Saturday, May 25, 2013
I used to play the electric bass, mostly. When anyone asked what instrument I played, I'd say electric bass, and they'd immediately say, "You mean bass guitar?"
No, I mean I play the electric bass. That thing Glen Campbell is playing in the video is a real, live electric bass guitar. It looks like some form of Fender Bass VI. It's an electric guitar tuned down an octave. It sounds like Bonanza. It's so rare that I've never actually seen a real one in person. It was so rare that Nigel Tufnel didn't want Marty DiBergi to even look at his Fender VI.
When I was a little kid, Wichita Lineman came right out of the radio whether you wanted it to or not. Every radio station played everything back then. FM hadn't caught on in cars yet, so there weren't that many stations, and radio stations grubbed after the same audience by throwing everything popular at the wall. It lent itself to an interesting phenomenon: Songs you hated that you liked.
I wasn't a teenager yet, but I recognized Wichita Lineman as something for the squares. I wanted to hear Marvin Gaye sing Grapevine, or Hey Jude by the Beatles, or maybe People Got To Be Free, or hear Archie Bell tell us he was going to tighten up that bass, one more time. Instead of those, you'd have to sit through Honey by Bobby Goldsboro, or Judy in Disguise With Glasses, or some Herb Alpert shite.
It didn't matter if I liked the stuff or not; I had to hear it, so I knew it. Inside and out. Years later, we used to play Stump the Band with our audiences, and we didn't have much trouble banging out a terrible but recognizable version of most everything. It was banged into our heads all those years ago. Hard.
Considered dispassionately, Wichita Lineman is an amazing piece of work. Soup to nuts, composition to execution. It was even marketed properly -- it was on everything all the time. Jimmy Webb wrote it. It's just a pop song, I guess. But I write flash fiction, and that's almost exactly like writing songs. You have to conjure a mood immediately and describe a small story arc without exposition. It's simple, but not easy. A very difficult knack.
It's harmonically unusual for a pop song, and very effective at instantly painting an image of intense longing and loneliness in a particular time and place. Everyone involved in its production was a consummate pro. People don't like to admit it, but popular entertainment can be broken into its component parts, the parts understood, and then produced like a widget. It's the understanding part that's difficult.
So Wichita Lineman sucks. But how can you help but love it?
(Also: Wichita Lineman at the Rumford Meteor)
Thursday, May 23, 2013
When I was young my father would take me to an MDC skating rink. The MDC was the "Metropolitan Disctrict Commission." It was a layer of government in Massachusetts that allowed the corrupt mayor of Boston to be corrupt outside the city proper. The MDC had its own police force, and ran all sorts of public parks and such. They constructed skating rinks here and there around Boston.
They were spartan affairs, but didn't seem so to us, because all we had was the corrugated ice on the local pond, and we had to shovel that first. Some people think that sort of activity, born of privation, builds character. People that think that have never met me. I don't have a trace of character, and I went through all sorts of inconveniences.
The MDC rink we frequented was on the banks of the Charles River, on the Jamaicaway, I think, and it was simply a roof over a patch of ice, with a chain link fence for walls around it, and a blockhouse where you could rent someone else's athlete's foot by the hour. They threw in the skates for free. They also sold hot chocolate that wasn't either of those things. It was a long car ride from where we lived, and it seemed very cold, but we loved it.
During public skating hours, they'd play organ music over loudspeakers they had borrowed from a defunct prison camp or something. It transmogrified the music into something not quite musical. It was the same hoary old stuff the organist at Fenway Park used to play, only recorded.
There were usually a lot of people. There were all sorts of rules posted, all ignored, mostly, except by custom, but there was one, big, hairy rule that everyone followed uniformly: Everyone skated the same direction at the same time. You'd skate counterclockwise for 15 minutes or so, and then a voice would break into the groaning organ music and bellow: SKATE TO THE RIGHT!, and everyone would immediately stop and go clockwise. To this day, whenever I hear any sort of Hammond organ music, I still mutter skate to the right to myself.
