So it turns out that Seasick Steve was a bullshitter. His age was a lie. He wasn’t a hobo who happened to get lucky. Seasick Steve was a jobbing musician (real name Steve Leach) who’d previously made transcendental music (see video, below) and disco albums trying to make a living out of the industry.
Purists may howl with indignation that an artist they perceive as ‘rootsy’ and ‘genuine’ could have hoodwinked the public so easily. All it seemed to take was a bit of balls and a very big beard. But before we start getting all sanctimonious over Steve Leach, don’t we need to think about this for a minute.
“Every artist is a cannibal/Every poet is a thief.” So runs the aphorism appropriated by Bono on U2’s The Fly. Nowhere is this more true than in the making of music, and in the making of blues music in particular. Stories get made up and passed around. They have done since this music first rose up out of the souls of men. Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil at the crossroads is the one that most immediately springs to mind.
Does it really matter whether it actually happened? Or does the creation of that story help us better to understand the deep, almost supernatural power of blues music? Personally I couldn’t give a toss whether or not Johnson literally sold his soul to the devil in some sort of mystical, biblical moment. The tale helps me tap into Johnson’s otherworldly mastery of the genre perfectly. His mastery of the technique of guitar playing most likely involved hours and hours of laborious practice. But hundreds of thousands of guitarists get competent through endeavour. Johnson was lifted out of the mundane and the ordinary by something else. And that something else is best captured by the myth.
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Bob Dylan understood this process better than anyone else. Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, a place that made banal and ordinary look exciting. But as he explained in a 2004 interview, “You’re born with, you know, the wrong name, the wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself.”
But Dylan not only changed his name. He changed his history and his back story, time and time again. He claimed he left school young to work in a traveling carnival. He said he’d ridden the railroads like a hobo before coming to New York. That he got a heroin habit and worked as a male prostitute once there. The evidence suggests these were all great big whoppers.
Doors vocalist Jim Morrison’s official record company biography, meanwhile, had the frontman claiming his parents were dead, when in fact his dad was a very big wig in the US navy. Not very nice if you’re the parents, admittedly. But like Dylan, Morrison always understood that you created the package, not just the music. It’s part of the metamorphosis that great artists need to undergo. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler got it too. In an overlooked part of his notorious Decline Of Western Civilization Part II interview in the late ‘80s, he summed the relationship between art and artifice up perfectly.
“If you want something that bad,” he said, “and you think positive about it, it gets to the point where you become it, and therefore you are it.”
This kind of puts people who obsess on authenticity in their place. Bassist Paul Simonon from The Clash spun a yarn about not fitting in at art school, saying he only painted pictures of rubbish tips and burned-out cars because that was all he knew. Research showed that Simonon’s biggest failing at art school as that he was over-obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites. But by thinking himself into the headspace, Simonon (father amateur artist, mother librarian) became the archetypal punk rock anti-hero who wrote the magnificent The Guns Of Brixton.
Within the very same band, frontman Joe Strummer tried hard not to mention the fact that his dad was a diplomat, for fear this somewhat bourgeois background might undermine his punk rock cred. But Simonon and Strummer had no need either to embellish or obscure. Their unswerving fervour, their belief in The Clash’s music and politics, was no less powerful because of a backstory that didn’t fit the script. Like Tyler, it got to the point where they were it.
The White Stripes also tried to airbrush history. Jack Gillis and Megan White were married in 1996, but insisted on propagating the myth that they were brother and sister because Jack thought a husband and wife act would be seen as sappy. Did this affect the band’s music? Of course not. Did it affect how they were perceived? Almost certainly.
We can argue till the cows come home about rock star lies and their supposed authenticity. But if artifice can help get us as listeners to the place where the music is pure, then it’s serving an important purpose. We really don’t need to get hung up on the detail at all.