I think I’ve always been a penny-pincher. No shame in admitting it, I don’t see what the problem is. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to justify dumping out precious life-sustaining greenbacks on trivial material things I don’t really need. I remember how my Scottish Grandma, who came from a family of coal miners and lived through the Great Depression, would always chide me for tearing the Christmas wrapping paper on my presents as a kid. She’d actually try to save it and use it for next year! Waste Not, Want Not. Her attitude always left an impression on me, even though as a 6 year-old I simply for the life of me couldn’t fathom where she was coming from. Could be because myself and my family are all immigrants from different countries, but I’m constantly trying to find new ways to cut corners on food, bills and entertainment.
Our society is a without a doubt an extremely image oriented, money driven, mass consumption culture. Every moment and every hour we are constantly bombarded with images, advertisements, radio jingles, billboards and internet pop-ups trying to get us to part with our hard-earned dollars. Clothes? Clothes are so expensive! Heck, so much stuff that you can get on Ebay or thrift stores. And you can’t take that Mercedes Benz with you to heaven when you die, can you? And what is it about a Mercedes Benz that is so much more special than a used Honda (besides social status among other snobby people)? Both transport you from point A to point B in exactly the same manner. Your luxury, 3-Ton Tuna Boat SUV? You’re sitting in traffic just the same as the poor bastard sitting next to you, though I bet the TV commercial depicting it (and you) triumphantly scaling Mt. Everest looked pretty exciting at the time. I HAVE TO HAVE IT- RIGHT NOW. Yeah, it might make you feel high and satisfied for a little while, but then, just like a hit of that cheap crack cocaine, the happiness soon fades…
OK, I’ll concede that some of you guys out there buy flashy cars because that’s what some flashy women are drawn to. You probably even got some sex out of it. Could you still have gotten some nookie with one of those Kim Kardashian clones without the shiny rims? In my experience, the best women out there in the world (and there’s plenty of them) aren’t gold diggers. They’re the ones that actually are attracted to guys with a sense of humor, intelligence, personal self-worth and creative talents. Be at ease with who you are, learn how to make sushi, be a freestyle MC on stage: what member of fairer sex could resist you?
But you know what living within my means has really given me? Freedom. The freedom to do what I want and pursue the projects in life that stimulate me intellectually and artistically. Wasting money on expensive clothes, fancy dinners, the latest smartphone, going clubbing and paying $15 for cocktails- get tha fuck outta here! My crappy old model cell phone transmits calls and texts just fine thanks, and I don’t have a monthly $100 bill to go along with it. Owning a car, ouch. According to a AAA study, that’s on average $8,698 a year. Paying gas, taxes, repairs, new tires, insurance etc etc. Now times that by 10: almost 90K! What could you do with an extra $90,000 in your life? I know in many parts of American you simply have no choice but to drive (I think I’ll another blog post about that later), but at least try and live close to your work, school, a supermarket etc. You’d be surprised how it really ain’t that bad to walk, ride a bike, or take a bus a short distance. Fresh air, a little exercise, smell the flowers, ya feel me? Driving too much is linked to all sorts of health problems, not to mention poor sleep, psychological stress and lower quality of life. Plus the fact that we’re all slowly killing the environment one safari trip to the post office at a time.
The best things in life are free my friends (or pretty free): Some bourbon sipped in the warm summer evening, watching the world go by in cafe, playing guitar with your friends, camping and grilling in the great outdoors, playing frisbee on the beach with you dog, some wacko, alternative theater cooperative’s latest offering down at the weirdo artists’ squat, binge watching Netflix while necking with your honey. Hell, grow some weed in your yard, then you don’t even have to pay for it. Save your pennies for a backpacking trip through Central America: you’ll have life-changing adventures and memories that will last you till your deathbed.
If you have to choose between breaking your back for a tuna boat SUV- or memories, which would you prefer?
