18 years and 12 hours ago, Rita Banerjee was in the middle of a generation coming of age and witnessing 9/11. Her essay “Birth of Cool” captures how a generation of young people watched 9/11 and kept their cool.
An excerpt from “Birth of Cool,” which debuts in Hunger Mountain (Issue 23: Silence & Power) follows below:
Lauren played her Gibson on the phone for me. Voodoo Child. Learning Hendrix one blistered finger at a time. Stairway to Heaven. A poster of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hung on her bedroom wall. Plant made love to the microphone in his too-tight jeans and denim jacket. His threads hadn’t been washed in decades. Neither had he. His hair was a total mess: wastrel, lion, drunken boat. His stance suggested everything hot and sticky and full of sweat. Plant sang as if his life depended on it. As if Page were a living siren: all dark curls and velvet. Soft everywhere. And cool where it mattered. Who was the devil and who the angel here? Their hair, their dishabille, their guitar riffs, their primal screams. What were Plant and Page selling to us, neo-nostalgic teens of the ’90s? Was it sex or something else? A taste of barely contained passion or total apathy? Whatever it was, it became the object of our attraction, our envy. Could a woman ever be so decadent? So illustrious? So free?
Lauren bent over her guitar and strummed, as if she were searching for an answer, as if the metallic edge of her Gibson could vibrate to the right pitch of cool. Her mom had immigrated from Hong Kong and her dad came from nowhere Zen, New Jersey. They spoke Cantonese on the phone together when they wanted to keep their secrets secret. But Lauren, always listening when she shouldn’t have, found out that her mother was pregnant anyway. Her father played in garage bands. He was born with an electric guitar. And so was she. When our history teacher went around the class and asked what kind of music do you listen to? I said, “Garbage,” and Lauren, “Hendrix.”
At her sweet sixteen, we sang “Landslide,” in an improvised, acoustic harmony. Her living room, surrounded by turn-of-the-century Qing chests and miniature lacquered paintings, felt like a recording studio that afternoon. Red cushions, low lights, and dark walnut furniture. A makeshift cabaret for a bunch of girls, barely legal. Gillian with her dark hair and half-smile, belting out the lyrics louder than anyone else. As if she were Stevie Nicks, herself, and knew the truth about pain. Her parents had divorced. Ours just seemed to fight all the time. So Gillian held the honor of being part mystic, part witch in our tribe.
At another sweet sixteen, Maddy sang, “I Will Survive,” and we girls danced primitive, like women, as if our lives depended on it. What heartaches had we experienced? What did we know about life at sixteen? Most of us hadn’t seriously been in love yet. With a man or a woman. We were just beginning to learn what it meant to come of age. To gaze into the future. To gaze back, an old crone, towards all the mistakes and milestones of our life. And what we saw, at sixteen, frightened us. We were experienced. We sang Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin together in Lauren’s living room, as if classic rock could keep the future at bay. As if these staged rebels in their infinite costumes, postures, and expressions of cool could save us. Save us from becoming adults. Save us from becoming women. Save us from a million taboos and stigmas and haunting forms of socialization.
“Darling go make it happen,” Lauren’s voice picked up tempo on the phone, “take the world in a love embrace.” Her guitar kept up the song’s dirty rhythm and twanged just when it mattered. I tried to impress her by playing back Joplin, Brubeck, Bach, Beethoven, Yann Tiersen, different time signatures, and chord progressions on the piano. In the ’90s, we spent so many afternoons like that. On the second line just for us: chatterboxes, klutzes, not yet agents of our lives. Girls. Our songs fused and interrogated one another. They hardly made sense. But that’s how we were. She and me. Latchkey kids. Part-time musicians. Like a true nature’s child. Our jams short-circuited every style in history.