Here aren’t a lot of amazing things about being male. We die younger than women, we cause most of the shitty things in the world, and we’re kind of arrogant pricks. If there’s a war being waged, a man is probably responsible. If somebody’s caused human suffering, or claimed that rape is a method of contraception, he probably has a penis. But there is one irrefutably awesome thing that men can do: We can grow facial hair.
Autumn is just two weeks away, and I have some big decisions to make. What kind of facial hair am I growing this year? Rocktober is right around the corner, and then Movember will be here before you know it. I want to do something special for the latter half of 2012. I’ve spent too many winters clean-shaven over the past decade. Occasionally I’ve grown a soul patch or a three-day scruff, but that’s the facial hair equivalent of moving to the suburbs. I haven’t had a truly interesting face coif since the late ’90s, when I was in my 20s and thought it was a great idea to grow a four-inch goatee (the Scott Ian kind) and then dye it green. I looked ridiculous, but I managed to woo my future wife with that thing, so obviously it wasn’t a complete fashion blunder. The green goatee is one of the main things I bring up whenever I’m waxing nostalgic about how badass I used to be “back in the day.”
Rock music is synonymous with facial hair. Rock music is also synonymous with youth. Ipso facto, growing facial hair will not just give me rock legitimacy, it’ll help me regain my youth. It worked for Dave Grohl. He was beardless when he drummed for Nirvana, because he didn’t need to remind us that he was in his prime. But now he has full beard, and I honestly never remember that he and I are almost exactly the same age. I am old and clean-shaven, which are two things that invariably go together. I want to be the whiskered and stoned-looking Paul McCartney singing “Let It Be” in a cramped London studio, not the shorn and bored-looking Paul McCartney croaking “Hey Jude” for the zillionth time at the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
To prepare for my facial hair fountain of youth, I grew a full beard, and then slowly shaved it away, photographing myself with various cuts and styles. I enlisted the help of several facial hair “experts” to determine which hirsute genre is the best choice for a guy in his 40s trying to look like a guy in his 20s who wouldn’t be uncomfortable in a pair of leather pants.
Crazy Homeless Guy Beard
Beards are fun, and easy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort or grooming to grow a beard. You just stop shaving, and wait. If you’re like me and have the hair-growing prowess of a Wookiee, it might be necessary to shave your cheeks occasionally. But otherwise, it’s maintenance free. Just wait a few months, and you could look as dangerously cool as Rick Rubin or the My Morning Jacket guy.
There are still serious considerations. What’s the appropriate length for a beard? Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys keeps his beard short and neat, and he seems to enjoy an enduring popularity among young, desirable females. He probably looks like a wild man compared to most of his fans, but standing alongside Robert Wyatt, the Gandalf-looking guy from Soft Machine, or any of the two guitarists from ZZ Top, his facial hair is about as adventurous as the beard on an office temp who does improv at sports bars on the weekends.
My rock beard think tank disagrees about the importance of facial hair girth. Jack Passion, a two-time Natural Full Beard world champion and author of The Facial Hair Handbook, thinks short beards are on the way out. “I expect to see some bigger, longer beards in rock going forward,” he says. But Alex “El Beardo” Aizenberg, one of the co-founders of Build-a-Beard, which hosts beard “balls” from San Francisco to Brooklyn, thinks beard size isn’t all that important to the hirsute kids coming of age in 2012. “The folk and indie rock scene has given a rebirth to the full beard with less mass,” he says. “It’s a nice change, and more approachable.”
They both make good points, but there’s one thing I can’t get around. I’ve seen too many examples of rock icons growing beards to hide the pudge of middle-age. Jim Morrison didn’t grow a beard because it was cool; he grew a beard because he was getting old and fat. As somebody growing old and fat, I can sympathize. Jerry Garcia did the same thing. If he was clean-shaven at the end of his life, it would’ve been painfully obvious that he was absurdly out of shape. I don’t want to die from a heart attack because I had a beard and never realized that my chins were rapidly multiplying and I forgot to say no to that third burrito.
Facial hair is like a muumuu for your face. It’s comfortable and reassuring. But it’s a lie.
I’m very confused about the handlebar mustache. I thought it was pretty much the same thing as a walrus stache. But the two things are apparently very different. “The walrus is more akin to an awesomely huge mustache,” says Aizenberg. He mentions David Crosby as the most famous facial canvas for a walrus stache. For obvious reasons, I opt against the walrus, because nobody in the history of humanity has ever said “You look just like David Crosby” and meant it as “You look so young and vibrant and attractive. I want to have unprotected sex with you immediately!”
A handlebar seems like a better idea, assuming I have any idea what it is. When I think of handlebar mustaches, I think of Duane Allman or Lemmy from Mötorhead. But according to the experts, none of those people have facial hair that could in any way be described as a handlebar. “A handlebar curves up at the tips usually from the use of mustache wax,” says Passion. “Duane had a walrus simply because he didn’t style it up, though he could have easily worn it as a handlebar. Much in the same way a girl with long hair could wear it in a bun, so can a man wear his mustache different ways. Some might call that mustache-connected-to-sideburns the ‘Lemmy’ named for Lemmy Kilmister. Others might just call it a mustache connected to sideburns.”
