Ramones were fun. There were bands in the 90s who got that (Ben Folds Five, Flaming Lips, a few others), but it felt like various shades of emotion were wiped from the slate. The Backstreet Boys had fun. Pearl Jam was serious. Christ, how I hated that shit. Both of them! It felt that divisive and over-simplified to me. Rock became "serious" in a way that was utter horseshit and the antithesis of what rock set out to be back when guys like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lew Lewis were blowing the roof off.

And all of what I’ve written already may be meaningless in light of the fact that video games have dwarfed music in terms of “coolness” to kids. I don’t like video games. Too violent and frightening? No. They make kids docile and alone. If they do reach out, it’s to get with a network of kids tapped into the same game they’re simultaneously playing. And if you haven’t heard those online conversations, they’re idiotic, like Facebook, nothing real is communicated. White boys in the 90s pretended they were gangstas, en masse. That somehow morphed into video games, and kids pretending to be killers, en masse. Everyone pretending to be something they're not, nor ever will be. Granted, being a teenager is all about finding novel ways to waste time, but this shit was and is ponderous.

Like so many other things with computers and new media, video games isolate kids from each other, much less from their parents. Watching a kid playing a video game for hours is a pretty mind-numbing process – and reality is the kid is doing this most nights of the week. It achieves nothing. What was I doing at that age? Driving around with my friends at night. Listening to Van Halen and such. Shooting pool. Achieving nothing, too. But the point being I was with my friends and achieving nothing. Physical contact. Socialization process. However meager it was: it worked. We were ourselves. And we inter-acted with other people. I realize how fucking silly that sounds, but you watch a kid zoned out in front of a video game for four hours, and realize he's doing that nearly every night, you have to wonder.

Granted, you can say the same about listening to music. But from what I’ve experienced in my own life, music will inspire me in a lot of ways, make me want to create my own art, give me the energy to do things, a sort of understanding of the world that’s communicated to me through the music. I don’t know what you learn when you’re pretend you’re a shotgun-toting murderer killing everyone in sight in a blighted urban landscape or desert. What the fuck does that mean? I know there’s the thrill of killing someone in a video game, I can get off on that, but for how long. Hours every night? Night after night? Hell, no.

With music, even the bands have changed. The most notable change for me is with lead singers. It’s almost embarrassing for them to have real talent, to have big voices, to be able fill a room, with nothing but their voice, and make everyone stop and listen. Most indie bands I like, the weak point is always the lead singer. The singer’s voice will lack character or strength. Sure, it will have a certain personality, but it often sounds weak to me. A good example of this was the band Grandaddy from California. A band that seemed to aspire to ELO levels of rock artistry. But had a lead singer who sounded like a librarian. I liked Grandaddy – a lot. But if I played a Grandaddy song for someone who was into 70s rock and hadn’t made the jump to more current indie rock, they would laugh and always say something like, “The music’s great, but that guy sounds like a weasel!”

And they were right. Rock bands seemed to have accepted that they’re never going to be stars or cultural icons on that sort of Stones/Springsteen/Dylan level ever again. In a way, that’s liberating. In a way, all this is liberating. The pressure’s off. Only the people who like and search out this music will be aware of it. There won’t be hundreds of bloated, stoned, bullshit people milling around at shows who are there only for the event, and don’t really care about the band.

(Sidenote: another issue is how many people who go to shows don’t really seem to care about the band on the stage, even if it’s the headliner. They’ll talk through ballads, a constant buzz of talking, often on cellphones. I don’t get that. Never have, never will. Didn’t see this happen until the 90s. And it still unnerves me those rare occasions when I see a band now. I couldn't even hear my fucking cellphone ring at a show, and it wouldn't occur to me to call anyone while at a show.)

