At age 5, I found some scraps of wood, a few nails, and a hammer in the garage. I did the obvious thing and made a bed for one of my dolls. It wasn’t perfect, I thought, not by a long shot: the wood was rough and each piece was a different size and shape, so it didn’t stand straight (prompting me to realize that, actually, I’d made a cradle I could rock). Even at that age, I wasn’t under any illusions that anyone would find it beautiful or even charming, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, I had made a doll bed with my own two hands, with no help from anyone.
And that’s how I became a lover of all things DIY. The thought, effort, problem-solving, and creativity I put into this project birthed in me the notion that, even if I didn’t necessarily know how to do something, there was a good chance I could figure it out.
Next came ads, offering my services to the neighborhood as an accomplished weed-puller and a kindly baby-sitter, respectively. By age 9 I’d created a magazine (singular, as in just one copy) called SuperKid!, in which I wrote about books, actors, and fashion. Friendship bracelets came after that, and then collages. I scoured craft books (which, in the 80s, seemed to be the only useful resource for DIY projects) for ideas, then tried my hand at customizing the ideas I liked best. I studied art and fashion magazines and reconstructed the looks I saw, borrowing clothes and accessories from both my parents. (One piece I remember fondly was a velvet blazer from the 70s, which I turned inside-out to reveal its satiny, peacock-blue lining. My father was unamused when he discovered it.) In high school, some of my DIYs came from the pages of Sassy magazine (a dress made from the skirt of a thrifted sundress, a leotard top, a length of ribbon, a needle and some thread) while others came from fellow goth kids (take a pair of fishnets, cut off the feet, cut a hole in the crotch big enough for your head to fit through, put them on, add your favorite band t-shirt over it, ideally with the neck and sleeves chopped out).
In college, before I owned a computer, I created a zine called Fiend, using the time-honored punk rock method: cutting out words and images, gluing them down, adding drawings and hand-written words, and then taking them to a copy shop, where in addition to producing a precious handful of zines, I could also make ample use of the free stapler services. Post-college, my friend Vickie and I started a business selling switchplates that we’d covered in Atomic Age fabrics, vintage comic-book images, and kitschy, mid-century ads. Some time later, I convinced my local Barnes and Noble store to carry my zine, now computer generated. (My sales were somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.06; but listen, it wasn’t about the money, man.)
It’s important to point out that there was nothing tidy about any of this. I wasn’t working from a checklist. I was just digging around, looking for stuff that seemed interesting. Often we didn’t have the necessary supplies lying around the house, so I substituted or made do without, and the result was sometimes a crashing failure. But I knew that the next one had the potential to be amazing, and anyway I’d had fun trying. That’s the spirit of DIY, that’s where it all comes from: curiosity, and a love of learning for its own sake.
In the mid-90s, DIY began to come into its own in the West, emerging as something to celebrate, if not flaunt. With ties to third-wave feminism and punk rock, the DIY ethos struck a chord with certain segments of youth culture. By the early 2000s, it was everywhere. There were TV shows about crafting; websites that talked you through making anything from a blank book to a house you could live in; magazines devoted to collaging; Stitch n’ Bitch groups all over the globe that met regularly to knit and crochet together.
What made it so revolutionary? After all, humans have been making things for as long as we’ve existed. But this far out from the rise of industrialism, the act of making becomes somehow subversive. When it’s possible for you to buy nearly anything you need, choosing instead to make sends the message that you’re interested in learning, you take pride in hard work, and you’re willing to fail and try again. You’re interested, in other words, in growing as a human being. That speaks to a certain level of enlightenment, as far as I’m concerned. And enlightenment is very, very cool.
On a grand scale, DIY fever cooled somewhat, for a number of reasons—including, notably, the stock market crash of 2008. But the impact of that fever remained—and then along came a global pandemic. People have been trying their hands at everything from gardening to woodworking to bread baking. Which neatly underscores the biggest benefit of the DIY ethos: hope. For as many serious problems this world has, and for as many realistic Doomsday scenarios as we’re currently facing, it gives me hope that so many people continue to make things themselves.
Elizabeth Hand is the bestselling author of fourteen genre-spanning novels and five collections of short fiction and essays. She is also incredibly cool, despite her assertations to the contrary. Her work has received multiple Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy and Nebula Awards, among other honors, and several of her books have been New York Times and Washington Post Notable Books.
EAG: Crime fiction has gotten hugely popular. It’s suddenly much cooler than it has been in recent years. I’m curious about your take on what that says about us as a society.
EH: Part of the explosion in crime fiction in the last few years has been the amount of amazing work that’s being done by women writers. Obviously there’ve always been women crime writers; Agatha Christie on to Martha Grimes, Sarah Paretsky. Many, many people. And people like Laura Lippman, who’s been writing for awhile now, who’s really cool and still is working.
I think probably starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was not by a woman, but I think in some ways for some writers, it perhaps opened a gateway to say, “Okay, wait. This is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before.” This sort of edgy, dark, tormented individual, which is the kind of person that we see a lot in traditional crime fiction written by men. But until relatively recently not seen that many in books written by women, and now we’ve seen a lot. There’s Gone Girl, there’s Megan Abbott‘s books, there’s Laura Lippman’s books, which take a very distinctive and different view of their female characters than male writers do. And those books have proven to be hugely successful, those books by those writers, because the people who read books are women. Primarily, women are the biggest demographic buying and reading books.
I think it’s an interesting shift in how women are finding different kinds of characters to identify with in books. Characters who are more assertive, maybe more aggressive, maybe sometimes prone to violence, prone to fighting back. I think that our present moment, the Me Too moment, is a big one for women in the real world starting to fight back and take back sovereignty, the rights to their own bodies, to their lives, to their careers. And I think a lot of that is reflected in crime fiction, which again, not to denigrate domestic fiction by women or about women, but I think there’s sort of a freedom. I think for women, they often still do feel constrained. We feel limited by what we can do or achieve, and on the page we don’t. I know just from what I’ve heard from people who’ve read the Cass Neary novels talking about how they identify with this character and they’re so happy to see a character, a middle aged woman who’s going out there in the world, who has a history, who is not really ashamed of what she is, fucked up as she is, and so they can kind of go along for that ride maybe because they haven’t been able to do it in their own lives.
“Women are finding different kinds of characters to identify with in books. Characters who are more assertive, maybe more aggressive, maybe sometimes prone to violence, prone to fighting back.”
Another author who I think really pushed a lot of boundaries and pushes the envelope is Cara Hoffman. Her first novel, So Much Pretty, is just a very dark, very brilliant crime novel set in upstate New York. Kind of unlike anything I’ve ever read. It takes a total left turn about three-quarters or four-fifths of the way through the book, one of those things where I was like, “Oh my God, I totally did not see that coming.” I won’t say what it is, but that shift in the book and what happens with the central female character is really intriguing, and I think for a lot of people is very polarizing and transgressive. She has another book called Be Safe, I Love You, which is about a woman, an Iraqi war vet, who’s come back to home after serving in the war and dealing with PTSD. Again, it’s a very dark novel, a crime novel. She deals with working class characters, which you don’t see in novels. She does it really, really well, and she really pushes her characters to do things that I rarely see in books by other people.
EAG: I remember the shock I felt, reading Generation Loss, as I started to understand who Cass was. And it was such a thrill. I definitely connected with her, and I thought, “I need more of this.”
EH: When I wrote that book, it was difficult to find a publisher because people were very put off by the character. That was the feedback I got, was that people thought the writing was great and this, that, and the other, but that the character was too unlikeable, too difficult, and people didn’t want to read it. The book came out, coincidentally, the same year, within a few months of when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was translated into English. I remember a friend of mine saying, “This book reminds me a lot of your book,” and I thought, That’s really interesting, because up until that point, nobody seemed to be wanting to read about those kind of characters. As I was saying before, there are a lot more of those kind of characters around now. But it was 12 years ago, 13 years ago when I was looking for a publisher for Generation Loss. It was tough. People, they just didn’t want to see it. I was very lucky.
EAG: What was the first instance in your life that you can remember thinking—seeing something or meeting a person and thinking that is really cool, even if you’d never heard the word yet.
EH: I was very geeky. My brother, who’s a year younger than me, was always just a bit hipper than I was. He was really in the Rolling Stones, and my freshman year in high school I got him a book about the Stones. This was 1970 or ’71. I gave it to him, but I just would spend so many hours looking at the photos in that book. I knew the music, we had Hot Rocks and More Hot Rocks, we had various albums of theirs. But, there was no MTV, there was no internet back then, so I saw pictures of the Stones but it was mostly from Circus Magazine or Tiger Beat, or whatever.
Looking at them and how they dressed, especially in that late ’60s, turning-into-’70s era, it was amazing because they kind of combined the mod look with hippie stuff. Hippies were never really cool to me. I loved hippies, I was kind of a little hippie chick. But what the Stones did with that; Keith Richards wearing Anita Pallenburg‘s clothes, and her wearing his clothes, and Mick and Bianca Jagger wearing each other’s clothes. Just this kind of sense that you could shift your identity, you could shift your gender, just so easily slip from one to the other.
In the movie Performance, the Mick Jagger character, his name is Turner—and he does [turn], he’s a shape shifter. That for me was a very potent image of cool.
EAG: It sounds like what really sparked your interest was that sense of having the agency to change.
“You see a lot of pictures of Bowie laughing and smiling and having fun. You don’t get that with Lou Reed.”
And I think both she and Bowie, you get a sense that they’re people who are constantly opening themselves up with their music. What they’re writing about, they are exposing themselves, they’re exploring things or they’re exposing them. Whereas with Lou Reed, and with the music he did with the Velvet Underground, there was always much more of a sense of things being secret, things being hidden.
