"Too Many Angels"
In April of 2007, my friend Brian locked the door of his Denver apartment, sat in a chair, and shot himself through the head.
A few days later, at his funeral, I was shaking his hand.
Or at least it seemed like I was shaking his hand. It actually belonged to his identical twin, Matt. I’d never met Matt, but on my way to the funeral, I knew he’d be there. No amount of mental preparation, though, made seeing Matt’s face — Brian’s face — any easier. As I shook Matt’s hand and introduced myself, he tried his best to smile. I had to turn away. His eyes looked haunted. Meanwhile, Brian’s eyes — or what was left of them — stared sightlessly at the back of the casket lid a few feet away.
From the first time I hung out with Brian to the last day I saw him alive, he was a punk. An old-school punk, who valued integrity, independence, skepticism and a social conscience, and probably more than was healthy for him. He had zero use for pop stars like, say, Kurt Cobain or Mindy McCready.
McCready, a multi-platinum-selling country singer, emblemized everything Brian couldn’t give a shit about: glitz, riches, rednecks, and sentimental pabulum. She skyrocketed to superstardom in 1996 with her debut single (and album of the same name), “Ten Thousand Angels.” While she was doing that, Brian was playing in grubby, decidedly unpatriotic punk bands with names like The American’ts.
On February 17, though, McCready and Brian wound up sharing the same profound experience: a fatal, self-inflicted bullet wound in the head.
McCready’s ballistics-assisted suicide was no surprise. She’d tried taking her own life before, and for years she’d been caught in a well-publicized whirlpool of depression, substance abuse, and domestic violence. David Wilson, her former boyfriend and the father of her younger son, had committed suicide with a firearm one month prior — on the same front porch in Heber Springs, Arkansas, where McCready made her final bid for oblivion.
Yet McCready is still here. Like Brian, she was outlived by someone who looks exactly like her, someone who hovers over the aftermath of her death. The difference is that her twin isn’t a person but a persona.
McCready’s media image was born in 1996, when the 20-year-old singer became famous practically overnight. With flawless skin, flawless hair, flawless teeth, she had the looks that music videos and CD covers adore, the cornfed-Aryan ideal of mainstream country music.
The country genre had seen a resurgence in the early ’90s thanks mostly to male crossover artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. But McCready was part of a new wave of country divas, a group that included Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and The Dixie Chicks. McCready was virtually indistinguishable from her peers, both visually and musically: thousand-watt smiles and thousand-watt songs that twanged so generically they had no choice but to triumph.
McCready’s victory was short-lived. After the runaway success of “Ten Thousand Angels” and its 1997 follow-up “If I Don’t Stay the Night,” her sales began to slip. So did her personal life. After a string of failed celebrity relationships (including an affair with baseball star Roger Clemens that had allegedly begun when McCready was a teenager), she wound up in the arms — and under the fists — of aspiring singer Billy McKnight. In 2003, McKnight was charged with attempted murder after beating and choking McCready to within an inch of her life.
Her first suicide attempt, with an overdose of antidepressants, followed in 2005.
From there, McCready spiraled downward. Following the 2005 overdose, her troubles were extensively documented — with a mix of shock and schadenfreude — in the mass media. As her cachet as a singer sank, her popularity as an object of morbid fascination rose. Sex tapes, slit wrists, money troubles, multiple arrests: They were all markers of McCready’s reckless race to her own finish line.
The most bizarre crime she was charged with seems telling in retrospect. In July of 2005, she and her boyfriend were arrested in Arizona for, among other things, identity theft. Likely it was a means to an end — that end being the illegal procurement of prescription drugs. But for a celebrity to steal someone else’s identity speaks volumes. In her own mind, McCready no longer resembled the squeaky-clean, dazzlingly blonde image that her fans still cherished. Ironically, it is that persona, that twin, who survives McCready’s self-inflicted destruction.
On February 20 — three days after McCready’s suicide — another infamous celebrity suicide, Kurt Cobain, would have turned 45. Nineteen years ago today, he took his own life with a shotgun.
Aside from the use of a firearm, Cobain had about as much in common with McCready as Brian did. And yet, Cobain might have related to McCready in a perverse sort of way. Neither musician seemed to deal well with instant stardom. In Cobain’s case, though, it had more to do with resenting fame than falling victim to it. His band Nirvana is considered the flag-bearer of grunge, but at heart he was a punk. And like Brian, he was idealistic, perhaps overly so. Music should have integrity, they both believed, and should challenge people rather than pacify them.
Idealists love to see the world in stark terms, which is why they so often sink into despair when idealism alone isn’t enough to sustain them — or, as in Cobain’s case, when the temptation to sell out and give in is so great.
Recently there’s been a backlash against Nirvana. Since Cobain’s death in 1994 he has been seen not only as an icon, but as a martyr. Nirvana’s music has become similarly sacred. Read the comments on any given article about Nirvana published online in the past few years, though, and you’ll see a large percentage of naysayers. In a review of the 2009 reissue of In Utero, Nirvana’s 1993 swansong, Punknews.org had this to say on the subject:
At least part of Nirvana’s backlash stems from the fact that one day they stopped being a band that sounded good and started being a band we're expected to like, and then, maybe, to a band we’re expected to think was overhyped. You’d think the latter would stem from the former, but that leap is a big, alienating one."
