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The Unbearable Heaviness of Artists
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
If you live long enough, it's inevitable that someone you once knew will end up famous, and if you're a shallow name-dropper like me, you can use this information to impress the starry-eyed and celebrity mad for a little instant status. At a party last year, I casually mentioned that I once had a date with a girl who went on to become a known soap-opera actress; more significantly, at least to the nerd populace I was addressing, she had a major role in Sam Raimi's horror/kitsch classic Evil Dead 2. (For the cinephiles out there, I'll give the esoteric specific: she caught the eyeball.) It's tacky to admit to such petty bragging, but I couldn't help noticing the surprised looks from the party goers, and I could feel that their esteem for me increased by a perceptible degree. The host of the party owned the Evil Dead trilogy and he knew exactly who I was referring to.
Most people have a similar story, either a "I knew them when" or a chance encounter at a grocery store or airport. It's amazing that these stories never get old, that people always want to hear about run-ins with the rich and famous (or semi-famous.) It's a tribute to our country, I think, that America is still the world's leading exporter of A-level (and Z-level) celebrities. While Europe and India and Asia have made major strides in automobiles, high-tech industries and finance, nobody holds a candle to us with regards to pop-culture personalities.
I had a run-in with an imported celebrity at Sundance in 2007 that made me reflect on the nature of artists and their untrammeled ambition to earn a spot in the public's consciousness. It was at an Internet industry house party that a friend of mine was having, and there were a lot of publicists and networkers there, all trying to make connections for upcoming deals.
The night's entertainment was a performance by a Scottish singer/songwriter, and the twenty of us gathered the overstuffed chairs in a circle and watched the guitarist play an abbreviated set of his acoustic work. I had no idea who the guy was — I thought he was just somebody pulled off the street — but found out later he was sort of a big deal, a major-label discovery who had a couple of songs featured in various American television shows and commercials. Anyway. He played an earnest, "beard rock" set that I've never cared for, but his voice was pleasant and one of the songs reminded me of a great Fairport Convention tune. Afterward, I talked with him, complimented him on his set (I was lying), and then mentioned that I thought one of his songs reminded me a little of Richard Thompson.
Well! I might as well have called his mother a prostitute. Offended, he told me he'd never heard of Richard Thompson, that he only used his homeland as inspiration. His music was totally organic, he told me, totally unique, and absolutely unsullied by any known influence. It was if he sprouted from the Highlands themselves, a naked son born of the thistle and the heather, with an acoustic guitar instead of a pacifier laying in the grass next to him.
I didn't challenge him, but this was patently ridiculous — a U.K. singer/songwriter who doesn't know Richard Thompson is like a rocket scientist who has never heard of Werner von Braun. But he was fervent about the purity of his artistry.
As an artist and as a guy who has mostly artistic friends, I recognized the need for the performer to have a bit of tunnel-vision with regards to his own work. But the righteousness of his response made me realize how unbearable artists can be. Everybody thinks he's James Joyce, forging the consciousness of his race in the smithy of his soul. I made the mistake of once comparing a local singer to Neil Young, and had to endure and extended musician-lecture about the vast differences between the two performers. You'd think that such a comparison would be a compliment — Neil Young's not too bad, you know — but the aggrieved party ridiculed me for such and outlandish claim. Yet even a casual listener would make the connection. The guy sounds like Neil Young.
It's worth mentioning to all the would-be celebrities out there that admitting influences doesn't automatically de-value the originality of your work. Keith Richards makes no excuses for stealing all of Chuck Berry's licks, and Bertolt Brecht was proud of the wide-ranging sources he incorporated into his specific vision of theatre. When I re-read my own work, it's obvious that the writings of Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, Joe Queenan, and Anthony Lane figured prominently on my style, and what's wrong with that? I'll never be as good but there's no sin in admitting to inspirations. As another influential writer once said, bad writers imitate. The good ones steal.