Maybe I’m making too much of the song “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” by Cole Swindell. It says a lot about contemporary culture in the context of the decline in public schools.
"Heads Carolina, tails California" Maybe she'd fall for a boy from South Georgia She's got the bar in the palm of her hand And she's a '90s country fan like I am Hey, I got a Chevy, she can flip a quarter I'd drive her anywhere from here to California When this song is over, I gotta find her 'Cause she had me at "Heads Carolina"
I’ll have more to say. One thing, though. What does it even mean to have “the bar in the palm of her hand?” Don’t @ me because I know the answer to my question. It’s related to these lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...
I’ve been thinking about this song for a week or so and haven’t processed it. It is a successful song on a couple of levels. It sets a context for the action of a protagonist removed from broader society. At some level we all want that — a place of our own with comfortable surroundings. Yet what is the challenge in that? What is the social good? What is that context of a bar where people catch up with each other and socialize? How is this not a form of veiled misogyny? I’ll be thinking about this for a while.
In the meantime, here is a link to the YouTube video.
Iowa and the country are heading into a weird place. The combination of isolated lives made more so by the pandemic, social media, and unceasing stimulus from people and corporations wanting to convince us of something brought us here. The sense of loss is palpable.
I miss the political environment we had when I was growing up, when Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were president. Democrats were in the minority in Iowa yet I felt there was a secure place for people whose opinions differed from the majority. That feeling was lost, slowly eroded until it was gone. There are few prospects of it returning. All that is visible is a bare wound with the bandages of society ripped off. We are becoming a place where our assumptions about feeling welcome are challenged.
To meet this — that is, to maintain mental health — I return to specific actions in a limited context, to wit: Once the winners of the June 7 primary election are known, it’s hammer down to the Nov. 8 general election. There will be plenty of political work to do in that five-month period. The Iowa Democratic Party reached out for an organizing event this week in the First Congressional District, and I plan to do my part. After the rout in 2020, why won’t I give up? There is a bigger picture related to needing something useful and fulfilling to do.
It begins with the idea people are not that interested in my stories about old campaigns. I told my story about helping elect Lyndon Johnson in 1964, yet there are only so many times that old saw can be brought out. It still cuts wood among people who haven’t heard it. Trouble is, most people I hang with have heard it.
As I age my views become less relevant to people on life’s main stage. I’m being mostly forgotten, not quite a has-been, but one can see it from here. I’m okay with that. I remain a predictable Democratic vote and can bring a few people with me when needed.
As far as the economy goes, my fixed income isn’t a driver. When the curtain falls on this mortal coil, my payments to the gas, telephone and cable company won’t be missed. My insurance company may miss me, yet once the final payments are made the relationship will be over.
We need short-term projects, in which to engage. Projects like the 2022 midterm election campaign. It helps us forget the hopelessness of modern society and the hegemony of rich folk hard at work deconstructing what few protections remain in government programs like Social Security and Medicare. I miss the old days, yet look forward to the new, even if the sense of loss is palpable.
Inch by inch, row by row. That’s how a gardener builds a life. I need a couple of days away from the blog after 97 daily posts in a row. While I’m gone, here’s Arlo Guthrie teaching us how to sing a song. Hope you have a happy time zone!
We received a final tax document last week — an explanation of the coronavirus relief check sent on the last day of 2020. There is about a month to file taxes on time in the United States. I do ours and help our daughter with hers. It’s time to get to work on them.
The only time I had a problem with filed tax returns was when the accountant applied a tax credit incorrectly. We had to pay it back with a penalty. The following year, I decided to complete our returns myself. It was a good decision.
In other times I would post the YouTube video of the Beatles song Taxman from Revolver. The album was released Aug. 5, 1966, the summer before I started high school, in my second year of learning to play the guitar. I remember winning a copy of Revolver at a Freshman dance that year. I’m not sure it is an accurate memory. It was when I met my friend Joe, who would attend Georgetown after high school and then become a physician.
I had not worked a job that produced a W-2 form in 1966, and wouldn’t until 1968 when I earned $934 in taxable income working as a stock boy at the Turn-Style Department Store.
In the 21st Century gig economy I’m not sure how people contribute to Social Security and Medicare without employer deductions and taxes. The reason we are able to survive on our Social Security pensions is we contributed for most of our working lives and the benefit is based in part on how much one earned:
Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings. Your actual earnings are adjusted or “indexed” to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most. We apply a formula to these earnings and arrive at your basic benefit, or “primary insurance amount” (PIA). This is how much you would receive at your full retirement age—65 or older, depending on your date of birth.
Your Retirement Benefit: How It Is Figured, Social Security Administration, 2013.
In a gig economy the margins are often quite thin for gig workers. The idea of paying Social Security and Medicare taxes gets sanded off in the woodshed of economic survival. The government program worked for us and will — at least until 2034 when the trust fund is projected to begin losing value unless the Congress fixes it. However, it doesn’t work for individuals unless they pay in at a predictable pace. I haven’t read a study of the impact of the gig economy on Social Security and Medicare, but would.
In 1966 I wanted to learn: to play the guitar, do well in my studies, and get along with my cohort. The future was open ocean and my boat had been christened by grade school nuns as college bound. I can’t recall thinking about taxes during that time, not even once.
To participate in high school one required some cash. There were expenses, although not many. I had to give up my newspaper route after eighth grade, so I paid for dances, books, guitar strings, bus fares, and school activities with my savings and allowance. I was privileged to be able to live in Northwest Davenport where Father held a union job, I had access to funds, and the neighborhood was safe. Those were the best times, full of hope and opportunity. I thought to myself, maybe I could record an album like Revolver some day.
