"Don't forget the songs
that made you cry
and the songs that saved your life
yes, you're older now and you're a clever swine
but they were the only ones who ever stood by you"
I'm going to talk about heroes and I'm going to talk about Tiger Woods, but I want you to know that at no point has Tiger Woods ever been my hero. In a very specific way he has been a role model, but I am not talking about his personal life. For one paragraph, just forget the fact that he cheated on his wife hundreds of times. (Focus, please!)
In 1997, Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 shots. He was 21-years-old. While everybody thought that he had permanently lapped every living golfer and would win every tournament for the rest of his life, that didn't happen. By the end of that year he wasn't playing nearly as well, and the whole next year he only won once. It turned out that he and his coach had discovered a flaw in his swing that they thought would cause him trouble later. So, even though he was the most dominant golfer in the game, he spent a year completely retooling his swing. He tore apart his game to build it up again stronger. These adjustments led to a three year period where he dominated golf and won several majors, until 2003 when he again detected a flaw in his swing and spent a couple years correcting it. It's hard to talk about him now without it sounding like a joke, but if you're looking for examples of how to be focused on your craft, Tiger Woods is a good example. If you're looking for examples of how to conduct a marriage, look elsewhere, but don't discount one aspect of someone's personality because of something bad they've done. Often times the good and bad are two sides of the same trait, and the trick is to try to incorporate the good aspects while leaving out the bad. Which is maybe a fool's game.
It is constantly frustrating to be a musician in the indie scene and feel that improving your skills is seen as, at best, a curious case of humility and, at worst, a waste of what makes you special. Us musicians generally think that we have a certain inherent sound in our playing or singing that is pure and genius and unteachable and that any further education will wreck that specialness in some way. As if taking singing lessons will turn us irrevocably into opera singers who are incapable of conveying emotion and who instead just sing perfect scales while the audience looks nervously at each other.
It's critical to have role models for how to conduct your development as an artist, to feel that improving yourself is worthwhile. Sometimes it's hard to find those heroes in the music world.
"Hero" is a word that has been so over used that it's hard to talk about. It's like trying to write a poem about a tree. On one hand, trees are so thoroughly amazing that they are worthy of constant poetic praise. But on the other hand, you sound like a tool for writing a poem about trees. I can't talk about heroes without feeling like I'm writing an assigned essay in elementary school, where I have to attach a photo to my double-spaced paper and my teacher hangs it on the wall for open house. Writing is often hardest when you care most about something, because the words never seem to live up to what you're saying. And then you use bad analogies to make your point. It's like trying to wrestle a dead alligator. You can put as much cocoa butter and mud on it, but it still is not going to make you look good. When the words are flowing, it's like the alligator has put on a dress and rouge and the two of you are dancing the foxtrot. See what I mean about bad analogies?
Heroes are primarily for children. When you're a kid you'll latch on to any strong or intriguing figure and believe in them as a hero. When you get older, it gets much harder for heroes to crack into that realm, unless somebody directly does something drastic like save your child's life. When you're young, though, a hero could be someone with the right color cape or with a clever turn of phrase.
When I was young my primary hero was the athlete Bo Jackson. To this day I have no idea how good of a father or husband he is, but at the time I was enamored with his ability to play two professional sports. My adulation of him barely had to take a break, as he played almost all year long. I pretended to be him as I played imaginary football by myself in the front yard. I collected his every baseball and football card, lining them up on my wall so they wrapped around the whole room. In many ways, the sports he played were so opposite. In baseball all the players are out in the sun with their faces exposed, and in football everyone is covered up with pads and helmets as though they are going into battle. I think I was so impressed with how he could do such opposite things so well. However, at the peak of his popularity he went down with a hip injury, tackled in a football game the wrong way and he was never the same again.
I soon grew more interested in music, and liking music as a teenager seemed to mean that you couldn't also like sports. The sad part of being young is feeling like you have to join a certain group to solidify your identity, and that you can't sample what you like from different areas. So I needed a new hero, and Kurt Cobain was conveniently on the television. He was an entirely different type of hero. Instead of racing around the field heroically, Kurt Cobain slouched over a guitar screaming like he was in pain. It seemed like such a noble pain, unjustly put upon him. Looking back now I can see that sports heroes inspired me to go outside in the sun and play sports. Rock heroes, at least the one I chose, inspired me to hate myself and my surroundings.
I started playing guitar because I wanted to learn how to play Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I went in for my first guitar lesson and my teacher dutifully wrote down the chords for me and showed me how to play them. A couple days later, Kurt Cobain killed himself. I went in for my second lesson having learned how to play the song, but the giddy innocence of it was gone, replaced by a heavy air in the guitar shop. "So…too bad about what happened…Did you practice the song?"
I almost liked Kurt Cobain more after he killed himself. It was like he had suddenly showed that he was capable of more depth. To me at 16 it seemed like he had made a bold move. 17 years later it seems like a dick move. He was childish and hurting and refused to grow up. He became a junkie, pursued a narcissistic misery despite incredible success in his chosen field, and then brutally killed himself and left his infant daughter alone with an insane mother. If you're going to hold your heroes up to high standards, you have to consider these things. If you just want someone to deify, whom you can produce tender charcoal sketches of, you can always latch on to the ones who died too young.
When I was a teenager I was primarily inspired by ideas and concepts. As I've gotten older, I'm much more interested in execution. I listen to Kurt Cobain now and I hear a bad singer with sloppy lyrics and predictable Northwest rock songs. I'm much more appreciative of musicians who have worked to be experts at their craft. Perhaps I'm being too harsh. As Morrissey says, those songs stood by me in some lonely years, those high school years where I felt awkward and stupid and like no one would ever understand what I did. As soon as Bo Jackson went down, Kurt Cobain was there to fill a certain role, and after enough of your heroes go down you just learn to trust yourself.