Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Television Avoidance Strategy

Television Avoidance Strategy

After the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, I gave my TV away. I was right in the middle of a mass communication master's program at the time, and studying the sordid business of television made certain realities as crystal clear to me as an HD broadcast.

Faced with a medium that increasingly reveled in its own excesses, wallowed in its own history and congratulated itself for its own cultural relevance, I was convinced that I could be doing other things with my time. I put my viewing excesses aside, wallowed in my inflated, thirty-ish liberal sense of cultural superiority and congratulated myself for taking a stand against corporate hegemony.

As a result I wrote more music, read more books, got in a little exercise, took up meditation and admittedly spent way too much time online, some of it watching TV shows. But at least I had my self-respect.

We watched a lot of television in my house when I was a kid, probably because my parents remembered a time when there was no such thing as television and were determined to make up for years of boredom, longing and imaginative splendor of a childhood spent in front of the radio.

In 1982, I saw Mommie Dearest, the sensational flop about Joan Crawford's innovative parenting methods, over twenty times. Why? Certainly not because it was a classic but simply because it was on twice a day and it was summer, after all. I also know the entire scripts of Kramer vs. Kramer, Arthur, Red Dawn, Blue Thunder and On Golden Pond by heart for the same reason.

The advent of paying for television instilled in many a maniacal desire to get value for money, and if the quality of consumer goods and entertainment were somehow lacking, then by God, the sheer quantity of inferior stuff we could consume would make up for it. I see that some things haven't changed.

Kate and I were house sitting for friends over the holidays. In addition to staying in a nice place and playing with the dogs, we got to watch hundreds of cable channels on a television bigger than God. In one week, I made up for lost time. I was ready to plunge into mindless viewing, mostly because my computer was broken. But, I reasoned, i needed to stay current in media trends or they'd take my degree away.

It's sort of like having to re-up your CPR certification every once in awhile to keep from killing somebody when giving them mouth to mouth. My quest from the couch was a refill on media literacy to preserve my credentials and reaffirm all the horrible things I believe to be wrong with the world. And what did I see...?

After two years of abstaining mindlessly flipping channels to find something, I was amazed at how little had actually changed. Bravo! still runs several hours of The West Wing every day. many of the new shows seemed much like the old ones--middle-aged housewives in Orange County, has-been celebrities competing for one last close-up and gastronomic porn via the Food Network.

With the onset of dire economic times, I wondered what would become of all the dicers, slicers, exercise machines and other crappy, poorly designed ephemera that would probably end up in a landfill but were still heavily advertised. The best ad was for an aerobic exercise program that taught women how to dance like strippers and lose unsightly inches. Women in body suits gave chair dances to nobody, and there was even an optional stripper's pole available. OK, maybe TV had changed a little.

I saw an amazing documentary about the rain forest on National Geographic that had brilliant, vivid photography. On the same channel, I saw a horrible documentary on the twelve deadliest animals of India, which basically consisted of a lot of footage of brown people re-enacting snake bites and pretending to be mauled by elephants intercut with stock nature footage.

I thought of how I could produce and equally gratuitous and exciting show called Twelve Deadliest Appliances at Ken's House , in which I re-enact confrontations with household items. Half-blind people wrestling with simple domestic chores and battling with appliances would surely be funny to someone. or at least offensive.

Most of the same movies aired endlessly on HBO in 1982 were still on, apparently running continuously while I graduated high school and college, wrote and performed music, got married and divorced, made albums and wrote copy. I watched some old favorites again, like Paul Newman in The Verdict--a film I had always liked, but appreciated much, much more twenty-odd years later. The movies and indeed the whole medium of television hadn't changed much, but I realized that I had.

That's about all the wisdom I can wring out of that premise, folks. But what do you expect from me? I've been watching television for one week straight!

Happy New Year, everybody. I promise I'll get back to blogging regularly in 2009.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Terrible Jobs

In the summer of 1990, I worked at a trashy, strip mall record store in Cave Springs, MO. My job was to keep the classical section organized (the very skill that got me hired) and to sell Bel Biv Devoe cassettes. The manager gave me quite a start on my first day when she asked me to talk to her in her office. She was in her late thirties and I could sense that she was more than a little out of her mind. I think she enjoyed scaring the shit out of timid twenty-year-olds.

