In a Fanatic’s Head

Innocence, in a sense...There is no place in a fanatic’s head where reason can enter. —Napoleon Bonaparte

A recent thread in GLONO’s message boards about Jared Leto playing John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, got me thinking about hero worship and criticism and the seeming inability some people have to face any assessment of their heroes or to acknowledge their shortcomings as humans. Frankly, I find it weird. Why is it some people can’t separate the art from the artist?

I’ve heard Beatle fans say they refuse to utter Chapman’s name so he “doesn’t get what he wants,” which is presumably the fame he so desperately sought as a young man. These fans argue that the mere mention of his name is to reward him for killing a celebrity. But that’s asinine. Mark David Chapman is a historical figure. I don’t like it anymore than anyone else does, but facts are facts. He killed a member of the most famous and most successful group in the history of popular music. He killed an icon. Having done so makes him a historical figure by definition. When you read any rendition of Lennon’s story it ends with the name Mark David Chapman. That’s not rewarding Chapman for his act, it’s acknowledging his horrendous role in Lennon’s death.


But then there are also those who can’t stomach honest (if sometimes cruel) criticism of their favorite artists. Whether it’s straight criticism of their work or acknowledgement of their foibles or sometimes disturbing behavior, these people put their heroes on pedestals beyond the reach of simple mortals and shield them from the penetrating gaze of a plebic public. Why? Don’t most of us actually give credit to those artists who seem “down to earth” or “regular people?” Why then not acknowledge and discuss their entirely human deficiencies?

I love Pete Doherty. I love his music in the Libertines and much of the painfully unrealized Babyshambles debut. But Pete’s a fuck-up and a crackhead. That’s not a secret, in fact it’s a bright red badge Pete garishly wears on his chest and in plain view in every single tabloid photo that (dis)graces British dailies. But don’t tell certain fan enablers. To them, Pete is a guy who just needs a break or is a tortured artist that simple-minded yokels can’t understand. That may be, but he’s also the guy who’s been busted multiple times while out on bail for previous drug and battery charges. Talent or not, that’s a fuck-up move and he does it repeatedly.

When Albert Goldman’s trashy bio on Lennon came out in the 80s I was in high school and livid with some of the accusations he leveled on my hero. Today, I understand that the book is journalistically worthless, but that SOME of the stories that paint Lennon in a bad light are true. The only proof I need to show Lennon was less than perfect is his treatment of his older son Julian. What kind of a man abandons his wife and child to run off with another woman, only to turn around and be the picture of romance and fatherhood when he and his new wife have a second son years later? An imperfect man, that’s what kind. Yes, the man who wrote “Beautiful Boy” for his younger son paid nearly no attention to the older one for years at a time.

Probably the most disturbing set are those delirious Michael Jackson fans who camp outside his court dates. After reading his bio Moonwalk in the early 90s, I too was an MJ apologist. I love the Jackson 5 and several of his solo albums and I could easily justify his odd behavior as that of a man who was robbed of his childhood. He could now afford to relive that childhood and who can blame a guy for wanting a monkey and having fun? What I can’t justify is his absolutely inappropriate behavior with children. Prosecutors may not have been able to prove molestation, but Jackson’s admitted bedding of young boys cannot be excused. He may have been found not guilty, but Michael Jackson is anything but innocent.

And then there’s the idea that EVERYTHING an acknowledged genius touches is, by extension, a genius piece of work. Bullshit. Pablo Picasso would paint for days straight only to discard countless canvasses before hitting his stride and painting ONE earth shattering work. Ernest Hemingway wrote and re-wrote and edited and abandoned libraries worth of material before he finished any given novel. And even then, not every finished piece from these universally acknowledged geniuses in their fields is a Masterpiece. They can’t be. There are ebbs and flows in creativity and there are failures in art—that’s what makes the successes so exciting!

So why then can’t some people accept that Neil Young’s lyrics in the past 15 years have become increasingly pedestrian? Yes, Neil Young wrote “Powderfinger” and “Thrashers” but he also wrote “Let’s Roll” and “He Was the King.” It’s OK, he’s still a genius. Writing a few shitty songs doesn’t denigrate the great ones. And yet, there are people who would regard such a statement as betraying my fandom. I hold no other songwriter in higher esteem, but Neil Young has written some shitty songs—that’s a fact.

