This morning I stumbled upon The Catalog of Cool, a book published in 1982 and purchased around the same time. It was tucked away in a low corner of a bookcase, long forgotten. Edited by Gene Sculatti, a contributor to Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970’s, The Catalog of Cool gives us…well, let’s hear it straight from the editor’s typewriter.
WHAT IS COOL?
Elvis was cool, but so is Elvis Costello. Sinatra was cool, but so is Blondie. Naked City was cool, but so is Dallas. Lolita was cool, but so is The Godfather.
True cool is eternal. Neither fad nor fashion, trend nor taste, the concept links past and present with a snap of the fingers. Zap! Gillespie and Dylan. Toreador pants…and toreador pants. Cool is the essence of style – daring, personal, rare. Yet, in a world of ever-encroaching uncool, it has become harder and harder to distinguish the real thing.
The Catalog of Cool stands as your ultimate guide, leading you to those rare and enduring items, the coolest of the cool.
The book uses a variety of far-out fonts and visual tricks to draw in the reader, including lots of photos and illustrations. It’s been 30 years since this hopeful bible of hip was released. I thought it would be interesting to leaf through and see how well the coolitude of some of the mod, rad and groovy stuff listed within this time capsule has stood the test of time. Or at least my test of time. I know, I know. Cool is in the eye of the individual, but for now I’m going to ignore that inconvenient fact and look at this through my very individualized lens. Maybe you don’t think that’s cool. No problem. I’m cool with that.
After some introductory notes and history the book is divided into eight chapters: Sounds, Screen, Ink, Threads, Good Looks, Rest ‘N’ Rec, Tube, and Wheels. There’s plenty of juice in each, but I’m not here to rehash everything. Instead, let’s focus on four chapters: Sounds, Screen, Ink, Threads. Perhaps we’ll revisit the others at a future date, but for now let’s go mining for those sparkly diamonds and dull zirconias.
- Much to his eternal credit or damnation, Sculatti starts with Abba which he refers to as “polar pop.” It’s a bold move to proclaim Abba cool back in 1982, so props for his fearlessness.
- He includes The Flamingos based solely upon their cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You” which he says “sounds like a transmission from outer space.” Lots of people like the song (including me), but I wonder if including a one-hit wonder group would compel a current version of this book to include Semisonic or Blind Melon. God, I hope not.
- He mentions The Rolling Stones with the caveat “dead from the neck down since ’67.” I would’ve phrased it exactly the opposite while pushing the date forward to 1972 or so.
- I had never heard of Swamp Dogg before buying this book and, quite frankly, I had forgotten all about him until a minute ago. But anyone who has the cojones to write and record a song titled “California is Drowning and I Live by the River” shortly after the release of “London Calling” deserves some sort of acknowledgement. And bless his soul, he’s still around doing that thing he does. Whatever that is.
- All credibility would’ve been lost had The Velvet Underground gone unmentioned. Thankfully they didn’t, so now we can move forward.
An entire essay is devoted to James Bond and, with tepid apologies to Roger Moore, Bond’s screen coolness is laid at the Scottish feet of Sean Connery. There’s a bit of bemoaning that the world has changed too much to properly continue with the Bond franchise (and remember, this was 1982), so the idea was floated that 007 should slide gently into retirement, buy a home in Jamaica, consider writing a book and spark up a spliff. And until Daniel Craig came along, that would’ve been the right decision.
The film choices are, as you might expect, eclectic. Any list of films which includes Bringing Up Baby, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Dirty Harry and Motel Hell is worth note. However, what really jumps out is 1972’s Prime Cut which is described as “Totally flipsville!” Yeah, that’s certainly one way to put it. Makes me all the more proud I had my moment with Lee Marvin.
Since writing about writing takes a lot of writing this is the longest chapter. The usual suspects dot the list of great cool books, although the omission of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is curious. It’s not the greatest book ever written, not by any stretch of the imagination. But when the editor defines cool as “the fullest expression of what it is that’s different or unique about a person” it’s hard to see how Hunter Thompson skipped past his radar. Yet Ozzie Nelson’s 1977 autobiography Ozzie made the list. Go figure.
It can’t be that Thompson was slighted for drug use. The list contains plenty of books either written by or featuring characters who lived in a constant drug-induced haze. Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Mine Enemy Grows Older and Red Dirt Marijuana among them. I don’t want to speculate, but I will anyway. I imagine it’s jealousy. They both worked for Rolling Stone around the same time and Thompson, for all his boorish behavior, was far better known than Gene Sculatti. Maybe excluding him was a small knife to the ribs, a “this is what I really think of you, Mr. Gonzo” thing. Perhaps it gave Sculatti a measure of professional revenge. But all these years later it is Thompson’s works which remain in print while magnum opuses like The Catalog of Cool can only be found by unlikely accident. If the intent was to diminish Thompson it didn’t work out too well. The lesson is clear, boys and girls. Nothing good ever comes from jealousy.
This chapter also contains essays on Sci-Fi, the coolest PI’s and magazines. One thing which particularly caught my eye was a magazine called Sleazoid Express. How great is that? Sleazoid Express. The name hints at a certain type of content, but it’s not exactly what you might imagine (although it’s close). The thrust was analysis and reviews of those gritty movies popular around the Times Square area. Not porn, rather early slasher and gore films. Wizard of Gore, Africa Blood and Guts, Revenge of the Shogun Women, films like that. Whatever. I just think the magazine’s name was pretty awesome and deserved mention.
Not surprisingly this is the funniest chapter in the book simply because today’s fashion always looks hilarious tomorrow. From mini dresses with a Campbell soup label print to clip-on bow ties to sack dresses to zoot suits to tab collar shirts there’s a rib-tickler in here for everyone. Hairstyles are also discussed. I suppose I could run through some of those beauties too, but it’s easy enough (and leads to more immediate laughter) to scout them down on your own. It’s not difficult. Just find any ‘hip’ film or music video made more than five minutes ago.
I’d continue on but I’m suddenly possessed by a desire to don shades, slip into my harness boots, learn to snap my fingers both on my right and left hand, and go hang out on a street corner looking all disinterested. You’re welcome to join me. That is, if you feel cool. Well do you feel cool, punk?