I’m thinking about suicide. Often. At least once a day for a good long while now. The thought is as incessant as the refrain from “It’s a Small World” after visiting Disney. It’s a concept, a word, a thought that scurries around my brain so quick and elusive I can’t stomp it out. It hides, and then emerges again.
Not all the time. I mean, when I’m with my wife and kids, playing music, or working hard, it is not everpresent. I don’t obsess about it. Yet, here it is again.
Something’s up. Suicide. I ought to write about it.
The thought is not personal, in that I don’t want to kill myself. What I want is for more people to not want to kill themselves. There it goes again. The theme song from M*A*S*H; the lyrics, Suicide is painless / it brings on many changes…. Learning that as a kid freaked me out.
I can’t tell you when the idea of suicide became a daily intrusion. Perhaps it was when I saw musicians on Facebook wishing R.I.P. to friends of band members who “died” in recent years. “Wait, didn’t that guy kill himself?“ I think when I see these posts. When I hear someone “died,” that word seems like a passive action. Yet suicide is active. Very active. I started to wonder if we consider suicide a word we whisper and avoid like we once did with the c-word (cancer) or those who are artsy (gay). We spend a lot of time talking around big subjects. I’m Irish Catholic, so maneuvering around a guilt-laden elephant in a room is something I know a lot about. I don’t feel much like avoiding this topic today.
We just enjoyed the holidays, when some say more suicides happen. So maybe that is why I am thinking about it more. Or maybe it goes back to a conversation I had with a young musician a few weeks ago. We were talking about bands of the '90s and he seemed to think Kurt Cobain died of a drug overdose or something. I joked, “Yeah, if his drug of choice was shotgun pellets, then sure, he had a few too many.” Good job, Tim, make light of suicide. Uggghhh.
This exchange reminded me of one of the most enlightening seminars I ever attended at South by Southwest. SXSW, as it is familiarly known, is a major music conference held annually in Austin, Texas. The concept is to bring unsigned artists together to perform for as many music industry insiders as possible. The hope is that this major mash-up of artists hanging shoulder-to-shoulder with people who hold the money power will result in the launching of many successful careers.
The nights are filled with desperate bands showcasing their music on dozens of stages throughout the city, hoping their ticket to stardom is in attendance. During the days, conference rooms feature demo listening sessions, songwriter workshops, and seminars covering the business topics of the day.
During the first SXSW after Cobain killed himself, I attended a seminar about mental health and the artist. I’ve known more than a few people who have killed themselves. Drug overdose. Hanging. Intentional alcohol overdose. Asphyxiation.
Each of these people I’ve known who have killed themselves was an artist in some way. Drummer. Guitarists. Visual crafter. Photographer. Bandmate. Friends. Family. In contrast, I've not known any of my sales, banker, or consultant, friends go down this path. Maybe they are more stable. Maybe I don't know enough of them. Maybe I don't know enough about them. My experience is with highly creative people who discover these depths. They are in my thoughts today. Pam, Matt, David, Chris,.......
Are creative people more sensitive and therefore feel more pain? Does the creative mind flourish when the brain’s control mechanism is turned off; and is this control mechanism (which would presumably stop the artist from the Final Act) undeveloped or missing from the creative mind? Can’t the artist use their glorious imagination to see beyond their temporary pain? If they can create beauty, can’t they envision brighter days? Or do they simply give in to temporary pain in the same way they get lost in the moment of creating art?
I have absolutely no answers to these questions. Just questions. I’m not a psychologist. Other people who are much smarter than I could probably cite studies. The only study I rely on is that I’ve seen the effects of suicide and mental illness, and they suck. So this seminar interested me. What aid or solutions are available in the industry?
At this seminar, several band managers were sitting at the lead table. A label rep, too. I don’t recall if there were any psychologists up there. Perhaps not.
