The joys of obscurity

‘Society,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘often forgives a criminal; it never forgives a dreamer.’ To live the artistic life is to shun what is sensible, for the promise of what is possible. When you reject people’s ideals of success, they resent you. They take it personally. They love to celebrate artists by making them rich, turning them into one of them. being an unknown bohemian, however, is not just scorned, it is actively hated. It’s a threat.

Artists have always risked poverty and uncertainty to pursue their work. Today, in the age of democratised distribution, the artist risks something more terrifying and ignoble than poverty: obscurity.

Most artists are driven by some need to communicate, whether it is to an immediate circle, as with John Donne and his celebrated love poems, or to stadiums of global fans, as with the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

The demand for creative work, entertainment and new ideas has been undoubtedly helped by the internet. The need for beauty, as much as the ability to distribute it, is a welcome feature of our world’s global connectedness.

However, as much as this demand is ever increasing, there remains a widening gap between the supply and the demand. In short, supply is far greater than demand. And even if demand were to increase with every advance in technology, that demand would, as always, converge on established artists, or on new work filtered through friends, favourite websites and the imperishable voices of criticism.

The democratisation of internet means it is easier than it ever has been to become unknown. As a result, on top of the prohibitive odds artists have always faced in poverty and uncertainty, the almost guaranteed prospect of obscurity means choosing this life is not just impractical, it’s almost ridiculous. The idea that you can expect to make a living, never mind become rich, from living a creative life, is, at least on paper, fantastical.

Thankfully, ‘the odds’ have never persuaded the dedicated artist about anything, and today’s overwhelming odds are unlikely to convince a true creative soul that they should become an accountant instead. But the brutal facts about the unlikeliness of success are an welcome addition to the worries and neurosis of the creative mind.

In a TV interview in 1987, Bob Dylan said that fame was not what he, or anyone he knew who was successful, had ever set out to achieve. The desire communicate, to build an audience of like-minds, is not, despite their frequent conflation, the same as a desire for fame.

Fame for an artist is often just as bad as being ignored. Both involve being misunderstood, and both have little to do with the quality of your actual work.

Remembering his mentor and friend John Lennon, David Bowie once said that he and Lennon had bonded over the trials of fame. Both agreed that you spend the first half of your life trying to get it, and the second half trying to undo it.

All the while, your art gets lost in the noise. The very thing you set out to do, is obscured, whether by lack of interest, or too much interest in the wrong direction. The goal of living an authentic life, being true to who you are and the spirit of your sense of purpose, becomes irrelevant, in fame as much as in obscurity.

‘Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth/None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth.’ Dylan’s line is as true for the hounded rockstar as it is for the painter sharing her work to the world only to get three likes on Instagram.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that forgetting the fruits of his work is the route to God. The spiritual path does not require renunciation, and neither does it come from earthly glory.

He says: ‘You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.’

It is difficult for the modern mind to see beyond the opposites here. Surely, forgetting about rewards and results is a form of renunciation? Why would I work for no reward? What is the point in doing one’s duty if the consequences of that duty are irrelevant?

We are here to do good work. The fruits of our efforts are none of our business, just as the origin of the inspiration is none of our business.

Samurai warriors, confronted with the inevitable death and the terror of war, realised the only way to face their fate was to manifest the highest virtue in the performance of each movement, each cut of the blade. Winning or losing became irrelevant, the only thing they knew they could control was right action. In doing so, they manifested self-transcendence, they turned the degradation of man’s inhumanity to man, into the highest form of devotion.

The artist is here to do justice to the fire inside of her. The idea that people may or may not pay attention to that fire is a depressing distraction from the task at hand. History abounds with examples of poets and artists who received no acclaim in their own lifetime. The fact that they kept going regardless of their isolation and obscurity, adds a spiritual power to the legacies of their scorned genius.

Think of Robert Johnson taking a selfie in a Mississippi photo booth, only for it to become the Platonic form for every future album cover in rock and roll. Think of Keats, spluttering blood on his pillow in Rome in a small, hot and dank little room by the Spanish Steps. He was convinced his name would be ‘writ on water’, but it is now irrevocably etched on the face of literature alongside Shakespeare.

That said, obscurity is painful. Van Gogh, writing to his brother, who was also his patron, bemoaned the suffering of being dedicated but unknown.

He wrote: ‘[D]oes what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?’

If the work is not good for its own sake, it’s not one’s proper work. The hardest job an artist ever has to do is face the doubts that come from living in a world of prudential value. The second hardest job is summoning the courage to reject the sound advice of the sensible.

Obscurity is its own reward, because creativity is its own reward. Being an artist requires faith. The odds are always against you, and that’s part of the fun. The joy of obscurity lies in its freedom. You no longer need to relinquish your creativity to the authority of the group, or the accolades of critics.

