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“Yeah, I’m The Taxman” Redux.

With the current tax reform/tax cut bills in conference it is looking increasingly likely we will be seeing new tax legislation this year. While I had originally intended to do a lengthy blog to discuss the positives and negatives of all the various changes House/Senate bill, the busy-ness of the Christmas holidays and completion of grading my OSU students this week has made that impossible. So instead I provide a short synopsis of the bills’ positives and negatives and a little bit of economic commentary. Per usual in this blog, I will be dealing only with facts and numbers and analysis not political hyperbole that seems to have been the main reaction of the press, social media and our political leaders to the tax reform/cut effort, ranging from it will be “terrible” to it will be “incredible”.

Earlier this year I blogged about the change needed to make the tax system more efficient, truly fair, to reward savers, to discourage excess consumption, to make the tax code simple and reduce the hundreds of billions in losses in productivity to our economy from a tax code that is hopelessly complex with myriads of subsidies. My conclusion is that the Fair Tax (see FairTax.org ) is by far and away the best system of taxation we could have in this country. However, sadly it is politically unrealistic so I won’t repeat my plea here again. Nonetheless, I have attached my April 2017 blog which goes thru the arguments and points out what principles in taxation make sense and why. (An economist can dream!)

So what is one to make of the current efforts and likely final passage of something resembling the Senate or House Tax Reform Bill? Herewith is my thumbnail review/analysis and my own takeaways:

Summary – The tax reform bills are focused on three main areas of taxation (1) Personal Income Taxes and (2) Corporate Income Taxes and (3) Estate Taxes 

Key Changes

  • Corporate Taxes Reduced (1) Corporate Rate for Domestic “C” Corporations reduced from 35% to 20% (Senate Bill changes this beginning in 2019/House Bill 2018)- as of today it could be 21% in the final bill (2) Foreign Earning Tax Treatment Changed providing an incentive to repatriate past earnings (currently about $2 trillion ) making them subject to a low US rate (3)Domestic Corporations CAPEX for new and used investments – Can now be expensed immediately rather than depreciated (in House Bill), (4) Interest Expense No longer deductible
  • Individual Income Taxes Cut/Reformed – (1) Marginal Tax Rates Generally Reduced to 12% (from 15%), 25% (from 28 and 33%) and 35% (from 39.6%) (2) Top Marginal Rate of 39.6% Retained — but now only for individuals earning more than $500,000 and couples earning more than $1 million (Senate Bill reduces this rate to 38.5%). Final Bill has apparently reduced this to 37% (3) Standard Deduction roughly doubled (to $24,200 for couples) though Personal Exemption eliminated –Net effect is a greater “net” standard deduction except for families with 4 or more children  (4) Major Itemized Deductions Eliminated (e.g. state and local income taxes) or Capped (e.g. property taxes limited to $10,000 deduction). Looks like the final bill will cap state and local income tax deductions at $10,000
  • Estate Tax Cuts—Approximately doubles the estate tax exemption from $5.49 Million to $11.2 Million. House bill repeals estate tax altogether by 2025.

Macroeconomic Impacts

Most of the changes in the tax reform bills will have a positive economic impact. My assessment below is based on my own economic analysis, supported by a number of the economic models that have been used to assess the national impacts:

  • POSITIVE — Reduction in the Top Corporate Rate from 35 to flat 20%/Expensing of New Investments – This will make US corporations much more competitive with foreign companies. (Currently the US has one of the highest corporate tax rates –which includes state corporate taxes– among OECD countries). It will reduce the use of foreign subsidiaries and increase the use of domestic offices. It will also make it more likely that foreign companies may headquarter or have operations in the US. It will lower the effective marginal cost of capital, increase profits, increase wages and employment, and also result in lower prices and higher volume of goods sold.
  • Slightly NEGATIVE Interest Expense No Longer Deductible  – This will likely raise the after-tax cost of debt financing, raising in turn the costs of goods sold. However, in today’s low-interest rate environment, many companies have become too leveraged and this tax change should help discourage excess debt financing and increase use of equity instead which will offset some of the negatives.
  • POSITIVE Individual Marginal Tax Rate Cuts/Increase in Standard Deduction/Major Itemized Deductions Eliminated or Capped– The cuts in the tax rates will lead to more disposable income and savings for most taxpayers. This will be offset somewhat  for higher income taxpayers with the reduction in itemized deductions. (In high tax states, the advantage for high income taxpayers may be more than offset by the elimination of itemized deductions).  The removal/limitation of itemized deductions will have a positive impact on the economy overall as it removes or limits the amount of effective subsidies for homes and properties and frees up more capital to be spent on more productive uses. On balance, these changes should be positive for the economy.
  •  NEUTRAL Estate Tax Cuts –  Because there are relatively few taxpayers affected by the changes in the estate tax and most of the very wealthy have created foundations which shelter much of their income, the economic impacts of the estate tax cuts or its elimination (in the House Bill) are relatively small.

 

Federal Deficit Impacts

The impact on the deficit varies depending on the model and economic assumptions used. I generally subscribe to those models that actually indicate what their underlying macroeconomic assumptions and are “dynamic” reflecting the impact of the tax changes on investment/savings and consumption . For the Senate Bill I have seen estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) staff (which is bipartisan) which suggests a $1 trillion cumulative deficit impact over the next ten years ($1.4 trillion loss in “static” terms somewhat offset by $0.4 trillion gain due to the “dynamic” effects on GDP and hence tax revenues). The House Bill generally shows a somewhat lower deficit estimate. Notably, the Tax Foundation has pointed out that the dynamic scoring of the bill used by JCT substantially understates the positive impact on the economy for a variety of reasons (See “JCT’s Dynamic Scoring is Positive but Underestimates Economic Benefits” from their website). To be sure, the Tax Foundation has some biases in favor of tax cuts ( just like the Brookings Institution has a bias against tax cuts). Nonetheless, their economic arguments seem compelling to me, though I am not convinced that we won’t have some added debt as a result of the plan.

Some estimates that have been published are “static” (e.g. CBO), meaning they don’t consider the effect of behavior changes by firms and individuals to the tax changes. I would caution anyone from giving these estimates any credence as they are just plain wrong.

In short, we are probably looking at approximately a $1 trillion deficit from the ultimate tax law with the possibility that more optimistic assumptions about growth might result in a nearly neutral deficit impact. As a deficit hawk, I am not happy  with $1 trillion more debt but its important to put this in perspective. For all those who are now screaming about this, where we’re you when we more than doubled our debt from about $8 to $18 trillion during the Obama years? While some of this occurred due to the recession, most of this happened due to a one-time (but really permanent) $800 billion increase in spending due to the 2009 Stimulus Act. So the deficit impacts of $1 trillion really pales in comparison to the roughly $5 trillion increase in debt due to the stimulus ( a policy which by the way did not work all that well). And all else being equal, I would much rather put more money in the hands of individuals and corporations thru a tax cut and cut government spending (which we need to do in a very BIG way in the long run), than the other way around.

Distributional Impacts

The most important effect (or rather the one most people care about!) is who wins or loses with the changes in the individual tax code. After running a few numbers on the House Tax Bill version , I got the following results for married couples (no kids) :

  • $50,000 Income (Std. Deduction)— Current Law Income Tax: $3428  House Bill: $3072 Net Savings: $356 or 10%
  • $75,000 Income (Std. Deduction) — Current Law Income Tax: $7178   House Bill: $6072  Net Savings: $1106 or 15%
  • $100,000 Income (Std. Deduction)–Current Law Income Tax: $11483  House Bill: $9072  Net Savings:   $2411 or 21%
  • $100,000 Income (Item. Ded. $25,000)—-Current Law Tax: $9308      House Bill: $9072  Net Savings:  $236 or 2%
  • $150,000 Income (Item. Ded. $20,000)—-Current Law Tax: $22158    House Bill: $19700 Net Savings: $2458 or 11%
  • $150, 000 Income  (Item. Ded. $30,000) –Current Law Tax: $19658   House Bill: $19700 Net Loss: $-43 or -0.1%
  • $500,000 Income (Item. Ded. $40,000) —Current Law Tax:$127602   House Bill: $128,760 Net Loss: $-1159 or -1%
  • $500, 000  Income   (Item. Ded. $80,000) —-Current Law Tax: $113,701 House Bill: $128,760 Net Loss: $-15,059 or -13%

In other words, the individual tax reform bill is more of an “across the board” tax cut than a “middle class” tax cut. It is generally on the order of a 10 -20% tax cut for most middle to upper-middle income tax payers (e.g. $50,000 to $150000 income). However, if you live in a high tax state (e.g. New York, New Jersey, California) and make more than $100,000 and have a home mortgage, your tax cut will be largely offset by the loss of your itemized deductions and in some cases you may end up paying more in taxes. At higher income levels, there is even a greater difference between the high tax states/homeowners vs. individuals in low tax states. For example, my quick calculations suggested a relatively wide difference between taxpayers earning $500000 with a lot of net itemized deduction (e.g. $80,000) vs those in lower tax states that don’t have large mortgages (e.g. $40000). In the latter case, these taxpayers would pay about $1159 or 1% more in taxes. In the former case, these taxpayers would be paying 13% more in taxes or an additional $15059.

