Monday, November 27, 1995

Public Enemy #1

My career as your faithful civil servant friend began over five years ago. It was a position that I obtained through very little effort of my own, it just sort of happened out of a series of random events. During the past five years, there have been times when I have looked at my situation and thought about how if I were doing similar tasks in the private sector, I could be making a whole lot more money, and my customers might be more appreciative towards my efforts. And although I'm not making a claim to be the most noble government worker you might run across, I do think I have continued working for the State of Minnesota because part of me really does want to improve my small corner of the world, and by serving the public to the best of my abilities, at least some of the time I can feel a sense of accomplishment that I am making a little bit of difference.

But there are days where I look at the work being accomplished around me, and the attitudes of some of my co-workers and I can see why the tenuous relationship between government and its constituents has become more and more difficult. I think that in any line of work you can find plenty of people who just do enough to get by, and really don't care one way or the other about their work. But the reputation that particular attitude is festering in government work is a hard obstacle to overcome. There are days that I look around me, at the red tape, and the lackadaisical efforts, at the waste and bureaucracy, and I just want to be anywhere but where I am. And the voice telling me that to make a difference you have to try and change things from within, step by tiny step, gets more and more faint as it feels more and more isolated. The urge to walk away is becoming more and more urgent especially when I look at what is being done here at Cheapo.

It really does impress me what the management together with you employees of our little music company are trying to accomplish. Having read some of the material used in the PFK program, I must say that a lot of what is going on, the effort to create a company that helps the employee excel and thus creates an exciting environment for its customers, is something that if you're at least not a little bit proud to be a part of, you certainly should be. It is rare to find a system that asks its employees to take responsibility for their own errors, find ways to improve, and celebrate their successes. Retail companies come and go, stores open and close, and even in our neck of the woods the changes our company has undergone in the short time I've been affiliated have been staggering. But the changes now being made are ones that all successful companies are going to have to employ. Success starts with the employees, and we now seem to have a good process to hire quality people, and give them standard training to help them achieve what the rest of the company has already envisioned and learned. And there are opportunities for all employees. More and more how far you go in the Cheapo Empire is inherently related to how far you want to go. That creates situations where you can help decide and impact the future of the company itself. That's admirable and sadly all too rare stuff.

At the State, I have tried in my own small way, to implement some of the ideas I have learned from Al, and through these pages. I've tried slightly different methods than the State norm, to try to be innovative in the way I supervise, and the way I want my employees to take ownership in improving the work that we accomplish. There is nothing wrong in making a mistake. There is something wrong with denial, and looking for someone else to blame. With the government I'm dealing with a rigid system that too often rewards its employees based on mere competence and longevity rather than actual success through hard work. The rewards given to someone who puts in extra effort, who cares about their work enough to do things that aren't written in their job description, is almost exclusively based only on self satisfaction for doing a good job. Due in part to the union structure, and the system itself, the compensation available comes in the form of a thank you, a positive performance review, recognition from peers, or maybe slightly more significant work assignments, rather than what many private sector employees almost expect: monetary compensation, promotion or some kind of tangible benefit.

It is often difficult to appreciate what you have until you compare it to what someone else has. There are many different ways to run a business. I'm really not trying to be a company shill here. Traditionally, things flow from the top down. Management knows how they want things done, and what needs to be done. It is all too easy to bark commands, raise expectations and get frustrated when things don't get done the way you want things done. To break from that is a difficult process. Your experiences at Cheapo may sometimes get frustrating, but the beauty is you do have a voice in the company. The end result of that is better customer service, more satisfied customers, better satisfied employees, and ultimately, an extremely successful company.

Monday, November 20, 1995

Foot Tappin' Good Time

If there is one thing I hate more than running out of peanuts first in a hand full of Doo Dads, it is a pointless meandering drum solo that goes on and on and on... In the next few days and weeks we are going to be stormed by a barrage of Beatle related sounds and accompaniment. Thus it is probably the proper time to say that my favorite drummer of all time, because of his subtlety, is Ringo Starr and dammit, I'm quite serious. In many ways, Ringo represents what made the Beatles ultra-popular. His drumming style mimicked their appeal, their simple but universal message.

Ringo's drumming is often underrated. One of the most exhilarating musical moments in Beatle history is his 23 second drum solo at the end of Abbey Road. Any drummer can bash their way through a solo, using technique rather than inspiration. But in that brief solo, the rhythms, poly-rhythms and understated pure expression of finally being let loose show Ringo to be a true artist. Although I'm not exactly what you might call a percussive type guy, even I can admit that at times a good drummer can add something very special to a performance.

All this of course, is a roundabout way of mentioning that I saw the British drum group, Stomp, play at the Ordway last Monday night. They were nothing if not percussive, putting on the best musical show that featured garbage cans that I have ever seen. Stomp is a five year old, eleven member drumming, dancing ensemble that puts on quite a spectacle by making music from the most common objects one can imagine. The show opened with the group sweeping the stage and then running amuck pounding their brooms and swishing in rhythmic frenzy. Later, the group utilized many basic household objects including cigarette lighters, plastic grocery bags, newspapers, and wood saws, everything you might say except the kitchen sink- au contraire mon ami, they even had a bit that featured that item.

