Pitchfork column: Puritan Blister #10 'The Month In: Suicide' (incidental Smith's reference)



Story by William Bowers
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of my maternal grandfather's suicide. He fired five bullets from his .38 into his eldest daughter (my aunt), and the last one into his mouth. The bullet exited above his right ear. The grim note on my calendar has me brooding, inconclusively, about how and why suicide functions as a safe pop aesthetic-- one that I've long embraced.

Where the hell do we first hear about, or imagine, killing ourselves? I think that the lazy rhetoric of parents plants the seed: I remember asking for Nikes, or a certain type of bookbag that a classmate had, and being responded to with the question, "What if your classmate jumped off of a bridge and died, would you want that, too?" In my prior fantasies of jumping off of things, I always flew, but my parents insisted on passing some existential nugget of resistance and dread along to me. What an unjustified raising of the stakes! "Mom, can I have an Eastpak?" "Son, can you die?" (I am reminded of the brand names rattled off in the The New York Post by the surviving boyfriend of a girl who leapt to her death at NYU: "She was wearing my Merrill Lynch baseball cap, and the white Banana Republic jacket I'd bought her. She had been wearing Prada sneakers that matched mine.")

I became an expert in killing myself via the Pizza Hut Book-It program, which gave away personal pizzas after one submitted a list of books that one had "read." To be conscientious, I got from the library a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure books, as well as selections from copycat series such as Which Way and Find Your Fate, and made the wrong choices as soon as possible, diving into dragon's mouths and ambling away from sewer sunlight.

After I started reading "real" books, I first conflated suicide with music when I couldn't figure out what was going on at the end of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World: "Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east..." My dumb ass didn't discern that the guy had hung himself. I thought he was dancing.

I had a bunch of new pop sensitivities after my grandfather's death. One of the bullets grazed my aunt's left ventricle, so there went the triumphant first line of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name". I didn't want to hear Pat Benatar's invocation about being clobbered by someone's "best shot." I could do without Run DMC's "Papa Crazy". When my car broke down, a co-worker asked if I wanted to ride "shotgun" with her, and immediately my internal Windows Media Player cranked into "Mama, I'm Coming Home". Gun Club albums bothered me there for a bit. (I don't own any copies of .38 Special's work.) Gun violence ceased to provide whimsical entertainment, even against zombies in films; I couldn't "enjoy" the head shots in Shaun of the Dead and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Those mutilated undead reminded me, obviously, of my slug-pocked relatives, but also of one of the original zombies in mythology: Jesus Christ. He struck me as a suicide, since he could have chosen to not die-- at least that's what I gleaned from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. But to be honest, I was more interested in the show's overt self-murderer, the embattled Marxist Judas. He was second only to Javert from Les Miserables on my teenage top 10 list of showtune suicides.

Reared with Christian propaganda, I was subject to a number of campaigns against the suicidality in the heavy metal that my brother loved, and that I performed to have loved as a way to perform fraternal bondedness. The lawsuit against Ozzy's "Suicide Solution", the Judas Priest subliminality trial, the televangelical specials decoding the "secret meanings" behind such subtle puzzles as "Suicide's an Alternative" and "Suicidal Failure" by Suicidal Tendencies-- these seemed farcical in their fundamentalist rush to find something to fear everywhere.

I went on to love the Dead Milkmen, wallowing in the bleak comedy of their dorky post-surf anti-gospel such as "Life Is Shit" and "I Hate Myself". Which stopped being funny when Dave Blood killed himself. (Even "Suicide Blonde" by INXS, a mere reference to hair dye, took on a dark tint when Michael Hutchence asphyxiated himself in what is presumed a case of autoerotic mismanagement, but was ruled a suicide by the coroner.) I also adored the Violent Femmes, but after the family tragedy, "Nothing Worth Living For" wasn't as romantic. "See My Ships" and "Country Death Song" even involve killing your children. Nothing from the genre of ancient, or revivalist juke-spook "murder ballads" did it for me anymore. I couldn't even dream of slumming with one of the Suicide Girls, despite how the stench of bra sweat seemed to emanate from their ads on Pitchfork.

Clueless dabblers and deemers inaccurately call the Smiths and the Cure suicidal music. Naw, they're just hyperbolically winsome, and occasionally morbid, but way too horny to want to die. Much more vivid chronicles of lostness were offered in the stuff I studied in the nineties as an English nerd in college. I got hung up on Albert Camus calling suicide the major philosophical problem, and had a fear of one day losing a son, as Herman Melville did, to suicide. I know a Sylvia Plath fan who hit a sticky patch one semester and started fitting herself for the inside of area ovens. The Virgin Suicides (and its sexy soundtrack) was all the rage, the title characters' saintedness fitting the tone of the decade during which a TV show about a glam mag could hilariously be called "Just Shoot Me", when songs called "Loser" and "Useless" could break an artist, and of course, when Kurt Cobain would script his own graceless ending.

