Each time a showbiz icon self-destructs we are left feeling dismay and confusion. We are sad to lose someone we loved for having made the world a brighter place with their music, laughter, or drama, and we are bewildered that someone who seemed to have everything we want – success, fame, and fortune – would destroy it all by their own hand. The number of artists we’ve lost through drugs or some other kind of suicide are legion – Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Robin Williams are just three recent examples. Prince is the latest shocking casualty, who died of an overdose of Fentanyl, a drug fifty times as strong as heroin.
The question of why has plagued me for decades. It began in the years I spent as a recording engineer working with some of the greatest artists of our age including Sinatra, Dylan, and Jagger, and continued when I became a psychotherapist who works with many artist clients.
Though the answer to this question is complex, one part is clear. Artists suffer a great deal of pain. One hint as to why comes from the myth of Prometheus. This half-god steals the sacred fire from Mount Olympus and is punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten eternally by an eagle.
Our great artists are like this. Driven by a talent that can’t be denied, they are on a mission from beyond. They go down, deeper into themselves than most of us dare, go through hell on the journey, steal the sacred fire, and bring back the boon of their creation to share with the rest of us. For this they pay a terrible price.
My greatest insight into what tortures artists came from working on All That Jazz. This 1979 Bob Fosse film tells the story of Joe Gideon, a choreographer/director who is a workaholic, alcoholic, drug addict, and sex addict. His compulsivity is beyond control, and he is incapable of stopping his inexorable slide toward death.
Gideon, we discover, has an empty core. We are left with this void when we don’t get the emotional nourishment we need as children. This lack of love from mom is too painful for us to bear, so instead, we come to believe that we are the problem. If we are burdened with talent, we artfully craft an entertaining false self, hoping that if we are spectacular enough, we will finally get the love we crave.
Such is Gideon’s life. As he puts it, the mask he has created is so convincing that he doesn’t know “. . . where the bullshit ends and the reality begins.” Disconnected from any source of meaning, all that remains for him is a desperate craving for numbness, excitement, and approval. A sense of existence, fleeting as it is, comes only in moments of being high, having sex, or being adored by the audience.
Sadly, this drive to fill up his emptiness with sensation fails to do the trick. No matter how high he gets, Gideon always needs more. This results in an annihilating despair, which leads to self-destructiveness, at the center of which is a death wish.
In many ways, Gideon was Bob Fosse. Spending all those months with this genius, I learned that Fosse’s bravura persona disguised a deeply sensitive soul, which was ironic, because he had chosen the most brutal of professions – show biz. Not only did Fosse suffer inner torments, but despite his success, the biz offered its own tortures. His best work was cut by vulgar, money-grubbing producers, he was dismissed by the critics, and he endured the fickleness of the public where one day you are venerated and the next you are vilified.
In an attempt to quell his demons, I helped Fosse finesse the final details of the film for months, searching for an ever-elusive greatness. But it was never good enough. When we watched a final playback of the film’s thirteen-minute, over-the-top musical finale of Gideon’s funeral, he was convinced it was a total disaster. As he turned a pale shade of green, we were convinced his dream of dying on the film’s opening day for a better box office would come true. Somehow he survived, but continued drinking, drugging, and smoking until he died of a heart attack at sixty.
In many artists I’ve worked with, I’ve witnessed a profound fragility that leads me to call them angels. Karen Carpenter was one. She suffered from Anorexia. Her body was fading away, but when she sang, the heavens opened. She had been given wings – an incredible voice — in exchange for a deep vulnerability.
People could be cruel to angels like Karen. I saw her collapse in despair when Paul Simon told her that her new material was “terrible,” and a “big mistake.” Sometimes, even other tortured artists can obliviously hurt the most delicate among us.
Despite her woundedness, or maybe because of it, she opened her heart all the way, and in so doing touched, and brought solace to, the hurt, empty, angel residing in each of our secret hearts.
Many of our great works of art wouldn’t have been created if these artists didn’t suffer, and our world would be impoverished for it. Their pain is our gain. Their madness heals us. And so, they deserve our gratitude for the sacrifices they make, and our compassion for the pain they endure. Karen couldn’t overcome her illness and died at 32.
In honor of all the artists we have lost, let’s be kinder to those who suffer, including yourself, because you never know – you might be in the presence of an angel.