Out in LA, one of my acting teachers would often remind me, along with anyone in class venting any sort of self-frustration, that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Though it was an obvious point, it was easy to forget.
Few of the greats, if any at all, were incredible by day one. As a kid, Jimi Hendrix couldn’t afford a real guitar and so he walked around with a broom and studied the way a player’s hand might move along the instrument. Yea, even Hendrix played air guitar at one point. Anyway by the time he had his own guitar, it never left his side. He wasn’t necessarily born a great guitar player, but he was born with a profound love for the instrument.
Even so, he was insecure—at least originally—about his voice. He never really thought it was that good. In listening to a song like Purple Haze, it might be hard to argue that his voice really ever got good in the traditional sense of the word. But then that begs the question, what is good? When people hear Jimi Hendrix, very few people, if any, ever think twice whether his voice is good or bad. Just like very few people, if any, think twice about whether Mick Jagger can sing. Most people, rightfully so, don’t really give a shit.
In his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen talked about how he never really thought he was a great singer or guitar player, and in the early days of his career, he doubted whether he would progress much farther in either department. Either way, he didn’t dwell on these things for very long, because what he did notice was that he excelled not in singing or playing, but in songwriting. And so he focused his attention to the song. The strength of the song itself. If the songs were solid, and he performed them with truth, with the honesty that they deserved, everything else would fall into place. It didn’t matter whether his voice was as good as Sinatra’s or whether he could play like Hendrix. The only thing that mattered was that the voice and the guitar fit within the greater framework and identity of the song. The only skill that mattered was honesty, in his ability to determine what worked and what didn’t work in telling the story he wanted to tell, in being the artist and the man he wanted to be.
If Bobby Vinton sang any song by Johnny Cash, it would probably suck. If Whitney Houston sang any song by Billie Holiday, it would be awkward to say the least. If any other voice on earth originally sang Like a Rolling Stone other than a young, 24-year-old Bob Dylan, it would not be the anthemic battlecry of rock n’ roll music that it remains to this day.
The point is, good is a highly ambiguous and subjective factor in the face of style and in the light of truth. Good is irrelevant. What’s important is that it sounds, looks, and feels authentic and real. Everything else is left up to circumstance and opinion.
The latter-year paintings of Picasso and Matisse look like a child might have painted them without any thought or real deliberation. But no one cares, and perhaps it’s because many of them might have the seen the more conventional masterpieces these men had painted, knew what they were capable of painting and thus, placing them in the overall context of their greater body of work, were better able to appreciate what they were seeing at the present time. Maybe yet, they just fell under the spell of the mere persona, and were thus rendered oblivious to any concept of bad work from the artist.
Either way, the concept of good or bad was irrelevant anyway, because only the artists themselves could truly know whether something they had made was good or bad, if something they had made was done with a sense of consistency and feeling. My guess is, they wouldn’t have painted anything in the first place, if there hadn’t been a true sense of feeling to guide them. And certainly in the case of Picasso and Matisse, their respective careers wouldn’t have been nearly so prolific had that singular feeling not remained so consistent throughout their lives.