I saw my first Dead show in 1985 — at SPAC, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Hot summer night; a sprawling, grassy, tree lined field. Dropped off by a friend’s father; his family had a summer house nearby where we’d spend the night. We’d driven up from our small, posh town on the Hudson River, about 20 miles north of Manhattan. The show was an incredible experience, this undulating party of dancing, pajama clad bearded men and women. Everything from the music to the clothes at a Dead show was always so soft, so cozy, even if not terribly clean. Everyone so very happy and so very high.
The shows were not just concerts. They were experiences. And this is important. A concert keeps everyone in the same position, eyes on the stage, the audience in the dark. It’s a one-to-many relationship. But a Dead show was an experience. Sure, we were listening to the music. But there is an experience at Dead shows that exceeds the music; the band is the world’s greatest bar band. People followed the Dead around for months at a time; sometimes, years. It was a moving community that would let you peruse the grounds before moving on.
Me, I’d see the Dead, I don’t know, another 20 or 25 times over the next six years. But only when they were playing nearby. I had friends who’d haul up to Foxboro or down to DC. Not me. I saw them at the Garden, the Meadowlands (inside and out), the Vet in Philly.
I knew I was a tourist. While I had a certain affection for the crowd, I never felt like I belonged to the Dead community. Nor did I want to. I wasn’t hardcore. I didn’t want to sleep in a tent every night in a parking lot and eat tuna out of a can and smell sweaty dudes’ dreadlocks. I didn’t want the promise of free love (which is an oxymoron, I know now). I loved my girlfriend and fucking her was plenty, was perfect, was all this skinny hebe needed — and all he’d ever need, frankly.
I don’t want to paint a picture of long haired hippy bullies giving me a hard time. Shows were a very loving experience. I remember my last show, at JFK in Philly, summer of 1989. I went without tickets and without drugs and with my mad crush on my arm. Within minutes, we’d scored both and within an hour were experiencing great profundity. Usually, I hang back in crowds; I’d sit in the seats towards the back. This time, I was down on the floor amidst the waves of flesh. It was hot. I was in shorts — and I never, ever, wear shorts. During the half-time – Dead shows had long intermissions, these brightly lit deranged experiences — I was sitting on a blanket on the ground with this ridiculously emphatic smile on my face. As zaftig tie dyed women passed m going here or there, they’d all spontaneously pat me on the head.
I had no problem with being called — or being — a poseur. I would have nothing wrong with aspiring to live a life I idealized, a more robust life, an extreme life (even if I didn’t actually want that life). Sure, posing may be a sin but it’s also a sign of desire.
I know other scenes have their issues of authenticity. I think of punk and gangster rap. It’s always been a refrain in the popularized rap world: He’s not real gangster. He grew up in Connecticut.
The notion of the poseur used to annoy me. Who the fuck are you to tell me I’m real or not? But now I like it. It raises the stakes of taste. It says: Your taste in music will not save you. Wearing the tie dyed shirt ain’t shit. It’s how you live your life every day. It’s not just how you are at the show; it’s how you are, how you go, everywhere.
I was in the Mission today (the “hip” San Francisco neighborhood) — a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. And the barrio — well, what was once the barrio — was filled with tourists — not from other cities but from other neighborhoods. They’d come to go to the hip cafes and restaurants for brunch (fucking San Franciscans fucking love fucking brunch). And I realized that, today, all you have to do is buy the cool pants, go to the cool bar, and you’re in! There is nothing more at stake. The Mission used to be the home of gangs and people without square jobs, people who wrote shitty graphic novels and choreographed exquisite dances. Now, everyone works for Google (or Apple or Genentech or…or…or…).
For white middle class people, there is no way to be a poseur, anymore. What could we possibly pretend to be? A product manager at Google? What do skinny jeans signify? That I work for a software company? That I listen to Beach House? There is no posing anymore; there is no life to aspire to.
In the punk scene, in the Dead scene, there was something more than wearing a ripped coat and safety pins or tie dyes and dreadlocks. There was a fuck you to the square world. Punks squatted and avoided work. They lived on food stamps and transient, bullshit jobs. This may all be facade; the line between real and poseur may be a fantasy, an ideal. But it’s an ideal that is no longer possible, not for white middle classers. What is the lifestyle of so called indie music? What does poseur mean to James Blake (who I love, by the way)? What is the more that Coachella demands of people?
There’s nothing to pretend to be. Lifestyle, rather than being the style with which you lead your life, has come to mean the style of clothes you wear, the style of restaurants you go to. Hep — yes, the word is hep — youth culture has become pure trappings: it’s duds and nothing but.
Yes, the concept of the poseur is bullshit. After all, what is a real lifestyle? Who gets to decide? Does the fact that you were born with money exclude you from this or that authenticity?
And yet the fact that poseur is a critique that can be levied declares that there is something more at stake than what you wear. And, today, there is no more; there is nothing greater at stake, no alternate life to lead. Today, I’d love to be be a poseur as it would give me something more — something outside the square world — to strive for.