jonathan richmanCool Schmool

You have fifteen minutes to make your pitch. Your pitch is to be made in front of 200 clients, each of them filled with varying degrees of determination to remain unmoved. Your brief is to deliver words of wisdom and, perhaps, provocation, with a further requirement being that, in the words of the 'law', your pitch must be 'broadly Christian in content'. You stand there facing indifference. What do you do?

The High School assembly delivery, to a crowd of bored sixteen year olds barely awake at 9am is not the sort of experience many people would care to go through. Strangely, however, some people actually submit themselves for such an experience willingly, and I have to include myself in this category. The reason? Because it is important to use the voice you have been given, to use the platform offered you to attempt a breakthrough in communication. Because it is important that even if only one solitary inner ear hears the words and intent, then that pained fear of being forgotten and ignored is dimmed. Because it is important that the cycle of the usual, the expected, the everyday reinforcement of custom, culture and symbol is at least attacked in the hope it might crumble.

Some notes for an Assembly. Weeks theme - Contrasts.

1: Play a section of 'Love and Hate' by Biff Bang Pow! Tell them how I hate McGee for giving the world Oasis but how I love McGee for giving me BBP! and early Creation records.

2: Are Love and Hate contrasts?

3: Is not the opposite to Love in fact indifference? The shrugged shoulders that say 'I don't care'?

4: It is important to believe in something, to love it with a passion, and if that means hating the perceived opposite, so be it. The hate strengthens the love.

5: I don't believe in 'god', I don't believe in the Bible.

6: I do believe in the concept of Faith. I still use the phrase 'keep the faith'. (aside: have you noticed how Northern Soul is getting trendy again? A feature in the Guardian weekend supplementÉ Northern Soul nights in town on nights when it used to be '70s revival nights - the same demon under a new name?)

7: Don't believe you need to believe in god to know what's wrong and what's right: you get that from so many places. The Bible might be good for a few things, but so are other books, poems, songs, filmsÉ

8: Two of my old bibles: Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes and Psychotic Reactions by Lester Bangs.

9: Read extracts about power of youth and nature of adolescence (quote from Richard Hell)

10: Importance of developing ideals when you're young, and keeping those ideals intact as you grow older.

11: It's hard to change the big things but we can change the immediate environment by choosing to be positive rather than negative. (aside: what's the fucking point? They'll all still go out the door and kick fuck out of the kid with the strange haircut and the limp.)

So it goes: the pitch is delivered, the clients leave with a calm that may be out of thought for what they have just heard, or the results of the previous night's alcopops and shagging. It makes no difference really. Later, the fifteen and sixteen year olds talk of going out clubbing and tell you that their final lingering thought on the entire pitch is expressed in one simple line: 'you think you're cool, don't you?'

It's such a strange concept, stranger for the context of this moment, stranger for the way in which adolescents make the judgement of you based on their own experience and reference points. You think for a moment, and realise you are confused more by the fact you cannot see the relational reasons for their statement than by the fact that you gave up on considering concepts of 'cool' when you left the record store at age 17 clutching a copy of an old Jonathan Richman record, warm in the knowledge that you had more of a finger on the pulse (whatever that was, or is) than all your mates who were picking up the new release by Duran Duran.

Definitions of 'cool' are as old as the hills of course, or at least as old as concepts of fashions and trends in culture and clothing, and of course they define themselves stridently in the vernacular of the contemporary. It is also a concept most virulently pursued by the young, which is why the context of that simple accusation of 'you think you're cool, don't you?' is so damning and puzzling all at once. There is the assumption that in the effort there is failure, and also implicitly that there is but one strain of 'cool' to be attained. Of course this is the energetic myopia of youth at work, and although it is a myopia that is to be applauded, even if it is hurtful and confusing, it also at times demands equally strenuous efforts to be surmounted, the mission being to open those eyes to possibilities beyond the realms of unimaginatively consumed expectation.

