The clothes make the man – THIS IS NOT A TEST #30 (transcript)

Published July 18, 2015

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Hello, hooray, let the show begin, I’ve been ready. Roll out! Roll out with your American dream and its recruits, I’ve been ready. Roll out! Roll out with your circus freaks and hula hoops, I’ve been ready. It’s me, your sidekick Michael Phillips, and I’m ready. Are you ready? Ah, man, these long summer days. I hate ’em. I don’t like sunlight at 7:30 p.m. I like winter. When the sun goes down at 5. Why? I don’t know. It’s unnatural, isn’t it. But that’s me. The summer heat here in Los Angeles doesn’t bother me so much because there’s hardly ever any humidity. Growing up in Minnesota I got used to unbearable, inhuman amounts of humidity pretty much constantly for half of the year. But I don’t know if I could take it now. I’ve been out here in the desert too long. I say that, but you did you know that Los Angeles is not actually desert? We’re very close to some awesome deserts, but our climate is technically a Mediterranean climate. It’s true. So next time someone starts yapping about how Los Angeles is a desert, you can shut them up with facts. Go ahead. Do it. But yeah, humidity is no friend of mine, Carol and I were thinking of going up to Minnesota in August, but then I came to my senses. If we go we’ll probably go in the fall and watch all the leaves die. Yeah, I’m talking about the weather. Does that mean I’ve lost it? Lost my edge? Is it all over for me? It very well could be. Maybe this is the first sign.

I think one of the things I don’t like about the summer is seeing guys where I work walking around in shorts. Like, grown men. For real. They get up in the morning and say, “Well, time to go to work,” and they put on shorts. And a couple of them even wear flip-flops on their feet, right there below their shorts. I don’t get it, man. It’s usually pretty casual at an Internet company, meaning you can wear whatever the hell you want. And I’ll admit I wore shorts to work fifteen years ago. But the older you get, the more those shorts should stay in the drawer. Seriously. But I suppose it also has to do with your position in the company. When I was wearing shorts I was just a support dink. But as I got better and better positions I noticed something, and that is, the guys in charge, the ones who really ran shit, they weren’t flopping around the halls dressed for a trip to the beach. For the most part, they dressed like they ran shit. The clothes make the man, right? Or woman. I’m not trying to be sexist, that’s just the way the saying goes. Don’t attack me on Twitter, I’m on your side.

So yeah, the more I ran shit the more I tended to look for what passes as respectable in my business. In a real business it would probably not make the mark. I’m not wearing ties. Just pants that cover my legs all the way down to the shoes and shirts with buttons on them. But even that little bit of halfhearted effort makes me stand out at work, where most of the people are in t-shirts. I’m weird though, when I settle on a look, I kind of just duplicate that look out to infinity. Meaning I wear one kind of pants – or one pair of pants…I think it’s been a month since I washed the dark jeans I’m wearing lately. Seriously, why wash pants every time you wear them? Unless you dig gardens for a living or spill guacamole on yourself or don’t wear underwear, your pants aren’t really going to get dirty, are they? Anyway, even if I did change my pants every day, they’d all be the same. All of my shirts are the same, just different colors and patterns. My shoes – I two pairs of Converse and four pairs of Doc Marten’s that I wear to work. And speaking of Doc Marten’s, I’ve worn the boots forever, and I found out a while ago that they’re mostly made in China now, since 2003 or something.

Which is fine, I think a bored Chinese person can make a shoe just as well as a bored British person, but I have to say that of the four pairs I have right now, only one is old enough to be British made, and it’s the best of the bunch. The fit is a little weird on the Chinese ones, and I’ve been wearing one black pair for like five years and the fuckers just don’t break in. The brown British pair is perfect. But those black boots – it’s like they’re made out of some form of alien cow leather, or super cow, because they look just like the day I bought them. I really don’t think just because something is made in China that it’s automatically junk. People are people, it’s all about the materials used. If the materials are good, why can’t someone in China make my guitar or my shoes or my car. Parts is parts, man, just different people putting them together. And I know that there are some fucked up labor practices in China, so no hate mail for that either. But it’s almost impossible to be alive and not buy anything that was made in China. And you know it wasn’t that long ago that kids worked in sweatshops right here in America. It hasn’t even been 100 years since we started fixing that mess. So I always cringe a little when I read some self-righteous anti-China labor shit from some smug Anglo. China will get it’s shit together. Give them a minute.

