Thursday, June 30, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Greed

"To throw five thousand dollars out of the window--to stuff it into the pockets of someone else, when it might have been yours, when you might have had Trina AND the money--and all for what?"

Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger.
Richard Thompson, Money, Money, Money.
Barrett Strong, Money (That's What I Want).
The O'Jays, For the Love of Money.
Dinah Washington, Richest Guy in the Graveyard.
The Contours, First I Look at the Purse.
Cyndi Lauper, Money Changes Everything.

We're leaving behind the crumb-strewn couch, the rumpled post-coital bed, and going out into the larger world of sin. Greed, avarice, covetousness is by neccessity a more public sin, by culture a more acceptable sin--you could say it is our national sin, one that has been with us since our inception, sitting in the back rows of the first meeting house in Plymouth, picking its teeth.

How do you define greed? An inordinate love of money and material things, and the dedication of one's life to their pursuit? Or simply having or wanting anything more than "what is required to keep your back straight", as Muhammad says? Greed, according to Saint Boniface, was born out of the bowels of the serpent that tempted Eve. In Prudentius' Psychomachia, a 4th Century poem that is a sort of allegorical Olympic games between the vices and virtues, avaritia wanders the field after the battle is over, picking up jewels and scraps from the fallen bodies.

In Edmund Spenser's roll-call of the seven sins, Avarice rides a camel "loaden all with gold", while Avarice himself wears threadbare clothes and is near-starved to death, having refused to spend a cent on his person that could instead be put into his iron coffers.

More modern incarnations of greed have a bit more style. Auric Goldfinger, in Ian Fleming's novel, always carries a million dollars in gold with him, sometimes in a belt of gold coins, other times in thin sheets in the bottom of his suitcase. The first time James Bond encounters him, Goldfinger is almost naked (sporting just a "yellow satin bikini slip" and "some wide tan wings under his chin"). Goldfinger, who "seems to be put together with bits of other people's bodies," fascinates Bond ("Into what channels did Goldfinger release his vital force?") When Bond finds Goldfinger's mistress (who soon will meet a gruesome fate of being varnished to death), she fills Bond in:

"It's a sort of mania with him, making money...all he says is that one's a fool not to make money when the odds are right...(and) when the odds aren't right, make them right." (Here is the title song of the 1964 film, probably the quintessential Bond movie, if not the best. On Shirley Bassey: Greatest Hits.)

Greed has a swagger to it, a sense of righteousness. Where lust or gluttony can be seen as a communal sin, greed is an individual's prerogative, a way of settling scores.

And greed can be easily justified. If there already are so many rich in the world, why shouldn't you be one of them? Why should you be the one who is moderate, why should you be the one who deprives yourself? Take "Money Money Money," originally recorded by Abba. Richard Thompson's version (from his legendary "1000 Years of Popular Music" shows, CD available here; tour dates here) brings out the venom in the lyric. "There's so much I could do," he sings. "If I had a little money."

Or, in an even more blunt statement, there's "Money (That's What I Want)", Barrett Strong's 1959 hit that put Motown Records on the map (On the great set Hitsville USA, and written by Berry Gordy, who put the song's sentiments into practice in a big way). At the song's end, Strong says "I wanna be free!", a wish that John Lennon, in the Beatles' ferocious cover four years later, turns into a threat. In both cases, the only way the singer feels he can be free is by getting paid in full, and maybe he's right (Lennon only started singing about having no possessions when he was a millionaire several times over).

Filling up

One constant throughout the world's religions is the belief that greed is at the core of human failings, from the Visuddhimagga ("Greed is the real dirt, not dust") to the Tao Teh Ching ("there is no greater calamity than indulging in greed") to the concept in Judiasm of yetzer hara, the constant drive to acquire more things. (Much more in Phyllis Tickle's essay on greed, from which these quotes come.)

And Christianity, in its first days, considered greed and acquisitiveness some of its greatest enemies. Here's JC himself: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal". Or: "How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Or "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."

(This fervor against wealth seems to have cooled a bit, no? It is interesting that while some parse the Bible to find bits of verse to justify, say, why gays can't marry, on the subject of greed and wealth, about which the New Testament is crystal clear, this type of detective work and righteous wrath is fairly absent. Fanatics protest gay funerals, but no one pickets a millionaire's wake.)

A contemporary sermon on greed, one blessed with Anthony Jackson's killer bass line, is 1974's "For the Love of Money", in which the O'Jays scourge our greed-infested world like a trio of souful Jeremiahs. On Love Train. The song is now best known as the theme to a game show in which ambitious young people grovel for position before a crude rich blowhard.

