Traps for troubadours


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Traps for troubadours
By Bobby Neal Winters

My eldest daughter and I listen to classic rock together on the car radio. She picks the stations, and I don't know whether she picks these because she likes them or because she is taking my tastes into consideration. Either way is wonderful, from my point of view.

I get to contribute my historical perspective along the way. I turned eight years old back in 1970, which seems to have been some magic year as far as classic rock is concerned. My memory for exact dates is fuzzy, but along about then there were a series of tragedies, as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died drug-related deaths. They were still young when they died, and the death of the young fascinates us in a morbid sort of way. We tend to romanticize it, as it is out of the natural order of things for the young to die before the old, yet there is more here than just that.

These people were artists. One might find it hard to associate the word "art" with the ragged voice of Janis Joplin or the screaming guitar of Jimi Hendrix, but within the media each used, their communication of emotion is nothing short of genius. On the other hand, while Jim Morrison's lyrics were somehow closer to the mainstream, nearly classical in terms of meter and rhyme, a couplet like "Do you hope to make her see you, fool? / Do you hope to pluck this dusky jewel?" reeks of sensuality and hedonism when read from between the lines.

Is it that the death of an artist disturbs us more or is it that they are just more visible? I once heard my father remark upon the suicide of Jack London, "He didn't have to do a thing for us money but sit around and make up stories, and he went and killed himself."

The life of the artist, the storyteller, the troubadour has been set up as an ideal from at least the time of the Greeks. Those who achieve this ideal are supposed to be happy, but ironically, some of the best art comes out of sadness and pain. Not everything is the way we naively believe it to be. There are great risks in exposing one's soul, as an artist must do in order to be an artist.

Rock stars face the added dangers of the culture of drugs and sex within their world. We all know about "sex, drugs, and Rock-and-Roll," after all. Excess is what it is all about, and not even the King himself was immune to the lure of prescription drugs and deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but while tragic, Elvis's self-destruction was a result of his success, but was not interwoven with his art.

I was a Janis Joplin fan in the mid-eighties, fifteen years after her death. She seems to have been marked for tragedy. There was a desire for love within her that could not be filled by men or by her audience. She is supposed to have said that she made love to 25000 people on stage, but always went home alone. Hers was a soul that was seeking and not finding. I am reminded of the U2 lyric, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for…"

Maybe what she was looking for wasn't there. Maybe she found it, but found it wanting, and went on to look for something else, and maybe it was her misery that gave her the ability to sing the blues with such reality, "Come on, take another little piece of my heart now, Baby."

She served as a lens to show us the pain that eventually consumed her. That is probably why she is still being talked about more than thirty years after her death.

As I drive along the highway, I sometimes see a cross that marks the location where someone has died in an automobile accident. When we pass we can take this as a warning to be more careful, we can focus on it too tightly and have a wreck ourselves, or we can say a little prayer and go on. I think the last of these is most appropriate.