Jeff's Album of the Week

By Jeff Stetson of The Bitter Roots

Album of the Week for Friday October 3rd 2014

Greetings,

My apologies as I have been away from the blogosphere for some time now.  I have been in the studio generally, working on the 4th album for my band The Bitter Roots.  I will be writing a lengthy piece on the new album here in the next few months.  This is the 10th full length album I have made in 17 years, counting previous works by the once mighty Chiseler and manSaveman (pats himself on the back).  Despite little commercial success over the years, and “friends” comments to the contrary, this is not a fucking hobby for me, natch!, thank you very much.  I can assure you I have been All In for some time now.  Consummate professional that I be, I really do always set out to make a better album than the previous one, and I am happy to say I think I have done that once again.  Recording for the new record is winding down, so I have some time now to share some thoughts with you, if it do ya fine.

I have indeed listened to quite a bit of new music or music that is generally new to me over the course of the year.  I would also like to address one other rock turd floating out there in the modern day entertainment toilet bowl, so lets get down to Brass Punk Rock Tax as I like to say.

First off, what the fuck is the deal with U2?  I am, or more accurately was, a huge fan of theirs.  The live at Red Rocks Under a Blood Red Sky is just such an awesomely real and passionate performance.  I played the War LP so many many times when I was kid, I love that album, it had a huge influence that has never left me, and that is that music can be an agent for positive change.  Songs can inspire, make you think about real and tragic experiences, and help try to make things better.  Is that really so naive of me?

As U2 drifted on into the 90s on the coattails of the brilliant Joshua Tree album it became clear that they were making insane amounts of money living high and wide, and writing songs in a completely different space, and I think that is fine, it happens.  Right MacPhisto?  However, having seen the 360 tour, 4 stages that took 90 semi trailers each to haul around, wow dude, not,  which I thought was just ridiculous and excessive, the set played “live” to computer backing tracks btw, I can say now for sure: I think the fellas have lost their collective fucking minds.  Once the shining band on the hill, voice of the down trodden, they have become bloated megalomaniacs, cartoon caricatures of their former selves.  They really have no connection with real people or real people’s problems as they once did, and that is the hard truth.  Yes, “The Edge" really is trying to remove the top of a mountain in Malibu and build mansions for all his new rich friends.  Sad.  Mad.

People should take note that commercial success really has no direct correlation with actual talent.  Certainly, being paid 100 Million dollars, yes that figure is indeed accurate, for the privilege of having Apple literally spam out your new album for free to anyone with an Apple product, whether they wanted it or not, is not Punk Rock in the slightest as Saint Bono claims.  So what is it all about then? I wonder…

Note to Paul Hewson: I am So glad you were inspired by Joey Ramone but I don’t think he sang like a girl, and quite frankly I have no idea what the fuck that even means.  What we really have here instead my friends is a terrible business decision between multinational conglomerates, that perpetuates a business model where the haves have it all and all other artists get paid little or nothing.  You can look it up for yourself but the truth is, the top 5% musicians really do make 97% of all music revenues, and that is a recipe for the death of original thought, art and culture.

U2 I am done with you.

Earlier in the year I was very much smitten with the new St. Vincent album.  I think Annie is one of the most talented musicians I have ever seen, fuckanaye can she play guitar.  She did a record with David Byrne that is just too David Byrne for my tastes, if you know what I mean.  Her new self titled record is very good though.  Annie’s lyrics are Gold Jerry, Gold!  Beautiful poetry the lady doth write.  I would say a few more things about this album however.  A bass player is always a good idea, and I think she should get a really good one, someone who plays a mean 5 string perhaps.  Also, just because you have one killer hook, that does not necessarily mean you have a really good song, so I would encourage her to maybe slow down a bit, revise and add bit more to her compositions next time.

The record so far this year that has impressed me the most:

The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

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If you are not familiar with them, I believe they live in Brooklyn, they have been out making the scene for some time now, ten years at least.  Craig Finn the singer is from Minneapolis.  He does more beat poetry over the music than singing in all fairness, and some people may be turned off by that, but if you like Primus, I love Primus, you can look past that.  His poetry is very good, lots of personal relationship type stuff, nothing to heavy that I can tell.  Craig likes to keep it “Positive”.  So, as you can imagine they are very popular with the escapist millenials and 20 somethings who seem to have a real aversion to anything too serious.

I have seen The Hold Steady a few times here in Seattle,  including just a few months ago in fact.  I really like this band, I think they have a tremendous  sound and energy to them.  If you took Hüsker Du, The Replacements and mixed it with The Del Fuegos, you would get the drift.  Big guitar sound, big sound all the way around.  Craig Finn is a character and people seem to love him, so there you are, Album of the Week, give it a listen, you never know, you just might like it!

Rock The Fuck Out People,

Jeff

p.s. Gene Simmons can kiss my ass, Rock is not dead as he keeps saying in the press over and over again in a shallow transparent attempt to move more Kiss back catalog.  Don’t you stick your tongue out at me fucker.

Comments

OK so like, Why do you think Music should be Free?

I was listening to NPR recently and David Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven was on talking about lyric web sites that have posted his lyrics without his permission and are paying him no money for their pleasure.  I was really struck by the tone set by NPR for the piece.  They seemed to be portraying David as a whiny greedy artist, grasping for pennies.  They seemed to be surprised by the idea that song lyrics are valued intellectual property.

This all speaks of a greater problem we have nowadays, in this new digital age most people don’t believe they should have to pay for the pleasure of a song.  If David Lowery were a Poet, which he is actually as am I and anyone else that pens lyrics to published copyrighted songs, if those lyrics were published as poetry, do you think it would be OK to republish them online without permission or compensation to the poet.  Do you think it would be OK for someone to make Prints of an Escher or a Dali work and profit from that without compensating those artists’ trusts?  It is absurd.

I once had a very close friend who has known me and my music all our lives argue that a 3 minute song is not a like a painting, and how hard could it be, how long does it take to record a 3 minute song, why should that be worth, you know, actual money?

Well let me answer that first with a question:  How long do you think it takes to record a 3 minute song?  I will break it down for you.

Writing the song - hours to years
Practicing, demoing, readying to perform for recording - many hours
Recording the song - 4 hours
Mixing and Mastering, readying for distribution - 8 hours

At a minimum.

