coffee with dead people: chuck barris

Chuck Barris died Tuesday in, of all places, Palisades, NY. The songwriter, author, television producer/emcee and cultural lightning rod was 87.

Most may not know that he wrote the post-Golden Age of Radio single “Palisades Park”, or that he worked behind the scenes on American Bandstand and was in no small part influential in the rise of what we know as reality television. Most know him in one of two ways: One, as the central character in the 2002 film adaptation of his self-professed unauthorized autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; or two, not entirely removed from the first, as the cracked-out host of the cracked-out late 1970s *ahem* talent program The Gong Show. 

He gave us any number of pop cultural icons and curiosities, launching the immortal Bob Eubanks from radio disc jockey to near-ubiquitous television presence for the better part of twenty years, to early exposure for a very youthful Paul Reubens, to giving David Letterman some of his earliest appearances as a celebrity judge on The Gong Show. He might not have been a kingmaker per se, but his work shaped a lot of American television culture to the present day.

Barris showed the world what an introvert looked like when faced with success, a national audience and a multi-camera studio. Or, perhaps, he really was cracking under the pressure of being an international man of mystery and assassin. Or, perhaps, drugs (a claim Barris vehemently denied to his death.)

The Gong Show was an early part of the lineup back in the days when USA Network ran blocks of old game shows every weekday afternoon. We lived in the suburban Twin Cities before cable became commonplace; my father got one of those enormous satellite dishes so that he could watch the Packers out of market. So, my brother and I were exposed to far more of the 1970s than I probably should have been.

And yet there we would be, in that ebullience known only to the young, dancing along to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Those memories are some of a scant few I have when my brother and I were both children. That joy still welled up when Central Wisconsin finally got Game Show Network and Gong was on every night at 10pm. That joy came back when I found Gene Gene compilations on YouTube last week.

Barris was also an accomplished author. Confessions is one of my favorite books (certainly not for the faint of heart), and The Game Show King is one of the better memoirs I’ve read. After Gong went off the air in 1980, he largely disappeared from public life, moving to France before returning to the States in his latter years. He never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter to a drug overdose, and four years of consistent on-screen delirium will suck the life out of anyone, much less someone who never wanted to be on that end of a television camera.

He might not have been a saint, he might not have been responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization (at least not entirely), but he gave me some of my earliest and most favorite memories, and now the coffin of my childhood is fast running out of space for the added nails.

The end of both the film and book is an uncomfortably apropos way to conclude:

I came up with a new game show idea recently. It’s called the old game. You got three old guys with loaded guns on stage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator.

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briefly, dust

“…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” — Genesis 3.19b

I was not raised in a Christian tradition that paid much recognition to Ash Wednesday or the Lenten season, which began for many Christians a week ago. With the arrival of the season, though, this phrase has stuck in my mind.

To be returned to dust. Pulverized; pulvis: dust, powder, ash.

We will all be pulverized. What (ahem) levels the playing field more than that?

Perhaps in our heightened state of enlightenment, we have forgotten what it is we really are. Regardless if one believes in the literal creation (which I do not), or in evolutionary development (theistic or otherwise), the source is the same: we come from the elements. In kind, we will end up elements again.

In the meantime, we are animated dirt.

And, as dirt, living amongst dirt, we tend to lack self-awareness of our own dirtiness. As such, we take our fellow dirt for granted, we mistreat, we hate, we ignore, considering our collection of dirt of more value than someone else’s. All the while, neglecting the fundamental fact that I am dirt and could be dispatched to my natural, dusty state at any given time.

The fact that we are animated dust, then, should never be far from our minds, Lent or otherwise. This is the time to be grateful, to be fair, kind and to recognize the myriad ways in which we fail one another. This is the day to seek forgiveness and to forgive. The garden might not be an option anymore; that shouldn’t keep us from creating something beautiful (or as beautiful as dust can possibly be.) This is hope, that in spite of our mutated condition, we might yet even have the faintest resemblance of a time when things were right.

Indeed, while we yet have anima, we are extraordinary pulvis. Capable of life and destruction, often in the same manner and from the same source, inexorably thrust toward our pulverization. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

What will you do with your interim? What shall I do with mine?

waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

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[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

***

These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

on suffering

Pain is a good and necessary thing.

This not to say it is good, which is to say that pain is itself pleasurable (ummm…unless that’s your thing, in which case, thanks for reading?), but that its utility is essential to living: the presence of pain or discomfort is the body identifying something wrong in its systems.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard this before. Pain is a megaphone, so on and so forth.

Suffering is endurance of a burden: the long, drawn-out affliction. It is not pain, rather pain extended. It consumes; you know when you’re flat on your back with the flu, the room spinning around and you’re trying to remember what it’s like to not writhe and wretch.

Wholeness becomes a faint memory as suffering floods the mind and soul. Suffering is then the converse of wholeness. Wholeness turned upside down.

Be it physical, emotional or mental, it is unfathomable to those who are well, as wellness is to the one who suffers.

Within this rubric, emotional pain and suffering is reflective of a lack of emotional wholeness; often, the absence of love in loss, in being unrequited or in abandonment. Suffering becomes the test of one’s capacity for love.

Blessed are those who suffer, for they could love more than this world would ever allow. Blessed all the more are those who suffer gladly, for they never let suffering consume their joy.

Would that we retained such joy. Would that I had such joy.

why is this ok? a review of band of horses’ 2016 lp

Why Are You OK, 2016, Interscope

I’m admittedly a sucker for Band of Horses. I say this while also saying that they haven’t released a single record I can listen to from beginning to end.

