Monday, August 31, 2015

The Proud Towers

The eighth and final segment of Ric Burns’ historical documentary on New York City, deals with the construction of the World Trade Center complex in south Manhattan.

It was the brainchild of David Rockefeller, scion of his grandfather John D.’s oil fortune (David turned 100 this year). By the 1950s, Rockefeller was chairman of the Chase Manhattan bank, located in south Manhattan, near the waterfront district that had undergone steep decline after World War II. 

Most commercial interests had migrated to midtown Manhattan, in the vicinity of the Empire State Building. What remained were several hundred retailers and other small businesses, and plenty of empty office-space and once-busy piers that were rotting into New York Bay. 

Rockefeller feared that the Wall Street stock-exchange’s status as world financial centre would be lost if the area went down any further. He proposed construction of a world-trade centre complex, to house all the companies in New York city doing business related to the financial markets. 

The resultant process by which the project actually went ahead, verifies that skyscrapers of the height and “footprint” of the World Trade Center — that structure in particular, but including all tall buildings of more than sixty or seventy storeys — make no sense from a profit-calculus viewpoint. 

James Glanz, a New York Times reporter, is quoted in The Center of the World episode of Burns’ documentary: “The Twin Towers were the moonshot of structural engineering and in skyscraper construction. They were unprecedented in the same way that the Apollo program was, and virtually the same era. And they had similar ambitions. Just in terms of quantity, [the Twin Towers] were the biggest. Ten million square feet of space. Nothing had come remotely close to that number, in terms the amount of real estate in one complex. They were a multi-dimensional exercise in hubris.” 

But, Glanz goes on, “these things were wonders of the world. We shall not see their like again.” 

While the World Trade Center has been axiomatically identified with “corporate capitalism”, in fact it required much government expenditure to get off the ground. 

It was such a bad investment in fact, that David Rockefeller thus had to enlist the services of his brother, Nelson, who assumed the New York state governorship in 1959. 

When the state legislature balked at putting up the funds directly for the world-trade complex, Nelson Rockefeller instead turned to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a semi-autonomous body funded by each state to administer the massive harbour complex on New York bay. 

It is one of many commissions and agencies that were set up by the city government since the nineteenth century, employing professional managers and engineers to administer the highly-complex infrastructure and facilities of what was in effect a city state. 

Putting so much of governance beyond democratic control was a reform policy directed against the patronage-corruption that was endemic in New York city government. 

New Yorkers were, no doubt, better governed by the professional bureaucrats, than by oft-incompetent patronage appointees. But in exchange for “good government”, unelected functionaries assumed vast powers to arrange and direct the lives of millions of people. 

The most powerful, and famed (infamous to many New Yorkers) was Robert Moses, head of various independent corporations which controlled infrastructure spending not only throughout New York City, but the surrounding municipalities and counties, too. 

An entire episode of the New York documentary is devoted to Moses’ vast influence on the very shape of Gotham in the twentieth century. 

Suffice to say in brief, that the most troubling aspect of Moses’ unelected rule, was that many or most of his agencies were self-financing (collecting fees from road-tolls and so on), thereby putting him beyond the control of not only the city, but the state government as well. 

Moses was not in charge of the Port Authority of the two states: but it, too, was self-financing, relying on port fees to keep solvent — and it has its own police force. Still, the organization required financing for the trade-centre project, and while the New York legislature proved amenable to governor Rockefeller later on, the state of New Jersey agreed to fund it only on the condition that the Port Authority take on ownership of the financially-troubled commuter subway line between Newark and New York. 

It was, as observers noted, a queer mandate for the Port Authority to take on, not just ownership of a subway line, but the entire financial-centre project itself, a giant real-estate scheme with no direct involvement in the ports of New York. 

Indeed, the “renewal” plan called for the removal of port facilities, to make way for park space at the foot of the trade-centre. Nevertheless, and in spite of strident opposition chiefly from groups representing the businesses to be expropriated under eminent domain to make way for the trade centre,  others (inspired by the author Jane Jacobs), looking to preserve heritage streetscape, and still others of sober disposition concerned about the vast price-tag of the project, as well as doubtful of the necessity of placing so much office space in lower Manhattan — and area with a surplus of such real-estate already. 

The proprietors of the Empire State building were also opposed, citing the fact that as a government-owned complex, the trade-centre was at an unfair advantage compared to their privately-held concern. Even local television stations lobbied against the twin-tower design (unveiled in 1964), citing probable interference of broadcast signals by the 110-storey skyscrapers. 

Nevertheless, and in spite of the small-businessmen’s all-American call for “free enterprise” to prevail in land use in south Manhattan, the central-planning philosophy prevailed, and century-old buildings were demolished to make way for the ultra-modernism of the World Trade Center. 

Opened between 1972 and ‘74, the complex did as predicted — by its detractors: flood the market with office space, and thereby lower the value of commercial properties in the vicinity (the owners of which, unlike the agency-owned Trade Center, had to pay property taxes). 

