To Be the Secret Holder of Wisdom on a Barstool Throne
In 2006, Robert Forster – music critic at The Monthly and co-founder, along with Grant McLennan, of the band the Go-Betweens – reflected on the passing of his former partner McLennan in a piece for The Monthly titled “A True Hipster.” McLennan was an academic who fell into – and fell in love with – being in a band. He was musical, but not the kind of person you’d think would make a living as a musician. It was Forster who “told [McLennan] about the greatness of the Velvet Underground […] and Dylan in the mid-‘60s.” Meanwhile, McLennan told Forster about “French new wave cinema and film noir […] about auteur theory and the genius of Preston Sturges [… about] Godard and Truffaut.” And this was just when they first got together, at the age of 19! I don’t know about you, but at 19 I could barely pronounce the words “film noir,” let alone hold court on it.
So why “A True Hipster”? We’re all aware that the word “hipster” has begun to carry with it a negative connotation. No one will admit to being one. Columns like this one by Julia Plevin are typical, with comments such as “The whole point of hipsters is that they avoid labels and being labeled. However, they all dress the same and act the same and conform in their non-conformity.” In the lead-up to President Obama’s (first) inauguration, (you all remember, right? hope and change) Plevin says “we seem to be heading in a direction that hipsters might like. Now maybe they can stop complaining and do something worthwhile for society.” Ouch. I’m not here to defend 21st century hipsterism, but when Forster calls McLennan a “true hipster” he says that he is referring to the 1940s and ‘50s sense of the word. This is a time when being called a hipster would have been high praise. Forster describes a “true hipster” as “someone perched on the streets, in the saloons, on the lower side of life, possessing razor-sharp and deep knowledge of the cultural front – but never lording it in the traditional manner.” He says of McLennan, “I once suggested he return to academia. He laughed the idea off, preferring to be the secret holder of wisdom ‘on a barstool throne.’”
I don’t know if I’m a hipster. Whether in the 1940s sense of the word or the 2013 sense. I do know that I aspire to be like Grant McLennan. Recently I listened to an episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast where each of the participants discussed their New Year’s resolutions. Stephen Thompson went first, recalling his resolution made one year prior and saying it was the same for 2013: “What I want to do more is … more. I want to listen to more music, I want to watch more movies, I want to watch more TV, I want to read more books …” Like Stephen, I’ve thought about this before and decided that I want to do more in the media & culture space, and by “do” I mean “consume.” I want to consume more media. And then even more. Continuously pushing the envelope until I approach the level of a Grant McLennan, while never acting condescending or appearing above it all. I want someone to one day describe me like Forster does McLennan in this paragraph:
“This is what he was like. I’d drive over to his place to play guitar and he’d be lying on a bed reading a book. Grant never felt guilt about this. The world turned and worked; he read. That was the first message. He’d offer to make coffee, and I knew – and here’s one of the great luxuries of my life – I knew I could ask him anything, on any artistic frontier, and he’d have an answer. He had an encyclopaedic mind of the arts, with his own personal twist. So, as he worked on the coffee, I could toss in anything I liked – something that had popped up in my life that I needed his angle on. I’d say, “Tell me about Goya,” or, “What do you know about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry?” or, “Is the Youth Group CD any good?” And, his head over the kitchen table, he’d arch an eyebrow just to ascertain that I was serious, which I always was. Then he’d start. Erudite, logical, authoritative and never condescending – not one ounce of superiority came with the dispensing of his opinion. God. I’m going to miss that. And of all the holes his departing has left, this for me is the biggest: the person you can go to who is so much on your wavelength, stocked with shared experience, whom you don’t ask for life advice – Grant would be one of the last people there! – but who, as a fellow artist, you can go toe to toe with and always come away totally inspired by. Well, that’s a great thing.”
I don’t think I will ever be described that way – “Erudite, logical, authoritative and never condescending.” But if I’m ever asked why I started this website, I will point the questioner in the direction of this column. In the two months since I began I have read more than I otherwise would have. I have gone to fewer concerts, but only by matter of circumstance – many are on the horizon. This week alone I will be taking in a book reading, a sporting event and a concert. And I hope to be able to share my experiences, and more importantly my thoughts about my experiences, on today’s version of a barstool throne, this blog. The past two months have been a learning experience for me – I think I’m starting to understand what I want this all to be. The best is yet to come.