The River's Badge

Friday, March 16, 2018

Doing It Right ~ Breaking Bad

Dave Porter can create the soundtrack of my life anytime.

It takes a rare talent to do it right. When it's right, you know it. When someone is phoning it in, you know that, too.

I confess, I am obsessed with Breaking Bad. My life partner and I have watched the entire series twice now, and damn, I forgot a lot of stuff from the first time! If there is a more perfect TV show,, there just isn't.

Aside from the cast and the writing and the cinematography, there is the music. If I was a music supervisor, I would luxuriate in my serendipity. But it's a hard job, matching the quintessential track to that breath-stirring scene.

I could create a complete album of tracks from Breaking Bad, and relive each moment in infinitesimal detail. And I think I might.

Gale Boetticher dripping coffee into a carafe:

David Costabile must have had to study that song for weeks to be able to sing along. 

It was a touch of genius to use a dusty cassette tape of Marty Robbins in the last episode:

The most obvious reference that nobody thought of:

Walter White, singing:

The most ingenuous use of a song I never liked:

I could watch Breaking Bad over and over and over. It gets inside your bones. I'm smitten with Jesse and Mike and Hector. And Badger and Skinny Pete. And mostly Hank and peculiar Marie.

It's mostly thanks to Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston, but also to Dave Porter, for creating the soundtrack to a bizarre world.

SPOILER ALERT:  Don't watch this if you haven't watched the series in its entirety (and you really, really need to):

Superb doesn't even begin to describe it.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

April Tompkins Has A Video!

Altruistic as I am known to be, I wanted to share April Tompkins' latest book video. I think it's awesome.

I am honored she chose to use Red River's music as the backdrop for her video. In case you don't know about Red River, you can find us here

I urge you to buy April's novel, Radio Crazy. It's a "crazy" ride. Unintentionally funny at times; dark and scary at others, April's characters act like real people; often annoyed and put-upon, until circumstances converge to create terror and mayhem. 

April is somebody I thought I knew well, until I read her prose. Then -- what the hell? I might be a bit wary to stroll down to the cafeteria with her, come Monday. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Life In 1964 ~ With Music!

It occurred to me that 1964 is akin to the nineteenth century to many people. To me it's my childhood, albeit somewhat hazy by now. My mind flashes on scenes, but they sort of run together. My "fun adventure" possibly lasted no more than six months, but my brain squeezes it into approximately one week.

My regular life wasn't what one would call exciting. I rode the orange bus two times a day and in between I endeavored to grasp knowledge inside my third grade classroom. Granted, third grade was my favorite grade. My teacher, Mrs. Thomlinson, abetted my natural show-off tendencies. I was a third grade star. Then came summer vacation and I tried to find adventures, but living in the country demanded that I engage my imagination in order to find things to do that didn't involve traipsing along a dirt road, riffling my outstretched hands across the tall wheat-heads. No wonder I made up little melodies and told myself stories. It was just me alone with the sapphire sky.

Then my Uncle Howard stepped in. He'd invested in a triple-threat business in a tiny town called Lisbon; a splotch of a village criss-crossed by Highways 27 and 32 in the southeastern sector of North Dakota.

This is it:

As you can see, it's now an Eagles Club. And smoke free? Ha! Not in 1964!

The establishment was called Triple Service - because it contained a bar, a restaurant, and a service station. One-stop drinking! The problem was, my uncle was a bachelor and he didn't exactly know how to cook. So he presented a proposal to my mom and my aunt. He'd pay them handsomely to alternate weeks functioning as fry cooks. My mom, scouring her checkbook, acceded. Farming was a credit business. One charged everything; gas, seed, groceries, clothes -- everything except ice cream cones -- and waited for a late fall certified check to grace the mailbox so the charge accounts could be settled up. 

Mom had two little kids and me. Luckily my big sister was eighteen and negligibly responsible, so Carole was tasked with minding the little ones while my dad harvested the wheat and potatoes, and Mom and I packed our pink Samsonite suitcases and crunched inside the Ford Galaxie and aimed it down Highway 81 toward Lisbon.

My Aunt Barbara had two kids roughly my age. The deal was that the three of us kids would reside in Lisbon, North Dakota, trading off "moms" every week. It wasn't at all strange, because we'd had sleepovers our whole lives, so Aunt Barbara was really my second mom. 

