Memoirs of a ‘Free Spirit’..interview with Benny Barnett

Get ready, strap yourself in for some fun people.

I’ve interviewed a fair few cool cats on this blog since Feb this year, but this one takes the take. Meet one of my best mates Benny, we grew up together in Sydney, born on the same day, same hospital, share a middle name and his Mum almost killed us both driving us to soccer training when we were 13 (she got the One Way sign mixed up :).  He’s just returned home from a year on the run travelling around the world living the type of life us professionals only wish we had the balls to do. He is the ultimate ‘free spirit’ with an amazing perspective on life and youth culture,  and he can tell a story, boy he can tell a story. I threw him a few questions late last week to talk about global youth and some interesting stories from his year abroad, and this is what he came up with. For more of his great stuff (dribble ;)) , check out his blog here.

Benny somewhere on his travels

Benny somewhere on his travels

 You just returned from a massive adventure around the world, tell us why you decided to do it at age 28 and what were the highlights?
 

Ever since my first big trip at 22ish I’d planned to chuck it all in at some point and just bugger off for a year+ to become a free radical – beholden to no man, living outside The System, free from the regulations that govern the rest of the plebs kinda thing. Hell, we live most of our lives in the comfortable, fully furnished cells afforded us by the wonders of capitalism and social democracy, pretending we know what true freedom is but all the while knowing, deep down, that we’re living and playing by someone else’s rules. If I’m spending 80 odd years on this planet I want to know as much as I can about the world and who I’m sharing it with – and I want to find it out for myself, I don’t wanna be told by Catriona Rowntree while she’s swanning about some bullshit Bora Bora resort in an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, my-boobs-are-popping-out bikini. Does she even do Getaway anymore? Not gonna lie to you, I haven’t watched that bollocks for so long I don’t even know. If I wanna give some context to my life I’m doing it my way.

I used to work on the Toyota business, and they’ve got this great saying: genchi genbutsu, which means “go and see for yourself.” How else will you know for sure? Trust someone else? Eh… rather not. It’s a lot easier said than done, though… to actually get out of the country I had to quit my job, break up with my girlfriend and have my puppy put down. Ok, I didn’t really put my puppy down – I don’t even have a puppy – I was just using it to illustrate how difficult it can be to break free of the torpor of convenience, to shrug off the inertia of routine, to kick lethargic indifference square in the nuts and to go for gold while you’re still young and virile enough to do so.

What did you learn about ‘global youth culture’ on your travels? Similarities/differences between teens/20 somethings in developing vs developed countries?

 
There are far, far less differences between youths of different countries than you’d think. And by ‘far less’ I mean practically none. Take away the language barriers, moderate the cultural differences, and teens and 20-somethings – be they in a western Chinese provincial shithole (and I’m looking at you here, Chengdu) or the red martian deserts of northern Chile – are one and the same. Globalisation has seen to that. Same sensibilities, same insecurities, same use of tech and social media to belong, rally, learn, congregate, get fucked up, get laid. Same rabid grab-happy fervour for hot brands, cool brands, up-and-comers… regardless of whether they ‘fit’ with that brand or not. They’re all looking for something, looking for an identity, but they’re not sure what it is exactly; not yet anyway. I may not be an L.A. Gear kinda guy, but dammit, everyone else is and therefore that makes me one too. (Fine, so I may have an unhealthy obsession with the long-dead b’ball pump hi-tops that I could never quite pull off – I was more an Airwalk kinda guy – but they’re back, they really are, they came back last year, and whether or not they have Corey Feldman as their spokesperson (they don’t, they never would) I’m still with ‘em.) Seventeen year-old Ahmed from the dodgy part of Amman will never pick up a basketball in his life, but should that stop him looking like he might? Hell no.

