Thursday, January 29, 2015

Your Friendly Neighborhood Food Pantry (Nutrition Through Attrition)

(I haven't seen a food bank or pantry yet that doesn't have this 
particular item...presumably, the low price point
has something to do with that phenomenon.)

<Diminishing Returns, Take I>
The end of January rolled around.
Our bank account ran dry as our food stocks began running like sands through the proverbial hourglass. Our refrigerator hadn't looked this bare in this long.  The odd stream of income continued to trickle in, but the returns were no match for the bills constantly barreling into our mailbox.

My turn in the eBay corral hadn't met expectations, either. Last week, I sold three CDs for $38, but coughed up $5.35 in fees -- hey, no wonder people are jumping ship to Craigslist, right?

The Squawker's blinks telegraphed the anxiety long before the inevitable question arrived: "We don't have a lot left this weekend...should we hit the food bank?  I found one that's open from ten to noon on Saturday."

"Well, usually, these things turn sour, because..."  Now it was my turn to exhale.  "It's mostly cheese, tuna, and junk food...and there's usually never any meat at these things."

"Actually, this church is one of the better food banks around here..."

"What the hell," I shrugged.  "I don't mind being wrong if it helps the cause...get me up when it's time."

(The stuff of nightmares...when your pockets and your stomach are empty...)

<Diminishing Returns, Take II>
The initial signs looked promising (at first).

We didn't have to stand in line; we could walk right in. We didn't have to fill out a lot of paperwork, listen to a sermon, or keep our best poker face while somebody picked out a bunch of dented canned goods and called it even.  We just could pick up a brown grocery bag full of whatever they'd set aside, and go home.

The people running the food bank seemed nice enough. In all fairness, though, the situation didn't leave a lot of room for extensive conversation.

The Squawker and I headed back out to the car. As I heaved the bag into the hatchback, my heart sank. Two boxes of macaroni and cheese? Check.  One can of tuna? Check. One giant box of Fruit Loops? Double-check.

Unfortunately, Squaker's fish and potato allergies -- and Type 2 diabetes -- make such items a no-go zone, although the remaining ones that I could make out (a few cans of corn and green beans there, an Ekrich franks there) redeemed the situation somewhat.

"Want me to swap the cereal?" I asked.

The Squawker nodded. "Yeah, why don't you?  I can't eat that stuff..."

I tucked the Fruit Loops box under my arm, and dashed back inside.  I gestured at the large, bright orange cornflake boxes that occupied every other bag, or so. Apparently, the luck of the draw had worked against us there. 

"Hey, I live with a diabetic, so would you mind if I could swap this box for..."

I walked back outside with the cornflakes. Nobody made an issue of the request. Like I said, the people seemed nice enough...but how do the contents of those grocery bags get picked out?

Does somebody flip a coin, check the I Ching, or throw a dart?

And does somebody eat this stuff at home regularly?  I won't ponder that issue for too long, either. Call it the New American Way: Nutrition Through Attrition.  (What, you expect meat at these affairs?  Look how much weight you'll lose...the pressures of life are funny like that.)

(Believe it or not, we got this, too...stale panini loaf, anyone?)

(We've got a winner here...note the non-GMO, non-artificial content
labeling: about the only entry in this particular grocery bag that qualified
with this particular designation)

<Diminishing Returns, Take III>
We put away our grocery stuff and headed to a different church community dinner at noon.

We got pasta with ham slices plus a side of corn, a roll, a salad and a small chocolate on this occasion, at least, you had the four basic food groups represented.

You could also take home seconds in a styrofoam box, but had to wait until one o'clock for them (house rules, and so on).

We used fifteen of our last twenty bucks to get through the weekend. By Tuesday, we'd run through what little remained from our last grocery trip. I threw up my hands and made a couple phone calls.

The first went to an editor of mine for an advance on future earnings; the second went to a longtime friend for a small it insurance, I guess, to make it through the week.

Next month will come around, I'll get paid for a few more projects. Hopefully, the returns get better...I won't need to work off anymore loans for awhile...and I won't have to practice nutrition through attrition so soon. Time will tell, I suppose. --The Reckoner

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Everything's a Competition in America

                                                   [picture source] Life in America today!

