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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Who gets custody of inspiration? 14 memorable entertainments inspired by real-life divorces

Illustration for article titled Who gets custody of inspiration? 14 memorable entertainments inspired by real-life divorces

1. Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear
Divorce has inspired plenty of artists over the years, but this 1978 album may be the only work required by divorce. Splits are generally messy, but when a superstar musician and the sister of his label head break up, that’s bound to be messier still. After Marvin Gaye and his wife Anna divorced, he wound up with a $600,000 judgment against him; his attorneys arranged for it to come from the advance and royalties of his next album. The resulting double record, Here, My Dear, offers Gaye’s heartbreaking account of love on the rocks. It’s a haunting effort that emphasizes sadness over bitterness, in spite of titles like “Anger,” “You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You,” and “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.” That didn’t stop Anna from threatening an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit. Audiences didn’t much care for the album either, but the years have rightly restored its reputation as a bad-mood classic, an unsettling mix of smooth sounds and raw nerves. (Remarkably, Diddy once described Here, My Dear to Entertainment Weekly as a favorite that’s “romantic, soulful, and puts you in the mood no matter where you are.” In the mood for what, exactly? A protracted court battle?)

2. The Squid And The Whale
Though Noah Baumbach insists that The Squid And The Whale isn’t nearly as autobiographical as it seems, it’s definitely modeled on the marriage and break-up of his parents, Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach. But it speaks well of the film’s thoroughly convincing texture and story (it can’t really be said to have a plot) that people believe Baumbach couldn’t have come up with this stuff on his own. Using 16mm grain to make it seem as if he’s filming in ’80s Park Slope, not just recreating it, Baumbach isn’t focused so much on the squabbling parents as on their oldest son, played by Jesse Eisenberg. The problem isn’t dealing with the divorce; it’s just that the process accelerates certain inevitable realizations about his parents (viz., his beloved dad is actually an asshole). On first viewing, it’s painful, but it gets funnier with repeat viewings, the same way bad memories scar over and turn into anecdotes.

3. Richard & Linda Thompson, Shoot Out The Lights
Shoot Out The Lights—the recording swan song of British folk-rock pioneers Richard and Linda Thompson—was written and recorded before their split became official, and its tales of frayed feelings and desperate characters don’t really mark a radical break with their previous work. But knowing that this album came at the tail end of their long partnership—and that their marriage was over in all but name while they toured behind it in 1982—casts it in a different light. “Where’s the justice and where’s the sense when all the pain is on my side of the fence?” Richard sings on “Walking On A Wire.” Lines like that are too perfectly suited for the occasion not to get tangled up in the story.

4. Suzanne Vega, Songs In Red And Gray
Similarly, Suzanne Vega insists that not all the tracks on her 2001 album Songs In Red And Gray—her first after her 1998 divorce from producer Mitchell Froom—are about their relationship. But at times, that’s hard to believe, given the album’s melancholy tone, its concentration on and dissection of relationships, and even its title, which evokes bloody wars and bleak depression in the same breath. Still, three of the album’s best songs are openly about the split: “Widow’s Walk” describes her marriage as a boat that splintered and sank, leaving her returning “like a dog with little sense” to the spot where it went down, “as if there’s something at the site I should be learning.” “If I Were A Weapon” is a martial spat between Vega and Froom, shaped into song form. And in the saddest, “Soap And Water,” Vega tearfully lets go of the marriage and her wedding ring, but reserves her most heartbreaking lines for their daughter, whom she sympathizes with in a time of emotional confusion: “Daddy’s a dark riddle, Mama’s a handful of thorns / You are my little kite, caught up again in the household storms.”

