Monday, May 10, 2021

Odd Jobs Stories

Odd Jobs Stories

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

There are certain events in one’s life, especially with employment, that one will have tales to tell about the work, the boss, the co-workers, and the people one comes in contact with in these situations. I have worked long enough to gather a host of stories.

Previously, I have blogged about working in two different movie theaters, being employed with racist and bullying coworkers, and other odd situations. Here are some random events, in no chronological order.

* * *

As an instructor, I was teaching people how to use computers from a user perspective, with software such as Word, Excel and Social Media in general. The room was the size of an average bedroom with less than 10 computer stations lining the edge of the room. In one particular class, there were three students. Being an inside room, there were no windows.

As one particular morning class was going on, I heard the door open behind me. No one usually enters the room when the door is closed. A big gentleman came in wearing sunglasses dark enough that I could not see his eyes. He closed the door behind him, and turned off the lights. Without windows, it was pitch black. Luckily, I had been there long enough to turn it back on even in complete darkness.

I had recognized the man from a month before, when he had come into the classroom during the afternoon when it was open for job searching. Rather than seeking employment, I saw that he was looking at inappropriate pictures instead. I told him he had to turn it off and leave. Swivelling around in his chair, he asked me, with a smile, “Who’s your favorite porn actress?”

Answering truthfully, I said, “I don’t have one.”

“Yeah, right,” he replied. Again, I insisted he leave, and after a few minutes, he did. I then told my boss about the incident.

This time, I flicked the light switch back on and said, “Excuse me, but I’m teaching a class, you’re going to have to leave, please.”

Very calmly and without a threatening tone, as he sat in one of the empty chairs, he said, “I’m the teacher now.” Even without sounding hostile, his words chilled me, and I could see the three students were unnerved.

Firmly I said, “No, you’re going to have to leave.” It took about 7 to 10 minutes, but he left. As he walked out the door, he took the plastic hand sanitizer that was on a shelf by the door. I didn’t care, I was just happy he was gone. One of the male, middle aged students said, “I’m shaking. I was afraid I was going to have to knock him out.”

I said, “What would that prove? The main thing is he left. If he hadn’t, I would have called the cops.”

While the class settled down, I excused myself, and informed the boss of what had happened.

Before the class was over, the door opened again, and this time it was a police officer.

Apparently, the man in the sunglasses tried to steal a purse in the lobby, was tackled and the police were called. He had heard about what had happened in my room, and asked for details. I told him everything except for one thing. I didn’t need to do that.

When the officer asked if he had stolen anything, one of the students mentioned the hand sanitizer. I wasn’t going to mention it, but the officer said I needed to sign a paper saying such, and the man, who was out on parole, was rearrested for the purse and the sanitizer theft.

Thankfully, I never saw him again.

* * *

At a new job as a typesetter, I was a newbie and still learning the ins and outs of that particular work environment. It was also a year since my last job as a typesetter, so I was definitely in the rusty department.

Almost two weeks in, on January 28, 1986, I heard a commotion in the far end of the room, and went over to see what was going on. The television in the break area was showing a loop of the space shuttle Challenger exploding.

Like everyone else, I was shaken by the news. I went back to my Verityper, and accidently closed a 40-page document I was working on without saving it. It was lost. Software did not automatically save documents like they do now.

It was close to the end of the day. I went to my boss and explained what happened. As a solution, since it was my fault and acknowledged it as so, was to stay and recreate the document without pay, staying as long as it took. He agreed. I worked on it and had it finished at 10 PM, five hours later. Before I left, I put a note on my boss’s desk to let him know it was done, and what time I was leaving. I bought a burger on the way home, as I was starving.

When I came in the next day, I was expecting him to say thank you, and see that I was dedicated enough to admit to my own mistakes, and take extra measures at no cost to the company. With a satisfied smile on my face of a job well done, I walked in the next morning. To my surprise, the first thing the boss did was fire me on the spot.

Funny thing is, I don’t remember what company it was, or on what I was working. Also, I never felt bad about it. I know I did the right thing, and it was the actions of the boss that was at fault, in my opinion.

* * *

While working at a multinational corporation creating PowerPoint slides for presentations, I was in an elite group of a dozen or so that was assigned to teams for the length of a project (a three-week average), rather than doing piecemeal work when needed, as with most of the other 60 workers doing a similar job. Our group was spread out in rooms across the building, while the rest were in one large room.

One of the rooms in which I was assigned was with two other men that was next door to one that had four women. The air conditioner was in their space so they were always freezing – I worked in that room previously, and it felt like the icicles on my fingers hit the keyboard before my digits – and we were damp with sweat in ours. To solve the problem, rather than putting in a new air conditioner in our room, they decided to knock a hole in the wall so we could share the present air conditioning. But…

They figured out it was a load-bearing wall, so they needed to put two horizontal holes two feet deep and six feet across, with a one-foot brace in the middle. Of course, the brace was right where the air conditioner vent was, so the cool air bounced back into the room, and they remained just as cold, as we nearly as hot. But…

One of the odd outcomes of this was that because the air conditioner was somewhat noisy, we could hear a pin drop in their room, and they could not hear us at all. This led to two incidences.

First, there was a deep conversation in that room about their favorite books and authors. Now, this was not Shakespeare or Dostoevsky-level material. Towards the end they were arguing over the merits of Mary Higgins Clark. The conversation concluded with something that made me laugh hysterically. One of them said, to sum it up, “Well, she’s no Jackie Collins!”

The other event, which was more serious, was while I was working with a team on their project. As a couple of them were standing over my computer trying to get the slides right, the conversation on the other side of the wall turned to the topic of their menstruation, the consistency of it, and the amount of flow.

When the consultants left, the administrative assistant who sat outside our door with whom I was friendly came in and asked me, “What the hell is going on in here?” She heard the two consultants talking about how we were, well, let’s just say of lower class.

I did not want that stink on my reputation, so I went to my boss and lodged an informal complaint. The result was that the room next door was broken up and the people in it were all placed in separate rooms. They never forgave me, but to tell you the truth, I did not care.

