Paul McComas is no stranger to suicidal depression. It has been the archetypal struggle in his life, and the motivation for much of his work, ranging from "Rock Against Depression", a group who performed free concerts to promote teen awareness, to his extensive writings on the subject. His recently published novel Unplugged is also about this terrible condition.
In the book, Dayna Clay, a young rock star, struggles through the final concert of her wildly successful tour tormented by an ever-deepening depression. She decides to disappear, and sets out incognito for parts unknown, winding up in the Badlands of South Dakota, where she begins to heal the wounds of an abusive childhood and the torments of the ever-fading spotlight. But her disappearance only fuels her record sales, and pendulum-swings her back into the enveloping darkness of despair.
McComas often makes a point of mentioning his hero, Kurt Cobain, who's life was cut short by the monster of Manic-Depression. "There is nothing that robs you of your identity more than this disease," he says, 'it exists as a result of an excess of empathy," referencing something Cobain wrote in his suicide letter. He felt that Unplugged was a way to communicate directly to the audience of young people the severity of depression, and in many ways, to talk about the chance to recover that Kurt Cobain never had. To that effect, Unplugged moves you forcibly through this emotional quagmire pulling no punches and abstaining from armchair diagnosis. Or in the words of his first hero, author William F. Nolan, it is "a story of revival, of love, of spiritual regeneration told with a hard-edged emotional intensity that will grip the reader from first page to last." He wasn't exaggerating. Despite being named Unplugged, this story screams truth through a megawatt amplifier.
3AM: Tell me about suicide?
PMC: I think about my gratitude that I never managed to complete the act. And of course I think of Kurt Cobain too. We were robbed. There is no reason that guy should be dead right now, he had a treatable illness, and I know cause I've been successfully treated for it. I've come back from the brink. Did it negatively impact my work to recover to a better place? No.
3AM: Why does that myth perpetuate then?
PMC: Jesus….this whole notion of the "tortured artist"-as if the torturedness and the artistry naturally go hand in hand-certainly many talented artists in many different genres have suffered from bi-polar illness, schizophrenia, depression. But to make the leap that says that their brilliance was or is contingent upon their mental illness makes no sense to me.
3AM: Do you then agree with the corollary that bi-polar disorder and creativity go hand in hand?
PMC: It's effect, not cause. I have no evidence that getting treatment undermines the creative process. The closest example I have is the plain fact that when I was depressed I didn't write a word. When I was depressed I wanted to die, not create something deep. Cobain said, What else can I write, I don't have the right… Bi Polar at least makes you trip back and forth between the mania and the depression, and most artists, like Kurt, are wildly productive in their manic states. Although I only suffered the depressions, I think that having been depressed, having struggled with that darkness definitely informs the artists within you. But in order to process that material, especially over an extended period of time, you need to get well. Had Kurt gotten well, he would still have been able to write about that darkness, cause he would have been there, he would have known, so he could testify. You don't have to be in excruciating pain to write about excruciating pain. You only need to have known it.
3AM: And so, your intention with Dayna Clay was to allow her to work through what Kurt never got to work through?
PMC: Yes, I wanted her to have the second chance he never got. I wanted people to see there was another option. It all arose from my experiences with Rock Against Depression. Trying to teach kids about what took Kurt from us. And these are the kids of this new society of ours, kids of divorce and broken homes, many of them abused, the so-called throwaway kids with no potential. That's why in the beginning they connected with Kurt instead of fucking Guns & Roses or something, When he killed himself, they were devastated, as were me and my bandmates. Rock Against Depression was our way of being able to come together in a place of mutual allegiance and mourn. I think what was crucial about the project was that none of us was up there saying "Kurt really fucked yup, you be stronger" We were saying, "by the time he put that shotgun to his head, he wasn't really Kurt anymore. The illness robbed him of himself, and in the end robbed us all of Kurt Cobain. Don't let it happen to you."
3AM: All the talk became judgmental…
PMC: Yes! And judgment is such a relative term, as you well know. When I was in the depths of depression, I wasn't me anymore. There's a passage in Unplugged where Dayna has been out on the road driving alone for days and she finally pulls into a little Chinese restaurant and opens the menu and is just overwhelmed by the choices. She can't order anything and ends up leaving in tears without a bite. That's ridiculous. That moment was drawn from my life, and it was such a bracing moment of alienation and recognition of how lost I was. So, we told the teenagers who came to our concerts that it was all right to continue to admire Kurt.