5. Dan Roche, Love’s Labors: A Memoir Of A Young Marriage And Divorce
What’s the flip side of passionate attachment, that mystical feeling of oneness with a soulmate? According to Dan Roche’s wrenching, honest memoir, it’s the slow drift apart that began immediately after the perfect happiness of his wedding day. Secure in their commitment and idealistic in their goals, Roche and his wife Julie embarked on a Peace Corps stint instead of a honeymoon. But Julie became disillusioned and convinced her fulfillment lay elsewhere: on the Appalachian Trail, in Europe, in graduate school, in jobs out of town. Roche devoted himself to creating the conditions for her happiness, but every effort seemed to drive her farther toward one vague goal after another. The only characteristic her long litany of self-actualization efforts had in common, Roche realized, was that they did not include him. The raw bewilderment attested in Love’s Labors is the literary world’s best illustration of the ill-understood saw “It takes two to tango.” Every head-over-heels college student—and every rom-com couple kissing as the music swells—should read it to clear their romanticized vision.

6. Husbands And Wives
Husbands And Wives was made before the Woody Allen/Soon-Yi Previn scandal hit the news, and Allen’s longtime partnership with co-star Mia Farrow came apart. (They were never married, but they had a longtime partnership, a biological child, and two adopted children together.) But it was released after the relationship publicly disintegrated over Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter Previn, and its faux-documentary style made it seem even creepier and more prescient, particularly when Allen lunges in to kiss a really young Juliette Lewis. The documentary aspects don’t really work—given all the flashbacks and setups, it was apparently shot by a doc crew with an infinite budget for 16mm, or just an exceptionally long-suffering and skilled one—but they give the material an improvisatory, nervy feel that Allen’s work had been lacking for years. At the end, having wrecked his life, Allen asks the crew “Can I go? Is this over?” To this day, it isn’t: American Apparel responded to Woody’s recent lawsuit (for using his image without permission in a billboard campaign) by having its lawyers drag up the Previn relationship again to prove that Allen’s image didn’t even have value.

7. Cursive, Domestica
Misery tends to inspire the best art, and divorce may be the most relentlessly soul-sucking of all of life’s miseries. Cursive frontman Tim Kasher regularly mines those for some of his band’s best material, so it makes sense that his short-lived marriage in the ’90s inspired an entire fantastic album. (The cover photo of a couple in a sad embrace drives the point home.) Released in 2000, Domestica brutally deconstructs the failing relationship between “Sweetie” and “Pretty Baby,” via tellingly titled songs like “The Casualty,” “The Martyr,” “The Game Of Who Needs Who The Worst,” and “The Night I Lost The Will To Fight.” The last, the album-closer, is a bit misleading, as Kasher said in interviews that his couple stays together—losing the will to fight wasn’t the last gasp of a dead relationship, but the first step toward reinvigorating it. But considering the despair that saturates the eight songs preceding “The Night,” Domestica wouldn’t make a good wedding present.


8. Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
In her heyday, Tammy Wynette was country music’s spokeswoman for the typical American wife and mother, for better and for worse. She unapologetically embraced this role regardless of whether it fit in with the fashion of the time, and she always sold her songs with a maximum of feeling. While she didn’t write her massive 1968 hit “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” she could surely identify with it (she was on her way to her third marriage when she recorded it, and would eventually undergo two divorces and two annulments), and it’s hard to imagine any other singer who could sell the song’s hokey central conceit—a woman whose marriage is falling apart spells out the ugly details of the case so her young son won't understand—via sheer force of sincerity. Given the frequent tragedies of her life, it’s no wonder Wynette delivered so powerfully on a song that would have sounded corny from almost anyone else.

9. Brother Ali, “Walking Away”
Though not a concept album per se, Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth ends with a three-song story-suite mourning the end of his first marriage (“Walking Away”), followed by songs celebrating his emotional rebirth through his son (“Faheem”) and the giddy infatuation of meeting and wooing the woman who would become his second wife (“Ear To Ear”). Over an incongruously cheerful beat and chirpy whistling, Ali delivers a harrowing tongue-lashing to a soon-to-be-ex-wife who is “about to lose the company your misery loves.” He seethes with disconcerting matter-of-factness: “I don’t love you. I don’t think I ever did. And if you hadn’t tried to kill me, I’d have stayed for the kid.” But how do you really feel, big man?