"Ken, I think I should tell you, that I suffer from PMS and there will be times when you just have to give me some space."

Years later, I now realize that what she was really saying was: "I'm going to mask my hostilities and contempt for everyone in the whole world in the guise of an affliction beyond my control. By absolving myself of responsibility for how I act, I can therefore justify my horrible, bullying behaviors and put you in a position where you have no method of recourse--no matter how hard you try to please me, and no matter much shit I dump on you."

At the time I felt a rush of adrenaline akin to the lion tamer who walks into the cage on his first day, unpacking his hat and whip and hoping to God he is able to sustain his limb count by the time the whistle blew at five o'clock.

People used to try to pull scams there all the time. The burnouts would dig out a Blue Oyster Cult tape from the floor of a '77 El Camino with no case and no receipt and try to con me into a refund. This would lead to a five minute argument, during which I would invariably point out that the tape in question did indeed look as though it had been found on the floor of a '77 El Camino. If they needed beer and weed money that badly, they might have considered getting jobs. Such was the economic infrastructure of St. Charles County back in the old days.

I remember this one kid in a denim jacket who lost one of these pointless, mind-numbing arguments. "You fuckin' suck, dude!" I actually smiled and chuckled. "Sorry, man." I was impervious to Spicolian epithets, however expediently timed.

But at twenty years old, even I wasn't the becrusted and jaded tunesmith who stands before you now. Before the weight of the world put the squeeze on my idealism, I was a comparatively naive kid, and my eagerness to please sometimes led people to the false assumption that it was OK to push me around.

I left the record store to go back to college. My next job was in the Webster University cafeteria. The great thing was that it was a job I couldn't possibly screw up no matter how hard I tried. I put the salad bar out, served food, washed dishes and emptied the suggestion box. The suggestion box yielded many priceless gems of wisdom like, "The mashed potatoes are always cold," "This food fucking sucks," and my personal favorite, "Ken Kase should be required to wear a hair net. He is disgusting and I will not eat food served by him." Since I was in charge of the suggestion box, I dispatched my responsibilities, sending on those suggestions with the most merit. It's good to be king.

The most intriguing character was the head chef, who happened to be French, believe it or not. He was a short guy with a neurotic twitch that seemed to come from his whole body. He walked around in his big white chef's hat and spoke in a silly French accent that betrayed the gruesome truth of his stature and station. He was, after all, a French chef whose primary responsibilities were pizza, industrial soy burgers and tuna casserole. He talked with his hands and blurted out inappropriate modifiers, and walked around as though it was the kitchen of Tavern on the Green, routinely losing his mind over the hot dogs being served at less than optimum temperature or the shoddy way in which the Rice Krispy treats were cling wrapped. What, after all, did we know about fine food?

It wasn't the mystery of how a guy like him got the job. It was the mystery of what job he had to have completely blown to end up as a French cafeteria guy. What culinary crime did one have to commit to traverse the journey from crepes to crapes?

Certainly his fall from grace was due to incompetence, not malice. In years to come, I would see malice practiced on the job, and it was not pretty. For a time, I bussed tables at a greasy spoon on the graveyard shift. I had a couple in a booth nearby the working station and I was dutifully pumping a young woman full of hot coffee. I poured her a cup that sat next to the saucer on the table. She looked up disapprovingly.

"I can't believe you just did that."

"I'm sorry?" I asked.

"That was really bad, pouring it into the cup next to the saucer like that. Bring me a new cup."

"Well, fuck you!" I said. Well, OK--not really. But I was thinking it so loud that it could have been mistaken for speech by even the most dull-witted telepath sitting anywhere in a five mile radius. I apologized again and said I would get her another cup.

"Hey," she said, "just trying to help you get good tips!"

"WELL, F'UCK YOU!" I said. All right, I didn't. But I don't take kindly to bullying, and such an outburst was utterly justified.

I went back to the waiter's station and told one of the overnight waiters what had just happened. "Can you believe that? She's getting all bent out of shape over the fact that I poured coffee into a cup that wasn't on its saucer--and isn't that her responsibility?"

"That bitch," he said. "Fuck her."

He had a glint in his eye that signified opportunity recognized--that mischievous sparkle of inspiration beyond traditionally held beliefs related to good and evil, existing in the realm of moral absolutes and inevitable action.

