"I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand. Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?"--Ian Curtis
Rock music did not invent the notion of the tortured bohemian, but instead lifted that notion wholesale from the beats and the French avant garde movements of the 20th Century, who had in turn lifted it from other movements dating back at least to the Enlightenment, and arguably to beyond Chaucer's time.
In the short half century that we've had rock music, though, the 'rock poet too tragic to live' has become a mainstay of the genre. In the early days of rock and roll, the tragedy might be a plane, as was the case with Buddy Holly's death. By the 1960s, though, the use of controlled substances seemed to create martyrs faster than anything else. I have every sympathy for people enmeshed in addictive substances and self-defeating behaviors, but there's something about the rock star paradigm that always gives me a mixed reaction. It's the whole Elvis thing, when somebody who is on to something vital and good is lost in the excess that adulation, money and the chance to seek every physical gratification can bring. I'm all for material and physical gratification, but if VH-1's Behind the Music has taught us anything, it's that an endless faucet of worldly pleasures is not the road to happiness.
I have always tried to avoid the "cut off in his/her prime" hero worship that has attended drug casualties such as Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. It's sad when anyone's life is cut short through folly or misfortune. Life is too short already. But the notion that worshippers show up at Morrison's grave as if it were some place of devotion bothers me, just a little. I was a bit too young to have seen the Doors or been aware of their chart hits, although they were popular when I was a child. But kids in college when I was that age listened assiduously to the Doors. I think the Doors put out at least 2 great records, and at least 5 great songs. They drew their influences from bands I respect, and they influenced bands I respect. But my strong suspicion is that had Jim Morrison lived, he would have become as irrelevant as his former band-mates seem now--inoffensive, kinda groovy guys, but guys who are a bit past their moment. Similarly, I believe that if Janis Joplin had lived, we would appreciate the great work she did, and she'd do Vegas 100 nights a year. She might be a second Aretha, which is a place in the pantheon indeed, but she would not command the immense reverence and biopic status she has now. Hendrix's gifts would never be forgotten or overlooked, but I'm sure he would have receded now into the cult status we accord someone like Ry Cooder. Instead, untimely death through personal excess raised these stars to "new heights" that they might not otherwise have achieved.
We can look at various rock stars who didn't die to see the comparison. The surviving members of the Velvet Underground have done great work at various times in their careers, but nobody gives Lou Reed or John Cale the reverence accorded to "dead rock stars", although their work influenced thousands, if not millions, of kids with guitars and drums. Patti Smith is a seminal figure in rock,but she is now largely accorded footnote status. The Stones and Who seem like parodies of themselves sometimes. Aging rock stars are just not as romantic as dead ones.
My theory is that we want rock stars to be product rather than people. A dead rock star is a better story than a live one. Lynyrd Skynrd's sales went through the roof when a plane crash killed key members of the band. Songs that did not get radio play in their original issue are now album-oriented rock standards.
In no place is this commoditization of human misery more apparent than in the parellel stories of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain. Ian Curtis fronted a band called Joy Division. Joy Division's music, for those who are not fans, was a sort of spare, post-punk dirge rock, fronted by a vocalist with a discernible Doors fascination and lyrics that hinted at a kind of lucid but palpable misery. When I was 21, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures was
"the" album for people in the know. Joy Division was a popular band in the UK before its demise. But its true ascension into the rock pantheon came when Ian Curtis hung himself, ostensibly over a failed romantic relationship. From that time on, fans found his story somehow romantic, and Joy Division's fame spread at geometric pace. The remnants of Joy Division formed a band called New Order,and entirely changed their sound, becoming, of all things, a dance music band (albeit one that could sing about gloom in ways that Chic never dreamed about doing). But Ian Curtis acquired a fascination for fans that he would never have today had he lived. Joy Division might have put out additional great albums--and Unknown Pleasures and Closer are indeed great albums--but they were one more step in the post-punk movement, not the Second Coming itself.
The Kurt Cobain story is just as disturbing. I am not a huge Nirvana fan, but let's grant that Nirvana and the best of the grunge rock bands showed that rock and even metal need not be lost as an instrument for thoughtful people to put together interesting music. One might argue that in the years just before grunge, rock looked as though it would become simply a genre like jazz, another subcategory for the devotee, with the radio reduced to rock's equivalent of Kenny G. Nirvana was no Kenny G. Kurt Cobain was intelligent, angry, irreverent, and keenly aware of his place in the moment. He also was devastated by drug use, health and mental problems, and a genuine lost soul. He killed himself, and became a sort of object of devotion to a certain type of rock fan. But what if Cobain had lived? Nirvana would have put out a few more good albums, and then faded. The world might have been spared the worst excesses of Courtney Love, although Courtney Love is not without good points as well--I really admire her work for artists' rights. If he had lived, I believe we would see Kurt Cobain much as we see, say, Michael Stipe, important, interesting, but not an object of worship.
I guess I post this because I believe that some folks have a desire to make Christs of dead rockers, and that bugs me. Drug use or suicide by a rock star is not some Gethsemane on the road to salvation--it's just a sad moment in an over-indulged life. The romantic notion of the tortured crazed genius endures, obscuring 'real life'. Of course, it is not limited to rock stars--would Bird have the sway he does had he lived as long as Louis Armstrong? But the real question for me is whether we all participate in some anointing of genius which actually disconnects us from the people behind the celebrity mask.
This year has been my year to steer toward independent artists in a big way. I always have bought some obscure major label acts, and always bought some acts from the smaller labels. But now I seem to want to seek out people that don't have recording deals at all. I want to break free of the starmaker machinery and start listening to music by people,not by icons. Don't get me wrong--I have more than enough hero worship of the Bowies and Bill Nelsons of the world. But I'm starting to question whether my life is made richer, or just made exploited, by this whole record company makin' stars deal. The dead rock stars, particularly those who became godlings through untimely death, define this issue for me. Oh, I'll buy lots more CDs by major acts on major labels. I like the music. But I am inclined to hunt for people who are not "stars" but just make good music. It seems like a much more real, much less unequal situation.
I liked that comix graphic novel The Watchmen some years back. It was a dark story of how if there were "really" super-heroes, the world would not be quite as cozy as the Metropolis of the Superman books. It pointed out the inherent fascism in our worship of "superheroes" and appropriated the old quote "Who will watch the Watchmen?". I'm drawn to that idea--that we create heroes and villains to avoid really engaging with life. Heaven knows that arch-conservative Ann Coulter's media appearances always strike me as seeing a comic book villain at work--she's bright, she's evil, and she even knows she's a villainess. I saw her in a CBN interview the other night, and she just seemed like someone from a Batman comic book, right down to the comic-mag odd mascara use. She was burbling away about "liberals" as if she were trying to ban Spider Man from the city. But I wonder if I should break out of this chain of heroes and villains. I can see in the "dead rock stars" paradigm so much I want to resist. But I'd like to move further--to see evil as evil, but not to merely watch cinematic evil, and have popcorn afterwards.
It seems to me we live in a world in which we have real challenges and real fears and real genius and real stupidity. There's just not enough time to pray to dead rock stars