Sunday, August 29, 2010

Protest Songs for the 21st Century

It occurred to me just the other day that I miss the protest song.

As far back as the minstrels who followed inept knights around the forest, criticizing their failures (if we can believe Monty Python's version of medieval history, and I see no reason not to) there have been voices in the darkness railing against the establishment.

Beethoven's Ode to Joy was a protest song. I didn't really know that. Wikipedia told me.

The 20th century saw (or I suppose, more correctly, heard) musical howlings on behalf of causes ranging from unionization to women's suffrage to the end of the Vietnam War. Troubadours with names like Guthrie, Seeger, Cisco, Leadbelly, Dylan, Baez, Ochs and even Dion sang out against what they saw as injustice and tyranny.

Just three weeks after the Kent State shootings in May of 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's song protesting that tragic event, where four college students died, was on the Billboard charts. Ohio peaked at number 14. It's hard to imagine a song like that being popular in these times.

Today's problems are surely different from those of the past. But we can use the intense spirit of outrage so associated with the great movements of those times to express our dissatisfaction with our own troubles. That's my rationalization, anyway. In fact, since I have no musical ability I thought I'd respectfully steal the music of people who do, and update the words, thereby adding my own very small part to revive the genre.

Not every protest song has to be about world-changing events. Sometimes it's the small troubles that wear us down day by day. Why not a protest song for those problems? Problems like the constant road construction we see every single day:

To the Tune of Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan
How many roads will the state shut down
Before they publish a plan?
How many times will a detour fail
Before I sleep in my van?
Yes, and how many times must I look at that guy
“Slow Down” sign in his hand?
The answer, my friend, is drivers never win,
The answer is drivers never win.

Naturally, the environment is always a cause that draws a wide, motivated group of followers. So whether you believe in global warming or not, I think we all like trees, don't we? Maybe you're not the hugging type, but they are nice to have around. So here's something Pink or that Ga Ga lady might want to try out. (I'm no John Lennon scholar, but I think the main goal here is not so much to make sense, as to keep saying those last lines for several hours until you get what you want.)

To the Tune of Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon
Everybody's talkin' 'bout
Scarlet oak, up in smoke, goin' broke, it's a joke
Redwood, Deadwood, Ed Wood, Ken would ...
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.

(Come on!)
Everybody's talkin' 'bout
Sugar maple, forest staple, hardly papal, Tower Babel
Baptize, chastise, black eyes, wise guys, bye bye, bye byes
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.

Protest singers don't always have to be right, either. I'm sure they existed, but I suppose the pro-slavery and anti-women's suffrage ditties have faded into historical oblivion.

Just because you're wrong, it doesn't mean you don't get a song.

Today, about one out of five Americans is under the mistaken impression that their president is a Muslim. Given the intense campaign controversy over Pastor Jeremiah Wright, from the Christian church that Mr. Obama attended, that's kind of surprising … but true just the same.

A similar percentage of the citizenry is convinced that the president should not even be allowed to be the president since he was not born in these United States. This in spite of a verified birth certificate shown to the public over and over and over. And over some more. And then over again. Their philosophy seems to be, in the words of that great thinker, Larry Fine: “I can't see! I can't see! … I've got my eyes closed!!”

So for those misguided souls, I offer this wail against reality:

To the Tune of Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen
Born down in a mystery town
The first breath he took there were no Yanks around
Liberal JFK was an easy touch
So he's spent half his life just covering up

Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, born in the USA

Got in a little hometown jam
So he thought up his Hawaiian scam
We all realize that's a foreign land
Poi sure ain't apple pie, my man

Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, born in the USA

Dressed up in his best finery
When a man said “Son, we'll fool 'em all, you'll see.”
Went down to see the ID man
He said, “Son, now you're Ameri-CAN!

He had a brother, now withdrawn
Ditched him like a rancid prawn
Was he al-Qaeda? Where's he gone?