Entire floors of the Twin Towers remained unoccupied for decades, and they did not become fully rented out (ironically) until just a few years before the buildings were destroyed. There is a reason why the Empire State Building remained the tallest building in the world for over four decades, until it was surpassed by one of the towers of the WTC (itself relegated to second place a year later by the completion of the Sears Tower in Chicago). 

After its completion in 1931, the Empire State quickly became New York's emblem: but it was not fully leased, either, until 1951, twenty years after it opened. 

Even then, the bulk of its profits came from tourists attending the lookout located near the top (a facility originally designed for docking airships), and this was the case with the World Trade Center as well. 

Take a look at my girlfriend...

But the latter did assume the place of the Empire State building as the chief effigy of New York City (reproduced and parodied countless times (as on Supertramp's Breakfast in America cover, as well as footage in the first seven parts of Burns’ New York, produced before the Trade Center attacks). 

The Sears Tower was, unlike the Trade Center, a private development, constructed by what was then the largest retailer in the world. But it, too, was a white elephant during its first decades, a money-loser with much vacant space, a considerable financial liability for a firm that faced series challenge to, and then loss of market dominance by competitors (such as Wal-Mart) during the 1980s and ‘90s. Sold long ago, and officially known as the Willis tower, the Sears building is the tallest in the U.S., but the WTC was much larger in terms of office space — ten million square feet, almost three hundred storeys (including the various other buildings in the complex), the single largest commercial property in the world. 

Even those (and there are several in the Burns program) who didn’t like the appearance of the twin towers, would have to admit that it was an engineering marvel. Its architects and designers overcame the problem of elevator- and beam-placement inherent in such tall structures, by having its weight supported almost entirely by the frame. 

Thereby, floor-space of the twin towers were not encumbered (as the case with the Empire State building) by load-supporting beams every few yards. On the other hand, the concrete walls were so thick that office-tower windows were relatively small and set back some feet from the interior. 

And, it appears that is why the Twin Towers collapsed so quickly and completely, with the jets smashing through the frame (as is evident on the footage of the event), and the exploded fuel igniting materials inside the building to create a fatal weakening of the steel. Nevertheless, according to commentators in the Burns documentary, the frame-load design of the twin towers was highly influential in subsequent skyscraper construction. It was engineering achievement which was bought at the expense of government largesse, however, with inevitable detrimental consequences for the free-market, at least in the short run. 

For, as the columnist Pete Hamill stated, if the Twin Towers and associated buildings hadn’t been constructed when they did — and given the near-default on debt that New York City nearly experienced during the mid-1970s, just after the completion of the project, they wouldn’t have constructed at a later time.

Hamill had already expressed his disdain for the levelling of old-time neighbourhoods to make way for the Trade Center.  Yet, even he admitted that without the urban-renewal that came with the development, there would have been insufficient office-space in the area near Wall Street to house the thousands of workers directly and indirectly involved in the booming financial services sector of the 1990s. 

If so, the financial heart of New York could well have drifted uptown, as David Rockefeller predicted it would without the Trade Center (on the other hand, a Lower Manhattan without the twin towers and resultant demolitions could well have developed into another bohemian-artist quarter, like nearby Greenwich Village). 

In the event, the Trade Center did inspire a renewed building boom in downtown New York. But significantly, no builder even attempted to go near the height of the WTC. Like the Apollo moonshot, and most other large-scale engineering feats, the Trade Center came about as result of large-scale government spending and subsidy. Whatever the beneficial consequences that ultimately arose for private industry from these expenditures, private investors have been reluctant to spend such sums on engineering projects of even the modest scale of the World Trade Center (as compared even to the Apollo program) for the good reason that they are a poor investment. 

Rocket-ships to the moon, alike with the office-buildings that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, reached ever-greater heights, are plainly totemic in motivation, whatever the extensive rationality that went into their creation. 

Freudian and feminist theory would suggest that skyscrapers (and rockets) are objectified phalluses, and into this category could be included savage totems, as well as the pyramids and ziggurats of the earliest civilized societies (old world and new). 

First Skyscraper.

Perhaps it is more accurate, though less exciting, to consider pyramids, ziggurats, and skyscrapers as well, as monstrous extensions of the egos of the head priests, kings and captain of industry that had them built.  

An episode of Burns’ documentary focuses on the early twentieth-century “skyscraper wars.” Between 1900 and ‘30, one industrialist after another constructed headquarters for their operations, each building holding the record for a year or two, before it was overtaken by another tower. 

At one point during this period, two captains were building towers, each contending to be the world’s highest. It seemed that the one businessman had won out, when the other apparently completed his building short of the record. But then, a spire created in secret, was erected for the structure to take the name of world’s tallest. 

It didn’t last long either, and the Empire State Building was built to one more than a hundred storeys in order to beat out the Chrysler building, completed in 1928 at less than a hundred floors. But it was quickly nicknamed the “Empty State Building" because of the lack of occupants in its early years.  

