DAVID BOWIE

 

Whenever I think about people who embody my definition of “cool,” David Bowie is always high at the top of that list. Take just one look at him at any age of his career and the man oozes cool from every pore of his body. It’s the way he talked, walked, the way he sang, the way he lived…every single thing about him screamed “COOL!” So of course when I got the opportunity to write about someone I think of as cool, he immediately jumped out in my mind.

So what exactly is my definition of cool? Frankly, it’s hard for me to really define cool because it isn’t just a set of standards that you can measure every person against. Cool for one person might be downright dreadful for another and the two seemingly opposing concepts or expressions could still be pretty cool. For me, cool is being your own person no matter what the status quo tells you. Cool is standing up for what is right even when everyone else around you seems to be siding with everything that’s wrong. Cool is acknowledging that there is beauty in differences and celebrating that beauty with unabashed joy, love, and passion. Cool, similarly to the cliché about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You define cool, cool doesn’t define you. In a lot of ways, my thinking about cool and what makes someone cool are perfectly demonstrated by my obsession with David Bowie. Bowie lived out loud, meaning that he was authentically himself and that, in my opinion, made him unequivocally cool.

I still remember the first time Bowie entered my consciousness. It was in the early 90s and I, like many kids of that era, was obsessed with MTV and VH1, which at the time didn’t have multiple channels and for the most part, aired music videos and news related to music and popular culture throughout the day. Despite not having even the slightest idea what most of the singers, rappers, and bands were talking about in their music, I would sit glued to the screen watching video after video of popular songs of the day and the early trendsetters of yesteryear. It was through those seemingly endless hours of watching music videos that I got to know the likes of Chaka Khan, John Cougar Mellencamp, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Notorious B.I.G., Queen, Sting, The Police, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, and countless others.

Between videos of “In Bloom” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” there it was. From the rise of its “Ahhh” line to the drop of that first “Let’s dance,” I was hooked. If you’ve never heard “Let’s Dance,” you’re missing out. It starts out with this very 80’s rhythmic beat that gets you ready to start moving your body and then you’re met with Bowie’s unmistakably breathy voice that seems to beckon you to get up no matter where you are and do exactly what the song is telling you to do.

As the camera moves forward to focus on Bowie, you see his recognizable slender figure in this oh-so sleek light-colored ensemble. I can still remember feeling entranced by his leggy form draped in billowy, pressed white pants, a light colored button-down shirt with its sleeves rolled up to reveal his forearms, his hands in white gloves as they strummed his electric guitar, and his white loafers casually tapping to the beat. Then there’s his face, which I can only describe as the definition of androgynous beauty. He had these high cheek bones that were the envy of all women hoping to land the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and these piercing light blue eyes that were so unique and enchanting. For many years, I just assumed he had two different colored eyes until I learned that they were actually the result of anisocoria, which is when one pupil is larger than the other and does not change even in the presence of light. Of course, learning this just added to his cool factor in my book.

And finally, there was that hair. Whenever I see a video or image of Bowie through the years, I immediately hear this line from the titular song in Hair the musical, “Oh give me a head with hair/Long, beautiful hair/Shining, gleaming/Streaming, flaxen, waxen.” If there is one thing about Bowie that no one can deny, it’s his knack for one-of-a-kind hairstyles. His slightly messy blonde hair in the “Let’s Dance” video is no exception. Short on the sides and long on the top, his hair is perfectly tossed in varying directions with this section at the front that just hangs forward in this sort of way that you can’t quite tell if it was done on purpose or that’s just how cool people’s hair falls when they are that cool. Either way, I was in love.

 

Still featuring Bowie in the “Let’s Dance” music video

After that initial introduction to Bowie, every single thing I learned about him going forward just added to his cool persona. Take for instance his marriage to the endlessly gorgeous model, Iman. Even in the 90s, the image of a successful and world famous White man married to a chocolate-skinned Black woman was just not something you saw everyday in popular culture. As a kid, I understood all too well the tensions between racial lines, and seeing Bowie so comfortable in his skin and married to this beautiful Black woman just added to his allure as a cultural rebel and icon to me.