See, here's some hypocrisy: I found Ian Curtis' suicide all poetic and deserving of mythology, but I found Cobain's stupid. I don't know why. Maybe I thought-- and this is horrible to utter-- that some of the cartoonish gloom of Joy Division's lesser songs required the sacrifice? Maybe I yielded to some foggy notion of gray England's exoticness. Maybe one of my college professors had broken my superficial suicide fetish: He saw me engrossed in a biography of the writer Breece D'J Pancake, and he called Pancake a coward for shooting himself. Maybe I reacted harshly to Cobain's death because I was a guarded/uptight record store clerk, and I needed to file away the needy emoting of the Cobain vigilists as almost comic. I think that fans of Nirvana and Joy Division were compartmentalizing their despair grandiosely, allowing "Ian" and "Kurt" to function as designated teeth-gnashers the same way that Batman or Tom Hanks are supposed to embody uber-civility, or the way that Olympic athletes are supposed to make up for our pasty spectating sloth with their freakish tendons. Stilted or confused kids relatively protected in suburbs (a straw demo, yes, but locatable) cultivate fantasies of emotional risk or at least directness via the Great Suicides of rock.

I asked Chris Ott, former Pitchforker and author of a pocket-size tome on Joy Division, what he thought the, uh, deal was with the appeal of death-mongers to plight-cravers, and then I edited his fine opinions for conciseness: "Suicide worship is the actualization of theÉmisguidedÉcore conceit that a person's supposed sensitivity-- aka positively positioned self-absorption-- can somehow stretch beyond their limited experience. It's the second-stage deification of the singer's professedly unique, overwhelming misery. The whole idea of non-academic Romanticism aka 1818 The Year Emo Broke is a return to teenage ignorance--emotion without wisdom. A hick from a meth trucker town and a working class epileptic oik from Manchester are allowed to commit suicide, because-- according to media-- they've transcended ordinary life. Both (Curtis and Cobain) left daughters. That's all it takes to pop the romantic bubble for me."

In his last will and testament, my grandfather left both of his daughters one dollar each.

When I was a kid, horror movies were so escapist, before I'd ever gotten badly physically hurt, or had a brush with mortality, or desperately loved someone. One gory masterpiece that doesn't make me nervous is the 2002 film Suicide Club; I relish how it blames mass self-inflicted deaths on cheery, synthetic house-pop aimed at children, while a gothy band (called Genesis!) commits a bunch of murders. A love of good music doesn't enhance ennui, in my experience. Just a workout with my iPod on shuffle coughs up songs by Kill Me Tomorrow, "Shampoo Suicide" by Broken Social Scene, "Her Name Is Suicide" by Serena Maneesh, Kiki & Herb's cover of the confounding "M.A.S.H." theme "Suicide Is Painless", and covers of David Bowie's melodramatic problem-starter "Rock and Roll Suicide" by Rilo Kiley, Seu Jorge, Black Box Recorder, Depeche Mode, and Giant Sand. Just this week, I taught a poem about pointing a gun at oneself in the mirror to my Writing About Literature classes, while wearing a Xiu Xiu t-shirt featuring a slit wrist. Yet I love life. The surprisingly cheery music of Alan Vega and Martin Rev's awesome keyboard experiment Suicide has been in high rotation lately at my homestead: If my screenplay about two Japanese kids abducting Robert Pollard and ending up in a police standoff on a Chicago train ever gets filmed, no expense will be spared to ensure that "Dream Baby Dream" plays over the closing credits.

My buoyant and downright pimp-togged paternal grandfather, who has outlived all of my other grandparents, is a music maniac-- his house is unnavigable because of the CDs everywhere, stacked to the ceiling.

A group from Victims Services cleaned up the blood from the scene of the shootings at my maternal grandfather's house, and then my mom and her brother had to clear out his belongings. He had no music.
Re: Post your favorite song(s) on suicide here!

Oh tonight I will retire
To the arms of my lover
The sweetest kiss she will give
As I lay down beside her

What will she think
When she awakes
Just to find I have left here

Oh tonight I will retire
To these hands with revolver
And I don't fear death
I will commit
Like an old friend I've known forever

So come on in, take me on
No I won't stay here no longer

And if I should taste fire
Save me not, I deserve to die

And oh tonight I will retire
To loving arms of my savior
And we will walk through his gates
To the skies of Heaven

And no more tears will I cry
Are my sins, are they forgiven

And if I should taste fire
Save me not, I deserve to die

Tonight, I will Retire - Damien Jurado
...and a pox on anyone who uploads that damned song by Queen!
Re: Post your favorite song(s) on suicide here!

Songs that commit suicide:

I will always love you crap, whitney blanket et al
Bryan Adams robin hood muck, cant even remember the title
Anything by abba
Anything by dido
Anything by anything other than myself
Re: Post your favorite song(s) on suicide here!

>Almost forgot

Anything by that pilchard chris "laddie in red"
Anything by anyone who has entered the charts in the last thousand years
Anything by anyone who sold more singles than albums
Anything by anyone who brought a song out for Christmas
Anything by anyone who celebrates their birthday

On the contrary, the evening has been one of dumb, inexplicable, happiness. I've spent the last few hours listening to Lisa Germano and watching tree-tops stir the distance of a dusked-out section of sky over the neighbors' roof, in a state resembling mild euphoria. Of course, this means that I will probably spend the next couple of days at sea in a slosh of melancholy, half-asleep under a dirty sail.
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