American Culture

I am better off not knowing

By Patrick Vecchio

(CAUTION: Contains naughty words)

The cleavage of men into actors and spectators is the central fact of our time. We are obsessed with heroes who live for us and whom we punish. — Jim Morrison, from “The Lords and the New Creatures”

I’ve been a fan of Warren Zevon since his live album “Stand in the Fire” came out in 1981. But I’m nowhere as big a fan now as I used to be, and it’s got nothing to do with the music, everything to do with the musician.

At its best, “Stand in the Fire” races well past the redline on the rock ’n’ roll tachometer. Zevon’s best-known tunes — especially “Excitable Boy” – take on a fun-filled ferocity that makes the studio versions of those songs seem as safe as milk (to borrow a phrase from Captain Beefheart).

I listen to “Stand in the Fire” when I’m working out. I have 400 or so high-octane songs on an iPod playlist to motivate me during 45 minutes of the treadmill drudgery of stride-stride-stride-stride. Yesterday, though, when those Zevon tracks came up, I realized I don’t like him nearly as much as I used to.

This is because of a book I read last year, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon,” written by Zevon’s ex-wife, Crystal. I’ll spare the details; let’s just say Zevon, who died not quite five years ago, comes across as a narcissistic, drugging-and-drinking, womanizing lout.

So how does that make his life different from, say, episodes in the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton or any one of countless rock stars? Answer: It doesn’t — except that Hendrix, Clapton and Jagger are from a different world, while Zevon was a guy I could relate to. Example: In the live version of “Werewolves of London,” in the last verse, Zevon howls that the werewolf, whose hair is perfect and was last seen drinking a Perrier at Trader Vic’s, is “looking for James Taylor!” Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing James Taylor being torn to shreds. Personally, I’d like to get up on a stage and roar and rave like Zevon does on that album. I’d like to be a hairy-handed gent and run amok in Kent. But those notions became less appealing when I learned Zevon’s inner excitable boy was a creep.

I guess I’m punishing the hero, although Zevon is, in a literal sense, no more a hero to me than, say, Tennyson’s Ulysses. In any case, once we peer behind the façade and see heroes are flawed, their luster fades. These days, when I read “Ulysses” and the hero proclaims, “Death closes all: but something ere the end,/Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods,” I’m afraid somebody’s going to discover a manuscript that has Ulysses next saying, “On second thought, fuck this shit. Let’s go get a cask of mead and chase some wenches.”

When it comes to heroes, the less I know about them, the better. I have been interested in the art of Salvador Dali ever since I first saw an image of his “Persistence of Memory” in a college art class, and as recently as last week, I was thinking about how brilliant his melting watches are, given the title of the work. But the closer one examines Dali’s writing and painting, the more repulsive he and his work become. George Orwell considered this in a 1944 essay called “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali.” The springboard for Orwell’s essay is a then-recently published Dali autobiography. Orwell observes, “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats,” and then he details the fantastic excesses that Dali probably fictitiously details in his Life. Orwell concludes:

The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even — since some of Dali’s pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard — on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.

It’s worth noting that Orwell writing about Dali in 1944 would have been exactly like writing about Madonna at her self-promoting peak — say, the publication of her coffee-table photo book Sex in 1992. Both Dali and Madonna mastered the art of capturing the media’s attention; Dali, after all, was the first artist to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

It’s beyond my ability to offer social critiques on Orwell’s level, but sociology wasn’t troubling me on the treadmill yesterday. Rather, I was questioning my need for heroes, and I recalled an essay Lester Bangs wrote about Lou Reed in 1975, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.” An excerpt:

The central heroic myth of the sixties was the burnout. Live fast, be bad, get messy, die young. More than just “hope I die before I get old,” it was a whole cool stalk we had down or tried to get. Partially it has to do with the absolute nonexistence of real, objective, straight-arrow, head-held-high, noble, achieving heroes. Myself, I always wanted to emulate the most self-destructive bastard I could see, as long as he moved with some sense of style. Thus Lou Reed. Getting off vicariously on various forms of deviant experience somehow compensated for the emptiness of our own drearily “normal” lives. It’s like you never want to see the reality; it’s too clammy watching someone else shoot up junk and turn blue. It ain’t like listening to the records.

Re-reading Bangs made me feel like Wally Cleaver. I don’t want to believe in Bangs’ “absolute nonexistence” of “noble, achieving heroes” because I need the inspiration and motivation they provide. I have a list of writing heroes, for example: Annie Dillard. Anna Quindlen (her essays, not her books). Dan Barry. Charles P. Pierce. Their writing moves me, inspires me. As Saul Bellow once observed, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” I never will write as well as they do, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to jump over the bar they raise.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn something unseemly about any of them. I want — no, need, their personal lives to be — well, ordinary, as ordinary as my own life is, so that as I chase the dream to become a better writer, I don’t feel as if they’ve been given any undue head start because they lead extraordinary lives. And should one of them turn out to be a reprobate, it would be doubly disappointing because he or she would have succeeded despite shortcomings and because somehow, I would be less able to relate to that person.