So does recording a song not take as much effort as say a painting does?  Good songs are every bit as much of a work of art as any painting.  Songs move and inspire people in the same ways, they have real value, most people just don’t really see that for some reason, and it is very frustrating indeed to myself and many other recording artists.

There are many artists like David and Camper Van that thankfully have rich and storied musical legacies of some commercial success to curate dating back many years, a full catalog if you will, and yet it is clear that even with that, it is very very difficult for even these artists to make ends meet in the music biz, with their own music and words no less.  Now take a brand new artist of modest means, with talent even, today, with precious little investment being made by anyone of means in new bands, how hard is it truly now to make any sort of a career in music?   If you love music you should begin to really have to be concerned about the artistic capacity of a future in which there is little opportunity to make money writing and playing songs.  The alternative I guess is just to listen to the same songs you already like over an over and over again.

I posted an article recently about how 77% of all royalties paid, go to the top 1% of musicians.  The Beatles still sell over a million albums a year, and I think that is wonderful, but does that also mean that so many other bands get paid little to nothing.  Nobody would argue that you can use the Beatles music or words for commercial purposes without permission.  So why are so many other artists not afforded the same intellectual property rights.  How many albums do I have to sell before I get the same protection?  Are we really all willing to let commercial success be the only measure of even the most basic of copyright protections.  Bit of a chicken and egg if you ask me, and a system not likely to support much talent in the future.

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Sounds like sour grapes will say the trolls yes?  Maybe you and your band just suck Stetson. Yup, maybe, except for the fact that, and no exaggeration, my band has been played on actual radio stations all over the world, we have had tens of thousands of spins on the streaming services mostly Pandora a bit on Spotify.  Along with that we have had tens of thousands of downloads of the few songs that we do post for free on our own website as this has been our only way to get our music out there, and for our long labors, that so many seem to enjoy, we have seen actual profits in the neighborhood of beer money.

There is this meme out there I see often in threads that goes like this: Yeah yeah whatever, so what if recorded music is not worth anything anymore, you and other artists can still get out there and tour and do just fine, if you are any good that is. Well folks, that is just simply rubbish.  So many acts play and “sing” along with computer backing tracks at “Live” shows, commercial success has increasingly little to do with actual talent, but let me break it down for you.

Lets assume you are in a pretty good band with a good touring draw, lets say you can gross $5,000 in ticket sales every time you play.  And you can check the Billboard Boxscore for yourself, but suffice to say, there are very very few bands that can command even that sum.

Lets say bands take 90% of gross(not bloody likely): $4,500.
Management and booking will take another 15% - $3750
3 opening bands take $1000 - $2750
Crew costs, equipment, sound, tech - $500 - $2250
Gas food and lodging for band and crew (What? you don’t want to eat at 7-11 and sleep on someones floor) $500  - $1750
Split that 4 ways between the musicians - $437
Taxes, expenses, insurance and what not nets YOU the whiny greedy songwriter singer guitar player - $300 bucks a show

If you are lucky.

Wow, well, go on the road for 5-6 months in a cramped van eating shitty food, staying at super 8s and play a hundred shows, and you might walk with $30K.  Dunno.

But oh wait you say, look at all those mega multi day festivals charging 300 bucks a pop plus expenses?  They are raking in the cash.  Yup, they sure are, and the promoters, management companies, and the very select few headlining acts get nearly all of it while the deemed lesser acts are paid with gas money and exposure.  Meanwhile the real rich folk are paid with your money to look good and snort coke at the VIP pool parties, that you will never be invited to.

Selfie? 

I wonder driving back to town if you ever thought about all that money you just helped consolidate into the hand of that top 1%, that you might otherwise have spent at a local music venue, while sipping a beverage from a local bartender, maybe even seeing a local opener for a touring act nice enough to make the gesture.

The Sasquatch promoters were asked why they had to cancel the second weekend of their festival which would have happened a mere month from the first weekend of the same branded entertainment, 40ozs and tube shots, and cost just as much of a ridiculous amount of money as the first weekend, as if every kid in town can drop 500 bones every month or two for a BIG SHOW!

Well instead of taking some responsibility for a short sighted unsustainable business model, those clever promoters simply blamed it on the talent, not enough of it these days they say and the really good headliners are all asking too much money.  Well, Duh. 

A rat will eat itself if gets hungry enough now won’t it?

Which brings me to the booze.  In the interests of full disclosure I should mention this blog post was sponsored by Grey Goose and Red Bull. 

There is a great interview with Ian Mackaye in which he talks about how in the late 90s early 2000s when Fugazi quit playing out, that it became impossible for them to tour and play without being involved somehow in alcohol sales, to the point of alcohol surpassing the music itself in business priority and commercial value.  Is that what we want music’s last great redeeming value to be, its ability to sell booze?  You can all see it out there, music that sells booze, all happy happy dance dance party time big boy bad girl.  It is just ridiculous.

I am not saying that you should pay for everything you are listening to.  But I think that if you listen to an artists’ album or songs a lot, and you really like it, you should kick in a little bit, buy a CD, get out to a local show, because I am telling you great new bands will never come to pass without the help from all of us the independent listener.  The top 1% do not need any more of your money.  I don’t care who you are, It is not reasonable to charge someone $250 dollars a ticket to come see you play, sorry Sir Paul. 

We all have enough compilation box sets already, lets move on to something new shall we?  Now if you will excuse me I need to get back to my day job.

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My brush with Grace

Life is full of little coincidences as we all know.  Sometimes though, these coincidences take on the air of something else, something more perhaps, a convergence in the force as a Star Wars fan might say.  I had a recent experience like this and I am still not sure what to think about it.  I am not a superstitious person by and large but these happenings have given me pause, and so I will share.

I have written a bit before about how hard it is to make a living solely as a musician.  I have never been able to do it myself.  It may surprise folks just how many musicians these days, even those signed to record deals support themselves with a day job.  Well, I work a day job for a company here in Seattle that makes software for libraries.  A while back I was asked to travel to the American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia to give a presentation on work I am doing to data mine bibliographic information from aging cataloging systems.  As it turns out, It was a bit a of a big deal to be asked to do this.  There was definitely an air of needing to sell what we are doing to our intended customers. 