* * *

One of the last jobs I had as a typesetter, before the position disappeared into the world of computer layouts, was at a factory in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that made swatches. No, not the watch company, but rather a place that made cloth swatches to show colors and styles for designers and paint stores. My job was to type out the info on the back of the swatch, such as the name of the color (e.g., “Cantaloupe Yellow”), the catalog number, and the name of the company (there were a few). It was tedious, but it was work.

It was not a safe neighborhood at the time, and I had to walk by the infamous Marcy Projects from the Flushing Ave subway station to the factory on Warsoff Place. In fact, the management had a food truck come by at lunch, so the employees would not be wandering around the neighborhood as much.

Across the street was a meat-cutting factory. I have no sense of smell – never did – but I understand the odor was strong. One day, while waiting for the truck so I could buy lunch, I saw a big cardboard box on the sidewalk near the meat plant. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not, but I noticed the box kind of shimmering with small movements.

I wondered if there was an abandoned animal in there, like a puppy or a kitten. So, I went over to see what it was. I opened it, and the box was full – and I mean full – of maggots.

Anyway, while the job was a bit tedious and sweaty (no air conditioning), I was in a separate room from the factory proper where the swatches were produced. There was one other white person than me who typeset, and the entire factory floor was filled with African-Americans, trying to earn a living on minimum wage. The only other white people were the upper management, which had a room overlooking the factory floor where the workers were not allowed. Except me. It was pretty easy to see what was different about me.

I did not like the management. There was definitely a distain for the black workers by them. For example, I waited outside for the food truck at about 11:50, to beat the crowd, who came out when the factory whistle blew. I was casually talking to one of the members of management (if I remember correctly, one of the owners) just outside the door on the sidewalk, who was also waiting. Another worker, who was a person of color, stepped out at 11:55, and this manager screamed at him to get back inside until the siren went off, and then continued talking to me. Again, it was pretty obvious to me why I was allowed out early, but not the other worker. I started planning my escape from the job.

Around that time, people were getting mugged left and right as they either walked around the neighborhood during lunch, or on their way to or from the factory. One day I was talking to an older black gentleman, and jokingly said, “I keep hearing about people getting mugged. How come I haven’t been mugged yet?”

He said, quite seriously, which I was not expecting as I was just kidding around, as I am wont to do, “Well, they see you’re thin and white in this neighborhood, so they’re assuming you have a weapon.”

That scared the bejeezus out of me. Two weeks later, I had another job. Normally I would give two weeks notice, but I was offered the job on a Friday, to start Monday, and I gave my notice right as I was leaving. Considering the attitude of the upper bosses, I did not feel bad doing that; it was the only time I had ever left with not at least two weeks notice.

The building is now a Hassidic yeshiva.

* * *

At one time, I was working in a room with two others who did the same job. As I was on a later shift, I went home at 8 pm. One of the other people in the room left at 5 PM, and the last, E_____, at 9 PM. This latter worker started at this company well before I joined, about 10 years before this incident.

Now, I am good at my job, so I had finished everything I had to do at around 7:45 PM. I took my time going to the washroom, and came back at 7:55, just in time to gather my things, turn off the computer, and go home for the night.

When I walked back into the shared room, with five minutes left to my shift, the 9 PM person angrily said to me, “Where the hell were you?!”

“I was in the bathroom, why?”

“You’ve been gone for 10 minutes! Why did it take you so long?!”

Needless to say, I was taken aback by this and said, “Why does that matter to you? Did you want me to take pictures of my poop to prove it to you? Besides, my work is completed. And you are not my boss.” She turned around in a huff and I walked out the door. By the time I got home, it wasn’t even on my mind.

The next day, a couple of hours after I started working on a new batch of slides that were given to me by my team, I received a call from my boss to come to his office. I walked in with a smile and said, “What’s up?”

He grumpily said to me, “What the hell happened last night?”

It was so far from my thoughts, I asked what he was talking about.

“I got a phone call at home after 8 PM from E_____, saying you yelled at her and accused you of not doing your job.”

Laughing, I told him what happened, explaining that I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore. He was calmed down by my ease, and said, okay, and told me to go back to my desk. He also believed me because I am honest at work. If I make a mistake, I will admit to it and try to fix it, and if someone else helped me or came up with a good idea, I always gave credit. As I walked out, I heard him make a call and say, “E_____, can you come down here, please?”

Two months later, she was let go.

* * *

Working in a large room, my station faced another desk. It was an open concept office, so the wall came up to below shoulder level. Talking to the person facing you was common, that in this case, V_____, who is Puerto Rican, was fun to talk to between typing.

One day she accidently called me Frank. I so understood it. In a brief second, I caught that between having a co-worker with that name and my last name being Francos, I could connect the dots and did not feel a need to force the issue. It was not important, really.

A few seconds later she asked me, “Did I just call you Frank? Oh, I’m so sorry!” I explained that people mistake my name all the time. “I’m also often called by my middle name, Barry.”

The man who was sitting behind her, who was Venezuelan, quickly turned around and said, “Hey! My middle name is Barry, too!”

My joking reply was, “Well, I guess I’ll have to change mine, then.” Rather than laughing, he got furious, which puzzled me, honestly.

“What, we can’t have the same middle name!? You don’t like having the same name as me?!” Wow, this is crazy, I thought. Like I was really going to change my name because of him? And he was known for being a jokester, which also was part of my confusion of his taking my joke as reality. Then he started to physically threaten to take me outside.

V_____ turned around and said something to him in Spanish that was short and pointed. I don’t know what she said, but he spun around and he didn’t bother me again.

He was let go not long after that, after calling a gay co-worker a sexual slur, and threatening to throw him out the window. Scary thing is, when he left the job, he became a cop.

* * *

For a very short time, I worked as a proof-reader for a large corporation in the early 1980s, in a windowless basement office on Lexington Avenue. Man, it was a boring job, most of the time. My general job was to read rows and rows of numbers on one sheet and compare them to numbers on another sheet. By three o’clock, I was ready to nap, and daily had a big cup of tea. I even bought one of those spiral water heaters for my huge cup.

I enjoyed reading the resumes of people who were applying for jobs and were turned down (I had to match the names and addresses on the resumes to those on the envelope with the rejection letter. Most of these requests were unsolicited. I was amazed at some of the unprofessional resumes that were sent to such a Fortune 500 company by college graduates, many from graduate schools. One was written out in red pencil.

