February 16, 2011
Book Notes - Ben Tarnoff ("Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters")
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In Moneymakers, Ben Tarnoff vividly tells the stories of three early American counterfeiters. With their tales, Tarnoff examines America's history of paper currency as well as the controversies that have surrounded it.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Tarnoff, a first time author, expertly sketches biographical vignettes… what elevates Moneymakers from the novelty shelf is Tarnoff's skillful interweaving of the counterfeiter's work and America's revolving enchantment with and disapproval of paper money."
In his own words, here is Ben Tarnoff's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters:
America was once a haven for counterfeiters. Moneymakers tells the story of three in particular. They lived in three different eras, from the colonial period to the Civil War, during the golden age of American counterfeiting.
John Fahey – "America"
Part of the work of writing history is to de-mummify it, to bring it out of the museum and make it real. For both writer and reader, history requires entering a kind of imaginative headspace where the past becomes present, where facts that would otherwise lie dead on the page get up and walk around. If that sounds too mystical, "America" is a good place to start. It's eight minutes long, with unpredictable pauses and shifts, and conveys something of the vastness and weirdness of America.
Duke Ellington – "Money Jungle"
In Fahey there's air, space, scenery. In Ellington the wilderness is the city, where things are faster, more compressed, and everyone has to hustle to survive. He recorded "Money Jungle" in New York in 1962, with Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. Mingus opens the track, sounding like an alarm clock you're trying to sleep through, or a landlord banging on the door for overdue rent. The city eats people alive, like Moloch in the movie Metropolis. The money that makes up the greenery of the urban jungle is just ink and paper. It has no utility other than as a medium of exchange. In the real jungle, it would be useless.
The Beatles – "You Never Give Me Your Money"
"You never give me your money / You only give me your funny paper." McCartney probably wasn't thinking about counterfeit currency when he wrote those lines. But I thought about them a lot while writing the book, and even considered using them for the epigraph before I realized I couldn't afford to pay McCartney for permission. All paper money is "funny" in a sense—not just the counterfeit, or the "queer" as it was once called, but also the genuine. Both the officials who created money in America and the counterfeiters who forged it were sorcerers of a sort, inspiriting otherwise worthless slips of paper with the power to be exchanged for goods and services. These days, when Ben Bernanke presses a button and a billion dollars appears on his balance sheet, he must feel some small shiver of satisfaction in knowing what it feels like to be a sorcerer. "Oh, that magic feeling."
GZA – "Gold"
Counterfeiters were the outlaw celebrities of their day. Their stories were traded in taverns over tumblers of rum, reprinted in newspapers, immortalized in books and pamphlets. They provided early America with a mythical criminal in the centuries before the modern gangster. "Gold" is about hustler entrepreneurship, about never being satisfied. The trade is drugs, not counterfeiting, but the goal is the same. "I can't fold / I need gold / I re-up and reload / Product must be sold to you." Illegal markets are subject to the same rules and pressures as legal ones. "He pushed up on the block / And made the dope sales drop / Like a crash in the Dow Jones stock." This was especially true for counterfeiters, whose interstate networks funneled fake cash to every corner of the country in the decades before the Civil War. Their ventures formed a kind of underground banking sector, supplying America with a significant portion of its money supply.
Kool G Rap ft. Nas – "Fast Life"
Once the money's been made, it's time to spend it. "Rocking lizard Bally's / While we do our drug deal in a dark alley." Conspicuous consumption got counterfeiters in trouble. If a silversmith down the street started living lavishly, people would notice. "My bank rolls got the cops coming in plain clothes / Trying to arraign again cause of our fame that's how the game goes." Counterfeiters often saw their careers cut short by prison or death, so they had to enjoy their wealth while they could. "Green papers with eagles from a trade that's illegal." They burned brightly for a brief period, which made them heroic in the classical sense. "Graveyards is buried with kings."
Raekwon – "Incarcerated Scarfaces"
Counterfeiters manufactured money backed by nothing but belief, using craftsmanship and charisma to earn their victims' trust. They deceived people for a living, so it made sense that they often had trouble trusting others. Everything about this track is tightly wound: the rhymes, the metaphors, the beat. It's a vision of Ellington's money jungle squeezed into the space of a project stairway. "We could trade places / Get lifted in the staircases." With illicit wealth comes fear, paranoia. "Time is running out."
Jawbreaker – "Boxcar"
Strictly speaking, spending forged notes wasn't illegal; what criminalized the act was the knowledge that the bills were bad. Prosecutors had to prove that the defendant knowingly passed fake money with the intent to deceive. For that reason, the best way to convict a counterfeiter was to induce one of his associates to betray him. In the absence of incriminating evidence, testimony from a former partner in crime could establish criminal intent. "My enemies are all too familiar / They're the ones that used to call me friend." Backstabbing hurt just as bitterly when it happened to early American counterfeiters as it did in the Bay Area punk scene circa 1994, when those lines were written.
Quasimoto – "Come on Feet"
After the betrayal, the escape. "Come on feet / Cruise for me / Trouble ain't no place to be." Incompetent law enforcement in early America gave counterfeiters endless advantages. Enforcement was local and amateurish. No professional police force existed. Chasing a counterfeiter into remote patches of wilderness, and across several jurisdictions, exceeded the capabilities of most sheriffs or constables of the period. This meant that if the counterfeiter fled fast enough, and his legs didn't give out, he could usually escape. "Don't cop out on me / Don't give in on me."
The Smiths – "Sweet and Tender Hooligan"
If the counterfeiter was caught, and wasn't killed in the process, he stood trial. "He swore that he'll never, never do it again / And of course he won't / Oh, not until the next time."
The jurors might be inclined to clemency, since it's likely that someone they knew had used fake cash. In early America, counterfeiters owed their success in large part to the patronage of their fellow citizens. Demand for currency and credit was so acute that many people were willing to take money they knew was fake. Counterfeiters provided an indispensable service to many cash-strapped communities. "In the midst of life we are in debt."
Tim Hecker – "Spectral"
Thomas Paine called paper money an "apparition" put "in the place of a man; it vanishes with looking at it, and nothing remains but the air." Paper's opponents, from the colonial era through the Revolution and even into the Civil War, tended to denounce it in unusual terms: not just as financially unsound but as supernatural—a "ghost," an intrinsically deceitful medium that bred bad behavior as it spread like a virus through the body politic. Today's money is more spectral than it's ever been, unhinged not only from precious metals but also from any material presence. Most of it exists in computers or fiber-optic cables, not things we can touch. I listened to Tim Hecker a lot while writing the book. It helped me concentrate.
Ben Tarnoff and Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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