There’s a really good profile of William Gibson in the New Yorker from a few weeks ago, where they quote Zero History, saying, “Secrets are the very root of cool.” I read that and I was like, Yeah. Because I was thinking about us having this conversation. And I really think that’s true. That’s one of the things that comes across with Lou Reed’s music. When he was opening himself up, or when he was opening the door a crack, on himself personally, he was giving you a glimpse of this other world in the 1960s, a world of trans people, a world of drug addicts, a world of artists. This world that existed in the city at that time and in other places, but one to which I certainly was not privy as a kid, as a young teenager, except from his music. He continued to do that throughout his career.
One of my favorite albums is Magic and Loss, which is about the death of close friends of his. But even in that, even in the title song, there is also this sense of being let in on a secret. And in that particular song, the secret is that of, how does one create out of despair? He sort of opens that door up and lets you see that. His work and his essence are tied very much into that notion of secrets, not that he himself was necessarily a secret person, but the music… And the classic images you see of him, he’s withholding something. You don’t see a whole lot of pictures of Lou Reed laughing, where you do see a lot of pictures of Bowie laughing and smiling and having fun. You don’t get that with Lou Reed.
EAG: What are some of the things, people, places, that for you are just really shorthand for cool?
EH: Thinking back in time, I would say New York, downtown, Lower East Side, in the ’70s and early ’80s was cool, in part because it was also really scary. That’s something else that goes with cool, is a sense of danger, of being slightly in peril by whatever it is. There’s something slightly threatening about things people, places that are cool. I grew up around New York, and going down to the city at that time, I never felt safe. I had no desire to live there because it felt to me like a very dangerous place. I did not want to live in a place like that, but I loved visiting it.
I haven’t been back in 10 years, but Reykjavik was a really cool place. Again, because I found it slightly sinister. I was there in 2007, and then the crash was in October 2008, and I was there again, we went in early 2009. So it was just a few months after the crash and the city was just a very desolate, sinister place. That was the Reykjavik that inspired Available Dark.
London, where I live for part of the year, is a really cool place and always has been. I don’t feel intimidated by London the way I was by Reykjavik or New York City. I feel much more familiar with it. But it’s a cool place just because there’s so much going on. It’s less cool than it was, though, because it’s just been taken over by oligarchs. And everywhere you look, as in New York, you just see these symbols, these huge, mega-skyscrapers that in many instances are empty, nobody’s living in them. In that sense, I think London and New York are nowhere near as cool as they used to be. But then, nothing is ever as cool as it used to be.
I saw the Ramones’s first show in DC, which was I think in early 1976, and I brought some of my friends with me. I was like, “Oh, we’ve got to see this band, we’ve got to see this band.” We went there and I’m not exaggerating, there were maybe 20 people, 30 people there. It was in the Bayou, it was in this big space and it was just empty. We were on the dance floor right in front of the stage. There was just no one there. But it was like that with many of the bands that I saw at that time. It was a very different scene. It had not exploded or imploded yet. And it was cool, and it was fun because it was talking about secrets, it felt like a secret.
“Once things pass over into style, when they’re being commodified, they’re less cool. Or uncool.”
Within a couple of years, that shifted. It went from being a secret to a commodity very, very quickly, which is what happens. “Revolt into style,” which is the title of a great book by George Melly about cool. He quotes the poet Thom Gunn—the poem was about Elvis, but the line goes, “He turned revolt into style,” and Melly took it as the title of his book. It happens certainly with pop culture, but I think it happens with things that are cool. I think they’re at their coolest when there is still something transgressive about it. And then once things pass over into style, when they’re being commodified, they’re less cool. Or uncool.
I kick myself now because I could have known a lot more people and/or known a lot more about what was going on. But I think some of it, too, was just that as a writer, and especially when I was younger, I always felt very much outside of things, that I wanted to be outside, I wanted to have that detachment, to be the observer. I did kind of go out of my way to keep a certain distance from things so that I could observe them.
EAG: Is that because you consciously or otherwise knew that you wanted to be able to do something with the material that you were receiving? Or was it something less complicated?
EH: I don’t know that I was conscious at that time of using the material. I was very conscious that I was very fortunate to be right there at ground zero to something that was happening. Something special was going on and I knew it and I made a point to soak up as much of it as I could, I really did. And I feel really grateful for that and also really glad that I had the presence of mind as an 18-year-old, 17-year-old, to kind of jump on that. I ended up flunking out of college after three years, basically because I was spending all my time going to shows. But I remember thinking, “Okay, what am I going to remember 30 years from now? What is going to be more important? That I study for this philosophy exam, or that I go to see Patti Smith at The Cellar Door?” There was no choice. I was like, “I’m definitely going to go see Patti Smith at The Cellar Door.” And I didn’t know that eventually it would pay off, but it did, having had those experiences and having been there at that time. But as for the detachment, I think that that is just maybe more of a personal thing. There’s a certain kind of detachment, inner detachment, that I keep or possess, whether or not I want to, that I think does serve one as a writer or as an artist. I think you do need to have that detachment.
EAG: Do you think that that sense of detachment is a little bit of a prerequisite for something that we think of as cool?
EH: Yeah, I do. I’ve been thinking about this, again, knowing that we were going to have this conversation. I think many of the images that we have of people who embody a sort of cool, and they’re loners. You’re seeing James Dean, you’re seeing Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, you’re seeing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. You’re seeing people who as icons are emblematic of detachment, and there’s this sort of, don’t come any closer, keep your distance, which is part of what makes them sexy because you’re like, “Wait, I want to be the one who’s going to pierce that veil.”
But I think in the US there is this history, this idealization of the individual, which I think has gotten us into some really bad places. It’s a whole big, complicated mythology and a whole big, politically charged mythology that America has created about itself centered on the importance of the individual. But I think that has become kind of tangled up with notions of cool.
Multi-instrumentalist, producer and writer Jim Sclavunos has been a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since 1994. Alongside Lydia Lunch, he was an integral part of the No Wave scene in the late 1970s, playing in bands Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Beirut Slump and 8 Eyed Spy, before joining Sonic Youth to record their first album, Confusion Is Sex. Since then he has recorded with a diverse host of artists including Grinderman, The Cramps, Marianne Faithfull and Iggy Pop, along with solo albums as The Vanity Set. Sclavunos’ work as a producer encompasses The Horrors, Gogol Bordello, Beth Orton, The Jim Jones Revue, Beth Jeans Houghton and The Wytches; under the moniker Silver Alert he has done remixes for Philip Glass, Depeche Mode, and Boss Hog, and in 2012 presented “Faustian Pact”, a live adaptation of Murnau’s Faust at The Perth International Arts Festival.
EAG: I’m writing on the topic of cool, and what’s cool, and who’s cool, and what are the criteria.
JS: I hope you’re not coming to me for answers.
EAG: Well, it’s funny, that’s what everybody keeps saying.
JS: But I wonder if that’s because there’s almost a stigma to attaching yourself to the idea of being cool, because it’s not cool to think you’re cool.
EAG: It’s not cool to think you’re cool, and I think too the topic makes a lot of people nervous—
JS: It doesn’t make me nervous, but it’s hard to…maybe it’s just a habit of a lifetime, but I’m not used to thinking of myself as cool. It’s usually something that I think of as something that’s assigned by other people to people other than me. And when people tell me I’m cool, not in like, “That’s cool, Jim,” or something like that, but cool in terms of a trend or a zeitgeist or a legacy, it amuses me more than flatters me.
EAG: Why’s that?
JS: I suppose there’s some flattery anytime anybody kind of implicitly compliments you. But it amuses me more, because it seems so removed from the process whereby I go about doing things, which is usually quite heated. So the temperatures seem misaligned.
EAG: Tell me about the first time in your life that you remember thinking something was really cool. Even if you didn’t know the word yet.
JS: I think Audrey Hepburn. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I can’t remember clearly enough to know how she came on my radar as a child, but I became aware of her as an image, as a icon. And she seemed to embody a lot of things that later on Twiggy seemed to embody. There was a sort of lightheartedness but also a reserve, a distance. There was a sort of elegance mixed with a kind of goofiness. And yeah, there was that hint of an accent that made her most ordinary gestures and comments somehow more exotic. And Twiggy kind of did the same thing later on. And, you know, I grew up in the ’60s so these…skinny ladies… [laughs] were sort of the burgeoning of my sense of female otherness.
Now since then I’ve learned that Raquel Welch is pretty cool, too. [Laughs] She was pretty much the opposite. But she didn’t have that same kind of alien quality, almost. She seemed like a product of Hollywood, whereas Audrey Hepburn seemed very much like something apart from that. And then later on, I started identifying that same sort of quality with Marlene Dietrich. And, you know, in the ’60s they had all this kind of late, late shows. I don’t know if they were still around when you were—
JS: —but, you know, in the pre-cable days if you managed somehow to stay up late, particularly if you had an indulgent babysitter, you could watch all these interesting movies that weren’t on in the daytime. And they were often from Hollywood’s golden age, but sometimes they were also foreign movies. And like I said, I don’t know when all these exotic European-type women started coming onto my radar; I can’t remember. But it was something that seemed very different from the women I was encountering in Brooklyn. And the way they spoke was completely and utterly unlike the way my peers spoke or the way my schoolmates spoke or the teachers. So there was something quite enchanting about it, and that’s where I first kind of started looking or projecting this idea that that’s cool or these women are cool. Because they had reserve, they were understated yet at the same time flamboyant. There seemed to be this real paradox to their demeanors that I couldn’t quite reconcile. And that was what was intriguing about them. And alluring.
