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Living Things responds to our dollar-burning criticism!

March 27, 2009 |  4:48 pm

A few days ago, I wrote about Living Things' recent South By Southwest sets, where the act burned dollar bills in the accompaniment of local Austin, Texas, homeless. It was not a glowing review.

Today, however, Living Things frontman Lillian Berlin e-mailed me, via his publicist, a lengthy riposte to that post.  It's a spirited defense of his cash-burning as metaphor, and he asked that we post it to Pop & Hiss. Below is the entire unedited letter.

Because we've been enjoying this tete-a-tete, Pop & Hiss is hoping to land a date with Berlin early next week to talk more about music's ability to both gain from and denounce Wall Street's dirty dollars.

In the meantime, here's his letter.


"My role in society, or any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all." - John Lennon

Dear Mr. Brown,

A significant effort was made by you to bring attention to and critique the launch of our "Burn Wall Street's Dirty Dollar" campaign. For that we are grateful. You believe that we offended Perez Hilton. For that we are even more grateful. You purport that we offended liberals and plutocrats. We can buy that to a certain degree. But to say that we offended the homeless is, in our humble opinion, just mere ignorance. If you were so misled about our message and confused, we would have hoped that you would have done what any good journalist would do - and simply ask us. Bust since you didn't, we took the liberty of responding ourselves:

Let's begin by reviewing what some of our friends, the homeless from Austin, Texas had to say:

"This is the first time in 20 years of SXSW that a band has shown sincere interest in helping out our homeless community and Front Steps, the homeless shelter is located at the heart of the festival.", Calvin, War Veteran and currently homeless

"It made me feel happy to burn the dollar because money has brought great pain to my life.", Tony, a young man whose mother passed away and he found himself without support and homeless at a young age

"Man, this night makes me feel alive.", Fred's response on stage with Living Things at SXSW, currently homeless and learning to play the piano

Now, let's set aside the fact that you may be out of touch with the working class of America. Let's not be petty by pointing out that we were the ones who went to the homeless shelter and talked with the homeless, played music for the homeless, had them participate in our shows, and donated new shirts for them to wear. Let's take your article at face value.

LAT: "What exactly is the message here? That the band has been liberated from an obsessive chase for wealth? Great, I'll tell that to the Amoeba cashier and the good people at Jive Records when I abscond with a few dozen gratis copies of "Habeas Corpus." Is it that the American dollar has been so devalued that it's worthless enough to burn?"

We assume that you are being sardonic in pointing out the pretense of being leftists as a corporate rock 'n' roll band. Let us be blunt about this. We love money. We love success. And we "want the Good Life" just as much as Tyler, a young man, who we met on our road trip to SXSW. He waits tables at Olive Garden during the day, and then he works nights and weekends mining for gold on some land he bought by saving up his hard earned dollar with his friends. He too wants to live the American Dream. Oh, and by the way, a "gratis" copy of Habeas Corpus" and the limited edition vinyl are being sent to him, and you, courtesy of, as you called us, " the scuzz rock furballs". Please feel free to exhibit it or mutilate it at your will. We will be honored either way.

LAT: "Is it that the American dollar has been so devalued that it's worthless enough to burn? We're not quite Zimbabwe yet, hoss."

It is true that we are not quite Zimbabwe yet, Sir, and I sincerely doubt that any Americans are concerned that we are going to get to that point. In fact it is because the dollar still means something to the working class person that we are burning it. It is that "ONE" dollar bill that represents them as opposed to the hundreds and thousands, the millons and trillions that Wall Street gambles with on a daily basis. It is that "ONE" dollar bill that is the symbol. When you can barely afford to feed your children, or when that "ONE" dollar could mean the difference between you obtaining that one meal today or not, is burned, it is a painful sacrifice - a sacrifice by the working man to express his/her anger in a simple and meaningful way. We've never forced anyone to burn their money and we never will.

LAT: "That abstract wealth has proved a false facade as a measure of value? OK, but shouldn't you be burning credit default swap notes instead of the one financial asset that's keeping our Chinese debt holders at bay?"

OK. So we'll give you this one. At least partially. We are as much at fault as the next person who has been tempted in their past to live beyond their means. Our credit cards are maxed out. We have learned our lesson and shall never again be tempted by the powers that be. We did consider burning credit cards and other related instruments; but the $1 bill makes a stronger statement while allowing us to bring the issue of the credit systems and Wall Street to the forefront. Besides, credit cards are a bit harder to burn and not really a sacrifice when you think about it. Though maybe we will take you up on that at a later date.

