Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: Annus Horribilis

As 2015 draws to a close and people post their self-congratulatory years in review on Facebook (Facebook helpfully offers to do this for you if you don’t), I would like to offer my own year in review.
This is the second holiday season in the last three years that I’ve been unemployed. (I’ve also been unemployed for two of my last three birthdays.)
I don’t think sufficient attention has been paid to the devastation that unemployment causes. In addition to the obvious financial repercussions, there are emotional ones as well, and not just for the person who is unemployed, but for his partner/spouse, friends and family. Unemployment is one of the top five causes of stress, along with the death of a loved one, divorce, moving and serious illness.1 I wish that even one of our millionaire-class of politicians in Washington was aware of this fact. I also wish that at least one of them knew how impossible it is to survive on unemployment benefits. But considering they voted against extending them five times2, I doubt that’s going to happen.
Needless to say, I’ve completely lost my sense of humor.
That can be a bad thing for a comedian.
Speaking of the year’s disappointments, how about the self-inflicted implosion of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign? At this point, I think the best we can hope for is that Hillary asks him to be her running mate. But that probably won’t happen. She’s probably looking for a “yes man.” Maybe Martin O’Malley?
And I haven’t even mentioned America’s record year of gun violence; the world’s record year of climate change; or Donald Trump’s record year of ignorance, vulgarity, racism and misogyny (along with that of the rest of the Republican party).
But 2015 hasn’t been all bad.
I produced (or co-produced) three comedy benefits: two for Bernie Sanders and one for the Mayor’s Fund for the East Village (for victims of the East Village fire).
And with all this free time, I’ve been able to do a lot of writing.
My blog is closing in on 15,000 page views. (I believe that’s what’s known as a “humble brag.”)
I’ve been doing a lot of reading, particularly rock star biographies (Grace Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, The Beatles). I could probably write a doctoral thesis on rock stars.
I’ve been able to go to the gym during the day, when it’s less crowded, and pretend to hobnob with their celebrity clientele (Anderson Cooper, Mo Rocca) while they remain blissfully unaware of who I am.
But right now I’m too busy worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent next month (or the month after that).
In fact, at this point, the only thing that would make me feel better would be if someone offered me a job.
Then I could tell everyone who didn’t offer me a job to kiss my annus.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Tony Bramwell: The Fifth Beatle?

In the pantheon of my cultural heroes, no person or group is greater than the Beatles. To the child that I was in the ’60s, they didn’t even seem human—they were like gods. The great accomplishment of Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles, by Tony Bramwell, is that it humanizes them.
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
Bramwell grew up in Liverpool, England where his childhood friends were neighborhood kids like George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and future Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Liverpool in the late ’50s and early ’60s comes across as an old-fashioned, close-knit community where everyone knew each other’s business and chance encounters with future stars were not uncommon. Thus it was, for example, that a young Bramwell found himself on a bus with Harrison, going to his first gig in Liverpool with the Beatles.
Geography is, indeed, destiny.
Bramwell had been planning on becoming a draftsman but, through a chance encounter with Epstein at his record store, wound up working for him and ultimately running a number of the Beatles’ companies. (Similarly, Epstein had no intention of becoming a manager, but basically fell into it after seeing the Beatles perform at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.)
As flesh-and-blood human beings, not everything we learn about the Beatles and their circle is flattering.
Epstein is a closeted homosexual who eventually dies of an accidental drug overdose (whether due to his being in the closet, the pressures of managing the Beatles, or both, isn’t clear).
John Lennon comes across as a bit of a jerk, having abandoned his first wife, Cynthia, and son, Julian, almost immediately after getting married. To be fair, even if the customs of the time didn’t dictate that he had to marry Cynthia after getting her pregnant, Epstein probably would have forced his hand in order to maintain the Beatles’ squeaky-clean image.
Speaking of which, the Beatles were hardly the “boys next door” their publicity led us to believe (nor were they an overnight success). They spent years performing all over England and Europe (most famously in Hamburg, Germany), enjoying the company of lots of women along the way, before making their American debut and, eventually, “settling down.”
But the person who comes off the worst in this book (no surprise) is Yoko Ono. She’s portrayed as a stalker who insinuates herself into Lennon’s life--while both of them are still married, no less. (The “stalker” designation is particularly disturbing when you consider how Lennon was murdered a few years later.)
After the Beatles break up, Bramwell works with a number of other record labels and artists, including record producer Phil Spector, a character as steely in his resolve to get his own way as Yoko (and who produced—some would argue ruined—the Beatles album Let It Be.)
There’s much vicarious enjoyment to be had in these pages from Bramwell’s tales of record industry excess, at a time when record sales actually meant something. Bramwell emerges as a potential “fifth Beatle,” perhaps as significant in his own way as Brian Epstein.
But the breakup of the Beatles near the end of this book is a loss for the book, for Tony Bramwell and, ultimately, for us.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Every Day I Write the Book

