Moral re-percussions

Republished from Isaac Bruce Springsteen


As a sports fan, players getting in trouble with the law is just kind of something you have to deal with. Not every team is the Cincinnati Bengals, but it’s generally a matter of disappointment when a player gets in legal trouble, not surprise.

Being a music fan, however, doesn’t come with this same territory. Sure, Gucci Mane is seemingly in-and-out of jail between every mixtape and I guess you can’t forget about Phil Spector. But, by and large, it’s a different ballgame. (Well, I guess it’s not a ballgame at all, actually.)

(Writers Note: Writing this in the wake of the Aaron Hernandez arrest is a bit of unfortunate timing on my part, and I suppose this is my punishment for putting this post off for a while. However, “orchestrating an execution” is kind of, thankfully, an exception to this rule. People are rightfully surprised at these allegations. When a player gets a DUI or busted for marijuana, not so much. Unfortunately,some idiots like Peter King and ESPN analysts like Herm Edwards are trying to equate “having too much free time and getting in trouble” with “murdering someone,” which is pretty much reprehensible when you consider the result of the latter was at least one dead body and the result of the former is potentially just some burnt herbs.)

Enter Surfer Blood and lead singer John Paul Pitts. The frontman was arrested for domestic battery in 2012, but charges were eventually dropped. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen caught up with Surfer Blood recently and discussed the impact the arrest had on the band, and I was just amazed at how much impact there was.

“Though Pitts and guitarist Thomas Fekete, 24, aren’t at liberty to say who,” Cohen writes, “numerous bands have refused to tour with them.” Wow. Can you imagine players refusing to play against or even with other players with a criminal record? Even if you only apply the criteria of charges like domestic abuse which involve harming another person, rather than a drug charge or something of a solely self-afflicting nature, any player objecting seems unlikely. Hell, Michael Vick is on a team.

Sure, maybe players, coaches and GMs are willing to overlook such transgressions because their main focus is on winning, but if Surfer Blood is a commodity, which after their successful debut Astro Coast, they were, a band is forgoing the music equivalent of winning by bypassing a good band as a tour-mate. And even if you make the argument that Surfer Blood isn’t as desirable an entity following the charges because fewer fans want to see a band with an accused woman-beater at the helm, that introduces the fact that fewer fans want to see a band with an accused woman-beater at the helm. And I think that is a true statement. There is surely a group of fans (whether it’s significant or not to band profits, I can’t say) out there who won’t buy Surfer Blood’s major label debut,Pythons, or buy concert tickets or merchandise because of the incident. That doesn’t happen in sports. You might disapprove of Leonard Little killing a woman while drunk driving, but you’re probably not gonna give away your Rams season tickets.

The arrest even has had an effect on Surfer Blood’s musical “win-loss record,” if you will. A month after the aforementioned interview, Pitchfork gave Pythons a meh-worthy 6.7/10. Now, upon first listen of the album, I can tentatively confirm that the record doesn’t possess the revolutionary edge of the breakout Astro Coast, so the score isn’t exactly unreasonable. But the album’s musical faults don’t seem to be the main concern of reviewer Paul Thompson. He, as one would expect, brings up John Paul Pitts’ arrest in the review. But, after touching on the music for a bit, he doesn’t seem willing to let it go: “When I heard about John Paul Pitts’ arrest last summer,” Thompson’s concluding paragraph begins, “my first response, like that of many others, was a swift and decisive, “Fuck you.” Even as more information has come to light, my feelings haven’t changed much; Pitts maintains his innocence, and plea-and-pass might be enough for the Florida courts where forgiveness is concerned, but without hearing the other side of the story, I’m still not so sure.” Harsh. Now, I’m not trying to stick up for John Paul Pitts here; I’d expect that, like rape, domestic assaults go underreported and under-convicted, and if Pitts (Paul Pitts?) did something bad enough that it led to this woman reporting a domestic battery, it’s hard not to give his reputation the opposite of the benefit of the doubt. In fact, when I saw Surfer Blood perform at LouFest in 2011, I even managed to walk away with a “wow, that guy seems like a real dickbag” vibe in regards to Pitts, not that that should necessarily factor into anything other than disclosing that I had a similar initial reaction to Thompson.