 

Photo: Ron Galella for WireImage

Then there were his other musical collaborations and film work. I’m sure by now almost everyone has gotten to hear Under Pressure, which was his duet with Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. Another song that, while it’s not a duet, still gives me such joy when I listen to it is Young Americans. Fun fact: it features the likes of Luther Vandross as backup vocals. That’s another thing about Bowie that I loved—his ability to push the envelope in both his life and his art. At a time when Black backup singers were no longer getting jobs on top records like they had been in the 60s and 70s, Bowie was still creating opportunities for Black backup singers to practice their art form and grow as musicians. (While I’m on the topic of Black backup singers, I highly recommend watching the documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013). It goes into detail about Black backup singers and the struggles many of them had while trying to pursue their musical careers outside of the shadow of famous White singers or bands and groups that were created more for their good looks than their vocal abilities. But I digress.)

As I noted earlier in my appreciation for Bowie’s portfolio of work, his acting performances were also noteworthy. Bowie was one of those rare talents that could cross over from music to film perfectly and he accomplished that with one of my favorite 80s flicks that also featured one of my all-time favorites of Bowie’s looks: Labyrinth. In this dreamy, fantasy film featuring a young Jennifer Connelly and the puppet handiwork of Jim Henson (see The Muppets and Sesame Street), Bowie shines as the goblin king who holds Connelly’s little brother hostage after she angrily and thoughtlessly wishes for him to be taken away. When I tell you Bowie “did” that character, I am telling you he did that character. Everything about his portrayal of the goblin king was Bowie coolness—from his hair and makeup to his rockstar-like wardrobe, it was pure perfection. If you haven’t yet, you must see it or at least look up clips on YouTube. You’ll thank me later.

 

Original movie poster for Labyrinth

Outside of his musical genius, fashion prowess, and just plain awesomeness in general, Bowie was a true renegade. While I was living briefly in Rochester, NY and attending graduate school there, I learned of an interesting connection Bowie had to the city. On March 21, 1976 and after playing a performance at the Community War Memorial, Bowie and three others—one of whom was punk legend, Iggy Pop—were arrested by Rochester police for marijuana possession. Now, to be clear, I am not glorifying marijuana use or getting arrested, but seeing how much of the United States has finally started to change its stance on marijuana, with many states even legalizing it for recreational use, I find it pretty funny that Bowie was part of setting the trend for normalizing its use. I also found it funny that because of that egregious arrest that resulted in dropped charges against Bowie and his crew, Bowie never played in Rochester again.

 

David Bowie’s (hot AF) mugshot after his arrest in Rochester, NY. Credit: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Now, some people might call that “cancelling” but I like to think of it as a protest against the criminalization of drugs. In my mind, Bowie made the decision to avoid playing in a city that wouldn’t allow him to live out loud and for someone as cool as Bowie was, that meant never getting to see him live on that city’s soil. 

In addition to being cool, when I think of Bowie, I think of a man who was extremely principled; someone who wasn’t willing to just ignore beliefs or ideas that were unreasonable or lacked sense. And while this short little tale about Bowie’s arrest is not an attempt at demonstrating why the war on drugs is so terrible (because it is), I do like to think of it as a simple anecdote highlighting the harm criminalization of drugs causes people who weren’t so fortunate as Bowie was to be a successful, White male celebrity with the ability to overcome the damage a drug possession arrest can have on one’s life and livelihood. I know I can’t prove any of this, but I love the idea that it could be a legitimate explanation for his decision to avoid Rochester. 

Whatever the case may be, Bowie is a hero for many rebels, misfits, weirdos, musicians, artists, and creators. Whether it was his out-of-this-world stage act of Ziggy Stardust and the album that was based on it, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), or his portfolio of game-changing music and on-screen roles, Bowie was an innovator who, once you set your eyes upon him, you couldn’t turn away. He always left you wanting more. And if that is not the essence of what it means to be cool, then I have no idea what is.

