I seldom turn on music radio these days except when driving, and I don’t commute more than a few miles. I do make a deliberate effort on those short trips to tune to stations with contemporary formats in order to keep minimally conscious of current sounds. So, I’m not totally clueless about this aspect of popular culture, just nearly so. I certainly cannot recite lyrics to any of 2011’s Top Ten hits, or tell you what they are, though at least I might have heard a couple of them. The tracks played on the oldies station that provides the background music at my local supermarket are another matter; I could karaoke nine out of ten of those – if I ever were to karaoke, that is, which, fortunately for potential listeners, I won’t.
On this morning’s drive, however, after a particularly cacophonous three minutes of squawking from my speakers, a caller to the station requested the Janis Joplin version of Me and Bobby McGee. I know that one. Yes, I admit it, I sang it, but there was no one else in the car, so nobody suffered for it. It seemed an odd request, though. Then I remembered: Janis died around this time of year. Most likely, the caller was aware of it. Once at my computer, I checked Wiki: Janis died on October 4, 1970. Close enough. I posted about Joplin around this time last year ( http://richardbellush.blogspot.com/2010/11/kozmic.html ) so I won’t repeat those remarks. I do notice, however, in the comments to last year’s blog, Ken mentions that Amy Winehouse is like Janis in some ways. How prescient is that?
Both Amy and Janis had problems with depression as well as drugs and alcohol. Depression is a common problem that doesn’t exempt successful people. It is often associated with substance abuse, though not always. Jim Carrey and Woody Allen, as examples, have been open about depression but have avoided substance problems. Winston Churchill certainly drank to excess, but not so much as to impair his effectiveness. Others self-medicate prodigiously and self-destructively in an effort to feel better.
As I whistled the Bobby McGee tune one more time while walking from my car to my door, I wondered what was missing in Janis’ life that she needed to fill the hole with Southern Comfort and heroin. Why are some folks who seem to have it all still miserable? You got me. “Chemical imbalance” some say, though that is more of a description than an explanation. For people facing immediate threats to their lives, limbs, or (for that matter) finances, it can be a little hard to sympathize with the wealthy and healthy. Yet, it is plain that depressed folks (whatever their circumstances) are not just being self-indulgent. They would turn the mood off if they could. Some opt to turn it off by an extreme solution. Ernest Hemingway, for one, had wealth, fame, fortune, family, and a critically acclaimed body of work. He also had alcoholism. At age 61 he decided enough was enough and ended his life in gruesome fashion.
Why? Again, I don’t know. Nothing about Hemingway’s early life jumps out from his biographies as a source of future pain. There is no big Rosebud moment. If anything, he seems to have been pampered by his upper crust Oak Park family. He was dumped by his first love, but isn’t everybody? Ray Bradbury once contemplated the matter and concluded that Hemingway lived too long – he outlasted his ability to do the things that were important to him. In a 1965 short story The Kilimanjaro Device Ray arranges for Hemingway to die in 1954 on an adventure while at the top of his game. A character in the story explains, “Most of us don’t have brains enough to leave a party when the gin runs out.” Ray Bradbury, it is worth noting, is now a cheerful and productive 91-year-old, still very much alive. I guess he keeps his gin well-stocked.
By the way, I am not the biggest of Hemingway fans. (Reading the collected short stories frankly became a bit of a chore, though I do like several of them and also the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t much of a fan either. In his play Happy Birthday Wanda June the lead character Harold Ryan is a parody of Hemingway – not Hemingway the writer but Hemingway the man. Harold Ryan’s blustery macho ideas of manliness are portrayed as ultimately a form of cowardice. The characterization is funny, harsh, and a bit cruel, but perhaps not altogether unwarranted. (Vonnegut didn’t like the movie version, but, despite what it says on youtube, he did like the play.)
In the end, what is there to say except that some folks have trouble being happy? If you're not one of them, be happy you’re not. If you are, well, hang in there, and do as Ray does, not as he says.