"When you look at how competitive most Americans are with each other to be "successful" with all the one-up-manship going on in this country even in families, it becomes a dog-eat-dog environment. America is a breeding ground of competition to be the best at all costs. When this fails, violence and mayhem result. "

Seen as a comment on website discussing economic collapse.

There's a reason narcissism and sociopathy are increasing in American society. If anything the system trains one to become one to survive.

My high school years were during the Reagan-Bush era, and everyday we were indoctrinated that only "winners" count and that everyone else was a loser. This was promoted via the top 20 and constant pep rallies that celebrated the top 5% of jocks, where they ignored most of the rest of the team. The teachers backed this stuff up, but in the halcyon 1980s there was the air of a teacher being a job for a "loser" even though obviously I found out the hard way getting a high paying teaching job in a suburban school district demanded a state of health and connections I didn't have. Only the stock brokers counted and the BMW drivers back then. I wonder how many young suicides occur in modern American high schools like this where the idea of "never measuring" up is pushed every day.

This is the training for the micro-cosm of the world sadly. Society is like that high school of mine, where 3.5 earning me who loved art and history was a "Nobody" among the ranks with the attention seekers sucking it in like a drug. You think the movie "Heathers" was dark comedy? Sadly it was reality in terms of representing an American high school where the aim was to destroy all your foes, sometimes literally in that movie.

Families today all compete, and if someone slides through the cracks, even if they are disabled, the family is disgusted and throws them away. Unemployed Uncle Charlie is an embarrassment. One sees 20 something lives virtually destroyed as that bonifide job never comes through. Every job must be competed for and unless you have a lithe body, perfect health, aren't too old, have great clothes, and a conformist personality or one they consider a "good fit", you are tossed in the unemployable bin. This is why you see people with very slight differences who seem to end up forever in the poverty pile. They can't hide their shaky hands, or their old age and wrinkles, or the bags under their eyes. Sure some healthy competition and standards are good, I don't want some guy with an alcohol problem flying a plane or someone with festering sores all over their hands putting fruit on the grocery store shelf, but there's a problem when only the most "fit" and "elite" can get jobs that actually will pay the bills.

Why is work now a weeding out process? I want you to think in your head right now, about all the people you know who are actually GOOD at something and at the same time are poor and have no opportunity to utilize these skills.  They could do well at a job using these skills but because of the endless gate-keepers and hoop jumping are left out in the cold!

How many humans now live lives of quiet despair, knowing their skills and talents don't fit in anywhere and where there is no place for them because competition and "in groups" and "connections" run the show? How much human talent is being WASTED in this rotten system? Why are we getting millions literally of THROW AWAY people?

This is one reason the most corrupt, the most lacking in the morals, those who can put on an appearance are the ones rising to the top, leaving normal people with morals, and desire to help and care about their families and communities behind. Our builders of day to day commerce have been replaced by competitive blood-suckers. That is a problem that is going to haunt this country and one that is going to majorly bite it in the butt.  The problem is when competition is taken too far, and the "winners" no longer care about the rest of humanity but only themselves and being selfish. That is a problem. I'm not preaching Communism as the solution or collectives, but how about some of the sharks getting a clue about life? How about some of the masses rethinking what is important in life or seeing through the narcissist games. Maybe they will throw up along with me at all the disgusting shallow celebrities who put themselves on display.

What happens if you don't succeed? You are cast onto the trash heap. You are considered a non-person. This is one sick society where human beings have been made into literal cogs in the wheel, to be disposed of or shut out. Humanity is being drummed out of people when the bucket lists and resumes full of corporate activities matter more then their very soul.  --The Squawker

The Vanishing Male Worker

The Vanishing Male Worker

"Working, in America, is in decline. The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list.

"As the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, many of those men and women are eager to find work and willing to make large sacrifices to do so. Many others, however, are choosing not to work, according to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll that provides a detailed look at the lives of the 30 million Americans 25 to 54 who are without jobs.

"Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits; the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children; and the rise of the Internet, which has reduced the isolation of unemployment.

"At the same time, it has become harder for men to find higher-paying jobs. Foreign competition and technological advances have eliminated many of the jobs in which high school graduates like Mr. Walsh once could earn $40 an hour, or more. The poll found that 85 percent of prime-age men without jobs do not have bachelor’s degrees. And 34 percent said they had criminal records, making it hard to find any work.

"The resulting absence of millions of potential workers has serious consequences not just for the men and their families but for the nation as a whole. A smaller work force is likely to lead to a slower-growing economy, and will leave a smaller share of the population to cover the cost of government, even as a larger share seeks help.

“They’re not working, because it’s not paying them enough to work,” said Alan B. Krueger, a leading labor economist and a professor at Princeton. “And that means the economy is going to be smaller than it otherwise would be.”

Read this one carefully: it's the New York Times, the economy is NOT recovering from the Great Recession when most of your population is unemployed fools! You ever notice that constant discrepancy in our news? The elites who manage our news, see this as business as usual. The article is cloying in it's acceptance of this as the norm.

Notice the age of the men with no jobs, begins at age 54. 20 years ago, they were the 34 year old and below crowd being labeled as "slackers". They are Generation X and the millennials! That is the thing being ignored in this article.

Did the Baby Boomers not retire? One chart I saw accompanying this showed the over 55 and above crowd, as having good jobs unless they had retired already. How come Generation X hasn't been able to move into those jobs of people who were more numerous? It blows my mind. We are playing big time for the selfish Baby Boom generation who have 47 times more the wealth.

Look at that poor guy in the picture, he is probably living at home with his Mom! One sees this so often now, shamed 40 and 50 something people living at home with their parents.

The job system is failing when a man can't even get a job to support a family. This came for the ghettos first and now it is across the spectrum. Get in a time machine, what kind of country do you see when a man can't get a job. They don't marry, don't have children unless they are illegitimate, can't buy a house or build a community. When you have nothing but low wage work, your life is reduced down to survival, not building a future. The future will suck, and the blame for this will lay at the feet of the greedy who have destroyed livelihoods for millions--The Squawker

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Too Tough To Die: An Homage

Now that the sands of 2014 have run through the proverbial hourglass, I'd be remiss if I didn't celebrate one of my all-time favorite albums: Too Tough To Die, released in October 1984 -- often regarded as the last truly great record that The Ramones would make. I just pulled it out again this week, having been laid low by gout -- and I'm not making a huge impact on the eBay world (see the entry below, "Too Much Pressure," for specifics). To date, I've only pulled in $15, so I guess I'll have to redirect my talents elsewhere -- we'll see once I'm feeling better.

What makes Too Tough To Die an essential record? Start with the circumstances behind its creation. The pop experiments of End Of The Century (1980) and Pleasant Dreams (1981) -- which featured production input from Phil Spector and Graham Gouldman, respectively -- hadn't worked. Mainstream radio play appeared remote, with the likes of Journey, Styx and Foreigner seemingly poised to occupy a lifetime position there -- a painful irony for a band that prided itself on its pop smarts.

Between November 1981 and February 1985, the Ramones had also abandoned touring internationally -- aside from a few forays to Canada, according to Everett True's cracking bio, Hey Ho Let's Go.  Having been the toast of the UK punk scene in 1976, the Ramones -- or, more likely, their management -- apparently decided that such excursions no longer made sense without the rabid enthusiasm to support them. What's more, the scene had moved on from its sped-up Mod/garage rock origins to hardcore's warp factor who needed the Ramones?

As the cliche goes, however, you often do your finest work with your back against the wall. Determined to recapture their signature intensity, the Ramones brought back their old creative team of their former drummer, Tommy Ramone (nee Erdelyi) -- who'd moved into production -- and Ed Stasium.  "It was a different atmosphere than before," Tommy stated in Hey Ho Let's Go. "Of course, I would have preferred they all loved each other, but they thought what they were doing was important."

