A Few of the Great Musicians With Whom You Should Never Have Lunch
A fictional discussion involving a composer and his friend
[Edgar Degas, L'Orchestre de l'Opéra]
[A quiet cafe somewhere. Two men sit at a table, coffee cups filled, awaiting the arrival of lunch.]
“John,” I said, “Whom, among all the dead musicians in the history of the world, would you like to have join us for lunch?”
He smiled, furrowed his brow and looked toward the ceiling for a few seconds. Whenever he did this, I anticipated something enlightening.
“It’s a smaller list than you’d imagine. There are plenty of first level musicians who would be terrible people to have to talk to for more than a few minutes.”
“Give me some examples.”
He sat back in his chair and took a deep breath. “Well, an obvious one is Wagner. On specific questions in music, of course, you could talk to him, learn from him, be impressed. But once he’s not talking about music, and he apparently really liked to talk about other things, there’s a high risk you’re going to hear foolish political pronouncements. Nonsense that he doesn’t know anything more about or have any greater sensitivity to than some drunken idiot you randomly run into at a bar. Or you might get some of his philosophy of art, which was self-evidently wrong in important ways. He thought music alone couldn’t really reach the heights of human emotion. It needed lyrics. So Beethoven’s late quartets are insufficient in some way? Those works are somehow less serious than Parsifal? It’s an indefensible position, and he loved to go on about it. The proof of its falsehood is in his own music. The most profound passages in Wagner are instrumental, without lyrics. The dramatic narrative he thought was essential to make music into a Gesamtkuntswerk is not needed to make that music sublime. The greater problem is his unrivalled sense of his expertise on everything. The political ranting would be insufferable. But there are plenty of worse examples who get better press than ol’ Richard does on the personal angle.”
I opened my eyes a bit wider in anticipation. “Such as…?”
“Miles Davis was probably at least as insufferable, and certainly less articulate, so even on music, you’d get considerably less from him than you would from Wagner. And he was a truly terrible person, so far as you can tell from the accounts of people who knew him. Beat up women, burning with indiscriminate anger because of what a white cop somewhere did to him, full of himself and seemingly bitter toward anyone in front of him about something that isn’t their fault. That’s a most unpleasant kind of person to have to deal with.”
John took a drink from his coffee cup.
“And then there are musicians who produce great music but who seem absolutely incapable of talking about it in any interesting way. Jimi Hendrix was a fabulously unpredictable guitar player live, some of the time at least, and he wrote a few songs that are eternal. “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” is marvelous. But try to listen to him talk for more than a minute straight. Only rarely do you get a coherent thought. How somebody that apparently had such a trivially mundane hippie worldview in his head could be capable of that music is a great mystery. You hear him talk and he sounds like every freak on the street in Haight-Ashbury in 1968. Yet somehow he had all that blues from outer space in there too. It’s confounding.”
I asked him whether this mattered at all in evaluating their music. Did it mean they were lesser lights in purely artistic terms than someone who was more verbally coherent and insightful?
He coughed lightly and shook his head.
“Well, obviously not if you haven’t ever had a conversation with them, or if you’ve never heard them talk. That should be the goal, in any event. Try to avoid hearing a great artist talk about anything other than art, and some great artists should be ignored when they speak even about that topic. It’s just a potential way to ruin something magical. The number of truly wise first class musicians, people who had a musical gift and were able to speak and say things that are of interest outside of a party is vanishingly small. It’s too hard for one person to do a lot of things well. Why expect it? People will only disappoint you most of the time. But we’re talking about who to have lunch with, and that means you have to talk to them, right? Unless we can have lunch and just listen to something they’ve composed. That’d certainly be the superior option.”
He took another swig of coffee.
“Some artists are masquerading as other things. Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer, for instance. He did pop music because it made him a living, but did you ever hear him talk? Or read some of his lyrics? A poet, really. In the real sense, not in the way people talk about some of the perfectly mundane ‘60s American pop folk people. Gainsbourg painted, and he knew art, and he had some training as a pianist. And he was a personality in the way French artists often were. Again, not like pop stars who are supposedly “eccentric,” as it’s said, but always in ways that are perfectly unremarkable. He was a genuinely weird guy.”
“Jane Birkin said somewhere that while living with him for 13 years, she never saw him bathe, or go to the bathroom, and she never saw him fully nude. That’s astonishing, no? In 13 years, the woman he lived with and made love to and had a child with never saw him take a piss. That’s a properly obsessive man. I admire that.”
I wondered if it was Gainsbourg’s familiarity with art and literature that made him an attractive interlocutor, or his idiosyncratic personality.
