No Sympathy For The Devils: Pop Crimes Considered
Posted on Wednesday, 27 November 2013 | No Comments
Nobody ever liked the Stones because they were good boys. Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Amy Winehouse - they were not loved for their adherence to the law. Yeah, you ever heard acid house? Or black metal? Or gangsta rap? The good stuff doesn't come from the squares, you know.
As threadbare and hypocritical as it may be now, the grand promise and allure of the rock 'n' roll dream remains the same as it ever was: rebellion. A way of looking, acting, feeling differently - a way to distance yourself from where you came, from where you might be headed. We listen to the music because it gives us something to aim for, or speaks to something hidden inside ourselves, or allows us to enact a way of living that we could never dare to go through ourselves. And that's where the figure of the rock star outlaw comes in. From the mythology of Robert Johnson's supposed deal with the devil for his guitar ability onwards, much of popular music, inside and outside the conveyor belt of mass-market hit-making, has trafficked in the mode of the carnivalesque. Listen to a Jerry Lee Lewis or a Guns 'n' Roses song, the idea goes, and for a few minutes you can feel the exhilaration and release of being one of the rebels for a day. And it's a great joy - so much great music has come from the idea that, no matter how drab and conformist your life might have felt before, the right track can be whisk you away into a world of excitement without restraint or law.
Outside of the music too, we love our rock rebels, those who kept defying the system and breaking the rules without a care for the consequences. That's how Jim Morrison - great performer but a terrible poet - became enshrined, how the unlikely survival of Keith Richards and Lemmy has made them almost universally loved even by people with no care for their work. We need people to perform these roles so we can see that there is a way out from the mundane, so that we can get the vicarious thrill we will not or dare not pursue ourselves. There's always been the suspicion as well that the good ones just can't dish up the goods, that being a goody two shoes means you're just not up to scratch - just see how differently the reputations of John Lennon and Paul McCartney stack up for proof of that one.
The problem though is when rebellion tips over into something far darker, more violent. There's been a brace of cases recently that might force us to re-assess our relationship with the image of the musical outlaw. Most shocking has been the downfall of Ian Watkins. Once known as the (at one point straight-edge) of pop-metal act Lostprophets, his guilty plea to a wide range of sex offences -ITV journalist Rupert Evelyn gave a live account on Twitter, but on a personal level I'd rather avoid writing about these offences in any further detail - have understandably been met with shock and revulsion by his former fanbase. Folk icon Roy Harper has been charged with past sex offences which he denies, while famous music broadcaster Paul Gambaccini has been arrested under Operation Yewtree. This recent batch of cases has exposed some awful crimes, left fans distraught and left many a thinker and critic throwing their hands in the air - to give just one example, Marcello Carlin of the superb number-one albums history blog Then Play Long has currently suspended new entries, having thrown his hands up in the air at the increasing mass of pop stars revealed to have been involved in disturbing acts, noting "I’m sick of making myself ill writing about creepy musicians."
In the three cases outlined above, one has been found guilty of the most horrific crimes, while the other two must remain innocent until any guilt is proven. Even the kind of listener most devoted to the more lurid, debased side of the rock lifestyle would have been appalled by the Watkins case. What this raises though this is the concern of the music fan as enabler. As part of a crowd that can push these personalities into stardom and positions of power that can allow them to commit such crimes, how can we continue to desire music that pushes at the boundaries (which, in whatever manner it may do so, is still the core behind most great art in any medium) but without wanting to be party to some of the more terrible extremes and deranged outliers that such a situation will almost invariably lead to?
Consider Pete Doherty as a case study, a man who still attracts a sizeable devoted crowd despite his career being increasingly side-lined by his well-documented addictions. To many now, Doherty is little more than a sad, self-destructive mess who picks up the guitar again, be it for a one-off Libertines reunion or a new Babyshambles record, only when the drug money runs out. Yet his cult remains, having decided that the price of enjoying his work is to keep financing his habits and hope beyond hope that perhaps he will finally come clean one day. Or on a personal note for this writer, following The Fall has always been complicated by the knowledge that you cannot get the brilliance and iconoclastic visions of Mark E. Smith without the belligerent alcoholism: going to see them live is always a gamble as to whether you get a brilliant performance of a still current, still productive artistic force (whatever his issues, Smith still remains one of the most prolific frontmen around) or the sad spectacle of a stumbling, incoherent drunk wandering the stage briefly before drawing things to a premature close. As a fan of The Fall, I have to accept that in continuing to enjoy his artistic output, the hundreds of pounds I have spent over the years of his records and his gigs have kept him sodden. It's a tricky one to really accept.