But I have to accept, as a fan who remembers life before, that the sense of rock music mattering on that high a level is a thing of the past as a result. If you treat music as music, musicians as musicians, and nothing more, than that’s all they will be. And there’s a simple beauty in that. An honesty I can appreciate. In fact, I ultimately might prefer it all this way. It’s just a complete 180 from the way rock and roll was once upon a time. The culture around music now is more familiar and less exclusionary. You can approach these people and talk to them after shows. They’ll often be friendly. Email them – chances are, they’ll answer. They’re one of you, basically. Shit, they probably even need a day job when they’re not on the road. The guy you see on stage might serve you a coffee in a Starbucks a week later. A result of that, too, is that you won’t have as many flamboyant, other-worldly figures floating around the world. You'll have nerds in Savlation Army sweaters. Imagine David Bowie as Aladdin Sane helping you out at the Home Depot. It didn’t work that way. But if these people need day jobs because they can’t make a living solely through music, they’re going to have to appear “normal” on a very base level to get work.

It’s all some strange shit to think about! But some of the stuff I’ve come up with recently on why I don’t feel the same way about rock and roll anymore. Conversely, I have branched out so far into other types of music – most recently celtic and reggae – that I never stop growing in terms of having something new to listen to. There’s so much to learn – and I’ll never learn it all, or even want to. My plate is always full with music, overflowing in fact, simply don’t have enough time or the inclination to digest it all. But these are strange times we’re heading into now, and not just because of the MP3 revolution. Much more than that has changed in the past few years.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mellow 70s Gold

I used to have music on at work all the time, with a boombox on my desk, but it’s been years since I’ve had anything like this. The high point of this was at a job in the early 90s where I had a more isolated nook in the office, and would listen to Howard Stern first thing in the morning, often laughing uncontrollably when he got on one of those jags about his demented family life. Back then, I was buying 2-4 CDs a week as the golden days of that media format were just starting. I’d usually sample them at work.

Well, last month I got a sweet pair of speakers for the laptop that also service the shelf-style CD player I have. (The amount of stereo equipment I have now has fallen almost to zero; I use the computer constantly, or plug in my iPod to a small charger/speaker dock that works nicely. I use the CD player about as much as I buy CDs, which is to say once a month, at most.) I had a crappy pair of laptop speakers I got for $20 at Staples that I had been using, decided to drag them into work and load up my hard drive with a selection of MP3s.

I was pretty careful about this. Avoid hard rock. Song with profanity. Any sort of jarring music. While such constraints might seem cruel to a heavy metal fan, I gather most people in a workplace wouldn’t like being exposed to metal, or hiphop, or any other kind of loudly annoying pop music. The truth is I could still put thousands of MP3s on there with ease, the only issue being how to narrow down to what I want to hear on a regular basis.

It occurred to me after I was done, and throwing in more offbeat stuff like celtic, blues, reggae and deep country (which most people don’t “get” in New York), that much of what I would be listening to could be replicated by a good easy listening station. Granted, one with deep catalog and good taste, with a reach from the 1940s through now, but still, easy listening for the most part. It came out a lot like what I hear in the supermarket every Saturday morning, and I’ve already mentioned how enjoyable I find their sound system, on which I’ll hear anything from Otis Redding to the Flaming Lips to ABBA. That’s the kind of musical reach I like.

What also struck me was how much 70s pop I have on there, and how much I enjoy hearing that music now. Sorry, but when I hear “I Think I Love You” by The Partridge Family, I don’t groan. I think, “Shit, what a great pop song.” It’s a good thing, while working in an office, to have myself emotionally pulled out of my space for a few seconds or minutes to recall memories and feelings associated with various songs.

Last Friday, we had one of those freak March snow squalls in the morning, flakes the size of silver dollars that fell for about 15 minutes and amounted to nothing. I was at my work desk, looking out the window, and playing “Still the Same” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. When I first got that 45, I recall the exact same weather occurring as I hung my teenage head out my bedroom window and watched those freakishly large snowflakes fall in late March, the song’s melancholy vibe matching the feeling of watching snow fall too late in the season. Move it from rural Pennsylvania in the 70s to New York in the 00s, and that felt like the only difference. Of course, the spell was broken moments later by a squawking, deeply annoying, asshole coworker on the phone, but that’s work.

Below are a few songs that I’ve heard come up on the media player shuffle at work, and some of the thoughts/emotions they’ve inspired.

