Smell My Beard

December 2, 2012

A Note: Sometime in late 2001, my Audiogalaxy co-writers and myself fell into this conversational hole where we started enumerating all the characteristics and implications of the different beards worn by our favorite and least favorite musicians. It was the very beginning of the Beard Bloom in rock music; for years facial hair had been exclusively associated with lumberjacks and cops and porn actors and the guy on the Brawny paper towels packaging (who the Brawny people have since insecurely swapped out for a kind of vaguely chubby-looking thuggy bozo by the way), but the style had begun creeping back into rock and especially into indie rock. We sensed a flurry of facial hair coming, and this was an attempt, based on that conversation, to be out ahead of the storm.

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The arrival of a Beard on an artist’s chin can be a crucial moment in that artist’s creative life. Though usually short-lived, a Beard can signal anything from a renewed creative commitment to the beginning of a long backslide to obscurity. Some beards, such as that sported by Leon Russell, command respect. Others, such as those dangling from the chins of indie-rock artists like Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, make the wearer look ludicrous. Eager to lodge our entry into the teeming popular discussion on beards and the rock musicians who love them (and the fans who tolerate them), we at Audiogalaxy have compiled for those interested in both rock and roll and beards this rough list of the major Rock Beard types.

The Z.Z. Top: In a class by itself, the Z.Z. Top is possibly the most culturally resonant of all the rock and roll beards, if only because this Texas band has maintained their distinctively long, shaggy beards in mint condition for three Hot Rod-driving, tush-looking decades. Z.Z. Top is also worth noting in that their only member without a beard bears the distinctly ironic moniker Frank Beard.

The Redneck-Rock Grizzly Adams Beard: This is the beard that birthed the distinctive Z.Z. Top Beard. Copious, leonine and manly, this beard has flourished on chins of distinction in bands such as Lynyd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, and The Band. Perhaps brought to the apex of perfection by Leon Russell, this beard makes its wearer seem simultaneously rugged and like a Southern aristocrat.

The Creative-Artist-Trying-Something-Out Beard: The best-known examples of this beard were sported by the Beatles during their Abbey Road days and select members of the Beach Boys around the time of Pet Sounds. Shaggy yet well-tended, this beard usually accompanies an artist’s release of a particularly innovative (if not always their best) record. Also note Bob Dylan’s modest entry into the genre during his New Morning period.

The Letting-Yourself-Go-Beard: Though it can resemble the Creative-Artist-Trying-Something-Out Beard, the Letting-Yourself-Go Beard is in fact that beard’s antithesis; while the former beard often accompanies the release of an innovative, creative album, the latter accompanies a period of creative stagnation, weight gain, or nasty public rumors. This beard is aggressively shapeless and often embarrassing, and has swallowed whole such illustrious chins as Jim Morrison’s (during the L.A. Woman period), Axl Rose’s (circa Use Your Illusion), and Jerry Garcia’s (for his entire life).

The Rastafarian Beard: Given that Rastafarians also espouse a back-to-nature philosophy coupled with an aspiration to noble-yet-informal demeanor, the Rastafarian Beard can be seen as Reggae’s answer to the Redneck-Rock Grizzly Adams beard. The most distinctive Rastafarian Beard is sported by Winston Rodney of Burning Spear, but notable examples have also been worn by Freddie McGregor, and Lee “Scratch” Perry (see also the Can’t-Quite-Grow-A Beard).

The Heartthrob 5-O’Clock Shadow: Cultivated to increase swoonability and yet oddly fey-looking, the Heartthrob 5-O’Clock Shadow has served George Michael well over the years while still finding time to slither across the rugged jawlines of actors like “Miami Vice” era Don Johnson and a pre-Demi Moore Bruce Willis. In the 1990s, devotees to this hopeless cause included the guys from seminal Boy Band Color Me Badd.

The “Kenny”: So called after its appearance on the chins of both Kenny Rogers and Kenny Loggins. Similar to the Heartthrob 5-O’Clock Shadow in the discrepancy between its handsome intention and oddly effete execution, the “Kenny” is lean and well-groomed and usually accompanies feathered hair. When not confined exclusively to people named Kenny, this beard has appeared on the Bee Gees, Alabama, and Michael McDonald.

Rhythm and Beard: Like the “Kenny,” this beard is close-cropped and well-groomed. It was most commonly worn by smooth R&B singers from the 70′s and 80′s. Marvin Gaye’s beard was everything a Rhythm and Beard should be – handsome, polite, and gentlemanly – but Teddy Pendergrass also had a fine Rhythm and Beard, as did Barry White and Curtis Mayfield before their beards evolved into the Letting-Yourself-Go Beard and the Bohemian Beard respectively.

