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Living in the Material World
The young man had things going his way. In what he considered a moment of clarity, he invested all his savings and whatever money he could raise in a venture that was too good to be true. Life was great. A nice condo in a tasteful suburban setting. New car. Lots of trips overseas. Then it all fell apart, even in those hazy and crazy early days of the George W. Bush administration. It made no sense. Sure, terrorists were flying jets into our buildings, but our investments were deemed safe. Not this guy’s investments. Gone. Everything. He calls Mom and Dad. Junior’s coming home. To stay. It was too good to be true after all.
The lawyer living in one of the city’s more verdant neighborhoods had a good year. A very good year. Representing mortgage-holders at foreclosures, he made a nice living interpreting the fine print of legalese.
Hey! You losers in 30274! Out you pixies go!
So as the losers in the tacky zip codes seek dwelling for safety and warmth, the lawyer has cash burning a hole in his pocket. So what does he do? He buys a bigger and better home. Even with all the misery in the recent economy, there’s still money to be made and money to be spent. It makes little sense if all that misery goes to waste.
George Carlin gave thought to the misery on one side and the ka-ching! on the other. He offered his own thoughts on the matter in a routine 40 years ago.
There is no morality in business, just ledger. Keep it in the black. Never mind your soul, never mind the landscape, never mind the other guy.
Never mind your soul? In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 8, Verse 36, Jesus poses the question “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul.” The question has been asked in the centuries since Christ walked the earth, whether by those on a mission, or just rhetorically when frustrated by the actions of others. In the Beatles song, “Within You Without You,” George Harrison ponders “the love that’s gone so cold and people who gain the world and lose their soul.” We’re often flummoxed by the contradictions around us, including the ones fashioned by ourselves.
Simon Leng, in his book, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, The Music of George Harrison, suggests that Harrison was preaching to himself. Mindful of the Hindu beliefs he had studied but also impressed with the temptations and indulgences that came so easily to a Beatle, Harrison must have had thoughts similar to Bruce Springsteen in his ’84 song, “Pink Cadillac.”
Well they tempt you, man, with silver
And they tempt you, sir, with gold
And they tempt you with the pleasures
That the flesh does surely hold
More than three years after the Beatles broke up, Harrison opened up about the contradictions, dealing with them wryly, just as Springsteen did some 11 years later. In the title song of his album, Living In The Material World, Harrison pokes at his own life and what had dominated it, that is, being a Beatle (“Though we started out quite poor, We got Richie on a tour.”). He also notes the pursuit of worldly goods is never-ending.
As I’m fated for the material world
Get frustrated in the material world
Senses never gratified
Only swelling like a tide
That could drown me in the material world
With both Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr on drums, “Living In The Material World” is the album’s most vigorous rocker. The other songs on what is Harrison’s follow-up to his wildly-successful All Things Must Pass album are more gently delivered. It’s as if he not only wanted people to hear the album, but listen to it closely. Throughout Living In The Material World, Harrison brings light to the perplexities created by what we seek to possess and what often ends up possessing us. The pursuit of the various possessions may require an exacting plan or nothing more than just a trip to the nearest big-box retailer.
Every week nearly a third of the U.S. population visits the biggest of the big boxes, Walmart. That leaves over two hundred million Americans who aren’t patronizing Walmart’s stores. Well, give ’em time. The world’s largest retailer can easily afford to expand into the urban, urbane and hipster areas, even when the welcome mat hasn’t been rolled out. One such area is the community in and around Decatur, Georgia, a suburb bordering Atlanta, which has renewed itself with plenty of innovation and attitude. Quite naturally, the people of Decatur aren’t thrilled with the idea of Walmart opening its doors close to its independent retailers and restaurants, even if the store does locate just outside the city limits on property long considered an eyesore. The idea is an affront and it’s worrisome. Which local merchants with personal service and close ties to the community will go out of business if unable to compete with the low price leader? Will Beatles fans slog through the acres of asphalt at the new Walmart to buy one of his CDs there instead of the local upstart, Decatur CD, now the best record store in the state? They just might, unless they look to the message in a lesser-known George Harrison song, “It’s What You Value.”
One hopes the people of Decatur will hold strong to their shopping patterns if and when the Walmart opens. But that will require some variation in human nature. In fact, it’s likely some who are now unhappy about a neighboring Walmart will be among its customers. After all, like the mall that Jake and Elwood Blues demolished, the store has got everything. Or at least some of everything. And it’s hard for It’s What You Value to compete with convenience and selection. For example, on this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, under one Walmart roof, the Couch Potato could get everything needed for watching the big game. Big Screen TV. Lounge Chair. Chips. Dips. Drinks. Plus a Madonna DVD to watch after thrilling to her halftime extravaganza.
Walmart sells a lot of CDs and DVDs. Their inventory is hardly deep as it is wide, but as the world’s largest retailer, millions get their music at Walmart stores. A sales manager for a major record label group acknowledged that Walmart was his largest customer. Usually a sales guy enjoys calling on his top client. Our sales manager friend did not. Despite his friendly and flexible manner, he usually felt beat-up after making his Walmart calls. Too many unreasonable demands.
Demonstrating its importance to the record industry, Walmart has managed to make deals in which new albums by major recording artists would be available only at its stores. Among the acts providing Walmart exclusives have been Journey, Garth Brooks, AC/DC, Eagles and Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen? One could expect such of Eagles, but not The Boss, who’s supported workers rights, something that Walmart has often been accused of violating. What happened here? Was Springsteen, a guy one wishes to give the benefit of the doubt, barrelling down Thunder Road, headed for a penthouse apartment in the material world?
To his credit, Springsteen acknowledged the Walmart exclusive, a 2009 greatest hits collection, was a “mistake” on his part, admitting he and his management had “dropped the ball.” According to the New York Times, Springsteen claimed, “We were in the middle of doing a lot of things. It just came down and really, we didn’t vet it the way we usually do.” The apology is sincere enough, although the excuse is flimsy.
Springsteen’s reply seemed to keep him a safe distance from the hurly-burly proceedings in executive suites. His manager Jon Landau’s response to the Walmart questions was less diplomatic but did convey a sense of how the world works. Landau was direct, saying, “Let’s start with the premise that Bruce is already in Walmart. Walmart has been 15% of our sales in recent years. It’s not a question of going into Walmart; we’re there.”
Those who follow the business of music believe the Walmart exclusive was intended to help defray Sony’s large investment in Springsteen. The company had shelled out big-time on a Springsteen contract in 2005 and the agreement had proved no bonanza. Sony expected Springsteen to be the good soldier. Help us with the Waltons if you want help with the Joads.
The material world, even in the field of arts and entertainment, has its demands, with a lot of handshakes and winking. It’s yet another world Tom Joad would find confusing.