Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Southside don't need no stinking setlist -- March 24, 2013

I Played the Fool
The first time I saw Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, I hadn't yet seen my first Springsteen concert. It was May, 1980, I was a high school senior in New Jersey, and the Great Adventure Amusement Park had an event called "senior night" aimed at us on warm Friday evening. Mt. St. Helens had recently erupted, and as the volcanic ash drifted eastward we'd get glorious sunsets unlike anything we'd ever seen. After school that day we wedged many of us in to two small cars and headed down the New Jersey Turnpike to exit 7A, and eventually to the amphitheater, which was basically a round concrete slab with a stage on one side. Southside performed 3 shows that evening, though we went only to the first. The band featured the famed horns, as well as "The Girls," decked out in spandex suits. So I can say that I saw Patti Scialfa perform live before I saw Bruce Springsteen perform live.

That first show, I couldn't even persuade my friends to stay until the end; not that it was a bad show (I remember it being fantastic), but they wanted to get on the roller coasters. So, I tried to keep to the roller coasters closest to the stage, and have a memory of being on the loop-to-loop roller coaster, upside down, with the Mt. St. Helens sunset somewhere below me, and listening to Southside doing his "Sam Cooke" medley to close the show. It is one of my ultimate New Jersey memories, right up there, probably, with the attempt to get out of the parking lot that same evening and the lunar landscape ride up the New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours to get home.
Setlist #1, before the show began. The actual setlist bore faint resemblance to it.
Since then, I've seen Southside in a number of interesting location, mostly in New Jersey. There was the show in the Turtleback Zoo Amphitheater with the memorable opening act Holly and the Italians; somehow that led to a sock-throwing incident though I don't quite remember the details. There were two New Year's shows, including at the old Capitol Theater in Passaic. The first anniversary show at the Brendan Byrne Arena, in which Southside performed a jingle he'd done for Miller Beer. And, of course, the "this could only be Southside" dates, the Jukestock concert at a Holiday Inn in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

Elianna got an unobstructed view.
It took until last year, though, before I finally got to see John perform in Michigan. On Sunday night, he made it consecutive years to Michigan, performing at the Magic Stick in Detroit. The Magic Stick is a small venue; I'm told it holds 275 people. There are tables set up for maybe 25 along the sides, and the rest of the venue is just an open floor with a simple stage a couple feet up at one end. The performance venue is on the 2nd floor of a building that also houses the Majestic (a larger performance hall) as well as a bowling alley and a restaurant. We followed the email instructions and arrived half an hour before doors; much to my surprise this meant we got there too late for a table but in plenty of time to amble right on up to the stage. Which we did. Elianna, being a bit tired, actually sat down on the stage. Aaron pointed out the various equipment on stage, noting that we were directly at the controls for the bass. There was virtually no discernible publicity for the show, and I'd be surprised it there were more than 150 people in the room.
Setlist #1 lies, crumpled up, behind Southside; at least Setlist Man couldn't read it anymore.
Jeff Kazee during All the Way Home
Southside didn't come on until an hour after doors, though, so we were waiting a while. After the setlists were placed down, one man made plain he intended to make a souvenir out of one of them. I figured I'd just take a picture of one, in case I needed a song title for later. I needn't have bothered. I warned Aaron that Southside has a tendency to "insult" patrons; that was a defensive action on my part, just in case.

Setlist #2 goes airborne.
When Southside came on, he immediately picked his target: Setlist Man. After some perfunctory jousts, he launched in to Shake 'Em Down and I Played The Fool; songs that were actually on the setlist. The band sounded great. The current crew is a jeans and sneakers bunch, with John in old-fashioned Converse's and a bit in need of a new belt. The only member I really recognize these days is keyboard player Jeff Kazee, but they still carry the "Asbury Jukes" name and the playing was first rate. Shake 'Em Down allowed John to show his chops on the harmonica, as well.

By 5 songs in, John had it figured out: "Don't you look at my setlist, motherfucker!," he yelled at Setlist Man. Whereupon he ripped the setlist off the amp to which it had been taped, crumpled it up and tossed it backwards. Meanwhile, the trumpet player was making a paper airplane out of another copy of the setlist.

