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Thursday, April 14, 2011

You don't have to love rock stars to love rock

Mark Ellen's written a big piece in the new issue of The Word about the unfortunate lot of the Rock WAG. It includes an interview with Beverley Martyn, the former wife and musical partner of John Martyn, in which she describes what in an extreme case it can be like to share the life of someone with the monomaniacal drive it takes to make it in the music business. In Martyn's case, when the drink and drugs were added to his own turbulent nature, this sometimes spilled into violence against her. "He's up there and everyone loves him and I'm just this little woman who has to put up with this stuff," she complains, not without reason.

A reader tweets "I may have to bin all my John Martyn records." Why? The work is one thing and the worker is another. You don't have to read a lot of history to realise that the standard proportion of exceptionally talented people have a deeply unpleasant side. In fact, given the pressures of living out their lives in public, it's likely that this can make them even more unpleasant in private. John Lennon, by his own admission, was "a hitter". Does this make "Help!" any less brilliant? Chuck Berry filmed women in lavatories. Does this change "You Never Can Tell"? John Martyn's "May You Never" is still "May You Never" no matter what an arsehole he was capable of being. While I never saw any violence in the times I met him, he could certainly be charmless. In fact like many rock stars he was charmless in the way that people are charmless when they are confident that most people they meet are predisposed to love them.

It's not surprising we do that. We begin by seeing pop stars through a mist of adolescent admiration and for many people - men, particularly, in my experience - that mist never lifts. Even when they grow up and realise that the people they meet in their daily lives are more complicated than they previously thought they continue to assume that because they love an artist's songs they must similarly love that artist. They feel that surely this person must embody the virtues in their songs. That's the rock star's trap. People want to think the worst about the personal side of, say, politicians but they want to think the best about the personal side of their rock heroes.

Philip Larkin could be an arse. He knew it better than anyone. But that doesn't make his poems any less profound. In fact it probably makes them more so. Then again Larkin didn't spend his life wandering on to stages to be greeted by a warm blast of love from a sea of upturned faces. People didn't think of him as "good old Philip Larkin". People didn't seek his autograph or want to have their pictures taken with him. He wasn't forced to hawk his personality around along with his poems. He wasn't "good old Philip Larkin".

Of course nobody ever thought people would be listening to rock records in their forties and beyond. There's nothing wrong with listening to the music but at some point you have to shake off that crippling worship of the people who made it. Some of the biggest, most admired names in rock are unbearable and quite a few of the others are nothing like as delightful as they would have you believe. And then lots of them are just like you or me, but with very special talents. I don't wholly agree with John Lennon's line "you have to be a bastard to make it" but there's some truth there. It's ridiculous to allow that to taint an appreciation of their work.