At work, we had a “death pool” in the first half of 1994 — that is, my co-workers and I would be awarded points depending on how many celebrity deaths we correctly predicted that season (with bonus points the younger they were). The points I got for predicting one death were little consolation for losing the man: Jack “King” Kirby, the most important comic book artist of all time, co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, and more.
And I would have gotten Kurt Cobain — big points, since he was only twenty-six at the time of his death, born two years before I was — but I left him off my list at the last second when I realized I wasn’t positive I was spelling his name correctly.
Fittingly, my rock-loving friend Dave Whitney was visiting the day the news broke, and we had similar mixed emotions about the whole thing. We were not the sort of worshipful, wide-eyed fans likely to head off to Seattle for a candlelit vigil over the whole thing, but as Dave said, with admitted selfishness, “We deserved another four good albums or so, at least.” Since Cobain had helped turn alternative rock into a common radio station format after we had spent the previous several years just being grateful that such material existed at all, even in the tiny ghetto of college radio, Dave and I saw him as something like the Ronald Reagan of the music world, helping to cause the Berlin Wall of Top 40 crappiness to crumble at long last so that the citizenry could escape to the freedom of punk-influenced material.
“Basically, we won,” as Dave once said, chastising me for whining about Top 40 still not being punk-influenced enough — and he said it with as much conviction as though he were talking about the Cold War itself, as is Dave’s emphatic way.
On the other hand, Dave and I also have enough moderately-conservative tendencies (as you may have suspected from the analogies used above) to see in Cobain’s death a cautionary tale about the maudlin indie impulse to wallow in cynicism, sarcasm, heroin, and darkness. I had spent most of my teenage years thinking it would be cool to be a black-clad, despairing cyborg, but that fantasy derived its escapist power precisely from the fact that in reality I was a blandly-dressed, mostly-happy, healthy guy with no metal in his body. For the sake of those people actually teetering between happiness and despair, maybe a culture that encouraged light-heartedness and smiling wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all — and thus, I recall thinking in April 1994, maybe I shouldn’t begrudge the teens of that time their increasingly Day-Glo, happy-go-lucky raver outfits or quietly wish they were all wearing black trenchcoats, especially given the way goth was metastasizing into some sort of weird, intense vampire cult instead of just a casual mode of dress and variation on punk.
Since the superhero parody cartoon The Tick, which I had stumbled across by accident back when it was still on Saturday mornings, was hilarious and smart enough for adults — back before all the animated series started trying to be like that — I was watching Fox one Saturday morning around that time and saw an ad featuring a glum-looking, white-guy-dreadlocked twentysomething who sneered and wearily intoned “I’m Generation X,” after which a happy, colorfully-dressed ten-or-so-year-old appeared and said, “I’m Generation Fox Kids!” and metaphorically led the viewer away to a better place. Still in my mid-twenties, I realized my slacking, despairing, demographically-small cohort was over, along with my youth. I might as well turn my profoundly unhip attention to grown-up stuff. I would not feel quite such a sense of cultural loss again until 9/11.
My unhip old-fogey activities that half-year included:
•seeing Phantom of the Opera (with New York Post’s Kyle Smith, who has brought me along to a lot of cool stuff over the years — for which I am very, very grateful — but who, as I am occasionally reminded, still has tastes subtly different from my own)
•hanging out and working with a cabal of volunteer classical music concert ushers (until their ringleader got tired of my anti-Clinton mass e-mails and I lost touch with the lot of them; there had been one member of that extended circle I was tempted to ask out, a fellow Brown alum, but, tragically, she was thrown through a windshield and killed, so that tentative plan went nowhere; another Brown alum, cartoonist-historian-speechwriter Jeff Shesol, was also on my e-mail distribution list throughout those years — and worked as a Clinton speechwriter — which I had completely forgotten about while I was sending out my occasional diatribes, not hearing a word of complaint from him until after Clinton left office, at which time he defended Clinton’s final speech, which argued that entangling foreign alliances are a good thing)
•renting obscure, nerdy sci-fi films such as Frogtown starring Roddy Piper but never quite getting around to renting Frogtown 2, although, like a thousand other things — including writing a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation — it technically remains on my to-do list while time races by and we all hurtle rapidly toward the grave.
I also badgered fellow Brown Film Bulletin alum Margot Weiss into watching the original Star Wars, since it remains unfathomable to me how people can think of themselves as “Americans” without having seen Star Wars — or, in even more alarming cases, without being sure whether they’ve seen Star Wars. Margot was impressed by it but never talks to me anymore for some reason.
Not that Margot was completely above such films: she was the one who talked me into going to see the gross-out zombie movie Dead Alive by then-obscure but talented director Peter Jackson. As she put it, enthusiastically: “It’s the kind of movie where the hypodermic needle never goes into the skin when it could go into the eyeball.” Exactly. In a reminder of another horror from that time, a passing, non-Manhattanite-sounding motorist shouted “Buttafuoco!” at me and fellow nerd Ali Kokmen after we walked out of the film.
It was a simpler time, and I made no effort to be cool. On the other hand…
I was hip enough at that time to see these things:
•I went to two free concerts by Morphine, the brilliant, deep-sounding, and doomed band with heavy jazz influences fronted by Mark Sandman, who would die of a heart attack in his forties just a few years later: One of these concerts was in the band’s native Boston area, on one of my then-frequent trips to visit numerous acquaintances there — including the aforementioned Dave, plus Bulletineer Holly Caldwell and our fellow Brown alum Jake Harrison, the two of them marrying that year, just as Jake graduated.