I have never had a problem with public speaking, as a musician I have grown to be quite comfortable performing for crowds, even librarians, but I was a bit nervous I must admit.  I was not sure what to expect of the ALA Convention as it is called, and to be honest, 42 years old this year, although I have traveled the world with my wife Amy and played more than a few out of town shows in my time, I had never actually been on a business trip.

The night before I was to fly out I was concentrating on what I was going to present at the conference.  I was going over my notes, watching weather channel, and the weather was very bad all across the country.  It is a long flight from Seatown to Philly.  Sleep came late and was restless at best and then it happened, I had a waking dream.  I dreamed that I rose from bed and walked to my living room.  Sitting on the sofa was my sister, and standing right before me was my mom.  My heart started to beat very fast.  I fell to my knees.  “How could this be?” I muttered.  “You died.” She didn’t say anything, she just stood there and smiled, her arms appeared out stretched toward me.  I woke up. 

It was all so very real.  I had not had a dream like that about my mom in years.  My mom died drinking and driving in August of 2000 and I had dreams like this and scary nightmares for about 5-6 years after her crash.  She was 60 years old at the time, quite young really.  With Dad already gone from a sudden heart attack in 1992, my last link to my childhood and all those questions you want to ask when you yourself have kids just wound up going unanswered.  You lose a lot when your parents die.  You lose a big sense of home.  You also lose your best connection to your younger self.  It is a feeling of displacement that stays with you.  Fortunately I am married to my high school sweetheart, and having that constant love in my life certainly lessened the blow.   Life goes on, and we have a very good life here in Seattle.  Through time, much thought and my music, wounds healed and the scary dreams mostly have faded away.

I didn’t say anything to Amy about the dream.  I didn’t want her to worry any more than she already would be with me on the other side of the country, even if it was only for a few days.  So, I got a cab to the airport early in the morning and off I went on my little adventure.  Central Philly I have to say, is a very nice place, cool old buildings, museums and nice eateries and fancy cocktail bars.  I met up with my dear old friend Keir who is a writer and works a day job in the literary world who was also attending the conference.  We had a marvelous time catching up on things over drinks.  I had several Philly steak sandwiches, which as you can guess basically taste the same no matter where you are.  I climbed the Rocky Steps at the big art museum with the eye of the tiger.  I even managed to catch the Reverend Horton Heat play at the Trocadero Theater a few block from my hotel.  And oh yes, the talk I gave to the librarians went very well indeed.  Maybe I should get into sales.

Sunday morning I attended a few stuffy lectures and walked around the expo floor looking at the publisher booths and whatnot.  Afternoon rolled around and it came time to fly home.   The taxi from downtown took me through the row-house neighborhoods, over the river and past the oil refineries that ring Philly and on to the airport.  I had the window seat and a little old lady sat down next to me.  I asked her if she had a nice time in Philly.  ‘Just flying through’ she said, and then we began to talk. 

She asked what I was doing in Philly, I explained, and then she asked if I was comfortable giving presentations like the one I just gave, and had I done this kind of thing before.  I told her it was my first business trip actually, but public speaking was no problem for me as I was a musician.  We started talking about my music and she asked about my lyrics and at one point she asked a very deep question, ‘How did I come to be this person I am now, that writes such serious songs and is so comfortable speaking and performing in front of  people.’  Well next thing you know I am telling this person I have never met all sorts of things about me and my family, how I had had an accident with my fret hand shortly after losing my Dad in the early 90s and then lost my mom as well,  a few years later.  All quite tragic circumstances that I don’t normally discuss with anyone besides Amy and a few very close friends.

Grace, my new acquaintance was on her way back to Portland.  She recently lost her sister to Alzheimer’s.  She explained that many years ago she had also lost a son and a husband in a very short amount of time.  Grace showed me pictures of her sisters paintings which were very good.  She talked about planning her own last days and worried about her own fate in light of her sisters battle with Alzheimer’s.  I told Grace she seemed sharp as a tack to me and not to worry too much.  So there we were, two total strangers who had both lost so much, telling each other all sorts of things about ourselves.  It was an odd thing indeed, but Grace was a very good listener, and she kept asking questions that for whatever reason, in the moment, I was only too happy to answer.

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She told me when she was young she wanted to be a performer.  She grew up in NYC and danced ballet.  My mom was a ballet teacher in Missoula for many years.  She was a very gifted dancer herself by any measure.  Had she not met my dad in a chance encounter at the magazine rack in the old Florence hotel in Missoula she most certainly would have stayed in NYC and turned pro.  My mom studied and danced ballet in NYC in the mid to late 50s.  Wait for it.  So did Grace.  Grace studied at the Joffrey School of Ballet.  Wait for it.  So did my mom.  I remembered my mom’s many stories about her time there.  So I ask you, what are the chances of that?

As we descended into Seatown, Grace took down my contact info including the URL for this blog.  I am hoping she gets a chance to read this.  I walked off the plane a little shaken wondering what had just happened.  Did I just make a fool of myself telling this woman I just met all these things about me?  Was that a normal interaction I just had? 

Grace didn’t remember my mom, but I wonder if my mom would have remembered her.  If all there was to the story is that I met a lady who danced at the same school my mom did long ago, that would be one thing.  But what of the dream I had had just 3 days before?

I called my aunt Val, my mom’s sister, as soon as I got home to confirm that yes indeed she and mom had both studied at the Joffrey School of Ballet in NYC.  I told her about the dream I had just before I left on the trip.  I learned a few things.  My aunt remembers a lot of her dreams too.  She also has had many dreams about conversations with her mom and dad, that she felt were just too real to discount as mere residual thought or unresolved feelings, and I must say so have I.

How to make sense of all this?  There is a new show on TV about family members that come back from the dead called Resurrection, maybe I should check that out.  I am not a religious person at all, but don’t let that discount my spiritual nature.  It is a big universe out there with a lot of reality that we might never understand.  You always hear people refer to their lost loved ones as being right there with them watching over them seeing what they see.  Perhaps I should go to Arizona and seek out a medium, someone with really big crystals.