What was I talking about? Clothes, wearing the same clothes every day. Yeah, so even though I’m wearing different stuff every day, it’s all the same style and I always look the same. My standard look. My self-imposed uniform. We all wear uniforms, whether we admit it or realize it. If you’re a punk rock kid listening to this in a squat somewhere, you are wearing a uniform, I’ll guarantee it. Business uniforms and military and police uniforms are just more noticeable, but we all wear them. Clothes are signifiers to others who we want to drawn near or repel. Years ago I was outside a record shop with my friend Brad and a buy walked past us – this was in the summer, in humid Minnesota – the guy was wearing a long coat and a torn up sweater and big furry boots. He walked past us and Brad said, “That’s fuck you fashion.” And he was right. That guy was telling us who he was or how crazy he wanted us to think he was with all that garb. But we’re all in uniforms of one kind or another.

Clothes are so funny anyway. I take off my uniform and put on something more pretty the minute I walk in the door after work. If I put on anything at all, which I usually don’t. But I can’t go to the grocery store or even walk out to the mailbox naked. I mean I could, but I’d probably be arrested. I’m not a nudist, I just don’t like wearing clothes much of the time. We covered ourselves back in ye olden times because the weather was lousy in those caves and castles. But I live in a Mediterranean climate, man. I don’t need clothes most of the time. Still we wear them and who knows what would happen if we didn’t. I think that covering up the body shame thing is way too deeply ingrained in us now to change things at all. Look at the thing some women are doing now in New York and probably other cities, going around topless and saying, “Hey man, there’s nothing wrong with this, don’t lose your mind.” Their argument is men aren’t required to wear shirts and a nipple is a nipple. And you can’t really argue with that. But when they go out topless it’s always a thing, a performance. A protest, yes. But it’s not casual. It’s planned and they do it in groups. Probably because that’s the only safe way to do it.

Imagine a Victorian era woman with her thirty layers of underwear and metal and bone and heavy fabric covering every inch of her body and a hat on her head seeing these gaggles of New York women walking down the sidewalk or laying in the park topless. Imagine if you could go back to those times and tell them, “Hey, you know, pretty soon you won’t have to wear all of that. You’ll be able to walk around topless in fact.” They’d probably have you arrested. Or would they. I think about that a lot, because I don’t think people change that much, not in the course of a few hundred years anyway, so did Victorian women really think that much differently than the nude New Yorkers? Or were they just victims of the narrow minded and puritanical whims of a few people in charge of things. Or in charge of fashion. And you know it was men inventing that shit, those giant dresses. No one would invent that to wear themselves. If you think about how New York probably smelled in 1875, and then imagine walking around in the summer in those clothes…it’s no wonder women used to carry smelling salts in little jeweled cases hung from a pin or a necklace. They were probably passing out every day on the way to do the shopping. “How many times did you faint today Molly?” “Oh heavens, twas a good day, I only fell faint thrice!”

But 1875 wasn’t that long ago. And if you were in a big city ain 1905 you’d still see women in those clothes, but 15 years later they’d thrown it all away and were running around in flapper garb. That’s a fast change, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t think the Victorian woman is that much different than any other woman today. They wasted no time getting rid of the heavy, overdone Victorian clothes and going wild in gin joints and speakeasies. If that wasn’t already in our collective consciousness as a country it would have never happened that fast. It’s like the hippies closing the door on the 50s and all of the post WWII plastic phony bullshit. No one wanted to be the family from Leave it to Beaver. They wanted to be free and get high and fuck each other. They wanted to do that in the 50s – and some people did – but society kept most of them from it. Like society put the whalebone corsets on our great great grandmothers. We want what we want, but we’re constrained, and most of us would probably wear something that looked like a tablecloth or bed sheet if clothes weren’t such an important societal signal. But they are, and when it comes right down to it, we all buy in to society. We all seem to agree that what we’re doing right now is what we should be doing, and we’re smarter and cooler than anyone has ever been in the history of humanity. Well, most of us agree. If the majority agrees, there’s your society. That’s all it takes.

