Sunday, May 25, 2014

When juvenile hero worship turns downright bizarre

I accept that some grown men (and, much more rarely, women) indulge in a form of hero worship. The object of their adoration may be a sports star, a musician, an actor or even a politician. This mystifies me, because I would have thought that hero worship is something you grow out of as you mature; but I accept that it exists, and that it’s essentially harmless.
What I struggle to accept is fawning admiration of flawed people, as if self-inflicted flaws are worthy of our approval. This is a particularly common phenomenon in writing about rock music, where musicians are frequently revered not so much for the quality of their music as for the quantity of alcohol and drugs they have ingested or for their dysfunctional personalities. Lou Reed, who was virtually deified by the rock press when he died last year, was a case in point.

There is another example in yesterday’s edition of Fairfax Media’s Your Weekend section, in which Philip Matthews reviews the book Gutter Black, by the late Dave McArtney, of the 1970s Auckland rock band Hello Sailor.
Matthews is clearly enthralled by McArtney’s drug habit. He devotes a big chunk of his review to it, writing with awe about the role drugs played in the band. The title of Hello Sailor’s song Blue Lady, Matthews tells us, was a coded junkie tribute to a favourite syringe. The band lived in a house they called Mandrax Mansion, after a sedative that was fashionable at the time.

When they went to Los Angeles hoping to crack the American market (a fanciful hope, I would have thought – the band was world-famous in Ponsonby but was hardly noticed outside New Zealand), McArtney survived an overdose. His bandmate Graham Brazier (who was convicted last year on charges of assault against his former and current partners, though we hear very little about that) took heroin at Disneyland. The band spent much of its time in LA partying at their rented house in the Hollywood Hills, which may help explain why their mission was a failure (although, on the other hand, the reason may simply have been that they weren’t as good as they thought they were).
Matthews excitedly relates all this in the apparent belief that readers will be as impressed as he was by the band’s dissolute lifestyle. The great irony is that he reports McArtney’s fondness for the needle ultimately led to his death at 62 from liver cancer. You almost get the impression this is something Matthews thinks we should all aspire to.  

Of course the fact that McArtney died as a result of his drug habit only serves to enhance his mystique in the eyes of people like Matthews. The prospect of canonisation into the sainthood of rock music is enormously enhanced by premature death.
This blog post will almost certainly result in me being accused of making a callous attack on a dead man. It is nothing of the sort. McArtney was a stalwart of the Auckland music scene and was obviously much loved. I was saddened to read of his death. But the fact that his illness was attributed to his past drug use makes it all the more bizarre that Matthews should romanticise his lifestyle. He should grow up.


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