American capitalists have been pilloried throughout the years for their slavish devotion to the bottom-line.  Yet, a significant and conspicuous part of their heritage - the skyscraper - came about often in spite, rather because of any inherent calculus.  They were, in effect, the gargantuan expression of pride.  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fashion in Clothing Now Six Feet Under

This week marked the tenth anniversary of the end of the HBO cable-program Six Feet Under

However, I watched the entire five seasons of the show only earlier this year, never having even glimpsed a moment of it before.  

Dead is the New Black.

At the same time, I was reading Retromania, by Simon Reynolds, a British journalist who reports from the U.S., published 2011. It details how modern pop culture has become in the twenty-first century mainly concerned with reviving the past. 

What struck me about Six Feet Under's first two series (dating from 2000 to '02) was how the clothing styles at least were no giveaway to when the series was made. 

Bulky cathode-ray and white-encased computer monitors, and the models of car, more subtly dated the program. 

The word "fashion" in itself is still immediately identified with the sartorial. 

Yet for the past fifteen years or so, clothing has ceased to be a temporal marker of changing taste. 

The apparently undated feel of Six Feet Under is evoked partly by the fact that the sets (such as for the Fisher family’s funeral parlour) are themselves designed in a retro “Prairie” style. 

Even so, the actors are also costumed in a way that would not, to my eye, be out of place if the clothes were worn today. However, no one would be able to dress in the styles of 1987 in 2001, without seeming passe. 

Changes in fashion, with clothing-styles foremost, has (during modern times at least) been fuelled by status-seeking. Chic styles are established by higher-class taste-makers, which are in turn emulated by social climbers on each wrung of the ladder below. 

Radical Chic.

When fashions become identified with a certain class, they are quickly abandoned by those on the strata above. Periodically, the fashionable avant-garde will adopt styles identified with the underclass, so as to prevent imitation by those directly below. 

In the twenty-first century, however, clothing has mostly ceased to be a medium through which people define themselves in terms of status. 

Perhaps it is that clothes have become too inexpensive a means for status-seekers to assume the appearance of those of better station. 

Or maybe it is that the possible variations in style for modern clothing-formats (cuffed pants, front-buttoned shirts, etc.) have been exhausted, and fashion designers have to return to the past to come with anything “new.” 

Being in-fashion now focusses on products other than clothing, it seems. Certain information-technology devices have become chic to be seen with, but are at once too expensive to be easily emulated by the lower classes. 

This is the case with the Apple company’s i-phone devices, which are in no way superior to other “wireless” handheld telephones, and are (speaking from personal experience) a great deal more fragile. 

Nevertheless, anyone with a fashion sense wouldn’t dare to be without one (in spite, or because of, the fact that they cost twice as much as equivalent phones that do the job just as well). 

The disparate meanings placed by the fashion and tech industries on the very word “design”, undergo an odd concurrence here. 

For the garment-industry, the designer is responsible for laying down patterns in cloth and colour, creating an aesthetically-pleasing style for the marketplace. This hasn’t mainly to do with the functional aspects of clothing: fashion-design could be described as “useless” (as much as any art or aesthetic has no use). 

With information-technology, however, the designer is more fundamental to the manufacturing process. His work may well touch on the aesthetic features of a silicon-based device (as is the case with the i-phone and other Apple products), but design in the IT world refers to the technical architecture that makes the device functional in the first place. 

Famously, innovation has occurred far more rapidly in computing technology, than in any other industry. The biannual doubling of computer-power (the “Moore’s law” predicted by a cofounder of Intel in 1965) has rendered state-of-the-art information technology, obsolete within just a few years. 

The bulky, white-encased computer equipment seen in Six Feet Under, was outmoded because of newer, more powerful information-processors soon became available. 

But not merely so: during the time the series was in production, desktop computer-cases went from being all-white (or slightly off-white), to all-black. This was not due to solely improvements in functionality, as instead to the desire to make the desktop computer an invisible part of the decor, by rendering it literally opaque. 

If It's Not a i-phone you're a no-account declasse piece of garbage.

It reflects the personal-computer’s shift from a status symbol (with conspicuous white panelling) to simply another home appliance. As laptop computers became more portable, they were initially marketed in darker colours. 

More recently, however, their cases have been silver-chrome in appearance, making them resemble a jewellery-box or the like. The white or otherwise “ice-cream” tones of the i-phone case, are a striking claim to higher status. 

With clothing, “design” is usually what renders a garment obsolete to wear, long before it becomes worn-out or otherwise dysfunctional as apparel. Obsolescence in computing is also accelerated, by pairing the redesign of basic technical architecture for greater power and efficiency, with changes in the aesthetics of the products themselves.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Where Have All the Service-Stations Gone?

The Ottawa Citizen recently reported on the efforts to have a service-station located in the city’s Westboro district and built in 1934, declared a Heritage site, on account of its unique “cottage-like” architecture.   

I drove by the location the other day, taking the picture below. What struck me is that there is no “for-sale” sign on the premises – which in fact hadn’t been a gasoline-station for many years. 

Not even close to the Westboro Church.
Photo: R.B. Glennie

It was most recently a used-car lot, but apparently the land has no commercial value – surprisingly enough, given that it is located right in the midst of one of the wealthiest postal-codes in the city.  

The Citizen story is enigmatic on this point. But given its former uses, it is not too much to believe that the property is too contaminated to be a profitable investment. 

The current landlord had no comment about the Heritage application, although last year ta representative said the land “was currently underused and had more potential to serve the community in the future." 

Building-owners generally object to Heritage-designation, because it severely delimits what they do with the property. Reading between the lines, I think the landlord actually wants the city to buy back the land, apparently because it can’t be disposed of otherwise. 

Here’s another enigma: just three years after its construction in 1937, it was sold for $1 (to be fair, this is about fifteen dollars in contemporary Canadian currency). 

One might think that the land is less so contaminated, than possessed by the Devil. 

The supernatural aside, this whole story brought me back to thoughts I had some time ago about the disappearance of the service-station.  

When I was a youngster, virtually all auto-mechanic garages operated also as retailers of gasoline. Now, there are very few of such businesses, if any. 

There are significantly fewer gas-stations, on the whole, and very few are owned independently of large petroleum concerns. As recently as 2008, though, there was on Ogilvie Road in Ottawa a gas station that had, apparently, an attached auto-mechanic service. 

I believe it was still operated by, or affiliated with, the Shell company.  But the Ogilvie Shell was in fact one of a type that was put all over North America, I presume (or at least in those areas where Shell set up business). 

These were built in a “homey” style, with a wood-panelled exterior so as to remind motorists of old-fashioned, supposedly small-town sellers of petrol. These were so commonplace in my youth part of the background. When they began to go away, they did so without much ado, thus. I remembered them only when I started to habitually drive past the Ogilvie Road place, one of the last of its kind.

They were, in fact, a remarkably brilliant exercise in marketing, using the very architecture of the station itself (which was, it must be said, handsomely spartan, with a facade reminiscent of the split-level suburban family home, so common in the area as it happens) to defray the growing perception back then, that oil companies were up to no good. 

I was able to reminisce this Shell station for a while only, before it was closed, demolished and made way for a business plaza (which includes a drive-thru Starbuck’s location). 

These Shell stations I presume were, during their heyday, franchised to certified auto-mechanics, who may have well been independent operators previously. This was becoming increasingly commonplace, as I remember. 

When I was young, my dad took the family car to a garage on Main Street in Ottawa East, that everyone knew as “Mike’s Fina” (or simply, “Mike’s”). 

Looking back, I don’t believe the name “Mike” appeared anywhere on the sign, but it was indeed run by a guy named Mike, whose son, also Mike, took over later. Evidently, Mike Sr. had some kind of arrangement with Fina, the Belgian oil firm (and later, when the domestic interests of Fina were purchased by Petro-Canada, it became “Mike’s Petro-Canada," or really, "Mike's"). 

Mike’s gas station was closed around the turn of the century, I would guess.  The land on which it was situated, lay vacant for a time before it was also sold to developers to put up condos. Mike Jr. is still in business: evidently with proceeds from the sale of his station, he built an auto-mechanic establishment on a property adjacent to the old place (this located in a building that also contains condominiums). 

The transaction encapsulates the general trend in the auto-repair business, wherein the latter has been disestablished from direct involvement in the sale of gasoline. What, for the first decades seemed such a natural fit, is practically unheard-of now. 

What follows is educated speculation as to the reasons for this. 

Sales of gasoline, and general auto-maintenance services were conjoined originally, because pumping one’s own gasoline was considered too tricky, dirty and above all, undignified for the average motorist (who were originally bourgeois or richer folks) to engage in directly. 

Moreover, it would have been unthinkable to expect women drivers (who from early on, consisted of a large part of the motorist population in North America at least, women operating if not their own motorcars, then those owned by husbands, fathers and other males of intimate relation) to get their own gas. 

Thereby, as the gas-retailing system was being set up in the early decades of the twentieth century, young, unskilled labour was employed to carry out not only this duty, but also to check oil, inflate tires, wash windows, and so on. 

However, “pumping gas” is not only a job-descriptor, but a term with greater symbolic import, denoting a very low-status, unskilled occupation. 

Thus, In order to defray high rates of turnover, and to attract more reputable candidates for employment, service-station owners had the gas-jockeys become informal apprentices to the more skilled mechanics who worked to repair car-engines. 

Not nearly all of those who have pumped gas have gone on to be auto-mechanics. However, virtually all auto-mechanics of an earlier era started out in the business pumping gas, which was in turn considered merely the simplest and least-statusworthy job in a continuum of filthy (and thereby to many, vulgar) activities involved in the repair and maintenance of cars. 