Sitting in the audience three memories pounded their way into my mind. For some reason I remembered as a kid watching the Muppet Show where the guest was Buddy Rich. Buddy and his two drumsticks went nuts, running around and pounding objects all around the set. It was terribly entertaining. The next thing that popped into mind was attending the University of Minnesota marching band's indoor concerts while my brother was a prominent member. The band really rocked the house, and probably the most entertaining parts were the drum cadences that got everyone tapping their toes. The last memory, long suppressed was attending a high school dance, one of the few I did, and ending up the evening entertaining everyone by dancing (quite skillfully) with a cafeteria chair. This may have furthered my reputation as being somewhat of an eccentric. What do all these memories have in common and why did seeing Stomp unleash them? It's all in the beat, Pedro.

Stomp is more than a novelty act; they are entertainers extradonaire. Their show is full of impressive variety, humor and athletic dancing. Similar in nature to their far east cousins, the Japanese percussion group Kodo, Stomp leaves their audiences impressed by the rhythm, the music, and the universality of a good drum beat. The pure endurance of the group was impressive by itself. The show ended with all the hipsters in the audience snapping their fingers like the suave upper class Vegas loving crowd that a venue like the Ordway tends to attract. Still, the humor of Stomp cut through any of the pretentiousness that otherwise might have existed. Physical humor, subtle humor, wacky humor, the show was great fun. Perhaps most impressive of all were the dynamics of the show. Rather than using volume as flash, the group relied more on the intricate weaving of rhythms. What the show lacked in spontaneity was made up for with the precision of the pieces. While not exactly inspired music making, Stomp nonetheless proved once and for all that percussionists can be expressive and effective musicians.

Monday, November 13, 1995

One Last Goodbye

"A little bitty tear let me down. Spoiled my act as a clown. I had my mind up not to make a frown, but a little bitty tear let me down."

It was either Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Paul Simon that said there are many different ways to say good-bye. Recently once again I got to test that axiom out, but I can't say I'm getting any better at it. It wasn't even supposed to happen because at the time it began I wasn't into looking for friendships. Over the last few years she has been someone who listened, shared and who I looked forward to seeing. Still, I was a bit surprised at how hard it hit me when she said she was going away. She was my friend and in these more than confusing times amongst the rapid flux of fluid changes, that isn't something to take too lightly. Careers go out the window, dreams are tossed aside, opportunities lost, and the echo of a long forgotten conversation sometimes is all that lingers. The only lesson to be learned is the importance of always knowing what you want.

We talked nearly daily on the phone for business purposes, before we ever met. It's kind of the nineties thing to do in this age of conference calls, fax machines, and Internet e-mail. "Brand spankin' new," she would say as I would relay yet another date of incorporation to her. The phrase annoyed me nearly as much as it amused. me. Her always cheerful, smile in the face of it, voice was a welcome change from the rest of the stress. Driving out to see her for the first time I couldn't picture what she might look like, but somehow she was exactly what I expected. Her sense of humor mixed with her ability to converse, to care, impressed me constantly.

One of our first experiences together was a business excursion as I began my search for a different professional direction. We went to see the CEO of her company, Pete Dawkins, Heisman Trophy Brigadier General Time Magazine cover boy, at a fancy Bloomington hotel luncheon. The enthusiasm of her colleagues (they kept saying they were "pumped') was scary, with their near cult like devotion. Yet the way she tried to make me feel comfortable was appreciated, and to see her in her element was fun.

There is that wonderful moment in the greatest film of our generation, Pulp Fiction when Uma and John are on their "date" and Uma makes the observation that you know you have really found someone when you can enjoy a moment of silence together. Well, that's what we had. She could be goofy, I could be moody yet there was always a great pleasure in her company.

She told me she wasn't good at good-byes so she was going to make it short and sweet. But it was a fond farewell as she told me what I meant to her, "one of her closest friends" and as she shared her dream of organizing a foundation, in memory of her mother, to help out families enduring the pain of the illness and loss of a parent. In this world of corruption and cynicism, her sweetness never wavers. There was so much more to share, so many times we never had, that it hopefully will continue somewhere on down the line.

We can't all be as cool as Bogie, kissing off Ingrid Bergman because life ain't exactly like a movie. There are those of us constantly looking for a well defined beginning, middle and end, and when that doesn't happen, walk around confused within our own time frames. She wasn't really a part of my every day, run of the mill events that make up my regular routine. When exactly will it be that I realize she is gone, and I will miss her? Probably when a day isn't going well, when things are piling up, when the steam is accumulating, and I need that phone call to get my mind off of things and remind me that maybe I'm not the worst human being on the face of the planet.

