Category Archives: job insecurity

Everything I Need to Know About Economics I Learned from Oscar-winning Screenwriter William Goldman, or Sober Insight into the Financial Crisis (No.)

So I looked at my checking account balance this morning and saw something new and unwelcome: red numbers. Scary. But also wrong — right?
I’ve managed to keep a positive balance in my checking account since I finished college. (The fact that I’m actually sort of proud of this fact probably tells you everything about my comfort level managing money as well as my own assessment of my long-term employability.) On the 15th and 30th of every month, my wages are deposited automatically into my account with wonderful, convenient, benign digital efficiency. On the first of every month, my mortgage payment is withdrawn automatically from my account with cold, brutal, relentless digital efficiency. Except that for a few hours this morning, it was looking like the mortgage had come out without the paycheck going in. And so: Red numbers! Panic in the markets!

Admittedly, I know roughly as much about economics as Sarah Palin does about foreign policy. But everything I’m reading and hearing about the current financial crisis says that the problem is essentially that lenders have stopped lending. They’ve lost faith in the systems they rely on to tell them who is solvent and who is broke, and so they’re afraid to loan money even to companies that until recently were universally regarded as good credit risks. Companies, even stable, well-run, reputable companies, borrow money every day to cover their operating costs — including payroll. I’ve heard several journalists who specialize in all this crazy voodoo say that the “crisis” that for the moment is still an abstraction to most Americans (as evidenced by their refusal to back the bailout) is going to become smack-in-the-face real when employers can’t borrow the cash they need on payday.

So when I looked at my bank balance this morning and saw that the end-of-the-month deposit that until today could claim a perfect attendance record just wasn’t there, I figured the crisis had just hit home for me.

I called my employer’s Human Resources department, which assured me I’d been paid. Then I called my bank. After about five minutes on hold, I reached a customer service guy and explained my predicament. “I’ll try to find what’s going on,” he told me, and back on hold I went for a few more tense moments, until I heard the phone ring again and found myself connected to another customer service agent, a woman this time. Naturally, she knew none of what I’d just explained to the other guy. As I was repeating my story to her, I saw my paycheck suddenly appear in my account. The red numbers preceded by a minus-sign were gone, replaced by a positive sum. Not a big one, mind you, but one presented in a font of reassuring black.

“Unfotunately, we’ve been experiencing some processing delays,” the agent told me, her voice oozing professional empathy.

This before coffee.

When I bought my first home two years ago, my tenuous-at-best grasp of the fundamental workings of real estate, mortgages, interest rates, and all that drove me nuts. I’m embarassed to admit that I was relieved to settle into the groove of simply paying the mortgage every month, which while burdensome, was still preferable to having to think about it. I just don’t understand money, I lamented, cursing myself as unworthy of the wealth-creating, innovation-rewarding, capitalist utopia in which I was privileged to live.

In recent weeks, as bank failures and other portents of fiscal doom have proliferated, what keeps flashing through my head is William Goldman’s maxim from Adventures in the Screen Trade: Nobody knows anything.

I wish that revelation made me feel better. I really do.

Bruce Is Loose

Bruce Springsteen’s handwritten setlist for his show in Richmond last night reveals we were narrowly spared a performance of “Drive All Night,” a strong contender for the worst song Bruce Springsteen has ever put on a an E Street Band album. The Boss disagrees: As he told a sign-waving fan at the start of the hour of encores in that swelled last night’s show to 185 minutes, “We’re all in agreement [“Crush on You”] is the worst song we’ve ever put on a record.” He went on to say he stole the riff from “Car 54, Where Are You?” and that the band definitely didn’t know the song. He huddled with trusted lieutenant “Little” Steven “Silvio Dante” Van Zandt. “There’s no bridge, right?” he asked.

The version of “Crush on You” (sample lyric: “She might be an heiress to Rockefeller / She’s probably a waitress or a bank teller”) that followed was rough and rowdy and glorious, but Bruce’s exchange with the (apparently non-English-speaking) fan who requested it was just as great, so let’s hear some more: “That’s your favorite song?” Jesus. How old are you?”

“Crush on Yoooouuuu!” says the girl cheerfully.

“Yep. How old are you?”

“Crush on yooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu!”

