By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
That is the simplest way we can make a musician a hero, flattering them through imitation. This level of hero-identification smacks of adolescence and tends to come with a poster on the wall, a mirror for picture-perfect hero replication and an imagination to transform aerosol cans and tennis rackets into microphones and guitars. One thinks hopelessly of Kiss; surely no band tried harder to inspire (anti?) hero worship in their fans, and they succeeded devilishly. Kiss provided a sort of paint-by-numbers version of the musical hero: Do you want to be the lover, the demon, the cat or the spaceman? Gene Simmons even sang a straight-faced, sweet-tongued song on the theme, simply titled "Heroes." The VH1 documentary of the band -- narrated by Skid Row lead singer Sebastian Bach, a self-confessed hard-core Kiss-worshiper -- shows the demon moodily lip-synching the tune, telling the kids if you don't have heroes, you don't have anybody to look up to. It looks as if he means it; he isn't even doing that nasty thing with his tongue.
When the Kiss dudes were kids, their heroes were the Beatles, and, of course, we all must have a "favorite Beatle," a hero among them. Musical hero-worship in our culture stretches further back than the Fab Four, way back past Elvis and the great jazz leaders and crooners -- Bird, Trane, Frankie, Billie -- into the folk tradition, where the heroes were not the singers so much as the characters in the songs, like Jessie James or John Henry. Bob Dylan, to pick a convenient target, put an end to that; he was the folkie who made the singer bigger than the song. Now, in this age of media oversaturation and music television, pop stars have never been more available to our gaze; you can't walk out of your house without running into someone in an Alanis T-shirt; we have in Marilyn Manson a consummately gross example of the triumph of image over ideas.
It would be easy to presume in our youth culture a form of music appreciation that makes Kiss-worship look dignified. But a profile of local young folks in their late teens and early 20s turned up consistently profound relationships between music fan and hero -- so profound that the word "hero," with its connotation of the comic book and action movie, fails to describe the ways in which these people relate to and interact with music and musicians. If the general assumption by older adults -- the Woodstock generation reared on the idea that music changes lives -- is that young adults have a less intimate relationship with their musical icons and heroes, the following conversations yield a different finding altogether.
If a hero is a character regarded as larger-than-life, we must at least start with the life; for there to be Superman, there must be a Clark Kent. But once these fans started talking about the power of music there was no getting them to descend to the facts of a human life. Ahmad, Rahsaan and Jamal Hinds of Florissant are overjoyed to talk about the sunlit explosions inside a Stevie Wonder song -- the way an unexpected chord can change what you thought you were going to do today, how a lyric can hold you together. When asked whether Stevie Wonder is a musical hero to them, Jamal suggests, "It is amazing what all he accomplished, being blind," but prefers talking about musical accomplishments, not personal heroism. When they cite Michael Jackson as an "influence," I ask whether Jackson's personal example keeps him from being a hero. "You mean his nose and all that?" Ahmad asks. "All his plastic surgery? I don't see why he didn't keep with what God gave him. But I ain't got time for all that." When talking about music, why worry about cosmetic surgery? Indeed, over the years they lost faith in Jackson over the gradual change in his sound, not his face.
The musical heroes of these eight young people, one of whom came to this city from Sarajevo, chased away by war -- are not faces on a poster; they are not stars with guitars. They are songs -- words and grooves. "I learned more from a three-minute record, baby," Bruce Springsteen sang, "than I ever learned in school," and these folks would probably agree. Surrounded by music swirling in a fecal tide of hype and consumerism, they flush the shit and savor the music. And they savor the music because it helps them move and make sense of things. A hero is simply someone with a song that can take you where you need to be, someone who, in the words of one of these young people, Jessica Butler, "is where you're at when you don't know where you are."
Ahmad Hinds, 21, is cousin to the brothers Rahsaan, 23, and Jamal Hinds (who at 27 strains our age bracket, but he says, "We all grew up with the same musical heroes," and they insist on being interviewed as a trio). They grew up in a musical family, watching their fathers and uncles take the stage at blues festivals, slug away at local R&B gigs and lay down tracks at Oliver Sain's studio. So they never had to look far for a musical hero, which Ahmad defines as "someone you look up to, who plays an influential role." The men in the family -- Ken, Danny, Jimmy and Leonard Hinds -- were "definitely" heroes, as was Oliver Sain, who always insisted (against his own self-interest as the producer they were hiring) that the boys buy their own gear and make their own demos.