Indeed it was. The 1984-era Ramones revealed themselves as darker, grittier and even ready to tread into social commentary, too. "Mama's Boy" opening two-minute blast sets the tone: "Couldn't hold your tongue, you were just too young/Like a two-year-old, you told, you told/You were all the same, jellybean brain/Everyone's a secret nerd, everyone's a closet lame."

In my view, Too Tough To Die succeeds due to its no-frills production and the Ramones' willingness to play off each others' individual strengths, yet still work as a unit. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone, fresh from kicking heroin, wrote or co-wrote nine of the 13 tracks, which gave the album a cohesive sound. As a lyric writer, he also revealed a more thoughtful, reflective side than previously associated with him.

A good example is the album's second track, "I'm Not Afraid Of Life," which swirls around a droning E chord that anchors its melody -- and somber mood.  The lyrics blend pointed social commentary ("But I see a street crazy shivering with cold/Is it a crime to be old?") with an introspection that seems unbearably poignant after Dee Dee's drug overdose death in 2002 ("There's nothing to gain, a life goes down the drain/I don't want to die at an early age").

The thumping midtempo title track -- another solo Dee Dee effort -- offers a lovably two-fisted salute to the band's critics ("At the concert when the band comes on/I'm in the ring where I belong/On my last leg, just gettin' by/Halo around my head read, too tough to die"). In this case, life mirrored art, as guitarist Johnny Ramone had sustained a skill fracture after getting into a street brawl with another musician. Either way, the song served notice that the band hadn't lost its determination...and cutting corners wasn't on the agenda.

Dee Dee and Johnny, who hadn't been hitting it off, joined forces on three songs. "Danger Zone" sketches a pointed snapshot of inner-city decay in just over two minutes ("New York City is a real cool town/Society really brings me down/Our playground is a pharmacy/Kids find trouble so easily"). The guitar solo from ex-Heartbreaker Walter Lure -- which is simple and to the point, like everything else here -- aptly caps off the mood.

However, Dee Dee and Johnny outdid themselves on the album's hardcore tracks, "Wart Hog," and "Endless Vacation." Both songs clatter and rumble with an intensity that's awe-inspiring and downright frightening. Dee Dee's lyrics provide a harrowing glimpse of the drug addict's world, from the physical price 
("Wart Hog": "I wanna puke, I can't still/Just took some dope and I feel ill/It's a sick world, sick, sick, sick/It's a hopeless life, I hate it, hate it") to the mental one ("Endless Vacation: "All depressed, all alone/I drift into the danger zone/Hair trigger temper, tormented mind/Deadly spitting cobra, I'm the losing kind"). Even now, it's hard to think of a comparable track that matches either of them in ferocity or velocity.

I feel the same way about "Planet Earth 1988," another solo, midtempo Dee Dee effort that paints a bleak, unsparing portrait of a world truly gone mad over a dark, droning D-chord riff, Joey runs down a laundry list of social ills that seem as relevant as ever today ("Death, destruction and bombs galore/The rich are laughing at the poor/Our jails are filled to the max/Discrimination against the blacks"). In case the memo hasn't crossed your desk, the chorus helps to drive the point home: "Planet Earth 1988/It's too late, it's too late, it's too late!"

(Swedish picture sleeve with exclusive remix and cover:

While Too Tough To Die makes an effective showcase for Dee Dee's songwriting, it's not his show completely. Johnny's stripped-down, six-string minimalism keeps the album grounded -- for further reference, check out his mile-a-minute chunk-a-chunk-chunk on the band's sole instrumental "Durango 95" (which soon became the set opener).  As Johnny often reminded interviewers, anything that he wrote happened with Dee Dee. However, the other Ramones make their presence felt in equally valuable ways. 

Drummer Richie Ramone only gets one songwriting credit here ("Humankind") but it's an impressive one -- powered by a chugging riff that lashes out against other people's foibles and annoyances 
("Humankind, it's a test/to see who's the very best/Humankind, I don't know why/No one cares who lives or dies"). This track stands among an impressive handful (like "I Know Better Now," for instance) that hold their own in the Ramones back catalog. Richie's animosity-fueled exit in 1987, after only four years, makes it easy to forget that he was the band's fastest, most powerful drummer -- who proved equally adept at keeping the beat, and staying out of the way -- or slamming down the hammer when the song required it.

