Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Why Billy Joel Is So Bad

A week or so ago I spotted an amusing and insightful article by Jay Rosen on why Billy Joel is so bad. This is not kneejerk rock-snobbism; the writer is a sympathiser and a former fan. As he points out, Joel doesn't lack for ability -- he's a strong singer, excellent pianist, and a talented songwriter in the Bacharach mould.

His downfall is a desperate need to be taken seriously. Rosen writes:

"The truth is that Joel was born at the wrong time. Were he a decade older, he might have wound up in the Brill Building crafting perfect little pop songs and gone down in history with Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and company. But Joel came of age in the post-Beatles era, when songwriters grew self-conscious about rock's aesthetic and social significance, and felt compelled to make statements "

Some of the results have been dire. I still remember watching on TV a concert Joel gave in Moscow around about 1988 or 1989, when Western rock stars were still a novelty behind the Iron Curtain. One of the songs he played was "Allentown", an attempt at a Springsteen-style, New Jersey working class ballad. Joel introduced it by saying: "this song is about......the workers!" (you know, because it was the Soviet Union and all) .

The crowd cheered wildly, mostly because they didn't understand a word and were cheering wildly at everything. I was only fifteen or so at the time - but not too young to cringe with embarassment.

"Piano Man", the song Rosen describes as Joel's attempt to be a "Dylan-style poet-troubadour", also has its clunky moments. It's a catchy melody, but the lyrics are made of concrete. As the song crescendos, Joel puffs out hs chest and hollers:

Now the piano it sounds like a carnival (an ok line)
and the microphone smells like a beer (now that is just an unpleasant image)
and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jaw (again, an unintentionally comic image)
and say "man, what are you doing here"

He then goes off into some la-de-das, to remind us that it's, you know, a folk song. The real problem is that it's not clear what the point is. Is the song about how tough it is to earn your living as a house musician? Not really. A story about one or more of the characters in the bar? The hopes and dreams of the singer? No, none of the above. The only candidate for a theme comes in the line:

They're sharing a drink they call loneliness - but it's better than drinking alone.

Which just makes it sound like the theme song from Cheers.

But the real nadir has to be "We Didn't Start the Fire", in my book a candidate for the worst song ever written. The verses have Joel reeling off a list of twentieth-century events, icons and individuals. Quite apart from blatantly stealing the idea ("a list of persons and things, sung rapidly") from REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It", this has no apparent point.

Maybe we find enlightenment in the chorus?

We didn't start the fire; it was always burning, since the world's been turning

This still leaves us a bit confused. Who are "we"? And what is "the fire"? Perhaps we could paraphrase it thus: "History has always seen instances of conflict, oustanding individuals and groundbreaking events". In other words, shit happens.

What makes this so unutterably bad? I think it's something to do with the telegraphed, hamfisted attempt to be deep and meaningful, while actually being completely fatuous. One of the verses reaches its pre-chorus climax with Joel spiritedly declaiming: "Belgians in the Congo!". I rest my case.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Coffee Cultures

I'm officially famous! Over the last few days, Russell Brown has been collating comments from resident and expat NZ coffee-drinkers. After an initial post where he observed that you don't seem to be able to get a NZ-standard espresso in London (or most places), he was flooded with feedback saying yes, wasn't it terrible, no one (apart from the Italians) knows how to make espresso properly.

Several people pointed out that this was a case of typical now-we-are-so-sophisticated NZ "zealotry" and a "reverse cultural cringe". I agree to an extent that the boasting about our coffee has elements of that "our rugby team is bigger than your rugby team" attitude which you increasingly see from NZers, and is indicative of deep insecurity and ingrained provincialism (i.e. it'd be laughable if it weren't so embarassing).

However, it is based on a large kernel of truth. That was the one thing I really missed about NZ while in South America. Every now and again I'd have a fleeting, nostalgic vision of Aro St cafe with a good English breakfast and a super-strong flat white.