Living in an apartment attached to actual real life was an awesome experience. We could step outside our kitchen door and inside a tiny room stocked top to bottom with all manner of crystal liquor decanters. Next to that was a cavernous dance floor, hollow in the daytime hours, but slippery and shimmery when the klieg lights were flipped on.

The cafe itself was a parcel of cushiony booths and twirly stools straddling a long Formica counter. 

The Triple Service bar was dark and smoky, lit by lavender sconces, jam-packed on weekend nights, the glow of the Wurlitzer heating up the corner; smelly with whiskey/cigarette butts and hops in the bare-bulb light of day.

My cousins, Paul and Karen, and I, forged a new life inside Triple Service.

We'd formed a little trio, thanks to our accordion teacher back home. Paul manned the accordion, Karen strummed a guitar, and I burnished the snare drum, brushes in hand. We had costumes and everything -- white-fringed felt skirts and western shirts and boots. I don't remember if there were hats -- possibly only neckerchiefs. Rules prohibited us from actually entering the bar area (when it was open), so we set up in the "triple" area of Triple Service, abutting the service station counter, and put on a show. Our big number was "Bye Bye Love". It's a funny thing about men who'd imbibed -- they turn into philanthropists. We raked in dollars and quarters and nickels from patrons who exited the bar through the service station door.

We became jaded, as neuveau-riche people do; and stuffed our glass piggy banks with coin and greenbacks, until we made that Saturday expedition to F.W Woolworth's to stuff our pockets and plastic purses with candy necklaces and molded Beatle figurines.

The only hitch in our (at least my) resplendent lives was the fact that our mothers had enrolled us in Catholic school. For my cousins, who were used to it, this was de riguer. For me, a dedicated public school girl, it was cataclysmic. My new fourth grade teacher was a nun! Nuns were evil, my catechism experience had taught me. Evil and sadistic. However, this teacher was semi-youthful and frightfully timid, so I settled in. The curriculum, however, was predicated on 1963 topics, and this was 1964! So, I was bored because I'd already learned all this stuff, and I hated my new school, because I didn't like new people. I wasn't what you'd call "easy to get to know". I'd always had a best friend back home, and it hadn't been easy choosing that honor. Best friends had to meet exacting standards. Karen, on the other hand, always had a group of friends, so the pressure on her was less. She adapted to our new school the very first day. I was miserable for at least a month.

And the nuns at the school, especially the "Head Nun" (sorry; I am not up on Catholic school lingo), heartily disapproved of our living arrangement. "Oh, you live at the place," she would comment. Yes, Sister Denunciatory, we lived at a bar. B-A-R. That sin-soaked den of people enjoying life. Scandalous!

Uncle Howard had a plaque affixed to Triple Service's wall that read:

There's no place anywhere near this place
Quite like this place
So this must be the place

I guess Mother Condemnation was right after all.

Kids being kids, we found all manner of off-duty pursuits, most of them stupid. Karen and I climbed up on the roof and perched between the big red letters that spelled out T-RI-P-L-E S-E-R-V-I-C-E and serenaded the guys who'd pulled up to the gas pumps below. "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" was our favored choice. Paul, Karen and I hid in the liquor room, which was right off the cavernous dance floor and did stupid things, like slide ice cubes across the linoleum. Paul, one night, captured a frog outside, and released it to hop across the floor. Essentially, we were scientists -- we just wanted to find out what would happen.

The juke box was Karen's and my tether. We inspected the white and red title strips and gleaned our musical education from Uncle Howard's ten-cent singles and fifty-cent album showcases. She and I created a comic book, the premise of which was, what happens to musical artists when they get old. That juke box really assisted our creativity. I do remember that Bobby Bare was a bear. Bent Fabric was shaped like -- well, I guess you can figure that one out. Uncle Howard passed our creation among his patrons and they loved it. We got orders for more, which we had priced at twenty-five cents each; but you know how it is with designing something -- once you've done it, it becomes monotony the second or third time. We made a half-hearted effort to produce more copies, but finally drifted away and into more interesting endeavors.

So, what did we glean from Uncle Howard's juke box? Bear in mind that Uncle Howard's clientele didn't go for that rock 'n roll "noise", so his musical choices were relatively sedate.