 

~ Ngozika “Go Zee” Egbuonu

 

SURPRISE + ACTION

Cindy Gallop on Cool

As told to Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

Cindy Gallop is a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, whose background is over 30 years in brand-building, marketing and advertising – she started up the US office of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York in 1998 and in 2003 was named Advertising Woman of the Year. She is the founder and CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld, co-action software launched in beta at TED 2010 and subsequently written up and taught as a Harvard Business School case study, which enables brands to implement the business model of the future – Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial and social). She is also the founder of  MakeLoveNotPorn– ‘Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference’ – a social sextech platform designed to promote good sexual behavior and good sexual values, which she launched at TED 2009. 

I think cool is a massively overused word. And so I’ll be frank, it’s not a word I personally use a great deal because of that. In fact, ironically, now that I’m thinking about it, I use the word far more often in terms of, somebody says, “Let’s do this,” or “I’m going to do that.” And I go, “Okay, cool.” I don’t often say, “This is really cool.” So I guess I’d say to some extent it’s a word that I do feel is re-interpretable, and obviously this is the case in terms of its common usage. Cool can kind of mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s an expression of endorsement, but it’s different for every individual.

I think [cool] is usually something that surprises me. You know, it’s unexpected in some form or other, which means it is not status quo. It’s anybody who is changing the world to be the world that they and we want it to be. I’m regularly asked this question in a somewhat different format, which is, people say, “Cindy, who inspires you?” And I go, “Literally anybody who is actually out there making shit happen in the real world to change the world in all the ways that so many of us want to see it changed.” That is who I consider cool. And the wonderful thing about humanity is that every day there are incredible examples of individuals who are doing something phenomenal. That is simply because they’re doing what they believe is right to make the kinds of things happen that they and we want to see happen.

 I am deliberately nonspecific. I don’t believe in having a set number of, Ooh, these are my heroes. These are my heroines; these are cool people. Every single day there are examples of people who may not have the spotlight of celebrity or the spotlight of style on them. They are doing things that are just phenomenally admirable. And the wonderful thing is that every single day, whether it’s something one sees on social media or report on the news or even something one encounters in one’s own daily life or a friend encounters and tells you about it—there are amazing people doing wonderful, wonderful things. And so I am deliberately nonspecific, because it’s not about the names, it’s about the fact that humanity is just so amazing in so many different ways.

I remember when I was working in advertising and traveling all around the world, running global pieces of business, and I would sit on an airplane in business class, drinking glass of champagne and think, Oh my God, how cool is it that I get paid to do this? I would be on a shoot somewhere. I mean, one is incredibly lucky in advertising. You do get to travel to amazing places to make ads, to meet with clients, to go to conferences.

And so I’ve stood in incredible locations, and just thought, I can’t believe I’m being paid to be here. And what I’ve always thought at the same time is, I hope I never stop feeling that, because the day I feel blasé about any of this, the day I’m not pathetically grateful to be here, is the day that I will no longer know myself. So I look back on those moments and they continue to be incredibly cool. I mean, I still sit in the airplane in business class drinking champagne and think, I can’t believe I get to do this. I hate the idea of being blasé in any form at all. I think it was very cool I got to do those things and go to those places then. I feel enormously lucky now whenever I am booked to speak somewhere and I get to go and speak at a conference in some gorgeous hotel in some lovely resort somewhere and think, How lucky am I to be here? So I feel fortunate enough to have many cool moments all the time.

 

Ω

 

 

Photo: Alamy Photos

DAVID RAKOFF

 

Cool can cut like a knife.

Or, in the case of Canadian-born but New York City-bred humorist David Rakoff, like a guillotine.

There’s a passage in “I Can’t Get It For You Wholesale”, Rakoff’s witheringly funny exposé of the Parisian fashion scene and its odd excesses, that cements forever his place in the Compendium of Cool. When the legendary German designer Karl Lagerfeld dismisses David with the unkind observation, “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?”, Rakoff’s imagined reply is the kind of cool that can’t be seen head-on; you have to avert your gaze from it, wincing, one hand raised to shield you from the brilliance flashing from its falling blade:

He’s absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with at that moment is that Lagerfeld’s powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn’t. Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss, and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?

