Sympathy for the devil (up to a point)

Sympathy for the devil (up to a point)

Thanks to my media diet, it’s been a sordid week, and I am not just talking about Anthony Weiner.

I’ve been reading Life, the autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. I don’t know if you could guess this from looking at him, but Richards’ tale is pretty decadent. On a scale of Hefner to Caligula, he scores a solid de Sade. It’s not the groupies and one-night stands (he comes off as more loyal to his various “chicks” and “darlings” than you might imagine) as much as it is the monumental substance abuse. When he’s not touring and practicing, he’s either looking to score, shooting up, or sleeping it off. The book confirms everyone’s suspicions that his survival is a medical miracle, and that he should donate his body to science.

I’m not a rabid Stones fan, but I am always curious about the process by which a struggling anything — musician, artist, writer — emerges from obscurity into fame. Richards does a compelling job of describing his childhood in an economically and culturally depressed England (he was born in 1943) and the release he enjoyed by listening to and playing American popular music, especially the Chicago blues. “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash” are so much part of our collective cultural DNA that it is almost impossible to imagine them being composed by a pair of yoinks swapping guitar licks and snatches of lyrics, as Richards describes his songwriting process with Mick Jagger. I’m reminded of an SNL skit in which John Belushi (who shared Richards’ drugs but not his luck or metabolism) portrayed Beethoven, plunking out the notes that would become the Fifth Symphony.

Richards works hard at his craft, soaking up lessons from his heroes, endlessly tinkering and jamming to pull a new sound out of his battered guitars. One thing you can say about ol’ Keef: He isn’t lazy.

But it’s the excess that sticks with me — the endless flow of Jack Daniels, the hours spent in the bathroom cooking up heroin, the serial arrests and bouts of cold turkey.

And while it is easy to judge all this debauchery, it’s also easy to imagine yourself in Richards’ place. Scientists have a name for people who fantasize about living the rock and roll life: They’re called males. And if groupies gathered around accountants, actuaries, and newspaper editors the way they do around lead singers, would any of us be safe?

This whole discussion about temptation and male behavior is very much in the air, and for this I do blame Anthony Weiner. Sometimes I think nearly all the trappings of civilization — our laws and courts, our wardrobes and etiquette, our religions and pastimes — have been put into place to keep men from being men, and more to the point, boys. Richards may be an extreme case, even within the tiny phallocracy of entertainment legends, but it’s not just that he does — it’s that he can. At some level, the rock and roll entourage — like the dictator’s inner circle — is a picture of civilization without civilization.

But what’s Anthony Weiner’s excuse? It’s not as if his Twitter interlocutors were exactly throwing themselves at this wonkish 40-something legislator. He had to work at his decadence, using pathetic means toward pathetic ends.

I think that goes a long way toward explaining why Bill Clinton, who actually had relations with a woman not his wife while serving as the commander in chief, managed to survive his scandal, and why Weiner will not. Clinton got a pass from millions of Americans precisely because they viewed him as a rock star: Considering the temptation thrown his way, of course he gave in! Clinton’s sordid behavior seemed epic, Rabelaisian, and consistent with his own prodigious gifts and appetites. During the Lewinsky scandal, I heard more than one rabbi quote the Gemara that the greater one’s piety, the greater one’s yetzer hara — that is, the greater the evil inclination that must be overcome. For some interpreters, that suggests that the very inclination that drives someone to greatness lurks as his or her most formidable adversary — in Hebrew, a satan.

I don’t know what devil made Weiner do what he did, but I am guessing it is the relative triviality of his bad behavior — as much as his lying about it — that will prove his downfall. Americans forgive large people large transgressions. But Weiner risked his entire political career and marriage on a few sophomoric tweets and photos? It’s like the old joke about academic rivalries — the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

I’ve heard some parents complain that the wall-to-wall coverage of the Weiner scandal is bad for the kids. I disagree. I’d use it as a teaching moment, about self-control, about the dangers of social networking, about respecting one’s wife and family. Most of all, it is about respecting one’s self — and realizing that in spite of our evil inclinations, we are called to something higher than indulging our every appetite.

I know, it isn’t rock and roll. But I like it.

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