Many people strive for fame, but few can actually handle it. Fame invades your personal life, alters friendships, and creates a lot of trouble. This is why I have always made sure never to become famous!
Several recent films illustrate the contrast between some who became famous in the music business with tragic results, and others who toiled in relative obscurity with mostly positive results. The drama Love and Mercy, about Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, and the documentary Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, tell parallel stories of too much fame achieved too fast without the necessary social support. Both artists had difficult fathers, domineering in his case, absent in hers, at least until she got famous. Both sought refuge in music, their true talent. The enormous pressure of producing for the music industry led to anxiety, mental instability, drug abuse, and eventual breakdowns. When you are famous everybody wants something, but nobody is truly looking out for you. When the crisis hits, you don’t know who your real friends are.
The documentary The Wrecking Crew, along with similar recent films about Stax, Muscle Shoals and others, tell a very different tale, a tale of working musicians producing legendary records mostly in complete anonymity. Put together, these films tell a kind of secret history of the American music business in the 1950s and 60s. Great session musicians and backup singers who have performed on hundreds of famous songs, film soundtracks, and television shows are brought out of the shadows to receive long overdue recognition. These are people who saw fame up close up, but still from the outside. Some, like Glenn Campbell of the Wrecking Crew, crossed over into stardom. Others tried and failed. Some are more famous now simply because of these films. Many were content staying in the shadows. Notably, many were able to make good money while having happy families and stable lives.
There is an indelible link in the public mind between great art and madness, drug abuse, and self-destruction. The truth is that although some artists fit this mold, most do not, including many great geniuses. There is no necessary link between art and madness. Most successful artists are more like the members of the Wrecking Crew: hardworking, detail-oriented, professional. Most people with mental illness, lacking artistic talent, suffer in anonymity. With better parents and better friends, Wilson and Winehouse could easily have turned out differently. Perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten famous, but that might have been better for them.
The members of the Wrecking Crew, played by actors, appear in Love and Mercy, recording the tracks for the legendary Pet Sounds album. At one point, one of them tells Brian Wilson that he is one of the best they’ve ever worked with, and they’ve worked with everybody. It’s the happiest Wilson looks in the entire movie. More than fame or public adulation, he craved the respect of his peers. Similarly, late in the Amy Winehouse film she is shown recording with Tony Bennett, who she idolizes. Nervous at first, she starts to gain confidence. After this session, she is briefly able to turn her life around. After her death, Bennett is interviewed. He loved her and is grieving. He compares her to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. He is the very image of the alternate path: managing your fame, focusing on the music, keeping your business together, and living to be an elder statesman. “You learn a few things” he says “if you live long enough”.