When I look at myself today I wonder at what those who pierced me with that simple statement see. Do they see desperation, the sort of dreadful desperation, a clutching at the coat-tails of 'youth' that I once also poured scorn upon? Do they see my eternal pursuit of Pop, my continual obsession with moments and artefacts filled with beautiful release, do they see these things as sad attempts to rekindle some lost element of adolescent magic? Do they see these weaknesses as some soiled and perverse search for a notion of 'cool'? Do they think that the connections I make and share with them through the days are attempts to impress, when in fact they are simply aimed at keeping my own moments sane and filled with interest? It troubles not because I particularly care about the impression these individuals have of me, but because it holds a mirror and shows to me perhaps the kind of aura I present in the reality of the world I too often dread to enter, that I flit through like a ghost. This ghost, does it glide as an apparition of arrogance? Does my inability to connect in any real sense with the hegemony of culture that the 'masses' consume determine that the vapour trail cast as I move smells distinctly of extreme snobbishness?

It is this notion of 'mass' versus some notional and diverse 'underground' that seems to be a key to the question of 'cool'. The idea that there is but one definition of 'cool' is a nonsense in the pluralistic, non-linear cultural environment that we find ourselves in at this fin de millennium, but for those with the benefit and hindrance of linearly defined 'youth' on their side, this seems not to be the case. For the culturally articulate, notions of 'cool' become irrelevant to any but the self, and the definition of 'cool' within the self is as much to do with detail in connective awareness as it is to do with detail in clothing or consumed artefact. These hidden relationships between what is 'cool' and what is not become ultimately subjective building on themselves and on experiences made via links within the imagined space of cultural dialogue.

For the linearly 'young' and Pop-culturally illiterate (like governments and ad-agencies who tried to capture some notion of a 'Cool Britannia') however, the reference points are made simple, are laid out in terms that can be expressed in single syllables, either linguistically or visually. It may not be strictly lowest common denominator, but it isn't far off. So for these people, notions of 'cool' come equated with obvious cultural fashion, unable to tell when it may be time to move on to something new until told to do so by their arbiters of taste in the media who pick up the signals from that shape shifter 'the underground' or 'the street'.

It may of course be enormously unfair to suggest that those who pricked me are as Pop-culturally illiterate as government, but it seems a fair starting point, given that their reference points for defining the 'cool' which I allegedly think myself to be are almost inevitably so far removed from those which I might use myself. I recoil so absolutely from those notions of being seen to be making attempts at identification as 'cool' as defined by the mass mediated society not because of a certain strain of snobbishness or elitism, but rather because my sense of style and cultural identity is borne out of being eternally ostracised from the 'cool' circles in my own younger days. When attempts to break into 'scenes' are regularly met with derision and aggressive denial, eventually you learn to refuse their definitions, to go seeking, defining and creating your own. It becomes a necessity to make new connections built out of alterations to common expectations, to mould certain aspects of culture to fit with the self. I can't speak for anyone else, but my own ideas of 'cool' are built on the foundations of rejection and isolation, not acceptance and recognition.

Because really, when it boils down, the question becomes one not of 'coolness' but of popularity, and it is in this delineation that we find what is so hard to grasp for the popular adolescents who made the point in the first place; the fact that there is more interest in the singular or the isolationist than in the friendly crowd where the safe, constantly mutually serving assertion of mass identity seems eternally preferable to the demons and pains of being the outsider. Notions of coolness for me, and for many others I suspect, have nothing to do with the accepted face of High Street or High School popularity and obviously charted reference points. Even the so-called 'alternative' reference points of 'cool' are tired and unimaginative and done-to-death, and I feel no allegiance to them. I feel no pleasure in the fact that Nick Drake seems suddenly to have been discovered by the middle-class literati. Because as important as his records once were to me, it still seems to me that it doesn't actually seem to take much effort to realise the greatness of the records and the fact that it seems to have taken so long for that to be recognised is a sign not of how hard to find his records have been, but how lazy Pop journalists and consumers are.

It seems to me then that real 'coolness' is about remaining outside of all the bullshit that clogs up the minds and hearts of the ones who try too hard. Obsession with pointless detail clogs their arteries and leads inevitably to enervated lives ruled by the drudgery of fashion and trend. It seems to me that the real definition of 'cool' is to be found in the people who maintain the passion for life, for discovering moments which show, in some way, extreme possibilities. It is to do with both digging deep and with the individual re-interpretation of the everyday, making beauty and meaning out of the unexpected. It is to do with the how and the why rather than the what. And above all, it is about not caring if you seem 'cool' or not.

©alistair fitchett 1999