I was talking with my friend and neighbor Rosa-María during Glee‘s fall finale about Freaks and Geeks. We were specifically talking about the final episode, “Discos and Dragons,” which she just rewatched. In it, Michiganian teen protagonist Lindsay Weir is loaned a copy of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty by her hippie high school guidance counselor Jeff Rosso and steps into a larger world.
I’m not a Deadhead. For those of you watching Community, main character Jeff Winger’s religion/Paul Rudd analogy in this week’s episode is pretty much exactly how I feel about the band (i.e., we understand the appeal and don’t begrudge it, but also don’t share it). To me, I’ve long wondered why anyone would listen to the Dead when there’s Santana, a peer jam band that was more rhythmically intesting with a better lead guitarist. And before anyone starts mailing me bootlegs, I have also heard American Beauty. My first listen even took place around some pretty optimal conditions. It didn’t take.
That isn’t to say that I’m not fanatical about other things. For one, I’m a huge Animal Collective fan, who are themselves a bunch of hippies with a rabid fan base. And while I don’t think the two bands sound that much alike, both espouse feel-good truisms like “What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?” and “You have your fits I have my fits, but feeling’s good.” And of course, Animal Collective’s “What Would I Want? Sky” samples the Dead.
I’m fanatical about this show too. It’s one of my favorite television programs, perhaps of all time, and unlike some of the critically-acclaimed fare of the decade (ex: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office, season two of Friday Night Lights, season three of Arrested Development), I don’t think I know anyone who has seen Freaks and Geeks and doesn’t like it. I’m especially fanatical about how much music factors into both the characters’ lives and the tone of the show. For a show set in pre-MTV suburban Michigan, it nails the radio domination of classic rock, the percolation of punk and post-punk, and the general antipathy toward disco. Thus, it makes sense that Lindsay and many of her peers would be into the Dead, as they’re also into The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.
As an aside, one of Lindsay Weir’s clearest televisual counterparts is not a Deadhead, even though the band was fashionable at the time of her show’s season-long run. Angela Chase, the angsty protagonist of ABC’s ultra-90s’ drama My So-Called Life was given her father’s tickets to a Dead concert in “Father Figures” because he couldn’t make the show. She scalped them out of anger toward her father, who she caught talking to an attractive woman who was not her mother outside their house. She also did it for the chance to talk to her crush Jordan Catalano, who was willing to buy the tickets from her. But it’s also clear that Angela doesn’t get what all the fuss over the band is about, much to the ire and bewilderment of her Deadhead friend Rayanne Graff.
I think Lindsay becoming a Deadhead is really interesting. Throughout Freaks and Geeks‘ 18-episode run on NBC and the Fox Family Channel, Lindsay worked toward defying expectations. Sometimes, these expectations were put upon her by her peers, whether they be her kid brother Sam and his nerdy friends, the Mathletes she used to be close with as a geeky good girl, or the burnouts she hangs out with throughout the series’ run. Other times, they were put upon her by authority figures, whether they be the concerned faculty at William McKinley High School or her parents, who feared this bright girl was throwing her life away by running with a bad crowd.
But the best moments for me of this show were when she defied her own expectations, which were already considerable. She does it when dumping freak Nick Andopolis, an otherwise nice boy who was completely wrong for her, and later when she tries to be his friend. She does it when she rejoins the Mathletes only to quit again after realizing that she doesn’t get any joy out of it. She does it when she tries pot for the first time, only to discover that she really doesn’t like it. She does it when she sticks up for her friend Kim Kelly in English class when they both dismiss Jack Keroauc’s On the Road, to the disdain of their pretentious teacher. She does it to dazzling effect when promoting her family’s sporting goods shop while sticking it to Vice President George H.W. Bush and his lackeys for throwing out the original question she was going to ask him in assembly during his visit to her school.
She does it here too. Originally skeptical of the Dead’s profundity, she gets a gentle nudge from a stoner couple at her school (one of whom is played by Samaire Armstrong, who I enjoyed on The O.C. as Seth Cohen’s music geek girlfriend Anna and who had an enviable platinum blonde pixie cut with hot pink roots in the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck). When Lindsay gets the record home, she slowly absorbs the music and ends up “getting it,” whirling around exuberantly in her room.
As an aside, kudos to actress Linda Cardellini for being able to make what could be an otherwise cheesy scene believable.
Discovering the Dead couldn’t come at a better time for Lindsay. As her junior year winds to a close, she finds out that she’s been selected to participate at a state-wide academic summit at the University of Michigan. The idea of spending two weeks of summer vacation participating in competitive seminars and hobnobbing with her supposed intellectual peers sounds like a flattering offer but a pointless exercise to her. It sounds like little more than résumé padding to me, though I probably would’ve gone if offered it at that age).
