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Last fall, I went with three friends to hear Momus speak to a group of Corcoran students. Who, the archly decadent fringe pop star wanted to know, considers him- or herself a bohemian? A few scattered hands went up, but ours weren’t among them. I looked down our row. We were all alternative-media writers: a cult-stud/film prof, a film critic/film prof, a sex columnist/advice columnist, and me, an art critic/kept man. They all pursued more “creative” writing, as well—poetry, plays, screenplays, stories—and I, well, I edited liner notes on the side. None of us had a five-day-a-week, 9-to-5 gig. All were childless, and none of us showed any sign of getting too respectable anytime soon. But we weren’t taking the tag being proffered. At last Bernard, smiling, raised his hand. He considered himself genetically of Bohemia; his ancestors were from there.
The problem with bohemia is that, wherever it hasn’t already been annexed by the larger culture, it functions as a mental gated community. Its rules and ethics, far less elastic than residents would have you believe, establish a comfort zone for them, defining a space in which they’ll find the things they expect. Why, for example, would a rabid local indie fan look back on a year’s purchases and find he’d bought nothing that wasn’t from D.C.? His tastes may differ from those of someone who listens to nothing but the Z, but his methods don’t.
The reasons we fence-straddlers aren’t pinning ourselves to bohemia is that we don’t know, and don’t want to know, where our next meal is coming from. Surprise us, we entreat. Never, in the nearly 300 pages of her tender, earnest, and exasperating new book, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, does New York Times rock critic Ann Powers even come close.
In chapters about family, sex, drugs, work, shopping, youth, and making peace with the mainstream, Powers mixes personal history with bull-session analysis, chronicling her development from acid-tripping teen Seattlite to a joke-wed but mortgaged member of New York’s plugged-in literati, and thumbing the picture album of her changing scene. Whatever Weird Like Us is, it most assuredly is not “a treat both intoxicating and nutritious, like a granola bar with an absinthe-creme center” as Jonathan Lethem’s jacket blurb has it. The book is more like a dwindling bowl of party mix, when it’s down to pretzels and broken Wheat Chex; you keep eating, absent-mindedly hoping for the occasional Spanish peanut, but most of them are long gone. Gertrude Stein said a writer writes for herself and for strangers; Powers seems to have penned her Gen X coming-of-age story and cultural debriefing for herself and for her close friends. I can’t imagine that any strangers who aren’t still living with their folks will stick with her to the end.
Passionate ambivalence is Powers’ forte. She is the queen of CYA, turning every which way to give all sides of a story. And what is an appealing quality in third-person reportage is unforgivable in an ostensibly opinionated, first-person account. Nearly any reproof directed at the substance of her book is rebuttable with a chapter-and-verse citation from it. The book is almost Biblical that way. Similarly, it has the potential to attract a contingent—though, in this case, a small contingent—of people who rally around it without ever agreeing on what it means.
Powers writes like a hushed, less delusional Greil Marcus, meaning that though her enthusiometer isn’t stuck on the pin—thank God—and not every signifying scrap is big as all America, her main subjects are the old rock-writing saws of paradox, contradiction, complexities, possibilities, and freedom. (Page 157 alone hits on three of these five by name.) But unlike Marcus, Powers isn’t too good at offering up insights you haven’t already come across. If you’re a regular reader of alternative media, little she has to say about the redefinition of family, the peculiar intimacy to be found in S&M, or the benefits of nonabsolutist thinking about drugs will be new. And when she tells you that record stores allow a certain level of pilferage because it’s a cheap way to keep low-paid employees docile, you’ll have figured it out many pages back, even if you’ve never thought about it before.
She understandably sentimentalizes her friends—which is fine, even sweet, in everyday life but disastrous when she uses their travails to point the finger at the Man. She tells the sad story of Tim, “a political rabble-rouser” and house painter who failed to admit he was addicted to heroin, because “[h]is shame made him keep his deepest feelings to himself.” But then she blames “the judgments society passes,” saying they “can stop problem users from ever trusting themselves enough to try to get free.” Now, what the hell kind of boho is that? As if it really would have helped for the body politic to sit down on the stoop, wrap its arm around Tim’s shoulder, and whisper soothing words: I validate your junkiehood, man. Please don’t choke on your barf.
It would be nice to say that Powers was blinded by her proximity to tragedy, but she doesn’t handle death at a remove any better. Loyal to her profession’s worst impulses toward grandiose interpretation, she writes crap like, “Felled by sexism, racism, or poisonous machismo, Janis, Jimi, and Jim were swallowed, like the revolution their music helped inspire, by the very forces they opposed.” Sexism? Racism? Poisonous machismo? How about smack, booze, and who-gives-a-shit?
