‘Comedy is acting out optimism.’
‘In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.’
As I listened to Tom Paxton’s “Phil,” a paean song for his friend and colleague Phil Ochs, I immediately thought of Robin Williams. “I opened the paper, there was your picture/Gone, gone, gone with your own hand/I couldn’t believe it, the paper was shakin’/Gone, gone, gone by your hand. I know I’m gonna spend the rest of my lifetime wondering why/You found yourself so badly hurt you had to die.” Phil Ochs, one of the true singer-songwriters of the 1960s, hanged himself at his sister’s Far Rockaway home on April 9, 1976. Robin Williams, the comic genius and accomplished actor and humanitarian, also committed suicide 38 years later on August 11, 2014, at his home in Paradise Cay, California. These two men shared the oft-times lonely and melancholic roles of lifting up the human condition through their art, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives.
The story of obviously talented humans fighting the hideous dark depths of clinical depression is always a shock to folks, who can’t understand why a person of fame and fortune would be a victim of this disease. It’s almost like “You can’t be sad, you have talent. We expect you to live.” It’s short-sighted but understandable, as we seem hard-wired to figuratively tip our hats to the unknown poor souls who hang themselves, no name no story,, and go about our lives. We’re not raised to talk about such things, nor speak of them or think of them. When we’re old enough, we ponder it all as friends here and there take their lives because the pain they’re in is greater than the desire to keep living in it. Most don’t want to die, they just want to stop living that way. I assume this, I realize, but having gone through my own Dark Night of the Soul and came out scarred but wiser, it seems permissible that I’m able to speak on the topic. Yes I’ll miss Robin Williams and no amount of questioning it will explain it because it was his, private and hidden, and had he been a construction worker I doubt anyone but family would’ve cared. We make tremendous entertainment for ourselves when Norma Jean, Elvis, Judy Garland or Anna Nicole accidentally die – we forgive them because they needed drugs to get through and just took too many. They didn’t hang from the balcony. They are forgiven, mea culpas not necessary.
When Kurt Cobain blew his skull off we were in no mood to forgive. Most didn’t even want to understand, they just wanted their grief and that’s how we all seem to be. We hold to that mourning protectively because it’s our one comfort against the maniacal act called violent suicide. Cobain was extremely talented and much missed for what he would’ve given us in poetry and music. They all will be missed. It’s the ones who are obvious in their pain that tear at our senses; we wander in our minds at how anything in life could be that hurtful, and yet we’re all fodder for the chaotic machine of our brain which chemical signals dictate the direction of our lives. For myself I will say only that inasmuch as I’ll miss those who kill themselves, I’m relieved they are out of the incurable darkness and pain of hideous, despairing depression.