1970 – "Keep the Customer Satisfied," Simon & Garfunkel

My choice for 1970 is “Keep the Customer Satisfied” by Simon & Garfunkel. It originally appeared on their swan song Bridge Over Troubled Water album, but I’m pretty sure I first heard it on my parents’ copy of their Greatest Hits comp (although they owned Bridge, as well as numerous Simon solo albums … as a matter of fact, the first album I remember purchasing with my own money was Simon’s One Trick Pony record — guess it’s hereditary!).

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As with 1969, this was a tough choice. In the running were a bunch of great tunes, and I discarded faves by The Beatles (anything from Let it Be — just too obvious), the Velvet Underground (at one time or another, I’ve played almost every worthy song from Loaded — “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “I Found a Reason,” “New Age,” “Head Held High,” so that’s an automatic disqualification), Black Sabbath (“War Pigs” was definitely in the running — it’s even on the final mix CD I’ve been listening to), and Bowie (“The Man Who Sold the World” — is anyone really going to attempt to cover this after Cobain/Nirvana? — not for at least another couple of decades).

So I settled on the seemingly innocuous Simon & Garfunkel tune. It was certainly a favorite when I was young, one of the songs I loved to sing along with on the record — that one and “Homeward Bound” (which is a more melancholy — and adolescent — take on the same theme) are probably the S & G tunes that resonate the most with me as a listener and a performer. The emotions in each are right there on the surface, yet the melodies are incredibly accessible, the performances are brilliant, and the production plays to the strengths of each song.

The more I’ve thought about “Customer,” the more I’ve felt that it belongs on the 40Rock list, as it really fits with the confluence of events that have lead me to the place/person I am. For instance, “how are rock and roll [or music, or songwriting] similar to politics,” is a question that I’ve gotten from journalists, professional and amateur, at least a dozen times in the past year. I was asked this question again the other night at Down Home, before my first show since last August, by a student journalist from my university. When I answered I realized that I’d finally put it in some sort of cogent package; I don’t have the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of this:

Politics is a lot like rock and roll in that, at the most basic level, it’s about selling yourself, or at least a version of yourself, that you’ve created for a specific purpose. Even if there are only minor differences, my persona as Rob Russell the musician is different from my persona as Rob Russell the politician (e.g. one wears/wore an earring and one doesn’t), and it’s a persona that’s designed to “sell” a particular idea. One thing I realized when I was conducting a political campaign is what a half-assed salesman of myself I had been as a musician. I worked harder to sell myself as a politician than I ever did as a musician, and that was because I believed 100% in the ideas that I was espousing — it wasn’t art I was trying to sell, something personal or self-aggrandizing, but a belief that life could be better for the people in my home district. And I realized that if I was to ever take myself seriously as an ‘artist’ again, I should have at least the same amount of dedication and sense of purpose that I had as a politician — that is, if I ever hoped to succeed.

All that being said, other similarities betwen the two paths are the facts that they both include long days/nights on the road, lots of bad/junk food, moments (and sometimes days) of hopelessness as well as incredible (and unsustainable) highs, and many many many instances of speaking/performing in front of people who were not likely to “buy” what you are selling, may it be a rock and roll song or progressive political ideas.

Here are the lyrics:

Gee, but it’s great to be back home,
Home is where I want to be.
I’ve been on the road so long my friend,
And if you came along
I know you wouldn’t disagree.

It’s the same old story
Everywhere I go,
I get slandered,
Libeled,
I hear words I never heard
In the Bible.
And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine,
Two steps away from the county line,
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied,
Satisfied.

Deputy Sheriff said to me,
“Tell me what you come here for, boy?
You better get your bags and flee.
You’re in trouble boy,
And now you’re heading into more.”

It’s the same old story
Everywhere I go,
I get slandered,
Libeled,
I hear words I never heard
In the Bible.
And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine,
Two steps away from the county line,
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied,
Satisfied.

Wo, oh oh, wo oh oh oh …

It’s the same old story — yeah

And I’m so tired, I’m oh, so tired

First, I’ll let you know that I won’t be performing “Keep the Customer Satisfied” tonight in Knoxville. Dave and I rehearsed “The Ballad of Easy Rider” on Wednesday night and got my 6/8 (thanks Tracey) version of the tune down pretty well, but we had other fish to fry at practice, especially adding a “new” original tune (“Mountain City to Memphis”) and throwing a little Superdrag tribute into one of my old songs. I may just have to record a version of “Customer,” since, at least for now, we have no gigs on the horizon until July.