I even met some new people in the area, such as my fellow Kaplan employee (Kaplan is everywhere) Keri Shaffer, a perky Bohemian-hipster redhead, contact with whom helped partially salve that lingering feeling that perhaps I should be living in Allston or Somerville, Massachusetts and hanging out with struggling indie bands — like the one her boyfriend was in, called Orangutang, whose very cool song “Shiny Like Gold” actually got some airplay (I now look back upon that time as an alternative-rock golden age even richer per year than the 80s — something I should have appreciated more at the time [UPDATE: And in retrospect, I realize Joe and his Orangutang pals sounded a bit like a precursor to the awesome Harvey Danger, one of my favorite bands of that period]). Part of my soul seems to reside in the Boston suburbs, and we have not heard the last of that fair land in the Retro-Journal.
•I heard Perry Metzger give a lecture at the Libertarian Book Club/Anarchist Forum about “cypherpunks” and the potential of the Web and cryptography and such things just before all that became huge: Fourteen years later (!?!), I found myself talking to him just this past Wednesday at the monthly bar gathering for non-leftists I oversee called the Manhattan Project, which you may notice perpetually advertised over on my front page’s right margin. Mine is a vast yet insular cast of characters.
I had rarely felt so much sympathy for the left and so little for my own capitalist-libertarian brethren as I did at the end of the cypherpunk lecture when one libertarian in the audience unwisely decided to try opening a huge, tangential can of worms by asking Perry’s left-anarchist co-lecturer how he expected the world to be socially organized absent property rights, causing a dialogue that went precisely as follows:
LIBERTARIAN AUDIENCE MEMBER (snidely): What, do expect us all to “share”?
LEFT-ANARCHIST SPEAKER: Yes. I do. [Crowd adjourns.]
Perry had at one point stressed the fact that while the Internet is hard to censor, there is always recourse to “the rubber hose” with which you simply go and beat its users. Chris Whitten walked out of the lecture convinced he should start his own websites. I walked out jokingly saying, “I’d like to hear more about this ‘rubber hose’.” I’m funnier than Chris. Chris, however, is now an Internet millionaire.
•I saw a Tanqueray gin focus group, from the inside: Given the timing and the focus group leader’s emphasis on asking us what we’d consider hip and funny, I’m pretty sure we had a small but historic role in helping to launch Mr. Jenkins. I would like gin ads to make me feel sort of as if I’m a younger version of the Three Stooges, sneaking into a swanky party, I remember telling them.
It wasn’t all frivolity, though. I wrote a letter to Reason’s Brian Doherty back then — at incredible length, by hand, something quickly becoming archaic — agreeing with a piece he had written about the potentially disastrous influence of neo-Confederate writers like Sam Francis on the fringes of the paleoconservative/paleolibertarian coalition. Francis had a few libertarian allies such as, crucially, sometime-ghostwriter Lew Rockwell, yet Francis had explicitly called for abandoning the “shopkeeper” philosophy of libertarianism and laissez-faire in favor of what he called a frankly statist and ethnocentric “social nationalism” (something troubling about that phrase). Doherty wrote me back, describing the Francis-type paleos an “oddly bloodless” form of nationalist, more cold and calculating than passionate and nostalgic — the sort of people who might, in short, devise a cynical scheme to boost the popularity of a libertarian Republican congressman by feeding race-baiting rhetoric to conspiracy theorists and militia men. However, I think both Doherty and I had long since forgotten about that correspondence prior to his cover article in the February issue of Reason, on sale now. Live and learn.
How could I have stooped so low? How could I have supported an offensive, race-baiting goofball for office, simply to draw attention to the libertarian message? I am referring, of course, to the Howard Stern campaign for New York governor, since we are, after all, talking about 1994.
Well, keep in mind that prior to the ’94 elections, which swept the Democrats from control of Congress after four decades and began twelve years of Republican dominance, it seemed unlikely that any “legitimate” electoral vehicle would emerge for efforts to slow the expansion of the state. A court jester who could at least attract attention to the Libertarian Party (and its message of small government, secure property rights, and individual liberty) might be just what the culture needed. And so I rooted for Stern and attended the New York State Libertarian Party convention at which he was nominated — and wrote about it for National Review and Liberty. (A second version of the National Review piece later appeared across the land, with only superficial changes, under the byline “William F. Buckley,” to my surprise — but we all owe him too great a debt to complain about such things, and it may well have been ghosted by his intern or something anyway.)
I went to the convention with Chris Whitten and longtime LP member Joe Brennan, even preparing a nominating speech to read for Joe (which wasn’t needed in the end). All of us, Chris, Joe, me — and Stern — were, for a short, strange time, both Libertarian Party members and Babylon 5 fans. It wasn’t as important as a takeover of Congress, but in those less-urgent times, it seemed like a small cultural step forward. And when you don’t really expect to get anywhere politically, you’re more willing to make ridiculous alliances without regard to the consequences.
Stern eventually dropped out of the race to avoid revealing his personal financial information, and the dream died — just a few months after the Seavey family cat, Oscar, died back at my parents’ home in Connecticut, his body soon found by an alert Uber (the Seavey family dog, who drew my father’s attention to the body in tall grasses at the edge of the neighbor’s property). I must confess I did not for one moment foresee the Republican takeover of Congress that was coming in the second half of the year, which would change the political discourse drastically and, in retrospect, make the court-jester approach seem unnecessary — and insufficiently ambitious. Serious change might yet be possible.