This word makes me think of music. And the music it makes me think of brings to mind two specific places and times: two similar yet different places and two paradoxical juxtapositions.
The music it makes me think of is not Wagner. Das Rheingold does not play into it at all, even though it involves the Rhine and some stones. That opera is about actual gold, not fake diamonds. True, the gold in Das Rheingold is found in the Rhine, just as the original rhinestone crystals were (they’re manufactured now). But the gold was forged into a golden ring of power and trouble, while rhinestones are really for people grasping at the brass ring on the carousel of life and fame. Their meretricious coruscation is perfectly emblematic of the big music business.
But rhinestone does not make me think of Liberace or Elvis Presley, either, although both of them wore plenty of rhinestones. Nor does it make me think of the Rolling Stones, whether or not crossed with a rhinoceros.
Picture Water Street, the main drag of the Gastown historical district in Vancouver, in the late 1970s. A tourist mecca – or tourist trap. A family from Alberta is visiting: mom, dad, two boys. The boys are loading up on seashells and similar souveniry dreck with which they will fill shoe boxes to occupy the back corners in their closets and under their beds. Mom and Dad are looking at more adult things, jewelry and clothes, probably. Everything is novel and everything is so Vancouver and so not Alberta, so sea and shells and fish and so not dust and horses and cows. The boys are having friction with this bizarre thing called sales tax, whereby the price on the sticker is not the price you pay, but even that mainly serves to underline that they are somewhere else. And down this street, this historical seaside city street full of not-back-home-in-cow-country, walks…
Not a cowboy, no. A guy in jeans and whatever, carrying a portable radio that’s blasting Glen Campbell’s song “Rhinestone Cowboy.” (I will not swear he was walking; it was a long time ago, and the radio may have been plugged in.) I found this hilariously incongruous. You may think I even turned to my parents and said, “Mater, pater, that is hilariously incongruous.” But actually I just laughed. Cowboy? In Gastown? And then I turned back to my abalone shells.
Fast forward about three and a half decades, to another shopping street full of tourists and historical buildings. But this street is in Copenhagen, one of the half dozen streets that concatenate to make what’s called Strøget, the longest pedestrian shopping area in Europe. That’s fitting – Copenhagen comes from words meaning ‘merchant’s port’. We are right by the sea, in a city famous for a statue of a mermaid. Denmark has fields and farms and so on, but the only thing that is cattle-like is the herds of people plodding along the cobblestones to the slaughter of their wallets. It would be incongruous to hear something about cowboys there.
So, yes, there was a street performer, playing on his guitar and singing: “Like a rhinestone cowboy, Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo… Like a rhinestone cowboy, Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know…” Of course. Meanwhile not too many steps away people were having the dead skin on their feet debrided by small fish in tanks, and hundreds of dollars were being spent on postcards and silly porcelain Vikings that would adhere magnetically to a refrigerator.
But rhinestones don’t fool anyone, and aren’t intended to. Everyone sees that a rhinestone is a rhinestone and not a diamond. It is a glitter for those who want fame, who want to make it, who want to believe they have made it. For those who know that they’re a bit out of place. The singer of “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a hustler walking the dirty sidewalks of Broadway,
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me
A street full of tourists wanting to see something different from where they’re from. People paying good money for cheap trite tchotchkes, compromises with reality, simulacra of simulacra. Stores filled with expensive clothes that you can only look at and aspire to. But in the end you’re aspiring to not another reality but a higher-status fantasy. Real cowboys don’t wear rhinestones, just like real longshoremen don’t. Skip the docks and go to the statue of the fictional being who wanted to become a real human but traded her voice to do so and in the end was discarded like any beautiful dream awoken from.
We went back from the charming escape of Vancouver to our Alberta of real cowboys, who are nothing special when you’re around them a lot. The image of them most people have comes from movies, which are meretricious coruscations. And we went back from Copenhagen to our Toronto of… no cowboys, no rhinestones. Never mind. The shining of the lights never lasts, and the dreams are always awoken from. Back in Copenhagen, the mermaid still sits on her rock, looking to the west. But we’re not there.
I bet that guy with the guitar is, though.