As the "century of the car" progressed, and business became more concentrated (with firms such as Shell and Texaco becoming national and continental in reach), service-station concerns sought competitive advantage through the employment of polite, friendly, uniformed (and most importantly, relatively clean) staffers. 

The professed commitment to good service naturally extended to the auto-repair part of the business, with the mechanics given customer-relations training and at least rudimentary understanding in the academic side of their trade (so as to present to the public framed “diplomas” allegedly certifying the expertise of in-house auto-mechanics). 

As these innovations were costly, only larger firms could afford them. But as they were also successful with the public, independently-owned service-stations were less able to compete with the combines, and went out of business or were bought up by the big players (as apparently occurred with Mike’s station on Main Street, Ottawa). 

The old-fashioned design of the Shell stations of the ‘60s, was a concession to the fact that the “neighbourhood mechanic” was a thing of the past, and the company succeeded to a great extent in making people forget that Shell was the proverbial “faceless corporation.” 

Going against the grain of economic history, though, wherein business in most sectors tends toward oligopoly — auto-repair and gasoline-sales have undergone dis-aggregation.  
In contrast to decades ago, most auto-mechanics are today independent operators, and the business itself seems to resist concentration. There are of course, larger players involved in the auto-repair business. 

The Canadian Tire chain offers not only auto parts and products for sale, but each outlet has a garage for auto-work as well (more recently, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has got into the auto-mechanic business in Canada as well). 

However, both Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart make most of their money in the sale of general, non-auto merchandise (the ad slogan for the former chain was for many years, “There’s A Lot More than Tires at Canadian Tire”). 

Whatever the dominance exercised by Wal-Mart especially in the retail sector, there seems little prospect that it or Canadian Tire will become oligopolistic actors in the auto-repair industry. 

The Canadian firm is even referred to as “Crappy Tire” in large part for its reputation for substandard and inadequate repair and maintenance services, and is patronized mainly due to its promise of relatively cheap rates compared to the independents. 

But peer into the garage at a Canadian Tire, and one will find very few veterans of the trade. Like the workforce inside the store, the mechanics are young and inexperienced, and underpaid as well; if they have any talent, they will move on to better-paying jobs at independent operators, or else open their own businesses (I’m sure this the case at Wal-Mart garages, too).

Auto-companies also offer car-repair services, so as to (as in the ad slogan of one of them) “offer genuine GM service and parts at the best prices”. Most of contemporary auto-makers have large service-centres in major cities, attracting customers based on the knowledge and skill that allegedly comes from specializing on engines belonging to a certain brand. But this branch of business was set up largely in fulfilment of warranty services offered on the sale of new vehicles.  

The car companies insist on in-house work being done, so as to control discretion as to whether the repair fulfils the terms of the warranty. As new-car warranties are really a type of car-insurance, auto-mechanics employed by automakers must act as adjusters, as much as servicemen, in order to save costs as much as possible, for their employer. It may be that car-maker service-centres are not profitable in terms of their gross expense on labour and materials (I know this to be the case with appliance-repair for Sears Canada,for example), less the sales accrued through the purchase of extended-warranties to be included in auto-financing (this is why Sears sales-people must concentrate on these “extended protection agreements” when selling washers, dryers, fridges, etc.). 

Aside from this, it seems that there are no examples of an auto-mechanic firm expanding from a single owner-operated outlet, into a regional, provincial or national chain. This has occurred in most other forms of business: as with, say, McDonald’s in the fast-food sector, or Starbuck’s in the sale of “premium” coffees. 

Certainly, national and continental chains have developed around relatively simple and quick repairs and maintenance on automobiles (such as Speedy Muffler or Oil Changers). But there is no large concern that I am aware of, in Canada, the United States or elsewhere, that as its major line of business, is devoted entirely to the comprehensive maintenance and repair of cars and trucks. 

The reason for this resides in the fact that cars are probably the most sophisticated engineered technology sold to a largely consumer marketplace. Fixing them thus requires a high level of skill, a sort of expertise that apparently is never completely grasped in theory, and requires at least several years of practice and tutoring, in order to achieve true professionalism. 

As well, working on cars is intricate enough (at least, when done professionally) so that it cannot be easily rationalized and routinized (making the tasks achievable by those of average or below talent) — excepting with the aforesaid muffler- and oil-change concerns. It means, paradoxically, that this thoroughly modern workplace — the auto-repair garage — has had to operate something on the lines of a medieval guild. 

This was especially true of the owner-operator full service-stations of the earlier part of the automobile era, when novices would taken on, based on their perceived interest or ability to work on cars. Most would move on, but the few who remained would progress through menial tasks — like pumping gas — to more responsibilities in the garage, until in a few of these cases, the completion of apprenticeship for auto-mechanic. 

This process was essential in the initial years of the automobile, when no schooling was available to certify auto-mechanical proficiency. The modern auto-repair garage, shorn of its functions as a retailer of gas, has no ready method of informal apprenticing in this manner. 