“Love Will Keep Us Together” by The Captain & Tennille.
This was among the first singles I bought – must have been 11 at the time. Man, I loved that song, would listen to Top 40 radio for hours just so I could hear it. Nearly bought the album, too, which would have been a mistake. A few years ago, when I was piecing together a large “Mellow 70s” collection of MP3s, I nearly bought a box set of all their albums, simply because it could be had for about $20. A good friend talked me down from that dangerous ledge, and I settled on a singles collection, which had plenty of filler.

I always think of Joy Division’s song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in tandem with this one, sort of polar opposites in every possible way. And I’ll go on record – the Captain & Tennille song is much better. Don’t care how “cool” Joy Division was as a band. The Captain & Tennille were about as uncool as you could get in the 70s. Doesn’t matter. A good song is a good song. Last time I checked, the Captain & Tennille are still together (always wondered if he had sex with the captain hat on), so they weren’t bullshit artists. The lead singer of Joy Division killed himself in 1980. Guess he wasn’t a bullshit artist either. Sooner or later, you stop gravitating towards “love will tear us apart” people – I had a full dose of them through my 20s. That take on the world doesn’t age well – it doesn’t age at all, more in a “emotionally stunted” way than in a “timeless” way. I surely don’t play “Love Will Keep Us Together” day and night, but I own a copy, and when it comes up on the iPod, I dig it. That was me at 11, and I won’t deny it.

After playing this song at work, I completely lost my network connection – to the web, to the filing system, to Outlook. When the I.T. guy asked me why I thought this happened, I told him it was because I played a Captain & Tennille song on my media player. He agreed that this was just as good a reason as any.

Supertramp. Not just one song – about a dozen songs I’ve pulled from their 70s albums. The world needs another Supertramp, which is to say an under-rated pop band that crosses a lot of lines in terms of its audience. Bands like this – also think Fleetwood Mac – dominated the 70s, simply because they were good, with all sorts of subtle influences and a basic pop sense that worked. Pop music started dying when bands like this disappeared into the 80s, and nothing replaced them. What is “The Logical Song”? It’s a bit of a samba, a hippie tract, some Beatlish guitar thrown in, clarinet and sax solos, lyrics that appealed just as much to lost high-school kids as they did to aging hippies entrenched in their much more sedate adult lives.

Back in 1978, when I saw the Superman movie featuring Christopher Reeves, a nice moment occurred when Clark Kent was walking to the newspaper office building in midtown Manhattan in the summer, and a snatch of “Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp played as he walked inside. What a perfect moment. You watch documentaries on the 70s New York music scene now, you get the impression the entire city was an out-of-control cesspool. It wasn’t. You watch movies filmed in NYC around that time, and it’s clear most of it was business as usual, which is something to keep in mind with how things are today. Now that I’ve lived here long enough, I’ve had plenty of those “Give a Little Bit” moments in the summer. Can’t say enough good things about this band – their music has aged well, and I thought it was good in the first place.

“Nights on Broadway” by The Bee Gees.
Disco started out pretty good. I can’t even recall if this sort of soul music was even called disco before Saturday Night Fever. I’m sure the term was kicked around in the mid-70s and solidified into a movement, that become a cultural phenomenon with the release of that movie. But my favorite disco – a type of music I mostly hated at the time (and still hate for the most part, although I easily have a few dozen outright disco songs in my 70s soul collection) – is just the kind The Bee Gees were doing with songs like “Nights on Broadway” and “Jive Talking.” “Jive Talking” is simply one of the best singles of the 70s – consider it disco’s “God Save the Queen.”

“Nights on Broadway” is a strange song for me because growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the song presented a fantasy of New York City life – smoky rooms filled with strangers. It sounded like a very elegant, romantic version of city life – “Love’s Theme” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra/Barry White was much the same (before it became the unofficial theme for late-night network movies and golfing highlights). That’s how the city sounded to me, my version of it, totally removed from any vestiges of city life. After having lived in New York for a long time … I don’t know what the fuck “Nights on Broadway” is on about. I’ve spent many a night on Broadway. Went home with lighter pockets on an early-morning subway train filled with stinking bums, puked in the toilet at 4:30 to get some sleep. Still, I want to believe in the romance of a song like “Nights on Broadway” – sort of like how Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” doesn’t appear to be about anything, just a jumble of clich├ęs and bad lyrics, but the music’s so good that you forgive it. The Bee Gees sure as hell don’t need my forgiveness – these guys were great before and after this song, in radically different ways. And for the record, days on Broadway usually find me walking in the street to avoid all the asshole tourists jamming up the sidewalks.

