Published January 16, 2016
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Greetings and salutations. It’s my pleasure and privilege to be with you here today, right now, in these times, in this place. If this episode is posted a little late on Saturday, it’s because I worked 12 hour days – without a break, I might add – on Thursday and Friday due to a…catastrophe at work. Which cut deeply into my usual podcast prepping time. It’s so rude and inconvenient when something as trivial as work encroaches on life, isn’t it? They’ve got a lot of nerve, demanding and squandering our precious time like that. Well, it pays the bills, doesn’t it. Hopefully some kind of work is paying your bills and you aren’t just lying around eating cheese blintzes that you buy with your Powerball winnings.
Anyway, let’s get to it. The bad news. The rock and roll death parade continues on in its grim glory, now that David Bowie has died. I have to say at the outset here that Bowie was never my cup of tea, though he had a lot of great pop songs: changes, young Americans, golden years – all that stuff you’ve probably heard a hundred times in the past week. I really appreciate a good pop song, wherever it comes from. The outpouring of grief over his death everywhere gives me the idea that I’m in the minority, when I say I don’t dig Bowie, but I think some of that grief might be the result of shock, since he kept tight-lipped about his cancer. We don’t like to think about things like that happening, so when you spring it on people and remind them of their own eventual fate, they freak out a little bit. If we’d known he was on his way out for the last year or something maybe the response wouldn’t have been so intense. People would have still talked about it, but it wouldn’t be so visceral, so emotional. It’s that out-of-nowhere shock that gets you. Like someone being hit by a bus, or struck by lightning, or murdered and burned in their home. That, “one day they’re here, the next day they’re gone” thing is tough to deal with. Or maybe the response would have been the same no matter what.
The reaction to Bowie’s death – that I’m seeing online, anyway – reminds me of December in 1980, when John Lennon was murdered. Like Bowie, Lennon wasn’t what you could really call culturally relevant when he died, but it seemed like everyone was affected and saddened by his death. Of course we don’t mourn artists for what they’ve done lately, we mourn them for what we remember and the things they did that we think were great. Or we mourn our own lost youth, and they remind us of that. Either way, it’s good, we should remember the great parts and to hell with the rest of it. And like Lennon, Bowie had fans across a few generations, so their deaths affected a wide swath of people. But if you would have asked me a week ago what the reaction would be when David Bowie died I would have suspected it would be like when Lou Reed or Lemmy died. A lot of people would type, “that sucks,” post a picture they Googled and forget about it. But that’s not what I saw at all. The shock and sadness is genuine and wide-reaching, and that’s something that you just can’t deny. He deeply affected a lot of people, who I think were all young and disaffected at some point, outsiders, queers, freaks, and Bowie kind of gave them someone to look up to and think, “Gee, maybe some day people will think I’m okay.” That’s a pretty valuable service to provide to humanity.
So even though he may not have been a hot topic of conversation in a long time, when he died it reminded a lot of people of a lot of things, and all of that came out in the grief and tributes and everything that we see when someone famous dies. If we may talk about music for a minute though – I had a fundamental problem with Bowie, and it’s the same problem I have with David Byrne and Paul Simon and that ilk, and that is they are all cultural appropriators. Meaning they see something that’s relatively fringey or unknown and adopt that style and make it popular. White singers have been doing that for a hundred years, so it isn’t unusual or surprising, it just bothers me when people fawn over these guys and pretty much ignore the people they’re biting their style and sound from. Go back and look at pictures of David Bowie from 1971. He was wearing floppy denim hats and bell bottoms and little house on the prairie dresses. Then in 1972 he came to America and saw the New York Dolls, and the next thing you know, he’s Ziggy Stardust! And the guitars are louder and it’s rock and roll, baby. It’s glam. And speaking of Ziggy Stardust, I never bought that whole – thing. It seemed more like a Broadway show about rock and roll than actual rock and roll to me. And I’m pretty sure Bowie looked at it the same way. He never struck me as being very rock and roll, anyway. More art than rock.
