Well a man in a tie'll bum your dime
Before he'll break his twenty dollar bill
Graveyard Shift is the name of a 1990 song by the band Uncle Tupelo, which appears on their album of the same year entitled No Depression. The writing of the song is credited to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, and lead vocals on the track are performed by Jay Farrar. The song has a strong punk feel to it while dealing with the issues and pressures of small town life and politics, leading to the general consensus that this perhaps the clearest single example of what is meant by the term alt.country.
The song addresses the loss of love, the meaning of physical labor, the limitations of the economic caste system, the resentment of the rich by the poor, alcoholism, and the individual left behind wondering what it all means.
Those of you who grew up in a small town blue collar background likely see quite a lot in this song to identify with. Lyrically, the song covers the problems of that style of life: the enforced poverty and lack of exposure to the outside world.
But in that isolation, brimming under the surface, is a deep anger and resentment towards the rest of the world, especially toward the financial empires and barons that view small town laborers as simply items to be cast aside. For some people, this perspective is somewhat hard to understand or swallow, but the feeling pervades small towns.
You can feel it the second you walk into a small-town tavern on a Saturday night. The people in there are full of a certain desperation and isolation that fills them up with a slowly burning rage. They try to drown the rage in alcohol and the often-available casual sex, but it doesn't stop the pain. The pain sits there and grows and kills them inside, turning people who leave high school with hopes and dreams and leaves them just a few years later there on a stool, an empty shell, used up by the life around them.
Tweedy and Farrar knew of this. The two of them grew up in small towns in central Illinois and saw the whole vicious cycle repeat itself from their father's generation to their generation. Their friends took on working at the failing family farm or took up jobs in factories where management viewed them as expendable cogs regardless of how well they did their job.
The feeling is buried away often under a deluge of cheap alcohol and their lives become a walking time bomb. They get older and slower, their hands filled with callouses and scars, as they count the days until they're cast aside from the factories because they've been replaced by a robot, or have to sell the family farm because their land isn't productive enough anymore.
It truly is the graveyard shift.
Some of them are lucky enough to find someone to share their lives with, and quite often a marriage and a lifelong union is the one saving grace. Others aren't so lucky, and find themselves tumbling down the stairwell of a lifelong romance with the bottle.
It is the compounded pain of this situation that is expressed in this song with a rage filling the entire song, culminating in the rage filled couplet that serves as the climax: Well a man in a tie'll bum your dime / before he'll break his twenty dollar bill.
It is a life that many try to escape from, but even the lucky few who make it out will remember the pain of those left behind. For me, I remember the eyes; the eyes that said that there is no longer any hope for anything better. The eyes that said that the American dream is lost.
This song is one of the more obscure products of the period from 1987 to 1991, which was the last period of truly sustained creativity in popular music. The number of seminal songs and albums that come from that sliver of time is tremendous; genre-defining albums were coming out on a monthly basis.
And yet, of all the amazing music produced then, from Public Enemy to REM to Pixies to Sonic Youth to Soundgarden to Nirvana, it is the album No Depression, and most particularly this song, which has stuck with me in my heart and mind for all these years.