It was only the most jaw-dropping example of Bruce’s newfound obsequiousness. Since the Magic tour shifted from arenas to (predominantly European) stadiums this year, the show has morphed away from the sober political lament that Bruce brought to the Phone Booth for two nights last November. Last night’s show was nearly an hour longer than either of the two DC appearances, featured only five numbers from Magic despite its Springsteenian-of-old duration. Twenty-eight songs, something like a quarter of them actually selected by the audience, via those signs: “Stand on It.” “Cadillac Ranch.” “Backstreets.” “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “Crush on You.” “Quarter to Three.” And “Rosalita,” though he appears to have been playing that one already this leg. But still!

I’ve read that Bruce has sometimes become visibly irritated by the presence of the signs on prior tours, but on this final stretch of the Magic run, they almost seemed to be the show’s raison d’etre. Certainly, there was more life in the unscripted portions of last night’s show than in the segments where Bruce eventually steered it back to the Magic template as established last fall.

Bruce usually begins tours with a specific theme in mind. You can expect most of the new record plus a smattering of catalogue tracks, culled with great care from his back pages to support the thesis advanced by the new material. It usually takes a few weeks for the setlist to start to move around more than five or six songs per night. On the evidence of last night’s largely free-form revue, Bruce seems to think the Magic tour has accomplished its mission. Or at least, he’s said what he wants to say about the decline of American moral authority under the Bush Administration.

Whether his audience has heard him, or wants to hear him, is another matter. Bruce’s rap about the litany of disgraces added to “the American picture” at the beginning of “Livin’ in the Future” last night was definitely the most tired section of the show, and it was hard to divine the sentiment of the audience from the chorus of cheers and boos that greeted Bruce’s editorial. Were they boing him, or booing the concept of indefinite detention without charge? Were they cheering the theoretically lawful, human-rights-respecting principles our country was supposedly founded on (finally extended to black people in the 1960s) at the end of Bruce’s speech, or applauding the fact that he had finished his lecture and was ready to rock again?

The high allowance for spontaneity in last night’s show is the kind of thing I normally praise unequivocally, and it did provide the evening’s most riveting moments. The loosey-goosey vibe was the best and worst thing about the performance, contributing both for its funniest moment (“Crush on You”) and its most moving (“Backstreets”), but also occasionally giving the long set a listless quality. A 13-minute version of “Mary’s Place,” easily my least favorite thing the E Street Band has released since Bruce reconvened them in 1999, was interesting for the way it showed Bruce taking a flagging crowd (one comprised mostly of his contemporaries, whose personal trainers are nowhere near as good as his) and demanding that they up their energy level so he could continue to perform.

“I want to go to that river of life,” he roared in the the preacher-voice he began using on the 1999-2000 reunion tour, though he repeated himself an awful lot, as if trying to remember his lines. “You can’t get there by yourself!” This went on for an awkward minute or three (it was, as I say, a 13-minute version of a song that feels interminable in its six-minute studio take), until Bruce said something that suddenly put everything in context: “If you can’t get there, we can’t get there!”

I remember thinking during the first half that this show probably wouldn’t turn out to be one of the three-hour marathons he’s been playing of late, based on the reticence of the audience. But Bruce roused them from their middle-aged slumber, which was something to see and something to feel.

Other Stuff: I was impressed by the abundance of signs for obscure tunes I saw. “Anything from Steel Mill, PLEASE!” read one. “Incident.” “Roulette.” The sign he picked out for “I’ll Work for Your Love” had “Brilliant Disguise” written on the other side, which I would have much preferred — I love me some Tunnel of Love — but it would be churlish to complain. A lot of these people seem to follow the tour from show to show. Bruce pointed out a “friendly stalker” near the front and asked him how many shows he’d seen. “This tour?” the guy replied. “Nineteen.”

Bruce pulled kids out of the pit to sit with him onstage at least twice. One boy looked like he was about 10 or 11, and he was signing and pumping his fist on whatever song it was. Bruce sent him back to his owners with a one-arm hug and what looked like a kiss on the top of the head, which made the boy freak out the way any 11 year old male would faced with an open display of affection from another dude. Later on, he had a girl up there with him who couldn’t have been much older, and he actually picked her up and handed her back down to her parents (?). Wonder if he’d have done that if Patti were there.