“Love on the Rocks” by Neil Diamond. File this one along with “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer.
A sappy ballad that I can’t avoid loving. In Neil Diamond’s case, man, there it is, love on the rocks, like a wrecked ship or a mixed drink. Aint no surprise. On the rocks, amigo, on the rocks. Suddenly you find you’re out there, walking in a storm. Words of wisdom from a passionate Jew with chest hair to burn. As opposed to a nebbish white Brit with an afro singing “When I Need You.” My friend Jose said that this was the one song when played on ghetto boom boxes in his project that would break down the hard guys hanging out around the handball courts. I don’t know what it is about 70s ballads, but they worked and are even more distinctive now. Ballads became too heavy and slick from the 80s onwards – not saying they weren’t in the 70s. But the melodies and production just seemed more smooth, less bombastic. When “Love on the Rocks” kicks in, it’s a tasteful orchestra arrangement and the drums that do so. Compared to the wailing divas of the 80s and after, Neil Diamond sounds absolutely subtle in comparison. And he was a major cheeseball. But one with talent, and maybe that’s the rub. You can laugh at someone like Leo Sayer, but try writing one hit the way he wrote a handful. It can’t be that easy.

These are the mellow kind of songs featured in commercials touting soft-rock stations. I should hate these songs. I do hate a lot of them. But if you strip some of these songs down to just a vocal and guitar or piano arrangement, you’ll find sound songwriting, sometimes even brilliant. I recall Patti Smith unironically covering Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” on a kid’s program in the late 70s. Hate to say it, but it became clear that Debby Boone was a much better singer. Still, hats off to Patti Smith for copping to the slightly embarrassing realization that sometimes Top 40 fluff is popular for good reason – because the song is good. Do you think “Reminiscing” by The Little River Band is a shitty song? According to May Pang in her book about her time with John Lennon, it was one of his favorite songs. For good reason … it’s a fucking good song!

"What a Fool Believes" by The Doobie Brothers.
This is one of the wisest songs ever written. It’s about a guy who deludes himself into believing a past relationship with a woman means anything to her now, and realizes it doesn’t, and may never have. What a fool believes, he sees. The wise man has the power to reason away; what seems to be is always better than nothing. Jesus Christ, how many times have I lived out these words – too many. Punk rockers would have laughed their asses off at The Doobie Brothers in the 70s. While they were writing songs about being bored and hating everything, here you had a guy, probably in his late 20s, going through all sorts of weird shit with women, and he’s smart enough, through his coke haze, to realize he’s a fucking idiot and mislead, always has been, maybe always will be. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is. So the guy had too much talent to play three chords badly on an electric guitar. His salt-and-pepper hair and full beard designated him as a full-blown adult. As did his boozy, mellow growl of a singing voice. A guy named Skunk with sideburns and a pony tail was his band’s guitarist. But make no mistake – the message of “What a Fool Believes,” regardless of the bouncy keyboard arrangement, is profound. Many times I have played this song and longed for that sort of clarity in expressing age old truths.

Another of the wisest songs ever written: “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. Simply stated, you got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table; there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done. The mysteries of life are contained, if not answered, in this song. Kenny Rogers is a dick? His chicken places are terrible? Your neighbor, uncle, and boss at work look like him? Could be true. But you write a song this good, and I’ll kiss your ass.

I may have picked these songs because they’re not going to get anyone too upset at work, and you could surely hear them in the supermarket or dentist’s office, but that’s how life works, sometimes a song like this comes on when you’re idling at the computer, or waiting in the lobby, and you think, “Shit, this song is great, and I’m not even stoned.” We all have these weird, unexpected touchstone songs in our lives. No shame in liking them. Just figured I’d try to do the impossible and explain why in certain cases.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Sweat Shop

On the same floor of an adjacent office building where I work, there was a space directly across from my window that we often called The Sweat Shop. This is the Garment District in New York, so all over that part of town, you’ll find small garment-oriented workplaces, most likely spaces where designers have a small staff doing their thing with fabrics: steam presses, sewing machines, pattern-cutting tables, mannequins, sheets of fabric hanging on rods.

