Pop Culture

Death and the Romantic Rock-n-Roller

A musician with whom I’m unfamiliar (Lana Del Rey)  had some romantic thoughts about the suicide and early deaths of Rock and Pop icons, like Kurt Cobain.  She said in the interview (though she says she was tricked into saying it by the interviewer) “I wish I was dead already.”  Since the comment was in part a response to questions about the suicide of Kurt Cobain, Frances Bean Cobain weighed in, saying there was nothing romantic about an early death and her growing up without her father.

I get Frances Bean’s point.  Kurt’s suicide in and of itself is tragic.  And yet, it’s hard to separate this final act from the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.  If Cobain hadn’t been tormented in the way he was and which lead to his suicide would Nirvana have been what it was?  It isn’t cause and effect but I also can’t completely disentangle all those threads from each other.

I have reflected on this in a reflection on how joy and suffering are interwoven in the work Ian Curtis of  Joy Division.

What ever lead Ian and Kurt to commit suicide was also woven in with their music.  For Kurt and Ian the beauty of their music, is bound up in their brief life and their death, it’s part of their genius.  Not to say that all great art or music must come out of that mental and spiritual place.  However, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Rozz Williams, all tormented, all committed suicide, all have music that speaks to me in away other music even in the same genre doesn’t.

Not sure what to make of that.  Yet, I can’t deny that my love for the music and their quality as artists and musicians, even my reverence for them is bound up in their early demise, and due to that they lived the line from that Neil Young song “… Better off to burn out then to fade away.”

Whether or not it is a “correct” or acceptable sentiment, I can understand how a musician (or any artist) may say “I wish I was dead already.”

Death brings about the moment when the artist is complete, summed up.   In the case of the likes of Cobain, Rozz Williams, and Ian Curtis the brief moment of their musical output continues to reverberate and have power, in part due to the brevity and thus the intensity of their output.  Part of that power and resonance is bound up in their early death and that they committed suicide.  It’s powerful, and there’s a simplicity to that artistic output.

Admittedly this is disturbing.  This is not something to be emulated (but are artists, particularly Rock musicians role models?) These are people carried along by something with in them that drives them to create.  There is a torment in this.

One might say that an artist longs for death, longs for that moment when they will have their body of work, complete and unchanging… finished.  That is an artist longs to “know” what one’s body of work is.  One is only known in this sense in death.

Certainly, this isn’t the only way of being known.  All the same none of us are complete or settled until we die.  So, it makes sense to say “I wish I was dead already.”  This expresses a desire to know and be known in completion and the fullness of the body of ones work.  To achieve greatness in a brief moment is an astounding achievement.  That a brief life has other more mundane and tragic ramifications is also true, but that truth doesn’t deny this other truth and its power.

So, yes, there is something romantic and powerful about artists who produce with such intensity and torment that they willfully burn out quickly, it’s also true that such brevity tragically tears at the human fabric of their lives.  

However, we are mistaken if we think the long lived musician or artist escapes death, or that prolonged life is a life without death.  There are ways to live towards death that are rich and aren’t also a death wish, but pretending their isn’t power and truth in the body of work defined by an artist’s brief and tormented life isn’t the way to find such a path.  Rather I’d say accepting the  death woven into their work already is a way to begin to find life that comes from death.

 I find Cobain, Curtis, and Williams to be romantic figures, and their suicides are part of that romance.  But it is because their death was already in their life, and because it is as much in their death as in their life that we know their beauty.