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Ann Powers finds the meaning of her previous life

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
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Illustration by Hadley Hooper

There may be no truer test of New York Times rock critic Ann Powers’ ability to engage a reader than to say that reading Weird Like Us, her prickly, combative, overly schematic memoir of the last 20 years — years between the approximate ages of 15 and 35 during which she discovered and variously embraced sex, drugs, rock & roll, feminism, writing, alternative lifestyles, academia, professional fulfillment and marriage — I kept finding myself forced to reconsider my own life. That in so doing I suffered an unsettling combination of searing nostalgia and righteous irritation is only in part due to Powers’ ambitious but not always satisfying attempt to intertwine risky and evocative personal history with the abstract clockwork of social analysis.

Her dueling desires are evident from the first page, where the chummily inclusive colloquialism of Weird Like Us gives way to the coolly authoritative subtitle “My Bohemian America.” Powers’ premise — that one woman’s quirky progress from high school rebellion to the altar (in her case, justice of the peace), can, like Joan Didion’s migraine, become emblematic of an entire culture — can itself be confining. And there are moments in which she seems torn between writing as a peer among peers or as a more distanced reporter, resulting in an uneasy mix of unspoken assumptions and heavy-handed explanations. And yet, within these uncertainties Weird Like Us raises a central and compelling question: What are the parts of our youth that we ought to struggle to maintain, and what are the aspects of maturity that it behooves us to embrace?

Bohemia, in Powers’ expansive definition, occurred wherever “a few people drawn together by a dedication to the unprofitable and the uncommon — avant-garde art, progressive politics, the expansion of the senses, the perfection of a startling persona — settled in low-rent enclaves where they could afford to experiment.” Her personal tour of these enclaves begins in 1980, in high school (Blanchet Catholic in Seattle), with tentative explorations of LSD, hot-pink vintage suits and bands with names like Mental Mannequin. And while music ultimately became the corner of bohemia she staked out as her own, she also examines the choices that friends, colleagues and roommates have made over the years, in chapters concentrating on joyful deviance, deliberate addictions, marginal jobs, secondhand artifacts, willed youthfulness and, finally, maturity.

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Her voice starts out tart, a little bristly (the aural equivalent of horn-rim glasses and flat black bangs), but she hits her evocative stride chronicling San Francisco of the middle ’80s: “There were the sisters who first secured the lease,” begins her roster of four years’ worth of tenants in a communal flat, “Humboldt County outdoorswomen who scented the kitchen with the turmeric of vegetarian stews. There was Tim, the surfer dude who might have scored with any of us if he’d ever washed, and Josh the Clown, an irritating Jewish juggler who eventually went off to train with Ringling Brothers in Florida, much to our joy. There was the leatherman and classical composer who crashed for a while on our couch, not telling any of us he was dying of AIDS. There was the English expatriate who once moved her entire blood family into the living room.”

And Powers cheerfully skewers her own impulses to nostalgia, placing her acid-green memories of this period next to those of her roommates whom she tracked down a dozen years later. Perceptions, it turns out, differ. Former inseparables barely speak. Actions seemingly approved at the time were barely tolerated. Still, she reasons, “If we’d had rules, or at least a framework within which to discuss our conflicts and desires, Fulton Street might have lasted longer than three and a half years. Yet it would have been a different house, one that none of us would have wanted to live in . . . Spending hours at the kitchen table . . . we taught each other family as an enterprise, a kind of skill. Long after Fulton Street, this capacity to make family wherever we choose to find it continues to play a major role in the way we all shape our lives.”

To write about one’s discovery of alternative culture is necessarily to be t-t-talking about one’s generation — music, clothing and ingested substances being powerful instruments of group identification in those terrifyingly tribal teen years. Yet despite the difference in our ages, the emotional core of Powers’ discoveries seems very like my own — the sudden hegemony of realities that unseated the givens we’d grown up with; the swift upending of the laws of gravity, or the meaning of “cool” itself, that could be occasioned by our first encounters with the anarchy of lust, or a floor that suddenly elongated and slanted steeply upward, or the simple transgressive power of intellectually embracing what we had heretofore disdained.

And from those defiant adolescent stabs at solace and identity, movements are born that expand another generation’s options. If Powers and company had my peers to thank for the widespread availability of psychedelics, today’s teens have Powers’ contemporaries in ACT UP and Queer Nation to thank for the proliferation of gay and lesbian support groups on high school campuses. So it’s all the more chilling to discover, in interview after interview, how much her generation resents mine, which the book variously categorizes as the counterculture, hippies or boomers, depending on how irked they are with us.

It is salutary, I think, to be reminded of how insulated we may be by the weight of our sheer numerousness, and the accident of being young at a time of economic optimism and social change. It is a kind of entitlement, and like all such, it’s more easily perceived by those that don’t have it than those that do. But I am irked by the way she invokes “hippie” as an easy umbrella for any number of warring attitudes. It’s a kind of shorthand — like her frequent use of the phrase “cutting edge” — which is easier to tolerate in the confines of journalism than at book length.

More problematical, by focusing only on the lives of people Powers knows, the book’s map of modern bohemia is as disproportionate as a Mercator projection. Led by her informants’ choices, she records the lives of many music-store clerks and secondhand-clothes dealers, offers a sampling of feminist sex workers and underground-band members, and makes the barest mention of people working in alternative cybercommunities. And when she leaves the personal for the analytical, she sometimes finds herself straining to fit experience to the theory — in the chapter “The Cultured Proletariat,” she even succumbs for a while to that old countercultural temptation to define stealing from one’s employer as a radical political gesture.

Oddly enough, for all the affinities of our youths, the incident Weird Like Us recalls most vividly to me occurred when I, like Powers now, began to define myself as a grown-up. One year into motherhood, I found myself onstage in a television sound studio facing a live audience of women mostly 10 and 20 years older than myself who were impatiently awaiting the appearance of the talk show’s next guest, Tom Jones. Bad enough to be the man-in-the-unbuttoned-shirt’s warm-up act, but my topic was how society conspired to relegate even articulate, savvy feminists like myself to near invisibility the minute they procreated. One glimpse of the ranks of blocky maternal bodies in pastel pantsuits glowering in my direction was enough to make my voice squeak. Oh, I was right enough about the conspiracy, but they were right about me, too. To be confident is to be, at some level, clueless.

But, as Powers suggests, the confidence is necessary. It’s how things start: movements and marriages, bands and families, innovative theories and iconoclastic practices. (And for that matter, those Tom Jones fans were not exactly going gentle into that good night, either.) In the final chapters of Weird Like Us, Powers looks at her now-adult generation and finds that bohemia has become less an idea than a principle, a way of standing aslant to one’s own life, a form of conscientious objection. The diminution of youth’s invincibility has been compensated by the discovery that it has, in the best countercultural tradition, gone underground. There, she suggests, if we are vigilant, it can be found at any age, bubbling along as self-reliance, eccentricity, and a kind of brave, clear-eyed contrariness.

WEIRD LIKE US: MY BOHEMIAN AMERICA | By ANN POWERS Simon & Schuster | 287 pages | $23 hardcover  

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