Idolizing Those Who Cannot Save Themselves
All my heroes are dying. Those who saved my life through their words, rescued me from the tipping boat when they, themselves, were actually drowning.
I always knew that as I got older, those artists I had loved would eventually pass away: what I didn’t expect was that these tragedies would be so rapid-fire, and so devastating in their wake. Losing most of your idols in a row is not just losing people you admire. It’s feeling alone, left behind. It’s seeing your safety blanket ripped out from around you with a deft flick of the wrist.
Many of these passings were accidental, or completely natural: Gordon Downie had announced his brain tumor since 2015, and while Bowie hadn’t spoken of it, he'd also been ill; Tom Petty’s overdose has not been linked to any suicidal connotations; I’m still not sure what happened to Dolores O’Riordan. It doesn’t hurt any less, of course.
But this is not about those wonderful humans who were gone too soon; rather, it’s about the other ones, those who, in one way or another, took their own lives.
Chester Bennington’s death sent me into a careen; I was transported back to May of 2017 when Chris Cornell took his own life, back to July seven years ago, when Amy Winehouse passed away. The shock was atrocious. We share a birthday, and I always thought of him as a long-lost twin. I knew, of course, that he had been struggling emotionally; anyone who took even a cursory glance at Linkin Park lyrics, or heard interviews he’d given would know that this was not a happy man. But underneath all the gaping anguish of his songs, Bennington and his band had always underlined an equally potent message of hope: your pain is an albatross, but it is also what makes you a warrior, unique and powerful.
I needed this, as a tormented teenager, more than I needed oxygen. I needed to know that someone had the answers I did not, that I would be all right, because everyday made that assertion less clear.
I never though of music as a means of entertainment: it was life itself. It was listening to the diary of others who'd gone through similar things as me, and who’d come out of it battle-scarred, but still fighting. The Used and Billy Talent fueled my prodigious anger; Audioslave and Three Days Grace gave a voice to my sorrow; Nirvana and PJ Harvey justified my alienation, among so many others.
All these singers wore their depression like a badge, like something they had stopped trying to conceal for others’ convenience, and they convinced me to do the same. When Shirley Manson spoke about her self-harming, I was electrified; when Aimee Mann’s music unveiled the rawness of loneliness, I was bolstered: I, too, had the right to bear my own heartache, and it could be my salvation.
Idolizing troubled musicians is very different from idolizing actors, because — and I speak as a cinephile whose passion for films has been storied — music can save a life in ways more intimate, more profound. Lyrics cascade out of hearts and fevered dreams; music transcends the logical and the sound, touching upon the realm of the soul and the essence. The musicians are broken open, their anguish a confession they have so bravely bestowed upon the world. I say ‘bravely’, because it takes a true artist to do something so intimate at such a large scale: and what a blessing it is. It echoes with the millions whose own sufferings have not been exorcised, gives them the release they have so often sought.
So: how do you look at your own suffering and healing, when the artists who have told you to hope and hold on end their own lives?
Even then, as an aimless teenager, I was aware that I was leaning on them, allowing them to be crutches, those whose recoveries I yearned for like my own: and why should I not? They were older, more experienced, and had successfully turned their pain into glorious art.
What I should have also acknowledged is that they were only human; that if what I was going through was any indication of what they were going through, the burden of it all wouldn’t have been lost on me; that no one is unbreakable; but above all, that depression and suicide are vicious tricksters: you might 'pink cloud' when things are easy, until the awfulness reaches back for you, and it feels like nothing will ever be right again.
I put all my metaphorical eggs in a basket, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have anywhere else to channel my turmoil; maybe it’s easier to listen to the words of an artist you may never cross paths with, rather than converse your feelings with those around you. Maybe it’s because lyrics are a one-sided conversation that’s easier to have than the one you keep avoiding with yourself. Maybe it’s because music is a universal language that stroked my subconscious in ways dialogue never could.
Maybe, maybe. I have speckled my ruminations with maybes.
I would not be who I am without these realizations. But given the opportunity, this is what I would have told my teenage self: those people you love so much, those people who are keeping you from going under, take them off their pedestal. Stop relying on them to fix you through their voices: find your own, and try to fix yourself.
Music is my soul, always will be, and I will always gravitate towards those broken spirits whose sorrows cut me to the quick: but I do so with a newfound wariness that saddens me, although it’s probably for the best. I should not have been so angry with Chester Bennington, as I was with all the others. I should not have felt the sting of abandon, the childish impulses of rage and hurt, because he did nothing to me. It was not about me.
I will mourn him, and all the others, as gently as I can. I will indulge them, for lack of a better word, the way I would want to be indulged for leaving behind those who love me, when I cannot go on either.