One of the things about this job was that I made myself flexible, to keep it interesting. There was a Vydec machine in the middle of the room; it was huge with three screens, used for mass mailings. The screen on one side had the addresses, the screen on the other side had the original letter, and the one in the center showed the two combined. Now it is handled by the Word software as Mail Merge. I taught myself how to use the machine by using the official instructional cassette tapes on a transcription machine with headsets. The speaker/instructor talked very slow and precise. I remember one part of it went, “This is a keyboard. The keyboard is your friend. On the keyboard are a number of keys. On each key is a letter, number, or symbol. When you press on a key, the letter, number, or symbol that appears on the key will be on the screen at the cursor…” I thought, “You need to be typing more than 60 words per minute just to sit down on this thing, so why are they trying to teach me to type?” I turned up the speed of the transcription machine, and got through the three-day course in less than one day.

The other great thing was that there was a Verityper in a corner, and as I knew how to typeset, with both these machines, I would fill in when someone was ill. The people working those machines made more money than I did, but I did not get any extra funds at those times, so the boss was happy. What made me especially joyful was that, after the boss left, I typeset my fanzine, FFanzeen, and saved a ton of money that way, not needing a printshop.

The boss was a wonder, and I do not mean that in a nice way. She treated her workers like they were her servants, rather than employees. This was no surprise, because she would invite people coming to see her into her office, such as sales people or upper management, by saying, “Come on in, said the spider to the fly.” I heard her say this numerous times.

One of the ways she tried to control us is when she needed someone to be between her and the proofreaders. Rather than using one of us, she hired some young thing just out of college named Lisle (short for Elizabeth). Needless to say, we resented her and no one paid her much mind.

One day, at about three in the afternoon, I was having my daily fix of wake-up tea, and Lisle walked by. Under her breath, she murmured, “Boy was in a hallway drinking a glass of tea.” My ears immediately perked up. Patti Smith was not as well known then. I stated, “From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating.” She whipped around, shocked that anyone knew the secret of Patti. In unison, we started chanting, “The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run…” The boss came out and yelled at us, “This is a place of business! There is no singing in here!” We became close friends for a few years after that, even going to Max’s a few times with her friends and boyfriend at the time, who was in Fred’s Band. Our boss was not happy about it.

She let me go not much longer after that.

* * *

Working for a large corporation at 5 World Trade Center in the mid-1980s, I was hired for two months via an employment agency. It was a large in-house printshop, and I was hired for a particular project. They figured it would take me a month to learn the typesetting equipment, and a month to do the project. They did not know that I already knew the machine, and I handed in the project on the Friday at the end of the first month.

Now I was in a dilemma: I was hired for two months to do this project, but did it in a month. But they hired me for two months… Finally, what I decided to do is just come in on Monday, as the whole thing was not brought up by my boss. There was one other typesetter, who was very hippie-like and sweet, and I knew she was feeling overworked. So, when I came in on that new week, I just started helping her. And then the week after that, and so on. I worked there for two years that way, and finally convinced by boss that it was cheaper to hire me on than to keep paying the exorbitant employment agency fee. He agreed, so I quit on a Friday, much to the chagrin of the agency, and was hired on that Monday. I worked there an additional two-and-a-half years.

One of my co-workers, C____, who was a paste-up person, had kind of a like-hate relationship with me. I liked him, and it was rarely reciprocated. One day we were all sitting around and C____ said a quote from West Side Story by the character, Action. I smiled and said, “Easy, Action,” a line by another character, Cool. I love obscurity, and I thought we would high-five over this, but instead, he got angry at me, like I had stolen something proprietary from him. To this day, I do not understand that attitude. I would have thought it was great if someone had done that to me.

Another time, he was working and softly singing to himself. It was kind of a high-pitched voice that one sometimes uses when doing that sort of thing. In humor, I said, “Is that the Chipmunks version? He was furious and actually chased me around the large room. I hope he found peace.

Sometimes, the upper mucky-mucks would have us do personal stuff. For example, a Vice President requested I do his Christmas Party invite. There were two checked box choices; one was “Ho Ho Ho, I will attend,” and the other was “Bah, humbug, I will not attend.” Clever.

Rather than just doing as I was ordered, I phoned him up – I did not know him other than by name – and said, “If you want to be accurate, it should be “Bah! Humbug! I will not attend.” I took my chances. Luckily, he loved it, and awarded me a gift of a really fancy hand calculator. I was touched. I kept that calculator, still in its box, until literally last month, when I gave it away to a charitable organization for them to sell and raise money.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

MTV: Watching Rock’n’Roll History [1983]

By Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1983
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

This article was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #10, dated 1983, by FFanzeen Managing Editor, Julia Masi.

There is a maxim in Media Ecology theory that states that when a technology is introduced to a culture, it does not change any one thing, it changes everything. With the state of MTV these days, it’s hard to fathom just how revolutionary MTV was during its heyday. You know, when they actually played music rather than be a boring, same-old-same-old reality television station; “Big Brother”? More like “Why Bother”?

How did MTV chance the face of music since its inception in 1981? It introduced a lot of music to the culture that would have normally been missed. Ultravox is mentioned below as an example, but it went well beyond that. But as another Media Ecological bon mot goes, every positive thing a technology brings, there is an equally powerful negative that comes with it that is unforeseen (what Marshall McLuhan called “Reave View Mirror Thinking”). In this case, it became such a juggernaut that if a band didn’t have a professional-level video, it went unnoticed on the station. As it became bigger and more powerful, other stations would try to show music videos (such as “New York Hot Tracks” (WABC), “Friday Night Videos” (WNBC), “Night Flight”(USA Network), and U68 in New York and V66 in Boston), but MTV insisted on exclusivity or nothing.

As much as J.J. Jackson talks below about MTV being more “progressive” than radio, yeah, it started that way, but it was not long before you saw the same videos over and over, making it merely a visual Top-40. Also, Jackson posits about how people were into the looks of bands. MTV actually became a leader in this due to its visual nature. If the band was not “pretty,” odds were they were not seen.

