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On the Death of Scott Hutchison

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And fully clothed, I float away
(I’ll float away)
Down the Forth, into the sea
I’ll steer myself
Through drunken waves
These manic gulls
Scream it’s okay
Take your life
Give it a shake
Gather up
All your loose change
I think I’ll save suicide for another year.

So sang Scott Hutchison, frontman of the Scottish rock band Frightened Rabbit, on “Floating in the Forth,” the penultimate song on the band’s 2008 record The Midnight Organ Fight. Late Tuesday night, Hutchison sent a pair of cryptic tweets suggestive of an imminent suicide and disappeared into an Edinburgh night. Late Thursday, a body was found in a marina on the Firth of Forth that police today identified as Hutchison’s.

The majority of readers here probably have never heard of Scott Hutchison, or of the band that he organized a dozen years ago. Frightened Rabbit has a deeply devoted fanbase and achieved some modest levels of success, but they’ve never been a household name. If you’re unfamiliar and looking to dive in, The Midnight Organ Fight is my favorite record in their catalog, but The Winter of Mixed Drinks and Painting of a Panic Attack are great albums, too.

In any case, I’m not really here to say much about the sonics or composition of Frightened Rabbit’s songs. I’m mostly just here to say a few things about the lyrics, the things beneath them, and about art and mental health. Hutchison was pretty open about his battles with depression and various other mental diseases. This was true both in his art and in interviews that he gave. Although his delivery of his lyrics often felt like catharsis, the lyrics themselves overwhelmingly gravitated toward dark places, including dwelling on intense self-loathing. (Writing an album called Painting of a Panic Attack is obviously pretty telling.) I walked around Indianapolis this morning listening to Organ Fight (which Hutchison wrote following a bad breakup and which was the soundtrack that helped me get through my last one), and was struck fresh by how deeply sad it is. Even at its most joyous-sounding, there is darkness beneath. So many times, Hutchison sounds as though he’s about to break in half.

This leads me to three related thoughts:

1. Despite his depression and recurring and often extreme self-loathing, Hutchison was extraordinarily giving with his fans. Part of this was simply in the art that he made; few songwriters have written and sung about the dark and reached (even if failingly) toward catharsis with the sort of unvarnished humanity and unbridled honesty that he did, and this resonated with countless numbers of fans who were also struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental diseases. You can see testimonials from fans and songwriting colleagues here and here and a bunch of other places on the internet, including from a number of people who credit the companionship of Hutchison’s songs with saving their lives when they wanted to die.

Hutchison was also, when able, willing to be more direct in his outreach to others who suffered as he did. This tweet gutted me:

[Photo description: a Frightened Rabbit hat that Hutchison mailed to a fan in Ohio after the fan’s parents reached out to Hutchison talking about their son’s struggles. The note Hutchison included reads, “Hey Justin, I hope you don’t [mind] me sending this note. Your kind parents got in touch recently to tell me you had been having a difficult time, and that Frightened Rabbit has helped you to pull through. All I really wanted to say is that no matter how dark life seems, you are never alone. There is always hope. Hope the hat warms the Ohio winter! Scott.”

2. This has renewed a deeper concern in me concerning how we responsibly enjoy art that is created by people who are clearly in extraordinary amounts of pain. Obviously, the very act of artistic creation is often times a tonic, or bandage at least, for emotional pain, and some of the art I like the most comes out of dark emotional places. But, and speaking completely and singularly for and about myself, as a consumer of art I do wonder if there’s something reckless about me enjoying artifacts of other people’s pain. I don’t know.

3. I do know that this is yet another terrible reminder of the need to fully, finally destigmatize depression and anxiety and other mental health diseases, and take them seriously as the global health crisis that they are. Researchers recently estimated that eight million deaths annually around the world are caused by mental disease. That is a stunning statistic, and it just isn’t being dealt with seriously enough.

At least anecdotally, the problems of mental health diseases are particularly acute within the artistic community. There’s a lot of cultural currency in romanticized stereotypes about “tortured geniuses” and other bullshit, and as I said above, I think that plenty of great art comes out of dark places.

But romanticization has terrible costs, and the more salient reality is that the default life of a full-time artist is fraught with instability. Obviously, people devote themselves to the life of an artist primarily because they love to make their art, and I want to be very clear that some of the happiest people I know are people who spend their working lives as touring musicians. But I also know a lot of people who struggle with it immensely, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s rarely lucrative, so money is always a concern. You’re self-employed, so unless you’re married to someone with a day job, you’re responsible for buying your own insurance or going without it. You have to travel constantly — especially these days when fewer and fewer people buy albums and so artists have to play more and more shows (and hope to sell records there if not in stores or online) in order to make up the difference. And touring is incredibly hard. If you’ve never spent weeks or months in a row sleeping in a different place every night, I don’t recommend trying it. It’s awful. Finally, one of the “perks” of the job is that venues will often times hook you up with free drinks, or fans will offer to buy you one or more. But alcohol obviously can also exacerbate feelings of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. And all of this is to say nothing of the other addictive substances that are readily available around the scene and that compound everything else.

I confess to not having solutions right now as to how we address the enormous, terrible issues of mental disease in and beyond the art world. Mostly, I just have a lot of sadness. Even if you didn’t know who Scott Hutchison was until today, please know that the world is worse for his departure.

 

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