But it sure seemed like every time he chameleoned into a new persona, there was a subculture – or at least a culture Americans and Britons were just unaware of – behind it. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. There are cultural shifts and artists always ride them. It’s just a thing I have, it’s my own personal problem. I like the people out on the front of the wave. Putting something on the line. Willing to ride that wave down when it crashes, and just deal with the broken teeth and sand in their shorts. The ones who aren’t looking around for something to take, but trying to create something that’s theirs. You know, for the most part. And I called those guys cultural appropriators, but that’s just my own bias. I don’t know if that’s what they were doing or if they genuinely loved the music they…borrowed. If they did love it, then good for them for playing it. It just seems a little – I don’t know, man. I like artists who know who they are. You can put Bob Dylan in a cowboy hat or a different pair of pants or a dress, he can record an album with Sly and Robbie or sing about Jesus, but he’s still always Bob Dylan. No matter what. I like that.
But for Bowie, more than any music he ever made, what I’ll mainly remember him for was keeping Iggy Pop alive. In 1975 Iggy was lost, he was still carving himself up and wondering why no one gave a damn about him. He was still being Iggy Stooge, only the Stooges were gone. He was a fucked up mess who everyone expected to find dead curled up next to a dumpster in an alley behind Hollywood Boulevard. In 1976 Bowie dragged Iggy along on the Station To Station tour, and after that they went to Berlin and made a bunch of records together that a lot of people think are the best records either one of them ever made.
I know I’m simplifying all of that, the time period and their relationship, and it’s pretty clear that they both got something out of it – and that they both took enough drugs to fill a bathtub. It wasn’t like Bowie took Iggy to a rehab. And yes, I know that Brian Eno played a large part in those Bowie records. But Bowie definitely helped Iggy find his creative mojo at a time when Iggy could have gone either way. So that’s what I mean when I say he saved his life. Bowie was definitely an artist though, someone preoccupied with creating, I’ll give him that. When I saw him playing keyboards in Iggy’s band, just anonymously there in the background – well, as anonymous as David Bowie could be – I knew he was in it for the music. You won’t find most singers or front men backing up someone else without trying to glom a little of that spotlight for themselves – most of those guys can’t even go to the bathroom without someone adoring them or paying attention to them on the way into the stall – but that didn’t seem to be what Bowie was doing with Iggy. I still can’t listen to his records, but it’s really too bad that he’s gone. He was a unique and interesting dude. Like I said when I talked about Lemmy, no one replaces these guys when they leave. Their species just shrinks on toward extinction.
Bob Marley said that all music comes from the same root and it should all be intermingled and mixed everyone should play together and it’s all just creation after all. And he certainly had a point. I don’t know. It’s all the same 12 notes I suppose. Mozart and Nikki Minaj, Louis Armstrong and Green Day. We latch onto a certain thing or person or sound and it’s all very personal and it becomes part of what defines us. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what defines us, or what defines me, more specifically.
Because a couple weeks ago Carol appeared on Mat Gleason’s talk show that he started on the Internets, and for whatever reason, he had a guest bail out of the show at the last minute so he asked me if I’d come on and do a few minutes. You know, be the opening act for Carol. So I went on first and killed – though they didn’t turn my mic on so you can’t really hear me killing – and then when I came off I was fixing Carol’s collar or something before she went on, and she said, “I have to fix something on you,” and I was like, what? What’s wrong, I’m not on camera anymore. And she starting messing with my hair and said, I think I saw something while you were sitting down there…like a little bald spot. A bald spot? Come on man. It’s me, mjp, I don’t have a bald spot. I said to her, maybe it was just a patch of grey or something, and she said, “No, it definitely wasn’t that.” So in the car on the way to dinner after the show I’m feeling around on top of my head, you know, pulling on little sections of hair and thinking, there’s no bald spot up there.
