Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Phony Beatlemania Hasn’t Bitten the Dust

I remember that line from The Clash’s “London Calling.” At that time, Beatlemania, the stage show, was in full swing. Brother J saw it while at Penn State – and loved it. Many Beatles fan, even of age, never got to see The Beatles. They stopped touring in 1966 and broke up (officially) in 1970. And something tells me seeing them in America any time from 1964-66 wasn’t that great a musical experience. Sure, you had that sense of something enormous happening, but it was tens of thousands of hysterical girls, too, at these things, screaming for the entire 35-minute concert.

Beatlemania was a tribute show, generally stocked by guys who were good musicians (Marshall Crenshaw being one of them), who performed a detailed sampling of The Beatles recording career, at a time when fans had been constantly craving a reunion that was never going to happen. It seems pretty harmless now, but at the time, anyone who perceived himself as hip – or punk – laughed at Beatlemania. Until then, it had been mainly Elvis imitators. Imitating The Beatles kicked open the door to a different generation of tribute, and there have been scores of rock-based tribute bands since, most of whom do pretty well for themselves on the road.

I’ve been thinking about and listening to The Beatles a lot lately due to the announcement of their catalog finally getting the “remaster” overhaul and reissue this fall, no doubt at top dollar. The Beatles are infamous for doing this … well, because they can. People will pay too much for their repackaged product because it’s The Beatles. Holds just as true today as it did in the 70s, when I witnessed those hits collections come out and sell pretty well, presumably to a newer generation, but I wasn’t buying that shit (save for the Blue and Red albums) – I suspect it was the same old fans wanting to be completists, as these new CDs will be in September.

But it got me listening to The Beatles again, and all I can say is, everyone else, man, just go home. These guys were it. Obviously, I don’t mean go home – I’ll get over this Beatles jag. But they’ve clearly been the best band of my lifetime. Forget about genres, whether they were pop or rock, or what have you. The Stones were surely a better rock band. But until they stumbled onto that evil formula with “Jumping Jack Flash” and worked it through Exile on Main Street, they were chasing The Bealtes in vain. Everyone was. About the only album I can think of that gives me anywhere near the same sense of wonder is Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, which is a great album in its own more mature way, but has that same sense of musical reach.

One of the things The Beatles aren’t noted for as much was the habit of wiping the slate clean for each album, from about Rubber Soul on, and giving each album a set, identifiable personality. They all sound different – radically so when you go from Sgt. Pepper to Let It Be. And within each album, you have the band exploring different styles. That sort of musical talent and sense of adventure was something I came to expect from 70s bands – and the great ones pulled it off.

What separated The Beatles most at the time was their sound – I’d imagine because they had an experienced producer like George Martin running the show, he knew how to make their records sound good. I recall when getting the Blue and Red albums (must have been 1974-75 or so) how much more I was drawn to their latter-day material (still am) because it sounded as advanced as 70s pop rock in terms of production values. (The earlier stuff was too boy/girl poppy for me, but I came around on that stuff, too.) My appreciation for the Stones, Kinks and Who lagged behind simply because the production values on many of their classic 60s recordings was way behind George Martin and The Beatles. This is probably because the bands were run by hustlers (Andrew Loog Oldham, Kit Lambert, Shel Talmy) masquerading as producers, whereas Martin really was one. The Stones snapped out of that production lethargy the quickest, but it took other bands awhile to catch up.

Put that all in the context of a 70s kid listening to shit like “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and “The Night Chicago Died.” “Crocodile Rock” was my favorite song for a few years, probably from about the age of eight to 11 or so. I really don’t regret being a huge Elton John fan as a kid. He “got it” the same way The Bealtes did in terms of making each album a new and individual musical statement. And "Crocodile Rock" was probably knocked from its perch by "Bohemain Rhapsody," which kicked my ass the first time I heard it on the radio in my Mom's station wagon while she hit the bank in Gordon.

Childhood was all about those profound introductions to music. I recall once going to a neighbor’s house and him playing his older brother’s records, one of which was the “Hey Jude/Revolution” 45. “Hey Jude” was just one of those songs that made immediate sense, the kind of thing where you’d sit and watch the Apple spin on the vinyl because you didn’t know what else to do while the song played. Just floored by it. With “Revolution” I distinctly recall at a pool party about that time, kids taking turns getting a running start on a deck and jumping into the water, making sure to time their scream with John Lennon’s at the start of “Revolution” … while a designated kid had to pick up the portable record player’s tone arm and drop the needle at the start of the 45. I’m sure we took turns and had a blast. That scream had to be one of the coolest musical memories from my childhood. (Another great one was a bunch of kids in pajamas dancing at night in front of a blanket hung on a clothes line to Grand Funk Railroad’s cover of “The Loco-Motion” while other kids shook flashlights at them, causing a strobe effect.)