But could it be that the spirit of my mom sensed just how nervous I was about my business trip?  Did she come to me in my dream beforehand to give me comfort, knowing she could not be there herself?  Did she pull some cosmic string that sat Grace, a kind warmhearted former Ballerina, next to me on the plane for me to talk to as well?  If you would be so kind as to indulge me.  Let’s just say yes.  I have a Guardian Angel, it is my Mom, I love her and I miss her so very very much.

And that is All for Now,

Jeff

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There is no such thing as a Grunge Band, and there never was

Recently I was reading an interview with Seattle Rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot.  He was discussing an up and coming artist here in Seattle named Ayron Jones who draws inspiration from the early 90s music scene here.  He made some comments in an interview with the PI about a whole lot of Seattle music industry people, artists included who would rather the Grunge label and everything they thought it represented would be better off left to the dust bins of history.  In Mix’s words: “In my opinion, Seattle, kind of, I don’t know what happened, somebody put the fire out.”

Also recently I watched a series of interview segments on KCTS with rather influential Seattle music scene folks, club owners, promoters and whatnot, and I was struck by some comments made that Grunge was not something that a lot of industry people here wanted representing Seattle, as if it was their job as custodians of the scene to decide what best music should in fact represent Seattle.  I find this to be the height of pretentious arrogance. 

I also quite frankly have tired of reading articles in the weeklies here written by 20 somethings and Millennials who were maybe all of 2 years old when things were really cookin’ here back in the day.  Never shy of slagging on what they feel is an antiquated music form, they seem to believe that Grunge was some sort of full blown movement, an army of melancholy downer people marching in step to the sounds of doom, clad in flannel.  The famous premier indie radio station here in Seattle might play a song from Nirvana or SG from time to time, but for many years now in no way have they been supportive of any new music reminiscent of that magic window in time that was the early 90s.

The idea that music of the that time was negative, angst fueled and good for little else is just ridiculous.  Songs that are grounded in social awareness and serious subject matter are not negative, they merely reflect reality.  Is this not more interesting than the escapism and auto tuned conformity of the spent cell phone gazing indie rockers or the pseudo nu-folk popular in music today?

Grunge was not a movement.  Grunge is not a monolithic musical genre.  It was not a targeted reaction to the corporate cheese ball metal pop of the 80s Sunset Strip, it had nothing to do with that.  Grunge is a misnomer born out of hype and little else. Do you have to be from Seattle to be labeled Grunge?  Nirvana does not sound like Pearl Jam does not sound like Soundgarden does not sound like Alice in Chains does not sound like Screaming Trees does not sound like Mudhoney does not sound like Hammerbox.

Now, I know kids today have some attention issues and focus can wander after a song or two, and I am sure that some of you have Grunge playlists with songs that are all very similar.  However these bands made albums and if you listen to a few complete albums you would recognize just how diverse the sounds coming out of Seattle were at the time.

There was a lot more focus on music back then.   There was more mystic.  The music and the words and the feeling of belonging people got from the great Live Shows of the time was different.  Nobody had a cell phone in 1990.  Engaging in social media meant going to the Show!  It made for a far better energy I think.

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Back in the day, the late 80s and early 90s I lived and had a band in my hometown Missoula Montana.  Although we did not live here in Seattle, I was able to meet, become acquainted and even friends with quite a few very well known musicians of that time by, putting on and playing shows with them in Missoula, as well as having a great time, every time, on our frequent visits to see friends and shows out here in Seattle.

I can tell you unequivocally that in my experience none of the artists I knew ever referred to themselves as Grunge.  In fact it was a frequent topic of jest, as to just what that term even meant, dirt stuck in the treads of your boots, a greasy sink trap perhaps?  The artists I knew did not find it flattering that people were calling them Grunge.  I have heard the term originated from Mark Arm describing the dirty or grungy guitar sounds him and Steve Turner are so rad at, most likely from a Fender Twin and a Super Fuzz Big Muff or Vintage Rat distortion pedal.  But like so many things, the label stuck and became Overblown.

What happened in Seattle was nothing short of extraordinary.  Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains collectively have sold well over a 100 million albums worldwide.  For a city this size it rivals the Motown scene in Detroit in the 60s.  It is a feat I am sure the likes of which we will not see again, and no, Thrift Shop does not count.

The origins of what went down here are far more organic and have a far longer history than I think most people realize.  The music industry of the 70s and 80s was a corporate juggernaut.  At that time Americans spent more money buying music than on just about any other entertainment diversion. It was a gold mine.  Commercial Radio play was dominated by a payola system that ensured you would only hear what the major labels were willing to sell.  Distribution and retail space were also very tightly controlled.

Meanwhile though, the counterculture of the 60s persisted and the punk ethos of being different and doing it yourself really took hold.  What began to happen with the rise of the FM radio format in the early seventies was that radio stations began popping up on college campuses throughout the country.  This was a huge turn events because now records that were not on big corporate labels, that were not mainstream, began to be heard.  By the 80s college radio had become a big deal.  The college Music Journal began tracking charts, independent labels were popping up everywhere and so were small independent records stores like Rockin Rudy’s in Missoula for instance who were well stocked with Twin Tone records from the Twin Cities, Caroline records from the East, SST in California, Rough Trade, IRS, Enigma, Touch and Go from the Midwest and later Sub Pop from here in Seattle.

The cassette tape which also came into use in the early 80s was a revolution, it was the first wide spread music sharing medium as well as the first real DIY recording medium for many many bands of the time.  Along with all the indie labels putting out largely unknown bands on real records, the cassette tape allowed tons of bands to record and distribute their own stuff on the cheap, my band and every band I have ever known did this.  Before cassettes, putting out a record meant a real recording studio, reel to reel tape recordings, a vinyl master, no small feats for poor unsigned artists.  The cassette tape allowed for the wide spread discovery of some very famous bands.

What drove more people to this burgeoning underground counterculture or alternative scene was a a reaction to not just the canned corporate music of the day but also even more so to the political realities of that time.  With Reagan and the conservatives firmly in control in the 80s, the conservative culture wars were renewed with vigor.  Conservatives waged war against people who like to smoke weed and People of Color under the guise of the War on Drugs, they waged war against and fought for even greater censorship of art, film and music, they publicly made light and made fun of Gay People and people with AIDS.  Conformity was the order of the day, and if you had long hair, wore earrings, or heaven forbid skateboarded, in much of the country you were not only on the outs from the mainstream, you were considered a deviant.

