So I just saw Rent for the first time ever on DVD. When the stage production was going strong, I was well into my Boubil Shoenberg phase and could not be interested in a ‘gritty’ ‘rock’ musical about modern Bohemians. I was firmly inoculated against the Renthead fervor that seemed to be infecting the nation. And then . . . I guess it was about four or five years ago . . . I watched a special about Jonathan Larson. There is a poem by Edna Millay the title of which has always struck home somehow How naked, How Without a Wall. This is the life of the artist. Larson took the voluntary involuntary vow of poverty of artists who choose not to bisect themselves by using their talent for more lucrative commercial work. He believed in his talent and his work when no one else did. And what do you know, all his hard work paid off, he was a success story! Larson had hit musical on Broadway, won two Tony awards and a Pulitzer, all before the age of forty.
Of course, he died at 35. Just a few hours after his first interview with the New York Times, just hours after ‘Rent’s final dress rehearsal and days before its debut on Broadway; he died of an aortic aneurysm. He’d been in and out of emergency rooms (composer/waiters can’t afford health insurance or private medical care) during the weeks before he died complaining of fever and chest pain. The diagnoses received seems to have ranged between depression and food poisoning. What is awful and enraging is that the aortic aneurysm which took his life was likely a complication of a treatable (though tricky) illness called Marfan Syndrome. If Larson taken on a steady 9 to 5, he might still be alive. Health insurance might have saved him, of course, we wouldn’t have ‘Seasons of Love’, ‘La Vie Boheme’, 'One Song Glory', or any of the other songs that tell the story of Rent.
As I write this tonight, I realize that it was on an afternoon five or six years ago, with Jonathan Larson firmly in mind, the seeds of BotP were sown in my heart. I kept saying to myself ‘It shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard. This person is creating something transcendent out of pure thin air. Is that so easy? Why should everything else in his life be so hard?’ Over and over again. Life for artists, is unreasonably difficult; the poverty, the lack of respect, lack of support. However exquisitely talented, however hard they work, if they keep at it, they are far more likely to die poor and early than most of the rest of us. It’s ridiculous, particularly when one considers that they give all that they are and all that they have in every moment of every day.
They are our record-keepers. They are our story-tellers.
When the world has had its fill of burnt flesh and twisted metal and must turn its minds away.
When the world has had its fill of rotting limbs in mass graves and must turn its mind away. When the world has had its fill of injustice that cannot be redressed and agony for which there is no succor and must turn its mind away.
Artists do not–cannot turn away. Their eyes and their hearts remain open to all the ugliness long after it has overwhelmed the rest of us into turning away. And then they reach inside themselves and tell us how it feels to be human in an inhumane world. In song, in verse, on canvas, on film, on stage . . . with the written word, they give us a place to put the pain and words with which to express it. They lead the way past the wreckage to a place of beauty, of truth that makes all endurable. And all that is needed is that genetic quirk that compels them to stand naked in a hailstorm, so to speak, in order to give rest of us a more nuanced weather report.
Okay . . . I’m not kidding myself. I do love artists, I love the very idea of them. But let’s not fool ourselves with the notion they are called to their work out of some sense of altruism and idea of public benefaction. When it comes to why they work, they could care less about the rest of us. They do it for one simple reason. They must. They can’t not create. They are driven by this insane compulsion to cut open their guts and then tell us what they look like. The good, the bad and the downright disgusting. And so they are extraordinarily sensitive and intensely vulnerable.
Don’t believe me? Think about the last time you talked to someone about the fact that a certain item on the news made you feel so bad, your stomach hurt for two days and that you kept crying and couldn’t figure out why. Yes...I’m taking (ahem) artistic license here, but you get my gist? With whom did you speak about these feelings? Your spouse? Your mother? Your boss? That chick you can’t stand whose desk is by the copy machine? You talked to someone you trusted. Someone who made you feel safe, a person you knew would not think less of you or deride you or think you weak for being so vulnerable to far away suffering.
Now imagine feeling those feelings and feeling the need . . . to put them into a song, or a painting, or in an article or book or . . . you get my drift. Imagine going over it and over it until you get it just right...have found just the right . . . thing. The expression, color, brush stroke, movement, whatever, that most perfectly expresses that feeling. And then imagine, expanding on the theme until you have created something where nothing once stood. Not because you wanted to open up your soul and put it on canvas for the world to see, but because you had no choice. How naked, how without a wall.
All of the rest . . . shouldn’t be so hard.
But anyway, One Song Glory, the tale of an HIV positive rocker racing against mortality to write that immortal note is ridiculously poignant and feels like something shared by all artists. And . . . it makes me cry like a baby.
Thank you Jonathan.