I'd have to go to my picture of the setlist to try to figure out how much of what was played Sunday evening actually stuck to what was written down; seems to me that it was no more than a vague resemblance. What the band actually played, was a mix of the Steve Van Zandt and/or Bruce Springsteen songs that were Southside's early calling cards, along with a fair helping of more recent recordings, a Jeff Kazee number, and a balls-to-the-wall version of the Flirtations' Nothing But a Heartache.

At one point, John asked for a Detroit song to sing, but he ended up skipping it. Instead, he did a double-shot from Van Zandt's Men Without Women album, Forever and Until the Good Is Gone. When that album came out in 1982, many of us wondered how it would have been with Southside singing it; now we know (in 2011 Southside made a live recording of the entire album; my souvenir from the show was a CD of that recording).

As good as the rave-ups were, and there were plenty, many of my favorite moments of the evening were when John toned down the band and let the voices carry the moment. These included some nice harmonies for Without Love. and a gorgeous version of All The Way Home, for which Kazee came out front to play accordion. Of course, as Southside was singing the line "I'll Walk You All the Way Home," he might drop in an aside, such as "don't you have a car?"
This was YOUR beer?!?"

Then, there were the antics. At one point, Setlist Man had his bottle of beer on the stage. Southside moved forward, Setlist Man tried to move the bottle of beer back to a safe position. Uh.... NO. Southside saw it, and did exactly what I would have expected of him 30 years ago: He kicked that bottle over, spilling beer all over the front of the stage. Poor Setlist Man had to go buy another bottle.

For the most part, though, John played it straight, and the 2-hour show included most of the popular numbers such as I Don't Want To Go Home, Hearts Of Stone, The Fever, Trapped Again, Talk To Me, This Time It's For Real and his cover of Walk Away Renee, without much variation to the album versions. Setlist Man eventually got a setlist, and got it signed.

Toward the end of the show, John spoke to a college-age attendee standing next to me -- "whatever you do, don't pick up an instrument!" It was sort of joking, but not entirely: After 40 years in the business, here he was, playing to relatively few old fans (and some new) far from home, with a long bus ride directly back to New Jersey to follow. I don't envy John or the band that ride. I'm glad -- for me -- that he still does it, and that I now get to see him in Michigan with my family. Aaron says that good music doesn't come with an expiration date, and I'm happy he gets to witness some of my favorite music made fresh.
Hello. My name is John and I wear Jockey underwear.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

My Michigan Taxes - Gerrymander Politics and Reverse Robinhoodism

The late, lamented Michigan Schedule 2
Over the weekend, I finally sat down with my documents and TurboTax, and settled in to my 2012 taxes. It's still a bit early for me, as I don't have all of my documents yet, but I wanted to get a sense of where I'd be this year.

I finished the Federal taxes, leaving gaps for the unreceived documents.

Then I got to Michigan. I completed the 1040 and Schedule 1, and went to fill out Schedule 2. That's my favorite. It's where the "Nonrefundable credits" are. For many years, Michigan has had a "different" tax system. Michigan didn't mimic Federal taxes for deductions, Michigan ignored most of those while giving direct credits for select favored items. The credit was 50% of a donation, up to a modest limit, for gifts to Michigan colleges or universities, Michigan public broadcasting stations, homeless shelters, and a few other select recipients. For 2011, my nonrefundable credits totalled $361. For 2010, it was $376, and for the 3 years prior to that the nonrefundable credits averaged $291. Reasonably consistent, and I'm guessing in line with many other Michigan taxpayers.

Because of the credits' extreme size -- a 50% credit -- nonrefundable credits could help transform relatively small out-of-pocket expenditures in to significant donations. For example, in 2009 I made a $200 donation to Gleaners Community Food Bank, one of the organizations that qualified for the "Homeless Shelter/Food Bank Credit" in line 4 of Schedule 2. On my state taxes, the 50% credit reduced my taxes by $100, and by itemizing my Federal return my taxes there were reduced by $50. In addition, PNC Bank matched my donation to Gleaners. So, Gleaners received $400, but after credits and deductions my out-of-pocket spend was just $50. In subsequent years I substantially increased my donations to Gleaners in 2010 and 2011.