Mark Twain famously said, ‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It owes you nothing. It was here before you.’

Musicians are particularly resentful these days about how hard it is to make money doing what they love. They should talk more to journalists, or better, to the poets. Lack of recognition comes with the territory, always has, and is now the very nature of any artistic industry. Those who bitch about this generally seem to be the ones who are not doing their art for the love of it, but for the glory and power it promises them.

The true artists knows there is a flip-side to Twain’s admonition. Just as the world owes you nothing, the artist too owes nothing to the world. And this is the greatest joy of obscurity.

Why Jim Morrison was a true poet

Whether we consider Jim Morrison a poet or a rock star, his real art was as a vocalist. This was a form that he mastered, and studied, and took very seriously.

Look at the Hollywood Bowl concert, or listen to his poetry recordings, and you will start to understand his prowess in vocal phrasing, his sense of timing and feel, his complete lack of hackery and automatic recital. Morrison never phrased the same thing the same way twice. He relished the possibilities in the rhythms each word presented, the way you could rearrange conversational cliches to make poetry.

The word ‘spontaneity’ is obviously overused to the point of being meaningless, but in Morrison’s case it is a practical description of his approach to vocal performance.

The Doors

At the very least, the common image of Morrison as a buffoon pretending to be Byron doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, when you study him as a vocalist. He sounds like no one else, but you can hear echoes of Billy Holiday, Sinatra and Johnny Cash. He is versatile, can go from lyrical whisper to a gasoline growl in an instant, and had a Brando-esque ability to balance the violence and the tender with a Shakespearean command.

The charge of pretentiousness relies on the iconic image of him as a mere stream-of-consciousness garbler, a man who made theatrical use of his babbling narcissism.

When you listen to LA Woman, whatever limitations you may or may not find in the writing, the performance, the timing and ironic sense of feel, the playfulness of his delivery, show an artist who considered the effect of his work very deeply. There is a self-awareness and sensitivity to his audience that is overlooked with an almost ideological fervour by his critics. It suits everyone to dismiss Morrison as a cavorting fake, because to admit any level of craftsmanship would be to admit that a beautiful, sexually dangerous drunk had greater talents than oneself. An unconscionable proposition.

At the very worst, The Doors could be shambling, disordered and masturbatory. However, their characteristic style was progressive and dangerous, and very much centred around playful rhythm.

This playfulness extended to Morrison’s verse, which no one can argue is Milton or Donne, but is far better than is usually given credit for.

Morrison wrote in moving images. If we can say that the Ezra Pound imagism of the early twentieth century was a response to photography, Morrison’s great innovation was to write in dynamic images, as a response to cinema.

Without this understanding of Morrison, and without putting two and two together with his background in film and his love of Brechtian theatre, the poetry will inevitably seem meaningless and contrived.

In its proper context, it can be seen as an attempt to make poetry come off like film, to communicate via images and internal dialogue, rather than sculpted lyric for the page.

A perfect example is LA Woman, the song. We are placed in a revving car on the Sunset Strip, images of topless bars and drunks flashing past us, and a girl’s hair streaming in the flying air.

The song is all about creating a sense of movement, and we don’t get this just from Densmore’s drumming or Krieger’s hysteric runs.

‘I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone’

‘Midnight alleys roam’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, grammatically. But imagistically, it makes perfect sense. It’s language as cinema.

The language is forced and contorted to meet the stretched activity of the moving thought being communicated.

Morrison was a master of this. In Texas Radio And The Big Beat, the phrase, ‘soft, driven, slow and mad, like some new language,’ captures perfectly the swampy, overwhelming and dreadful creative possibilities that the young poet felt in confrontation with the blues and rock and roll music of his youth. The words don’t make sense the way a WH Auden poem makes sense. This stuff won’t pass the test of literary society.

A pretentious person wants to be accepted, to be part of the cool crew. Morrison sang the blues as himself, not in impersonation of anyone. In this sense, he’s easily a better vocalist than Mick Jagger. No cultural appropriation here, sorry.

Morrison’s style is his own, it’s the growling, theatrical, ironic intellectual outburst of a damaged, middle-class and mercurial boy. His soul is as expansive as the western desert, everything from barren sands to sweltering suburbs. It’s both apocalyptic and a celebration of the human spirit.

The strongest argument for calling Morrison a true poet lies in John Densmore’s creative reaction to his words. Densmore said himself that on first hearing:

‘You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, try to hide
Break on through to the other side’

…he heard rhythms, his jazz instrumentalist’s brain was awakened to the possibilities of song dynamics in such subtle and joyful interchange between rhythm and image.

Densmore is a consummate percussionist, one of the great underrated heroes of modern music, a true innovator in combing jazz music with rock and roll, something which has never been achieved since, without seeming bloated and tiresome.