The 80s were also the last days of the cold war.  Conservatives pumped up the Military Industrial Complex and preached fear of nuclear holocaust at every turn, remember “The Day after”?  We were taught early in school the enemy was out there ready to obliterate us at any moment for reasons that made no sense and were not to be challenged.  Despite of and because of all this, the alternative counterculture grew and attracted more and more fans, big things were happening fast, by the late eighties the Berlin Wall was rubble and the Soviet Union was no more.  It was an exciting time and it seemed like people all over the world were just itching to bust out and live free.

Just as people in the 60s gravitated toward folk music as inspiration and and a soundtrack of change, the same thing was happening in the late 80s with millions of people around the world who were tired of being oppressed, tired of being discriminated against and wanted to rage.  At the same time, built on the now fully established college radio scene was a touring circuit of college gigs on campuses that drew good crowds and paid well.  Alternative music and the music of the northwest began to spread like wildfire.

What really set the northwest bands apart was the spirit of the same ethos that drove the punk scene of the 70s.  Be different.  Just as punk and metal bands of the eighties began to play faster and faster songs.  Bands in the northwest starting with the Melvins and a little bit later Soundgarden began to play slower and slower songs.  Songs took on heavier grooves, guitar riffs became bigger and longer, odd time signatures were heard.  Musical Styles were mixed in a new way that Hippies, Punks, Metal Heads and Rockers all dug.  Under it all was the subject matter of social awareness, the desire to be heard and accepted, and it reverberated with people everywhere. 

There is no real difference in my opinion between Punk and Grunge.  The punkest band in the room at CBGBs in the mid seventies was Talking Heads playing Psycho Killer, for a room full of folks who came to hear something like the Ramones.  The punkest thing in Seattle in the early 90s was Beat Happening opening up for Fugazi and being berated by an ignorant unappreciative crowd that didn’t get it. Ian McKaye chastised the crowd, Fugazi played their set and never played Seattle again.  Doh!

What also really set the bands here apart and really drew peoples attention in my opinion were the voices of the bands.  They had Soul.  They sang about real issues that mattered personally and they were all so unique in doing it.  Are there many voices more distinctive than those of Kurt Cobain or Mr. Mark Lannegan?  What do you think Kurt would have sounded like auto-tuned, all air brushed and glossy?  The level of skill and tone of Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and Carrie Akre especially for me personally should be well noted.  These are some of the greatest voices ever to be heard in modern rock music.  It is a testament to good music education in the schools here I think.  But again, do you think they used auto-tune? No, it could only have detracted and besides it was not available then let alone the industry standard air brushing practice that it is now.

It is no small wonder that the scene exploded with Nirvana at the tip of the spear.  The level of talent concentrated here at the time still boggles the mind.  An amazing generation of local talent not seen concentrated anywhere since.  They had the soundtrack, they had the musical chops and they were able to capture the same feelings so many people did with all that was happening in the world and they were able to express that it in an incredibly eloquent and powerful way.  That is what it is all about and Seattle should be very proud. 

I remain optimistic.  Interests ebb and tide, but you can’t keep good music down for long, and there have been some signs of attitudes toward Rock thawing by the established local music folk here in Seattle.  So call it whatever you want, but you should know some context and history of how it all came to be, and above all else have a little respect for what a truly amazing thing it was that happened here because you probably won’t see anything like it again.

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Album of the Week for Friday January 10th 2014: Mon the Biff!

Happy New Year!

Cold and Dark in Seattle these days as it is this time of year.  Sorry for being away from the musings on music.  We had a few shows to play in November and December and I also took the family to Puerto Vallarta for the holidays which I highly recommend. 

You may have notice also I have been writing more essay style stuff here on the album of the week blog.  I find that I enjoy that and I have manged to get a few pieces published or re-blogged what have you on Thought Catalog.  So that will continue, but today we get back to the rock.

There were quite a few big name releases over the fall.  I listened to quite a few.  Arcade Fire has a new album called Reflector.  I saw them at Neumos in Seattle here a number of years ago before they were Arena Sized.  I did not get it then, and I don’t get it now.  I remember they had a guy in a football helmet running around the stage banging on a drum, and they also do some artistic movements with streamers reminiscent of rhythmic gymnastics.  The new album is Poutine, French Canadienne Disco.  Win Butler the leader of the pack has always borrowed a bit too heavily from David Byrne in my humble Opine.  They have a Schtick and I think it is very pretentious.  But hey, what do I know, people love em and they are world wide stars now.  Best of luck to them.

Pearl Jam put out a really good record Lightning Bolt.  In fact I would say it is my favorite since going all the way back to Vs.  I admire the fact that PJ are the only band from around here from back in the day that stayed together and stayed huge all these years 22 years strong now.  I also like the fact they have a Montana Kid playing bass.  The new album has some great rock and punk songs.  There are also some really heavily Adult Album Alternative (triple A) production songs on there.  New and different I think for them.  I tip my cap.

Album of the Week: Biffy Clyro - Opposites

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There is a lot to say about Biffy Clyro, starting with “Mon the Biff!” the rally cry of their fans.  They are one of the most talented younger bands I have heard in a long time.  They are a 3 piece from Scotland, although they tour with supporting players now.  They started in the mid 90s when they were teenagers.  I love bands that start as friends at a very early age in life and manage to keep it going and be successful for a long time.  It is a rare feat and is highly commendable.  The name is a mystery and the boys won’t say, I have heard it is the name of a Scottish footballer but who knows.  They are Arena huge in Europe now.  There is a great live album of them at Wembley Arena I highly recommend.  From watching YouTube it is easy to tell they really get it on live.  I am fully stoked to see them play here at the Showbox in Seattle next month.

I like this band because I think they are very gifted musicians, they are super tight and they write really good songs.  They are what one would hope for when looking for something in rock that sounds new and different.  For me the best bands are always the ones that can take what is or what was, different sounds and genres and come up with a sound of their own.  Biffy does that in spades.  You can hear elements of metal, early 90s sounds, U2, prog rock and some brit pop thrown in, it is an awesome formula.  They also dare I say it remind me of one of my old bands manSaveman.  I have listened to their entire back catalog and their sound has evolved tremendously.  The newer records have a bit too much production processing I think but musically they get better and better on every record.