So, a bunch of decidedly non-hippie kids in rural Pennsylvania were using “Revolution” as back-drop for pool parties … what happened between 1968 and 1973? It’s always strange for me to recall that I came of musical age shortly after the Beatles demise – literally only two or three years after. But I can assure you, I “missed” The Beatles, as people 10 years older who were there often tell me, and I know that being of age and hearing that stuff for the first time as it came out had to be a glorious musical experience. Shit, it was glorious for me a few years after the fact. And in retrospect, taking full boyhood joy in Lennon’s scream seems a lot more innocent and useful than fucking Nike using it to sell sneakers about 10 years later.

So much time has passed between now and the 60s, yet it’s crucial to note that 70s kids missed out in some sense on that music, even if we discovered it less than a handful of years later, the same way I’ll discover a band now who had a good album out in 2003 or 2004 that I missed. But that same sort of impassable musical wall doesn’t seem to exist now. No one’s going to lecture me for not picking up on a band a few years too late – there’s been no recent cultural/musical revolution that I missed out on. That sense of cultural ownership seems non-existent now, only with hipsters, and the sort of bands they lord that sense of belonging over, man, most people have no idea who those bands are. (And that’s what being a hipsters is all about: exclusivity.)

Take that sort of artistic exclusivity that seems so esoteric now and apply it to an entire generation, with the realization that these people weren’t full of shit, the music really was that good, and that sense of cultural hipness was common currency as opposed to a secret handshake. I will always defer to Beatles fans who were teenagers in the mid-60s, because they “got” that music like no one else has since and understand it in that “musical DNA” manner so much of the 70s means to me.

Remember that none of The Beatles stopped making music in the 70s, so they were always hovering around in some sense. Ringo Starr may have been a bit of a put-on, but “Photograph” is probably the best solo Beatles single, and a song that makes me feel like it’s summer time, 1974. George Harrison got a rousing start with All Things Must Pass, and I recall his single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” in tandem with “Photograph” as a perfect summer song. But after that, phew, he put out some bland albums after the first two, and I wasn’t buying. Lennon, of course, started out like a genius, lost his mind for a short while, then got it back after a long break, albeit never quite on that same level. “Mind Games” is that one single I recall spinning over and over, but that whole album leaves a lot to be desired. Hell, even his cover of “Stand by Me” feels as real and classic as anything else he was doing around that time. I can’t tell you how I excited I was the first time I heard “Starting Over” on the radio in the fall of 1980. Just took my breath away to hear him get “it” again, I knew from the first few strummed chords that he meant business again, and what a horrible shock when he was snuffed out by a maniac months later.

Paul McCartney ruled the 70s in terms of post-Beatles solo output. Even his supposedly shitty stuff (McCartney, Ram, Wild Life, Red Rose Speedway) sounds pretty good to me now, if a little raw. Band on the Run sounds like the pop gem it was and is – I was just playing “Mrs. Vanderbilt” on my iPod yesterday and couldn’t believe that loping bass line he came up with for that song. The whole album is filled with those sort of nice touches – album tracks like “Mamunia” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” sound even better to me now. Sure, he got too big with Wings at the Speed of Sound. But I like that he got that big again – one of those guys had to, and he was the obvious candidate. (Besides which, another great childhood memory was trying in vain to win that fucking album at the spinning wheel stand on the Point Pleasant boardwalk one night while visiting our cousins down there. I must have spent $15 trying to win an album I could have bought for $7.) You want a cool “70s” experience, pick up the live album, Wings Over America, go home, crack open a beer or two, turn off the lights and play the first track, “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” at top volume. It still fuckin’ rules! (And I realize what an assclown the previous sentence makes me come off as ... such is life.)