The test of a poet should never be if another poet likes it. It should never be a decision for the critic. But when a drummer, himself admired by the likes of jazz genius Elvin Jones, says he can’t help playing along to your words, then you know are onto something.

People say such and such a thing is pretentious because their own relationship with their subconscious is thwarted. Their own creative energy feels like a threat, rather than a strange friend. In a word, they have failed to break on through.

You create movement, by creating friction. And Morrison’s poetry gets its energy not from established meters, or from mimicking an accepted style, but from innovating a new way of combining words and rhythms that clash and seem incongruous.

This is deliberate, just as his suspenseful phrasing and ability to goad and provoke a crowd were deliberate. Whatever you think of Morrison as a poet, claiming that he is a stoned idiot jacking himself off, is a clear sign of ignorance, not just of his music, but of the history of poetry itself.

NEW ALBUM: Grio by Aidan Connell — putting the fight back into the blues

Aidan Connell's new album Grio doesn't revive the blues, but reveals it has been alive all along stalking the Bethnal Green desert with Rimbaud and Elvis and
Aidan Connell’s new album Grio was release on October 2

It’s almost like we have given up on the blues. The 12 bar shuffle has become a monotonous cliché, one man and his guitar is drowned out in the corporate news.

The hard luck story, the struggle against slavery, and enforced poverty of empire are no longer narratives that resonate with modern music listeners.

With the advent of punk, blues became old hat. It became something of a pastiche of itself at best, something ageing rockers do to end off an album.

How can you have blues in an age when we’ve got everything we need, when our bellies are full and we live off the fat of the land?

Aidan Connell’s new album Grio reminds us that the blues is more than social comment or self-pity.

Fusing rhythm and blues, punk and psychedelia, Grio is unquestionably a modern album.

Black Days is as Robert Johnson as they come, addressing existential angsts and isolation rather than a walking boss or a slave driver.

I Hate Rock and Roll is anthemic and ironic in equal measure, and that’s a rare balance that’s struck.

In fact, despite the song’s sing-along, dance-floor appeal, it’s Aidan Connell’s strongest song lyrically, cutting into the repetitive, pop-culture meme-mimicking of modern guitar music.

If there's one shortcoming of the album it's that it doesn't give you a accurate picture of what Aidan Connell is like live
If there’s one shortcoming of the album it’s that it doesn’t give you an accurate picture of what Aidan Connell is like live

Opening the album, it’s as near to a political statement as Connell gets, an Iggy Pop-like manifesto, reclaiming rock and roll for it’s Sun Records roots, rather than mourning its death.

Everybody Else thrusts into your brain, and has a brutal, uncompromising R&B beat.

This backbone, the clip-clap two-step of the panicking heart, used to be the very foundation of pop music.

Now it’s in danger of being an artefact. But Aidan Connell brings it awake again like his own Frankenstein’s monster, an almost dangerous act in an age of clogging, soppy hipster rhythm sections.

Requiem For Love is a distinctive addition to the album. Rather than straight-up blues this song reveals Connell’s debt to Britpop.

It’s chugging, pounding snare behind overdrive chords reminds you of the cocky opening sequences of Noel Gallagher’s best work.

Connell’s smooth, disembodied crooning offers a counterpoint to the festival-rock shape of the song, again making it veer into anthem territory.

Connell pictured like at the Redcurch Brewery in Bethnal Green
Connell pictured live at the Redcurch Brewery in Bethnal Green

Right down to it’s singing, Stratocaster bridge and the euphoric solo, Requiem has 1997 written all over it, and it’s one of the album’s biggest surprises.

The range of influences is evident in The Other Side, with the wringing post-punk opening solo and 60s garage rhythm chords.

With Find Me In The Gutter we are right back square in the heart of the blues, but the anxious pulse of this song reminds you this is no nostalgia trip, but songwriting born from the dust and choking smoke of London’s east end.

Songs like Son of A Gun just don’t come around these days. The opening slide blues cuts like a blade and leaves deadly ticks on your living soul.

This is pure, sweating, masculine blues – not music for teacher’s pets or pretty hipster girls with ukeleles.

The coolly tense and joyful aggression of the blues rides on a menacing, banging drum beat, as if someone brought Son House to life and gave him The Stooges for a backing band.

If there’s one shortcoming of the album it’s that it doesn’t give you an accurate picture of what Aidan Connell is like live.

This is not music for trendy Shoreditch coffee shops, or tiresome gallery openings by hip PR types.

This is music that draws blood, makes you confused and disturbed, ready for a fight.

Aidan Connell brings the blues into the Iphone age, and drags a spoiled and sarcastic generation kicking and screaming onto the battleground.

Stop pigeon holing every new band according to a past meme – this is music that will suffocate you and revive you all in the space of a few bars.

It’s time to man-up and face the facts about what the blues really is.

Grio is available to buy now from aidanconnell.com