I mean…just…

GodDAMN.

Rakoff—whose tragic death in 2012 robbed the world of the sort of Swiftian satirist so desperately needed at today’s rancid buffet of edible Élite—was cool in a way he would deny with such eloquent self-flagellation as to make him cooler still; no one could insult David Rakoff the way he could attack himself. “The central drama of my life is about being a fraud, alas,” he tells us in the opening essay of his fist collection, Fraud. “That’s a complete lie, really; the central drama of my life is actually about being lonely, and staying thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play.” And yet there is nothing more genuine, no more vibrant a virtuoso, than Rakoff at work. His prose plucks its readers from the page and wheels them, squealing with delight, in ever-widening gyres of breathless satisfaction, his writer’s eye as steely-sharp as it is jovially jaundiced:

With disturbing regularity, the end of the work day found us at the old Monkey Bar, the Dorset Bar, the Warwick Bar, all attached to serviceable and somewhat down-at-heel hotels. Midtown Manhattan used to be full of just such comfortably shabby establishments where career waiters with brilliantined comb-overs and shiny-elbowed jackets might serve marvelously cheap albeit watery drinks, along with free snacks: withered celery sticks; pretzel nuggets accompanying a cheese spread of a color that in nature usually signals “I am an alluring yet highly poisonous tree frog, beware!”; chicken wings kept barely, salmonella-friendly warm in a chafing dish over a Sterno lamp; and a bounty of unironic, faux Asian, pupu platter dough cylinders, pockets, and triangles that were—oh glory!—fried. Dinner and forgetfulness all for ten dollars.

Reading Rakoff–or better still, listening to him narrate his own work on audiobook or in one of his many appearances on “This American Life”–is an act of hopefulness in an increasingly absurd world, his prose a place to find shelter from our shared exhaustion with…well, everything. He was icily cool in his critiques of everything from cryogenic immortality to the “snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac” smell of chicken shit, but it was the endless warmth of his humanity that made David Rakoff such a gift.

 

~ Clay D. Major

 

Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

MIKE PATTON

 

Having narrowly avoided a degree in English by dropping out of college to join Faith No More in 1988, Patton helped rewrite the sounds of rock and metal. He’s constantly trying new sounds, new genres, new collaborators.  Nearly impossible to track, his projects also include 1960s Italian pop, hip-hop, electronica, noise, soundtrack composition, free-form poetry/jazz/orchestral recordings, and narration for video games. (See Mr. Bungle, Lovage, Peeping Tom, Fantômas,Mondo Cane, and Dead Cross.)

 He speaks Italian (which he learned the hard way: by moving to Italy and refusing to speak English) and Spanish.

He’s performed in both those languages as well as French and Portuguese. He’s got rabid cult followings across multiple segments of society, perhaps most notably in Chile, where he’s considered an honorary Chilean—and where his fans mounted a campaign to elect him president. He signed one of his heroes, composer Ennio Morricone (perhaps best known for his soundtracks to Sergio Leone’s films The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More), to Ipecac Recordings, the label he co-founded in 1999.

Oh, and he uses every single note in his six-octave vocal range.

For extra credit, search up the YouTube videos of him singing Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and the Nestle Winter White Chocolate song from the commercial that aired in the early 1990s. Comedy gold, pure and uncut.

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

 

 

Her full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking (in the original Swedish: Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump).  She’s only nine, as her theme song says, and lives alone in a giant house with a polka-dotted horse and a monkey who wears a sweater. She’s so strong and smart that she needs no adult protection. (She can lift her horse over her head, for instance.) She doesn’t have to go to school. Her hair’s crazy, her clothes are mismatched, and she wears funny old boots several sizes too big for her. She sleeps with her feet on the pillow and her head under the covers. She can fight pirates, chase away nosy schoolmarms, terrify policemen, terrorize shopkeepers, and scandalize parents. She can fly a hot-air balloon and drive a car that runs on glue. She’s got a trunk full of gold coins for when she needs to buy anything and a tree in her yard dispenses delicious lemonade in glass bottles.