And so I will probably see this Chapman biopic when it comes out. I am interested in Lennon’s life and his tragic death cannot be removed from the story. Chapman’s story is one where a fan put too much faith in his hero and the rage that engulfed him when that hero inescapably let him down. How might the story ended if he could have only seen Lennon as another imperfect human?

11 thoughts on “In a Fanatic’s Head”

  1. That Derek guy from Riviera is a fucking God! I want to have his babies. One time before a show at Shubas he brushed up against me on his way to the bar.

    I haven’t washed myself since!

    I own all of his recordings, even the stuff from the Overtones.

    I love you Derek! I love you! I’m going to cut myself!

  2. Walk The Line was a great movie and portrayed Johnny Cash honestly, which he wanted as he was no saint…Woody Guthrie pretty much abandoned his family at times…Willie Nelson, well you get it…these are all musical icons and humans

    Actually if you think about a signifigant portion of people we consider icons or great artists are either incredible jerks misanthropes or just plain screwy in the cabeza…like most members of this board “community”

  3. Really good article. I was enjoying the argument and agreeing right up until the part about Neil Young. Then I was like, oh come on! Neil’s lyrics, pedestrian? What planet are you living on, Derek?

    Naw, I’m only kiddin. I know Derek loves Neil Young with that love for a musician that is barely rational. But actually, he proves it is clear-eyed and rational both. The article was convincing anyway, but that puts it over the line for me.

  4. I liked your article but I really don’t think there’s that many people that you’re addressing. Unfortunately, the ones you are addressing probably lack the clear mindedness they’d need to see your point of view.

    It’s hard to convince a truly crazy person that they shouldn’t be crazy anymore.

  5. The issue of fandom, particularly in the case of musicians, artists, and poets (assuming that poets actually have fans), unlike, say, fans of sports stars, is that we tend to make an emotional investment in songs (or painting or poems) that we like such that we can’t help but think-cum-believe that those who are responsible for the work are in some fundamental way like we are (on an individual basis). So when there is an attack–physical or critical–on that musician, we, perhaps not realizing it, think that it is an attack, at a minor remove, on ourselves. And we don’t like it. We don’t appreciate if people point out our flaws (“Hey! your sentences are too damn long!”); we don’t want people to point out the flaws of those with whom we so closely identify. It was ever thus.

  6. I think if you take Mac’s comment about the emotional attachment fanatics place in an artist’s material and blend it with proptronics’ comment about fanatics’ lack of “clearmindedness,” you can get the answer for which Mr. Phillips seems to be searching. However, I think we all tend to do this a little and therefore I think the message is well received by many. Heroes are human.

    Perhaps that’s why the anti-hero is popular these days? Pete Doherty seems like a good example of a loser who should be shunned, but scrapes by on our myopic sense of wonder. Maybe we’re all just loser crackheads who should be shunned.

  7. whatever ‘greatness’ we see, hear, etc. in an artists work is grounded in those aspects which we can relate to. Were an artist to conceive of an artistic expression that was over everyone else’s head then who exactly would praise it? It should be obvious then that the fullest expression of a common human condition is tied to our humanity generally. Some maintain that the particular artists biography matters in the sense that the listener/viewer utilizes this information to somehow reconstruct the moments of creativity BUT this sort of reconstruction is illusion. To suppose you know what was going on EXACTLY in Lennons head as he wrote is silly. Instead, CLEARLY, we must approach the work of art itself and see if it connects to us. SO I CONCLUDE: we SHOULD seperate the artist from the art but we can NEVER really seperate the art from the listener, the viewer, and perhaps someone will remember my only other posting on glono: the art is to be connected TO THE FANATIC! These fanatics lives are tuned into the emotion conveyed more frequently than a multi-facteted genius would be. HENCE, I the Dio fan am MORE into DIO than DIO himself!

    top that-

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