There has been a feeling for several years that this has been a period of transition. Well that period has been long drawn out, and things that were temporary have become fixtures, and things that I hoped would be permanent have gone off to bigger and better things. She appeared from out of the blue, when another's voice disappeared, and her sensibility made some of that hurt not seem so bad. The time has flown by much too fast. Over the past few years she has played a role in the production and inspiration of these pages. She was the one that contributed our articles by Og Mandino. Our business dealings constantly showed me the importance of planning for the future. She has been one of the strongest supporters of my writing, always believing in what I could do. I wish her all the best, thank her for all the kind words, the encouragement, and the shared moments.

So with much sadness I say so long to my friend- adios amigo, ciao, au revoir, and sayonara...

Monday, November 6, 1995

That Was Sometime Other Than Now

When I first started working for Cheapo West back in the late fifties, probably one of the few things that resembles anything close to the way you all are doing things today was all of us employees got to take turns picking in-store music to play. One of my very first picks on my very first day was John Hiatt's recently released Bring the Family. At the time I knew little of Hiatt's work other than he was often called the "American Elvis Costello" and that he had written The Way We Make A Broken Heart covered by Rosanne Cash, and Across the Borderline covered by Bob Dylan.

Immediately upon my first listening to Bring The Family, I became a Hiatt fan. As side one (yes back in those days we used to have two sided discs that the kids called albums) finished off with the emotional slide guitar work of Ry Cooder on Lipstick Sunset and the intensity of the confessional Have a Little Faith In Me, I wondered why everyone in the store wasn't in tears like I was. Wow what songwriting!

The follow up releases, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments made me yearn for even more, so I bought all of Hiatt's back catalog that I could find. He soon stood out at the second tier of my music listening pleasure, often played when Bob, Frank, or Paul weren't on the stereo. The only time I was disappointed was upon the release of Perfectly Good Guitar two years ago. For methat effort came across as work of a craftsman rather than an artist (with the exceptions of the excellent Straight Outta Time and Buffalo River Home). It was a perfect example of how John's biggest strength can also be his biggest weakness. He can be extremely clever with a turn of a phrase, a sarcastic line which can either be funny and effective, or cloying and a device to hide his real emotions. Perfectly Good Guitar was full of moments of good lines that didn't say that much about the writer.

Thus it is of great news that John's newly released Walk On is a complete turnabout from PGG. It reminds me more of the personal, introspection of Bring The Family than any other Hiatt CD but yet shows sign of an artist maturing into the middle years of his career. The first track (and single) Cry Love has one of the catchiest hooks John has ever written. Yet along with the strong melody comes a solid set of lyrics (despite the use of the cliché "tears of an angel, tears of a dove" refrain which can be excused by the energy of the song -what other words rhyme with "love"? "glove" "above" and uh...) that set the tone for the rest of the CD. John recently said in an interview that he can no longer write unless he is on the road, and Walk On gives us a glimpse inside of that statement. The theme throughout is one of a weary soul on the road, trying to cope with the isolation one must endure as he goes from town to town accompanied only with the power of memories of long away homes, past places of comfort.. "Let the river take you away. All the words that you and I could never say, in the silence darling let us pray. Let the river take us away."

David Immergluck's mandolin playing gives the tracks their distinct flavor. Guest appearances by the Jayhawks and Bonnie Raitt indicate the respect other musicians have for Hiatt. The title track, Cry Love, You Must Go, I Can't Wait, and Your Love is My Rest, are among the most heartfelt songs written by a man who has made a career out of writing heartfelt songs. Wrote It Down And Burned It is downright spooky. Shredding the Document shows John at his wittiest with its pseudo-Beatlesque arrangement right down to the harmonies and the harpsichord solo. It is a clever commentary on the current American popular culture so based on TV trash talk shows. My favorite track is Your Love is My Rest which is a simple love song, almost a nursery rhyme/prayer. "I gotta pick up speed, just to get what I need. The end of the line guaranteed, your love is my rest," John sings passionately to a sparse backing. It's a song about a man with one eye on the road, and one eye remembering what keeps him inspired enough to keep coming home.

I think I mentioned in these pages not too long ago a friend's quote to me after I gave her a Liz Phair disc and she said it was a little too downbeat for her tastes. "Music is supposed to be happy," she said. Walk On is not a happy disc, yet with each listen the power of the music is truly uplifting. This is the work of an artist at the top of his powers, searching and expressing and above all else, enjoying the release from the combination of singing, playing, and sharing the words and the music. Some say this may finally be John's breakthrough effort, one that will finally get the masses listening. And since no one is writing better songs these days, that is indeed great news.

"Now I'm out in the backyard leaning on a tree; I have no way of knowing. Can't lean too hard, that's my philosophy; man that tree is growing. Maybe I'll never grow up to be straight and tall, but you can lean on me baby, I won't fall. Maybe in the deal I can learn to bend, learn to listen like that tree, baby, like a good friend."