Saturday, 30 October 2010

Subculture Afterlife: the Tango

by Mistress Justine Brown
If you, dear Reader, are anything like me, you spent your adolescence in louche nightclubs (or trying to gain entrance to them). You belonged to a thrilling subculture. The world revolved around music, and you collected records and mixed tapes fervently and danced with abandon. Bands and musicians generally occupied the pinnacle of an elaborately coded and mannered social world, the scene, one which was obscure to most people, people whose tastes you and your friends dismissed contemptuously as "mainstream." As you stalked down the street, studiously ignoring one and all, you examined telephone poles for posters which closely resembled kidnap notes: these let you know where you would be spending your Friday and Saturday nights.Your clothes-- mostly black-- hair, makeup and general deportment inspired passing members of the public to roll their eyes and insult you, sometimes yell, wave their fists and even issue threats. And more. Punk, goth, psychobilly, or something along those lines, you had a hell of a lot of fun.

The irresistible Robert Smith

Feeling nostalgic? If so, Mistress Brown has a prescription: take up Argentine tango. Tango has been enjoying an international revival since the early 1990s. A niggling difficulty with youth subculture is this: it's for youth. This doesn't mean you are forbidden to head out occasionally and see the latest local band or are banished from the Cure reunion gig. It doesn't mean you can't pull the blinds and drown yourself in Nick Cave murder ballads now and then. But do you really want to spend the rest of your days in the abject position of trying to recapture the feeling of being seventeen, and looking to teenagers (possibly-- ouch-- your own teenagers) for all the cues? Broaden your stylistic horizons and add some musical culture-- say jazz, blues, opera, or TANGO-- that ages well. As a flamboyant youngster, you may have relished the opportunity to dress like an undertaker, a vampire or a pirate. Once you enter the world of the tango, you can wear the best shoes in the world (the Comme Il Faut brand for instance makes Manolos look like Birkenstocks), sport your most dramatic dark clothing and makeup, flourish a fan, wave it, whisper behind it and generally behave like an eighteenth-century coquette. With impecunity.

What are those tangueras talking about behind their fluttering fans? I might as well tell you the worst up front. They're dissecting everyone else's dancing. If you can handle that, you can handle Argentine tango. The hierarchy-- and every subculture rests on some type of caste system-- is based on dancing. But since everybody was a beginner at some point, and a person never really finishes learning the tango, the playing field is reasonably level. In the world of tango, to say that a person dances like a 70-year-old is to pay a high compliment. Make the term "vintage" really stand for something! Devote your evenings to the melancholy pleasures of Argentine tango.

Once you do so, you will find yourself, oddly enough, frequenting some of the venues of yesteryear. Dance enthusiasts rent the same sorts of places-- the Latvian Friendship Centre, say, or an old dine-and-dance joint that's been languishing since 1974-- as punk rock bands used to do. There you can usually find a class or two, followed by a dance that seems part Weimar Berlin, part cartoon (remember when Bugs Bunny used to dress as a girl and go dancing?). No look, no gesture is too extravagant. Just make sure to wear leather or suede soles, otherwise you'll stick to the floor. Men, when dressing, use black as your basenote and work from there. Women! Raccoon eyes, oiled chignon, sequins, clingy gowns; do what you do best. Just make sure you can stride in it.
Betty Boop prepares to tango

Many of us rue the day that men and women stopped cutting a rug together. Tango affords a welcome respite from the lonely and robotic "individualism" of today's average dancefloor. Nothing is neutral in the tango world. There are leaders (mostly men) and followers (mostly women), but one quickly learns that there is nothing inherently passive in following. The first time I attended a milonga (a formal dance, as opposed to a practica), we were entertained by a pair of men in snazzy gray suits. Their excellent performance somehow fused the Marx Brothers with karate. The average tango couple aims at something more subtle, though-- a wordless conversation. People wax mystical about the tango connection at its best. Suffice to say it is intimate. However, this is not an intimacy that leads automatically to the bedroom. It usually stays on the dancefloor: the tango world is not a meat market.

That said, you may very well meet your heart's desire at the milonga. At the very least, you can star in your own movie. The striking cast of characters, ranging in age from 18 to 80, is laid on. So too is the ravishing soundtrack, featuring everything from Astor Piazzolla to the Gotan Project, and assorted points in between. (Sometimes there is live music as well).You are in charge of wardrobe. Need a few pointers? Here is an Argentine recipe. Put your hair up-- it gets hot in those places-- and powder your face as pale as you like. I favour a choice between dark, smoky eyes (check out Lauren Luke's eye makeup tutorials on YouTube, or go to and crimson lipstick, but you may want both. A lady cannot go wrong with a black wraparound dress and a pair of shoes that look good and stay on. Add a little perfume and a big, sparkly cocktail ring on your left hand, all the better to dangle over your partner's shoulder. A bracelet looks good on the right wrist, near where the hands clasp. Indulge the love of black, white, a dash of red and lots more black; return to those dark little haunts, join the clique and above all get swept away in gorgeous music. You are ready for subculture afterlife--just like heaven.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Free Range Radicals

 article and illustrations by Mrs. Tami Thirlwell-Nicol
Not so many years after Grade Eight Home Ec. class (or as I liked to call it, Skoolers, ‘Home Yech’ class) everything I learned about nutrition and a balanced diet went down the drain. Cooking was never on the front burner at my home-- that’s what drive-ins were for.  My dad schooled me in the efficacy of fast food outlets and we weren’t afraid to use them. We simply rotated the three major food groups: pizza, burgers and fried chicken-- all readily available for pick up.