There's a woman he called “mom”
Paid to photoshop him in her arms

Down in the shadows where the gays marry
And the stem cells let them have their gay babies
In ten years they'll call us Mosque-Go
Tell the Death Squads you're not sick no mo'

Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, He's no long gone daddy in the USA
Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, He's a fool mocking daddy in the USA

Well, I'm not sure that I've done the protest song any good here. But maybe there's an angry young man or a ferocious woman or maybe even another old coot out there who can revitalize the music that really didn't ask too much of its listeners ...

Just to change the world.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

You Can't Say That!

All words are not created equal.

There are words which, through no fault of their own, are basically unusable without distracting from the overall meaning of any communication to which they are a part.

I'm not talking about George Carlin's “seven words you can't say on television” (which has evolved into “seven words you can't help but hear on cable television.”) Those are for a more avant-garde, if you'll pardon my French, publication than this one.

The poor, unfortunate words here got obsoleted (that's actually a word … I looked it up) because they sound funny, or a famous joke was made about them, or new words took their place or for any number of reasons.

So what the heck am I talking about?

I'll start with an easy one: Assume. For centuries we had a perfectly good word that served us all very well. We could assume the worst. We could assume we knew best. We could assume the position. We could assume and assume to our heart's content, until …

Some wise guy came up with that fatal joke. You know it. Say it along with me if you like: “You know, when you assume ... you make an ass out of 'u' and me.”

And that was the end for that word. If you don't believe me, just try using it in a conversation. Worse yet, try using it in an important report for your school or business. See? So get out your thesaurus and look for words that aren't exactly right, but are less distracting. (I wouldn't recommend one of the even more distracting alternative suggestions: “presuppose.”)

Next, unless you're talking about a rug, it's a good idea to avoid the word Oriental. Unlike most ethnic words that we very obviously should no longer use, I'm really not exactly clear on why this one would be offensive. However, I take the same approach I do when it comes to offending women: Since I'm not one I'll take their word that I shouldn't say that any more. And “Asian” does seem like a perfectly good substitute.

One of the original word switcheroos, of course, is Gay. Almost unbelievably, still lists “homosexual” as the fifth definition for gay, behind “having or showing a merry, lively mood” and “bright or showy.” You have to wonder about a dictionary that makes you feel smarter than it is.

Many, many words are the innocent victims of their own sound. Use these at your own peril since giggles and muffled, simulated coughing are bound to break out. To point out that Dolly Parton is the titular head of Dollywood is not at all to comment on the attributes that I have no doubt just crossed your mind.

A word can't help it if it sounds like something more inappropriate than it is. For similar reasons that I won't point out specifically, this category also includes Uranus, Masticate, Coccyx, Drizzle, Shih Tzu and Bangkok among hundreds of others

Some words just get beaten out or naturally outdated. There was a time when aeroplane almost made it into everyday English, but the simpler “airplane” won out in the end. Your car's accelerator was almost called a velocitator and your helicopter started out as an auto gyro. In fact, here's a good criterion to use: You can count on almost anything that comes out of the mouth of Mr. Burns, the ancient miser on The Simpsons as words that didn't quite make the mainstream.

In the 1920s, a Bimbo was a tough guy and what we would call a bimbo today was a Dumb Dora. This is just one more reason that time travel would be a very dangerous proposition.

Even something as new as the Internet has outdated words. Today we “Google it” to find what we want on the Net, but 15 years ago we would “go to the Gopher,” using the University of Minnesota's top-flight search engine. Unfortunately, even a cute mascot like Goldie the Gopher was no match for the approaching tsunami that was Google, and the poor critter was run to ground.

And while we're on the subject, whatever happened to the cities of Bombay and Peking, anyway?

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that this is an ongoing process. Like the circle of life, words and names seem to have their day in the sun and then slowly fade into oblivion.

If you don't believe me, the next time you go into a men's clothing store, ask if that sport coat comes with two pairs of pantaloons.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Product Slogans You'll Never See

I recently took an online quiz that asked me to identify corporate logos without any text around them. There was the Mercedes circle with three-pointed star, the Nike swoosh, the McDonald's arches and 17 more along those lines.

