March 6, 2009

Words & Guitar: Out of step with the world

Of rock ’n’ roll’s holy trilogy, drugs are the most expendable third.

Heresy? Don’t get me wrong; we clearly have alcohol to thank for countless classic displays of rock theater—from David Yow drunkenly staggering to his feet moments after taking an airborne bottle to the head, to a literally trashed Bob Stinson wearing a Hefty garbage bag on stage.

But if you’ve seen the footage of Guy Picciotto dangling upside-down from a basketball hoop soberly screaming the words to “Glue Man” for the benefit of a dozen confused ticket-holders, you know what’s superlatively crazy isn’t the stuff people do when they’re high. It’s the stuff they can do with the complete absence of chemical help that’s truly insane.

Here’s the big reveal: I’m not a drinker. It’s mostly because I’ve never gotten the hang of the taste, but in part it’s because liquid courage depletes the natural kind. Imagine how much more interesting the world would be if people had the audacity to dance on a table or kiss that girl without alcohol as an aid or excuse.

I can see why the aforesaid might be a minority opinion. What I’ll never understand, though, is why people accept alcohol without question as a mainstay of our college adventures even when it so obviously fails in that role.

Why am I such a buzzkill? It’s not that I have any kind of blanket moral objection to drinking. For some reason, I’ve just never been sold on the entertainment value of dancing to terrible music, making out with ugly strangers, attempting conversation over the decibel equivalent of air traffic, and making a spectacle memorable to everyone but yourself.

All these things are probably entertaining if you’re drunk, and I think that’s the problem. Instead of doing something cool, we drink to make the lame things we do at parties seem interesting. Aren’t we Chicago kids supposed to be incapable of logic that bad? Or are we just too tired after five days in the Reg to put any more effort into our own leisure?

On the other hand, maybe we’re not as lazy and uncreative as all that. So imagine for a second that drinking wasn’t the weekend default and that you could appoint something other than alcohol to grease the wheels of college social activity. What would you put in its place? Maybe dancing? Hang-gliding? Baking pies?

You can probably guess my ideal substitute. In fact, Ian MacKaye did try to form a youth culture based on music awhile back. Ian had a great band called Minor Threat, a label to help launch other kids’ great bands, and a repertoire of songs that made all the neighborhood punks in our nation’s capital mosh for joy. The value system of Washington’s hardcore scene placed music even above alcohol. In defiance of club owners’ 21-plus policies, underage punks renounced drinking altogether. After all, who needs drugs when your tunes are so badass?

HarDCore didn’t last though. The scene caved, in part because of the very forces that made it so great in the first place. Minor Threat’s anger and intensity lent itself to bitter infighting in addition to tight songs. The purists who made straightedge culture possible later branded the band a sellout simply for reuniting after a hiatus; consequently, latter-day shows fell prey to violent jocks-turned-punks and preachy posers fond of swatting drinks from people’s hands. Youth culture, I guess, is as touch-and-go as the youth are.

Maybe there’s some sort of balancing act between creativity and stability Ian never got right. Booze-based party culture is sustainable, but it’s boring as hell. Straightedge gave us music that will get kids through high school 100 years from now, but the scene itself imploded just four years after it began.

Perhaps all forms of youth culture, whether they’re fraternities or Portuguese student unions, face similar constraints. I should have understood those limits the first time I got bored out of my mind and left a kegger five minutes after arriving. After all, alcohol-based culture is just another part of mainstream culture; I’ve accepted for years that there’s no place for my musical tastes on Clear Channel radio, so I’m not sure why I thought I could get the hang of standing in the crowd watching bros down maple syrup shots.

It’s as if we were all sent a standing invitation to come flail around to Britney Spears and drink punch out of a trash can. I had a laugh and threw mine away. But things got less funny when I looked around and saw people responding to their invites—not just once or twice, but week after week, year after year. Sobriety alone doesn’t exclude you from the scene; you can be that non-drinking tag-along friend. But if reveling in drinking and drunkenness doesn’t register on your scale of fun things to do, you’re going to be culturally alien to most of your peers.

You’ll find yourself, as Ian used to say, out of step with the world.