I transferred these good eating habits into my very young adulthood. However, once out of the family home the frequency with which I patronized fine and fast eating establishments depended on the cash flow. The alternative to this method of sustenance was, of course, reliance on what may have been lingering in the kitchen. The nutritional and economic state of the average punk household was reflected in the contents of its fridge. Upon inspection one might find a crusty bottle of ketchup, a shriveled potato well past retirement and an ancient box of baking soda orphaned by the previous tenants.

This icebox inventory illustrates the factors that produce the punk rock pallor in all its empty nutrient splendor. As a result it was rare to see a rosy-cheeked punk and even harder to find a healthy glow. Sickly pale was the skin color du jour. We would never have darkened the doorway of a tanning salon; if we wanted more pigment in our skin, we opted for jaundice. We reflected the environment we lived in: up all night, sleep all day-- there was no sun-kissed look.

The emaciated and pasty Stiv Bators, antithesis of a Chippendale dancer, was a classic example of the punk prototype. Breakfast for Stiv consisted of a big bowl of steaming hot snarl-- most likely diet snarl. That guy was really skinny. If he were alive today he would probably market “Sonic Reducer” as a secret carb-burning supplement. I’d buy it.
Some of the classic punk rock food staples back in the day were basic items such as toast or beer or, if one was feeling rather flush, toast and beer-- good for any of the three squares. Then there is the legendary Kraft dinner. Only the imagination can limit the multitude of ways to bastardize this dish. I’m just glad tofu hadn’t been invented back then-- I would have hated for any nutritional value to have compromised my standards. Cereals were very popular in my kitchen, given the fact that I hosted breakfast for a boyfriend with the maturity level of a seven-year-old. Naturally, the cereal selections were based on sugar content and the prize inside. Words of wisdom, Skoolers: if you want to get rid of your punk rock boyfriend, stop feeding him Captain Crunch and he will go away. Guaranteed.

For me, Vancouver's legendary Railway Club served as an all-you-can-eat buffet, the bars garnish caddy being the buffet. With such delicacies as lemon and lime wedges, (no scurvy!), maraschino cherries, pearl onions and celery stalks (fruit and veg!) mealtime meant never having to settle for just a bag of chips. A lot of punks really didn’t eat much. If it was a choice between a half-sack of Extra Old Stock brew or food, then snacking on beer labels seemed to suffice. Simply tear and chew. Between the protein in the glue and the fiber content in the paper you are looking at an adequate amount of roughage with the beer rounding out the recommended daily nutrient intake, not to mention a dose of vitamin B6.

The ‘dine and dash’ was a fairly popular pastime and method of replenishment. But be sure not to overeat when undertaking this venture and go easy on the bread basket, as it can hinder the ‘dash’ part of the evening, leaving one rather vulnerable while attempting to exit. Greasy spoons were the typical eating establishments in punk culture and, in particular, Nemoto’s cafe just off Hastings Street was a breakfast favorite. My friend Sally and I would wile away the time waiting for the waiter to bring us our order by singing “You Can’t Hurry Jimmy” sung to the tune by the Supremes “You Can’t Hurry Love”. 

Another restaurant on the punk rock landscape was Mr. Mike’s. It was a low budget steak house franchise established in 1960. I was quite familiar with it, as it had been a family favorite. The only restaurant I remember patronizing as a kid where you could actually get a serrated steak knife! We went there when my parents were on their best behavior. I would amuse myself by studying that paper placemat with the fun and colorful illustrations of the various bar drinks. I learned their names, their contents and scrupulously mapped out what order I would one day try each of them...Harvey Wallbanger, Singapore Sling-- what funny names for cocktails. Come to think of it, ‘cocktail’ is a funny name for a drink. Tom Collins, Rob Roy, hmmm, it kind of makes Shirley Temple sound like a big baby’s drink. Hey, that Manhattan sounds cool... Those place mats were an invaluable education and helped me to appear quite drink savvy when I reached my teens. Never mind a diploma, I’ve got a framed comprehensive cocktail chart on parchment paper hanging in my den.
By the late 1970s, the Mr. Mike’s restaurants started to slowly disappear but there remained one on Granville Street where a large portion of punks managed to gain employment due to one hapless manager who thought putting people like Chuck Biscuits in charge of the salad bar was a good idea. A useless and long expired insider’s tip: if you must eat at that Mr. Mike’s location, stick with the baked potato with its insulated aluminum safety jacket. Unless, of course, you are craving a smorgasbord of human bodily fluids and feel the need to pay for them, then have at it.

Meanwhile, in terms of at-home gatherings, I don’t remember too many punks hosting dinner parties; most owned little more than a can opener for cooking equipment. That and a fork will get you on your way to Beefaroni bliss. Enjoyed hot or room temperature, it makes for a fine meal. Fruit and vegetables, which would have greatly aided in the appearance of health, were sorely missing from the punk diet. Did I miss the all-ages ‘Rock Against Produce’ concert? The only vegetable on that guest list was the potato. And so many punks subsisted on the spud that people starting speaking with Irish accents. 

Today it’s all about anti-oxidants and eradicating free radicals. I remember when being a free radical was hip; now they are the enemy. But really, back then we had bigger fish to fry, and when you’re young the last thing you are mulling over is if you are getting enough Omega 3-6-9. And screw protein. Muscles were for jocks. But over the years the palate matures and what was once a delectable indulgence, such as the sparkling strawberry Pop Tart, is now just a shell of its former self. That’s why I’ve switched to the irresistible raspberry flavored ones. I’ve come a long way in improving my healthy eating habits. I realize now that donuts aren’t just for breakfast anymore, pizza actually counts as not one but four food groups and chocolate milk tastes pretty good even without the vodka.