A couple weekends ago I went to Humboldt Park two nights in a row to see bands play at an idiotic food truck festival. Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead at an outdoor festival of any kind, especially one centered around overpriced, mediocre street food, but the bands in question were the Gories and Endless Boogie. I hadn’t seen either play in person though I’ve been a fan for years. The only place they were playing was this glorified ribfest for the cool crowd. I had to go.
After Endless Boogie played Saturday night I waited around to see if the band was hanging around, maybe selling merch. I wanted to show them the sketch I’d done. Paul Major came out after awhile and talked to the three or four of us loitering around the side of the stage. He liked my drawing so I said I’d email him a copy. He thanked me, saying he wouldn’t see it till he got back home from tour because he doesn’t take a computer on the road. Sure enough, he emailed me about a week later to thank me again. It felt like a genuine moment with someone who’s work I love. It doesn’t happen very often, so I’m extra thankful when it does. One of the main reasons I draw people playing music is to bridge the gap between the stage and me. The result is kind of an afterthought, but if the subject likes it that’s definitely icing on the cake.
The night before, on the same stage, down the way from a bunch of food trucks peddling overpriced crap, the Gories bashed out a set of their fractured blues. Mick Collins and I have become friendly over the last few years. He used ask me for Russian translations on Twitter and we had drinks the last time I was in NYC. He had a food ticket so we wandered down the line of trucks so he could grab something before he played. I told him that coincidentally Tim Kerr, an old bandmate, was having an art opening in the burbs the next night. After an uncomfortable pause, Mick told me Kerr hates him. Apparently when they were recording a follow-up to their first LP Kerr wanted him to scream as loud as he could and Mick took exception. He didn’t think Kerr had a right to tell a black man how to scream. Kerr brought in a different black singer to finish the session. Mick said Kerr has been badmouthing him ever since, costing him chances to work with a bunch of people. I dropped the subject and we chatted about other things while he tried to eat the gloppy kimchi concoction he’d settled on.
I’d pitched the Reader on a review of Kerr’s art show before hearing Mick’s story but didn’t get the green light till after. The trip out to Miishkooki gallery in Skokie would’ve been loaded anyway because it is John Maloof’s place. Maloof is the guy at the center of the Vivian Maier story which I wrote about a few years ago. He was the only one of the main actors who never returned my calls, yet he wrote back promptly when I asked for an appointment to see Kerr’s show in order to write about it.
A dark cloud hung over that whole trip. How to reconcile a guy who presents a gallery full of portraits of his heroes, the majority of whom are black, treating a black colleague so badly. Was it just a misunderstanding between two big personalities, egos rubbing one another the wrong way? I don’t know Kerr but know Mick well enough to be disturbed when the first thing out of his mouth at a man’s name is a story of mistreatment. At the same time, there’s no way I could include it in my article because I couldn’t verify it. Neither could I include my misgivings about Maloof’s gallery. After looking around awhile I asked him how he kept the doors open, since it was a nonprofit and he didn’t take a cut of sales. He said that if an artist sold work he asked them for a donation. This seemed nebulous and questionable to say the least. But this was the same guy who, until recent lawsuits put a damper on it, was running a thriving racket making new prints of a dead woman’s pictures with no permission other than the dumb luck of stumbling onto her belongings at a storage locker auction.
I wrote about Kerr’s portraits and didn’t say anything about any of this. Neither Kerr or Maloof are villains even if both have made some questionable choices. But who among us hasn’t? Despite the unmitigated evil emanating from the White House on a near-hourly basis, most of the rest of us can’t be categorically labelled hero or villain. Most are a bundle of contradictory impulses which can’t be boiled down to one simple value judgment.
The news this past year presents a comic book array of clear heroes and villains but separating the artist from their art isn’t nearly so cut and dry. It’s easy for me keep loving Endless Boogie after the lead guy was so gracious but much more difficult to appreciate Kerr’s portraits knowing in the back of my head he treated a friend like garbage. Luckily for me, the former is a lot more important to me than the latter. Every bit of information you get about the people who make what you love will color how you take in their work. Sometimes I think maybe it would be better if they were all anonymous like the medieval icon painters were but that’s a pipe dream in our oversharing age.
I wanna look behind the curtain but dread what I’ll see. You probably know what I mean.
—Seeing Alex Cox present the 30th anniversary screening of his mad masterpiece Walker on Friday was the cherry on top of this thread of thought. Here’s a movie about the worst tendencies of this country which rings truer today than when it was released, yet effectively got its director blacklisted…