The closest, 2007’s Cease to Begin, is about 70% enjoyable, with a few cuts that were completely redeemed in 2013’s sublime Acoustic at the Ryman bootleg. On the other hand, Infinite Arms, their 2010 LP on Columbia, was easily one of the worst record buys I’ve made in my adult life. Even after a trusted, close friend insisted it rewards repeated listens, I couldn’t do it.

I discovered Acoustic at the Ryman this past fall and it rekindled my love for Ben Bridwell and company, so much so that I decided to give their recent records more consideration. And here we are, with what might be the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had about a record.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Several reviews out there have noted how much of an artistic risk or expansion OK is, and they’re right. After some time in Columbia’s wilderness, Bridwell’s new overlords were Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Rick Rubin. The latter makes sense; Rubin has a proven resume of catapulting, reinventing, rejuvenating or otherwise resurrecting artists and acts.

When you put OK on, you think you’re listening to the former. To me, that’s a problem. Lytle’s aesthetic is all over this record, and heavily so. Grandaddy, a cynical, coarse alt-synth social commentary on modern life often got so wrapped up in its own distorted, sardonic vision of .com America that it parodied itself. Band of Horses is nothing if not a straight-ahead indie rock with a twist of Dixie thrown in for good measure. The result here is what amounts to a split LP that leaves the listener wondering if the sum of Bridwell’s career is merely that he’s an avatar through which his producers have their way.

The opening track, ‘Dull Times/The Moon’, is a droning seven-minute fraternal, conjoined twins track that encapsulates everything that is to come: the front end is an ephemeral electronic lull against hollow, strummed guitars; the back a country-fried genuine rock and roll cut. How the two decided to become one are a complete mystery.

‘Solemn Oath’ is a bright, jangly sound paired against what might or might not be the existential tension between the freedom of bachelordom and a contemplation of what vows like ‘for better or worse’ can mean. A song with such catchy hooks (Bridwell and company ought not be burdened with such dark and cynical lyrics. Such is Lytle’s hallmark, subtle melody with decidedly unsubtle wordplay.

‘Hag’ is what I consider to be the first real Band of Horses cut on the record. Even with the synth work acting as a foundation, the song is an aching, four-minute ballad to love and doubt that would/could/should be handed off to an artist like Damian Jurado to make my eyes drown my face in tears. The live cut performed at WFUV and posted to YouTube should be considered definitive, but the album cut is respectable and carries its own weight.

I publicly decided that, hereafter, ‘Casual Party’ is my anthem for every social engagement I will ever attend. A taut, playful and perfectly crafted pop-rock song, it represents the best of the Lytle-Bridwell collaboration, lyrics that don’t act as a wet blanket against arrangement that invites the listener into the song. Then there’s the video. Ummm, yeah. The video. Video notwithstanding, ‘Casual Party’ mercilessly assaults cocktail hour conversation, and I can’t love it enough.

Then, GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THAT’S J MASCIS’ MUSIC! Lytle strikes again with a synth beat and the one song on the record that truly rewards repeated listens. And J Mascis inexplicably sings the chorus. It took probably 27 listens before I realized I really liked ‘In a Drawer’.

After a halftime interlude that might as well be a throwaway cut from Grandaddy’s Sumday, we approach the first really unapproachable song on the record. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Lying Under Oak’, beyond that it just doesn’t connect with the listener.

We then get south of the Mason-Dixon with ‘Throw My Mess’, a rollicking fun three-minute cut that is way more enjoyable than it ever should be on a record where it absolutely doesn’t belong. I refer you back to the WFUV session for the definitive version of ‘Whatever, Wherever’, a gorgeous, contemplative little tune devoted to devotion that plays to the band’s strengths while Lytle’s light hand at the controls makes for a solid contribution to the record.

‘Country Teen’ takes us back south, with a little countrypolitan thrown in for good measure; a track that could probably be dropped on a Nash-Vegas FM radio station right now and be in heavy rotation by Tuesday. Another tune that has no business being on this record, but shines in the homestretch. Everything ‘Country Teen’ is, ‘Barrel House’ isn’t: the penultimate track just rings hollow and seems like a cut that might or might not have been on cusp of B-side status.

Then there’s the record’s pensive final cut, ‘Even Still’. Band of Horses has done this before, sneaking a gem in at the end of the record (‘St. Augustine’, on their 2006 debut record.) Rich with religious imagery–on its face unfazed by its confrontation with the divine, yet for those with ears to hear, brutally soul-baring; ‘let this cup pass from me’ comes to mind–and evocative vignettes of the unflinching upshots of failing companionship, ‘Even Still’ is a devastating closing cut that embraces the Lytle-Bridwell hybrid but hints that this might be where the group heads from here. This is not an avatar, as odd as that seems. While it would be just as at home on a Grandaddy record as it is here, it’s decidedly Bridwell’s work.

With so many tracks that either don’t work, are better elsewhere or otherwise seem like an impersonation of the guy in the booth, it’s hard to say I like Why Are You OK. I like songs on it, but I can’t say I like it. I also can’t say I can put it down and put it away like other Band of Horses records. The artistic risks for the most part don’t work: the best songs are the ones where it’s clearly Bridwell at the helm. A tantalizing, frustrating release, with moments that shine and others where reach exceeds grasp.

That said, if ‘Even Still’ is a bellwether for future releases, then OK acts as a dark night of the soul for Band of Horses, with hope for future output to take on more artistic, expansive themes and rescuing them from potential middle-aged mediocrity. Also knowing that the boys are adept at reworking these tunes–and earlier cuts, as well–to be more at home in their Carolina neck of the woods gives one reason to believe that there is an emerging artistic versatility that will only benefit the group moving forward.