Hey, I’ll admit it: I don’t know shit about Punk Rock (I’ve always been partial to Metal myself). In fact, I can’t even understand why people listen to it. I’ve been to some shows, but it just ain’t my cup of tea. Maybe I’m just not pissed off enough? One of my earliest memories was as a little kid, being given a ride on the shoulders of my babysitter’s punk boyfriend at a street market in Camden, London. This was in the early Eighties, so I guess the subculture was in full swing at this time. He had a big, brightly colored mohawk, a black leather jacket and was really tall. So, I got to hold on to the back of his neck and sit on his shoulders while looking down at the bobbing heads of the crowd below me. That’s about as close to being a badass as I could ever hope to be.
However, lucky for me, I have a super-cool little sister that I invariably have to live through, as my adventures and lifestyle just don’t ever seem to measure up to everything she’s done so far in life: living in squats, criss crossing the country on freight trains, fronting a gutter punk band from New Orleans and touring Europe. She also has A LOT of tattoos. I thought it best that I interview her as the best way to educate me properly on the philosophy of Punks today and how they’ve carved out their own distinct Counterculture, fashion, music and lifestyle. My sister, Corrina, currently works at a needle-exchange/HIV testing drop-in center for homeless youth in San Francisco and sings with her new band, Goop. One thing I can say about her: she lives life on her own terms, to the MAX, and shows no sign of slowing down… Here she is singing with her old band a few years back:
You can listen to the full MP3 recording at the bottom of the post:
So tell me about being a Punk- what’s it mean to you? “I think it kinda stems from being a young person who feels like they don’t fit in. But instead of saying that you’re ashamed of that, you kinda take it and embrace it- whatever that means to you. Oh yeah? You guys think I’m a freak. Well I’m awesome! That’s what punk rock means to me, and maybe also rejecting a lot of what mainstream society tells you to do. Kinda just making your own rules. That’s kind of the root of it, but I think like anything that’s a subculture, it can kind of turn into a “culty” religion. People can get real confused with it and people start making their own rules and give people shit if they don’t follow them. But I think the root of it for people who get into it for more than a couple weeks (laughs), is that they’re dissatisfied with society in general, are upset by it, and kind of want to make their own society- its a sub-culture for misfits.”
How did you get drawn into this subculture? “My first punk show I went to when I was 14. I think I got drawn into it first through Grunge, but before that it was kind of like the Hippie subculture, like you and your friends- teenagers who were into that. And it was a subculture where it was OK to smoke pot, its OK to drink alcohol- you don’t have to “Just Say No”- which was a revelation to me, those DARE people came to my Middle School and whatnot. I also think the 90s were kinda cool for RiotGrrl, which was a type of subculture from Punk. It’s “Third-Wave” Feminism- I might totally have that wrong- but there were a lot of girls picking up guitars and drums n’ shit. That was kinda like a big thing, even in the mainstream for a hot minute, bands like L7 and Hole. So that really inspired me. I really liked Rock N’ Roll and I think my love for Rock N’ Roll kept getting me introduced to better and better bands and a lot more underground bands… I think a lot of the underground punk scene is all about community, and I think a lot of people are looking for that- especially when they’re kids. That’s why a lot of people are drawn into subcultures. I feel that I was drawn into the Punk subculture instead of some weird cult or some weird, racist skinheads… At least Punk was like, “Nah- just be a freak, it’s OK”
Tell me about your band, your music and what you’re trying to express? “My band right now is called Goop, I started playing music at age 12 and my first cover was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, not so punk, but the heart was there. I played in a lot of bands since, and played in a band called Crackbox, and we were a band for about 5 years and put some records out. I then filled in for a touring band called Star Fucking Hipsters, toured Europe- which was a side-project of a band called Leftover Crack. But my current band is called Goop, I play guitar and sing. We’re all pretty much from the Bay Area and we write a lot about gentrification, alienation, hating people, hating the government. We’re definitely not Libertarians, we hate the government, but not in the Republican kind of way- more in the anarchist, do-it-yourself subculture. We can make a culture and we can make a community by reaching out to our neighbors. If nobody’s gonna put your record out, you just do it yourself. And you help out your poor friends- if someone you know doesn’t have a place to stay, or someone’s little brother is homeless, you take him in and try to take care of everybody that needs a hand and try not to be judgmental. So, I think we write a lot of songs about that. We also have a song where Johnny (my songwriting partner) writes about jacking-off in school. Some of it’s tongue-in-cheek, some of its funny, some of its for fun, and some of its political.”
