Thursday, June 27, 2024

Obsequy for the Freak


When I was a high school boy, in the seventies, the term “nerd” had not gained the universal currency it now has. I was called a brain, or a bookworm, or an egghead – most likely. Only my Pops called me an egghead. In general, that I stuck my nose in a book a lot was, of course, seen, but it was simply one of my things; as, say, a tendency to a runny nose and nosepicking might be one of the things of some other boy.

However, there was one term that stood out in my highschool: freak.

The seventies was, in some ways, the era of the freak. A TV series I watched with Adam about that time, Freaks and Geeks, got the title right.

That I ended up, in 1981, dancing a lot at the Florentine in Shreveport to Rick James’s Such a Freaky Girl was, looking back, a suitable cap, or rather an underlining, of that strange era as we entered the colder world of the attack on social democracy.  That the Florentine, a gay club, existed in Shreveport was itself a freak – it was a large Victorianish mansion, which had once been a supper club. At the time, it was dedicated to the cult of Donna Summer, Goddess: “The last dance” was ritually played at the end of the night, rhyming of course with the last dance.

Ah, the American Freak. The pure products of America, contra WCW, go freakish.

According to the OED of 1913 – one of the treasures of the Internet is the digitalizing of this massive language glacier – “Not found before 16th c; possibly introduced from dialects, and cognate with OE frician (Matt. Xi.17) to dance.” However, I feel that as the word crossed the Atlantic to America, it gained its real vulgate hold. In England, freak was a term one associates with whim, or with chance. In the OED listing of definitions, I would draw your attention to no. 4,b: “More fully freak of nature – lusus naturaeP: a monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species; in recent use (esp. U.S.) a living curiosity exhibited in a show.”

The carny culture, the vaudeville routine, the moving picture – an odour of buttered popcorn surrounded the word. And its counterpart, geek. Yet the two went different paths, as the geek becomes an exhibition less for his individuality itself than for doing some unusual thing, such as biting off the head of chickens.

The Freak, though, is at a dead end of the individualistic creed. The freak is a kind of genius.

As Rick James notes, it is the kind of genius that goes into sex, a lot of sex. Or into drugs, a lot of drugs. The freak culture of the seventies, in the Metro Atlanta area, developed a twist on the Southern drawl and a goodly number of paraphernalia shops that were, unfortunately, shut down by the cops after laws were passed against them. The freak is always a scandal to the puritan.

I have a feeling – a feeling that is, perhaps, due to my living in France and having no contact with high school beyond the offerings of shows on Netflix that Adam insists on seeing – that the freak is at a low point in the culture. The nerd and the geek, or the alpha male and proud boy, seem more of this time.

I pity a time without freaks.

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