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Wolfgang Tilmans

Wolfgang Tilmans

Love is an abstract idea.

It is more often experienced vicariously through fiction or biased journalism, than it is through the reality of the individual. When thrust beneath the holistic umbrella of rock ‘n’ roll and the artistic extremism that encompasses it, this airy idea becomes even harder to attain. Nevertheless, the image of two lovers uniting in creativity and habituating in lust is one many of us have assumed at some point in our lives to be the romantic ideal. Sid and Nancy made punk look passionate. Kurt and Courtney made grunge look glamorous. Ike and Tina made soul look soulful. With each couple that emerged, lonely artists all over the world became intrigued by the prospect of finding inspiration in a sole counterpart. However, we were all left bewildered and disheartened each time the fairytale ended in calamity, fracturing our hope until the next two figures emerged to repair it in a Sid Vicious cycle. The day the music dies, we can’t help but ask ourselves, ‘is it even worth it?’

The muse is an important historical figure. It has been a common catalyst for inspiration, dating back to the very beginning of artistic documentation: Keats described love in a way that could only have come from intimate interaction with another; Da Vinci referenced sex in a way that could only have come from steamy affairs; Ella Fitzgerald conveyed heartache in a way that could only have come from marital dysfunction. Many were moved by the pleasures and pains of love or lust, vocalizing emotions through their craft, converting their feelings into manuscripts and melodies. The theme of rock ‘n’ roll came about later, beginning in the 1940s and 50s, and accelerating into the present, which doused this sacred recipe with a coating of grime.

This idea did not strictly relate to musicians or musical movements, but to an attitude that represented traces of rebellion, addiction and extremism. Over the years, the artist and the muse took many forms, and it now wore black leather and a halo of cigarette smoke. Girls suddenly swooned over the villain, rather than the white knight. Stage screams were the new Romeo serenade, and one-night-stands were the new wedding vows. Nevertheless, bystanders were captivated by the fast pace and artists were more inspired than ever before. In the 60s, Eric Clapton wrote the song ‘Layla’ for Pattie Boyd while she was married to his best friend, George Harrison.

In the early 90s, Johnny Depp had Winona Ryder’s name tattooed on his arm, prior to their public split and its sheepish alteration to a vague ‘Wino’. Kurt Cobain publicly announced that Courtney Love was the “best fuck in the world” during Nirvana’s first UK TV performance. People were taking risks, losing everything, and even dying in the name of love.

However, therein lies the problem. While passion had escalated to new heights of extremism, boosting hope and conviction in the masses, this rock ‘n’ roll movement was beginning to make headlines. The grandest of gestures were causing the bitterest of ends. The trashy appeal dissolved upon the arrest of Sid Vicious, infamous bassist and drug addict from the Sex Pistols, after he allegedly stabbed his lover Nancy Spungen to death in their permanent room at the Chelsea Hotel. This punk love story had a sobering end, as did many others it preceded. River Phoenix – an actor, animal activist and international heartthrob – died of a drug overdose in 1993 outside Johnny Depp’s L.A. club The Viper Room, in the arms of his girlfriend at the time, actress Samantha Mathis. Similarly, this tale shook many to the core, tainting their romance with a terrible taste. Even the death of Michael Hutchence, INXS frontman, fits the mould. Caused by strangulation, in conjunction with masturbation, his death was a speculated suicide and a speculated accident, which occurred after a series of phone calls to old lovers and girlfriends. Of course, death composes a large aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll myth. Nevertheless, it is perverted that the loss of a life should be romanticized, even if it is poetic. At times, the lives of strangers can feel like fiction, as distance is desensitizing; however, it must be wrong to forget that many people are directly affected by such incidences. At the end of the day, there’s nothing dope about demise, and we must correct ourselves before true happiness dies with heroin chic, before we overdose on inspiration.

The common phrase ‘write what you know’ implies that knowledge is like currency, and that life experience, as a result, is integral to producing substantial work. Perhaps this is why so many artists were creatively driven by significant and not-so-significant others. However, the harsh reality remains that an unhealthy lifestyle has been concealed by smoke, mirrors and bright white stage lights. Behind the psychedelia lies psychosis. Behind the intoxication lies toxicity. We have been encouraged to believe that destruction is romantic, and romance is constructive. It is easy to blame the media for things like this, and point the proverbial finger at a large entity with no real face or name. Still, in reality, it’s our own twisted interests that empower the tabloids and build fleeting moments into immense philosophies. In the case of Rock ‘N’ Roll Love, it would be a waste not to honor what has already occurred, but it would be nonsensical to repeat the mistakes of history. Love doesn’t quite conquer all; rock ‘n’ roll conquers love.

– Sarah Scaife is a writer based in Sydney.

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