“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988
“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014
Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.
Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others? Are legends made, or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?
The Beatles are worshipped as musical deities by critics and multitudes of fans. The fact of John Lennon’s assassination is not considered to infuse their myth with greater, or even outsized, meaning. The word “assassination” is out of fashion, too powerful, too threatening to the myth it interrupts while silently cementing it in place. It seems impossible to imagine that Lennon’s murder did not jump-start the canonization of his old band that he and the rest had run from a decade before. Generations born as The Beatles ended and Lennon was assassinated and their catalogue became an asset for millionaires to trade like baseball cards and Apple Computers was rumoured to be named for them and on and on have no choice but to love The Beatles or be damned, for it’s a dull, accepted & expected societal norm.
Like those who are genetically predisposed to be repulsed by the taste and smell of cilantro, finding it “soapy”, there are people who don’t care for The Beatles and for whom “Love, love me do” is nothing more than the tinny loudspeaker soundtrack of now- defunct 80’s retro hamburger joints they grew up in. Right on cue, comes the craving: too much garlic and piles of real cheddar and properly grilled, light, perfect buns. This shit is perfectly commercialized, but grilled to perfection.
For them, “Imagine” is some generic commercial sounding song that is received by The Beatles- immune with an inquisitive pause for the tag line of whoever licensed its use to sell something. “Helter Skelter” was effectively stolen by Charles Manson. “Birthday” is a reference from Sixteen Candles. “Twist and Shout” belongs to Ferris Bueller crashing, and improving, a parade. John Hughes was of the Beatles generation and used this music in his films as a gateway to introduce new forms of music that do not owe anything to them. Molly Ringwald, his onetime muse, and ours, led him to the music that L.A. kids were actually listening to. Modern music stands against the Beatles. Punk and Post-Punk obliterate them. Electronic music (Kraftwerk, New Order, OMD) make tracks as far away as they can get from the Albatross of the Beatles. Hip Hop remixed it all into entirely new forms. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus for a while but they aren’t Jesus.
There is a pretense among the devoted, including leading music critics and corporate entities of ’80, post Lennon’s assassination and onward, that The Beatles deserve all the accolades they can get, need dozens if not hundreds of tomes written about them, and that all the other commercial products and reproductions done in their name for half a century are not just cynical cash grabs and micro fame bids from those less-talented multitudes who’d like to beg, borrow, or steal a piece of that infernal legend. This lie depends on the narrative never settling on Lennon’s death and all the darkness surrounding it, including his own politics, arrogance, burned bridges, feuds, messy personal life, money, drugs, radicalism, ego and hubris. Somehow that dreadful looking 1970’s bed-in anti-mop top long hair and beard has done its work and a trick has been pulled, transposing Lennon with Jesus in his public’s imagination.
Elvis fans can fill their days listening to nothing but his extensive catalogue and are fulfilled and reminded of their youthful glow. This music, for the devoted, delivers time and again and no amount of collectible bric-a-brac for sale in tabloids or new permutations of the once-impossibly beautiful young Priscilla Presley’s face can trouble the ambient dream that Elvis fans enjoy. Elvis died at 42 years old. 42 YEARS OLD. What a waste, what a sin, what a crime for a man to do to themselves, their fans, their legacy. He abused his body with drugs and food, or, if we reach for some human empathy, as we sometimes do today for the special ones, he “self-medicated” his pain from (????) in this way. The amount of strain, of suspension of disbelief required to remain clear-eyed and loving toward a wealthy and beloved hero/singer/icon who died in this way at such a young age, rather than feel abject disgust and betrayal, is startling. Anyone born after ’77 knows fat Elvis, sweaty Elvis, caricature of Elvis, shadow of Elvis, country -trash indiscriminate, gaudy, money spending Elvis, Elvis-impersonator freaks Elvis, Eddie Murphy -skewering Elvis, and must look very hard to understand any other.
These dubious saints, Elvis and Lennon, sailed past their peak and were extinguished by the time Basquiat inhabited downtown Manhattan. The Clash said, rather matter-of-factly, in 1979: “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” At that moment, out of the dust rose a singular talent lyrically named Jean-Michel Basquiat.
It is a culturally relevant coincidence that Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the New York street-art, downtown and then quickly, glided into the uptown art scene about the time of Lennon’s murder nearby and three years after Elvis died. Lennon’s image, words, protests, opinions and fame made him a target and he was silenced. There are no conspiracies about this assassination as the questions they would raise would hit far too close to home for his generation of fans and their most cherished belief systems. Yet, we minimize this death, as his image, words, ditties and music are considered bullet-proof and unkillable. He was sanctified, and in many ways, sanitized. Basquiat’s too-recent, not sepia-toned pedigree, his skin, and his work that was never cuddly, refuses any and all such hollow myth-making for mass consumption. What’s most impressive about it is that it speaks for itself and doesn’t need any help from the art scholar at all to be appreciated, as it’s visceral. It offers more than you could ever impress upon it even if a million words were written on the subject, like those 10 years of The Beatles that people can’t get enough of.
It is most definitely, always, a tragedy when someone dies young, and by young, we mean 27 or 40. It is always a tragedy to lose an artist of any age who has much to say and has barely been heard yet, even as the outward markers of success suggest a phenomenon. It is a terrible loss, forever in the bones and nerves and heart and the brain we understand so little about, to lose someone we love. Someone we barely knew. Someone who changed the shape of the world, the space-time continuum, whether our mother, our friend, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.
But remember, we are talking about a great artist here. A visionary. An original. A wit. A brain. A cultural sponge. A self-made man. A boy with great style. A boy who lives on and on, in 1000 pieces of work spread out across the whole world, some of it destroyed, lost, hidden, and hoarded, but, through some miracle, some of right here in Toronto for a few short months of winter. Remember the love that Elvis gets, that Lennon gets, as these figures are preserved in amber and mounted with their pale cheeks still soft, their forelocks still boyish, good boys, loved this way, not the ways they later changed or failed to stay innocent. They look out and sing out, immortal, from those ancient pictures and recordings that their fans use as mirrors, where the devoted are forever 16 with everything ahead of them, every possible future, and John and Elvis sing, on an endless loop “love me” and you do. Tenderly.