When good musicians say bad things

20:13, Oct 05 2010

Well the internet was abuzz yesterday and on Monday with Paul Henry's faux-pas. It's not really the place of this blog to suggest a shark-jump moment from Henry - but since Facebook has his face plastered all over its pages and Twitter was, well, atwitter with twittterings about this twit-move from Henry it seemed time to examine the stupid things that musicians have said and whether or not it has cost them their audience.

Can you be put off a musician because of their beliefs and statements? Or do you not care what they say at all, you only care about what they play?

A famous case of this was Elvis Costello. He was quoted as calling Ray Charles a "blind, dumb nigger", later giving the excuse that he was purposely trying to shock the people he was playing pool with in a bar. (Someone can correct me but the version I heard places Costello, drunk, with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett.)

Ray Charles forgave Costello, suggesting it "sounded like drunk talk" and that people should not be held to ransom for heat-of-the-moment or drunken or out-of-context comments.

John Lennon certainly caused a stir with his oft-misquoted statement about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus.


He backpedalled somewhat as you can see here; fraught, frazzled, tour-fatigued. Many American fans burned records and trashed Beatles memorabilia, some buying it purely to destroy because the Lord's name was taken in vain.

Some musicians aren't as quick as John Lennon was (or for that matter Paul Henry) with the apology.

Eric Clapton (blame the drink too, if you must) told an audience in the mid-1970s that he supported former Conservative minister Enoch Powell (known at the time for an anti-immigration speech). Clapton talked of England being "overcrowded" and urged for it not become "a black colony". He suggested England "get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out" and chanted "Keep Britain White" (a National Front slogan).

Clapton appeared to laugh off the event, certainly not apologising. To many it seemed to show just how out of touch and uncaring Clapton was at the time, given that he had had his real breakthrough solo hit with his version of Bob Marley's song, I Shot the Sheriff. And of course had created a career around appropriation of black music/s.

More recently Bryan Ferry, at the age of 61 (in 2007), made the boo-boo of praising the work-ethic, architecture and artistic flair of the Nazi movement - to journalists in Germany.

Maybe we can laugh at some of this stupidity, or appear very detached from it and its impact - and the point of this blog-post, by the way, is just to present some well-known examples, not to judge either way - but it would appear (at least from the way the media reports the incidents) that as in so many walks of life anything to do with race and religion is going to put a person in hot water.

Sometimes it is the media putting the words or actions into the musician's mouth. Marilyn Manson came across as one of the most sympathetic, intelligent and articulate interviewees in Bowling for Columbine; essentially he was saying he should not be blamed for inspiring the shootings - he makes his music in an exercise of his artistic right. He plays a character.

But what about when it is the musician's fault entirely? It could be something trivial the musician has said; it doesn't need to be something that makes you judge them because of their political, religious or racist judgments or comments.

What about when Mick Jagger put Pete Townshend's line about "hope I die/before I get old" into absurd practice by stating, before the age of 45, "I'd rather be dead than singing 'Satisfaction' when I am 45" (he is now 67 and sings it at pretty much every Stones show as they continue to tour regularly).

Two absolute doozies that spring to mind do relate to politics and race again but highlight the sheer stupidity of the people making the comments. It's not a hatred from them - apart from maybe a hatred of the education system and, you know, books - but remember this awful gem from Mariah Carey:

"Whenever I watch TV and I see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I would love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff."

And then Avril Lavigne had this ace up her tongue's sleeve: "It's important to be thankful, even if you're poor. I mean, come on, we all have clean water - well OK, not people in the developing world."

Thing is, I never really cared for the music of Lavigne or Carey before I read these comments. So I can't say I was put off them in any way. I did actually laugh at the stupidity/naivety of these statements - of the fact that they were spoken aloud, filter off.

So - it's up to you on how you want to answer this. I figure you should be trying to think of a time when a musician has said something so outlandish that it has put you off their music and/or off their character. Maybe you liked Kanye West until he interrupted that pop-singer-that-everyone-tries-to-attach-country-kudos-to? Or maybe you were put off Eric Clapton's music when you found out about his political views, as opposed to the usual reason for being put off his music: listening to too much of his music.

For me, I get offended by people that bring their religion, or change of attitude even, to the way they tackle future music and see their old music. Donna Summer, for instance - she turned down the chance to sing It's Raining Men, she turned her back on disco. She was briefly one of the biggest stars around - and then she allegedly suggested that Aids was punishment from God for homosexuality.  I'm not sure who she thought was buying a lot of her records or dancing to them in clubs and helping make them popular?

Summer's fall from grace and from the limelight appears to be a poor decision on her part to essentially bite at the hand feeding her.

Prince started singing The Christ instead of The Cross when he converted to Jehovah's Witness.

This sort of stuff bugs me a little - I appreciate that people change their ways, but you can't expect to remain in the public eye and remembered for what you once offered if you are not prepared to offer it up in the way people expect.

And since I started with a word about Paul Henry I guess I should end with one.

Usually when Paul Henry says something that is deemed controversial I can see the point of him saying it - regardless of whether I agree with it. I can see that he has angled for humour, even if it's a very black humour. I can see that he is challenging stuffiness or possibly is running with this now overly used justification of saying what everyone is thinking. But not on Monday. He jumped the shark.

He is a skilled journalist and has been playing a role on Breakfast really well - a role that people obviously want (he did win a People's Choice Award, after all). But it's hard to see what the point was with Monday's comments.  I am not going to call Henry a racist though. But I don't know what he was thinking - usually, for entertainment value or whatever else is the reason, I feel like I have some insight into what he is thinking when he says something that pushes buttons. Not this time.

I've been called a racist myself - it's not a nice thing to be labelled. In my case I was just talking about music I didn't like. So the issue of race would seem irrelevant. So the intention of this blog-post, understand, is not for people to go pointing fingers at who they think is a racist - it's merely to create a discussion over what can put you off a person in their role - in this case, musician.

So with that the question remains - can you ignore the things that someone says if you like what they play? Or can you think of when you have been put off a musician because of something/s they have said?

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