I was surprised to find that I knew 19 out of 20. (I missed on BMW. Without the letters it looked like an Edy's Ice Cream logo to me. In fairness, I had skipped dessert.)

That's how deeply advertising has gotten into my psyche. Naturally, all of the images coming from the companies and their agencies are positive. That's to be expected. But it got me to thinking about what these business enterprises really think of us, deep down in their corporate hearts (if such things exist), and how their slogans could reflect those feelings.

Of course, there is no way for me to know that, short of being inside the inner sanctum of each company. Since that seems unlikely, here are a few of my best guesses as to what they would really like to tell us:

McDonald's: “Nothing shuts up your kid like a Happy Meal!”

Jaguar: “Nearly a century of cool, sleek over-compensating.”

Budweiser: “Drink responsibly … every day.”

U.S. Airways: “Of course it's expensive, you're flying in the air, for god's sake!”

Iams Organic PreBiotic Dog Food: “Let's pretend your dog can tell the difference.”

Geico Insurance: “Help us pay for all those commercials.”

Lowe's: “It's so cute that you think you can build that.”

Pampers: “Because you'll clean up enough of their s*** when they're teenagers.”

Oil of Olay: “Not associated with the Gulf oil spill.”

Charmin: “We call it 'facial quality,' but you know where it goes, right?”

St. Joseph Aspirin: “Would Jesus' stepdad steer you wrong?”

Vegemite: “Go ahead. Taste it. We dare you.”

Miracle Whip: “It's not mayonnaise! Don't make us pound that into your head.”

Velveeta: “When real cheese is too good to melt.”

Kool-Aid: “How many times can we say it? We had nothing to do with that crazy preacher!”

Walmart: “Resistance is futile.”

Tylenol: “Untainted for over two decades.”

Honda: “The Japanese car that won't kill you.”

Clorox: “We don't make it to clean up crime scenes, but nothing does it better!”

ExtenZe: “When you can't afford a Jaguar.”

Sony: “Buy our electronics now, before the prices go down dramatically!”

Lipton: “Did somebody say 'Tea Party!?'”

Aciphex: “We know it sounds like 'ass effects' but now we're stuck with it.”

Lean Cuisine: “Because there is no such thing as 'big-boned.'”

Hot Pockets: “If you are over 18, and eating Hot Pockets on a regular basis, you are not a loser. No matter what your ex-girlfriends say.”

Verizon: “Can you pay me now? … Can you pay me now? ...”

Pepsi: “Very nearly the world's most popular cola!”

Rolex: “We can't think of any reason other than vanity.”

Marlboro: “Reducing nursing home stays by 40 percent.”

BP: “Other than that we're having a great year!”

Again, I should stress that these are just my impressions and not necessarily the real attitudes of these companies. I have no ill feelings toward any of them. In fact, any of these organizations that would like to hire me for an obscenely high-paid executive position is welcome to contact me.

I know. I shouldn't hold my breath.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theories of Babysitting

When I was 19 years old I thought I had mastered a skill usually reserved for 16-year-old girls.

I thought I was the state-of-the-art babysitter.

Now, I didn't do it for a living, or even for money. I did it out of the kindness of my heart and as a mandatory part of the bargain for continued residence in my parents' house. My three youngest siblings were still in need of adult-ish supervision whenever mom and dad couldn't be around, and I was as close as they could get in my price range ... that being free.

Eddie was nine, and kind of a quiet dude, but with a little mischief in his eyes. Two things to know about Eddie: He didn't care to be told what to do, and he could probably drive a car better at nine than I can today.

Jayne was eight, a non-stop talker and already a person to be taken seriously. Two things to know about Jayne: She could convince you that she was the victim in almost any situation, and she was the instigator of almost every situation.

Patti was six, and the sweetest, most innocent-looking little girl you have ever seen. Two things to know about Patti: She always appeared to want to be the peacemaker in any conflict, and no one could be as innocent as she looked.

