Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dying Young

I read two things over the weekend that got me thinking about artists who die young. One of them was Gillian Gaar's In Utero, from the "33 1/3" series of books about rock albums; it chronicles the recording of Nirvana's last (and, in my possibly minority opinion, best) album, in the year before Kurt Cobain's suicide. The other was Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the famous story of the German doctor who sells his soul to Satan so that he can, um, get laid and play tricks at a dinner party.

Faustus is a good play--not a great one, I don't think, but there are plenty of rabid Marlovians (the ones who think he was Shakespeare) who would tar and feather me to hear my say it, were the internet, say, a Holiday Inn ballroom, rather than a bunch of fickle electrons. But the play's not the thing--it's the circumstances of Marlowe's death that interest me today. He was stabbed in the eye, in a roomful of state secret service dudes who said he started it. Cobain's suicide was quite straightforward by comparison, but even his death has been subjected to its own brace of conspiracy theories.

Judging from those two, if you're really sharp, and you kick it before the age of, say, thirty-five, you're golden. You may have left behind a terrific body of work, but posterity doesn't just listen to your three albums, or watch your four plays, and mutter "what a shame." Also factored into your permanent reputation is what might have been--the stuff you might possibly maybe definitely would have produced if you'd lived. If album C was better than album B was better than album A, then album M would have pitched the world into ecstatic chaos.

Then again...the other book I read this week was another in the 33 1/3 series, Ben Sisario's Doolittle, a chronicle of the Pixiess third album. (The book is both better written than the Nirvana one, and less engaging to read, due to Sisario's excessive erudition and worshipful tone--but I recommend it anyhow.) Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black, didn't die after the record was recorded. Indeed, he put out another bunch, both with and without the Pixies, and none of them are remotely as good as Doolittle. He lives today, somewhere in Oregon, with his girlfriend and their baby, and while he's pretty legendary, he's no Cobain, let alone Marlowe (apologies to his fans, but I'll take the Breeders over post-Doolittle Black any day).

When we read a writer we like, we don't just read what we're reading. We read what we could be reading--what we hope we might read someday. This is way we Obamites dig our candidate: you can count on him being a decent president, but there's just the tiniest chance that he might be great--legendary--world-altering. When a writer dies young, she is frozen in time, often at the height of her powers (which, it is often the case, are fueled by the same pressures that result in her death. Sylvia Plath, for instance). The graph of her awesomeness looks like a day trader's wet dream. You never imagine it changing direction (Hemingway). You never imagine it disappearing completely (Salinger).

This doesn't speak well for our older, healthier, more fortunate writers, one of which I hope someday to become. But those writers get to have something Breece D'J Pancake or John Kennedy Toole never got to have: a second act, and a third, and possibly a fourth. All I really can wish for, though, is that I don't have a fifth act like poor proud Faustus, with my various limbs scattered across a blood-smeared room.

Then again, what a way to go! I'd make the Norton Anthology for sure.

14 comments:

Aos said...

I've always felt that many of the youthfully dead writers should not have been so lauded. I've enjoyed both Pancake and Toole but considered their stature an accident of fate more than any outrageous talent. I grieve more the middle aged dead like Dylan Thomas.

Cobain has also been overrated I feel (and I am a fan). Nirvana took me like riptide when I first heard them but they seemed to be light compared to the full tide pull of The Pixies.

More and more now I appreciate the long career, the desire for someone to come back; thinking that Elvis Costello must have more to give, or even Paul McCartney. And like with writers I admire, I prefer the one that keeps pushing which is why Frank Black is still strong for me. You are right that none of his have matched any Pixies cds but so what. He doesn't care; what he does is make music, he keeps writing, and he was responsible for the lion's share of the Pixies art so his motives are more about exploration than they are about posterity, and for that I respect him.

And The Breeders never really did anything for me (I always felt that though Deal was important to The Pixies, she really was part of the supporting cast). Mind you, I am one of those who really thinks Courtney Love's first album not only kicked ass but continues to (just the first one mind you).

I really have to say that Cobain is and never was the equivelant of Black; could Nirvana have come close to Doolittle or Surfer Rosa? (One qualification here; I speak of music not lyrics..Frank is a little weak on the words). But I quibble; imagine that poorer musical universe with either one missing. Both beat the hell out of (insert almost any band name here).

jrlennon said...

I actually like the cryptic lyrics of the Pixies...but honestly...and I know I'm in a very, very small camp here...I think Kim Deal's the real genius. The last two Breeders records are great, and I always found Black's lyrics to be on a gratuitously dark/brainy side. Whereas I'm routinely moved by the Breeders.

But wait! This is a literary blog!

I agree completely that the long career is more interesting--even if you lose interest in a writer (or musician), you can dip back into that stream anytime, and see what they're up to. And sometimes it's something completely unexpected and exciting. That's the career I'd like to have...trying to elude any kind of distinctive identity, offering up a surprise now and then. (You know, a surprise, like, "Whoa, he's actually still writing?")

Of course, it's easy to be different when hardly anybody is paying attention, and I doubt that, had he lived, Kurt Cobain would have had the energy left to be innovative. Writers live more sedentary, isolated lives, generally, than rock stars, and move way fewer units. And that's good news for us, creatively speaking.

jrlennon said...

Look at that, I praised the Pixies' lyrics and complained about them in the same paragraph! Ha! What I meant was, I find them good enough, but I think Deal is the better lyricist (and, ultimately, songwriter).

rmellis said...

