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Life out here by Bret Kofford: Surviving the angry young man

May 08, 2002

Elvis Costello survived being an angry young man. Lucas Jackson didn't.

There are myriad differences between the two — Elvis is big-city British, Luke was an American from the rural South. Luke was a man's man and a ladies' man, and Elvis is a sensitive man and a thinking man. And maybe most important, Elvis is a real guy with a strange stage name while Luke is a fictional guy with an everyman name.

They share at least two things, though: both were angry young men and both were big influences on the angry young man who started writing this column about 10 years ago.

Both Elvis C. and Lucas J. burst upon my activities this weekend. There was an hour-long interview/performance with Costello on the Bravo network on cable television Saturday, and "Cool Hand Luke" was mentioned as the favorite film of a character in a movie that my wife made me endure Friday called "Serendipity."

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That was the only thing serendipitous about "Serendipity" for this viewer. From the time I was 9 or 10, anyone who has asked me about my favorite movie would get the same response: "Cool Hand Luke." I've watched it probably 50 times. Everything about the movie appeals to me, from the setting to the wonderful supporting cast to the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton singing spirituals on the front steps of the prison camp barracks.

But what I like best about the movie, what generations of movie fans have liked best about the movie, is Lucas Jackson, ol' Cool Hand Luke himself. Luke is charming and handsome and cool, but more than anything, he is angry. He doesn't believe in rules, sees the absurdity in society and the silliness of his fellow man. He keeps escaping from the prison camp for no bigger reason than he feels like it. Lucas Jackson is a metaphor for those who will never give in to the rules.

He dies for it, for his anger and his frustration and his not compromising for society.

Paul Newman's Lucas Jackson is the ultimate movie anti-hero. Anything James Dean or Leonardo DiCaprio or any other Hollywood wuss ever did pales in comparison to Newman's Luke. And Newman's Luke represents the men of every American generation who die of the often incurable disease — restlessness.

I wanted to be like Luke when I was a younger man. Sure I wanted to be as handsome as Paul Newman, but more than that I admired Luke's general disdain for what society always has been and, for that sole reason, always should be.

But I wanted to make my point with the pointed impact of Elvis Costello. Regarded as something of a joke, something of a novelty act by many when he emerged on the music scene two and a half decades ago, he proved to be one of the best songwriters of his and any subsequent generations. He has written a perfect pop song ("Every Day I Write the Book"), he has written an achingly beautiful song of heartbreak ("Almost Blue") and he has written a rock 'n' roll anthem for the generations ("Pump it Up"). He has written songs for orchestras, songs with McCartney, songs with Bacharach. He has been compared with Cole Porter and George Gershwin. He has written as many great songs as any man alive.

Yet even now he is still thought of by most as the angry young nerd who wanted to scold the world in his songs about its ignorance and unfairness, who messed up a "Saturday Night Live" program by changing his mind in the middle of a song and deciding to play another one, who got punched in the face by a female folk singer for some purportedly disparaging remarks about others.

I actually met Elvis Costello during his alleged angry young man period. I was walking up the stairs in a nightclub in Los Angeles and he was walking down. I introduced myself and said I enjoyed his music. He was polite, nearly engaging (and had a really big head just like my own).

When I told people Elvis Costello had been nice to me, they were shocked, "Not the angry young man," they seemed to be saying.

In the interview aired Saturday on Bravo, the now reflective and contemplative but still pointed Costello conceded back in those days he was as much as anything angry with himself. And that's how it is, really. Angry young men know life would be easier if they could quit questioning everything, if they could just accept what everyone else accepts. But as hard as they try, they can't.

As they get older most adjust. I've tried to adjust with humor, with satire. As Elvis Costello sang, "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused."

Costello has learned the art of massaging the message. I'm still working at it.

My longtime colleague and friend Virginia Horn, who knows a lot about writing, humor and angry young men, said to me a few months ago, "Your columns have mellowed. You are not the angry young man you used to be."

"Actually," I responded, "I think I'm more subversive than ever. I've just become more subtle about it as I've gotten older."

Virginia thought about that for a second.

"You might be right," she said.

If angry young men don't adjust, they die.

Better at 43 to be Elvis Costello than Lucas Jackson.

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