We Lost A Non-Singing Musical Hero

Rock and Roll simply wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have shenanigans.  While you might take bending guitar strings for effect as normal and no big deal (unless, of course, you actually try to duplicate the effect yourself), there is little doubt that recording techniques and engineering tricks have given us some amazing sounds.

Please do NOT include autotune on any list of “improvements” in sound!

Glenn Snody was an engineer in Nashville who was working on a recording with Marty Robbins when a transformer in the soundboard went bad, resulting in a strange new fuzz tone on a guitar solo.  Marty and his producer liked the strange effect enough to leave the solo in place.  Grady Martin played the unique-sounding guitar solo starting about 1:25 into the record, and that simply has to be Floyd Cramer playing a piano solo at the start of the record.  The final result was a #1 country recording that crossed over to the pop charts and got as far as #3: Don’t Worry.

More details on the recording session and its impact can be found in an NPR article.

After demands from numerous artists who wanted the fuzz tone for their own recordings, Glenn created a box that could be used to create the sound on demand.  Perhaps the most famous single that used that fuzz tone came from the Rolling Stones on Satisfaction.

Glenn died at age 96 near the end of May, but it’s likely his legacy will live on to infinity and beyond.

Warning: Your 401k May Have A Trap!

As a result of over 45 years of working at various and sundry jobs, a few years ago I found myself with multiple sources of retirement funds waiting for me.

One insurance company I worked for in the 70s had been merged with another company which was then engulfed and devoured by another company, and I didn’t hear from them when I turned 65.  It’s not like they couldn’t find me…a simple search in Google and my name and address are very public.  I figured that somewhere along the line their pension plans had merged or been discontinued, but after researching the history of the corporate shenanigans I was able to determine which company had survived.  I made a phone call, talked to a few confused people, and eventually got a contact phone number for the company that the pension had been outsourced to.  That service company sent me a stack of papers that was pretty intimidating, but I did my best to fill them out and return them.  Naturally, they then demanded different forms and copies of all sorts of my identification forms, but eventually, I was set up with a lifetime income and a surprise: since my pension was supposed to start at age 65, they also sent me money for the months all the way back to that birthday.  The amount wasn’t overwhelming (about $150 a month), but every little bit helps.  It was really found money.

That’s pension is not what this is about, but it’s important to contact every company you ever worked for that had any sort of defined benefit that might be vested.

Beginning in 1974 it became possible to set aside funds for retirement using IRAs.  From time to time since then I’ve dropped money into multiple IRAs with different companies, and beginning in 1998 I also opened a Roth IRA.  Particularly now that there are Required Minimum Distributions from IRAs beginning at age 70 it makes a lot of sense to reduce the number of accounts to one (the tax law requires distributions from every…single…non-Roth IRA every year).  I picked one account as the survivor and contacted each of the other IRA custodians to roll their funds into that account. If you go through this step, it is important that you DO NOT have any money sent directly to you since that creates a withdrawal that is probably taxable; instead, you should direct each trustee to transfer funds directly to the survivor IRA.

I only had one Roth IRA, so I didn’t have to mess with that at all.

This left only one account to deal with: the 401k from my last employer (all previous 401k’s were closed out and transferred to IRAs when I left the former employers).  Once again I tried to simply transfer the funds into my surviving IRA, but there was a surprise: not all the funds could be transferred!

Like many other people investing for retirement, I put a portion of my 401k deposits into a fund that was essentially a money market fund (because once upon a time they paid more than a quarter of one percent).  Recently this seems a poor idea, but from January 2004 to December 2008 the total stock market return was a loss of about a half percent, so a 3% return in a money market helped moderate losses.  When I went to transfer my 401k funds to my IRA I was told I could not transfer the money from the pseudo-money market funds.  My choices: take the money out in ten annual payments (while it sat at the current minimal rates) or use the money to purchase a lifetime annuity.

Thanks to the Fed, interest rates have bottomed out in the past few years.  To get a return approaching even 3% or 4% it is necessary to invest in long-term fixed instruments like bonds or mortgages; if those investments have to be sold to allow customers to make withdrawals they may well have to be sold at a loss, so it turns out our 401k plan limited withdrawals from that bucket.

