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Texas in My Rear-View Mirror: A Few Observations on Texas, Urban Cowboys, Hair Metal and Manly Footwear

Posted by Charles Reece, April 19, 2008 05:16pm | Post a Comment

"Don't rock the jukebox; I wanna hear some Jones.  'Cause my heart ain't ready for the Rolling Stones."

I just returned from my annual trek to Dallas, which is always a bit depressing, but it's "home."  Dallas is sort of the nexus where God meets commerce, with the former and its cognates of tradition and morality always losing out to the latter.  All a moneyed interest has to do is play to the ideal Dallas existing in the minds of its citizens, and the local governing body will allow just about any historical site to be torn down.  Hell, this largely conservative population will even vote for increased taxes if sports are involved.  (As parochial wisdom has it, sports -- despite being universally popular -- are part of our Southern essence; God bless the Cowboys.)  Consequently, the town itself (which, due to white flight, is more Dallas County than just Dallas these days) has little charm or uniqueness -- i.e., no sense of place -- left to it.  It exists as pure concept, which is why it's a great place to be from, just not to live.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, thar ain't no thar thar.  Anyway, I have friends in Austin, so I use them as a good excuse to go to the one true Texan town, Austin (although many of its long-term residents wouldn't agree -- but they ought to try living in Dallas).  After listening to the Townes compilation that I brought with me, I discovered that my aunt had removed the cds I leave in her car for this particular occasion.  That meant once more through Townes and then on to the accursed Texas radio.
Now, listen to this, and I'll tell you 'bout the Texas
I'll tell you 'bout the Texas Radio
I'll tell you 'bout the hopeless night
Wandering the Western dream
Tell you 'bout the maiden with wrought iron soul
-- The Doors, The Wasp
I'm no Morrison scholar and can't say I pay much attention to his lyrics, but naming a song about Texas radio "The Wasp" captures what often passes for culture there: bourgeois consumerism in place of illusory country values.  I've yet to hear King Bob Wills on the radio (including the 25 years when I was a resident), but I always get my yearly dose of Van Hagar and 50 Cent every time I visit, just by using the scan function on the car radio.  And if you ever wonder why bands that used to be called nü-metal are still putting out albums, out yonder is the answer.  It all is the continuing (de-)evolution that I remember from high school, where all the wannabe cowpolks in FFA used to wear dusters and cowboy boots.  They would pull into the school parking lot alternately blasting RUN-DMC or Reba from their shortbeds.  They exaggerated their drawl and said stuff like "bulldoggyshit."  Urban Cowboy was lost on them, if they saw it at all, taking it as another fashion code rather than a lament for dying cowboy authenticity within modernity's sprawl.  Unfortunately, even as a fashion statement, it was already out of date for these future suburban cowboys. 

Contrary to the proponents of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has never looked finer than in those skin-tight bootcut jeans and Cuban-heeled cowboy boots with pointed toes.   Somewhere around the mid-80s, jeans became tapered at the bottom, causing them to bunch up around the ankle, and the rounded toe replaced the pointed one as the heel went vertical.  Now, I had the good fortune to have a redneck for a father who passed on the basic knowledge of what constitutes the Platonic boot form.  And nothing's a surer sign of a dying culture than when a bunch of burned-out, West-coast, hair-metal musicians know how to pick out a better boot than my fellow Texans.  But head out to East Texas and, sure enough, the boot de rigueur today is the Justin Roper, often in bland grey or dead black if you're a dude or a hideous pink if you're a gal.  It's hardly just my opinion that what you see to the right is one goddamn ugly boot.  God, the Duke and Bret Michaels have all come to know with metaphysical certainty what constitutes a cowboy boot and none of them has ever worn that monstrosity.  However, if Socrates could get an illiterate stable boy to recognize the truth of the Pythagorean theorem, I have some hope that good taste in Western apparel might return to a future generation of East Texans.