I was little and in awe of my father. He could skate pretty well. I had a problem. I could only skate to the left. When the direction was reversed, I'd have to cross my left leg over my right to make a right turn, and I'd fall down. A lot.
Humans are practical creatures, and devise various strategies for dealing with such failings -- almost all of which involve avoiding trying. I'd say I was cold, and sit down on a metal bench the temperature of Neptune, or hang on the boards and lie like a Turk in a bazaar and say I was tired. When the disembodied voice re-appeared and said SKATE TO THE LEFT again, I'd go back at it.
My father gave me some good advice, which I still remember. He said that if I didn't want to learn to skate that I shouldn't go skating. It would be a waste of time, and I should simply do something else that I really wanted to do. But I enjoyed my counterclockwise self, so it's more likely that going clockwise was just a difficulty that I could overcome with effort and intellect. If I was happy fifty percent of the time, why not make it a hundred?
He told me that I had to figure out the aspects of skating I was bad at, and only do them. He told me to sit on the arctic bench and hang on the boards when the direction favored me, and only skate to the right.
It's counterintuitive to do this. Go with your strength everyone says. There's an entire school of thought in business called the Hedgehog Strategy. Find one thing you do well, and only do that one thing.
Dad said don't go with your strength. Take your strength for granted. Work on your weakness. It was marvelous advice, and not just for skating. Businessmen, especially small businessmen, rarely understand the concept. In large organizations, your boss exists to do one thing: make you skate to your right. Left on your own, you'd do whatever was easy and file everything difficult under M for manana.
That's why most everyone hates their boss; he makes you do things you don't want to do. If you were wise, you'd realize it's in your own best interest to learn to skate to the right, but that's not why he asks you to do it. If you don't skate to the right, he gets fired and can't afford to get the GI Joe with the Kung-Fu grip for his kids for Christmas. So he makes you. His boss makes him. And so forth.
When people want to start their own businesses, 99 percent of the time it's because they think that if they don't have a boss, no one can make them skate to the right. They'll go with their strength. Of course their strength is likely not of any use to the public. If you're in business on your own, you don't have one or two bosses. The general public is your boss, every man-jack of them. And they're not interested in the fact that you can really check boxes on forms, or your desk is really clean, or that you're amazing at leaving witty comments on FARK all day. They want their stuff. They all want you to skate to the right all the time. But they only have one way to make you skate to the right. They starve you out. They go away and never come back. The public is so much more cruel than the worst boss in this regard, because they almost always say nothing to you. They figuratively kill you without telling you why. They would tell you why, but listening to the customers is the A, Number One, Primary, Overarching, Central and Foundational example of skating to the right for almost everyone. That's why salesman make so much money and do so little heavy lifting.
So my advice, for all you owners and managers and employees of businesses, is simple: Your business should skate to the left, hedgehog style, all the time. Go with your strength. All your employees, and you if you're an owner or manager, should work on skating to the right all the time, to make it possible for the business to keep that Business Hedgehog fed, so all his spines don't fall out from inanition. There's a name for a hedgehog without spines that curls up into a ball and plays dead. That word is "lunch."
Most managers do not have a deft touch at making demands for clockwise skating. They grab you by the shirt collar and drag you to the right. My father wasn't like that. He told me why I should try, and I believed him, and I made up my mind to try as hard as I could, because I'm stubborn. I battered my knees with fall after fall, and heard the tittering of everyone wondering who the clumsy kid was, but I eventually learned. I got to be as facile one way as the other.
Filled with a bit of pride, I said, "Dad, I think I can skate to the right better than to my left now."
"Now skate backwards."
Saturday, May 18, 2013
The sign says the factory is in Brewer, Maine. Brewer is basically Bangor. It's a city a couple hours east of where I live. We have a Paul Bunyan statue in our town, too, that doesn't belong here, either. Ours doesn't look like a nifty gay superhero like Brewer's does. Ours looks like Billy Mays if he had acromegaly and a makeup artist with palsy. All those people in the video sure look familiar, though. Mainers from the poor cities look and talk like everyone working on the line in that video, except for the robo-dweeb that's narrating. He looks more like Portland, ie: Northern Massachusetts.