On the other hand, my expectations may be unfair. More Bangs:

An old song was ricocheting through my head, some faint memory of a time in 1968 when I told my nephew about this kid who was hero-worshipping me because I’d turned him on to Velvet Underground albums, speed, etc. “I don’t wanna be anybody’s fuckin’ hero,” I snarled at the time. My nephew made up a two-line song on the spot: Don’t wanna be a hero/Just wanna be a zero.

All of this actually may point to a flaw in my character, not theirs. Should I have to rely on someone else’s example to inspire? Shouldn’t I be able to reach deep within myself to find the creative spark plug? Why should I need Tennyson or Zevon to fire me up? I don’t know.

All of this leads to Morrison’s observation about how we punish heroes. In our media-saturated age, celebrities fall into the “heroes” category — and look how we treat them. Stalkers sniff the trails of celebrity scents, looking for warts or worse, all of which are duly splashed on magazine covers and television shows for people with ears that hear what they want to hear, eyes that see what they want to see — for people to draw glee from, to gloat at. “All of those rich, beautiful people,” we think, “and they are no happier than we are.” But I am better off not knowing.

13 replies »

  1. I never expected to see Warren Zevon in the same breath as Salvador Dali. Yet you make that seem so plausible. And the search for the hero continues.

    Well done, sir. A notable contribution to S&R.

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  3. The irony about that book, as you know, is when Carl Hiaason said Zevon was not a cliche–but the book provided plenty of evidence to show just what a poor, poor pitiful cliche The Zev was.

    Crystal Zevon seems to now be trying to repair her late ex’s reputation. A rock station in D.C. aired clips of an interview with her all morning on Tuesday. She was doing her very bet to make The Zev sound like the noble, common-man artist that guys like you an d me used to see him as.

    Great piece, PV.

  4. But, but, but, … all humans are flawed. That’s ultimately what keeps our lives interesting — as the Catholics refer to original sin: “felix culpa.” And I think it’s true that at least in a world of mass communication, “professional” artists are largely (if not exclusively) obsessed individuals who can’t help but do what they do. Also as a rule they possess a certain understanding of, but give little regard to, the (usually dire) economic consequences of such a “career choice.” In the words of Superchicken, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

    Financial success or no, it engenders a decidedly weird life for the artist to live out. If unsuccessful, they and their loved ones are beset by the dilemma of poverty or artistic compromise, either in less time spent exploring, or in dilution of, their original spark. If successful, they must deal with the Pandora’s box of celebrity, with its newfound temptations and loss of privacy.

    Rather, isn’t the benefit of our continuing attraction and attention to works of art that the works themselves are instructive? Certainly the best of all works of art, in their myriad manifestations, continues to inform my own artistic endeavors (I’ve lived my entire adult life as a musician), affording me insights about art and life that no other form of human communication can.

    I was also curious about the lives these souls lived and are living — Joyce, Monk, Horowitz, Margaret Leng Tan, Rushdie, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and many many more, well-known and obscure — but no matter how they dealt or are dealing with the twin weirdnesses of success/unsuccess, their work remains a timeless wellspring. To me, that’s what really matters.

    Perhaps the strategy of Thomas Pynchon, whose first three novels have remained in my personal canon of Best Works of Artistic Transcendence, is wisest — no pictures, no teevee interviews, no MySpace … only his art itself. (Hard for musicians to follow this strategy, though!)

  5. Pookapooka, you raise some interesting points. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    As a (lapsed) Catholic, I like your use of the concept of “original sin,” which is a good way to describe our innate flaws. The flaws that concern me are the mortal sins, though, not the venial ones. So-and-so comes off in an interview/profile as having a prickly personality? I can live with that, although I wish he/she was more gracious. But when so-and-so turns out to be somebody that, as a fan, I don’t want to meet because he/she is Dali-esque or Zevon-esque: That’s what troubles me. Hard as I try to avoid being judgmental, I often can’t help but conclude that These Are Not Very Nice People.

    You are dead on about the art being a “timeless wellspring” (another nice phrase). Yesterday, a few minutes after the live Zevon tracks played, his song “Splendid Isolation” popped up, thanks to the “shuffle” mode of iPod. It drove away all my thoughts about the artist and instead prompted one of those “man, I wish I’d written this” feelings.

    As I said, my need for heroes, and the way I react to their flaws, may be more about my own shortcomings than theirs. I just wish I’d learned Zevon had been reasonably flawed instead of being mired too often in wretched excess.

  6. Some prime postage, Patrick. It stinks to be disillusioned — especially by masters of disillusionment. Like Charles Bukowski.

