by Andrew Smith
An article in this week's Melody Maker describes some of the dozens of letters the paper has been receiving every week since Richey James's departure was announced. As had been widely reported in the music press, James, guitarist/lyricist with The Manic Street Preachers, periodically suffered from depression, an affliction which was expressed, as it often is, through alcoholism, anorexia and self-mutilation. In the letters to the Melody Maker, many young readers speak of their own problems with anorexia and self-mutilation, with depression and feelings of self-loathing or lack of understanding on the part of their parents, peers and teachers. One young woman writes: 'It was Richey who first attracted me to the Manics . By chance, I stumbled across an interview he gave, just after he came out of hospital. He seemed like such a nice person. At a time when I felt alone and depressed, it was comforting to know that someone out there felt the same . . . He hasn't encouraged me to harm myself, he has just made me feel less alone.' Another woman explains: 'I'd never told anyone about cutting myself . . . since I discovered that Richey cuts himself it gave me feelings of affinity with him. I feel I share my secret with him.'
These sentiments, in varying degrees of extremity, echo through nearly all of the letters. Melody Maker editor Allan Jones, who has worked in the music press for 20 years, describes both their scope and nature as 'unprecedented'. He says: 'Every week the mailbag is just full of these letters. Richey 's predicament seems to be emblematic of what a lot of people are going through.' One thing which distinguishes these missives from the usual correspondence, Jones adds, is that, by and large, they are much better written. Next week's issue, which examines more fully the issues raised by the James letters, has a special feature produced in conjunction with the Samaritans.
If the response of Melody Maker readers to Richey James's actions were an isolated occurrence, it would be interesting, but of limited outward significance. It is not. Something has changed in the nature of the relationship between fans and their bands. When Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan died, followers wailed and gnashed their teeth, but - as far as may be ascertained - no one killed themselves in sympathy. Yet six teenagers are said to have done so as a direct response to Kurt Cobain's suicide (the first anniversary of which is a week tomorrow). As Allan Jones puts it: 'The question, really, is this: are our rock stars more vulnerable these days, and is that vulnerability a reflection of the vulnerability of their audience? And if so, why?'
Generally speaking, those in search of answers to these questions have been reaching on reflex for the old Generation X portfolio. Times are hard. This is a treacherous period in which to be leaving school. Statistics reveal a disturbing 71 per cent rise in young male suicides over the last decade, while the trend in the population as a whole has been downward. Among young women, it has remained steady, but then the bulk of the Melody Maker letters detailing incidences of self-mutilation and anorexia are from women. The sexes react to stress differently, though the agitants may be the same. According to a recent study by the market research group, Mintel, finding a job tops the list of worries in the 11-24 age group. The Samaritans recently said that one fifth of the calls they receive now are from young people.
Is it not to be expected, then, that troubled youths still cling to their idols, immerse themselves in things like music, with much more ardour than they used to? According to DJ John Peel, to this factor one must add a uniquely post-Punk affinity with pop stars. 'I never felt like Elvis or the Moody Blues or Hendrix,' he suggests. 'You always felt that they were kind of other. But I think since Punk, people have felt a lot closer to the bands - and have been encouraged to do so, by the press and publicists, amongst others. And bands have tried to de-mythologise themselves, although that in itself produces its own mythology.'
Peel has four teenage children and expresses disappointment that nothing they learn at school prepares them for 'the very real possibility' that they'll never find formal work at all. 'So they do plunge themselves into music and that kind of thing. One daughter is very influenced by Courtney Love.' Love, who was married to Kurt Cobain, is a sometime heroin addict prone to self-destruction. Peel worries about his daughter's fixation. 'She's obviously bright enough to know that she doesn't want to live like that, but nevertheless, she can go into the town where we live and know that she'll be seen as the local Courtney Love. So it's playing a role. What I'm always trying to explain to her is that we don't live in a sophisticated place and her role playing might be misunderstood.'
What the Gen X thesis doesn't explain is why so many successful artists should feel this kind of despondency. They've escaped the world of dole queues and wage slaves. They spend their lives pursuing passion, for which they are well paid. Indeed, some of them are fabulously wealthy and insanely adored.
The cynical view is that it's down to marketing. One of the consequences of the information revolution seems to be a reduced respect for celebrity. These days, we know (because the Sun tells us) that at heart, they're not so different from us. They suffer from the same disappointments and problems, make similar mistakes - so we're less prepared to venerate, more inclined to see ourselves reflected in them. So, if you want to sell records, the best way to do it is to chime in with your audience. Let them know you feel the same way they do. Both Madonna and the squiggle formerly known as Prince have suffered through failing to recognise this sea change in recent years.
And yet nihilism has always been a part of rock. Writers will tell you that songs about pain and upset are more easily come by than ones inspired by happiness. American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, who is generally reckoned to be one of the most accomplished (and bleakest) composers of his generation, comments: 'Of course, when you're happy, you want to be out having a good time, not indoors slaving away on a guitar. Happiness is so much less tangible than sadness.'
This has always been true, but what has changed out of all recognition is the way pain and struggle is being written about. For Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, the causes of suffering, as revealed in song, were usually external to themselves. One of Cohen's most affecting tunes, Famous Blue Raincoat, tells the story of his brother eloping with Leonard's wife. It takes the form of a letter to the brother and begins with the words, 'It's four in the morning, the end of December/I'm writing just to see if you're better . . .'. It's bleak, but full of strained grace and forgiveness - of dignity.