Ten minutes later, he clasped my elbow and whispered in my ear. "You won't have to worry about her."

"Why," I asked with a slight grin of anticipation.

"I put a little bleach into her coffee. When she gets home, she should be on the toilet for a few hours."

My grin turned into the open gape of horror. "You did what?"

"Just a little bit of bleach. It won't hurt her."

"Well, you really didn't have to do that, man. I wasn't that pissed at her!"

"Don't worry. She'll be fine. Fuck her, anyway."

I then realized what too many years in food service could do to a guy. It could turn you into an absolute psycho. Don't piss off your servers, people. It's a policy that I've adhered to very strictly since that fateful day.

Not that anyone ever worried about pissing me off. There aren't a whole hell of a lot of near blind people working in food service--not, at least, waiting tables. But wait tables I did at the legendary Wabash Triangle Cafe. I was freakin' Superman with a tray full of entrees, able to deal the right dish to the right customer without tripping or spilling anything. I was the blind equivalent of the guy on the Ed Sullivan Show who used to spin the plates, except with food on them.

One day, I accidentally bumped someone's elbow, prompting him to say, "What's the matter with you--are you blind?" I smiled stupidly and walked away, while Calvin, the owner and proprietor gently whispered that yes, in fact, their server was blind. I'm told the look of guilt and anguish across the customer's face was too perfect for words. I got a nice tip. We laughed ourselves sick after they left.

So there you go--one moment of sweet and appropriate revenge that didn't cause anyone to rush to the john or get me punched in the face. Many people work their whole lives without that kind of vindication, and although I may piss and moan about my work history, I know in my heart that I'm luckier than most. A little petty vindication beats a capful of bleach in your coffee any day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Captain Video

Since MTV appeared in the summer of 1981, many have assumed credit for creating the first music video. But such credit carries with it the baggage of blame, and nobody wants that. The most likely precursor to the music video as we know it came during the 30s and 40s in the form of "Soundies"--short performance films by the big stars of the day that played on jukebox-like contraptions that loaded up a film of Fats Waller for ten cents.

The Beatles' "A Hard Days Night" trumped all other jukebox musicals of the day. Richard Lester's experiments with newly developed lenses, intuitive and spontaneous direction and ingenious editing set the tone for the promotional films that would soon follow. Tiring of the road and countless television appearances, the band started to issue mimed performances of their latest singles. Since then, such promo films became more common, especially in Australia and the UK in the late seventies.

The epoch of music videos was ground zero for the battle between style and substance in popular music--a dialectic that has evolved in the medium of popular song since the beginnings of Tin Pan Alley to the present day. The age of MTV forbade true rock and roll realism and ugliness in favor of slick and easily marketable screen stars who may or may not play, write or sing. It proved to be a very effective placebo for hyperactive teens who stared at MTV for hours, and thus an effective means of social control. People in Iowa discovered Thomas Dolby, The Jam, XTC and Talking Heads until the record industry started pouring money into production when Michael Jackson embraced the new medium.

Since then, MTV has become much more about game shows and reality television than music videos. But music videos are still around and still an effective promotional tool for indie artists. Put your vid on You Tube and anyplace else you can think of and you can direct people to your music.

Todd Kennedy Mattson is a filmmaker who just so happened to be a bass player in the Groupers with me and John Holt. He suggested making a video for us and we quickly agreed to a shoot to promote our upcoming single, "Shiner".

Unfortunately, I got a very severe cold just before shooting began. We set up in John's basement, our usual practice space, which has decidedly cellar-like in decor and climate. Over two nights, we sat in an enclosed, humid space with 1000 watt studio lights and mimed "Shiner" nearly thirty times before we were done. Had I known what I was truly in for, I would not have worn a black wool suit jacket. My head felt like it weighed four hundred pounds. It was a tough shoot, but we were all good sports.

So I guess it was an indie band rite of passage. Although I've released discs before, I've never had a professional video shot, so this should be interesting. Interesting, if only to see how well our youthful but experienced visages will be in serve to the promotion of the music. Maybe it's better that they don't see us, but I'm optimistic. If we accomplish nothing else, our mothers might get to see us on television. Hi, mom.