I wrote that line back in 1994 as a response to the then current downsizing of GM. Ten years later, that ended up on What A Wonderful World, one of the most popular songs from Superpower.
The guy who screams:
“I’m fifty one years old… Are you gonna pay these bills?”
Is my best family friend of that era. He worked at Clark Street (Cadillac) in Detroit and although he himself did not lose his job (well… at least not until he got leukemia) he was fifty one years old and it was easy to channel the proper emotions from his experience (and those of many Detroiters; the air literally reaked with the smell of a dying era.)
As the auto industry continues to die in America, I’m struck by how even more poignant the lyric is today. Sorry if that sounds conceited, but that was the right song at the wrong time. The thing I’ve noticed about that song is that it was never as popular with Detroit crowds as, say, an audience in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There is something about Detroiters that is inherently optimistic… or at least… doesn’t want to hear anything that sounds like someone’s running down the city or it’s centrepiece industries.
That ‘pride’ (for lack of a better word) prevented the people from seeing the writing on the wall and doing something to re-make the city. There was always a lot of blaming and a lot of grand initiatives to kick-start (pun intended) the car companies but not even the workers could listen to a song like this and say, ‘Yeah, the car companies are crap. We must demand change. Part of it, of course, is that the workers were sucking from the same gas-guzzling teat as the politicians who screamed for ‘reform!’ so no one really wanted ‘change’. Actually, that was the last thing people wanted. What they wanted was a return to the good ol’ days of 70% market shares.
I have seen sailors exhaust themselves trying to bail a sinking boat. Seriously. When the smart thing to do would’ve been to abandon ship and swim for shore. But when you work so hard on something that can’t be saved you make it impossible to live to fight another day. And that’s how I now see Detroit. And perhaps…
The irony for me is that, in many ways, I now am the fifty one year old guy in What A Wonderful World. It’s been over two years since my hand-breaking-experience and I have probably played ten gigs since then; each one a little less nimble than the one before it. As I’ve commented before, people now illegally download my songs by an order of magnitude greater than they actually buy ’em. I’m sure it’s the same for everybody out there. In the new razor and blades world of the music biz, one gives away the ‘content’ (razor) and makes money off of the performances (blades). Those of us who either cannot or will not subscribe to the new order of things are, in my current depressed view, a bit like Detroiters who are simply fighting a sinking boat and digging an ever deeper hole by so doing.
What to do, you ask? For Detroit… I really haven’t got a clue. If you’re above a certain age, you just milk what’s left. If you’re not, you tend to get out and thus make it harder for the next guy who’s left. Which means that those who are left are often those least able to do anything to better the situation.
For myself? I also don’t at this point, have a clue. I suppose the first thing to do is to stop trying to bail. Like those Elves in Lord Of The Rings, just grieve for the end of an age and get mentally prepared to move on. But where to? The guy in What A Wonderful World, blows his brains out in his garage (for some reason I envisioned this on the hood of a ’78 Trans Am with the full flame paint job; you know the one I’m talking about.) No thanks, pal. (Note to self, maybe ,that’s why the song never hit it big with audiences.) But unlike the Elves, I don’t have a Valinor to go off to as a respite from the woes of Middle Earth. I gotta figure out how to get back in the black right here, without the aids of CGI and a really cool British accent.
The question is: Is there a reasonable way to leverage what I’ve already done into a creative career that fits the current zeitgeist and makes some decent coin? GM thinks that it has what it takes to re-make itself as the company that makes Chevrolet Volts. If a company that has made as much pure crap as GM can do it? Hit it, Judy…
Why… oh… why… can’t… I?