What’s the core philosophy of punk? “I think its different for a lot of people, its so varied and there’s so many different kinds of punk, so many different subcultures of punk, so for everyone its kind their own thing. I think its just not believing what other people tell you to do just cause its expected. Following your own path, doing what feels right to you. Maybe it’s very Anton LeVey: do your own thing, don’t hurt other people- “Do As Thou Wilt”… I mean every society has their own normal and social standards, but maybe someone doesn’t want to follow the family business, in some cultures you don’t want to get married young. There’s actually punks from all over the world… I’m on a compilation with another band from Indonesia. Some of the most punk rock people I’ve ever met are from Mexico.”
If an Alien landed here in a UFO and wanted to learn about Earth’s culture, how would you explain Punk to them? “Its about being creative, it’s about even if you don’t know how to play Rock N’ Roll or do art, or sing, you don’t know how to start a non-profit or start a homeless shelter- you just make it happen. You do it- even if you suck at it. Hey, you did it: Good Job! Let’s celebrate it, even if you don’t get to go to art school. It’s like, “Hey man, do you wanna play drums in our band?”… I don’t think it speaks to everyone. I think most most people are generally happy-go-lucky. I’m gonna generalize, but I don’t think Punk normally…people aren’t drawn to it that much if they’re like: “Yeah man, everything’s SO cool!” All Punk’s different: there’s weird Hari Krishna punks, there’s Christian punks (in my mind they’re not really Punk), but I can’t stop people from playing the guitar.”
You were riding the rails for a long time, hopping freight trains- can you tell me a bit about that? “That was cool, that goes way beyond Punk, but there was some older punks that got the younger one’s into doing that, but train hopping has been going on since the Great Depression- if not longer before that. But for a lot of the people who have embraced DIY culture (“Do It Yourself” culture which is big in the Punk scene) getting around for free was one of the things you could do. And along with squatting, which is finding an empty house and making it your own, cause well, rent costs a lot, takes up a lot of your time if you’re working at a job you hate. It gives you a lot of time to work on creative projects or activist projects, or picking your butt or shooting drugs or whatever you want to do.”
I choose picking my butt. “Yeah, I do to, but it gets a little old. Yeah, so you can get from one end of the country to another, and people wrote about it in books like Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Its a very romanticized American culture type of thing. People do it in Latin America as well to work or to get from one place to another in a much more dire situation. Also, a lot of young kids who are squatters or punks come from really fucked up households, and get kicked out when they’re really young and they don’t want to go into the system, they don’t want to go into foster care, so one really good way to get from point A to Point B is riding a freight train- if you’re an good at it. Most of us were pretty bad at it and got caught a lot! [laughs] Its one way for adventure, a way to see the country, for next to no money. I could stop somewhere and wash dishes for a while, fly a sign or panhandle or play guitar- I didn’t really like panhandling, but if I ran out of money from my crappy pizza parlor job and I was in the middle of nowhere… I don’t know, lots of adventures, lots of freedom.”
