• Otter Views: R.I.P. Blue Jeans

    by Tom Stevens

    Ry Cooder went to Cuba a few years back to coax some of the island’s most venerable musicians out of retirement for one last fandango. It was an informal session among old friends. They even beckoned one 90-year-old singer into the studio from his morning walk through Havana.

    The resulting music is full of rough, amiable sincerity and unabashed sentiment, making it a good soundtrack for the maudlin task that lies ahead today. The music’s mournful, Afro-Cuban beat echoes my feeling of deep personal loss, a feeling that probably has a long Spanish name.

    “Inconsolablementismo.” The state of being inconsolable.

    My best old Levi’s have given out. I was crouching to tie my bootlace when it happened. As I knelt, I felt the fabric across the left knee go. I glanced down to see skin where only faded denim should be. The tear made no sound, because the cloth was too old and soft to actually rip. There was just a whispery sigh and a little rush of cool air, like ghosts departing.

    The passing of one’s favorite old jeans is a solemn matter. These are the jeans that got worn every day; that hung on the hook at night. The ones with the faded wallet outline in the rear pocket. The first pair pulled from the dryer.

    I put it to a friend. “If your house caught fire and you only had time to rescue 10 items of clothing, wouldn’t you take your favorite old jeans?”

    “No,” he said. “If my house caught fire, I’d already be wearing them.”

    That probably only makes sense to people who wear jeans every day. I joined that group in 1961, when my brother and I left balmy Honolulu for reform school high in the mountains of another island. Every kid there had to wear blue jeans to build character and forestall frostbite.

    The jeans of those days were not pre-washed, pre-shrunk or pre-softened in any way. When you pulled a new pair off the shelf, they didn’t tumble loosely floorward like other cotton trousers. No, you had to uncrack them and bend them open across your knee.

    You could tell the new kids at school by the raspy, whacking sound our midnight-blue jeans made as we marched stiffly about. I soon noticed that the more seasoned detainees all wore soft blue, comfortable-looking jeans.

    “Where did you get those?” I asked.

    “Same place you got yours. Just earlier.”

    The earliest anyone could get blue jeans was in 1873, when a Nevada mining camp tailor named Jacob Davis wrote to his denim supplier to suggest using rivets to fortify their clothing. Pockets would be strengthened first, because heavy ore samples routinely ripped them out. Other rivets inspired the company’s new logo: bearded sourdoughs snapping their whips to urge draft animals to pull a pair of trousers apart by the legs.

    The denim supplier was Levi Strauss, a Bavarian adventurer who packed sewing supplies through the Kentucky mountains, then sailed to Frisco to catch up with the gold rush. There he built iron-tough coats, jackets and trousers from East Coast denim weighing 500 pounds a bolt. The cotton twill fabric was called “jean” for Genoa, where it had originated. The pants were called not jeans, but “waist overalls.”

    Davis the riveting tailor soon faded from history, leaving his invention to become “Levi’s” rather than “Jacob’s.” Davis’ back-pocket rivets vanished beneath reinforced stitching in 1937 after customers wearied of scratching up their chairs, desks and saddles.

    Four years later, blue jeans debuted globally as the U.S. entered World War Two. From there it was movie stars and musicians. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, the Doobie Brothers, Tammy Wynette, Taj Mahal. I think Miles Davis even went through a brief denim phase around the time of ‘fro picks and platform shoes.

    But I can’t speak of those things right now. I have to lay my old torn Levi’s to rest, then start looking for their successors. I know the next ones are out there somewhere – Lee Riders or Levi’s, Gaps or Arizonas, maybe even a heritage pair of Calvin Kleins. They’re faded but supple; broken in but not broken down. “Golden years” jeans.

    They’re getting scarcer, though. I was up in San Rafael the other day, working my way down the “men’s jeans” aisle at Goodwill. A guy up ahead of me was pulling pair after pair off the rack, folding them neatly and stacking them 20-high in his shopping cart.

    “Only 501s,” he explained. “I can buy them here for $10; sell them in Russia for $100.”

    I didn’t know whether to admire his enterprise or get patriotic. American jeans for Americans! But then I spotted a promising pair of Calvins and forgot all about it.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 1, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views


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