Sometimes you build up a picture in your head, and then reality doesn’t quite match up. Most of the time, in fact.
I play a little guitar, and when I first heard Townes Van Zandt fingerpicking, the first time I heard his lyrics to “Lover’s Lullaby” or “Rake” I said, “That’s what I want to do.”
I have to add, he was a country singer who had been around since the sixties. Sometimes his voice cracks and gets annoyingly twangy. The quality of his vocals vary widely. Sometimes the seventies country musicians they surrounded him with in the studio sound horribly, ridiculously dated. But when you dig down to the essence of it, the man’s lyrics and his voice and his hands on his guitar, he was, in my humble opinion, a genius.
But I didn’t know anything much about the guy for the longest time, aside from album art and his music. He’d passed away a few years before I’d discovered him, but I built up this picture of him in my head as a successful singer-songwriter, probably living a quiet life in Nashville, a sort of a country-western Bob Dylan, probably with a loving wife and a few kids and a small fortune from a lifetime of musical success.
Then I saw the documentary made about him, Be Here to Love Me, and all of my illusions were shattered. Despite his lyrical gifts, Townes Van Zandt was a congenital fuckup. (Though that sounds overly harsh, given that mental illness was likely a factor, it can’t be debated that he fucked up with a shocking regularity.) A lifelong alcoholic and drug abuser, the man was addicted to everything it’s possible to be addicted to, from cigarettes to shooting heroin. He once glued a tube of model cement to his front teeth when he passed out while sniffing glue. He wrecked three marriages, and when his much-abused body gave out at the age of 52 he was nearly penniless. The bulk of his physical possessions were a motorcycle, a GMC truck, and a 22-foot boat.
And yet, his music is still beautiful. I don’t know why I thought all his lyrical tales of loneliness and despair and addiction were just some sort of fiction, some phase he’d grown out of before finding success, I don’t know. Maybe that’s what I wanted to believe. It’s a strange thing to find that he’s someone to be pitied, someone to look down on as much as someone to look up to.
But that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? I guess that’s growing up. Everyone, sooner or later, discovers that their parents are just flawed human beings, that they don’t have all the answers. And so it goes with our idols. Kurt Cobain. Hunter S. Thompson. Bradley Nowell.
For my own part, as I get older, I’m still learning from my idols. But I’m learning different things. When I was sixteen, Hunter S. Thompson’s work was an instruction manual. How to be a high-octane mutant drug-fiend that takes life by the horns and forges his own destiny, and nevermind what the squares think.
But now, Hunter’s life and work, much as I love the man, is a cautionary tale. Despite his success, he was a lifelong alcoholic. He was a violent and erratic drunk who could be cold, abusive, and downright cruel to his friends and family. He was, by all accounts, an unreliable horror to work with. When he got tired of it all, he shot himself in the head while his six-year old grandson was in the other room. His success was more due to shit dumb luck, a winning of the cosmic lottery, than any of his personal qualities. Hundreds of people who attempted to follow his example are now dead or serving prison time in Nevada.
And yet, does this mean I don’t enjoy reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the umpteenth time? Does that mean I don’t want to listen to Townes singing “To Live is To Fly?” Of course it doesn’t. Maybe I enjoy it more. Maybe when we can see our idols as fully fleshed human beings, imperfect, damaged human beings…hell, I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m trying to get at here. After all, I’m not perfect.