“They had reserve, they were understated yet at the same time flamboyant. There seemed to be this real paradox to their demeanors that I couldn’t quite reconcile.”
EAG: Is that tension still part of your criteria?
JS: I think I use cool in a pretty ironic way these days. I’ll use it in conversation like, Oh, that’s cool, meaning, if you say so. I’ll accept your point of view reluctantly, but I’m not prepared to do battle over something that I consider potentially pretty trivial.
EAG: So removing the language aspect from it, what lights you up now?
JS: Well, loads of things. But I have difficulty thinking about them in terms of cool as applied to maybe taste or a signifier of a lifestyle that I’m attracted to. Not to pester the semantics aspect too much, but the other way in which I use “cool” is as a directive to musicians when I’m producing or arranging or bandleading. But it’s often to the drummer, and I say, “Play it cool.” And that’s like meaning don’t make it sound like you’re trying too hard. Hold back a bit. Show some reserve. And so in that way it’s kind of connected with that idea of what I identified in those female actresses when I was very young.
And all that’s before I actually became sort of clued in to music that I might consider cool. I think it really did start with film and film icons. And then I kind of became aware that Marlon Brando was allegedly cool. And that was a little trickier for me, first of all because he was male so he wasn’t quite as attractive to me; and also I had a toy monkey that was called Marlon. My parents told me his name was Marlon and it was probably some kind of in-joke on their part, you know, because Marlon Brando was like the hot actor at the time. So I couldn’t really look at Brando and really feel he was quite as cool as he was alleged to be, or even as cool as my monkey. I still have trouble with that. I mean, it’s hard for me to watch Apocalypse Now and not think of Marlon. The monkey, I mean.
EAG: Really, that works on so many levels.
JS: But I’ll tell you who I did really come to identify with the utmost in cool, and it’s kind of obvious, I suppose, to a certain generation and certain types of musicians of a certain generation. That was Lou Reed.
EAG: Oh, sure.
JS: Yeah. That was indisputable, you know. And everything he did up until he took up Tai Chi was for me the epitome of cool.
EAG: And talk about understated, right?
JS: Well, it was more that he was disdainful. And I started becoming aware of him in my puberty leading to my teenagehood, and that was the sort of posture that I found most attractive about him was his disdain. His withering disdain for almost everything under the sun. And his very elegant way of expressing it, both in terms of his look and his gift for lyrics and his stunning interviews, which were always the embodiment of complete and utter lack of respect for journalists, most journalists, and most of his fellow musicians. His own band included. And it wasn’t so much that I found that disrespect so attractive; I actually didn’t think it was a very attractive trait, you know, dissing musicians, dissing journalists. But the fact that he was so unapologetic about it and so consistent about it made him sort of a marvel to behold. He really seemed fearless. And maybe it was all coming from a deep lack of confidence or very troubled soul, but on the surface it came across as absolutely fearless, his not cottoning or seeming to want to even care or care what the consequences of what he said were. And of course that sort of behavior was a gateway for me through glam rock into punk. And ultimately No Wave, and all the sort of cartoonish behavior all that entailed. But I suppose, you know, I’m as guilty as the next punk rocker of, you know, on some level emulating Lou Reed. I admit it. And that’s probably not very cool, but if I am cool I guess I was in a spiritual journey for finding my own form of coolness. And that’s where I set out, the path I set out on, till I came to that strange fork in the road where I didn’t need to consciously or unconsciously emulate people I admired.
“Photographs are by their very nature the coolest medium, I think. Because they seize this one moment in time, this one perfect moment in time, and make a monument of it, a permanent index of this one monumental moment, where everything was perfect.”
EAG: When was that?
JS: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think I was too busy being alive to notice. But you know, you grow out of it, like you grow out of most things of your youth. Or you hope you grow out of it. And it’s probably in there still somewhere. I can still look at a picture of Lou Reed and my first thought is, Hey, that’s cool. And then I remember the other stuff I know about him, and I think, Yeah, he was cool. Or maybe just his picture was cool.
Photographs are by their very nature the coolest medium, I think. Because they seize this one moment in time, this one perfect moment in time, and make a monument of it, a permanent index of this one monumental moment, where everything was perfect. The lighting was perfect, the person’s expression and body shape. And the photographer either lucked out or had the keen eye to capture it. And it’s preserved forever. And all the imperfections that might otherwise have existed in this person’s life are irrelevant because this image is forever. And the camera is by its nature also a sort of a clinical device. It reflects what it sees; it captures what it sees. It’s not, apart from any darkroom trickery or other special effects. Joel Peter Witkin style. You know, apart from any of that kind of thing, the camera usually just captures what’s in front of it. And if you capture that one moment, the camera is sort of a passive observer; even though it’s being directed by a photographer it’s a passive observer. It doesn’t overtly manipulate reality; it just captures it. And so it’s cool in the sense, again, of being held back, of being reserved, of being almost a sort of passive engagement rather than a proactive engagement. Does that make any sense?
EAG: That makes perfect sense. Are there other concepts or things that fall into that category for you?
JS: Not as much, no. Because film, you know, you would think film is a very closely related; it’s basically the same technology, right? But because it deals in time rather than a single frozen moment in time, it’s more…I can’t think of the word I’m looking for. Things get manipulated more and so there’s more of a subjective sort of activity going on. It’s not as phlegmatic. It’s more fiery. To use a sort of alchemical sort of analogy. But also the way…I guess painting comes the closest, at least from a observational point of view, because you have to sit there and look at it and kind of digest it. And you have to be still; you can’t be like jumping back and forth. It has to happen in that moment and it only can happen in that moment. So everything about something that’s sort of stationary and in a frame demands a sort of passive regard, more so than films or books or watching theater or dance or any of the other arts. It sort of almost demands a meditative eye. And there’s usually one single ideal position to look at any of these things. And it’s almost like time has to stand still the same way you have to stand still, whereas the other arts unfold in time. You’re reading a book, it takes time to read a book. You have to turn pages. Sometimes you have to reread a passage, you know. It’s something that involves a sort of an intellectual motion. Likewise film, likewise theater. Photography more than any other is preserved in amber. There’s a moment preserved in amber. Painting comes close, but the process is not as refined as the photographic moment. Does it make sense, what I’m saying?
EAG: Yeah, totally. I see that.
JS: I’d love to have read the Susan Sontag book on photography before I said any of that stuff, because she’s got a good way of analyzing things and sometimes in a way that might undercut some of my thoughts or enhance my thoughts. But I haven’t read it. Sarah [his wife, publicist Sarah Lowe] just acquired it, and neither of us have read it. And she’s a pretty cool lady.
I guess I’ve been equally drawn to individuals of both genders that I thought were cool. I never thought of Susan Sontag as a hottie, but the idea of an intellectualized woman, a woman that was unsparingly intellectual, had a sort of allure beyond the scope of her thoughts. And I never could say that I felt sexually attracted to Lou Reed, but I could see that there was something about him that was sexually alluring, in some weird way…something in a sort of panther-like, cool sexual vibe that I just thought, Yes, there’s a sexual component here. It’s not something that makes me horny, but it’s something I think in some way is a sublimation of a sexual impulse. Yeah. It somehow is sublimated, not in the sense of the sublime. That’s a different set of ideas altogether, but sort of sublimated in a Freudian way, almost like fetishistic kind of appeal of an image.
EAG: Transference, almost.
JS: Yeah. Transference. That’s a good way to put it.
EAG: On a different note, I was amused to see that an old photo of you appeared in the final episode of Parts Unknown.
JS: Did it?
EAG: Yeah. Because Lydia Lunch was in that episode.
JS: [Talking in the background] Oh, yes. Okay. Sorry, I didn’t…that’s how cool I am. I don’t watch TV. I didn’t actually know what Parts Unknown was.
EAG: Yeah, the last Anthony Bourdain series.
JS: I don’t really know anything about him. Marty, the bass player in the Bad Seeds—who I also think is very, very cool, I’ll have you know—he has been an avid reader of Anthony Bourdain’s books. But I’ve never picked one up myself.
EAG: I wondered if you guys had crossed paths at any point, because you were kind of in the same time and the same place in the ’70s.
JS: Not knowingly. What was the context in which this picture showed up? Was it just sort of showing what Lydia looked like back in the day?
JS: Well, I’m certainly acquainted with Lydia’s style of speaking.
“Can people who are provocateurs be cool? Not in my traditional sort of understanding of what cool is.”
EAG: Good God. I was not ready for some of the things she said.
JS: Well, she’s always tried to be a provocateur. And that poses an interesting thing: can people who are provocateurs be cool? Not in my traditional sort of understanding of what cool is. And when I say traditional, I mean that kind of reaches back to the model of the beatniks and their bohemian predecessors and then the various forms that coolness took in the swinging ’60s. And then the coolness of punk rock, as most iconically embodied by, say, the Ramones or Willy DeVille or something. Lydia always has been an outspoken person that has a sort of a…it’s a high-energy demeanor usually. And this is no slight against Lydia or what she does as an artist or a personality, but she doesn’t, for me, evoke the idea of cool. She evokes the idea of Lydia, and that’s a unique and special thing in itself. And a valuable thing. But I can’t think of her as cool in the same way I think of a more reserved personality is cool.
JS: I’ll tell you what No Wave band—if we can talk about No Wave, if that means anything to you…
EAG: Of course it does. I’ve done my homework, Jim.
JS: Okay. Well, Mars, that seemed like a cool band. And the people in it were cool, because their social behavior was so bizarre and seemed so disconnected from normal social behavior. And the music they were making on stage was so unlike rock and roll music of any form, that they seemed to me very cool.
EAG: What was their social behavior like?
