Just as our bodies are made of recycled stars, our thoughts are spawned from bits of songs and books and movie dialogue. So what happens when your star gets old?
I don’t know what I’m doing writing about pop culture. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding anything that smacks of popularity, only to find out I was really just putting off reckoning with it. You get to be a certain age and you realize no one cares anymore what bands you like or don’t like, what brand of jeans you wear or how much obscure trivia you can rattle off.
Pop culture is essentially a closed loop anyway, an endless conversation with itself, and our participation in that conversation is both mandatory and superfluous. Ignoring it is about as effective as trying to ignore the weather–sooner or later, you’re going to have to go outside and if it’s raining, you’re bound to get wet.
It took a slow-moving panic attack to make me truly aware of how much we rely on the cultural narratives and icons we carry around with us. I was at a youth conference where I was supposed to be mentoring and role-modeling for a bunch of teenagers, and I wound up that night in a cold sweat, gripped by nervous convulsions, ransacking my overnight bag for old sleeping pills and cold medicine at 4AM, so desperate for sleep I’d gobble anything with a warning label.
My insomnia had me ruminating about the night before, when I’d been at a live karaoke show with a band that played Rolling Stones covers. The room was full of gray haired rockers, sipping wine and trading memories of Stones shows and records they’d bought at Licorice Pizza. I sang “19th Nervous Breakdown”, so it was fitting that the next night I’d end up in a hotel room having my own #20.
It wasn’t my bad Jagger impersonation that bothered me. I sang the song alright, but I had a momentary freaked out in the middle of the song, with one of those out-of-body “Is this who I am now?” moments, the kind where you suddenly see yourself in some cosmic mirror, only the picture doesn’t look how you expected. Instead, you see some older, fatter doppelganger, someone you think you might have even despised once. Then everything blurs away and the feeling gets tangled with the song and you look around at the people watching from their little bar tables, and you start to notice how immersed and insulated we all are in our own cultural bubbles, how they shape the way we think, inform our vocabularies, guide our paths through life.
“You better stop. Look around. Here it comes…”
Just as our bodies are made of recycled stars, our thoughts are spawned from bits of songs and books and movie dialogue. Then one day you suddenly notice that those songs and movies are from eons ago, and you necessarily start to wonder what place they could possibly have in this hyperactive, hypermodern world. You start to wonder who you even are.
The morning of the conference, we rushed into the big ballroom just in time to catch the opening session, where a relentlessly positive motivational speaker sweated and preached about how we could accomplish whatever we wanted in life. He had us repeat it back to him until we roared in one thunderous voice: “We will achieve greatness!” It was kind of corny, but by the time he was off the stage and signing books, even crusty old me was buying into it.
“I can achieve greatness,” I thought to myself as I filed out to the lobby. “I can!”
That feeling of positivity lasted about five minutes.
As soon as they closed the doors on our first conference workshop and started up the torturous icebreaker games they always inflict on people who go to these things, I realized I’d been tricked. That motivational guy didn’t mean I could achieve greatness—he meant the kids I was mentoring could. At my age, (41) it’s a high probability that I’ve used up my greatness quotient and the only thing I have to look forward to is watching other people be great.
There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess—but as I sat there in the big-windowed conference room surrounded by middle-aged professionals with whom I could find very little in common, I started to feel deeply and profoundly depressed, and it didn’t help that I had to stand up and give an impromptu speech to this bunch of more-successful-than-me strangers while wearing some hideous neon tchochke on my head for the stupid icebreaker game. I fled to my room after that and managed to get my nerves under control, but I couldn’t get out of the teen dance that night, which I was obligated to chaperone.
Here’s the thing about me. I work with youth because I can relate to them, more so in many ways than I can with my professional peers. Call me stunted, call me immature—the fact is, I never managed to completely grow up. So it’s hard for me to be the guy who’s supposed to bust kids for breaking petty rules when, inside, I really feel like the kid whose job it is to break them.
As someone who works in the margins of our educational system, this usually works in my favor. Kids can see where I’m coming from and trust that I’m there to help and not to nail them on some bullshit zero-tolerance policy. But because I’m old enough to be these kids’ parents, there’s a cultural gap there that I’ll never be able to cross. And because I’m basically a middle-aged punker, that cultural gap is just as wide between me and most of the adults I work with.
At the Stones thing, I was a little sad to be one of the youngest people in the room, but at this youth dance, I was one of the oldest. The DJ spun a series of booty-shaker pop hits, none of them familiar or really even comprehensible to me. Bodies moved, lights flashed, the bass dropped, and I watched it all in a kind of paralysis, unsure if I should be on the dance floor or underneath it. I saw in the blinking strobe light the whole culture of my generation being washed away like words written in beach sand. All night I tried to use my critical sense to make a connection to the music, and all night I failed. I felt at once impossibly old and impossibly young.
