Monday, November 22, 2010

What Would Jimi Do?

Hey Disciples,

I don't like to repeat topics if at all possible, but like I mentioned last time, my brother requested a topic specifically. What follows is the post he left on my Wall, verbatim:

"Pandora tells me Jimi Hendrix was only at the star level for 4 years. Had he survived and continued to make music, would we have been treated to tons more world-class material, or do you think he'd have gotten jaded and coasted on his accomplishments? Interested in a musician/songwriter's take on it."

So, yes, we have another post about music this week, but I think this is interesting enough to debate regardless. I love having these kinds of discussions about anything artistic . . . it truly makes it clear just how subjective our methods of self-expression are, and the value of what these songs and the artists who create them mean to us personally.

There is a very, very long list of musical artists who passed on before their time, who stoked their inner fires into a flash fire of creativity that burned as bright as the sun, only to flash out as quickly as they came. The names read like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot: Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan, Cliff Burton, Frank Zappa, Ian Curtis, Michael Hutchence, Brian Jones, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Phil Lynott, Keith Moon, Jaco Pastorius, Randy Rhoades  . . . I could literally type for hours listing them all. 

The body of work they collectively left behind is undeniably legendary, though some of those listed did live long enough to write a few songs or an album or two that were a bit subpar. What is in question is what they would have done had they cheated death, Final Destination-style. An interesting idea. . .

I, for one, believe almost universally that every single one of them would have had a very similar career path, with some slight exceptions in either direction. I think there's a definite arc to a truly great musical career, and some of the pitfalls of the path are almost completely unavoidable. I think it goes a little something like this:

Artist struggles for a varying period of time, either toiling in bands not of their making or not under their control, or putting their group together and slowly building a fan base and attracting label attention (back when record labels didn't just slap vaguely attractive folks (or T-Pain) into a room with an Auto-Tuner and a microphone, with a kid in thousand-dollar sneakers making beats on a Casio keyboard in the background). Pretty much everyone I listed above had to deal with this crap. We all do, and the few lucky bands that shoot right to stardom almost never last. It makes their heads explode. I think it would happen to any of us, going from a dockworker or secretary with a guitar to a golden god in the time it takes for Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O'Brien to yell your name on the TV. 

Once the band breaks the glass ceiling and starts to get some regional or national attention, they make a record. This is obvious, but one point about this that may not be so clear to the layman is that when a band makes their first record, they often have the benefit of cherry-picking all the best songs they wrote in the five-to-ten years it often takes to hone your craft and get into the Game for real. This first record is often chock full of songs that people relate to, can sing along with, and make the bands (and labels) a lot of money. A star is born.

The second record is typically where a bit of a slump happens. Because the record label wants to capitalize on the band's success, and they know that the culture sluts of America forget a name and a face faster than anyone else on the planet, they make the band write the next record while they are touring behind the first one. The first tour is stressful, with people learning their roles, being stretched to the limits of their physical and mental endurance, dealing with missing loved ones back home, and seeing exactly how much Jack Daniels the bassist can inject directly into his belly with a syringe.

This record still usually sells well, of the name recognition of the first. This is pretty often good enough for the label to give the band another shot. The artist begins to realize that writing good songs is what got him/her/them into this lovely position, and begin to get very defensive about their craft. The third record takes three times as long, costs twice as much, has a famous artist design the cover, and features a Baptist choir, a didgiridoo, and a trio of Pakistani tabla players. 

Repeat this last step once or twice, and this is the cutoff point for when most of these exceptional titans of music kicked the bucket, bought the farm, sailed off to Tinseltown, were gone, outta here, deceased.

So, what the hell is the point of all this weighty, boring exposition? Well, what happens AFTER this? What would these guys and gals have done?

I think bands that have somehow dodged the Grim Reaper (or rolled him up and smoked him, like Keith Richards) are an excellent barometer for this. The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Metallica, and to a lesser extent, the Beatles . . . these guys hit the experimental phase. They are rich enough to do anything they want and go anywhere. There is nothing to be angry about anymore. The fire is out. So where to go? They are now famous enough to ditch every sonic trait that made them famous and that their fans come to expect, and they either hit (Exile on Main Street, White Album) or miss (Tin Machine, Load) spectacularly, but feel artistically and spiritually refreshed. 

I can imagine Jimi Hendrix making great records through the Seventies, and in the dawn of the Eighties, playing very weird and understated songs over minimal guitar and a lot of keyboards and sequencers.  I can imagine Randy Rhoades putting down the Flying V and getting in touch with his chakras in some Indian ashram somewhere. John Bonham sick of Page and Plant getting the spotlight, and putting together a side project with himself as a frontman.  Frank Zappa taking the piss out of grunge with the grungiest record of all. . . . hell, he invented their fucking look, didn't he?

Inevitably, these folks get this out of their system, and go back to their roots, albeit with a fresh outlook and the benefit of years of wisdom and experience. They focus on the songs again, as they are used to the cult of personality around them, comfortable with their mansions and cars and bored of the rampant and empty sex. It's about the BAND again. All of a sudden Jimi starts laying on the soul again. Randy starts shredding, but the songs are even better. Bonham reunites with Led Zeppelin and they take over the world all over again. Bob Marley moves back to Jamaica after his long sojourn into Norway to learn all about death metal (okay, this one is a stretch, but hilarious to picture). 

The fans come back, all is forgiven, the reunion tour sells out arenas. It's going on as we speak with our graying, aged idols. They drop the drama between them, forgive each other for screwing their favorite groupie (or whatever rich primadonnas get their panties in a twist about), pick up the guitars, and make us remember why we fell in love with them in the first place.

We're a little poorer as a culture that these lions of my favorite art form never got the chance to fall and rise again. Like anything in life, however, we can always be grateful that we ever had them at all. So, singers, drummers, icons . . . . this beer's for you. Thanks for the memories.


  1. The doors were the exception to the second album rule, I think...did all their pop stuff in the first one, the did their best overall work on the second.

  2. Okay Andrew, I'm with you that Strange Days was certainly no sophomore slump, but can you really call a debut record with Soul Kitchen, The End, Light My Fire, and The Crystal Ship as "Pop"?

    I think you can apply that term in the over-literal fashion that they were indeed "popular", but they weren't what I would consider Pop music, which implies a heavy dose of formula and a reliance on traditionally-acceptable image.

    I think it's also important to note that Strange Days was released in the same year as The Doors, and was primarily made up of all the stuff that didn't make it onto the first record, but was already written. They had a good catalog to draw from.

    Waiting for the Sun was the first record they had to write while dealing with fame and touring.

  3. I try to keep from giving my opinion as far as music goes because so few people agree with me. But I like what you said (yay! for a mention of David Bowie) and I enjoyed reading it.

    Also, since you're discussing music, am I the only person in the world that thinks George Harrison was underestimated as a musician? Doesn't "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" prove that he could have done great things if he had lived longer? I mean great things out from under the shadow of John, Paul, and Ringo. I thought so...but nobody agrees with me on that point.

  4. George Harrison is my favorite Beatle, Chanelle, but his solo work was a bit unfocused. Remember "I Got My Mind Set On You"?

  5. My favorite, too! You have good taste. (Dale tried to convince me a couple of weeks ago that Ringo played the base, so you should beat him up.)

    You have a point, some of it was a little less than great. But I still think that he was underestimated. But I think most base players are, though. I like to root for the underdog.

  6. Chanelle, kiddo . . . George Harrison played lead guitar. Paul McCartney played the bass. Sheesh . . . . kids.