Daily Archives: December 31, 2020

Lileks on the Awesome ’80s

It’s been a long, long time since I checked in on James Lileks. Longtime Loyal Readers may remember that name. I used to refer to him quite a bit here on Simple Tricks, back in the days when blogging was a going concern and we were all linking to each other in a big happy ecosphere… before the dark times… before social media.

I read his Daily Bleat regularly in that halcyon age, and I even aspired to model my own blogging efforts on the sorts of things he was doing. Then came The Lileks Incident, when something I wrote about him here got back to him. He slagged me pretty thoroughly, made me mildly famous for a couple days, and I was startled when his not-inconsiderable fanbase was so… unforgiving. It was probably pretty mild compared to the corrosive shitstorm that’s commonplace nowadays on Twitter, among other places, but at the time, I found it pretty difficult to take, especially where I felt like I’d been misunderstood. I contacted him, explained my side of it, we exchanged apologies, and that was the end of it. Except… I’ll be honest, the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth and shortly thereafter, I just… stopped going to his site. It was a big internet after all, and there was lots of other content to eat up my leisure time without any lingering embarrassment or resentment. C’est la vie.

It’s a shame, too, because in those early, heady days of the blogosphere, when people were homesteading themselves an online presence and declaring themselves and all their weird interests, it was easy to feel like you knew someone, like they were a friend, even if they had no idea you were even reading their stuff. Lileks had felt like a friend. I had emotional investment in him, in his interests and daily life, in stories of his daughter and his dog and his problematic backyard water feature. When he turned on me, even if he felt justified in doing so… it hurt. And for a long time after I stopped reading the Bleat, I felt like I’d lost a friend. Even though I knew he barely knew I existed. It was an important lesson in how this brave new world operated, and how harsh it could be.

Earlier today, I was going through a very old folder of bookmarks and came across the link to his site. My curiosity bloomed almost immediately. It’d been nearly a decade, I think, since I last read him. Was he even still out there anymore? Did I dare take a look? Although I’d always admired his writing ability, his turns of phrase and his sense of humor, his politics were not entirely compatible with my own and I frankly dreaded what the Bleat might have mutated into during the Trump years.

To my relief, it appears to be pretty much what I remember: close examination of architecture, pop culture, bits of ephemera, the details expounded upon for laughs and yet somehow he zeroes in on a kernel of truth about the way things were and how they are not that any longer, and what a shame that is. One new addition to the site soon caught my eye, something he’s calling “The 20th Century Project,” which consists of scans of old magazine ads, catalogs and other ephemera, organized by decade and described in his particular sensibility. Naturally, I turned to the subset of material from The ’80s first. Here’s his introduction to that decade that is so near and dear to my heart:

Yes, it was awesome.

Also, terrifying! Any minute now, nuclear war. Oh, and by the way, sex is fatal now. That said, it was everything you remember, or everything you heard, and so much less.

… think of it like a story told in a smoky bar with streetlights slanting through the venetian blinds. That sounds rather 40s, I know – but it was also very 80s, and we loved it, because it seemed as if we were back to one important basic lesson: the classics weren’t dead. We could bring them back to life at the same time we made up new ideas, and it all fit together. America was BACK! Also nuclear dread and deadly STDs, but you got your win and you got your wang.

I stand in awe of how he captures so much what made the ’80s “the ’80s” in so little verbiage, whereas I would probably carry on for another 2000 words without every managing to say anything. Nuclear dread, STDs, and bands of light through venetian blinds… that’s exactly how I remember it.

Yeah… I still want to want to do what he does, even as I watch the digital tumbleweeds blow past the weatherbeaten porch of this old platform…

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