So much of First World self-representation is wrapped up in taste declaration these days – “I like this, I don’t like that, and I totally believe in such and such – this is me!” – but perfume is a bit different. You have to actually live with it, as do the people sharing an elevator ride with you. If you are unlucky enough to struggle through a day in the Western World sporting the stench of poverty and mental illness, then by all means pile on the putrid cheap cologne, the Mennen speed stick, anything to overpower the smell of uncivilized body fluids which will prevent you from using the bathroom at Starbucks, chatting up a stranger, or keeping warm in a bank lobby. If you are that bit luckier, though, you have to use a fragrance that is bearable.
For the most part, celebrity endorsed perfumes are absolutely unbearable, despite their endlessly frou frou containment strategies – oh, how I wish the late great Elizabeth Taylor’s Poison was not repugnant, the bottles are that cute, or even that by some happenstance poor old Britney Spears licensing agents displayed a bit more taste and concern when using a product to represent that feral and intermittently comely siren. But they are all awful perfumes. Awful awful awful. And I know, because as a low level counter culture type I am not above sniffing around in any Walgreens, Rite Aid, or CVS display section when whiling away the time between writing workshops and spoken word performances.
When I was very young, there was still a franchise called Woolworths in this country, and I spent a fair amount of time in the branch at Powell Street and Market in San Francisco, right near the Cable Cars. Every once in awhile they’d get on the loudspeaker and announce a Special, and my favorite announcement was for a line of imitation designer perfumes – part of what I loved was the timing. “Charley, Chanel Number Five, Jordache, $3.95…………..Smells Like!” they’d boom cheerfully, in that tone of barely repressed merriment our announcers must perfect.
I wrote a column for Maximum Rock’n’Roll in the mid 80s, and I referred to certain types of marketed culture as “Smell Like”, as in smells like Edgy. I believe Kurt Cobain read this column and, grokking the meaning, used it for his Smells Like Teen Spirit album. I watched some gussied up members of Alcoholics Anonymous dance in a church basement one lonely New Year’s Eve, a bunch of putative building repairmen and played out party girls relieving some of the tension of their daily unemployed story telling grind, and sure enough they all happily bellowed along with Nirvana’s catchy punch line: “Here we are now ….. ENTERTAINERS!!!” as they stomped on the cafeteriaesque linoleum.
Smells Like smelled just awful, though, not at all like Chanel No 5,6, or even, if there is one, 10. I have a keen sense of smell, alas, and the rubbing alcohol – dish detergent type aroma of street incense and, say, Christina Aguilera’s new brand make me queasy. There is a cheap celebrity perfume I like, though it’s not that cheap – $35 a bottle! – and may not be on the market anymore. Are you ready for this? It’s Kimora Lee Simmons’ Baby Phat Goddess, a sweet perfume that actual straight men love on a lady, and it doesn’t make me gag. I think I bought it the first time because I noticed how great the Baby Phat line of clothing was on my plumpish body – a body that a typical designer would refuse to even imagine not to mention adorn. I was a hefty size 18 at the time, and the line of reasoning for outfits in my size seemed to be “You didn’t watch what you ate, so now you have to wear THIS!” Horrible horrible horrible fleece tops, punishment brown pants, pool party in West Orange New Jersey flowing blouses, and charmless faux loafers. Baby Phat came in my size and they knew that not only did I look great, but also that most truly heterosexual men don’t mind a little junk in the trunk. Baby Phat Goddess perfume, light pink in a roundish bottle, is sweet, inexpensive, and makes men say “Oh, you smell good.” That’s the point, right?
The other moderately perfumes I like, besides Anais Anais, Angel, and Burberry Brit, is Demeter, a surprisingly European and pleasant line of scents with in your face names they might be best without in the desperate and asipirational 21st Century. It is no longer time for “Sex on the Beach”, “Gin and Tonic”, and so forth. We want to feel classy – Bonjour Croissant! Demeter and Baby Phat seem to be somewhat in between retail outlets in terms of placement, so I get them from a site called Fragnance.net these days. I use a few different perfumes because otherwise one doesn’t smell them any longer, and keeps spritzing and spritzing oneself until one reeks in a tawdry and unpleasant manner – brand loyalty is social suicide, at least as far as fragrance goes, which in the case of my next subject, natural perfumer Dominique Dubrana, is incredibly special and far.
Dominique Dubrana is a French born Sufi convert who lives in Italy. He is always cloaked in royal blue robes that conceal his very face, and will only sell on his own site, Profumo.it. I spend easily $110 for a very very small bottle of Mecca Balsam or Sea Wood. Oh, it is so worth it. Delicious. Dubrana writes under the nom de perfume of Abdes Salaan. He uses essences, extracts, and tinctures of unusual ingredients like, say, ambergris, which is digestive material regurgitated by sperm whales, and civet paste, which is extracted from the glands of an Ethiopian catlike creature. He’s not doing this to be interesting, it is because he’s very very good, and he has to. It is beautiful smelling perfume that barely lingers a minute, so worth it for a splurge.
Oh, and a couple of more things: If I’m at a duty free shop in an airport and feeling unwise, say because for no good reason I am visiting a pasty faced drummer in Hamburg, I might get a small bottle of Joy. I cannot use Opium anymore because I once spilled an entire bottle of it while house sitting for Ron Turner, found of Last Gasp publishing, and he was terribly ill for a month afterwards. Allergies, you know. We in the arts must be careful houseguests and hosts, and smell counts a lot.