Thursday, February 28, 2013

Starving Artists

One of the great stereotypes is the starving artist. The visionary individual that is either way ahead of their times or yet to be discovered. The artist with a hedonistic soul but living a monastically simple life. 

This stereotype isn't born out of some need of personal drama -it's purely economics. Art is a hard world to make a living at. You have a few successful superstars floating on a huge ocean aspiring talent.

Artist, and maybe musician, are two of the only vocations where death is a good career choice. Just look at Vincent Van Goth, he was unable to sell any of his paintings when he was alive -but in death he worth millions.

One local artist who has had several promenade one man shows, travels thousands of miles every year and owns his own gallery still lives pretty much from hand to mouth -and he's better off than most. Without another income or the support of your extended family it can be a desperate life.

How desperate is it? In blighted neighborhoods, buildings that are unfit for human habitation get taken over by either drug addicts or artists. Because an artist is willing to live in such a building they might be the first positive thing that's happened in that neighborhood for years.  Super cheap rents and even abandoned buildings to squat in attracts these people and the Bohemian mystique is more of a justification than it is a free will lifestyle choice.

When artists do get established one wave of positivity promotes another. Artists have been seen as the harbingers of gentrification like the first robins are seen as the harbingers of spring.  This isn't always viewed as a good thing. The people in that neighborhood often only see the artist as one more outside force that will upset their already dangerously insecure lives. Gentrification to then means higher rents or the pressure to be forcibly moved to another slum without ever having a chance to benefit in the new prosperity.

One painter named Dan living in what's call a transitional neighbor just outside the University City section of Philadelphia told a pretty scary story how his neighbors confronted him. They made it clear they didn't want his kind moving.

There is an alternative to gentrification, it's the concept of neighborhood revitalization and the parallel concept of the urban village. In the next 30 years the world population is project to grow to over 9 billion people and more than 50% of them will live in cities. This means cities will have to efficient and livable, that there will be no room for slums because they represent an unacceptable economic drag. The artist could be the new hero of future metropolises keeping cities from becoming boring soulless landscapes of concrete.

A socially conscious  developer had approached me on the issue of neighborhood revitalization.  His question was what sign should he look for to recognize when a neighborhood is at that tipping point, ready to go from bad to good. Even socially conscious investors are interested in tipping points were their money will either bring the best returns or have the most effect.

One of those tipping points is food. In America blighted neighborhoods are almost universally food deserts. The definition of a food desert is easy to understand but you have live in one to fully appreciate what it means. If the nearest market where you can buy fresh food is over a mile away and you don't own a car or there is no mass transit available -then that means you either carry your food home or take a taxi. To get a couple of days of fresh food it's either exhausting or outrageously expensive.

On a renovation project I worked on,  where a commercial rental on the bottom floor was being remodeled, it was easier to live on site than commute in and out of the city. There were no supermarkets, grocery stores or anyone selling fresh food for at least 20 blocks.  For two weeks we lived on fast food and deli sandwiches. Not only did we all pack on a couple of pounds, we felt less than healthy.

Food is very important to an artist and to some it almost a fetish. Nor every artist is a macrobiotic vegan but in general artists are one of the few groups of people who'll get in a line to buy a 25 pound sack of brown rice.  

Artists might be the first wave of urban revitalization but you know the community is beginning to take root when a food co-op, a vegetarian restaurant or artisan eatery opens up to feed those starving artists.  


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Happy Belated Birthday

Was talking with a friend about a plot idea where people are put into a virual world as the Beatle of their choice as a forn of psycotherapy. Recently was George Harrison's birthday and maybe my Beatle of choice to be. The next typical thing would be to mention how old he would be, if he was still alive. Honestly though that's not really important. People don't listen to his music and dwell on the history; they listen and allow themselves to be transported back into time. Personal history resists being dated and tries to stay timeless in our own minds

Aging baby-boomer are seeing their world slip into history. Once a generation that sang -I hope I die before I get old, is now planning to hang on until the bitter end. It is disheartening -not that I planned to see a whole generation burnout in a spectacular blaze of glory. Youthful rhetoric can be allowed an extra measure of bombast and hyperbole.  Maybe my angst could be best illustrated by a party I went to. The party goers there were once young idealists, now older and totally obsessed with their 401.k accounts and pension plans.