John wasn’t having the fragmentation of his personality. “You can’t take them apart like that. They’re part of the same thing. There’s just something about him, something he gives off, that makes you think he’d be worth talking to. I wouldn’t even have to agree with him on art or music, of course. Probably wouldn’t with Gainsbourg. His politics too were mostly ill-considered, but at least not as stupid as Wagner’s. And all bets are off if he’s drunk. He was a belligerent drunk, apparently. But entertaining even then, sometimes. He must have been more than a little sauced when he lit those French francs on fire during a television interview to attack French taxation rates on his wealthy bracket.”
He paused and thought for an instant.
“Another guy that I’d like to talk to is Bill Evans. He read philosophy, apparently introduced a bunch of the other jazz guys of his time to Hinduism and Buddhism. But that’s not why I’d want to talk to him.”
“Why, then?” I prompted.
“He had a whole journey. You know, he was a serious heroin and cocaine addict. Totally destroyed his body with it, died early. The young girl he was involved with at the end talked about how disturbing it was to see what he’d done to his body after all the years of drug abuse. Just destroyed himself physically. Knew he was dying for the last year or so of his life. He’d have had things to tell you that were worth hearing.”
This puzzled me, as I knew John’s attitude about drugs was not positive, even if he’d experimented a bit in the past.
“Does it matter if a musician’s drug use changes his personality fundamentally? So no to an angry drunk like Gainsbourg, but yet to a happy drunk or coke user? Are there examples?”
He rubbed his eyes.
“I suppose there must be a few blissful pot-smoker composers. Maybe Lou Harrison took mushrooms. He seemed the type. Chopin and Berlioz used opium. Robert Schumann was taking mercury, arsenic, probably a dozen other things because of all his physical ailments. Beethoven had cirrhosis of the liver from all the wine he drank. Who knows what effect all of that did or didn’t have on their music, though. It’s mostly a wash, so long as we’re not talking about someone addicted to the point of being unable to function. Among jazz composers, of course, addiction was common, and to the debilitating point frequently. That’s the stupidity of it. Not the curiosity to try something out, but the falling into a trap that prevents the musician from doing what he must, which is give birth to music. No greater evil than something that kills that process.”
I nodded as he went on.
“But I think most musicians of the first rank were probably comparatively nasty personalities, at least to some degree, even those who weren’t angry drunks or pathetic drug addicts. It seems to go along with artistic elevation. It’s difficult to be a great artist. Almost impossible, if you do the math of all the artists who try against those who succeed. It’s also very hard—maybe just as hard, even harder—to be a magnanimous, saintly person. How many people have it in them to be both? Certainly almost none. You have to get too lucky, and it’s too much work. You simply don’t have enough time in the day to perfect both skills. It’s like asking someone to be a great athlete and a learned scholar. It’s almost never done because you have to be monomaniacal about each to excel.”
He stopped and looked down, as though he were working something over in his head prior to saying it.
“Glenn Gould was fairly evidently one of the most spectacular OCD cases you could imagine, and he was also nearly debilitated near the end of his life by his hypochondria. Of course, they don’t call it that these days, do they? It’s health anxiety now. Same thing my doctor says I’ve got, though Gould was much worse. He took his own blood pressure dozens of times a day, took minute notes on the hours of his sleep, would call doctors at all hours of the night with absurd questions about whether this or another symptom could be cancer, so should he immediately schedule a biopsy, that level craziness. He wouldn’t even go to the hospital to visit his dying mother because of his terror of microbes and infection, and she died without talking to him. He had a chance at familial bliss, with the estranged wife of the composer Lukas Foss, but he drove her away with his behavior and died alone. It’s completely clear to me that his ability to get inside Bach’s keyboard music was produced by the same pieces of his mind that made him obsess over every detail of his personal health. Those are two behavioral outputs of that kind of brain, and you’re unlikely to get them apart, to get just the ‘plays Bach insanely well’ without the ‘is concerned about his health to an insanely pathological degree.’”
He took another immensely deep breath, his way of gathering more time to think. The sun was shining through the window, reflected in an imperfection of the glass in such a way as to make a ghostly prism, a rainbow of chance. He scratched his chin, then continued.
“In any event, the personality doesn’t matter at all for the work, in a moral sense. The kind of person the musician is, that’s of no importance at all. Just for whether or not you’d care to talk to the person, and whether or not you’d stand a chance of learning something interesting from it. But as a reflection on the music? It doesn’t reflect on the music at all, in even the slightest way. Anyone who thinks it does, and who would evaluate music based on the personality of the musician, that’s someone who doesn’t understand music. Doesn’t love music, really. Another example from popular music: Ginger Baker was a horrible person, and a coke addict and a drunk and every other foul thing. Somehow managed to live forever anyway, but uniformly disliked, at best, by everyone who knew him well. Treated his own children like his enemies, no compassion for a single other person on the planet, really, so far as you can tell. It doesn’t matter. Of course, you’d never want to have him for lunch, or even be around him for five minutes unless you couldn’t help it. But you’d have to admire the music even if he had been an even more failed example of a human being than he obviously was. The music stands on its own.”
