Suicide and lesbianism among professional musicians are nothing new, but recently there's been a seeming uptick in both.
The suicides: Vic Chesnutt (who died on Christmas Day), Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous (March 6), and Will Owsley (who financed his power-pop solo albums by performing in Amy Grant's live band, April 30). Each was male, each was from the South, each was in his mid-40s, and each was a singer-songwriter with a track record of critical if not commercial acclaim.
The "coming outers": Jennifer Knapp and Chely Wright, both in their mid- to late-30s, both known for conservative-friendly music (CCM in Knapp's case, the pro-troops "The Bumper of My SUV" in Wright's), and both free of the unflattering masculine traits often associated with lesbians.
One of the aesthetic consequences for songwriters who commit suicide or embrace homosexuality is that their lyrics tend to be regarded as mere code for suicide or homosexuality. Chesnutt's "My New Life" (from his 2009 album Skitter on Takeoff) was depressing already; as a harbinger of his self-destruction, it's unbearable. Wright's "The Bumper of My SUV" was a refreshingly non-liberal take on the War on Terror; now one listens for hints about her position on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Worse yet, fans who once turned to certain songs for solace or empathy might now hear in them little more than permission to follow their composers into sloughs of despond.
Obviously, however, the eternal consequences are the direst of all. "The man who kills himself," wrote G.K. Chesterton, "kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world." "Homosexual activity," wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), "is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to . . . that form of self-giving which the gospel says is the essence of Christian living."
The ordinary explanations fail. Chesnutt was wheelchair bound, Linkous was bedeviled by depression, drugs, and drink, and Owsley was a divorced father of two, but many other men in similar circumstances still choose to be rather than not to be. As for Knapp and Wright, given the circles in which their music required them to move, it's hard to imagine either woman's giving peer pressure as a reason for her public commitment to same-sex living.
In his dystopian novel The Bridge, D. Keith Mano imagined a strikingly similar scenario. The setting: New York City and its environs circa 2035. The killing of all living organisms-animal, vegetable, and mineral-has been illegal for decades. Deer, bears, and dogs run wild and, due to overpopulation, die; grass and weeds grow unchecked; insects thrive. Meanwhile, the "termination" of the "human species" has been mandated by the government because human respiration has been determined to "destroy . . . microscopic biological life."
In response, men willingly swallow suicide pills and women form lesbian communes. It's a scenario that must have seemed far-fetched when the novel appeared in 1973. It seems less far-fetched now.
An article in the May 12 Daily Telegraph says that a forthcoming UN report will declare "one-third of plant and animal species" to be "at risk of extinction" and blame the "developing world's appetite for raw materials." "If the 9 billion people predicted to be with us by 2050 were to have the same lifestyle as Americans," says a spokesman for the Convention on Biological Diversity, "we would need five planets."
Translation: Human life is bad.
Death fumes are in the air. Our singers are the canaries in the coal mine.