JS: Ranging from catatonic to hallucinogenic. I don’t know if they were druggies; I don’t think they actually were. I think they were just very unusual people in a very unusual band. And maybe some of it was affected, but I think a lot of it wasn’t. I think they were just really oddballs. And by comparison with, say, Lydia Lunch and James Chance, who were always kind of very provocative and confrontational, Mars were very sort of off in their own world. Planet Mars, I guess. Anyway, enough about No Wave.
EAG: It seems like that commitment is a big part of what you’re talking about. A commitment to doing your own thing and sort of not taking the rest of the world all that seriously in terms of how much it dictates what you do.
JS: Yes, but there are a lot of people who claim to do that and yet are clamoring for attention all the time. And their behavior bespeaks that. They say, “I don’t care about what the rest of the world thinks. Do you hear me? I don’t care. I really don’t care. I hate you all. Do you hear me? I want to make sure you spell my name correctly when you quote me saying how much I hate what you think of me and how much I don’t care. Did you get that? And if you want more information, my manager and publicist can be reached at this number. But I don’t care what you think. Am I on the front cover? I don’t care.”
That’s how a lot of those people come across to me. And I don’t believe it for a second that they don’t care. I do believe that they’re doing their own thing, but I don’t think that that’s the entirety of the story. Lots of people do their own thing. Nuns do their own thing. I’m sure there are some cool nuns out there, and some that are not so cool. I mostly was educated by the ones that weren’t.
It’s a delicate thing, to attempt a telling of the story of someone you care about. When it’s someone you’ve never met, things get weird. And they get weirder still when that person is not only recently deceased but also fiercely championed, on a deeply personal level, by millions of other people who, like you, never once met him.
At any stratosphere, death brings with it the kind of competitive clamoring that humans can’t seem to go without. Who knew him best? Who were his real friends? Who talked to him at the airport once? The television shows, books, articles, video clips, and comments from the media provide ample fodder for speculation, misrepresentation, and performative public outcries. Everyone wants to be a part of the mass consciousness, even (especially) when it borders on the ghoulish.
So, you focus. You focus on the story. How does the story of Anthony Bourdain go? We could say, for instance:
There was once a kid who sailed to France on the Queen Mary and hated it until he found out about oysters and other things he could eat that made him look like a badass. He loved comicbooks and The Simpsons. As a rule he didn’t like sci-fi, but he loved William Gibson‘s work. He went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America. He became a chef, then a writer, then world famous, making friends with an incredible cross-section of people, including some of his heroes, like Joey Ramone and Iggy Pop.
For a time, there was on Earth a TV host and writer and chef whose cookbooks employed phrases like “Fuck dessert,” and who said things in interviews like, “Ask yourself, before you start dabbling in what somebody, somewhere is calling molecular gastronomy: ‘Am I a genius? Am I Ferran Adrià? Am I anywhere near as talented and as visionary and as firmly rooted in a place with as much food culture as Catalonia? Or am I just kind of jerking off, here?’” But millions of people all over the world loved him because he inspired them to be themselves, to be better versions of themselves, to follow their dreams, to be unafraid.
Tony loved and respected people as much as he loathed and reviled them, and he made no bones about either. Deemed cocksure by detractors, he was often visibly nervous on his shows: rubbing his thumb across his other fingers, or shutting down a bout of uncontrolled laughter—and hiding a protruding snaggle tooth—by quickly sealing his lips. He openly, and with regularity, expressed disgust for public figures, and treated people who were in no position to help him with utmost respect. And he packed an incredible amount of life into not-quite-62 years.
Was there ever a person so deeply and unapologetically flawed who captured the attention and the hearts of so many? After his death, I heard variation upon variation of what one particularly rational, even-keeled friend had quietly shared with me: “I can’t believe he’s gone. He was…well, he was my friend. I only knew him from his shows, but he was my friend. I genuinely saw him that way.”
In autumn of 2018 I was in New York City and briefly visited the former site of Les Halles, the restaurant where Bourdain last worked as a chef. While the mountains of flowers and cards that cropped up in the weeks following his death had, by late September, been mostly removed, the windows still bore heartfelt notes in the form of graffiti. The messages were, again, variations on a theme:
I don’t really know what to say, but I miss you more than words can describe. Maybe that sounds weird since we’ve never met… Thank you Chef for all you have done and for showing us the world through an unfiltered lense [sic].
If there is a heaven, then anyone who couldn’t live anymore deserves a head of the line pass to get in, because you’ve suffered enough. I love you man.
Thank you, Chef.
Here’s a phrase I often press into service as a yardstick for coolness: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto*. Written by the second-century Roman playwright Terence, it translates roughly from the Latin as: I am human; nothing human is alien to me.
It isn’t a perfect tool. Not every Everyman is cool; not all cool people are comfortable being one with the unwashed masses. But mostly, if you can be down with humanity in a wide variety of settings, chances are good that you’re probably pretty cool.
Everyone else at that level of stardom, I will happily argue, is either the product of a PR machine or simply not as forthcoming about their personal failures. Bourdain was neither; he was particularly adept at outlining his personal failures, willing to be raw, and willing to be wrong. Here I am, he conveyed through his work. Here I am, no better or worse than anyone else, and wow, we’re a fucked-up bunch. But look at all this beauty.
Laurie Woolever is a writer and editor who for the better part of a decade worked as Bourdain’s assistant and collaborator. They co-authored Appetites: A Cookbookin 2016, and had been working on World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (to be published in 2021) at the time of his death.
Via email, Woolever wrote: “He was adamant that he wasn’t actually cool.”
He was wrong about that, of course.
The only story about Bourdain I’m qualified to tell goes like this: Once there was a man named Tony, and he was as fucked up as anyone else but he did something with his life—many somethings, in fact. He was funny and kind; rude and crass. He loved music and art, and all the ways in which people forge real connections. He was curious and intelligent, vulnerable and sarcastic. He made the world seem a much more beautiful and welcoming place than many of us suspect it is. I felt, and still feel, that he was one of my people. That he was my friend. When he died, it felt extremely personal. And it still does. I miss him.
~ Emma Alvarez Gibson
*I like to think that Tony would have been amused at this use of the word “puto”.
William Gibson is credited with having coined the term “cyberspace” and having envisioned both the Internet and virtual reality before either existed. His first novel, Neuromancer, won the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the Nebula Award in 1984. His most recent novel is Agency. He lives in Vancouver with his wife.
If I could compare my father’s usage-frequency of the word cool with my own, I know who’d have used it more. He died in 1955, probably only ever having used it as the opposite of warm. He’d have known nothing of the subculture that first introduced it, if not in the way in which I’d come to use it, because he listened to Hank Williams, not to cool jazz.
I use it today a lot less frequently than I have since first hearing it used, myself, in 1959. I probably avoid using it today (to what extent that I can) because it feels to me like a Boomer archaism, but I do still use it, unthinkingly, because it’s so thoroughly imbedded. At this point, for me, it can mean that something is merely okay (or, sarcastically, not okay at all), or it can mean that something’s admirably standing out from the background against which it’s noted. It feels more like a noise I make, in certain situations, than an actual descriptor of anything.
With the help of Wikipedia, I’ve been able to determine that I first heard it used under definitively uncool circumstances: watching the first season of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s aspirationally beat pal, Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, used it constantly. The thing was, though, Maynard himself wasn’t cool at all, and the show’s writers made sure that even I was able to see that. So I was introduced to the use of the expression by screenwriters working to ensure that their viewers would assume that using it was basically goofy.
In 1959, the beat subculture was peaking. Kerouac’s On The Road had been published in 1957, going viral in its way, and by 1959 there would’ve been quite a few teens acquainted with some version of it (usually literary, I suppose). I was two years away from becoming one of those teens myself, eleven when Maynard introduced me to saying cool.
When the show was new, I suspect, I heard the expression at school for a while, but always with a sort of parroted parodic intent. It certainly never became part of my repertoire, then, and I doubt I watched the show for very long.
Cool, however, kept on going, though not in areas I’d have had access to, where it wasn’t used sarcastically. But by the early mid-‘60s, I’d reencounter it differently: as a crucial distinction.
I was attending a boys’ boarding school by then, on the outskirts of Tucson, and cool things were not much present. Something was abroad in the world, though: The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. Something was happening, something I instinctively wanted to understand, and I probably began to hear cool used in earnest then, though not yet by anyone I would have regarded as cool.
At some point, however, I began to notice things that I recognized not so much as cool but as expressions of cool, and these things tended to partake of a certain weird magic of repurposing. They could, I saw, be old things, but used in a new way. I didn’t think about it in those terms, but I understand now that that was what I was noticing.
“Something was happening, something I instinctively wanted to understand, and I probably began to hear cool used in earnest then, though not yet by anyone I would have regarded as cool.”
In Tucson, then, blue denim jeans were worn a lot, but not by my classmates. They were worn by working men, and by cowboys, both working and aspirational. We wore Levi’s jeans, but they tended to be cords, or what we called “wheat jeans”. I, however, had noticed, on the campus of the University of Arizona, that some people were wearing blue denim jeans differently. And I saw that this was coded. The guys I noticed were wearing Levi’s, but they were blue denim 501s (something I must have had to go to a store to determine). They had a button fly, something I don’t think I’d known existed before, and their reconceptualization was signaled by one particular choice of belt, itself a reconceptualization, which had (I’d later learn) migrated from London’s Carnaby Street, though its initiators there had borrowed its unreconceptualized form from American army surplus stores. Plain leather, preferably brown. Square brass buckle, either plain or chrome-plated. Of a width that filled the belt-loops of jeans. As did the width of cowboy belts, of course, but cowboy belts were (still, then) the antithesis of the reconceptualization.
