Thursday, July 11, 2013

Iffy People, Great Art



(Note: I wrote this, and then I kind of hated it, so I didn’t post it for a while.  I still think it makes a few interesting points, but… well, if you want to read it, here it is.)


Lately I’ve been struggling with the idea of bad people making good art.


Why write about it?  I dunno.  I’ve learned over the years that it’s often easier for me to set my thoughts down so I can look at them on paper (or, yeah, on the screen) and then go back over them, tweaking them, checking my arguments, and trying to parse out what I really feel about them as ideas, separate from the space in my head.


What I guess I mean is, it’s easier to examine some things as AN idea, as opposed to MY idea.


I imagine there are some who will assume this has to do with the whole Paula Deen scandal, or whatever it is.  But no.  I’ve been watching people on my Facebook page take sides for or against her, but I don’t really know anything about her, don’t use her recipes, and don’t really care all that much one way or another if she loses her cooking show.


Nothing against her, I just don’t care.


No, I think the first time I ever got at least mildly interested in The Art vs. The Man situation is when a bunch of sci-fi aficionados decided to get all in a tizzy over the fact that Orson Scott Card wasn’t quite as progressive as they wanted him to be.

I refuse to rehash that whole thing because, much like Paula Deen, Orson isn’t someone I’m all that much of a fan of.  I read Ender’s Game, and I thought it was a lot of somewhat-interesting philosophy with some cool battle school scenes tucked into it.


Then I read Speaker for the Dead, the followup, and found it to be a painful philosophical slog. It was a long book wherein so little happens I can barely recall the plot.


But other people cared deeply about these stories, and they were let down by Orson’s stance, and many of them swore they’d never read any of his books again, but clearly it’s not hurting the guy because Ender is about to become a major motion picture and the Ender books continue to sell pretty much without ceasing.  He continues to write sequels and prequels and side-quels and all of them sell.


So in the end, I let my brain cycles to other things that weren’t worry about Orson.


Should I be more bothered about it?  That’s another valid question, but let me come back to it.


The first time I encountered true ugliness with an artist I actually cared about, it was Lindsey Buckingham.


That much I’ve written about before, though it was a few years ago.  An ex-girlfriend of his wrote a book that said he was on a lot of drugs, verbally abusive, and even physical with her at times.


The thing about Lindsey is, for better or worse, he’s an icon of rock.  Fleetwood Mac sold millions of records with him in the group, and they continue to rake in money whenever he heads back into the group.


Oddly, this is after Mick Fleetwood threw him under a bus post Tango in the Night.  He said things happened that Lindsey claimed didn’t, and the thing of it is, everything could sort of be argued to a draw.  Two angry men saying, “You don’t remember, you were on drugs!”  “No, you don’t remember, YOU were on drugs!”


But the ex-girlfriend book seemed to be carefully researched, and more interestingly, Lindsey didn’t pop up to deny it.


Though maybe he just never heard of it.  Or, like most people have to, he just let his ex say whatever she had to say, and didn’t bother to correct her because it was almost thirty years in the past.


That one bothered me for a while, and still bothers me now.  I can barely tolerate Orson’s work, but Lindsey was, if not an influence on my own music, a guy whose albums I used to listen to over and over again.  That the book “Storms” claimed that many of the lyrics of Go Insane, one of my favorite albums, were stolen from the author of the book, really bugged me.


And yet, new Linsdey music came out after I read the book, and I bought it, and I enjoyed it.  I didn’t get rid of my old Fleetwood Mac albums, and I didn’t stop listening to him or the band.


And even now, I’m not totally sure how to justify that.


I can come up with one argument, which is that the story is being told by one person.  It’s not a trial with a bunch of witnesses, it’s one woman so jilted by one man that she felt compelled to drag up the dirt between them three decades later.


Is everything she said true?  Perhaps.  But even if it is, these aren’t things that happened a month or a week or a year ago.  These are things that happened 30 years ago.  It’s very possible that, away from the drugs, away from the tours, Lindsey became a better man.  Perhaps he long ago tried to make restitution.


I have no idea.


Most recently, I’ve had two other artists with questionable choices brought up.


The first is Frank Zappa, and musician I’d argue is somewhere in my top three when it comes to my music collection.  I own a lot of his stuff, and enjoy a lot of his stuff, and…


And boy, is some of it dating poorly on the good taste front.


The thing of it is, in college, I liked the guy because he was funny and thoughtful.  And in college I really learned to respect the musicianship, the sheer breadth of his composition.  I was equally fascinated by his philosophy, which mostly seemed to be, “People are stupid.”


But man, some of the things he said in song…


Straight up, some of it is really, really sexist.  And a surprisingly large chunk of it also reads as homophobic. And yet, his take was always, “Well, I’m not singing this stuff, it’s these characters I’ve created…”


But man.  I dunno.


The thing of it is, I have a kid now.  And it’s a she.  And when I pick up Zappa’s records, I sometimes question if he had the best interests of the female population at heart.




Zappa argued that kids should be able to listen to anything, and to some extent I get that.  Kids live in the same world they live in, and they’re going to be exposed to bad words, bad thoughts, bad intentions.  They need to learn to understand what’s appropriate.


