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March 4, 2008 7:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for really terrible creative works made by well-regarded artists. For example, Picasso's secret crappy drawings, or John Coltrane playing out of tune. I welcome examples from all creative pursuits from all eras: literature, music, art, dance, theatre, film, architecture, graphic design, etc.

I've read that in order to succeed creatively, you have to be unafraid to create utter crap, and lots of it, before you find your groove. Practice makes perfect and all that. So I'm wondering, where is this crap? I realize that crap is highly subjective, but surely there are widely-regarded examples from the masters. I'm ideally looking for things created BEFORE they became famous; not AFTER someone had fallen from popular favor.

My aim is to take inspiration from the perserverance and self-confidence of others. Biographies about the struggles of creative sorts are also welcome as long as they have a happy-ish ending.
posted by desjardins to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Many good writers wrote very bad first books. For example, is Neal Stephenson wrote The Big U before writing much better novels like Snow Crash.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:54 AM on March 4, 2008

Well, if you listen to some of the Beatles' Anthology CDs, you'll hear some god-awful stuff. Certainly no other band could have gotten away with releasing garbage like "12 Bar Blues" or "If You've Got Troubles." And even they wouldn't have been able to get away with it back in the day, which is why they never did, not even after they realized that people would buy anything they did. (Then again, they did release stuff like "Don't Pass Me By," so who knows?") It wasn't until the 90's that these failed tracks saw the light of day. By then Harrison, McCartney and Starr knew thay had nothing to lose.

For the most part, though, artists know when they suck and tend to destroy the suckage. But plenty of artists who became well-known later in life have published sub-standard things early in their careers. For example, John Jakes wrote some mediocre science fiction before hitting it big with his historicals.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:58 AM on March 4, 2008

Charlie Parker used to tell a story about how Max Roach (I think) threw a cymbal at him once when he sat in as a young, inexperienced player. He said that he was terrible starting out. I kind of don't buy it, entirely, but it's a famous story.

I think most people, if they are smart, destroy this kind of stuff. I've certainly thought about it quite a bit and looked for similar stuff and never really found much.

Van Morrison did a famously bad album early in his career, but it was mostly because he was mad at his record company. The real album from the same period is pretty uneven, but definitely not horrible and has some pretty cool stuff on it.

Dylan sounds pretty great, even from early on.

Miles Davis...there are some early recordings with Charlie Parker that might be uneven, but some of them are classics too.

Usually, no one is going to record you as a musician (well, at least, in the past) unless you were showing some serious promise. So I don't think there is a whole lot of this stuff out there.
posted by sully75 at 8:07 AM on March 4, 2008

There are those who would argue that Philip K. Dick created nothing but crap.

I wouldn't be among 'em, but I see where they're coming from; he did have an infuriating habit of taking a great plot idea, getting halfway through it, and then suddenly getting obsessed with some female supporting character with brown hair and bad manners.

I also have a big question mark over my head about how Jane Austen published totally classic novels like Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and then turned around and handed the world a book like Mansfield Park. I remember hitting the end and thinking "WTF, Jane Austen - was this your first book or something??" and then looking it up on Wikipedia and finding out, no, no such excuse. I once made friends with a literature grad student when she said "You know, there are some books that seem to be going on fine and then suddenly they'll take a turn and just be exactly what you didn't want to be..." and I said, "Yeah...Mansfield Park" and it turned out she was writing her thesis on it and that was exactly what she was thinking of.
posted by crinklebat at 8:10 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I have had similar ideas in the past and not sure they have inspired me. At this point I'd rather take my inspiration from the best of the best, and learn the steps it took them to get there, but trying to find their crap almost seems like a "gotcha" kind of thing.

I'll give you an example...I really do like Annie Liebowitz's photography. Love it. She seems like not a nice person particularly, but she's a master of very complicated portrait lighting.

Now she started out doing very basic black and white journalistic stuff for Rolling Stone. The pictures are amazing but not because she's such a technician at that point, more because she's pushing herself within a really small medium (camera, lens and film) and because her subject matter is pretty amazing. (on tour with the rolling stones).