10. Dave Sim, Cerebus: Reads
When someone’s behavior is as extreme as reclusive Canadian comics genius Dave Sim's has become, it’s easy to go overboard with the armchair psychology. Those who know his history with women—and even those who don’t—are quick to blame his ever-growing misogyny on his bad relationships. That’s probably simplistic for a mind as multi-faceted as Sim’s, but even the most generous defenders of the man can’t help but notice the turn his writing took—both within and without the pages of his 30-year, 300-issue comic project Cerebus—after his divorce from Deni Loubert. It was after their marriage fell apart—and he underwent several other spoiled relationships—that the portrayal of women in Cerebus became darker and more complex, and his own personal attitude toward women—described in vast detail in Cerebus volume nine, Reads, as soul-sucking voids who blot out male creative lights—became more and more vicious.


11. Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel Of Love
When Bruce Springsteen released Tunnel Of Love in 1987, he was still married to his first wife, Julianne Phillips. But anyone who was paying attention to the record’s unflinchingly personal lyrics—which openly questioned the possibility of staying faithful and committed in an adult relationship—could probably guess that all was not well in the Springsteen household. Tunnel Of Love also foreshadowed another, no less personal divorce for Springsteen from The E Street Band, which hardly appears on the record. Only backup singer Patti Scialfa has a prominent role on Tunnel, adding ghostly vocals to some of the album’s most haunting tracks, including the title song and “One Step Up.” Springsteen eventually left Phillips for Scialfa, which only adds to the album’s psychodrama.

12. XTC, “Your Dictionary”
One of the bitterest breakup songs ever recorded comes smack in the middle of one of XTC’s sunniest, most beautiful albums. Andy Partridge’s marriage to his wife Marianne had been on the rocks for years, held together largely for their children’s sake; by the time he began writing the tracks for Apple Venus, enough was enough. The band went into retreat for several years, and when they emerged, it was breathtaking—and devastating. The creative result of the nasty proceedings was a stripped-down song with simple acoustic guitars propelling a forceful tune, which buoyed incredibly vicious lyrics. “S-H-I-T; is that how you spell me inside your dictionary?” he sings, as the words turn into a darker and deeper portrait of a miserable situation that’s finally given way. The only note of joy comes at the end, when Partridge triumphantly sings, “let the marriage be annulled.”

13. Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
Bob Dylan has long denied that Blood On The Tracks was inspired by the separation and eventual divorce from his wife Sara. Okay, let’s take him at his word: It’s only a coincidence that he made his most romantically ravaged record in the midst of one of the most romantically ravaged periods of his life. And the heartache emanating from songs like “You’re A Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” is only an affectation, even though Dylan certainly must have felt similarly distraught when he wrote and recorded them. What seems more likely is that the notoriously private Dylan couldn’t stand to admit that he exposed himself so clearly on one of his greatest albums. Why else would he later confess that he didn’t understand why people loved the album so much? “It’s hard for me to relate to that,” he said. “I mean, people enjoying that type of pain.”

14. The Brood
There are a lot of ways to get to revenge on a former spouse, but a breakup has to be particularly acrimonious to inspire the kind of all-out assault seen in David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood. Inspired by the writer-director’s own vicious divorce and custody battle, Brood features Samantha Eggar as a deeply disturbed woman whose psychosis threatens her ex-husband, her daughter, and everyone they come across. But this isn’t just simple craziness; Eggar’s involvement with Oliver Reed’s experimental Psychoplasmic therapy technique has her turning her seemingly boundless rage at the world into a stream of murderous, snowsuit-clad dwarfs who assault anyone Eggar has issues with, including her parents and her child. The Brood isn’t Cronenberg’s best movie, but it’s possibly his most personal, and there’s something fascinating about seeing an artist so normally in control and aware of his intentions let the venom fly with only a thin veneer of genre metaphor to cover it. Eggar is a hateful, venomous monster with the power to act on her darkest whims. The creatures she spawns are nightmare fodder, but the scars that created them last longer than dreams.

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