So here we are, in our clothes. Well, maybe you’re wearing clothes while you listen to this. I’m probably not wearing much while I record it. Which is one of the reasons I haven’t turned on the camera when I record this, like I said I was considering. The camera is here, it’s mounted up on the wall and ready to go. I just haven’t done it yet because I’m usually recording this without much on and if I give you video of that you’ll go wild and it might disrupt your whole life. You’ll start stalking me and writing songs and poems for me and sending me boxes of frozen steaks. Well, that wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s how crazy good looking me and my body are. People just can’t take it. It’s a burden I live with, and I don’t want to bother you with it here.

And while we’re talking about clothes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about Comic-Con, which just happened again last week down in San Diego. You know what Comic-Con is, right? It started out a long time ago as a comics convention, but now it’s a big costume party. It’s thousands of people milling around the San Diego convention center, half of them wearing costumes and posing, the other half taking pictures of them. There’s a convention of sorts too I suppose, sessions where the celebrities of this subculture speak into microphones and answer questions and autograph $300 dolls. Now I’ve lived most of my life in subcultures of one kind or another, so I really do understand why people want to dress up and why they might be into anime or manga or the other thousand things that make up Comic-Con. I don’t understand making and wearing the costumes. Most of the things the costumes reference are really idiotic and infantile. Cartoons and comic book characters. Super heroes. I’m baffled as to how any adult could have an interest in a super hero movie. Like why adults go to see the Fantastic Four or whatever the hell those things are. Captain America. Really? If I went past that on my TV and could see it for free in my underwear on my couch I wouldn’t do it. I just don’t get the appeal.

But movies aside, what really fascinates me about the people who anticipate Comic-Con all year and practically pee their pants when they finally get to walk in the door is the weird relationship between the people wearing the costumes and the hundreds of people who show up just to photograph them. If you ever see pictures from Comic-Con – and you can hardly not see any – in the backgrounds you’ll usually see hundreds of people aiming cameras at the same thing at the same time. The cameras are everywhere because the young girls in tight, stretchy costumes are everywhere. They are called cosplayers. because everything has to have a name and special terminology, and if you just said, “I like wearing costumes,” everyone would think you were weird. And if you told them you spent all of your spare time making those costumes, they’d really think there was something wrong with you. So they came up with the cosplayer name and that legitimized the whole thing, because you can’t have an official name for something unless it’s legit, right?

But at Comic-Con the people in the costumes – the cosplayers – seem to crave the attention of all of those cameras. Even when they’re held up by smelly, grinning mouth breathers. And again, if you look at the backgrounds of the pictures of people posing at Comic-Con you’ll see the mouth-breathers and the hundreds of people around them posing. Everyone who isn’t holding a camera is posing. Maybe that’s the entire point of this thing, I don’t know. And if it’s what someone wants to do, they ought to do it. I suppose if someone likes to dress up like a character from whatever, then the ultimate end goal of that dressing up is to have someone notice them. Otherwise you’re just standing in front of a mirror in your house, and that’s got to be an awkward feeling, even for the most hardened cosplayer. No man, for them Comic-Con is the super bowl, or New Year’s Eve or Halloween, which, incidentally used to be the day for fully grown people who like to wear costumes to do their thing. We still have that you know, cosplayers. Halloween. It’s still a thing. You don’t have to go to San Diego every year, you can do it right on your block.

But I know that would defeat the purpose. The goal of the costume is to be seen and adored and photographed and photographed and photographed. Which is certainly fine. But it has to be embarrassing when you show up to Comic-Con as Spiderman, and in the first 15 minutes you’re there you see 38 other Spidermen. Or if you’re one of 84 Catwomen walking around the convention center. But I suppose if you’re the best Catwoman there’s some bragging rights there. But bragging rights to who? All it means is more pervy basement-dwellers will take your picture. I’d get Comic-Con if they were off somewhere among themselves, appreciating each other and doing whatever they do in those costumes in the hotel after the convention center closes. It’s the spectacle of the thing that is odd, and that’s what takes it from being subculture to culture, and from a bunch of people enjoying their own personal freakiness to something much less wonderful. To me, anyway.