And it isn’t just the grim stuff Powers stumbles on. She doesn’t seem to get that the enchantment of life’s sillier, less constrained moments completely evaporates in the light of serious consideration. I, for example, recently attended the “coming-oot” party of a friend who was embracing her tenuous Canadian heritage. We listened to B.T.O. and the Guess Who, and we played a game that involved croquet equipment, brooms, and ginger ale and rye. I thoroughly enjoyed myself—without feeling the need to launch a 30-page disquisition on yard curling’s subversion of the hegemonic touch-football party-game paradigm. Powers indulges herself in just such a fashion when she kicks off “Soul Trash,” her chapter on thrift shopping and recycle/reuse economies, with a loving description of a piece of impromptu furniture:
My wooden crate, though, was something different. Sturdy, not plastic but the true flesh of one lost tree, stained by time and rotted fruit and imprinted with the word “Sunland” in New Century Schoolbook lettering, it seemed like an emissary from a different age. Probably, it had been assembled in a Tijuana factory in 1982. Yet when I draped dozens of Mardi Gras beads from its corners, glued a Mexican Tarot card to its uppermost edge, and hung my U-Framed-It album cover of The Women Blues of Champion Jack Dupree above it, this makeshift accessories holder metamorphosed into my own Rosetta stone, unlocking a code of everyday magic. The box was rubbish, no doubt. But I had turned it to treasure.
I read this ode to the junk altarpiece, a downscale design solution dismayingly overdone in the mid-’80s, and can’t help thinking she could have had a career as a set-dresser for X videos.
Powers closes with an appeal, which she thinks her comrades may find a trifle dicey—”a radical move” even—for the underground to reach out and touch the mainstream. She overlooks the fact that, depending on your perspective, she is five, or 30, or 100 years too late. In August 1994, right before some Woodstock or another, Time pitched a dissection of the assimilation of outsiderdom with an alternified American Gothic cover and the headline “If Everyone Is Hip…Is Anyone Hip?”
Bohemia ain’t where it used to be, and you won’t be faulted for trying to find it at your local video store. Powers herself does no less, recalling her days as a San Francisco record-store grunt via the “adorably quirky staff” of Empire Records, “Allan Moyle’s dead-on cartoonish 1995 B-movie.” What she doesn’t say is that it’s also a stone-dumb piece of shit, complete with a maudlin funeral for a failed suicide—yeah, we’ve got a cross and some Christmas lights around here somewhere—that comes off like a goth encounter session.
Powers also invokes the 1991 film Slacker, even spending a couple of sentences on the sound of the word “slacker.” She should have known better than to introduce something that does the job better than her book. Though Richard Linklater’s cult classic lacks the theoretical specificity of expository writing, it does a great job capturing a subcultural tone—dilatory, talky, relaxed, self-obsessed. With one thing leading always to another but never getting anywhere except to the next conversation, the movie is formally adventurous and, in spots, very funny. I don’t think I mentioned that Weird Like Us is never funny, except for the bit where sexual masseuse Isadora says, “…I can understand movement and the chakras. Sexual energy is one of the highest energy forms on this planet. It’s very creative.” (You know, if Prince has taught us nothing else, it’s that sex is absolutely the worst thing to be pretentious about.)
In a reflection of bohemia’s absorption into the mainstream, Weird’s concerns are better served by more conservative entertainments. With its sex work, rankling at parental authority, symbolically resonant drug-induced goofs, illicit commerce in used furniture and clothing, and speeches about saying “What the fuck?” 1983’s Risky Business is one. And, though Powers’ reverent reminiscences sometimes evoke Wonder Years voice-overs—or, more accurately, The Simpsons’ parodies of them—there’s another TV show that springs to mind. When it comes to the reconfigured America—which has engulfed sexual subcultures and stunt marriages, porn flicks and protracted adolescence, alternative conception methods and not knowing who your parents are, DIY employment and personal styles that range from headshop to boardroom—when it comes to the chumminess that binds people together, alternative-family-style, through good times and bad, as they gather in coffeeshops and living rooms, bitching about their jobs, breaking up and making out, obsessing about the future, worrying that they’re nobodies, fearing that couples will smash the group, caulking with joy and tears the spaces in their togetherness, a different gang is there for you. I think you already know their names: Monica, Joey, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross—all friends, that’s right, Friends. I rather like them. And so, I hear, do millions and millions of other folks, weird like nobody, in my unbohemian America. CP