This month’s Arkansas Life magazine features an article entitled “Raising the Bar” by Wyndam Weyth about Maxine’s Tap Room in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Maxine’s was my bar of choice in Fayetteville when I was getting my MA there (1995-1999) and again when I returned as an adjunct professor after my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin (2003-2006). Many Fridays I would arrive at Maxine’s at 5:00pm and not leave until 2:00 in the morning (much to my second wife’s consternation). I wouldn’t spend that time alone—I was with an ever-changing cast of anthropology students….After an initial period when Common Grounds (on Dickson Street) had been our home, but before we settled at the West Mountain Brewery, Maxine’s was the semi-official home of the University of Arkansas Anthropology student happy hour.
The bar was dark then—very dark…and smoky—very smoky…so much so that my second wife insisted that I disrobe in the garage and take a shower before I came into the house on those early Saturday mornings. I once claimed that it is a place that Kris Kristofferson might describe as having “cigarette smoke to the ceiling” and “friendly shadows.”
When I first started going there, Maxine’s had only two beers on tap—Bud and Bud Light…they thankfully expanded to include Shiner Bock in the early years of the 21st century. But what Maxine’s had was atmosphere and soul—and it had them in spades. The dark, neon, the incredible retro juke box…all made Maxine’s everything I wanted in a bar.
I wrote about Maxine’s on this blog back in 2006…and again when fire hit the place. That event happened just as I was beginning to move out of town—heading to a new life in Magnolia, Arkansas. I saw the fire as a sign that it was time to let go of my time in Fayetteville. Before I left, however, I took a series of photographs and posted them on the web and on my flickr site. One of those picture is framed and still displayed in the bar area of my dining room.
Last month, when I was in Fayetteville visiting my in-laws, I got the chance to revisit Maxine’s Tap Room—now transformed. It is no longer dark….it is no longer smoky…The cheap beer has given way to the local craft brews and the bar’s new emphasis—old school cocktails…You can get Old Fashions, Negronis and, my favorite, the Corpse Reviver No. 2. The neon beer advertisements have been replaced with items paying tribute to Maxine—photos from the 1950s…even Maxine’s high school picture. This transformation has been made by folks who clearly respect Maxine (even if they do not share her aesthetic) and want to see local institutions survive (the Arkansas Life article informs me that it is the same folks who own the Block Street Bakery across the street).
A skylight (where an exploding keg blew a hole in the ceiling during the 2006 fire) casts a dramatic light on the copper bar showcasing things you would have never seen in the old Maxine’s—like the absinthe dispenser. In short—it is now everything I want in a bar…again…although the perfect bar of my 2000 self is not at all the perfect bar of my 2013 self.
I have blogged about this personal/generational transition before—in terms of drifts between 1990s Alt.Country to Indy Pop (think Jeff Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo to Wilco)…it’s also evident in Neko Case’s new album (The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You) which completes her three album drift from vaguely country production to full-blown Indy Rock. This, along with several of my colleagues’ blog posts and my wife’s experiences teaching south Arkansas students about code switching, leads me to think about Maxine’s and authenticity. I think that some of the folks I used to go to Maxine’s Tap Room with might see the new Maxine’s as a “sell-out,” “turned Hipster,” or “not keeping it real”—in short, not authentic. I don’t.
Authenticity has been with us a long while—preromantic and romantic philosophers, literary critics, and authors in eighteenth-century Germany tried to locate, feel, and ultimately appropriate the expressive culture of the authentic “folk” (Bendix 1997:25-26). But it has become an obsession of late…If you type the words “authenticity” and “authentic” into Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots graphs of the use of words in books over a given period, you will find that there has been a strong uptick in usage since the early 1990s (Poole 2013). It might be no coincidence that this parallels the rise to ubiquity of digital creative technologies (do I hear the echoes of Walter Benjamin’s” The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”?). “A peculiar feature of contemporary life,” writes my colleague Paul Mullins, “ is that nearly all of us feel marginalized and alienated and seek some experience that feels truly authentic.”
I have often struggled with the concept—caught between the traditional idea of authentic as something that is objectively real, and the postmodern criticism that there is no such thing as authenticity. As an archeologist, I have to admit that I believe in the authentic. When I dig up an artifact, like the 1840s bear grease pomade jar I wrote about in July, it has power—because of what it is. That seems authentic. But I also have to acknowledge that, through processes we anthropologists celebrate with such jargon words as “hybridity” and “enthongensis,” all culture is in flux and is constantly appropriating, rearticulating, and inventing ideas and concepts. After all, as Bendix points out above, even some of the early-modern obsessions with authenticity where, in the long run, about appropriating culture.
On the other hand, as a white, southern male, that studies African-American history, I am extremely aware of the cultural politics of appropriation. But at the same time I am disturbed at the recent tendency for the unexamined hunger for authentic culture to rapidly turn into a witch-hunt…So where does that leave my conflicted self?
I have come to lean on ideas of authenticity as not objective qualities invested in objects, but at the same time real…at least as they are experienced by individuals and groups. If authenticity lies in feelings that are performative and experiential, then they are a moving target. Check out Re-investing Authenticity: Tourism, Place and Emotions (edited by Britta Timm Knudsen, Anne Marit Waade) for an exploration of this version of authenticity. This explains why, for instance, my thoughts on what is “authentic” in music is different from my father’s (in some ways he is more critical…in other ways, I am)…and it explains why I feel both of my Maxine’s are authentic.