By contrast, Joey managed only three songs this time around. The likely explanation is his non-participation in the pre-production stage, when bands start gathering riffs and ideas -- which he unfortunately missed, for health reasons. 
Hey Ho Let's Go asserts that this situation marked a personal low point for Joey, but I'm not buying that idea -- as any listener will tell you, quality beats quantity every time. 

Two songs are collaborations. "Chasing The Night" is a three-way split between Joey, Dee Dee and bassist Busta "Cherry" Jones -- which hails the raver's desire to keep those juices flowing, no matter what the bankbook or the clock says. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that Joey's contribution is on the lyrical side -- it's hard to imagine Dee Dee singing, "Feelin' hot, yeah, I'm on fire/I'm never, ever goin' to tire!", or the sentiments uncorked in the last verse, "City is overloading/The circuits are exploding/Ain't comin' down, no, I'm too wired." 

So I'll assume that Busta Jones and Dee composed the riff on "Chasing The Night," which is built around the holy trinity of G, C and D. Rchie's drumming is particularly fine here, too -- his propulsive, relentless backbeat provides the perfect match for the subject. (Guess what?  My hunch is largely correct: going through my scrapbooks this afternoon, I just found a 12/29/84 Maximum Rock 'N' Roll interview with Donny the Punk, in which Joey says: "Actually, me and Busta Jones got together a few years ago, he brought some music and DeeDee sat together with him and we worked, kind of put the song together.  He had an idea, he brought some music, DeeDee came up with the title, and he wrote the first verse and I wrote the chorus and then I wrote the rest of it.  I think it's a great song. Then [Talking Heads'] Jerry Harrison had that line with the synthesizer, reminds me a little bit like 'Teenage Wasteland' [note: he means 'Baba O'Reilly, obviously], a little bit Who-ish." So there's the story -- from the horse's mouth, so to speak!)

Joey's other co-write, "Daytime Dilemma (The Dangers Of Love)," is a joint effort with Shrapnel guitarist Daniel Rey, who often helped the band in the studio during its later years. The song starts as a snapshot of an All-American girl without a care
 ("Miss personality, a grade 'A' student, naturally/She had it all in place"), whose love life quickly runs aground ("She caught him with another/It turns out it was her mother/What a tragedy").  The song exemplifies the Ramones' ability to take the unlikeliest subjects -- in this case, Joey's love of soap operas -- into darker, quirkier pastures that nobody else would even consider.

That leaves Joey's only solo songwriting contribution, "No Go," which offers a stark contrast to "Chasing The Night"'s rock-till-ya-drop sentiment. In this case, the raver has crashed and burned ("
My brain was racin', but my feet wouldn't fly")), though his desire seems undimmed as ever ("Let's fly/Yeah, you and I/Oh, my, my")...whether he gets to realize it, of course, is a different matter entirely.

Over the years, this song catches stick for its I-IV-V structure and telegrammatic lyrics, but it's also the closest link to the Ramones sound of yore -- which likely explains its positioning as the final track on the original album. (We'll go back to the archives again, this time from an interview with the contemporary Christian music mag Cornerstone, issue #7, 1985, in which Joey says: "It's sort of a be-bop, swing type of song.  I wanted to make it somewhat reminsicent of the Gene Krupa era, but I still wanted it to be very 1984.")

("Howling At The Moon" single: Spanish variation)

Alas, Too Tough To Die didn't break the Ramones' streak of bad luck at the box office -- peaking at #171 on Billboard's US Top 200 chart, but performed better in Sweden (#49) and Britain, where a new generation of fans kept it alive for three weeks at #63 (so says Wikipedia, which also credits Johnny Ramone with playing guitar and writing lyrics -- yet another reason you should take any writer's comments with a bottle of salt). But chart positions and sales aren't the only measure of success. 

