Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day four hundred and twenty nine ... A distressing trend.

"Sweetheart, why on earth would you want to buy new clothes that look like you've already worn them?"

These are the words of my mother, Judy. 

I can remember her saying this to me on several occasions--mostly when I was much younger--while we were out shopping for clothes--jeans, to be specific.  

I couldn't understand why she couldn't relate; now it is all too clear.

The hip place to buy clothes when I was a kid was called The Chess King; there was one at every mall in the Northeast. Now, I guess, the place that kind of replaced that is Hot Topic. I never really got why it was called Chess King, but I didn't think too much about why things were called what they were called. That's what Madison Avenue is for.

"But they're all broken in Ma ... that's why I like them."

"Well, you can break these new Levis in on your own time. And in the meanwhile you won't look like your mother lets you go to school in rags."


And so it would go, every year in August: new Levis. Not the ones I wanted--I wanted the $150 Guess "acid-washed" jeans with the leather patches all over. Fat chance of that happening on her dime. I guess I looked good in the bright blue denims. They were a little stiff, but that didn't last long. I played pretty hard as a child and I ended up breaking the jeans in just fine, until August of the following year, when my mom would put a moratorium on wearing them to school.


Anyway. I don't know if any of you reading this have tried, recently, to buy new, non broken-in, non acid-washed jeans. If you have then you know it's nearly impossible. You have to search them out at places like L.L. Bean or Sears or J.C. Penny, and even at that it's pretty tough to find a pair that isn't a little broken in. 

"Distressed" is what they call them these days (cue the sound of spitting chaw into a brass spittoon and whacking a cane against the floor).

Distressed? How unbecoming a term for clothing that is supposed to look casual. 

I've been doing a lot of online shopping--not necessarily for jeans, but they are ubiquitous. And what I've found is that, now, not only are the jeans that seem to be popular "broken in" but they are practically peppered with buckshot holes. It's deplorable. It's cheezy. It's confusing, even to me.

And now they are doing it with guitars.

I'm not going to name names here, but there are certain companies who are producing guitars that have been "distressed" to look like the player has been beating on them for twice as long as they have been alive.

I have an old guitar; it's older than me. And I've been playing it for 20 years. When I look at pictures of me in the various bands I belonged to over the years it's striking to notice not only how much younger and puerile that I appear but also the state of my guitar. I've put a lot of wear and tear on both of us.

Here is a picture of it taken today:

And here's a picture of a new guitar, below, that represents around the same amount of maturity, give or take a few years:

Notice the wear on the bottom left corner. That's where one's elbow would assumedly grind off the lacquer and paint from playing it for forty years.

But this guitar is new.

Now, there's also a trend with guitars that I've seen that is a little less dubious, and that is creating a replica of a guitar that an artist has made famous. I've seen a model that is made to resemble the guitar that Joe Strummer of the Clash used during his career. There is an Eddie Van Halen "Frankenstein" model that one can purchase for the same price as a new car. But there is a certain quality these guitars possess that to me seems a bit less pretentious.

Once again, my guitar:

And below, a new "relic" guitar:

Okay. I can come up with a legitimate reason to own one of these guitars. I can see if you play a vintage instrument and have to tour the country, or overseas, and don't want to risk losing it. Keep in mind that these "relic" guitars are in the $1,500 to $3,000 range; they're not cheap. An actual vintage guitar, however, is worth considerably more, so I can see why some would opt to leave it at home.

But the people who don't really know that much about vintage gear won't care, and the ones who do can spot a fake a mile away.

My guitar:

And a "relic":

Something about the way the paint is worn, to me, looks like it was done with a sander in one hand and a picture of a legitimate vintage Stratocaster in the other. It's a somewhat meticulous distinction, but once one is aware of it it's tough to not see it when present.

I tend to believe that there's a reason people buy old guitars that goes beyond how much paint is worn off the body: they buy them for the history contained inside. They buy them for what fifty years of air, smoke, sweat, heat, gravity, carelessness, and cold can do to the wood that it's made from. They buy them because they were made by hand, one at a time, by people who were driven by the motives found in a different world. They buy them because they were made in a time when people wore oxfords and gabardine blazers to the park; when rock and roll was emerging and changing and there were just as many astonishing advancements made each and every day in music as there were limitations that future endeavors would conquer and expand on.

Not to get too dramatic.

My guitar: built forty eight years ago this month:

And below, one made last year:


And theirs:

I didn't put all of the wear on my guitar, obviously. I have had it since 1988 (when, gratefully, I got it partially paid for by my folks as a graduation present from high school). But I have put a great deal of history on it. I've played hundreds of shows with it. I have left it in no less than five clubs and--knocking on wood--have gone back, sheepishly, to successfully retrieve it each and every time. You might say I even "distressed" it in doing so. I am a lucky man for possessing it and having the good sense to never ever even consider selling it; I am also glad that I had the wherewithal--twenty-one years ago--to beg, plead, and cogently argue the predictable increase in value of this fine assemblage of wood, plastic, and metal.

I wonder if there is a reason we have gone from a society that values the pristine aura and appearance of an item to one that will settle for no less than a product that looks like we have owned it and used it--abused it and even neglected it in some cases--decrying the virginal insinuations of wearing a pair of jeans that look like they are newly made.

I wonder if we feel that time is running out faster than it used to ... when all our lives were less full of the constant bombardment of news items that give rise to nihilistic tendencies. 

Were we once, as a people, more sure of the foundations of our species--that we will live forever and who on earth would want to buy clothes that look like you've already worn them? 

Or were we just being naive?

In either case I think it's safe to say that the world is changing. It's already "distressed" enough as it is. We have put it through hell, to say the least. And there's no faking the wear and tear.

So I guess I'm like my mother in that respect. I'll take my clothes as minimally broken in as possible.

I'll take care of that part ... because I blindly believe I have enough time to do it myself.

Thanks for reading,



Anonymous said...

Wow!That's just crazy,pre-f'd up's a link to a 4,000 dollar artificially worn bass: Four freakin' grand to own a bass that looks like someone else played it!

F. Alex Johnson said...

You'd think if they were really going to go truly "authentic" they wouldn't have included a case.

luvrandr said...

Great story. As I have read on countless occassions, isn't it amazing how parents go from being totally clueless ( in our minds) to being the wisest people on earth.
As for Chess King, I remember it well, but never thought of the name either. So do you think they called it that because guys were looking for a "MATE"? Sounds sexist to me. If a woman named it it might have been "Chess Pawn", because the Queen is indeed bigger and more powerful, and her king just a pawn. Now thats a sexist comment I may regret!

Anonymous said...

Nice read. I really enjoy your blog -- you're a natural writer.

I think there's no substitute for putting wear on things like jeans and guitars yourself as they become part of your person.

FWIW, I've played one of those fake Jaco basses and it didn't do a thing for me other than make me wonder who would buy one and then show up to a bar gig with it.