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What's in the Wash

Karen Zarker

Whether today's babies are clinging to a skinny, malnourished hip, or being wheeled about in a plush, triple stroller, come the time they reach working age -- should they reach working age -- they might well outnumber the souls of the dead and the posts they've vacated.

It may be a tad early to stir up the ghosts of Halloween, but no matter the season, one man's bed sheet flapping on the clothesline is another man's floating haunt. As the winter nights creep closer, I'm seeing lots of something fluttering about in those long, dark hours. Maybe it's just agitated spirits rising from the Millennium Summit held way back in 2000 in New York City. That's when UN member states joined hands, so to speak, and vowed to change the world. The world has changed some, since.

Their aim, just one of many compassionate and optimistic resolutions to rise from that meeting: "To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people whose income is less than one dollar a day . . . " (Item II.19 of the United Nations Millennium Declaration). That's right, in a mere 15 years those hard worn devotees of human rights hoped to cleanse the world of some of its suffering, to make things come out of the wash, so to speak, at least a couple shades lighter.

No easy feat, as this load of laundry is full of more than just fitted bed sheets: the "colors" and "whites" are all mixed up and sloshing about with the dirty nappies of the future's labor pool. Whether today's babies are clinging to a skinny, malnourished hip, or being wheeled about in a plush, triple stroller, come the time they reach working age — should they reach working age — they might well outnumber the souls of the dead and the posts they've vacated. One billion new jobs are needed during the coming decade so that the young people of the world might have non-criminal or otherwise socially marginal ways to sustain themselves.

As for some of those who are not-so-young, here in the US, the middle-aged Latina women in wash 'n wear polyester uniforms that open my local McDonald's at 6:00am are clearly gainfully employed and well above the "one dollar a day" minimum. In this rich nation where such women have no doubt come for work, they're probably even "covered" by health insurance; a "benefit" in this country that is fraught with high monthly premiums and deductibles, nominal pharmaceutical coverage, and multitudinous restrictions. All those times through the spin cycle have working folks looking rather frayed about the hem, but hey, they're the lucky ones. Recent headlines in US papers warn that more than 43 million Americans lacked health insurance last year; how many of those lost souls are employed, to one degree or another, is not clear.

Then there are the unmatched socks that get lost in the wash — those part-time and temporarily-employed folks who somehow manage to keep things patched together, here and there — they fall into the dingy-grey category of "underemployed". There's this depressing phenomena that casts a lurid pallor about such people: the longer one remains underemployed, or unemployed altogether, the less likely one will ever gain full employment, again. Such people find themselves sliding down toward the pile of the unemployed underclass — those trapped in the permanent welfare cycle who must supplement their nominal, state-provided income by any means necessary. Indeed, I know someone who for three years, now, while furtively seeking employment worthy and no so worthy of her 40-year career, relies upon her small family to meet her needs while she remains unemployed and uninsured. Applying for welfare seems to be the only option left to her. Perhaps you know someone or two like that, as well. Come the first of the month, it gets rather scary, doesn't it?

The UN labor agency estimates over 180 million people worldwide are currently unemployed. That is, those who are counted as unemployed; be they the down-on-their-luck, minimally educated lumpenproletariat, or the college-educated, dot-com-bust bourgeois. Those who are unemployed, and those who are full-time, minimum-wage earners, like the fast-food women with families of their own, probably aren't counted among the number of the world's working poor, who, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) were estimated at 550 million by the end of 2002.

Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO acknowledges those who are overlooked in a sweeping view of the global economy, "Our measures of unemployment largely record the jobless who have some form of social protection" (the ILO's "Report on Global Employment Trends 2003"). We're not talking about those who don ragged cast-offs before setting off to pick through garbage piles for the day. Worldwide record numbers of those folks surviving on the dole (as the dole exists, to varying degree in industrialized nations) is scary enough; such as in Germany, Italy, France and Russia, where the rise in unemployment for young people is paralleled by a a rise in neo-fascist, anti-semetic, anti-immigrant discontent. Things seem pretty spooky all over, all right.

