Monday, 3 November 2014
Shut Up, Mark Kozelek: Or, When Music and a Musician's Personality Collide.
A while back, I met a musician who I very much admired. He was an older man: a legend from another era. His music had gotten me through high school, but it wasn't just his music that I devoted myself to - it was who he was. I hunted down every interview from him I could find; I studied what he wore; I read the books he mentioned to the press. For a while there I was convinced he was the coolest, smartest human being on the planet Earth. I aspired to be what he was.
In short: he was my hero, which made it pretty heartbreaking when he turned out to be a giant prick in person.
It wasn't just that he was casually rude to me when we met; it seemed to me then that he was actively going out of his way to belittle and humiliate me. I was distraught - I came home, tore down the poster of him that hung on my wall, and even (somewhat melodramatically) snapped a few of his albums in half.
I didn't listen to any of his music for some time. Then, a few years ago, one of his songs came on the radio. It was the track that had first ignited my love for him. I listened to it, and despite what I felt about him personally, I realised that there was something good in there. As a person he might have been an utter douche, but as a musician, he was a supreme talent. I went out and rebought a few of his albums. I fell in love with them again.
There, I thought: lesson learnt. Never idolise a musician. Idolise the music. I had stumbled upon some kind of mature wisdom. I had come out of the experience having learnt something.
At least, I thought I had. Because now Mark Kozelek has come along and totally shit on that theory, leaving me right back where I started.
First things first: I used to really like Mark Kozelek. I didn't know too much about him personally, but I loved his records, and I was flat out obsessed by his recent release Benji. It was an album that I listened to over and over again, hooked by its beauty and its subtle, rough around the edges resilience.
Then, his whole beef with the War on Drugs started. At first, I was faintly amused. There was a novelty to his diss of the band - I thought calling their music 'beer commercial lead guitar shit' was a pretty good insult, even though I liked War on Drugs and their album Lost in the Dream a great deal. We don't get many artist on artist insults in the Alternative Music scene - maybe because it's so damn incestuous - so I was relishing the opportunity to pick sides in an increasingly public spat.
But the smile soured on my face when Kozelek made good on his intent to release a song called "The War on Drugs: Suck my Cock." I listened to the song with an increasing sense of annoyance and disgust. Saying the odd few unpleasant remarks about a band is one thing, but releasing a needlessly ugly song about your concerns that a group of men who, as it turns out, you haven't even met, 'might have lice' just seemed unnecessary. Even worse was the way he called a female blogger a 'bitch' for daring to say that he was a grump at one of his recent shows, not least of all because he was proving her point all by himself with his use of that particular misogynistic slur.
All that said, at this point I tried to fall back on the lesson I had learnt before - it's the music, not the musician that I loved. I don't know Mark Kozelek as a person. I do know his music. That's what I should connect to. Right?
But of course, that's not right - at least not entirely. The personality of a musician and their music is deeply intertwined, whether we like it or not.
I might not know Mark Kozelek personally, but isn't the whole point of music to translate some essential part of yourself into sound? Isn't that the reason why an album like Benji resonated with me so much? I loved it because it was the sound of a human being expressing themselves, singing about their love; their heartbreak; and their loss, all through the filter of their unique life experience. I might never encounter Kozelek in the flesh, but that's what makes his music (and, for that matter, music in general) so extraordinary - that a human being I've never met has felt and thought things that I connect with.
"War On Drugs: Suck my Cock" is a terrible song, but it's a masterpiece when compared to Kozelek's recent release, "Adam Granofsky Blues", a track that has been (far too generously) referred to as a 'spoken word piece' by Pitchfork. Let's face it: it's not a spoken word piece, it's the sound of a nasty man desperately trying to stay in the public eye by shitting all over a musician he has had only the most fleeting of contact with.
With those two songs, Kozelek has undone a lot of Benji's power. All by himself, he has changed the intent of Benji - a song like 'Carissa', which I once heard as a heartbreaking song about the passing of a loved one, now strikes me as the sound of a jerk cashing his pay check by singing about tragedies that have befallen people other than him. Whether or not that latter statement is true (and it's almost certainly not), it doesn't change the fact that that's what I now hear. Kozelek's personality has affected his music. It's tainted it.
There is no separation between a musician and their music. They are not vessels for a sound that exists outside of them - their life, and their behaviour affects what they record.
Mark Kozelek might think that he's pumping up the sales of his album by drawing all this media attention, but what he's actually doing is stripping aside his music, and revealing the sad, pathetic little man behind the curtain.