Along with the music, there were so many interesting books about The Beatles that came out in the 70s. I had them all. My favorite, and one I hope to pick up again, was The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard DiLello, the “house hippie” at Apple Records describing his days at the record company. Apple to the Core by Peter McCabe and Robert D. Sconfeld was the hardest read as it dealt with the details of the Beatles breaking up in court as opposed to rock mythology, but I suspect I’d find it a lot more interesting now. You have to remember that at the time, there weren’t a lot of books about rock artists, and the ones that were tended to be cheap, picture-laden biographies aimed at fans as opposed to serious readers. To this day, I love a good “rock” read, but it seems like these books don’t get written nearly as much as they did 1980 to 2000 or so. (Believe me, I’m no prime candidate to write one. The amount of research and interviews that would go into a book like this on any band or artist would take years … of financial support. I still don’t understand how many of these books got written in the first place, unless it was by a critic or a professor with a paying day job and lots of down time to pursue this.)

The other day, I made the comment to a friend that listening to The Beatles now was like recalling a special blanket or stuffed toy one used to have as a kid. Those sort of connections are nothing to scoff at or discard. Sure, I think there’d be something sick about indulging in that feeling exclusively, to the exclusion of all others. But I can assure you, the adult Beatles kick is a passing phase, something that I’ll indulge intensely and appreciate while it goes on, but come back in a few weeks, and I’ll be on to something else. That’s how I find my musical tastes go now – these intense fixations that last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, generally followed by another week or two of floating around musically, with another fixation kicking in soon thereafter. Shit, last month I thought Supertramp was godhead. Still do, but I’m not listening to them right now. Something about The Beatles, though, really registers with the elemental strains of however I came to love music in the first place, going all the way back to the start.

I’m not sure how this registers with kids now, nor do I care. I wasn’t too crazy about the movie Superbad, but one cool scene, when the obnoxious chubby kid had to describe how good something was to his friend, he blurted out, “It’s like the first time you heard The Beatles!” So I’m assuming there are plenty of people still “getting” this stuff the same way I did second-hand in the 70s. No shame at all in listening to this stuff over and over again, in weird hard bursts as time goes on. If anything, that sort of recurring passion for great music is something that keeps me looking for more new stuff to keep that feeling somehow alive, as opposed to living inside some sort of cardboard box of memories behind the 7-11. I'm more of a wandering bum of musical memories.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Panda in the Rain

Had a weird the other Saturday while cleaning up the landlord’s sidewalk. It was a crappy day weather-wise: a steady, soaking rain falling through the afternoon. I wasn’t really sweeping, but picking up any stray trash deposited on her sidewalk, which is always a given. As I moved down the sidewalk, I saw that someone had left a large stuffed panda wedged against the front fender of a pick-up truck.

It had a face like the animated pandas from that recent movie. Not quite sure what it was doing there, a stuffed animal left against a car bumper in the rain. This is what you call junk. No one was leaving it there to pick it up later. There’s a night club a block over, and I gather that late in the night, when that place clears out, people who are parked over here come back to their cars and sometimes leave odd shit behind. Predictable stuff usually – used rubbers, empty six packs, cigarette butts and those little clear plastic packets that held ecstasy, crank, speedballs or what have you. Assholes go to nightclubs, at least around here, not good people.

I knew enough not to leave it out there. That’s the kind of thing that some wise-ass group of kids heading to the basketball courts would most likely kick, or beat, knocking the stuffing out of it, making a bigger mess. When I picked it up by the arm, I saw something weird underneath it: a $1.00 bill. This is the first time I’ve ever found money out there, so that made my day. I grabbed the bear by the arm, which made me feel weird, like a kid, and dragged him back to the big hard-rubber garbage bin I keep on the landlord’s back patio. The damn thing was heavy, too, as it was water-soaked.

The bin’s nearly full after a few weeks of putting stuff in the there. Stuffing the panda in there … now I know how Tony Soprano felt when he had to dispose of a body. It wouldn’t fit. Should I cut its arms off? Its head? Legs? I had to dispose of this thing. No way was I keeping it. But stuffing it into a black garbage bag in a bin literally felt like I was trying to ditch a corpse. The quizzical panda face looked back at me as if to say, in Jack Black’s voice, “Hey, buddy, why you doing this to me?”