"It's being here now that's important. There's no past and there's no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can't relive it; and we can only hope for the future, but we don't know if there is one."  -George Harrison

For a long time I never could get into George Harrison's music. In 1970 the triple album All Things Must Pass was out and My Sweet Lord was the single on the radio.  Still the music didn't make much of an impression. It was a time when Krishnas started mobbing the airports and shopping malls, Jesus Freaks roamed the streets and new religious cults sprang up like mushrooms after a cosmic rain.

The fallout from that wave of faith was already apparent. As the old joke went "once I was all messed up on drugs, now I'm all messed up on the Lord".
In 1976 George Harrison was sued for plagiarism because My Sweet Lord was so similar to Ronnie Mack's song He's So Fine, a hit song for The Chiffons in 1963.  George Harrison claimed the plagiarism was subconscious and not intentional. The verdict against Harrison had big repercussions in the music industry as a flood of similar suits were filed -some with more merit than others. A couple of years later John Lennon settled out of court because the owners of Chuck Berry's music claimed the song Come Together illegally borrowed from the song Maybelline.

It was several years later before My Sweet Lord had any meaning in my life. I was going see a college friend in Philadelphia. His name was Kumar but it got commonly mispronounced as Q-mars and eventually got shorten to Q.

Q  was originally from Iran and studied in America on a student visa. With about two semesters left before graduation the Iran - Iraq War had reached its bloodiest low point and Q was sent his draft notice. When he refused to go back  a death warrant was issued. The following six months was a frantic effort to get him a green card. And you know it didn't come easy because the State Department was still angry about the Islam Revolution and the embassy hostages.

Think of it as luck, fate or the divine hand of providence but Q was spared. To celebrate his green card and new life in America we going have dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. Before dinner I was going to stop at a bar off of the corner of Chestnut and Second. They had a special where you would get free drinks on your birthday. It wasn't my birthday but I had a fake ID that said it was. I was almost thirty years old and this was the only time I ever used a fake ID in a bar.

It was late in the afternoon and the commuter train into Philadelphia was near empty.  In my rail car there were three or four people going in to work for the second shift, myself and three young women singing together. Their voices were beautiful.
We struck up a conversation, it was playful and flirtatious. I knew they had other plans but I told them it was my birthday and I'd gladly buy them all a drink. They almost said yes, or maybe they were just nice and let me enjoy the fantasy. As a birthday gift before we reached the city they sang for me, one of the songs was My Sweet Lord.
Sometime, probably a year or two later, I was thinking back on that day. It was like light switch turning on -but within that moment George Harrison's music suddenly made sense to me.  

"I think people who truly can live a life in music are telling the world, "You can have my love, you can have my smiles. Forget the bad parts, you don't need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because it's the very best, and it's the part I give to you most willingly."  -George Harrison

Well Happy Belated Birthday George.

I'm sure as my fellow baby-boomers are beginning to look over the cliff and think about the big mystery and also look back -and think about our experiences. We are in the here and now -but now exists in the context of a past and a future.

Thank you for your gifts to us.

"All the world is a birthday cake, so take a piece but not too much"
-George Harrison from I, Me, Mine

Compare and contrast, the Chiffons and George Harrison   

Bonus track, can you guess who sang this cover of My Sweet Lord ?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Songs in the Minor Key

Really good friends will stand by you, even if you should bomb on karaoke night they will clap and cheer, though they might not ask for an encore. I usually avoid karaoke like the plague. My singing as been described as a cross between a syncopated Tom Waits, an atonal Bob Dylan and a collection piercing death wails of animals in extreme pain.   