By the time I read the posts Russell Brown had already printed two rounds of comments. I figured I'd missed out, but would send him my tuppence worth anyway. And lo, then he said that he'd got even more comments, they were "improving in quality", and he'd print a third round.

So today he's done a final summation of people's views on coffee. I'm in there, about the third person quoted.

If you don't feel like following the link, here's what I wrote:

"I agree that across most of Europe and N.America the coffee is not up to the standard set in NZ, particularly in the main NZ centres. I've also spent quite a bit of time in S.America and, despite being a major coffee-exporting zone, things aren't much good there either.

In Peru and Chile you only find espresso in a few places in the bigger cities, and it's often sans crema. In even moderately expensive restaurants, "coffee" means a cup of hot water served with a tube-like packet of nescafe. Or it's a strong liquid concentrate in a little jug, which you pour into the water.

Colombia is better--brewed coffee there is called "tinto" and is de rigeur with most meals. As in (fellow coffee-producing nation) Guatemala, it's also quite fresh tasting. Most small bars have espresso.

Again, though, you just want to order the basic espresso--no one really knows how to make coffee with milk.

Only in Italy or places with direct Italian influence do you find the full range of espresso styles. In Italy itself, while coffee is the fuel of life, there's somewhat less preciousness about it than there is in NZ.

Cappucinos are normally made with lukewarm milk because people don't piss about drinking them--they go into a stand-up breakfast bar and toss one down on the way to work. Also, they understand even better than NZers not to add too much water to an espresso--in your standard short black there's usually not much more than a tablespoon of liquid.

There's one coffee experience, however, you won't find in Italy or NZ. This is "cafe cubano", which I discovered in Sth Florida a few years ago.

Cuban-stye coffee is made by expressing a quadruple-shot coffee directly into a cup containing several spoonfuls of raw sugar. It's served in a "colada", a (usually polystyrene) cup about the size of a small takeaway coffee cup, and you also get several thimble-sized little cups. You then drink it in "shots', sharing with two or three people.

They call cafe cubano "liquid cocaine", and if you try it you will see why. Next time you're in Miami, find a little neigbourhood Cuban place, order yourself a colada, and prepare to have your socks knocked directly off.

WRT to Starbucks [there'd been quite a bit of comment about Starbucks amongst the previous posts]: When In Peru, I lived in Arequipa, and on a trip to Lima my Arequipan girlfriend insisted on going to Starbucks, as she was nostalgic for when she spent time in the US. Not only was the milky coffee I ordered the most execrable, burnt, soapy thing I have ever tasted, but it cost more than it would have in NZ (in Peru, most consumables are two or even three times cheaper). My girlfriend didn't care--for her simply being in Starbucks was fulfilling her aspirations. "


Monday, December 05, 2005

No sugar thanks, and hold the "sir"

Dear supermarket checkout attendants, cafe workers, and shop assistants. Please stop calling me "sir". You have no reason to do this, and it's irritating the hell out of me. In no other context would you conceivably consider addressing me in this way. You are maybe five or six years younger than me; in the worst cases ten to twelve.

Come on, I'm clearly youngish, informal, mostly pretty scruffy looking. Do you really think that's how I want to be talked to?

So maybe it says you're supposed to do this in your training manual. Or your manager told you to do it. As part of your commitment to service, always address the customer as "sir"; this conveys the appropriate degree of respect.

It doesn't. At best, it makes me feel old. At worst, it comes across as patronising and condescending. Especially when you, the carefully-groomed, attractive woman in your early twenties, keep using it, in between chatting to your fellow "baristas" while you make my coffee. "Sugar with that, sir?". "So, yeah, dunno, I was thinking of going to the Matterhorn". "Will that be all, sir?".