I’m not as big an Elvis Costello fan as I thought I was.
Mind you, I’ve always had tremendous respect for Elvis Costello as a songwriter. I’ve always thought of him as the Woody Allen of pop music—only more prolific.
But I’ve just finished reading Costello’s exhaustive (and poorly named) autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, and the result is somewhat anticlimactic.
I followed Costello’s career pretty closely through his Columbia years (and even then it was hard to keep up with his prodigious output), but then I kind of lost track of him.
He turned up again on my cultural radar a few years ago when he did an excellent talk show on the Sundance Channel called Spectacle.
Even now, I’m only scratching the surface of his accomplishments, because he also did a number of collaborative albums with other musicians, some acting work and some writing (including, obviously, this book).
All of this is covered in minute detail in Unfaithful Music, but, if you’re not a super-dedicated Costello fan, chances are you’ll be lost after the first few chapters.
The focus of the book is clearly Costello’s music rather than his personal life, which is fine with me. The most significant relationship in the book seems to be the one between Costello and his father, who was also a musician. The most touching scenes depict his father’s battle with (and eventual death from) Alzheimer’s. (By contrast, his 18-year marriage to The Pogues’ Cait O’Riordan is dismissed in a few short paragraphs.)
Musically, the biggest revelation in the book is probably how the piano part for “Oliver’s Army” was influenced by a similar piano part in Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” (Years later, he runs into Abba’s Benny and Bjorn quietly eating dinner in a Swedish cafĂ©, one of many unlikely musical encounters that happen throughout the book.)
Given his enormous output, what this book really could have used is a discography. (Thank God for Wikipedia!) It also could have used some editing—or at least focus. It jumps around a lot. And, as another reviewer pointed out, if you don’t know the music, the lyrics—which are quoted extensively—tend to lose some of their power.
Unfaithful Music may be faithful to Costello’s music, but it leaves something to be desired as an autobiography.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Shit Just Got Real: The Reality of Today’s Economy

 Today I applied for food stamps. Shit just got real, as the kids say.
On the plus side, the food stamp process has gotten a lot better since I first walked into an HRA office years ago and walked out without even filling out an application. (At the time I thought I’d rather starve to death than go through that degrading process. Fortunately, I got a job a few weeks later.) Ironically, the food stamp program has gotten better by getting rid of a lot of people who work for the food stamp program and replacing them with machines. (I’m sure Republicans would love that!)
I also emailed my entire LinkedIn network again, asking for information about job leads, for at least the sixth time in as many months. I would guess that at least 80% of my LinkedIn connections have never responded to one of my emails ever (not even to say “Stop emailing me!”). I don’t know if that’s because they don’t have any job leads or they’re just too embarrassed to refer someone to their company because they don’t like working there themselves.
Now I know that many (if not most) people consider LinkedIn a joke, but the only way I’ve found a job for the last 19 years has been through personal referral. And that’s the crucial point here: It’s virtually impossible to find a job nowadays without a personal referral.
That’s because it’s virtually impossible to convince a complete stranger to hire you, no matter how qualified you are or how well your job interview goes (assuming you’re lucky enough to even get a job interview). It seems like most HR people are more concerned with keeping the “wrong” people out than letting the “right” people in.
This is why I also just got rid of all the “recruiters” in my LinkedIn network. Because they’re absolutely useless. All they do is send you want ads and then send out your resume when you respond to them. I can do that myself, thank you very much, I don’t need your help.
I think we need to get real about the reality of today’s economy.
I keep reading in the news that the economy is doing great and that unemployment is at a new low. But what the news always fails to mention is that the reason the unemployment rate is at a new low is because people have given up looking for work and dropped out of the workforce.
The labor participation rate (the percentage of working-age people who are actually working, and what we should be measuring) is at an all-time low.
I’ve also noticed that a large percentage of the people in my network are “self-employed” (which we all know is a euphemism for unemployed) or “consultants.”
And a lot of the older workers with whom I started my career are now retired.
So let’s get real about the reality of today’s economy. It’s the only way we’re ever going to see any real improvement.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Old Navy is Shit Crazy

If Gap is crap1, then Old Navy is shit crazy. And by that I don’t mean that they’ve lost their marbles (although that’s also entirely possible), but that the quality of their merchandise and the manner in which they sell it is shit. (OK, technically, I suppose I should say shitty, but I’m trying to maintain some rhythm here.)
I just got back from one of Old Navy’s stores in New York City, where I was looking to buy some long-sleeve waffle-knit T-shirts. (I’m not a big shopper. I like to joke that I shop like a straight man. But my current long-sleeve waffle-knit T-shirts have so many holes in them, I could be mistaken for a homeless person.)
No biggie, right?
So I went to their Chelsea location, thinking they would have a large selection of smalls (i.e., my size), and what did I find? Nothing but XL and XXL (because, apparently, everyone who shops there is morbidly obese).
Plus, the shirts were 50% cotton and 48% polyester (and 2% spandex) because God forbid anything at Old Navy should be made out of a natural fiber.
And, of course, they were made in Vietnam. (Consider, for a moment, the irony of that statement. If you didn’t think Vietnam won the war before, then surely you must now, because now they’re making crappy clothing and sending it back to the United States for us suckers to buy. OK, so they’re making it in sweatshops, but still…)
Nevertheless, there was a line out the door to buy this garbage.
Now, mind you, Old Navy has had some of the most entertaining commercials on television. Their current commercials feature Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia fame. (Consider, for a moment, the irony of that statement. Alternative heroes Armisen and Brownstein are hired to lend indie cred to the largest clothing company in America.)
And therein lies the problem.
I would guess that 5% of the cost of any item at Old Navy is spent on manufacturing and the other 95% is spent on marketing.
But that’s true for pretty much every product in the United States.
Which reinforces my argument that America is indeed a Third World Country2, where the 1% shop at luxury stores and the other 99% are relegated to the Third World crap sold at First World prices that is Old Navy.
If you really want to buy top-quality, American-made clothing at reasonable prices, I’d highly recommend walking across the street and going to Dave’s New York, a decades-long New York City institution. (I used to shop at their original location on Fifth Avenue.) The only problem with Dave’s is that it’s often so crowded with European tourists, it’s sometimes hard to find sales help. (For the record, I did go to Dave’s before I went Old Navy, but their long-sleeve waffle-knit T-shirts were a little too utilitarian for my needs. I may not have the gay shopping gene, but I am still gay!)
But for jeans, socks and underwear (not to mention outerwear that even at Dave’s has gotten a little pricey, but is still cheaper than at most other New York stores), Dave’s is my go-to Army Navy store.
Fuck Old Navy.