[Originally published Jul. 29, 2013.]
Lady, people aren’t chocolates. D’you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling.
Falling in love with a book is a unique and sometimes strange experience; it’s not hard to make the leap from adoring a novel to adoring its creator. The writer Justin Cronin compares it to a celebrity crush: “When you read a book, you spend hours in intimate contact with the mind of another person — it’s an intense, but one-sided relationship. If any reader knew who we really were, it’s guaranteed they’d find us disappointing. The experience of a book is so much better than the experience of a person.” The author Elizabeth Gilbert agreed. “When I meet readers, I feel a responsibility not to disappoint them. But how do you not disappoint someone who’s invented you?”
…But some writers enjoy discovering the darker sides of their favorite authors. “I’m always comforted when writers and artists I admire have terrible problems in their lives, as I did,” the novelist Kate Christensen told me. “I like reading about their struggles and misbehavior.” The poet and memoirist Mary Karr is also forgiving of flaws. “Tolstoy I’m sure was an incredible jackass, but I still love him. I still love Stevens, I still love Pound. If we didn’t read people who were bastards, we’d never read anything. Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.”
If I had to credit any particular text with being a formative influence on my intellectual and psychological development, well — I’m afraid I’ll have to reveal my utterly mainstream, lowbrow roots and name RIP magazine. For those who don’t know, it was a hard rock/heavy metal magazine, produced by Larry Flynt’s media empire, that existed for about a decade in the ’80s and ’90s. The first issue I got had Lars Ulrich on the cover with a long interview inside, and with that bait, I was soon hooked on what I thought was the best rock journalism around (there may have been better for all I know, but this was pre-Internet, and I was limited to what I could find in the mall bookstores). Lonn Friend, the editor during the magazine’s heyday, has, on a couple occasions that I’ve seen, summarized a large part of RIP’s guiding philosophy:
Because one of the edicts was that we weren’t going to prostitute these artists over their bad behavior. If it fell into the story, we would discuss the party and then whatever else. But if it was to damage or hurt the image of an artist rather than the heroic image of the artist because that’s what RIP was all about — heroes — then I chose not to.
RIP definitely erred on the side of generosity in its articles. A lot of magazines — especially British ones, I noticed — specialized in reporting the seediest gossip and exulted in sneering mean-spiritedness toward their subjects, but RIP, even though half its lifespan was spent covering the most decadent, trashy Sunset Strip glam-metal, never went that route. Bands were always presented in the best possible light, and the music was always described in terms of its highest potential, rather than its (frequently) humdrum reality. Even the most generic hair bands were treated as capable of moments of transcendent artistry.
It was largely through years of reading RIP while dreaming of a career as a musician that I formed my weltanschauung (there, perhaps that ten-dollar word will redeem my intellectual pretensions!), my ideal of a life lived in accordance with low-key, bohemian foolosophy values. I had an idealized image of the rock/metal world as being something like an itinerant tribe of minstrels, poets and plainspoken philosophers who devoted their lives to pondering the meaning of it all in between ritual musical performances. An insight here, a perspective there — I clothed my burgeoning sense of self in a patchwork quilt painstakingly stitched together from the scraps of interviews with creative people. I assembled an idealized personality that would take years to fully grow into. And of course, the flawed mortals behind those pull quotes and aperçus were bound to disappoint upon closer examination, as they often did. But the ideal they all contributed to is no less powerful for all that.