John Coltrane is a Bad Guy


“John Coltrane is a bad guy,” they say. “He’ll be whoever you want him to be, when you talk to him, and all that, but the one thing that you should keep in the back of your mind is that he’s just a bad person.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” we say.

“If he’s not a bad guy,” they say, “Who is?”

“It’s complicated.”

Actor Ian McShane

“It’s not complicated,” they say. “He steals money, because he wants more of it. He hurts people too. Some bad guys say they aren’t afraid to hurt anyone who stands in the way. It’s more than that for John Coltrane. He enjoys it, and he always has.”  

“John Coltrane is a victim of circumstance,” we say. “Have you heard him talk about his childhood. His upbringing makes Oliver Twist read like a day at an amusement park, “and nobody ever talks about any of that,” he says. I think he’s right.” 

“If he’s not outright lying about his circumstances,” they say. “He’s exaggerating. He’s not a victim of circumstance, unless we count the circumstances of his own making. He doesn’t steal, hurt people, and kill to support a cause, and he’s not poor or hungry, and he never has been. He’s not desperate to feed his children. He doesn’t have any. He tells us he has a son. He doesn’t have a son. He’s lying. That’s what bad guys do?”

“Why would anyone lie about something like that, something easily disproved?”

“That’s what bad guys do.”

“What does he gain?” 

“He studies us,” they say. “He studies us a culture, and us individually. He tells us the tale we most want to hear. Has he ever prodded you? He prods me all the time, going deeper and deeper into an issue. I don’t think he prods to find weaknesses. I think that’s just what he does, but he uses the weaknesses he finds later. Finding our weaknesses is a byproduct of his constant prodding. The ‘I need to provide for my kid’ narrative is a powerful one, because it garners all types of empathy and sympathy from people like you. 

“As for the more general search for truth,” they continue, “I don’t think he cares about what we call the truth, to be quite honest with you. I think he’s beyond caring about all that, or what we think the truth is. When we catch him fudging the truth, you know what he says? He says something along the lines of, “All right, all right, if it’s not that, what about this? Have you ever considered this?” How does someone do that when you catch him in a bold, irrefutable lie? He does it. He does it all the time. I’ve caught him lying so many times that I no longer believe him. Others do. They continue to believe him even though they know he’s lying to him, they have to know, but he’s so charismatic and convincing that they want to believe him, which says more about them than it does him.”

“That is fascinating,” we say. “I’m not saying I agree, because I don’t know him as well as you do, but it’s fascinating to think that even the modern bad guy learns that he has to change with the times. We all have figurative schemes of thought. When we create a vision of the future, for example, the audience expects some characteristics, flying cars, over population, and corporate monoliths constructed in a manner that makes them look creepy. We also expect some sort of corporate takeover of the planet that removes homes and anything green to feed the corporate monster. Ok, but who’s going to give the corporation money if it takes all the city blocks and drives out the innocent people, its consumer base. The answer obviously is, the corporate monster doesn’t need money in the future, and it doesn’t need people to run it anymore. It is now a self-serving monolith. This is supposed to be a horrifying view of the future, and the movie makers provide guidance for how to avoid this dystopian future, but it makes no sense to me. The same is true with the modern bad guy. The modern bad guy doesn’t do anything but sit around and be evil. He might look and act creepy, and he might promise to do evil things, but he doesn’t do any of them. Every time he appears, creepy music ensues, and we’re convinced he’s a bad guy, but he doesn’t actually do anything incredibly evil to them.      

“Similarly Our definition of the modern bad guy requires that he follow all of the societal norms as best he can. The trope is that he can’t, because he doesn’t know any better, or he won’t, because he’s a bad guy, but the character adjusts to what the audience wants from a bad guy to fulfill their figurative schemes of thought. What the audience appears to want now is a bad guy who doesn’t do anything but sit there and be spooky. I was watching a fictional horror movie in which the bad guy kidnaps a kid, but he didn’t do anything to the kid, because that would’ve been too over the top for most audiences. So, he sat in another room with a weird mask on and acted spooky. We could probably say that everything, pro and con, boils down to John Coltrane’s youth,” we say. “You say he’s a liar, thief, and worse. I’ve known liars and thieves, and they, like Coltrane, often talk about how dumb and stupid they were. Coltrane often talks about how incredibly naïve he was, and how he found it so embarrassing.”

