By Emmanuel Legrand
In the April issue of British music magazine Word, writer David Hepworth quotes the late Dick James, music publisher extraordinaire, from a 1973 documentary on Elton John. “All artists can deal with adversity. In fact, they thrive on it. I’ve never met one yet who could deal with success,” said James, whose track record includes the aforementioned Elton and also the Beatles (he established Northern Songs with the Beatles’ then-manager Brian Epstein to manage Lennon/McCartney’s publishing catalogue, administered by Dick James Music).
Since this comment came from a seasoned executive who had probably seen more than his share of brilliant artists damaged by the pressures of success, it had the ring of truth to it. We all have countless examples and ample evidence of artists struggling to cope with the attention, the money, the madness and the excesses that come with success.
The list of artists who have been dealing with adversity before achieving success is as long as the phone book. That was the process that led to success. Adversity created resilience, and resilience (eventually) was the road to success – if you had the required talent. And only a few would get to that level.
But then success could be a bitch (ask Whitney, Janis, Michael, Elvis, Amy…). It is one of the ironies of stardom that a lot of artists who had the ambition, the drive, the talent, the willingness to do whatever was needed to get to the top could not cope with the vertigo of being at the top.
The (excellent) recent BBC series ‘How the Brits rocked America’, which documented the various waves of American invasions by British rock bands could have been titled ‘Excess All Areas’ – except that it was already taken by a Status Quo documentary! With that regard, bands in the 1960s were behaving nicely compared to those in the 1970s, with the rise of stadium rockers (think Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, ELP, etc). At one point in the documentary, Sabbath’s axe-man Tony Iommi and Purple’s Jon Lord concurred in saying that it was all good while it was good (think of kids in a candy store), but at some point the hangover kicked in and for them, it all went downhill from there.
All these bands, especially the British bands that had to build a following in the US, played hardball, and were ready to brave adversity to achieve success, if any. In the same BBC series, Cream’s bass player/singer Jack Bruce recalled that the band’s first US tour was in a van, and with just one roadie/driver. It thickened their skin.
That’s how you learned the craft: playing to audiences and trying to grow your following. And record an album, and then a second and maybe a third album before making it in the charts. Not everyone succeeded. Many were left on the side of the road. And only the most resilient would survive. And then success would kick in for the happy few. Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters have often described the post-‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ era as a terrible time for them, because they finally got to where they aspired to be, on top of the world, and discovered that there was not much more than that, except that they were playing to bigger audiences, something that also took its toll on the band. But then they went on to record ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ (and disintegrate!).
Going back to adversity, the situation seems to be quite different for today’s new generation of artists. After a decade of (Simon) Cowellisation of the music industry, success seems to come first, and adversity follows. Artists get their 15 minutes of fame through the high-speed train of TV reality, and then get lost, and forgotten. That’s when adversity comes to challenge them.
It all happens as if artists today (or at least artists of a certain type) are born with the “success” gene in their DNA, while the “adversity” gene is missing. But success achieved through TV is just like looking at life through a magnifying glass. It usually does not reflect reality. These artists are just products, programmed for the entertainment and the adulation of the masses. Until the next one comes, and the next one.
If artists want to last, it seems that it is still much safer to build a career through adversity. If you think that Lady Gaga or Lana Del Rey have not gone through this process, you are mistaken. Theirs is not an instant success. They have had their share of failures, depressing times and adversity. And they have come stronger from these experiences.
So the message to young aspiring artists would be – do not confuse the sirens of TV reality for the true deciding tests that will determine a career in music. It’s the long hours playing gigs in odd places, the endless rehearsing of songs, the bad coffees and the cold pizzas that will test your resolve.
And if you are lucky enough to get to the top, you will have ample occasions to fuck it all up, but at least you will know how and why you got there. Fucked up you will be, but with a sense of purpose.
PS: On the subject of purpose, apparently, Barry Diller said at the South by South West conference in Austin, Texas that “if there is no commercial purpose [in creating something], there is no purpose”! That’s a depressing assertion from the American media mogul who, indeed, cannot seem to be doing anything that is not commercially motivated (although I am sure that he gives gazillions to charities to keep his taxes down and his self-esteem up to an acceptable level). If that’s the way of the world, then what a sad world it is!