Exactly two years ago today, at the Record Theatre on Main and Kenmore, I bought Nick Drake's entire discography. Sounds like a lot, right? How does a broke college student manage to have all that cash? Well, he only made three albums, so I only spent about 30 bucks. If I wanted to buy, say Neil Young's, complete discography, that probably would have ran me into the thousands.
Yes, due to his tragic death in 1974, Nick Drake didn't record a great deal of music during his time on earth. This, of course, can't help but make the things he did give us all the more alluring. When we look at a discography that has five or fewer albums, we can't help but wonder what could have been. Usually, we project toward the positive. Even though Drake made three excellent albums, we liked to think that had he survived, he somehow would have topped Pink Moon. And if The Smiths had never broken up, just imagine how many more masterpieces the Morrissey-Marr combo would have given. Heck, I can't even count the number of times I've contemplated the guitar opus Jimi Hendrix would have given us if he were around in say, 1973. We tend to view a band's output more fondly when there isn't that much of it.
When artists actually realize their full potential, they tend to screw up their perfect track records. they make albums like Landing On Water or UK Jive, and our view them becomes ruined. The artists who only release a few albums exist within a relatively unblemished point of view. We've never seen them at their worst, so all we can do do is appreciate what they did at their best. Really though, if a lot of our favorite bands and artists had kept making music, the quality would have suffered. Jimi Hendrix might have gotten too self-indulgent and given us something that sounded like a cross between Metal Machine Music and Tales From Topographic Oceans. Nick Drake might have hungered for commercial success and found himself attached to the soft-rock movement. And do I even need to explain how terrible a John Lennon synth-pop album would have been? Of course, there's no guarantee any of these scenarios would have played out either.
Maybe all the artists that either died or broke up too soon would have given us additional masterpieces. The point is, by not knowing, we can project whatever fairytale ending we want to those stories, and that's why the artists who give us a small catalog of work tend to look better in our eyes. With Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, and countless others, we got to see them record music for decades and decades. This means we've also gotten to see them at their absolute worst. We don't hold it against them too much, but it does effect how he view them, because it means we can't romanticize what might have been. We know what happened; some of it was good, some of it was bad, most of it was probably worthwhile. Still, what's there is there, and while we can accept for it what it is, we're always going to look the ones who stopped in their primes and think about what other brilliant, mind-blowing albums they might have had. In this case, the fantasy is likely better than what the reality would have been.