The first time I was ever in San Francisco it blew my mind. It was a city of freethinkers and artists who were “on the level” and “got it.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to accept that I was born in South Florida. The isolation and alienation was so severe that I literally believed I was another species. In San Francisco, there were crazy people everywhere and it was the utopian dream. For several years I was born again. The freaks were everywhere and I united with my people at last.
So what happened? I gradually started to notice that people in the mass counterculture were as blind as “the sheep” only they were conforming to a different set of social norms. I came up with the term anti-sheep-sheep to describe them. I felt myself longing for the initial alienation of identifying as a mutant and feeling like I was the only one. After all, meeting people like you is a lot more exciting when you feel like you are the only one. The people who truly influenced my life were the few counterculture people who I met in South Florida. They were as isolated and alienated as I was. They felt like they were another species too.
I remember how we would have all these exciting discussions. “What are we?” was the question. Everyone seemed to have their own answer. “We are an alien species that has been put here to study the human race.” “We are demons from hell and our job is to eliminate the homo sapien.” It seems quite silly to me now but back then it was my inspiration for creating art. It was my job to become a tribal leader. I was going to give “what are we?” the best answer possible.
One of the kids I remember from South Florida created an entire civilization on paper. Since he did not belong in the world of the suburbs he was intent on creating his own world. He showed me a map of his civilization that consisted of a notebook full of beautiful drawings and cryptic messages. “This is where people like us are from,” he would tell me. His civilization had its own language consisting of symbols that he personally designed. We took acid together and discussed the possibility of replacing their civilization with our own.
I met some others in Miami. Thor was the metalhead philosopher. He carried a scepter, recited street poetry, and ranted about how nothing around us was real. His mission was to show people that they were living in the matrix, by any means necessary. Jackie was the transgender shaman punk who did not belong on this planet. Her goal was simply to return home so she could be among her own kind. “I think you guys are from my planet too,” she once whispered to Thor and I. “But what are we?”
The suburbs were an alienating place but the conversations were the best. It was all about being the few. We had a sacred sense of tribal unity that related to our sheltered and conservative upbringings. We were the ones. In San Francisco people didn’t grow up like us. They didn’t grow up like us in Los Angeles or New York either. In major cities people grew up with the counterculture being a visible part of mainstream culture. They grew up homo sapiens.
I want to make the argument that the counterculture is actually better in the suburbs. The scarcity of artistic and eccentric thought forces people to create their own civilizations. It fosters an intense unity between people who do not fit into the mainstream and creates extreme connections among those on the edge.
In contrast, larger cities force marketers to be “on the edge” so they can appeal to the counterculture demographic. You cannot walk down the street without seeing punks, ravers, goths, or at the very least hipsters. There is an over-the-counterculture element of commercialization that makes being a freethinking mutant another fad. The anti-sheep-sheep run prominent.
If I grew up in San Francisco: surrounded by counterculture models on billboards: always having a record store to hang out in: there is no way I would be the person I am today. Being a natural freethinker I would have rebelled against the dominant liberal culture. I wouldn’t have gotten any tattoos. I wouldn’t have become an alternative musician. I wouldn’t have made my artistic goal to answer the “what are we” question.
People were always shocked when I told them I was from South Florida. I was way too “cool” to be from the suburbs and obviously must have been from New York or LA. When I met other kids from the suburbs we would talk about how much easier it was to meet people like us in these big cities. We shared a deep knowledge about alienation that people from New York and LA simply couldn’t understand.
Big cities are known for their thriving countercultures but I see counterculture at its peak when it is at its most obscure. When there are only 5 other people in your entire city who “get it” you tend to get creative, start a fantastic cult, and plot world domination. It is the sense of alienation that connects people in the suburbs and it is through this alienation that new subcultures, tribes, and species are defined.
Maybe it is better to grow up human. You don’t need to sit alone in your room and wonder why you have been put on the same planet as “the sheep.” You don’t need to cry and scream because everybody around you is stuck in the matrix. You don’t need to be the real life protagonist of the movie “They Live” because nobody will put on their glasses. Still, there is so much that you take for granted because you have been surrounded by counterculture your entire life.
Is big city counterculture actually counterculture? I am not so sure that it is. Listening to GG Allin in New York is great but it does not give you the same rebellious thrill as listening to GG Allin in the suburbs. The more taboo something is the more exciting it becomes. Something cannot, by definition, be both popular and edgy. In South Florida it is edgy to be against war. In San Francisco it is socially enforced to the point of banal conformity.
The counterculture is better in the suburbs. It is through the isolation of “being the only one” that your life changes the moment you meet a brilliant person to make art with. Some of the most eccentric minds in existence are currently stuck in these boring towns of nothing. They have “what are we” conversations until 6 AM and it never gets old. They represent us because the billboards refuse to.