As MTV became more popular, the videos also started to change to try and try harder to catch the eye. The editing quickened from a few seconds at a time, to rapid-fire, shortening the attention span of its audience. This quickening of edits would influence feature films, video games, and so many other aspects. In short, MTV became everything it proposed to be against in this article.

What ended MTV as it was when this article came out? In my opinion, it was their fight against R&B music. Other than the likes of Michael Jackson and a few other artists, it’s could have been called WhiteTV. I can’t remember if it was an actual lawsuit or the threat of one, that they added hip hop and rap to their roster, introducing it to a white, suburban audience. This was also ground breaking in spreading rap beyond its East and West Coast bailiwicks. But as much as it turned on a new audience to the style, it also lost a lot of its older audience, and eventually its stock just couldn’t mandate its shareholder profit demand. MTV became…something else. Sure, it began VH1, MTV2, MTV Classics, and the like, but it never really held the sway it once did.  – Robert Barry Francos, 2021.

Slightly more than a year ago, Warner Amex Communications set the cable industry on its ear when they launched MTV, Music Television, the most unique and successful concept ever to hit the airwaves. Offering 24 hours, 7 days a week, of non-stop rock’n’roll music, videos, interviews, concerts and movies, MTV has captured the hearts and viewing time of the 12 to 36 year-old market in over six million homes. And as it sheds a much deserved spotlight on up and coming music and video artists, it also gives a boost to the sagging sales for the record companies.

MTV sprang forth from the dreams and dedication of Bob Pitman and John Lack. Pitman, Senior Vice President of Warner Amex and a veteran of commercial radio, had always wanted to do something with music on television, but felt stagnated by the old format of simulated concerts or just watching kids dancing to records. As more and more bands began making videos, Pitman became inspired with the concept of MTV. He realized that music television could be a viable program at Warner Amex, and was willing to experiment with its possibilities.

JJ Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, Alan Hunt
He spent months researching his target audience before recruiting a dedicated crew of 23 technical people, three directors and five “perfect” personalities to act as VJs – Video Jockeys – to host particular segments of the programming day, as well as special interviews, concerts and MTV parties. Each of the VJs, Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunt and Martha Quinn, have either a background in radio or theater. But the common denominator among everyone at MTV is the endless enthusiasm and unlimited energy that they’re willing to pour into the project.

Executive Producer Julian Goldberg believes that MTV is “advancing the speed at which cable was going to go anyway. One of the promises of cable,” he claims, “was that it would not be an imitation of the networks. You can have 100 channels and each one could be a specific channel. You could have a channel of comedy all day, a channel of finance, a channel of cooking all day. But people were afraid to tackle that and MTV, and other Warner Amex channels, The Movie Channel and Nickelodeon (programming for children) are the first to actually take on one specific audience all day long. We don’t want you to tune in if you want the news or sports information, or financial information. We want you to tune in when you want music. And we don’t mind if you leave us a while because we know that you’ll always come back for the music because that’s what we give you 24 hours a day, every day.”

Before he made the move to MTV, Goldberg was happily employed as a freelance Field Producer for a number of magazine programs, including “Kids Are People Too,” “Hour Magazine,” “Real People,” and “Good Morning America.” Although he’s given to working 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, he still possesses an elegant demeanor and athletically trim physique that would be just as at home in front of the camera, as in a Brooks Brothers ad. “I came over as a consultant to the television end,” he recalls, “just to get the visuals together as a producer, without the producer’s title. I liked it so much, and was so blown away by how innovative it was, and the opportunity to build something that was new and completely different, that I’ve stayed.” He is extremely proud that MTV “has the fastest growth of any cable system anywhere, ever. We’re getting 25 million letters a week from viewers, which is unprecedented by anything anybody has ever done. And, at the same time, we’re pulling it off. Nobody’s ever tackled anything for 24 hours a day where they’re really producing it all the time and getting it on the air. A telethon is the only thing I can think of. And that only once a year. We’re doing it every day and we’ll continue to do it far, far in to the future.”

Actress Nina Blackwood first heard about MTV while wrapping up her work on the film Vice Squad. “I first saw an advertisement in one of the trades for this new music channel and quickly sent in my resume,” remembers the sultry blonde. She’s been involved with some form of rock’n’roll for quite a while, having made a bit of a name for herself singing and playing rock’n’roll harp in clubs around Los Angles. “From my outlook, it’s an obvious metamorphosis of the industry. Video is a logical progression. People really seem to watch hours and hours of it. And the artists are benefiting from the sales. I love video. I went home on vacation and sat up until dawn with my friend who works on them. I just did the interworks, with ideas. I’ve never actually done the editing but I know what it takes to be done. And I know that your eyes go and everything starts looking like a video.” Nina, who is an art buff, is pleased with the way MTV offers outlets for those who “have really been pushed aside for a long while. They really starve, literally, and can get jobs with videos, by doing set designs.

“Russell Mulcahy, he’s an artist who has done the Ultravox videos, and they are just gorgeous. People I know that are that kind of artist, are getting involved in video. It’s a very valid form of art. It’s also a retrospect going back to opera, in a funny way. When opera was in its heyday it was the story with the music. It’s not the same type of singing, but it’s the same type of thing with the technical aspect.”

Alan Hung came to MTV by way of the Shakespearean theatre and television commercials. With his quick open smile and smooth Southern drawl, he doesn’t have to try to be charming. “I don’t think video will have an adverse effect on theatre or film,” he states, “or that the entertainment media has an effect on video. In other words, you’re getting all these film directors that are really starting to get involved, but maybe as a sideline, some as a full-time thing. Russell Mulcahy is a Video Director / Producer that has been talked about a lot, and he’s done some super videos that are film quality. Actually, he does them in film. So, we’ll see the film industry or theatre side of things; there are certainly a couple of clips that are theatrical in that sense. The Tubes do theatrical stage work in their shows and that transfers to video.

“It will all help video; it will make the rock’n’roll artist come out of their shell a little bit more, if they’re gonna do video work. And a lot of them like the chance. They like that thought of ‘now I get to act a little,’ and in some concept, like storyline videos, they play a little character. But I think video will come from theater, or from quality film rather than video having an effect on the others. Theater will be what they are, regardless of where this video thing goes. But video is gonna take off because of its roots.

“If they get the television screen down, like they think they will, I’ve heard all sorts of things about holography and three-dimensional television. I think that certainly is going to come. And we’ll have laser TVs or whatever. Video you can’t say anything, but it’s gonna be like the thing. It’s gonna be up there with the films and the theatre. And video music is ‘here to stay,’ as they say. A cliché.

“You’re gonna get artists with whole albums, you know, like Blondie and Olivia Newton-John. There’s probably a financial problem with that right now in the record industry. They just can’t afford to put the money into that. And they’re not quite sure of the market yet. MTV is starting to prove that there is a market for this thing called viewing music, video music. So they’re starting to see the advantages of not only marketing the records through radio stations, but making videos of the artists as well, ‘cause that doubles the pleasure, I guess. Not only to hear your favorite artist, but to see him, too, in stereo.

“I think video music is going out the top of the roof. There’s no stopping it. Everything is going to be visual. You’re gonna have everything right in your own home. And if you can see it as well as listen to it, why not? Radio may take a different form, but people will always want to listen to the radio. Sometimes you may feel you’re inundated with too much by all your senses and you might want to just rely on your ears. I still think it’s a whole lot of fun to listen to a story told on the radio and invent your own imagery. There will still be a place for radio because certainly we’ll still have a car and people won’t want to watch television while they’re driving. As far as the kind of music that will be played on radio, it’s hard to say. I don’t think it’s going to just be Top-40 AM radio. It will always have a talk format. But I still believe there is an audience for music radio. (MTV) won’t be the death of the radio.”

The very first nationwide VJ was Mark Goodman. A former Philadelphia disc jockey, Mark interrupted his 7-year stint in radio to be part of MTV. Although soft-spoken and seemingly sincere, you can’t help but notice the spirit of a frustrated comedian in his bright brown eyes. When pushed for an answer, he admits that he “sort of” plays an instrument. “I play the stereo,” he quips. “I used to play the drums; in Junior High, I was in a band called Mach Five. We played one gig and I decided, ‘This is not for me’: small problem with the beat. Just a minor thing. So I figured, I’m out of this. I love music. What am I going to do to make my living at it? So I became a DJ, and this was the next step. The rest is rock history!

“It’s gonna grow and mean the birth of a new kind of artist and a new kind of musician who will think in terms of a broader concept than other artists have. I don’t think it’s the death of radio; I think it’s going to do a wonder for radio because television, just by its nature, is just more crass. I can’t remember which  side of the brain – I think it’s the right side - that’s working harder when you need your associate functions, your imaginative functions; when you read something you have to use that side of your brain to put things together to give you a picture. Television shuts that off. Here it is – blah! That’s both a blessing and a curse at the same time. That’s why I’m checking into video art, because all of a sudden then it starts to work outside the brain.

“Radio is magic in and of itself. Because it’s only audio, it’s magic to me. We’re never going to replace that. (MTV) is the next step. It can be the future of rock’n’roll. I think it can give it this shot in the arm that it needs. I think we’re gonna shake up the networks. Cable TV, in general, is gonna shake up the networks, and us specifically, because we have people watching us in the middle of the night. They’re (network executives) thinking they’d better do something at night. We’ve got people watching. Where it goes, for me is another question.”

Petite, blue-eyed Martha Quinn began her broadcasting career as the soul DJ at the New York University Radio Station (WNYU), “the magic of radio.” Her musical tastes include “everything from folk to funk,” and the variety of MTV’s videos is one of the reasons she’s so proud to be a VJ.

“I really believe your cable dial will be similar to your radio dial in that you can find these kinds of formats. We will by no means be the only one. We can always say we were the world’s first. As far as what it will do to radio, I think it will always find a niche. You cannot take MTV with you in your car. You can’t run around the block listening to MTV on your headphones. You just can’t do it. You’d run into somebody! It’s the same thing when television came in: people thought it would destroy radio. They just found their own place.”

J.J. Jackson [d. 2004, age 62 – RBF, 2020] had been a rock’n’roll DJ for 13 years. Most of that time he spent in Los Angeles, where he made a name for himself as a pioneer in FM radio. He was attracted to MTV because it reminded him of everything that was good about Progressive Radio. “One of the problems, what’s missing today, is that kids don’t’ know enough about music as it was before. They think that guitar started and stops with Jimmy Page. And it really didn’t. And if they’d listen to what Page had listened to they’d know more about their own instruments, but that’s neither here nor there.

“American kids today are really uninformed. It’s like, my record library, which is really quite extensive, sometimes you walk into a place where you have too much choice, therefore you don’t make a very good one. That’s why I think the English have dominated the music scene for so long, because they have very little choice in radio and so little money to play with, that it means an awful lot more to them. Having been over there a number of times, when they go out to buy a record, they don’t buy it because Joe Blow is cute. Where in this country, an awful lot of your success depends on how good looking you are, not how well you play your instrument. And I’m not putting America down, it’s just that sometimes it’s just too much.

“I think that’s why the music came to a head in the late ‘60s. If nothing else, what the hippies gave to the kids, which is rarely mentioned, was how to appreciate music. Which, unfortunately, has been bastardized to the point where kids don’t know anymore, because FM radio has gotten very much like Top-40 radio was in the ‘60s.

“When I was doing FM at WBCN [Boston], it was free form radio. The only record a disc jockey knew he was going to play was the first record, and that’s because he had it in his head. From then on it was a spin-off. He didn’t care about names or labels or whose record was selling like hotcakes in Seattle. You played it ‘cause you liked it, or whatever.

“Also, you could build themes. You could play Django Reinhart and Stockhausen and Mozart, and as the night progressed, evolve into ELP. Therefore you could entertain and be quite educational.

“A good example of what I’m talking about is, you take Led Zeppelin’s second album, where Robert Plant says, ‘Squeeze my lemon,’ which, when it came out, was a very salacious line, which it is no longer. Then a kid could learn on a radio station like WBCN that it wasn’t an original line, but that it was taken from Robert Johnson, and not the Robert Johnson we know now with “Read Hot,” but the Robert Johnson from 1936, an old Black blues star, because Plant’s very much into those kinds of people: Elmore James and Robert Johnson. That (line) was taken from an old 1936 song. You could play that one line from the record and go into Led Zeppelin and the kids not only become entertained but educated. And the kid learns that there really is nothing new under the sun, and that all those riffs have been done before.