“Weren’t we all,” they say. “Didn’t we all stand at proverbial forks in the road. Didn’t we make decisions along the way that led us to where we are today? Didn’t we all have friends and family who point and counterpointed us to death? Did you ever have that guy, some guy you worked with at a dive restaurant, who told you everything you needed to know about the world from some deeply cynical and awful pocket of the world, his world? He told you that the world you were about to enter into was one big moral equivalence? Did you believe them, or did you see him as an embittered old man who got rolled over in life? Our lives are dotted with points and counterpoints from friends and family, and embittered dishwashers. Who takes advice from a forty-year-old who isn’t cut out for anything better in life than being a dishwasher. They have it all figured out, right? Some people, like John Coltrane, romanticize their notions so much that they begin to believe them. They think they’re cool and funny, and that they’ve unlocked some truths about life they’ve never heard before. If those who cared about him gave him counterpoints to correct the path he was headed down, he either didn’t hear them, or he decided not to abide them.”

“And you think John listened to them so much that he developed a life’s philosophy around them?” we ask. 

“Philosophy is a stretch,” they say. “I don’t think John Coltrane ever developed a philosophy. I think he’s more of a code fella. Whether right or wrong, a philosophy involves a deeper understanding of complicated, almost literary grasp of the way the world works. People like John Coltrane don’t have philosophies, they have codes. It’s a fine distinction, I’ll admit, but a code might be, be nice to your mother, don’t poop where you eat, and don’t eat yellow snow. People like Coltrane prefer superficial, cinematic sophistry that everyone from your best friend to your aunt Donna says to get you to laugh. Deep, complicated, and conflicted bad guys with a philosophical understanding of human nature and the way the world works are a reflection on modern writers hoping readers see the same in them. Their bad guy chracters have vast amounts of knowledge that leads some of us to say, “If he’s so smart, why didn’t he land himself some sort of prosperous career?” No, most criminals are rejected by the greater digestive system of the world, until they fall out the rectum a professional dishwasher, or whatever job title John Coltrane gives himself.”

“I’ll admit I don’t know John Coltrane as well as you,” we say, “but he does have a deep philosophical take on life. I’ve heard it in the hours we’ve spent together. He has a good head on his shoulders, especially when it comes to self-importance. He asked me the other day, ‘who’s the most important person in your life?’ I gave him some answer I thought he wanted to hear. He said ‘Wrong, bongo, you should be the most important person in your life. Who is most affected by your decisions?’ I like that general thread, because it’s so unique in the modern era.

“Hey, you’re not going to get me to say there’s something wrong with self-importance,” they say, “but at what point does it become delusional narcissism? We were all innocent and naïve at one point, and we were chiseled by the world around us. Some of us developed strong minds that could recognize the wrong read for what it was, and some of us didn’t. Some of us corrected our errors, and some of us developed excuses for who we are, but others just lash out at the world around them.”

“It’s the latter that really gets to me,” we say. “I don’t get the lashing out at the world in general. Let’s say you see an otherwise innocent bystander walking down the street by themselves. What prompts you, a relatively sound individual to rob him to rectify what everyone did to you as a kid? How would a John Coltrane square that?”

“Coltrane’s a big guy, tall, broad-shouldered, and all that, so my bet is no one would dare ask him that question,“ they say. “If they had, he’d have an answer. That answer might be meaningless to us as it is to him. It might deal with the general idea of innocence “Nobody is innocent,” is something his type often says. Here’s the most fundamental characteristic of John Coltrane that you need to know before you get to know him. The man always has an answer. If you asked him the question you just asked me, he’d give you an answer. He might give you an answer that strikes you as profound but strikes you as gibberish later, or vice versa. That answer would also be as meaningless to him as it is to him, and it might change if you ask him it a month later, or however long it takes for him to forget the first answer he gave you. Regardless the answer, he always has an answer. There’s always a quick, off the cuff answer that leads you to believe that he’s given this a lot of thought. He hasn’t. He just answers the question. 

“The comedy comes into play when the question of morality arises,” they continue. “John Coltrane knows moral values. He has codes by which he thinks everyone should live, if they want their society and culture to advance. He might even have a long, engaging conversation with your paragon of virtue, your dad, and your dad might find him so pleasant and respectful, and right. The two of them might share so many principles and values, over that steaming bowl of soup, that a friendship could develop. The idea that he doesn’t display his own values doesn’t seem to faze him in the least. If you called him a hypocrite, he’d have an answer. He always has an answer. The most important thing to him in life is finding happiness, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get it. He’s just a bad guy.” 

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