November 17, 2013

Kill Your Idols


There are few things that can muffle, or even squash completely, my admiration for an artist (or anyone) quite so quickly and easily as meeting a stranger who also admires that artist. You know why? Because the people who are fans of the same artists I am are big fucking assholes, that’s why.

            At first I thought it was simple possessiveness. Like paranoids who believe themselves to be the singular chosen victims of an overarching government or alien conspiracy that only they comprehend, there’s something attractive and desirable about being the only one in the know. Far from fostering a sense of immediate camaraderie, I found that meeting someone who liked or knew the same things I did (in most but not all cases) tended to diminish those things in my eyes. The more commonly popular something was, the more widely known, the less desirable I found it. The masses were always wrong about everything, after all. True or not (and it is), if that was the only driving force here it would be childish and plain snotty on my part, but it went beyond that. The people I’m talking about really are fucking jerks. Worse, they’re everywhere and I want nothing to do with them and will go out of my way to avoid being mistaken for them.

            Let me offer a few examples to clarify.

            When I was a disaffected twenty-year-old white boy, I unwittingly latched onto all the same people every other disaffected white boy in the country had latched onto. It’s a simple and familiar list: Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, and William Burroughs. Those established figures, see, who could give the desperate to be disaffected a vicarious experience of the real thing.

            At the time, of course, I wasn’t aware they came as a package deal, nor that they were such commonplace icons to a very specific demographic. I’d come to most of these people by accident through simple reading. Reading Henry Miller eventually led to Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Bukowski. Reading Norman Mailer’s early journalism eventually led to Tom Wolfe, who eventually pointed me to Hunter Thompson (who to this day is mis-credited with having invented Gonzo journalism, even if he supplied that particular name). I suspect reading but not much liking Kerouac in my teens (I’ve since come around) landed me on Burroughs’ doorstep. And listening to the blues, nightclub singers, and alternative radio introduced me to Tom Waits. Having found all these people in my own way, quite unaware at the time of their cultural significance and popularity among dumbbells, I was quite happy. They all, as the tired cliche goes, spoke to me and seemed to reflect the life I was living: drunk, poor, angry and criminally-minded. Far beyond that, however, I latched onto them in the first place on account of what they’d created. They all had an absolutely unique and inimitable style, they were artists who were thoughtful and profound and adventurous and had a voice unlike any other. That held me far more tightly than any question of persona or my own personal surroundings.

            Well, then I started encountering other people, complete strangers, who were also fans of that same small team of icons.

            While living in Minneapolis I scraped together enough money to get tickets to see Tom Waits perform. He was great, one of the finest live shows I’ve ever seen. But up there in the second balcony (I didn’t say I could afford GOOD tickets), I couldn’t help but notice that the entire capacity crowd seemed to be made up of affluent, self-satisfied, white bread suburban types. They were clearly much more comfortable seeing a wealthy white man do these songs than they ever would be at a real blues club. Worst of all was a beefy guy in a golf shirt in front of me who, at regular intervals throughout the concert, raised his lighter and shouted “Waits!” That’s all he had to say, just “Waits” with the lighter. I’m not sure what point he was making, unless it was an effort to remind everyone where they were and who they were watching.

            A few weeks later Hunter Thompson’s latest lecture tour brought him to the University of Minnesota, so I got a cheap ticket. Again I was in the back, and sure enough, yet again there was a guy in a golf shirt who throughout the talk kept raising his lighter and shouting “Thompson!” for reasons that remained foggy.

            Although I never saw the man’s face I assumed it was the same guy. Or maybe he was just a type. Apparently everything he understood and loved about these people could be condensed into a whoop of their last names. That said it all.

            A few years after leaving Minneapolis I was browsing around an antiquarian book fair looking at this and that when I heard a thick-necked, well-dressed ex-frat boy type in his late thirties loudly asking one of the dealers if he had any Bukowski. I recalled that I’d seen a few first edition hardcovers on another dealer’s shelves a few aisles away, so being a friendly type I approached the man and quietly informed him where he might find what he was looking for.

            “You think I don’t know that?” he bellowed. “I know that already!”

            “Okay,” I replied, and continued browsing. As I did I thought about the incongruity of a well-fed man who was clearly doing okay for himself reading stories and poems about being a skid row bum.

            It was that moment when I started putting things together, recognizing that a fan of one was likely a fan of all, these muttonheads with flipped-up collars who liked to imagine themselves as outsiders, but only from a safe and comfortable distance. I had no doubt the whooping asshole with the lighter had a near-complete collection of Bukowski books in mint condition on his shelves, and that, should he ever attend a reading (maybe after a round of golf with the regional manager), he would raise his lighter and shout “Bukowski!” for the benefit of all those around him. It was definitely a character type. They were loud, pushy, comfortable, and boorish, and I would continue to run into them year after year. They summed up their understanding with whoops. I got the definite idea that they didn’t come to their admiration for these artists on account of the unique writing style, the insights into politics or American culture or the human condition, or anything at all that appeared on the page, but rather for their badass personas as drunks, lowlifes, wild men and crazy drug addicts. That’s as far as it went. They were much more interested in hearing about the crazy shit Hunter Thompson, say, has done than in reading his take on the latest election.

            (The people who latch more specifically and obsessively onto Burroughs are a bit different—they tend to be quieter and smarter and don’t whoop as much—but there’s no denying that Burroughs is still a charter member of the disaffected-twenty-year-old-white-boy pantheon.)

            I still love all these writers as I once did, and have only the greatest admiration for what they’ve produced, but I’ve quietly begun to distance myself. If a stranger brings any of them up in conversation, it tells me more than I need to know, and my immediate inclination is to change the subject. (“So . . . ever do any fishing?”)

            Having moved far away from that mentality, I thought I’d find something different among the fans of Thomas Pynchon, but as usual I was wrong. People are people wherever you go, and they suck. They’re definitely another type, but no less unpleasant. Instead of whooping, they tend to be snotty, arrogant little pricks very proud of themselves for reading Thomas Pynchon. The game with them is to argue about minutiae (they pat themselves on the back over catching obscure references and debating just how old this or that character is supposed to be) and speculate about Pynchon’s personal life instead of looking at the larger and grander picture of what’s going on in the novels. So again, ultimately, ironic as it all is for an author who has worked so hard to completely remove himself from the equation, persona has become far more important to these twerps than anything else.

            When you get right down to it, I just don’t give a fuck what anyone has to say about anything I like. It’s always so wrongheaded and bone-stupid it merely pisses me off. Christ, I’ve been associated with The Residents for over twenty years now, I dearly love and respect what they’ve created, but going to shows and mingling with their fans makes me homicidal. I know and understand them in my own way and for my own reasons, and simply don’t care about other people’s opinions on the matter. Is that wrong and close-minded? Well, so be it.

            At least I still have Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Ain’t too many people out there going to be modeling themselves after him or whooping his name in crowds.


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