Accordingly, auto-mechanical knowledge has been subject to credentialing (though car-repair has never been undergone official or even informal licencing — basically, anyone can set up shop as an auto-mechanic, regardless of any schooling or apprenticeship). 

But the head-mechanic’s skills, much like the medieval master, is not something that can be conveyed in full academically. It must be learned by direct exposure, and is somehow unutterable (it may be treated as trade secret). It just reinforces the fragmentation of the auto-repair marketplace, with no one firm growing so much larger than all the rest. 

The divestment by gasoline-retailers from the auto-repair business, occurred incidentally it seems, as service-providers sought to save rising costs brought on by the “oil crunch” of the 1970s. 

Installing self-service pumps at busier stations, petrol firms came to understand that people — even women! — didn’t really mind pumping their own gas, especially as it took a motorist as much as half the time to do so, than to be waited on by a potentially unfriendly or unsanitary attendant. 

Soon enough, exclusively self-serve gas stations were opened, gradually taking over as the standard until by now, perhaps one in a hundred gas stations is full service. Unanticipated or not, gasoline firms realized that self-service was much more lucrative than the alternative. 

They were significantly less expensive to operate — requiring a single attendant per shift, instead of half-dozen or more, for a full-service centre. They could also be kept open round-the-clock, without the worry for paying staff overtime. 

As the self-serve station employee’s duties were restricted to cash and custodial duties, he didn’t have to any auto-mechanic skills at all. 

Appropriately redesigned, the self-serve gas-station was rendered into a kind of assembly line, wherein motorists became casual-labourers on their own behalf. It was part of a more general trend of automation throughout the “service” sector, which saw consumers taking a hand in the work process, such that the dispensing of services could achieve something approaching a mass-scale. 

Thus, the invention and spread of the auto-teller machine, has turned the stolid, columned bank of the past, into today’s “banking centre” through which file hundreds of customers each day, most of whom do not interact with any of the staff on hand, a far greater volume of business for an average outlet, than even the largest bank of yesterday could accommodate. 

The shopping cart turned the neighbourhood groceteria into the supermarket, while self-service cashiers do away with even minimal contact between shoppers and employees on site. Many parking lots have dispensed with the exit cashier, as motorists retrieve their own tickets, and pay their own exit. As for the gas station, in older times when it was inevitably linked to the service garage, it had one or two pumps, with larger outlets having three or four. 

Self-service gas-stations rarely have less then half-a-dozen pumps, while many have a dozen or two, accommodating several times the number of customers per day as the average service-station of yore (with the self-service stations occupying usually no greater amount of real estate than the older stations). 

The interesting point to be made is that, in order to achieve economies of scale in the service sector, consumers had to become involved, at least menially, in the productive process. 

Self-service, at least in gasoline retail, comported awkwardly with the auto-repair function of the business, just for the latter being a workshop activity. Gas stations purpose-built for self-serve, virtually never were connected with auto-maintenance. 

Full-service stations that converted to self-serve, eventually gave up either on auto-repair, or selling gas completely. The inherent graduality of car-repair, along with the space required to park vehicles, the awkwardness that comes from manoeuvring broken-down automobiles onto the lot for repair, the need for customers to loiter for long periods whilst they wait for their car to be ready, not to mention the filth that accompanies this line of work, militated against the very advantage of the self-service station, which was to fill as many gas tanks, in as little time as possible. 

In all major cities, there remain the old service-stations, long ago taken over by single-proprietors for auto-maintenance and repair purposes only, but the areas where the gas-pumps once stood leave a visible impression on the pavement. 

Full-service stations that were converted to self-service, have come to use the areas once devoted to repairs, for inventory devoted to a different, high-volume product — general merchandise as found in a convenience store. 

During the age of full-service, the only non-automotive products found at a gas station were bubble-gum and soda machines. Early in the era of self-serve, merchandise sales were restricted to chocolate bars and cigarettes kept under and behind the cashier. 

Today, stores located at gas-stations have so many non-automotive goods for sale, that much of their business must consist of pedestrians and passersby not purchasing gas at all. Usually, only the most basic auto products (like engine oil or windscreen fluid) are available at self-service stations, and they are usually kept separate (for hygienic purposes) from the other products, placed beside the gas pumps or outside the entrance. 

Thus, it is that the auto-service garage has once again become the neighbourhood and local concern that it was at the commence of the era of the car. 

Here’s something that struck me many years ago, when I first got a car of my own and was subsequently faced with the high cost of car repairs: if the auto-repair and maintenance field is so fragmented between many single-proprietor operations, why is it so expensive to get even relatively minor work done on an automobile? 

It isn’t that the materials used for car-repair have become more expensive. On the contrary, spare parts have become all the less costly to consumers. It is the “service” part of auto-repair which has become so dear, the labour charges that usually take up two-thirds or three-quarters of the bill. 

It is an illustration of the economic principle (introduced, so far as I know, by Steve Antler) that during modern times, the cost of services has steadily increased, whilst those of goods has been on a steady decrease. 

