Friday, July 1, 2011
Rock (Death?) Cults
Among the many strange features of the rock music business, the phenomenon of the “cult” musician and performer is one that comes up frequently. There is a whole infrastructure to the creation and maintenance of the cult artist that won’t come up when we discuss Journey or Foreigner. Rock cults come in all shapes and sizes, but for practical purposes I’ll divide them into three sizes: large (prototypical large cults would include Syd Barrett, Big Star, the Velvets, Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, Van Morrison, Morrissey/Smiths, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen), middle cults (Robyn Hitchcock, Flaming Lips, Richard Thompson, Television, Nick Cave, Henry Rollins/Black Flag, the Replacements), and smallish cults (Love, Skip Spence, the Chocolate Watch Band, Fugazi). The next question is what distinguishes each level structurally: major cult artists verge on being household names; have generally a handful of songs that receive radio airplay somehow, somewhere; but they fill small theaters rather then arenas, and (during the days when albums sold seriously) individual albums would seldom sell in the millions. But Syd Barrett, Big Star, and Nick Drake don’t particularly fit under this rubric; if I classify them as major cult artists, it is because there is a particular ferocity around their cult status; their albums are highly rated (counting, for Syd, Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and often reach high points in opinion polls, and for aficionados they are manna from heaven. All three are “classic” cult artists, who have been around long enough to consolidate their position; even if the cult around Morrissey is even more ferocious, and he does get on the radio and sell out theaters to boot. Morrissey stands out as Mr. Cult.
The middle level is tricky to define. These artists are warmly received by critics without necessarily being included in Best-Of polls (although Marquee Moon sometimes makes it in). Middle cult artists generally have a tough time getting on the radio (though the Flaming Lips made it a few times in the 90s), and they may sometimes be able to fill theaters, but usually a theater like TLA in Philly rather than the Tower. In other words, a venue that hovers between seeming like a club and having theater magnitude; every city’s got one. In New York, it’s the Bowery Ballroom. Middle cults may or may not have a quality of ferocity around them; I, personally, have never met a ferocious Television fan, but devotees of the Flaming Lips can sometimes surround them with an aura of religiosity. But the standard signature of the middle cult artist is that they do get followed in rock magazines as if they matter. They’re integrated into the media fabric. When you hit the smallish cults, this fades, even though a small cult band like Fugazi does have a rabid cult following. A band like Love was considered classic for at least a decade and a half after they disbanded, particularly for their magnum opus “Forever Changes.” But Arthur Lee and Love don’t inspire the devotion that artists in the other tiers do. The same can be said of Skip Spence and Moby Grape. It may seem curious that I place Fugazi in the small cult category. The way I reason it, since Fugazi receives little to no mainstream media exposure, and because the fans devoted to Fugazi are often more invested in their ethos and the D.C. punk scene than they are in Fugazi’s music, I’d have a hard time placing them in the middle with a band like the Replacements, who have a solid following specifically for Paul Westerberg’s songs.
The torment of being a major cult artist is that you’re famous enough to make magazine covers without being commercial enough to seriously, materially compete with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, or even Britney Spears and Mariah Carey. The consolation has to be that what is being produced is of a higher quality than what more commercial artists produce. And I would opine that this is usually the case. But for someone like Elvis Costello or Van Morrison, the situation might be particularly torturous, because they gets talked of in high enough terms over long enough periods of time so that the cult label could be called inappropriate. They’re well-integrated, even more than Morrissey, into the rock master narrative, but without having reaped too many material benefits from it. If Morrissey, along with Costello and Morrissey, makes a solid living, it’s because he has an iron-handed grip on a reliable fan-base, who will always pay money to see and hear him. And where auras of religiosity are concerned, the Morrissey phenomenon takes things to such a ridiculous extreme that it does almost seem like a death cult. It depends how you define “death.”