Storytellers, thinkers, and musicians who are worth fully engaging with?
March 15, 2013 8:01 AM   Subscribe

I believe I may suffer from a derth of artistic and intellectual heroes. Help me fix that. What artists and thinkers are worth engaging with fully as an adult? By "engaging with fully," I mean making a concerted effort to consume all of their output, several times, as well as seeking out supplementary information about them by way of interviews, criticism, documentaries, collected letters, biographies, etc. etc.

For example, Kubrik and Werner Herzog and John Waters and David Lynch seem like fine contenders when it comes to film. I've seen plenty of their films but in something almost like isolation -- I don't have a grasp of their histories, their career arcs, their defining moments, their embarrassing solo albums, etc. Is it worth putting in the effort to grapple with them seriously as artists and people? Who else should be on the list?

If possible, highlight resources that are meaningful (biographies, that book on editing s/he wrote, whatever).

This sort of thing hasn't been a large part of my life in a while, mostly because so many artists do not survive a second or deeper glance... I am very much looking for substance here. Rich, meaty lives and productive outputs that actually have a chance of withstanding the test of time from an adult perspective.

posted by jsturgill to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
W. G. Sebald
posted by gyusan at 8:05 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Abraham Lincoln
John Irving
David Foster Wallace
posted by carmicha at 8:05 AM on March 15, 2013

Woody Allen is absolutely worth the effort. The interview book Woody Allen on Woody Allen is an amazing insight into his life and work. Talking about his art, he is just so unlike the characters he portrays and his public image.
posted by griphus at 8:06 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

David Byrne.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:11 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mahler is someone who seems like he would match your criteria. Listening to all his published works is a doable thing. There's lots of biography and commentary. There are good intersections between details of his life story and his notable works.
posted by gimonca at 8:12 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding DFW*.

*David Foster Wallace
posted by charlemangy at 8:15 AM on March 15, 2013

Philip Roth, though I don't know if you want to read all 31 of his books, plus the secondary literature. I'd start with The Ghost Writer, which is both short and great. If you love that, then continue.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:19 AM on March 15, 2013

Brian Eno - Here Come the Warm Jets is a good starting point.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:20 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, two other things about Woody Allen:

If you start reading his fiction and it doesn't grab you after a few stories, it's probably not worth plowing through the rest of it. His style doesn't really evolve in any significant manner, and just about all of his prose is rapid-fire gags.

According to my friend the jazz musician, he is not very good at the clarinet. I also couldn't make it all the way through Wild Man Blues (the doc. about his jazz tour.)
posted by griphus at 8:22 AM on March 15, 2013

John Steinbeck. Steinbeck is one of those, like Shakespeare, who really is tremendous in spite of also being ridiculously famous. Read and absorb Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. Visit Northern California, soak in the landscape he immortalized. Read the America he wrote, with all its dusty destitution, the promise of the frontier, human hope, good and evil, the comforts and heart wrenches of familial love. All that good stuff. Also, he wrote a few lovely letters.
posted by idlethink at 8:23 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Re. Steinbeck, I also love and am inspired by how markedly worse his first few novels are, and to what great heights he scaled from them.
posted by idlethink at 8:26 AM on March 15, 2013

James Howard Kunstler, Jane Jacobs.

If you're interested in urban planning reform, the former modern and much more cynical/apocalyptic in theme (both fiction and non-fiction works) and the latter having done her most notable work in the 1960s, in the form of her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

"The Long Emergency" is probably the book you'll hear about most when exploring Kunstler, but I would recommend starting with "The Geography of Nowhere" instead. The Long Emergency can be a harsh introduction to his work.
posted by Urban Winter at 8:28 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Edith Head. She was nominated for 35 Oscars and won 8. She worked with pretty much everyone who was anyone in Hollywood for more than 50 years.
posted by rtha at 8:31 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

-Warren Ellis, the comics writer. Not the musician from Nick Cave's band (though I'm sure he's talented).

-Henry Rollins.