For work that cannot be readily automated — like auto-repair — labour costs never decrease (it is the same with, for example, medicine and law). But unlike white-collar professional vocations, working on cars involves at least a couple of things that boost the premium on labour costs in this field. 

For one, interest in car engines seems to be restricted to a certain subset of the population — so-called “grease-monkeys”, disdained by more than a few and infamous to others — those who, even from early childhood, take an avid interest in engines. 

If public schools in North America (which is acknowledged to be the world-centre of car culture) were more inclined toward mechanical education than is actually the case, more boys (and grease-monkeys are almost by definition male, even today) might take to the mechanical world. 

Instead, since its origins in the nineteenth century, public-schooling has been script- and book-based. To the degree that the physical and tactile has been reintroduced into pedagogy since the 1960s movement toward the “whole child” and so forth, this has not in the main been to expose children to the mechanical, even in principle. 

Auto-mechanic courses, as with the learning of other skilled labour, were reserved for the secondary level, in vocational and technical schools of lower-status in the educational system (which through high school devotes its resources to academics), wherein were typically placed boys from troubled, broken or poorer homes, those regarded by their elementary teachers to have little prospect for book-learning. 

It is another paradox, that a civilization literally driven by engines, teaches a curriculum which is in the main quite divorced therefrom. The disreputable air lent to auto-mechanics and other sorts of technical education by the organization of modern pedagogy, was reinforced by the inclusion of these subjects in the curricula of reform schools, an enlightened notion so as to give juvenile delinquents a useful and legal way to make a living. 

Perhaps it did for some, but it also inevitably meant that adult criminals were disproportionately represented among the skilled trades. It contributes to a situation in which a lesser number of youth choose to be involved in auto-mechanics — and in the skilled trades generally, which is why Canada and most other technologically-sophisticated societies have continued to witness shortages of such workers (the Canadian and Ontarian governments have recently put into place apprenticeship programmes at the post-secondary level to make up for these shortages). 

All forms of skilled labour also suffer in prestige, due to their being to a degree and more, inherently dirty. 

This applies especially to auto-mechanics. Engine grease, which ironically consists of soap mixed with mineral oil, is an unavoidable part of the job. As a “handicraft” vocation, car-repair is intricate enough such that it cannot be accomplished most of the time, wearing gloves. 

Auto-mechanics is one of the filthiest lines of work ever devised, perhaps less so than coal-mining, but more so than most others even throughout history, including butchery and latrine-cleansing. 

Blood and feces wash away more easily than the matter found within a car engine, which is not only lubricant, but the oil and dirt that accompanies the normal operation of an automobile (to say nothing of motorists who neglect basic vehicle maintenance). Cleansers can remove most of the greasy aftereffects of engine repair. 

But grease becomes very fine under constant exposure to the heat of the engine. Microscopic particles of the lubricant, oil and dirt, enters the pores of the auto-mechanic, and cannot be removed without damaging the skin. Ultimately, auto-repair is so expensive not only because of the relative lack of supply of mechanics. Even those involved in the trade will not accept remuneration that will not make them prosperous, given that the work makes auto-mechanics never appear entirely clean.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Psychedelic Mother Of All Rock

The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has made headlines with his assertion that the Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, is "a mishmash of rubbish."

Sgt. Pepper is often rated one of the best albums of all time.Yet, the album has always attracted its share of naysayers.  

Frank DeFreitas
Richard Smith, writing in the Guardian newspaper in 2007, called it "the most overrated album of all time." Even the editors of the Beatles' Illustrated Record (originally published in 1975) considered it "outdated." Just a year after its release, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention lampooned the famous Sgt. Pepper cover (while satirizing hippies and the counterculture as a whole) on We're Only In It For the Money.  (Never to be outdone, Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed said in a 1987 interview that the Beatles themselves "were garbage").

Less noticed about Richards' comments, however, was the fact that he called the Stone's own Satanic Majesties Request, released a few months Pepper, "a load of shit."

Psychedelic rock, of which Sgt. Pepper and Satanic Majesties are considered leading examples, is held in low-esteem generally, even by those who helped create it.

This might explain the remarkable brevity of the psychedelic trend: talked up as a new dawn in music in ‘67, it was entirely passe a year later. 

This is in spite of the fact that the basic “psychedelic” style — a relatively hard-rock beat, fronted by harmony-vocals and unconventional (for rock) instruments — continued to be remunerative. 

The genre endured into the early ‘70s as “bubble-gum” rock, suitable for young teens and pubescents. Ironically, music that began in acid-drenched rebellion against convention, ended up as the epitome of lightweight. 

Don't turn around Billy!

Still, by 1968, the pioneering psychedelic-rock acts, the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, and so on, shed psychedelia like last year’s groovy threads. 

This is witnessed no better than with the most documented of all rock acts, the Beatles. The Pepper-costumed high-flying days of ‘67, were replaced by jeans and corduroys, and full beards, by the time the band recorded Let It Be a year-and-a-half later. 