Overall, of course, most of the “dollar” tax cuts go to individuals in higher tax brackets. This is not surprising because these people pay the vast majority of federal income taxes today. Consider the following statistics from the most recent year (2014) available:

  • In 2014, 139.6 million taxpayers reported earning $9.71 trillion in adjusted gross income and paid $1.37 trillion in individual income taxes.
  • The share of income earned by the top 1 percent of taxpayers rose to 20.6 percent in 2014. Their share of federal individual income taxes also rose, to 39.5 percent.
  • The top 50 percent of all taxpayers paid 97.3 percent of all individual income taxes while the bottom 50 percent paid the remaining 2.7 percent.
  • The top 1 percent paid a greater share of individual income taxes (39.5 percent) than the bottom 90 percent combined (29.1 percent).
  • The top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a 27.1 percent individual income tax rate, which is more than seven times higher than taxpayers in the bottom 50 percent (3.5 percent).

 

Missed Opportunities

  • Keep The Estate Tax as is – The estate tax cuts and  ultimate repeal in the House Bill make no sense to me. Most economists believe they will only mildly improve the economy. And they benefit ONLY the heirs of the very wealthy. I realize that estate taxes reflect triple taxation (once when earned, once when gains are made and once after death) and arguably that is very unfair. However, it is not worth reducing overall tax revenue to benefit a very few.
  • Lower SSN Payroll Tax rates – One way to help out the working poor would be to lower payroll tax rates for Social Security while raising the income subject to the tax.  This could be done to keep neutral the amount of $ collected by the payroll tax, while significantly cutting into the amount of taxes that the working poor pay. (Note the FairTax goes even further and eliminates the Social Security and Medicare taxes completely!). I understand why no one wants to touch the third rail of Social Security Reform quite yet, but making a “neutral-revenue” rate cut would be welcome for those most needing the help.
  • Eliminate Home Mortgage Interest Deduction/Property Tax Deduction – By retaining the mortgage interest deduction (and in the case of the Senate expanding it) as well as keeping, albeit a capped, property tax deduction, an opportunity was lost to get rid of deductions which will only help upper-middle and upper income taxpayers (those that will itemize because they will have more than $24,200 in itemized deductions for couples) making more than $100,000 a year. I know the real estate lobby is fierce BUT this would have been an opportunity to increase tax revenues while simultaneously making the tax code more efficient.
  • Keep a Line-Item Deduction for Charitable Donations – Even though both bills left in deductions for charity, with a much larger number of taxpayers taking the standard deduction with the tax law changes, many taxpayers may reduce their charitable deductions. The new tax law should create a special line item which much like Health Savings Accounts directly reduces AGI (adjusted gross income) so that this deduction can be taken in addition to the standard deduction.
  • Limit Business Income Deductions Further – The further limitation or even outright removal of the deductibility of business entertainment (e.g. luxury suites, meals, parties etc.) would be a good step. Why should a business be able to deduct such activities for tax purposes? Maybe it would help reduce the ridiculous salaries and profits made by sports teams and players. It certainly would help raise some needed tax revenue to offset some of the tax rate cuts. See the recent WSJ op-ed on this.

My Bottom Line Takeaways

Reform of corporate taxes in the US was long overdue and cutting the marginal tax rate to 20% (or 21%) is a positive move for the US economy and US citizens. While reform of individual taxes was only partially accomplished, the removal and capping of most itemized deductions (in exchange for generally lower tax rates across all income levels ) is a step in the right direction. On the other  hand, the bill should have reigned in more deductions and tax shelters in the corporate and individual so that it was unequivocably revenue neutral. It should have provided more tax cuts (in the payroll tax) to help lower-income workers. The tax bill certainly isn’t perfect and it certainly isn’t my idea of true tax reform, but at least it was an improvement over the current system.

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“Yeah, I’m the Taxman” (Post from April 19th)

With this years official tax due date of  April 18th just behind us, it is time for my annual tax blog. But as I purveyed my past blogs around tax time, I realized that I haven’t written an “annual” post in three years. So for now what is my “triennial” post on taxes, I will focus on with the multitude of problems with the current system and why we must change it pretty radically. I am not naive on tax policy however, and the chances that anything close to the type of changes I am suggesting are minimal at best. Nonetheless, sometimes I like to dream.

The federal government collects money largely thru a system of personal income taxes and to a lesser extent corporate income taxes. In 2016, the government collected $3.3 Trillion in Taxes –almost $1.6 trillion thru personal income taxes,  $1.1 trillion thru payroll taxes (i.e. medicare and social security paid by employees and companies) and about $0.3 Trillion thru corporate income taxes with the balance of $0.3 trillion collected thru federal excise taxes and other taxes.

I won’t be focusing on corporate taxes as that is the most likely area to be reformed by Congress this year and frankly is not a major part (only about 10%) of our current tax picture. However, my main focus will be on personal income and payroll taxes which account for more than 80% of the total taxes collected by the government. However, the changes I am suggesting would replace all corporate taxes and personal taxes currently collected by the US government.

Why is our personal income tax system a problem?

  1. Federal income/payroll taxes provides a disincentive to “work” and for employers to hire U.S. workers – By taxing income, we are taxing the hundreds of millions of Americans who are working. This is particularly problematic for the lower-income worker who is often making only a bit more than welfare plus food stamps benefits because it discourages employment. (A single person making only $20,000 per year will pay about $2500 in taxes largely because of the mandatory FICA taxes of 7.65%). Studies abound about the importance of having a job to an individuals self-worth and the positive effects it can have on the family. But our current system actually financially discourages work which is obviously a big problem. More pernicious is that the payroll tax is also paid by the employer which discourages hiring and encourages more automation or outsourcing.
  2. Our Federal income tax system tax “savings” but not consumption – As a society one of the most important things we want to encourage is individuals saving for their retirements or for unexpected rainy days. More importantly, savings are the bedrock of capital that businesses need to expand and invest creating economic growth and jobs. However, our current system taxes savings by taxing interest, dividends and capital gains earned as well as eventually taxing all earnings in deferred tax accounts (e.g. IRA, 401K etc.). More importantly, we encourage consumption now because we don’t tax it at all. Partially as a result of this, we now are a nation of consumers and NOT savers with average savings of only about $40000 for those approaching retirement and only $9000 for all families. In contrast to our savings, our national debt has soared with total personal debt of $18.3 trillion almost as large as our US government debt. This personal debt burden is now more than double our personal debt burden in 2000 and TEN times our personal debt burden in 1980.
  3. Federal income and payroll taxes fail to tax the underground economy –  It is pretty obvious that income and payroll taxes miss the underground economy of illegal drugs, gambling and prostitution as well as legal professions such as maid, cleaning and other services which are often paid in cash and go undeclared. This underground economy is estimated to be not paying some $300-500 billion in taxes per year. In addition, the massive complexity of the tax code means that there are many knowing and more commonly unknowing tax cheats which cost the federal government significant tax revenues.
  4. Federal  tax deductions encourage home purchases and borrowing – The notion of home ownership is strong in the US and has a long history and individual home ownership is generally a good thing. However, by allowing deductions for property taxes and mortgage interest we significantly subsidize the cost of home ownership for many taxpayers. This has two negative effects: (1) it often encourages greater borrowing and the overconsumption of housing ( e.g. a bigger house than is truly affordable) and (2) it results in over-investment in the housing sector to the detriment of areas of our economy where investment would be more efficient (i.e. result in more economic growth and more jobs).
  5. Federal tax deductions for state and local taxes and tax-free interest for state and local governments encourage overspending by state and local governments –The largest itemized tax deductions for many tax payers are deductions for state and local taxes (both income and property). Also, state and municipal governments benefit from interest paid on their bonds being federal tax-free. The effect of these subsidies is to significantly subsidize state and local government spending and more state borrowing. Total state and local debt outstanding now totals $3.1 trillion some 10 times the amount of debt in 1980.
  6. High Marginal Tax Rates Discourage Small Business and Entrepreneurship  – Not surprisingly most small businesses and proprietorships pay individual taxes and with about a 50% marginal tax rate (when local and state taxes are factored in), it is not surprising that businesses are discouraged from expanding or for that matter even starting businesses since the venture or other capital needed is hampered by a low after-tax return on investment. Another effect of high marginal tax rates is to encourage tax deferred investment (401Ks and IRAs) and deferred income for the wealthiest tax payers. This actually reduces tax collections in the short run.
  7. The Current Tax Code is So Complicated that it Results in Much Wasted Spending –  According to the Tax Foundation the current federal tax code now totals MORE THAN 70,000 pages!!! The IRS estimates that the average individual tax payer spends about $120 per year to file taxes or a total of more than $18 billion per year across 175 million individual tax returns. Each individual taxpayer also spends about 8 hours on average preparing taxes. This is also a tremendous economic waste almost 1.3 billion hours (155 million tax filers x 8 hours) could have been spent on productive work, volunteering or leisure activities , were it not for our absurdly complex tax code. Valuing these foregone activities at a conservatively low $50 per hour (and arguably the number is higher as most of the tax preparation hours are spent by those in upper income brackets) means that there is an additional loss of almost $80 billion per year to the economy. In other words, just the costs of filing  for individual tax payers costs the US economy almost  $100 billion per year in wasted activity. And this doesn’t even include our corporate tax filing costs which are nearly as  significant.

The Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress promise to reform taxes. I believe that this will happen with respect to corporate income taxes, but it is lot less likely to happen with personal income taxes. Even if they do succeed, my fear is that it will only affect matters marginally. Certainly, reducing all the tax rates some will help (particularly IF deductions are phased out for the wealthy or capped to pay for the tax rate reductions). However, something much more fundamental is needed. We simply can’t afford as a nation to continue to operate with a tax code that is costing our economy hundreds of billions $ and maybe even trillions$ per year.

My favorite tax reform proposal to rectify these serious problems is something called the Fair Tax. See FairTax.org. I blogged about this proposal five years ago, but it seems more important than ever today. So with apologies to those who actually read my first blog post on taxes :), the remaining section is largely from that post in 2012.

The Fair Tax proposal represents a simple and effective way of raising tax revenues and having a system which is fair and positive for the economy.  To quote the website: “The FairTax is a national sales tax that treats every person equally and allows American businesses to thrive, while generating the same tax revenue as the current four-million-word-plus tax code. Under the FairTax, every person living in the United States pays a sales tax on purchases of new goods and services, excluding necessities due to the prebate”. Of particular note:

  •  Simplicity– The FairTax is a 23% national retail sales tax on all goods and services plus a prebate to offset the 23% tax rate on consumption up to the poverty level. This  eliminates ALL federal personal income, corporate income, gift, estate, capital gains, dividends, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare and self employment taxes. It is very simple and straightforward to collect and eliminates the incredibly complicated federal tax system we have in place today.
  • Revenue Neutral – The Fair Tax is estimated to be revenue neutral relative to the current set of federal taxes. However, with the economic benefits that it would unleash, it probably will result in even more tax revenue for the federal government being raised.
  • Efficiency—Compliance with the FairTax would be far better than under the current tax system due to its simplicity and its collection at the point of sale. (Something most states already do). In fact, even the $1-$2 trillion underground economy and others that don’t pay enough taxes (either knowingly or unknowingly) would be taxed fully as they would still consume goods and services. The costs of personal and corporate tax accountants, tax lawyers, HR Block, Turbo Tax and the IRS would disappear entirely and filling out your tax forms would no longer be necessary.
  • Great for the Economy and Jobs–By eliminating the large amount of unproductive activity associated the current tax code, resources are freed up to produce more goods and services more efficiently across the economy. In addition, the elimination of subsidies and penalties in the current tax code, will eliminate overconsumption which is also inefficient, and encourage savings and investment which are badly needed in our debt laden economy.  Net retail price increases in the first year of the tax should be relatively small because the 23% tax on prices will be mostly offset by the elimination in corporate and other business taxes (which are estimated by economists to account for about 20%+ of  retail prices today). The US will become the mecca for foreign investment and US companies will no longer produce as much offshore given the elimination of these embedded taxes on exports. This will mean many more jobs in the US and better paying jobs as well.
  • Fair and Progressive—The system provides a prebate in the form of monthly check equal to the national sales taxes paid on consumption at the poverty level for each family. This means that  the first approximately $30000 of spending for a family of four is completely tax-free and the effective tax rate for those that spend at or below the poverty level is zero. In addition, all used goods (e.g. used cars, used appliances, used furniture, used clothing, etc..) are completely tax exempt under the proposal. This means that many necessities to live are NOT taxed while discretionary items are taxed. Also, those who are frugal and save more, get taxed even less. This is very different from the system today where the working poor pay significantly more federal taxes (when payroll taxes are included) than under the FairTax.  Studies also demonstrate that spending on goods and services are generally proportional to income (e.g. someone earning twice as much usually spends twice as much) . Thus, the tax is progressive ( a higher effective rate is paid for those who earn and spend more).

In short, the FairTax would broaden the tax base, aid the economy, create more US jobs and help us out of our budget and debt crisis. In addition, it can be easily modified to make it even more progressive by increasing the prebate and overall tax rate to account for the lost revenues, if that it is ultimately what US taxpayers want.

The biggest problem with the FairTax is POLITICAL. The benefits of the proposal is to the US population and economy collectively. However,  the benefits of the current tax system are to a multitude of special interests ranging from higher education, wind and solar power manufacturers, oil and gas drillers, public employee unions, state and local governments, the medical industry, real estate brokers as well as lawyers and accountants that thrive on the current hopelessly complex system. Any attempt to change the current system, let alone completely eviscerate it will be met with strong resistance. Also, there will be many who won’t feel that the Fair Tax is progressive enough particularly when it comes to the very wealthy.

Accordingly, I would add either one of two provisions (or both) to the Fair Tax IF NEEDED to get consensus around the proposal. The first would be additional federal excise taxes on “bads” including all tobacco, alcohol content and sugar content. See my Post from 2012  “No Sugar Tonight” for the value of doing this on sugar. This could be used to supplement tax revenues and allow for a higher income for which there would be no effective taxes (by raising the probate) AND/OR to lower the fair tax rate of 23%.  Second, if it would help  would be a 10% earned income tax on joint filers with earned income of say over $400,000 per year (or whatever income level is deemed necessary for high income earners). This would be simple addition which would tax salary over this threshold and only require a relatively small number of filers.

I know the obstacles are considerable and I am clearly dreaming. But it doesn’t hurt to try. It’s a good idea whose time has come. It’s about time we changed a federal tax system that was born in the early 20th century and clearly has outlived its usefulness.

“My Bonnie”

My sister Bonnie Braine died at 9AM this past Saturday. She had been battling Picks disease for more than 12 years , a rare brain disorder with symptoms much like Alzheimer’s, which gradually resulted in the deterioration of all her mental and motor facilities. It was very difficult to see her gradually die, but it was a blessing when she finally did. Obviously, none of us want to remember Bonnie this way. So here are some of my favorite memories of Bonnie.

Bonnie was a kind and gentle sister with a brilliant and creative mind. She graduated from Brown Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude (which she modestly never told any of us about until her graduation day) and then excelled getting her Masters in Urban Planning at Columbia University. Only Bonnie could come up with her very unique major at Brown: 17th and 18th century English and French literature, which of course allowed her to read and study Shakespeare, who she absolutely adored.

My first “memory” was  Bonnie at age 5 or 6 giving me her pennies which she had been saving for her “baby-brother Bruce”. (I was 2 or 3 at the time.) This act of generosity was apparently not appreciated by yours truly who immediately threw these pennies all over the floor. Though my exact memory is obviously hazy, this was what I was told happened, naturally by Bonnie herself!

Until she was about eight or nine, Bonnie played with Geoff and me (and even shared the same room with us). She showed her particular creativity and her later interests in urban planning, when we played with wooden blocks and constructed subway systems, with our games often ending with a flood or another natural catastrophe destroying what we had created. Later when we were much older, Bonnie created another subway game, where the three of us would stand on different sides of a narrow doorway in the apartment, one of us would make a pseudo door chime sound (to announce that the subway doors were opening) and then we would all attempt to go in different directions thru the doorway.

Bonnie always talked about Geoff and me when looking back at her childhood. She loved to taunt Geoff about his playing in and apparently even drinking from the bird bath when we were vacationing in Alder Creek NY when he was only 3 or 4. She invented the story about Geoff being adopted and brought home from Macy’s in a shopping bag and she always recounted this story to many unknowing guests well into our adult years.

