My son-in-law is reading a book called Glow, an autobiography of musician Rick James. The title refers to the charisma of his larger-than-life personality and the way people are hungry to bask in its light. No surprise that all of this led to a life of excessive drug use, alcohol, womanizing and an early death with 9 drugs found in the autopsy—cocaine, Valium, meth and so on. In his eulogy, someone wrote:
“…the excitement of show business, the thrill of adulation, the intoxication of wealth, the battery of lethal addictions had driven him to dangerous places.”
To put it mildly. But here’s a question: Is it possible to radiate that glow without being burned up by one’s own light? What is it in our culture that turns all that toxic and contributes to the demise of the musicians? Let’s unpack that sentence below within the framework of music in Ghana, for example:
Excitement of show business: Why does a culture turn our musical promise and talent into a show? In Ghana, music is not reserved for the stage with a separation between performer and audience. It is more common for the circle of participation, with all contributing through song, dance, clapping, drumming, etc. Believe me, that does not diminish its excitement one bit. It brings up the glow on everyone participating and if anyone has an extra dose of glow, it is appreciated, but not idolized.
The thrill of adulation: As above. No need to adore or idolize that which we all already possess. Such a disparity in relationship comes from people who neglect their musical gift and promise and depend on those who develop it. Instead of lighting their own candle, they steal from the glow of those who devote their lives to lighting their fire. Some level of admiration and respect is normal and healthy, as all of us will chose one quality to develop and those who value that will appreciate those further down the path. It’s a question of degree. When the distance between the superstar and the ticket-buyer is too great, the thrill increases for the star, but the danger of too much adoration increases as well. The jazz greats playing in clubs would come out to the bar between sets and chat with the customers. A whole different deal than Elvis being whisked away in a limousine to his penthouse suite.
The intoxication of wealth. I hope that this will find its way into the list of pathologies—excessive wealth is addictive and healthy for exactly nobody.
The battery of lethal addictions: Sustaining the pace and withstanding the pressure our star-based culture creates often calls for uppers and downers to keep it all going. The number of jazz and rock musicians and movie stars brought down by drugs is legendary. Don’t see this as a problem with the Ghanaian musicians I met, folks with every bit the same talent, skill and electric energy I find in American musicians. But minus a culture that turns it all to tragedy.
I often have felt that Michael Jackson dancing in the center of the Ghanaian drumming circle, Elvin Jones sitting in with the drummers, James Brown singing and dancing along, would all be appreciated and given the customary paper money put on the forehead (about 25 cents in U.S. currency), but none of them would have screaming fans idolizing and adoring them. None of them would need drugs to keep their energy up, none would be greedy for wealth, none would demand top billing on the stage. They could keep their musical glow shining brighter and brighter without all the trappings of fame and fortune. Not saying any of this as well as I would like to, but for now, food for thought.