It's an age-old question, but one I'm constantly intrigued by, so I'm gonna ponder out loud here in the Blogosphere in hopes some of you have an opinion to share on the matter.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've recently fallen under the spell of Van Morrison's music. It's spiritual, joyous, and hypnotic, and I can't stop listening to songs like "The Healing Game", "So Quiet in Here", "Into the Mystic", "Tupelo Honey", and "Tore Down a'la Rimbaud". His words and music have set my soul to soaring. The rub? Van Morrison, by all accounts, is a real asshole. A grouchy fireplug who berates his audiences and fellow musicians alike.
There's a part of me that's captivated by the fact that music that seems to reside on seraphim's wings can come from the heart of such a surly, bitter man, but the question that nags me even more is, does it matter one damn bit?
Van Gogh once asked why it wasn't enough for an artists' work to stand on its own. "Must we be men of character as well?" he asked his brother Theo in a letter. Well, I guess not. I mean, let's look at the record:
Ray Charles has apparently fired musicians mid-set for not keeping up.
Chuck Berry is so distrustful of people he requests to be paid in cash before he goes onstage.
Bob Dylan is, at turns, obtuse and aloof during interviews and concerts. I've seen him twice now and he's never uttered a word to the audience between songs.
Picasso was no treat.
Prince ain't gonna buy Girl Scout cookies from your kid...but you might wanna hide your Girl Scout from him.
Marlon Brando? Where does one begin?
Kurt Cobain? Asked and answered.
John was the 'moody' Beatle. But he was also The Walrus...and - no matter how cuddly cool Paul is - admit it, without John, the Beatles would've never evolved past "Eight Days a Week".
The litany of 'difficult' jazz artists is too exhaustive a list to delve into, but just for starters: Miles Davis sometimes did entire shows with his back to the audience, Charles Mingus threw more than one fellow musician across a recording studio, and Charlie Parker was, according to Miles, "the greediest muthaf***er I ever met."
And the list of writers who've been brilliant bastards puts the jazz list to shame.
But...does it matter? Sure, I'd love for all my favorite artists to be as approachable at Tom Hanks at a backyard BBQ, but the fact is, there's something deep inside a lot of these folks that was wired differently. For every Jimmy Stewart, there's a Russell Crowe - someone who can only tap into their gifts at the sacrifice of certain social graces. Ryan Adams might storm off the stage mid-set in a fitful rage, while Bryan Adams will stay and sing to ya all night. In your living room. For a one-time fee of $11. Honestly, I can't get the guy to leave. Doesn't AirCanada have return flights out of Hartsfield?
My point is, sometimes the 'nice guys' are just that. Nice. Inoffensive. More than adequate. But hardly capable of taking you to a higher plane. Thelonious Monk was 'difficult'. John Tesh is a gem of a guy. But who would you rather have playing the Steinway at your party?
There are notable exceptions, of course, but the artistic world evidently thrives on the misfits, the socially inept, the depressed, neurotic, ego maniacal, and compulsive. I mean, I'll gladly accept whatever stormy tempest raged inside Miles Davis to give us "Kind of Blue" in exchange for the thought that he might be 'a lovely chap to have for tea'. Brando's performance is "Streetcar" is well worth his fits of random rage.
Bono, one of the nicer artistic types, once sang, "Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief, all kill their inspiration, then sing about the grief." I guess some of our greatest artists must breathe in turmoil in order to exhale beauty. It takes grit for an oyster to make a pearl.
As for me, I'm returning the library book that tells me what a bitter sot Van Morrison is. I don't need to know. The music is enough. It's more than enough.