I haven’t been pursuing gigs very aggressively, I’ll admit. A few years of relative success have made me lazy re: booking (and we’ve had a few booking agents, both pro and am, who’ve taken care of that in the past) — I pretty much wait until someone contacts me. For now, that’s okay: I have a 10 month old daughter and a 9 year old son who both require a lot of attention, and Dave is getting ready to become a Dad, as well (Isla is due in late July). I miss the thrill of playing and really hitting a great groove, making people gasp with surprise or excitement, or just enjoying the music and musicians around you, but I don’t miss it so much that I want to make it my #1 priority in life again.

I think it follows along with the theme of my song choice rather well, this love-hate thing with my art, and it even parallels how I feel about politics.

For those of you who don’t already know, I ran for the US House of Representatives in 2008;  I won the Democratic Primary by a pretty wide margin, but got my butt handed to me in the general election, earning only 25% of the vote. C’est la vie. I knew the odds were pretty long against me — as reporters loved to repeat over and over again, no Democrat had won this seat since the 19th Century — but I approached the process hopefully and with as much time and dedication as I could muster, considering I had a full-time job, a new baby, a wife who was starting her own law firm, and a 9 year-0ld boy who definitely needed his Dad around. During all of this, we also moved from Kingsport to Johnson City, sold a house and bought a house, and introduced our baby to daycare and our son to a new school. Yikes. Thankfully, a lot of people in my district believed in me, and I was able to raise (and spend) around $10K on the campaign.

But when I heard these lines again, for the first time in a long time, I couldn’t help thinking about the at least one of the unique “difficulties” my campaign experienced:

Deputy Sheriff said to me,
“Tell me what you come here for, boy?
You better get your bags and flee.
You’re in trouble boy,
And now you’re heading into more.”

It’s the same old story
Everywhere I go,
I get slandered,
Libeled,
I hear words I never heard
In the Bible.

The day after the election, it is pretty customary for candidates and campaign workers, at least of the losing campaigns, to go out and collect their signs. According to state statute, we have at least 5 days to do this. However, when my friends in Unicoi Co. went out to collect my signs, and those of Bob Tuke (who challenged Lamar Alexander) and Obama — at 6 am the day after the election, mind you — all of the signs were gone: from polling places, from roadways, from peoples yards. The County Sherrif had sent out a “posse” to pick them all up (Democrats’ signs only, or so it appears) and deposit them in the dumpster behind the town hall, which is where a few of them were retrieved: less than a dozen, out of the 200 that I gave to my workers in that county. Sour grapes, perhaps: while my Republican competitor beat me handily, and Tuke lost to Alexander by a substantial margin, Obama won, of course — which seems to be the motivating factor behind what happened.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that my paltry $10K war-chest was nothing compared to the money that Tuke and Obama had accumulated. On top of that, my Republican competitor had spent nearly $750K (nearly all of that during the primary), and certainly wouldn’t have been hurting if he’d lost a few signs. But to me, 200 signs means about $600: heck, I was only able to purchase 2,500 signs for the entire campaign. So, it was a major loss to me, and definitely sent a message that I wasn’t welcome in Unicoi Co., no matter what my intentions. Oh, and I forgot to mention that just that past summer I’d sung the national anthem at Unicoi’s 4th of July celebration, and the aforementioned Sherrif shook my hand?

In terms of being “slandered” or “libeled,” I heard enough nasty words levelled at my party’s presidential nominee (and eventual president) to make me physically ill, and the lying and newspaper-subsidized race-baiting that went on in Kingsport for one of the state house seats there was just about enough to turn my father-in-law into a Democrat. I think there actually is a slander lawsuit, against the Kingsport paper and a few other dirty players, in the works.

Politics is a pretty dirty scene, especially on the local level. At least in the music world they wait until you turn around before they stab you in the back.

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About russellwriter

Rob Russell is a dad, husband, writer, musician, educator, comic book reader, bad solderer, pop culture junky, trivia buff and student of everything cool and uncool. His favorite records are Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and, currently, The Best of Bobbie Gentry: The Capitol Years. His favorite comic books are Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. His favorite literary novels are Gabrial Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. His favorite genre novels are John Scalzi's Red Shirts, M.R. Carrey's The Girl with All the Gifts, and Dan Simmons' Drood. His favorite movie is Goodfellas. His favorite hobby, besides everything, is writing about himself and his favorite things in the third person.

Posted on January 12, 2010, in Rock and Roll and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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