Wait, what? This is getting unnecessarily complicated.
“Lemmy and Duane Allman actually sported mutton chops with a mustache,” says Aizenberg. “If you let those chops grow out and proud, you enter the Hulihee territory. It takes balls to go there, but then again it takes balls to grow facial hair anyway.”
Whatever is currently on my face, I don’t think it looks particularly attractive. I was hoping it’d make me look like Frank Zappa, though I’m hesitant to say that publicly because his widow has a history of suing people who try to steal her dead husband’s trademarked facial hair. But when I look at myself with a handlebar, I don’t see a young and thin Frank Zappa. I don’t even see a young and thin Duane Allman, or a young and nasty Lemmy. I see a fat and middle-aged Axl Rose. The only thing missing is a oversized leather jacket that isn’t concealing my paunch as much as I think it is.
This facial hair experiment is becoming increasingly depressing.
The Flavor Saver
A rock mustache should ostensibly be the easiest facial hair to pull off. Every moron you knew from high school could grow a mustache and look vaguely porn-star sexy. But all staches are not created equal. Some people grow a mustache and they look instantly cool, like Jimi Hendrix or Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. But some people can’t grow a proper stache. They end up with a wisp of a mustache, like JD Samson from Le Tigre, which is fine if you’re JD Samson from Le Tigre. But for the rest of humanity, it says “I have the testosterone of an infant.”
And then there are those of us who can grow a mustache over a weekend, which in theory is a good thing. But not everybody looks like John Bonham with a full stache. Some of us look like John Oates, or Sonny Bono, or god help me, Weird Al Yankovic. Thankfully, Jack Passion assures me that mustaches are a dying art form. “The mustache, at least the 20-something-ironic-mustache, will be going away,” he says. “The mustache has just been too commodified to be considered authentic anymore. For instance, you can go into any gift shop, anywhere in the United States, and find an overwhelming plethora of mustache-infused or mustached-related items. Now, even major corporations use mustached men in their ads. Like all things once cool, so has the mustache become passé.”
I hope he’s right. But even if he’s not, I still don’t want a mustache. Because people with mustaches are creepy by definition. Just by growing a ‘stache, you’re 98% more likely to use “mustache rides” in a sentence unironically. I’m a facial hair bigot, admittedly, but to me, a guy with a mustache is genetically programmed to walk up to a woman he’s never met, smooth the edges of his ‘stache, and announce with an oily sneer, “Let me make some room for you.”
This mustache is a terrible, terrible idea. I’m not even sure why I considered it. Maybe because it’s so risky and unique. You’re not going to walk into a Brooklyn vegan cafe and see dozens of dudes with Hitler mustaches. But if something is not automatically embraced by hipster culture, does that mean it’s worth doing? 9 times out of 10, the answer is yes. But this may be the exception that makes the rule.
I can think of only one rock guy who’s ever tried to bring back the toothbrush stache. Ron Mael, the keyboardist for L.A. electronic-pop duo Sparks. When he and his brother played “Top of the Pops” in 1974, it freaked out a lot of people, including former Beatle and facial hair trailblazer John Lennon, who purportedly exclaimed “Christ, they’ve got Hitler on the telly!” According to the band’s website, there were 3000 articles written about them between 1974 and 1975, and only two didn’t mention Adolf Hitler. Which is arguably not a good thing, regardless of how “punk” you’re trying to appear.
Is the toothbrush stache worth revisiting? I asked rock historian “Legs” McNeil, the author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “I think people saw (Ron Mael in a Hitler stache) and said, ‘Why?’” he explained. “I don’t think there was a satisfactory answer. When people see fashion, the look should be immediate. But it wasn’t with Ron Mael. It stopped and made them think. Which is good, but think about what? When Sinead O’Connor shaved her head, she looked beautiful, which made people take a second look. Ron looked better without his Hitler/Chaplin mustache, so people really didn’t take another look. People just said, ‘Weird,’ and went about their business.”
I have no idea what Legs was trying to tell me. Was he recommending that I shave my head? Or reminding me that Hitler was weird? After way too much pondering about his intentions, I think his advice boiled down to this (and I’m paraphrasing): “Are you fucking crazy? No. Just no.”
What are my choices again? I can grow a beard like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, where it’s impossible to eat a pie without making a ridiculous mess of myself. I can grow a mustache and be the guy who strangers walk up to and ask “Are you Mickey Thomas from Jefferson Starship? I saw you sing at Epcot in Orlando! You were amazing!” I could be the guy with a handlebar mustache, and always wonder if it’s actually a walrus or something else entirely, and whenever people ask I just avoid eye contract and say “Fuck this shit, let’s take a ride on my hog.” Or I just just grow a tuff of hair under my nose that will never not represent the murder of six million Jews.
Fuck. I have no idea.
I feel like Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, when he said “I’m too old for this shit.” But he had a mustache when he said that, didn’t he? Well, I guess that answers my question. A mustache it is.
Movember, here I come. Let me make some room for you. (Obscene slurping sound.)
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTVHive.com.)