And then you see her as she adds quills to her, I don't know, quiver. She develops a real skill with studio lighting, and combines that with the photo journalism stuff that she did in the past, and becomes one of the greatest living portraitists ever. But I bet she never really sucked, because she's always had a commitment to doing good, convincing work, and that will always come across. And she's probably never allowed herself to totally suck. That's a thread you'll probably see in a lot of artists. Not afraid of making mistakes, but also generally not accepting suckiness. Commitment...I think that's it.

My apologies for not answering your question directly.
posted by sully75 at 8:15 AM on March 4, 2008

Van Morrison's Contractual Obligations Album! "Ringworm" and "Your Say France and I'll Whistle" are gems, but my favorite is "Want a Danish." And don't miss the "Blow in Your Nose" / "Nose in Your Blow" pair of songs!
posted by fogster at 8:26 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, my apologies--Van Morrison's was something deliberately bad, with him improvising 31 songs to get out of his contract, not him before he succeeded
posted by fogster at 8:27 AM on March 4, 2008

T.S. Eliot's and W.H. Auden's "Juvenilia" have been published, although apparently Eliot's are out of print.

I don't really think that the really great artists produced a lot of junk that they were smart enough to destroy. I guess my gut reaction is that the really great creative minds in human history were pretty consistently great. Certainly some of Dylan's earliest compositions were pretty simplistic ("Who Killed Davey Moore?") but I would consider them to be more examples of "Juvenilia" than junk.
posted by thomas144 at 8:29 AM on March 4, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned. Full text at Project Gutenberg if you want to see for yourself.
posted by escabeche at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2008

burnmp3s: A duel, sir! The Big U is very uneven and awkwardly paced, but it's a damn funny book. Zodiac was far worse.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 8:32 AM on March 4, 2008

George Orwell wrote a number of startlingly bad novels (Clergyman's Daughter, anyone?) even as he was pumping out great nonfiction. Animal Farm and 1984, the only pieces of his fiction that are widely read nowadays, are among his latest books.
posted by phoenixy at 8:33 AM on March 4, 2008

I kind of like Who Killed Davey Moore. It's definitely not terrible.
posted by sully75 at 8:34 AM on March 4, 2008

A duel, sir! The Big U is very uneven and awkwardly paced, but it's a damn funny book. Zodiac was far worse.

I'll be your second! Considering that The Big U was published in 1984, I found a lot of the small observations eerily prescient when I was reading it at my Large State U in 2002-ish. What was meant to be satire in 1984 landed a lot closer to status quo two decades later. Granted, I haven't reread it since, so I could be donning rose-coloured glasses here.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:42 AM on March 4, 2008

In the comics world, it is an increasingly common theory that the once great Frank Miller has developed, pun intended, bats in the belfry. All Star Batman and Robin, what the hell?
posted by bettafish at 8:42 AM on March 4, 2008

The Laughing Gnome by David Bowie is inevitably going to be mentioned in a thread like this.
posted by tomcooke at 8:48 AM on March 4, 2008

Van Gogh's early drawings have always been inspiring to me. He was just not very good to begin with, and made himself into a much more highly skilled artist through sheer diligence and commitment to practice.
posted by tigerbelly at 8:53 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are so many bad movies by great filmmakers that it boggles the mind, though because film can be a touch more subjective than other mediums, there will be those who disagree. I'll just offer one here: Steven Spielberg and "AI." It's kinda a two-fer, both Spielberg and Kubrick participating in the laughable, tone-deaf disaster.
posted by incessant at 8:59 AM on March 4, 2008

Most people who end up being truly great visual artists, musicians, etc., get their utter crap out of the way when they're still very young - and it ends up not getting preserved.