This was the hottest, I meant hottest, new act of 1964:

 Here's that "Bent Fabric" guy:

Little Millie Small:

One can never, ever forget Bobby Bare (who is not, in reality, a bear):

My dad liked this song; therefore, I, too, like it:

Dean Martin:

A gal named Gale Garnett:

Believe it or not, this was huge in '64. Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz (I guess):

Karen's and my seminal number:

Roger Miller again:

There was no one, however, who dominated country music in 1964 like Buck Owens dominated. Buck Owens was everything. I wasn't even a country-western fan (I was a Roy Orbison fan), but all I knew about country music revolved around Buck Owens.

The couples who stepped onto Uncle Howard's dance floor on Saturday nights contented themselves with Ernest Tubb covers played by a bolo-tie-clad trio of local musicians.We, in the liquor supply room, listlessly tapped our feet to the thump-thumping bass guitar. Had Buck Owens suddenly made an appearance, especially with Don Rich and the guys, it would have been like Uncle Howard's juke box come to life.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Good People

I'm not as religious as I once was. Or maybe I'm more religious than I once was. See, when I was a pre-teen, I was lost and searching hard for some thread of deliverance. Raised a Catholic, I loved the rituals of the church -- the stations of the cross at Lenten time, when the priest, followed by his two altar boys, would stop at each statuette along his path and say a solemn prayer. I didn't exactly grasp the meaning, but it was such an august procession that it had to have deep significance. I prayed hard during that ceremony, and that couldn't have hurt, right? The Catholic mass also featured the priest swinging sensers of incense, which smelled "holy". Dipping one's fingers in a font of holy water and making the sign of the cross, and genuflecting before entering the church pew, seemed somber and sanctified.

The rituals of the church were sublime, but the incessant scolding didn't strike me as God-like. Silly transgressions, like eating meat on Friday, would damn me to hell. Taking communion without first slipping inside the dark airless chamber to confess my "sins" to some guy would also send me to the fiery depths. Poor babies who died before being baptized would be sentenced to a place called purgatory. And they didn't even get the chance to do anything wrong.

I hope the church doesn't preach that kind of nonsense anymore. I don't know, because I stopped attending mass sometime around age eighteen. I think confession was my line in the sand. I never ever thought it was right, even as an eight-year-old. I can understand talking to someone and getting some life counsel, but that whole recitation of made-up sins was pointless. And who were these "priests" anyway? They were cloistered and had no inkling of real life.

I needed someone to help me, and all the embroidered robes in the world weren't going to quiet my troubles.

Those who "raised" me weren't actually my parents. I had a few pseudo-parents; whomever was available and offered something I needed to learn -- my sister-in-law was one. People who worked for my parents. My friend's mom. Perhaps a teacher or two.

One sundown July evening my sister-in-law was manning the motel office when a Scottish couple with three redheaded kids checked in. I was eleven or twelve at the time, and lazing about, observing everyday life. The man asked about available babysitters. He and his wife wanted to have a nice dinner out. I wasn't a natural babysitter -- I despised it, actually. I don't know why everybody thinks pre-teen girls are natural baby-slingers. Is that supposed to be an innate talent? That twilight, however, I popped up off the sofa and proclaimed that I would be happy to babysit. Frankly, I was entranced by the couple's accent, and perhaps wanted to experience something "foreign".

I have no idea where my mom and dad were; why neither of them were working and why they had indentured my new sister-in-law to cover for them. My educated guess is that Dad was drunk in a bar and my mom had consumed a couple of tranquilizers and was blissfully snoring away in her bed. This was de riguer, so I didn't waste any brain cells contemplating it.

Regardless, I tromped over to room 33 at six p.m. and commenced to wrangle and entertain three bouncing tow-heads.

After an hour or so, they all drifted off to slumber and I clicked on the TV and perused the three available channels. My best option was a Billy Graham crusade.

That night, what Reverend Graham was saying made me sit up straight. He said things like, "God loves you". That was a new concept! Here I'd thought God had a checklist and made tick marks next to every task I'd failed at. The reverend said something about loving everybody or something, and that sinners were lambs of God. And that God satisfies every longing of our hearts.

