The Book Club

Love On the Rocks

Dear Ann:

Hmmm. I treat art as art, people as people. For the latter part, I think it cuts two ways. I don’t think anyone really wants the latitude that stars are frequently given. Presley probably didn’t. (Or perhaps not; I could be overreaching. I think certainly he would have been happier.) The serial terrors rock stars inflict on fans and the people around them are rough on both parties. Sometimes I look up from a rock biography and realize that I’ve just read a litany of horrible, horrible behaviors–yet the tone is celebratory. I don’t mean the detritus of stars’ natural arrogance, inconsiderateness, and solipsism. I mean real physical harm–beatings, pressured introductions to drugs (a Presley specialty)–and the emotional horrors that substance abusers can inflict on friends and family.

Isn’t this just rock ’n’ roll, some will say? Sure it is. Remember that funny panel on groupies at South by Southwest, the music conference in Austin, all those years ago? As I recall, you were on it, with Pamela Des Barres next to you, translucent like a ghost. I don’t know if I said it there, but this is my position on groupiedom: Imagine the woman in question is your daughter. On the one end, she’s 25, and meets the ravishingly handsome, unfailingly sophisticated Bryan Ferry at the bar at the LA Four Seasons. They chat, and have a memorable evening together. On the other end of the spectrum, she’s 13, and gives a blowjob to a roadie to get backstage to meet Quiet Riot. Somewhere on that continuum, a line of exploitation is crossed, and at another point it touches on real harm.

The latter still exists, even in the allegedly enlightened alternative age. (Hear an appalled Courtney Love sometime describe what it’s like backstage at a Nine Inch Nails concert; I hear echoes of it on her new song “Awful”). On the other hand, I think we owe our artists something. A mark of a country’s psychic health is the way it treats its artists. (I live in San Francisco, where I have to admit the artistic impulse runs a bit wild. I wish people out here were a little less creative, and a little less jut-jawed about their rights as creative people. I know, I know, it’s a subjective matter–one person’s artist is another’s Alanis Morissette.) It’s scary that so many widely admired, extravagantly imaginative people–Hendrix, Joplin, Presley, right up to Cobain, die the wrong kind of deaths. I’d have to sit down and do some serious figuring before I’d commit this to paper, rather than a friendly email exchange, but I think it’s possible that more than 25 percent of rock’s greatest figures died the wrong kind of death. (Or are living a de facto death–which is what Presley went through and what people like Sly Stone are currently going through). Every death is a tragedy; now that I think about it, it’s one of the reasons that I don’t like Guralnick’s book. The word tragedy belittles Presley, or maybe it aggrandizes him in an unwarranted way. When someone like Elvis Presley is found, in that punch line of a demise, choked on his own vomit, it’s something more, or less, than a tragedy.

I know, I know, it’s wrapped up in things other than talent: tendency toward substance abuse, self-image, abuse as a child. But I think that just reinforces my point above: The stars and their victim/fans are real people. They bleed, contract AIDS, die in the crush at the front of the stage, rot forgotten. I used to think that the thing that might set a star apart is the noise–the sheer cacophony of advice, strictures, contradictions–around her or him. But as you note above, a lot of time the most beautiful people in the world feel ugly, the most popular are alone, the noisiest get drowned in quiet.

What do you think of Courtney Love, our most prominent disaster-waiting-for-a-place-to-happen? She’s widely held in contempt, at least in my circles, but I admire her intensely. I think she’s trying to steal for herself as many male rock prerogatives as she can, and makes no secret about it. It’s fascinating and appalling to watch. Yet I think she’s delivering artistically. I just wrote about her and some other women artists for The Stranger, an alternative newspaper in Seattle. Forgive me for quoting Greil Marcus again (I’m accruing rock-critic penalty points like mad in this exchange), but in the article I recalled something Marcus once wrote about Rod Stewart. Stewart, he said, wants to be a star so bad that he finally figured out he had to put out a brilliant album to become one. That’s what I think Love did with Celebrity Skin. She’s extraordinarily shameless, and while I specifically have no idea what her lifestyle is like these days, neither I nor anyone I know would be surprised to hear of yet another instance of something we could then debate was a tragedy or not. Is she the living embodiment of some of the things we’re talking about?