Then when we got home I looked in the mirror – did that thing you do with two mirrors to see the back of your head, you know – and I’m looking and moving hair around thinking, see, there’s no bald spot. What a bunch of crap. Then I moved a certain spot and there it was, shining out at me like a tiny little circle of pale meat, a little bigger than a quarter, or smaller than a half dollar, if you remember those quaint American coins. And you know, I have to say, that when I uncovered that thing, it was the weirdest feeling. It was really shocking. Like waking up one day and looking at your hand only one of the fingers is missing. It was there yesterday, now it’s just gone. It was like that. Probably because it was the first time I’d seen it and I didn’t have any clue that any such thing was happening up there. The spot where it is isn’t really visible usually, and the only reason Carol spotted it was because for some reason I’d parted my hair differently that day than I usually do.
It was also weird because I’m almost 56 years old, and it always seemed to me that people who were going to lose their hair always started losing it way before they got to their 50s. And there’s no baldness in my family, my dad is 76 years old and he still has a full head of hair. I think. I have to call him and see what’s going on up there. But aside from it being shocking and new and weird and all those things, it was really mostly weird because my identity has been so tied up in my hair for most of my life. So for days after seeing that little spot for the first time I was walking around through my life feeling like I was different now somehow. Pretty weird, isn’t it. Like I had some secret fermenting on my head there that no one could see. Like I was lying to everyone, with all this hair, pretending to not be bald. I can’t explain it very well, but it was very strange and it made me feel weird for days.
And it made me start to question myself, like why do I think my hair is such a part of me. Hair is so stupid anyway. It just sits there, in different shapes and colors on top of our heads. And I’ve even shaved all my hair off a few times. Usually I let it grow long then get tired of it and just take it all off. So it isn’t like I’ve always had this sad 60s burnt out hair that I currently have. But obviously it’s something I think about, I spent 10 minutes talking about hair and what it means just a couple episodes ago. Funny, isn’t it. Did I sense something? Ha, no, I’m not that self-aware. And I really don’t know how long that little patch has been up there. I haven’t had a haircut in 8 or 9 or 10 years, I don’t really remember, and like I said, the spot isn’t even visible normally. It could have been there for 5 years or 5 months, I have no idea. But I suppose I’ll be keeping track of it now, won’t I. In my vanity and fear. Fear of what?
It’s not like I’d die if I went bald. I imagine I’d embrace it, like I’ve embraced every other change with my body or my life. What choice would I have? I’m not going to rub Minoxidil or Rogaine on my head. Those things don’t work, and it’s kind of not my style anyway. I don’t really have anything against bald heads. I don’t think less of men with prominent scalps. It never really occurred to me. You can rock any non-hair look, except maybe that complex Donald Trump thing going on on top of his addled head. And as Carol so helpfully pointed out, if I was bald I could have different hair all time, just get a bunch of wigs. Which is the kind of thing we say to each other in moments of fear and doubt. We’re funny that way. But see, there’s an upside to everything. I don’t know, man. I wonder about why I’ve made this hair such an important part of me and I can’t come up with anything interesting to tell you. What are any of us but the things in our heads that we think we are. Whatever we perceive ourselves to be, that’s our reality. So I guess I perceived myself to be someone with a lot of hair. Who would always have a lot of hair. And who would never be bald. Even a little bit.
But it’s funny, because none of us are really what we perceive ourselves to be. Our identity that we carry around in our consciousness is not what the world sees. What we really are is some combination of what we think we are, and what everyone else thinks we are. And it’s probably mostly what everyone else sees. That dissonance is always there. It’s why we think we look different in pictures or our voices sound different when they’re recorded and played back to us. There’s a disconnect because we never see ourselves from the outside. Which is why I think it’s funny that psychologists call things like anorexia “disorders.” I can totally understand why some young girl might look in a mirror and see herself as fat when she’s not. We all see someone in the mirror who only we see. No one else in the world sees that person you see in the mirror. That person isn’t real. But then, the image we have of ourselves in our minds is as real as anything else. Which I guess means nothing is real. Which is probably close to the truth.
