The Romance of the Suffering Artist

Tonight we went to see Bill Mallonee play-by far one of my favorite song writers. Paste magazine listed him as #51 or something on their list of 100 greatest living songwriters. I’d put him at about three or four.

The first time I saw him, about seven or eight years ago, he was with a band called the Vigilantes of Love. But for the last few years he’s toured with his wife Mariah, putting together shoe-string-budget tours that snake all across the country.

For me, Bill is tough to describe. In fact, I think he’s just one of those people you must see in order to understand. He’s got the dry southern wit of Mark Twain, the restless spirit of Woody Guthrie, the terse, loaded storytelling of Hemingway and the leathered, hollow-cheeked look of Tom Joad. He’s an Americana hero who’s frustratingly unknown.

He’s pretty well-known among folk circles, but most in the music industry view him as a has-been who never quite was. This is a man who didn’t learn to play guitar until he was thirty, but has released around 25 albums over the last twenty years. And now he tours a couple times a year playing house shows while barely scraping by. It’s tough to see, but in a strange way it also seems to make sense.

It’s kind of romantic, really. It’s the starving, tortured artist that he sings about in his song “Skin”, which is from the perspective of Theodore Van Gogh describing his struggling brother Vincent who eventually took his own life-having never sold a painting. I don’t exactly know about Bill, but this is the sort of thing that seems to drive artists to produce great work, whilst also drive them to the point of desperation in the process.

I once taught a survey of American Literature course. I gave a quick bio for every writer we covered and my students were quick to note that many, if not most, struggled with depression and addiction; this is something I also took notice of while studying literature in college, and it’s pretty remarkable to see that most of the writers that have produced great works struggle in this way. I told my students that I believe one must be very sensitive in order to create something great, because great art is something that speaks to the very heart of the human condition. And guess what? That human condition really sucks sometimes. For some, it sucks a lot of the time.

If we’re sensitive to the truth of this world, it means we see a lot of pain. And that kind of exposure can take its toll. It leaves those artists worn out and tired and tender. But it hopefully leaves them astute enough to describe the lay of the land (the “sad terrain” as Bill says) to all of us brave enough to take heed and traverse this dangerous world.

And this is life. And I’ll live it til the last glug of the jug says “I’m empty”.

The Calico Rebellion

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Romance of the Suffering Artist

  1. This post reminds me of a movie I saw the other day, Pollock. About the artist Jackson Pollock. Good stuff.

  2. wes

    all great artists suffer addiction -> ole twenty mile is ruthlessly addicted to spiced tobacco…

    keep livin biggie sir

  3. thanks for posting more than i do. and when kendall and i met bill and watched him play in a very small non crowded dining hall at a festival in new hampshire, we both thought it was akin to watching bob dylan. amazing.

  4. Roslyn

    I hope you are still planning on teaching.

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