Why oversimplify? Pt. 1: Unraveling easy archetypes with Charlie Chaplin, Jeff Buckley, JFK, & James Blunt

Humans love to dramatize the lives of our creative torchbearers. Like mosquitoes drawn to exposed flesh, we find ourselves immediately attracted towards the juicy allure of outlandish gossip, revelling in tall tales and wild speculation as to the hidden habits and attitudes of our artistic icons. Even if you scorn ‘celeb culture’, we all have our equivalents in some way (a minor Kardashian is getting divorced? I couldn’t care less. But my god, if I hear even the faintest hint that Salah might be leaving Liverpool…).

Inevitably, higher echelons of fame usually serve to amplify these distortions. Superstardom is near-automatically accompanied by a constant swirl of impressionistic rumour, with entire industries devoted to pumping out provocative headlines, hasty analysis, dubious exclusives, and so forth. Often, there is little direct incentive to be ‘right’, rather than eye-catching or memorable (I gotta catch myself sometimes…).

While it would seem inhuman to have no such curiosities to tame, it is also very natural for members of our species to ‘see whatever we want to see’ in complex creative characters. After all – in the absence of knowing someone directly, are we really doing much more than layering our own biased perceptions on top of a teetering stack of other half-sketched secondary narratives?

Here, we take a brief look at some oft-forgotten dimensions of a few well-known figures. First, a haphazard scattering of familiar Western icons, then, in Pt. 2 , a quick view into how the archetype of the ‘diva’ can conveniently mask the real traumas and human struggles faced by female musicians, via the colourful life of Hindustani vocal virtuoso Kishori Amonkar. (And apologies for the per-example brevity: this is more just a messy rundown of queries and ideas – I’ll return to this topic when I understand it better…)

Refocusing: Chaplin, JFK, James Blunt, & co

Naturally, the public persona can often be a mismatch to key aspects of the real biography – and the previously-hidden details often don’t make for comfortable reading. For example, Albert Einstein may well fit right into our cozy image of the ‘affable eccentric genius’, with real humanitarian instincts and a lifelong capacity for childlike wonderment – but he also behaved like a philandering, controlling misogynist, treating his wife Mileva like an unloved servant while having a very public affair with her cousin (and displaying near-zero remorse for any of it).

Similarly, Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) is beloved for bringing slapstick merriment to millions in the form of incisive class-conflict parables – but he also relentlessly pursued teenage girls, sexually pressured his many wives, and humiliated his children in public. Marlon Brando – not someone known for an aversion to difficult, dangerous characters – called Chaplin “probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met”. (Yeah, the same little clown man who did that famous speech about kindness and gentleness:)

I don’t present this info to recast these characters – definitively labelling them as ‘bad guys’, or telling you what they’re ‘really like’. Neither does this offer any pretence of a ‘balanced’ biography – something, in any case, impossible within the confines of these written margins (or any others). It’s just about taking a better focus: trying to dig behind the easy archetypes a little, and see the human sides more clearly. Even if your interest in finding the truth is only a cold, instrumental one – say, to functionally imitate Chaplin’s screen-vision rather than fundamentally imbibe his personality – then there’s still no reason to wilfully defocus. Anyway: how often are the simpler narratives (and obvious counter-narratives) the most interesting ones in the end?

So, to understand Chaplin’s approach to the screen, we must also acknowledge the full range of who he could be off it: a fiendishly complex tale which, in turn, leads back to his traumatic, crushingly unjust childhood in South London. Born to an absent, alcoholic father and a mother beset by syphilis, poverty, and violent, malnutrition-related psychosis, he was first sent to the Lambeth Workhouse aged just seven due to his parents inability to care for him – his mother was delirious and detained in the Cane Hill asylum, and his father – soon to die from cirrhosis of the liver aged just 38 – was nowhere to be found. After release from the workhouse, Charlie and his siblings were regularly home-visited by concerned social services (yeah – things are very bad if you’re a priority for the NSPCC back in 1898. There really aren’t many rags-to-riches stories of the era that stretch so far to both extremes…)