Billy Graham was clearly an honest man. I had long ago cultivated an excellent BS detector, and this guy was honest and pure. And he made me feel like I was a worthwhile person. This was new!

When the Scot parents returned later, I practically skipped out of the room and took three or four laps around the complex, greeting every stranger I encountered with a hearty "Hi!". I was not one to speak to strangers, but I suddenly felt light-footed, aloft on an imaginary breeze.

That feeling didn't linger, but the concept of God's love did.

I haven't forgotten.

There aren't too many really good people in this world.

Reverend Billy Graham was a really good person.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Did Country Music Die In 1998?

 (Somehow he got a record contract)

As stressful and time-consuming as my job was in 1998, at least it sheltered me from the tunes on the radio.

The last thing I wanted to do was give up on country music. I'd been drenched in country for thirty-odd years by then. That was a hard habit to break. I think country radio knew how bad the songs were, but they were slaves to programmers  -- no more would a disc jockey break a hit record -- there were no more Ralph Emerys or Bill Macks. Spinning records was akin to a job ringing up a cash register. 

The country landscape was barren. George was beginning to drift toward treacle (it would get worse). But he still had a couple of good tunes:

Diamond Rio was close to wrapping up. They'd had a phenomenal run, but I guess everything (except George Strait) comes to an end eventually:


Yes, this was an Aerosmith song, but Mark Chesnutt was always a good song picker. He would get better after this (believe it or not), and would go on to reach the pantheon of my all-time favorite country singers. This isn't my favorite, but hell, Mark was still keepin' on. 

Clint was back. He wrote this song with Steve Wariner. Aside from "Better Man", this is one of my favorite Clint Black songs:


I thought I would throw Reba in here, because she actually recorded a country song in '98. I wasn't a fan of Reba's theatrics. They were "tricks". I like a singer who sings.


Who was hot in 1998? Well, there was Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. There was Jo Dee Messina. There was the Dixie Chicks, who I liked a lot until they (Natalie) went nuts. A lot of my standbys had hits, but not hits that I liked -- Steve Wariner, Brooks and Dunn, Shania Twain, Randy Travis.

Somebody who didn't even reach the Top Country 100 had the best album of the year. I don't understand popular tastes. I don't understand why this wasn't one of the top hits of the year. But you know what? Quality survives. That's why Dwight Yoakam is still one of my all-time favorite singers. 

From "A Long Way Home":


Sometime in 1999 I abandoned country music all together. That's where it ended for me. I miss it, but it's not coming back. Now I listen to Sirius, when I listen to music at all. I don't listen to music much.

Things change, Dwight told me. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

1997 In Country Music ~ And Work

(when a company disappears)

I suppose others experience it, too -- when a company to which they've devoted their best years disappears. It's eerie to think that one's past is gone, just like that, never to be retrieved or visited, except in memories.

There once was a company called US Healthcare. Really. Even though I can't even find a picture of its logo on Google images. The company was founded in 1975 by a man named Leonard Abramson. The company started small. It was first called HMO of Pennsylvania. There was one office, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. I had no clue where Blue Bell, Pennsylvania was, but the city had a rather pretty name. (I now know, in hindsight, that Blue Bell is a suburb of Philadelphia.) In 1983, Mr. Abramson took his company public and renamed it US Healthcare.

In 1990 Mr. Abramson was looking to expand his operation and began a search for a city whose citizenry possessed a good work ethic. That's where I came into the picture. Somehow, Bismarck, North Dakota was chosen. I say "somehow" because Bismarck never got chosen for anything except possibly "world's windiest town". It's true we had (have) a good work ethic. We didn't know any better. We all just naturally assumed we were supposed to work. We didn't know there was a choice. Perceptions of work vary by geographic longitude. I understand this now because I live in Minnesota. Perhaps we Dakotans had an innate guilt that if we didn't go the extra mile we'd be viewed as lazy. Thus we always did much more than was asked of us. Other big companies eventually learned to exploit that guilt, but US Healthcare was the first.

The Blue Bell employees worked thirty-seven-and-a-half hours a week and got paid for forty. We clocked forty hours a week and were grateful for the opportunity. Our Blue Bell trainers viewed us as utter morons, but we abided that and held our collective breath until they whirled back on the jet plane home to PA. Condescending disregard was de riguer for us. 