And yet?  And yet.


And yet.


Ultimately, I just don’t listen to Zappa very much anymore.  I put music on in my car for the most part, and Zappa just isn’t something I want to stick in my kid’s head.  Assuming Zappa was really being satirical, well, most kids don’t get satire.


Perhaps when she’s older she’ll find some of it funny.  But more likely, I’ll have to shrug and give the, “It was a different time” speech.


Except, of course, that for some people it’s not a different time.


I became a fan of Mike Doughty more or less by accident.  The way you hear a word for the first time, and then hear that word five or six more times over the next two days?  It was like that.


I got one of his songs on the Veronica Mars soundtrack, and I dug it.  And I happened to read about his records on Wil Wheaton’s blog.  And my curiosity grew, and I got his first three albums for Christmas.


And it was good, y’know?  I liked the songs, liked the style, and found myself singing along and having a good time.


And then I learned there was more, if you went backwards.  He had a band, Soul Coughing, and those guys?  Man, it was a weird little thing he called Deep Slacker Jazz, with a bass, drums, and sampler, and off kilter beat poetry.


It was so cool. 


More records came out but I ultimately never picked them up.  By all accounts, his albums after that kind of went off the rails.  And I was a little broke.  But I’d do things like check in on his blog.




And where am I going with this?


In one of my check-ins, I discovered he had written an autobiography: The Book of Drugs.  And I was curious.


As autobiographies go, it takes you to a weird place.  There are no chapters, no breakdowns of theme, it’s just Mike writing about things in a rough order as they occur to him.


But man, it’s an ugly picture of a human being.


What’s interesting is that Mike pulls no punches, and even throws a few that aren’t necessary.  He never actually tells you the name of anyone in the band.  The bass player is just that: The Bass Player.  Never mind that this was a fairly popular band, and that guy’s name is easy to find.


Once he quits the band, he goes on a few benders and, among other things, goes to Ethiopia.  I mentioned this to my wife, who asked if she should read the book.  “Not if you want to like the guy,” I said.


What’s odd is that after reading the book, even though I couldn’t say I really liked the guy, did make me want to pull out his recordings again.  I spent a week rocking out to Mike and, more interestingly, the band he hated so much.


I Googled Mike and read a half-dozen interviews and articles about him, many of which included interviews with his band-mates that went, basically, “All the stuff he said we did were actually things HE did.”


And then Mike did something odd.  Despite the fact that he says he hates all the old songs, and the memories they bring back… he’s decided to re-record some of them.


He crowdfunded the endeavor, and now he’s recording, and the record is getting pretty close to done.


And by cracky, I chipped in.


I’m still not totally sure why I did this.  Curiosity, I suppose.  Mike says multiple times in the book that the songs came out “wrong,” and that he had/has a very clear idea how they were supposed to go.  And I gotta admit, I really want to hear those versions.


And so I question myself.  Because I didn’t even really try to justify it.  I just really wanted to hear it.


When it comes down to it, the more I type the more I feel like maybe I don’t need to justify it.


The thing of it is, the world is filled with people whose life choices I just don’t agree with.


These are not dictators, or people who endangered children or tortured pets.  Ultimately, they said some things and did some things in the past that I don’t agree with.


I mean, a lot of composers of the last 1000 years have probably done things I just didn’t dig on.  And yet, I don’t listen to Beethoven and question my moral judgment.


In the case of Zappa, he was 53 when he died, and he’d be 73 today.  If the Beastie Boys can come around and determine that some of their lyrical choices were questionable, perhaps Zappa would have revised his feelings on some of his work.


(For that matter, Stephen King finally took one of his own books out of print due to some of the content.  I don’t know if that’s a win, either.)


Ultimately, my knowledge of the various composers and performers I enjoy is for the most part extremely limited.  I own work by hundreds of musical artists, and listen to hundreds more, and most of them don’t have a definitive biography and/or autobiography I can examine for things that make their soul ugly.


The artist makes the art, it’s true.  But then the art becomes a separate thing. 


Sometimes the art is kind of gross, and you have to decide if the art around it is worth your time.  (Joe’s Garage is pretty skeevy in places, but the instrumental Watermelon in Easter Hay is gorgeous). 


Sometimes the person around the art did some things you just can’t get behind.  But if Lindsey Buckingham spent all those years stoned, he might not even know what he did, or what he was doing.  And while that’s on him, one thing I didn’t find much of in the book were people trying to STOP him from doing it.


Ultimately, maybe William Shatner got it right.  In one of his multiple memoirs he says the chances that he’ll remember everything correctly is impossible, because he didn’t have four video cameras running every second to capture each moment in the book.


For that matter, Harlan Ellison (a noted crank) said that Shatner told a story that was essentially a flat-out lie.


People do things wrong.  People are sometimes wrong.


And yet, the art is the art. Ultimately, I chose to read and investigate personal information that told me things I didn’t want to hear.


And when the people who made the art are dust, the art will remain.


And who they were won’t matter.


And perhaps that’s just how it is.

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