There is a certain mystique to cult musicians. A somewhat sense of fear, even. It’s as though some of these stars (but god forbid you should call them that) are so hipper-than-thou, you would be shit-scared to flash a smile at them at the supermarket.
Cut through the hype, the myth and mystique, and you’ll find many of these cult musos are actually rather harmless. And when you really think about it, why wouldn’t they be sweet and friendly – considering most of them make hippy-like music about loving your fellow brethren and broadening your mind.
Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson, Aphex Twin, Bjork… these are among the artists spotlighted in Robert Dimery’s cute pocket-book Cult Musicians.
Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson, Aphex Twin, Bjork… these are among the artists whom I’ve met and spoken to over the course of 20 years in music journalism, and let me tell you – none of them are that scary. Or too kooky. Or too freaky.
They’re just humans like you and I, only with a devoted following of fans who sense something far deeper in their aesthetic and sound.
So, what makes a muso ‘cult’?
Author Dimery argues that it could refer to “a spark of brilliance that quickly expired”, dropping names such as Syd Barrett (the psychedelic pioneer who coined the name and joined the band Pink Floyd in the early ’60s) and Lilo Boulanger (a talented brooding troubadour not-popular-enough around the turn of the 19th century).
Dimery writes as weirdly and wonderfully as some of the singer-songwriters he praises. On original riot grrrl Kat Bjelland of Babes In Toyland, for example, he muses, “At a time when stereotypes and inherent sexism in the rock’n’roll industry offered few inspirational female figures, Bjelland provided a vibrant fuck-you alternative,” taking on the perfect post-punk growl to match the artist’s image.
It’s this kind of relatability that makes the author’s synopsis of each subject attractive so as to want to keep reading – even if you don’t care for some of these artists’ work.
I myself don’t care for folk music, yet enjoyed reading about Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny. At the same time, though, the author avoids mentioning some of the more pertinent examples of each genre – no reference to Joni Mitchell, for example, when it comes to folk (or Ani DiFranco if you want to get more ‘cultish’) – and you kind of sense he really wanted to but couldn’t for the sake of seeming, well, too obvious.
Cult, after all, alludes to the secretive and the unknown, so to that end Dimery has done a good job in shining light on the rarer examples of obscure but important musicianship.
But what’s so wrong about popularising cult? Why can’t artists – be it Radio Birdman or Daft Punk – continue to do ‘good’ as they grow more popular?
If Cult’s job is to spread the good (albeit urgent) word, it ought to do it faster and overground, not via Chinese whispers underground. And in a fast-moving, rapidly changing technological age, there’s no excuse to keep your sacred words so secretive…
But, like I said, wicked words and warped sounds aside, when you cut to the chase you realise these peeps are only human.
‘Cult Musicians’ is published by Murdoch Books. Also available is the nifty pocket-book ‘Cult Writers’ by Ian Haydn Smith, which looks at 50 nonconformist novelists, from Kathy Acker to Douglas Coupland, Joan Didion to Virginia Woolf. Both books are beautifully illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia, and retail at $24.99 each.