Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Muses Love Broken Vessels

Some of you are probably wondering why I haven't published a book in 5 years, despite the fact that I have a number of projects in the works. The primary reason is I simply haven't had the time. 

But there's also the fact that the publishing world is is going through some hard changes these days, and I usually can't put aside paying work to concentrate on writing, which I've never done more than break even on (and I consider myself phenomenally lucky in that regard, mind you).

There's also the hard choices to be made when bringing a book to market. You can either self-publish or go with an established house. Self-publishing offers total freedom, but also total responsibility. You're on the hook for every step of the process, from conception to marketing and every stop along the way. It's a lot of work and most writers aren't cut out for it.

I self-published my book on The Clash and it was a ball. But it didn't sell all that much because I wasn't motivated to go out and plug what was essentially a glorified fanzine (and I mean that as a compliment- I created that book as a tribute to the underground punk press that put such a fire in my gut as a teenager). 

I also self-published because I felt so incredibly burnt by my first publishing excursion, the comic series that was collected into a graphic novel, which was  supposed to be a 120 page story until I was told to gut 24 pages out of it. I should have walked away rather than tear the heart out of my story. If you find yourself in that situation be sure you do. 

The Secret History of Rock n' Roll was a situation in which I told the editors I needed at least 100-120K words and if I didn't get it the book would suffer for it. So of course I was initially offered 50K, the size of a long journal article. I bumped it up to the mid 60s after a lot of pleading. I knew I was dead but soldiered on. It's complicated.

I did the absolute best I could with the space I was given. And I think the final product stands on its own, even if I felt like I was typing with handcuffs on the entire time. Ultimately, it's the beginning of a discussion. It's all I could do given the space I had to work with. It's basically an introductory text to a thesis most people have no concept of, so maybe it's for the best. 

I thought I was making a simple argument- the ancient Mysteries organized themselves around certain archetypes and personalities and the revival of the Mysteries- the classic Rock period from roughly the late 50s to the early 90s- did the same. I didn't think I would have to constantly remind people of these parallels throughout the book. And by people I mean "critics."

Unfortunately there was an avalanche of research that never made it into the book ( I read through a enormous pile of books working on this project), side issues that needed to be explored to fill in the gaps. I just didn't have the space.

One of the issues I wanted to explore in the book kicked up again with Scott Weiland's death. And that is how the most gifted musicians are often the most fucked-up. How the most shamanic performers have terrible pain and trauma in their CVs.

Johnny Rotten- who launched a revolution- suffered from a particularly excruciating case of spinal meningitis in his youth and then watched his mother- who cared for him while he was ill- rot away from cancer shortly after the Sex Pistols' first breakup. Joe Strummer and David Bowie both grew up sharing close bonds with severely mentally ill brothers (Strummer's brother committed suicide in public when he was 19). 

Ian Curtis suffered from depression and was diagnosed with epilepsy just as Joy Division were taking off (the epileptic in "She's Lost Control" is Curtis himself, a classic example of poetic dissociation). The epilepsy may have manifested itself in hallucinations, as Curtis sang of dead souls beckoning him to join them shortly before his suicide. He certainly didn't sound like he was being emo.

Elizabeth Fraser and Jeff Buckley shared trauma in their past, Fraser was the victim of longterm sexual abuse and Buckley lost the father he never really knew when the elder Buckley died of a drug overdose. Roger Waters lost his father in the war, a trauma that replayed itself over and over in his work. 

John Lennon came from a troubled home and lost his mother when she was struck by a car when the singer was 17. Paul McCartney lost his mother when he was 14, and her memory inspired one of The Beatles' most iconic anthems, "Let it Be." 

Jimi Hendrix grew up in a troubled home, marred by poverty, violence and alcoholism. Michael Jackson- and the entire Jackson family- suffered under the tyrannical rule of father Joe. They were denied the luxury of childhood as they were carted from one performance to another. 

The Beach Boys' Wilson brothers also suffered under a tyrannical father, resulting in substance abuse, mental illness, and early death. Tina Turner suffered spousal abuse for years under the yoke of her husband Ike. Ozzy Osbourne ended up joining the band of the bully who made his school days hell. Talk about dysfunctional.

And then there's the endless litany of psychological damage, substance abuse and burn- outs. That seems to be the rule, not the exception. People don't understand the kinds of pressures successful professional musicians are put under; the touring, the personal appearances, the meetings, the ass-kissing, the photo sessions, the video shoots, all of the crap that has nothing to do with writing and performing music. 

Artists will freely volunteer that drugs are such a part of the process because it's nearly impossible to function in that pressure-cooker world without them. Stevie Nicks nearly burned out her nose and throat with cocaine, which she got into to cope with the brutal schedule the band was thrown into when they became superstars. 

