Bohemia, Not Utopia

     |    Wednesday April 18th, 2012

Michael Corcoran is a provocateur. He always has been, ever since he’s been writing. When he landed in Austin in the 1980s, he made a big splash. Even people who’d never read him knew that he had tattoos, which hadn’t yet caught on, let alone become almost mandatory. And among his tattoos was, well, one rather provocative one. This one.

 

For you youngsters and foreigners out there, that’s J.F.K. Jr. saluting his father’s coffin in 1963. An iconic photograph, the kind of thing you don’t play around with. Unless, of course, you’re looking for a reaction. And, it being the latter days of punk when he showed up, that’s part of what he was doing. (He’s also written a moving piece about the tattoo and what it means to him, which you should read).

 

Of course, Michael’s older and wiser these days, and his writing’s gotten a lot better and more thoughtful, which is probably why he’s unemployed, like me. But he’s still up to his old tricks, reminding us of who he is by reprinting his old stuff, and writing new stuff on his website, michaelcorcoran.net. And, lest you think that old guys can’t still whip up a firestorm when we want to, he managed to enrage Austinites recently with a post called Welcome to Mediocre, Texas.  As he notes towards the end (“Obviously, if you’ve read this far, I’m not exactly Joan Didion.”), it’s not the most complexly-argued screed, and in order to really appreciate it, you have to know Austin pretty well. But the proof is there in the reaction he got. The Austinist, the online site which is slowly eroding the weekly Austin Chronicle‘s place in the media ecosystem there, published a scream of outrage by someone named Terry Sawyer who seizes the most ridiculous points to belabor: nobody from Austin’s going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Sawyer points to Art Rupe, of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and mocks the town, apparently unaware that Rupe (who I always thought was from L.A.) gave us Specialty Records, which documented the whole postwar rhythm and blues scene in Los Angeles, recorded some of the most vital gospel records ever, and opeed a New Orleans office which gave us Little Richard — among many other things. No, there’s nobody in Austin who’s going to do that. (Although Austin resident Ian MacLagan and deceased Austin resident Ronnie Lane, both of the Small Faces, were inducted in this last batch, and current resident Robert Plant is a long-time inductee).

 

 

What’s funniest about this to me is that I wrote a column which produced the exact same sort of reaction when I took the job at the daily paper that Corcoran later had and was laid off from — back in 1979! I got to Austin then and observed a music scene that had, let us say, a healthy self-regard, but was being ignored by the nation at large. Part of this was snobbery: everyone knew Texans were a bunch of cowpokes, stupid and slow, with a funny accent. But part of it was also self-induced. While it was nice to be able to pay a couple of bucks and hear world-class entertainment, there was no infrastructure: no studios, no managers, no music publishers, no record companies, no booking agents — no reason, in short, for the nation’s music business to take Austin music seriously. And, when I arrived, there were three scenes up and running which were serious indeed: the “progressive country” folks (a great history of which, in Texas Monthly, I linked to last week), a (mostly) white blues scene which had grown up alongside it, and, as I arrived, a very credible punk/new wave scene on the upswing. As always, there were also spinoffs of all of this. But nobody knew how to do business, and nobody seemed to care. I pointed this out and got nuked. There was actually a campaign to have me killed. I got threatening phone calls in the middle of the night (or, rather, my answering machine did: I never picked up the phone). But I held my ground. I wanted to see these people, the talented ones, recognized and given a chance to go as far as they could, and eventually the idea caught on. By 1987, it had snowballed to the point that an event was started to share the concept of professionalism with independent musicians nationwide: SXSW.

 

So let me be provocative and suggest that these loud noises Corcoran has provoked might be about something other than the literal content of his piece, that there’s a larger issue at play here which says something about culture in 2012 generally. Right now there are these oases of hip, slacker capitals, groovy places, that one hears about: Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, Berlin, and I’m sure there are more. You can live cheaply, the lifestyle is easy, there are a lot of creative young (and not so young) people, a music scene, some art, some food, a lot of alternative ways of looking at stuff. Go back a decade or so and only the names have changed: Hoboken, Seattle, Prague… And what these places are, current nomenclature notwithstanding, are bohemias. And there’s a worm in the ripe fruit of a bohemia.

 

This isn’t my idea, incidentally. There’s a wonderful book called <a href=”Bohemian Paris, by Jerrold Seigel"" “>Bohemian Paris, by Jerrold Seigel, which is a history of the idea as it developed in the French capitol from 1830 to 1930. It was in the days leading up to the Paris Commune that young French people began leading what looked to bourgeois society at large like pointless lives devoted to pleasure and avoiding work, a lifestyle similar to what impoverished refugees from the fighting in the Eastern European province of Bohemia who had fled to Paris appeared to be living. But as capitalism poured riches into French society, the option to devote yourself to an artistic pursuit independent of the old patronage system became more and more viable. The process was virtually identical to what it is today: rebellion against one’s upbringing; going to a supportive community of like-minded souls; experimenting with sex, drugs, art, lifestyle. That’s bohemia. But, as Seigel points out, there comes a day of decision.

 

And here’s what has got people in a lather. You can’t be a bohemian forever if you want to accomplish anything. You either go pro or you go to work at the bank, metaphorically speaking. You no longer have the option to be drunk all day, or to hang out at the coffee shop bullshitting with your friends. You can’t be a painter and a novelist, because you won’t be any good at either. In short, you do the work or you don’t. No great art ever came out of a bohemian scene. This isn’t to say that a painter who’s made the decision to go pro won’t keep a studio in a place with cheap rent and a supportive atmosphere, but after the day of decision that painter is different from the kids at the coffee shop. If he’s successful, he’ll be resented. If there’s money about, there’ll be talk of a sellout.

 

No, the salient quality of art produced in a bohemia is mediocrity. I won’t put words in Corcoran’s mouth, but I will say welcome to Mediocrity, Prenzlauer Berg; welcome to Mediocrity, Portland; welcome to Mediocrity, Austin. Yes, being a consumer is easy. Yes, being a creator is hard. Deal with it. Or don’t. The choice is yours.

EdWard