The idea that you can still be a cowboy within an urban context is pure manufactured hoakum, sustained and partly created by popular culture.  In Urban Cowboy, when Debra Winger's Sissy goes after a more "authentic" hard-driving cowboy -- i.e., one living by the code of the Westerner -- she gets a brutish criminal, Wes (played by Scott Glen).  It's not Sissy's belief in a myth per se that's the main problem -- we all do that to get by -- it's that she chose one that's incompatible with contemporary life.  Some stories are better fits for our lives than others, which is what Travolta's Bud learns after pursuing his high society darling, Pam.  In a reversal of Hitchcock's Vertigo, she tries to refashion Bud into the rhinestone simulacrum that she fell for, as opposed to the good ol' boy he actually is.  He might've just been playing cowboy at Gilley's, drinking long-necks, bootscooting, and riding an artificial bull, but this existence was more authentic -- truer to his own internal narrative -- than what Pam offers.

Just as Sergio Leone saved the Western genre in the 60s from American obsolescence, it is an I-talian boot company that maintains the ideal style for the cowboy boot.  Sam Lucchese set up his company in San Antonio back in 1880 and it continues to make some of the finest looking boots to this day.  The mathematical perfection of Lucchese's most representative form can only be acknowledged upon sight, a remembrance of our pre-existence in the realm of Forms.  Pointed toes with an angled heel equals sublimity; the bovine sacrifice shall not be in vain.  If the postmodernist Jean Baudrillard is correct in that all we have are images making up our modern existence, then surely the Luchesse boot is an argument for some images being better -- dare I say, truer -- than others.  With the feet grounded in such beauty, listening to Keith Urban or Carrie Underwood becomes a profane act against the holy cow.

So as I was driving down I-35 to Austin, I was wanting to hear Waylon Jennings tell me about the King of Texas, or Marty Robbins sing about El Paso, or even proto-new country singer Mickey Gilley go on about how nothing would be keena than to be in Pasadena.  Fables one and all (who the hell wants to live in Pasadena?), but at least they're fables in situ, creating a particular sense of place.  What I got was the round-toed, vertical-heeled culture industry's version of a unified culture -- the same classic rock/hip-hop/pop country horseshit that can be heard in every other state.  There was one radio station that tried to have an all-Americana format in Dallas about 5 years ago, playing classic country mixed with modern artists with their roots in tradition (who are often called 'alt-country' due to the dilapidated state of mainstream country).  It lasted not 2 years, of course.  Mainstream Texan culture is the same as everywhere else.  As the corporate model has it, smooth out all the edges until the art as product is as appealing as it can be to the majority of consumers.  Get over the regional differences, which at one time gave the images some material qualitative differences, by applying different labels to it, like an Orwellian branding iron on cattle.  Thus, it doesn't matter who you are or what tastes you have, there's an artist for you in American Idol's pipeline.

One doesn't have to share my curmudgeonly nature to regret the fact that Mick Jagger's phony Southern accent in "Far Away Eyes" sounds closer to Hank Williams than anything the latter's kin, with its supposed "family tradition," has managed to come up with.  Realism died a long time ago, but now even nominalist distinctions are breaking down.  Genre distinctions matter little, since they're superficial names for selling the same stuff to different people.  I don't know if it ever happened (nor do I want to know), but Garth Brooks, Kanye West, Timbaland and Coldplay's Chris Martin were once planning on a "country album with a hip-hop flavor."  I rest my case.  Any concern for being true to art as a structuring narrative (much less that it might reveal something true) for our material existence automatically puts an artist on the outside, since mainstream culture is not much more than an empty syntax these days.  Recalling the times when goth kids didn't shop at the mall, punk wasn't on the top-40 and thrash metal fans made fun of hair metal, for one blissful hour on my drive, I got to hear Dee Snider keeping it as real as radio gets on his show, The House of Hair.  Not exactly like my pal Adorno, but at least Dee still believes in difference.  Dreams of materiality aren't the same as materialistic desires.  Corporate chains can only create and control the latter.

Relevant Tags

Urban Cowboy (1), Texas (10), Dee Snider (2), John Travolta (3), Cowboy Boots (1), Debra Winger (1), Hair Metal (3), Dad (2), Cinema Criticism (32), Music Criticism (10)