The young adult writer David Levithan (a pretty big deal in the YA field) recently came out with a book of stories called 'How They Met,' which includes two stories he wrote in high school, unedited. They're not terrible stories, but they're the kind of stories you'd expect from any reasonably talented high school student - you can DEFINITELY see the results of practice there.
posted by Jeanne at 9:07 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wordsworth wrote some famously terrible poetry. The Thorn is the one people always quote, and rightly so, mostly for the immortal lines:
I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.
Captain Beefheart's eponysterical Unconditionally Guaranteed is another example of a transcendent genius producing a piece of complete shite.
posted by unSane at 9:09 AM on March 4, 2008

Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer with somewhat uneven output. To greatly oversimplify: his symphonies and chamber music are highly regarded, but his film music, ballets, and works made to curry favor with the Soviet regime are of much lower quality.
posted by bassjump at 9:09 AM on March 4, 2008

Vineland by Pynchon. I thought it had to be a different Pynchon.
posted by moift at 9:11 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm was gonna add Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT but I have my doubts about Kubrick overall... lots of his films are terribly flawed (especially BARRY LYNDON and 2001) but EYES WIDE SHUT is a special piece of hell... glacial pace, dreadful performances, laugh-out-loud bits, just terribly ill-conceived and all the more tragic because it was supposed to complete his apotheosis.
posted by unSane at 9:12 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nelsormensch: Amen! I was a don/RA at my school, in a res that looks just a bit too much like the `Plex, and I know half the characters in that book.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 9:17 AM on March 4, 2008

Also, Garry Winogrand's book of photographs Women Are Beautiful is a stinker. It's out of print now and rightly so. It's not that the photos are bad -- lots of them are in the big monographs -- but that the concept revolved around objectifying women at exactly the moment in history where that became a faux pas of quite enormous proportions.

Winogrand, being a contrarian, found the whole thing deeply amusing and threatened to do a second book which he claimed would be titled 'Son of Women are Beautiful'.
posted by unSane at 9:17 AM on March 4, 2008

Final observation: when I first got an agent, I asked her how I should handle it when I wrote a complete stinker, which I knew would happen eventually (and it did, it did). She told me "everyone writes stinkers. You just bury it and move on".
posted by unSane at 9:19 AM on March 4, 2008

Run Ronnie Run was based on a skit from the awesome Mr Show but was really, really awful, so much that Odenkirk and Cross disowned the final version.
posted by waraw at 9:22 AM on March 4, 2008

I believe Winogrand was going to call his book "confessions of a male chauvanist" but they wouldn't let him. But I wouldn't call it a stinker...he's an artist and pretty much confessing the way he feels about something. The pictures are brilliant, so what can you do.
posted by sully75 at 9:40 AM on March 4, 2008

Lou Reed's POEtry and the accompanying album The Raven are pretty awful. I guess it depends on what your post-Velvet Underground opinion of Lou Reed is though.
posted by electroboy at 10:17 AM on March 4, 2008

Leonard Cohen has written some amazing songs. "Don't go home with your hard-on" is not one of them.

It was not written before he became famous; however, it wasn't written "after" his success either. After that song, he went on to release some really fantastic music.
posted by prefpara at 10:44 AM on March 4, 2008

Best answer: I think folks are off-base here, except for thomas144 who raises the notion of juvenilia, which I'd say is what you really want here. Everyone else is overlooking the significance of the line that divides obscurity from publication.

Whether publication means a book, an album, whatever, in most cases once you reach that point, at least someone (even if only your editor) has decided there's some merit to your work. So when we look at an artist's canon, and talk about early works or late works, we're really only assessing everything on the "after" side of the publication line, not on the "before" side. Which is to say, by the point of publication, a great deal of growth has already happened. Every writer has likely published something in his or her high school paper or university lit mag which is, on the basis of his or her later work, a bit rough. That's a natural process. Think of the stuff a writer writes, shows to a few friends or more established artists, gets feedback on, learns from, and then abandons or moves away from. In other words, if you're looking for crap, it's precisely the crap artists don't usually get published: they stuff his or her family sees but no one else.

