Monday, July 15, 2019

Van Gogh

I teach art classes. I often ask my students to name their favorite artist. The name that comes up more than any other is Vincent Van Gogh. When I ask why I hear things like "he suffered for his art" or "he'd rather paint than eat." This is true, of course. Van Gogh gave his life for his art. In the process, he became an iconic role model. I know this because he's always been a role model for me. But Van Gogh is a terrible role model. And I'm ready to give him up.

I create art both as a writer and a printmaker. The Van Gogh energy field has not served me well.  Mind you, I'm not comparing myself to Van Gogh the artist. I'm referring to Van Gogh the life coach. The Van Gogh who were he alive today would likely host a podcast on living your life as an independent artist. This is the Van Gogh I'm eager to expunge. The struggling Van Gogh, the miserable Van Gogh, the Van Gogh who paints a life picture of pain, hardship and death. If a 12-Step Van Gogh Anonymous Group exists I'm ready for an intervention.

First, let's recap the Van Gogh ethos. Van Gogh was dedicated to suffering. Like Nietzsche, he believed melancholy had creative value. In one of his letters to his brother Theo he wrote, "What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that's adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed."

Van Gogh's painting Old Man In Sorrow (At Eternity's Gate) is possibly the most intense depiction of misery ever painted. In a letter from 1882 he wrote, "I do not wish to express in my landscape a sentimental sadness, but a tragic grief." This grief engulfed him. The fact he completed 900 paintings in his lifetime is a near miracle. His creative output did not cure his ills. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.  In 1890 at the age of 37 he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

I agree there is value in melancholy. Wistful periods allow you to mine your subconscious and find the gold that resides in the darkness. Carl Jung referred to our Shadow Side that holds a seed of creativity. Tapping this resource can yield greater awareness, compassion and artistic output. But melancholia can become a self-fulfilling trap. To believe you must feel pain in order to create is to play with fire. You build resistance and must summon deeper reserves of agony to stimulate creativity.

It's easy to forget the muse can take many forms. This includes desperation and inspiration. Van Gogh was a desperation tweaker. He battled poverty, suffered from mental illness, quarreled with family and was spurned by potential lovers. He put his faith in difficulty. He wrote, "One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end and shows himself entirely different from what he had seemed at first sight."

Van Gogh ultimately reached land as an artist. But his journey helped fuel a false narrative that artists must suffer to create. Historians have theorized that Van Gogh's psychological and emotional troubles fueled his creativity. In my mind, his depression enslaved him and prevented him from achieving even greater success. He remains a mentor for me but he's become a cautionary tale. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the novel The Subterraneans, "I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he's left us." (7" x 10", black ink print)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Babe Ruth

There's a famous story told by the legendary sportswriter Fred Lieb about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth from the 1920's. The two stars were scheduled to share a cabin on a Georgia hunting trip. Cobb refused. When asked why he said, "I've never bedded down with a n---- and I'm not going to start now."

George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the most renowned baseball player of the 20th Century, the embodiment of a time when only white athletes played pro sports, may have been black. It was not just his "broad lips and wide nose" hinting at mixed heritage. Or the fact he loved to date black women and spend evenings at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. It was that many of his contemporaries believed he was black.

During the 1922 World Series at the Polo Grounds, a Giants player named Johnny Rawlings shouted racial slurs at Ruth. After the game, Ruth burst into the Giants locker room and challenged Rawlings to a fight. Only when Ruth noticed the baseball writers standing nearby did he calm himself. According to biographer Robert Creamer, Ruth begged the journalists not to write anything about the incident. He told Rawlings, "I don't mind being called a prick and a cocksucker but none of that personal stuff."

Ruth had an affinity for black ballplayers. After the Yankees won the 1927 World Series, Ruth joined a barnstorming tour against Negro League teams. He befriended Satchel Paige, sat in opposing dugouts and mingled in the segregated stands. This upset the racist baseball commissioner of the day, Kennesaw Mountain Landis who wanted to prevent integration in the major leagues. According to baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, Ruth sought to become a baseball manager after he retired. He "didn't get the job because Landis...knew if hired as manager, Ruth would have openly supported signing black ballplayers." Ruth never became a manager and baseball did not break the color line until after Landis' death.

Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1885. His parents were of German ancestry. He was raised in poverty and only one of his six siblings survived infancy. His father owned a saloon and his mother was an alcoholic. After his mother had an affair with one of his father's bartenders, his parents divorced. At age seven, Ruth was sent to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. During his time at the orphanage, he was taunted with the nickname "n---lips."