On a family trip to England in 1965, Bonnie (then age 13) rather extemporaneously developed a musical parody of My Fair Lady which she dubbed as the musical “My Fair Car”. This was likely necessitated during long drives thru the English countryside with her two impatient brothers in the back seat with Bonnie. (I can remember that my parents were VERY stressed about having to drive on the left side of the road. However, my father did enjoy honking his horn to help clear the sheep from the country roads, almost as much as the three of us in the back seat enjoyed hearing it). Bonnie no doubt responsibly developed this idea to get her brothers from bugging her parents, though I recall Geoff was a little too young to meaningfully contribute and I only helped very marginally.

I don’t believe the lyrics were ever written down (a bit like an old-style madrigal), but I do remember some of them. The opening song of course was “Why Can’t the English Learn to Drive?” (which in the original film musical was sung/spoken by Rex Harrison as “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?”):

Oh why can’t the English teach the English how to drive?!

Oh why can’t the English? Why can’t the English … Learn to drive

It’s positively frightening the lightning speeds they go

They drive on the shoulders and pass you when you slow

……. 

The Venetians drive on water

The Romans drive on cars

And the Russians drive their rockets

All the way to MARS!

So … (Repeat Refrain) 

The Germans drive their VWs

as fast as grease lightning

And the Americans do it backwards

which is positively frightening

When I first arrived at Brown in the fall of ’72 as a freshman, Bonnie, then a senior, invited me to have dinner with her at “Professor” Falkowitz’s apartment. I remember she pronounced it “Falk OH Wit ZEE” in order to make it sound more foreign. As a naive freshman, I assumed she was telling the truth even when she explained that he was a Full Professor in the field of Psycho-Ceramics (which I only later realized was the study of “crackpots” or crazy people). Little did I know that Robert Falkowitz was one of her close friends at Brown. Later at his apartment, Robert played along with the ruse asking what I planned to major in and which professor was my advisor. Eventually, he broke down and told me that he was in fact a senior at Brown (along with Bonnie). I don’t think Bonnie would have ever told me if Robert hadn’t!

As much as Bonnie liked to kid us, she was also extremely protective when it came to her brothers. I can remember going thru a terrible ordeal of back pain for more than a year which had me bedridden and in great pain and linked to major stress at work in the late 1990s. Not only did Bonnie provide constant reassurance and sympathy, she even made me a needlepoint which said “Illegitimi non carborundum” meaning “don’t let the bastards get you down” in mock-Latin.

I was very lucky to have such a kind, wonderful, bright and interesting sister. I will miss her terribly.

1967: “All You Need is Love”

An excerpted chapter from my book “I’ve Got the Music in Me: A Fan’s View of 1960s and 1970s Rock and Pop Music”. Available on Amazon.com as an ebook (only $3.33) or paperback ($9.99). Enjoy.

1967 
“All You Need Is Love”

I originally wrote this c­hapter during an unusually hot Memorial Day Weekend, and it reminded me that 1967 was the “Summer of Love”. Yours truly, then an admit­tedly somewhat nerdy 12/13-year-old, spent much of his free time listening to music on WABC radio in NYC. I also began buying and collecting numerous singles. (I was a well-known customer in a 23rd Street store called Sultan’s Record Shop run by Harry Sultan, perhaps one of the original “Sultans of Swing”.)

Every Tuesday afternoon, Dan Ingram of WABC presented the top 20 hits of the week (playing “super hit #1” as the second song at the top of every hour). I eagerly listened to these new WABC surveys after school keeping a written list of the top 20. This took some doing because WABC played about 3-4 commercials for every song played so I typically multi-tasked (before I knew what that was!) and did my math homework at the same time. Though popular music was decidedly moving towards more sexually explicit lyrics along with hidden and not-so-hidden drug references, I was mostly blithely unaware of all this at the time.

I also played Strat-O-Matic baseball almost obsessively, calculating the batting averages and ERAs for the shortened AL “season” that I played (to those who don’t know about Strat-O-Matic, it is a board game played with dice and individual player cards based on the actual statistics of the players). I supplemented this with the occasional game of stick­ball, punchball and wiffle ball, though usually only when my mother yelled at me to go outside and play. This occurred typically when my brother, my friends and I started playing indoor baseball, basketball and hockey, which could become rather rough – and particularly rough on the furniture, walls and the built-in wooden closets.

It was a great summer to follow Major League Baseball both live (75 cents for a bleacher seat, $1.50 for a grandstand seat) and on TV even though my favorite team, the New York Yankees, were last most of the year. 1967 featured an incredible AL pennant race between the Red Sox, Tigers, Twins and White Sox with all four in the race coming into the final weekend of the season. I got caught up in the race plus Carl Yastrzemski’s pursuit of the triple crown and even rooted for him to achieve the feat as well as his team to achieve The Impossible Dream from ninth the previous season (only two games out of last) to first in the AL. (This in spite of the fact that in later years, the Red Sox became my “Darth Vader” as a fan.)

British Music Still Ascendant

But as exciting as 1967 was for baseball fans, it also featured many new and exciting rock music developments. There were the Spencer Davis Group’s first and only two top 40 hits “Gimme Some Lovin’” (#7 Feb.) and “I’m a Man” (#10 Apr.). The group featured an 18-yr-old Steve Winwood, born in South Wales. At age 14, Steve had formed the group in Birmingham, England with brother Muff (bass) and Peter York (drums) and brought out the unique sounds of the Hammond organ as well as being an excellent lead guitarist and lead vocalist. (One actually wonders why the group wasn’t called the “Steve Winwood Group” even back then.) This marked the beginning of Steve Winwood’s legendary and lengthy career which has spanned Spencer Davis, Traffic, Blind Faith, Traffic again and a very successful solo career that continues to this day. Winwood, whom I saw several years ago in concert with Eric Clapton, still is among my favorite artists of all time.

Disraeli Gears by the trio Cream – Jack Bruce (bass), Ginger Baker (drums) and Eric Clapton (guitar) – was released in England in 1967 and at the end of 1967 in the U.S. It was the best album by Cream and featured the iconic songs “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Strange Brew” (“killed what’s inside of you”) and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (“and the sirens sweetly singing”). It was also the breakout album success for the lead guitarist Eric Clapton.

The Beatles had an eventful year with the March release of the double-sided hit “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” (#1 Mar.) simulta­neously with two separate promo­tional videos. These were among the first “music videos” in which musicians weren’t just performing and predated MTV by almost 15 years. “Strawberry Fields” is one of the earliest and probably defining works of the psychedelic rock genre. In addition to unique instru­mentation and lyrics and Lennon’s extra­ordinary vocals (“let me take you down, cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real”), the song featured a dramatic shift in musical tempo and key midway through, which creates a very unique effect. In fact, this all happened by accident as two separate versions of the song (that John had created) were melded together by the production genius of George Martin.[i]

Of course, The Beatles were only beginning in 1967 and followed up with the early summer release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is considered by many (e.g., Rolling Stone) as the greatest rock album of all time. It was hard to disagree even after repeated listenings that virtually every song on the album was great and blended together nicely from the “Sgt. Peppers/With a Little Help from My Friends” intro to the “Sgt. Peppers (reprise)/ A Day in the Life” finale. In between were several very unique songs: the psychedelic brilliance of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the jarring yet upbeat “Getting Better”, the bizarre, circus-sounding “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the interesting-sounding rockers “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning”.

Later in the summer and fall, The Beatles had two new singles, “All You Need Is Love” (#1 Aug.), the unofficial anthem of the Summer of Love, and “Hello Goodbye/I Am The Walrus” (#1 Dec.). The latter two-sided single included as the A-side, “Hello Goodbye”, which was the fitting opening song of McCartney’s solo concert that I saw performed in 2002. The B-side, “I Am the Walrus”, was a great Lennon-inspired hit that took psychedelic rock to newer and even more avant-garde directions (“Yellow mother custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye...”).

Though not one of their better years, The Rolling Stones weren’t silent either in a 1967 that featured an outstanding two-sided hit “Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend the Night Together” (#1 Mar.) and later in the year “Dandelion” (#14 Oct.) (“Tell me if she laughs or cries, blow away dandelion”). Being a naive seventh grader, I had assumed that “Ruby Tuesday” (“Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone…no one knows she comes and goes”) was about the day “Tuesday” rather than Linda Keith, who had a love relationship with Keith Richards. Richards notes that “Linda Keith was the one that first broke my heart” and “Basically, Linda is ‘Ruby Tuesday’”.[ii]

Back in the U.S.A.