The discussion followed a predictable path. We all were reminded of the litany of artists who had killed themselves or screwed up their lives in very public and embarrassing ways. The floor was opened up to the audience for brainstorming ways we, as an industry, could help the artist be more stable. Soon, people were tearfully citing friends who had died. Some simply blamed the evils of the music industry. You’ve been to seminars where this kind of thing happened—no answers are presented, just a rehashing of complaints.
Then a strange thing happened. One woman toward the back of the room got up and said, “You’re all fucked here. Stop wasting our time.”
Things got interesting.
She gathered her things and started to leave. Someone on the panel replied something to the effect of, “Yeah, we don’t need that kind of attitude here. You can leave.”
That set her off. “You’re a bunch of fucking hypocrites!” she laughed. “You all just sit around here like there is something you ought to do when the truth is you don’t want to do anything. I don’t either.” She wasn’t finished. “I’ve been in A&R for years and I want my artists fucked up. They’re more interesting that way. Nobody listens to songs from stable, well-adjusted people. They buy from trainwrecks. They love to watch the accident. My job is to prop them up and clean up the mess for them so they can do it all again. And if you think I’m just some bitch, look at the entire industry. Nirvana has never been bigger than after Kurt ended it. We’ll all make more money because he killed himself. And now we have that gold mine with Courtney Love. As long as she parades her mess in front of us, we’ll still make money. And I bet someone is in negotiations to sign Francis Bean (Kurt and Courtney’s daughter) to a deal right now. You can all have your bleeding hearts. But you know it, too—we all lose money if our artists get help and become fucking normal.”
That was it. She left the room. The guys on the panel sort of shrugged and one of them laughed in a, she’s-right-but-I-have-to-serve-on-this-damn-panel-while-massaging-a-hangover smirk.
Nothing else of value came out of that seminar. I left when it was apparent with each comment, this woman had some truth in her outburst.
It’s been almost 20 years since that seminar. How may artists have killed themselves since then? And how many people made money because those artists lost control just enough to make great art—then too much to stay alive? Not just the famous. I have friends in Charleston, Cleveland, Portland, and Chicago who may read this blog. It would not shock me if every one of you knew someone who died by suicide, or by an overdose that may have been questionably accidental.
The music industry, I’m convinced, has no desire to help creative people get stable. They want screwed up people. Our icons are terrible role models. We’re told to be more like those icons, creatively, to get to the next levels. If sinking in and out of depressed feelings is part of mining your art, that’s okay for the money makers. Those swings into dark depths ought to be encouraged. Really? Yeah. How many times have I heard that so-and-so artist was much better before they made it through rehab? Or only struggling musicians make compelling art? Push that logic to its extreme and the results are devastating.
It’s a picture of an evil industry, of an institutionalized enemy to our mental health. I have no answers to end suicide or how to battle the dark storms of depression. Not a single answer. Sorry. I’m pretty sure you won’t find any concrete solutions in the music industry. It’s not geared that way.
But I do believe that if you succumb to those pressures, you’re letting the bastards win. It’s a topic I wanted to write about for reasons that are unclear to me. Maybe the reasons make sense to someone else.
You feel depressed? Suicidal? There’s a million reasons to live another day. One I’ll add to the list: Just by waking up tomorrow, you raise a big middle finger to those things and people who pull you down.
You’re an artist who feels that way? There are a whole lot more just like you. Talk to one. As cold as I think the industry may be, the community of musicians and artists within the machinery can be twice that caring and helpful. If you talk to another artist, don’t be surprised if he or she has felt the exact same way once before. And that feeling left them. It can leave you too.
Call a suicide hot line. I did a search for suicide hotlines in the area, and found the results very sparse. So here’s what I found after digging a little bit.
In high school, I used to scrawl this on my notebook: Illegitimum Non Carborundum. Sometimes I’d doodle the initials INC, as if it was a company. I’ve seen “I.N.C.” tattooed on someone’s arm last month and wondered if they had the same thought. It’s mock-Latin for “Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down.” Live another day. That, in and of itself, will piss off the demons.