However, the idea of following the Dead from Texas to Colorado with her Deadhead friends and Kim sounds like an ideal way to spend part of her summer vacation. So she decides to skip out on the symposium to go truckin’.
And while I have no doubt that Lindsay ends up going to a good college anyway, I’d imagine that those two weeks did more to shape her as a young woman than battling wits with a bunch of eggheads about great literary and philosophic work ever could. She’s probably the kind of person UC-Santa Cruz are looking for to manage their Grateful Dead collection. At the very least, I’m sure she’s got some items to donate.
Last week, I was bestowed with a treasure. My friend Curran made me a two-volume mix CD, one of my favorite things to give and receive. I especially love Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic,” Yoko Ono and Cat Power’s “Revelations,” and Takaka Minekawa’s “Fantastic Cat,” which he selected specifically for my cat, Kozy. And he also reminded me that I should have been listening to Crass this whole time.
His mix came with a 20-page set of liner notes with lyrics, observations, and personal meanings for each song. Curran is a very thorough, thoughtful person who values homemade things and resistive, non-normative modes of expression. I had a dream that he wrote a 30-page essay on Shonen Knife for this blog’s “Records That Made Me a Feminist” section and have no doubt that he might. You should read it.
The week before that, I was bestowed with another treasure. My neighbor-friend Rosa-María left a clipping from Entertainment Weekly in my door, with the blurb for Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls circled. So I picked up a copy (actually, Kristen got me a copy from the UT Library, as I hadn’t replaced my UT student ID yet). I had never heard of the author before and know very little about who she is as an author or what she means to her native England (I guess she’s a writer and teaches writing classes at the university level; thanks, Wikipedia). I wasn’t even sure what era this book was going to cover (luckily for me, she comes of age during the 1970s, a very interesting time for England and to me). Just as you do with a mix CD, you take your friend’s recommendations on faith and dive in.
Let me share with you now one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the power of making mixes for people. Greenlaw’s words:
The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone. It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself. Selection, order, the lettering you used for the track list, how much technical detail you went into, whether or not you added artwork and no tracklist at all, these choices were as codified as a Victorian bouquet.
Yes, exactly. This quote has new resonance for me after making mix CDs for 50 GRCA campers. I hope they take the blank, one-color paper sleeves and make something completely their own out of them.
Now, the task of writing a review for the book poses a challenge. Its use-value is a little hard to determine. It’s a memoir. So, if you know about Greenlaw and care about her artfully written recollections of coming of age, then this is a good book. But if you don’t know Greenlaw, or have much invested in the place and time in which she comes of age, you might feel like you’re grasping for straws.
But I appreciated Greenlaw’s willingness to recollect events, political movements, personal activities, rituals, and practices as means of identification. She erects collages clipped and ripped and taped and pasted from magazines that constantly shift and mutate her bedroom’s landscape. She laquers her flipped hair and eyelids and straps on platform shoes to go to discos with girlfriends. She recounts the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols antics from the safe distance of her neighborhood and television. She starts listening to “hippie” records (ex: Santana, Genesis) because of a boy, who later accidentally leaves a crate of records for her on the tube when they meet up again as adults (with her partner and child in tow). She goes to concerts with friends. She visits a friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She makes and unmakes girl friendships. She renounces punk for new wave because she thinks the subgenre mirrors her affinity for Russian literature and Gauloises. She loves reading and writing, but hates school. She roadtrips to Ohio because she loves Devo. She thinks about Thatcherism and the National Front alongside the Pop Group’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, though didn’t put them together at the time (which, seriously, a book that reminds me to throw that record on is a good book by my definition). She cuts her girlfriend’s hair at a party. She constantly dyes and cuts and grows out and re-dyes her own hair.
In short, she constantly changes and renegotiates who she is, configuring herself always in a state of becoming, even after she’s transitioned out of her teenage years.
Putting all of this into a broader context, she’s very easily the type of girl British cultural theorists like Angela McRobbie were later devoting books and articles to, helping to build girls studies programs in the process. McRobbie’s girls tended to be bookish, middle-class in an increasingly impoverished country, rebellious but well-behaved, mercurial and fidgety and looking for their place in music culture and their piece of the street. But this girl, Lavinia, wasn’t theoretical. She was real, and, as an adult, created a document as filled with history and reference and memory and meaning as any good homemade mix. Her book is worth a look and a listen.