But it’s still seems like Pitts has little chance of redeeming his reputation, even with no charges filed and after being given a chance to publicly state his case in the Pitchfork piece. Thompson still railed on him, and read into the album autobiographically, even thought Pitts said that most of it was written before the arrest. While holding an artist accountable for real-world misdoings is a refreshing approach, it seems better-suited for instances such as the Pitchfork review of Action Bronson’s newest mixtape, which just rails on him for his disturbing-and-detrimental-to-women language/imagery, and makes him pay in the scoring as well. In this instance, the shittiness being wreaked is actually existent within the work of “art” (in addition to maybe real life, as well), rather than in the case ofPythons, which simply deals with a tangentially related incident, if it even actually does that.

(Not to keep harping on Pitchfork reviews, but the impact these issues have on the scores really are meaningful. Pitchfork has a lot of influence with music fans, and a few points in a review could be the difference between whether or not someone gives the album a shot.)

Now, again, I’m not trying to defend Pitts here. Even if he’s being falsely accused, that sucks but it’s not nearly as bad as actually being a victim of domestic battery. I’m simply trying to point out how much this arrest has affected the Surfer Blood brand.

I should probably mention that I’m not simply comparing this to sports to contrive a premise for a post on my music-and-sports-themed blog. (In fact, the opposite actually happened; the issue inspired the platform.) I suppose there are political arrests as well, but for me, when a public figure gets arrested — in other words, if somebody’s getting arrested and I actually care about it/hear about it in the first place, it’s usually related to sports. (There are high-profile criminals as well, but I haven’t heard of them before they actually committed the crime.) And, in terms of crime-related punishment, I’m also most familiar with athletes. As I alluded to before, when you’re a fan you care about these transgressions because you want to know how many games your guy is gonna miss. It sounds strange, even as I write it now, to say something as generic as “when I think of people that I’ve heard of getting arrested, I think of sports,” yet when I read the Pitchfork interview, I instantly thought of how drastically different this incident would be if it involved an athlete. Hell, even in the Hernandez case some pundits are more concerned about the implications for the Patriots’ offense instead of, y’know, the murder.

And, to an extent, there’s also a dichotomy within music itself. For myriad cultural reasons that I’m not going to go into at the moment, it’s more common for a rapper to get in legal trouble than a indie-rock guitarist. (Let’s just chalk it up to the police being RAYCESS for now to save some space.) Pythons faced some scrutiny for having a kid flexing on the cover and a title that refers to strong biceps, considering the violent nature of Pitts’ arrest. Yet when a rapper like Gunplay gets arrested for armed assault but charges aren’t filed, releasing an album titledAcquitted seems like the obvious choice.

In the end, I’m not trying to say one is right and one is wrong, that we should adhere to indie rock’s moral compass or that we should adopt the sporting world’s indifference. It’s tempting to say hmm maybe should hold people who do shitty stuff accountable and not buy their records and not root for their sports teams. But that’s a tricky road to head down, because just because Chris Brown has been accused of beating a woman and Sufjan Stevens hasn’t, how do we know that Sufjan isn’t a serial killer (oh fuck, John Wayne Gacy reference, oops) who’s as good at covering it up as he is writing albums about states with Chicago in them? What if I enjoy Chris Brown’s music, for example, but I don’t buy any of it so he can’t profit from it? Or, conversely, what if we’re just being selfish and don’t want to practice morality at the risk of inconveniencing ourselves?

My aim is simply to point out how drastically different the effect of an arrest on this musician was in comparison to what I’ve observed throughout my life as a sports fan. From the tour to the reviews to the interpretation of album artwork and lyrics, the assault that Pitts may or may not have committed permeates the current image of his band. You’ll have to come up with the rest of the answers yourself. But maybe skip the new Surfer Blood album while you’re doing it; it’s really nothing special.



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