Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Twilight of the '80s with Richard Rushfield

FOR years before I met him, I knew of Richard Rushfield as this dark legend -- a nihilist wit who ran an underground humor magazine, an online savant with a Nixonian five-o' clock-shadow who had come into the LA Times to destroy the print world from within.

When I finally met Rushfield, at an art opening a few months back, I found him oddly innocent and charmingly bewildered, and I'm pleased to report that his new memoir has some of these same qualities. "Don't Follow Me I'm Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the '80s" is about a time and place and a series of comic misadventures, but also very much the story of a dazed, Hawaiian-shirted Angeleno lost in a particularly decadent niche of East Coast culture. I spoke briefly to him about his experience.

Q: What made you want to go to Hampshire, which by the '80s was already a legendary hippie school?

A: I grew up here in Los Angeles, so I always thought about going back East for college. When you go to Crossroads [prestigious LA high school] you pretty much think, by 16, that you know everything you need to know. How dare any college tell me what to study? So the progressive education appealed to me. Going to school in the woods of New England was a kind of idyllic fantasy -- but this was kind of the "Mad Max" version.

Q: Your first night there was a pretty embarrassing welcome to the college experience.

A: My first experience getting drunk on red table wine included emptying the contents to my stomach on a hall which didn't much want me there in the first place. Their affection for me did not increase.

Q: I get a sense there was a real culture clash for you as a California kid?

A: It's a very different world there, and it got stranger as it went along. If you're from Los Angeles, you're presumed to barely be able to spell your name -- they speak very slowly for you. And the hippie culture doesn't really exist here -- prep school kids who didn't bathe, with heavy sweaters, driving Volvos...?

Q: It sounds like you eventually found your tribe.

A: It was a school of outcasts where I thought I'd fit in great. But I had to find the outcasts' outcasts. This was a group [known as the Supreme Dicks] whose response to the culture was to wholly check out, burning the bridges with society. The ethos came to be known as "the grunge era" years later, where to have any motivation or enthusiasm was the most uncool thing you could do. Ambition, relationships, goals, studies -- you'd never heard of them.

When the grunge era came around, it was the first mass movement with absolutely no agenda. It was Gen X's one moment of ruling the stage, in between the Boomers and their kids. And our moment was to say, Let's stay in and do nothing.

Q: Does reflecting on those years tell us anything about higher education, Miami Vice, the Reagan '80s, or generational change?

A: Certainly if I could look at myself at age 17, I could conclude that a 17-year-old should not be entrusted with his own eduction.

I also feel like we came at the end of this enormous party, from the disco '70s to the go-go '80s, before things became very earnest and political with Gen Y. We showed up at the party at 3 a.m., after the buffet had been cleaned out and there were just a few cheese cubes left. And the people right outside started this really earnest movement.

More Rushfield here.

No comments: