Rereading books from the thirties and compulsively listening to The Velvet Underground generate many things in people, but in my case in particular they reactivated a certain curiosity related to the value of money. For instance, in Ask the dust (by John Fante) an incredibly starving Arturo Bandini, surviving solely on tangerines and owing many months of rent in his broken down pension, saves his life when he manages to sell his first short story to a literary magazine and receives a check for 500 dollars. Aso, in I'm waiting for the man, Lou Reed tells us about his experience of buying heroin in the intersection of Lexington and 125th, waiting with 26 dollars in his hand, waiting for his man who, obviously, is always late: First thing you learn is that you always have to wait. Then: ¿How much money was keeping Bandini turning between life and death, in today´s standards? ¿How much money would Lou Reed need today to go back to that corner to buy his heroin?
To answer this it is necessary to have some measure of inflation, that is, of how prices in general rose, how the cost of life rose, and information on this topic is available in each country´s statistical information department; with this and some patience we can surely see some interesting facts.
1. The Velvet Underground - I'm waiting for the man
Released in 1967 the first demos are from 1965, so we are talking of 26 dollars to buy heroin in 1965 in north Manhattan (that is, Harlem, a black ghetto then). The problem is we don't know quality or quantity of the heroin Reed was buying, so it is hard to compare this cost with whatever heroin costs today in New York. Also, the Consumer Price Index for the US (and all other countries) is calculated based on a basket of representative goods, which does not include heroin. So we will be calculating the cost of heroin based on the assumption that heroin price rose more or less in line with all other goods in the economy, ignoring any change in supply or demand that could have happened in the last 40 years. So the question is, how much money would we need today to buy exactly the same thing Lou Reed bought in 1965. And the answer is about US$ 193.07, which is less than what I expected but still a considerable amount. This song always got me thinking and it is actually the starting point for this whole blog post, as today listening to Lou Reed having 26 dollars in his hand in a ghetto does not seem that suspicious; after all 26 dollars is something almost everybody would have in his or her wallet on a given day. Taking it to current values shows Lou Reed should have been nervous, his waiting there should have been more excruciating that what the song suggests at first impression, waiting there half an hour or a full hour with 200 dollars in his hand and on top of that having a dude coming up and saying Hey white boy, what you doin' uptown, that's no easy task. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman for heroin overdose made the topic hot again and we have more and more information on heroin prices in the United States; different journalists mention different heroin doses can be found for 10 to 15 dollars, on the street, or for up to 40 to 50, depending on the area, purity and quantity (discount by bulk buying!). This tells us that either heroin is cheaper than in 1965 or Reed was buying large quantities of exceptional purity or, it would not be the first time, Lou was just lying to us: Rolling Stone magazine reports Lou once said Everything about that song holds true, except the price.
2. B. B. King - Sweet little angel
Actually Sweet little angel is an adaptation of a classic blues song (Black angel blues) initially recorded in the 30's' King records his version in 1956 and adds (as far as I know it was not initially there) the verse You know I asked my baby for a nickel / And she gave me a $20 bill, which at today's prices would mean old King was asking for 43 cents and his angel gave him about 172 dollars. Which means B.B was short for buyin Reed's heroin, so to say.
3. Johny Cash - Get rythm
The Man in Black wrote this song about a young shoeshine boy who resists humiliation and frustration of long working hours in a crappy job just by putting rythm on it, that is, polishing at the tune of blues and rock and roll. It is an optimist song about just taking it and going ahead. And Cash sells the services or the young man by singing It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe / Does a million dollars worth of good for you, which means, considering the song was written in 1956, polishing your shoes should cost about 86 cents, 43 a shoe, and would be worth about US$ 8,599,852.94. Which is a huge bargain. It is an incredible bargain especially if we consider for instance this website offering shoe polishing services for 9 dollars. This illustrates shoeshine workers have really gained in terms of quality of life since Cash's time, or that, viceversa, shoeshine workers were really screwed back then in the fifties. Which is quite a good reason to write them a song.
A song written in 1930 that became popular almost instantly given the Great Depression, Brother, can you spare a dime? speaks of a worker that helped building prosperity and now, starving, begs through the voice of Bing Crosby for ten cents. The song by Creed is more introspective and involves some very depressed individual who ends up saying sell my pity for a dime. Anyway, written in 1997, it shows the ten cents coin still has some referential value. The thing is, a dime given to Crosby would be today about US$ 1,40, while a dime given to the Creed guy would be only 15 cents today. This illustrates that keeping very low denomination coins for long periods of time (or shorter periods with high inflation) is quite bad for beggars, as inflation erodes the value of coins while people keeps giving beggars just "loose change".