Early on there were rumors that Ruth had African-American ancestry. His parents were less than faithful and it was possible Ruth was illegitimate. Ruth passed for white and enjoyed all the benefits of a white man in American society. It wasn't uncommon for African American celebrities of the era to pass for white. Actress Carol Channing had a black grandmother. Oscar winner Merle Oberon had an Indian mother and white father.

From a historical standpoint, Ruth's background is significant. He enjoyed white privilege during a time in America when racism and the KKK were thriving. For Ruth to have mixed ancestry would cause heads to spin from Alabama to Arizona. He always denied the rumors. Of course this was in his self-interest. Jackie Robinson would not break baseball's color line until 1947, one year before Ruth's death.

There was never hard evidence Ruth had a multiracial background, only supposition. He empathized with black athletes like he empathized with all who were underprivileged. Perhaps he was a black baseball player in the same way Bill Clinton was a black president.

In a 2001 article in Gotham magazine, film director Spike Lee related that his father, a huge baseball fan, always said Ruth had "some of the tar brush in him." Lee suggested that if DNA testing was appropriate for Thomas Jefferson's remains, to see if he fathered children by slaves, then perhaps Ruth's remains should be tested as well. (7" x 7," black ink print)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Lou Reed

The first time I heard a Lou Reed song I was 18 years old and floating down the Chattahoochee River in a canoe. A shirtless Georgia teenager stood on the riverbank slapping his paddle at some swimming kids while a boom box blasted "Walk On  the Wild Side." At one point the teen's paddle made contact with a young boy's skull. I heard a loud "thwappp"and the boy fell face first into the water. The teenager laughed maniacally as the boy's friends pulled him to safety.

This is how the music of Lou Reed entered my life. There was something magnetic about the music, the raw and minimal guitar riffs, the shocking lyrics (did he actually say "even when she was giving good head"). Most pop music was safe. Lou Reed was dangerous. The sound had a dark energy, an urgent power with distorted guitars and atonal vocals.

The first Lou Reed album I purchased was Transformer (1972). From the moment he sang the words "Vicious, you hit me with a flower" I realized there was something deeper going on, ironic storytelling in a way I'd never heard. On "Perfect Day" Reed sings, "You made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good." The line perfectly encapsulated my teenage angst, my self-doubt and dim hopes for future redemption. Reed goes on to repeat the frightening refrain, "you're going to reap just what you sow." The words penetrated my soul like a warning, a call to pay attention to my own words and deeds.

When I discovered the Velvet Underground, I was spellbound. The music was real and edgy as if made in someone's garage. The guitars were droning and slightly out of tune, the drums scratchy and dirty. This was my first experience of lo-fi music and Reed was my first rock star crush.

He was a prototypical rock and roll bad boy. He abused drugs and alcohol, trashed hotel rooms, cursed reporters and engaged in bar brawls. But Reed was different. Where most rockers had affairs with supermodels, Reed opted for trysts with transvestites. While typical pop stars sang about how much they missed old girlfriends, Reed sang about bondage and sadomasochism ("Venus In Furs").

Google the words "Lou Reed was an asshole" and you'll find dozens of incidents describing his brutal, selfish, misanthropic behavior. There was the time he slapped David Bowie after Bowie suggested Reed cut back on his drug and alcohol use. Or the time he called Bob Dylan a "pretentious kike." (Reed himself was Jewish.) His Velvet Underground band mate John Cale called Reed "a twisted scary monster." Paul Morrissey, manager of the Velvets said Reed was possibly "the worst person who ever lived."

Friends and admirers grew familiar with Reed's moody tantrums and profanity-laced assaults. At the Manhattan clothing store RRL a sales clerk told Reed he was a big fan. Reed responded, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Fuck off." Howard Sounes, author of Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed writes that Reed "was constantly at war with family, friends, lovers, band members, managers and record companies." Reed even described himself as a "fucking, faggot junkie."

This begs the question does it matter? As a person, Reed was clearly complicated. As an artist, Reed inarguably shaped the musical landscape. Without him there would be no punk rock. (Sid Vicious took his name from the Reed song "Vicious.") There would also be no grunge or shoe gazer scenes. Brian Eno claimed, "everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band." Reed's songs directly informed the musical style of Joy Division, Jesus & Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, Dream Syndicate, Luna, Spacemen 3, the Dandy Warhols, the Feelies and the Pixies.

Reed was an avant-garde storyteller who wrote about misfits and lost souls. His song subjects were junkies and drug dealers, transsexuals and schizophrenics. He chronicled trips to the bad part of town to buy heroin. In the brilliant but dark album Berlin, he told the story of Jim and Caroline, a troubled couple whose relationship crumbles as they fall into drug use, prostitution, domestic violence and suicide. This is the heady stuff of literature, not the trivial fare typically found in rock music.

