The Deadly Embrace of Rock Music & Suicide
“I think self-destruction is honourable. It’s an act of great control.”
In a strong field these words are the most reckless and idiotic that Morrissey has ever uttered in public. Aired two years ago on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, the interview in which he offered this particular pearl of wrongheadedness is also among the most irresponsible Radio 4 has ever broadcast. But we’ll come to that in a minute.
Untold column inches will rightly be expended this week marking the release twenty years ago of Nirvana’s epoch-defining and cosmos-transforming album Nevermind. Rather more inches, I’m willing to bet, than were given over to World Suicide Prevention Day last week, which seemed to pass with barely a sidebar to whisper its name. In case you need reminding, one album and three years after Nevermind was unleashed on the world, lead singer Kurt Cobain abruptly departed from it by means of a lethal dose of heroin and a single, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was survived by his wife Courtney Love and a baby daughter. No doubt Morrissey paid private tribute to this honourable act of great control.
Nirvana’s follow-up album In Utero was originally entitled I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, and would have remained so if bass player Krist Novoselic hadn’t convinced Cobain to change it. The dreadful irony that Novoselic apparently did so for fear of being sued, presumably in the event of a Nirvana album title turning up in someone’s suicide note, hardly needs spelling out. The complex and unholy embrace of rock music and self-destruction, however, probably does.
I’ve been seduced by this impulse myself. Nick Drake’s dark and dismal Black Eyed Dog is infinitely more melancholy for knowing that he almost certainly died by his own hand. Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart hurts that little bit more keenly because Ian Curtis did likewise. Self-destruction – deliberate or otherwise – is a mainstay of the rock and roll canon. I should hold my own hands up to having a book in the market entitled Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America, in which self-destructive (though not suicidal) music icons feature heavily. Would I have found such an attention-grabbing title – would I even have had a book – about rock stars that lived happily and healthily into old age?
So what’s the secret of the long marriage between rock music and the appetite for self-destruction? And is the decision to end one’s life an intellectual one, as Morrissey appears to think? If you’re rich, comfortable in mid-life and adored by millions, then perhaps it is. But if you’re addicted, unemployed, debt-ridden, lonely or suffering from a mental health disorder, it most emphatically is not. When your legions of fans include thousands of desperate young men seeking solace in your every word, as surely Morrissey must have realised by now, then perhaps you should think twice before opening your mouth on national radio.
And there’s the rub. Rock music isn’t so much a magnet for the self-destructive as simply for young men, and young men kill themselves in devastating numbers every year. By taking his own life at 27 Cobain fast-tracked himself into ‘that stupid club’, as his mother called it, referring to the select group of recording artists – most recent inductee Amy Winehouse – who comprise the ’27 Club’. But Kurt belonged to another, much less exclusive group – one which gets a good deal less media attention. Last year 36,000 people died of intentional self-harm in the US, where suicide is the seventh leading cause of death among 25 to 34-year-olds. It’s the biggest killer of young men in the UK.
Read that last sentence again, and pause for a moment to reflect on what it means. More men under the age of 35 kill themselves each year than die from road accidents, drugs, disease or violent crime. I was doubly appalled on first hearing this statistic; firstly to know it’s a statistic at all, and shocked again that it’s not more widely reported. Suicides – successful ones at least – are the almost exclusive preserve of men: of 4,532 deaths from intentional self-harm in England and Wales last year, three-quarters of them were male.
Among the reasons why suicide receives barely a fraction of the media coverage it should is that it’s just not a very sexy subject. Unlike, for example, the reporting of statistics relating to eating disorders, in which editors gleefully avail themselves of the opportunity to print yet more photos of stick-thin models on catwalks, suicide comes without any of the accompanying glossy imagery. But there’s another reason: research shows that media reporting of suicide – and this is where Desert Island Discs failed its audience in my view – can often lead to emulative behaviour. Responsible journalism follows local and World Health Organization guidelines on how – and indeed whether – to cover suicide cases, in order to minimise the possibility of ‘contagion’.
In thanatology circles this phenomenon is known as the ‘Werther Effect’, after Goethe’s 1774 epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose despairing protagonist is believed to have inspired not only a fashion for swallowtail coats, but also the first known examples of copycat suicide. To take a more recent example, Marilyn Monroe’s death in August 1962 of acute, apparently self-administered barbiturate poisoning led to a ten per cent increase in the US suicide rate that month. So when Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994, the authorities braced themselves for a spate of copycat cases. They never materialised.
A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, The Suicide Paradox, explains why this might be. A key component in mitigating contagion, according to suicidologists, was the unglamorous media portrayal of Cobain’s death, in particular Courtney Love’s tearful public reading of his suicide note at a candlelit vigil. In her address, heard around the world in the days after he died, she invited Kurt’s fans to join her in proclaiming him an asshole, and witheringly demanded to know why ‘you continued being a rock star when you fucking hated it’. This very public display of grief, considered by some to be self-serving melodrama at the time, appears to have prevented a slew of copycat tragedies.
Thankfully a small but significant section of the UK music industry is now waking up to the power it has to do likewise. I co-chair a music committee for CALM, a unique campaign aimed at changing the way men communicate with each other and with healthcare agencies, set up in response to the high suicide rate in young males. Artists from Dizzee Rascal to Mark Ronson have donated their time, music or voice to that effort. Industry execs have given resources – but we always need more. Working with CALM, you hear countless heartbreaking stories about preventable tragedies from parents whose lives have been turned upside down by the suicides of their children. Needless to say none of them describe their experience of self-destruction as honourable.
But as Courtney Love has proven, it is preventable – especially by people in music who have a voice. So Morrissey, I’d like to extend an open and sincerely intended invitation for you to join us at our next meeting. Please do come – I think you could contribute a lot. I can be contacted via Twitter – just holler @chrispricey – or write to us at CALM. I can’t wait to hear from you. Really.
Reproduced by kind permission of Chris Price and the Huffington Post