I think an event that puts my singing in perspective happened one Saturday night at the Irish Pub in Somerdale NJ. The pub itself was an ancient structure built close to the road and when the road was expanded out into a four lane highway over 60 years ago the pub was separated by less than 3 feet of sidewalk from Route 30. Facing the highway were two large picture windows and at times it was difficult to tell where the traffic ended and the bar began.

In that part of Jersey there was a local Rugby league and after a weekend game they would celebrate, commiserate or ruminate over it at the Irish Pub. There was a lot drinking and the girlfriends of the players would often get into competitive exhibitionism in front of the large picture windows. The idea was to see who could stop the most traffic on Route 30. It was fun time and of course there was there were the traditional Rugby songs. Those upbeat vulgar tunes that were meant to be sung by a loud drunken chorus.  

I was feeling no pain on that Saturday night and joined right in and sang along. In the middle of the second verse the whole bar dropped into an unnatural silence and pretty much everybody was staring at me. After a couple seconds that felt like forever, the Captain of the team finally said "hey man, you're making our music sound ugly".

I was a little indignant and wanted to ask how the hell that was possible? My friend Tom the Collector of Everything could instinctively sense potential problems, he turned me "here, I'll buy another drink, just sit this one out".

The peace was kept and the Rugby team went back to their song. We all got back to the business at hand, which was having a good time.

Do you ever feel they don't write songs like they use to?  If you listen to a collection of Top 40 hit songs from the 1950' and 1960's most of those tunes are perky three minute ditties. A study conducted by psychologist E Glenn Schellenburg and sociologist Christian Von Scheve concluded that popular music since 1965 has gotten progressively sadder and slower. More and more hit songs are now written in the sadder sounding minor keys with lyrics that are "self-focused", "emotionally ambiguous" with "mixed emotional cues".

It could be just another sign that we live in the age of irony. I know too many people suffering through what looks like a mid-life crises except they are half my age or younger. They'll tell me how their childhood sucked, how they're not ready for adulthood and several of them are in the middle of breaking up the "starter marriage". The soundtrack of their lives ranges from confessional ballads to screaming rage.

I wonder if my pitiful and plaintive singing voice has finally found its time. In a way that's very sad, I hate to think of entire generations that don't have a few happy and pleasant songs to call their own. Maybe my younger friends don't see happiness as right. They see it as small nuggets that are found after sifting through a mountain crap. That happiness and sincerity have become things they both mock and long for. It's troubling to think that sadness is so prevalent that becomes the only authentic sound.  

After some very limited research I found these are a few of the songs in my friend's music files.


Here's one song that could be the anthem of the minor key.

The Butthole Suffers have been around for over 25 years but are still going strong just beyond the reach of commercial mega success.

Eilen Jewell is one of those performers that may never get her day in the spotlight but her music is tight. 

I never really followed the Grammys, it always seemed the wrong be people got the big awards. Kimbra won for Best Pop Duo for her song with Gotye, Somebody That I Use To Know.

That song is okay but some of her solo stuff is so much more interesting, though none of it light and bubbly. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Gas Pains

The forecast for this summer is hot weather and higher gas prices. The worldwide demand for oil is out pacing the production. The United States still the home of the automobile but rest of planet is catching up. As emerging economies in China, India, Brazil and Africa grow they want everything that the developed world offers.

The world market of oil is a triumph of capitalism and globalization. Because of the North Sea oil fields a nation like Norway is energy self sufficient but the price of energy is about the same as it is in the rest of Europe or North America. In Norway oil, diesel fuel and gasoline are marketed for profit and not socialistically subsidized.

So what's a person to do? The most effective way to bring down oil prices and maybe even slow down global climate change is to use energy more efficiently.  Maybe spend one day a week without driving, car pool with neighbors and friends or even start to change our ideas about what a car should be.

Volkswagen is developing the XL-1 and car that potentially gets 250 miles per gallon. Yes it is small but it's no smaller than sports car. It takes time to go from zero to 60 mph but so does my work van, it's not that difficult planning out an extra a couple of extra seconds to merge.

Small cars have always been part of the America Car Culture and conserving fuel was even patriotic.