I only secured my position by divine providence, but I held on for dear life. After all, it paid $6.00 per hour, which was twenty-five cents more than I was making as a Farm Records Secretary. We were the experiment. Let's see how they do and if they can hack it, was the mindset of the Blue Bellians. Well, we did great. Because we worked our asses off. We cared about getting it right. I didn't know anything about health insurance, but I knew how to follow instructions. I began life at US Healthcare as a claims examiner and eventually convinced someone to take me on as an assistant supervisor, and then as a full-fledged supervisor. 

I excelled in supervision because I knew how people wanted to be treated from my many years of being a nobody. It's not rocket science, people. I understood how far a good word could propel even the lowliest of us. How bestowing a modicum of respect could engender results that surprised and delighted even the most self-effacing wallflower.

In 1996 Freaky Phil called me into his office and presented me with an offer that I could "think about overnight and then come back and say yes". It was a pilot program the company called "IKFI" - "Integrated Key From Image". It was a glorified data entry unit that US Healthcare was ready to pilot. Phil's offer felt like a demotion. I was a claims specialist and now I had been selected to slum into the realm of data entry, with a three-person staff of temps. I guess my construct of making peace with Phil hadn't worked after all. I knew my fellow supervisors would look down on me and thank the lord it hadn't been them. That sense of mortification haunted me. I went home Friday evening and fretted for two long days. Some divine sense of approbation told me that this was an actual "opportunity". I didn't see how it could be, but I knew, instinctively, that it was.

I carried my claims binders over to an unused, echoey area of the building. There were cubicles set up, but their desks were loaded down with broken computer monitors and other miscellaneous castoff equipment. A fine layer of dust covered every surface. Someone, in an optimistic frame of mind had long ago constructed a glass supervisor's enclosure in the corner. I grabbed a tissue from the box and tried to scour a peephole in the greasy film. I sat down behind the desk and squinted at the squiggly lines and numbers on my monitor that represented "something", which I would eventually learn was the workflow I was tasked with managing. I received a crash course in the keying process by phone from another Philly Patronizer. I don't remember her name, but her voice dripped with a combination of pity and disdain. Thus, I sat alone in a ghost unit and played with my new toy for three days, until my three temp workers showed up to begin their assignment. I think the company hired temps -- and only three of them -- because they were not convinced this new experiment would work out. 

The IT guys back in Pennsylvania were like actual humans. They were invested in making their new process work, and they didn't treat me like a simpleton. I appreciated that. My three new employees were surprisingly awesome. One girl, Gaby, had emigrated from Germany. She was quick to learn and a joy to be around. The four of us stepped through the ether together and bonded, like hostages do. Phil stopped over often and sat down in my visitor's chair just like he used to do. He never offered any words of wisdom or counsel. He was just bored, and this area of the building was a new place for him to peruse. He exhibited zero interest in this new US Healthcare experiment, which perhaps signaled his confidence in me as a manager, but I don't think so. I think he simply didn't care. 

Dave called a couple of times. Dave was the VP of Something or Other -- possibly the Claims operation -- the guy I'd spilled my guts to a couple of years earlier regarding Evil Connie. I never knew how I ended up on Dave's radar. Maybe he chose me for this new position because I'd demonstrated that I was a fighter. And there was no question that Dave chose me -- Phil was simply his imbecilic conduit. 

Dave was a yeller. He loved to yell at and scare people and take their measure. It was an odd management style, but one that lots of executives use. Dave called one day and yelled at me about something. I responded with facts and figures, not necessarily calmly, but I didn't back down. Dave never again bothered me. I think I garnered his stamp of approval that day. My state of mind was, no other fool will take this job, so sink or swim or stand on the unemployment line, which was a definite possibility, take me or leave me. I never asked for this.

From three to twelve to nineteen, the temps began to stack up. The building manager began constructing additional cubicles. I finally said to Phil, "Come on! Let's hire these people!" Let's make them legitimate. My staff was supporting an entire company, lessening claims examiners' load. We garnered zero respect -- we were, after all, data entry drones -- but I knew and my staff knew that our results were pivotal. 

