Some musicians are born cool, some achieve coolness, and some have coolness thrust upon them. “Cool” has no single definition, but it generally functions as a secret handshake, a way tribes – especially tribes of aesthetes — recognize kindred spirits. It normally isn’t possible to be “cool” and “popular” at the same time, since once something or someone is part of mainstream consciousness, the necessary special spark of the hidden or forbidden is compromised. I hear tell Aristotle wrestled with the concept in Nicomachean Ethics. My friend Gene Sculatti edited The Catalog of Cool and Too Cool in more recent times, and although like most commentators including this one he never nailed down the definition, Gene knows cool when he sees or hears it. Most of us think we do.
There was a time when The Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Beatles, Pretty Things, Manfred Mann, The Who etc. competed to find the most obscure (and therefore coolest) songs to do from the likes of John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed (the non-hit Brill Building or New Orleans stuff like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Mr. Moonlight” could also serve). If this led to everyone doing “Smokestack Lightning” and “Shake Your Moneymaker” ad nauseum adjustments had to be made eventually. Andrew Loog Oldham knew his charges were going to run out of material and locked them in a room. Likewise, in the U.S. Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music fed the repertoire of hundreds of folk and old-timey acts, leading to a “standard” repertoire that could have frozen the Greenwich Village, Boston and San Francisco scenes if some adventurous souls like John Sebastian and Jerry Garcia hadn’t decided to try writing their own stuff.
In the late sixties, when the Grateful Dead and Flying Burrito Bros. performed country & western songs to rock audiences, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were practically class enemies. Hard-hat construction workers were beating up hippies in the park. It was one thing to perform tunes by Chuck Berry, Bobby Bland and Bo Diddley, another to try out “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mama Tried” before the stoners. I’m not convinced either group ever achieved additional coolness through such gambits, Nudie suits or no. Frank Zappa, who was probably the coolest person who ever detested the whole idea of cool, could slag off the rubes with “America Drinks and Goes Home” one minute and then attack his own constituency with “Flower Punk” and “Plastic People” the next.
The “underground” culture, whether B-side collectors, the Dean Benedettis of the concert taping world, wannabe Pitchfork reviewers or high school “cool patrol” bloggers, will never go away. But if what you find doesn’t at least pretend to be some sort of stealth operation, it’s probably not going to be cool for long.
I started thinking of this stuff again as a result of seeing the British singer Sarah Joyce – stage name Rumer – perform at The Hotel Café in Hollywood. Her last album Boys Don’t Cry was a collection of covers of seventies songs by those I usually consider cool (Jimmy Webb, Neil Young, Todd Rundgren) and those I like but would label un-cool (Stephen Bishop, Clifford T. Ward, Hall & Oates). During her concert she performed two more significant non-originals, Laura Nyro’s “American Dove” (cool) and Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” (are there heights of un-cool?). This seems to me a kind of defiance, standing in front of a hipster crowd in a small club and singing a Christopher Cross hit. Is Rumer dismissing the whole subject of what’s cool and what isn’t, and simply singing songs she likes, regardless of how she fits into some assumed aesthetic or sociological scheme? Thumb your nose at the rules of the game and move on.
Or maybe she’s up to something a bit more complicated, a musical jiu-jitsu that tries to flip “cool” into a challenge to the audience. “Anyone can associate themselves with Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt or Elliott Smith and attempt to signal their coolness, but it takes a transcendentally über-cool person such as myself to perform a song by [insert name here] and out-cool you all.” Thus, Inara George and Greg Kurstin issue Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates and dare you to think it’s a joke. Phish enthrall the jamband crowd and routinely throw in ancient frathouse fodder like Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” Deodato’s “2001” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (to be sure, along with perennially cool items by Led Zep, The Velvet Underground and Little Feat). At last year’s jamband-heavy High Sierra Music Festival I saw the excellent but minor league group ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) perform Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In the Years” as part of their psychedelic-infused rock set (their intimate late-night show included a number of mid-period Steve Miller songs). I saw ALO again last week, and they did Steely Dan’s “The Fez” to a roomful of college students who weren’t even born in 1976 when The Royal Scam came out. As the youngsters say, WTF. Or as the Holy Modal Rounders would have it, “Good Taste is Timeless.” We cool?