-Ken Wilber (spirituality, philosophy, and consciousness. And much more.)
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:34 AM on March 15, 2013

Ernest Hemingway.

For those that like his style it is worth digging deeper into his life and background. Having that personal context makes his writing so much more enjoyable, in my humble opinion.
posted by _DB_ at 8:38 AM on March 15, 2013

Steve Earle is a politically outspoken singer/songwriter/author/actor.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:41 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Erving Goffman, sociologist. His work is incredibly engaging and insightful.
posted by 3491again at 8:45 AM on March 15, 2013

Henry Miller, Carlos Castaneda, Joseph Campbell,
posted by JohnR at 8:45 AM on March 15, 2013

Tom Merrello, Leonard Cohen, Tim O'Brien.
posted by headnsouth at 8:49 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are interested in getting a grasp on David Lynch, the best place to start is watching the DVD The Short Films of David Lynch -- it includes his short pieces in chronological order, interspersed with Lynch himself addressing the camera and talking about how he came to do each piece. So you won't hear much of anything about Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, or anything else you've heard of, but what you do get is Lynch more or less explaining his artistic background, what he finds interesting about creating film, and his approach to same. And once you've got that framework in mind basically anything else of his clicks into place; it's a good key for unlocking and exploring stuff ranging from Dumbland to Industrial Symphony No. 1 to his series of photographs of abandoned factories in Poland.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:56 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

For storytelling, Neil Gaiman.
posted by Jacen at 9:02 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Steve Martin, who has made significant cultural contributions in comedy, literature, music, and art.
posted by carmicha at 9:09 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've never regretted reading every book Anne Carson has ever published.
posted by annathea at 9:13 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Walter Murch, in film and sound editing
posted by thetortoise at 9:15 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Joan Didion
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:16 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would say Mike Daisy. He can spin a yarn like nobody else. He made a very public mistake recently and it's been an interesting process watching him learn/grow/change.
posted by Uncle at 9:19 AM on March 15, 2013

Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He's written sprawling masterworks, novellas, and non-fiction, all of the highest caliber.

Paris Review interview.
posted by gwint at 9:20 AM on March 15, 2013

Also, Elia Kazan, a thousand times. HUAC or not, watch all of his films. Nobody ever worked better with actors.
posted by thetortoise at 9:57 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

In music:

John O'Connor (pianist)
Arvo Pärt (composer)
Alvin Curran (experimental composer / performer)
Lera Auerbach (young [39yo] polystylist composer / performer)...mostly unknown in the US but quite significant in Europe.

All of the above folks are currently living, and biographies and documentaries exist about them with themselves appearing.

John Cage is extremely significant in modern music, despite general audiences being turned off to it.

One of my hobbies is to pick a "has-been" band (example: Fastball) to see how they started, what they did besides produce a few hits, and what they are doing now.
posted by TinWhistle at 10:01 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Proust. William James.
posted by shivohum at 10:08 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lydia Davis, fantastic author and translator (and occasional blogger for Paris Review).
posted by shakespeherian at 10:11 AM on March 15, 2013

Duke Ellington's art and life and his approach to life and art is a real source of inspiration. For me, he is the quintessential American modernist- understanding how social and technilogical upheavals were affecting his medium, and letting those changes influence his intellectual choices, but also steering the culture with his own personality.

Harvey Cohen's recent bio does a great job of putting his life in context

Here's some spotify links to key recordings that aren't too long, since his recorded output can be intimidating to sift through

The Cotton Club era breakthroughs in the 20s and 30s

the Fargo Concert, a hot live show at the height of 40s swing

The "fake" Newport live recording that engineered his comeback in the late 50s

Money Jungle, his intense session sparring with Mingus and Roach

Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, in his 70s, exploring the rhythmic boldness of free jazz and rock
posted by bendybendy at 10:29 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nobody has said Kurt Vonnegut yet? That's depressing. Kurt Vonnegut!
posted by contraption at 11:02 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Kate Bush. Tori Amos. PJ Harvey. Aleister Crowley. Pablo Picasso.
posted by gentian at 11:27 AM on March 15, 2013

Ian MacKaye
Andy Kaufman
Terrence Malick
Errol Morris
posted by dogwalker at 12:07 PM on March 15, 2013

Also, I'm not really recommending their choices but th AV Club has a feature called Primer that does a complete rundown of certain peoples' works. You may find it helpful to generate ideas about how to go about choosing someone and/or approaching a body of work.

