When I was a little girl I was thrilled by a TV program called ‘’The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.’’ The theme song caught my ear, piercing and fitting (much like the haunting theme song of Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti) and the stories had punch and ghostly shock value. Intellectual horror and suspense at its best. And one of these stories kept me on the edge of my seat, all alone in the TV room in our big suburban house in Polokwane, it was called ‘’The Monkey’s Paw.’’ It was dubbed in Afrikaaans in the 80’s, ‘’Die Aap se Voet.’’ In short, this short story is about the bewitched mummified paw of an ape, with the power to grant wishes, but with a price. A Poor family wishes for money, and they receive the exact amount, as a pay-out for the death of their son. A horrific machinery accident. The same family uses their last wish to wish for their son back to life, and there is a knock on the door. Their son stands in front of them, alive, but as a mutilated zombie.
The story stuck in my head ever since, and it has strong symbolism. And maybe it can help me make sense of the death, suicide and drug abuse of so many beloved artists, musicians and actors.
I do not believe that we, in South Africa understand the concept of fame, especially in the “Rock’’ genre, it’s a small and young market. But in countries like America, England, Australia, and their affiliation with each other, the music and film industry is a monster money maker.
Many musicians and actors have died in unnatural ways the last few decades whom I respect, and their work has had an influence on me, but there is one specific Songwriter’s suicide, that hit me hard, Chris Cornell. A sensitive and dark writer, haunting melodies, but always inspiring and truthful, and more than anything else, blessed with immense talent. An indication that his art had a purpose.
I have always been more attracted to the darker writers, Nick Cave, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Chris Cornell, and I consider my own music to fall in the same genre. I also always believed it to be a healthy outlet to write about the more brutal psychological truths in life. And it has been a battle to open these doors to people, to write about deeper things, darker things. People want light and happiness, always. But we are not that one dimensional, we have both light and darkness, and I believe that these artists who embrace the usually repressed, surface with a deep feeling of contentment and peace. And its not about dark and light, but about healthy and unhealthy. But, with the death of Chester Bennigton (from Linkin Park) mirroring his friend Chris Cornell, by hanging himself, it seems like people are questioning the wrong things. They talk about the genre of music, the struggles with mental health and the deeper side to their art, blaming the message, as the reason for the deaths. But in my opinion, it’s not what they stood for, it’s what was expected of them, and what they thought they had to do to keep up with that expectation.
As I said, we can never understand the type of fame these musicians need to deal with. Think of the deaths of Elvis, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, and how many musicians, performers die of heart problems. They become public property, they need to keep up with that initial soul message. I’m sure these artists had dreams of telling their story, and sharing the magic they felt inside, being it dark or light, when they were younger, but once fame comes into play, the game changes. If I remember right, Kurt Cobain write “Rape Me’’ as a comment on a brutal audience that ripped and tore at him at a concert, and that the band ‘’Live’’ echoed this with their song ‘’Selling the Drama’’ ….’’no, we won’t be raped, we won’t be scared like that’’ and Live also sings about earning a ransom from the stage. Crowds can be tough. Record companies want their money’s worth.
The demands of performing in front of thousands of people, gathering the energy to release your soul and skill on stage, and then coming down to ‘’normality’’, processing the crazy amount of energy, trying to sleep with lighting flashing through your brain, must be…hard. I know I have trouble sleeping before shows, and I sometimes can’t give people what they expect at shows, and I do lots of coffee then, sleeping pills in the past, and the occasional Red Bull, and without a doubt, this has had a negative effect on my most precious organ, my heart. And this small experience comes from an Indie artist, and I’m talking audiences of 50, 200 at the most. The pressure to perform and generate energy is a big one.
And that brings me to the one thing I believe is the real devil, the unhealthy darkness, drugs. This can be the deciding factor between containing fame, and loosing grip. Fighting the demon of drugs, can make you lose your will to live. Discipline must be an important tool for famous people. ‘’Be ordinary and regular in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work’’ Flaubert
And to come back to my story of the Monkey’s Paw. Wishing for the type fame that society creates is one that comes with consequences. As an Artist you can wish for it, but it will always come with a price. And maybe fame is built around the wrong reasons, and maybe it should be about the message and not the person.