My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay
Searching for sugar man is a documentary about the singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. I saw it weeks ago, and it has stayed with me since. Malik Bendjelloul’s film describes the musician’s career in the late 1960s and the early ’70s, his disappearance from his native Detroit, and his iconic stature in South Africa. A rising star to start with, Rodriguez—also known as Sugar Man—wrote and sang in the protest mode of the young Bob Dylan. Playing guitar in smoke-filled rooms, black-garbed and lean, he turned his back on the audience, chanting. Mystery attached to him; he had physical strength, a mournful demeanor, and no fixed address. He conducted his business meetings in alleys; he slept, it would seem, on the streets. Although the singer did have sponsors and a clutch of devotees, he failed to make an impact on the commercial music world; in the country of his birth, he remained almost wholly unknown. It was rumored that he shot himself during a concert, or doused himself with kerosene and struck a match, or simply jumped to his death . . .
In South Africa, his music mattered greatly; he was, said one of his admirers, “bigger than Elvis,” and his lyrics powered the antiapartheid movement as a kind of anthem of resistance. Hundreds of thousands sang his songs; no one knew the details of his life. Some years ago two fans of the performer set out to learn the truth of his death and found, to their astonishment, Rodriguez had survived. For decades he’d eked out a living as a construction and demolition worker in Detroit. He’d made no money from his album sales and had no knowledge that they sold; he had three daughters and an old guitar and no idea that half a world away he was a mythic figure, much revered.
Searching for Sugar Man reports on how the man was tracked down to his crumbling lair, then flown to Cape Town and Johannesburg, where he received a hero’s welcome and performed to sold-out houses and adoring multitudes—unchanged. The hair still black, the pockmarked face still suggestive of an Aztec warrior, the hands still nimble on the strings and ready, after anonymity, to sign autographs for hours—it was as though the forty intervening years made no difference in his stance. As in a fairy tale (think of Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle), the artist was restored.
We were born a month apart. In the time when I first heard Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and others, the music of Sugar Man vanished; now he’s an emblem of survival and the power of devotion. His youth is shadowed by old age; his age reprises youth. His tour in the fall of 2012 took him from Michigan to California, from Ontario to British Columbia, from the Royal Festival Hall, in England, to Scotland and Ireland. His acolytes have raised Rodriguez from, if not the dead, the disappeared.
All of us have once been young; some of us grow old. Imagine if the youthful dead could revisit their own pasts—to see, as Sixto Rodriguez has done, what happened to their early work and if and in what way it has endured. John Keats wrote for his tombstone: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” He was wrong. Others, greatly vaunted, have had reputations dwindle and their ashes turn to dust. When Sugar Man emerged from his—it’s fair to call it—cave in Detroit and blinkingly came out of hibernation to the spotlight’s glare, he was awakened from a lifelong sleep and asked to sing again. I cite him at book’s start because the image of an elderly performer striding out on stage reborn is part of the dear dream of youth: that it can continue. And though he’s not my subject here, he hovers in the wings, an old man reenacting what he did decades before. What had been lost is found.
“Prodigy.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has little to do with chronological age. Its first definition is “something extraordinary from which omens are drawn: an omen, a portent.” The next usage is “an amazing or marvelous thing, esp. something out of the ordinary course of nature; something abnormal or monstrous.” Only a much later meaning associates that “amazing or marvelous thing” with youth, describing it as “a person endowed with some quality which excites wonder: esp. a child of precocious genius.” The words “precocity” and “prodigy” share no etymological root. By now, however, we routinely link the two. A prodigy is youthful; the prodigy at fifty seems a contradiction in terms.
Nor is such early achievement always and only artistic. There are prodigies in mathematics and skating, chess and foreign languages. “Prodigy” is the name of an English electronic dance music group and a computer service. To be “prodigal”—as in the Prodigal Son—is to be wasteful or extravagant; to be “prodigious” is to be “marvelous” but also “ominous, portentous.” The word itself comes from the Middle English “prodige” or “portent,” from the Latin “prodigium,” and its first known use was in a chronicle in the year 1494: “Many wonderfull prodyges & tokyns were shewed in Englonde, as ye swellying or rysyng of the water of Thamys.” We have traveled a fair distance from the notion of a rising tide to the notion of an artist in the first flush of youth.
The latter is my topic. The Art of Youth concerns itself with men and women—writers, painters, and musicians—dead before the age of forty. In one sense this is neither “out of the ordinary course of nature” nor “amazing” since many creative artists died by then and continue to do so today. They are legion in our history. Indeed, and though I’ve done no statistical survey, it’s safe to say that most of our acknowledged masters completed their lives’ labor by that age. The preponderance of what we honor as cultural achievements has been produced by the young. Much of this is a matter of actuarial tables and life expectancy; it’s only in the recent past that forty years old could seem young. Two score was once a full life span; not now.
But my artists started quickly and were accomplished in their chosen fields by their early twenties. What they did, they did fully and soon. A separate inquiry might consider those who toil on with diminished effect or those who simply choose to stop, since not all creative labor ends with diminution or death. There are those in their sixties and eighties whose best work was done first. For the sake of coherence, however, I examine youthful figures whose talent was extinguished with their final breaths.
It goes without saying, but needs to be said, that all of what follows applies as well to other forms of endeavor—neuroscience and basketball, for instance, or prowess on the battlefield and in aerospace. There are many ways of starting out, many fields in which to flourish early—think of mathematics or philosophy or political reform. Such a discussion might instead have dealt with the gymnast or entrepreneur or inventor. The notion of “first acts” is one that cuts across the board and need not be delimited by a historical moment; it outstrips place and time.
Yet my f...