In 1967, American born Jimi Hendrix had his first popular success in the U.K. as he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and released several singles before releasing his first, and in my opinion, “best” album Are You Experienced. (Hendrix had spent several years prior in the U.S. recording and touring with various acts including the Isley Brothers, Joey Dee and the Starlighters and Little Richard, to name a few.) The first album included such great songs as “Purple Haze” (#65 Sep.) (“Purple haze, all in my brain, lately things, they don’t seem the same”), “Foxey Lady” (#67 Jan. 1968), “Hey Joe”, “Fire”, and the title track from the album “Are You Experienced” and gives a good indication of why Hendrix is considered the best rock guitarist in history by many.

Meanwhile from LA, the Doors burst onto the scene with their first album, The Doors, released in January that fittingly included “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” as its first track. The album features one of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Light My Fire” (#1 Aug.), in its seven-minute version, as opposed to the three-minute version that AM radio played and made popular during the summer. (This marked the first divide between AM and FM radio as FM was just beginning to play album music, including all seven minutes of songs like “Light My Fire”.) The album, which is considered one of the best albums in rock history, also features “The Crystal Ship” (“Before you slip into unconsciousness, I’d like to have another kiss”), “Back Door Man”, and “Twentieth Century Fox”, among other iconic songs. The album finishes up with “The End”, an 11-minute FM classic that it is truly unforgettable for those who remember the opening credits to the movie Apocalypse Now.

Most Popular Hits in 1967

 1. To Sir With Love – Lulu

 2. Ode to Billie Joe – Bobby Gentry

 3. The Letter – Box Tops

 4. Groovin’ – Young Rascals

 5. Daydream Believer – Monkees

 6. Happy Together – Turtles

 7. Windy – Association

 8. Light My Fire – Doors

 9. Something Stupid – Nancy and Frank Sinatra

  1. Hello Goodbye – Beatles

Up north in San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane, originally formed in 1966, decided to add a new, then unknown female lead vocalist, Grace Slick, who had been singing and writing with the group The Great Society, for their second album Surrealistic Pillow in 1967. In addition to her rather extraordinary rock voice, Grace penned two songs on the album that were path-breaking – “Somebody to Love” (#5 June) and “White Rabbit” (#8 Aug.) (“One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small”). At the same time, to memorialize the San Francisco rock and love scene, there were two popular hits, Eric Burdon and the Animals’ “San Franciscan Nights” (#9 Sep.) (“It’s an American dream includes Indians too) and Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” (#4 July) (“be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”).

Buffalo Springfield hit its peak in 1967 with “For What It’s Worth” (#7 Mar.) (“Paranoia strikes deep into your life it will creep”), its highest-charting single and what was to become a political anthem of the 1960s. Later that same year, the group released its best album Buffalo Springfield Again that included three other classics: “Bluebird” (#58 Aug.), “Mr. Soul”, and “Broken Arrow”. The group featured Stephen Stills and Neil Young who in a couple of years made up half of the highly successful Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The other half of the future CSNY – the ByrdsDavid Crosby and the HolliesGraham Nash – were also active. The Byrds had an excellent album and two very good songs: Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (#30 May) and the satiric “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star” (#29 Feb.) (“Just get an electric guitar and take some time to learn how to play”). Both songs were from their fourth album Younger than Yesterday early in the year. However, by the end of the year, Crosby had been “fired” by the other group members due to his highly egotistical, erratic and contentious nature.[iii]

Meanwhile, Graham Nash left the Hollies on a high note after finishing the recording of the colorful “On a Carousel” (#11 May) (“Riding along on a carousel, got to catch up to you”). Both Crosby and Nash teamed up with Stills to start CSN in late 1967.

My Favorite Songs in 1967

 1. Light My Fire – Doors

 2. Happy Together – Turtles

 3. Gimme Some Lovin’ – Spencer Davis Group

 4. Ruby Tuesday – Rolling Stones

 5. All You Need is Love – Beatles

 6. White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

 7. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You – Frankie Valli

 8. Friday on My Mind – Easybeats

 9. Windy – The Association

  1. Sunshine of Your Love – Cream

There are many other great individual rock songs and memories for me in 1967, including:

I first saw The Turtles’ “Happy Together” (#1 Apr.) (“Imagine me and you I do”) performed on TV during The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (before the show was cancelled because of their anti-war/anti-police skits in 1968).

“Windy” (#1 July) by The Association, which much later became one of the earliest songs my eldest daughter Kathleen at age 2 could remember. (This dad made sure to play and educate his daughters about 1960s music!)

The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” (#16 May) included lyrics that I found very relatable even in junior high school. “Monday morning seems so bad. Everybody seems to nag me.”

“Good Thing” (#4 Jan.) by Paul Revere and the Raiders (I can still remember trying to count how many times they repeat “Good Thing” in the song).

Other songs that evoked positive memories:

Procol Harum’s first hit “Whiter Shade of Pale” (#5 Aug.) (“Skipped the last fandango. Turned cartwheels across the floor”) had very unique lyrics and stately organ playing.

“I Think We’re Alone Now” (#4 Apr.) (“There doesn’t seem to be anyone around”) by Tommy James and the Shondells – This very catchy tune was one of my first single purchases of 1967.

“The Letter” (#1 Sep.) by The Box Tops was one of the liveliest hits of the year (love that opening “popping” drum sequence) and the first hit by this Memphis blue-eyed soul group. But “The Letter” was almost over before it started, checking in at only 1 min. 58 sec. on my copy of the single.

“We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (#7 Feb.) by the Blues Magoos was the first and only top 40 hit by this Bronx group and evoked memories of the garage rock sound.

“Sock It to Me Baby” (#6 Mar.) by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels was another enjoyable Mitch Ryder rocker.

“Kind of a Drag” (#1 Feb.) by the Buckinghams was the first hit by this group as well as by any “Chicago” group that featured brass instruments.

Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (#2 July) (“You’re just too good to be true”) was the best slow ballad of the year.

The Mamas and the Papas had their last two top 20 songs “Dedicated to the One I Love” (#2 Mar.) and “Creeque Alley” (#5 May) (“And no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass”). The former song is a beautiful cover of the Shirelles song from the early 1960s. The latter song is a nice autobiographical tune about the group’s early years, a memoir of sorts in light of their fall from popularity shortly thereafter.

Likewise, the Lovin’ Spoonful had their last two top 20 hits – “Darling Be Home Soon” (#15 Mar.) (“For the great relief of having you to talk too”) and “Six O’clock” (#18 June) (“There’s something special about six o’clock”). Both were excellent Sebastian compositions.

1967 also marked the height of the Monkees’ popularity, which really only lasted for the two years of their very popular TV show from fall 1966 to summer 1968. At the time, I cringed at the fact that the group didn’t even play on much of their first two albums, relying instead on session musicians. However, several of their songs from 1967 have endured the test of time, largely benefitting from excellent song­writing from the likes of Carole King (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”, #3 Aug.), Neil Diamond (“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, #2 Apr.), and “I’m a Believer”, #1 Jan.), and John Stewart of the Kingston Trio (“Daydream Believer”, #1 Dec.).

In addition, two of my favorite female vocalists near the end of their popular careers – Petula Clark and Lesley Gore – hit it big with “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” (#5 July) (“Don’t stand in the pouring rain”), and “California Nights” (#16 Mar.), respectively. (In the latter case, Lesley sang this song while appearing as one of Catwoman’s sidekicks in an episode of Batman.) Sixteen-year-old Janis Ian had her first hit with the beautiful and socially conscious “Society’s Child” (#14 July) (“I can’t see you anymore, baby”), a song she had written at age 14. Another outstanding female vocalist, Dionne Warwick, had a big hit with “I Say a Little Prayer” (#4 Dec.) (“The moment I wake up before I put on my makeup”).

Meanwhile, Motown and other soul and R&B hits were excellent. The most famous and long-lasting hit was Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (#1 June) (“All I’m asking for is a little respect”). However, the year also featured:

The Supremes’ “The Happening” (#1 May) (“It happened to me and it can happen to you”) and “Reflec­tions” (#2 Sep.) (“Reflections of the way life used to be”). Both songs were outstanding and written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, though “Reflections” broke a streak of four #1 hits in a row for the Supremes.

The Four Tops’ “Bernadette” (#4 Apr.) (“I want you cause I need you to live!”), and “7 Rooms of Gloom” (#14 June) (“I see a house of stone, a lonely house cause now you’re gone”) were both irresistible hit songs by my favorite Motown group.

Other excellent Motown hits included Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” (#2 Aug.), Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “I Second that Emotion” (#4 Dec.) (“But if you feel like loving me, if you got the notion, I second that emotion”), the Temptations’ “You’re My Everything” (#6 Sep.), Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” (#2 Nov.), Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” (#2 May) (“Do you like good music? Yeh, Yeh.”) and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (#2 Dec.) (“Bet you’re wondering how I knew”).