You couldn’t, I gathered, wear leather shoes with these, with the exception of suede desert boots (usually sockless) or handmade sandals. This was my first experience of street fashion. And there cool, the expression, was as well, having survived attempted neutering, years before, by the writers of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis.
Jeans worn this way looked cool. Though it wouldn’t be cool to say as much, I realized, grasping for the first time the central exclusionism of the thing. So I bought a pair, and wore them. But only with the requisite belt.
In 2003, quite a few 501’s later, I put Cayce Pollard, heroine of my novel Pattern Recognition, in black ones, with all of their branding removed or obliterated.
The character was inspired, to some extent, by early reports of coolhunting as a profession. What this consisted of, I gathered, was being paid for walking the street with an eye out for the sort of recontextualization I’d first noticed decades ago in Tucson. The companies paying you, though, would immediately manufacture and market their own version of what you discovered, prematurely closing a loop that might once have taken a couple of seasons to make it from, say, Dogtown to your local skate shop.
This struck me as tragic. For that reason, and because I actually didn’t find it very interesting, beyond the fact that it existed, I gave Cayce a superpower, the ability to immediately know whether a newly-designed logo would be effective or not, and a couple of vaguely related esoteric vulnerabilities: a phobia of Bibendum, the innertube-bodied Michelin mascot, and an intense allergy to anything designed by Tommy Hilfiger.
In the course of finding her a wardrobe she could tolerate, I happened to learn from my friend Hyunsuk, in Seoul, of a label in Tokyo called Buzz Rickson, from whom he’d recently obtained a fanatically obsessive reproduction of an vintage American military jacket, which was their thing. I decided to put Cayce in a Buzz Rickson repro of a USAF MA-1, an iconic jacket unfortunately associated with skinheads. I had no idea whether they made an MA-1 (they did). I specified Cayce’s as black, to fit with her extremely limited personal palette (they’d never made a black one, deeming it historically inauthentic). I eventually received a baffled email from them, asking why I was representing them as making something they didn’t. When I apologized, they cheerfully announced their intention to make one, and asked permission to put my name on the label. I agreed, they did, and they’re still making them today.
Not exactly coolhunting, but an indication of the sort of thing that can result from keeping one’s eye open for an apt recontextualization.
Are they cool, though? Some people think so, others not so much. Cool having come, over my lifetime, to be something as subjective as beauty, though perhaps it always was.
Derek Brown is a spirits and cocktail expert, consultant, writer, and owner of 2017 Spirited Award winning “Best American Cocktail Bar” Columbia Room, and author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, published by Rizzoli in April 2019. His work has earned several James Beard Award nominations, and he was named Imbibe magazine’s “Bartender of the Year” in 2015. He is also Chief Spirits Advisor to the National Archives Foundation and a Distinguished Fellow at Catholic University’s Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship. Brown’s writing on spirits and cocktails has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. In 2019, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema named him one of the fifteen trailblazers since 2000 that have made Washington, D.C. a better place to eat (and drink).
When I think about cocktails, I’m often reminded of the famous writers, artists, characters, and actors associated with them. You can close your eyes and picture a man’s man or rebellious woman with drink in hand setting their own path, surrounded by onlookers who marvel at their class and sophistication. James Bond walks up to the bar, tugs on his French cuffs, and orders a Martini shaken, not stirred. Madonna sips on a devilishly red drink in a designer dress with perfectly coiffed hair. Is this what makes a cocktail cool? No, not at all.
James Bond is, honestly, kind of a chauvinist, and Madonna was cool, wasn’t cool, and is/isn’t cool again. There’s nothing cool about the alcoholic writers who were chugging whiskey and gin to an untimely death, and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. are as much a parody as pioneers. I can’t imagine putting on Frank Sinatra for my son when he grows older and him thinking it’s cool. What was cool fades, subject to the fads of the time. They were just where they were supposed to be and, though live long in our memory, are ultimately dated. Sorry to all the cocktail drinking sophisticates who bought a tux or gown and are awaiting the revival of yesteryear. You may be waiting a long time.
What about the cocktail? It’s blameless. The cocktail didn’t ask to be cool. It shouldn’t go in and out of style like last year’s wide-legged jeans. The cocktail is just what it purports to be—the Martini is a measure of gin and vermouth with orange bitters; the Old Fashioned whiskey, sugar, and aromatic bitters. Perhaps that’s the cocktail’s secret to coolness. It never elected to be cool. It’s just good, and what followed was the recognition. And that recognition followed across time.
The cocktail was cool in 1803 when it was first mentioned in the U.S., listed as a morning hangover remedy in theFarmer’s Cabinet. The cocktail was cool when it was first defined in the the Balance, and Columbian Repository in 1806. The cocktail was cool when Jerry Thomas hoisted two white rats on each shoulder of his prim jacket with a diamond stickpin and twirled his waxy moustache in the 1860s. The cocktail was still cool in Cuba when servicemen discovered the Daiquiri in 1909. The cocktail was not just cool but contraband during prohibition in the roaring ‘20s. It was cool again when prohibition ended and, in the late 1930s, Tiki was born by the hand of faux-Polynesian enthusiasts. When the Mad Men era came along, cocktails were cool too; then again in the 1980s with theatrical bottle flipping known as flair. Obviously they’re cool today, since they made it into this book. In fact, the only time cocktails weren’t cool since their debut might be around the 1970s when it turns out drugs were just considered much cooler.
You get my point? Cocktails have been cool longer than that little black dress, rock ‘n roll, and James Dean combined. What’s purportedly cool for the time and what remains cool throughout time are two different things.
“What’s purportedly cool for the time and what remains cool throughout time are two different things.”
The cocktail has lasted so long on the cool list because its DNA is the perfect foil for experimentation. The original definition of the cocktail, mentioned above, was spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. That magic combination would start life as something resembling the Old Fashioned and end up being vaporized and experienced as a walk-in cloud of breathable cocktail. In between there have been many thousands of variations. Sometimes it was just a tweak, as with the Oaxacan Old Fashioned created by bartender Phil Ward. The standard rye whiskey that most bartenders use for an Old Fashioned is replaced with Tequila and Mezcal, the sugar with agave syrup. Other times, the change was more artful and sought to reinterpret the entire presentation of a cocktail, such as when avant-garde chef Grant Achatz of Alinea created edible balloons to accompany his cocktails.
I expect the cocktail will continue this trajectory. Spacemen will pour powdered Gimlets into their gravity resistant mugs and my son, though he’ll likely eschew crooners, will happily down a digitally enhanced Collins variation while listening to music that grinds my elderly ears.
The secret to being cool all this time wasn’t acting like an asshole and wearing a nice suit. It wasn’t sitting in a low-lit corner and brooding. It wasn’t perfectly styling your hair, singing, dancing, or drinking to excess. Nope, all those things will pass, and rightfully so. The secret to coolness is something the cocktail has mastered, and few others have. The secret is to be good. The secret is to have substance. And to have that substance be transferable, to be something that can change with the times while keeping its core intact. Spirits, sugar, water, bitters—it’s such a simple combination. Some genius invented it over 200 years ago. And, right after I finish this essay, I intend to make myself one.
The Hangar. Dear John. The Bullpen. The Office Branch. Rebo’s. Dive bars, all, their names evoking an odd jumble of environments, excuses for drinking, and, in the case of Rebo’s, the word “sober” in reverse. There’s a perverse sort of mystery about them, something akin to entering a scruffy, down-at-heel antique shop, that appeals to some of us.
Having seen Jim Sclavunos talking about Tiki bars in a video for online music magazine The Quietus, I reached out to him to see if he was acquainted with any dive bar aficionados who’d be willing to talk to me about what makes the dive bar cool. He referred me to his friend Annene Kaye-Berry, saying that she knows a lot about dive bars and happens to be one of the smartest people he knows. A former journalist, copywriter, and author, Kaye-Berry is co-owner of Beach Bum Berry’s Latitude 29, a Tiki bar and restaurant in New Orleans.
AKB: I grew up in Long Island. Long Island in the ’70s was a place where you could get into a bar with a birth certificate, and that birth certificate was usually purchased from the back of a magazine.
EAG: Oh my God, that’s amazing.
AKB: Also, driver’s licenses had no pictures. Nothing. It was a piece of paper with your height, and weight, and hair, and eye color. That was it. So my best friend and I actually shared one for years and their big trick was asking you what your zodiac sign was. That was the cool places. The places where, you know, some hair metal band or whatever passed for that at the time was playing.
What we used to refer to as old man bars, which was a dive bar, nobody ever asked you for anything at that point. But I wasn’t so interested in those when I was 14 because they were kind of scary. I started going to bars when I was 13 or 14 and they were all hippie kind of wine bars. They might have like four mixed drinks in their heads that they made. One of them was always a tequila sunrise.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York in 1977 when I was 17 that I actually started going to what I perceived as, at the time, old man bars, and the cool factor has remained level this whole time. A lot of coolness comes from mystery. And there was this real mystery about this dark place that grownups went to drink in during the day because in America—possibly with very few exceptions and they were very rarefied, like the three-martini lunch and stuff like that—people over 30 didn’t do that.
AKB: And a lot of us, you know, myself and my friends, most of whom were at legal drinking age at that point, we didn’t have set schedules. We had weird jobs and some of us were working in food and bev at that point. It was an adult space to start with. It was a very adult space, full of alcoholics, and beautiful, and just empty. They were never crowded. They were not where you went to necessarily attract attention. You kind of more wanted to be able to blend in to these spaces, however you’re going to do that. They were the first Irish bars and old man bars, especially the Irish bars in New York, which I think go into the category of being a dive in a lot of people’s minds. They were some of the first places to get video games.
