I’ve not had chance to see Crazy Heart yet, the new film that has been released in the US starring Jeff Bridges as a country singer/songwriter, Bad Blake, but a few reviews namedropping another famous Blake have attracted my attention.
In the film, Blake battles the booze and struggles for money as he tours a succession of dead-end towns until he finds (inevitably?) the hope for redemption after an interview with reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Bridges performance has attracted most attention, having received an Oscar nomination for best actor (with Gyllenhall being nominated for best actress), with many critics remarking this is well-deserved.
Bridges, in an interview with Under the Radar Magazine, lists a few of the influences behind the character of Bad Blake, including Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Greg Brown, as well as country blues in the style of Kris Kristofferson. Such figures suggest that the name of the lead role in Crazy Heart was not entirely accidental. While Blake may actually be only one of many European poets enjoyed by Cohen, though Kevin Dettmar in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan considers the music star to be “the spiritual twin of the English Romantic poet William Blake”.
More substantially, Kris Kristofferson discovered Blake while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, even naming his eighth child after the poet in 1994. When asked about the effect of Blake on his life, Kristofferson told Andrew Denton in a 2005 interview:
He was such a passionate artist and he believed that it was his duty, because God made him that way, to be a creative poet. He said if you didn’t – he said: “If he who is organised by the divine for spiritual communion refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death shame and confusion are faced to eternity.” So for a young guy who wanted to be an artist it was a perfect inspiration. (Enough Rope with Andrew Denton.)
While Bridges says that he was “late coming to the party of getting turned on to Greg Brown”, this is the strongest indication that William Blake is more than a shadow behind the character of Bad Blake. Born in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1949, Brown began singing in New York before moving to Portland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Establishing a reputation as an original folk singer, in 1986 he recorded Blake’s poems on Songs of Innocence and of Experience, sixteen tracks ranging from “The Lamb” to “London” and “Ah! Sunflower”. With Brown on vocals and guitar and accompanied by Michael Doucet on violin and Dave Moore on accordion, it is a vivid and simple invocation of the poems. Never has mad Blake sounded more sane.
You can hear samples of Brown’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience here.