Can you separate the asshole from the art?
Last weekend, I went for a drive. Sophie, a rising high school senior, is giving college a try. With one hundred fifty other kids, she’s spending a week on a college campus studying Environmental Science. It’s the whole deal: dorms, dining halls, lectures and lots of field work. The field work was the draw—the girl likes being outdoors.
Last weekend was my driving shift—the drop-off. Sophie and I had an uneventful trip to New Haven, Connecticut, five hours away. Minimal traffic, nonstop pop radio. After I dropped Sophie off, after I found a Walmart so I could buy a charging cord for my phone, after I battled with Apple maps for fifteen minutes trying to get directions to Interstate 95 rather than the Merritt Parkway, I hopped on the road back home. This time, I listened to my music.
My music? Well, it’s punk music. Sometimes I like amped-up rockers like the Clash and the Ramones, and sometimes I like discordant, scrape-y stuff like Sonic Youth and the Dream Syndicate. I had a nice mix with me, and five hours to listen. I started off my drive with X, a seventies punk band from Los Angeles. Because everyone else I know thinks X is annoying, I never listen to them. What a treat! I knew the words to every song, and I screamed along just like the drunk twenty-one-year-old I used to be. As the album wound down, I geared up for my favorite X song: The World’s a Mess it’s in my Kiss. And then the CD skipped back to the first song on the album.
I was positive that song was on the album I was listening to. When I got home, I took to the internet to set the record straight. You can’t just Google X. Too many random words starting with x show up, so I Googled the lead singer, cleverly named Exene. From her Wikipedia page: Exene Cervenka, as a self-styled “conspiracy therapist,” has provoked controversy on social media and on YouTube, by advancing conspiracy theories including the view that the Isla Vista shootings were a hoax designed to bring about stricter gun control laws.
Do you remember the Isla Vista shooting? I had to look it up. I was confusing it with the Las Vegas shooting and the Orlando shooting and the Blacksburg shooting and the Sandy Hook shooting and the Parkland shooting and the Columbine shooting and the Pittsburgh shooting and the Charleston shooting and the hundreds of other shootings I hear about as I drive home from work every evening. No, the Isla Vista shooting didn’t ring any bells. With only six people murdered, it didn’t make any of the lists.
I’ll remind you: Elliot Rodger killed six and injured fourteen people with knives, guns and his car. Twenty casualties, incalculable others affected by the assault on their friends, family and community. Exene Cervenka spends her time on YouTube spouting off crap about fake news. More internet research. Ah, Christ. She’s a Sandy Hook denier as well. And the Boston Marathon bombing.
Exene Cervenka was my crush. Her harmonic whine, headbanging and dancing and screaming into her mic. She took cool to a completely different level. The music X played has been an important part of my life for more than thirty-five years. A staple on my forty-five-minute commute when I first got out of college. Late night party sing-alongs, early mornings hung over with the lyrics of Nausea pounding over and over in my head, watching concerts at DCs legendary 9:30 club. I even played X songs in my spin class. Are they dead to me now?
Can you separate the musician from the music? The artist from the art? It’s easy for me to write a list. Stuff I love that I should boycott because of the sins of the actor, the producer, the singer. Stuff I love that was created by criminals—molesters, rapists, abusers and murderers.
- Michael Jackson moonwalking during Billie Jean.
- Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.
- Charlie Sheen in Platoon.
- A half dozen Harvey Weinstein movies.
- Bill Cosby’s early comedy.
- Phil Spector’s production of Da Doo Ron Ron.
- Sid Vicious covering Sinatra’s My Way.
These are terrible men. And they’re just a sampling of the many horrible people who create art I love. A couple of artists I’m not remotely fond of, Jackson Browne and Woody Allen, shouldn’t be left off the list. For a little over a year, I worked at a domestic violence nonprofit. The director made a mental note of every actor or singer who had ever been credibly accused of domestic violence. Seemingly every week, in the middle of a discussion about a movie or a band, she would blurt out “Oh, he’s an abuser.”
So far, I haven’t banned any of these artists from my enjoyment. But it’s hard to watch them without thinking of the terrible things they’ve done. I’m sure I’ll continue to love X’s music. After all, there are four members of the band, and I’d say they’re all equally important to the sound that they create. But lingering in the back of my mind, I’ll always know about Exene’s Truther Theories. I’ll know that she thinks nothing about enhancing the pain of Sandy Hook parents by calling them “actors.”
Jonathon Richman, a punk/folk singer who got his start in the shadow of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, sings a song about Pablo Picasso. The refrain of this song goes like this: “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.” Um, not true. Google his name, he seems to be quite a jerk.