Frequently, artists of Cohen's generation either employ a narrative form or cloak their words in ambiguous imagery. These days, such devices are strictly off-bounds to anyone hoping to retain a modicum of credibility. To this despair of past generations has been added a layer of introspection, doubt, self-loathing.
The American rock critic Greil Marcus, perhaps the most distinguished of his ilk, has a theory about this. He speaks of there being a 'folk virus' lurking within rock music. Told of Richey James's penchant for cutting himself on stage, he interjects: 'Yeah, but Iggy Pop used to cut himself on stage all the time and nobody thought that it had anything to do with self-debasement. For some reason, we've come to distrust artifice - which is, of course, what culture is all about.'
Marcus elaborates, using Kurt Cobain as a convenient example. 'One of the great things about Cobain is that he never stopped being a fan, so in a way he was always watching himself and saying, would I buy my own record, would I cheer for my own performance, or would I say 'This guy's a fake.' I don't mean to speculate as to why anybody commits suicide, but there's no question that Kurt Cobain wrote a suicide note in which he sought to justify what he was doing in general and public terms. One of the things he essentially said in that note was 'I mean it, man.' Now, when the Sex Pistols sang, 'We mean it, man,' in God Save The Queen, there was a double edge to that. Because, of course, in pop music when someone comes out and says, 'I really mean it,' you don't trust 'em, right? You think it must be ironic, must be a joke. A folk singer says, 'I mean it man' - and nothing else.'
The contention is that performers have come to believe the same thing. If they are singing a song of pain, they expect to be possessed by pain. If they're not, they may feel like frauds or charlatans. The only recourse then is to self-hatred, which tends to have the side-effect of creating pain and unpleasantness. Thus, through a cute series of ironies, the artist has created the misery he or she felt guilty for lacking in the first place. Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, refers to this as 'the downward spiral'. He named his new album after it. In the current edition of Details, he describes how writing about his depressions seemed to nourish them. 'I'm wondering if all this negative energy is leading to a dead end?' he asks. 'What is the ultimate solution to this? It's kill myself, I guess. Right?'
Marcus says: 'That's what I mean by the folk virus. I think that audiences, maybe more now than at other times, are saying, 'Do you mean it, we want you to really mean it. We want you to live your music.' I think, in some ways, that's not just a naive, but a rather stupid and dangerous attitude.'
This does explain the discomfort most of us felt when reading transcripts of Cobain's suicide note, which tended to evoke a mixture of sympathy, anger and pity that anyone could have given such stupid reasons for ending a life. Marcus's theory also lays some of the responsibility for Cobain's death squarely at the feet of his fans.
But despite having formulated an explanation for it, Marcus professes to have no idea what dynamic drives this ongoing process of introspection and faltered catharsis. In all probability, the economic factors cited earlier play a part, but that can't be the whole story.
Sheryl Garratt, editor of the trend-spotting Face magazine, suggests that it may be a combination of disenchantment and the continued immaturity of what our parents thought of as the Sexual Revolution. She says: 'I think it's the politics of powerlessness, because when you don't have much control over the external influences on your life, you tend to explore your interior. I think what you have at the moment is a generation of musicians who are talking about angst and vulnerability in public, for the first time on such a scale. Maleness is being redefined and that's creating a lot of confusion. I mean, to me, Jim Morrison seemed like a very frightened man, but his poems were all about having a big dick. Now you're getting more people like Richey and Tricky, a rapper whose music is about weakness and paranoia and fear, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. They are able to say, 'I've reached these depths and I don't like it and I'm struggling to come back from it.' It's okay to do that now, because these days we see contradictions in things that seemed very simple 26 years ago.'
Add to the above the scepticism with which science, religion and government are regarded by a growing proportion of educated people of all ages and it begins to appear that pop's cycle of suffering is being buoyed by a complex web of influences. The result, for many, is a kind of weightless confusion. Everything is open to question. Even the value of being in a band in the first place. 'It's not taken seriously anymore,' rails Mark E Smith, of The Fall. 'You're on Top Of The Pops, but we've all seen hundreds of bands on Top Of The Pops. I feel a bit sorry for new bands and anyone who takes them very seriously.'
Presumably, this state of affairs has been exacerbated by the steady leakage of would-be rock fans to club culture, where a tab of 'E' is all the catharsis anyone appears to need. Thom Yorke, the singer with the Oxford-based quartet Radiohead, could be one of the recent arrivals Mark Smith feels most sorry for. Already million-sellers in America, his group are looking certain to chase that success back across the Atlantic. Is he happy? Here is an anecdote he told to a music paper not long ago:
'We were in New Zealand. We were taken to one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in my life, the place where they filmed The Piano. And there I was thinking, 'This is wonderful.' Then, suddenly, it occurred to me that the only reason we were there was because of MTV. And whenever you see MTV, there is a Coca-Cola machine right next to it. And I just felt like we were a part of it all. All at once, the view lost its meaning.'
There was a time when being in a band was about baiting your parents and showing off for the girls. Somehow, sometime, when we were all looking the other way, someone changed the rules. How on earth did life get so complicated?
[Originally published: The Guardian, 31 March 1995]