New Look

Three years ago, I had a nightmare that I cut off all my hair. Ever since I'd started growing out my hair at 17, I'd vowed that I would never cut it. As a teenager, I always felt skinnier and younger than anyone else, and somehow the extra hair made me feel bigger and more adult. Soon, I came to see my hair as a reflection of my integrity and personal steadfastness, and later, as the symbol of my identity as a rock-and-roll performer.

The year after I started growing my hair, I moved to New York to become an entertainer. I wanted to combine all the things I enjoyed most - music, performance, art, philosophy - into an experience of heightened fun. I fashioned my image accordingly. I associated long hair with freedom of spirit and rebellious living, and I wanted to harness those associations to entertain people.

So I transformed myself into an archetypal frontman, a character I could lose myself in. Onstage, my long, unkempt strands created a sense of additional craziness, amplifying every head bang, every body slam. My stage uniform was a white T-shirt, white jeans, running shoes, and a watch, with my hair obscuring an unshaven, dirty, sometimes bloody face.

The idea was to create a basic silhouette that would stick in people's minds. I wanted children to be able to draw me using just a few basic visual elements, like a cartoon superhero. I grew up drawing comics, and the idea of being able to represent a persona with just a few basic elements seemed almost mythic to me.

My hair was the envy of many women, even though I washed it only four times in six years, and sometimes it smelled so bad it made me sick. I wanted to get reactions out of people, to push the idea that I was wild and free. Abandoning personal hygiene was one obvious strategy. Sometimes, I even used fake dirt to make my clothes look as if they were covered with sweat and human waste. I was amazed by what a primal response filth could elicit from people - women in particular.

So the dream about cutting my hair made me think I'd lost everything. My entire identity was caught up in those oily locks!

But then I woke up. I leaped out of bed and looked in the mirror. It was still there - long and flowing. I felt like I'd been given a second chance.

The I started thinking. What if I did cut my hair? Would I look ridiculous? Would people think I was a sellout? Would my dance moves lose their power? Maybe my subconscious was telling me to shake things up. Had I become too safe, too predictable? Did my persona take all the risk out of creativity?

If I really wanted to be crazy, then maybe I needed to let go, since holding on to anything as superficial as a hairstyle was going to keep my real wildness from riding free. I wanted to shock myself. I wanted to do what I most feared, just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to embrace the idea that I could only discover myself through fearless living.

I called up an old friend and told him what I was thinking. "Are you crazy?" he shouted. "Do not cut your hair! It's career suicide!"

That was all I needed to hear. Thirty minutes later I was in a barber's chair. "It must have taken years to grow your hair so long," the barber said. "Why cut it now?""I had a dream that it would be the worst thing that could happen to me," I told him. "So I figured I better do it."

He began to snip. I watched in the mirror, expecting an unrecognizable face to emerge. But all I saw was me. Realizing that my identity transcended my aesthetic choices was liberating. But it was scary too. For so long I had maintained a fixed conception of myself, never considering that there were countless other possibilities, each one just as valid and real.

Offstage, people stopped recognizing me - not just fans, but also friends, business partners, even ex-girlfriends. People speculated that the "real" Andrew W.K. had been spirited off and some imposter had assumed his identity.

And in a way, people were right. I'm not the same Andrew W.K. anymore. Since I cut my hair, I've begun actively challenging many of the other assumptions I've always had about myself.

I used to think that I didn't want to make music with other people. So I started looking for opportunities to work with other musicians, and I wound up producing Repentance, the new album by Lee "Scratch" Perry. I used to insist that I would never participate in organised religion, so I began making friends who believed in God and went to church, and I even joined a church.

These decisions might sounds like contradictions, but I've never felt lost or uncertain about them. Instead, I feel more and more that I have nothing to be afraid of. No matter what I do, I can only be myself. It's the only choice I have.

[Andrew W.K.]

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