General 7-26-2004

The Column: Threnody

Christian McShane writes about tragedy in Duluth.

Christian McShane

This is not easy.

I’m about to dive head-first into an area that no one wants to read about. I myself don’t want to write about it, but I must. My hope is that this will be the hardest column I’ve ever had to write.

I had a pretty great day. I woke up early – surprisingly refreshed. The weather was perfect in Duluth today – sunny and 72 degrees. I had lunch with a couple friends I hold dear and smiled most of the rest of the day. I came home to wagging tails, happy barks and meows. I planned to sit on my deck and look at the lake for a while before deciding what to do with my Friday evening. I guess you could say I was having what they call a “salad day”.

Then the phone rang – it was an old friend of mine. She didn’t sound right. I asked her what was up and she began to cry uncontrollably. I couldn’t make out what she was saying through her tears. Then I began to understand.

No, no, no, no–I was waiting for this. I didn’t know who, but I knew it would happen eventually.

Nick (all names of the deceased have been changed in honor of surviving family and loved ones) was dead. Suicide. It began raining hammers and every one hit my temples with the claw end.

My eulogy is thus:
I met Nick about 7 years ago at the Norshor Theater late one afternoon. He was one of those people that you just liked to watch. Built like a curtain rod. You couldn’t dislike Nick – it just wasn’t possible. Even if you were being a grouchass, you’d somehow muster a smile inside or out when he came near. It just happened.

“Hey, I hear you have a Moog,” he said.
“Yeah, I do,” I said.

“Can I borrow it?”
“Um, sure…”

And just like that, I handed it over. I still don’t know why. Let me tell you something about my Moog. It’s an antique synthesizer. It’s the kind of instrument music people salivate over. You can’t just go to Target and pick one up. First you have to find one, which is like trout fishing in a desert. I found mine in a snowbank in the middle of the woods, but that is another story for another time. I don’t just lend my Moog to anybody much less let just anybody even touch it. I know, it’s pretty silly. I think we all have some material object like that in our possession – some hunk of whatever that we place unrealistic value on. Mine? It was now in in the hands of this guy named Nick that I barely knew. I didn’t see my Moog again for almost 2 years.

But that was Nick. And it was OK by me.

As the years went on, we got to know each other. We didn’t call each other on a regular basis. We didn’t hang out together. But every couple of months or so, he’d give me a “Moog update”.

“Hey Christian, just callin’ to let you know the Moog is doing fine.”

“Thanks, Nick – but you didn’t have to call, really. I trust you.”

“Hey, thanks Brother. What you up to? I’m spinning tonight – you comin’ down?”

“You DJ’ing these days? Sure, I’ll try to make it down.”

And so it went. I grew to find that Nick was one mighty-talented curtain rod. He was a hard working poet, designer, actor, dj and friend. I recoil to add “gifted” because it goes without saying. He also had an incredibly immense knowlege of recorded music which always astounded me. While we were recording Yellowstone in 2002, we asked him to bring his turntables and record with us. Go to That extreme low bass in the beginning is Nick. A lot of people think it’s me playing the theremin, but it’s not. That’s Nick manually spinning a record at an extremely slow speed while brushing the needle with his finger. When I asked him later what he was trying to do, he said, “I was trying to sound like you…”

Two weeks later, my girlfriend jumped off the 12th floor of a building in downtown Duluth. I’m not writing this to beg for sympathy or compassion. Again, that is another story for another time. This paragraph exists solely to complete the chain of the story. Two months later, a fellow Duluth musician and friend also took his own life.

Needless (and obvious) to say, I was obliterated from the sky down. I polluted myself. I was useless and spiraling. These were young, talented, bright people, gone like a flash in the prime of their lives.

A few weeks later, I saw Nick at big show in Minneapolis. He purposefully pushed his way through the crowd and bee-lined straight toward me.

“My heart goes out to you, Brother.”
He didn’t ask, he just reached over and gave me as much of a bearhug as he could muster.

Nick was a friendly face in a sea of shit. And now… well, now he’s gone forever. Unexpected, untimely, senseless, shocking, abrupt, uncalled for. Even if he would have been 90, it would be too young. Just like Josephine. Just like Michael. Just like nearly a million others each year, according to the World Health Organization. 1 suicide every 40 seconds. As a friend of mine told me tonight after the viewing, “This is just… wrong.”

