The Funny Thing About Idols


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.



9 thoughts on “The Funny Thing About Idols

  1. Funny how it goes. From parents to idols, they all fall down.
    You really nailed that topic, aomething I have been thinking about recently.
    I idolised Jordan and recently discovered some pretty rogue stuff about him namely his utter arrogance, bullying etc.
    In a way the worst thing is we still forgive all these flaws, due to the legacy or legacies of idols, the kinda untouchable mentality.
    Ultimately adults are invariably fucked up in one way or another, especially if major success is involved. No human on the planet can cope with ridiculous wealth, adulation etc etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As much as I enjoy the music of Paul Weller (particularly The Jam, obviously) there are times when it’s clear that he’s a flawed, normal person (i.e. a bit of a knob).
    Similarly, Ian Brown of The Stone Roses is generally a ‘right on’ kind of bloke, but managed to get himself imprisoned after an airline kerfuffle, and there was also a domestic incident with his wife.
    Heroes only seem to exist when viewed through our rose tinted glasses.
    Mind you, the more I see & hear of David Beckham, the more I’m impressed that he’s come through a high pressure, highly scrutinized life and appears to be a genuine nice bloke who doesn’t take himself too seriously but has a lot of respect for others. A rare gem? But on the other hand, not one of life’s tortured artists!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The music industry does tend to attract knobs (what a wonderful phrase, by the way) and tortured artists. It seems to be a rare thing that anyone can remain unscathed by fame and fortune. But then I suppose it’s a chicken-or-the-egg type of situation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, we have many wonderful phrases over here & usually the ones linked to male genitalia indicate idiocy, such as “not just a bit of a knob, he’s a complete bell-end”.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Very thought provoking piece, Matt. Thank you for sharing. I tend to think of things (and people) in terms of darkness and light. It is very apparent (to me at least) that the greater the darkness the more poignant and potent the light. And the more we are inclined to recognise the genius the combination brings. But that genius usually comes at the cost of what we enjoy as being “normal”…. Or so it seems to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s kind of the saddest thing about music — that a lot of the most profound, beautiful pieces come from the most self-destructive artists. It almost makes sense in a way, because we listen to music hoping to feel something, be connected to something real, or be shown something from a different world than our own. So we tend to be drawn to the Kurt Cobains, Amy Winehouses, Elliott Smiths, Johnny Cashes, etc because they go places most of us would never go. This is also why John Mayer is boring as shit.

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