Whatever the combination of privilege, economic security, social stability, and a peaceful home created, I benefited from it. I continue to benefit. My life hasn’t turned out as expected, yet in 1966 my expectations had not been completely formed. I stay out of trouble today, in part because I realize I must pay income taxes. It is a baseline for participation in American society and I’m in.
Music was a significant part of my life until it wasn’t.
The beginning was clear as daylight: the Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964. In December that year, Mother took me to the King Korn Stamp store where she traded stamps for a Kay guitar. The guitar was my birthday present. I played it frequently on my own, and by the eight grade with classmates in a concert where we performed The Cruel War.
I don’t know when my interest in music slipped away, but at some point I sold my Fender Telecaster to my friend Dennis and slid the Yamaha in its case under the bed. The expensive classical guitar I bought in Iowa City, my long-necked banjo, and the guitar I bought in Mainz, Germany are around. I’d have to look to find them.
If I had the talent, I would have become a professional musician. While I played a lot during the first twenty years, when I engaged in a career in transportation the music slowly died especially after we moved to Big Grove Township.
I started out strong, though. In high school I studied with the late Joe Crossen and practiced constantly. I joined the high school chorus and followed my neighborhood friend Denny Gallagher who went on to make music a career. There were many encouragements and a few opportunities to play.
When Father died, Mother settled with the elevator company, producing a small cash windfall for me. I bought a used Volkswagen micro bus, an electric guitar, two amplifiers, and a public address system. Some high school classmates and I formed a band and did a few gigs. We mostly practiced in one of our parents’ homes. By college graduation, I was ready to move on from the band.
I found some of our band playlists. Among the songs I remember playing were covers of Bertha by the Grateful Dead, Six Days on the Road, Let it Rain, Can’t Buy Me Love, Kansas City, All Along the Watchtower, Blue Suede Shoes, Thrill is Gone, and Don’t be Cruel.
When I made a Grand Tour of Europe I met some musicians who had arrived to perform in London. They encouraged me to buy a guitar and play with them. I did buy a guitar but left London after a week or so. We made the rounds of some agents, but nothing came of the joint endeavor. To have stayed with them would have voided my plans to see the artwork of European cities as I had planned.
I played the guitar all around the continent. It was suitable entertainment in the common rooms of youth hostels where I stayed. I met someone from Germany on the Mediterranean coast and we hit it off both in the types of music we knew and in improvisational style. Moments like those couple of performances made it worth toting the guitar around, wrapped in my blue denim jacket.
I did not take a guitar with me when I enlisted in the U.S. Army. I did manage to play several concerts using someone else’s instrument and have a photo of me with shaved head, in dress greens performing a number now lost to history. When I was stationed in Mainz, I bought another inexpensive guitar. During military service and afterward, I developed a playlist of Dylan (John Wesley Harding and I Shall be Released), Fred Neil (The Dolphins and Everybody’s Talking), John Renbourn (I Know My Babe), Tim Hardin (If I were a Carpenter and Lady Came from Baltimore), Leonard Cohen (Suzanne), Richard Fariña ( Pack Up Your Sorrows), Peter, Paul and Mary (The Cruel War) and Judy Collins (Cook with Honey). It was a lot of practice, but few performances while I made my way through being a mechanized infantry officer.
In graduate school I met Joe Pratt from California. Somewhere I have an audio cassette of us playing in our duplex on Taylor Drive in Iowa City. He was a big fan of Stan Rogers and I learned to play Field Behind the Plow from him. Joe also liked Steve Goodman’s arrangement of The Dutchman, and Jim Croce (I’ve Got a Name). He also knew the work of non-dead musicians.
Reading through the old playlists is a treasure-trove of memories. What happened? It wasn’t one thing.
The main issue regarding musical performance was the lack of venues. Once I made the decision not to become a professional musician, there were fewer opportunities to play, other than practicing. The question became “practicing for what?” Society had moved on from live performance in small venues to pre-recorded music or live acts playing stadiums and halls that could seat thousands of people.
Beginning in graduate school, A Prairie Home Companion became part of my musical life. I came to depend on it for musical inspiration. As locals like Greg Brown, Iris DeMent and Dave Moore performed on the show, that made it a connection to something visceral and real. When Keillor folded the tent in 2016, it was a real loss, something I continue to feel as the sun sets on each Saturday’s Iowa prairie.
One more thing, although the list could go on. There is a lot of worthwhile activity to fill our time. In the end music got pushed aside as writing, politics and work occupied more time. I have no regrets about this. I wouldn’t have expected it either. I didn’t expect it when I bought my Yamaha guitar at Cook’s Music Shop in Davenport before leaving for university.
In my writing room I have a long shelf of 33-1/3 RPM vinyl records. I measured 43 inches, although there are a couple more boxes in storage. Included in the collection is my parents’ copy of Meet The Beatles, issued in the United States on Jan 20, 1964, just before the Ed Sullivan Show performance. They bought the record and a small monaural record player that year. In 2018 I wrote about my relationship to music.
As my collection of records grew an issue arose: the distinction between being a music player and a music listener. It caused me some teenage consternation.
Blog post, Dec. 5, 2018.
I don’t know what is my current relationship with music. I don’t play musical instruments any more. I don’t sing much either. In fact, I don’t turn the radio on unless I’m in the car securing provisions, or to hear the news while preparing dinner. I guess I have just moved on to other things. I’m okay with that, yet for a while, music was it.