“It’s a shame that we’re living in a time when you can turn on the radio, with the possible exception of WNEW, and hear an Elvis Presley, and not hear an Elmore James, not hear a Muddy Waters, on a so-called rock station.

“One of the things I do take pride in MTV is that it is more progressive than radio stations are; it truly is. Where else are you going to find Spandau Ballet on the radio stations in New York City? Spandau Ballet is no big deal for us. We play a lot of unsigned bands, New Wave bands, and mainstream bands. Since video is fairly new and there’s not that many things you can go back to, radio stations, and in this case television stations, should reflect what happened yesterday, because that has a great deal to do with what’s happening today. And today has a great deal to do with what will happen tomorrow. And if you can reflect that in your programming, and at the same time entertain as well as inform, then you’re giving them the whole ball of wax.

“I think we’re doing a service that radio doesn’t do any more. It’s easier to get a video on MTV than it is to get your record played on most radio stations in the country. I’m really proud that MTV is that progressive, but I’m really sorry for the state of radio.

“It’s nice to get letters in from, say, the Midwest, that has been a bastion of supporting bands like REO Speedwagon and basic mainstream rock’n’roll bands, saying ‘I thought I hated New Wave,’ because they thought New Wave was a term that appealed to everything from Black Flag and X, to Fear, all the way over to Ultravox. Maybe they’ve found that they can’t handle Black Flag, but they can handle Ultravox. Or some of them can handle Black Flag. But that’s the whole thing, once they see them; Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ is an incredible piece of work and I think that bands will do an awful lot better when they come through America again because of video.”

And from the looks of things, America seems to think that video equals MTV.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Documentary Review: Jazz in China

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

Jazz in China
Directed by Eugene Marlow
MEII Enterprises
76 minutes, 2021

April 30 is International Jazz Day, so it seemed appropriate to check out this spankin’ new documentary on the topic.

Jazz is an oxymoron, such as is playing the sitar: there are relatively strict rules dependent on subgenre, but within those rules there is also a freedom of form and expression that makes the music itself nearly meta. To me, this seems to fit in why it works so well in China.

Media Professor and pianist/composer Eugene Marlow, who I have had the pleasure to hear speak, looks into the relationship of jazz and Chinese culture and music. This film is based on Marlow’s book, Jazz in China: From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression (2018).

The opening segments of the documentary, which is about the first half, is partly a history lesson of 20th Century China. It starts with the introduction of jazz to the continent, mostly through the ports of Shanghai. Just as Chinese furniture and styles such as silks were becoming prominent in the import cities of America including San Francisco and New York, the States started exporting music and culture. The free nature of the prominent version of jazz, namely swing, caught on through the introduction of vinyl platters and cinema.

Shanghai, especially, hosted many of America’s musicians, who played at upscale nightclubs. Because there were no segregation rules, both Black and White musicians were allowed to play together in Shanghai venues. This changed, though, when Japan invaded the Chinese land, laying major damage to Chinese cultural institutions and clubs. And just as it was starting to ramp back up after the War, the Communist Revolution squashed anything that wasn’t government sponsored, including classical music. It was a nationwide Flashdance-like suppression.

After Mao’s passing, classical music was permitted, and jazz came back not long after. But by this time, the jazz was more freestyle bop and fusion. It was quickly accepted, and was played on both western style instruments, as well as national, such as the Erhu (二胡).

The latter half of the film discusses more the modern (1980s and onward) influence of jazz, where it stands now, how the government views and regulates it, and where it might go into the future. All fascinating, especially if you are a fan of the genre.

Throughout, one of the main points are the influences in the country, ranging from the introduction of illegal cassette tapes to artists like Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald. There are multitudes of clips of these and other musicians spanning the years, placed at just the right moments of the narrative to enhance the commentary.

The talking heads here are brief, not overstaying their welcome, just long enough to give us the information we need. There are a few western authors and academics, but mostly it’s the musicians themselves, such as Coco Zhao and A Bu, and organizers of the jazz festivals. Rather than focusing on the people who write about the music, a vast majority of those discussing the music are the Chinese musicians themselves, about how they discovered the sound and what it means to them. Again, we get to see many clips of each of them at their instruments in various venues. It is beautifully collected.

To add some of my own views here, in the 1920s and ‘30s, when swing jazz started to spread both here and in especially Shanghai, it was an explosion of culture as jazz was both accepted by the people in that city from the original musicians, both Black and White, as well as it being absorbed and assimilated by the local culture. This is shown in the early part of the documentary quite well, with recordings and films of the time.

When the Communist regime of Mao started to fade in the 1970s, the Chinese were in a similar situation as the African-Americans during the Jim Crow period, full of cultural and governmental oppression, fear of persecution, and stifling of any other lifestyle than the Cultural Revolution. There was a sense of freedom with some hesitation (what I call cultural PTSD, which is somewhat of what the United States is going through at the moment), that reflected the zeitgeist of what is known as the Black experience, and the Chinese, through a music that was used to break out of that strait-jacket in an explosion of free form jazz, identified with the undercurrent of what the music meant to its originators.

Also, I believe that as restrictions from the government have grown over the past few years, especially after Tiananmen Square (1989), the freedom of jazz became a concern to officials, as a symbol of freedom of expression. As one of the commentators says in the documentary, some cities, like Beijing, jazz festivals are an iffy proposition, and even in Shanghai, home of the world’s largest jazz festival, there is a mountain of red tape (no pun intended) that the organizers must wade through to get the fest on.

While I have not read his book yet, Marlow keeps the information flowing, and even more importantly, emphasizes his film’s comments with the actual music. While I enjoy jazz, it is not my forte, and this kept my interest intact from beginning to end. Breaking it up into sections with title cards are just the right thing to do, and having the name identifiers captioned under the artists multiple times was extremely helpful.