AKB: Yeah, yeah.
EAG: That’s fascinating. How did that happen?
AKB: I think they were just trying to…I mean, the ’70s were dire in New York. There was no money anywhere and they were trying to do whatever they could get to people to come into their place. I remember going with Jim to an Irish bar on 23rd Street where we used to play Space Invaders or something like that because your alternative was to go to Times Square and go to the arcades and those were full of very challenging people. Like human traffickers and drug addicts. I mean, a lot of really good people, but also it was like you had to really prepare yourself for it and you might have to leave at any moment. And this was something that these places provided that was very comfortable, but it was also very cutting edge at the time. The idea of walking into a place and seeing something that was beyond the pinball machine was insane.
I brought this up because it highlights a really special thing about dive bars, which is that you can plaster a patina over what the basic structure is. So you have this dark, cool place, as in temperature-wise, where people go to drink at all hours of the day and night. They’re usually open later than anywhere else, too. Where there’s a certain amount of mystery and unpredictability to what’s going to happen once you go in there, because it’s not necessarily your space. There’s always the question of whether the people that show up there every day are going to accept you, basically, by ignoring you or they’re going to challenge you. And I think that remains kind of a thing. I think there’s a test, walking through the door.
“You’ve been accepted by a bunch of men in their 50s who have nothing better to do than drink all day. And then those two women that show up all the time, whoever they are.”
But on that level, with that commonality, you can layer all sorts of things on top of it, like this is what I call now a bar-bar, which is just a bar, but we’re going to make it an Irish bar. Or we’re going to go into a different direction and we’re going to make it a sports bar, which is intrusive. You don’t want to hang out in a sports bar unless you want a TV, like six TVs, surrounding you all the time.
EAG: Screaming at you, yeah.
AKB: Yeah. But an Irish bar doesn’t intrude on you. Again, there’s a level of friendliness there that you won’t necessarily find in regular dive bars. I always think that should be a separate delineation. But they’re both really cool places to be and if you go through the matrix and you’re accepted into these places where the bartender knows who you are, like a couple of the regulars know who you are and everything, it is a feeling of having arrived. But the thing is, where are you? I mean, it’s just this really funny thing when you start talking about the whole concept of cool. You’ve been accepted, but you’ve been accepted by a bunch of men in their 50s who have nothing better to do than drink all day. And then those two women that show up all the time, whoever they are. I don’t think that’s changed that much over the years.
EAG: Excellent. Okay. Yeah, there is that, that dynamic of, Wow, okay, I made it. Maybe I’m not quite a regular here, but they’ve definitely let me in. All right, but who’s let you in and what is this weird gambit that you walked in order to be accepted here? There’s a sense of satisfaction of having crossed some crucial, unspoken line.
AKB: But that’s a human condition and again, it brings us back to this basic thing. This is just a basic part of human beings: they’re willing to risk things and walk through their own personal fire pit for all sorts of bizarre reasons that are incredibly meaningful to them. There’s a lot of stuff about drinking, the drinking culture that makes that super interesting. We’re in the craft cocktail business, basically. And it’s the kind of the same. The thing that people set up in their minds is about what they have to do to be endearing to a bartender when really, the bartender doesn’t want very much out of you. They want you to be friendly. They want you to talk to them when they’re bored. They want you to not talk to them when they’re busy. They want you to tip as necessary. You don’t have to be fucking Frank Sinatra. I mean, this goes all the way across the board. They want you to just have a good time in their place. You don’t have to impress them or do much of anything but be a decent customer. And yet you see all these articles that say, like, “Eight Things That Will Make Your Bartender Hate You.” There’s a hundred things that will make your bartender hate you, but they’re not on this list. The other thing I love about regular bars is that a lot of the artifice is gone, is removed, and those remain places where just good straight service is valued by everybody in the room. All those expectations are not there. You don’t have to dazzle the guy with your knowledge of Scotch whiskey because you’re there drinking and enjoying yourself with your friends, hopefully. And that is enough, and there’s not a lot of public spaces that you can say that about at this point.
Vickie Howell is a well-known craft expert, author, designer, instructor, founder of the subscription box business YarnYAY!, and broadcast personality in the DIY world. She lives in Austin, Texas.
I was mostly raised by a single mom. My dad was around, but even then, my mom was a teacher and my dad was an airplane mechanic. So even before they were divorced, we were never rolling in it, especially moving from Colorado to California. We were never not money conscious. And there’s something about that. I guess that can affect you in one of two ways. You can just sort of hold on to everything, or you can think about how to make what you’ve got work, and go seek what other resources are out there for it. And that’s the route I’ve always taken. Thankfully I’m not in the same place that we were back then, but it’s definitely a mentality that’s stuck with me.
So that’s part of it. But I’ve just always been really drawn to the uniqueness of hand making, the sort of special-ness. And that can translate from the traditional heirloom to the cool-and-unusual anything. For me it definitely did not start as something like me crafting or being just a general DIY-er. It didn’t really start as any sort of scavenger hunt for cool. It was more either something that I could do with my mom to spend time, or if we didn’t have the extra cash for gifts, it was a way that I could still give. And then later it was just sort of how I channeled my energy. I’ve never been great at just sitting around.
It’s funny, a handful of years ago, a childhood friend of mine turned 40 and she was sort of giving general shout outs to folks from her childhood. And I had no memory of this and didn’t even really think of myself of being as a super DIY-er as a kid, even though now I look back and of course I was, it was just so a part of me. And she thanked me for telling her that boredom was a choice, that you could always walk to the fabric store and get ribbon to make bows, like oversized bows—this was probably in the 80s, I should say that!—or whatever else you could come up with.
And it was something that I had no memory of, but I think that that speaks to sort of what has pushed me my entire life, and then career, is that, “Okay, what can I do now?”
“Cool is being able to create for yourself what you want. For me, that’s been a career, a ridiculous career that doesn’t make any sense on paper.”
I think that’s where the cool seeps into it. I mean, other folks’ definition of cool is different, which is something I’m sure you’re exploring. But for my personal definition, cool is being able to create for yourself what you want. For me, that’s been a career, a ridiculous career that doesn’t make any sense on paper. But I wanted specific things. I wanted to not have to answer to really anybody. I wanted to be able to be home with the kids but still have a complete career. I wanted to be able to do something that seemed different all of the time. I wanted to be able to not have to follow the rules of getting X, Y, Z degree and using this timeline or whatever.
So for me, DIY gave that bit of cool to my life. For me, that’s cool: that I’ve been able to create something that fills all of those buckets.
When I was young, crafting wasn’t cool in any way, shape, or form. It’s only been since the internet that it has been, and that’s because of community. That’s because we’re not in sort of this myopic village of people anymore. Your community can span as wide as you can type. And so, as soon as you could pick up—whatever, a Bust magazine—and then look and find a URL, you could connect. And some of the women that were in there would have been considered outcasts, but I think the internet has been the great unifier of, “Oh my gosh, that’s so great that she’s doing that. I might put a little more of a mainstream spin on it, but now I see!” It’s more of this collaboration of ideas that really has widened the scope of what hand-making and DIY means.
Mason Mixx is a veteran musician, singer, and songwriter. Currently he’s a member of grace metalious and noise band Blim Noir. He lives in New York with his wife.
EAG: You’re someone who believes strongly in the DIY ethos. Tell me about that.
MM: Well, what can I say, other than if you want to do something, then you have to do it. I mean, there are and were—I suppose there were more than there are now, but—middlemen people that you need to coordinate with or get permission from or have someone else sign off on what you’re doing. DIY kind of eliminates a whole heck of a lot of that. And for those who are motivated and energetic, it’s kind of the obvious way to achieve things. And you don’t have to wait for anybody but yourself.
EAG: Is it something that grows on itself? When you first said, I’m just going to do this, did you then find yourself looking at other avenues where you might apply that same thinking?
MM: Absolutely. I mean, the only limitation is basically the amount of time you can devote to something. And the level of devotion to the task, I guess. There are people who want to do a lot of things in order to accomplish whatever it is. And then there are those that don’t. I mean, anybody who’s been in a band knows that you’re going to have to rehearse, you’re going to have to have a space to rehearse, you’re going to need equipment, you’re going to need material written. You’re going to have to contact clubs to book gigs, you’re going to have to promote it. You’re going to have to make flyers and staple them to telephone poles or whatever that entails. You need to put together a fanzine and develop a mailing list and get that out to the fans and recognize them and be gracious and thankful for the fact that they’re paying attention to you. So all of that requires maintenance. And that’s the nature of DIY. I mean, it’s certainly not easy and it takes more work than people can probably imagine. But the rewards are many.
EAG: What are some of those rewards that you’ve seen?
MM: Well, the rewards are realizing that there are people out in the world that are, to some extent, in sync with what you’re doing and spreading that kind of excitement and being able to cultivate that from the standpoint of either connections related to recording or interviews on radio stations, interviews for newspapers, whatever. I mean, so all of that, if you’re continuing to reach and connect and interact and network and so on, the rewards are there.
EAG: That makes me think of something. You started doing all of this in what, the 80s?
MM: Well, without letting anyone know that I’m 120 years old, I would say I was definitely doing it in the 70s.
EAG: Since the internet came along, it seems like we all spend a lot of time talking about how much smaller the world’s gotten. Do you think that’s something that DIYers were already aware of? That we’re all interconnected?
