I’m not much one for celebrities or celebrity sightings, but I haven’t outgrown a sheepish bewilderment at the idea or reality of being around someone whose work I admire and I don’t think I ever will. That being said, I think admiration for someone’s work always has as a huge amount of affection as its base ingredient, and as anyone knows, undeserved affection gets sour in your system quickly.
In New York City it’s ridiculously easy to run across one of your idols somewhere. They frequent the same restaurants you pass by, museums you go to, galas you bartend at. And usually, as soon as you do, the idea about them that took years to develop are instantly deflated. I’ve seen Michael Stipe wander aimlessly saging a basement like a weird hippy uncle. I’ve had Courtney Love blatantly steal a magazine from a store I worked at in front of me and throw it into the front seat of a moving car. I suppose for the latter that’s actually about right, but it would’ve been nice to see a real life Courtney bitchfit over something more substantial than petty theft of a fashion magazine she definitely can afford. Each time, the lesson rings in my head to temper my affection until it is deserved. But sometimes it doesn’t even take meeting them in person to learn this, just a slightly closer look.
I’ll tell you something personal, internet (because you seem trustworthy). I’m insanely into the first few Modest Mouse albums. Insanely. In 2002 I started listening to Lonesome Crowded West, all the way through, and I didn’t really stop for 10 years. My idol became Isaac Brock, who at this point has guided me so consistently through my aspirations I could swear I know what he smells like.
Summer after summer I posted up with a Winamp open in my mom’s laundry room and fiended to grow up so I could continue on what they did as I saw it: reform, question, or just preserve them if nothing else, so that their relevance wasn’t just cute and angry, but canonized and acted upon. I unhinged and decoded their references bit by bit. I assigned a song to my unsuspecting romantic partners, and kept the vast majority for myself. When I wanted to write screenplays at 12, I pictured the trailers to their songs.
Time went by and I did start growing up. I became his age. I became the age he was when he wrote “Dramamine,” then “Teeth Like Gods Shoe Shine,” then Moon and Antarctica, and then I became older still. I had dozens of conversations about them, sober and not, sometimes more sensical than others, but always enthusiastic, always powerfully affectionate. I had one in a bar in Echo Park about a year ago as I had so many times, and expected it was going to end in that same way where we list of our favorite songs and smile at each other a bunch, but this guy was unfazed by my enthusiasm. Instead, he set his beer down loud enough that it interrupted my train of thought and said “You know he raped a girl” without looking at me. I went home and searched YouTube for a lack of evidence to prove he had been wrong. I couldn’t find much that proved or disproved it. Instead what I saw in bothering to see him talk about himself for the first time in 10 years was that he unapologetically owns up to being kind of a jerk. When he at an older (but not much older) age is asked who the songs are about, he says dismissively that he doesn’t remember but that they were “important to me at the time.” And when he is days away from writing one of the songs he says he’s single now because he “done bad to her,” flipping his dilated blue eyes back and forth between the camera and the butt of his cigarette without any kindness or remorse. Somehow, you know he’s totally telling the truth.
It was nauseously disorienting. I may have thrown up actually. Not much physically remained consistent in my upbringing, but Modest Mouse (and Isaac) were portable, and stayed with me through everything. They represented that part of me that, when it showed up, I thought was guiding me to being better. Not happier, not always, but better. That person who took knew how to look more deeply at things, but without venom (or sometimes, with just enough). That person who learned to appreciate their sadness as much as their joy, and with some practice was able to carry the twin emotions equally in the left and right chambers of my heart, which to this day is the hardest yet most important thing I know how to do.
And there he was, in that moment, proven fallible. He wasn’t romantic, committed, deeply respectful and familiar with his past. He was your best friend’s douchey brother, whose gazes you avoid as you brush your teeth when you’re sleeping over. He was someone your urge your friend to stop talking to.
With that, I immediately began to wonder why I wasn’t more devastated.
I watched his interviews again. I watched him writing lyrics in a van in 1996 off a scratchy VHS. The country is really big, and they’ve been across it many times. Usually in a beaten up car, bronze-casting the fictional experiences of passing towns, or the expansive landscape of the country asphyxiated by roads, through lyrics. There wasn’t a great plan in place (this is our concept, these are all the song ideas), it just sort of developed on the asphalt, and there were probably plenty of mistakes and terrible lyrics that we of course will never see. Maybe that’s kind of what we all do, on whatever roads we are on for whatever reason. Maybe we see something that inspires us. Maybe we get an idea for a comic, or a petition, lyrics. Maybe, it just so happens to be a very good one, and another good one, and then just like that a whole album is made.
Then I thought, perhaps the real hero has never really been him. Perhaps the person I have idealized is far outside what I expected out of this person who saw me through the entire arc of relationships, who made me come to terms with death and accept life’s incongruencies over and over again. Perhaps the real hero was the real, adult, person I as a 12-year-old girl imagined his lyrics beckoning me to become. I can only, at this point, take the best qualities I imagined Isaac having as my prototype, and leave the rest. I borrowed his anger, intelligence, criticality and idealism, but I have synthesized compassion, sensitivity, and feminism with as much uncompromised ownership, or maybe slightly more.
Ultimately giving human being the title “idol” is just too great a responsibility. Especially if you’re like me, and you can’t really relate to someone you haven’t seen yell (IE those prone to fucking up). What they can do is provide a series of open-ended questions that you spend your life answering. Questions whose fluid, malleable answers make up the diagram of how you want to be as you slouch gradually toward responses.
Questions they probably haven’t even figured out the answers to themselves.