4 Artist Careers That Prove You Can Come Back from Anything
Everybody loves a comeback. Don't believe me? Go out and poll everyone in the world. See? Told ya. Anyway, here are four artists who soared and crashed, only to rise again.
At this point, I'd reference the phoenix from Greek mythology, who was reborn from the ashes, but then someone in the comments would call me a pretentious hipster, because the Internet is stupid and also doesn't know what "hipster" means, so, um, hey, look at this wicked awesome firebird and enjoy the article.
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. started his career with a bang, joining the 1985 cast of Saturday Night Live at the age of 20. Of course, that was the worst year of SNL's existence, but it was a nice achievement nonetheless.
Highlight of the '85 season? Dennis Miller doing the news years before trading in his sense of humor for Bill O'Reilly's love. (The last time I saw a trade that bad, Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy were experiencing a brief splash of celluloid relevance, amirite, chi-chi?)
From there things only improved as he landed the role of the blue-haired wisecracker in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School. Then Downey's role in Less Than Zero helped make him a temporary pinup, winning young Tiger Beat hearts like an '80s version of Justin Bieber (if Justin Bieber were an actor and had male genitalia).
And then came his Academy Award-nominated performance as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. His performance spans Chaplin's life from a youth to an old man, and he gets everything right: the accent, the humor, the pathos and the physical comedy.
And Then ...
Drugs. Lots of drugs. Downey was arrested a string of times from 1996 to 2001 and soon became a semi-blacklisted liability. He took work where he could find it, whether that be Ally McBeal, where he was fired due to more drug arrests, or Elton John videos.
But Then ...
With sobriety came success. First there was the criminally underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and then ... Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. Who knew that Tony Stark and the world's greatest detective were both so much like Robert Downey Jr.?
But I don't really mean that as a dig, because everyone loves the hell out of Downey in those roles. And his sobriety is the key -- not just because it removes the liability of employing an addict, but because it makes him safe for consumption. We all love to invite the life of the party to our happenings: They're charming and funny and a good time. At first. But we never ask them back, because by the end of the night they've vomited on the rug, dripped blood in our bathroom and stolen our grandmother's engagement ring to pawn for drugs.
A reformed Downey means that we get to see our favorite lovable bad boy again, knowing that he'll be a blast but does not require us to hide the good silver. And now that he's got enough money to do all the blow in the world and apparently isn't doing all the blow in the world, maybe he'll get a chance to make some great non-popcorn movies, too.
Oh man. Do you kids know Neil Young? No? Well, there were always two sides to ol' Neil: the Canadian folkie who wrote some classic acoustic stuff and occasionally hung with his buddies Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the rocking leader of Crazy Horse, whose music inspired Kurt Cobain and others to the point where he was called the Godfather of Grunge. If your parents hated you and didn't expose you to Neil or if you lived in a town with no classic rock radio station, or if you've just devoted the first part of your life to sucking so hard that there was no room for Neil Young, you should probably rectify that as soon as possible.
Also, you might know him from his role as Cornelius in Planet of the Apes.
And Then ...
Around 1980, something went horribly wrong. Neil started making electric, synth-based music, and holy hell, was it awful. How awful? Kinda this awful:
But Then ...
The '80s drew to a close, and with the ousting of Republicans, our friend Neil came back to us. First with an album called Freedom that produced "Rockin' in the Free World" and "No More." A few years later, he set out to do a sequel to his classic 1972 album Harvest, entitled Harvest Moon. That's like making Sgt. Pepper 2, Darker Side of the Moon or Stevie (Tommy's Handi-Capable Younger Brother Who's Great at Pac-Man). And even though the bar was set impossibly high, Neil smoked it. Harvest Moon was a critical and commercial success, producing a string of instant rock radio favorites, including the title track.
Neil was making some of the most important music of his career while receiving the adulation of all the grunge rockers he inspired. Then Kurt Cobain got tired of having the brains on the inside of his head and shot himself, quoting a Neil Young lyric in his suicide note. (Incidentally, this was the worst thing Cobain had done to a great song since mangling the lyrics to Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" a year earlier.)
In response, Young released Sleeps With Angels, an album just as impressive as Harvest Moon, but reflecting his harder side. At 49, he released two of the strongest albums of his career, both completely distinct from each other and both perfect additions to his growing legend. Oh, yeah, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for "Philadelphia."
Although he had some childhood acting gigs, Ben Affleck first started getting noticed in Kevin Smith movies like Mallrats. Of course, what really broke it open for him was Good Will Hunting, where he co-starred with lifelong friend Matt Damon and earned an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay. Things were looking great for Ben, and more success followed -- although without the critical acclaim.
He moved forward with financially successful turds like Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil. Pretty soon, people started thinking that Damon was the brains of that Good Will Hunting team and that Ben was just some good-looking leading man. But hey, at least his popcorn flicks were still making money.
In Daredevil, Affleck played a superhero who fought crime without the ability to see or choose quality film projects.
And Then ...
In 2003, the ordinarily very talented Martin Brest -- who wrote the great Going in Style and directed Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run -- wrote and directed a little film called Gigli. A film so bad, people started demanding their money back simply for seeing the preview. If Gigli were a fetus, Rick Santorum would lobby for on-demand abortions. If Gigli were a superhero, its weakness would be people who have the ability to see movies, and its secret identity would the moisture in your boxers after a burrito fart.
Take all the ill will from Gigli, add it to the sneaking suspicion that Ben was riding Damon's coattails and throw in some nauseating Bennifer tabloid overexposure and suddenly Ben Affleck was not so cool anymore. Jersey Girl and Surviving Christmas certainly didn't help, either.