And living in squats: is that a big part of the Punk ethos, or some people just don’t want to spend a lot of money or can’t afford their own place? “I think it’s all of the above, and there’s probably a lot of punks who don’t even know what squatting is. I mean Punk has gone into the mainstream culture, maybe it always has been, look at the Sex Pistols. Like I said, there’s a lot of different types: there’s kids, I feel bad for them, they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, shitty suburbs, or maybe they’re queer, they don’t feel like they fit in, they get picked on in school and they hear a Green Day song and they think, “Holy Shit! These guys are talking about not being liked and jacking off, I like this!” Take some underground magazine, for example Maximum Rock and Roll, it’s a free Punk magazine that’s been around forever- that’s kinda a lifeline for a lot of kids. Now there’s the internet and you can download tons of free punk music and hear voices of people from around the world who feel the same way you do… I don’t think [living in squats] is for everyone and there’s people who squat who don’t know anything about Punk, but it is something that if you’re in the weird underground, crusty punk scene or you’re homeless youth, or a lot of activist type punks, and there’s a crossover, they might squat for lots of different reasons, A) they can’t afford it or B) they want to work on projects or they just don’t believe ethically that they should have to spend their life slaving away to give money to somebody else. Especially places like the Bay Area that used to be a Mecca for underground culture but now rents are $3000 a month. I mean most school teachers don’t make that much, nurses and construction workers don’t make that much- most working-class people are getting pushed out of the Bay. So, if you think about the artists who want to spend most of their time making art, and they used to be able to pay next to nothing for sharing an apartment with a bunch of people or an art co-op, all of those places have all been shut down, so squatting was something a lot of artists, creative people and musicians did. And a lot of punks, like if you read old books about Punk, you can read about bands like The Slits and The Clash in the very beginning, they were all squatters. It just gives you a lot of time to work on things that you’re passionate about but that the world doesn’t think is important until somehow you make a name for yourself and then all of a sudden everyone’s like, “Oh wow- this person’s so creative and important!” But until then, you just have to do your shitty day job and squat.”
I could have typed out more of this interview, but I was getting tired of transcribing it all! My sister’s mic is a little quieter than mine in the beginning, but equalizes around 1:45:
Instead of my usual roster of drunken, hedonistic, broke-ass losers, I thought I’d write a more uplifting post about an artist who has actually had some great success from their work- even when they were mired in the depths of despair. Yes, JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series of books. OK, so she’s not exactly Marcel Proust. And although I don’t consider her really a wild “Bohemian” like some of the other misfits I tend to profile in this blog, she is still, first and foremost, a writer- and a very successful one at that. Not that money is the be all end all of everything, but I do give her massive credit for hooking a new generation of kids back into the pleasure of books and reading. And her true life story is certainly one of quite prolific creativity, resilience and personal inspiration. Sometimes, we all hit rock bottom. As in, falling-on-your-ass-in-the-gutter-rock-fucking-bottom. So the only place you can possibly go from there is up, right?
Born in England in 1965, JK Rowling seemed like she was on her way to a somewhat interesting, educated Middle Class life. She graduated from college, and was working in London as a researcher for Amnesty International. It was on a trip to Manchester via Kings Cross station that she became delayed on the train and the inspiration for the Harry Potter books were born. Harry, his sidekicks and the plots of the other 6 novels pretty much “just came to her”. She started simply by scribbling her ideas out by hand onto scraps of paper whenever she could. But, this was only a small seed, and it took many years and a series of traumatic struggles before her novels would finally come to any fruition at all.
About six months into writing the first book, Rowling’s life started to go wrong- really wrong. Her mother died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 45. Her mother’s death deeply effected her, and probably led to wanting a fresh start in life somewhere different. So, Rowling moved to Porto, Portugal to teach ESL English for a while and soon met her future husband, a Portuguese journalist. They were soon married, and after an earlier miscarriage, Rowling gave birth to her first child. But her marriage, by all reputes an abusive one, didn’t last longer than a year and she soon divorced her husband, and fled with her daughter back to England along with the first three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase.
Back in the UK, Rowling made the journey up to Scotland where her sister lived so she could get back on her feet and restart life with her new daughter. But, luck was hard to find for her in these times and things only went from bad to worse. She found herself a broke, single mom, unemployed and on the dole. This situation remained unchanged for a good number of years during her time in Edinburgh. In her words: “I never expected to mess up so badly that I would find myself in an unheated, mouse-infested flat, looking after my daughter. And I was angry because I felt I was letting her down.”
Rowling also admits to feeling near suicidal depression during this time, as well as her ex seeking her out and having to file a restraining order against him. “I was definitely clinically depressed. And that’s just characterized for me by, a numbness, just a sort of coldness and an inability to believe that you will feel happy again or that you could feel light-hearted again,” she said. “It’s just all the color drained out of life really.”
