Color Me Obsessed (a fan letter to a fan letter)
I rented this documentary last night. It’s about The Replacements. I was lucky enough to grow up in Minneapolis in the 80’s, while they were at their best/worst, and I am easy prey for nostalgia trips about that time. For the first five minutes my resistance was up – the film is full of terrible documentary filmmaking cliches, including massive Ken Burns’ Effect, talking head after talking head and middle-aged men feeling profound about what they are saying.
And then I was sunk. Color Me Obsessed is free of concert footage of, or interviews with, the band members. Instead it’s a fanumentary. It’s just people who followed, knew, roadied for, engineered, managed or were married to the band. It actually becomes, implicitly about the way we make certain people iconic, the way we cling to our better memories of our worst times. It becomes about what we put on our heroes. The film sticks you with yourself. Your overweight, overeager, nostalgic, longing self of now, as you remember how great you didn’t think you thought you were back when.
By unvarnishing the truth about the band, via an embarrassing honesty about they way they affected those of us within or near their orbit, the movie does a remarkable doubling: it shows us the band through the lens of its listeners; and it shows us ourselves through the lens of the band. In their absence, we only have ourselves to look at.
There’s a guy who grew up on a farm, and who had imagined conversations with Tommy Stinson every day after school; there’s a woman who cries when she mentions the song “Unsatisfied;” there’s the still-bitter fanzine editors, deriding the band for selling out and firing Bob. I am all of them, minus the actual farm.
Color Me Obsessed also nailed, quietly and in an overly sincere way (how else), the climate of desperation that spawned punk. Ronald Reagan, nuclear standoffs, economic crisis, and, in Minneapolis, an emotionally buttoned-up community with a dark alleyway of perversions that lurked unmentioned behind the gas station or SuperAmerica store.
An act of faithlessness
Jim Findlay and I were talking about The Replacements a month ago, doing a little armchair critique of artists in their 40s who self-describe as punk, and I credit him with nailing something true: “Punk was an act of faithlessness. It was nihilistic and selfish.” It said ‘we don’t matter and neither do you.’ The part of me that wants something to believe in, conveniently, or that wants to believe what I experienced was necessary for some reason other than my own relief, was shaken, until I realized that what got me through adolescence was not faith, but was actually a kind of energetic, enveloping comfort in the idea that whatever we do, it’s probably bullshit.
Punk was by young people for young people. We’re not punk now. We’re in our 40s and our heroes from that time are at least that. We might have moments of it (like my friend Esther getting arrested at a Pussy Riot protest). We still listen to it, maybe we use it as a benchmark, but we are not it. We don’t represent it. We have final reports to do, kids to raise, insurance policies to buy. And the new Cat Power’s not that vanilla, is it? Surely it goes great with our microbrew and our dinner party?
Whatever punk was it is not us now, if it ever was. And that’s good. Someone else is doing it. Someone else in some terrible town is thinking about killing herself, and instead she picks up something to make sounds on, hopefully loud ones. She finds the other loser at her school and they do something that makes everyone else mad because it’s almost impossible to listen to. And that is the point. That is what adolescence sounds like unless you are very lucky, or very privileged.
Acts of faith are acts of theft
A few years ago, I stopped in for coffee at Porto Rico on Thompson Street in lower Manhattan; it’s a little sliver of a place that’s been there forever and I was on my way to a meeting. Inside Pleased To Meet Me was playing. Not my favorite of their records, but still pretty awesome. The guy working behind the counter looked like he couldn’t have been more than 16. And he had eyeliner on. And a chain on his jeans, which were ripped and saftey pinned. Time warp.
I ordered and he made my coffee without looking at me. When I paid I said, “were you even born when this record came out?”
“When’d it come out?”
“Nope. I wasn’t. I stole this from my dad.”