    Watch him in the 2003 documentary, “Born into This” by John Dullaghan. It’s bad enough that, despite his age, he’s as insecure as a teenager about women. But, at the end of the movie, he starts kicking his girlfriend.

    I can never read him again.

  7. Pat: Part of me feels like you’re confusing (necessarily, perhaps) the journey with the destination. That is, you’re looking at a trip from NC to California and drawing fairly final conclusions based on what happened between Greensboro and Nashville.

    If Zevon and others are guilty of worse sins than I was at one point in my life, it’s only because their resources and status presented them with more and greater opportunities to fuck up than mine did. But when we look at the damning accounts of Zevon, which I have no reason to doubt at all, are we seeing accounts of the car arriving at the Pacific Ocean or merely looking at pictures taken just west of Asheville?

    In the end it maybe doesn’t matter, because your central point remains – we ought to be really careful about canonizing heroes. I will say this, though. In Zevon’s final album, I felt I was hearing the voice of a man who lamented, more than anything, that he all of a sudden had so little time to atone for his mistakes. I’d say that makes him guilty as charged, but it also redeems him.

  8. Russ: Kicking his girlfriend? No poetic license covers that one.

    Dr. Slammy: You’re right: I’m not sure I would have behaved any better than W.Z. under the circumstances. I just hope I never, ever hear tales like that about Graham Parker.

  9. Some times you just have to look past the artist. When Zevon sings ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’ I can imagine myself as some dissolute guy who is suddenly in waay over his head in Havana and Honduras. Then I can laugh because it is so not my life. Thanks to Zevon I can dip a toe in the imaginary ocean.
    It sounds like he was not a nice guy in private life and I’m not supporting that at all, I just like his music. I have the same feelings about Pete Townshend who seems to have been unpleasant for long periods of his life but the music transcends that and finding out his private life only makes me glad that I’m not like that.
    A good, thought provoking post Patrick.

  10. Stumbled across this post while looking for a copy of Bangs’ essay. I enjoyed the content of the post but am having a hard time identifying with it. Might be an age gap — I’m Gen Y. May be my polarity is opposite yours: I don’t feel a need for heroes.

    It would be a paramount act of hubris to claim to speak for those of my generation, but I’ve had this “heroes” conversation before; seems that with my crew a steak n’ wine dinner invariably, and unabashedly against social protocol, turns to religion, then politics, then cynicism, and over one such evening of pepper-crusted filet and a Greg Norman that had a hint of curant and…armpit…we touched on the hero meme.

    In essence: we have no need for heroes; heroes, when unmasked as mortal, invariably disappoint; and it is possible to enjoy a hero’s works without actually liking or appreciating the hero him/herself.

    I don’t want to call my generation cynical. We’re not. However, we’ve grown up along with the internet, twenty-four hour TV, reality shows, and all the rest. We have access to any piece of news from across the globe within seconds. And what sells? Violence. Sex. Natural disaster. Sensationalism. So while honor the basic goodness of man, we are far and away aware that a man placed on a pillar will soon enough become pilloried. We’ve seen enough corporate scandals, political scandals, and indicted preachers to see the folly in elevating someone/thing to “hero” status. Besides, and here Bangs said it best, “Having a hero is just a crutch not to do anything amazing yourself.”

    Heroes don’t actually exist. They are a construct; a fictional repository of our hopes and dreams and ideals. (Read any Stan Lee interview. ‘Nuff said.) And the problem lies when we create our hero and then have the unfortunate experience of unmasking them, like reading Orwell on Dali or the book on Zev by Crystal. It all comes crashing down because we’ve so idealized them with *our* hopes and dreams. Superman to me is not Superman to you; our heroes are extremely personal. And when one is unmasked, it has strong psychic consequences precisely because we, un- or wittingly, imbue them with bits of ourselves. We take their defeat, so to speak, or rather the tarnishing of their image, so personally because it’s as if we ourselves are taking that hit.

    It is possible to appreciate a hero’s deeds without having much love for the hero. This step requires conscious thought; it requires one given to conflating himself with his hero to draw a crisp, distinct, psychic line between himself and his hero. It also requires killing the “hero” moniker. We must admit that there are no heroes; that the object of our fascination is simply a man with extraordinary abilities i.e. music, art, etc. We must, and should, allow the accomplishments of the man stand alone from his character. The fact that Dali lived in a moral vacuum has no effect on my appreciation of his works. Nor does the thought of a drunken Zevon slobbering over a co-ed at a bar while Crystal sits at home eyeing the clock impact, at all, my pleasure when listening to his tunes. Should it? Not if I’m not confusing the hero with his works.

    I should end there, but further: Does “David” become less of a masterpiece if we discover Michelangelo fondled little boys? Is “Starry Night” less iconic if viewed in consideration of its psychotic, ear-cutting maker? Of course not. Nor should we impugne the works of Dali and Zevon simply because our heroes have become unmasked — it is not their problem that we’ve conflated our heroes with their works.