No one in any of those places would be caught dead wearing Sperry Topsiders. Someone must still be wearing them Down East, I guess -- the constellation of little hamlets hard by the granite coast where people sail during the ten minutes of good weather that Maine gets every year. They don't wear them while sailing, of course, just in the bar after. Yuppies used to wear them in the eighties. I wonder if the fellow with the shirt three sizes too small signals a resurgence among the hipster crowd. They're comfy shoes; they could do worse. According to the Bangor Daily News, it's the Japanese and other assorted Asians that are buying them. Asians only want them because they aren't made in Asia. You can try to explain that if you want, but I have a headache already.
It's the Sperry label you see at the beginning of the video, but Justin Brands owns it, and Berkshire Hathaway owns that. That's Warren Buffett's bailiwick. Warren Buffett only buys things that have some strategic advantage someone's missing out on. A "Made in Maine" tag seems to be all you need to sell boat shoes in Japan. Who knew? Then again, Berkshire Hathaway used to make shirts when Buffett bought it. If I was working in one of his factories, I wouldn't buy any green bananas.
The elderly workforce in the video is not a gimmick. Maine is old people. After we moved to the wilds of western Maine, we later learned that everyone called us "the young couple." We are not young. But if you stand next to midgets you're tall, I guess. If you have children shorter than you, you're young, at least in Maine.
Maine used to make a lot of shoes and boots. It was the state's largest industry until very recently, when free trade killed American piecework dead. The state's current largest industry is selling oxycodone you stole from grandma's medicine cabinet, I think. You can still find Quoddy in Maine. Bean. Sperry. Bass. Red Wing. New Balance. Oops, I forgot about Bass. They're made in: "Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Honduras, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan." They still show scrawny, WASPy- looking chicks and their lantern-jawed LL Bean brochure consorts sitting on Adirondack chairs, dockside, on their website, though. The Maine ethos still sells. Maine is the size of Ireland, and about five square miles of it looks like those ads, but, whatever.
Maine used to look like those people in the video. Hardworking, no-nonsense people. I always admired people like them. I wonder who I'll admire when they're dead and gone. It won't be long till I find out, I guess.
(Thanks to my friend Gerard at American Digest for sending that one along)
Friday, May 17, 2013
In some ways, the work that goes on behind the scenes in most forms of entertainment is more interesting and fulfilling than whatever the "talent" is up to. I'd rather own a football team than play on one, too.
I always found bars to be dull unless I was working in them. The most fun I had in the music business was generally after the show was over and we were breaking down the equipment. It was my job to look like I was having fun while I was performing, and I tried to, whether I had a strep throat or a chisel wound in the meat between my thumb and index finger or not. Most applause simply brings a feeling of relief, not elation.
You have to be on top of your game and your craft to be in charge of the stage at the San Francisco Opera, whether you can sing a note or not. There are satisfactions to being invisible.
Obscurity and a competence—that is the life that is best worth living. -Twain
Thursday, May 16, 2013
You can die young, or get old and watch everyone you know die. It's a crummy choice, and insult to injury, the choice is made for you, anyway. Everyone works it out as best they can.
I can hear you calling my name
Or somebody's whispering
That sounds like you
I can see you standing in the shade
The sun is glistening
And it's blinding my view
I can feel your touch on my face
I remember kissing you
For the first time
I can sense you just out of fray
And I'll be reminiscin'
For the rest of my life
Never loved anyone
I never loved anybody
But you Baby
Never been lucky baby
I never bet winners
But I'll never say never again
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
You have to give the audience a compelling reason to pay attention to you.
That's the only advice I ever gave to my children about performing, really. The rest was details. The rest is details. There's lots of different approaches. They all work. Or they don't. It's up to the performer. Performers can have the wrong audience, it's true. A metal band that looks out into the audience and sees nothing but blue hair is probably in for a rough time. But the audience is rarely the problem. A stubborn insistence on entertaining yourself before the audience, or instead of the audience, is usually the culprit.
We used to call the phenomenon "Doing The Show." Caravan Palace knows how to Do The Show.
Caravan Palace on Amazon