Suddenly I had thirty-seven folks. I had to designate an assistant/trainer. Kristen had begun as a temp, like everyone had. She was whip-smart and fast, and better at the nuts and bolts of the job than I could ever be, and I was pretty good. She was a kid - maybe twenty years old. I picked her. Kristen handled the day-to-day operations while I composed performance reviews and dealt with the Philadelphia overseers. 

In the blink of an eye, things began to spiral exponentially. I had thirty-seven employees and was instructed to add a second shift. Then I inherited the referral process, which encompassed another twenty-two people, plus their two supervisors. 

By the end of 1997, the IKFI Department had one hundred and fifty staff and five supervisors. 

And I never received the designation of "manager", even though that was definitely what I was.

My new overseer was named Peter. He was a kid, but I ignored that because he was ostensibly my new "boss". Peter resided in the hallowed confines of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, so our interactions were mostly by phone. Peter took a trip out to the hinterlands a couple of times a year, to check in and assert his authority. He was a decent guy, albeit "by the book". On one of his semi-annual visits, he mandated that we do a survey of our IKFI employees. The next day he paged through the survey results and iterated that there was a consensus that I practiced favoritism. I protested strongly. Peter responded, "Perception is the truth". 

"Perception is the truth" is one of the few management principles I've always remembered. Meaning, whether it's true or not, if people believe it, that is their reality. Peter bestowed upon me my most vital takeaway from my lone foray into management. 

The other thing Peter did for me was to survey the building landscape and recognize that I was sorely being squeezed out, between my five supervisors and the paucity of real estate. "There's an empty office in the corner, just sitting there. Why don't you move into it?" he asked. I stared at him wide-eyed, feeling like a common criminal. 

"You think?" I asked. 

"Why not?"

And thus I claimed the very first and only office I ever owned. 

My relocation was not viewed warmly by Claims management. In management's eyes, I was a pretender; an interloper. After all, IKFI was the branch's unwanted stepchild -- not a "real" department. It didn't have the cache of Claims. Phil was still nominally in charge of the office, but he had acceded the bulk of his duties to his new assistant manager, Linda. Apparently an assistant was needed, because Phil really didn't much feel like working, and someone had to do the actual job of managing. Here is where men and women differ -- Phil didn't care if I had an office or whether I'd pitched a tent in the parking lot. Linda viewed my new digs as a threat to her dominance.

Linda had clawed her way to the top by the sheer force of naked ambition. She was a skinny bleached blonde who was a mom in the sense that she waved hello to her kids just before their bedtime, and left the actual child rearing to a paid "girl". She was the kind of mother who acknowledged she actually had children only when they did something she could boast about, which was apparently not often. She had a boy and a girl, Boy and Girl, we (and she) will call them. Linda's background was not in health insurance, which was perfectly okay by me. My background wasn't in insurance, either. Everybody's gotta start somewhere. But whereas I had found my way to management by enduring the scourge of barely minimum-wage jobs, Linda was a person who inserted herself into her every boss's good graces by flattery and batting her eyelashes. 

I got the measure of Linda the day I phoned her to tell her my mother-in-law had passed away and that I would be taking my three days of bereavement leave, and she responded, "Do you have all your work caught up?"

Linda had initially been hired as a claims supervisor (a nice leapfrog I wished I'd been granted), and then proceeded to kiss as much ass as was required to boost her way to the top. She'd been a sycophant of Connie's, and Connie loved nothing more than boot-licking toadies. Once Connie had been shown the door, Linda latched onto whichever manager happened to occupy the corner office. Thus she eventually became the Dwight Shrute of Claims, Assistant To The General Manager. In her new position (and new office), she had everything she'd ever demeaned herself to be. 

It was an out-of-the-way means of accessing the building, but occasionally Linda took the detour to climb the steps outside my new office, just so she could amble by and shoot disdainful glances in my direction. Some days I'd pretend not to notice her; some days I'd give a little wave, which took her aback, and she'd jerk her hand in the air in an awkward faux-Nazi salute.

Linda deplored the fact that she no longer had control over me, but she made up for that helplessness by denigrating my department in passive-aggressive comments. I didn't care. I loved the fact that my manager resided fifteen hundred miles away.  