5. 883 - Con un deca
Leaving the United States for a while, italian band 883 wrote this song in 1992, and in order to understand it it is important to know that deca is the italian term for 10.000 liras. Which generates additional complications as Italy adopted the euro around the year 2000. Also, the song makes reference, in my understanding, to what can and cannot be done with a deca (and, so it seems, there is not much you can do with it: con un deca non si può andar via / Non ci basta neanche in pizzeria). It is not clear for me if maybe the song is a bit nostalgic about a time in the past in which something could be done with a deca. In any case, considering the euro got introduced with an exchange rate of 1936 liras per euro, and that the lira was abandoned in 2002, adjusting by exchange rate and inflation leads to finding a decca in 1992 would be today about US$ 12.58 (or about 9.1 euros). That is, still, there is not much you can do with a deca in Italy.
6. Bersuit Vergarabat - Diezmil
20 millions of argentinian pesos is quite a lot of rmoney, and in this song the band speaks about some guy who wins that insane amount of money in the national lottery and then turns into a very very nasty person, in a classic example of "money takes your soul" song. Here we also have additional complications as the argentinian government is under reporting inflation in the last years. Using IMF estimations and assuming the song was written circa 1992 (as it is included in the 2002 record De la cabeza, which celebrates 10 years of the release of the bands' first CD), 20 million pesos that some moron won in 1992 would today be 73.949.916,4 pesos, that is, almost 74 million pesos. Now, in 1992 fixed exchange rates in Argentina meant this 20 million pesos would be identical to 20 million dollars, this updated figure at the actual current official exchange rate turns into a little bit more than 9 million dollars (US$ 9.377.958,6). Let's see this again: if you won 20 million pesos in 1992, that's the same as winning 74 million in 2014, but in 1992 that would be 20 million dollars as well, while in 2014 that is just a little bit over 9 million dollars. Which means, the evolution of the exchange rate more than compensates the updating of the prize due to inflation. Which is another exhibit that shows in Argentina it always pays to save in dollars. And it's Bersuit Vergarabat saying so, not me of course.
7. Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra - Sanela
With a very reduced understanding of serbian (and/or bosnian) I came up with the conclusion that Sanela is a first name. In this song (included in that excellent record that is Unza Unza Time) the narrator cries, about stuff, to Sanela. Where are the boats, what's going on, what happens with foreigners, uh Sanela? But the song ends with the singer (crazy great Dr. Nele Karajlić) insisting: fifteen dollars, fifteen dollars, fifteen dollars honey. Released in 2000, maybe the song was written before, with some imagination one can think it is a lament regarding the illegal prostitution nets that seek balcan girls and trick them into going into the west, for little money; after all fifteen dollars are fifteen dollars. But leaving wild stereotypical imagination aside, what's going on with these fifteen dollars? First of all, coming from the US, we should note 15 dollars in 2000 amount to about 20 (US$ 20.38 more precisely) in 2014. But, like in Argentina, the exchange rate is a mess: a dollar was 11.6 serbian dinars in 2000 but jumped to 84.67 today; Sanela's 15 dollars in 2000 where 174.14 dinars back then but would be 1725.57 serbian dinars today. Which means serbian people are probably still wondering why everything is so expensive and it probably paid to save in dollars there as well.
8. Iron Maiden - 22 Acacia Avenue
The song was released in 1982 in their third record The number of the beast (great record) and has a simple basis: if you are not feeling fine, we can go to 22 Acacia Avenue and Miss (or Mrs?) Charlotte will help you have a good time, for 15 quid. You see, everybody has a price. For a little context: Acacia Avenue is a generic way of referring to a middle class neighborhood in a middle class city in England. Middle class or not, whatever Charlotte does should cost today around 35.51 pounds (per day, per hour, per whatever she does). For some context on this, see below.
Shoplifting by the Slits is one of those songs that have received a lot of attention in history of music (and history of punk) but that definitely ended up being less harsh than what one expects (especially considering how the movement evolved into hardcore and other faster and stronger sounds). In any case, Ari Up and friends were shoplifting small stores back then, getting some cheese, some other stuff, about 10 quid the lot. Though it was probably written before, it was released in 1979, so in todays' prices the Slits where shoplifiting about 37.29 pounds of stuff each run. Which is relatively significant: living in England I spend a bit more than that each week at the supermarket.
By 1985 the scottish punk band The Exploited had completed the transition into hardcore and was in full frontal war against Margaret Thatcher; Maggie is one more example of that hatred that, by the way, was reciprocal. In this song Wattie Buchan complains of the cost of life and implicitly on the cuts on the welfare state, leaving him with 25 quid a week for survival: Twenty five quid to live on / Seven days a week to survive... ...Twenty five quid of insult / Two meals soon kills your health / They want to see you suffer / They want to see you dead. Even without going to CPI information you can tell 25 pounds a week is little money, considering the Slits where stealing 10 a run in 1979. Turns out that in todays' prices Wattie would be complaining about surviving with 55.78 pounds a week. Which is very little money, indeed. Maybe that explains the chorus: Maggie, maggie you cunt.
