Excuse Me While I Burn Out

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November 30, 2012 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas


A constant law in the universe states that the brighter a star shines, the shorter its life span is.  Believe it or not, the same concept applies to people as well.  It doesn’t even have to be in a literal way like Hendrix or Morrison, other times people still live after they burn out, they’re just not the same as they were before.

Pete Townshend is the perfect example of a burn out who lived to tell the tale.  Here’s someone who seems to have exhausted himself within the span of a few short years.  He had so much creativity that after those few years it appeared as if he had nothing left to give.  As if there was a limit to what he could successfully conceive and produce.  It seemed like a quota on creativity.

The heyday of The Who was from 1969-1978.  Even this ten year span can be further broken down.  Think of these years as the water flow from a faucet that is slowly being turned off.  1969-1973 (Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia) represents that faucet flowing to its fullest; the faucet is turned all the way on.  1974-1976 (The Who by Numbers) represents that faucet starting to close.  It’s a weaker stream, not much water is coming out.  1977-1978 (Who Are You) is when the faucet is turned off, and the last few droplets drip from the faucet.  Pete himself has said that The Who only made three great albums: Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia.  I think that this represents the concept of the creator being his harshest critic.  I mean The Who by Numbers is a really amazing and underrated album, and Who Are You has some solid tracks on it.  I think that Townshend only acknowledges those three because they were the best of their discography, as well as the most creative and innovative.  So anything that he deems as being not up to that standard would be dismissed.  If that’s the case though, the question still persists as to why wasn’t he able to create something as good, if not better, than Quadrophenia.

Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most well-renowned directors in cinematic history burned himself out thirty five years ago filming Apocalypse Now.  The filming process literally sucked his life out of him.  He had a mental breakdown because of the insane factors that went into production.  Here was a guy who won two Palme d’Or awards in the same decade, directed The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather pt. II, and now he’s makes forgettable movies that no one sees.  It’s no coincidence that it was after Apocalypse Now, a movie that was grossly over-budget, took three years to film in a foreign hostile swamp, and other various forms of unfortunate instances.  Not only did Coppola put everything he had into Apocalypse Now, he seemed to have put everything he’ll ever have into it.

Someone like Kevin Smith is different though, because unlike Townshend who felt like he couldn’t match what he created before, or Coppola who seemed to have just been drained by his creation, Smith burned himself out just because…..or so it would appear.  Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma are really his only good movies and they all came out within a five year span.  Just to clarify he’s put out movies since, just none that were as good.  I don’t know if it’s because he’s just not as good a filmmaker as everyone originally thought, or because of how he chooses to spend his time.  Smith is weird, because he only started smoking weed after his daughter was born, and after he had made it big.  It may very well be coincidental, but it is worth noting that around the time he started smoking did he stop making movies of worth.  But beyond that I think he just ran out of things to say.  Clerks was a personal anecdote about his life at the time, Chasing Amy was his ode to Joy Lauren-Adams, and Dogma was what reignited his faith in Catholicism.  When we say that Kevin Smith burned out, maybe he wasn’t something special, just an average guy with a few good stories to tell.

Even in fiction this idea of fatal exertion is ever present.  This notion of living past ones usefulness, or outliving ones usefulness is a popular one that crosses mediums.  The one that caught my interest is Ziggy Stardust the protagonist to the David Bowie album of the same name.  Ziggy is an alien who comes to earth with a message of peace and love.  Ultimately however he becomes seduced by sex and drugs and his own fame which serve to consume in the end.[1]  The climax of the album conveys an important point, one that I hope I’m annunciating clearly, and that is that once things and even people stop producing at their peak levels, that’s when they burn out.  Obviously Townshend, Coppola, and Smith are still alive, but the point remains the same nonetheless-they all had high creative peaks which ultimately drained and doomed them for the rest of their careers.  Ziggy Stardust though died after his peak, because it consumed him.  So to speak, he was self-immolated.  He couldn’t sustain whatever it was that propelled him to that level and was therefore consumed by it.  To his fans, he had outgrown his usefulness but as a result was not able to outlive his usefulness.  Once he burned out, his fans didn’t want him anymore.  Since he had nothing left to give no one had anymore use for him and simply discarded him.

A similar situation abounds within Tommy wherein the main character (Tommy) is catapulted to fame but is shortly betrayed by his followers once they determine that they won’t listen to what he has to say.  Again unlike being ignored by the real life examples, Tommy is actively turned on by the masses when he outlives his creative usefulness.  This and Ziggy Stardust have to allegories for the music industry where if an album isn’t up to creative par with what was done in the past, people won’t listen, and an artist will burn out.  Even if it meant that we were once on fire, no one wants to ever burn out.

[1] I don’t know for certain, but at the end of “Ziggy Stardust” it seems as though the titular character is actually eaten by his own fans.

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