I must have looked kind of sick because the organizers of the conference kept asking if I was alright, and did I need some water or something? What I really needed was a drink. Near the end of the dance, I saw a group of kids stumble through the door, reeking of Four Loco and menthol cigarettes. I don’t know if I was supposed to report them or what, but it didn’t even cross my mind until later. The first thought I had was not “Hmm, these kids are up to no good,” but, “Damn, why wasn’t I hanging out with them?”
When the dance finally ended I snuck down the back stairs and through the employee break room to the hotel bar. I ordered a double Wild Turkey and was a little let down when the bartender failed to card me. I don’t know what would have happened if the conference folks spotted me, but my paranoia was kicking in, so I guzzled the drink and scurried out of there, full of bourbon and shame and the knowledge that I was decidedly not achieving greatness.
Back in my room, I plugged in my laptop and tried to write, but the words wouldn’t come. The motivational speaker that afternoon had given the advice that we should “refuse mental recognition of failure, doubt or fear.” I marveled at that—“refuse mental recognition.” He said we should practice being great in a mirror every day.
“That’s how Muhammad Ali did it,” he said. “Muhammad Ali talked himself into greatness. Whenever doubt or fear threatened to enter his mind, he told himself, ‘I am the greatest. I not only knock ‘em down, I pick the round. If you even dream of beating me you better wake up and apologize…’”
Maybe trash-talking imaginary opponents in the mirror worked for that guy, the Muhammad Ali of motivational speakers, but it just made me look like an idiot. “I’m the greatest,” I told my pale reflection, pausing to gag down a handful of expired nighttime cold pills. “I’m like, super great. Like, so great I’ll kick your ass…” Sonny Liston would not have fled in terror.
But I did. I fled from that hotel room on the wings of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to the blessed haze of the internet, where by fortuitous chance I was visited by my pop culture spirit animal, Darby Crash. If you don’t know who Darby Crash is, good—honestly, I don’t even want you to know, because he’s dead now and what he did is supposed to be secret. But he sang for a band called The Germs, and he was a brilliant, fucked up, gay junkie poet. He was pudgy and shy and manipulative, loved David Bowie and fronted a band that made the best punk rock record of all time (GI).
He was basically nothing like me. I didn’t consciously choose him to guide me through these kind of Holiday Inn nights—I don’t idolize him or worship him or even wish I knew him. But Darby’s like a totem to me—my pop culture spirit animal.
I think everyone has a pop icon they feel mystically connected with and gain some kind of psychic power from. I swear I knew a guy whose spirit animal was Garfield, the cartoon cat. It wasn’t that my friend loved lasagna and hated Mondays (though both of these things were true), it was that Garfield represented something comfortable and predictable in an uncertain and unsatisfying world. I have another friend who claims his spirit animal is Honey Boo Boo, and I can totally see it working for him. The motivational speaker I saw at the conference had The Champ himself in his corner, lucky guy.
With the nighttime cold meds mixing it up with the Wild Turkey in my stomach, I parked myself in the big Holiday Inn office chair, blasting the Germs at full volume on my laptop, the little speakers pushed to distortion. It was a bad tape of an even worse live performance recorded more than 30 years ago. Darby sounds like he’s barely conscious as they launch into what has to be the most inept cover of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” ever recorded.
“Sugar. Ah, honey honey. You are my candy girl and you got me (garblejerblemerble)… I just can’t believe the loveliness of lovin’ you, I just can’t believe that it’s true…You’re fucking it up! Umm, (gerblemerbleblurg). Candy girl, you got me wanting you… You’re all pricks and you know it too… Sugar… You’re gonna get electrocuted… Ah, honey honey…”
It was a shambolic mess, and I bathed in it, spinning around and around in the big office chair, soothed by the jerking tempo and the wrong chords and background laughter and the sheer ridiculousness of even listening to this objectively terrible but subjectively sublime performance that somehow managed to not only survive all these years but to find it’s way to me, just when I needed it the most.
Sorry to whoever was on the other side of the wall that night. But I had to listen to that song over and over, because it was the only thing between me and a mental health emergency, the only thing I could connect to in a place that felt as foreign as an alien planet.
You can never fully explain stuff like this, either to middle aged professionals who gave away their record collections 20 years ago or to teens raised on the binary bleeps and bloops of modern music. I don’t know how Darby found me that night, or why I felt so grateful—it was almost like he’d died for my sins.
As I stumbled half-awake through the stress and boredom of the next day’s conference activities, I felt strangely at ease. I was visited several times that day by a goofy apparition of a shirtless, snaggletooth kid making a huge mess with a giant sack of sugar. Each visitation brought with it a smile, and a sense that I was connected to something beyond my immediate surroundings. I guess if you get a vision of Jesus or whoever, you’re supposed to cross yourself or say a prayer or something. But not me—I just grinned mystically and sang softly under my breath, “I just can’t believe the loveliness of lovin’ you, I just can’t believe that it’s true…”