I spend an inordinate amount of time in Downtown Santa Cruz. I enjoy the shops, restaurants and outdoor markets, but what really keeps me coming back are the people. As a child I was tutored in people-watching by my parents, mostly in and around the old Cooper House. I also learned the craft of categorizing—not with malice but with a sense of appreciation and enjoyment. “Salty Sea Captain!” my dad would nudge toward the pedestrian passing by. “Jesus!” I would add, nodding at the young shirtless, bearded man passing by. (It was the ’70s. Everyone looked like Jesus.) This playful genus and species game is still fun, though not always politically correct. “Yoga enthusiast!” and “Prius driver!” are well-worn, as are “Self-Employed Tech Guru!” and “Non-Contributor!” There is one declaration that seems absent these days—“Bad Boy!” Where have they gone?
Once upon a time there were bad boys, or more reverently—Bad Boys. They were dangerous, rebels with or without a cause, skulking on the fringe of societal norms and absolutely anathema to parents or other authority figures.
They were also exciting. Exciting in a foreign exchange student way, a visitor from the far away Land of Sneer, surveying our shores for a rule-bashing, curfew-smashing and heart-breaking spree.
The iconic image of the rebel that involuntarily comes to mind is usually Marlon Brando, in leather jacket, cap askew, from The Wild Ones circa 1953. However, he wasn’t the first bad boy to get the nation’s collective attention. The silent film era had Rudolph Valentino, whose 1921 The Sheik role cemented his place on the exotic forbidden fruit aisle. In the 1930s, James Cagney’s roles in hard-scrabble tough-talking films like The Public Enemy filled the Bad bill. Even mid-1400s France had Bad Boy poet François Villon, no stranger to knife fights and brawls. And les chicks dug him.
Personally, the Bad Boys who influenced me were Jackie Earle Haley and Gary Busey, portraying Kelly Leak in the original 1976 The Bad News Bears and Buddy Holly in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story respectively. Miraculously, they seem to have melded into my one and only Reigning Rock Bad Boy–Tom Petty. The fact that I attended Catholic school, where nobody at all, ever, in a million years resembled Tom Petty, and the fact that the neighboring public school was comprised of three hundred boys who looked exactly like Tom Petty—well, he won my secret heart over all five Osmond Brothers put together. (Correction—there was someone in my high school who looked identical to Mr. Petty. Her name was Sister John Mark.)
So what’s my point (aside from waxing poetic about my predilection for unattainable, emotionally resistant, cocky men)? Where have all the Bad Boys gone?!
How do we define the Bad Boy in today’s culture, and, more importantly of course, here in Santa Cruz? And, as much as it pains me to ask, are Bad Boys still relevant? We have bad boy surfers, yet somehow their connection to the great watery mother makes them a little too feely for danger. There are bad boy skaters, but, really, doesn’t that seem a little pedophilic? Is there such a thing as a bad boy green-cycle-therapist? Not in my Blue Book. (I don’t believe in bad boy hippies since they stopped looking like the Son of God.)
While I ponder this conundrum I do recognize the presence of real bad boys, and bad people altogether, and this points to a larger issue; Being rotten has become so prevalent, accepted and glorified in our culture that it’s about as edgy as a tribal tattoo on the cafeteria lady. Being bad used to give outsider status; now it’s a mass-produced T-shirt at Macy’s. Will good be the new bad?
Most of you aren’t concerned with this in the least. Perhaps it’s never crossed your mind, or maybe the image of the Bad Boy has always been a turn off instead of a turn on. Good for you! (Get it?) Perhaps you’re partnered with one of our up-and-coming cultural icons of goodness. But where does that leave the rest of us?
In a town where it’s perfectly normal for a defense attorney to skateboard to work, and for the bro’ with the neck and sleeve tattoos to be your X-ray technician, what are the new signposts of steamy peril? Not a leather jacket and motorcycle—a look that now screams “accountant.” Not a Tommy gun—is that what the kids call them these days? Not a knife fight—even in French it’s become passé. It’s anyone’s guess who’s bad and who’s Bad these days. Here are a few pointers:
• Is that a glint in his eye or a teardrop tattoo?
• Does he receive cash for his day job or diplomatic immunity?
• If you date him will your family cringe or co-star on a reality TV show?
• Does his nickname look great in spray paint?
• Is he Charlie Sheen?
Good luck in your pursuit of goodness or Badness, and if you hear a passing voice on Pacific Avenue whispering “Avid Opinion Column Reader,” it’s probably me.
Kim Luke is grateful to Colin Farrell for keeping our minds off of Russell Crowe. Send your bad comments to email@example.com.