There are certain musical artists whose music left such an indelible mark upon me in my youth, that I can only listen to them on rare occasion. The music takes me back, sometimes too far back. Besides church and my Mead Composition notebook (where I poured my heart out to Jesus and wrote poetry) music was my only other place of escape from anxiety and depression, which was was seriously exacerbated by dysfunction at home, being picked on at school and generally scared of the world. Many (but not all) of these artists who still have the ability to take me to a different time, place and state of mind are dead. Kurt Cobain is one of them. Tupac Shakur is another.
There was a time when I always turned the radio up in my car as loud as it could go if Smells Like Teen Spirit or California Love came on over the FM airwaves. Now I almost always turn the radio station. I’d rather listen to anything from Nirvana’s Unplugged or Tupac’s Me Against the World anyway. I always have been – and still am – a bit of a sucker for the softer side of “hard” artists.
By the time I was in seminary, I had already over-cultivated the practice of avoiding the music that took me back. I avoided a lot of emotions back then. After a friend of mine died, something in me snapped. I am still putting it some of those pieces back together. He took too many prescribed pills and swallowed way too much whiskey on December 27, 2009. He wore his broken heart on his sleeve, where it was colorfully represented by a tattoo rendition of Jakob von Steinle’s “Jacob Wrestles with Angel.” He struggled with anxiety and depression too. He had also struggled with his weight and body image. We both had bariatric surgery. And he didn’t like to talk about his, at least with me. In his final year or so of life, he abused copious amounts of alcohol. Being gay and feeling rejected by the church that he loved and longed to serve wasn’t his only struggle, to be sure. But it certainly fanned the flames of his depression exponentially.
After he died, something in me began a long slow and painful death. It was my internalized homophobia. I didn’t become an overnight activist. But I did slowly start to tell more and more people about my own bisexuality, my “experience” with that older boy at youth group when I was a teenager. And little by little my theology shifted from closeted and “concerned” to “open and affirming.” It would still be nearly another 6 years before I would “come out” publicly in cyberspace and on local public radio.
In retrospect, little about my slow, painful and increasingly vocal transition was “fair” to many of those around me, not least of which was my ex-wife. She had married a man who was theologically conservative, closeted and a willing participant in reparative therapy. She wasn’t the bigot it is sometime easier to believe she was. She simply didn’t recognize me anymore.
I didn’t do much to help that. I dove headlong into my shallow pool of depression. I wasn’t drinking a lot back then, in seminary. It was a weekend thing. It was an almost every weekend thing. I threw the best parties on seminary campus. But most nights, I settled to immersed myself in my adolescent place of escape. Over the shared high speed WiFi connection on campus, I went to the torrents and downloaded the complete discographies of Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone), the genius Shannon Hoon (Lyricist and vocalist for Blind Mellon and author of the quote across the top of my blog), Biggie and of course Tupac.
I became a bit obsessed with dead artists who had sad stories. And while I sat alone with my headphones on, I added the new habit of swimming in articles and books about their sad lives, the sometimes mysterious circumstances and conspiracy theories that surrounded their deaths and helped form the mythologies that enshroud their legacies. In between watching Tupac Resurrection and Nick Broomfield documentaries, I was reading contradictory theories about how Tupac was killed by the Illuminati because he refused to have sex with his sometimes girlfriend’s father, Quincy Jones, how the US government had orchestrated both Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.’s deaths or how Suge Knight was behind it all (I think some of these might have more validity than others). One of the songs I listened to a lot on repeat back then was Tupac’s Runnin’ from the Police.
Tonight I listened to for the first time in a few years. On it’s own it is a sad and rightfully angry song about police brutality against the black community. But when you add to it the fact that it is the only song Pac and Biggie ever recorded together before they became bitter enemies, it makes it a tougher listen. When you start dwelling on the fact that four of the artists on the song – 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Yaki Kadafi (then known as Young Hollywood) and Stretch – have all since been murdered, well holy shit it is can be a really depressing listen. Start reading around the inter-webs the various theories about how all of the deaths were connected by gang members or police or the FBI or all of the above working together and it can be a recipe for a tailspin. It was for me.
But it was a headtrip that I sought out. I was doing anything I could to avoid my own thoughts. If the world and the church hated my friend for being gay, then they hated a part of me. Harder still, I hated that part of me. Also, pieces of the great mysteries and myths that had marked my whole life (and to some extent still do) were beginning to crumble: god becoming a man, the devil hiding out in the basement. It was easier to think about the sad death of a celebrity than process the death of my friend. Believe it or not it was less disconcerting at the time to think about crooked law enforcement officials and gang members in collusion to kill some antihero rap stars than it was to think that the devil was literally all around me, trying to entice me to masturbate, or drink heavy, or eat too much.
Please do not misunderstand my intentions with this series of Lenten inspired posts. I am trying to write – better and more often – and in doing so finding much healing for myself. I am doing what I was born to do, even if for now, it is just pouring myself out for a few eyes who give me 5 minutes of their time on a busy internet where every story is sensational. What I am not trying to do is co-opt Lent to convert others to some sort of agnosticism with a deep sense of wonder and deep sympathies for religious faith (in particular Christianity) and atheism alike. I have spent way too much of my life as an apologist, trying to convert everyone to believe what I believed about the the world, about the divine and about myself.
Because I was so deeply afraid I was wrong! Now, I am just trying to avoid joining Tupac and my old friend in the ether before living as long and loving as much and as deeply as I possibly can.