Even though I was more or less thrust into the position, I had a definite, well thought through philosophy on the art of babysitting. That philosophy consisted mainly of the idea that my three charges should sit perfectly quiet in their assigned chairs the entire time, while I lay on the floor eating peanut M&Ms and watching TV.

The longest that scenario ever lasted in actual practice was four minutes.

First there would be muffled giggles. I'd grunt a threat, my eyes never leaving the TV screen. Next, just as I was already annoyed (having gotten one of those sour peanuts in my M&M) I'd hear “Stop it!” or “I'm telling” from one of them. They're testing me. So according to my babysitting philosophy, I need to show that there will be consequences to their misbehavior. I should mention here that I lacked the authority to hit the little angels, a fact of which they were all well aware.

Years later police forces around the world would confront this dilemma and come up with humane solutions like bean-bag guns, pepper spray or Tasers, but I was on my own here.

So I put Eddie and Jayne in separate rooms (keeping Patti with me in the TV room since she was obviously never to blame). This just turned the muffled giggling into louder chuckling and requests to leave their assigned places to go to the bathroom, get a cookie they need for their homework (really?) or go to the emergency room because someone is almost positive they have a tumor. Patti looked at me with an “I deal with these two every day of my life, so good luck” expression.

I should have realized then that I was in over my head.

The civil disobedience escalated to debates on the extent of my parent-given authority, threats to “tell daddy” on me and blatant non-compliance with my clearly stated orders. I felt like the Nixon Administration dealing with Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez. And like that poor, put-upon, soon-to-be-ex-president I was prepared to resign my duties. But no such luck. At least I knew when I was beaten.

If you have never been out-argued, with calm, sensible logic by a 8-year-old, I'm here to tell you it's an experience you never forget.

However, there is more to the story than the failure of the Jack Doctrine of Babysitting.

It seems there was a rival philosophy at work.

When I was unavailable for duty, the task fell to my 17-year-old brother, Dan. Whether it was because he was a little closer in age to the troublesome trio, because of his naturally playful nature or because he was just an overall nicer person than me, Dan's idea was to engage the youngsters.

And engage them he did.

There were little quizzes, made-up games, heart-felt questions about their likes and dislikes … and most famously, pillow fights. Dan put a lot of thought into his obligation, and I think the kids preferred his supervision to mine with very little debate about the subject … at first. But as time went on, and Dan's babysitting sessions became more frequent, the interactions tended to be less and less talk and more and more contests.

Keeping these contests fair (at least in theory) meant that Dan would stay on his knees and, for instance, pillow fight one, two, or sometimes all three at once. Anyone who has ever been in a pillow fight knows that in certain types of pillows (mainly those containing feathers), the weight of the pillow tends to gravitate into one end. Grabbing the lighter end and smacking with the heavy end increases the impact by … oh, approximately fifty times.

And so down they went. Over and over. Individually and in well planned but doomed alliances. No matter what you may have heard, the truth is that Goliath almost always wins. I believe that Dan has retired undefeated in the pillow fighting portion of the Dan Games.

Today, Eddie, Jayne and Patti are in their forties. They have all turned out to be amazing individuals, great friends as well as brother and sisters to each other and ... against all odds ... to Dan and me, too.

I can never get a definitive answer from any of them when I ask which turned out in the end to be the better babysitting philosophy. I have a feeling that probably means they're waiting for me to offer a “none of the above” option.

One last thing. Over the years Eddie and Jayne each have told me that Patti was absolutely responsible for her share of the chaos of my babysitting career, using that innocent reputation to her best advantage.

For some reason, knowing that makes me feel better about the whole thing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Transistor Radio Days

Just like me, transistor radios came into being in 1954.

Unlike me, they took the world by storm. Soon they were the most popular electronic communication device in history. Billions were manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. And as much as Elvis or the Beatles or even Eminem, transistor radios changed the way we listen to popular music.

