Guitar and Milkman and Don Henley and the Cro-Mags: Reflecting on 10 Years of Tropics of Meta

a revolution of the mind

Have you ever seen the Eagles documentary from a few years back, creatively titled, The History of the Eagles? Now, granted, it’s a bloated monster consisting of two parts: the first being an intriguing look into 1970s ambition, arrogance, and dimwittedness, the second an overweight salad of generational hot garbage and self-regard. If we’re being honest it’s all very meta because, well, The Eagles were the definition of 1970s bloat. Yet, part one remains essential viewing for anyone interested in cultural history or the 1970s, as the Eagles’ story distills the idiocy of the era. Not that it’s necessarily unique to Don Henley et al; watch its fictional version in the semi-autobiographical film by Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous (2000). Needless to say, there are a few similarities. I bring this up for a few reasons, some small, others smaller.

My first piece that went anywhere for Tropics of Meta (ToM) explored my love-hate affair with Don Henley and my allergic reaction to the Eagles. While I remain proud, nay giddy, about the article, it also opens with nugget of naïve minded, wish-casting: “As Barack Obama looks to the 2012 election, no matter the outcome, one can assume that the Baby Boomers are slowly exiting state right from the nation’s political theater.” There are moments when one says to self: “Self, you are an idiot.”

My anecdote makes it seem like Alex and I had no idea what we were doing when we launched the site in 2010. We didn’t, but that was kind of the point, hot takes be damned.

In 2010, I was a mid-30s graduate student enrolled in the University of California San Diego’s History PhD program — undoubtedly, older than your usual academic hopeful. I had spent nearly ten years teaching in New York City’s public high schools from 1999-2008. While teaching had been formative in every way possible, about five years in, I felt like I wanted more so I enrolled in Columbia University’s MA program for liberal arts around 2003. I taught during the day and attended classes at night a few days a week.

While I can’t honestly say I loved Columbia, I did appreciate the half off tuition I received being a city educator and ultimately learned a great deal from the professors and graduate students with whom I was fortunate enough to share classes. During my time there, I met two incredibly important people: eventual CUNY professor and international gambling expert, Matthew Vaz, and ToM co-founder, Georgia State prof and urban historian par excellence, Alex Sayf Cummings.

I met them both in Kenneth Jackson’s Urban History Seminar, which despite my kind of shitty grade (a well deserved B+), proved to be arguably the most influential class I’ve ever taken. It crystalized my interest in urban history. Jackson himself pioneered aspects of the field, most notably studying the federal government’s role in redlining, which scholars today have expanded upon even further. Every week seemed to open new doors. I made sure to read even the books listed as honorable mentions. Whatever woes had befallen, befell, and would befall upon urban America and even myself, I was to quote one soul legend, “Living just enough, living just enough for the city.”

My bond with Matty and Alex took time. The former ended up in a class with me taught by the perennially gracious and astute Pablo Piccato. Eventually Matty even picked up some hours teaching at the high school where I worked, Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day located at 14th Street and 2nd Ave. 

As for Alex, we would run into each other at Butler Library now and again. We even randomly crossed paths at a concert in Central Park once though for the life of me I can’t remember the bands we saw, but I do remember Alex. [Editor’s Note: It was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Lol.] Eventually, Alex came out to a party my roommates and I threw out in Queens and things seemed to take off from there.  Matty and Alex knew each other from the Columbia PhD program so it was a natural crossover, like the Cro-Mags’ Best Wishes or Cause for Alarm by Agnostic Front (see, what I did there, all my former heshers?).

Matty, Alex, and I would occasionally roam around the city, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn — doing what people in their twenties do: parties at the crib; drinks at the bar. You get the idea. Sure it was fun, but we also talked history, politics, and culture. To this day, it remains one of the most cherished periods of my life.

 “I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that, but I am telling you how it was,” Maria Wyeth, the deceptively cunning protagonist tells the reader in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Maria’s right, to an extent: not all of our lives will be equal in terms of happiness. Still, there are moments and periods which, looking back, mean even more in retrospect than they did at the time. In my memory, this period remains backlit by a bright incandescent light; every smile glistens, every laugh booms.  

Why am I telling you this? To convey the point that what Alex and I founded in 2010 grew out of years of friendship and discussion. It wasn’t some sort of epiphany or magical event, but it was born out of true intellectual curiosity and shared experiences. I’m not saying this is the only way or even the best way for a blog to take form, but I do believe it’s how ToM did.

The blog reflected these freewheeling exchanges. One of ToM’s biggest strengths, and paradoxically, arguably one of its weaknesses, is its wide-open nature. We wrote about anything and everything that interested us. If we had been more schooled in marketing we would have understood finding a narrower niche would have been easier. What did Mike say in Breaking Bad to Walt? “No more half measures.”  That said, through sheer will and, on my part, a desire to explain myself to myself, we built a site.

To put it in more literary terms, take Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, when its two main characters, Milkman and Guitar, discuss pursuing an alleged hidden bounty belonging to the former’s family. “Reasonable? You can’t get no pot of gold being reasonable,” Guitar tells Milkman in Morrison’s classic novel. Guitar wasn’t wrong, and Milkman knew it.

