In his 1967 essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes argued that disassociating a text from its creator provides a far richer experience than trying to position it on an individual’s timeline, whereby the writer “maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child.” He observed that critics prefer such connection as it provides a route to understanding or unearthing the ‘true’ meaning of a writer’s work. While such logic can free literature from a variety of associations, its hard to conceive of a world in which one might read ‘The Bell Jar’ without being fascinated by the context of its conception, or of the act of picking up a new Martin Amis novel without the overwhelming burden of his smug entitlement weighing down on your enthusiasm. The idealised notion of isolated, oblique consumption is all the more improbable in the never-ending infostream of twenty-first century life.
So often this contextualising works to the artist’s advantage. I’d never have bought ‘Solar’ if I’d actually researched it rather than simply relying on the name Ian McEwan plastered across its cover. I also appear to have the album ‘Diamond Hoo Ha’ in my racks as a consequence of my fondness for Supergrass’ prior work rather than an unlikely desire to hear modernised-glam channeled through a, some might say, bold absence of tunes. However, and let’s take that much admonished genre as a useful reference point, sometimes context can blow everything out of the water. ‘I’m The Leader Of The Gang (I Am)’ was just one of several Gary Glitter songs in the wedding DJ copybook until his gradual dismantling around a lengthy list of sex offences. Whatever the song had meant before, it quickly lost its limited lustre once it came to embody a nation’s disgust at the actions of a pop star.
It seems that certain crimes will make you more prone to a fall from grace than others. Pete Doherty’s self-destructive tendencies seemed to neatly fit the rock’n’roll narrative while Sid Vicious’ arrest for murder doesn’t seem to have tarnished the Sex Pistols’ endlessly reissued legacy. Indeed, John Lennon remains something of a musical deity despite openly admitting to physically abusing women. Clearly, to distort Barthes’ phrasing a little, the death of the artist as a concept is alive and well. If the tunes are good, then plenty of people can see past the person delivering them.
I’m not sure it’s that easy. When 3D from Massive Attack was briefly under suspicion for nefarious internet activity, I found myself wondering if I would ever truly enjoy one of my favourite bands again. If he did x then doesn’t that override whatever y is? The relief felt when he was cleared was purely selfish because I hadn’t wanted to relinquish ‘Blue Lines’ from my life. I’d wondered if I could rationalise a divide, free the music from one of its creators in a way that fans of ‘Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again’ couldn’t. Ultimately, art connects with you in a way that transcends logic and goes straight for the soul. And yet.
When Mark Kozelek began his childishly opportunistic vendetta against The War On Drugs back in September 2014 it was neatly written off as grumpy middle-aged man playing the fool. “It’s what he does!” people cried. Meredith Graves has written far more eloquently than I can on how his ‘diss’ track ‘War On Drugs: Suck My Cock’ appropriates a phrase that faintly conceals something between homophobia and misogyny. It is the very testament of the idea of taking the joke too far. This isn’t repeating the punchline with a warm chuckle to yourself as the rest of your friends humour you and wait for the conversation to move on. This is the sort of grim, base-level embarrassment that leaks out unexpectedly and silences the room. It’s the vitriolic response of someone who claims they’re ‘not bothered’. It’s the sort of rant that almost repels criticism, prompting as it does a cyclical echo-chamber of fuckwits replying that if you don’t like it, you ‘don’t get it’. But for the fact it made for some pretty enticing headlines across the alternative media, it probably should have been the telling sign that Kozelek’s act was wearing thin. However, trying to preserve the power of those Red House Painters records and several of his albums as Sun Kil Moon, I side-stepped it, as so many did.
In the last year or so, Kozelek has uttered numerous comments for which his fans have had to alter their stride, look the other way and take a deep breath. All of which leaves you wondering: why bother? He played near me the other night and I turned down cheap tickets because I was worried he’d disappoint me. I figured an evening of his curdled repartee and I’d be liberating some space in the record racks before long. As it turned out, that show passed without incident but only twenty-four hours later, he opted to kick off his encore to a hitherto rapt audience in London’s Barbican with the kind of misogynistic crap that had social media frothing when it was coming out of Dapper Laughs’ mouth. The latter’s lack of stream-of-consciousness atmospheric eight minute alt-rock songs made him a slightly easier target, but it will be troubling if people aren’t calling Kozelek out for launching into a verbal attack on a British journalist with whom he appears to have a grievance. It prompted another of his wildly ill-advised improvised songs, in which he told those present that the journalist “totally wants to fuck me” and she can “get in line, bitch.” Despite seemingly contradicting the sentiments in the song minutes later, he then proceeded to play it again. There are already those claiming this has been taken out of context and even Kozelek said he was ‘just kidding.’ The violation at the heart of those comments, the reductive belittling of someone’s viewpoint in sexual terms and the utter immaturity in airing this to a paying audience reveals the artist as an unpleasant individual first and musician second.
Is it better to entertain the notion of the ‘death of the author’? To fillet one man’s contribution to the world to obscure the parts of him that are repellent? If I’m already not going to see him in case he offers up a reason to dislike him, then maybe I already have my answer. His comments will have had an unavoidable, involuntary effect on the person concerned as well, one has to hope, on those in attendance and everyone who subsequently hears about it. Rather than needing to be cut some slack, or plying your trade as a rentaquote curmudgeon, Mark, why not just focus on the art that, shorn of bilious context, can offer rare beauty? I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’ll find it even rarer now.