Think of them as iPods with training wheels.

We got to hear our favorite songs, but with the guidance of “boss jocks” (a term completely unrelated to executive male support) and “hip cats,” who not only told us what the best songs were, but played them all day and night. (Or at least 23 hours a day … there was usually a sunrise religious service of some kind between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.)

Sure, we had to listen to a whole bunch of our non-favorite songs, too. Also, it's true that some of those songs were later found to have caused loss of brain cells due to their sheer dumbness. And yes, there were endless commercial interruptions and station identifications and constant reminders of what time it was and bubbly jingles about contests for loyal listeners and DJs' personal appearance announcements, usually at a local movie theater or dance hall …

But it was FREE music!

Once we got our transistor radios the whole world opened up. No longer were we captive audiences to the Al Martino, Nat King Cole and Four Aces hits that streamed from our parents' large-as-a-china-cabinet “hi-fi stereophonic” sound systems. Today I can admit that those artists hold a fond place in my heart, but back then I wanted to hear the new stuff. And so did all of my friends.

The first phase after transistor acquisition, itself, was getting a compatible ear plug. Note that I don't use the word “headphones” here, since the ear plug was a one-eared monophonic wonder of its time. Finally … a little privacy! It gave birth to the closed-eyed, goofy look on the face of millions of teens that we can all recognize to this very day, as well as the seemingly silent hipster be-bop stroll down the street.

The next step was attempting to record your favorite songs on the small reel-to-reel tape recorders that were available then. This would (theoretically) free you from the whims of what the radio station wanted you to (or allegedly was paid to have you) hear. One problem with that proposition was the intrusion of peripheral sound. It was not uncommon to get the first two minutes of a two-and-a-half minute song (using the superior acoustics of the bathroom), and then suddenly hear “Do you see my hair brush in there?” or “I really need to get in there, and I mean right now!”

If we'd known the expression at the time, these would have been perfect Homer Simpson “D'oh!” moments. I think I probably said “Shoot!”

Another, even more frustrating problem with the home recording project was the intrusion of the DJ. In fact, the whole process was a study in anticipation, reflexes and timing.

First there was FSR (Favorite Song Recognition). We all learned to identify our prey in three notes or less. Press record. Pray that our radio host is not explaining that “Manny's Records (parking in the rear) is sponsoring the next half hour of million dollar music here on WFIL, Famous 56” over the song intro. If not, you're safe until about 30 seconds before the end.

Assuming that you got through the start cleanly, the finish was doomed, so it was important to hit “stop” at the first breath that didn't sound like music. (This could prove difficult for one of those talking songs, like “Big, Bad John” or “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”)

Some of us mastered this skill, while others were destined to include the radio station promo as part of the song in their memories forever.

Sadly, in the minds of those poor souls, The Beatles might have sung, “Eleanor Rigby, it's nine minutes before the hour, picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been, and you're listening to Long John Wade at drive time, lives in a dream.”

As I look back, I find that I don't actually remember carrying my transistor radio everywhere I went, but I know that I must have. Why? Because my mind is absolutely stuffed beyond capacity with fragments of songs that I never bought, but could only have heard on the free airways.

For instance, I know that Brandy was a fine girl, and what a good wife she would be. Unfortunately, his life, his lover, his lady … was the sea.

I will always remember that Buttercup would build you up just to let you down (and worst of all, never call, baby, when she says she will … but he loves her still).

Also, grazing in the grass is a gas (can you dig it?), in the year 2525 man may or may not be still alive and since you've been gone, all that's left is a band of gold.

I believe that we have the transistor radio to thank for all of this useless information that's trapped inside the heads of my generation. It's a mixed bag situation. Twenty years ago it made us virtually unbeatable in the “Pop Culture” category of Trivial Pursuit. Today it prevents us from remembering the name of our niece's boyfriend who just introduced himself to us.

Oh, well. As transistor radio superstar Bobby Sherman once sang … “Easy Come, Easy Go.”