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Basslines and Protest Signs

Basslines and Protest Signs Part 74: Separating the Art from the Artist

Marilyn Manson (photo: Sven Mandel)

The notion of “cancel culture” has been raised numerous times in this column over the past couple of years. Whether we were talking about the right losing their collective shit because of The Muppets, Dr. Seuss, Potato Head; or them wanting to burn Dixie Chicks records, or ending Colin Kaepernick’s football career — we’ve dug deep into the matter.

But recent sexual abuse allegations aimed directly at Marilyn Manson raise far bigger questions: Is it ever really possible to separate an artist from the art? Can we continue to listen to (or watch) the work of somebody who we know (or at least believe) to have done terrible things and treat the “art” as an entirely separate entity?

This is going to get uncomfortable because legacy artists who might well have been “cancelled” if social media existed before the ’90s generally get a free pass today. Mostly due to the idea “you can’t punish an old crime based on today’s standards.” But are today’s standards really any different to what they ever were or did the public simply have less of a voice?

The list of the guilty is long and illustrious: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and David Bowie to name just a few have treated women terribly to a degree that surely would have led to more harsh repercussions in today’s world. 

They should. Statutory rape is no joke. Sable Starr and Lori Mattix were 13–16 years old when they were considered the top groupies on the Sunset Strip in the ’70s. Google a list of their “acquaintances” and it seems to cover most of the big names from that era. In the 1996 song “Look Away”, Iggy Pop sings “I slept with Sable when she was 13, Her parents were too rich to do anything, She rocked her way around L.A., ‘Til a New York Doll carried her away.”

Pop is referring to Johnny Thunders in that last line. Starr was also associated with Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Bowie and more. Mattix’s story is very similar. Starr once warned Mattix off of Jimmy Page, threatening to shoot her. But more importantly, any claims that “the musicians didn’t know how old the girls were” fall on deaf ears today. The priority should be with protecting children and protecting women rather than protecting legacies.

What you do with that information is up to you. Everybody has their own lines and you get to choose how far you’re prepared to stretch over it. For some, the “they haven’t been found guilty in a court of law” argument is key and this is where things can get really messy.

Michael Jackson, in the eyes of the law, died an innocent man. That’s enough for millions of music fans to justify their continued fandom of a man accused of the most heinous crimes. Meanwhile, fans will tell you that Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown wasn’t unusual for the south in the 1950s. But that defense is a stretch. Because something isn’t ‘unusual’ does that make it ok? Of course not. Plus, Gale filed court documents citing physical as well as mental abuse. All of this information was known as the ’50s became the ’60s, and Jerry Lee Lewis remains one of the most influential and important figures in rock & roll music. Every rock band, including every punk band, has been directly or indirectly influenced by his rabid, rapid-fire delivery. That’s why this whole issue is so uncomfortable.

L–R: Chuck Berry (photo: Pickwick) // John Lennon (photo: Linda McCartney)

Another rock & roll pioneer, Chuck Berry installed cameras in the female bathrooms in his restaurant. One of them was on the toilet seat. Consensually executed fetishes involving bodily fluids are one thing. But spying on women, recording them, at a most vulnerable moment — that’s obviously disgusting. 

In a 1980 Playboy interview, John Lennon said, “I used to be cruel to women, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.” 

His son Julian Lennon once said, “Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces – no communication, adultery, divorce? You can’t do it, not if you’re being true and honest with yourself.”

Exactly. This is John fucking Lennon — a man synonymous with peace and love, and a member of THE BEATLES! What band has had more influence on pop culture than The Beatles

You don’t have to look further than Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and The Beatles to see that everything you like today has been influenced by somebody with a dark history. Need more? How about the time in 1976 when Eric Clapton said this on stage:

“Stop Britain from becoming a Black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the w*gs out. Get the c**ns out. Keep Britain white. Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. So where are you? Well, wherever you are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country. I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country.”

Clapton has expressed his regret for that rant but it’s not like he said a single racist word (also not ok). That was a relatively lengthy outburst — those sentiments must have been festering in his head.

Knowledge is power. Everybody gets to do what they want with it. As more accusations emerge about Manson, his fans will all get to decide when and if they’ll stop listening to Antichrist Superstar. Will it require police action or, even then, will people be happy to “separate the art from the artist?” 

Surely there is a line though, even within the realms of rock & roll and its often dark past. Ian Watkins of Lostprophets and ’70s glam rocker Gary Glitter are both serving time for pedophilia. They’re scum, yet hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed the music of both artists prior to their crimes going public. 

Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? We hope not.

You see, it’s messy.

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