Since the age of ten or so I’ve done countless stupid things in hopes of finding cool — bought JNCOs, bleached my hair, listed obscure bands as favorites on MySpace, wore aviator sunglasses — but all failed to give me the degree of coolness I longed for. The reason was that coolness is in large part defined by doing what you want and not caring about what anybody thinks (also defining characteristics of the sociopath, oddly enough). But I cared immensely what everybody thought of me. Still do. I’ve come to accept that I’m not destined for cool. Instead I aim my energies at funny, the positive characteristic of those in need of constant validation: whereas the cool guy rarely hears others perceive him as cool, the funny guy always get to hear the laughter.
This past Christmas, when I was home for the holiday, I went through some old boxes in my parents’ garage and found a DVD of my band from college playing a show (another thing I did in search of cool: played in bands for several years). After I finished watching it, I sat on my bed amazed at how clumsy and self-conscious I looked on stage. Twenty-one-year-old me banged his head and punched his guitar as if lost in an ecstatic trance, but anyone paying even a little bit of attention (or anyone who’d attended more than one show) could see that these moves were all carefully choreographed. This got me wondering just what it is that makes musicians cool. I’m not talking about Prince, Al Green, or Debbie Harry here — I mean awkward white guys like myself. How do they make the audience believe that they belong on stage? And who are the coolest?
What follows is my list of the five coolest white guys in music. Near misses included Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Lemmy, Eric Burdon of the Animals, and Paul Simonon of the Clash, but here are the real standouts.
5. Pasty Cool: Jack White. If I saw Jack White in public, sans guitar, I’d be more likely to think We Need to Talk About Kevin than There Goes the Rockstar. Yet White has managed to make department store amplifiers and two-piece bands hip, and, even more impressively (or strangely, depending on how you look at it), he’s woven the oddest fictions into his biography. Why would anyone lie about his ex-wife being his sister? I have no idea. But somehow, it’s cool as hell.
4. Look at Me Cool: Mick Jagger. Before I get into Jagger’s brand of cool, let me note that I don’t think Mick was originally the coolest member of the Rolling Stones. Bill Wyman rocked the hard-to-get cool, hanging out in the back of the stage like he couldn’t care less about his screaming fans. His memoir, Stone Alone, could have been called, I Slept with a Lot of Women. But dating a thirteen-year-old is not super cool — even if it does prove how little your care what anyone thinks — so he’s off the list. Keith Richards used to be pure danger, white-hot rebellious sex, but then he died at some point in the early ‘90s, and since then, hasn’t really been the same. Jagger warrants a spot on the list for breaking the rules of cool, since everything about him — from his stage moves, to his unfortunate disco sellout, to his tendency to learn several foreign phrases so he can speak to crowds in their native tongue — is screaming for approval. Yet he’s still so damn slick. Jagger also has to be acknowledged for inspiring generations of skinny spazzes — Iggy Pop, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, etc. — to sculpt their own brands of cool from the Jagger mold.
3. Dance Party Cool: Wayne Kramer. Watch 0:12-0:34 of The MC5 doing “Looking at You” at Wayne State, which features lead guitarist Wayne Kramer tearing up the stage while playing exactly zero notes.
2. Copyright Cool: Tom Waits. Waits’ cigarette-choked voice is so distinct that he has successfully sued Frito-Lay, Audi, and Opel, not for using songs, but for using original songs with singers that sound too much like him. To reiterate: Tom Waits has copyrighted his style. A YouTube video recently pointed out that the one who sounds most like Tom Waits is the Cookie Monster, but Waits has yet to take legal action.
1. Do the Weirdest, Least Cool Thing Possible and Still Be Cool: David Bowie. If it comes down to level of difficulty, Robert Plant gets an honorable mention for singing about Lord of the Rings. Neil Young gets a nod for doing a synth album followed by a rockabilly record. But if you told me that a lanky little Brit was going to dress up as a transvestite disco alien with a women’s tennis mullet dyed the ugliest shade of red imaginable and sing a bunch of songs about outer space, I would tell you that this man was not going to have a lot of sex. And I would be wrong.