When Heroes Go Down
Back when Bono was still relevant, and had no Messianic complexes. His voice creeping into your veins breathing deeply into your soul as he sang referring to Billie Holiday: “Angel in Devil’s shoes, Salvation in the Blues” , while B.B. King beside him was gasping with emotion, bend over his “Lucy” (that is his guitar, for the gutter-minded of you out there).
Note: I wrote this piece back in 1999 for a newspaper column. I thought I would dig it up and share it with you. I apologise for the dated references. Unless you are of my generation (and you'll know if you are), in which case, I don't.
“When heroes go down, They go down fast,
So don’t expect any time to Equivocate the past
When heroes go down, They land in flame,
So don’t expect any slow and careful, Settling of blame”
So Suzanne Vega says. And she is right isn’t she? Heroes burn far more easily than ordinary people. And they are so many ways to burn, if you are in any way raised above the average... And we do tend to see the descend of brilliant individuals as utterly unforgivable. While we are lenient with people less brilliant and forgive their faults and their occasional falls.
I was reading about Jacques-Yves Cousteau the other day. You know the famous oceanographer, the deep-sea man and all that. The man who in the words of John Denver has: “sail on a dream on a crystal clear ocean, to ride on the crest of the wild raging storm”. That ascetic figure with the trademark red woolen cap who enabled us to take a peek at the underworld mysteries through the porthole of our TVs. Well, the story goes that many of his documentaries were staged. It is said that whales were abused to create the right effect that would ultimately make us all sentimental-baby-whales-devotees. And that sea elephants and all kinds of undersea creatures were injured in order to be saved again by the Calypso crew... Isn't that awful? And shocking and disgusting? I have no idea if all of this is true, or if it is merely a cheap libel to harm his reputation or a totally surreal joke, but damn it, it hurts if it's true! I mean what will we hear next? That Sir David Attenborough’s legendary Paradise birds were wooden ones? Or that they were in actual fact canaries with paint-on exotic feathers and paper clip-on bills?
When I heard this story I was reminded - in a totally weird manner - of how I felt when I first heard that Cary Grant was gay. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m no homophobic. In fact I find that some of the most eloquent, fascinating, imaginative and damn well dressed people I know, are gay. But in some way, I have to admit that I was kind of shocked! I mean Cary Grant?! The handsome-gracious-with-women-English-accented-gallant-suave-ironic-nothing-can-possibly-bother-me-sophisticated Cary Grant? (OK, wait... on second thought the clues were there... ) OK call me prejudiced or whatever you feel like calling me here - though not to my face please - but I was slightly bothered. I’ve no idea why. Which might mean that I was secretly hoping to date him... Never mind that I was hardly an adult when he died... That’s human nature for you ... Mysterious and totally unreasonable and having a great need for clean-cut symbols... And I guess I’m no exception. I can’t help but wonder again: what next? Jimmy Steward turning out to have been a James-Bond- like-womanizer? And James Bond turning out to have been an Amish-like prude?
Here’s another form of betrayal: Brilliant debuts followed by disasters. I’m thinking of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” for example. I mean what an outrageously, brutally brilliant, totally hilarious anti-war masterpiece it is! Only his “God-is-not- working-at-all” thesis is enough to make you crack. But then again, have you read the follow-up to that “Closing Time”? Well maybe you shouldn’t. Or at least I personally couldn’t...
And how about that all-time classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig? I remember that I read that when I was bedridden after this cruise that turned out to be a dysentery nightmare. This gem of a book kept me company through it all and it even made me pretend that I was still sick, when I was no longer, just to gain another day of reading it between healing naps. A deeply moving and philosophical book that will change you. I was twenty when I first read it and I have to admit that I keep returning to it from time to time, and it always feels like I’m reading it for the first time. Western philosophy and Zen; Plato and wide open spaces; running wild on a giant motorcycle; parenthood and God; trying to save your mind and the paranoia of love; the mechanics of motorcycle maintenance and the silent workings of the “romantic mode”. Or what the author himself calls: “An inquiry into values”. But again that “Lila” book that followed it? Forget it! And the same could be said about quite a lot of writers, like William Wharton for example and his haunting “Birdy” and all the good, but not magnificent books that followed it, such as “Last Lovers” for example.
