Birth of the Cool

Birth of the Cool

Written by Steven Bryan Bieler

Everyone wants to be cool. But what the heck is cool? “What is Hip?” Tower of Power asked us. “Tell me tell me, if you think ya know.” See, even they couldn’t figure it out.

Scientists may never be able to define the state of being cool. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” But we do know quite a bit about the circumstances that can lead to cool. I’m going to take you through two of my experiences to explain how to achieve cool – and why cool can’t be held for long.

Please note that I’m not speaking here of being cool because you made a deal with the devil at a crossroads or lit your guitar on fire at Woodstock or invented recorded music. This is not about Humphrey Bogart telling Dooley Wilson to play it. Let’s keep this on the level of the rest of us mortals.

Case Study 01: Motion in the Ocean

Return with me now to Boston in the summer of 1978 (in my memory, “youth” means “summer”) and a club on Commonwealth Avenue called the Paradise. My age: younger than the kids I work with now. The occasion: A show featuring a new band, the B-52’s.

At that show, in the middle of “Rock Lobster,” when the B-52’s sang, “Everybody had matching towels,” I was one of the people in that little club waving matching towels. Mine were white with a red checked pattern, though I might be remembering the kitchen towels my Mom had at the time. I probably bought them that morning at Goodwill.


Of course, I hadn’t considered what I was going to do with them after I waved them. I’ll bet no one else thought of this, either. The towels ended up kicked into the corners. I hope the club donated them all to Goodwill the next day.

At that moment I had achieved all of the following:

  1. I knew about a great band before they became popular.
  2. I knew the lyrics to their best song and, as with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I knew what I had to do while the lyrics were being sung.
  3. I executed flawlessly.

And yet I wasn’t completely cool. The missing element: I was alone. I had gone with some people from work, but they weren’t my best friends or my romantic partners or potential romantic partners. I had no special person to experience my coolarity with me. Close, but no crustacean.

The B-52’s are still touring today. People bring their grandchildren.

Case Study 02: Beat This

It’s 1979, we’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my girlfriend and I, along with my best friend at the time and his girlfriend, went to see the Beat, a power-pop quartet from LA. The venue was a boxy brick space near the Central station on the Red Line that was called the Box or the Square Brick Thing. Someone from Cambridge who was there in 1978 will have to help me out here.

The Beat came on late, after the local favorites we had originally come to see. They were raw, vulnerable, biting, aggressive, love-sick, and swaggering. They lit each song off the last one like a chain smoker. We were transformed. I felt as if we had discovered them, the four of us, and that, like Jon Landau on first hearing Bruce Springsteen, we had discovered the future of rock and roll.

At the end of the show, I walked out of the Square Brick Thing with my ears ringing and the cold air hitting my flushed skin and feeling as if I’d been to the moon and back. I’d like to report that my girlfriend and I had sex in a car in the parking lot (in someone else’s car). We didn’t, but I can report that this show was so good, she actually considered it.

Unlike the previous case study, this time, I was cool. I was in the right place with the right people and I had witnessed a performance so transcendent that the Beat were vaporized while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

The Beat were not the future of rock and roll. These days they don’t even exist on oldies radio. But the energy pulse they generated that night continues to spread outward. In two million years it will reach the Andromeda galaxy. That will be cool.


Passport to Cool: Revoked

When I was younger, I was ahead of the musical curve. Now I am older, and stuck on a musical off-ramp. Fortunately, young people don’t care. If, in talking with my young co-workers, I demonstrate that I know the difference between Oasis and Blur or Mos Def and Mos Eisley, my young co-workers will think I’m adorable. And if I stumble while trying to demonstrate this, they will think I’m adorable.

If I had danced with Rio on the sand in 1982 or jammed with Sheila E. in 1984, that would’ve been cool. For a while. Today, young people might not know what I’m talking about. At a family dinner I attended in 2010, a fight broke out over Sting that ended only when my 12-year-old niece asked, “Who is Sting?”

Tower of Power warned us: “What is hip today/might become passé.”

(Goodbye to Tower of Power’s Rocco Prestia, who left us on Sept. 29, 2020. Your bass playing on “What is Hip?” will never become passé.)

Header image of the B-52’s courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KevinPatrickLaw.

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