I stepped on his head a few times, and that made enough room. But it got me thinking about the stuffed panda’s backstory. What happened to deposit that panda on the front fender of a pick-up truck? These things are meant as presents for kids. Was someone trying to hurt a kid by stealing the panda and dumping it on an anonymous sidewalk in Queens? What I’m trying to say is what kind of person would dump a stuffed animal on the street in the rain? I’m taking it they’re not giving out stuffed animals as prizes for Biggest Guido over at the nightclub. I often ask questions like this in Queens, as there’s a surly attitude way too many natives seem to carry around with them like a cap gun, under the mistaken impression that they’re armed with a .44.

That panda had bad vibes about it. I expected it to animate itself early Sunday morning, crawl out of the garbage bag, bust into my apartment, and kill me with a carving knife. But I wasn’t the one who left him, so I slept easier on that knowledge.


Another Queens note. A few weeks ago, I made the leap and got “Go Green” bags from my local supermarket. Actually, they were giving them out as a special promotion, one per customer, so I tried it. And I came to a stark realization. Grocery bagging really is a huge waste of cheap plastic. When I come out of that supermarket with plastic bags, each bag a double-bag because these things are so cheap, I’m carrying at least 12-14 of these things. Just totally useless. And it occurred to me that using one of the more sturdy green bags was just easier. I didn’t have a few dozen pieces of rumpled plastic digging into the creases on the insides of my fingers. I walk about 300 yards back to my place, up a hill, so it’s a bit of a trek.

The next week, I bought one for a buck or so. I have two arms. I only need two bags. I’m not really focused on the environment. This is just easier. And the cashiers, instead of bagging with me, let me bag myself since they can’t reach over into my cart, thus I get a good, balanced weight in each hand. So, I look like a pussy toting these bags up the hill to my place, but what the hell, they work better, so I’ll keep on using them.

I also think one of the managers there is trying to hit on me. Female, thankfully. Not a bad looking girl either, curly blonde hair, pretty, svelte. Every time I go there, it seems like she finds some reason to talk to me or make some kind of contact. This last time, she hustled over and tried to bag for me (clearly wasn’t bagging for anyone else), but I told her, no, I got my own bags, but thanks anyway, blah blah blah. The one drawback. I’m older now, and one of the things I’m really aware of with women is how other women view them. When this woman casually makes contact with me, figuring out an excuse to talk to me or what have you, I notice the looks on some of the cashiers' faces, and I’m getting the vibe they don’t like her (which could just be a boss/employee issue). Some of the cashiers, as nice as they are, and actually pretty good at their jobs, are pretty homely. Good people, for sure, but not erection inspiring. Still, when I spot the eye roll, or one of them makes eye contact with me as if to say, “I know you’re not falling for this” … it makes me wonder. Ugly women tend to have pretty solid bullshit detectors.


The other day, a new girl at work asked if we had a company softball team. Of course, the place I work is so cheap they wouldn’t even put out for a checkers team, much less the few hundred dollars it would cost to register a team with a league, buy a few bats and balls, and budget a post-game beer kitty. But it got me thinking about my adult softball days, playing with the team from my smallish (about 60 people) ad agency, which for me lasted from roughly the ages of 25-28.

All these leagues in Manhattan are in constant struggle to find playing fields, as there’s just so much free parks space. You’d think Central Park would be the gold standard, and surely is in terms of location and that New York vibe, but the cold reality was playing there sucked. The fields were often uneven, pock-marked with holes in the outfield, and the infields nothing to write home about. They were also crowded as hell, with overlap. I recall once nearly getting into a scuffle with a teener league team from Spanish Harlem holding a practice who wouldn’t give up a field, although they had to. Kids acting like surly creeps, at the behest of their idiot coach. All their empty saber-rattling lasted about 15 minutes before a parks commissioner one of us ran to get came by and threatened them with a permanent ban, and the coach with arrest. I recall a lot of “we’re going to get you” mumbling and such, but the general vibe was adios, douchebags, this aint your block.

We played on artificial turf a few times, at a public park on the upper east side, called Asphalt Green, I think, an odd name for sure. As with most Manhattan fields, two games over-lapped each other on each end of the park, thus if you hit one to the outfield, chances were pretty good you’d have at least a triple as the outfielders would have to contend with balls and players coming from the other direction. The strangest game we played was at a small park by the United Nations, in which there was an encampment of homeless people in right field. Made things a bit awkward. They weren’t moving for anything. Any time a ball came into their encampment, they’d simply throw it out to the nearest person – they knew the drill. But imagine being homeless and having softballs line-shot at you every other day in the summer! Obviously, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but such is life in Manhattan that people often work around odd scenarios like this.