Helping to popularize psychedelia, the Beatles were in the avant-garde of its quick abandonment.  

The song Across the Universe, which appeared on the Let It Be album in 1970, was not originally from the sessions for that record, from early '69.  Instead, it was recorded a year earlier, at the same time as Lady Madonna, Paul McCartney's catchy r'n'b number.  

Sensing the change in popular taste, though, Madonna and not Universe, was selected as the new Beatles' single (a version of Across the Universe different from that on Let It Be, was relegated to a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund in 1969).

By the time the band recorded the eponymous "White Album" later in '68, they were fully immersed in what came to be known as "roots-rock."  

Let It Be (originally called Get Back) was intended to go even further in this direction, showcasing the Beatles without the studio "trickery" characteristic of the band's albums back to Rubber Soul in 1965.  This is why Across the Universe sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to all the rest of the "rootsier" music on Let It Be.

It is similar to how the song Burning of the Midnight Lamp seems so anomalous when compared to the rest of the two-disc Electric Ladyland, by Jimi Hendrix, released in late 1968.

Midnight Lamp was originally recorded and released as a single, in the U.K. only, during the "Summer of Love" in 1967.  Like the rest of Hendrix's music from that year, it is strongly psychedelic in flavour (it even features a harpsichord).  

But by the next year, Jimi had fully retreated from psychedelia for the heavy blues-rock that characterizes the music on Ladyland.

Other former psychedelicans branched in contrary directions. 

Many American musicians took a sudden love to old-fashioned country music (often, as with Missouri-born ex-Byrd Gene Clark, or the Louisianan Gram Parsons, this was their first love). 

In Britain there emerged in psychedelia’s wake, a whole crop of acoustic-based ensembles devoted to British and Irish folk music. 

Britain was also home to the new hard rock sound, which shucked the unusual arrangements of psychedelia and beat-harmony of British invasion groups, for a striped-down guitar-bass-drums, fronted by a domineering vocalist. Deep Purple symbolized the change. First appearing out of London in 1968 as a power-pop outfit, a couple of years later they were fully-fledged hard-rockers. 

Without a doubt, the kings of the hard-rock genre were Led Zeppelin, who underwent an even more telling transformation from the debris of the Invasion-era Yardbirds, to become the rock supergroup of the ‘70s. 

The post-psychedelic hard-rockers and country- and folk-rockers dressed virtually alike: in denims, leather jackets, cowboy boots, very long hair, often with mustaches and beards. However, hard rock was much more successful, at least initially, than either country- or folk-influenced rock. 

This was evidenced by the sudden transformation of Tyrannosaurus Rex, a British folk duo led by Marc Bolan, which released albums with titles such as My People Were Fair, and Had the Stars In Their Hair, into teen-rockers T. Rex, which had the smash Get It On (Bang A Gong). T. Rex’s “glam-rock” was another offshoot of psychedelia, as was “progressive” rock, which incorporated the classical flourishes of psychedelia, into composition and performance. 

King Crimson was formed as a folk-rock group with a female vocalist (as with Pentangle and Fairport Convention). However, by the first album, the Court of the Crimson King (an unexpected hit from 1969), the band had incorporated a sax and mellotron into the lineup. Crimson’s lead vocalist was, on Crimson King, Greg Lake, who having left the group soon after the album's release, teamed up with Keith Emerson, formerly with the psychedelic Nice, to form the Emerson, Lake and Palmer progressive supergroup. 

Both hard- and progressive-rockers had million-selling albums in spite of a lack of AM airplay. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon remained on the Billboard 200 chart for 740 weeks after its release in 1973, in spite of a lack of hit singles for the group. Led Zeppelin increased their own sales, by cagily dabbling in traditional folk (most famously with the Battle of Evermore, featuring Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention on vocal, from Led Zeppelin IV). But the relatively poor sales of the band’s folk-dominant III, from 1970, compared to I, II and IV, attests to the success of hard rock as opposed to contemporary acoustic music. 

The commercial potential of hard rock was demonstrated in 1968, with the release by the San Diego group Iron Butterfly of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the 17-minute title track to which became a smash hit single (appropriately edited for radio play), and the album itself went on to platinum sales. In-A-Gadda could be looked upon as the transition between psychedelic and hard rock. 

The British group Black Sabbath, which started out as a blues- and folk-oriented band called Earth in 1968, took a more sinister direction by 1970, with the release of their self-titled debut, fusing Alister Crowley inspired imagery and lingo with very hard rock (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was an acolyte of Crowley’s as well). 

Sabbath were the direct ancestor of the heavy metal that emerged in the late ‘70s and 1980s, and they too, were part of the trend, after Ronnie James Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne as the group’s lead vocalist (Osbourne also had a successful solo career at the time). In a real way, then, psychedelia was common ancestor of virtually all popular music of the fifteen years after its wake.


But the experimentation and eclectic instrumentation characteristic of psychedelia, didn't re-emerge until a decade after 1967, when New Wave music became the new Big Thing.