Astrid Lindgren’s 1945 creation exists outside of societal norms—her very existence is a big fuck-you to society. Her mamma’s in heaven, and her papa is a sea captain who must live on his ship; and thus, she’s on her own. Her table manners are atrocious, she picks her nose, doesn’t care if her underwear shows, and, it has to be said, sometimes has a chip on her shoulder. But she’s made of good stuff, is our Pippi. She can’t abide bullies, meanies, or baddies. She’ll always come to the rescue of anyone who’s being picked on. She’s generous that way, and in other ways: sometimes she buys candy for all the children of her village. Other times she shares fistfuls of gold coins with them. She sincerely loves her loyal companions, Tommy and Annika, and is fiercely protective of them (so much so that, weirdly, their parents once went on vacation and left them with her). Pippi lives her life following her heart, unafraid to be herself. Her coolness is legion.

 

“Please help us, before we perish! Without snuff for two days
we wither away on this island.” – Pippi, in Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard

 

See also:

  • The Pippi-esque portraits made of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, her role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo They’re absolute perfection, and reflect the fact that Stieg Larsson, author of the GWTDT trilogy, imagined Lisbeth as Pippi all grown up.
  • The Pippi merch available on Astrid Lindgren’s website: www.astridlindgren.com

 

– Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

SOR JUANA INES DE LA CRUZ

 

Scholar. Poet. Playwright. Social commentator. Feminist. Nun. Lesbian. By modern standards, Juana Inés de la Cruz would be a formidable woman. In mid-1600s Mexico, she was an anomaly.

The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish man and a Creole woman, Juana was nevertheless presented at court as a teenager. She soon made it clear that marriage was not for her; she wanted instead to continue her studies, an option not available to women then unless they became nuns. And so she did; as Sor (“sister”) Juana, while carrying out her religious duties, she read, studied, and wrote prolifically. She pulled no punches, yet adhered to the written style of her time. The effect remains both elegant and utterly badass:

 

O foolish men who accuse

women with so little cause,

not seeing you are the reason

for the very thing you blame:

 

for if with unequaled longing

you solicit their disdain,

why wish them to behave well

when you urge them on to evil?

 

You contend with their resistance,

then say gravely that the conquest

arose from their licentiousness

and not your extreme diligence.

 

The audacity of your mad

belief resembles that of the

          child who devises a monster

          and then afterward fears it…1

 

Her voice remains fresh and vital, to say nothing of the look on her face in her portraits.2

“Are you kidding me right now?” she seems to be saying. “We’re still stuck on this sexist bullshit?”

For a certain type of woman, she’s an ideal patron saint. For anyone, she’s a phenomenal example of living your truth and persevering, regardless of what society says, and indeed, will continue to say, long after you’re gone. 

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

1 Translation by Edith Grossman, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Selected Works, pp. 33-34

2 Also, her resemblance to singer Hope Sandoval, of Mazzy Star and other bands, is uncanny.

 

 

SECRETS

A Conversation with Elizabeth Hand

 

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 GrimesSarah 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.

 

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Photo: Jenny Antill

ANTHONY BOURDAIN

 

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:

Once upon a time, a gangly kid named Tony who loved the Ramones and the New York Dolls moved to New York City for the heroin and ended up an author and host of various TV shows, and having noodles for lunch in Hanoi with a sitting American president.

Or:

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 comic books 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.

Or maybe:

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.

 

 

Or even:

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.

And Bourdain was down. He was totally fucking down.

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 Cookbook  in 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”.

 

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DIVE BARS

A Conversation with Annene Kaye-Berry

 

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.

EAG: Right.

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.

EAG: Really?

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.

 

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CREATING YOUR LIFE

Vickie Howell on the DIY Mindset

 

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.

And to me that’s super cool.

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