But most of our games took place on Ward’s Island, the ass end of Randall’s Island. (I understand both islands are joined by a landfill, and aside from softball fields, you’ll find an insane asylum, a fireman’s training school and a few stadiums/small venues for musical festivals. I saw the Fleadh there a few years back, and had a blast.) If you played on Ward’s a lot, you got the vibe your softball league wasn’t premier. Which was fine by me. The team I was on sucked for the most part (although they’d catch fire a few years later, with the help of ringers, and go up against the much larger ad agencies, with their crews of ringers, and win).

There was a softball bus, a yellow school bus, that would pick us up at some appointed place along Madison Avenue, and drive us out to Ward’s, all the teams inter-mingled on the bus. Co-ed, so there were plenty of hot advertising chicks along for the ride. It was such a relaxing thing to do after work. The concept of getting on school bus and going to an island to play games … it was like being back in grade school. My main memory of those games would be, in more quiet moments, turning towards the East River and seeing Manhattan laid out like a jewel in the summer evening, a light breeze blowing off the river, and thinking, this is paradise.

The games themselves were a lark for the most part. Even when we were serious, we were joking. I’m a bit leery of grown men who play team sports in a deadly serious fashion in their leisure time. It’s fucking tiresome to be around guys like that – let up already, dudes, you missed the boat in high school, get over it, the rah-rah attitude should have ended with intramural sports at college. I attended nearly every game, simply because I knew how much fun it was. One game, I distinctly recall, we were getting our asses handed to us, and I was playing third. A guy named Tom on the business side was in leftfield – Tom rarely came due to being stuck late at work. A hard grounder was hit my way and got through – unless I had dived, which I could have, I wouldn’t have stopped it. Tom sees my lack of effort and flips out, yelling incensed, dive, Repsher, dive, at the ball! All I could think was, eat me, douchebag! Tom was generally a nice guy, but he had a prick sheen about him, too, that would come out sometimes on the job.

Understand, we weren’t total losers. Our record would usually be about 4-6. And some of those losses, as noted, were sure-fire shellackings going up against agencies with literally 10 times the number of employees and that much larger a talent pool to draw from. Sure, we had the mailroom guys. You had guys like me who were coordinated and could still play, but were no great shakes. You had one or two guys who played softball in more competitive leagues and were really good. And one or two girls who were pretty good, the rest just showing up for the hell of it, which no one minded at all. The overall gist was to go out after work and have a blast …

… which would happen AFTER the game. That same yellow school bus would come rolling down the dusty roads around the baseball diamonds just before sundown, and we’d all pile on, this time with one destination for everyone, some sports bar whose name I can’t recall on the Upper East Side. And, believe me, that’s where we won. The beer allowance was generally about 3-4 pitchers, and we would get shit-faced with the other teams, often making nice connections with people who were pretty much in the same boat mentally and work-wise. I can still recall K.D., our jock team captain, having two girls from the recording company next door to us (who played on our team quite a bit) “dance” with him one night, which meant grabbing his cock through his shorts and whispering “we know you have a hard on” in his ear. I got touchy-feely with another girl from over there who loved Led Zeppelin and stole my Reading Phillies hat – a mutual attraction going on – save she was on the verge of getting engaged to her lawyer boyfriend, and things never quite got off the ground, despite getting very friendly.

Getting laid was not the norm, but we got plastered in lieu of this, and in general, got to know our coworkers as genuine people. You get that with sports and drinking, seeing people on a whole different level … which is why I like sports and drinking! There’s a woman in my boxing class I saw on the street the other day, and didn’t recognize until she tugged my arm. “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” I said … meaning work clothes as opposed to the skin-tight hot pants with the word “Angel” written across her wonderful ass cheeks, and a sports bra top, which is how I normally saw her in class. She laughed, because she knew just what I meant. It was the same with softball – I got to know people in a way that was much more different than work. Part of that was being in my 20s and seeking out those kind of connections (which I don’t do nearly as much anymore), but part was simply letting the guard down and trusting people enough to get blasted with them.

