In the early 70s, I was forced to listen to a “stack” of records blaring from behind the locked door of my big brother’s room while he and his gang of hoods planned their evening of debauchery. I would always complain, call him and his buddies “freaks” (it had a different meaning in 1972), and be a general dickhead while they were around. Although I was forbidden to do so, after they left for the evening, I would break into his room, break out the jams, and groove for hours to the music I was complaining about earlier. The stench of Marlboro cigarettes, Bacardi rum, and teenage angst filled the air, and the sound of rock n roll music filled my soul. It was the first time I was influenced by art.
1967’s Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced…1970’s CSN&Y Déjà vu…The Best of Cream from 69, and Grand Funk’s red album are the earliest true rock n roll records of my memory. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James is in there…Creedence Clearwater stuff too. I really believe that so much of this music was truly ground breaking stuff. I remember sitting on the floor in that room, looking at the album covers or reading the lyrics that were usually on the paper album sleeve…or if I knew nobody would be around, singing into a fake mic, or playing an air guitar. I’ve had other interests and passions (women), but the art of music grabbed a hold of me in the dingy basement of my childhood home, and it has never loosened its grip.
My tastes evolved (or regressed) from that hard rock genre to more of a “pop rock” flavor. I can still rock with the best of you, but when I listen just for me, it will more likely be Doobie Brothers than AC/DC, America or the Eagles, over The Who or the Rolling Stones. I am not ashamed to say (well, maybe a little) that I liked the Bee Gees back then, and I still like them today. I will also say however, even though my preference leans towards these lighter melody driven tunes, few things tickle me in my naughty places the way the opening riffs to Clapton’s (Derek and The Dominos) Layla, or The Stones’ Start Me Up.
I’m all over the place with my musical taste. While I don’t necessarily love all kinds of music, I do appreciate what it takes to make all kinds of music. Even more, I appreciate what it means to expose that part of you and to let the whole world take a look at your heart and soul through a song. I try to play the guitar, and I’ve tried for years…the best I have ever been able to do is to assemble a few chords in a row. I pick it up again and again, with the same result. I have tried to write songs, but they make NO sense…so after a while, I give up. I just quit. Just because I appreciate the art, it doesn’t make me an artist.
Lots of people can play chords on a guitar, bang a drum, or sing words that belong to someone else…that’s mostly safe. You’re only real risk is that nobody will care to listen. Most people, me included, don’t have the courage it takes to be an artist.
Try to imagine what it must have been like for a bad ass street thug back in the groundbreaking early days of rap and hip hop music. What did it feel like being the first “gangsta” in Compton to puff puff puff into his hand, and talk about smakin bitches or bustin caps, without knowing how this art would be received. At the bare minimum, laughter, personal humiliation, and exclusion from the next planned turf battle were at risk. As the art form has evolved, the risks of acceptance are replaced with the necessity to be good, or at least to not sound just like the last guy or girl who talked about life on the street.
I wonder about the Texas cowboy who wrote poetry in his head while ropin’ and brandin’ all day. Then he would put those personal thoughts and observations to music at the end of that work day in front of all the guys. There were no private rooms on the cattle drive, they slept out in the open, under the stars, with no walls.
A saddle sore gang of men who probably couldn’t read or write, sitting around the fire eating pinto beans and cornbread might not be the most accepting sort of people to yield their coworker an avenue to express his inner most feelings, thoughts, hopes and dreams. In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been employed in this type of job, so I’m making some assumptions here, but I’ve read some books, and I saw Lonesome Dove…I think I’m pretty close to the general nature of your standard everyday cowpoke. So based on these assumptions, one might hypothesize that the first “Texas Troubadours” risked being the subject of the kind of ridicule that can ruin a man’s confidence and self-worth, therefore hindering his ability to pee in a public restroom or on the open range. Original musical expression takes courage, and I absolutely love that aspect of the art form.
You could make cases like this for any artist and any art form. I think it takes courage to show folks what you’re thinking when there is a pretty good chance that many people might not think the same way.
I wonder how many great artists never realized their dreams or potential because somebody they trusted, looked up to, or simply believed, said their work was shit. The “child composer”, Mozart, was probably great because his parents were like the parents of today who tell their kids that every little piece of “fridge art” they bring home is the greatest thing since the Mona Lisa.
While Dad was teaching little Amadeus chopsticks, Mrs. Mozart would probably squeal with delight from the kitchen as she was pounding out some wiener schnitzel, “Oh Wolfgang! My sweet little Wolfy boy! You play so beautifully!” Hearing this encouragement at an early age made Mozart believe in his ability, when you believe in yourself, you are there.
I don’t know Mozart’s history; so I’m injecting a lot of supposition here. I have made a commitment to myself that I would never clutter the Large Man Chronicles with a bunch of historical fact…that would require some research, and who needs that shit? My point is: I doubt that many hopeful artists continue chasing a dream when someone they consider an authority or a mentor poo poos their work. Only a true artist would continue to express their vision after more than a few people said, “I don’t like it.” I think the true artist creates because they have no choice, it’s in their wiring.
Pablo Picasso’s teenage friends may have looked at some of his early artwork and said, “Huh?” But Picasso had to continue his path because misplaced facial features meant something to him. Even if Carl and Scooter (Pablo’s best childhood pals) had laughed themselves to the point of soiling their pants, Pablo would have continued. That’s an artist.
I once did a charcoal portrait of a Native American in battle dress and war paint riding a Palomino horse through a stormy desert, but instead of a quiver full of arrows and a bow strapped to his back, he had a Fender Stratocaster. I was trying to illustrate the power of music, and the pointless nature of violence and war. DJ and Dave, (my best childhood pals) laughed themselves senseless, and Dave soiled his pants. I immediately put away the pencils, the canvas, the paper…and my dreams… FOREVER. To this very day, if I so much as see a kid with a coloring book and that big mother box of 64 Crayolas, I get a little weepy. But I’m no artist, and this easy defeat proves that I never was.
History has given us several examples of the tortured artist who never gained acceptance during their living years, but never stopped trying; Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Sayer. I find this terribly sad. Oh sure, 80 some years after you’re dead Don McClean writes a song about you, and he makes a few bucks… but other than that, you have nothing. But when it’s in you, when it’s part of your soul, do you have a choice?
If somehow Van Gogh was miraculously brought back today, armed with everything he learned in his first life, I believe he would marvel at the “big mother” box of Crayolas. Despite his tortured first incarnation, he would be an artist in his reincarnation. Starry Night is the core of Van Gogh’s soul, just like Voodoo Chile is the core of Hendrix’s soul, and 8 Mile for Eminem. Vincent must open that box of crayons when he sees it simply because he doesn’t know how not to explore color and image. Just like Jimi couldn’t see a guitar and NOT pick it up to hear what it has to say. It’s beyond who they are, it is what they are.
My belief is that this lack of choice is a little bit sad, but mostly cool…mostly beautiful. I’m sad for Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe; it would have been nice if they could have seen how much the world loves their work. But it’s beautiful that it didn’t matter to them, they did it anyway. But you have to be happy for Picasso, Clapton, B.B. King, and that Bono dude (not Sonny, the one from U2) they are just quirky little artsy folk that get to experience our love every day, and they would do it anyway too, (in Pablo’s case would have) whether we loved them or not. Good for them , good for us.
The Large Man