“It does? It doesn’t matter at all that he’s a miserably worthless and despicable person?” I was doubtful, and I didn’t quite believe John believed what he was saying.
“No. Doesn’t matter in the slightest. I’ll tell you another story. Once, a pianist I knew told me she couldn’t listen to Wagner, had never even tried to listen to him. I thought it was because she had no use for him just given the fact that she had dedicated herself musically to some other musical universe entirely separate from Wagner. But it had nothing to do with musical questions. She said it was because he was an anti-Semite. Now, there’s little question that he was an anti-Semite, or at least that he pettily turned his resentment-filled competition with Meyerbeer, who had been his mentor and advocate, into a crude indictment of Jews as a group. And if someone who is Jewish says what this pianist said, you could at least understand it as a personal affair. ‘He hates Jews, I’m Jewish, he would have hated me, so I’ll hate him.’ Same thing as if Wagner hated, say, Italians and you’re Italian. But of course, even this personalist position is open to obvious criticism. Wagner’s dead, after all. He can’t hate you or anybody else now, so that’s rather an odd game to get into. ‘I’ll hate him because he hated me.’ What do you gain from that? He’s dead, so you hating him doesn’t even have a potential effect on him. He can never know you hated him and feel remorse about that. He’s dead! Do you feel better about yourself, think yourself morally superior to Wagner, in hating him? Well, every world religion tells us that what you’re actually doing in hating him is committing the same transgression he committed. You’re abasing yourself to his level as a person and you have no objective reason to feel good about yourself for having this feeling. So you gain nothing. But I’ll tell you what you’ve lost. You’ve lost his music. That’s a significant thing to lose for no gain.”
I started to interrupt, but he waved me off.
“I know, I know, it’s claimed that the music itself bears signs of his prejudice. Mime in The Ring, etc. Yes. But I return to the falsehood of Wagner’s view of music. The value of music, his or that of anyone else, does not reside in any dramatic or lyrical content to which that music is attached. Music is not a human language. It does not tell us a story, with characters and plot and all that humdrum. Music communicates nothing to us but the perfection of Spirit. Even if you threw out all of Wagner’s lyrics as racist, the instrumental passages remain. The Overture of Tristan und Isolde alone makes it impossible for a lover of music to reject Wagner. Even if you hate him not because you foolishly think that affects him—he’s dead, I say again!—but as a matter of political principle, this inevitably shows the limits of your love of music. You’re saying you love some abstract principle, some idea of a group of people, an idea of a group of people for which Wagner expressed distaste, you’re saying you love that idea more than you love music. A lot of people think that way, of course. Maybe most normal people do. For them, there’s nothing that’s more important than the group with which they identify. But I’m not talking about normal people. I’m talking about musicians. And that’s not a proper position for a musician to have.”
“How should the musician think of him, then?”
“With humble gratitude for the music. With gratitude. That and only that. And even in the moralizing terms of the pianist I’m discussing, that’s a spiritually superior position to hating him for his hate. You extend compassion to him for his failings as a moral human being precisely because of the gift he gave the world in the form of his music. The love of music makes it possible to love even the unlovable among our species. The love of music makes all things possible!”
He broke into laughter at this. Just then, the waitress arrived with our plates, then retreated to the kitchen. I sat poised to begin eating but hesitated, as I knew he had not finished the thought.
“But the pianist to whom I’m referring is not Jewish! I remind you of that! Everything in the example is contained in that fact. She wasn’t even taking the defensible personalist position I just described. She didn’t even reject his music for reasons of her identity. She wouldn’t listen to Wagner solely as a way of pretending to show concern for what she imagines are other peoples’ identities! It’s a kind of identification with the abstract ethnic politics of philo-Semitism. And perhaps not even that. She was expressing only an anti-anti-Semitism. ‘I am against being against the Jews.’ There’s no affirmative content there, only a negation. It’s not an expression of love for the Jewish people, but of hatred for those who hate them. Maybe that’s still admirable as a political sentiment, what do I know about politics, which I consider one of the least important things in the world? Maybe you should hate people you think are hateful. Who knows? But likely not if you want to consider yourself a member of any established world religion, as they all preach against that, no? ‘Love the sinners, embrace the wrong-doers even if they do you wrong.’ And Wagner is a wrong-doer, I repeat, who left us a tremendous, invaluable gift in addition to whatever hatred he expressed. I heard somewhere that Theodor Herzl was an admirer of Wagner’s music. If that’s true, then we know Herzl loved music as music should be loved. Above everything else. Certainly above the dung heap of politics. What does a political sentiment have to do with music? Really? That’s my question.”
