There’s no one more self-aware than a rock musician (except maybe a rock journalist). It’s fucking exposing, to write about all of your one-night stands, destructive habits, mistakes, and heartbreaks in a three-minute song that could end up on pop radio or tattooed on some girl’s ribcage. Everyone says that when you’re a drug addict, you won’t admit that you have a problem, or that when you’re really mentally ill (I’m looking at you, Syd Barrett), you won’t ever actually realize that you’re crazy. Unless you’re a musician.
In The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man”, Lou Reed knows exactly what he’s doing. And so do we. And he’s incredibly blunt about it all (it’s arguable that the lyrical content of “Heroin” doesn’t necessarily endorse nor condemn the drug, but who are you kidding?). From beginning to end of Elliott Smith’s posthumous, sixth full length, From A Basement On The Hill, you can literally listen to his life deteriorating in a sickeningly honest way, eventually ending in his suicide during recording the album. The Doors’ “People Are Strange” is essentially a manifestation of Jim Morrison’s sociopathic, paranoid tendencies. His vulnerability and loneliness. And on Are You Experienced?, Jimi Hendrix sings “Manic Depression is touching my soul”.
In the real world, people don’t announce to you in a subway car or coffee shop that they’ve just got done buying some more smack up in Harlem (well, maybe William S. Burroughs did… but again, not a very normal guy), or that they’re scared of being alone forever (I’m already barely comfortable telling strangers what my major in college was). But songwriters have this outlandish ability to do that shit in front of thousands of people, or onto a record that millions will buy, or in Rolling Stone Magazine (ex: RS Issue #1130, Steven Tyler’s bat-shit crazy cover story). It’s the most honest kind of heartbreak, the kind that musicians are meant for. It’s Ian Curtis continuing on after having an epileptic seizure onstage, it’s Amy Winehouse shooting up before a concert, then stumbling on and opening the show with a song about how addiction is ruining her life (and it did).
My biggest fascination with the self-aware honesty of musicians, though, is in songs about being “Born To (insert verb)”. Knocking the reason for your existence down to a single phrase (mine would be “Born To Fall Down Constantly”. Any of my friends want to even try to argue that?), and then showing it to the whole world. And I’m not talking about Steppenwolf. I’m talking about Springsteen, The Runaways, Elton John, The Damned, and Freddie Mercury.
The point of all of this, though, is so I can talk about Johnny Thunders (as always). Johnny sang “Born To Lose”, then later on sang “Born To Cry”. And goddamn, did he lose, and probably cry a lot, as a hopeless, rotting junkie. He didn’t do many things right in his life outside from rock music (like many of his generation.), and after a while, he couldn’t even do that while simultaneously standing upright, but what he did do was define what being an artist is all about in a really simple, fucked up way. You’re born to fucking cry. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. (Maybe with the exception of Johnny Rotten, just because he was just too busy being pissed off.)
Like Alphaville sang in 1984, “Forever bummed, I want to be forever bummed” (Okay, I made that up, but if a punk band ever does a cover of “Forever Young” like that, it would be genius), not only are artists, writers, musicians, and music fans born to be perpetually sad, they kind of dig it. Some of the best songs of all time are ones that you can say “I’ve cried to that” about. If you’re really crazy (me), you probably have at least one of those for, like, every album you’ve ever enjoyed enough to listen to more than once. You’ve cried to “Candy Says” a thousand times, or through the entirety of Bookends, and maybe sometimes you listen to a Radiohead album because you actually think it’s less depressing than the real world (please don’t tell me that anyone actually does that), or pour salt in your wounds constantly so you can write shitty songs and poems (or blog about bullshit).
As for rock musicians, you just simply can’t do it if you aren’t fucked up. I’m not saying that everyone is or has to be on a Kurt Cobain level of psycho self-hatred, but even The Beatles weren’t doing so hot in the emotional department after all of the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” shit was over and Bob Dylan gave them drugs for the first time (ex: I mean… “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”? Yeah.). If you can look around and see absolutely nothing that makes you unbearably cynical, and if you can look at your life and see absolutely nothing that you’re ashamed of, you are not cut out for music. Because you couldn’t change anyone’s life. And isn’t that somewhat of the goal? I mean, after banging chicks and getting paid, of course.
Whether it means intentionally sacrificing yourself to the sadness to create something meaningful, or just being totally screwed up upon exiting the womb, it’s just a formula that you can’t get around. I don’t necessarily think that musicians become heroin addicts because it looks glamorous or accessible, and I don’t think they kill themselves because the fame is too much. These people are just born tortured, before they even picked up guitar for the first time. In fact, that’s probably what lead them to needing that guitar in the first place. Kurt would have blown his head off even if he wasn’t on MTV and married to Courtney Love. Thunders would have still been a junkie even if he hadn’t been doing the whole Stones-In-Drag thing in New York City in the 70s. They were already all stuck up inside their own heads, and rock music just helped them fix it for the time being.
The worst part of this “curse”, though, is that when you look back on your life, as a normal person, the parts of yourself that lived ten, twenty, thirty years ago, are dead now. And you won’t have to see them anymore. But David Bowie will always have “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” to remind him. Nico always had “These Days”. Simon & Garfunkel have “The Sound Of Silence”. Patti Smith has “Pissing In A River”. Keith Richards will always have to remember the low points of his life while writing “Angie”, which was literally his tragic love letter to heroin, not about Mick Jagger breaking up an affair.
Now, when you are perpetually sad, fucked up, sick, and crazy, it’s ironically, what should keep you going. If ignorance is bliss, then being a depressed asshole, the one hanging your head at the end of bar or crying to “Lost In The Supermarket” on the J Train (I’ll take “Things I Do Every Day” for 500), means you’re actually aware enough of the world around you to change the way that other people see it. And maybe you’re some sort of creative genius, too.
Just don’t exploit it.
—- Ky DiGregorio