Through deep reversion therapy I can recall about a two-week window back in my first year of college where I cared about Michelle Shocked’s music. That “Alaska” song was pretty cool. But really, a long-irrelevant musician representing a micro-fad of the last century so easily parodied that from this distance it’s hard to discern between her, Phranc and their Saturday Night Live impersonators, spews some vile, completely dismissible hate rant that demonstrates just how down in the deep end she drowned a while back. I do not care about Michelle Shocked.
It’s interesting, though, to observe the reaction of fans and critics. The flap coincidentally unfolded during the release of David Mamet’s HBO film, Phil Spector. Another artist-gone-wrong story that continues to rile whom, I’m not quite sure, but definitely someone. [Disclaimer: I’ve made dozens of records, I have a master’s degree in music composition and have closely analyzed almost 100,000 songs for Pandora Radio and I still have no fucking idea what people mean by “wall of sound,” though I’ve never once mistaken Spector, the producer of “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” for a good guy.]
While neither Spector or Shocked matter to me, what I do find fascinating is the question of the personal fallacy in arts and entertainment; to what degree should or does someone’s personal identity, thoughts, actions, affect our experience of their work?
Since my ears are mostly filled listening to garbage for my day job, I can count on one hand the number of records I’ve had the mental energy and time to obsess over in the last nine years. When I lock onto a record, I don’t just listen to it over and over, I don’t just memorize every word, learn the chords and force my friends to cover the songs with me, I literally kneel in front of the speakers and press my face into their black mesh. I want to hump the sound, as was the case with the album John, The Wolf King Of LA, by John Phillips.
Then after more than 5 years of having the album on near-constant repeat and recommending it to anyone who would listen, someone finally said, “Ew, gross,” and asked if it bothered me that Phillips had raped the living shit out of his daughter, Mackenzie, with absolute impunity for many, many years, and that when she confronted him and said, “We have to talk about when you raped me,” he said, “You mean when we made love?”
Man, was I bummed.
And while, for the most part, the damage was already done – I was past the sweatiest phase of my obsession – I still loved the album dearly and had anchored nostalgia and sentimentality to almost every one of its songs. Did all those crushes, heartbreaks, friendships and late-night solo drives now have to be re-tinted with the sleaze of an evil 70s ego-maniac rock star junky creeping into his sobbing daughter’s bedroom?
While I so desperately want to say “no,” want so badly to preserve Phillips’ music in a sacred bubble of warm analog glow and dusky heroin comedown flutter, I notice that I’ve not put that album on in a long time.
For those of you who don’t know the record or have any idea who I’m talking about, it’s a total masterpiece interspersed with unlistenable brainless pap. John Phillips was better known as “Papa” John of the Mama’s and Poppas; back-up singer and vocal arranger for one of the biggest bands of the era. The Wolf King album was released in 1970 but apparently there was a lawsuit that squashed any promotional efforts. You might have heard the song, “Holland Tunnel” on the Squid and the Whale soundtrack, but then again, you probably didn’t. There are no hits on the record, nothing that scores occasional rotation on down-market classic rock stations or even some deep cut Sirius channel, no big hooky arrangements, no famous sidemen (it’s the Wrecking Crew with Hal Blaine on drums, but if you know those names, you know they were famously not famous). And like I said, maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the record is god-awful. But the songs that are good rival Blood on the Tracks era Dylan; lightning rods of emotion and imagery, mini-tsunamis of tension and release. They strike the perfect balance of abstract and physical, ambiguous and harrowingly direct. They’re funny, awkward, tender, mean, personal and vulnerable. On songs like “April Ann,” “Let it Bleed, Genevieve,” and “Topanga Canyon,” the understated arrangements and performances give off that effortless, “we’re just kicking back in the studio having the time of our lives” kind of feel that bands today struggle so effortfully to achieve. On “Holland Tunnel,” with the bass and drums panned hard right, piano hard left, you can hear Philips’ scratch vocals buried in the final mix bleeding through the piano mics during the first verse, and can thus picture him hollering them out to the band while they were tracking and learning the song at the same time. These are the kind of touches that make music intimate and magical to me – people taking risks, turning their hearts inside out, climbing up on the highwire and falling off for the sake of the rest of us.
There is a moment in the song, “Someone’s Sleeping” with this odd verse, more like a non-repeating chorus that has somehow slipped out of the rest of the song, the rest of all music and time as far as I can tell. It goes:
I remember a marketplace in Tangiers, standing there
Beggars all around her legs and she looked like an angel.
From a second story window, caught a glimpse of someone’s life
And it was mine, and my face was dark and dirty
And I’d been crying.
It’s one of the most masterful turns in any song I’ve heard. Every element is working to serve the meaning and impact of this verse. The un-rooted geography is embodied by the instrumentation – a slippery pedal steel and fiddle – country music instruments far removed from their genre home. The longing for distanced beauty is echoed in the barely audible fiddle and of course the aching moan of the pedal steel. The out of body separation of the speaker from himself is perfectly enacted by a second Phillip’s vocal ghosting in and out, only occasionally harmonizing with the lead, sometimes varying the lyrics.
I strive for writing like that, I’ve taught that one verse, held it up as an example of uniqueness in form married with uniqueness of vision and voice. How deep into your own identity do you have to delve to come up with something that singular and insightful?
Apparently not deep enough to stop you from raping your own daughter a hundred gazillion times over a ten-year period.
So now there’s a few questions I have to face. First off, how did I not know about this? I’m sure I did some research into Phillips when I found the record. I remember discovering he was from the Mama’s and Papa’s, he was in LA, he was a heroin addict, he wrote “Me and My Uncle,” made famous by being played at almost every single Grateful Dead show between 1972-1995, and he’s dead now. The main thing I wanted to know was – are there other records that might possibly be anywhere near this good? The answer to that was no, at which point, I had little incentive to dig further.
As it turns out, the revelation of his evildoing came with the publication of Mackenzie Phillips’s memoir, High on Arrival, in 2009. I discovered the album around 2005, and I admittedly don’t pay very close attention to the world of rock “news.” So I’m kind of off the hook for not knowing, but what do I do now that I know? Even if I really wanted to hear the record, which I don’t so often anymore because I’ve listened to it enough to hear it in my head, I can’t un-know the horribleness of him as a wretched human being, and that knowledge is now in the foreground of my listening experience. It’s graphic and clammy. It involves vomit-slick leather couches, poorly aimed hypodermic needles, coerced addiction, cramped tour bus stench and hordes of willfully ignorant hangers-on. How can I not think of the ruined life he left behind, even if his music potentially helped so many others, myself among them?
Does it matter that, according to Mackenzie Phillips, the raping hadn’t yet begun at the time John, The Wolf King of LA was made? Granted, Phillips had taught his daughter to roll joints by age 10, and had her taking cocaine by 11, which would have coincided with the Wolf King era. What if the distanced coveted beauty referred to in “Someone’s Sleeping” is the 10-year-old Mackenzie and not, like I’d assumed, her famously beautiful stepmother, Michelle Phillips?
But I’m pretty much done with my Phillips obsession. The greater question is, how do I approach other music in the future? It’s absurd to imagine some kind of vetting process for artists I’m interested in checking out. Should I write them letters asking if they’ve committed unspeakable sexual crimes? And where do I draw the line? Lots of artists suck at being human beings. Pop music in particular seems to attract a pretty grating bunch of users, cheeseballs, egoists, insecure meanies, fiends, prima donnas, sponges, attention hounds, womanizers, maneaters, scoundrels, boozers, slackers, sloganeers and thugs. Add fame and millions and suddenly the seedy front-man of that local band you used to catch at the Rainbow Room now has a posse of enablers, boosters, and alibi-givers to help him amplify the worst elements of his already questionable personality. Of course it doesn’t inevitably lead to the gobbling of his daughter’s soul through blood-stained fangs like Phillips, but there’s a lot of grey there. One the one end is the guy who likes to tie a few on and roll around with a different co-ed each night he’s on the road, then heads home to his 42 year-old-wife and 3 year-old-kid, both of whom he loves in a totally sexual-assault-free way. On the other end is a cold-blooded murderer like Phil Spector has been found guilty of being. Let’s say child rapists and hatemongering bigots fall somewhere between the above 2 wrongdoers.