It’s an astute observation, and an ironic one. Alienation was one of the building block’s of Nirvana’s appeal, and of Cobain’s self-negating mindset. The backlash against Nirvana doesn’t seem to grasp this. As manifested online, the Cobain backlash is usually couched in statements like “He was overrated,” “He was talentless,” “He was a worthless junkie,” “He was weak,” and “Someone as damaged as him doesn’t deserve all that adulation.”
What is lost in this criticism is the likelihood that Cobain had a little voice in his own head telling him all those things. Over and over again. It was probably hissing them as he raised a shotgun to his face and groped for the trigger.
Suicide is nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to topics in the post-Sandy Hook gun-control debate. Some are paying attention, though. When Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed a fresh batch of firearm restrictions into law last month, it wasn’t just one of the most sweeping and controversial of such state laws recently passed. It took place in a state that has trended blue over the past few years despite a tradition of being solidly red. When kids like Brian and I were growing up in Denver’s less-than-idyllic northern suburbs, Colorado’s conservative culture was a big reason we were pushed toward punk. It wasn’t a deliberate ideological reaction; it just seemed that for a young person in the ’80s with a streak of creativity and nonconformity, there was no other way out.
Things have changed since then, and Denver has became an oasis of liberalism, relatively speaking, in a state that sometimes still thinks of itself as The Old West. Guns are part of this place even more than they are in most other parts of the country. And yet, not only did Democratic Governor Hickenlooper sign new gun restrictions into law, he openly cited suicide prevention as a primary benefit of such legislation. According to statistics, over half of the 38,000 suicides in the U.S. every year are consummated by bullet. The arguments against gun control dismiss suicide prevention for the same reason they dismiss gun control as homicide prevention: If someone wants to kill, the rebuttal goes, they can just pick up a knife. But knives aren’t as swift, efficient, and sure in their death-dealing as guns. Which is kind of why guns were invented in the first place.
Colorado’s new laws mean well, but only time will tell if they do any good. If they do succeed, they’ll have come a little too late to help Brian. Like so many of us old punks, he’d been trying to find a way to apply his hard-won integrity and independence to the world at large. To make a living as an adult while staying true to the DIY ethics of his youth. Punk was founded on negativity and nihilism, but it’s survived on idealism and hope. That’s a lot of contradiction for any one soul to reconcile.
Brian never had a chance to turn punk into cash the way Cobain did. No one was buying his brand of rebellion. Not that he didn’t try selling it. In addition to playing in bands, he ran a tiny music label called, self-deprecatingly, Black Plastic Records. It mostly served to spotlight and support his beloved local music scene in Denver. It certainly didn’t exist to turn a profit.
In a 1995 interview with Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly, Brian said this of his record label:
“I do this because I think it’s fun,” he insists from his studio apartment, which also serves as Black Plastic headquarters. Clad in a Midas baseball cap, a faded black T-shirt and a pair of battered, duct-taped Vans, the 21-year-old Circle looks more like a stoic soul-surfer than a budding record exec. “It’s not just a money-making thing. I feel sorry for anybody who thinks that's why I'm doing it, because I'm actually losing tons of money.”
Circle enjoys the creative freedom he’s allowed when working with local punk musicians. “It’s a lot easier when you know the people involved,” he elaborates. “I would much rather walk up to a band after a show and say, ‘Hey, let’s do a record’ than write to some band that lives three states away and wait for a reply. It’s a lot more personal this way.”
Sadly, Brian’s yearning to connect with his fellow Denver punks was offset by the opposite impulse: to be alone. Even among friends, and he had many, he seemed detached and withdrawn. Speaking from personal experience, I feel safe attesting that many introverts are drawn to the desperate catharsis of punk. Cobain obviously was, and it’s not a stretch to assume his ache for isolation aggravated his inability to cope with fame — and his temptation to use a shotgun shell blow himself the ultimate escape hatch.
McCready’s demon was temptation. She even said so in song. “Speaking of the devil / Look who just walked in,” she croons girlishly in her first hit single, “Ten Thousand Angels,” “He knows just where to find me / Here we go again.”
In that heavy-handed use of double entendre that country singers think is clever songwriting, McCready is playing on the dual nature of white, Nashville-loving Middle America. On the one hand, it’s overwhelmingly Christian, often of the judgmental and moralistic variety. On the other hand, the pull of infidelity, drunkenness, illicit drugs, and other spiritual transgressions is as strong as scripture. The angel/devil metaphor in McCready’s song is not chosen lightly, even if the music itself is as flimsy as a feather.
You don’t need to be a Christian, though, to feel an angel and a devil perched on either shoulder. Cobain adorned the cover of In Utero with a gruesome plastic model of a nude human with visible internal organs and angel wings affixed — he clearly understood. And only he, McCready, and those who have taken their own lives in the same way can ever truly fathom what they saw when they looked in the mirror.
Which is why I won’t speak for Brian. During all the years I knew him, we never talked about things like religion or depression or mortality. If anything, we avoided those kinds of topics, focusing instead on the same old, esoteric discussions about vintage English peace-punk or the death of true hardcore. Maybe if he’d been able to express his deeper thoughts more clearly — in a manner other than jumping on a stage and playing punk songs — things might have ended differently.
Or maybe not. One thing, though, is for sure: If and when I ever see Matt again, I will shake his hand and look him in the eye. Hard.