One of the other sign-request numbers Bruce did was Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s “Quarter to Three,” which was a number one Billboard single in June 1961, when Bruce was 11 or 12 years old. So it has the same resonance for him that . . . actually, I have no fucking idea what the equivalent would be for me. Prince’s “Kiss,” maybe? I bought The Joshua Tree and Tunnel of Love when I was 11. Simple, danceable pop? Er, I know I had Bryan Adams’ Reckless on cassette. And the soundtrack to La Bamba, with Los Lobos covering the then-30-year-old titular hit. I had a vinyl copy of George Michael’s Faith that I’d got from a WAVA “The Power Station” giveaway before they went to a Contemporary Christian format, and I knew the singles off that one from MTV, though I don’t think I ever played the record.

Damn. What was the of-its-moment pop confection that charmed my 11-year-old self so much that I might still want to perform it (assuming, you know, I had a band and 15,000 people looking at me) when I was pushing sixty? I’ll have to think about this.

Finally, the Richmond Coliseum, while I thoroughly unimpressive, utilitarian buidling with horrible acoustics, is still a more inviting venue than the Phone Booth in at least one important sense: The relatively paucity of advertising. There’s isn’t a flat surface in the Phone Booth that isn’t smeared with some corporate logo, but the Richmond Coliseum (so named because it’s in Richmond; not because someone paid to give it a meaningless, tell-you-nothing-about-it moniker) has few ads, and they’re mostly for hard-to-object to products and entities, like the Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation.

Finally: I thought I might learn something from seeing The Hold Steady and their obvious inspiration each perform within four nights of each other. But I didn’t, really.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA, Monday, August 18, 2008

The Setlist

01 Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
02 Radio Nowhere
03 Out in the Street
04 Prove It All Night
05 Lonesome Day
06 Spirit in the Night
07 Stand on It (fan request via sign)
08 Cadillac Ranch (via sign)
09 Backstreets (another sign – “My band just broke up. Please play ‘Backstreets.'” Bruce does, then remarks during the bridge, “It’s tough when your band breaks up.”)
10 For You (Bruce solo piano)
11 Youngstown
12 Murder, Inc.
13 She’s the One
14 Livin’ in the Future
15 Mary’s Place
16 I’ll Work for Your Love (another sign)
17 The Rising
18 Last to Die
19 Long Walk Home
20 Badlands
ENCORE:
21 Crush on You (first performance since 1980; via sign; hilarious)
22 Quarter to Three
23 Born to Run
24 Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
25 Bobby Jean
26 Dancing in the Dark
27 American Land
ENCORE 2:
28 Twist and Shout

The Band

Roy Bittan – piano
Clarence “Big Man” Clemons – sax, tambourine
Charles Giordano – keys
Nils Lofgren – guitar
Garry Tallent – bass
Soozie Tyrell – violin, guitar, vocals
“Little” Steven Van Zandt – guitar
Max Weinberg – drums
Bruce – vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica

Reckoning: Gnarls Barkley at the 9:30 Club

Usually when you’re going to see an act with a two-album catalogue, the question of “What will they play?” doesn’t come up. Then again, most acts don’t score a massive hit with a pop-soul confection about the sweet relief of relinquishing your sanity. (Google “Crazy,” “Gnarls Barkley,” “2006,” “ubiquitous.”) Gnarls Barkley — vocalist-shaman Cee-Lo Green and aural scenarist Danger Mouse — dutifully checked off “Crazy” at their sold-out 9:30 Club show Tuesday night, but more exciting was their weirdly faithful cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” a late-inning curve in a strong 75-minute show that otherwise couldn’t help but disappoint a little in its ordinariness.

Good-to-great tunes, performed with verve and emotion? Mos def. But where was the bling? If ever a group cried out for bombast — a Mothership, a Mirrorball Lemon, some eyebrow-singeing pyrotechnics, an 18-foot (or 18 inch) model of Stonehenge — it’s this one. Mix Gnarls’ songbook with Coldplay’s A/V committee and you’d really have something.

Gnarls’ tunes (weighted slightly in favor of The Odd Couple, this year’s worthy sequel to 2006’s St. Elsewhere that’s done only a fraction of the latter’s business) sounded raw and powerful performed (apparently) sample-free by a six-piece band featuring tight-lipped “Grey Album” auteur Danger Mouse on keys. Green’s raspy wail felt even more desperate than on record, the palpable road wear further distressing his grimly infectious ruminations on neurasthenic distemper.

