Meditation on Cool

August 12, 2020

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You collect leather jackets. All of them vintage 20th Century, with patches of skulls and naked ladies, pins from heavy metal bands and biker gangs. You have never ridden a motorcycle in your life. That silly gold stud you put in your right ear during high school. It lasted three weeks. You took it out before visiting your grandfather, who would never understand jewelry on a boy.

The Atkins diet robbed your adolescent body of energy until one day you fell down the stairs, but it made you thinner, a prerequisite of being cool. Picking up your first can of beer at 14 in a gangway with miscreants. LSD. Cocaine. Quaaludes. At 16, you sold your entire comic book collection (including Spiderman #1!) to buy a pound of marijuana. Rolling joints all night, you sold them from the Jack in the Box across the street from your high school. A hard pack of Marlboros in your jean jacket pocket shone like a red badge of courage. Feigning a hatred of school to impress one group while maintaining high grades to appease another. Doing anything to fit in. A late bloomer and heavyset, you mastered the art of the put down, the burn, what they now call roasting. Honing your wits. In lieu of having a young man’s physique, your place in the group depended on it. But try as you did, cool just never happened to you. It remained ephemeral, like grace.

A stone cold fox in your grade, Katrina, once bequeathed you a backstage pass to the Judas Priest concert. It wasn’t a date. She would meet you in the parking lot behind the venue, where you smoked a joint and she pressed the coveted sticker onto your jacket. She “knew” the band and, well, those doors were not open to you. “Have fun,” she said. That was the last you saw of her. Still, you had a backstage pass, enabling you access to the bacchanal behind the curtain. At last, cool! The reality was this: you spent the entire concert standing in the corner of a dark, rank hallway smoking Marlboros, neither in the room where Katrina and the other girls were, nor by the stage where Judas Priest was. You saw the band as they marched past you, heard their English accents and smelled their leather and cologne. Observed bits and pieces of their show through a seam in the wall of amplifiers. Pushed aside by security as the group stumbled to their dressing rooms, where booze, drugs and sex undoubtedly awaited. Tantalizing. Just out of reach. Way out of reach. That backstage pass, just a silly sticker, only reinforced how uncool you really were, like headgear they give to special-needs kids.

Four decades on, you still seek coolness. You called it relevance but the concept was the same. Cool people are in the game. Cool people got laid. They get hired. Mia said coolness was trying to become what you thought others found attractive. It was, she said, a perilous pursuit. Letting others define you. Yes, but the peacock must display to attract a female. Many creatures had to put on a show. Wasn’t it only natural that humans did too? You sucked at it. Fronting might be crass but it worked. When Rex pulled up in his gold Trans Am the girls noticed him and so did the boys. He stirred the herd. He was the stag with the biggest horns.

It always eluded you. Well, almost always. That time with Michelle you were the stag. She’d chosen you, over Rex, over everyone. Once. Much later things started clicking. You were on. Your clothes fit. Women even wanted you. Then came the big jobs. Once, there was even a bidding war for your services. Once.

To be continued…

Found plate in the parking lot, Anaheim.

If you’re my FB friend or follow me on Twitter you know I just saw the U2 concert in Anaheim. “Saw” seems like too small a verb; witnessed was more like it.

I hadn’t planned on devoting blog space to the show but the concert was centerpiece to my weekend. My ears are still ringing. So, in as few lines as possible, here are my impressions:

The group delivered a solid and at times even spectacular show. Over the course of a two-hour concert, U2 played most of their hits, including “Pride (In the name of Love)” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” “Beautiful Day” and so on. And they did so with gusto –no “phoning in” the material. Yet, my favorite moments (by far) were when U2 played two songs from their Zooropa album, in particular the title track, which I frickin’ adore. For that number, the band pretty much surrounded itself in the stage’s elaborate technology, playing through a mosaic of shiny metal screens. It was pretty damn cool.

Dazzling… but far from intimate.

Still, as amazing as the “Claw” or “Spaceship” or whatever the hell they’re calling the contraption they play in is, I sincerely hope the band abandons it next time around. In the end it’s all too much. I want U2 to go back to concert halls and maybe even consider playing some theaters or nightclubs, the way the Stones did a few years ago.

Like most things social, good music is first and foremost about making a connection. If you’re sitting in a modern stadium it’s not easy. Yes, you get the spectacle but true emotions are harder to come by –even from a band that’s known for them.

Echoing the irony of U2’s lovely ballad, “Stay (Far away, So Close)” I found myself too far away to fully appreciate the song’s power. I literally had to shut my eyes to get closer to the music.

