Old Writers Take on Youth Culture

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    You know that very fine line between genius and stupid? Marty walks it like Philippe Petite?which is to say, sometimes he falls to one side or the other. On the stupid side, he's done a Madonna cover with snot running out of her nose ("She's Snot All That"). On the smart, there was the Fishwrap two years ago taking the piss out of Rolling Stone's 30th anniversary auto-fellation; his was the most skeptical, and the most historically and journalistically accurate, response to that sham outside of...mine.

    In the new issue Fishwrap celebrates an anniversary of its own: as the cover proclaims, a "Special Six Year Anniversary Issue, Packed With Exclamation Marks!!!" The feature is on "The Greatest and Most Influential Rock 'N' Roll Band of the Century... The Archies!" It's illustrated with unauthorized reproductions of Archie comics and Archies album covers, which Marty says he hopes to get sued for using. There's a full band discography, up through the grand finale Let It Beef, and interviews about the growth and breakup of the band with former members Betty, Veronica, Reggie, et al. ("We had some decent tunes. We decided, as a tribute to Pop, that the album would be a concept album about food and getting full. I wrote 'Two of Us Frying Burgers' and 'I Dig a Pony, But I Love a Cheeseburger.'")

    In the section "Other People's Mail," Wombacher lifts readers' mail from other magazines like Playboy and Newsweek and replies to it himself. Elsewhere he reviews the covers?just the covers?of magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Talk, whose cover line "Arnold's Back" prompted Fishwrap to crack, "And Now For Some Even Sadder News, So Is Talk." There's an understandably brief Q&A with Anton Chekhov concerning his role in the original Star Trek. And ads for products like "Pokemon Torture Tapes" ("We Put the Screws to Pikachu!") and "Gift Ideas For All Those Cellphone-Crazed Assholes In Your Life," including the Donkey Bray Phone and the No-No-Phone, a device that jams all cells in a quarter-mile radius of the user. I ordered a case.

    When I ask Marty where one can find Fishwrap in stores around town he just hems and haws and bitches. A subscription is $20 for four issues. (18 W. 16th St. #2R, NYC 10011.)

    The Dearth of Cool There's something about trying to write about hipness and coolness that makes even otherwise good cultural observers, like Slate's "Culturebox" person Judith Shulevitz, sound like the nerds you always suspected they were. (How many "rock critics" have you ever met? Personally, physically met? Shook hands with, had conversations with? The cumulative impression is appalling. Some combination of very short or freakishly tall, either wormy thin or grossly fat, Lisa-Loeb-glasses-wearing, limp-handshaking, stooped, dandruffed, dour, smelling-of-sour-laundry and compulsively giggling pretty well covers the waterfront.) Shulevitz recently revealed her inner geek in a column that ran under the inexpressably inapposite hed "If a Bohemian Falls in the Forest..." She was writing to offer faint praise to New York Times junior rock critic Ann Powers for her upcoming book Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, "a charming, rambling account of her coming of age as a music-store clerk/riot-grrrl punkster/aspiring writer in Seattle and San Francisco, interspersed with interviews of her old friends." I'll reserve judgment until I read it, but that sounds like a Lisa-Loeb-glasses-wearing rock-grrrl-entering-middle-age-whistling-in-the-dark-bowels-of-the-Times memoir to me.

    Shulevitz sounds like a doting aunt patting Powers on the head for having written it. Powers gets that sort of treatment a lot. If it were me I'd be offended by the condescension. She showed glimmers of promise as a rock writer when she turned up at the Voice, but between the pernicious influence of Professor Christgau there and the flattening effect of trying to write about rock at the Times she's turned into just another midbrow, middle-class pop-music hack like the dreary Jon Pareles or the very occasionally still-bright Neil Strauss, whose diligence in dumbing his writing down has looked like a self-administered lobotomy. Still, she's better than Eric Weisbard, who writes disgracefully stupid things about music for the Voice and Spin, and who is Powers' significant other.

    But back to Shulevitz. Even after admitting that "when people go around saying bohemia is dead, what they usually mean is that they can't see how to wiggle free of commercialism and convention," she proceeds to go around saying bohemia is dead: "The great bohemias of history?Murger's and Charles Baudelaire's 19th century Paris, Bloomsbury, the French and German Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Beats, the indie rock scene [the what?]?were flamboyant and self-enthralled. They hogged the limelight. They made themselves seem the center of the artistic universe. In so doing, they really did change the world. There was a moment about a decade ago when the group-house dwellers and music-store clerks whose lives Powers details so minutely rose to the level of a bohemia. The streets of Seattle opened up and gave us Kurt Cobain; New York's Strand bookstore yielded Mary Gaitskill; video-store culture belched forth Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith."

    Jesus. If that's your definition of bohemia, I guess it's not hard to get to the point where you can flatly declare: "Great American bohemias have bubbled up from the depths in the past, and more surely will in the future. But there's nothing going on down there right now."

    Come on now, Judith. How the fuck would you know what's "going on down there right now"? From reading a book by The New York Times' third-string rock critic? Wouldn't it have been a hell of a lot more accurate to have written, "I'm middle-aged and kind of out of touch, so if there is a bohemia bubbling away underground somewhere in America right now, I might not be the last to know, but I'd only be two or three places ahead of them in line"?