What worries me is XL-1 will not be imported into the Unites States. Right now there are about a dozen high efficiency automobiles that you can not bring into the country.

Even the Toyota Prius sold in North America is not the same car they sell in Japan. In Japan if you drive less than 30 miles a day, you can run your Prius strictly as an electric car and not burn a drop of gasoline. There is an aftermarket conversion kit so the Prius can be driven as an electric car but installing voids the manufacturer's warrantee. This was part of deal Toyota made with GM, General Motors owns about 30% of Toyota's stock.

Part of the high price of gasoline is political. The way roads and towns are designed, which automobiles are for sale and even the unavailability of mass transit that could compete with automobiles is all influenced by politics.... and all these things boost the profits of oil companies.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

King of the Road

I feel lucky that the snow storm that blanketed the Mid-West will only bring a few flurries and lots rain for the weekend. In between the cold of winter and that first perfect week of spring weather is the 5th season of the year -the season of mud. It's at least six weeks of cold and dampness under battleship gray skies.

Right now I would be happy to travel to any place warm. My friend Harrison has been talking about buying a travel trailer and hitting the open road. Harrison is in that awkward place in life where he's a middle aged man with a crappy job and no attachments. For him there's no downside in taking up the gypsy life.

Like any good friend, Harrison has already invited me along for at least an extended road trip. Unlike Harrison I'm totally bogged down with the responsibilities of home and family. My wife is pretty cool and rarely says no to me but I can already imagine the one eyed squint of disapproval she would have.

To bolster his point Harrison quotes his favorite film - Animal House.  In the second half of the film when Delta House plans revenge on the college administration, Otter (Tim Matheson) responds to Bluto's (John Belushi) famous and rousing speech. You know, the one were Bluto asks what would have happened if America quit when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

Otter: Bluto's right. Psychotic but right. We gotta take these bastards. Now we could fight them with conventional weapons. That could take years and cost millions of lives. Oh no. No, in this case, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.

Bluto: And were just the guys to do it.     

Life needs the stupid and futile gesture to keep it interesting. Art and history seldom misses an opportunity to memorize such gestures. One such event was a cavalry attack in the Battle of Balaclava, though most people remember it better from the poem,  The Charge of The Light Brigade. It all started over some badly worded orders where the cavalry was suppose to go and retrieve a battery of cannons the Russians were ready to abandon. Instead Lord Cardigan launches a full frontal assault on the whole Russian army. The battle becomes the stuff of legends and Tennyson writes one of the most renowned poems in the English language.   

Any adventure implies some risk. Harrison is ready to go. He's been reading the for sale ads for an affordable trailer and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for inspiration.  It's wryly funny because Harrison doesn't like Hippies or psychedelic drugs but he's enamored with that romantic idea that life should be a risky undertaking every so often.   

If you never read the book, it's about Ken Kesey (wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and The Merry Pranksters. They drove around California in a bus named Further, had outrageous LSD parties with local folks and the Grateful Dead all before the legislators in Sacramento made hallucinogenic drugs illegal.

Harrison finds another quote to share, this time from the book - "Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don't know that is what they're trapped by, their own little script"  -Thomas Wolfe.

That might be true, currently I'm playing the role of an aging Ward Clever with two sons in college. Harrison has a copy of the Penny Pincher and is pointing to a picture of a small pull along trailer for sale. He wants go somewhere, next year's Burning Man Festival or Route 127 yard sale.

The yard sale thing sounds interesting. It goes from Ohio through Kentucky and Tennessee to end in Georgia. Maybe I'll go, that's held in the summer when it warm and I have few months to float the idea to my wife.

Harrison finds another quote from the book and with dead on seriousness says to me - "either you're on the bus or off the bus".  

As a post note Harrison found a news article where Ken Kesey's old bus is in the early states of restoration
So someday the old bus will be in the Smithsonian -with the paint lovingly restored and all cleaned up.... maybe cleaner than it ever was in the past.

