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Worship at the altar of art
My favorite rock star isn't Diplo, with his golden locks and six-pack abs. Or Harry Styles, frocked in glittering jumpsuits and 100 tattoos. Or Bad Bunny with a pout that kills, a braid falling delicately over one eye.
Mine is Samuel T. Herring, a 39-year-old balding short king. Sam is my Artist Daddy.
A man I was dating back in 2016 first introduced me to Herring and his band, Future Islands. We laid in his bed together in the Bronx on a Saturday afternoon, after I ran my first (and only) six-mile race, and he pulled up a video he’d been watching on repeat. Herring stands on the stage of Letterman in 2014 and sings “Seasons (Waiting on You)” with guttural growls. He undulates, bobs from side to side, beats his chest, reaches out, stares into your soul. “People change, but you know some people never do,” he sings. He is riveting, animalistic.
When the song ends, Letterman yells, “Buddy, come on! How about that! I’ll take all of that you got. That was wonderful!” From that moment on, slowly but surely, Future Islands’ emo synth-pop songs attached themselves to my ribcage; the melodies sang when I breathed in and out.
I recently learned it was that very Letterman performance that launched Future Islands—who had already been a band for eight years by then—into the mainstream. (I like to imagine that all of us who saw it and became instant fans were hooked up to the same mind-control machine from Batman Forever.)
“…built like Henry Rollins but with a face that searches the audience, pleading for some kind of empathy or understanding of his plight. Then there’s the dancing: a hip-swivelling affair that could have come straight from Wigan Casino. The two things seem unlikely bedfellows and that’s before Herring begins singing, his voice often soulful and powerful, yet with the tendency to erupt into a throaty howl reminiscent of death metal. The eye contact. The sincere chest thumping. The limbo dancing right at the end, which comes straight after that stomach-churning, guttural roar. The whole thing is strangely unsettling, incredibly moving and brave enough to risk teetering to the very brink of out-and-out hilarity without quite falling off the edge.”
Deadspin described Herring’s look back then as “power-schlub attire:”
“He combines the jovial menace of the Pixies' Frank Black, the erudite yearning of Morrissey, the hammy ardor of Tom Jones. You want him to take you on a date, in a Venetian red Subaru Outback, to the Macaroni Grill. You belong together.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m sweating.
The enduring power of that performance remains, on YouTube. Though the official Letterman channel re-uploaded the original video a few months ago, it already has 162,000 views and hundreds of comments from those also under Herring’s normcore spell:
“I still watch this like once a month.”
“I only discovered Future Islands literally yesterday and feel like I’ve known them my entire life.”
“There is a cookie monster within that man that randomly escapes from time to time.”
”Don’t panic. You’re just watching 4 humans live out their dreams live on stage.”
That’s the crux for me. You can see, in real time, Herring living out his dreams. Here he is ending a festival set by walking into the crowd and jumping over a fence, rather than just walking backstage. Here he is doing so many high kicks that he falls off the stage. To dance and sing and stroke and yearn in public takes guts. Herring has plenty to spare. He’s a rapper, a dancer, soon he’s starring in his first acting role on an Apple TV show. What can’t he do? He certainly won’t let you decide that for him.
At least seven years after I first heard Herring’s growl I buy a single ticket to see Future Islands live in Austin. I attend the show without a speck of makeup on, in my most comfortable outfit, with no pretense—after all, I am on my way to see Artist Daddy, who I know and love, and who I can be my full self with.
Once I’m inside the venue, I wade into the GA floor crowd. These days I usually prefer to purchase a ticket that comes with a guaranteed seat or to stand far back from the stage where I’m less likely to be jostled. But tonight I need to be close to my man.
The lights go down, and Herring appears on stage wearing skinny jeans and a Black T-shirt, like any man you might pass on the streets of Baltimore, which is exactly where the band is from. As the show goes on he sweats and sweats and sweats. He runs his hand from chest to crotch, doing body rolls. He reaches up to grab an invisible plum from the air, brings it to his lips, slurps. He beats his chest so hard that you can hear it on the mic. It’s tribal, a call to join the Artist Daddy movement.
“Feel your heart in there,” he seems to say, to me and me alone. “You can be an artist too. You already are.”
Near the end of the show, when sweat beads fall from his body like heavy raindrops, he holds his left arm up and licks from elbow to wrist. It's sexy, intoxicating. I'm yelling. I ignore the people arguing next to me, push past them, cast a spell to banish them from my life. I’m only a few people back from the stage now. I reach my arms toward the heavens, where he seems to be, lunging for his embrace. I'm a vampire, sucking up as much of his energy as I can take for myself. He’s happy to give it away. He knows we need it more than he does.
A song begins to play, and Herring says, “This song is about a person I love very much that's been out of my life for a long time. And that's the heartbreaking thing about writing songs. You keep walking into rooms and seeing the same people lying there.”
I think of my own rooms filled with metaphorically dead loved ones, and tears sting my eyes.
Herring once said, “The ultimate goal [of our shows] is to bring people together, for people to feel free to be emotional, to be open with themselves, and open with who they love or complete strangers, to create that space, that environment for people to feel free to be who they are.”
I want to feel free. I want to create without fear. I want to dance like no one and everyone is watching. I want to be my own Artist Daddy.
More of my favorite Artist Daddies
Ann Friedman, journalist, newsletter author for 15 years, podcast host, and my first-ever Good Boss
Ashley C. Ford, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, and radio and television host. She’s had a sprawling, sparkling career I’ve long admired.
Austin Kleon, whose daily devotion to his art inspires me often
Edith Zimmerman, journalist and artist who I watched manifest exactly the life she wanted over a few years
Elena Ferrante, such an Artist Daddy she wouldn’t tell us who she is
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic
Joan Didion, THE Artist Daddy
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
Madeleine Dore, who writes about making art and routines for creatives
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’s really about to make me go see another Indiana Jones movie
Roxane Gay, New York Times columnist, novelist, essayist, newsletter writer, professor, book publisher—everything
Alan Ruck, the actor recently known as Connor in Succession
Connor Ratliff, who went back to acting after taking many years off due to an early career setback, then made this astounding podcast. Tom Hanks fired him for having “dead eyes” and he made a podcast about what happened in the 20 years after that, and the failures that unite the human experience.
Frank Ocean, who made the one album I still listen to constantly seven years later
John Early, the comedian I’ve seen live the most times by far
Kim Petras, maker of my favorite unapologetic slutpop. She started off making songs as a young teen in her bedroom in Germany.
Lady Gaga. I almost cried when she got nominated for an Oscar as an actress. I saw her live for the first time when I was 19.
Pat Regan, my favorite comedian
Patsy Cline, who made some of the art that’s been most impactful in my life all before she died in a plane crash at 30
Robyn, who would not let an early pop career keep her from making the moody house music she loves
SZA, who’s so honest and talented it seems there’s not a heart she can’t stop