You know the worst part about suicide? It’s the ultimate act of selfishness that accomplishes nothing. It only scars the living. Tomorrow, trees will grow, birds will sing, people will keep having babies, we’ll all go back to what we were doing and the world will keep turning. Most of us will forget in time. Some of us will feel a slight twinge when we remember. And a few of us will be indelibly scarred for the rest of our lives. What it all boils down to is that in the great cosmic scheme of things, the world doesn’t care. Suicide is introverted murder. It’s not poetic or deep. It’s just a big waste. Life has always, and will always continue to go on no matter what.

When I was 4 years old, I accidentally touched a frayed powerline that had come off its post. I was frozen, terrified and in intense pain. I remember screaming but all I could hear was a loud hum like I was inside the turbines of a locomotive. My body was jolting. If not for one of my older brothers, I would have been electrocuted to death a few seconds later. He was in the pee-wee football league and delivered a precise tackle that knocked me loose.

That’s what suicide feels like for the living. It may be a little shock for some and constant surge for others, but there’s always that feeling. Families and loved ones get electrocuted the hardest and longest. To them I give my deepest, sincere sympathies. Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself like I did. Suicide doesn’t take two. Slowly, it will get better. It will not be the same at first, but it will get better, I guarantee. Life is for the living and there’s a lot of living out there to do. All this may sound cold and trite right now, but it’s true.

No, it isn’t fair to write that. I’m lying to myself. I don’t fully believe my own words and it’s not right to write something to you that I don’t believe. I’ve been walking with a weight on each shoulder since Josephine died like I’ve been condemned to eternal damnation. Nick’s suicide reopened a wound that was haphazardly mended by a hack surgeon. Me.

Maybe I’m waiting for my older brother to tackle me loose from the line. That’s not going to happen, I know, I know.

This column is my tackle. I never went out for football when I was a kid. Instead, a bunch of us neighborhood kids would get together whenever it rained and we’d beat the tar out of each other in the mud. We were what they used to call, “from the other side of the tracks.” We hated football and all it stood for in our community. We were into rock & roll and girls, not sports. There were no pads, no helmets, no Mom or Dad in the stands. Just us being us. It wasn’t really football, we knew; from the street it looked more like rugby for the insane. Girls used to ride by on their bikes and shake their heads. Jammed fingers, black eyes and big bruises were pretty common. I recall at least one missing tooth. And you know, we had a blast.

We grew up, became adults and forgot about the mud. We forgot how to play rough and get all of that crap out of our systems. Each time we got really drunk or high, we gave up a little more of what we used to be. We grew tired and weak and instead fought ourselves. Some of us figured it out. Some didn’t. Some are still trying. Some of us are quietly ticking away. We all know better, deep down. We all know that suicide is finality – that’s it, no second chances. It’s over – and I mean over. Nothing in our lives deserves the capacity of death by one’s own hand. Nick knew. For God’s sake, he
empathized with me when Josephine took her own life. So did Michael.

No animal on this earth commits suicide except humans. Even lemmings don’t – that was a bizarre fabrication by Disney. Other animals may put themselves in harm’s way for the protection of their young, but that’s altogether different. So why us? No one really knows for sure. If someone did, “suicide” would be erased from the dictionary. One thing is for sure – alcohol and drugs aren’t exactly innocent bystanders. Pour enough of either on top of a problem and you’ve got the potential for a forest fire the size of Montana in your head. Can we see the signs? I didn’t. Neither did anyone else for the millions upon millions. What can we do? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that if you abuse drugs or alcohol, knock it the hell off. You’re juggling a bomb. If you need help, it’s everywhere. If you don’t know where, email me direct. I beg you to. I dare you to.

As artists, we as a group are highly susceptible to depression. It’s in our nature. We’re an overly sensitive, moody lot. Along with this usually goes abuse of some kind at some time in our lives. Not always, but enough to make it a factor. This alone makes us high on the suicide risk scale. I honestly feel that each of us knows the difference between right and wrong. We’re not stupid. We just need to stand back from time to time, take a good look at ourselves and be honest.

In one of his last speeches, Joseph Campbell said, “Artists are the new mythmakers, the dreamers… our future.” Each and every one of us.

And I need every one of you until I am food for worms. Naturally.

The weights have begun to lift.