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Michael Cooney


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Friendship, ME 04547 USA

A Case Against Fame

by Michael Cooney

(In 1977 the Mariposa Folk Foundation in Toronto asked me to write this essay for their book, For What Time I Am In This World. After all these years, this still says what I feel.)

Because I have, for the last fifteen years or so, managed to walk the thin line between poverty and the stigma of commercial success, I am asked to make a case against fame. Happy to do so.

Why get famous? Adoring fans and money. But we all know that adoring fans are no substitute for real friends, which are harder to discern when one is famous. It's also easy enough to see that the money doesn't bring happiness. Gratification of desires, yes; happiness, no.

There are indeed many drawbacks to becoming famous compared to the dubious advantages. Perhaps most importantly, it can seriously hamper or even destroy artistic vitality. This can be seen to some extent in the songwriting of Bob Dylan. Most of his good songs were created before he got really famous. Maybe one can only write with conviction about one's real concerns, and as fame comes, those concerns turn toward new topics: money, business, etc. Being surrounded by agents and managers, accountants and lawyers, investment advisors and adulators, one’s fountain of inspiration can diminish to a trickle or dry up.

But the damage doesn't stop there. Again Bob Dylan is a good example. When he "went electric" in the mid-sixties, he repudiated all of the songs of social protest he had written earlier. He said he just wrote them to get famous so he could do what he really wanted to do: be a rock star and a poet. But those songs were his best songs, and aside from a few songs written in the following five or six years, very little of value has come from Bob Dylan since. And here's the hard part: Dylan knows this, and the songs he sings in concert now (Rolling Thunder Review, Before the Flood, and Hard Rain albums) are his old protest hits. And he sings them as though he hates them, and hates his audience for demanding them, and hates himself for singing them. Listen to his earlier recordings of some of these songs (Don't Think Twice is a good example) as compared to the above recordings. Gone is the sensitivity and care, replaced by screaming and venom. Bob Dylan isn't too happy with himself.

But fame doesn't cease with loss of artistic ability. Aye, there's the rub. Fame begets fame. You don't have to be any good to be the idol of millions, you just have to be famous. An indication of this is seen in the method by which many recording contracts are negotiated these days. One of the figures most haggled over is the amount to be committed by the recording company to publicizing the new record, for as everyone knows, a new performer doesn't get famous by being good, but by being well-publicized. A friend who used to work in a large music club in Chicago told me it was not unusual for a record company to book a new performer in as opening act for the main attraction, and then spend upwards of $100,000 advertising them that week! (And the performer got about $200 for the week's work.) At the end of that engagement, she or he might be famous in Chicago. (And it becomes difficult for a singer without "record company support" to get gigs...)

A person who's famous can be terrible and the fans will still love him, and critics adore him simply because he's famous. Were Joe Blow to come out and defecate on the stage, he'd be lynched. If Bob Dylan were to do the same thing, some people would be offended, but many people, and critics, would say, "Innovative! The ultimate protest!" This is an extreme example, but even in the case of singing a cappella (i.e., with no instrumental accompaniment), if someone famous does it, it's hailed as a bold new step. Wowee.

But I must get back to the artist. Does he know he's terrible? Or does he listen only to the screams of the mindless throng? Does he believe them? Who's to tell him he's getting bad? Not his coterie -- his back-patters. They're there to tell him he's wonderful and get him stoned. (And then again many times I've done what I thought was a pretty poor performance only to have someone come up and say, "That's the best I've seen you in five years?" Whom do you believe?)

The roar of the crowd is difficult to resist for many. Quite a while ago I was fortunate to be able to tour with a group of folk performers as part of the Southern Folk Festival, organized by Ann Romaine and Bernice Reagon for the Southern Students Organizing Committee. One of the performers was Babe Stovall, an old black sharecropper from Louisiana who played a big steel-bodied guitar and sang the Real Stuff. We all loved him and he was having the time of his life. He liked to finish his part of the program by singing When the Saints Go Marching In, an old gospel song. One night at a college concert, he did the last chorus while playing his guitar behind his head, which is tricky, but not too hard. The audience went wild. The next night, at another college, he played the last two choruses with the guitar behind his head, to a similar reaction. By the end of the tour, he was doing part of every song that way. It's an irresistible lure, and I see performers today who indulge in the same thing. In fact, in today's entertainment world the package is often much more important than the contents. It's directly related to the size of an audience. As the number of listeners increases, the ability of the audience to distinguish good music from bad decreases, and their demand for "show" becomes more insistent. Intense, loud, and/or fast become the criteria; many of the songs I love best are unsuitable for mass audiences. I've played those big folk festivals and gymnasiums. No fun.

I contend that there are two listening centers in each member of an audience. One is that part which, when stimulated, causes a person to react physically-jumping up and down, whistling, clapping, shrieking and hollering. (The expression "YEEE-HAAAW" is not an indication of appreciation of artistic ability; it’s a Pavlovian response.) Another center is further inside, quiet, and reachable only by the artist. That one will remember much longer, and give a much better reward.

You can make all the money you need without being famous. How much do you need? Not much. Want is another matter. And the more you have, the more you want, and the less you are. Yup. There is never a point at which one says, "I have all I want," unless one has nothing. Hmmm. I like singing for small audiences, in comfortable surroundings. Fame certainly won't give me that. I want my friends to treat me like a friend, and help me along life's treacherous path. Fame makes that kind of friend hard to find. I don't want some one always trying to get in touch with me because it's "Really Important". Important to whom? If you’re not famous, somehow it isn’t so important to them anymore. I really don't want to see my face on a T-shirt.

There is only one possible reason for being famous: the ability to do benefits that bring lots of money for "good causes". I regret not being able to do that, but I think the drawbacks of fame outweigh this.

I would greatly appreciate your comments.