Repeating that: the 401k plan that my employer set up limited the availability of funds.  Leave your job, retire, or simply get tired of the low return on those funds and you cannot take them out except over ten (or more) years.

Taking a lifetime income would at least approach a 6% return on the funds I couldn’t have, so I took that option for the funds I couldn’t get out.  Long-term that may not be a bad idea, but it did force me to start another lifetime income before I really needed it.  All told I now already have a monthly income of $500, so at least I have enough money to pay for (sigh) health care premiums.

There was no mention of the withdrawal restrictions when I set up my 401k, and the human resources department at my former employer was surprised to learn about the restrictions as well.  I suggested that they make all past, present, and future employees aware of the problem; no word on whether they did or not.

If you have any money in a 401k at work you need to check and see if there are withdrawal restrictions on any of the funds you are using.  If there are, do your best to get the funds out of there as quickly as possible.  At the very least, make sure you don’t invest any additional funds into that kind of a vehicle; if you want to reduce your exposure to the stock market simply seek out balanced mutual funds instead of ETFs – but that’s a topic for another day.

Once upon a time in the dark distant past typewriters were manual, not electric.  No monitors, either – you pushed on a key and a metal arm flew up and hit a piece of paper and left ink on it.  If you kept typing, when you got near the end of the line a bell would sound to warn you that you were running out of space.  The Lovin Spoonful experimented with many different sounds on their records, from a jackhammer on Summer In The City to a record which used a typewriter as a rhythm instrument: Money also focuses on the process of saving and investing your money.

How To Make Money By _Not_ Suing McDonald’s

My first book got its subtitle from a complaint I had about paying for cheese when I didn’t want it on my hamburgers:

Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century – How Much Extra Does No Cheese Cost?

My reaction was to stop going to restaurants that tried to force cheese on me, but some customers in Florida have taken a slightly different approach – they filed a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s seeking Five Million Dollars in damages:

McDonald’s Sued For 5 Million Dollars over Unwanted Cheese

It probably isn’t a surprise to anybody that I haven’t made that level of money simply writing about paying for cheese I didn’t want or get.  While they may not get very far with their lawsuit, there’s always the possibility that they may get an offer to settle that pays for a lot of hamburgers.  As noted in my book, Wendy’s started charging for cheese even when you didn’t get it even before McDonald’s, so perhaps another big chain should be on notice as well.

Given my allergy to legal proceedings, I figure my best chance to clear some green stuff from this situation is to sell more books, so until further notice the ebook will only be 99 cents!

The battle against overcharging for no cheese is only one of a few dozen problems the book faces, so if you want to entertain yourself with a few (often humorous) rants about the miseries of Modern Times at a more than reasonable rate click on the link above and pick up a fun read…or spend more money and get a paperback or audiobook copy.

There’s also the second book in the series, priced at only $2.99 for the ebook:

Nobody Wants Your Stuff – Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century #2

Now I’m headed back to work on book three, Child of the Radio – Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century #3.

That Time I Got To Rate-A-Record

One of the most memorable features of American Bandstand was Rate-A-Record.  Two “typical” teenagers were chosen “at random” from the studio audience, and they listened to a new record while the rest of the kids did their best to dance to the music.  The two teenagers would pick scores from 35 to 98, after which Dick Clark would ask them to comment on why they picked their score.  The apocryphal answer was, “It has a good beat and you can dance to it,” but I can also remember records getting lower scores with comments such as, “The dancers seemed confused.”  Dick would write their scores down on a grid, and then the entire process would be repeated with a second record. Dick would then average the two scores (originally a third teenager would record the scores and calculate the averages, but perhaps that turned out to be too much of a challenge for a mere teenager who was in front of a camera for the first time).  Dick would finally ask the teenagers if they thought either of the two records would be a hit.  There are lots of videos of Rate-A-Record online, but most of them seem to be for records I don’t remember at all.

I never got to go to see American Bandstand in person, mostly because Philidelphia was more than a simple train ride away.  I did, however, have my own opportunity to do a Rate-A-Record in 1966.

