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.
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.?
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.
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”.
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.