I had never before noticed, but now, in my new office, the office's piped-in music was unnaturally loud. I kept hearing this song, and had no idea who sang it or what the name of the song was. Google didn't exist yet. I think all we had was America Online and maybe Netscape. My local music store, Musicland, however, had bored personnel who stood around waiting to answer stupid questions, so I stopped in one evening and repeated a few lines of lyrics to the clerk, and he pointed to a section of CD's labeled, "Boz Scaggs". 

I love this song and I don't care if it doesn't fit any musical category. 

Let me just say that Boz Scaggs is ultimately cool. From "Lido" to "Look What You've Done To Me", he was always there, beneath the surface; under my consciousness. But always there.

It was weird hearing songs from the fabricated tape loop. The company who supplied the tunes didn't want to offend, so they were never too country or too rock -- middle of the road was where they landed. They were inexplicably big on Steve Wariner songs, one of which sort of broke my heart a couple years later, but that's a whole other story.

I didn't pay a lot of attention to radio then, because I had a lot of work stuff rattling around in my brain, but my kid liked this song, and therefore I rather liked it, too:

Make no mistake -- I was still buying CD's -- but country was beginning to disappoint. George released a mediocre album, the new people weren't very good singers (Tim McGraw). Thank God for Mark Chesnutt:

And Diamond Rio:

A singer who rarely got her due, but one of the all-time best singers (country or otherwise) of the modern era, Trisha Yearwood was possibly eclipsed by her future husband's success in the nineties, but wow, I love this:

This was not a great song, but it stands out for two reasons -- one, it was played on the radio ad nauseum, and most importantly, the lyrics featured Bismarck, North Dakota. Sure, you may scoff, but how many songs feature your hometown, unless you live in Amarillo or San Francisco?

As out of touch as I was with the musical world in 1997, I still vaguely remember the media-created controversy regarding who sang this next song better. I know one of the versions well, because it has been my personal earworm for over a year (and I have almost rid myself of it; yet, here I go again). The other version I frankly don't remember, so I'm going to play along and then issue my official decree. (And all this drama for a crappy movie.)

I like Leann Rimes (or "liked" Leann Rimes when she took music seriously, which she apparently no longer has time for, what with her beach bikini pics and all). I loved "Blue". She sang the hell out of that song. But here's the difference for me: Trisha has a warmth to her voice -- like honey. And Trisha's singing is not forced. It just is Trisha on her front porch, maybe with her farmhand husband,  Garth, strumming an acoustic guitar. Trisha doing what comes naturally and drawing in neighbors from miles around, just to hear an angel sing. 

Leann is eyelash-batting. Trisha is instinct.

Music can be a life lesson.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

1996 ~ Country Music ~ And Work

When Evil Manager Connie was shepherded out of the building in 1994, I finally felt like I could be myself; not a simpering lackey dutifully following behind her big fat ass as she conducted a tour of our new office wing.

I had swallowed my meager pride and forced myself to genuflect before her eminence in a last-ditch attempt to hold onto my job, which was the best-paying job I'd ever had and would ever have in Bismarck, North Dakota -- a city bereft of presentable positions. My deceit worked -- Evil Connie wasn't too perceptive. In actuality, she was such a megalomaniac, she believed that I'd suddenly fallen in love with her. She, in turn, came to see me as one of her dutiful soldiers. I was ON BOARD! In truth, I hated -- despised -- her very existence.

I played that painful game for three long (l-o-n-g) years, before I got my chance; a chance I didn't seek out, but one that fell in my lap. One I hadn't planned for; an opportunity that was thrust upon me.

I didn't waste it.

I take pride (and credit) for getting that miserable piece of human existence fired. (All you other USHC supervisors -- you're welcome. Except for you, LeeAnn and Linda, because you were the ultimate ass-kissers and you two will just need to live with yourselves.)

Nearly a quarter of a century later, corporate culture has progressed to the point at which managers can no longer abuse their subordinates with impunity. Human Resource departments are eager to justify their value, and they cherish nothing more than culling the herd. In '94, the little people needed to simply shut up. Like I said, I didn't seek out the opportunity to spill my guts. Somebody asked me and I didn't waste the opportunity. I had three years of vile hatred choking my intestines.

Once Savior Replacement Manager had moved on to brighter vistas or soothing retirement, our VP, Dave Kolton, recruited a guy he'd worked with at Mutual of Omaha in Lincoln, Nebraska, to make the slippery move to Bismarck and be in charge.