Suffice to say, I found the nonrefundable credits to provide an extraordinarily wonderful way to encourage Michigan citizens to give to local organizations. It even had two features that made it clear that it wasn't a tax break for the rich, either:
  1. It was capped at a relatively modest total dollar amount ($200 credit for married people giving to homeless shelters, for example)
  2. It was a direct credit -- meaning that everyone who gave to those organizations got the credit, even if they had little or no income.
So I went to fill out Schedule 2, and... it wasn't there! The $600 donation to Capuchin Food Kitchen? Thank you very much, no credit (it would have been over the limit anyway, but still...). The donations to the University of Michigan? Count 'em on the Federal. And that wasn't all: The partial credit on my income tax to the City of Detroit? Fuggedaboutit.

What happened?

What happened, happened in 2011. Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed a tax bill (euphemistically called a "reform bill" that would bring "fairness" to Michigan taxes) that gave tax breaks totaling $1.6 billion to businesses, and to offset that, raised income taxes by $1.4 billion. The bill passed both the Michigan Senate and the Michigan House without a single Democratic vote, made possible in substantial part because of a Republican gerrymander back in 2001.

The tax hike was certainly no secret when the bill was passed, but it is still a bit of a shock when it hits. For the record, the votes broke down as follows:
Legislative Body
Republicans

Democrats

Overall

In Favor

Against

In Favor

Against

In Favor

Against
Michigan Senate
19
7
0
12
19
19
Michigan House
56
6
0
46
56
52
The senate vote was a tie, broken by the lieutenant governor.

Over the past month, as Michiganders start doing their taxes, they are becoming aware of the impact the tax changes are having on them personally. Not by coincidence, since mid-February local papers have been awash in stories with headlines like Michigan residents hit hard by tax increases and editorials such as Snyder’s devastating tax increases must be repealed. Even the staunchly pro-Snyder Detroit News noticed. The sweeping changes included not only the nonrefundable credits, but also deductions for children, a drastic reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Homestead Property Tax Credit, as well as on pensions. In short, it hit just about every non-rich person in the state.

I do not, in general, oppose tax increases. There are times when they are appropriate and even necessary. If there are programs that require spending increases (e.g., Snyder is calling for gas tax hikes to help pay for long overdue road repairs), I might be inclined to agree. Likewise, there are many times when I will prefer to raise revenue over cutting expenditures, when there is a budget crisis. But that is not the case here. I have an extraordinarily difficult time understanding regressive tax increases, especially when those increases are used not for necessary state spending but rather to fund tax breaks for businesses that are not required to do anything at all to earn those tax breaks. To me, that's text-book example of what Paul Krugman described as "open, explicit reverse Robin Hoodism: taking from ordinary families and giving to the rich."

In my case, the damage as a result of the tax hike will be somewhat over $400. It is the difference between sending a check, and receiving one. For many others -- especially the elderly and those with lower income -- the difference may be much more.

What will I do? For one thing, I may re-think my charitable donations. My donations page details some periodic donations I make, and I have another one coming up soon. It will the largest I have ever made, and in the past I would have likely given preference to a Michigan-based charity; half of the donations listed on that page over the past 5 years have been to Michigan-based food banks or soup kitchens. I may yet do so again, but I'm not certain (and I'll note that Gleaners and Capuchin are wonderful organizations that both deserve donations and are in no way responsible for the legislation of 2011).

Will Rick Snyder's popularity take a hit? Maybe... in the short term. Though that was also asked when he signed a "right-to-work" bill a few months ago as well, and it's not yet clear that he's taken a hit for that, either. So long as Michigan is a gerrymandered state -- and it'll be at least another 9 years before it changes -- it may not even matter very much. But at least don't have to worry about Michigan Republicans claiming to be against taxing the masses.