One of my father’s friends, Bill Stegmeyer, had written A Symphony For Susan and the song had been recorded by the Arbors, a group that up to that point had only one non-hit record to their name.  Bill not only wrote the song, he arranged it as well.  Columbia Records was impressed enough by the recording that was ready for release on Carney Records that they somehow acquired rights to the record.  Columbia being the label it was, after they got rights to the record they (of course) determined that the record wasn’t quite up to their standards. Columbia added an unnecessary string section behind the existing recording.  The resulting record was pressed on a subsidiary of Columbia, Date Records.  The release of the record had a secret purpose: Bill’s goal was to make enough money off the record to buy his daughter (Susan) a horse.

Before the record was released to radio stations and record stores, my dad and I visited the Stegmeyers and I was afforded the opportunity to sit and listen to the record.  After which, of course, I was grilled about my reaction to the record.  For once I understood how those poor teenagers felt about being put on the spot!  The record had nice harmonies (similar to Lettermen records…and the Lettermen would later record the song themselves).  There was also a very lush string section, but the net effect was to sound very not top-40 for the mid-sixties.  I suggested that it was too similar to Cherish by the Association; not that they sounded alike, but that it was too soon for another record like that to be a hit. I was ignoring, of course, that both I’ve Got You Under My Skin by the 4 Seasons and Born Free by Roger Williams were in the top ten of the charts at the same time already.  I was sure that record buyers already had string fatigue.

I was no longer popular in the Stegmeyer household, but as it turned out I was correct.  The record dented the charts on WMCA, lasting all of three weeks and peaking at number 40.  WABC, of course, simply ignored the record.  Nationally the record stuck around for ten weeks, reaching #51 before disappearing.  The record did better on the Adult Contemporary charts when it got up to #18, but I’m not sure that resulted in very many sales.

You can compare the original version of the song with the updated version I heard and decide for yourself if the record would have been more successful without the strings.

Little did I know at the time that just a few short years later I would be playing new Arbor album cuts on my own radio show in Nashville.  A Symphony For Susan would subsequently be included on albums by the Arbors, and no doubt those sales and the new recording by the Lettermen resulted in additional royalties..no word on whether the total royalties added up to a horse for Susan.

That’s Mall, Folks

March first brought us news about the death of an old friend here in Anderson, Indiana: our only mall is closing effective April first.  Sure, there may be a Wal-Mart and a Meiers and a lot of strip centers lining the road between the interstate and the Race Track/Casino, but closing the mall leaves a wound that I’m not sure can be healed.

The mall apparently already owes over $400,000 in unpaid property taxes, and the loss of its last major anchor (Carsons) meant that it probably didn’t have enough rental income to even cover the expenses of salaries, security, and utilities.  There has been an announcement that the mall will examine options to repurpose the mall.  A large number of malls all over the country have already faced similar problems and either closed or changed how their space was being used due to the rapidly decreasing utilization of shopping malls by shoppers.  We all know the internet is at least partly to blame.

While Anderson may have a downtown area, there isn’t much in the way of shopping there.  And parking downtown is still a nightmare.

The closest the town gets to a having center was found in the mall.  This month the mall is quickly closing down, but it is still playing host to a student art exhibit and the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, two events that will be hard-pressed to find a home in the future.  Any given month there were nearly a dozen such events taking place that will now move into hiding in smaller, hidden, less accessible locations.

Every morning the mall has been host to countless mall walkers, elderly residents of the town who come down to get a small amount of exercise in a safe place that is heated or cooled for their comfort.  They seemed to need to bring their own coffee and donuts due to the lack of any food for sale in the early morning, but the food court tables and chairs gave them a place to sit and socialize before and/or after their walks.

Tony’s pizza has been a fixture in the mall under multiple names for decades, and now it will simply pack up and leave.  While a sister store in Muncie will still be open, many customers have already complained that the food just isn’t the same.

For a few months around Christmas every year the mall has been host to a stream of pop-up small businesses, some of which eventually opened small stores in the mall.  Anybody wishing to do that this year will have to fight for aisle space in the Muncie Mall.

Our only local radio station has a broadcast studio in the mall, and it is likely they will simply close up and move any operations back to their main office in Daleville.  They already seemed to be moving the organ that was used in live shows this morning.

A ring of buildings around the mall has been home to a constantly-changing lineup of restaurants and specialty stores.  Several of them have already relocated closer to the interstate, but the significantly higher rents prevent that from being an option for most of the small businesses dotting the perimeter…or inside the mall.  The bank outside the mall has not announced plans to leave, but the decrease in traffic in the mall area may affect them as well.