Which makes something like whether you have hair or fingernail or nostrils kind of a moot point. — And I know that anorexia is a real problem, please no hate mail or partiarch-misogony messages please. But identity is weird to think about. It’s weird to think about it too much anyway. We think it’s so solid but it’s really fluid, isn’t it. Didn’t David Bowie teach us that? Haven’t you ever caused some kind of change in your life or identity on purpose just to shake things up? When I was a kid I was pretty shy, and I never talked to girls or went out of my way to stand out. I did a lot of things that I see were weird in retrospect, things that made me stand out involuntarily, but I thought they were normal. They weren’t, but I thought they were. Anyway, when I was 15 years old we moved out of the small town I grew up in to the city. That was kind of traumatic, because it was the only house I’d ever known, and we ended up sort of relative surfing for a while, living in people’s basements and spare rooms, but by the time we settled in St. Paul, I’d decided I was going to be someone different at my new school.
I don’t know how I decided that, or why I thought I could do it. I just kind of figured it must be possible. So I went into the new school like I owned the joint. Very out of character for a shy kid from a tiny town, but, I don’t know, I just decided to do it and I did it. And it worked. It would have been reasonable for me to become even more shy or culture shocked, but I learned quickly that you are what people see. I learned that if I wanted to be the mysterious, cocky new rock and roll kid, that’s what I was to everyone there. What I knew or thought I really was didn’t matter. And who the people in the town I grew up in thought I was didn’t matter, because they were gone. Way back in the rear view mirror, baby. I didn’t have any past dragging me down in the new place. No reputation as – well, as anything. I was a blank slate and I could write anything I wanted to write on it.
I did the same thing when I left Minnesota and came to California. Just reinvented myself. I’m sure you’ve done it to if you really think about it. Most of us have some point in our lives when we get the opportunity to be whoever we want to be, because no one who knows who we used to be is around. Of course there are aspects of our personalities that don’t ever change. We can be whoever we want to be, but we can’t change the things that formed us in the first place. But you can change a lot of things. And what you can’t change you can fake until people believe it. I said I was shy, and that was obviously some formative shit that I can’t remember, but remember it or not, it shaped me, and no matter how I behaved, little parts of that still clung to me. Or cling to me. Like for one thing, 15-20 years ago or so, I couldn’t really look someone in the eyes when I talked to them. It was just uncomfortable for me, I don’t know why. I was like that even after I’d gone and reinvented myself a couple of times. So one day I thought, this is ridiculous, and I decided I was just going to look people in the eye, no matter how uncomfortable it made me.
And man, let me tell you, it was uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable for a long time, but I kept doing it. I kept doing it until it seemed natural. Well, not until it seemed natural, until it was natural. Until it was part of who I was. It’s like learning anything else. The first time you pick up a guitar and someone shows you where to put your fingers to make a chord and you press those fingers down onto the stings you think, “Ow! Jesus! What the hell is this?! I can’t do this!” But if you keep going, you learn, and if you do it long enough, the strings become extensions of your fingers. You’ve changed your behavior and your brain and you’re a different person than you were.
That’s what I meant when I said it wasn’t good to think too much about identity, because you start coming up with weird ridiculous shit like that. Anyway, if I go bald I’ll let you know. I’ll change the picture on the podcast page and you can see how beautiful my head is. How wonderfully and pleasingly shaped it is. Or I’ll just get those wigs Carol was talking about. They you won’t know what I look like. You’ll still know who I am though, because what I say here is who I am. When we talk to each other we learn about each other and we come to know who the other person is. I realize this is a one way conversation we’re having. Forgive me if I don’t let you get a word in. But what we talk about here or what I say or do with my life doesn’t have anything to do with what I think my identity or image is. What we do is who we are, and we define ourselves with our actions and our words, not our hair or clothes or cars or what bands we like. I know we all think those things define us, but ultimately they don’t, do they.