And the same goes with music. Remember Tracy Chapman? God what a shock that was!! The naked truth of her prose. The bitter harshness of those simple lyrics that could tear you apart... Her haunting words creeping up on you catching you unaware. The American Dream gone bad. Simple concepts, simple words coming alive, becoming a savage truth when sang with that raw voice, that shuddering conviction. And after that first album, what?
And how about U2 huh? I mean how many of you people out there are getting nostalgic of those “Rattle & Hum” -like days? When they were gloriously rediscovering America and Blues?
“A man breathes deep into a saxophone, through the walls we hear the city groan, Outside is America, Outside is America,...”
When they were as big as you can get?
“I don’t believe the devil I don’t believe his book, But the truth is not the same without the lies he made up... I don’t believe in riches but you should see where I live...”
Back when Bono was still relevant, and had no Messianic complexes. His voice creeping into your veins breathing deeply into your soul as he sang referring to Billie Holiday: “Angel in Devil’s shoes, Salvation in the Blues” , while B.B. King beside him was gasping with emotion bend over his “Lucy” (that is his guitar, for the gutter-minded of you out there). But now they are dressed like ageing teenagers in fly sunglasses and glittering plastic vinyl trousers and lame tight T-shirts. They write easy pop stuff and name it “U2Pop”. In my opinion? That's no irony, that's a tragedy... Don’t they know that legends don’t really need to do that? That giants are not supposed to be special guests at MTV award ceremonies? Come on! I mean what’s wrong with this picture? That’s practically a blasphemy! But now they are aiming at the teenagers. But then again, I was their biggest fun back then, in those “Joshua Tree” and “Rattle & Hum” days, and I was also almost a teenager too - or at least hardly an adult... And was nuts about their music... So I don’t know. May be it’s just me. Maybe they are doing what they always did, and now I have outgrown them? I can't really tell you. And it's not like I'm implying my taste has gotten better, mind you. Maybe it has gotten worse...
In any case, once you reach that glorious mountain top, the staying there must be the really tricky part huh? But there are more creative ways of doing it. I mean look at Bruce Springsteen. Now here’s a legend that evolved into a true artist! What a masterpiece he created in “Ghost of Tom Joad”. Each song has a small-story-quality that can just bring you to tears. Mexicans crossing the boarders to Paradise-land, only to find fear and death. Smugglers, drug bosses and illegal immigrants getting caught in the “searchlight’s dusty glow”. Stories that come alive. The cruelty of his truth that can both shock and cleanse you.
“He pulls a prayer-book out of his sleeping bag. Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag. Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last. In the cardboard box ‘neath the undergrass, Got a one-way ticket to promised land”
And what about Alanis Morissette? That little “bitch” that gave voice to all the hurt and vengeful exes all over the globe when she sang:
“...And every time you speak her name does she know how you told me you would hold me Until you died, ‘til you died, But you are still alive... ”
It’s been a long time since we last heard such explicit, brave displays of bitterness. And then came the mediocre follow-up with the arrogant, full-of-it-self title: “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie”. Whatever happened to that old energy that made her anger poetry? Now she sounds just a little Catholic girl who become big a little too soon, travelled to India, had the necessary spiritual epiphany with a guru or two, and the necessary affairs with some older guys - her shrink included presumably - and is anxious to let us know all about it. A little too self conscious of her brilliant prodigy-qualities, making sure that everybody gets it that she is as talented and young as they come... Maybe. But this is certainly no “Jagged Little Pill” little girl...
But maybe I’m a bit too harsh on all of them. Maybe special people - people who were blessed to be in communion with inspiration - shouldn’t be measured so harshly, they shouldn’t be judged so severely. And then musicians and writers and artists and explorers are great enough if they could indeed manage to move us once, and do it as brilliantly as Robert Pirsig or Joseph Heller or whoever. Even if their inspiration didn’t last through the years, or has mutated into something totally different that we may not approve or like, they still were more blessed than most. They still gave us so much with their words, their concepts, their philosophy, their music, their vision. They still revealed to us a glimpse of that underwater fathomless ocean of human creativity. The altered reality of the deep-sea diving into the human soul. The possibility of perfection that lies underneath the surface of the everydayness of our lives.
“When you dive you feel like you are an angel” , Cousteau was quoted to say once.
Well angels have been known to fall occasionally, right? But at least they have once tasted the flight and the light...
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