I know that wasn't the precise question, I just couldn't help think of those articles so maybe they're helpful in some way.
posted by dogwalker at 12:14 PM on March 15, 2013

Angela Carter. Fiction, non-fiction, the whole shebang.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:23 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Robert Fripp and DGM/Crimson-related artists e.g. Tony Levin (who recently played on Bowie's new work) and Adrian Belew (who just joined NIN). Also, the unfolding Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:39 PM on March 15, 2013

Stephen Sondheim: storyteller, thinker and musician. Pretty much revolutionized musical theater. There are probably dozens of books about his work, as well as I can't imagine how many recordings. You could save the two-volume collected and annotated lyrics for dessert.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:39 PM on March 15, 2013

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hayao Miyazaki, Marcel Duchamp (read Duchamp: A Biography by Calvin Tompkins), Marshall McLuhan, Philip K. Dick
posted by coolxcool=rad at 3:26 PM on March 15, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges. His short stories are astounding plays on memory, perception, and the concept of the infinite and infinite possibilities.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:18 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Alfred Hitchcock, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Pete Townshend
posted by cjets at 8:20 PM on March 15, 2013

Patti Smith
Iris Murdoch
E.B. White
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Neil Gaiman
W.G. Sebald
Herman Melville
Naguib Mahfouz
V.S. Naipaul
Vladimir Nabokov
Terence Malick
Don't laugh: Joss Whedon.
posted by elizeh at 10:29 PM on March 15, 2013

Forgot to add: Henry Rollins.
posted by elizeh at 10:42 PM on March 15, 2013

Ursula K. Le Guin. Not just as an author but also as an essayist. With one exception (Tehanu) there has not been a single book of hers that hasn't, after enough consideration, been wise and instructive. If I don't agree with something she says it's almost always because she's smarter than me and I have to think more deeply. You can find good recommendation lists of her Science Fiction and Fantasy novels elsewhere, but I would suggest you also start with the essay collections The Language Of The Night and then Dancing At The Edge Of The World. (Her article "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" was posted on Metafilter yesterday and the only reason I haven't commented is that its massive transformative effects on my whole life over the years since I first read it are nearly impossible to untangle.) Don't neglect the novels either, especially The Dispossessed, The Tombs of Atuan, and (once you've read the "Non-Euclidean" article first) Always Coming Home (though keep a finger on p. 46 "The Serpentine Codex" or you'll never understand the book).
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:37 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bertrand Russell. IMO the most important philosopher of the 20th century. His autobiography is amazing. He also has collections of terrific popularly-aimed essays. A fair amount of his stuff can be found at Gutenberg and other such places.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:04 AM on March 16, 2013

Billy Bragg.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 5:58 AM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

A good Jorge Luis Borges resource

Borges previously on mefi
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 8:15 AM on March 16, 2013

Gene Wolfe. Dense, allusive, literary, tricksy, bloody marvellous. More substance than you can shake a stick at, enough material to keep you going for a very long time, richly rewards re-reading.

His major work is the twelve-volume Solar Cycle, but if that's a bit intimidating you could start with one of his stand-alone novels (I recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus) or some of his short stories.

Useful online resources: the Urth discussion group archives and the Wolfe Wiki.

There are also a number of books looking at his work.

Previously, previouslier.
posted by inire at 12:08 PM on March 20, 2013

I haven't read any of his stuff yet, but based on the outpouring of love for his works in today's thread announcing his terminal cancer diagnosis it sounds like Ian M. Banks belongs in this list.
posted by contraption at 12:21 PM on April 3, 2013

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