He tried hard not to swallow, but the clarion call in Guitar’s voice filled his mouth with salt. The same salt that lay at the bottom of the sea and in the sweat of a horse’s neck. A taste so powerful and necessary that stallions galloped miles and days for it. It was new, it was delicious, and it was his own.

Granted, Alex and I weren’t on the same tortured generational quest that captured Milkman and Guitar, nor did we ever expect any sort of payout, but, no matter how minor, the same impulse drove us. “All the tentativeness, doubt, and inauthenticity that plagued him slithered away without a trace, a sound.”

#$@%, this brings me back to the Eagles again. Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Joe Walsh actually says something profound and it applies here. Yes, Joe Walsh of the Eagles.

In discussing the band’s trajectory, and in many ways his own life, Walsh speaks to the camera paraphrasing a “philosopher” who noted much of life appeared to be anarchy, chaos, and randomness: “Non related events smashing into each other … it’s overwhelming,” and you ask yourself, “what in the world is going on?” Later when looking back from middle age “it looks like a finely crafted novel which at the time, it don’t.”

Sure, this is boilerplate philosophy 101, but Joe Walsh is so burned out you have to just marvel at his ability to string sentences together that engage the metaphysical and are broadly true to boot. Whatever mistakes we made, and I’m sure we made more than we even know of, seem less relevant than the site we established and that Alex has taken it so much further.

ToM enabled me to find my voice as a writer. Some things I wrote for the site honestly suck or are just interminably boring when I read them now, but in the moment working through such ideas proved essential. When you write as much as Alex and I did those first few years, not every entry is going to be Colson Whitehead.

To Walsh’s point, some of my posts seem random and not necessarily connected by any specialization besides my personal interest, but over time I built up a repertoire on transit, film (docs and theatrical releases), sports, race, and music, mostly indie rock, hardcore punk/metal, and hip-hop. I would add Alex and I co-wrote a slew of pieces on similar topics such as the The Dark Knight Rises or the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate that in my mind remain insightful and funny.

Simply getting reps matters. Admittedly, the whole 10,000 hours thing promoted by Malcolm Gladwell turns out be statistically bunk, but still, the blog gave me a means by which to build a writing strategy, a sort of authorial infrastructure that I still depend on today. It enabled me to grapple with ideas and come to a personal understanding with and about them. What did Didion once say? “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

We published, published, and published; after all, “sleep is the cousin of death,” as a certain someone once said. When we didn’t have a contributor, we wrote. In retrospect, being in grad school, concluding my second year and heading into quals provided the perfect opportunity to launch a blog. Class work completed and reading lists engaged, it offered the chance to tackle all the ideas and arguments I had absorbed and attempt to apply them in a public-facing way, something that would prove a critical skill in my current job and as an co-editor of The Metropole for the Urban History Association.

Since we figured no one would read us anyway, it felt like writing into the ether, confessing my view of history to the unconscious. It was liberating, but much as the afflicted unnamed narrator from the prologue to Invisible Man put it: “I remember that I am invisible and walk softly as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”

I’m not sure I ever achieved anything on the scale of “waking up the sleepwalkers,” unless you count enraging Eagles message boards, but undoubtedly, under Alex’s stewardship ToM has; witness Myriam Gurba’s piece that blew the wheels off of Jeanine Cummin’s novel, American Dirt.  Even Oprah had to concede she was rethinking things: “I’m not going to play it safer, but I’m not going to wade into water if I don’t have to,” she told the New York Times. Damn, Oprah.

I can’t say enough about the opportunities ToM afforded me. ToM helped get me my job. It got me a column writing for KCET. It got both Alex and I the amazing opportunity to help build and construct the East of East project created by our homies Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzman. Carhartt even once paid me a $1000 Euro to write a piece on NYC hardcore for their European magazine. You read that correctly, Carhartt has a European fashion magazine. It was, in sum, one of the best decisions of my adult life.

Now I might have started with the Eagles, but I never intended to conclude with them. Fact is, not to be cliché or too Lebowskian about things, but yeah, the Eagles — not really my thing. Growing up, punk, hip-hop and hardcore spoke to me far more than classic rock. The Beastie Boys, as I’ve written for ToM, were my proverbial spirit animal.

Near the end of the recent memoir, The Beastie Boys Book, by surviving band members Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock) and Michael Diamond (Mike D), Horowitz reflects bittersweetly on what would turn out, unbeknownst to anyone, to be the band’s last show: “Things in life never come full circle. Maybe once or twice they’re hexagonal, but to me they’re always misshaped, as if drawn by a toddler in crayon.” Horowitz could remember all those that had passed through their lives but no longer in the picture. “But now was such a great distance from then. The rearview was nearly impossible to reposition.”

Who knows how long anything lasts? Ad Rock and Mike D did not know then that MCA (Adam Yauch) was not long for this world. “Headlining a huge festival is very different from a nice turnout at CBGB. But shit, man, we didn’t know it was gonna be the last show we’d ever play.”

We rarely do, and because of that let me extend a heartfelt celebration of ToM at ten. I can’t wait for it’s 21st, I’ll be the first to buy it a drink.

[Editor’s Note: Don’t call us when the New Age gets old enough to drink.]

Author: Ryan Reft

I dig ditches.

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