What Today Brings
"It is only with the heart that we can see rightly, as the essence of things is not visible to the eye..." Antoine de Saint Exupery- Le Petit Prince
I had a bit of an emotional hangover the day after this Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, the excitement and the spectacle, the glamour and solidarity always get me to thinking about the arts, my past present and future as it relates to my own art. I am of two minds and as far as I can think there are two artistic worlds. There is the glamorous side that we saw the night of the Golden Globes, the lights and orchestras, diamonds and pearls of Grace Kelly and Nicole Kidman and
I drank the Kool-Aid of the glam squad way back when I first saw Ann Margaret wiggle across the stage in a red sequined jumpsuit in front of a booming orchestra in the Circus Maximus showroom of Caesar’s Palace, and again when I saw Sammy Davis Jr. under the spotlight tipping his hat to Mr. Bojangles and again when I clung to the side of the stage as The Lennon Sisters tapped along to a fake tap track, jingling and jangling and harmonizing in matching costumes so perfectly similar but individually tailored to each personality. I was smitten but by the time I was a teenager I became equally fascinated with the darker, decadent ones, the wild and untamable art of Oscar Wilde, Billy Holiday, Charles Bukowski and Jackson Pollack. Even more honorable artistically are the ones who never gotten their due, the misfits, holed up in a shack somewhere pounding on a typewriter or attacking a canvas, hurling themselves in vain toward some anonymous end. What is art but when, as the Greeks put it, we purge. No matter what we are spewing, it feels good to let the world know what is swirling around in our heads.
Sam Shepard had his share of both the glamorous and the dark sides of art, but in most of his writing, he explored and exploited the more seedy side of life. In True West, he sets the scene, “The effect should be like a deserted junkyard at high noon...” The world he created in that play, the characters and the dialogue were so tangible and real that we don’t have to go to the Mohave Desert to experience the desolate nature and wasteland of Lee and Austin in True West. Sam Shepard’s unrelenting dialogue, the west, the wind, the crickets, the anger, all of these are things forever associated with the great American writer. I’d take that over a chance to don a ball gown any day.
Shepard’s famous quote was “I don’t want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock-n-roll star.” He became both. That rock-n-roll lifestyle, the wild abandon of life on the road, no moss growing underfoot, drugs and booze fueled Sam Shepard and many other artists of his ilk. Writing was what he did, health and well-being was something he simply toyed with.
Tennessee Williams is another hero of mine who is as far from the Lennon Sisters as they come. His artistic world is filled with tortured souls, and he surrounded himself with their flesh, their illnesses and their skeletons. He, like Shepard, opted for a good scene instead, perhaps, of a happy, healthy day of living. “I’ve always regarded myself as an incomplete person and consequently I’ve always been more interested in my own kind of people you know, people that have problems, people that have to fight for their reason, people for whom the impact of life and experience from day to day, night to night, is difficult, people who come close to cracking. That’s my world, those are my people and I must write about the people I know.”
The artist as tortured soul is a cliché but it was not on display at the Golden Globes Sunday night. Remember how Billy Holiday conducted her life? She filled her days with alcohol, pills, heroin, bad romances and heartache. Then she turned it all into gold. Gut wrenching performance after gut wrenching performance, her heart bleeding into the microphone, she sang out a plea for understanding and begged for meaning from the most intimate depths of her soul.
Are artists narcissist? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that narcissism is the ‘undue dwelling on one’s own self or attainments.’ Was Sam Shepard a narcissist? Was Tennessee Williams? Was Billie Holiday? Were they not able to see the forest for the trees, not able to see past their own noses or did they simply work for them so there was no need to change?
No one put Sam Shepard on the road, no one put a needle in Billy Holiday’s arm (well… they probably did but you get my point). No one made Tennessee Williams fall in love with hustlers that could never love him back. Why the fascination with sadness and pain? The work, the play, the book, the song.
“Do I understand nature? Do I understand myself? No more words. I shroud dead men in my stomach… Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance! I can’t even imagine the hour when the white men land and I will fall into nothingness… Thirst and hunger, shouts, dance, dance dance!” Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
We come here and either grow closer to our true natures or tragically let it be beaten out of us. Society now and for centuries past, have attempted to tame the artistic temperament. Those who don’t understand try to stamp out what doesn’t fit into a worldview they have chosen to live by. From the public lynching of the Middle Ages to the burning of witches, to the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde and Lenny Bruce, the fear of the unknown has caused unspeakable pain to those who stood up to their true nature. Enter Holden Caulfield, enter Jack Kerouac, enter Patti Smith, enter myself, never feeling a part of, but with much inside burning to come out.