Tom Waits is a master of many things. In an interview he once stated that upon arriving to a city he would randomly pick a cab on the street and ask for the guy to take him to a hotel in Lincoln (or Washington, I don't remember) street, and that there always is a street with that name that has a low life hotel filled with stories waiting to be told. Waits is a master, among many other things, of odd places, or urban and suburban weirdness. In 29 dollars (coming from his 1978 record Blue Valentine) Waits tells us about this young girl who just arrived to a small town, having only 29 dollars in her alligator purse. At night and notoriously looking as someone from out of town she ends up making bad decisions (Remember suckers always make mistakes / When they're far away from home) and ends up in a hospital, with a little bit less blood than normal and without her 29 dollars and her alligator purse. Blue Valentines is not my favorite Waits record (as it is one of the few coming before his style change seen starting with Swordfishtrombones) though it has wonderful pieces as Blue valentines or Romeo is bleeding; I remember listening the song for the first time and being surprised about the 29 dollars: leaving for another town, looking for a fresh start, with only 29 dollars, is quite reckless, I mean, there is not much you can do with 29 dollars actually, you can't get a room and eat with that. But turns out that in todays' terms that would be around US$ 104.4, which means that at least a couple of warm meals and a roof could be affordable, maybe for a few days.
9th and Hennepin (from Rain Dogs, 1985) is a little masterpiece about a particular corner: Well it's Ninth and Hennepin / All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes... ...And all the rooms they smell like diesel / And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here. It's an early attempt of something that Waits would do over and over again, these narrative and disturbing songs and/or pieces (like What's he building in there). In that corner, there is a bar, with a counter, and, of course, a woman: And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear / "One for every year he's away", she said / Such a crumbling beauty, ah / There's nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won't fix. It's a subtle violence, here, to match the woman behind the bar with an object, with something that would be fine given one hundred dollars for maintenance, like a car or a bike needing paint. I always imagined Waits meant with this line something like a change in clothing, maybe make up, hairdressing, maybe a quick visit to the dentist; one way or the other Waits is saying something as "the girl is pretty but it's hard to realize given the circumstances". Also, Waits never explicitly mentions beauty, he's just saying that one hundred dollars "fixes it". In a way, knowing how much those dollars are worth illustrates what kind of problems Waits has in mind: if you fix it with 10.000 dollars maybe we are speaking of plastic surgery, it we are talking about 10 dollars it's just some mints for her breath. The reader should think for him or herself what is Waits speaking about, I will just say that in todays' prices Waits thinks that there's nothing wrong with her that US$ 217.4 won't fix.
Just like in Austin Powers everybody laughs when the villain asks for a million dollars in exchange for not destroying the world, the "million dollar" issue is the other side of the beggars problem with small change: though the cultural meaning of "a million dollars" remains there, the actual value of a million dollars has changed with time and, in fact, getting a million dollars has gotten easier and easier. Maybe that's why (as I discuss below) rap and hip hop artists have entered some sort of inflationary battle. But, well, in these cases Tina Turner tells us (in a song coming form her 1984 album) about a private dancer, probably a stripper, who resists the nastiness of her job by thinking and focusing on her main goal in life: making a million dollars, having a husband and kids, buying a house by the sea, etc. Barenaked Ladies (in 1993) and Sublime (in 1996) discuss more or less the same idea and use the "million dollars" as an expression or synonym for being rich, having problems in life solved, etc. The thing is, due to the passing of time the strippers' million bucks is actually worth more money today (US$2,251,357.07) than the million Barenaked Ladies and Sublime would like to have (which end up being US$1,490,860.42 and US$1,618,795.85 respectively). That is, a million dollars has less and less purchasing power with time, so those who want to have "a million" in 1985 actually want quite more stuff than those wanting it ten years after. The question is, when does this "million dollar" thing start? For a partial answer, see below.
