The sad news that the body of Scott Hutchison had been found at a marina on the banks of the Forth on Thursday evening got me thinking about two things: what it takes to write songs that forge profound, often unbreakable connections, and what it means to endure such inescapable turmoil that there is no alternative but to take your own life.
Although I’ve never earned much as a musician I’ve served time in the trenches and worked behind the scenes for long enough to speak with a little authority about the difficulties and tensions that come with choosing to make something out of nothing and thereafter being fair game for criticism, often from people who know less than fuck-all about what it involves. It might be creatively fulfilling and it can work wonders for your social life but in almost every other respect being a musician is not an easy gig.
I quit writing lyrics and singing to focus on playing guitar and simply creating sound not far short of 20 years ago. I had got to a point where my confidence in my ability to articulate what it means to be me was shot. I didn’t think my efforts could add to the sum of human experience, and still don’t.
(Unsurprisingly, my lyrical productivity hit a peak when, at the age of 21, I discovered I had a young half-brother and my father had established an extra-marital relationship with the boy’s mother. After composing too many verses and choruses clumsily describing my subsequent emotional state I zipped across the spectrum and embraced obfuscation and smart-arsery before concluding I had nothing to say within the limits of the pop song.)
Fortunately there are plenty of others who aren’t so encumbered. Or perhaps it’s more the case that they endure the same doubts but are strong or bloodyminded enough to overcome them. Stronger than I was and am, at any rate.
I wasn’t anything other than peripherally acquainted with Scott’s songs – it would be impossible for anyone living in Scotland with a passion for music to be unaware of the music of Frightened Rabbit – but from the mountain of words I’ve read in the wake of his death they spoke profoundly to a great many people. This, despite – or because of – him openly warring with anguish and its army of debilitating belligerents over the course of a decade and a half of making music. That’s an accomplishment on which you can’t put a price.
It takes a lot to conjure – from nothing – words and music that make people feel less alone. It requires courage, empathy and eloquence just to get started. That there are musicians who overcome anxieties and self-doubt to chronicle their experiences, whether to help themselves make sense of what often appears to be chaos or to help others do the same, is a blessing. From industry (and often compulsion) they create magic.
If you’re reading this then you’ll likely agree that music is eternal. It’s our church. It’s always there when you need it and complements any mood the human heart has ever witnessed more effectively than any other art form. I cannot imagine life without playing and devouring music; incredibly I even get paid to criticise it in a newspaper, The Herald.
Making no apologies for patriotic bias and in the interests of brevity, to my fellow Scots and Scotland-based musicians Kathryn Joseph, Teenage Fanclub, Karine Polwart, James Yorkston, Ela Orleans, Tracyanne Campbell, RM Hubbert, Mogwai, Emma Pollock, Kenny Anderson and dozens of others, all of whom help me and others make sense of life, I salute you. You are treasured; your work will outlive you and sustain future generations. Keep the magic coming.
Lastly, a few thoughts on the black dog.
Few of us go through life without sometimes feeling it’s a losing battle, and for most the feeling passes. In my own experience, the death of my father three years after my mother’s was the trigger for a period of sporadically dizzying anxiety and generally low mood. Not for me the loss of appetite, insomnia and lack of drive more typically associated with depression, but when my mind broke free from its anchor I could see little else than danger, pain and despair looming on the horizon, and at first I had no means of turning back to safe harbour.
I liken the grief over my dad – a more complex and nuanced grief than I’d experienced when Mum passed away – to Cato from the Pink Panther films. One minute I’d be nonchalantly going about my daily business and the next it would spring out from a wardrobe and pin me to the floor, a solid knot of dread turning my stomach to stone.
I was fortunate enough to get help – a short course of antidepressants then, after a four-month wait, CBT counselling – within a time frame that prevented me from spiralling. Thanks in particular to the counselling, the next time Mr Fong leaps out from behind a rack of coats I hope to be ready for him.
For others a sense of hopelessness comes and goes over years and years, rising and falling in intensity, and like the common cold it can develop at a pace health professionals can’t keep up with. I imagine Scott had tired of feeling worthless, even – especially? – when things were going well. My sincere condolences go to his family and friends, whose pain I am unable to imagine.
This weekend I’m on the outskirts of Newcastle with my partner Katherine, staying at her mum’s terraced house in a former mining village. Security, love, warmth: this home has them all in spades. It’s a good place to be. When Katherine and her dad, David, returned this afternoon from a craft show at which she’s running a stall I gave her a long hug as soon as she crossed the threshold.
Earlier tonight, when I was sitting outside smoking a cheeky fag (relapse number 4008), I thought to myself: this is all good. The piece of grass mottled with dead patches caused by my brother-in-law’s staffy and his acidic wee. The coloured solar lights I wouldn’t have anywhere near my garden but which speak here of a deep sense of home. The rusting basketball hoop on the wall, unused for decades. The quiet of a village peopled by folk tired after a week’s work. Enjoy it, I thought. This is more than enough. You are the luckiest man alive.
Almost midnight. Everyone has gone to bed. I pour a tiny dram, barely enough to cover the bottom of the glass, add a few drops of water and pad outside for one last smoke, tiptoeing past the cockatiel, his cage cloaked in a sheet. Sleep well, Scott.