Because, if once is too much, four or five times makes me want to slap you. And I'm particularly addressing this to you, smarmy supermarket junior manager type with the slightly different tie from your fellow employees, and your I'm-showing-the-trainee-checkout-worker-how-to-serve-customers manner. You think you're impressing your poor protege with your knowledge of the customer service handbook by firing off five or six "sirs" as you zap my groceries? This customer just thinks you're a wanker.

People, your handbook was written in the United States, where there are different standards of formality. And even there, "sir" is far from de rigeur in most settings. The place I've spent the most time in is Miami; there, in mid-range department stores, the woman calls you "baby" (and only if you're really white--anybody vaguely Hispanic looking is "mi amor"). As a customer and a person, I prefer that.

You want to know how to provide "good customer service"? Very simple - be polite and efficient. Don't piss about. And I have to say, you in the supermarket are mostly doing a brilliant job in this respect. Yes, you're mostly first-generation immigrants, and you mostly refrain from the "sir" bullshit; it's the homegrown, facetious, wannabe manager boys who pull that out.

While, we're on the topic, cut the small talk. Do you really want to know how my day is? You care if they're keeping me busy? Didn't think so. And, let's just say you were unaccountably fascinated by what I might have been doing this morning, do you think the next person in line is going to wait around while I describe it to you? So let's just lose the pretence and move swiftly on, ok?

To you in the clothes store, I must make a special appeal. Yes, you do have to be approachable. But don't overdo it. Remember, I'm male--I'm confused and intimidated by being in a clothes store. I need to browse the racks from a safe distance, like my ancestors on the savannah making sure there weren't any sabre-toothed tigers lurking before they went after the mammoth.

You can flag your availability, but be discreet. Something like: "You're ok there, right? Just let me know if you need any help" is fine. It'll still freak me out a little, but as long as I can get away with a "sure" in reply, I won't actually need to run out of the shop.

You don't care if my weekend's been busy either--so don't ask. And yes, you guessed right. I'm a guy, and I did see the game. I could even discuss in depth whether the third sin-binning was justified, or why the lineouts went awry in the second half. But that's not why we're here, so why bother?

You really want to be helpful and sociable? Tell me something about the item I'm looking at. Is it down from $89.99 to $69.99? Manufactured somewhere other than China? Made with fully unionised labor? Its material particularly warm in winter/cool in summer? The cut flattering to the shorter man? All of these things are important to me; they're useful information, what I'm looking for when I'm poking around trying to find the labels.

So, if you tell me these things, that will be of assistance; I'll know whether to go chasing after the mammoth. You might even have a sale on your hands. Just don't pretend to be my friend. And whatever you do, don't call me "sir".

OK, so right about know you're all thinking that I'm some oversensitive middle-class twat. You're doing your best, service jobs are low paid and menial, how are you supposed to know what different people prefer? Well, I believe I have done my time, and do have some insight. Three years working in a gas station, where I had to suffer gits in their BMWs pulling up and telling me to "fill 'er up, mate" ("I'm studying philosophy!", I wanted to say).

I've worked in cafes, bars, youth hostels, all kinds of service jobs. And, you think you don't get no respect as a checkout worker--try working in the carnival industry in the USA and Canada. There, not only does the populace despise you as a dirty carnie, they feel justitifed, in fact honour-bound, in trying to cheat and steal from you.

Consequently, I have a lot of sympathy for the service worker. I much prefer the system in restaurants or bars in the US, and even anal old Canada, where a tip is expected for the person who serves you. This allows you to give a portion of your money directly to that person--and the harder and better they work, the more they get.

I just have no time for the needless--and phony--self debasement that is promoted in the pages of the corporate training manuals. This does nothing for the customer, and is only truly embraced by the smart-assed types on the way up the management ladder. I would be happy to see a tip or commission component in all service jobs, so the employee is able to not only be rewarded for working harder, but also learn what customers really respond to (mostly, being treated as a human being).

So, please, act normal. Use your common sense and stop believing the guff they tell you. And, unless you're really trying to piss me off, stop calling me "sir".

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