“Surprise” had a sunny New Pornographers vibe, and the energy climbed higher with Violent Femmes’s “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Run.” But longish tween-song pauses sapped momentum. Even Gnarls’ sartorial swagger was muted: Green has been known to perform in Roman solider’s togs or an outsized pompadour wig. But he and Mouse could have been in the Temptations with their spangly sport jackets and gold lame ties.

“In in the mood for some old-fashioned rock and roll” Green squeaked before an angular, crunchy “Whatever.” That described much of the evening’s music, but “Transformer” got a downbeat acoustic re-fit, and the main-set closing “A Little Better” was tricked out with off-kilter syncopation.

It rocked, it rolled, it spooked, it cooed. I just wish it had been, well, crazier. Does that make me, um . . . picky? Prob-bab-bleeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .

A slightly abridged version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Gnarls Barkley at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Setlist

01 Charity Case

02 Surprise

03 Gone Daddy Gone

04 Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)

05 Blind Mary

06 Just a Thought

07 Going On

08 Neighbors

09 Whatever

10 Transformer

11 (tune I couldn’t identify; lots of wah-wah pedal)

12 Crazy

13 A Little Better

    ENCORE:

14 Who’s Gonna Save My Soul

15 Reckoner

16 Smiley Faces

The Band

Were not introduced!

More on Coldplay’s Balls

They’re called PufferSpheres, apparently, and they’re made by PufferFish Ltd., a firm in Edinburgh. How do I know? I just got a nice e-mail from PufferFish’s Mr. Ben Allan, thanking me for my kind (and kind of juvenile, though he was nice enough not to mention that) words about his remarkable product. (While my verdict on Coldplay was mixed-to-favorable, my estimation of the vidi-balls was an eleven-point-oh.)

I’d post a photo of one of the vidi-balls in action, but despite all of the picture-takers that David Malitz mentioned in his review in the Paper of Record, I can find only photos of the balls glowing in different colors — none that illustrate their unique video-projection properties. You can check out PufferFish’s site for some quality demo reel.

Mr. Allan continues:

And nice ‘balls’ centred punnery too – something for which we have a particular penchant, but not often the balls to go in for publicly!

No, Mr. Allan, thank you. Your balls were unquestionably the best thing about this most entertaining show.

Three Guys and a Singular Girl: Old 97’s at 9:30

Reviewed for DCist.

Old 97’s at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Setlist

01 The Fool

02 Barrier Reef

03 The One

04 The Other Shoe

05 Designs on You

06 Color of Lonely Heart Is Blue (Murry Hammond lead vocal)

07 Lonely Holiday

08 My Two Feet

09 Early Morning

10 Stoned

11 This Beautiful Thing (Murry Hammond lead vocal)

12 Question

13 I Will Remain

14 Niteclub

15 No Baby I

16 Smokers (Murry Hammond lead vocal)

17 Over the Cliff (Jon Langford cover; marvelous)

18 Rollerskate Skinny

19 The Easy Way

ENCORE 1:

20 Come Around (Rhett Miller solo)

21 ? (The Spring Standard with Rhett Miller)

22 Valentine (Murry Hammond lead vocal)

23 Dance with Me

24 Big Brown Eyes

25 If My Heart Was a Car

ENCORE 2:

26 Indefinitely

27 Timebomb

The Band

Philip Peeples — drums

Ken Bethea — guitar

Murry Hammond — bass, vocals

Rhett Miller — vocals, guitar

The Freak Flag Flies High

My first MusicMakers profile for the Paper of Record is about the man who installed the Mothership Connection . . . President, One Nation Under a Groove . . . the Atomic Dawg his own bad self, Mr. George Clinton.

Off to que up for The Dark Knight at the Uptown now. I’d be doing exactly the same thing if I were 11 years old. I’d be embarrassed over how excited I am to see the flick if everyone I know weren’t nearly as excited as me. We’re counting on you, Chris Nolan.

Fite Ain’t Right . . .

. . . but he sure ain’t dull. (And his 2006 album Over the Counterculture is still legally available as a free download, courtesy of the artist.) The Watson Twins, meanwhile, kind of are, even though they look great and have lovely voices.

Read all about it in today’s Paper of Record. And then re-insert my omitted last line: “I was going to ask the sisters for [Jenny] Lewis’s number, but it turns out they need it even more than I do.”

I missed Jenny Lewis and the Watsons at the Birchmere and the 9:30 in 2006. How sad am I about it?

This sad.