Last but not least was the unforgettable “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (#6 Sep.) (“Than I’ve ever been lifted before”) by Jackie Wilson, an always inspiring love song, which was a featured opening song that I played on my tape deck for my friend Jonathan’s wedding more than three decades later.

*****

Though not quite as good a year as 1965 and 1966, 1967 was still a very good year. And though 1967 was mostly about psychedelic and folk rock (e.g., Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Mamas and Papas, Lovin’ Spoonful, etc.), there were signs of the emerging hard rock boom that was to start in 1968.

[i] Spignesi and Lewis, 100 Best Beatles Songs: An Informed Fan’s Guide, pp. 16-17.

[ii] Richards with Fox, Life, pp. 184-187.

[iii] Johnny Rogan, The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (2nd ed.) (UK: Rogan House, 1998), pp. 232-234.

“It Was 20 (50) years ago today, Sgt. Peppers taught the band to play”

Hard to believe that 50 years ago on June 1, 1967, the Beatles Sgt. Peppers album was first released in the US. I remember going to Sam Goody (on 43rd and 3rd ave.) to buy it in early June and the racks were full of Sgt. Pepper albums. It almost seemed like it was the only album they were selling.

The release of Sgt. Pepper was a milestone for rock music. It was the first truly thematic rock album and many of the songs included were ground-breaking,  progressive rock entries. It spawned the beginning of album rock and numerous thematic albums such as Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues later in 1967.

So herewith my review of the extraordinary and precedent setting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles (June 1967) Side 1 – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, With A Little Help From My Friends, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Getting Better, Fixing A Hole, She’s Leaving Home, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. Side 2 – Within You Without You, When I’m Sixty-Four, Lovely Rita, Good Morning, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise), A Day in the Life. 

Side 1 begins with the opening “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” setting the tone and theme for the album – about a fictitious band doing a concert. “Sgt. Pepper’s” heralds the beginning and the pattern throughout the album, the seamless blending of rock instruments and rock vocals with orchestration produced brilliantly by George Martin. It quickly segues into “With a Little Help From My Friends” as the fictitious Billy Shears (a.k.a. Ringo) delivers an excellent, upbeat song, definitely the best Ringo lead vocal during his Beatles career. The mood shifts suddenly as we move from the first two songs (composed by Paul), to John’s first entry, the psychedelic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, arguably the best track on the album. The psychedelic mood is altered quickly as Paul takes over with the lively “Getting Better”, where his optimism (“It’s getting better all the time”) is somewhat countered by John’s sarcasm and pessimism (“can’t get no worse”). “Fixing a Hole” is ushered in with harpsichord and is another very good composition. “She’s Leaving Home”, about a teenage runaway, uses orchestration to help cement its somber and sad mood and is one of Paul’s better vocals. The mood shifts suddenly as John (with an assist from Paul) finishes the side with a much more upbeat and superb entry, the psychedelic/carnival-like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. Lacking a manually playable Calliope, George Martin assembled a sixty-foot tape loop of steam organs, cut it in one-foot lengths and randomly reassembled them to get the Calliope sound that dominates the song. It works extremely well and provides a fitting conclusion to Side 1.

Side 2 begins with a too long, albeit still a pretty good, Harrison composition “Within You Without You”. But even this cut is interesting because it is a rare pop song that uses Indian stringed instruments, the sitar and the drub, as well as the unique percussion sound of the tabia. Paul’s next composition “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a nice upbeat melody. The song changes the mood instantly with a tongue in cheek, day-to-day look at aging after Harrison’s somber and mystical “Within You Without You”. (I’ll admit that now that I am sixty-three that 64 no longer seems old to me!). The pace quickens with Paul’s next entry, the lively “Lovely Rita” a nice pop song which is greatly enhanced by a piano intro and piano ending, some great bass playing by Paul and the use of comb and paper to create an interesting high-pitched sound.

The rooster crowing at the beginning of the next song announces John’s “Good Morning” which increases the tempo and greatly benefits from an excellent lead guitar by Paul , the liberal use of a horn section (three saxophones, two trombones and a French horn) and the menagerie of barnyard animal sounds. The clucking chicken fades out and the first sharp chord of  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” commences a short and very lively reprise which is even better than the opening track. The fading fake audience cheers are gradually replaced by piano notes leading us into the amazing and unique “A Day in the Life”. The song is actually a seamless merging of two songs, John’s ethereal dreamlike sounding “I read the news today oh boy….now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” with Paul’s shorter song about the hum drum of daily life  “Woke up got out of bed, dragged the comb across my head….”. And it works incredibly well. Excellent piano and keyboard work by John, Paul and George Martin as well as sounds of a full orchestra make this a musically unique song. The orchestra crescendo and the final eternal chord ending fading into nothingness make a fitting ending for what many critics consider the best song by the Beatles on their very best album.

 

“Start Spreading the News!”- My First Book “I’ve Got the Music in Me” is Out!

I’ve Got the Music in Me: A Fan’s View of 1960s and 1970s Rock and Pop Music:

 By Bruce Braine, Edited by John Lum, Cover Art by Maryanne Braine.

As some of you may have already seen on Facebook or heard about from me directly, my book on 60s and 70s rock and pop music went live on amazon.com on May 28th. I wanted to reach out to you in hopes that you would be interested in buying the e-book (only $3.33) or paperback $9.99 which is now both available on Amazon. (The paperback though more expensive has the great advantage of the excellent cover design done by my daughter Maryanne Braine). Of course, both versions have the great benefit of the extraordinary editing work done by my long time friend and professional editor/publisher John Lum.

Also, if you like the book, and I am pretty sure you will, please feel free to forward this note to your friends, colleagues or others who might be interested. As a self published book, I must rely on word of mouth/email etc. to get the word out about the book.  

 

To find the book on amazon either use this link

https://www.amazon.com/Ive-Got-Music-Me-1960s-ebook/dp/B071LRLF8M/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=

 

or simply go to books and put in the title or my name in the search bar.

 

Thank you all,

Bruce

 

“Please Mr. Custer, I Don’t Want to Go”

My e-book entitled “I’ve Got the Music in Me: A Fan’s View of 1960 and 1970 Rock and Pop Music” is coming out by the end of May. It will be very attractively priced on amazon at only $3 or so. In order to further entice you, I have included an excerpt from Part II of the book entitled “The Lists” which is a list of my favorite comedy songs that appeared on a single. Enjoy!

*****************

“Please Mr. Custer, I Don’t Want to Go”

Best Comedy Singles

The goal of music should not only be to entertain us or be interesting musically and lyrically, but in a few cases to make us laugh. Surprisingly, there are precious few songs that are truly funny. Great comedians seldom released singles and the rare ones that they did release were usually only okay (e.g., “Little Ole Man” by Bill Cosby, basically a cover of “Uptight” with Cosby’s lyrics). For example, two excellent, singing-comedy acts (The Smothers Brothers and Tom Lehrer) issued only one single between them.

Also, the two most successful “comedy” artists/musicians really didn’t do anything that was very funny (or at least not to me). This includes Ray Stevens, who is perhaps best known for his #1 hit “The Streak”, which wasn’t that funny or his two earlier top ten hits, “Gitarzan” and “Ahab the Arab”, which were equally unfunny. It also includes Dickie Goodman (and, in earlier singles, his partner Bill Buchanan) who pioneered the “break-in” records that strung together bits of then popular songs along with narration for comic effect. This began with “The Flying Saucer Pt. 1 and 2” back in 1956 and Goodman’s last successful single, “Mr. Jaws”, in 1975. Unfortunately, aside from the novelty of this approach in 1956, the humor just seems stupid to me.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions to this rule and several singles succeeded largely because they were clever, or unique and at least elicited a chuckle even now. I expanded the list into the early ’80s to account for a couple of these. So in honor of the now more than 75-year-old Dr. Demento, who loved playing weird and bizarre and usually humorous songs on his weekly radio show, here is my Demented Double Dix in chronological order:

  1. “Jingle Bells” – The Singing Dogs (1955, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1983, 1984)– Yes, it is easy to get sick of this one around Christmastime, but the concept and execution are still pretty funny.
  1. “Beep, Beep” – The Playmates (#4 Dec. ’58) (“Hey Buddy how do I get this car out of second gear?”) – It is hard not to smile when I hear this song. It is a great car song.
  1. “Mr. Custer” – Larry Verne (#1 Oct. ’61) (“Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go.”) – Verne’s song is a parody of the slew of war-related songs at the time that talked about the likes of Davy Crockett or the Battle of New Orleans.
  1. “Monster Mash” – Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kicker Five (#1 Oct. ’62) (“It was a graveyard smash.” )- The song was a great parody concept, no doubt even funnier when first released in the early 1960s during the music dance craze (e.g., “The Twist”, “The Locomotion”, etc.). It has gotten old over the years because of constant play but still a classic.
  1. “Hello Muddah/Hello Faddah – A Letter from Camp” – Allan Sherman (#2 Sep. ’63) (“Oh please don’t make me stay, I’ve been here ONE – WHOLE – DAY!”) –  This might be the most wickedly funny song ever. The lyrics are brilliant. “You remember Jeffrey Hardy, they’re about to organize a searching party”.
  1. “Martian Hop” – The Ran-dells (#16 Sep. ’63)– “We have just discovered an important note from space, the Martians plan to throw a dance for all the human race.” If you listen to this song, not only will you smile and chuckle, but you will probably want to dance, too.
  1. “Pretoria” – Smothers Brothers (1964) “We are marching to Pretoria.” I cheated on this one. This wasn’t a single, but my brother-in-law Peter would have killed me if I didn’t include at least one Smothers Brothers song. And this one is very funny!
  1. “New Math” – Tom Lehrer (1965) (“So you have 13 tens, so you take away 7 and that leaves five, well six actually.” ) While I am cheating, I included the brilliant singer-comedian Tom Lehrer with one of my favorites, “New Math” from his That Was the Year That Was album. Lehrer also had no singles probably because his albums sold very nicely and included many really funny songs (e.g., “Pollution”, “The Elements”, “The Vatican Rag”, to name just a few).
  1. “Leader of the Laundromat” – The Detergents (#19 Jan. ’65) (“My folks were always putting her down (down, down), because my laundry always came back brown.” ) – The ultimate parody song of the Shangrilas hit “Leader of the Pack”, it even sounds like it was recorded in a laundromat!
  1. “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” – Little Jimmy Dickens (#5 Nov. ’65) (“One fine day as I was a-walkin’ down the street. Spied a beggar man with rags upon his feet. Took a penny from my pocket. In his tin cup I did drop it. I heard him say as I made my retreat ‘May the bird of paradise fly up your nose, may an elephant caress you with his toes’…”) – Perhaps with inspiration from Johnny Carson and Carnac the Magnificent, this country song took insults to a pretty funny level.
  1. “Wild Thing” – Senator Bobby (#20 Jan. ’67) (“Ah you move me, yes…press ahead Wild Thing.”) – A great Kennedy imitation by comedian Bill Minkin and some clever lines throughout make this a very funny song. The B-side is the same song except by Senator Everett Dirksen.
  1. “Here Comes the Judge” – Shorty Long (#8 July ’68) (“Can’t dance? That’ll be 90 days, 30 days for the boogaloo, 30 days to learn how to shing-a-ling, and 30 more for the Afro twist.” ) – Using the “here comes the judge” catchline from TV’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Shorty Long developed a catchy and amusing song featuring the deep voice of the Spinners’ Pervis Jackson as the judge. Sadly, Shorty drowned in a boating accident one year later.
  1. “A Boy Named Sue” – Johnny Cash (#2 Aug. ’69) (“My name is Sue, how do you do! Now you gonna die.” )- This song is highlighted by Shel Silverstein’s clever lyrics and the recording is live in front of a delighted San Quentin prison audience. Silverstein, who is perhaps best known for his popular children’s books, also wrote several other excellent songs including “The Unicorn”. But when it came to “A Boy Named Sue” only Johnny Cash could do justice singing his brilliant lyrics such as “kicking and gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer”.
  1. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – Arlo Guthrie (1967, charting later in a much shorter version “Alice’s Rock & Roll Restaurant” (#97 Dec. ’69)) (“You can get everything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.” )- Hard to exclude one of the funniest shaggy dog stories/songs ever even though it was never a single. The fact that it was 18 minutes long of course had a lot to do with it, but even so it was played constantly on progressive FM stations during the late 60s/early 70s.
  1. “Lola” – The Kinks (#9 Oct. ’70) (“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls. It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world”). – Was it comedy, satire or were the Kinks simply way ahead of their time in 1970? Who can say, but my friends and I loved listening to it. Lola is representative of many excellent Kinks songs that range between biting satire and comedy.
  1. “Deteriorata” – National Lampoon (#91 Oct. ’72) (You are a fluke of the universe, you have no right to be here but whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.”) – This is a very funny parody of Les Crane’s “Desiderata” with the opposite message! National Lampoon has a number of funny parodies, but this was the only one to actually chart on Billboard. My favorite might be “Magical Misery Tour”, a parody of John Lennon, which given that it used f-bombs every several words was not released as a single for an understandable reason (spelled FCC).
  1. “Junk Food Junkie” – Larry Groce (#9 Mar. ’76) (“In the daytime I’m Mr. Natural, just as healthy as I can be…but at night I’m a junk food junkie, good lord have pity on me.”) – Groce’s homage to “closet” junk food eaters (both figuratively AND literally) is superb and hysterical.
  1. “King Tut” – Steve Martin (#17 July ’78) (“Buried with a donkey, he’s my favorite honky.” ) – Nothing beats watching Steve Martin performing this song on SNL in 1978 dressed as an ancient Egyptian king, but the single is quite clever and timely as it coincided with the tour of the newly discovered King Tut treasures in the U.S.
  1. “Another One Rides the Bus” – Weird Al Yankovich (#104 in ’81) (“And another one on and another one off, another one rides the bus.” ) – The best of Weird Al’s many parody songs was this very clever takeoff of “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. It was Yankovich’s first song to make the charts (albeit “bubbling under” the top 100 Billboard charts at #104). It has the nice feature of being understated musically as well, with most of the music from Weird Al’s accordion.
  1. “Take Off” – Doug and Bob McKenzie (#16 Mar. ’82) – (“Take off to the great white north, take off, it’s a beauty way to go.”) – I always enjoy these two Canadians played by two Canadians in real life, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, both from Second City TV and later in a number of comic movie roles. Geddy Lee (lead vocalist of Rush) does a great job with the melody.

Honorable Mentions:

“Purple People Eater” – Sheb Wooley

“Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” – The Royal Guardsmen

Now “Politically Incorrect”, Honorable Mentions:

“Big Bruce” – Steve Greenburg

“Basketball Jones” – Cheech and Chong

“Yeah, I’m the Taxman”

With this years official tax due date of  April 18th just behind us, it is time for my annual tax blog. But as I purveyed my past blogs around tax time, I realized that I haven’t written an “annual” post in three years. So for now what is my “triennial”  post on taxes, I will focus on with the multitude of problems with the current system and why we must change it pretty radically. I am not naive on tax policy however, and the chances that anything close to the type of changes I am suggesting are minimal at best. Nonetheless, sometimes I like to dream.

The federal government collects money largely thru a system of personal income taxes and to a lesser extent corporate income taxes. In 2016, the government collected $3.3 Trillion in Taxes –almost $1.6 trillion thru personal income taxes,  $1.1 trillion thru payroll taxes (i.e. medicare and social security paid by employees and companies) and about $0.3 Trillion thru corporate income taxes with the balance of $0.3 trillion collected thru federal excise taxes and other taxes.

I won’t be focusing on corporate taxes as that is the most likely area to be reformed by Congress this year and frankly is not a major part (only about 10%) of our current tax picture. However, my main focus will be on personal income and payroll taxes which account for more than 80% of the total taxes collected by the government. However, the changes I am suggesting would replace all corporate taxes and personal taxes currently collected by the US government.

Why is our personal income tax system a problem?

