It's a funny thing about rock stars.
You'd think that so many of them have the world on a string, the tiger by the tail, or whatever you'd otherwise choose to call it.
Let's talk first about the lifestyle, or at least what we know about it as outsiders living vicariously through reading about it in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone, or maybe seeing it in the nude pictures of Keith Richards lying on some beach in France we see showing up on the Internet.
And just for the record, if that particular image grosses you out, you are by no means alone.
Anyway, you'd think a life of selling millions of records, living in English countryside mansions, dating 20-something year-old super models into your 60s, and pretty much having the world as your personal oyster would be enough, right? Well, think again.
You see, for the select handful of rock royalty who have actually scaled the top of the mountain, there remains that one elusive final hill to climb, and that my friends, is artistic redemption.
It's one thing to top the charts on Billboard, but it's quite another to have the sort of pretentious types who sip wine at art galleries poring over your every word as though it were manna from heaven itself.
Even so, many have tried.
For rock stars like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Sting, for example, acting in films has represented the the most obvious avenue towards this type of validation, and as could be expected the results have been decidedly mixed.
Jagger, most notably, is back singing "Jumping Jack Flash" for the umpteenth time after getting mixed reviews in movies from Performance and Ned Kelly, to Freejack. Bowie did a great job playing himself in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the less said about Sting acting in movies like David Lynch's production of Dune the better.
Of these, Sting alone refuses to give up however. He's spent the better part of the last two decades trying to reinvent himself as a solo artist dabbling in everything from jazz to Gregorian chants when all most of us want to hear is "Roxanne" with the Police one more time — and not have to pay 300 bucks a ticket for the privilege of doing so, I might add.
In so doing, Sting joins the likes of people like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and especially David Byrne who seem hellbent on cramming culture down the throats of fans who would much rather hear "Burning Down The House" or "Shock The Monkey" one more time.
You know what I mean? Good.
Because rather than piss off all of the South African or Brazilian union musicians who play on records by Sting and David Byrne, I have a rather novel idea. Follow the poets.
Tribal rhythms and all aside, rock and poetry is the one combination which has worked best over the years to satisfy the need to reconcile commercial success with artistic credibility for attention starved rock stars.
Elvis Costello can record vanity projects with the Brodsky Quartet, and Paul McCartney can write his symphonies, but let's be honest here. Nothing works for rock stars quite like poetry.
Some rock stars are in fact naturals at it. For that you can reference Lennon, Dylan, Springsteen, and even Bono (at least on a good day). Others? Well they fake it really well.
The most obvious example here is Jim Morrison. By all accounts, the one-time Lizard King spent his final years wandering the streets of Paris in a boozed-out haze trying to connect with his inner Rimbaud, and left us with An American Prayer.
Drunken ramblings about a "Lament For My Cock" aside, that album actually has an oddly haunting, hypnotic quality to it too, played as it is to the surviving members of the Doors providing a lounge-jazz music backing soundtrack.
Of those rock stars who are still among us though, I would point towards Patti Smith and Tom Waits as the two greatest living examples of artists who combine the thought of poetry with the thump of rock and roll with any degree of success.
Patti Smith's landmark debut album Horses alone stands as something which qualifies her for goddess status. Nowhere in all of rock and roll will you find something that combines the raw punk rock urgency of her take on "Gloria" with the gorgeous stream of consciousness poetry of the amazing nine or so minutes of "Birdland" (a tonal poem, which to best I can figure has something to do with being taken up in a UFO). It is an absolutely spellbinding album.
Patti's work has been spotty since coming back in the '90s, but Horses is a masterpiece that on its own qualifies her as one of the true greats.
And then there's Tom Waits.
Waits is a different animal entirely. After writing songs that became hits for people like Linda Ronstadt in the '70s, Tom Waits has spent the better part of the last three decades traveling down the darkest streets and alleyways of the world, and singing about them in a voice choked with cigarettes, whiskey, and God only knows what else.
Over the years, Waits has taken on the character of everything from vagabond drifter to carnival barker, to create a persona that is truly unique in all of music. Even someone as mighty as Bob Dylan has been compared to him in the voice he has taken on in his most recent albums.
If there is any guy alive who sings about the seedy underbelly of society with legitimate street cred, it is Tom Waits. Sometimes, I even find myself praying for the guy, he makes it all seem so real. An advance listen to Waits' forthcoming Glitter And Doom Live (review forthcoming) is in fact what inspired this article.
The second disc — which consists entirely of "Tom's Tales" is particularly good.
If true artistic credibility means the ability of the listener to live vicariously through the words of the artist, then I defy anyone to find an artist more credible than Tom Waits.
It's all about putting it into words.