Every time I hear of a musician’s untimely death – and there have been a lot of them over the past few years – my first thought is always “please don’t let it be an overdose or suicide.” Most of them are.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates in the North America increased by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, but in the same period, rates jumped to 43 percent for men aged 45 to 64.
As messed up as it seems, I was happy to hear that George Michael died of a natural cause at the age of 53. It’s somehow nicer to consider a quick, natural surprise passing, than the self-administered result of long-festering pain.
Musicians and songwriters tend to spend a lot of their profession analysing and expressing emotion. Sure, there are lots of happy songs, but there are also a lot of songs that delve into angst, loss, anxiety, despair, and cynical submission. This is particularly true of the 90s scene that produced Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell.
There’s a bent romanticism attached to younger musicians who kill themselves. Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis became gothic heroes, the tragedy of their deaths tied to “what could have been” more than to the immediate, awful circumstances of their passing. The suicidal angst of a 20-something is often viewed as somehow poetic or poignant, but a middle-aged death is a signpost for a deeper level of pain.
From Michael Hutchence to Stuart Adamson, Cobain and Staley, Scott Weiland, Prince, and now Chris Cornell – preventable middle-aged deaths are so troubling. These people had talent, resources, opportunities, families, and many had children – but depression is an ugly beast that isolates an individual, overtaking all of these assets until nothing else matters.
To be clear, I consider the overdose death of someone over 30 to be the result of a slow suicide. Accidents happen during youthful misadventures, but at a certain age you know what the possibilities of your actions are, but you do it anyway. Every addict knows it’s only a matter of time until you quit or it kills you, but under the cloak of isolation, again - nothing else matters.
Overdoses make a middle-aged death darker, weirder, and sadder for me – the subjects knew what could happen (or worse, they knew exactly what they were doing) but they still needed to self-medicate. They weren’t doing it for fun. Sure, they had so many opportunities left ahead of them, but the bleak isolation and malaise of a single moment in time was greater. If they couldn’t get out of that pit, then what chance do us faceless mortals have?
I have only written about men here, but that’s part of this discussion – men die of suicide at more than three times the rate of women. Perhaps men are more resistant to getting help? Maybe they are less inclined to quit dangerous habits? Maybe they tend to ingest more than they should? Or perhaps they have fewer true friends?
Men tend to stick to old friendships, building fewer new friendships as they age. In the case of successful musicians, perhaps it is even more difficult to trust the motivations of people in your life – but the same would ring true for anyone in business ownership or management. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whom to trust – but everyone has to get past that. If you feel isolated and alone, go to a Doctor, go to a support group, or attend a series of Anonymous meetings. There are no hidden agendas or egos there, as long as you are willing to abandon yours.
It’s clear that opportunities, status, money or talent don’t rescue anyone from the clutch of anxiety, depression, isolation, or cynicism about individual circumstances. So, what does? Reducing isolation may be a start – connect with other people. Getting clear and clean is another one - many successful musicians are “all or nothing” types, but if you can’t handle consuming everything in the room, perhaps it’s better to ingest nothing at all? It is achievable – trust me. Avoid opioids too. As Weiland, Staley and Prince demonstrate, opioids will beat you eventually, and the only way to surely beat them is to stop taking them.
Music is an escape for so many people, but it shouldn’t illustrate a path towards permanent escape. Everyone is unique. Everyone suffers from a variety of diseases, but some can be treated. Treatment of depression and isolation will, at least, allow you to feel less shitty, more often – and isn’t that worthwhile? Isn’t sticking around a little longer worthwhile too?