The New Internationalism Essays Travel

A Message to You – by Edgar Barrington

Subcultures are great. You gotta get tattoos while you’re still sure you’ll like whatever you’re into right now for the rest of your life. That 40 year old goth guy who still comes to all the parties? He’s cool right? He sure didn’t sell out.

Subcultures are helplessly tied to youth. It’s fairly obvious, but the need to experiment with and loudly proclaim alliegence to various identites usually dies down by the time you’ve actually found your own.

As they go, I used to think the mod subculture was the lamest, because it was the only one that had no guts behind it. Usually you dress a certain way and that represents some deeper set of beliefs. With mods, you dress that way and that’s the entire thing; it represents that you like dressing that way. Now though I think that’s the coolest one. It’s the only one that can possibly recognize subtlety. You’re sixteen, and to rebel, you dress impeccably. But adults can still tell, you’re not right.

There is also the subtle distinction between a subculture and foreign culture. If you’re really into say, Japanese culture and punk, you can treat your approach to them more or less the same while living in the US. The only difference with the foreign culture is, there is an entire country where it’s not obscure; it’s how everyone is. You can actually go visit the land of your favorite subculture.

I have mixed feelings about the legitimate study, research, and teaching of subcultures. I saw a guy come in my building with a bunch of vinyl and I said “Oh you’ve been on a spree?” and he said, “No I teach a class.” There was a Smiths record on top so I don’t know what he was trying to teach people, but for me, half the fun was going out to shows and stores, discovering and putting things together for myself. What makes a subculture real and cool is that people are out there participating in it. On the other hand I thought “Shit if that guy’s teaching a class on records, why not me?” It’s a fine line is all, between being interested in and participating in a subculture, between researching and appreciating it and over-intellectualizing and ruining it.

My subculture was ska. Over maybe seven years and half as many bands ska went from something I had to explain to something I had to apologize for. Still, I have no regrets. Being sixteen at the peak of grunge’s popularity, discovering music that was fast and fun, yet obscure and in direct contrast to what was popular, I was indeed ska’d for life. And, like any good subculture, it made no sense! It’s this absurdly happy music, that skinheads love! What are skinheads, crazy? But it pointed the way to so much more. Maybe you bought Fishbone, the Mighty Mighty BossTones, the Specials, then someone said, “Shit my friend, you must hear the Skatalites. And did you know Bob Marley originally played ska?” So you heard that stuff and all of the sudden you’re a pussy hair away from listening to “world music,” because music from the early 60’s in Jamaica, sounds like music from the early 60’s in Jamaica. But it’s great. The shit about guns and rude boys is pretty dumb (although not as dumb as when suburban white people did it 30 years later), but the love songs are precious. And just one step beyond all that is Mongo Santamaria, Lee Dorsey, the Impressions, Stax — it’s enough to make you glad you weren’t born in the sixties, because you can figure all this out better with the benefit of hindsight.

Ska was, for me, inextricably tied to youth. Of course a genre in and of itself isn’t good or bad, bands are good or bad. And as more and more bad ska bands sprang up, more and more people deduced that ska sucked. The bands I was in benefitted when ska flirted with popularity, and suffered when it was beat back to the dorky kids’ table. Lesson learned: don’t participate in “movements,” much less “revivals.” It was not until I got older and oh so much wiser that I realized just how uncanny the timing was: ska and my youth died not with a bang, but with a fart from a flat trombone.

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