No one is going to remember you when you’re gone because you had an awesome boat or a full head of wonderful hair that flew around in the breeze while you were on your boat. They’ll remember what you meant to them, or what you did, good or bad. Hey, if they remember you at all, you’re ahead of the game, right? Most of us won’t be remembered for long at all. Once everyone who knew you is also gone, all that’s left behind is what you did. What you made. If you make records, they’ll be there. If you write books or make paintings, they’ll be there. If you make kids, they’ll be there. For a while. If you carve great monuments out of stone, people might remember you for hundreds of years, much longer than most. But even those stones will go back to being dust eventually, so we probably shouldn’t waste too much effort or worry or pain on the small stuff.
Speaking of small stuff, oh my god, there’s a TV show, it’s called Married at First Sight, and we’ve been watching it. Have you heard of it? Some psychologists interview and test and weed out 50 or 60 people who want to get married and then they match up a few pairs of them. But get this, the first time the new couples see each other is at their wedding ceremony. No, really. At their legal marriage. Can you imagine? I mean, who wants to be married so badly that they’d agree to marry a stranger? Or maybe the question should be, who wants to be on TV so badly that they’d agree to those kinds of shenanigans? As an experiment I suppose it’s interesting, because I do think you can probably learn to love someone if you spend a lot of time with them. I mean, some cultures still do arranged marriages, right? Most of those must work. I don’t know, maybe they don’t. In theory, anyway, I think it could work. But why would you want it to?
Why would you want psychologists, or all people, to choose a mate for you? Psychologists are the most fucked up people walking the face of the earth. Seriously. They’re all weirdos. You’d have to be a little goofy to even hear a concept like that and think, “Hmm, intriguing, I think I would like to try that!” But there they are. And the reaction of a couple of the women who were paired up was classic. They were not happy with the guys who were chosen for them. Not happy at all. But they got married anyway, and then they went on a “honeymoon” and now they’re living together. It’s so bizarre that even as I describe it to you here I feel like I’m making it up. But it’s real. It’s funny though that one of the things they weeded out – supposedly – was people who were too hung up on looks or “type.” Everyone who participates has to understand that maybe they’re going to walk down the aisle and see someone on the other end who isn’t their “type.” But still, two of the women just complained endlessly that the guys weren’t their type. And these poor guys, they’re so good natured and trying so hard and the women are just treating them like shit.
So why would you do it if you weren’t 100% down with the adventure, willing to ride it out whoever they put in front of you? I don’t know. I mean I don’t know why any of it is really happening, but at least if you climb onto that boat you should be looking forward to a cruise. It’s an inevitable train wreck, two of these couples, but I suppose that’s how it got on TV in the first place. Because the possibility of a train wreck to entertain us was always there. And I am entertained by it. I mean I’m irritated by it, but I suppose that’s a form of entertainment. Kind of. Isn’t it? Anyway, after six weeks of being together these people have to decide whether to stay married or get a divorce. I can’t imagine that any of these things end in an actual couple, but what do I know. I suppose if you really think about it, we all meet through some kind of random circumstance. Or we used to. Now I guess you can just use an app to find someone, but isn’t there randomness and chance involved there too?
All we want to have in this life, most of us anyway, is a partner in crime. Someone to hang around with, to do things with, to get affection from and to love. Seems like that’s where we all end up, either by chance, through work or friends, or the Internet, or on a TV show. Still, there’s something about doing it all in front of cameras. I really and truly don’t understand people who are up for that. It’s a new breed out there, a new race. And they’re all just waiting for me and everyone like me to die so they can be rid of all of us old analogs. Us people who don’t see an upside to having a bunch of people follow us into the bathroom with video cameras. Maybe in another generation or two, when you’re born you’ll be assigned a camera crew to document everything you do. because after all, pics or it didn’t happen, right? My sweet lord. Ooh my lord. Well, that’s enough for now. Goodnight George Harrison, and goodnight to you to, wherever you are. See you next time.