The movie theater has announced plans to stay open after moving the ticket office to a new or different outside entrance.  It is worrisome that the theater no longer advertises movie times in the local newspaper or has a phone number you can call for movie times, and instead requires customers to check online.  Worse still, no movies appear to be starting after 7 or 8 pm.  The loss of casual customers from the mall may prove too much of a challenge for the theater (two movie theaters outside the mall have already failed and closed).

The Doctor Tavel that has eye exams and sells eyeglasses in the mall will remain open for now because it has an outside entrance.  They may need some new construction because the inside entrance to the store is closed by a chain fence rather than a wall, and if the mall cuts off heating and cooling a new wall will have to be put in place.

The strip center that our store (Reader Copies) is located in is across the street from the mall and has a lot of empty spaces, but rents are higher here than in the mall.  Even worse, the owners seem reluctant to charge the lower rents that most small businesses need to survive, so it doesn’t look like a good place to move mall stores into.  Many of the chain stores in the mall will transfer their inventory to other stores in the chain instead of relocating.

The loss of a central gathering place in Anderson already seems like a near-fatal blow to the town.  The population in Anderson has already dropped 10% in recent years, and without new jobs in the area, things may continue to spiral downward.  We can only hope that creation of the proposed Greenway Project comes to fruition and helps revitalize our little corner of Indiana.

We aren’t the first town to suffer from unwelcome changes.  Cashman, Pistilli and West wrote and sang and produced a number of hit records that were released by various groups.  Terry Cashman wrote American City Suite about his perceptions of the slow decline of the city he lived in, and the sad recording was a near-hit record for Cashman and West in 1972.  The town he was singing about?  New York City.

The Birth of a Fake News Story

We keep hearing about fake news, but over time the fakery has become more subtle.

Take this recent headline from Newsweek for example:

MELANIA TRUMP ORDERS REMOVAL OF NEAR-200-YEAR-OLD TREE FROM WHITE HOUSE

The capital letters are from the online Newsweek article.  The headline leaves little doubt that Melania ordered the removal of the tree, and readers are left to speculate on what the tree did to annoy Melania.  Too much shade?  Blocking her view from the White House?  A left-over from another presidency?  We can just imagine her continuing her elite demands and even a suggestion of letting the hungry eat cake.

Most of the people who saw that headline probably didn’t read the actual story, leaving them with a less approving opinion of our first lady.

But the headline simply distorts the truth.  Intentionally?  Probably.

I used to live in Nashville, near the Hermitage that served as home for Andrew Jackson (who you no doubt remember from American History class as the seventh president of the United States).  When President Jackson’s wife died, he took a seedling from a magnolia tree at the Hermitage that his wife had loved and transplanted it to the White House grounds.

If you have an old twenty dollar bill you will find a picture of the tree on the reverse side.  The tree has survived a long time, although in the past few decades it has needed a lot of help to stand up.  An intricate system of cables, wires, and steel poles have been helping it remain standing.

Sadly, Time has continued to take its toll on the tree, and the groundskeepers judged that it was time to remove the tree before it split further and fell over to its death.  Mere groundskeepers cannot make major changes without permission from the White House, so papers were drawn up and presented to Melania along with plans for the future.

Melania merely approved the removal of the tree, but she also approved numerous seedlings be saved from the tree the same way a seedling was used to plant the tree in the Capital.  Once the dust settles from the removal, one or more seedlings will be planted to grow in its place, keeping the Magnolia site intact.

I get that a lot of folks do not like the Twitter-master who currently occupies the White House, but that’s no reason to attack the first lady, especially when she is doing her best to maintain the historical integrity of the White House.  Newsweek quickly edited their original story to more closely match the facts, but they’ve stubbornly kept the misleading headline.

Dorsey Burnett was an early Rockabilly singer who formed a trio named the Rock and Roll trio with his younger brother Johnny and their friend Paul Burlison.  The group broke up before it had any success, and the members went their separate ways.  Johnny was the most successful solo act, scoring hits starting with Dreamin’ and You’re Sixteen.  Dorsey did manage to dent the top forty with There Was A Tall Oak Tree and later had a long string of semi-successful Country hits.