Things were so bad for Ben that sometime in 2006, he tried to earn extra money by starring as me in the Lifetime original movie entitled Gladstone: Internet Hero of Humanity.
Personally, I don't see the resemblance.
But Then ...
A few years ago, Affleck took control of his career in a way that few actors have or could and successfully shut everyone up. Indeed, Affleck's experiencing more than a comeback; he's working in a way that indicates that perhaps he didn't receive enough credit the first time around. In the last five years, Affleck has gone back to writing, helping to adapt three successful films. In 2007, he adapted and directed Gone Baby Gone, and in 2010, he did the same for The Town. Both films received positive reviews and were modest box office successes. This year, he directed and starred in Argo, which has received glowing reviews for its direction, as well as for Affleck's performance.
Lastly, even his personal life is coming up all aces. While his failed romances with exes Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez painted him as a party boy unable to commit, he's been married to Jennifer Garner since 2005. Meanwhile, at this point Paltrow and Lopez look more and more like dodged bullets. After several years in B- pop culture movie exile, Affleck is at the top of his game.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about works of art that were so great, they destroyed their whole genre, and even though Soundgarden wasn't in that article, they really were the inspiration. Since becoming a die-hard Soundgarden fan in 1992, I haven't been able to enjoy any other hard rock nearly as much. They own the market for me.
Although formed in the mid-'80s, they formalized their lineup in 1990 with Chris Cornell (vocals, guitar); Matt Cameron (drums); Kim Thayil (lead guitar); and Ben Shepherd (bass). For those of you who only know Soundgarden from their biggest hit, "Black Hole Sun," I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you've completely wasted your whole life up until this point by not listening to Soundgarden. You'll never get those years back. The good news, however, is that you have a ton of great Soundgarden music to enjoy.
In 1991, they released Badmotorfinger, which made good on their promise to be "Black Sabbath without the parts that suck." The album is hard to classify, drawing on classic rock, heavy metal and what would come to be called the meaningless term "grunge." And even though the whole album kicks tremendous ass, Soundgarden was no one-trick pony. Check out the plodding power of "Slaves and Bulldozers" as compared to one of the most badass metal songs of all time, "Jesus Christ Pose."
As ashamed as I am to admit it, Soundgarden rocked so hard, I was almost intimidated and pushed away initially, having been nurtured on the Beatles, Bowie and Pink Floyd. But then Cornell and Cameron from Soundgarden released Temple of the Dog, backed by some members of Pearl Jam, and I saw a whole other side. Cornell penned some of his finest songs, like "Say Hello 2 Heaven," "Call Me a Dog" and "All Night Thing." Seeing that talent, I went back to Badmotorfinger and heard all the melody and solid song construction under the aggression.
Then came Superunknown, the album where Soundgarden expanded its musical palate, seemingly bringing all their diverse talents into one offering and reaching their high-water mark. Only two years later, they broke up unceremoniously after releasing the sporadically brilliant but uneven Down on the Upside.
Chris Cornell's solo career carried on, and with one ginormous exception, that was a good thing. He wrote great songs like "Preaching the End of the World," "She'll Never Be Your Man" and the best James Bond song since McCartney's, "You Know My Name."
And Then ...
The problem, of course, was Audioslave. It sounded like a good idea. After all, it was purportedly Rick Rubin's: Take one of the greatest singers in rock history and have him front the three guys from Rage Against the Machine who lost their Communist Muppet singer.
Blah!!!! Che!!! GRRRR!!!
Here's the problem: Although Tom Morello is a fine guitarist, the rest of the band simply did not have the chops to play Chris' stuff. Yeah, sorry, Rage fans, they just didn't. Listen to all the nuance a drummer like Cameron gives to Cornell's stuff, whether it's four on the floor metal or gospel-inflected blues. Then listen to the Rage rhythm section stomp all over his songs in the same unimaginative way over and over. There was another problem with Audioslave, too: Cornell was clearly phoning it in. For the first time in his career, he was drafting up some pretty forgettable lyrics, too. They released three lackluster albums. But the worst insult to Soundgarden's legacy was yet to occur.
That would be Cornell's 2009 collaboration with Timbaland, Scream. Y'know when you pass an accident on the side of the road, and you're curious, but you also have the good sense not to look directly at it? That would be the best approach to take with this piece of crap, "Part of Me."
But Then ...
Just when all hope seemed lost, Soundgarden reunited, but, frankly, I didn't care. It seemed to be a bullshit reunion to milk money out of the catalog and tour dates. Besides, how excited could I be? Cameron was Pearl Jam's drummer now, fighting a one-man war to divert their attempts to become as boring and mediocre as possible. But then there was talk of a new Soundgarden album. Then there was a new album. Then I bought the new album. And then ...
HOLY SHIT. SOUNDGARDEN HAS A NEW ALBUM AND IT'S FUCKING AMAZING.
It's like Superunknown and Down on the Upside never happened. Instead, King Animal grows out of Badmotorfinger. All 13 songs are tight and powerful. No filler on the album or within the songs themselves. And even though it reflects the band's earlier music, it seems to be infused, somehow, with their diversity of experience. Rolling Stone gave it a good review, and people like me (not affiliated with absurd music magazines that typically get reviews wrong) also like it.
Also notable is that Soundgarden never sound like they're trying to be who they were in 1991, even if they still play with all the same power. Lyrically, Chris Cornell isn't screaming about being a slave to the man, but is wondering where he belongs in his 40s, and even what kind of aspirations he's supposed to have. The music industry has changed, and there is simply no market for King Animal to experience the success of a Superunknown, but with this album, Soundgarden gives its fans a second act beyond their wildest dreams.
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