Teens and 20-somethings don’t really have an image at that age, they’re ameobic sponges that take on the identity of whatever social group will have them. And then they consume and relate to the brands utilised and advocated and lusted after by the group… and the global similarities here are astounding – the same brands fill the ‘Hot’ and ‘Not’ columns almost universally across the globe. The kids in developing countries and already-developed countries are all after the same thing – the only difference is some of them have it, and the rest want it. My old man went through the USSR 30 years ago in a VW Beetle and the Russian teenagers back then payed him exorbitant amounts of money for his denim jeans. That one pair of jeans paid for his whole road trip. Nowadays the Russki’s have caught up, they’ve got their own ideas of cool and, having realised the latent potential of their cultural and economic juggernaught, they write their own books on cool rather than follow other people’s. But still, that didn’t stop youths from Lake Baikal to St Petersburg making obscene cash offers for my big-buckled cowboy belt. Didn’t part with it though – it was Jeans West ,too. Ha. I don’t so much loathe as pity Jeans West, but here I am an unwitting, steadfast brand ambassador of theirs. How in the world did that happen? 

What was the weirdest thing you saw on your travels in relation to young people?
 
Mate, how long have you got. Seriously, you would not believe the shenanigans that go down, I couldn’t make this up if I tried. I saw Mexican metal fans carry around dolls violated to look like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (photo attached – nice glasses… horns up). Kids jonesing for a music fix crowding around the only iPod still with batteries in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Teenagers popping ecstasy like M+M’s and dancing in old nuclear fallout bunkers under Slovakian mountains. An alternative youth community in Texas railing against the state’s archly-conservative leadership by embracing homosexuality, hard drugs and hedonism. Eighteen-year old Israeli kids in fatigues lugging around Steyr machine guns bigger than they are while they wait for their first pube. Bedouin tribesman in the middle eastern desert that are twenty-one but look fifty, their faces chiselled and worn by the relentless elements. Pregnant Puerto Rican princesses pushing prams. Polish youths uniting nations with impromptu vodka summits. An Arab henchman and an Israeli fox shagging seven shades of shit out of the Kama Sutra in a 10-person dorm room. A Nubian rolling infinity spliffs for his international brothers from another mothers… his words, not mine. Smoking hot Japanese girls fulfilling cartoon fantasies in public parks. All the TV shows and Youtube clips ever made cannot adequately capture the ridiculous, inappropriate, remarkable, piss-funny carnival of life. This I will tell you for shiz – truth is stranger than fiction, by a long, brilliant way.

Mexican Metal fan as captured by Benny

Mexican Metal fan as captured by Benny

Some people belong to the ‘indie’ tribe or the ‘surfer’ tribe, what tribe/s do you identify with/if any? Were there any common youth tribes you saw on your travels?
 
The uni-tribe youth is a myth. It just doesn’t exist. You can’t categorise youth like that because it doesn’t work, you end up with amalgams and half-truths. Ask anyone 15-30 what ‘tribe’ they belong to, and dollars to donuts not one of them will classify themselves as belonging exclusively to just the one tribe. For example… I’m disaffected indie. Festival rat. Esky-lid shredder. Fashion demi-god.  Day-clubber. Pub-grubber. Barfly. Sports tragic. Closet gamer. Retro-seeker. Blah blah, and so it goes. I refuse to pick between one… I oscillate depending on my mood, the friends I’m with, the time of year, and who I want to impress, antagonise, or inseminate, among a billion other factors. So I identify with all tribes, in a way… those I’m not a part of or haven’t encountered before intrigue me, some of the things that drive these kids are utterly fascinating… it’s the subversives I like the best, those youth that from a preternaturally young age question the structures and strictures around them and probe and push to see how far things can bend and stretch before they break, before consequence comes crashing down. They’re the ones that are gonna change the world.

In regards to a common youth tribe… there isn’t one, in my opinion. Not in the travelling community at any rate. Everyone adapts and experiments according to where they are and who they’re with: if you’re in Morocco you buy carpets and get hassled, whether you’re a goth or a private school princess. Why be there otherwise? The people that don’t embrace the more curious aspects of their personality never even make it that far in the first place. That’s the only commonality as far as I can see: a fluid, bright-eyed inquisitiveness, and a willingness to accept and explore and experiment with what’s different. 

Do you think the ‘free spirit’ that many young Australians have in terms of need to discover nex experiences is shared by youth around the world?
 
