River Hall was a dorm for misfits, rebels and outcasts on 114th Street across from St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s private school for girls and boys.

Under the labyrinthine dorm policies of Columbia College of Columbia University there was almost no chance of anyone ending up in River before their Junior year….which was why most ‘river rats’ were disaffected veterans of a variety of underclass dorms that either, like Carman and John Jay, put these delicate souls through the “normative” ringer….or, in the case of the more savvy, and lucky, “indie” kids…time well spent in Ruggles, McBain or the legendary H__ off 121st and Amsterdam. (god, I hope I remembered that right.)

River residents were called rats I guess, among other good reasons, because in order to get to the dorm one had to walk past a chain link fence that served only to block access to an empty lot that consisted of a two-story high chunk of Manhattan schist which, particularly on rainy nights, served as a playground for legions of Norwegian rodents…
If there was one moment which defined River it was the midnight fire drills that plagued the dorm, a former SRO cum “suite-style” living arrangement…let’s just say the fire department paid a visit to River about once a month.

Bathed in the lights of fire trucks and the headlamps of NYC’s finest fire fighters the aggregate population of River would get to meet up.  At 3AM.

Gay and straight.  High, tweaking, stoned, raging on midnight espresso and soberly half-asleep.  Those with new lovers, those stuck with the old.  Those who, um, found themselves most often, or always, alone.  All of us poured out into the street half-clothed like the cast of a crowd scene in a non-existent music video for They Might Be Giants…a sea of hard-scrabble vaguely punk kids around twenty years old…none of whom “fit in.”

Some folks…you may have heard of…musicians, djs, poets, academics, activists, lawyers, web designers, moms and dads.  Others it would be great if you had heard of them…but alas it’s unlikely that you have.  Folks whose bands, whose writing…whose varied work just hasn’t made it out there yet and maybe never will.  But there is something about that “we”…the kids who had the annual punk mosh party in the basement of the dorm, for, uh, ourselves…the kids whose voices and flavor reeked of the sound of “indie” music and cigarettes, who, after growing up in the listless seventies and under “Ronnie” Reagan in the 80’s, and who in the 90’s of the Bush the First’s Gulf War, were about to get defined, for better or worse, in the media response to Richard Linklater’s movie, Slacker, as….puke….Generation X.

I guess I realize now, on some level…who we were.

The cynical non-joiners, the ones too disaffected to strike the “ironic” pose and who fled to the farthest corner of the University…the agnostics, the anarchists and the true believers…the ones who sought out an alternate path…the goofy plush toy fetishists…those who’d been rejected and ostracized…those who’d been privileged enough to know that they didn’t want “in.”  The wearers of black T-shirts with a pink triangle that said “Silence = Death”…the haggard stragglers on the uptown 2 at 5AM from the downtown…the readers of Roland Barthes…the hollow-eyed late-night diner denizens…smart kids who just needed a break from campus norms.

Every university, every community has this space.  A spot for the outsiders.   A voluntary community defined by its negatives, by its rejection of the absolute bullshit of the status quo.

Frank Zappa called us freaks….and embraced the term.  

Some of us became, like indie-heroes Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, proponents of a new kind of “indie” entrepeneurism…some moved to Williamsburg…some moved, ahem, back home with mom and dad for a spell….some got hooked on smack, some, thank god, kicked…but if there’s anything that summed this moment up, any artifact for that generation, of that time, in my view, it would be the music of the band the Pixies.   Howling, raging, soft, then focused…the essence of the Pixies was this:  I’m gonna tell you just how I feel.  I’m gonna be who the fuck I am.

That resolute naked honesty means something.  When the chips are down, it’s good to know that someone has been standing howling the truth naked in the street all along.

Why does any of this have to do with anything?

Well, every once in awhile there comes a moment where the relevance of those ragged outsiders becomes suddenly relevant.

Every once in awhile regular folks start to puke on the crap they get fed by the machinery of power…cultural, political and religious.

Every once and awhile the freaks have their say.

And, quite often, it’s when the face of power has reached the point of becoming a sort of all-encompassing mask.  When the face of the dominant paradigm has become a predictable incantation of rigid norms…a face that seeks, like a greedy ancient god, to devour not just its standard brainwashed share of the populace, but all of us in its spell.  Sometimes there comes a point when entrenched power oversteps its bounds and tries to quench the “human” itself, when it tries to redefine the world to reflect its sick, greedy, dominating and hypocritical ways…when, as in the painting by Goya, Saturn devours its young.

In a word, when assholes like George W. Bush and Tom DeLay have their way for too long….and when folks start to choke on the lies and the smarmy and the vicious half-truths…when the “normal” gets to seem like too much even for those comfortably ensconced in its grip.

Well, at times like this, it’s time for “the freaks” to stand together….to raise our voice….to assemble our disaffected yet true-believing ragged band of outsiders…and reach out like we’ve done before…

from Diderot to Bob Dylan…from Mary Wollstonecraft to Audre Lorde…from Ralph Ellison to Ani DiFranco…

it’s time, once again, to fly our flag.  

(ph. credit Declan McCullagh.)

{this diary appeared as a late night Saturday piece on both dKos and LSF….I submit it here for your weekday pleasure and highly recommend checking out:

indiepoprocks! on somafm.com for a complementary soundtrack.   kid o.}

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