I do wonder what deeper streams are at work though. I've seen hundreds of "serves him right" or "he had it coming" kind of comments rise in the wake of Scott Weiland's death. It certainly seems that he was a difficult person to work with or be in a relationship with. Musicians are difficult enough, really good ones are worse, and damaged ones are nigh impossible.

His second wife nurses a serious vendetta against him, and the increasingly odious Rolling Stone gave her a soapbox to trash his memory mere days after his death. (I love these women who shun nice guys and chase after bad boys only to discover that they're called "bad boys" for an actual reason).

But she herself admits to bipolar disorder and drug addiction in her autobiography, two of the demons that Weiland copped to. But I always sensed a much deeper injury in Weiland's jacket. People who don't know his work don't understand how pained and confessional so much of his lyrics and vocals were.

The narrative goes Weiland went out a trainwreck but he was giving 
powerful performances like this the week before his death

I am beginning to believe Weiland was self-medicating to cover a history he could only ever refer to obliquely. He offhandedly mentioned being raped in his semi-coherent autobio (written during one of his darker periods) but I think was more candid in the 2001 track "Long Way Home":

Leave me out, get away I gotta go
Long way home can't see through the trees

Leave me alone, get away better run fast as I can

From the man dirty man the old man

The controversial lyrics to "Sex Type Thing" also raise questions. Weiland explained that they were about a girl who'd been raped by a bunch of jocks but the voice isn't that of a young man, it's the voice (and the vocal performance) of an old redneck. Was the song actually another example of poetic dissociation?

If Weiland suffered serious and/or longterm abuse when he was young- particularly if it was violent abuse- then the arc of his autodestruction makes more sense. 

Whatever the irrelevant critic class thinks, there's a serious argument to be made that he was the most gifted frontman and vocalist of his generation. A recombinant Jim Morrison/David Bowie chimera. Which is to say that he had everything to live for, every reason to keep his shit together. But something was eating away at him, something too raw and deep to ever come to terms with. In the end, it was etched all over his face.

I can't help but think of Maynard James Keenan and "Prison Sex." Keenan has always been very coy about the song's real meaning, begging off that it's about his hatred of his stepfather. Or something. But the lyrics speak for themselves. They're too explicit and directional for ambiguity. He's not singing in character, he's singing a pure revenge fantasy in the first person, addressing something that ate away at his guts for a very long time.

But that's Tool, who trade in darkness, violence and sexual transgression. Stone Temple Pilots were a totally different vibe, increasingly offering up traditional party rock in the Led Zeppelin model. Maybe Weiland wanted to exorcise his pain but a suit told him it would be bad for sales. Here, have some of this, it will make you feel better. I promise.

The legendary A+R man John Kalodner insists that antidepressants killed rock and roll, since they numbed out a generation who would once channel their pain into art. What he's saying is that there are fewer broken vessels for the Muses to channel themselves through. 

They rarely seem to choose anything but. I'd like to think suffering is over-rated but hearing the endless tapeloop on my radio (both the same old songs here and endless regurgitations of them there) seems to argue against that.

I keep hearing people tell me how great this or that band is you just have to search them out, but who can argue the great rock and roll culture of the postwar era is not dead? It wasn't suicide, it was a deliberate campaign on the part of insurance companies, local governments and real estate developers, to name just a few of the conspirators. But there's also the pharmaceutical companies and video game makers, numbing out young minds so all that pain is no longer available as Muse food.

I don't mean to diminish your favorite new band I'm just saying the ecosystem that nurtured the truly great artists is gone. What new one will take its place is an open question.

Music is a relationship between the musician, whatever baggage he or she bring to the table and Forces Unknown. I know this for a fact having pursued music seriously for a number of years in my teens and twenties. 

It was actually playing music that convinced me that there were layers of reality and being far beyond that wafer-thin layer of conscious attention we mistake for our selves. 

I had actual out of body experiences while playing (I even caught one on tape- it kicked in around the two minute mark ). It's no big thing, any musician worth their salt has them on a periodic basis. I experienced genuine psychic communication while playing, and that too comes with the job description. Fully formed compositions would emerge out of the ether during jam sessions.

It was the singer in my old band- who could summon fully-formed melodies over chord progressions he'd just heard- who introduced me to the reality of the Muses and the magic they work. A reductionist would insist this is just the subconscious or some shit but what do they know about it? It's like listening to a virgin lecturing about sex. Hopeless. Go fuck yourselves, reductionists.

I have great faith in the Muses- whoever or whatever they are. They've lived through worse times than these. Faith in rock 'n' roll? I don't know. We'll have to see how it goes. It's a very limited form as currently understood. I think it needs to grow some wings and break out of the limits we place on it. 

There's still a universe of sound and rhythm you can explore with guitars and drums, and musicians today should be building their musical EMdrives and doing it. Four to the floor has been done to death. It's time for something else.

The Muses love broken vessels but they also love intrepid explorers. And that goes for more than music, I might add.