27 April 2008

Kids These Days

I like trains, and I'd been meaning to take one up the Hudson River as soon as the weather got nicer. I didn't have any particular destination in mind, but I guessed I might as well ride on out to the end of the line to Poughkeepsie and see what was there.

Well, I finally got round to it, but ended up a good deal further north and never got more than a passing glimpse of Poughkeepsie. My friend The Spoonboy (some of you might also know him as the singer/guitarist of the very talented and exciting Max Levine Ensemble) was playing a show in conjunction with a "Zine Symposium" at Bard College, a rather exclusive, expensive (a girl told me that tuition currently runs "about 49 grand," but further research revealed the true figure to be only 47 grand) and privileged enclave nestled in the woods along the Hudson.

Apparently (I did not know this previously) Bard is also one of the most left-leaning colleges in the country and home to a substantial vegan/vegetarian/anarchist contingent, much of which seems to cluster around the Root Cellar, a vegan cafe/hangout/zine library which at first glance had more in common with the kitchen-cum-basement of your garden variety punk house than a food service facility at one of the nation's more elite institutions of higher learning. Outside the Root Cellar, the Zine Symposium was in full swing when we arrived. Unfortunately we were about three hours late due to inefficient bumbling around on our part back in the big city, so we missed the first few workshops, including one led by Sascha Scatter of the Icarus Project, who I hadn't seen since sometime in the early to mid 90s back in Berkeley and was looking forward to meeting up with again.

But by the time we strolled in Sascha was gone and a chilly breeze had set in, making the outdoor gathering less than ideally comfortable. Participants sat around on blankets that looked as though they'd been salvaged from some hippie love-in circa 1967 while an earnest young man from a collective called "Longing For Collapse" (collapse of what, you ask? presumably everything) explained the principles of insurrectionary anarchism and, asked how he'd come to be involved with a project advocating the destruction of society as we know it, answered as though it were self-evident: "This world sucks." Most of his audience nodded in agreement, and there was no sign that anyone harbored a contrary opinion.

I was momentarily tempted to ask for further evidence that this world did indeed suck to the extent that such drastic measures were the only remaining options, but on the grounds that I was a guest of the uninvited variety, I chose to shut up, listen and possibly learn something. Unfortunately there wasn't a whole lot new on offer, nothing, that is, that I hadn't heard previously at anarchist conventions in the 80s or New Left teach-ins in the 60s, but it was fascinating to hear yet another generation of students nearly young enough to be my grandchildren carrying on the tradition of all-round antipathy for the system. And to give them their due, many if not most of them were more articulate and reasoned than I ever was during my own destroy-civilization phase.

They were also very friendly and open, sharing their vegan potluck food and ready to talk about all sorts of issues, political and non, with an openness and interest too often lacking in their elders. I was a bit self-conscious turning up at an event where I was twice the age of the next oldest person there, and even more so in the company of The Spoonboy, who though he's in his mid-20s, is often mistaken for a high school student. But if anyone thought we were an odd pair, they kept their opinions to themselves, and I got the same treatment as I imagine any vagabond lefty/anarchist comrade in arms would have gotten, including a mattress to crash on following a late night vegan stirfry at a student co-op where 10 or 15 giddy girls were celebrating a birthday with copious amounts of liquor and You Tube videos of R&B hits and Queen in concert.

Speaking of liquor, as someone who was expelled from his first university for being caught drinking in the dorm, I was slightly shocked to see students casually wandering around campus clutching (sometimes for dear life) whiskey bottles and 40-ouncers with casual élan and evidently no concern whatsoever for what the authorities (assuming there were any) might think. I mean, I haven't led a sheltered life, and I know that attitudes toward alcohol and drugs on campus have been greatly liberalized since my own teenage years. Visiting a friend at Tufts a few years ago, I was bemused to discover that the university had assigned a campus cop to guard the front porch of a housing co-op so that the largely underage students inside could drink and carouse in safety. And I'll never forget stepping inside a dorm room at Harvard to find half a dozen of America's best and brightest nodding out on heroin.

But any debauchery I'd witnessed at other colleges had largely been conducted behind closed doors; Bard was the first place I'd seen where no one could be bothered making even a pretense of trying to conceal it. Or perhaps I misstate the case: after all, I never saw anything more drastic than loopy teenagers stumbling around trying to stay vertical, some of whom came loudly crashing in to the show shortly after The Spoonboy had performed his acoustic set to a rapturously silent and reverent audience seated at his feet. But he was followed by a couple hippie-punk-funk bands who seemed to combine the influences of 90s college rock (Built to Spill, Pavement, that sort of thing) with 60s Grateful Dead jamming, and that brought the drunken masses spilling in. One young man, despite it having grown quite chilly, stripped off his shirt and did an Iggy-Mick Jagger rock star routine minus the rhythm and grace, and I know I'm showing my age, but I couldn't help wondering how the lad's parents would react if they could see what they were getting for their 47 grand.

Anyway, a rowdy booze-up on a Saturday night is hardly groundbreaking stuff on any college campus, but a girl who rode back to the city on the train with us said that Bard also had a "huge" drug problem, and that a kid at the party she'd attended had to be taken to the hospital after an OD. I suggested that Bard sounded a bit like Bennington College as portrayed by Bret Easton Ellis in The Rules Of Attraction, but she hadn't heard of it.

If I were in a more reflective mood, I might go on to ponder why some of the smartest and most privileged kids in America would be either drinking or drugging themselves into oblivion or plotting to destroy society, but I'm not and anyway it's been done to death already, hasn't it? So I'll confine myself to saying that most of the students I actually interacted with were nice as could be and a real delight to talk with, even the ones that might have been forced to put me before the firing squad if the revolution had come about this weekend. And that the Hudson Valley is stunningly beautiful, especially with the first blush of spring sweeping across it. The one thing I regret is not speaking up when Melody Berger, of The F-Word zine asked during her workshop if anyone in the audience had tried to publish their own zine.

A few tentative hands went up, but nobody had actually done much beyond planning or considering starting a zine. A voice in my head said, "Go on, say something, you published your own zine for 11 years, 40 issues worth, surely somebody would be interested in that." But I kept quiet, reasoning (or rationalizing) that my own efforts were ancient history now and that this was their zine scene now, not mine. I also didn't say that Aaron Cometbus has been quietly urging me to restart Lookout zine or something like it, and that from time to time I actually consider doing just that, because really, in today's world, I can't imagine what I'd do with it if I did. But who knows, maybe one of these days Lookout will come back to life, and maybe next time - if there is one - that I turn up at a zine symposium, I'll actually have something to show for myself.


David said...

I agree with Aaron, starting up Lookout again would be great. Although he hasn't exactly been mighty prolific with his seminal zine either.

Jersey Beat said...

At the last two Zine fests I went to (one in Manhatta, one at Douglass College in NJ), I really felt like a fish out of water. Today's zine kids are all about introversion; every zine there was like someone's LiveJournal on paper. I guess all the kids who have any interest in music zines have migrated to the web.

erika said...

sounds like a nightmare. why is everyone vegan?

Dave said...

do it, start lookout again.

the london zine symposium at the weekendwas a huge success. turn out was even bigger than last year!

free vegan cake was good. though what is it with all zine writers being vegan?