The viewer can tell this is a film of passion by Marlow, as well as that of its participants. The organizer of the Shanghai Jazz Festival describes jazz  – in relation to rock or EDM – as peaceful and relaxing. I half agree, in that jazz may not make you want to jump up and down and mosh, but it is an exciting and heart-thumping sound when it is done right. And Marlow shows how it can easily cross both oceans and cultural lines. Bravissimo.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Tales of Job Huntin’

Tales of Job Huntin’

 Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

I love my job, I truly do. It is the best job I have ever had. My average length of employment at a job lasted 5 years, with some of them being over a decade. Even with that, over the years I have gone through many job interviews; some have been great (even those that I did not get), and others complete disasters (for which I was hired). While highly serious at the time, looking back I can see the humor of it all. Here is the story of some of them over the years. This is, it should be noted, not in chronological order, but rather as I remember them.

* * *

I went for my third interview as a PowerPoint Specialist for business meetings with a multinational corporation on a Friday on a beautiful Spring day. I had met the Human Resources (HR) team on the first one, the head of HR in the second, and for the third, it was the Department Manager, i.e., my potential boss’s boss. He was a big scruff of a man with a lumberjack beard and a big smile. I had been sent there by a man at an employment agency who looked like he could have been on “The Sopranos,” who was excited at the prospect. As it was a good paying position, relatively, his “cut” would be substantial. While not in the chair more than five minutes, he offered me the position. He informed me that the hours were noon to 8 p.m. I was unsure, which took the guy by surprise. I asked him if I could think about it until Monday. He hesitantly agreed, and I left

After exiting the building, I went to a pay phone and called the agency and filled him in. He asked me to come by and fill out some paperwork. I took the train down to the office, and when I went in and sat down next to his desk, he stood up and literally slapped me across the head.

“Are you out of your freakin’ (not the word he used) mind?! This is the best job you’ll ever see in your life, so you better damn well take it!” I was so startled that I agreed, and he called the boss’s boss and told him I was accepting.

I started there two weeks later, and worked there for well over a decade. I am grateful for that head slap.

* * *

I applied for an Assistant position at a large financial company, and was called in for an interview. There were two people conducting the conference, including the head of HR and the woman who would be my boss. I was in my best suit, as were they. They started firing questions at me in very quick succession.

As soon as they asked, I answered, and before long, it was actually pretty relaxed; we were laughing and they seemed really happy with my answers. But never, ever talk without thinking, so my guard was up as I was still enjoying it all.

The potential boss asked me, at about the 40-minute mark, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I thought to myself, “I just want to work and be left alone to do the best job I can,” but that would not be a good answer, so what I said instead was, “I wouldn’t mind moving up at some point.” The message I was conveying was that I was a hard worker, and was there for the duration, not as a stepping stone to another job if it came up. It was a good, solid answer.

What took me by surprise was the response by the boss: “The only place to move up is my job.”

The entire mood of the room changed in a snap. You could practically see the icicles starting to form along the bookcases in the room.

Two more questions, and I was out the door. Of course, I never heard from them again, even though I followed up with a phone call that got as far as reception. At first, I blamed myself for giving a bad answer, but I have since discussed it with employment professionals, and have learned and accepted that it actually was a good answer, but one cannot predict how the person listening to the comment heard it, in this case as a threat. That was on her, not me, and in retrospect, probably a good reason for my health that I did not work there.

* * *

While working at a multinational corporation in Manhattan, I heard there was an opening in the Boston office for the equivalent of my boss’s position. It was a nice promotion, and I figured I could move to Boston pretty easily, being five hours away from where I lived, and I already had lots of friends there.

During the interview, the person who would have been my boss asked me, during the 1-hour process, “What would you do to motivate your staff?” I replied, “Well, mostly, I would let them know when they are doing a good job, rather than only hearing from me when there was a problem” (a pet peeve of mine).

He smiled with a facial expression of enlightenment as his face lit up, and started to write that down (the first time his pen touched paper). I thought to myself, “You need to write down to be nice to your staff? I don’t want to work for you.”

After leaving the building, I hung around the Boston Common, which was a couple of blocks away, until I needed to get to the airport to fly home (on their dine). A week later, I heard from them that they had hired the person who had been temporarily filling the position (the inside candidate). I was relieved, because I knew I would turn it down.

A few months later, during an office gathering, my boss pulled me aside and said, “I’m glad you didn’t get that job for a couple of reasons. First, you’re a good employee and make my life easier, and second, that guy is an asshole.”

* * *

In the years I was a computer typesetter in the 1980s, I applied for a position at a medical magazine. The pay was really decent, the highest I had been offered, and my father had been pressuring me to find something as I had been out of work for a year even with searching the Sunday New York Times section, and going to employment agencies. I had left a position at a multinational financial corporation in the World Trade Center, and needed a job.

They gave me a typing test on a Selectric typewriter, and I had 90 words per minute. They were happy. Then they showed me where I would be stationed. It was an exceedingly small room, with no window, even on the door, that had obviously been a closet at one point. The machine was in the corner of the room in which the only light in the entire space was the one on the machine that was aimed at the standee that held the papers from which I was to import the text.

Also, the machine used a chemical process to apply to the paper that was to be used for layouts. The boxes of chemicals took up the other half of the room along with the processor. They casually mentioned that the door had to stay closed because the smell of the chemicals bothered those on the other side of it. The lit side. While I have no sense of smell, so the order would not bother me, it still meant I would be inhaling the fumes. I thought, “no wonder the pay is so good.”

I went home and the next day, they offered me the job. I turned it down. Even my father said that it was a good choice.

* * *

I met someone who worked at the library, and she suggested I apply. So I did, and got called in for an interview. I had just moved to a city in another country, so this would be my first job there, other than some freelance editorial work on a book focused on Human Ecology.

For this interview, there were four people grilling me. Luckily, they asked me rapid-fire questions for which I had ready answers. One of the benefits of many interviews is you get to know what may be some of the questions (e.g., “Tell us a work experience that was stressful,” which is code for “tell us how you overcame it,” not an invitation to kvetch). They seemed pleased with my answers, and I left.

A few days later, I received a call that offered me the position. All I needed to do was bring in a copy of my Master’s Certificate in Media Ecology (Media Theory) from New York University, and to get a police Criminal Record Check, which is common in this city, especially on positions that deal with the public and are run by the City.

