by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - January 27, 2014) Those who have it don't boast about it. And those who don't do. I'm talking about cool, which I can't really define, though I know it when I see it. I know, too, that there are at least 57 different varieties of cool. But who's counting? There's political cool and spiritual cool, the cool that's hot and passionate, the cool of the wild drummer and the inspired poet who burns with a fiery intensity. Then there's the cool that's icy cold, the cool of the stoned saxophone player, and the cool of the deadpan poet who can barely snap a finger. There are also the musicians and poets who shuttle from hot cool to cold cool, from up to down and down to up. Richard Farina's 1966 novel Been Down So Long It Looks Up to Me captures the essence of early 1960s cool. Farina's hipsters explore the extremes of creativity; they go to the barricades and the edge, bouncing from down to up and down again.
I should probably say that I have long been fascinated, even obsessed, with the idea of cool, perhaps because as a teenager in the 1950s I desperately wanted to be cool. Also, because for thirty-five years I taught college students, many of whom wanted to be cool, too, and didn't grasp what cool meant or how to go about getting it. I sympathized with them and tried to help them understand cool. In the classroom, I pointed out that cool is all around us in advertisements, fashion, food, and in political styles and gestures, too, and yet very elusive. Catch it if you can.
I thought about cool again recently in France, a country with a culture that I have long thought of as the capital of cool. I saw the word "cool" in French magazines along with the word "coolitude," which I believe the French have just recently coined. Cool seems like a perfect good English word. "Coolitude" strikes me as un-cool and unnecessary. In France, I talked about cool with French friends, most of whom told me that if I wanted to find "cool" I ought to go back to the United States. The Beats were cool, they said. Memphis jazz was cool and Mississippi blues were cool. Film noir was cool and rock 'n' roll was cool, too, though not everyone who played or sang in a rock band was cool.
Cool speaks for itself, though the "culture vultures," as we called them in the 1960s, aimed to speak for it. They continually sought and still seek to co-opt it, hoping to sell commodities by linking them to images and sounds of people who are cool in a Madison Avenue kind of way. Most of the above ideas came out in conversations I had with French musicians and aficionados of music one winter afternoon. The conversations took place in a church that had been turned into a community center, which seemed to me like a very cool thing to do. Where are the American churches that community groups have reinvented as centers for music, the arts, debate, and discussion?
What surprised me most about the French musicians I talked to -- all of them rock 'n' rollers -- was that they wrote the lyrics to their songs in English, sang them in English, and insisted that rock 'n' roll couldn't be sung in French. It had to be sung in English if it were to be genuine rock 'n' roll. That's what they said.
Most of my American friends agree. They pointed out to me that rock 'n' roll grew out of American roots music, that it morphed in England, that English rockers invaded the United States, bringing the music they transmogrified back to us in sounds we loved. Rock 'n' roll, my American friends insist, is a creation of the Anglo-American cultural axis in which the French don't play a part. Or if they do it's minimal.
Elsa Ravailhe doesn't look cool to me, though she's wearing black today: a black sweater and black trousers. The singer in an all-woman's French rock 'n' roll band, Ravailhe says she doesn't want or expect to become famous or to make a lot of money and become rich. All-women bands are not ordinary or usual in France, she explains. So, Ravailhe's band is a bit odd, though it doesn't stand out, either. The cover of the band's album features a woman with a gun, but no one seems to have noticed or to be ruffled by the image.
"We're not Pussy Riot," Ravailhe, 35, tells me. A psychologist trained in California and in France, she works with abused teenagers in a safe house in Toulouse, and, while she believes that music can be therapeutic, she doesn't bring her therapeutic practice to the band, or the band to the safe house, either. That might be cool but I can see that it would land her in trouble. Ravailhe lives in at least two separate worlds and probably more than two, especially if you count the fact that she lives in English when she sings her songs and in French when she talks. "It's harder to do the sounds of rock 'n' roll in French than in English," she tells me. "I grew up listening to American and English rock. If you hear our music I think you'll agree with me that we're similar to the American band, Sonic Youth. Like them, we're noise. It sounds better in English."
Pierre Priot, 37, works for an independent record label in France and knows the history of rock 'n' roll from its earliest days to the present. Call him a countercultural cat or a French hipster. I think he's cool. He tells me: "There are four different kinds of cool in the world of music. There's Lady Gaga crappy cool which is all over the world thanks to YouTube and Coca-Cola. Then there's the kind of above ground version of cool made popular by groups such as the Rolling Stones. There's college rock cool, which can easily turn into an elite thing."
Priot adds one last category -- the category that he says he belongs to. He defines the members of this group as "music lovers" who are "always curious and happy to share" and eager to "ignore all mainstream music."
I suppose I've belonged to all those groups at one time or another ever since 1954 when I started to listen to rock 'n' roll. I still listen to it -- some of it. I don't play Lady Gaga, but I do listen to the Stones, to college rock, and I like to think that I seek out and appreciate music that's underground and on the edge. It could be live and it could be recorded.
In France, on my most recent trip I heard Junior Wells's CD Hoodoo Man Blues that features the single "Snatch It Back and Hold It." Listening to it, I felt I was listening to the blues for the first time and I thought that it was possible and that my French friends are correct -- that the French aren't cool, though they are chic, cosmopolitan, and avant-garde. They were cool once upon a time in the 1940s when Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus were writing and when French directors were still making movies.
But today, in 2014, I'm not sure. The French bands that I listened to in that cool community center weren't cool. They seemed too studied, too indifferent to the music they were playing, and too clichéd, as though trying to be the Beatles. The audience seemed indifferent to the bands. Maybe I'm just a wild American. I like my rock 'n' roll raucous.
Still, the French have an eye, an ear, and a nose for American cool. They have ever since the days of Lafayette and the American Revolution. Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir all came to America in the 1940s to rub shoulders with American cool. In the 1940s and 1950s Americans went to France to pick up the styles and the gestures of French cool. The Beats traveled to Paris and visited Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the cool master of novels such as Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. You can't find titles cooler than Celine's. Jack Kerouac, the Franco-American author of On The Road, made jeans, T-shirts, and espressos the visible signs of cool; the marketing of cool hasn't stopped ever since. By the 1950s, French cool bore the stamp of American cool as practiced by Humphrey Bogart. In Breathless (1960), Jean-Paul Belmondo famously mimes Bogart and Jean Seberg plays his girlfriend. "Do you know Faulkner?" she asks innocently. "No," he replies and then asks two questions: "Who's he?" and "Have you slept with him?" Cool audiences get the inside jokes and the references to classic film noir that Belmondo revived on the screen. He's still alive. In 2013, he turned 80. Jean Seberg died in 1979 at the age of 40, but she lives on in Breathless, as Jean-Luc Goddard's ironic portrait of the iconic American expatriate unconscious of her own deadly cool.
"Snatch It Back and Hold It," Junior Wells sings on the CD Hoodoo Man Blues. What does he mean? He doesn't say. If you're a hoodoo man you know. If you're not you don't. Cool is a cult without a membership list or a clubhouse. It's in the ear and the eye. You can't train someone to think cool thoughts, though almost anyone can learn to appreciate cool in all its permutations, French as well as American. "Snatch it Back and Hold It."
Is Jonah Raskin's work valuable? If so, pleaseus financially.
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Jonah Raskin 2014. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)