Playing the "Air Guitar"

Dave Hickey's essays on art and democracy hit a major chord.

Published October 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i hate my friends. That's what I was thinking in the cafeteria at lunch, second
week of 11th grade. My "friends" were the kind of girls whose grandest
quest at the time was apparently the hunt for matching socks. Fuck this.
I shoved my sandwich back into its sack and took off. I'd rather sit
alone with my back against my stupid locker than listen to them yammer
about nothing for another second. Gotta go. Thrilled, but also scared to
death, I put on my surliest face, marched out of the lunchroom to my locker
and plopped right down in the hallway dirt. A few long minutes
later, a pair of shoes stopped -- cool, black ones, splattered with
paint from art class. I looked up and there he was, the personification of rock 'n' roll.
This boy had the clothes, the drugs, the guitar and boy-oh-boy, did he
have the hair. He barely knew me, but he knew I played music (even if it
was in -- how embarrassing -- marching band) and he sat right down next to me
and started talking about records. Did I like the Cure? Did I like the
Well, not really, no, but I'll tell you why. What's that? As a
matter of fact, I love Charlie Parker! How could he know that only
five minutes before I'd decided to let myself hope for a whole new life?
How could he know that just by simply sitting down and talking about
songs -- stuff that matters -- he took me right where I wanted to go?

"And I love that kind of talk, have lived on it and lived by it,
writing that kind of talk for magazines," art critic Dave Hickey writes in his
rather miraculous new essay collection, "Air Guitar" (Distributed Art Publishers). "To me, it has always been the heart of the mystery, the heart of the heart: the way people talk
about loving things, which things, and why." Which things, in Hickey's
case, is a wonderfully rich roster: Siegfried and Roy, "Perry Mason,"
Flaubert's "A Simple Heart," lady wrestlers, Andy Warhol's movie "Haircut."
But Hickey is at his best writing about music. There are marvelous passages devoted to Chet Baker, Hank Williams and the Rolling Stones. But when he's cooking up a really hot solo on his air guitar, he writes about great cultural artifacts as music, using the term "rock 'n' roll" not as a genre but as a code word for "surprise."

The subtitle of Hickey's book is significant: "Essays on Art &
Democracy." What art might mean and how it is discussed in a country
formed by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is his big, compelling
question. But he doesn't go at it from afar, from the distant vantage
point of theory. Like the best American critics, Hickey sneaks up on the
question quick and close. And the question is inherently contradictory because democracy is inherently contradictory, depending as it does on two things: taking stabs at togetherness while fostering and celebrating individual will. Enter that great democrat and rock 'n' roller, Julius "Dr. J" Erving. In the essay "The Heresy of Zone Defense," Hickey goes gaga for a play in the 1980 NBA Finals: "Somehow, Erving turns his body in the air, reaches back under the backboard from behind, and lays the ball up into the basket from the left side!" Hickey is so excited by the move he instantaneously jumps up. Years later, he remains stumped and moved -- and thankful. Not just for the play, the thing in itself, but for what it meant. It was, he writes, "well-nigh universal," a moment for members of Erving's republic to write about and scream about and agree on.

Every critic, which is to say every fan, makes a history out of
those little flashes just the way a country does. If the United States has
the Fourth of July, the Hickey equivalents are memories like those two seconds in the career of Dr. J. Or one of his boyhood afternoons when his jazz musician father brings him along to a jam session in a suburban Texas house. Various Americans of various races, plus one piano-playing
German-Jewish refugee in a black voile dress, plow through tunes by the
likes of Duke Ellington. "I kept that musical afternoon as a talisman of
memory. I handled it carefully, so as not to knock the edges off, keeping
it as plain and unembellished as I could, so I could test the world against
it, because it was the best, concrete emblem I had of America as a
successful society and remains so. My dad is part of it, of course, but I
see him differently now -- not as my dad, so much, but as this guy who would
collect all these incongruous people around him and make sure that
everybody got their solos."

Here's the catch: If you carry stuff like that around inside you,
your heart gets broken about a million times a year. You hear Chet Baker's
dead and, as Hickey confesses, "I missed him immediately." You don't have
to miss people if you never cared in the first place. If you live where extravagant promises like "the pursuit of happiness" aren't trotted out from the get-go, you don't run out of breath chasing the dream. America, Hickey's right to point out, is "exceptional in the extreme," a
place given to expectation, of asking too much. "Why else," he wonders,
"would we alert the media every time we feel a little bit blue?" And isn't
that what the music born (or bred) in this country is partly about? "Every song is a sad song," Hickey says. Not that I want to believe him. Hey! Over here! I asked for water but my fellow citizen gave me gasoline! Gimme some justice! Some love! Gimme a goddamn drink!

About that afternoon jam session, Hickey writes, "We don't cherish that flavor of democracy anymore." Well, maybe that makes his book old-fashioned, since there's a whole lot of cherishing going on. What a treasure! The world is crammed with pages of cultural criticism that give us facts and thoughts and opinions and insights, but this book delivers love: love for the country, love for what its citizens can do. It's as if Dave Hickey has sat right down next to your lonely little locker, ready to converse.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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