If infidelity, irresponsible boozing, lying, immature and selfish behavior, and lechery are infractions that, when artists commit them, prevent us from being able to support and thus appreciate their work, we lose a lot of music. Add in excessive egoism, greed, social climbing, snobbery, self-importance, and the using of your backing musicians Amanda Palmer-style, and, at most conservative estimate, there goes 75% of everything, and about 90% of everything good. There are still a few rad John Denver tracks and Coltrane really cleaned up his act the last few years of his life. Neil Young seems like an upstanding human being. Neko Case was super nice when I used to wait on her table in Chicago, and her tweets make me believe her to be thoroughly A1. I don’t know. Bach was probably a self-righteous religion freak. Fela Kuti seems cool from a distance, but it takes a pretty grand sense of self to keep a harem, form your own political party and declare your house a sovereign state. I’m racking my brain here. Maybe some Gregorian chanters, unless you find the whole affiliation-with-a-church-that-is-responsible-for-more-sadistic-murder-than-all-causes-in-history-combined thing distasteful… you see where I’m going with this?
As I run down the list of my favorite popular musicians, so many of them seem at least a bit douchey and conceited. Certainly the bigger ones. Maybe there’s a tipping point once they can consistently fill more than 1000 seats a night for approximately 3 or more consecutive years? I imagine it’s just hard to stay totally awesome if you’re surrounded by people telling you that everything you do is totally awesome. And while being a bit douchey and conceited is far superior to Phillips’ skin-peeling horror, in my personal life, I tend to weed the conceited douches out. Or maybe they weed me, but either way, it’s a factor. Does that also mean it should be a factor in determining what music I draw close to?
For most of us, the answer would be no. But it seems there’s a line or maybe even a formula for when the artist’s personal life does turn us away from their work, and I’m interested in identifying it. Or at least identifying the factors that mitigate that formula. For instance, how much of a role does time play? Revelations about John Phillips came out long after he’d been dead and canonized. If they’d come out at the height of his fame, the solo record might never have been made. Or maybe never released? Richard Wagner sucked on a whole other geo-political scale, but man, his music is awesome. I can totally divorce the heinous villain from the transcendent art in Wagner’s case, but I’m not sure if it’s because of the time factor, the greatness and scope of the work, or the absence of his individual presence in the work. As a composer, Wagner’s music was and is performed by people other than him, so there’s an added layer of remove that might help me appreciate his music in isolation from his personality and actions.
However, lots of folks who are living today and are physically present in their work do pretty rancid things and still get on with their careers. Mel Gibson being an obvious example. He maybe now can only really play to Jew-haters and racists, but lucky for him, that’s still a broad audience. Popular entertainers and artists have recouped from bouts of theft, assault, domestic abuse, drug dealing, public indecency, hit and run, various hate speech, infidelity to the max, and just general awfulness. However, pedophilia, incest, rape and murder might cross a line. Maybe not murder, depending on your genre, target audience (and target victim) and the quality of your PR team.
In addition to time and crime, there’s the question of where the artist falls on the cultural spectrum, though this is maybe not as linear as it would seem. You can expect deviant behavior from deviant artists to be tolerated by their deviant fans. But mainstream artists are cut a lot of deviance slack as well, which is tied up in the function of artist as cathartic exorcist for society at large. The artists (or whatever you want to call them) are acting out on our behalf, smashing hotel rooms, fucking thoughtlessly, speaking filter-free for us – they’re taking the risks and the hits, doing exactly what we would do were we given the chance. So there’s an element of us wanting them to act “badly.” We want them to be über-egos, over-the-top emotional, volatile, publically indecent. We get our vicarious kicks and it’s fun to watch.
