Artists: Follow the Muse, But Not When She Kills You

Artists must walk a fine line. We have to follow our muse or we wouldn’t be artists. But when the muse courts self-destruction … beg off. If you can. If you can’t, get help.

Lately I’ve been relistening to The Grateful Dead.

When you find yourself in their particular mood, there’s no one better, for my money.

At their peak, they were flat out amazing.

(Disclaimer: I only know this from watching them play on YouTube. Regrettably, I never saw them play live. Many times, I caught Phil Lesh & Friends at the Beacon Theater here in NYC. It was great but I hear it’s … ahem … not the same thing.)

Still, watching these old concerts makes me want to jump up onstage and jam with these guys.

There’s nothing like being in the company of musicians who are totally in synch with each other.


It’s magic. Like being in a great relationship. Like being in love.

Hell, what are we talking about? It is love.

“The best instances of collaboration are those where we don’t know where we end and the other person begins. When you trust another person enough to start riffing off each other. In the spirit of true partnership, you build on each other, shore each other up. You push each other past what you each knew was possible. With that dynamic in play, who knows where you’ll end up?”

The Grateful Dead never played a song the same way twice. Improvisation was their trademark.

Yes, they played their favorite songs. But they reveled in doing them differently each time. In creating something new in every moment.

Watch their concerts on YouTube. See for yourself what a great time they’re having.


Except Jerry Garcia.

Toward the end, I mean.

The Muse is Not a Demon. Only a Demon is a Demon

Let me be clear. I’m no expert on Jerry Garcia.

Plenty of other people are better equipped to comment on his life, his art, and his legend.

To me, he was a gifted musician.

When I hear recordings of him at his best, it shocks me how beautifully he played.

A younger Jerry Garcia

Almost as shocking as seeing how badly he bore the brunt of his craft, and the success that came with it. How terribly the toll of obesity and drug abuse weakened him toward the end.

Watch this concert at Buckeye Lake in June 1993. Fast forward to about an hour and twenty minutes.

Garcia sounds like he could barely get through “Uncle John’s Band.”

The rest of the band is clearly covering for him.

It’s heartbreaking.

Jerry Garcia in 1989, six years before his death at the age of 53.
Jerry Garcia in 1989, six years before his death at the age of 53.

Look, it’s common knowledge that Jerry Garcia had issues. A lot of artists do.

Some might say it’s an occupational hazard.

Van Gogh had his absinthe. Whatever comfort he got from it, it wasn’t enough to keep him from cutting off his own ear after a furious fight with his dear friend, Paul Gaugin.

Johnny Cash was famously addicted to amphetamines.

According to legend, writer and poet Jim Harrison never met a pill he wouldn’t swallow on the spot.

The list goes on.

Small wonder that, in the music world, there’s something called the 27 Club. Its members include Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin.

All musical legends.

All dead from their excesses by the age of twenty-seven.

But make no mistake. These issues I mention aren’t limited to drug and alcohol abuse.

They can include an inability to maintain close relationships. Sexual profligacy. Depression. Bad diet. Lack of exercise. Or addiction to exercise.

Again, the list goes on.

The Necessary Balance of Living a Creative Life

I’ve written before about how artists need to dive into our shadows if we want to find our true selves.

And how a paradox is at work here:

To get better, we sometimes have to get worse.

How venturing into our darkness is the only real way we can conquer it … little by little … and find our way back to the light.

Believe me, I get it. The cards seem stacked against us.

This world isn’t made for artists who follow the muse.

Modern society rewards people who follow its rules. Follow the beaten path.

Stick with the herd. Laugh when everyone else laughs. Don’t say the wrong things.

Society doesn’t know what to do with people who color outside the lines.

Creative people, I mean.

Society shuns and derides creatives.

“Oh, you’re an actor?” people say. “Which restaurant do you work at?”

(HAW, HAW, HAW, they laugh.)

Until we make it big, that is.

Then it’s “Oh, my Gaaaawwwwd. Did you see her movie?”

It’s a common conceit that artists have to be crazy or screwed up to make any art that’s worthwhile.

But it’s just that: a conceit.

It’s nonsense.

Not true.

Don’t believe it.

Taking care of ourselves is one of the toughest things we do as artists.

But we have to do it.

Otherwise, we won’t get to create anymore art.

And wouldn’t that be the biggest shame of all?

It would.

Take care of yourself.

And stay creative.

Damon DiMarco

We Find Our Light by Embracing Our Shadows

Artists: Follow the Muse, But Not When She Kills You

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Damon DiMarco

Damon DiMarco (born October 16, 1971), is a New York City author, actor, playwright, and historian. His oral history work has been compared to that of Studs Terkel. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey.

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