Wednesday, May 6, 2009

You're My Kind of Asshole

Tom Waits--"Hang Down Your Head (live)" (mp3)
Tom Waits--"Innocent When You Dream (live)" (mp3)

"I think it has something to do with what kind of prick they are and how much of a genius they are. Van, Bob, Frank Lloyd Wright---they can be kind of pricks because they are artistic and justifiably egotistical because it allows them to do what they do. The Eagles and people like that aren't great enough to justify it. Somehow, too, there's a difference between cantankerous and douchebag."

--Jeff K., a friend

Recent rumors of Bruce Springsteen's affair with the woman at the left have revived my simultaneous needs to both defend and convict my heroes. Back in the late 80's, I remember a heated conversation I had with several friends when Springsteen left his model-wife Julianne Phillips for back-up singer Patty Scialfa. Though we disagreed on how we were supposed to react to Springsteen's music from that point on, part of our discussion was based on a partial lack of information and, therefore, a hope that Springsteen had "done the right thing."

Without knowing, it was possible, just possible, that he had fully closed the door on his relationship with his wife before he picked up with his back-up singer. Yeah. Right. He was not divorced, but he was "sharing his mike" with Patti in, as the current divorce papers of his lover's husband state, "places too numerous to mention." We sat in the darkening afternoon, four or five of us, trying to figure out what to do with a hero who had broken whatever code we had established for him.

Far too much time during my college years was spent daydreaming about the Platonic notions of love contained within the catalog and ethos of Springsteen songs--the pledges, the desperation, the give-it-everything-you-got, the sense that that love was part of and only possible in the great America. So, the news of his affair with Patti rocked me. It rocked me in a way that a Mick Jagger affair would not have. It rocked me in the way that a Pete Townshend child pornography story did. Bruce was not who I thought he was, and I abandoned his music for several years. When I came back to him, he had not only divorced his wife, he had divorced his E-Street band. But I was more jaded then, too, and so it kind of worked.

You see, Bruce Springsteen is my kind of asshole. There's no other way to put it. Like many other substantial artists whose work I admire, I started off by putting him up on a pedestal, and then when he has proved to be all-too-human, I excoriate him, but never fully abandon him. He now has a pattern of hurting people; he has a pattern of public, messy relationships. But I'm still there, (usually) still listening.

I'm sure you can put together your own list. Here's part of mine. Hemingway was an asshole, but he is my favorite writer. Zevon was an asshole, but his songs transcend that. Joyce was an asshole, but he convinced himself that in order for him to pursue his genius, everyone else had to take care of him. Maybe it was true. Van Morrison is a cantankerous, paranoid asshole who thinks everyone is stealing his ideas. Steve Earle--foul-mouthed jerk, 5 time married, former heroin addict--is one of my favorite songwriters. Bob Dylan, as far as I can tell, has become so weird as to place himself beyond judgement.

People like me are enablers of people like them. They live their sloppy lives in public and I acknowledge those, perhaps condemn them, and then keep on going along with them.

The problem is that I am unable to establish any kind of stable moral code to evaluate them, and that concerns me about my other evaluations.

When I sit in the bathroom and read through an issue of In Touch, I feel absolute disgust for the lives of the Hollywood stars, for the hook-ups, for the pseudo-dramas, for Matthew McConaughy's apparent desire to spend his entire life getting buff and throwing frisbee in the surf at Malibu, for the magazine's lame attempts to depict stars in situations that show they are "just like us."

But when my wife was getting kind of cranked up by the current Bruce fiasco last week and asked me something about it, I gave her kind of a "Yeah, it's no big deal" response, and she was taken aback. She thought I was pooh-poohing his adultery, but that wasn't it at all. It's just that I've now been down a 36 year road with Bruce Springsteen. I've seen the warts and I still like the songs. So,what?