We jokingly called it The Sweat Shop because most of the people who worked there seemed to be Asian women and Latinas, wearing t-shirts and jeans, a very informal workplace, and the place always had the look of these women buzzing around all day. It’s always strange to spy in on people in another workplace, especially when they’re doing a completely different kind of work from what you’re doing. They must have looked back at us, in our collared shirts and ties, and thought, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that shit.”

Well, I almost feel the same way they do about what I do, but I go on doing the same, while a strange thing happened to The Sweat Shop the other week. The lighting changed, got a lot brighter. And then the women were showing up less. One day, they were gone. The next day, there were a bunch of construction-looking guys in there, appearing to re-arrange the office space. The next day, we found they weren’t doing that at all: they were removing equipment. Two days later, the space was empty, and it looked gigantic with no one and nothing in there. Now we look across the way, and see this tastefully lighted, empty space, the kind of gritty loft you imagine living in when first moving to Manhattan.

Who knows what happened to all that equipment. Some guys where I work specialize in “moving” that stuff when a company folds. It’s harder than you think. Sometimes it gets auctioned off, generally at pennies on the dollar. Other times, it just sits there for weeks, and then goes into storage once the owner realizes he simply can’t sell this stuff on his own, and owes so much that he has to give it back to the original lender and have him re-sell it to cut-down the enormous debt. That sounds relatively easy – we’re generally talking weeks or months of yelling on the phone with the lender regarding personal finances and such. He’ll often try to hide the equipment – and in some cases we’re talking machinery that weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds. Sooner or later, it occurs to him that he’s not going to magically re-invent his business. I don’t know what happens to these guys: it’s a spooky thing to witness. But I gather most came from money to begin with, lick their wounds for awhile, then figure out another venture that hopefully won’t torpedo them into bankruptcy.

The workers? They just struggle to find another “sweat shop,” and these days, that’s probably not as easy as it used to be. Of course, I suspect the people working there were getting paid a pittance, so it’s probably not as hard as trying to find work as a six-figured vice president. Life will go on. Not all of us are piling loads of worthless, over-priced shit onto our lives. “Close to the ground” is what I call it. In my mind, simply an easier way to live. I don’t have a lot of shit. I don’t want a lot of shit. The less shit I have, the better I feel. I don’t care if I have this wrong or right. I can only imagine how suffocating it must feel to be in constant, serious debt.

I can’t say what’s real or not with the economy. We tend to judge things like this by what we see in our own lives. I had a friend in the 90s who was always “getting vibes” about the world through his own life. He never got a good vibe. The general vibe tended to be: “The world is closing in on me … things are getting heavy … haven’t you sensed that things have gotten crazier in the past few months?” As compared to what, was my general reply. His job sucked, doing I.T. work for a company that was always having money problems, that he’d make his own, even though his only job was to make sure everybody’s computers ran right. I always got the impression he functioned better that way, in the belief that the world was this heavy, and it was falling on him. He attached weight to things to make them seem more important to him.

What doesn’t help that overall sense of doom are 24-hour news channels. Everything becomes more than it is courtesy of these outlets. The worst dose I ever had of this was 9/11, actually experiencing this first-hand in NYC that day, but later, that night and the next few days, being inundated with the repeated, horrific images of what happened. As I noted at the time, it was awful to see over and over again, and I couldn’t stop watching. It’s no different with the economy now. You will definitely develop a “sky is falling” feeling watching this shit all the time; it’s unavoidable. The sky, in effect, fell on 9/11. If it didn’t fall on you directly, life went on. I’m guessing the same with the current economy. You manage to keep on working, think about it, your life isn’t going to be much different from how it normally is. Save you’ll be encouraged to be wracked with dread and paranoia although you personally have no reason to feel it.

