Who Are You
I recently read a newspaper article where the author was complaining about the fact that we know little to nothing about Bob Dylan, particularly his inner thoughts (except for what comes out in his music). In terms of his impact on music in this century, yes it is amazing and somewhat terrible that this great man is largely a mystery. Since Dylan won't talk himself, the author offered that perhaps we could at least learn something from those who know him best, but two of the people who would know the most about Dylan are dead. The author then waxed morose on the potential loss of wonderful historical information. That gave me pause.
How do we know where to draw the line between historical necessity and a personal, private life? Right off bat, it's obvious that bias must be towards the personal, private life. Your business is your business, as long as it's not about killing or hurting someone. So that wins by default.
Yet, there are people whose lives have had such an impact on history or culture, our lack of knowledge about them seems almost like a crime. If we can wail over the loss of historical vases during a war, mourn over archeological sites covered by highways, and flip out over the decay of great works of art like the Mona Lisa and the statue of David, then it seems to follow that we would be hysterical over the fact that history is sitting right there, smoking a cigarette, strumming a guitar, and refusing to talk about himself (or herself).
I just finished reading Curt Cobain's Journals, a collection of some of the many notebooks he filled with notes, pictures, and lyrics. When it first came out, there was a great controversy about the invasion of his private (past) life because they are his raw notes, most likely something he never intended to publish. He even writes about how angry he was that other notes he wrote in rehab and other places were stolen and the contents released. So, he probably wouldn't approve of Journals if he were here today.
And you know what? The journals really don't give you that much more of an insight into Cobain's art and life (at least the ones that were published). I got more information about him just reading the excerpts of the bios on him and Nirvana on Amazon.com. The one piece of information in Journals I hadn't read about before anywhere else is this sad little incident where he tries to relieve himself of his virginity, which was on his "to do before I commit suicide" list.
Cobain had an obsession with rape, with "white male oppression" (though I personally wonder how much of that came from dearest C. Love), and, well, suicide. Since what he did could be characterized in some misguided people's minds as an attempt at "date rape" or taking advantage of someone who's mentality was questionable, he might have felt guilty of rape, given his total acceptance of gender feminist misandrist "thought" (i.e., men/males = bad, evil). The fact that she was 18, was a willing partner, and the fact that Cobain didn't even make it to consummation, all dismiss any construal of rape. Still, his classmates labeled him a "retard fucker", and clearly he felt terrible about it, so maybe in his mind it mutated over into an obsession with rape - by which I mean he abhorred it and often used it in his lyrical imagery as one of the worst things possible.
Everything in that last paragraph is cheap, dime-store psychological speculation that might be complete bullshit. Have I contributed positively to the gestalt of the case of Kurt Cobain by stating such a thing? I'm dubious on it. I put it here because as I was reading his journals, I had these thoughts, and they would seem to explain his obsession. But I'm just speculating based on sketchy info. I remarked to my wife how little Cobain writes about others, like his wife and the other Nirvana band members. But right after I did, I realized that in most blogs, including mine, the authors don't often talk about their family and friends, so the lack of those kind of personal references probably means nothing. When you are writing about your thoughts, it's naturally mostly about you.
When I was in the midst of pondering this topic, I happened to get my hands on the deluxe DVD of Taxi Driver that contains a documentary on the making of the film. Towards the end, the writer reminisces about the FBI interrogating him after Hinckley gunned down Reagan in order to get the attention of Jodie Foster. Then they cut to Jodie Foster. I sat straight up on the couch in anticipation. What would she say?! Well, she said nothing really. She skirted all around the topic, only addressing it in a general way - no names, no dates, no direct reference - and only in the context of how the movie is about a nut who guns down people. I was so disappointed. But then it occurred to me, what could she really say? (Then I was briefly angry at myself and the Barbara Walters conditioning we've all been exposed to where any meaningless comment a celebrity might have on a topic is deemed worthy simply because the celebrity opined in the first place.) And, if Foster had addressed it directly, Hinckley would have won, because that was his sole reason for the act - to get Jodie to notice. She handled the topic brilliantly and responsibly, given the circumstance. The best thing she could have done in relation to history, and the consequences around the event, is precisely what she did: nothing.
So, would we really gain any real information about Bob Dylan, or any other historical media figure if they really opened up and spilled their guts to us, and we knew that a girlfriend walked out on a given day, right before they wrote that song we love? As a fervent aficionado of all things music, especially trivia, I find that for me personally it doesn't add much. Because it's not about the music.
Knowing that Bowie got that great vocal in "Heroes" by using three gated mics placed at various distances away from him so the mic that got the best signal turned on while the others turned off so he could whisper some lyrics and bellow others is much more useful and interesting than his getting caught by his wife in bed with Mick Jagger. I so think, anyway.
TLD: About the only thing that I've found that is consistently interesting and useful as hell (historically), besides Pete Frame's great rock family histories (see post "Symbiosis, or fractals on movies and music " on Friday, May 02, 2003), is the "Classic Albums" series available on DVD. The bands and their producers, mixers, and roadies explain how a particular album was written, recorded, and mixed. Full of fascinating stuff like Steely Dan recorded something like 10 different guitars solos for a song, which all still are on the master tape; or Stevie Wonder is the only guy who could do the drums on some of his songs; or that Fleetwood Mac had to re-record all the high-end on Rumours because they literally wore out the first master tape by the number of times they made another pass at a take. That's history.
I don't think we are missing anything by not knowing what Bob had for breakfast, and what he thought about it.