So you have to take the round-about approach, by pursuing artists who are so famous that someone else has then been motivated to look back and gather up early works that were indeed published, but published to a very select audience. The musician's EP or demo tape. The short story in the college review. Or, you can dig into the writer's private papers donated to a university collection, or personal correspondence, for even more obscure work. I think you're going off-base if you're looking within the realm of widely published and available work, even very early published work, because by the point of publication the artist has achieved at least technical competence, if not artistry. Good question.
posted by roombythelake at 10:44 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Any number of now-important or now-generally-respected filmmakers and actors got their start making schlock for Roger Corman.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:02 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should have had roombythelake write my question for me.
posted by desjardins at 11:18 AM on March 4, 2008

I have something, sort of.

Lou Reed's photography is pretty bad. Just goes to show you can be a genius in one medium and the equivalent of a 50 year soccer mom with a digital camera in another.
posted by sully75 at 11:50 AM on March 4, 2008

I would suggest you read the posthumously published draft of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It makes for a very interesting before/after comparison. The NYT reviewer puts it succinctly: "In a purely quantitative sense, there is much more of everything that we are curious to know about in this version. But that is at the same time a measure of its inferiority."

You can look to the out-of-print Killer in the Rain for Raymond Chandler's pulp work which he cannibalized to put together his classic novels (this Library of America volume may have it all as well but I'm not sure).
posted by otio at 12:03 PM on March 4, 2008

Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner is an interesting case: it's a collection of his early fiction, which had been published in small lit-mags.

The collection is dominated by his long, critical introduction, in which he pretty mercilessly points out the failings in each of the stories. It's got a real "what a dope I was" tone to it, making it an entertaining but slightly unsettling read. (Partly because it's Pynchon, it's hard to take this at face value as confession; it comes off as, potentially, another act of PR by a guy who's pretty protective of his public image. Such as it is. Or not.)

The punchline of the book is that the introduction comes off as a much better piece of writing than any of the stories inside. And, in passing, he manages to dis his (probably) most widely read novel, The Crying of Lot 49.

Fits roombythelake's criteria better than my other example, which would be some large fraction of the books by Norman Mailer (but which? People seem to find his output uneven, but disagree about which works were the bad ones). Although Advertisements for Myself has some of the same "look at my juvenalia" thing going on.
posted by snoe at 12:22 PM on March 4, 2008

"The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay)" (NSFW text) is often attributed to a young Auden.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:47 PM on March 4, 2008

This thread reminds me of a story that George Plimpton told in this speech about Gore Vidal at Exeter:

Gore Vidal was a class ahead of me. He was so persuaded of his own abilities way back then that he sent in his own pieces to the school's literary magazine, the Review, signing them with a fictitious name, perhaps that of a first year boy who lived in Dunbar, and then sat at the editorial meeting glorying in the praise heaped by other editors on what was actually his own work ("Who is this kid?"). Vidal later read a long, epic free-verse saga of mine about being lost in the Exeter woods one night, far beyond the river. Although the other editors dismissed it out of hand, he wrote me a note or spoke to me about it-a faint note of praise, but it was like a thunderclap from above.

I'm not really convinced that the really great artists ever produce utter and complete junk (but I think this is a really interesting question). I went to college with a guy who is a pretty accomplished writer today (he has a bio on wikipedia) - none of us would have imagined when he wrote a paper about the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" when we were freshmen that someday he would be a (somewhat) famous writer.
posted by thomas144 at 2:20 PM on March 4, 2008

I should add that as a screenwriter you get to read a lot of unproduced scripts by *very* famous writers which are 'in need of a rewrite'/

Some of these are bafflingly awful. Not even phoned in.
posted by unSane at 6:05 PM on March 4, 2008

Y Kant Tori Read
posted by NortonDC at 10:26 AM on March 5, 2008

The book Art and Fear deals with this sort of subject a lot, and it is an amazing read, btw.
posted by sully75 at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2008

I find the 2008 Celtic's season to be inspirational, they were never regarded as the best of the best, but they kept on hammering on their fundamentals, and even after missing a huge percentage of their shots every game, and lots of sloppyness, plenty of failures, by simply sticking to their fundamentals like wood glue they took down Kobe and the Lakers - many who think is an equal to MJ.

Now they are considered the best of the best.
posted by parallax7d at 10:26 AM on August 5, 2008

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