It's the oldest question related to art of any kind: do you separate the art from the artist, or do you gauge the art based upon what you know about the artist? It's not always your choice, since sometimes you know nothing about the artist at all. Check the body of work, even on this blog, by Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous. But with most modern popular musicians, their lives, or at least portions of them, are played out on television, in books and magazines, on the Internet. And so, it's hard to separate, isn't it?

I think my friend Jeff has a pretty good handle on our odd kind of hero-worship of musicians. I even used the word "hero" myself up above. But there's something more to the modern listener-musician relationship. It's kind of like they become friends of ours. The Phish-heads who speak so adoringly and so casually of "Trey" know little of who he is, and what they do know, including his incredible problems with addiction, they likely dismiss as part of the territory. So do I. Whether you are a spokesman for a generation or a spokesman for a bunch of lonely, drunken boys in a Philadelphia dormitory, they and I are going to cut you a lot of slack if you can deliver musically, deliver in performance.

I don't know if that's the way it should be or not.

I was speaking with a friend tonight of Bruce's affair, and his dismissive comment was, "That's old news. That isn't a new affair." Of course, the story only broke in a major way in the press two or three weeks ago. But the fans have moved on. Bruce and his wife have made prominent public appearances, have sung significant duets together since then. If your best friend had done it, you probably would have told him he's an asshole; if your favorite rock star does it, it's as if you nod to yourself and think, as you buy his latest stuff, 'You're my kind of asshole.'

Tom Waits' songs come from a concert found online called "Glitter And Doom In Atlanta." A superb show.


troutking said...

Great post, Bob. I think of it this way: When someone---Bruce, Bob, Van, Frank, Barack?--- enters my one-name circle of trust, they would have to do something awfully bad to be kicked out...and frankly I'm not sure anyone ever has. Kind of like earlier this year when you emailed me "What do you think of the new Bruce song?" and my reply was "Haven't heard it yet. It's good." You gotta cut em a little slack because they've brought so much to the table in the past and they might again. Neil Young gave the worst concert I've ever seen---playing his new concept album straight through before it was even released and then bitching because people were talking during it---but I'd go see him again because next time he might blast Rockin' In the Free World for 15 minutes. Another thing, too, Bruce is the one who sings the words: "I don't give a damn for just the in-betweens. I don't give a damn for the same old played out scenes." My favorite artists are the ones who take us to those edgy places we can't usually get to on our own. Hopefully most of the time that doesn't translate to something as pedestrian as a spandex-clad affair begun at a New Jersey fitness club, but sometimes it happens. Besides, somebody, maybe Jon Stewart, recently brought up that it is in fact New Jersey state law that if Bruce Springsteen covets your wife, he gets her. Used to be the Sinatra rule, now Springsteen. Speaking of trite (his music and his life), I'm not agreeing with Billy Joel: "I'd rather laugh with the sinners, than die with the saints." I guess I'm just saying that mistakes will be made when geniuses pursue their muse and we all benefit from that, so I say to them, "you ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright and that's alright with me."

troutking said...

Also, this Jeff K. guy, whoever he is, says a lot of smart things.

Dan said...

Is that a photo of the woman in question? She's pretty in a Talbots kind of way.

Bob said...

I did google her and that's what I got. Other pictures show her in the backs of automobiles,etc.where she is more blurry and ragged. She does seem awfully well-groomed for Bruce, but then, I'm assuming that I know him, and I don't.

Billy said...

And thus we come full circle back to The Gaslight Anthem, 'cuz their song "The Backseat"! Since I apparently did them a disservice by neglecting their Springsteen roots, perhaps their song is referring to what Bruce does in backseats with this woman?

Hank said...

From The Royal Tenenbaums:

Royal: Can I say something to you, Henry?
Henry Sherman: Okay.
Royal: I've always been considered an asshole for about as long as I can remember. Uh, that's just my style. But I'd really feel blue if I didn't think you were going to forgive me.
Henry Sherman: I don't think you're an asshole, Royal, I just think you're kind of a son of a bitch.
Royal: Well, I really appreciate that.