In the end it’s just four guys from Dublin…

Fortunately, for this show I had general admission tickets and a pass to the “inner ring,” so, at times, we were just yards from the performers. During these moments, Bono and the Edge literally walked right over us. Seeing a singer’s mouth actually moving and the guitarist’s fingers plucking and strumming makes a difference.

Despite the show’s magnitude, the band managed a few personal touches. It was longtime manager, Paul McGuinness’ 60th birthday and so he was brought on the stage while Bono led the whole stadium in singing Happy Birthday. Heartfelt and sincere, the intimate gesture was instantly magnified by the colossal setting. Lord knows Bono knows how to create such moments.

But it’s the music I like most about the band. I’ve said it before: U2 doesn’t write or sing about sex, drugs and the lifestyle. Despite being rock gods the band makes music on more important matters, like God Himself, Truth and Beauty, Pain and Wisdom, and of course Love. Case in point: “Magnificent” is an ode to God not a piece of ass. Motley Crue they are not. Say what you will about Bono, he and his mates aspire to the best in all of us.

Droga. Bono. Bogusky. Bon Jovi. Close enough for Rock & Roll?

A long time ago, while on production in LA, I had a free weekend and so spent it at the hotel pool. I had my book, a pile of magazines and a smoothie from the bar. This is the life, I thought to myself.

My reverie was soon interrupted, however, by the presence of another creative from my agency and his comely companion. That’s not his wife, I thought, as the conspicuous pair made their way poolside. The creative director stopped by my chaise and I could not help but notice his garb: kimono, Ray-Bans, leather sandals, ironic Asian tee shirt. Not to mention the babe. She was actually carrying his bag!

The girl barely acknowledged me, but he was compelled to catch me up on his global escapades and rigorous production schedule. They’d just shot in Paris and were editing in LA. Then it was back to Japan. Leaning over me, he whispered of the blonde: “That’s my assistant. She arranges everything. And she screws me at night.”

Excuse me?

This guy worked for the same company I did (albeit overseas) doing essentially the same thing I did, but he was leading a completely different life than me. And it was clearly a more fantastic one. A hot assistant who does him and his books! Suddenly my day off at the pool seemed fairly pedestrian.

In many parts of the world, especially Latin America, being a creative director is like being a rock star. Successful creative directors regularly find themselves on TV accepting awards, offering opinions, hugging starlets. They are celebrities.

When I attended my first festival at Cannes, I met several rock star creative directors. Or should I say, I breathed the same air they did. Other than brief, insincere conversations, I basically watched as their various entourages brushed past me. One had a panel at the Palais. Another was late for a poolside press luncheon. Maybe they would catch me later at the Carlton…Yeah, right.

I am repulsed and I am envious. A man does a 30-second film about salad dressing and he’s on Brazil’s version of Entertainment Tonight? W…T…F?

Sad but true. Indeed, the welcoming film for last week’s Portfolio Night at DDB beckoned a new generation of creative people to “become famous…become rock stars!” They were not being glib.

I won’t name the earlier-mentioned creative director. instead, let’s talk about a couple creative rock stars closer to home: Alex Bogusky and David Droga. Both men look the part (see above photos) and certainly have had their share of “hits.” The press swoons over them. They are on magazine covers. They are even in other people’s ads! Advertising savants? Maybe. God’s gift to culture? I doubt it. Still, there is something undeniably alluring about receiving that kind of attention. Adoration is damn hard to come by in real life. If by making ads one can acquire press, power and prestige then, wow, I want in.

Wait a minute; I am in! I have the job. Won some prizes. Travel a lot. But do I lead the rock star life? Not so much. Do I want the rock star life? Um…Picture Homer Simpson drooling.

I think at some point every creative person fantasizes about being that guy in the kimono. (Maybe not the kimono but you know what I mean.) We are in a very ego-driven business. Our ideas are worth money. Our ideas can become “hits.” We become “hit-makers.” Doors open. Salaries go up. And then…

And then we realize it’s only advertising. At least I hope we do. I can remember otherwise, the wanting… and the wondering: Why not me? Let me tell you from experience, those aren’t good feelings to have. They tend to push you more into your ego, unleashing character defects. It becomes less about doing a good job and more about getting. And while you might get if the getting is good, eventually you fail. And the fall can be like the 4th act in a VH1 expose’.

Case in point my buddy from the pool. Last I checked he’d been let go and was suing his former employer for damages. Damages, mostly, to his ego.