Eventually every subculture is co-opted and absorbed and made mainstream. And like Heisenberg’s microscope, the observation, dissection or mainstreaming of any subculture always winds up affecting (or destroying) whatever was appealing about it to the original adopters. It only took 20 years for a tattoo on your neck to go from being a shocking and permanent sign of outsider status to being nothing more than a fashion statement. A design picked off a wall in a shop in Las Vegas. There’s nothing anyone can do about that, except move on to the next secret, taboo, underground thing. Which is probably what’s happening with the ridiculous oversaturation of Comic-Con costumery. The people who started it are probably long gone and all that’s left are the ones with the tragic and borderline psychotic need to be seen and documented. They need it so much that they’re more than willing to parade themselves around in front of people who don’t even understand them. Who just want to exploit them or masturbate while thinking about them or sell their picture to some website – or all of those things. And all of that just turn the thing that they consider to be wonderful and turns it into something that’s just plain sad. If grown men and women running around in costumes and posing at each other in a grand celebration of nothing wasn’t already sad enough.

But if we’re all wearing costumes anyway, what’s the difference? I don’t know. Maybe none. Comic-Con doesn’t hurt anyone, as far as I know. On the list of things that are really really stupid it’s up there, but it’s not at the top. It’s not as stupid as neckties, for instance. Really. Do you wear a tie? DO you have to? I can’t imagine that anyone who doesn’t have to would. For what reason? “This outfit looks great, but what it’s missing is a strip of different colored fabric running almost all the way down the middle of it. You know, from just under my chin to around my belly button. That’s what it needs! I should invent that!” But ties are a societal norm. Not as much as they once were, but I still see them every day on guys who work in the building where my office is. because in a certain kind of job you have to look a certain way or no one will take you seriously. When I was in punk bands we couldn’t have gone on stage in suits, people would have tarred and feathered us. Even though punk was supposed to be about freedom, right? It’s funny though, because for much of my punk career I was with Sonny Vincent, and he was from New York so he always wanted us to dress sharp.

Or at least not like slobs or fishermen. Not like the Replacements or Husker Du. Not like every punk kid in 1992 dressed. We had to look cool. Rock and roll, you know. That was a very New York thing. All of those guys in the 70s, before the CBGB punks came along, they looked cool. Johnny Thunders, could be practically incoherent, but he always had on a nice shirt. Richard Hell was the one who set all that aside and single handedly invented the punk rock costume that Malcolm McLaren took over to England and standardized. But now that I think of it, Richard Hell wasn’t even from New York. He and Tom Verlaine were from West Virginia or some shit. That’s something they don’t talk about when they talk about how punk came from New York, do they. Well, it came from New York, it just didn’t all come from people who were born in New York. But Sonny wanted us to look a certain way, and I was down with it. Who doesn’t want to look cool? It set us apart from the other fishermen on the scene in town and kind of alienated everyone, which is also funny if you think about it. By then, around 1980, punk was already writing up its rule book, and the hardcore kids would come in and carve it into stone. But we did what we wanted to do, and we wanted to look cool.

But I’ll bet you didn’t know that you couldn’t buy black jeans in Minnesota in 1980. You couldn’t. So I made my own in a big pot on top of the stove, dying regular Levi’s for hours in a foul smelling bubbling cauldron of Rit dye. It was the only way I could get black jeans, I’m telling you. I had other black pants, but jeans are jeans, and jeans will always be cool. SO I dyed. One of the interesting things about black dye is no matter how many times you rinse or wash the jeans after the dye bath, they still leave black marks on everything they touch for months. So my wrists, my waist, they were constantly black. I looked like a coal miner or something, which is still cooler than a fisherman. So we did all that and walked around and we were rock and roll and no one cared. I mean it didn’t seem to work in our advantage. But there were probably so many other things that weren’t working in our advantage that the clothes hardly mattered.

But when I left the punk scene to go off and play reggae I found myself in another uniform. Because in the 70s and early 80s all the dreads were decking themselves out in military gear. Army surplus stuff, ready fe battle with Babylon, seen? So it just goes to show you, you can’t escape this stuff. It doesn’t matter what you do, where you live, who you hang around with, you’re always going to be in a circle and that circle is going to have a uniform. On the bright side, at least we’ll all look good when the alien shock troops come down to take us away or liquidate us. They’re coming you know. I read it on the Internet. Hold tight babies, and we’ll do this all again next time. Be ready.



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