Should the lads read this, we would love to tour with you.

Jeff

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What’s in a Band Name?

It is funny how people react to the name of a band, a lot times without even hearing the music first, seems to go hand in hand with that need people have to label every band with a genre trying to define their sound.  I have read in a few places that Ginger Baker, the drummer for Cream famously commented that he thought “Led Zeppelin” was a terrible name.  You may have heard “The Beatles” with an “a”  of course is an homage to Buddy Holly’s Band “The Crickets”.  I have no idea what “Biffy Clyro” means and the Scotsmen will not say.  What are “Feelies”? and on and on…

Straight away I will say my band’s name “The Bitter Roots” has nothing to do with what people call “Roots” music.  Our roots are more based in the very wide spectrum of Rock.  We do share the socially conscious traditions of Folk and Punk as well, but we most likely don’t fit into that genre of traditional folk they call “Roots” or “Roots Americana”.  Neither is our name a play on the name of the very famous and very talented band “The Roots”.

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We live in Seattle now, but Ben and I are both from Missoula Montana, which is a college town in the Northern Rockies where both our fathers were professors of this or that at the University of Montana.  Most people I have met have heard of Missoula, but if you have not, of note, David Lynch at one time lived there, it is also the hometown of Steve Albini a highly notable music producer(Nirvana, Big Black, Silkworm).  Missoula is also the home town of one Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to serve in congress and the only member of congress to vote against entering WWI and WWII.

Geographically Missoula sits in the northern Shadow of the Bitterroot Mountains.  These are the mountains that almost disappeared Lewis and Clark on their mighty quest.  They are hard rugged mountains, and to me they sort of epitomize the character and spirit of many of the people that live around them.  I spent a lot of time in those mountains.  You could say the Bitterroot Mountains are spiritually significant, certainly to my tribe of friends growing up and lots of other Montana folk as well. 

Ben, used to play in a band in Missoula in the 80s called “Ein Heit” which is the German word for unity, intentionally separated by the band to represent division in the world.  “The Bitter Roots” is an homage to not only the mountains but also that play on words, as well as being a very appropriate way to express my circumstances.  I lost my Dad to a heart attack when he was 58 and my mom a mere 8 years later to drinking and driving when she was 60.  Sadly no remnants of the Stetson Family remain in Missoula.  These experiences have left my sense of home divided, hence the name now explained.

Ironically there is now a BBQ joint in my neighborhood of Ballard, in Seattle called “Bitterroot”, named after the same mountains and owned by some former U of M students.  Small world.

Also of note, there was a reggae artist in the 90s called “Bittter Roots”.  There is a band in Minnesota named “Bitter Roots”.  There is a band in Atlanta called “The Bitteroots”, they dropped an “r” for some reason.  There is also now a band in Portland named “Bitterroot”.  I don’t know how these other bands arrived at these variations. These things happen. 

We are “The Bitter Roots” Seattle.  Check us out sometime. 

You can read more about us in the Seattle Weekly,  in the Missoula Independent and on our neighborhood’s blog My Ballard.

Jeff

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Say, I have been meaning to ask, what church do you go to?

I used to see this old man in my neighborhood.  He always wore high wads, a hat with a fuzzy brim and ear flaps with patches of hunter’s orange, Fargo Chic if you will.  Every morning like clockwork when I would leave for work I would see this man walking near my house.  At first we just noticed each other, and then as time past we started to say good morning, and even to small talk about the weather and such. 

Then one day out of the blue as I was stopped at the corner on my bike, right on cue I see my new neighborhood pal and the man says to me “Say, I have been meaning to ask, what church do you go to?”  I told him I did not attend a church as I was not Christian.  A curious look came over his face, he shrugged his shoulders and walked on and from that day on when I would see him he would just keep his head down or cross the street altogether.

I was quite taken aback by this.  This is Seattle after all and not exactly the bible belt.  What of Tolerance and Freedom?  They are enshrined in the First Amendment after all are they not?  Why is religion such a touchy subject?  I know several couples, parents and kids, siblings and friends as well that live in denial of each others religious faith or lack thereof.  Why is it so hard for so many to have an open honest civil conversation about religion, maybe disagree but still have respect for one another.  Is it the fear of death or the unknown? I just do not know.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Seattle in the late nineties, we were invited for Thanksgiving dinner at her aunts house here.  Her aunt a Devout Catholic had apparently pieced together from folks back home in Missoula that I had somehow strayed from the faith, and so, she sat me down for a talk.  I tried to explain to her that although I did not attend Mass, I was in fact still a very spiritual person.  I am a musician and songwriter after all, and if you have ever read any of my lyrics, you would know I don’t exactly write a lot of fluff.  

Her response was one of obvious disappointment as she concluded our conversation by sternly declaring “Jeff, when you are older and wiser, you will return to the faith.”  I was 28 at the time.

"Return to the Faith" she had said.  It was a curious choice of words.  Yes it is true that by and large I was raised in a Christian household and attended Church for a time, I was never baptized let alone confirmed into any church.  It just never took with me, and I will gladly explain why.

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When I was very young my parents could not agree as to which version of Christianity we should follow as a family, so we attended the University Congregational Church, a common compromise among couples of varying Christian ilk.  I remember sitting in the Sunday School classroom with a group of other kids, none of whom I remember now.  The teacher had a picture book with the common, white man with brown flowing hair version of Jesus on the cover.  I remember being told to pay close attention and the promise of cookies later and I distinctly remember being told “Jesus loves you, and did you know that he died for all of our sins?”  I remember thinking about those words and remembering them, but I literally had no idea what she was talking about.  I was 5 at the time.

A few years later my older brother made a new friend who had recently moved into town and joined the same swim team.  I remember his family were rather wealthy, they owned a small chain of pizza parlors.  They were also Catholic.  They were very nice people.  I had a bit of a crush on one of their daughters who was about my age.  Sometimes when my brother would sleep over at his friend’s house he would attend Mass with them the next morning before being brought home. 