I just checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the unemployment rate is at 8.1%. That’s pretty high by normal standards. But far from a depression. I’ve heard put forth that these are low-ball numbers. They can’t be – they’re pulled directly from people filing for unemployment. You might get fragments of a point for people who lose their jobs and can’t file for unemployment, for whatever reason (quitting or being fired, etc.), but that’s not going to be some massive figure that doubles the percentage – I’ve seen a few ass clowns put forth that we have over 20% unemployment. Which is bullshit. We get that high, things are going to feel a lot more hairy than they are now.

Of course, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I just looked at the wonderful nest-egg of stock-based savings I’d developed from being fully-vested at a job I had in the early 90s. Before this downfall, that thing was growing exponentially every quarter, by leaps and bounds. Now? The damn thing is cut almost in half. Cooler heads have told me to just grin and bear it, that it will come around again. And if it doesn’t, well, I sure won’t be the only one taking it in the ass financially.

There are some good things I’d like to see come about from all this financial darkness going on now. One, I hope real estate prices come back to earth and stay there. This has been one of the most grotesque acts of aggression to take place in my adult life – real estate in most places in America becoming over-priced to the effect that two people have to work like fiends to buy a house and keep it going. I grew up watching guys who pumped gas and work in factories own homes, and have to wonder how much that happens anymore. I know in the New York area, this is an insane issue, when people tell me how much it costs them to live here. You can’t have a “normal” life in New York like most people do in America. A boxy, deeply unimpressive apartment in Manhattan would get you a McMansion most places in America. And I don’t care what anyone says – the quality of life in New York is not worth that much. Sooner or later, all this shit is just background noise to how you live, or where you live. They don’t matter all that much. God bless you if you can run that ruse into your 30s and 40s, but you should know better by then.

But if there’s one thing I learned from 9/11, it’s that people don’t really change all that much, even after a traumatic experience like that. People said they would – they declared they were forever changed. But they weren’t – at least not here, and here is where you’d expect that to be the case. People went back to being just as self-absorbed and prickly as they ever were. Just as spoiled. Just as pampered. Just as neurotic. In effect, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way – this is how a lot of people who live here are. And they come off as complete jackasses when they pretend to give a shit about anyone else. Just the way they are. They’re not vigilant, or particularly brave. They’re just people. And they tend to live as they are, where they are, and have an attitude about it. New York can’t survive without greed and excess – the tax base would fall through. The worst problem we’ll have now as a city is the spending power and taxes created by all those financial workers who live and work here has gone up in smoke, which is no joke on that level. Ditto the taxes of all those financial firms that disappeared into thin air or merged.

I’m not sweating all this too much for a number of reasons. It’s an edict of mine to live affordably – always has been, always will be. I just can’t live otherwise. (And if I got lucky and came into a few million, hell yes, I’d upgrade accordingly – but again, within reason.) And I’ve come to the unavoidable conclusion that I’m a worker. It’s my mentality. I work. If I was in the army, I’d be a sergeant, like Dad was. I’d rise high enough to be of importance, but not high enough that I’d have to engage in the political nonsense of getting ahead. Good workers are valuable – boy, do I know this after two decades in NYC offices, and seeing the unbelievable amount of people who don’t like to work, and make the work lives of those around them misery. (Or, conversely, are obsessed with work and have nothing else to live for.) My goal in life is to always have balance.

Anybody who wants to work will find work. That’s how our country runs, save for a few moments in our history when things got strange. I’m not sure if this is one of those moments – let’s check back in 6-9 months from now. I’m having a hard time with all this talk of “opportunity” springing out of financial turbulence. Why not look for reason and sanity instead, where there was none before. Instead of always thinking about ways to get ahead. You can have the opportunity to stop living like a fuckhead, stop looking for any opening to screw everyone else, stop poisoning your mind with obsessive greed, and start creating a world where decent, hard-working people don’t need to feel like they have their heads in a vice 24-7. I know that’s asking too much, and probably won’t be a welcome byproduct of all this turbulence, but it’s nice to think we could return to a place in America where life didn’t feel like it was spiraling out of control in some larger sense, be it upwards or downwards. The way we live now can't go on forever, and that's a good thing in my mind.