MM: Well that’s an interesting point. I wonder if the world really has gotten smaller. There’s a lot more noise. There’s a lot more static in the air because there are so many choices and it’s so easy to decide what you want or change your mind. So I think it’s really a different playing field. Although, there are aspects that are exactly the same. There are people who will invest enough energy and effort to realize whatever it is they’re out to realize. And there are those that will give up halfway there. So it’s still up to the individual to decide how far you’re going to go with something. And I mean, it can and does get to the point at times where your health is suffering, your finances are suffering, your social life is suffering. There’s no way you can be aware of everything. And so there is, to some extent, a lot of subjective isolation, if you will, involved with pursuing this one thing. I mean, take for instance, how many bands can you be aware of? How many records can you buy? How much time do you have to absorb all of this? And in the meantime, you’re writing your own material, you’re organizing rehearsals and recording sessions and gigs. There’s only 24 hours in the day.
EAG: Thinking about the mindset that’s required to do things yourself, would you say that there’s a unifying characteristic among people who do a lot of DIY stuff?
MM: Yeah. There’s a tremendous amount of unification out there. It’s kind of the essence of getting into anything that’s off the mainstream. And that’s generally where most people start. Nobody can jump directly into the mainstream, if that happens to be where someone wants to end up. But even finding off the wall, non-mainstream music, you’ve got to hunt for it. You’ve got to put the time and effort into exploring and discovering where that resides. And that’s incredibly exciting because you’re going to end up interacting with a lot of other people who are doing the same thing. And so you can end up discovering scenes that aren’t really recognized, if you know what I mean.
EAG: You’ve got to kind of follow the trail of breadcrumbs.
MM: Yeah, absolutely.
“I think the reason that DIY matters is that it’s just phenomenally liberating. You can start, you can just begin, no matter what it is.”
EAG: As a kid I spent tons of time reading about bands, and actors, and movies, and fashion and art. And I tracked all this stuff down by myself because none of the other 10- and 11-year-olds I knew were interested in that kind of stuff. As I followed these trails, I would stumble on other things, and make other discoveries. And one of the ideas behind this project was, wouldn’t it have been cool to have a little guidance? I’ve actively been indoctrinating my son into various parts of culture, like, Okay, look, you have to know this artist. You have to know this school of thought. You have to know X, Y, and Z. How great would that have been to have some of that structure, those underpinnings?
EAG: Of course, by the same token, I’m probably robbing some people of the opportunity to look it up themselves.
MM: Well, I would suggest that from the standpoint of being a young person in relationship to the older person who’s providing this enlightening information that the young person is going to invariably at some point say, “I’m just way, way more fucking cool than this.”
EAG: Yeah. Absolutely.
MM: “This stuff is maybe, maybe 10% there, but I’m 80% there.” Which is good. We want everybody discovering the golden nuggets however, and wherever they may find them.
EAG: And that’s as it should be. God forbid you have youth without ego. That’s useless.
MM: Right. Yeah. And as long as it’s not some…I’ve always really despised the “10 Easy Steps to Whatever,” you know what I mean? Never was anything that attracted my attention. I just, I hated that concept.
EAG: “Here’s your kit. Now you’re a cool guy.”
MM: Right. I think the reason that DIY matters is that it’s just phenomenally liberating. You grow up and go through life with a huge list of why you can’t do things, and DIY allows you to, if you can put your money where your mouth is. You can start, you can just begin, no matter what it is. And if you’re bold enough to get out there and interact with people that are doing the same thing, then if you stay committed, you’re ultimately going to be involved with a larger group doing that. And to a certain extent, it’s all about getting more and more people aware of it, getting attention, getting recognized, and that can be a hell of a lot of fun because it’s not going to be all positive recognition.
MM: Which is a significant part of the learning process. You’re going to hear a lot of no’s. The ratio of no’s to yes’s is daunting. So you learn to not take things personally and keep your eye on pursuing your DIY mission.
At 14, Gregory Talley began to teach himself photography using a Brownie Hawkeye camera. He won several photo competitions, motivating him to pursue a career in photography. Upon graduating high school, he was drafted into the Army and deployed to Vietnam. When he returned to the US, he became a high school photography teacher, and continued producing his own work, taking classes and completing postgraduate work. After 36 years of teaching, he retired from education and continues to make photos from his home studio. Along the way, he’s become an expert on jazz.
EAG: What makes jazz so cool?
GT: Okay. Well first, people who perform jazz—not everyone, you know, because some people go off the deep end—but their first concern is usually not “How much money can I make?” or, “I’m going to be this rich, famous musician.” It’s usually a dedication to the art. You do it for the passion.
And it’s very individual, you know, because if you’re listening to other types of music, they all play together. No one is outstanding. The band sounds like a band. But in jazz, the leader will always give the individuals in the band the opportunity to shine. To go off on their own. When they do that, it’s not following the notes on the page. They go off and the band continues to play. The beat’s there, it’s still structured, and a lot of people don’t understand that. There’s still that underlying structure.
And you can hear their brilliance, because they’ll go off and they’ll play something, but then it comes right back into the melody. It’s a genre of music that I think is unlike any other music. It takes you with the musician. You go on that ride with them, you know. I can remember when I was probably about 14. I used to listen to jazz, so I was kind of not the ordinary kid, because everybody was listening to Motown. Which was good, but when I was at home, I’d get a Miles Davis album. I’d put it on, and I could just close my eyes, and I’m there with Miles Davis. It was just cool. Not hip, because there’s a big difference between hip and cool.
EAG: Tell me about that. What’s the difference between hip and cool?
GT: Well hip is like you’re up with the latest styles. You’re doing what’s new. It’s like everybody’s wearing this style of clothes or this kind of haircut. That’s hip. Cool has nothing to do with that. Cool is feeling good in your own skin.Being able to be an individual and not worry about what other people think or how other people feel. Being open-minded. Being accepting, willing to accept other people for who and what they are. What’s really hilarious is when you see someone that’s my age and they’re trying to be hip. You just look stupid. It’s like, you’re trying to wear what young people wear, it doesn’t work. You know, you’ve got the strange haircut and you’re like 65. You’re 75 and you’ve got blue and purple hair.
EAG: But what if they’ve always had that crazy haircut?
GT: If it’s always been that way, then they were the shepherd, not the sheep.
EAG: Right. Then does that make that cool? Because they’re being true to themselves?
GT: Then it’s cool, because of who they are, not because of who they’re following.
EAG: You said being true to yourself is part of being cool, and jazz includes the individuals and makes space for them to express themselves.
GT: Right. People who are cool, they may not be musicians, or they may not be artists, but they’re usually people who appreciate the arts. The arts are usually a major part of their life. Like to me, jazz is my background music for life. You know, if I’m in my darkroom and I’m making prints, jazz is in the background. The foundations of how I work are very similar to jazz.
EAG: Tell me about that.
GT: My work is structured. When I have an idea for a photograph, it’s going to be well composed. I’ve planned it out well in advance of when I’m getting ready to do it, because I’m doing these still life pictures, so I’m setting up things and I may make up props and models and so forth and so on. All this goes into it, but when I have it in front of the camera and I’ve lit it, it’s like, “Okay. That’s all right. But I’m going to step back, and: what can I do? How can I change it? Should I move the light around? Should I move my subject within the frame? ” I begin to innovate within the context of what I’ve already planned. Which is basically what jazz is. There’s this plan, there’s the music on the page, and yet each musician has their opportunity to go outside of that and come back in. Come back into that structure.
EAG: How much of the success of the piece would you say is about editing?
GT: A lot of it. I just came back from Morocco, my wife and I went to Morocco, and it was really cool, and I took pictures, of course. [Laughs] I don’t consider that my high art. I take vacation pictures. And every now and then I’m going through them and it’s like, “Okay, I see this.” It’s not the kind of stuff that I plan and work hard at, but I’ll see something, I’ll say, “Well you know, if I cut this out, and…” Photoshop used to be a sin to me, but it’s not anymore. It’s just another art tool.
There was this photo contest with the organization I’m involved in, about street photography around the world, and I saw this picture that I took in Morocco of this little shop. You can see a reflection of the shop owner in one of these polished brass pieces. In another piece, there’s a pedestrian. It’s just in this corner of the picture. I said, “Okay, well, I’m going to use that corner of the picture.” So I cropped, and the majority of the picture’s gone. It’s just this little corner, these two little images, the face of one person and the face of another one. I’m thinking, “That’s pretty cool.” At one time, the technology wouldn’t allow you to do it because if you start cropping this little corner and blowing it up, it would fall apart as far as the technical quality.
EAG: I’m hearing that maybe improvisation is really central to coolness as well.
GT: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You have to improvise, I think. That’s the same thing as being open-minded, is improvising. But not depending on it. In other words, you still have that structure. But within the context of that structure, you figure, “I can do something else.” Because like I said, what I’m doing is still lives. I’m setting things up and moving things around, and sometimes I’ll just leave the setup. That’s why I like doing still lives, because it doesn’t go away. Like when you photograph people, it’s “Okay, I don’t want to sit here.” All this. But I have everything set up. Sometimes I’ll just go sit somewhere, go get a cup of tea, think about it. What can I do with it? And come back half an hour later, 45 minutes later, and then make the picture. Because it’s not digital, you really are not absolutely sure what you have. The next day I’ll go process the film or whenever, and then I’ll look at the negative and I’ll say, “Oh, shoot.” And I’ll go back and I’ll reshoot the whole thing, because it wasn’t what I wanted. You have to be open-minded enough to say, “It’s not what I want,” and to go back and re-do it and accept your fallibility.
EAG: So have some awareness and relationship with your own ego.