LAT: Or, perhaps, there is no "message" there at all and the band was just fishing for a trite and easy image to piggyback on populist resentment and land blog write-ups much like this one?

You can question our methods Mr. Brown, but please don't question our motives.

LAT: "Now, America needs more "awareness" of its financial problems like Tim Geithner needs a forehead extension."

You're so right about Tim Geithner's forehead. It does make us want to give him a new hairdo. Maybe that $400 dollar haircut that John Edwards used to get. But with regards to the sarcasm of America needing awareness of its financial problems, you have clearly missed the point and we would like to clarify. We are not launching this campaign to raise awareness about the recession. We are doing this to move people enough through our music and our symbolic gestures to band together as one and DEMAND that the current systems that are in place be cleaned up. Wall Street has acted as our market makers and middle-men to gamble our hard earned dollars away at will through greed-ridden incentives. The old systems need to be replaced by the new - the ones that will bring back faith in the American Dream. Mr. Brown, good citizens as yourself are "aware" of this and I am certain you are doing your bit to find "solutions" to this problem of Wall Street greed during your daily critiques about bands such as Living Things. On the other hand, the kids in St Louis or Birmingham or Cleveland who don't read your blog, but do listen to our music, need us to make them aware. In the words of my grandpa, "the job ain't done till it's done".

LAT: "Saying that "We are not economists. We don't have a solution" smacks of the willful anti-intellectualism that has pervaded American politics for years. You don't have any ideas about a solution? Perhaps read one of many different viewpoints on the problem and see which one you most agree with. It's not so hard. I just did it on the Internet and refilled my tea mug in the last five minutes."

Yes, Mr. Brown, we are not economists and we don't have the solutions. We simply do what our forefathers and the founders of this great country wanted us to do. We wake up every morning and we go to work. We create as artists. We innovate as entrepreneurs. We build as small business owners. We serve as employees. We generate the very dollars now that our ancestors generated when they built the first roads, when they mined the first coal, when they picked the first cotton. We then use those dollars to feed our children, pay our mortgages, send our kids to school, and then with what's left over invest back into ourselves in the hope that we can propagate more creation and growth and then finally even get to have some of the "Good Life". We, Living Things, are not naive enough to walk out of our studio after recording our songs and then pretend to have the answers to the worlds global economic challenges. But we are inspired enough to motivate others so that the powers that be take notice and know that the people are watching them. We do have our opinions with regards to solutions of course, but we shall keep them to ourselves for the time being and continue to educate ourselves. It may take us just a bit more than the five minutes it took you to refill your tea mug. Please forgive us for that. After all, we are the "hoss"es.

LAT: "And for added insult, they had to go and burn $1 bills, which is the rock equivalent of making it rain with nickels. Burn hundreds or go home, guys."

It is rather presumptuous of you Mr Brown to think that we can afford to burn hundreds or even have hundreds to burn. Our per diem for our tour is $10/day. We are currently effectively earning below minimum wage. So it does hurt us to burn that dollar. Now that we have hopefully clarified the significance of the $1 bill, we hope you will rethink your remark. Don't get us wrong. If everybody joins us in this movement and burns their own $1 dollar bill that will turn to thousands, and possibly millions. Now let's see, what's more rock 'n' roll - A punk ass rock band earning millions off the people and insulting its fans by burning their money for no reason or having them join them in a genuine cause and burn the money together. I doubt that one woman burning a million brassieres would have done the trick.

So, Mr. Brown, we hope that us "scuzz rock furball hosses" have sufficiently answered your queries. We will end by making this statement:

There is a culture of entitlement that has developed over decades amongst Wall Street executives. The majority of them have decided to be in that industry for one goal and one goal alone - to make as much money as humanly possible at no matter what cost or with what methods. Not through sincerity. Not through honesty. Not through good intentions. Through pure manipulation of the average man. Now its catching up to them. Now we are catching up to them. We won't stop till Wall Street is washed of its sins. We ask you to join our movement. Burn that dirty Wall Street dollar and post it on youtube.com. Let's band together to bring faith back to the American Dream.

With humility and respect,

Living Things & BTMA

--August Brown

Photo of a much more serious rumble than this one by Soeren Stache / European Pressphoto Agency