As long as that deviance aligns with our own deviant desires (or the ones we would publically admit). So when former Velvet Underground drummer, Mo Tucker, randomly appeared shilling for the Tea Party a few years back, well that was just wrong. That is unacceptable deviant behavior (the deviance of pasty normality). However, because of the time factor, I can still listen to the couch album and marvel at the genius of her paradigm-rocking simplicity. I can easily allow myself to believe that she evolved her conservative “ideology” long after she left the Velvets. But would I buy a new Mo Tucker solo album today? Hell no. Unless I heard from a musician friend that it was really amazing, which I can safely say ahead of time it will not be, because Republicans do not make good art, they make mediocre propaganda.
But this touches on one of the more inexcusable deviations, at least when it comes to independent artists – that of non-authenticity. If you are an indie rock musician, or an independent artist or writer, it’s assumed that your overall values align with the left, humanistic, untrusting-of-dominant-culture end of things. It’s assumed that you’re in it for the “right” reasons – dedication to creativity, overcoming the alienation of the human condition, an across the board, egalitarian celebration of existence. If it turns out that you are in fact a money-grubbing, hegemonic corporatist, and/or intolerant religious fundamentalist, your audience is going to reject you. Rightly so, Michelle Shocked. You might think, or even say, as she did, (paraphrasing here) “Who ever elected me as a spokesperson for such and such a cause or subculture?” We did. Your fans. We supported you because we thought – based on your apparent belief system expressed and embodied by your work and your independent aesthetic – that you shared our world view and that you conveyed it elegantly. And you, the artist, accepted that position when you accepted our money and adoration without full disclosure of your secret shittiness.
Now whether we, as the audience, are completely wrong in doing this is a separate issue, but it doesn’t lessen the blow any more when that artist turns out to not authentically be who we have come to expect them to be.
Because this whole thing works both ways. Where someone’s personal life and behavior can negatively affect our perception and experience of their work, liking someone has the exact opposite effect. The clothes they wear, them talking to us at the merch table, or treating us kindly if we approach them in public, or saying lovely things between songs and caring about the downtrodden, or treating their boyfriend/girlfriend well, or even dating someone good (I’ve always liked Michelle Williams, but her dating the kind of schlumpy, normal-sized-genitalia-equipped, but smart, witty, and musically-inclined Jason Segel upped her cache for me exponentially, for fairly transparent reasons) can make us like their work more. Which, if they’re genuinely good people, it should. Good people and the stuff they do ought to be appreciated. As for attractive people, well we’re going to appreciate (or jealously scorn) them and their art whether we think we should or not, so it’s best to just give in.
If we’re going to bring it down to such a small-scale, personal read, it’s bound to get messy. But we are people. Mess is our medium. I’ve seen lots of really lovely human beings be less than 100% courteous, attentive and giving to fans after a concert because they are tired, tour-weary, and over-stimulated. And that one brief instance can be enough to turn off a listener for life. Even just not responding to a fan letter or an email might be enough to sour a once-diehard fan. When I fall in love with a piece of music, it’s a personal experience. It’s almost inevitable that the maker of that music is not going to reciprocate the warmth and intimacy I (mistakenly) transfer from the object to the maker of that object. I know some people who intentionally distance themselves from the makers of music that they love for the exact reason that they don’t want their precious and beloved experience of that music in any way spoiled by the potentially disappointing reality of the maker. I studied music with the renowned composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. He worships the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. By most standards, they were peers and Braxton certainly had many opportunities to meet Stockhausen, but Braxton avoided him. Braxton knew that Stockhausen was a prick, maybe even a racist, and Braxton cared too much about his relationship with Stockhausen’s music to risk spoiling it by having a negative experience with Stockhausen the person.
This strikes me as perhaps the wisest approach. Keep a clear distance between the art and the artist. Judge the work on its own terms. As a maker of things, I’d certainly appreciate that. (Or ideally, I’d like to have it both ways. If you don’t like me, keep my work separate. If you do like me, please let that positively influence your perception of my work.) What’s realistic though, is that for most of us, we don’t have the ability to not be influenced by the personal fallacy. Once we learn that our favorite musician is a monstrous subhuman, it’s almost impossible to not let that color our experience of their work. But every once in a while, if we really love the music, we’ll let ourselves forget, and get lost in its magic, because that one verse in that one song is possibly the most beautiful thing we’ve ever heard. And my listening to it isn’t actually hurting anybody, is it?