Without a shadow of a doubt. I used to think that Australians were more inclined to up stumps and go exploring than continental peoples, largely because of the tyranny of distance we’re saddled with. But that’s an utter fallacy, the reality is no amount of profiling will ever adequately capture the true essence of the free spirit, at least not with any great accuracy. For the most part the free spirit can’t actually tell you what it is they’re looking for because they don’t really know themselves. It’s one of those strange internal yearnings that can neither be captured nor quantified.

My one great, all-conquering fear is of the homogenisation of experience that will undoubtedly come with the monstrous, insatiable onslaught of rapid global sameness. Soon we’ll all be using the same appliances, watching the same TV shows, drinking the same energy drinks, all caught up inextricably in the advent of the all-pervasive Great Nothing (that’s an obscure Never-Ending Story reference right there. Don’t know if the writer actually intended for his unequivocally rad kids flick to be poignant societal commentary, but for the purposes of this piece I’m going to assume that he/she most definitely did.) The fun is rapidly being sucked out of it out of the travel experience… hell, I don’t even have to worry about forgetting to pack something when I go abroad because I’ll invariably be able to get that phone charger or 8-bladed razor (don’t scoff – we both know it’s only a matter of time) wherever it is I end up. Uncertainty, unpredictability, having to rely on your own resourcefulness and cunning – that’s where the fun’s at. Take that away and you got nothing.

benny on the run

benny on the run

How important was technology on your journey around the world…mobile, web ,skype etc…what kept you sane?

Good question…technology was one part incredibly important to three parts laughingly redundant. I chose not to take a mobile phone with me – what price freedom if every Tom, Dick and Needy can reach me at the touch of a button? For the first month I reached instinctively for my back pocket whenever I heard my old phone ring, and cursed myself for doing so. That huge, awful feeling that somehow, somewhere, I was missing out on something of vital importance gradually receded and I was able to devote myself wholly – gloriously! – to the moment. Best thing I ever did. I’m aware how trite and hackneyed this sounds, but it was as liberating as pissing naked off a mountain, so much so that I’ve been back in Sydney for nigh on three months now and the shitty old 80’s Nokia I’ve started using again (under duress) only has about six numbers in it. Functionally, though, a phone would have come in handy sometimes. Stuck at some godforsaken bus station in the Czech Republic at 2am. Trying to meet up with a mate in the ass-end of Guatemala. Scrabbling for a non-existant hostel bed in Finland during the Helsinki Festival. And Jeebus, you would not believe how hard it is to find a public phone these days. Especially one that isn’t broken or vandalised (thanks for nothing, New York). But, funnily enough, it was these times that gave me the most garish, terrifying and heinous experiences of the trip; in short, all my best, funniest, most unbelievable stories and memories came from not having the tech to get out of a jam. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Websites like Hostelworld and such helped things out this time, but again, using them meant there was less sleeping in Israeli caves and under Transylvanian train platforms. Less balls-out, life-threatening adventure. Having said that, Skype was pretty good to me when I needed to clock in with the family on the cheap at some Godforsaken hour. At least when it worked… one time Skype suspended my account for an entire month in Egypt because the sketchy networks over there are so eminently hack-able by telco pirates. All technology failed me at some point or another, and I learned – sometimes brutally – not to put my faith in any of it. And I actually felt sorry for those poor saps you always see scrabbling about for an internet cafe… unless your uncle was on fire back home, what was the hurry? And at the expense of an experience you may never repeat. Meh, this is geting preachy now, sorry. Actually, no, I’m not sorry at all, I just thought I was for a moment there.

One thought on “Memoirs of a ‘Free Spirit’..interview with Benny Barnett

  1. Had the celubrious honour of hooking up with this cat in Portugal, some years ago, before responsibilty reared its ugly head and I was forced to retire the backpack. At the time I prided myself on a bloggin’ on ’bout my adventures to a select few friends, rellies and general hangers on. That was until I read my first Barnett chronical, at which point I cried into my travel pillow upon realisation that my rantings were, at best, amatuerish by comparison. Many have the silver tongue, but none like his.

    Love ya werk, Benny. Stay you, my man.

    Cap’n Gonad

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