Thursday, December 31, 2015

Greetings From (A Town Called Malice)

Better stop dreaming of the quiet life
'Cause it's the one we'll never know
And quit running for that runaway bus
'Cause those rosy days are few

And stop apologizing for the things you've never done
'Cause time is short and life is cruel but it's up to us to change

This town called Malice
The Jam, "A Town Called Malice"
Released in February 1982, "A Town Called Malice" ranks among the more durable 45s released during the Jam's so-called "soul mining" period (mind you, anybody with ears would have heard those influences from the start, but that's a discussion for another time). The song shot straight to #1 UK -- holding the top spot for three weeks -- and marked the Jam's sole US chart entry, too (#31 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks). "Malice" also won New Musical Express's "Best Single" award that year, as well.

The song has retained a strong foothold in pop culture, turning up in movies like National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), Billy Elliot (2000), and The Matador (2005). You can also hear it showcased in TV shows like the sci-fi cop drama, Ashes To Ashes (episode 3.5), and the BBC cop drama, Criminal Justice (first and last episodes) -- plus the "Rock Band" video game.

All in all, not a bad return for a song that the Jam's frontman, Paul Weller, cited as a snapshot of his experiences as a teenager in Woking, and a play on Nevil Shute's 1950 novel, A Town Like Alice (though he claimed not to have read the book) -- which recounts a woman's struggles to bring prosperity to a isolated Australian outback town (using her inheritance as the springboard for its development). The novel, in turn, has been adapted for a six-part mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997).

Rows and rows of disused milk floats
Stand dying in the dairy yard
And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk
Bottles to their hearts

Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry
It's enough to make you stop believing when tears come fast and furious
In a town called Malice, yeah

For my money, "A Town Called Malice" stands among the savviest statements of the Jam's later career. Built around an uptempo, fingerpoppin' guitar and organ groove, the song carries an irresistible melody that dares not to clap along -- until you stop and hear what it's actually about. It's an old songwriter's trick that works quite well, as this writer can attest.

However, it's also remiss to consign "Malice" to the that-was-then bin -- by writing it off as "the sound of the precints," or some such nonsense (as I recall one reviewer doing). Today's world bears an eerie resemblance to the one that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and their free market acolytes drooled about -- corporate power left to wreak unrelenting havoc, thanks to a perfect storm of shredded safety nets, gutted unions and a working world that looks like a 19th century robber baron's wet dream of a permanently insecure underclass (ithe 99%).

More relevantly, "Malice" talks about the forced austerity that keeps people forever powerless and marginalized, simply becuase they don't have enough money to make everything right. For the Squawker and myself, the last six months have served up snapshots that feel all too familiar: pay this medical bill now, or buy a couple more packages of chicken? Put off the radiator hose another week, or pay the phone bill in full now, so they're not dogging us later? And so on, and so forth....wash, rinse, repeat.

Many people around the world are struggling with these issues -- as in Greece, where media coverage of the recent rioting there focused mostly on corruption and a social system that allows people to retire at 45. What went largely unmentioned, however, was that even the International Monetary Fund questioned the bailout loan terms as overly burdensome. If an agency like the IMF -- which is in no way a radical entity -- has problems with the arrangement, someone should listen, right?

No such luck, of course. And that's why the next Grecian riots are only a question of time, since the people know the austerity they're being forced to accept is one that will come solely off their back. For the people on top, the endless blur of country villas, imported foods and never-ending limo rides will roll on uninterrupted. For them, austerity isn't likely to enter the conversational equation any time soon. If ever.

Struggle after struggle, year after year
The atmosphere's a fine blend of ice I'm almost stone cold dead
In a town called Malice, ooh yeah

A whole street's belief in Sunday's roast beef
Gets dashed against the cop
To either cut down on beer or the kids' new year,
It's a big decision in a town called Malice, ooh yeah
Ooh, the ghost of a steam train echoes down my track
It's at the moment bound for nowhere just going round and round

Even then, no matter how carefully you plan, it often feels like some malevolent force is rolling the bones against you dream. The Squawker and I got that impression when an ice storm left roughly one-eighth of our county (31,000 customers, give or take) without electricity this week. Monday ticked by in a blur of "what the f#ck" decision-making: tough it out,, 'cause we don't wanna spend half our latest emergency stash ($100) on a motel? Or get a room now, where there's at least some warmth (and a bit of electrical current)?

So we  spent the night shivering under a heap of blankets, even as our apartment complex quickly took on the aura of a ghost town, once most of our neighbors reckoned the lights weren't coming back up too soon. Eventually, we gave up on sleep altogether, and drove around town....first, dining out at McDonalds, then cooling our heels in the hospital ER till 1 a.m.-ish, hoping that things might work out.

We returned to a still-dark, still-freezing complex -- which we braved a few hours more, till 7 a.m. -- and finally agreed that a warm motel room beat the hell out of whatever we were enduring now. I called a friend, who agreed to fund a second night, if needed. As it turned out, the power came back up at 9:20 p.m. Tuesday, just as I was gathering more pillows and blankets for the Squawker...who was (finally) getting to sleep off the ill effects of the previous night.

Just then, the kitchen lights kicked back on, and the TV revved up for another mindless volley of infomercials, past-their-prime sitcoms, and God knows what else. We ended up finishing out the night, and dragging ourselves back home Wednesday morning. Between food and lodging, we spent roughly $150 that we didn't really have, which meant I'd come up short on two bills -- the car registration, and the phone -- whose deadlines loomed only a week away.

So i called a relation who was willing to lend a hand this time, which meant that I could pay the basic monthly bills (electricity, Insurance, Internet) without a hitch. This is the struggle that plays out daily in every Town Called Malice, without pause, without missing a beat -- and will continue to roll on, for the short run, until some previously unseen social force or collective expression of popular will finally changes the tide.

For now, at least, we're finally grateful to have gotten a few days of peace and quiet. So goes life in this Town Called Malice. --The Reckoner

Playground kids and creaking swings
Lost laughter in the breeze
I could go on for hours and I probably will
But I'd sooner put some joy back in this town called Malice, yeah ooh
In this town called Malice, ooh yeah

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