This song is linked to the previous discussion on the cultural meaning of the "million dollars", but it also links to the next discussion on "gangsta inflation". First recorded in 1931, Minnie the moocher is a song with a lot of slang, quite sordid. Low life jazz slang (the infamous jive) ended up being complex enough that the very same Cab Calloway published in 1939 a dictionary ( Hepster's Dictionary: Language of Jive), such that public could understand the sub texts of jazz songs, and could understand, for instance, that Minne had fallen in love with a guy that quite liked cocaine (She messed around with a bloke named Smokie / She loved him though he was cokey) who took her for some opium smoking (He took her down to Chinatown / And showed her how to kick the gong around). The story obviously ends up badly, but Smokey, as a guy with a lot of money, first gives Minnie at least a million dollars: He gave her his townhouse and his racing horses / Each meal she ate was a dozen courses / Had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes / She sat around and counted them all a million times. By 1931 the one million dollars figure is quite scary, especially considering that Bing Crosby was asking us for a dime more or less at the same time, and that in 1985 Turners's stripper just wanted a million as well. A look at inflation rates shows in current prices Minnie's million would amount to a bit more than 15 million (US$ 15.389.210,53). That she would in the end lose. Which explains the end of the song: Poor Min, Poor Min.
13. Gangsta inflation: Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Kanye West and such
Finding a 1931 song mentioning the million dollars is interesting, finding out that the song mentions the figure in the context of drug linked and mob linked characters is more interesting, but it is even more interesting seeing how the inflation adjusted Cab Calloway ends up being surpassed by today's hip hop and rap artists (as my friend Nils points out, given my scarce knowledge on the topic). Calloway is overridden for instance by Jay-Z, who in the song u dont know says One million, two million, three million, four / In just five years, forty million more / You are now lookin at the forty million boy / I'm rapin' Def Jam 'til I'm the hundred million man, and in the song kanye´s appaled when he says I lost 30 mil, so I spent another 30 / Cause unlike Hammer, thirty million can't hurt me. Maybe the most excessive one is 50 Cent in Straight to the bank: When I made fifty mill, Em got paid / When I made sixty mill, Dre got paid / When I made eighty mill, Jimmy got paid. That is, the level of wealth, income, and showing off that the new generation of rappers has, goes above and beyond the shady business of the 20's and 30's jazz people. And it goes well above and well beyond, when one thinks that 50 Cent made 80 millions at some point for some reason. This 80 million in 2014 would be around five million in 1931 (US$ 5.198.447,3 to be precise). In fact any mention to the symbolic million dollars would be short of today's 80 million, even if it was made as early as 1913 (which is the earliest year for which I have data to work with). I have two interpretations for all this. One is just noticing that in terms of purchasing power the rappers today directly make more money than jazz people in the 20's and 30's, period. The other one would be noticing that the Consumer Price Index measures a basket of average consumption goods, which should not include luxury items: maybe gold, jewelry, diamonds and mansions actually rose much more than CPI and then today's rappers are just keeping up with this trend and would be short in terms of gold and diamonds compared with Cab Calloway. CPI figures show prices of the average consumption basket went up by a factor of 15 between 1931 and 2014, while gold price went up for a factor of at least 77. That is, Jay-Z and 50 Cent may be able of giving more dollars to whoever they want, good old Smokie could give Minnie more gold than they could. And I don't know if this is good or bad.
In the end, updating values that one listens to in songs around can be interesting, as it shows Lou Reed had quite some money in his hand and thus reasons to be nervous, Johny Cash was concerned about really poor people when he started singing (and probably during his whole life), some punks really did not have much money so to say, pseudo gangsters of 20's and 30's jazz actually sang about a lot of money, and today's artists from the hip hop and rap world are making immense amounts of money, even when compared against the 20's and 30's jazz people (though not in terms of gold necklaces). Knowing that "a million dollars" is less and less every year, it can be better understood this "music inflation" seen in new songs. It can also be better understood that this "music inflation" partially responds to battles between artists, as they mention each other all the time and somehow compete on who spends more money on stupid stuff. It seems they did not pay much attention to that hip hop classic that is Mo money mo problems, by The Notorious B.I.G..
Bonus Track: Alfredo Zitarrosa - Doña Soledad
In this classic song released in 1968 by uruguayan singer-songwriter Alfredo Zitarrosa, Doña Soledad argues over a vinten, which is a colloquial way of referring to two cents of uruguayan peso, back in the fifties and sixties. Applying the inflation rate we see that in first terms this Doña is arguing over 19.587,36 uruguayan pesos. But we are forgetting that in 1974 the military dictatorship, due to high inflation, introduced a new peso, that would replace the old one, on a rate of 1000 to 1. So this makes the argument about 19,59 uruguayan pesos. But, again, the second democratic government we had did the same trick in 1994 due to high inflation, changing the new peso for the peso (again at a rate of 1000 to 1), which means the argument was on 0.01959 pesos, or what is the same... two cents of uruguayan peso. Which really really changes the interpretation of the song, as Doña Soledad is arguing on really really little money.
...and in the end Arturo Bandindi got a check for US$ 8294.89 for his first story.
*special thanks to Ana Arioni for proofreading and song suggestion.