The Bohemian Beard: Its best caucasian examplar was Peter Yarrow from Peter Paul and Mary, and Shel Silverstein lodged an entry into this genre with his bald head/bushy beard look, but in general this beard has flourished best on the chins of black Jazz musicians like Pharaoh Sanders, Yusef Lateef, and Gil-Scott Heron (who briefly flirted with a “Kenny” during a dark period in the early 80s). Whether long and cylindrical or small and pointy, this beard lends a cool, cerebral air to the man who chooses to cultivate it, except for on Peter Yarrow, where it made him look like a pervert.

Indie-Beard: Speaking of looking like a pervert – it has become fashionable in indie-rock circles of late to grow shaggy, uncontrolled, disturbing-looking beards whose wearers look even less manly than before they grew a beard. It is unclear whether Indie-Beard is intended to emulate the Redneck-Rock Grizzly Adams Beard, the Creative-Artist-Trying-Something-Out Beard, or the Letting-Yourself-Go Beard – all that is known about this beard is that it ensures countless hours of laughs for all who choose to gaze upon its owner. For good examples of this beard check out Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch or look at bands like the Black Heart Procession, Oneida and the Apples in Stereo.

Superchops: Perhaps an influence on Indie-Beard, Superchops have been flourishing in tangled excess on the droopy cheeks of Neil Young for decades. Greying and expansive, Young’s Superchops alternately look ominous or ridiculous. Influenced by Young, some alt-country-rockers, like those in Son Volt, have adopted vaguely super chops.

Boy Band Black-Sheep Beard: Opting for an approach opposite to that of Superchops and Indie-Beard’s laissez-faire take on facial hair, the Boy Band Black-Sheep Beard is an extremely close-cropped, almost insanely intricate interlocking network of pointed sideburns, demi-goatees, and carefully-manicured soul-patch interstices, often lending its wearer’s face the extremely detailed, over-designed look of a running shoe. As per contract agreements, all boy bands are required to have among their five members a sucker who is forced to adopt this mortifying excuse for a beard.

The Metal Beard: There are many different examples of the Metal Beard, but it is most often worn to confer an element of scariness or edginess to its wearer. The finest Metal Beards have belonged to Mick Mars of Motley Crue, Lemmy of Motorhead, and James Hetfield of Metallica. Metal Beards amplify, distort, and expand goatees, sideburns, and soul patches to disturbing effect. A recent wrinkle in the Metal Beard phenomenon, spawned from the handsome chin of Anthrax’s Scott Ian, has been the “Alt-Metal Novelty Goatee.” This beard, which often comes across as Metal’s answer to the Boy Band Black-Sheep Beard, is braided, dreaded, forked, pierced, or otherwise tortured to make its wearer look crazed and degenerate.

The Can’t-Quite-Grow-A Beard: The final, and saddest, entry into the rock and roll beards compendium is the Can’t-Quite-Grow-A Beard. Into this sorry category go all the rockers whose well-meaning attempts to grow kick-ass beards were foiled by their, and our, cold discovery that their callow chins were ill-equipped for beard growth. Instead of giving up, though, these artists stubbornly persisted, embarrassing us all with their patchy, spotty, flesh-colored, or variously ailing beards.

EDITOR’S ADDITION:

My Beard: The above article was written almost a decade ago – there have been many facial hair innovations since then and I don’t particularly feel the need to weigh in on them. However, many people have since asked me where I would class my own beard (at the time I wrote this piece, I was clean-shaven and didn’t have to choose a camp to fall into). I’d say that, in my beard, I try to paradoxically blend the imaginative sense of vitality in the Creative-Artist-Trying-Something-Out beard with the living-on-the-edge vibe of its darker twin, the Letting-Yourself-Go Beard. It’s definitely not a Redneck-Rock beard as I’m a New Englander, and I personally happen to prefer my beard style shorter. My goal has always been to be somewhat well-trimmed, as my personal beard role model is Marvin Gaye, but it would be preposterous to class the facial hair I wear as a Rhythm and Beard. And though my beard has some of the same dimensions as the Kenny (which you could almost call a Caucasian analogue to the Rhythm and Beard), I’m ultimately not mellow and chart-topping enough. I guess it’s ultimately just an Indie Beard, undistinguished in a field among so many others, sullen and utterly silent, fluffed slightly by a passing breeze.

 

Originally published on Audiogalaxy, 2001. Revised.

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3 Comments |

3 Responses to “Smell My Beard”

  1. Nathan

    I remember when there was a link to your Audiogalaxy writings on the old Okkervil River site, and I was bummed when those went away. I’m glad this one is back because I’ve been wanting to refer back to it in assessing the beards of my peers. You should put the rest of those audiogalaxy pieces up here! I especially liked those “Songs About Murder”, “Songs About Sex” etc.

  2. Tony

    So glad I found this…nostalgia galore! Someone, who obviously is not myself, used audio galaxy far more than is healthy on my college’s internet connection during class. This article and the one about soft rock being the true devil’s music were among my favorites. Thank you for the memories.

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