Phil was an easy mark. We all pegged him immediately as a lazy guy who'd much rather page through the local phone book than actually manage. I was surprised I didn't pop into his office one day and catch him clipping his toenails.

My unit was situated right outside Phil's office, so he focused on me preternaturally. I didn't purposefully dress provocatively -- short skirts were the order of the day -- but Phil wasn't shy about commenting on the fact that he saw my legs "all the way up" as I was bending over, peering at my employee's CRT, helping her with her question.

Phil was a pervert.

A lackadaisical pervert.

Phil and I had our go-rounds. He was an Aries to my Taurus.

One day, as I was erasing words from my whiteboard, during one of our "Goal and Go" days, he sauntered up and said, "Your unit is always the first to leave." I whirled around, fuzzy eraser in hand and hissed, "My people do more than their share and YOU KNOW IT."  Little Phil skulked away and for a second I thought, "You've blown it...again".

I thought I'd have to begin scouring the want-ads once more, and I beat myself up the entire weekend I'd ridden Evil Connie from our existence, and now I'd overplayed my hand. But damn, my people didn't deserve the flick of his hand!

(You would find me somewhere behind the sign, near those windows, smoking.)

A funny thing happened, though: Bespectacled Phil was actually cowed. He avoided me for about a week. Eventually he and I came to an unspoken understanding. He would no longer make half-assed comments and I would address him with a modicum of respect. Sometimes he'd stop into my glass-encased "office" and plop down in my second chair, shoot the breeze; try to be funny. I always laughed. I wanted detente. I wanted to keep my job. I'd experienced much worse managers. So Phil was a lazy sloth; at least he did little harm. In hindsight, I think he was supremely insecure and puffed himself up to mitigate his vulnerability. That's the difference between men and women. Women castigate themselves for failures. Men over-compensate.

My unit was comprised of over-achievers. No claims unit in the history of US Healthcare had ever achieved 100% quality for a full month. It was unheard of. Until my unit came along and smashed it; not just once, but over and over again. I had some really smart employees -- really smart. Take care of your people and they'll make you look good. My people made me look good. That would lead to something completely unexpected the next year; something I was sure I didn't want, but that Good Ol' Phil told me to "think about and then come back and say yes".

However, before that day arrived, there was music. Maybe small towns breed homogeneity. Maybe we're supposed to disdain that; but maybe we like having people around us who share our tastes. We all liked country in 1996. Those who didn't rarely brought it up in conversation. There was the rare Mariah Carey fan, and I was okay with that, although I admit I tried to steer that wayward wanderer toward George Strait -- as a public service.

My theory is that the music that resonates with us is from a time when we felt good. I've had those eras. I felt good in the mid-eighties, when I had two shining, growing boys and I really liked my hospital job. I felt good in the mid-sixties, when music was new and glistening and life held endless potential. I felt pretty good in the mid-nineties. I'd discovered that I had a voice and I could use it and I wouldn't necessarily get fired.

This music made me feel good:

There was this new girl. I wasn't completely sold on her. Female country artists had a certain protocol they needed to follow, plus she didn't sound like or present herself like any female country artists I knew. The thing was, one couldn't ignore her. I secretly loved her, but publicly dismissed her. I was a rather rigid music aficionado then:

I was never on board the Garth Brooks train. I thought his songs were mostly maudlin and frankly, not country. I think Garth might admit as much. I never understood the Garth Mania, but I guess he was a cross-over and that meant...something. I bought approximately four Garth Brooks CD's and was able to winnow out two...three at the most...decent songs. I did like this one, though, but alas, Garth didn't see fit to film an official video for it. I guess if you don't have a piano and red splotches of blood, it's just not worth one's time:

Clearly, the best country song of 1996 was one that Patsy could have recorded in the sixties. My old DJ friend Bill Mack (not an actual friend, but a lion of country radio who I cherished) wrote this song. Too bad LeAnn Rimes apparently couldn't live up to her hype. She is a phenomenal singer, but she chose to go a different way, which is okay. She'll always have this:

Speaking of Cheyenne, here's George again:

1996 will always be mine and George's year. Professionally speaking.

It would not be long before country became sewer waste and my life would be turned upside down. Music and I soon would take a break.

But it was sublime while it lasted.