I have never been arrested in my life, so I was not worried. With my Master’s Degree in hand, I went to the main police station, and requested my record. The officer at the desk said, “Since this is for the library and you will be with children, you have to go for a Vulnerable Sector check,” which is a national one rather than city-wide.”

“Sure, no problem.” I was not worried about it at all.

“The results will take six to eight months to come back.”

Shocked, I said, “Don’t you guys have computers?”

She laughed and said, “Yes, but it has to go to the nation’s capitol, and there has been people coming in from the hurricane in Haiti, and some boat people have arrived. We put them at the highest priority, which is delaying the responses.”

I said, truthfully, “And rightfully so.” I had the search done anyway.

The police station was across the street from the library, so I walked over (again, in my nice suit) and gave them my Degree to photocopy, and told them what happened at the police station. I said, “I haven’t been in the city very long, and I have an FBI report that I needed to get into the country that shows I’m clear for the rest of the time. In the meanwhile, I will attest in writing that I have never been in trouble with the law and have it notarized.”

She looked sad, and said, “Legally, it has to be from our government. I believe you, but I have no choice but to rescind the offer because we cannot wait for the report that long.”

The report came in seven months, and by that time I had another job. The library called and asked me if I wanted the position, and I said I would have, but I am happy in my new job, even though the pay is a bit less.

* * *

While going for a job as a typesetter, I was in the office of the Departmental Manager, and he asked me, “What is the difference between serif text and sans serif? I had no idea at the moment. It was never an issue at the typesetting jobs I had before. Luckily, before I could answer, he got called away for a moment. In that extra time of five or ten minutes, I remembered what it was as I had looked up information about typesetting in a library some time before.

When he returned, I was smiling and gave him the correct answer, referring to the serifs as “squiggles.” He smiled at that, and offered me the job at the end of the interview. I only worked there for two weeks due to my boss’s unrealistic expectations for a new employee, but I do remember the day before I left was when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, and we watched it on television in the break room.

* * *

Someone told me I should try to be a 911 operator. If I remember, it was a 12-hour shift from noon to midnight, and the next day midnight to noon, and then a few days off. It was also extremely well paid, with lots of vacation time, though the work could be quite stressful. I figured, sure, why not.

Going online, I filled out an application, and made it to the testing stage. Even though my job would be to sit in a room with a computer and headset, I would still be considered a police officer, so I would have to take the tests (not the physical ones, which I would never have passed with my age and physical condition).

Downtown, there is a convention and performance center, and the test was conducted in one of the huge meeting rooms. It was myself and about 100 other people. It was a three-hour, multiple choice exam, which consisted of hundreds of questions that seemed random, but were meant to show a personality profile. It almost felt schizophrenic. It would be like: “Would you prefer a red balloon or a blue balloon?” “Do you like cloudy days or sunny days?” “How would you approach someone pointing a gun at your head?”

I finished the test, and went home, having absolutely no idea how I did. Shortly after, I got an email requesting my high school transcript. Say what? I phoned them up and said, “I did not do well in high school, but I aced my Master’s. Don’t you want those transcripts instead? They are more accurate.” I was told no; they wanted the high school one. I paid a large fee for the transcript to the school I was bullied and truant in because of it, and never heard from them again. I have no idea if it was the transcript or the test that did me in.

* * *

(photo by Heather Fritz)

I was starting to look for work and not having much luck after leaving my last position and moving, so I went to an agency. They gave me a typing test, had me sit through a three-hour lecture on job searching skills that I already knew from years of experience, and then they pointed to their computer bank and said, basically, “there ya go.” I was doing that at home, so I went to another agency. Same typing test, same three-hour lecture, and a “there ya go.” I was getting frustrated.

At the third agency, after the test, lecture and pointing, I said to the counselor, “Surely you can do more than this.”

He said, “It’s my job to help you get the skills to find a job, not to get you the job.”

“I’m not asking you to get me a job, just point the finger in the direction I specifically should go.”

He gave me the name of someone he knew in a corporate office, and said I should call him. After three calls over three weeks of not getting past the switchboard, I went back to the counsellor. I am not sure if it was guilt or he could see I was a go-getter, but he said, “The best I can do is get you two computer classes at an organization. It is Introduction to Word and Introduction to Excel.”

I knew both those programs, but I had Windows 98 and this was the new 2010 software with the Ribbon, so I thought it would be a good idea to update my skills. It was three days for each class, at three hours long each day.

A couple of weeks later, I received a letter with the dates of the class, with the Word being in the end of October and Excel at the beginning of November. I was ready.

At the beginning of October, there was a phone call from the organization asking why I did not attend the first of the three Excel classes. Confused, I told her that my letter said Excel was the beginning of November. She said she would call me back.

Apparently, there was a typo. She asked if I wanted to start on the second day, or just take the next class which would be in six-weeks. I figured I knew enough about Excel to jump in, so I said I would show up the next day.

The instructor was not impressed with me being there after missing the first class. An hour in, there was a 15-minute break, and in that time, I caught up with everything from the first class. By the end of the day, I was also helping the people on either side of me. The instructor was impressed.

Towards the end of the second class, Word, the instructor asked everyone what their plans were for their newfound knowledge. When it came to my turn, I said, “Well, I’ve always worked in an office, and I assume I will always work in an office, but I think teaching this would be fun.”

Two days later, the instructor called me up and asked if I wanted to teach a night class, because she was going to university and could not do it. I had never taught in my life, so I said, “Sure.”

Of course, it was Excel Intermediate, the hardest of all the classes. Yikes! I went in to the office and practiced the exercises, and got some good advice from the instructor, and my partner who is a professor.

The class went well, and I received some decent evaluations. The Departmental Head asked me if I wanted to teach all the night classes going forward until April (when night classes stopped until the Autumn) as a temp. I said yes, and it was three hours a week.

In the Spring, the instructor announced she was moving to another city, and I would have to apply for the position, but I could teach both the night and day classes, at 12 hours a week.

They put an ad for the job out internally. It was me and one other person (I have no idea who) and as the inside candidate, I got the job, which eventually increased to 30 hours a week, and worked there for 10 happy years.