What soon followed was that my brother transferred to the Catholic grade school in town to hang with his new Catholic friend, my family started attending the same Catholic Church, and then in quick succession, my brother, my mom and my gram(my mom’s mom) all were confirmed into the Catholic Church.

I think my family just like a lot of others, saw it as a way to heal wounds, come together as a family and be a part of something bigger than themselves.  I can totally understand that, and I think that is fine.  The reality though for my family as well I think like a lot of other families was that, just believing everything is OK because you go to church together as a family one day a week does not necessarily help with the real problems at home. 

It is an odd feeling to hear people say the Lord’s Prayer and finish the exercise with hugs and “Peace be with you” and then not act anything at all like that outside of church.  Forgiveness has its place surely, but some folks seemed to be leaning a little bit too hard on it to me.

As a consequence I began to resent the whole affair and when I was in 5th or 6th grade I had an epiphany.  It finally dawned on me, as I was laying awake in my bed early Sunday morning, having been awakened by the alarm set on my black plastic Casio wrist watch.  I am always the first person up in the morning.  If I was just not around, they couldn’t take me to Mass.  So I quietly dressed, grabbed my soccer ball or basketball, whatever was in season, and sneaked out into the neighborhood.

And I did it again and again and again, every Sunday Morning, rain or shine.  My parents and my gram were beside themselves.  As best I could, I told them that I just did not believe what they believed in.  All the biblical readings from this apostle or that just did not resonate with me.  I told them I would not go with them anymore to Mass.  I told them it all just seemed very superficial to me.  I told them you cannot force someone to believe in something.  The pressure to go along with them was intense, and they were very persistent, but eventually I did win out, and they left me alone to my own devices on Sundays.  I think they also thought that I would eventually come around, when I was older and wiser.

Around about that same time, my mom had hired a lady from church to come over and help her clean once a week.  My mom was in school studying to become a teacher and needed some help around the house.  I remember I was sitting on the couch and the church going cleaning lady came into the room, after obviously talking about my situation with my mom, she declared somewhat distraught  “Jesus loves you Jeff.  Don’t you know that?  Don’t you know Jesus died for your sins?”

I’d heard that before eh.  I smiled and said I knew, but In fact I did NOT know, I did not know anything about THAT at all.

The idea, a pillar of the Christian faith no less, that the Son of God or God himself in human form, or whatever, thousands of years ago, died for my sins, your sins, everyone’s sins? I have always found to be a bit presumptuous.

There are those of the faithful, a minority I think, I hope, that will say God’s law rules supreme over the laws of mere mortals, they presume to know what that law is, and believe they have the right to enforce it.  Under this guise oppression and discrimination particularly against women still operates freely today all over the world.  It is a great impediment to peace and the progress of human rights on Earth.

Most people who identify with western religious faiths, have more in common than most of them think they do.  For all practical purposes the big 3 all get back to the same stories from the Old Testament.  Is Jesus God, the Son of God, a Rabi, a prophet not unlike Muhammad?  It depends on who you ask.

The common theme I think is just simply believing in a “higher power” and along with that is also believing that this God has a plan, that your destiny has somehow been predetermined and chosen for you.

Well…  Whether or not I were to walk out the door and go to work every morning and come home every night, or whether I just said to hell with it, got on a plane and disappeared, either way, that’s my choice.  I and I alone am responsible for my own actions and I do not believe anyone’s idea of God has anything to do with it.

In the late 90’s the last conversation I had about this with my mom I remember her asking me ‘So, you think this all just happened, everything, life on earth, the universe, all of it?’

Yes I said.  Because if there is one single thing I have learned in my life, hard as it is to accept, is that stuff just happens sometimes.  No rhyme, no reason, no guiding force, stuff just happens.

There was recently a debate across the country over the idea of “Intelligent Design” which is nothing more than a thinly veiled and poorly conceived re-branding of Creationism by the Discovery Institute here in Seattle, and in the commentary regarding their losing legal effort against Evolution in which their faith based creationist arguments were exposed and refuted in a court of law was this:

People who believe in God will say: Life in all its infinite mystery could not possibly have come to be through mere chance.  Therefor there must have been a Designer, a higher power that set this all in motion and guides us even now.

And the simple rebuttal, that sums it all up so nicely is:

If that is true, then who designed the Designer?  Infinity.

Now I know what some of you are thinking, ‘But Jeff, you just have to have faith.’  Right?

I do have faith, but just not in your God.  I pass no judgment upon the faithful, I really don’t.   I know people find great comfort in their religious beliefs, and I respect all ye faithful for that.  I just don’t happen to share in those beliefs and I don’t think that puts me in a category of people who need saving or who are thought of as naive.  We are all created equal.

Cue John Lennon: Imagine all the people…

Peace Be With You,

Jeff

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Album of the Week for Friday September 20th 2013: Crash Kings

Alright then kiddies, after a few sociopolitical sojourns, I figure it is once again time to talk about the rock, because as we all well know…

Hey hey my my Rock n Roll will never die.

I have been listening to quite a few bands that are relatively new in the last decade or so.  Despite noise to the contrary there are in fact lots of very good new rock bands out there, but the competition for attention is stiff and its harder than ever to spot the diamonds in the rough if you will.

There is an Australian Band that now lives in LA called Sick Puppies.  They have a pretty cool story, they won a battle of the bands competition in Sydney in the late 90s when they were still in high school.  They were able to cross the ocean blue set up in LA and then they just started touring and from what I gather have been on the road ever since.  They have a huge loyal fan base all around the country, and I admire that.

Sick Puppies is good, they have some very clever bits, their bass player Emma Anzai is very very talented.  The sound is more or less generic hard rock in a way that sounds a little like too many other hard rock bands I have heard, a little too pristine.  However a quick check of ye ole Youtube reveals without a doubt that they do in fact pull it off live.


Next Up: MuteMath. They are from New Orleans.  They have a cool sound, I remember hearing about them a few years back when they were nominated for a Grammy, but I just recently listened through the catalog.  The music is slinky and funky and they really do rock.  Excellent songcraft, really tight arrangements, I hope they swing through Seatown in the future as I would really like to see them.

Album of the week:

Crash Kings Dark of the Daylight

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A few years ago, Chris Cornell came through Seatown, the solo material he played was good, the acoustic set was fantastic, the SG portion of the show without you know, SG, not so much.  Crash Kings a band from LA were the opener.  I made a mental note to check them out further, I thought they were very good.  They are a 3 piece: bass, drums and keys, but no guitar.  Blasphemy you say! 