GT: Oh yeah. It’s like me being able to say I’m no good at playing the saxophone. I’m not going to put photography aside because I’ve gotten pretty decent at that, but I can look at what I do and say, “Oh, that’s not good.” I’ve gotten to the point where I can tear up a picture and not feel bad. I’ve done all the work. I’ve made the print, it’s dried, and I’m looking at it, and I spent the money because now it costs a lot more money to shoot. And then the paper’s pretty big, so it gets expensive. Then you look at it and you say, “That’s crap.” And tear it up. And you have to be willing to do that instead of saying, “I spent this much time doing it and this much money, well hell, it’s not that bad.” No. But anyway, that’s getting away from cool.
EAG: Well, I’m not sure that it is. Art is cool, music is cool, but so is having self-awareness. So is knowing the rules before you break them. So is being open to new experiences.
EAG: It almost comes down to really, being cool is knowing who you are, and being a decent person.
GT: It does. It really does. I don’t go to jazz concerts as much as I used to, but if there’s something at the Hollywood Bowl—I’ll use that as an example, because jazz is the only thing I’m going to go see at the Bowl. I don’t go see anything else there. That sounds horrible, huh?
EAG: The Bowl is such an ordeal.
GT: Yeah. But the thing is, if it’s somebody you’re really into, you go. And there you have this crowd of people that are so eclectic. You’ll have somebody there that’s in their 80s with an oxygen tank, and then you’ll have teenager who, they can’t get in a club but they can go hear jazz at the Bowl. Every ethnicity you can possibly think of. And everybody is cool. I’ve never seen a fight or an argument at a jazz concert. You might smell some dope, you know what I mean? But you never see fights or arguments, and that guy that’s next to me with that oxygen tank, that’s in his mid-80s, and he doesn’t look like me? We’re still cool. Because he’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got a bottle of wine, you want a little bit?” And I’ll say, “Okay, you know, I’ve got some cookies, you want a cookie?” Everybody’s together.
“I’ve never seen a fight or an argument at a jazz concert. You might smell some dope, you know what I mean? But you never see fights or arguments.”
If you’re a musician, I say you’re automatically cool. If you’re a visual artist, I think you’re automatically cool. People who are in the arts. Literature, you know, writers. You have to be open minded to do those things. You have to be a risk taker to do those things. You have to have enough passion in your art to do them.
EAG: People who really know jazz, and who really love jazz, seem to have a special bond.
GT: You have this thing in common, this love for the music. Okay, so you have that in common no matter what else. If it’s a passion, if you really love jazz, then the bond is even stronger because it’s like…it’s unmentioned, but you’re kind of kindred spirits. I think it’s like old soldiers. Whenever you meet someone else that was in the army. I was in the army, you know. It’s like you’re instant buddies. My wife and I, we went to Vietnam. We were on a ship, and there were a couple of veterans. You didn’t know who a veteran was or who wasn’t, but then somebody said, “Yeah, well, you know, when I was there …” I said, “Hey, you were there? When were you there?” And they’ll tell you a year. It’s like if there are 1000 people on that ship, that one has become your friend immediately. I think it’s the same thing about jazz. When we go to a club, and you’re sitting down, you may strike up a conversation with somebody at the next table, because you’re both listening to Pete Escovedo‘s Latin Jazz Orchestra. You’re enthusiastic about it. It’s the bond.
EAG: Tell me about Miles Davis.
GT: Oh, Miles Davis. He was really not a nice person. But he was so innovative. He was one of the founders of the cool school of jazz. Breaking away from the big band era, and working with trios. He was very innovative in the music that he made, and his sound was very distinctive. I think that’s one of the things that kind of set him apart from a lot of people who were playing trumpet back then was, his sound was unique. When Miles Davis started, you knew immediately it was Miles Davis. You didn’t have to say, “I wonder who that is?” You knew, because it sounds like Miles Davis. The more you get into jazz, the more you can distinguish one musician from another just by the sound of their instrument. It’s like when Ben Webster plays his tenor saxophone, you know that’s Ben Webster within two or three notes.
But back to Miles Davis. One of the founders of the cool school, like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey and there are a lot of others, but he was one of the first. But he was trumpet. So his sound was distinctive. He evolved with that music, and he played with a jazz orchestra, the Gil Evans Jazz Orchestra, and they did several things together that were just…back when he started doing it, it was kind of like, “What’s he doing?” But he was always so cool that he would think, “I can do this outside of what I’ve been doing.” And when he did it, it would work. You know, like the Sketches of Spain album, which is like, if you’re a jazz aficionado and you have a collection of music, there’s certain things that you must have in your collection, otherwise you’re not serious. The album, Sketches of Spain, you must have that. You must have Kind of Blue. There are certain albums that you have to have. You have to have something in there by Thelonius Monk, and you have to have something in there by Bill Evans. Or Paul Chambers. These are musicians that are the foundation of that kind of music, or foundations of jazz. So Miles Davis I think was that. I loved his music. I hated his performances.
EAG: Why is that?
GT: You would pay good money to go see Miles Davis. If you went to see him at a club, and I’ve seen him in a big venue, at the Bowl. He had no respect for his audience. There’s some musicians that work hard to give you a great performance, because you paid your money. Okay? Not just because you paid your money, but because they’re glad to see that they have an audience. Miles Davis was so aloof that he didn’t care anything about his audience. He would come onstage. He would play a few notes, and he might just walk offstage, and his band would continue to play, and 5 or 10 minutes later he might come back onstage and blow a few notes, and walk off again. I paid this money to see this clown and this is what I get, you know what I mean? How many thousands of people are there to hear Miles Davis, because this is the biggest name in cool, right?
EAG: Do you think there’s a line where the bad-boy thing comes into play and people view that as cool in addition to the other stuff?
GT: There were other musicians that followed his persona. If Miles Davis did it, they thought it was cool. Well, he was always loaded. So a lot of musicians figured, “Well, Miles Davis can make this great music and he’s high. So I’m going to get high, too. Maybe I can make better music.” It was to their own detriment. I think that was one of the bad things about Miles Davis, you know, but he made such great music that you appreciate the music apart from him. That’s the way I was with Miles Davis. He stopped performing some of his standards at concerts, because he said, excuse the expression, “That shit’s old. I’m not doing it anymore.” He’d come do this stuff, which is like… experimental. And it’s okay, but it can be so far out that melody is lost, and the musicality of it is gone. He did one called Nefertiti, that was the name of the album. Because he had such a reputation, I went out and bought the album, and regretted it, because it was like, “This just don’t work.”
Yeah, Miles Davis was very innovative. He did a lot to advance jazz, because before Miles Davis, most jazz was big band. Which I love. I really love big band jazz. It’s just that it’s so expensive to hold together a big band, that there are very few of them out there. So you can’t go hear big band jazz. The quartets and the sextets and the trios became much more accessible. You could go to a club and you’re sitting there, and you’re like a foot away from the bandstand. Because they can afford to have three, four, five musicians. The music is still great and innovative. But big bands, oh God, I love them. There’s a few that I would drive 100 miles to go see. Like, I like Latin jazz.
And Pete Escovedo’s band is to me the pinnacle of big-band Latin jazz. He’s on the West Coast, he’s out of Oakland, and he comes down to LA about once a year. Whenever he’s down here, I’ll go see him. He’s probably in his 70s, and he plays timbales. It’s a family band, almost. He’s got three sons. They’re all in the band, and they all are percussion players. So it’s like the regular drum set, the congas and the bongos, and then Pete Escovedo on timbales. Then he has trombones and saxophones. He’s got a 15-piece band. I went to see them at Catalina’s, which is a club down here in Hollywood. It’s about as big as these three rooms put together. So when you have a big band in a club that size, it fills the room, right? My wife and I had a table probably as far from here to that wall, you know. You don’t really even need amplification. So we’re close up, and we’re just sitting there waiting. He comes on the bandstand, he’s got white hair, because he’s older. And he’s slowed down a little bit, but he gets up there and they’re funny, you know, they’re talking and so forth. Then he says, “We’re tired of talking, we’re going to make some music.”
When they start, the music just blows you back. But it’s not just noise, because you can hear some different genre of music where the volume blows you back, but it’s not the quality of the music. Well this one, it’s the quality of the music, and it’s not the volume. It’s loud, but it’s not the volume that does it. Then his daughter will be in the audience, and he’ll say, “Well, I’m going to have my daughter come up and take over on the drums,” and he kicks his other son off the drums and his daughter comes up. His daughter’s Sheila E.
GT: Yes. She will show up at most of his concerts, and she goes up with her little heels on and she takes them off, you know, and she gets to hitting the skins. That band just sends chills through you. They’re all very friendly. He used to say, “Well after the concert, we’ve got CDs for sale over there, my wife is selling CDs. If you want I’ll autograph them.” They’ll sit there and they’ll autograph them. They’re just good people that make this fantastic music.
EAG: Back to Miles for a second. We all do terrible things in our lives. Some more terrible than others. Is there a point at which someone like Miles Davis could stop being cool? Or is it just, look, he did this incredible thing. He will forever be cool because of that.
GT: His music was cool. He had this imagination and he had this ability to innovate. That didn’t make him a good person. Would I want to sit down, if he were still alive would I want to sit down with him and we could shoot the breeze and we could just kick back and have a good time? Not particularly. I think there’s a difference between being able to produce things that are cool, and being cool.
EAG: Don’t you think that there’s sort of a transference of that quality, if what they’ve produced is cool enough? That’s separate from wanting to hang out with them. I don’t know that there’s an answer to that question.
GT: I don’t either. Miles Davis was cool in his own right. He just wasn’t a good person. I think that people who are into jazz, and on a larger sense into the arts, are people who are cool.
Jazz is high art. As Americans, we don’t appreciate, for the most part, our high art. To me, it’s a metaphor for what America should be. Because when everybody coexists and you all have this one thing in common, that’s beautiful. It’s what we should be as Americans.