As sad as these cases might be, they evidently stand quite separate from the case of a Lostprophets fan who was led to believe their frontman was one thing, when the truth was something terrible. A more accurate comparison might be with the Glitter Band: a hand-working, popular act whose entire career has been filed for oblivion due to the acts of the man on the microphone. Yet as long as there's no criminal conviction, we seem to be happy to accept other musicians who have been suggested to have been involved in similar crimes (see Jimmy Page for proof). In other mediums, it's become accepted to be able to enjoy the work of an artist without offering any support for them as people - the music of Wagner still lives on, whilst Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon remains a classic to many. In these cases, it surely helps that the artists are deceased, and we cannot be said to be funding or contributing to them directly should we make a purchase. Yet I can't see any mass critical reappraisal happening when the man born as Paul Gadd dies. So can we appreciate the music, as happens with other art forms, whilst condemning the person responsible?
The case of Bertrand Cantat, former frontman for defunct French band Noir Desir, might be an instructive one to consider. In the nineties, Noir Desir were at the forefront on French music, a powerful and dramatic rock band noted for their increasingly diverse musical ambitions (best displayed on their final release Des visages des figures) and the intelligent, politically aware lyricism of Cantat. I was introduced to their music by my multi-lingual girlfriend, who was able to explain some of the lyrics and nuances in their work and help me appreciate the artistry in the catalogue. She also, as a conscientious listener, explained not long after what then happened with Cantat, and why it might affect my enjoyment of the music as it did hers. In 2004, Cantat was found guilty of the manslaughter of Marie Trintignant, his then-partner who he violently attacked. Having been released in 2007, he resumed his relationship with his ex-wife Kristina Rady, who committed suicide in 2010 having previously warned her parents of the physical and emotional violence Cantat had subjected her to. Astoundingly, Cantat has since attempted to revive his musical career, and in a recent interview with Les Inrockuptibles attempted to paint himself as the victim, to widespread rejection by the rest of the French media.
So can it be possible to enjoy the work of Noir Desir without wanting to endorse the abhorrent bastard Bertrand Cantat? It's a difficult one alright. My girlfriend admitted that while she enjoyed the music, it was very difficult for her to square that up with the knowledge of what one of the people behind it was like, and I'm pretty much in agreement with her. I can find some of their songs on YouTube and enjoy it for a while, but then I start to feel like I'm rubbernecking on a litany of violent events. There's some great work, but for the foreseeable future at least it's going to be overshadowed by the singer's violent, destructive misogyny. Perhaps in fifty or a hundred years time, when all involved are long gone and their music is as much a historical piece as Wagner, Noir Desir will be safe again. I wouldn't want to assume that any Noir Desir fan was a woman-hater, as I imagine they've struggled with their pleasure from the work of the band they thought they knew and the reality of what one of those responsible then did and ultimately opted to try and claim it back as something indelibly infused with the subtext of their own lives.
It's entirely right also that Canat's crimes remain public knowledge, that this does not get swept beneath the carpet. If we are to believe in rehabilitation though (which - for this writer at any rate - must be the ultimate aim of any judicial system, or indeed society, that dare call itself civilised), should we totally refuse any further artistry to come from him? Art after all might be his only way to put some good back into the world. Perhaps the best attitude to adopt is the one the metal community have taken towards the post-prison releases of Burzum, the nom de plume of influential musician and convicted murderer Varg Vikernes. His releases have earned deserved praise for their musicial qualities, but his far-right views and his criminal past remain the subject of great scrutiny and disapproval. Having served his prisons sentence, Vikernes should be allowed to live a free life and continue with his trade - and the listeners are free to make up their mind of his music, and to continue to oppose his offensive political ideology. (As for myself, as someone who occasionally dabbles in the world of extreme metal, I can acknowledge the great worth of his music, but on the same hand I have decided against obtaining his works by any manner.)
Normally when I make an opinion piece, I like to end on something definitive. That's the usual plan after all - to express an idea, reflect an opinion that maybe doesn't get aired enough. On this one however, I can't lay any claim to having the answer. Tragically, as long as we continue to have artists and rock stars, there will be those who actions go far beyond any excuse of libertinism and fall instead into violence and depravity. That much seems unavoidable. How we deal with the fallout is the real question. To lose vital works of artistry on top of whatever crimes they have been committed seems another karmic insult. Yet neither should we let these people be idolised as they once were: perhaps it's this whole dangerous, warped issue of idolisation that we need to sort out first of all. In the age of social media where obsessive fans can fill out Tumblr pages with their re-blogged GIF-screeds or wage Twitter wars against other people, things are already ugly enough without having the objects of veneration exposed as criminals. There's no one-size-fits-all kind of answer to such a dilemma, but with the cases continuing to add up, as listeners and as members of society we're going to have to get thinking pretty soon about how to deal with this.