Friday, May 14, 2010
One thing I often wrestle with is how much the biography of an artist matters when it comes to appreciating their work. In most cases it doesn't matter at all. The words on the page are what they are and nothing more. In many cases, the story behind the creation of those words is fascinating (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and very much Kerouac).
I saw a very good movie about Joe Strummer a few years ago and one of the new facts I absorbed is that Joe was a bit of a hippy/bohemian before he ended up in the Clash. He had a tight group of friends and everyone was pretty mellow and communal. He ended up taking a very aggressive turn in personality when he got involved in punk , even somewhat shunning former close friends that were still flying that bohemian flag. It's screams scene jumper, though I'm sure a more passionate Strummer fan could explain it away as an personal evolution, a need to finally express what he always felt, or the fire of his politics burning brighter. There may be truth in those arguments, but in the end he seems clearly a scene jumper, and one that made an effort to turn his back on old friends, which is the real rub for me. I have a real hard time with people that refuse to at least acknowledge that all the things they chose and did not choose in life have aggregated to the person they are today. Everyone wants to remember the cool stuff they got into before everyone else knew it was cool, yet they are reluctant to admit that they took some boring turns into mediocrity or pop culture. It's a pet peeve for me.
I still love the Clash and Joe Strummer will always be the man. Some of the optimistic leftist politics on their records are woefully dated, but I still love those records. Adding in the Strummer biography blemishes won't change that conclusion either.
But perhaps this largely rests on how well you know the artist. Maybe if I was a long lost bohemian buddy of Joe's I'd never be able to stomach a Clash record.
I went to Brother Rice High School, a very good school without a doubt, though people beyond the south side of Chicago probably have never heard of it (unless you count John C. Reilly). It and the surrounding neighborhood are not looked at as artistic incubators, which is perfectly fine. Few places are. I honestly don't think any place in Chicago really fits the bill either. Maybe time is too much of a component (ie. Paris in the 1920's, Harlem in the 20's and 30's, New York hardcore in '88, etc.). I do know a bit about the Rice neck of the woods though, so I take any art that emerges from it seriously.
There is a bit of a hot potato writer out there these days that is a year older than me that went to Rice that is weaving a biographical tale of high school punk rock identity and all the exclusion, frustration, and angst that goes along with it. I knew who he was back then and had a class with him, though that is as deep as it went. I was into sxe hardcore, metal, and skateboarded as much as possible (swap out biking for skating and you're pretty close to where I'm at today). This is a precise cross pollination of subcultures. At that time, even one of these subcultures would place you in a minority, so much so that you always had a sense of the other dozen guys in the entire school that shared that interest. There weren't that many of us so you could always smell your own. There is nothing morally superior about these subculture cocktails, but suffice to say he was not in any of these little buckets. I'm assuming he got into punk after high school, which is great. It just drives me up a wall when he spins these stories of outlaw days in Mt Greenwood. Maybe he was a punk rocker in his walkman, but he kept it well hidden in his IOU sweaters and preppy friends. Eh, I digress. Many people find him a very good writer, so perhaps he is. I'm too close to the whole deal, so I will endlessly cry bullshit. I am well aware that the finger here really just needs to turn around to me and I need to write some good books. Fair enough.
So who is the bard of Mt. Greenwood and Brother Rice? I'd vote for John Powers. I had never read any of his books, but I recently barreled through The Last Catholic in America, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, and The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God. They are amazing and charming snapshots of Catholicism and Chicago in the 60's. It's not Hemingway, but it is not trying to be. They were very satisfying and poignant. The Unoriginal Sinner is the gem by far, capturing perfectly the confusion and desire of college life in a blue collar world. Powers was always referenced here and there at Rice as a local boy done good, but I never made the effort to track down the actual texts. Silly of me. I have now and am all the better for it.
Here's to artists proudly standing for their backgrounds, however boring or bland they may seem through lens of our current mind's eye.