Whiling away her days in a nearby cafe, Rowling would continue writing her first novel with her sleeping child in a pram by her side. It was only this artistic outlet, and her young daughter that kept her impassioned to simply try to improve her life in any way that she could. At this point, it was all she had. She had to make make it happen. There was simply nothing left for her to do. Failing at writing: what difference did it make? Her whole life was up to that point was one big succession of failures and disappointments, one after another. So what if she tried and failed again: there was absolutely nothing to lose, was there?
Well, we all know the story from here: the first Harry Potter novel was eventually published and became the runaway international success story most of us are familiar with. JK Rowling went from being a battered, stalked, welfare mom, living in a freezing cold apartment to being, as rumor would now have it, “richer than the Queen herself”. The Harry Potter books have become the best selling book series in history, somewhere in excess of 400 million copies. Rowling now no doubt lives a life of comfort, ease and well-deserved financial security. She has also been a prolific philanthropist, using her newfound fame and fortune to aid single parents, anti-poverty charities, and fight multiple sclerosis.
I think the point of all of this, in terms of the creative process, is that you gotta produce. Even when life has shit in your scrambled eggs, and then kicked you down in the dirt some more. Hell, even if life is pretty good: if you’re a painter, a sculptor, a street busker, an aspiring actor- create something. Anything. Make it happen, you never know where it might lead. Even if it’s crap to begin with, you can always fix and edit it later on. I’m a firm believer in simply getting started no matter how tough it is, and then worry about how it looks later on down the line. Get over that hump in you life: whether its poverty, depression, breakups or clogged drains. Probably success will not reward you the same way JK Rowling found it, but if your life sucks right now, you have nothing to lose do you? So go make it happen, any which way you can.
What’s your opinion: Does hitting rock bottom light the fire under our asses to make better art? Do we have to suffer to become great?
Yet what does success really mean? I suppose this can be subjective from individual to individual, but I think it goes without saying that the United States in particular is a very success driven society. And success in the US only means two things: Money and Fame. You could probably throw Power in there too, and then make it some combination of all three. People often judge each other on how much of each they have accumulated, and many break their back daily to achieve more. Even our presidents are often voted into office simply by virtue of the fact that they have achieved financial success or media fame. If they have been successful in these avenues, then surely they’re fit to run the country. They are the apotheosis of all that is most important in society. Everything else is secondary, and those who have not achieved Money, Fame and Power are worthless losers fit only for the glue factory. The poor, the sick, the elderly, even the average, had best get out of the way lest they block the heaven-like ascent of their Darwinian superiors…
All this driven desire for success can create a lot of pressure on us as a whole. I know for myself, sometimes I start listening to the voices in my head judging me for all that I haven’t accomplished. Should I have more money? Own property? Be more ambitious? How does my career compare with my high school classmates? There’s nothing worse than comparing yourself to others. Something in our society continually nags at us to always have these highfalutin’ goals that we’re always supposed to be pursuing, even at the expense of family lives, romantic lives, sleep and even our own sanity. Even when we achieve them, we’re supposed to remain dissatisfied and go on to achieve even more. You have a BA- go and get an MA. Oh, done with that,? Now go get a PhD!
What’s wrong with sometimes simply just being satisfied with what we have? There’s plenty of people out there in the world who are more than happy to just do a non-stressful job, come home and have their money for beer, video games and maybe little weed. An apartment, burritos for dinner, bbq’s on the weekend in the sun. Why is that considered abnormal somehow? Are we all supposed to be perpetually so ambitious all the time? And at what price?
In the town of Palo Alto, home of Stanford University and not far from Silicon Valley (apparently the pinnacle of success these day), high school age suicides rates are the highest in the country. According to many articles written about these kids, who are by and large very affluent and attending the best schools with the best life chances laid out before them like a red carpet, the pressure on them to be “the best” is insane. Even if the parents don’t singularly pressure their children to get into Harvard, the culture that surrounds them is implicit- whether they realize it or not. Does it make you a big disappointment if you don’t go on to become the Billionaire CEO of a technology startup? What if you just ended up opening a cafe instead, greeting the regular customers who came in and provided a chill, welcoming place for your neighborhood to socialize. Is one more “of merit” than the other?