The border line between history and myth is fuzzy one that becomes more blurred in passing years. Our memories soften and we say "oh what a time that was". It's not just restlessness that call us to the open road but also a need to have a story or two in the future to tell and embellish. That's way the tales of Ulysses stay classic, either in a galley ship to Troy or in a bus on the roads of California -it remains the same journey of discovery.   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Give Me All Your Gold

A couple of days ago I was listening to a man talk about how he's afraid that he might lose his house. You would think he was another victim of the housing bubble but his investment of choice was gold.

The market price of gold has been slowly declining for the last few months. Even in India, a traditional importer of gold, the demand is down. Gold like any other commodity is tied to the laws of supply and demand.

As the world economy has slowly improved, traders in gold have started to cash in and reinvest. I wonder what Ron Paul do if gold returns to $500 an ounce?

It's difficult not to think of gold as money and just see it as another commodity metal like scrap steel. In a way our world would be crippled without steel as if all of the gold in the world disappeared tomorrow it be a mere bump in the road. Gold does not have many practical uses. In industry gold plating resists corrosion, there are specialty electronics that use gold wires and components, dental work and jewelry -that's about it.

Gold represents concentrated value partially because of its rarity. In total steel is more valuable than gold but gold is still more valuable by the ounce.

Part of gold's value is emotional and historical. Gold might have been the first metal people discovered. As other metals are found in ores, gold does not combines easily with other elements, so it's possible to fine nuggets of pure gold. The metal is soft and easy to work, it's so soft two pieces of pure gold can be hammered into each other to form one piece. It can also be hammered flat into a foil only a few atoms thick and used as gold leaf. 30 grams of gold can be made into sheet of leaf that covers over 9 square meters. Gold is so malleable you can think of it as the silly puddy of metals.

Being shiny bright and yellow only added to gold's appeal. Over 6,000 years ago some of the first decorations and jewelry were made with gold. In a world where few things were bright and shiny, gold was probably a high value commodity to show off a person's status. It easy to see who is king when they wear a golden crown.

At least 5,000 years ago gold was used as money. The gold was traded by weight and gold was even counterfeited when cheaper metals were melted into the gold ingots. Probably by accident someone discovered that you can assess the purity of a gold by scraping the object across certain types of fine grain flinty stones. The color of adulterated gold dust on the stone will be lighter and paler compared to pure gold. This became known as a touchstone. Touchstones where used in the Indus Valley of India as far back as 3500 BCE.    

It wasn't until 500 BCE gold coins appeared in Turkey. Gold, silver and bronze could then be traded in pre-measured amounts, the idea of currency took off. A person could make a purchase by counting out a few coins instead of having to get a scale and weighing it. In about a century the whole Middle East and Mediterranean basin where using coins. Kings like coins because they could names and faces on them. The Roman Empire used coinage as propaganda as well as trade. 

The fellow who was losing his house was seduced into buying gold because of the fear of future inflation and the possible devaluation of paper money. It was a hard lesson to find out even gold fluctuates the same as fiat currency.

Not much of an economist myself I asked a friend back in New Jersey why the world moved away from the Gold Standard. Part of the reason was to give governments greater control over their currencies. The greater control meant that governments could step in  and intervene during economic downturn. Economic recessions and depressions were much deeper and hard hitting when the United Sates was on the gold standard. 

Nothing stops the United States from going back on the gold standard but it would be like parking our cars and using horses for transportation. If the oil industry should also collapse then having a horse is a smart move; the horse is simple, eats grass and doesn't need the complex infrastructure an automobile needs -but you can't operate a modern society on horses. Like the horse using gold as money is simple but it's also a step backwards where a lot of modern financing would be impossible. If we go back to using gold then shotguns and canned goods might be the best investment of all.

Maybe the Aztecs said it best of all, their word for gold translates as "excrement of the Gods".

A small tale on the value of gold.

This clip is a little difficult to explain, part of it is a late night TV movie host and thew movie he's trying to explain is Americathon. Made in 1979 the movie is about a bankrupt America in 1998. It's funny and campy -and it's like a political Rorschach Test.