Reed's heroes were literary figures like Hubert Selby Jr., Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. During his days as a student at Syracuse University, Reed started a literary journal called The Lonely Woman Review. He wrote short stories and read poems aloud at St. Mark's Church along with the New York writers Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. Reed studied creative writing with the poet Delmore Schwartz whom Reed credited for teaching him to "use the simplest language imaginable" to impart the heaviest impact. (Schwartz was the inspiration for Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift.) Under Schwartz's tutelage Reed wrote poems that ultimately became the songs "Heroin" and "Sister Ray."

One of Reed's poems was titled "We The People." The words are as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.

We are the people without right. We are the people who have known only lies and desperation. We are the people without a country, a voice or a mirror. We are the crystal gaze returned through the density and immensity of a berserk nation.

One of Reed's favorite books was the 1963 John Rechy novel City of Night. The book was a landmark of queer literature chronicling a gay street hustler's travels through America. Reed channeled this energy into his own songs about street life such as "Waiting For the Man."

Reed yearned to write the great American novel and put it to music. In a 1991 interview with author Neil Gaiman, Reed explained how he used prose technique in songwriting. "There are certain kinds of songs you write that are just fun songs, the lyric can't survive without the music. But for most of what I do, the idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist's eye to it, to try and have that lyric there so somebody who enjoys being engaged on that level can have that and have the rock n' roll too."

Reed grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. When he was nine, the family moved to Long Island. His mother had been a teenage beauty queen while his father abandoned dreams of becoming an author to become a tax accountant. At a young age, Reed experienced social anxiety, panic attacks and depression. He spoke of being beat up routinely after school. He escaped into music, mimicking the guitar sounds he heard on the radio.

During high school he formed a doo wop band called The Jades. He also began experimenting with drugs. The band played gigs in shopping malls and dingy bars. His parents were overprotective and fought often with Reed. In one instance an inebriated Reed crashed the family car into a toll booth on the parkway.

Reed waited tables at a local gay bar and began having sexual encounters with men. He tried heroin for the first time and contracted hepatitis. He attended New York University but during his freshman year he had a mental breakdown. His parents drove to the city and brought their son back home. They sought professional help. Psychologists suggested Reed might have schizophrenia. He was briefly admitted to a psychiatric institution where he confessed to homosexual urges. Doctors recommended electroshock therapy. His parents consented and Reed endured more than two-dozen ECT sessions. The treatments wreaked havoc on his short-term memory. Reed never forgave his father, something he wrote about in the 1974 song "Kill Your Sons."

Reed recovered and enrolled at Syracuse University. After college, he moved to New York City and befriended the Welsh musician John Cale. The two became roommates in a lower east side apartment and busked the Harlem street corners, Reed on guitar, Cale on viola. They formed a band initially called the Warlocks then the Falling Spikes. They settled on the name the Velvet Underground (taken from a book about a 1960's secret sex subculture).

In 1965 they met Andy Warhol while playing a gig at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village. Warhol became the band's producer and the Velvets recorded four studio albums. The albums sold poorly but the work is among the most innovative music of the period. Reed grew frustrated as his peers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen skyrocketed to fame. Reed fired Cale, Warhol and the singer Nico and the band disintegrated. Reed had another breakdown and moved back into his parents' home. He took a job at his father's tax firm as a typist for $40 a week. In 1971, he signed a contract with RCA to be a solo artist. His career was back on track.

For Reed, the 70's was a decade of substance abuse and excess. He told a friend he "was going to take meth every day for the rest of his life." He binged on scotch and according to his first wife Bettye Kronstad he became a "violent drunk." During a 1975 tour through Italy he pulled a knife on his violin player and told Italian reporters he came to Rome to have sex with the Pope.  His reputation for misbehavior grew as he hung out with drag queens and became romantically involved with a transgender woman named Rachel.

It wasn't until the late 90's that Reed finally seemed to find a semblance of happiness. He took up meditation and practiced tai chi several hours a day. After two failed marriages he began dating the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. The two made several recordings together and were married in 2008.

Reed's years of hard drinking and drug use led to hepatitis and liver disease. He developed liver cancer and underwent a liver transplant in May 2013. After the surgery he posted on his website of feeling "bigger and stronger than ever." He died of liver disease in October 2013. He was 71 years old.

Laurie Anderson wrote that Reed "was a prince and a fighter" and that his last days were peaceful. She did her best to debunk Reed's dark reputation saying, "I never saw the blackness." After his passing, the rock community paid tribute. Bono said, "Every song we've ever written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song." David Bowie said, "He was a master." Cale wrote, "I've lost my schoolyard buddy." Reed's last tweet posted hours before his death read simply: "The Door." (7" x 9," black ink print)