It’s just never seemed that way to me. I cannot ever understand how spending the majority of my waking life clicking the enter key all day in a cubicle, stressed out as fuck, can ever be measured as some sort of benchmark of “success”. Sure, we can’t avoid work, but dying unfulfilled after a squandered life is nothing to boast about either. Our time on this Earth is merely transitory, and I hope that I can make the most out of it to the best of my ability.
Success to me is pursuing my dreams as they are individually true to me. And before I’m gone, more than anything else, I hope to have seen the strange foreign lands that come to me in my dreams. I hope to have done all the things that I wanted to do. As a Bohemian, money, prestige, fame and boasting rights have never really interested me. In fact, I don’t think I could ever be motivated enough to try and sacrifice my life simply to gain these things that don’t matter to me. I choose to fill my life with pleasure, adventure, music and passion. Life is to be cherished.
So what is success anyway when it comes down to it? Does he who dies with the most toys wins?
Little is known about the strange and fascinating world of the Bouzingos, a group of poets, misfits and malcontents who inhabited Paris in the 1830’s. Indeed, much of it is now only a myth that has become somewhat distorted through the mists of time. Their members did however exist as real people, the French poet Gerard de Nerval being the most famous. He was rumored to have owned pet lobster named Thibault that he took out on daily walk through the royal Tuileries gardens. Why did he do such a thing you might ask? Because as Nerval explains:
“Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do.”
OK, that clears things up, though I can definitely say with certainty that no dog in my lifetime will ever know the secrets of the deep.
Nerval and his band of merrymakers set about offending pretty much everyone they could (this was probably pretty easy to do in the 1830’s). They believed that the middle and upper classes should be provoked and made to feel uncomfortable by the idea of artists behaving badly. They reveled in their poverty, influencing the later Bohemians to do the same. These brazen scoundrels dressed in flamboyant costumes involving velvet capes, Arab garb and Cossack leather boots. Rumors abound that the Bouzingos (I have no idea where they got this name) hosted wild parties in their Parisian apartments where clothes were banned and wine was drunk from human skulls. They also had a disturbing penchant for busking on street corners using instruments that they had absolutley no idea how to play. I doubt they earned very much money, though I’m sure the upstairs neighbors threw the odd egg or rotten tomato their way after listening to these concerts for the umpteenth time.
Many of the Bouzingos also spent their time traveling, especially to “exotic” destinations like Italy, Turkey and Egypt. Nerval, perhaps inspired by his wanderings, created the “Club des Hashischins” along with his friends Theophile Gautier and Baudelaire. There, with other literary notables of the day, they held seances and experimented with opium and hashish from the Far East (and God know what else)- again probably terrifying the neighbors.
The Bouzingos can definitely be credited with being some of the first people to do the sorts of wacky things we come to expect from alternative-minded folks in the our own modern age: slumming it in a run-down area of town, offending conservative society with confrontational art, doing drugs and practicing open sexuality. Their mindset and lifestyle can be seen in the works of Salvador Dali and the Surrealists (Dali walked about town with his pet anteater), as well as even Punk Rock: anybody can play an instrument, right?
These folks seemed pretty freaking cool, and if I had access to a time machine, I’d definitely want to go back to the 1830’s and make their acquaintance. If I knew any French, I’d even try to have a conversation with them over a bottle of rotgut wine. I think any party where clothes are banned and cocktails are served in human skulls is my kind of Saturday night. Far more fun than dressing up in an itchy tuxedo and seeing the opera. Perhaps I should rename this blog “Romantic Bouzingo” instead of “Romantic Bohemian”, though I admit, it doesn’t have quite the same ring…
Would you consider yourself a Bouzingo? Is everything we do today as artists and malcontents just ripping off these guys? Did the Bouzingos lay the blueprint for the rest of us to come?