As we all know, popular music is full of records that sold by the proverbial bucketload, but don't rate a mention nowadays, and vice versa. For the band, critical notices proved more uniformly encouraging than they'd felt in awhile, whether they read the reviews in CREEM ("the most influential rock 'n' roll band of the last 10 years"), Rolling Stone ("a significant step forward for this great American band...a return to fighting trim by the kings of stripped-down rock"), New Musical Express ("the topics to which they address themselves are largely free of such distracting frills as Mom and Luv"), Sounds ("When the going gets tough, the Ramones start punching...timeless, lovable and essential stuff").

More importantly, the results felt satisfying to all the parties involved.  Regardless of how many people bought the album, the band knew they'd done something special.  "A lot of people had started giving up on us," Joey stated, in the booklet notes for the expanded version. "But Too Tough To Die reinstated us and put us back on top." He voiced similar feelings in his Maximum Rock 'N' Roll interview: "I think it's a real diverse album; very reflective of right now, very contemporary. And the fact that we're putting more time in it, it's a real reunion; we wanted to make a real Ramones record and say 'fuck everything,' which is what we're doing. "We're gonna do exactly what we wanna do this time."  That's the way to go.  Do it the way you wanna do it."

Dee Dee seconded those thoughts, with a nod to the Erdelyi-Stasium production team's input: "The whole 'less is more' thing, Tommy was a big part of that. He was always able to translate what we did when it came time to get it down on tape." 
Johnny, for his part, chalked up the album's artistic success to a newfound unity and sense of purpose: "We knew we needed to get back to the kind of harder material we'd become known for. The pop stuff hadn't really worked, and we knew we were much better off doing what we did best." 

Sadly, much of Too Tough To Die's contents didn't make to the live setlists -- which leaned toward the first four albums, a policy that likely cemented the perception that you didn't need to hear anything else. However, rewards abound for those willing to ignore the conventional wisdom: Too Tough To Die is one of them.  For me, it became an essential building block of my college soundtrack, particularly on those occasions when I'd drive home on the weekend -- though I had to make do by taping somebody else's copy, until I could get my own.

In many ways, writing this post carries a tinge of sadness -- since all the band's founding members are no longer here, leaving drummers Marky and Richie, plus latter-day bassist CJ Ramone, to carry the banner. The Ramones always felt like a necessary counterweight to a mainstream world dripping with corporate pablum. Even now, though, I can't settle for less -- not after hearing the brutal, no-frills simplicity of tracks like "Danger Zone," or "Endless Vacation," which exerted a powerful gravitational pull on my own lyrical and musical styles.

Even if you're not a Ramones fan, Too Tough To Die offers a useful reminder of what any creative person can accomplish by keeping their head down...ignoring the trends...and staying true to themselves.  When I doubt the value of these lessons, I can put on this album, and lose myself on the undertow of its unlikeliest moment, "Howling At The Moon (Sha-La-La)" -- a synth-dominated number with bells and additional keyboards from Benmont Tench -- that Dee Dee also wrote by himself.

Strangely, "Howling At The Moon" became the only single pulled from Too Tough To Die -- spending a meager two weeks at #85 on the UK charts before disappearing from view. Like many moments in the Ramones' career, the popular reaction amounted to a collective shrug, yet time and trends haven't dimmed the appeal of an outlaw sentiment that's more necessary than ever ("There's no law, no law anymore/I want to steal from the rich, and give to the poor"), and falls into ruthless focus on the bridge: "Winter turns to summer/Sadness turns to fun/Keep the faith, baby/You broke the rules and won." Keep these words in mind -- and, indeed, the other 12 tracks on display here -- the next time that somebody tries to break your spirit.You'll be glad you did  --The Reckoner

1-2-3-4...All The Links You Need (And More): Too Tough To Die Guitar Tabs (Full Album!):

Julian Cope Presents Head Heritage:
Ramones: Too Tough To Die

The Independent: Nick Hasted:
"Tommy Ramone's Rock 'N' Roll Legacy Should Not Be Underestimated":

Too Tough To Die (Expanded And Remastered Edition):