Getting home to the Bronx from that bar was always a bitch. One thing I’ve learned: if you drink a gallon of beer, which isn’t hard to do over the course of 3-4 hours in a bar, it’s a good idea to take piss breaks, particularly one before leaving. If I didn’t, man, my bladder would be bursting by the time I got home. Trains run later at night, thus I could wait anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes in the station, and then take a roughly half-hour ride back to Kingsbridge Road, at which point I had a brusque 10-minute walk to my place. There were times I pissed in the street like a lost dog marking his territory. I just couldn’t hold it in. We’re talking the Bronx – not too many people were keeping score. I wouldn’t pull my penis out and go right on the sidewalk. I’d scout out some quiet spot between buildings, or slip behind a dumpster, and let loose for upwards of a minute. At that time of night, probably around midnight, the streets weren’t exactly teaming with people.

Never puked, from what I recall. But at the very least, stumbled home, feeling pretty fine after an evening of softball by the river, hanging out with some cool people (one of the few benefits of advertising), eating pizza, getting hammered on cheap beer and commiserating over our lots in life in one of the most over-rated industries ever created. Most nights, I could barely even remember who won or lost, or who screwed up on the field. Advertising parties in general, and there were a lot, got way too wild – too many people doing coke in the bathroom and such, and too many uptight upper management types either being too stiff or getting too strange. The creative people would be even worse, manic depressives already blown out on the fact that they weren't famous artists and writers, doing hard drugs and feeling like failures despite making fortunes. The softball crowd felt just right – not too stiff, not too crazy, no Van Gogh's cutting off their ears. “Even the Losers” by Tom Petty could have been our theme song. We kept a little bit of pride and got lucky sometimes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Web Gunk

Lately, it seems like I can’t go five minutes without hearing about Facebook or Twitter. A handful of people I know have gotten on Facebook in the past year or so. The pattern’s usually the same. At first, they’re amazed by the number of people from the past this thing turns up, as if by magic, they had ceased to exist before Facebook waved its magic wand. They spend a few weeks exchanging pleasantries with the girl who gave them a hand job in the seventh grade, or the guy from their dorm who used to rule on the beer bong.

After awhile, they realize knowing these people again is no big deal, don’t really have a lot to say to each other, and the “Dude, can’t believe you still tread the earth” vibe wears off. (As if people die when we stop knowing them ... the level of self absorbtion in our society never ceases to amaze.) And they find themselves annoyed with the constant stream of updates, also noticing the mercenary sorts who use Facebook as a way to generate publicity for whatever cause they’re into. I’ve never actually started or looked at a Facebook account, save to see that home page for various people, so I have no idea what goes in the day-to-day function of it.

But I’m willing to bet the reaction after awhile is much like mine, without even using it: I spend enough time screwing around on the web already without adding another serious waste of time. When people first get into Facebook, they’re addicted, and begging you to join (in the fun). After a month, you never hear it mentioned again. It seems like some people strike a happy medium, where they check in once or twice a day to see what’s going on, post pictures for family members, etc. … only to find the guy they rode the bus with in fifth grade noted that he took a legendary shit this morning after having a bran muffin.

Which seems like the kind of thing Twitter is used for. (I’ve gathered you can stream Twitter posts on Facebook.) I sort of resent being made to feel like I’m somehow “behind the times” for not indulging in this nonsense. Facebook is a more tasteful Myspace, and Twitter is texting on a computer (although you can share the nonsensical minutiae of your day with X number of people as opposed to one, what a breakthrough). I recognize texting and Myspace for what they are: meant for kids and self-absorbed adults.

I gather the younger you are, and the more spare time you have, the more likely it is that you’ll indulge in this stuff. My frame of reference regarding communications goes back to rotary-dial phones and letter writing. Try calling five people on a rotary-dial phone … you’ll probably be wearing a finger splint afterwards. When you called someone, that meant something, and if the person wasn’t there, the phone just kept on ringing. (I even pre-date answering machines – technically, not, but answering machines were not a given when I was a kid.) That wasn’t such a bad thing, unless you were madly in love or closing some type of deal. Person’s not there? I’ll try again tomorrow. Do something else in the mean time.