No matter how much we want to look away from the eerie specter of the global economic situation — we know we can't. It's darting in and out of our peripheral vision, appearing closer, each time we dare to open our eyes. Come 2010, almost 60% of the world's labor force will be in Asia. China alone must somehow employ nearly one-quarter of the global work force. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are seeing their labor force grow, too. Unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean is at a record high of nearly 10 percent.

A mere year after the UN met at the Millennium Summit, the winds of change blew everything about, further complicating an already complicated matter. The aftermath of the September 11 attacks wreaked economic havoc worldwide; some 10.5 million jobs were lost as the global travel and tourist industries suffered the fall out. I know someone who saw his gainfully self-employed status in the travel industry plummet to near zero sustainability post September 11. He is lucky in that his country is not largely dependent upon tourism (as are Nepal and Croatia, for example) so in that sense, he has a shot at another means of support — if only he could find another means of support. Worst hit by the economic fall-out post September 11 were those labor-intensive and export-oriented industries in developing countries. Such countries suffer hurricanes when a butterfly flaps its wings in the industrial world. As discontent in developing countries rises, just watch how that crazy wind shifts.

Developing countries, such as China, India, Brazil and Cuba, comprise the bulk of the working poor (such as women in the garment industry and poor farmers). "Developing" is the key word, as these countries struggle to pull themselves from the muck of third world status. At the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Cancun (September 2003) the "G21" group of developing countries, including China, Brazil and India, set their collective political power against the might of the US and the EU. Almost 5,000 delegates from 146 countries called for an end to cotton subsidies in rich countries, subsidies that keep millions in developing countries in poverty.

They were aided by the single, poignant message from a South Korean farmer who killed himself at this summit in an "act of sacrifice to show his disgust at the WTO and its policies." (Guardian Unlimited 11 September '03). Supachai Panitchpakdi, WTO director-general, urged ministers to consider the proposal seriously. Lifting the subsidies could, he said, ". . . add $500bn a year to world income by 2015, lifting 144 million people out of poverty." (ibid) But G21 couldn't hold up against richer countries' refusal to reform agricultural subsidies.

In a summary of "Global Employment Trends, 2003", the ILO offers these broad but at least partially achievable solutions toward cleaning up the mess we've made. For the wash cycle: our dry-cleaned, precision-pressed CEOs, presidents, prime minsters, dictators, and other policy makers must roll up their sleeves and get elbow-high in dirty water. They must employ a "pro-jobs" policy and stimulate employment-intensive investment, while providing employment-creation incentive for the private sector. Such measures will require considerable monetary support from governments, including governments of minimal means.

For the rinse cycle: through active labor market policies and social safety nets, developing countries and the poorest members of society need to be protected, somehow, from economic insecurity, also known as "external shocks" caused by the swiftly changing global economy — that curse carried on the wings of a butterfly, if you will. I suspect such protection requires more cooperation from rich nations than was given at the Cancun summit.

And finally, to help balance the load during the spin cycle: "Countries should adopt 'pro-poor' policies to help women and men secure productive and decent work in conditions of freedom, security and human dignity," the UN recommends, "In addition, ending restrictions on the right to organize, tackling discrimination and child and forced labor are essential steps toward the economic, social and political empowerment of the poor." Ah, the humanistic implications of such a policy are as refreshing as a "spring scented" dryer sheet. If only things really could be rendered so . . .

Well, come daybreak in 2015, when that lucky ole sun that's got nothin' to do 'cept radiate 383 billion, trillion kilowatts of energy and shine, shine, shine from heaven down on our hard working ol' world, we'll see what's hanging on the line. Here's hoping it's not so scary as it seems.

* * * *

"What's Working" profiles individuals and issues in the world of work: what people do for a living, and how they make do to live. For those who are gainfully or otherwise employed, "What's Working" looks at work that's truly valued, simply tolerated, and utterly reviled.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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