Hey you rock people, put on a jacket! Or at least tuck in your tee-shirt.

Matt said...

There's nothing like stating an opinion on music (let alone using Cobain/Nirvana,Pixies/Black/Deal) to elicit passionate responses.

There are those who died young via suicide (Cobain) and those who died young by accident (say, Mark Bolan from TRex). In both cases we can only wonder what new, better, or worse directions their music would've taken them.

When you look at the likes of Lou Reed, Ginger Baker, and Iggy Pop - all of whom were on journalists' "dead pool" lists - you cannot help but sense the value of perseverance and respect those who insist on not fading away, regardless of whether what they do is as strong as before. With Lou, he came out of nowhere with his New York album in '89 which was probably the strongest thing he'd done in 10 years (and arguably since).

jrlennon said...

I agree, New York was a terrific record. And some musicians have it in them to be consistently good over their entire lives, e.g., Tom Waits.

I wonder if it's in the nature of many literary and musical suicides to die at what their peak might have been--like I said with Plath--perhaps the same things that drove her to suicide also drove her work to be as good as it ever could.

I am not arguing that horrible "depression makes you great" argument, which I think is nonsense. But some unhappy writers are able to use their despair to fuel their work, and they burn brightly before the world becomes too much for them.

Most of the writers I know who are depressed find their depression to be a great hindrance to good work.

James (Mr. 5 Red Pandas) said...

I don't know if I would consider Gaar a great writer (she is a good one), but I always enjoy reading her writings on Nirvana (she's penned more than the 33 1/3 book). She always concentrates on the band's music and influences, and avoids sensationalism, arm-chair psychology and introduces biography only when needed to comment on the band's work.

I've read many (probably too many) books on Nirvana, and most of those writers don't take this approach. And I think most of them range from decent to awful. Charles Cross' biography is the worst; he seems to think the culture of indie rock exists as something like the minor leagues for corporate record labels. Plus, you can create a sizable list of Cobain's musical influences tha don't appear in the book's index. Everett True's book is pretty good, but is oriented toward biography (logical, as True was a friend of Kurt Cobain's).

I'm hoping that one day, either Gaar or some other writer will produce the Nirvana equivalent of Charles Shaar Murray's impeccable Crosstown Traffic, which revisited Jimi Hendrix's work as the extension of Hendrix's historical influences (mostly in black American music, the aspect of the Hendrix story most overlooked and misunderstood), and dissected and discared the mythological nonsense.

Okay, nevermind me, I'm a Nirvana fan and have my strong opinions on this, ha!

Pete said...

Exhibit A: James Dean
Exhibit B: Marlon Brando

And my "what might have been" for Cobain was reading that at the time of his death he was supposedly working on a musical collaboration with Michael Stipe. Wouldn't that have been interesting!

AC said...

I try not to read books about bands. Knowing too much just ruins it for me. I'd like to think of a perfect album like Doolittle as a terrific found object or a miraculous apparition, not something that a bunch of jerks made by doing this and then this and then this.

Someone mentioned the long career, and the sudden return after years of silence. I love the new Mission of Burma cds that have come out in the past 5 years. That band broke up because of tinnitus, but they all continued making music in other forms. Oddly, their new stuff sounds just like their old stuff.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, ONOFFON is fantastic!

james, my problem with Gaar is that her prose is kind of awkward and ungrammatical at times. I kept wanting to get out the red pen. But her attitude toward music, and how to talk about it, is right on the money. For me, that's more important than good prose, at least in books about rock and roll.

Matt said...

"I try not to read books about bands."

ac - I totally agree. With rare exceptions (Mark E. Smith, from The Fall, for example) when I listen to a band (or a performer if they're single-o), I could care less if they are personally righteous or if they dress like nuns and sell drugs to school children. In the end, it's all about the music.

This also extends to film for me; just couldn't care about DVD bonus features. The film is the film.

Come to think of it, this also extends to authors. Sure, it's fun to watch the slow-motion car crash between Michel Houellebecq and his estranged mother, but really, in the end, I only care if the books are good.

Mark Hoobler said...

Oddly enough, this Sunday's NYTBR's front page review, William Logan on Frank O'Hara, opens with this: "Death is often a good career move in poetry"

Not sure if I agree with that though...

I just finished a bio of Elvis Costello, and like someone else posted, I felt like I was rummaging through his dirty laundry. And while his later work has been somewhat scattershot (and even though he does the occasional Lexus ad) I am glad Elvis is still with us.

Aos said...

Though I think this applies much less to literature than to music, the first one or two cds are for many the strongest. After all, they've had all their lives to get there, all that material, and then the next need to be pulled out of the last year or so. So the odds of being a legend, of being considered a real talent when dying young, is actually quite good.

And there is none of that dilution that comes with the odd bad stuff (though the bad stuff is often also the transition to something interesting).

I guess I'm hesitant to take seriously the artistic weight of any musician who dies before 30. (Unless what they do is never quite duplicated like Tim Buckley or Jimi Hendrix).

I'm more for the long and deep and troubled relationship with writers or musicians who step off the path from time to time, who you curse for another crappy record or book, and then OMG where did this come from?

Matt said...

aos - agreed. I will always remember Daniel Lanois (producer of U2 and many others, as well as a solo musician), in an interview, saying "You have your entire life to make your first album. After that, you're on someone else's schedule.".

So true.