Well yeah you could think that, but the singer/keyboard player Antonio Beliveau is so good you would not even notice or care there is no guitar, and that is saying something because these guys play full on Rock.  He plays keys and a Clavinet which is a sort of guitar like keyboard, with a slue of guitar type effects on, it is very very cool.  His voice is somewhere between the late Shannon Hoon and Mr Cornell, smooth with a great range.

Dark of the Daylight is a great album, it flows from one end to other, it is varied and very well done, I highly recommend it.  Albums are a true artform, and I greatly admire bands that can still make a full complete album.

Peaches Should Not Come from a Can,

Jeffrey Christopher StetsoSonic

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So, Why did it take you so long to get on facebook anyway?

A few months ago I decided to activate my personal facebook account and try it it out.  Surprisingly shocking to some and applauded by others my reluctance to join facebook seems curious, so let me explain. In the interests of full disclosure I have had an account for many years but I had no actual “friends”.  I only used it to administer a page I created for my band The Bitter Roots. I do post  some personal stuff on there from time to time but it was not the full facebook experience.

As time has passed and social media taken a firmer hold, most people I know are rarely ever even checking email anymore.  Facebook has become just about the only way to get a hold of quite a few people.  So with the click of a mouse I opened up my profile.  I was shocked at just how fast 40-50 people I know or once knew had found me and sent friend requests it was a matter of a few minutes.

I was not trying to be aloof or act like a rock star or any such nonsense, I just never really saw the attraction, The user interface is better now, but was pretty clunky even just a few years ago.  Truth is and call me old fashioned, but I still hand write letters and send actual pictures to my 83 old Aunt Maryland, My Dad’s sister, in Florida, and I prefer it that way, it means more when you take a little more time and effort I think, like most things in life yes?

In light of that, what I would really like to know is this: what does it mean to be someone’s “friend” on facebook?  Is a “like” all the deeper an interaction we now desire?  Is this new form of communication helping bring more people together or isolating us all further? A bit of both perhaps.

I have been posting pictures and witty comments like most people for a few months now and it has been nice to catch up with a few folks I lost track of over the years, but all in all I have to say, I find the experience rather lacking.  It all seems rather shallow and superficial to me.  There is just too much data in the stream and It is fragmented and fleeting.  I just don’t think the world is best experienced through the smart phone screen and 140 character sound bytes.  I could go on, but a grad Student at UW by the name of Justin Lester did that for me today in an excellent post in the Seattle Weekly this morning.  Well said Sir, I salute you!

Also, What of the issue of privacy?  Why don’t more people care about this?  When the Patriot Act was passed shortly after 911, I don’t think people understood on a personal level what the implications of that legislation actually were.  The first thing the NSA did was put vampire taps on the main junction of the internet leading into and out of the US and they started listening to literally everything.  While they were doing that they apparently also found the time to break nearly every encryption key on the internet.

This has had a chilling effect in the world of big data IT.  I worked for many years with a company here in Seattle who helps telecommunications companies sort out, store and analyze phone records.  As soon as our client’s lawyers took a look at things, all of them immediately demanded their data be removed from US shores and hosted somewhere else, directly because of the Patriot act.  This is very bad for US business.  We the inventors of the internet will fast be finding ourselves on the outside looking in to the Information Revolution and the new economy it is creating around the world.

So, with their wallet fat with black budget 911 scare money, what IS the NSA up to now?  Well, we have a real game changer as they say, thanks to Edward Snowden, who by the way is a true American Hero and should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts.  Call him a traitor and I call you a fool, the government is breaking the law, and he had the courage to blow the whistle.  I applaud you sir.

The NSA is not just listening for terrorist keywords and phrases anymore.  They are storing all the data they can possibly access for later retrieval, analysis and most importantly behavior prediction, this is what they call project Prism  and it now lives in a data center in Utah.  All of this without any real checks and balances, without a warrant, and no the FISA Court does not count.  But wait you say, isn’t that completely illegal. Yes.  Ask Al Gore.

So I ask you: What if your boss knew what was on your smart phone?  What if a School you were applying to, took a look at your now permanent record? or someone at your church perhaps.  What would you think then?

You see, it doesn’t matter if they think you are a terrorist or not anymore, they are looking at everybody now.  And they are storing it all in perpetuity.  The contents of your smart phone could already be on your permanent record stored in a data center in Utah, and that data center is not secure.

Think it can’t happen?  guess again.

While we may be able to eventually put some constraints on what the government can do, there are no constraints at all on private enterprise in this regard.  Facebook and Google know who your friends are, they know where you are at any given time of the day or night, they know what you like to eat, what you like to drink, what you are looking for and they know how you like it, savvy?  and they are selling that data to insurance companies and credit ratings companies and anyone else who wishes to predict your behavior and determine if you are an opportunity or a risk to their bottom line.  You have a right to know this and you should be very concerned.

While it has been nice to “reconnect” with old friends a bit, and see pictures of everyone’s kids, and I know that you are all very busy, and we live in different places now, and while I will also continue to offer “likes”, cute pictures and witty retorts on facebook myself, I would much prefer that you just stopped by for coffee.  I have a wonderful front porch, we could sit out there sipping an Organic French Roast and we could chat all about things and such.  I just hope we can all agree that that would be a much more meaningful interaction between old friends than click snap post.

Analog Tastes Better,

Jeffrey C. Stetson

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I wrote this song because

- A short time ago Wall Street nearly brought about the collapse of the entire world economy by defrauding everyone they could with their illegal ponzi schemes, and not a single executive has been brought to trial.  Instead they just gave themselves all bonuses and went right on with business as usual. 

- The Federal Reserve currently loans money to Wall Street at rate of .75% while the US government loans money to students at a rate 10 times greater. 

- 15% of Americans are on food stamps to the tune of over 70 Billion dollars a year and Politicians in Congress have voted to cut the program. 

- Bridges are literally falling into rivers while people are driving on them because Politicians refuse to fund infrastructure projects.

- I wrote this song because the interests of Wall Street are not in the interests of the People.

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