The stereotypical great artist is a tortured genius. He or she rages against the pain of life with art as the only means of survival. That screaming into the darkness has created swirls of starry nights, howls of poetry, scores of beautifully painful rock songs … and, sadly, way too much substance abuse and death by suicide. The bleakness overtook them.
Yet there are many other great artists out there who, in the face of unfathomable tragedy, not only make great art but use it to illuminate how tragedy feeds grace and gratitude. As I recently caught up on my reading, I learned more about two such geniuses: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett, who performs as Eels.
Colbert – one of the most talented, quick-witted comedians ever to hit television – is gearing up for his September 8 debut as host of The Late Show. Over the summer, he’s done a number of quirky videos to keep his hand in while he and his team develop his new style as the talk show host Stephen Colbert, as opposed to the vainglorious idiot “Stephen Colbert” he portrayed on Comedy Central for nine years. For instance, the world got to know the town of Monroe, Michigan just a little bit better thanks to Colbert taking over as host of the public access TV show, Only In Monroe. (Believe me when I tell you, not all Michiganders eat muskrat … although some most certainly do.)
Colbert also sat for an intensive cover story interview for GQ with writer Joel Lovell. Despite being a typical PR opportunity to promote the new show, it is one of the most moving pieces of journalism I’ve read. With Lovell as a guide, Colbert connects faith, comedy and humanity in a way few artists dare to in this cynical, agnostic age.
Colbert grew up in South Carolina as the youngest of eleven children in a devout Catholic family. When he was ten, his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash. The only child still living at home, he buried himself in books (particularly Tolkien, to the point where he speaks passable Elvish). A haphazard student, he transferred from Hampton-Sydney to Northwestern, found his way into Del Close’s improv sphere, joined Second City – and the rest is comedy history.
But Colbert never became an angry comic, or bitterly ironic, or one who used comedy to whistle past the graveyard and distract himself from despair. Instead, his mother, guided by their Catholic faith, helped him “recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.”
I’ve talked about Everett before and have gotten more familiar with his Eels catalog; his Shootenanny is currently one of my favorites. He published his memoir in 2008 when he was 45 – and if anyone should write a memoir at such a relatively early point in life, it’s him. Otherwise, no one could comprehend how the poor guy survived so much relentless heartbreak.
When Everett was 18, his father died of a heart attack, and young Mark was the one who found the body. A few years later, his troubled sister committed suicide while he was touring for his first big album. Within a year of that loss, his mother died of cancer. Later on, he lost a first cousin who was a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11, and his roadie ODed. (When Everett mentions becoming friends with Elliott Smith, I nearly shouted out loud, “Don’t do it!”)
Like Colbert, Everett had an unbidden, compulsive attraction to making art (creating alternative rock music, in his case) – and though he’s far from religious, Everett shares Colbert’s optimism. As he writes,
I had an epiphany. While I was thinking about all these tragic circumstances, I pictured a blue sky in my head and I suddenly felt greatly inspired. I realized that I had to write about what was going on … And the blue sky told me that there was a way to do this that was something different. That it wasn’t all bad, that there was a bright side, even to this. For me, the bright side was knowing that I was going to learn things from all this, and also just the fact that I could be inspired and could do something positive with all of it …
Reading this book puts Everett’s music into a totally different light. When he sums up being in love with a beautiful girl in the same verse as falling on the floor crying your guts out by saying “Hey man, now you’re really living,” that’s exactly what he means. He’s not being sarcastic. He’s being truthful.
Read Colbert’s GQ interview – it’s gorgeous, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice. Then read Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett’s own story of finding hope existing in tandem with tragedy is surprisingly eloquent, too.
See you on the flip side …