It would take me days to write letters to friends, and I used to love doing that. My emails tend to still be pretty long-winded as a result. (I’ll never text anyone … texting is pure dogshit to me, the devolution of thought and language. May also be why I’m holding off on an iPhone, which I like in theory, but don’t like the idea of thumbing incessantly to send an email.) I love to communicate with people through writing. They write back, and with the people I know, that tends to be a pretty worthwhile exchange of ideas. Not “C U LTR, QT.” Or whatever the fuck else people functioning on a much different wavelength than mine put out routinely. The letters I wrote were rambling, hand-written things you had to spend time on. We should all be forced to hand-write everything for a week to gauge just how much things have changed …

… And how much easier it is to communicate now, yet people seem to communicate much less, or much less effectively, than ever before. Particularly people raised in this culture. Everything is a glib, never funny, never insightful one-liner, or symbols that suggest the person now thinks in terms of text messaging as opposed to fully-worded thoughts. For them to write a paragraph of any size seems to be an alien undertaking. You write a well-worded reply to them, and their reply is, “Y don’t U write a novel.” No, motherfucker, this is two or three paragraphs, not a novel … you ought to try reading one some time to grasp the wonders of attention span.

You grasp this when you overhear a superfluous cellphone conversation. For me, that happens constantly on the subway train, when it comes above ground in Queens. If you need a good thumbnail description of “asshole” … an asshole is someone who pulls out his cellphone just as a subway train surfaces from below ground and immediately calls someone on it. Always, and I mean always, to have a totally meaningless conversation, in a crowded public place. What you doin. Oh, not much. I’m on the train. Yeah. Yeah. No shit. Yeah. Yeah. That’s so cool. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll see you in five minutes. The conversations seem to take place only to convince the caller and listener that each is still alive and walking the earth … although they’ve already texted each other earlier in the day that they’ll meet later. That’s a strange sort of insecurity I don’t understand. I think part of it is demonstrating to the people around you that you are more important because you’re making a call on your cellphone in a crowded public place. You have shit going on in your life, people to call, things to do. (Generally, if my cellphone rings on a subway train, I let it go to voice mail. The reception on a train is horrible, and I know how uncomfortable it is to be sitting next to someone on a train indulging in one of these conversations.)

The mindset of someone raised with all this gunk has to be fragmented. I wasn’t even raised with it, and I’ve noticed how much more fragmented my thoughts, and my life by extension, have become. Just because you can communicate with people much more quickly, and have so many more options to do so, doesn’t mean that you can communicate any better than how people have in the past. Communication is one thing; modes of communication are another. If you don’t learn how to communicate in certain ways, you just won’t be good at it, no matter what you do. So much of our communication these days is focused on the written word, be it simple email, Twitter, Facebook, web message boards, etc. And I’m gathering people simply aren’t learning how to write well. How to string together numerous thoughts into a cohesive statement. How to imbue their words with emotions and concepts that communicate with readers on a much deeper, more human level.

I used to get in trouble on message boards for stating the obvious: that some people on them were bad writers. I’m not talking syntax and grammar. I mean just the ability to communicate through writing. A lot of people on message boards are like cardboard cut-outs, or crash-test dummies, when it comes to writing. They’re dull, at best, which is probably why they’re spending so much time there. And these things never die. You can get off the merrygoround whenever you want, but it will keep spinning. I’ve never seen the guy or group running a message board state, “This place has seen better days – let’s close it down.” Message boards are like high school or work – you have friends, but you have to spend serious time each day hanging around a certain number of people you really don’t like, and a larger number of people you’d normally have nothing to do with. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about sound mental health, it’s that you shouldn’t spend any time around anyone who inspires negativity and loathing, and vice-versa, of course. If that’s the work situation, good luck, but to do it on a message board, all in the name of false sense of “community,” man, you tell me.

I also find an alarming number of people on these boards who went to college through the 90s and after: a strange tribe that indulges in therapy-style jargon about feelings and such, yet have a Lord of the Flies style of dealing with anyone or anything that threatens their homogenous little worlds. There’s a sameness about these people that’s spooky: liberal (but not too far left, no sir, I’m a regular joe), WASP-y (my Dad owns a chain of restaurants ... could we not talk about this ... how do you like this bowling shirt I bought at the Salvation Army?); let’s cut the crap, they’re always white, and filled with self loathing (for reasons I will never understand). Used to be you went to college to set yourself free – in the past two decades you do so to be indoctrinated with a truly bullshit way of seeing the world. Used to think the future would be a bunch of enlightened people walking around in robes … it’s more like an Alanon meeting of sensitive 13-year-olds.