    In Slate's letters section, Neal Pollack, a Chicago writer I've met and whose work I generally like, offered the dubious notion that maybe bohemianism isn't cultural anymore, it's political, maaan. What do you call the WTO action, maaan, if not bohemian? Neal, please.

    Shulevitz is usually better than this. I liked her take on the dismal Tommy Hilfiger-sponsored "Rock Styles" show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I went to see it last week. A sham and a dispiriting bore, it has absolutely nothing to do with rock 'n' roll and everything to do with promoting Tommy Hilfiger and fashion-consciousness in general. It's all about the history of rock as a runway show, drawing absurd inferences about the cultural weight of Kiss' platform boots or a Jagger jumpsuit from one of those terrible late-70s stadium tours.

    Not surprisingly, rock's fashionplates are prominently featured, which makes it a rather Steve Tyler-centric view of rock; somehow worse, though, than staring through glass at David Byrne's Big Suit or Madonna's bullet-tit bra are the unextraordinary items that are only on view by virtue of their having touched the flesh of some rock star and thus been transmuted from, say, a black t-shirt to a black t-shirt worn by Lou Reed, or a common flannel shirt to Bruce Springsteen's flannel shirt. It reminded me of those Elvis memorabilia auctions, which no rock hipsters would be caught dead attending except with the appropriate ironic smirk attached to their kissers, where simply because some slippery-looking dude claims to have some dubious documentation that the King was actually once in close proximity to some mundane object?this comb may have touched his hair, this ring is an exact, limited-edition reproduction of one he wore while taping Aloha From Hawaii?the object has value. I frankly don't get the impulse my fellow boomers have to authenticate what they once felt was hip and cool by making a movie or a museum exhibit about it. I felt 100 years old shuffling along with the crowd ogling silly costumes hanging on mannequins representing Blondie and Jimi and Bowie and Bono?figures this show makes seem more ancient and distant than the pharaohs, their former outfits as old as the ancient Egyptian artifacts on view in another wing of the building, even with their little buttcheek-cutout pants and floppy hats so close you could almost reach out and touch the hem. I felt like it was the Year 3000 and we were People of the Future filing past antique remnants from the Age of Rock.

    Salon culture writer Stephanie Zacharek wrote about the show last week, effusively buying into the message that "a big part of what foments [cultural] change is not just how rock 'n' roll is played, but how it's presented, and for that reason alone, the superbly put-together 'Rock Style'...needs to exist."

    Pursuing a My Little Pony level of cultural analysis, she muses: "[S]omehow just about every piece of clothing chosen, even when it's uninhabited, captures some inexplicable something about the wearer." Could you be a little more vague? Now let's make the history of rock sound like a Disney animated feature:

    "When I think of the musicians I've loved best over the years...it's always, of course, the sound that comes first. But oh, the look of them! How is it that creatures who sound so good can look so heavenly as well?... I still believe that it has more to do with the transformative power of rock 'n' roll?its ability to work magic both on the people who make it and on the people who listen to it. By making them feel different, it also makes them look different, as if by a spell...

    "If the essence of rock comes from inside, do the clothes have anything to do with it at all? That's a question that would be asked only by someone who doesn't understand the talismanic quality of certain garments?and we're talking about something as simple as a flannel shirt."

    This is a case where Shulevitz was right on target. She had already written the show off a month earlier, calling it "the boldest display of corporate muscle and easy museological virtue to appear at a respected New York art institution in, oh, about two months?since 'Sensation' opened at the Brooklyn Museum." Where Zacharek thought the show had "plenty of intelligence," Shulevitz found it "stunningly fatuous." It was, she correctly noted, nothing more than "a Hilfiger commercial, legitimating as art the marketing strategy embraced so successfully by Hilfiger in the past few years, which mainly consists of turning rock musicians into fashion models. What's notable is that the show's exhibition strategy is essentially the same?reducing rockers to clothes horses, and without adding an iota of critical perspective."

    Thanks, Judith. Guess you're not a total geek after all.

    Afterwords Speaking of bad writing in Salon: Back before she went on a long leave I used to deride Susan Lehman's media gossip in Salon as kitchen-sink journalism: lazy, phoned-in, housewifey over-the-fence nattering. She returned to work not long ago and got right down to it with an astonishing, brown-nosing interview with Tina Brown in December, lobbing despicable nerfballs from the Barbara Walters playbook like, "Are you having fun?" and "Do you have role models? Is there anyone in particular who has inspired you professionally?" and "Have you ever felt like slowing down and taking less of an interest in the here and now, the edgy, the hot?" I get edgy and hot just reading crap like that.

    A few weeks later, come to find out, Talk has hired Susan Lehman. I'm sure it's a coincidence. I'm absolutely sure it was Lehman's penetrating media analysis and incisive interrogational style that got her the gig. Anyway, she's perfect for Talk. Charlie Sheen, Susan Lucci, Jennifer Aniston will crack open like walnuts in a vise when she springs that role-models gambit on them.