TJ Foster: Mourning, mental health, and changing the world for the better

Frightened-Rabbit-Image-scott-hutchison-owl-john-mastersystem_rip

For my thirteenth birthday, I received a copy of Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory – yes, back in those days, people still gave CDs as gifts, and not only that, they were as sought after as say… slime ingredients. That record may as well have burned a hole in my Sony Discman. It was the perfect combination of heavy angst and mellow contemplation and as a kid coming of age during the peak of nu-metal, it was everything to me. Years went on, my tastes evolved and I lost touch with the band not long after Meteora.

But the tragic news of Chester Bennington’s suicide last year made me revisit some of the songs that I knew every word to, as well as some of his later work, which I wasn’t as familiar with. The lyrics, in this new light, were eye-opening. I’m a huge proponent of the fact that you never truly know what someone is going through. The outside doesn’t always match the inside. Sure, Linkin Park’s songs were never exactly “happy,” but like most of the songs in their genre at the time, the lyrics were shrouded in just enough ambiguity that you never really thought much of it.

But here’s the thing: what if you truly do know what someone is going through? What if there’s no room for guesswork because a writer has thrown all ambiguity out the window in favor of a brutal truth, held to the throat like a pointed dagger? Scott Hutchison didn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve. He tied it to his bicep and sliced it open piece by piece for us. He’s not the first who’s done this, and he certainly won’t be the last, but in my lifetime I can’t say I’ve listened to another songwriter as forthcoming and to-the-point about struggles with mental health as Hutchison was.

In the last few days, I’ve revisited all of Frightened Rabbit’s incredible catalog, most of which I was already intimately familiar with, the same way I visited Bennington’s. The difference was that I didn’t uncover anything astonishing. There was nothing unexpected or enlightening about these songs, just the same old sadness and anxiety. We all knew Scott Hutchison had demons, we just enjoyed hearing about them because they were a way of reflecting on and understanding our own. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; art should inspire connection. Hutchison had a way of wearing those demons like a badge of honor – he made it sound triumphant. So when the news of Hutchison’s tragic death came out late last week, it was devastating. But it was not all that surprising. And that’s a problem.

It’s tough to remember that musicians like Bennington and Hutchison are people first. When we fall in love with an artist, we tend to put them on a pedestal and they become larger than life in our eyes. We expect them to create art that we can relate to, to bare us the darkest parts of their souls like it’s a form of medicine for things to difficult to face. And when they don’t, we tear them down and replace them with the next person upset or confused about the life around them. A phrase I’ve heard far too often from people is “So-and-so was better when they were sad” – essentially faulting an artist for finding something positive to sing about. We should be celebrating this, not criticizing it. Artists are human beings just like you and I, and we should hope that they can put their demons to rest in ways that aren’t harmful to themselves or the people close to them just as if they’re our friends. Because in some ways, they are. They let us in to their world through their lyrics and their performances and their interviews. Their records pick us up when we’re down, and remind us to appreciate the moments when we’re not, just as a close friend would. (In that respect, Frightened Rabbit’s “My Backwards Walk” is one of my closest friends…)

What we have to remember about musicians is anything they write is like a student’s permanent record. Once an album is released, it’s out there forever. And not only does it exist in that form, but they have to perform it live for years and years to come. As fans, we shout for bands to play our favorite song(s), and often times those songs are the ones that have helped us through a rough patch. We don’t think twice about the fact that maybe those songs are also the ones that are most painful to play.

I assure you I’m not saying there’s anything overly wrong with that – as an artist myself, it’s certainly amazing to have a crowd request a specific song. But most of us get to go home at the end of the work day, unwind, and put that day’s work behind us. Touring musicians get back on the bus, travel to a new city, and play the same set the next night and the next and the next, constantly reliving the memories associated with the songs we know and love so deeply. To those who can’t easily put up a mental barrier, it’s like picking a scab every day so it can’t fully heal. Scott Hutchison was one of those people. At least that’s what I gather. We’ve never met, but I feel like I knew him on a personal level. He meant a lot to me. His records are the equivalent of a friend who’s just a phone call or text message away. Seeing the news of his disappearance broke me in a profound way. I knew how this story was going to end even if I didn’t want to admit it. Hell, he basically wrote it the final chapter ten years ago. His final words to the public, delivered via two chilling tweets, included “please, hug your loved ones” – something we’ve heard before in the wake of other tragedies and something we should be doing every single day.

I want to add one thing to his request: tell your favorite band/songwriter you love them. They may not respond – they get inundated, after all – but they’re human beings all the same, and a message of encouragement may be the ray of light they need at any given moment. Don’t tear them down if you don’t like a record or a song – just don’t listen. It’s that old mantra we all learned in elementary school: if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.

Life is fragile, and mental health is a real, scary thing. Artists are more often than not introverted people doing extroverted work. We need more mental health support nationwide, and certainly in this industry. Over 70 percent of musicians say they have suffered from anxiety or depression according to this article published last fall, shortly after Chester Bennington’s suicide. MusicMinds Matter and Music Support are great organizations in the UK offering support systems specifically for musicians struggling with mental health. It’s not as easy finding ones like it here in the US – we need to change that. In the meantime, there are a number of incredible organizations advocating for mental health awareness here in the US including Punk TalksNAMITo Write Love on Her Arms, and Project Semicolon – you can (and should!) support any of them at their respective sites. While you’re here, make tiny changes on Earth. Scott would be proud.

–TJ Foster

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