Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Self-destructive geniuses

Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley from Austin Pickers 1984

Both of the men above basically drank themselves to death. Reading about Blaze Foley, I came across an interesting comment by a writer of historical romances and college teacher of creative writing who is herself in her late 60's now. She basically says, "Genius does not require a self-destructive lifestyle. I've had far too many of my students think that the way to write like Hemingway was to drink themselves into a stupor and take insane risks. We should not glorify their lifestyle choices as part of their genius."

Is she right? I'm not sure. Blaze Foley's first wife notes, "His earliest works, and some of his best, were written when we were living in a treehouse on a commune and were absolutely happy." The drinking, apparently, came later. So obviously the drinking and the hard lifestyle didn't cause the genius. But did the genius cause the drinking and hard lifestyle?

One thing I've noticed about those who create great things, is that they are obsessive personalities. Obsessive-compulsive, perhaps. For example, take Linus Torvalds. He was not the first person to think about re-implementing the Unix API from scratch. A college professor in the Netherlands even did so once with his students as a student project for an operating systems class. But nobody else had Linus's obsessiveness about it. His compulsive desire to have it be an absolutely correct implementation of the Unix API, rather than simply "good enough for a student project" like the Dutch professor's version. Or take me. I wrote a handful of very good songs, and quit writing songs because I'd pretty much proven that I could write good songs so what was the point? My second novel has pretty much bogged down half-finished for the same reason -- I already proved I could write a novel, so what's the point? Other than to prove I can write a second novel? I'm just not obsessive enough to push these things through. But there's an upside to that lack of obsessiveness. When it comes to drink, or drugs, or whatever, I can try it, and say "eh, okay, now I experienced it, so what" and move on. Lack of obsessiveness has its upsides. Us un-obsessive people tend to live longer.

Then I think about Alison Bechdel who in her autobiographical graphic novel "Fun Home" that I mentioned a while back, notes that she suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was very young, and "cured" herself only by becoming obsessive-compulsive about not being obsessive-compulsive. The obsessive-compulsive part is, apparently, a requirement for taking things to the extremes needed for greatness.

Throw in drink, and you have a recipe for disaster. And road houses and bars are full of drink. You can't escape it, as a musician on the road. Give an obsessive-compulsive person drink, and allow him to obsess on it, and you have an instant alcoholic.

From "minstrelboy" on another post featuring Townes van Zandt:

townes was a friend and a true troublesome talent. i had somebody ask me what it was like playing with him after i had done two months of roadhouses and stuff with him. i said "like being caged up with a swamp panther in a hurricane" i miss his ass. thanks for the clip.

Large parts of Townes van Zandt's past had been wiped out by shock therapy. He gave himself a new obsession, song writing, which during the 1980's turned into another obsession -- drinking and hard living. I think it's no coincidence that he wrote nothing of note in the 1980's, and did a minor comeback in the 1990's when he refocused his obsession onto his music again, although he still drank enough to drink himself to death in the end just like his idol, Hank Williams.

So anyhow, if you think you want to be the next Hemingway, or the next Hank Williams or Townes van Zandt, I guess my point is that the drinking and hard living has nothing to do with it. You need talent, and you have to want it, to the point of wanting it obsessively. And you need a little bit of luck, which poor Blaze Foley never had, but luck is nothing without the talent and the obsessiveness. But if you really do have that sort of personality, one thing I'd suggest: Never take that first drink, that first snort, that first puff. Because if you truly have the sort of obsessive personality that leads to greatness, the lifestyle of the hard-drinkin' hard-livin' road dog will become an obsession, and it will either distract you from your talent like it did Townes van Zandt in the 1980's, or it will destroy you, in the end. Genus and what they call an "addictive personality" (i.e. a personality prone to addictions) do seem to go together far too often...

- Badtux the Thoughtful Penguin

Posted by: BadTux / 1/01/2007 08:42:00 PM  


over at konagod's

i left this comment when he left a couple of clips up.
much in the same way as i miss james brown, for the last ten years, at some time or moment during most days, i spend a little time missing townes. he was beautiful, irritating, sensitive, messy, insightful, crazy (really, in the clinical sense), unreliable and brave as truth. he was hell to be around and try to work with most of the time but then, out of the fucking blue, he would play something so exquisite, plain and simple, yet, remaining enigmatic enough for any listener to do an overlay of their own experience and emotions.

townes would write something wildly beautiful and sell it for a bowl of hot chili. he pissed me off and exasperated me on a steady regular basis, then, just as i was about to pack up and walk away he would do something sweet and kind, and there i'd be again.

he would come out to l.a. and turn up drunk on my doorstep at 4:30 in the morning, then, when i would be looking for him to tell him he needed to move on he'd be out back, playing ball with the dogs or playing barbies with my daughters. he had that special innocence that only the truly clueless achieve.

i knew him well, i love him anyway. damn hoss, i miss him. i'll probably spend some time on the phone today with other people that miss him too.

sometimes when i see people starting out in the business (and you're absolutely right tux, you can't have anything resembling a career in the business if you're not more than a little obsessed) who get all wrapped up in the drinking and drugging end of things i try to see why they are doing it.

the posers are the ones who think that by getting shitfaced and stoned they can invoke their muse. guys like townes, or guy clark, or steve earle, or . . .(insert your favorite stoned genius here) aren't invoking shit. they are trying to get the muse to shut the fuck up from time to time.

i'm a pretty blue collar player. i'm more of a lunchpail kinda guy. music is the work that i do. when i'm around somebody like townes who walks, talks, sleeps, dreams and hallucinates creativity i am in awe. i don't think that there's any real "fine line" between genius and madness. i've also met some very well adjusted and normal genius players/composers. but there was something about townes that grabbed me and held me.

and one other harsh fact about the music industry. whenever there's a self destructive genius like townes killing themselves by inches a day, there's always some asshole in a tailored suit clicking the beads on the abucus saying "we're still making lots of money, what if it's the booze that keeps the gravy train running on time?"
# posted by The Minstrel Boy : 2/1/07 10:19 PM  

Once roadied for Ozzy Osborne back in the bad old daze. Gotta admit, it was a hell of a whirlwind ride!

# posted by deuddersun : 4/1/07 6:41 AM  

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