Hi Karate or Old Spice?
So what have you been watching this holiday season past? Me, I just watched The Royal Tenenbaums again. It’s such a great movie, for so many reasons, not least of which is the sublime soundtrack. The use of Nico’s ‘These Days’ in the scene where Richie comes back from his self-imposed isolation on the cruise ship is just so awesome. I think it’s maybe one of my favourite scenes from any movie anywhere. It ranks up there with the Mary Chain’s ‘Just Like Honey’ in Lost In Translation. I’d forgotten though that Elliott Smith’s beautiful ‘Needle In The Hay’ was used in the Richie attempted suicide scene. Watching it now, it’s inevitably got a creepy resonance. It has made me go back and listen to those early Elliott Smith records. I loved them to bits back in the day, and they still sound brittle and beautiful.

I’ve also been re-watching the Freaks And Geeks series. If you don’t already know by now, I think that Freaks And Geeks was pretty much the greatest TV show of all time. It is truly unsurpassed. I mean, I am a sucker for pretty much anything that’s in any way a thoughtful musing on the whole High School teenage experience (hey, I could even watch John Hughes’ classic series of ‘80s movies forever and never get bored of them), but Freaks And Geeks just manages to leave them all behind so effortlessly. I think it’s genius lies in the way it doesn’t attempt to look back at the High School experience with any kind of nostalgic fuzzy warmth. It’s a warts and all reflection. I mean, I honestly cannot think of any other show or movie that has so many painfully awful moments; those moments of obsessive teenage fumbling for identity and the search for the means of expression that come out all wrong and leave you wanting to dissolve you into the carpet. So from Nick’s smotheringly embarrassing rendition of Styx’s ‘Lady’, through Sam’s Parisian nightsuit nightmare (somehow so much worse than his naked race through the school corridors) to Millie singing ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ at the keg party (but hey, The Byrds did that song, so that makes Saint Millie cool, right?), these are magically captured snapshots of characters growing up and coming to terms with themselves, their peers and their place in the world. And did I mention it’s hilarious?

To pick highlights from a series of such consistent brilliance would be pointless, but I do think that the final three episodes are nevertheless the finest, probably because by the time they were made the writers knew that a second season was never going to happen. The momentum really builds in these episodes, leading towards Lindsay’s great summer escape with Kim and the Dead Heads, Nick’s discovery of Disco and Daniel’s initiation into the realm of Dungeons and Dragons. From Freak to Geek in one simple step. It’s classic.

And of course the soundtrack rocks too. I never ever thought I would want to hear a Rush or Styx song in full, but Freaks And Geeks has had me downloading and, damn it, playing them on repeat for ooh, minutes at a time. I’ve even had them in my head whilst riding my bike. I mentioned this fact on my blog recently, making a connection between Rush’s ‘Spirit of Radio’ and The VU’s ‘Rock and Roll’. It seemed to me that it’s a valid connection to make, and I stand by my contention that the Rush song would be right there with the VU one if only it didn’t have that awful cod-reggae section slapped in the middle. I thought I was being really positive, so I was amused to see a comment posted by someone in the US that seemed to have been beamed in from the late ‘60s, which I think is the last time that maybe knowledge and appreciation of the VU was ever really confined to the LA/NYC art/music journalist scene. The comment actually confused me a little, because I assumed that the eclectic nature of the consumption of American Rock in the US was the kind where you actually could play Rush next to the VU and it not be seen as totally out of place. In the UK (certainly in my youth) you could never have gotten away with that. And that’s partly what’s so great about the Freaks And Geeks soundtrack. You get to hear XTC, The Grateful Dead, Styx and The Ramones in the same show. Classy. Not to mention the whole Who infatuation that particularly creeps into the latter episodes. Now I’m not too proud to say that I never really understood the appeal of The Who post-Sell Out (I was never even a great fan of the Quadrophenia soundtrack ­ I thought the best thing about the album was the gatefold sleeve and the ace photos) until I heard snatches of Who’s Next on Freaks And Geeks. And now I totally get it; I totally get the appeal of the marvellously overblown and histrionic performances. Doesn’t mean I want to dress in denim and get a perm, but hey… Similarly, the show made me recognise what a genuinely genius record The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty is, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
For all that, though, the show is really about the characters and their experiences, is really about the nature of growing up in an early ‘80s US High School. And whilst that inevitably means some of the references are lost crossing the Atlantic, it doesn’t matter at all, because it’s genius is not in its period accuracy but rather in its eloquent expression of the essence of that (teen)age.

Talking of teenage experiences, I’ve been enjoying Jona Frank’s High School collection of portraits of 16 to 18 year olds recently. The photographs are great, but as is often the nature with such things, it’s the whole package that lends the individual images meaning. The book depicts the whole gamut of social strata within the contemporary US High School system, and whilst the lack of school uniform allows the groupings to be more visually obvious than they often are in UK High Schools, the underlying idea of the self-built social structures is definitely translatable. There’s a fine introduction by Gus Van Sant, in which he draws references to his brilliant Elephant (makes me want to see that movie again) and a terrific quote courtesy of Donna Gaines from her Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids that talks about how in spite of the changes of the namings and content of teenagers’ social groupings over the past half century or so, the jocks is the one that, “with or without steroids” has remained constant at the head of affairs. I’ve got Gaines book on order, though goodness knows when I will find the time to read it.

As good as the portraits are, however, the closing section of High School is perhaps even more interesting. Here, after a lovely hand written introductory page and interspersed with pages of quotes and observations by Frank, the students themselves give voice to their feelings, opinions, theories about High School and their identities. It’s fascinating stuff, as much for trying to draw out the lines that begin to draw a portrait of how you remember your own high school self as for anything else.

© 2005 Alistair Fitchett