Again, this information isn’t presented to ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ Chaplin’s later actions, however much it may be an undeniable part of the human whole (for one thing, most people who suffer traumatic childhoods don’t go on to treat their spouses like he did…). And – crucially – it isn’t a suggestion that his more noble on-screen sentiments are insincere or ‘fake’. Perhaps they paint him as an even better actor – able to preach so convincingly to others about values he failed to uphold himself – although it’s not like you have to consistently live by something to feel its validity and life-force (…why should it be less poignant for someone to express a higher aspiration rather than the mess of their current reality?). In the end, it’s just vital to see more of the story if we really want to understand what is going on.

On the other hand, many examples of oversimplification are, once unearthed, much more positive. Guitarist-singer Jeff Buckley (1966-1997), often portrayed as a downcast, poetic depressive, certainly had his emotional ups and downs – but seems from his diaries to have lived an extraordinarily frenetic, all-action, squeeze-forth-all-the-colours lifestyle (I think it’s mainly that he looks glum in Hallelujah: the sadboi spirits certainly don’t linger long in live performances of Grace – see the astonishing audience-less take below).

I even remember schoolfriends earnestly recounting how Jeff had committed suicide by jumping into the Mississippi River, after it all got too much for such a hyper-romantic soul. On researching the real tale, maybe they were half-right: Jeff did drown in the Wolf River tributary of the Mississippi, aged just 30 – but, by all accounts, through reckless, joyful abandon rather than any impulse towards self-harm. After raucously singing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love with a roadie, he leapt in for a quick dip, fully booted and clothed, seeking full-body refreshment before a return to his acoustic guitar that lay on the shore – but was swiftly pulled under by the hidden swell of a passing tugboat, never resurfacing alive (damn, I’ve got up to much dumber river-based antics than that in my time…).

“Music taught me a lot about every other art form; a lot about sculpture, a lot about poetry, a lot about prose, a lot about novels, a lot about drama, playwrighting, film-making, uhm… stuntwork, juggling…other than that, we have language, which is very static and full of little meanings, innuendos, puns… Being a poet or a writer is like being an alchemist, you take things like a cup and a sandwich and you make…a carrot out of them. Or make a war out of them. But sometimes, it’s like talking about some voodoo…”

Other cases are just downright surprising. Who would have thought that James Blunt – apparently just a lightweight, lily-livered pop singer, best known for creating one of the 21st century’s most irritating hits (You’re Beautiful) – seems, in his pre-fame days, to have helped prevent a catastrophic war in the Balkans by directly disobeying the orders of a US General, who had recklessly commanded Blunt’s unit to attack a Russian-held airfield. (And, for the record, he finds You’re Beautiful annoying as well, once issuing a public apology for inflicting it on humanity – although even I’ll admit that it’s preferable to WW3. Actually, with a tale like his attached, I maybe kinda like it now. Maybe.)

In politics, like music, the public persona is often carefully crafted – and setting the right story entails omission as well as construction. John F. Kennedy (1917-63), cast firmly in history as a glowing icon of dynamism and youthful virility (…right up to his very last moments), in fact suffered from so many serious health issues that, by the time he was inaugurated as president, his body had essentially became a (barely-)walking science experiment. Often, his daily schedule was built around his pharmacological needs – with regular breaks required so he could be pumped full of experimental drugs by different teams of medical advisors (…who didn’t always know what the others were up to). Writing in The Atlantic, historian Robert Dallek outlines the severity of what few at the time knew:

“During his presidency – and in particular during times of stress: such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco [Apr 1961], and the Cuban missile crisis [Oct 1962], Kennedy was taking an extraordinary variety of medications: steroids for his Addison’s disease; painkillers for his back; antispasmodics for his colitis…antihistamines for allergies; and, on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic…injected and ingested corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency; procaine shots, ultrasound treatments, and hot packs for his back; Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; penicillin and other antibiotics for his urinary-tract infections, and an abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep…”

—Also see Pt. 2: Kishori Amonkar: icon, diva, world-wary genius?

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