On the cheap

The extravagant greed of a Goldfinger, even an L. Dennis Kozlowski (pictured above in his happier days as a pseudo-Roman emperor, spending stolen money to host a $2 million party in Sardinia), are exceptions. Mainly, greed operates in petty ways. Take the manager of a local supermarket, or a commodities trader, or a town selectman. Perhaps they don't think they're getting paid their worth--and maybe they do work harder than their better-paid colleagues. And they look ahead and see nothing but drudgery. So one Friday night, the manager pockets a couple hundreds from the till; the selectman takes an envelope full of cash from a property developer; the trader makes up a phony deal and takes a chunk of the profits. And they all get away with it.

At this point, the rational mind would think they'd stop and count their blessings. But that's not how it works, as anyone with a stake up at a roulette wheel can tell you. It's the calm whisper of greed--you think, it worked once, why not again? And I need just a bit more. And you do get away with it again, and again, But the phony trades pile up, the thefts grow bolder, the bribes increase--until the end comes. Because you always get caught--your own greed will start to crimp the greed of those more powerful than you.

Still, the allure of greed, the idea that it is a liberating, natural force, continues to seduce us. The most precise argument is made by Michael Douglas' character Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street: the infamous "Greed is good" speech, which has become a cheap cliche used in 1980s TV retrospectives. (Gekko is by far the only thing of interest in Wall Street; how I wish the film would have just centered on Douglas' character and ditched the boring 'Charlie Sheen makes good' plotline.)

But Gekko is right. Greed does clarify, it does inspire--the computer that this is written on, the music itself--all were built or made by people looking to make a buck. As Paul McCartney would say, talking of writing legendary Beatles songs, "John and I would say, 'let's write a swimming pool."

Spend it!

We're all guilty of greed in its some of its myriad forms (any time I look at this page, for example, avarice overtakes me like a hot fever). The economy runs on a healthy amount of communal greed--currently, the U.S. housing market is benefiting from it, much like profitless Internet companies did in the 1990s.

(just before the tech stock market collapsed, there was an MTV game show (around '99) in which the winners were awarded "E-Trade" dollars, which should have been a sign to anyone that the game had gotten out of control; it reminds me of the story about JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, who sold all his stocks just before the Great Depression because his shoeshine boy started giving him stock tips).

And stockpiling wealth isn't any better. The moralists would say that as the anorexic is a form of glutton, so is the miser a practitioner of greed. Here's Dinah Washington's advice to skinflints, 1949's "Richest Guy in the Graveyard", a variation on the old adage of 'you can't take it with you'. Dinah's pretty blunt in her assessment of the fellow, though: "you'd be the biggest jerk/to ever go to work" (songwriter Leonard Feather was no Cole Porter, to put it mildly). The guy's a lost cause though--Dinah really just wants her name on his last will and testament. On The Queen Sings.

We don't pull the strings

Greed seeps in everywhere, like rainwater during a thunderstorm, and it is as great a factor in human relationships as lust, though perhaps we don't like to admit it.

A few songs spell it out, though. In The Contours' "First I Look at the Purse", a minor Motown hit from 1965, the singer just wants to be a gigolo, and the purity of his greed makes him strangely appealing, as he's not going to let physical appearances get in the way. He snorts at his friends pining over pretty girls--"Why waste time lookin' at the waistline?" (Also on Hitsville.)

Then there's "Money Changes Everything." It was originally recorded in 1978 by the Brains, and their version is a fine, biting song. But Cyndi Lauper's take, from 1983, is something else. (On She's So Unusual). Rather than recasting the lyric so that she's the one getting dumped (like the Brains' singer was), and winning the listener's sympathy, Lauper takes on the voice of the woman selling herself out.

In a restaurant, a man is waiting at a table--his girlfriend is late, and she sounded odd on the phone. At last she comes in and won't make eye contact for a minute, then sits back and hits him with it. She's done, she's leaving him, the new guy is actually parked outside waiting for this to be over with. He's stunned. He had no clue. "How can you do this?" he stammers. Remember the pledges we made, the love letters, the time we...

She says, "Well yeah, I know, but when we did,
There was one thing we weren't thinking of
and that's money
Money changes everything

The next verse is months, likely years later. The woman's been in the world of money for a while--the old hapless boyfriend is forgotten, maybe even the guy she left him for is in the past. Now it's the voice of someone who made a corrupting choice, and who's lived through it. "They shake your hand, and they SMILE and they BUY you a DRINK," Lauper sings with pure acid in her voice. As if she could fortell her own career's future, her sudden rise to fame and her just as sudden discarding by the record companies and the media, she goes on:

"They say we'll be your friends
We'll stick with you till the end

She can't even bother to laugh. After a breakdown, the song builds up again, and Lauper starts singing with a power you can barely comprehend, changing the chorus as she goes on: "Money...changes everything...Money...IS everything."

It's a stunning performance, one of the best of the 1980s for me--Lauper never matched it again; few could. It's the honest, cold voice of greed--the song of someone who made her deal with the devil, and moved on.

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