The whole idea of message boards, Facebook, Twitter, etc., seems to be to generate traffic, heat, immediate contact, and contact with an unbroken flow. This is bad news for writers. One, printed media is being phased out, more rapidly in the past year or two than anyone had imagined. Two, writers are going to be making less money writing on the web for whatever given publication; no one seems to have cracked how to make real money on the web via advertising, and subscription services have not done well. Three, the writers will have to adjust their styles to fit into this condensed, fragmentary way of writing … and I’ve already noted why this is cancerous. It will be dumbing down our writing skills to reach people who don’t know how to communicate anything real and have mistaken nothingness for reality.

Worst of all, the web is crawling with people who just can’t accept how mediocre they are as writers, and they have the mistaken impression that anyone can do it. Because they’re doing it. And when someone tells them the truth, that they suck at it, that person gets shouted down for noticing, because everyone’s equal on the web. Again, we’re talking black, organ-chewing cancer of the worst kind here … but these are misguided attitudes I see routinely displayed. And these are the intelligent people! Check out the responses to videos on You Tube or the greetings expressed on Myspace pages – fucking unreal. I wish these people were joking, or parodying idiots, but they’re not. I’m picturing some slobbering, cross-eyed, egg-shaped being with a propeller beanie and one big tooth, tapping on a keyboard with one hand while eating a snow cone with the other.

Am I being too dark here? Probably, but I’m also being honest and have spent enough time with this to know what I’m writing about here. And don’t get the impression that I’m against new trends and technology. Christ, I love these things when they make sense and make clear how much easier life can be by using them. Cellphones truly are a blessing, especially in emergency situations, and I love the mobility of them. (As noted, I’ve pondered getting an iPhone, but have to be honest with myself in that I don’t really need one, despite all the cool gadgets contained therein.) Email is fantastic – it changed my life in terms of maintaining relationships that would often go months or years without any sort of support. (No one with email needs Facebook. If the god damn person isn’t in your life already, take a hint, no offense, some people just fall by the wayside, as you do for them. Are we that lonely that we need to dig up people from our past and pretend they're in our lives now? It's like a never-ending high-school reunion.) MP3s, and now video files, have simply changed how we’re going to consume these types of media, and I love it, the possibilities seem endless with this stuff. Any time I pick up a copy of Wired or talk to a gadget-leaning friend, I have my mind blown over some of the innovations that are headed our way.

I just didn’t anticipate communication skills going down the toilet conversely to the rise of technology. If anything, I thought more and faster options would mean better skills – if people were forced to communicate all the time at top speed, they’d simply get better at it, be more expressive and descriptive. Writing is like any other endeavor – the more you do it, the better you get at it. I think the issue is we pull ourselves in a thousand directions with all these innovations, performing high-tech juggling acts every day, and often end up doing a number of things either passably or poorly, and nothing very well. If you never had the foundation of someone teaching you how to write well, and then had time to nurture this skill, it appears all you can do is tap out graceless one liners and have conversations that are more like monologues where no one really listens to each other.

When I see someone dogging a cellphone on the street, you know the type, the motherfucker can’t be off the thing for more than a minute at a time, I can’t help but think that person is more in the love with, and addicted to, the concept of using the device than feeling any real need to communicate with anyone on the other end of the line. The overheard, meaningless conversations bear this out. I gather people are more enamored of their iPods and all the accessories that go with them than they are the actual music on the iPods … the music is secondary. Simply having one, and displaying it publicly, that’s the main thing these days. How we got into this bizarre state of affairs, I’m not sure. Gadgets are now more valid than art.

It’s not an age thing. I’m hoping there are younger people out there looking at their friends and associates caught up in this crap and thinking the same things I am now. I’m assuming there are still plenty of sane people out there. I spend five minutes around someone stuck on his cellphone, texting or talking, and I just want to get the hell away from that person, whatever his age is. The lack of manners involved with this is another huge issue, but people stopping conversations to read a text or answer a call has become so routine that I don’t think most people notice what a breach of manners that is.

Am I full of shit? Making too much out of all this stuff? I hope I am, but suspect I’m not. If there’s good stuff I’m not seeing from things like Facebook and Twitter, texting, Myspace and such, someone, please, for the love of Christ, enlighten me. All I’m seeing is a childish waste of time masquerading as progress. Something that starts out fun, but turns tedious real fast. When I eat candy now as an adult, the first five seconds are a blast, and then I start feeling like a horse’s ass for eating such junk clearly aimed at kids in every conceivable way. Here’s what happens when I eat too much candy. Happy Easter!