I just stared at him, knowing he was going to answer the question.
“It has nothing to do with music, whatever you think of it as a moral statement.”
He took a self-satisfied bite of his toast.
“A musician has just one question about Wagner, or anybody else: Was he a musician? If the answer is yes, then you address yourself to his music. The end.”
He took another exaggeratedly aristocratic bite.
“Let me put it this way. Imagine an alternate universe in which a worthless criminal thug, a career criminal who has robbed and stolen and assaulted and the whole lot of it, imagine that guy wrote the Matthäus-Passion, or the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, or A Love Supreme, or In The Court of the Crimson King. If that were true, then you’d have to admire him as a musician in the same way you admire Bach and Debussy and Coltrane and Robert Fripp, wouldn’t you? All that other stuff doesn’t affect the music. If it’s revealed tomorrow that Bach was an adulterer, or a thief, or a murderer, the B-minor Mass remains just as glorious. It’s not the fact that Bach wasn’t any of those things that makes us recognize the transcendence of that music he wrote, and so logically we couldn’t reject the music if he were. If we learn horrible things about Beethoven as a human being, it doesn’t change anything about the majesty of the Grosse Fugue. The music is exactly the same, whether it was written by the Beethoven we know or Bizarro Beethoven who habitually beat poor children with sticks when he saw them in the street. The music and the composer are two entirely different universes that do not intersect in any way. The music has manifested through the musician, in a process about which we understand nothing. It could have chosen to manifest through someone else. The human vehicle is unimportant. It’s music that acts, music that counts. You see the point?”
I must have looked puzzled or incredulous or both. John continued as if he were talking to a small child, slowing down, pausing for effect at the end of each sentence.
“That’s why music is superior. It’s outside all of that. It’s above it, it floats above it all, suspended in a mysterious cloud that separates it from our mundane, dreary little concerns. My life, your life, the lives of all human beings, all of that is somewhere below the realm of music, somewhere that makes it of no importance at all for the action of music. Music does not require us. It does not need us. Music will do what it does, music will be music, even if no people exist to hear it, do you understand? Music approaches God. It comes from and exists ultimately only for God. It is God’s way of entertaining Himself. Maybe it is God.”
I kept a poker face as he, his endpoint reached, turned avidly to his plate and heartily dug in, but it took real effort. I could not agree with what seemed a problematic and perhaps even a monstrous philosophy. But I couldn’t find a way to logically dispute it. I felt as though I were adrift in space.
He had this effect on me with some frequency.
I’ve been at this project now for more than six months. Hardly seems possible, but I just checked the calendar and I believe that is the right math.
So, this is a note to you: Thank you.
I’m tremendously flattered by your interest in what I have to say about life, art, politics, death and I’m grateful that you read my ramblings. Every writer desires to be read (Lovecraft’s letter accompanying his submission to an editor notwithstanding) and thus owes a debt that cannot really be repaid to readers, however much the writer sometimes pretends not to recognize this (it’s part of the persona, you see…).
So that’s something I want to be sure to say and say again: THANK YOU.
Now, the other reason for this little note.
I finally got around to doing the technical stuff necessary to provide a paid subscription option.
What does a paid option mean?
It means it’s an option. At present, everything on this account remains open to all subscribers, paid or free. Even if I move at some currently unforeseen point to separating material here into paid and unpaid categories, I still plan to always make the great bulk of it available when it’s produced without cost to everyone interested in seeing it. I’m tremendously appreciative that you read this site and want to do everything I can to ensure you continue to be interested in doing so.
I am hopeful though, and I make so bold as to ask, that if you have a few extra dollars rattling around, you’ll consider kicking some of them my way to help make it more feasible for me to spend more time on this project.
Inevitably, and despite my deepest feelings about writing, I think at least a bit about possible material returns when I am allocating time to writing projects. I have two kids who eat and are in constant need of new clothes and a house in which things are constantly breaking down. Add to that the fact that, to my great regret, I do not have infinite time to dedicate to writing, and it emerges necessarily that sometimes the possibility of writing things for pay trumps writing things here. This is so even though I much prefer writing here precisely because it allows me more freedom to engage with the topics I find most interesting.
If I can generate some paid subscriptions, then, I can spend more time doing this writing, the writing I most care about, and the writing that I hope you find valuable. If I generate enough, I may even finally find enough time and energy to get around to dipping my toes into Podcast World, which is professionally speaking probably the last thing I should do, given my tendency to say things that get me into trouble, but YOLO, as I’ve heard they say.
I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription and, whatever your decision on that, I look forward to writing more for you as All Things Rhapsodical Phase II gets underway. Should you decide to “go paid,” you need only click the button below and it should lead you in the right direction.
Cheers, and thanks again! And very special thanks to those who have already switched to a paid subscription!
All Things Rhapsodical is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.