  1. Federal income/payroll taxes provides a disincentive to “work” and for employers to hire U.S. workers – By taxing income, we are taxing the hundreds of millions of Americans who are working. This is particularly problematic for the lower-income worker who is often making only a bit more than welfare plus food stamps benefits because it discourages employment. (A single person making only $20,000 per year will pay about $2500 in taxes largely because of the mandatory FICA taxes of 7.65%). Studies abound about the importance of having a job to an individuals self-worth and the positive effects it can have on the family. But our current system actually financially discourages work which is obviously a big problem. More pernicious is that the payroll tax is also paid by the employer which discourages hiring and encourages more automation or outsourcing.
  2. Our Federal income tax system tax “savings” but not consumption – As a society one of the most important things we want to encourage is individuals saving for their retirements or for unexpected rainy days. More importantly, savings are the bedrock of capital that businesses need to expand and invest creating economic growth and jobs. However, our current system taxes savings by taxing interest, dividends and capital gains earned as well as eventually taxing all earnings in deferred tax accounts (e.g. IRA, 401K etc.). More importantly, we encourage consumption now because we don’t tax it at all. Partially as a result of this, we now are a nation of consumers and NOT savers with average savings of only about $40000 for those approaching retirement and only $9000 for all families. In contrast to our savings, our national debt has soared with total personal debt of $18.3 trillion almost as large as our US government debt. This personal debt burden is now more than double our personal debt burden in 2000 and TEN times our personal debt burden in 1980.
  3. Federal income and payroll taxes fail to tax the underground economy –  It is pretty obvious that income and payroll taxes miss the underground economy of illegal drugs, gambling and prostitution as well as legal professions such as maid, cleaning and other services which are often paid in cash and go undeclared. This underground economy is estimated to be not paying some $300-500 billion in taxes per year. In addition, the massive complexity of the tax code means that there are many knowing and more commonly unknowing tax cheats which cost the federal government significant tax revenues.
  4. Federal  tax deductions encourage home purchases and borrowing – The notion of home ownership is strong in the US and has a long history and individual home ownership is generally a good thing. However, by allowing deductions for property taxes and mortgage interest we significantly subsidize the cost of home ownership for many taxpayers. This has two negative effects: (1) it often encourages greater borrowing and the overconsumption of housing ( e.g. a bigger house than is truly affordable) and (2) it results in over-investment in the housing sector to the detriment of areas of our economy where investment would be more efficient (i.e. result in more economic growth and more jobs).
  5. Federal tax deductions for state and local taxes and tax-free interest for state and local governments encourage overspending by state and local governments –The largest itemized tax deductions for many tax payers are deductions for state and local taxes (both income and property). Also, state and municipal governments benefit from interest paid on their bonds being federal tax-free. The effect of these subsidies is to significantly subsidize state and local government spending and more state borrowing. Total state and local debt outstanding now totals $3.1 trillion some 10 times the amount of debt in 1980.
  6. High Marginal Tax Rates Discourage Small Business and Entrepreneurship  – Not surprisingly most small businesses and proprietorships pay individual taxes and with about a 50% marginal tax rate (when local and state taxes are factored in), it is not surprising that businesses are discouraged from expanding or for that matter even starting businesses since the venture or other capital needed is hampered by a low after-tax return on investment. Another effect of high marginal tax rates is to encourage tax deferred investment (401Ks and IRAs) and deferred income for the wealthiest tax payers. This actually reduces tax collections in the short run.
  7. The Current Tax Code is So Complicated that it Results in Much Wasted Spending –  According to the Tax Foundation the current federal tax code now totals MORE THAN 70,000 pages!!! The IRS estimates that the average individual tax payer spends about $120 per year to file taxes or a total of more than $18 billion per year across 175 million individual tax returns. Each individual taxpayer also spends about 8 hours on average preparing taxes. This is also a tremendous economic waste almost 1.3 billion hours (155 million tax filers x 8 hours) could have been spent on productive work, volunteering or leisure activities , were it not for our absurdly complex tax code. Valuing these foregone activities at a conservatively low $50 per hour (and arguably the number is higher as most of the tax preparation hours are spent by those in upper income brackets) means that there is an additional loss of almost $80 billion per year to the economy. In other words, just the costs of filing  for individual tax payers costs the US economy almost  $100 billion per year in wasted activity. And this doesn’t even include our corporate tax filing costs which are nearly as  significant.

The Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress promise to reform taxes. I believe that this will happen with respect to corporate income taxes, but it is lot less likely to happen with personal income taxes. Even if they do succeed, my fear is that it will only affect matters marginally. Certainly, reducing all the tax rates some will help (particularly IF deductions are phased out for the wealthy or capped to pay for the tax rate reductions). However, something much more fundamental is needed. We simply can’t afford as a nation to continue to operate with a tax code that is costing our economy hundreds of billions $ and maybe even trillions$ per year.

My favorite tax reform proposal to rectify these serious problems is something called the Fair Tax. See FairTax.org. I blogged about this proposal five years ago, but it seems more important than ever today. So with apologies to those who actually read my first blog post on taxes :), the remaining section is largely from that post in 2012.

The Fair Tax proposal represents a simple and effective way of raising tax revenues and having a system which is fair and positive for the economy.  To quote the website: “The FairTax is a national sales tax that treats every person equally and allows American businesses to thrive, while generating the same tax revenue as the current four-million-word-plus tax code. Under the FairTax, every person living in the United States pays a sales tax on purchases of new goods and services, excluding necessities due to the prebate”. Of particular note:

  •  Simplicity– The FairTax is a 23% national retail sales tax on all goods and services plus a prebate to offset the 23% tax rate on consumption up to the poverty level. This  eliminates ALL federal personal income, corporate income, gift, estate, capital gains, dividends, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare and self employment taxes. It is very simple and straightforward to collect and eliminates the incredibly complicated federal tax system we have in place today.
  • Revenue Neutral – The Fair Tax is estimated to be revenue neutral relative to the current set of federal taxes. However, with the economic benefits that it would unleash, it probably will result in even more tax revenue for the federal government being raised.
  • Efficiency—Compliance with the FairTax would be far better than under the current tax system due to its simplicity and its collection at the point of sale. (Something most states already do). In fact, even the $1-$2 trillion underground economy and others that don’t pay enough taxes (either knowingly or unknowingly) would be taxed fully as they would still consume goods and services. The costs of personal and corporate tax accountants, tax lawyers, HR Block, Turbo Tax and the IRS would disappear entirely and filling out your tax forms would no longer be necessary.
  • Great for the Economy and Jobs–By eliminating the large amount of unproductive activity associated the current tax code, resources are freed up to produce more goods and services more efficiently across the economy. In addition, the elimination of subsidies and penalties in the current tax code, will eliminate overconsumption which is also inefficient, and encourage savings and investment which are badly needed in our debt laden economy.  Net retail price increases in the first year of the tax should be relatively small because the 23% tax on prices will be mostly offset by the elimination in corporate and other business taxes (which are estimated by economists to account for about 20%+ of  retail prices today). The US will become the mecca for foreign investment and US companies will no longer produce as much offshore given the elimination of these embedded taxes on exports. This will mean many more jobs in the US and better paying jobs as well.
  • Fair and Progressive—The system provides a prebate in the form of monthly check equal to the national sales taxes paid on consumption at the poverty level for each family. This means that  the first approximately $30000 of spending for a family of four is completely tax-free and the effective tax rate for those that spend at or below the poverty level is zero. In addition, all used goods (e.g. used cars, used appliances, used furniture, used clothing, etc..) are completely tax exempt under the proposal. This means that many necessities to live are NOT taxed while discretionary items are taxed. Also, those who are frugal and save more, get taxed even less. This is very different from the system today where the working poor pay significantly more federal taxes (when payroll taxes are included) than under the FairTax.  Studies also demonstrate that spending on goods and services are generally proportional to income (e.g. someone earning twice as much usually spends twice as much) . Thus, the tax is progressive ( a higher effective rate is paid for those who earn and spend more).

In short, the FairTax would broaden the tax base, aid the economy, create more US jobs and help us out of our budget and debt crisis. In addition, it can be easily modified to make it even more progressive by increasing the prebate and overall tax rate to account for the lost revenues, if that it is ultimately what US taxpayers want.

The biggest problem with the FairTax is POLITICAL. The benefits of the proposal is to the US population and economy collectively. However,  the benefits of the current tax system are to a multitude of special interests ranging from higher education, wind and solar power manufacturers, oil and gas drillers, public employee unions, state and local governments, the medical industry, real estate brokers as well as lawyers and accountants that thrive on the current hopelessly complex system. Any attempt to change the current system, let alone completely eviscerate it will be met with strong resistance. Also, there will be many who won’t feel that the Fair Tax is progressive enough particularly when it comes to the very wealthy.

Accordingly, I would add either one of two provisions (or both) to the Fair Tax IF NEEDED to get consensus around the proposal. The first would be additional federal excise taxes on “bads” including all tobacco, alcohol content and sugar content. See my Post from 2012  “No Sugar Tonight” for the value of doing this on sugar. This could be used to supplement tax revenues and allow for a higher income for which there would be no effective taxes (by raising the probate) AND/OR to lower the fair tax rate of 23%.  Second, if it would help  would be a 10% earned income tax on joint filers with earned income of say over $400,000 per year (or whatever income level is deemed necessary for high income earners). This would be simple addition which would tax salary over this threshold and only require a relatively small number of filers.

I know the obstacles are considerable and I am clearly dreaming. But it doesn’t hurt to try. It’s a good idea whose time has come. It’s about time we changed a federal tax system that was born in the early 20th century and clearly has outlived its usefulness.