3AM: How did you address his heroin addiction? Popular culture and the media immediately associate his death with his addiction. You and I know it wasn't his addiction but his depression that killed him. Why don't most people?
PMC: We always came from the point of view that he was self-medicating his bi-polar illness with heroin. Not an uncommon stat by any means. This was one of the fundamental motivating factors in forming Rock Against Depression. You'd think the guy died of an overdose if you didn't pay attention. We tried to get that word out there?
3AM: Why wouldn't the media help?
PMC: It was easier to file him away with Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and other 27-year old rock-star genius victims of excess. But he was a very sick guy, and he was also a hero. Here was a white, heterosexual guy who used to stand up on stage in the early 90's and tell audiences "anyone who has a problem with gay people or who trashes women get the fuck out and don't buy our records". And he didn't just say that, he lived that. Look at "Come as you Are". It's about inclusiveness, no matter what you are or what people have to say about you, you are welcome here.
3AM: So that awareness that he and Eddie Vedder in particular brought out of that so-called grunge movement, that sensitive social awareness, why do you think that in only ten years it has been usurped by this ignorant, materialistic, misogynistic hip-hop culture? Why did that become so suddenly and drastically "uncool"?
PMC: That's a good question. In part maybe because people like Kurt aren't around to keep articulating those values to a mass audience. Now we have Eminem, the Anti-Kurt, who they compared to Kurt in the beginning and are comparing to Elvis right now. (laughs). Well, aside from being male, blonde, and bi-pedal, I see very few similarities to Kurt. Elvis is another story.
3AM: I want to take a right turn here. I want you to address a metaphor that is so pervasive in, for utter lack of a better or more proper term, "mood-disorder artistry", or the creative work of those with these mood disorders…the Hemingways and the Burroughs and the Bowles and the Plaths and the Van Goghs… This is the metaphor of the desert as refuge, for barrenness and isolation, solace, change, escape, transformation. This is motif that dates back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and pervades the mythology of all cultures. It is the vision quest of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Moses, whoever…. You have Dayna go to the desert to find herself. In my novel Unfinished Portraits, Evan Montgomery goes to the New Mexico desert to find his true self, which grew out of my time in Joshua Tree. Oliver Stone used the desert as a metaphor for both change and to represent a place where all the normal rules are suspended and anything can happen. What is this? Where does this come from?
PMC: Yes, why is that the place we go in times of crises, the turning point in our lives when everything can either come together or fall apart? I don't know, except to agree with all the reasons you gave above. It's a place stripped bare where we must also strip ourselves bare, where survival is not a given and one must fight to live. But it's also representative of the lack of life and the desolation. When I was depressed I couldn't do anything, I couldn't watch TV or listen to the radio. I had a particularly difficult time watching commercials. I just couldn't take it. It felt like the top two layers of my skin were missing. I was looking for calm, serenity, silence, and I found that…as did you…in the desert.
As I have said before, depression knocks the pieces off the chess board and gives you the opportunity to put them back in any sequence you desire. The desert is that chess board to me. When you come back from there qualitatively changed, I think "recovery" becomes a misnomer. It's more like "uncovery", uncovering the person beneath the illness and the coping mechanisms that surrounded the person's true personality.
But the worst thing, the thing that basically kept me depressed, were the shock jocks on the radio. Like Mancow…my god! This guy symbolizes the end of that era Kurt represented.
3AM: How so?
PMC: It's a long story. Tell them who Mancow is.
3AM: For you 3am readers outside the Chicagoland area, "Mancow" Muller is a Howard Stern rip-off DJ on a Chicago's Q101 (WKQX) morning drive show, an "Alternative" programming radio station ala Jimmy Eat World whose target market is about 2-3 million suburban teenagers. Mancow also has a corresponding cable show like Stern, but unlike Stern, who was once funny, Mancow is just plain offensive, in ways you wouldn't even begin to fathom (typical stunts on his cable show involve sending a partially retarded regular on the show named "Turd" into a outhouse with a can of nerve gas like police use in riots, or to play a game where bare-assed women sit on a fake toilet while underneath them a blindfolded man tries to recognize which is his girlfriend by the smell of her whatzit)…
PMC: Yes, he's a down-the-line woman hating, sexist, racist right winger dressed up as a wannabe hip, loudmouthed overgrown teenager. What's so funny is how he hides behind the First Amendment despite advocating hate, and I think his signing with Q101 heralded the end of true Alternative radio and gave rise to the Jackass generation.
I forced myself to listen to his show for a week straight back in 1999 because Kurt's cousin Bev was coming to town to help us organize the final Rock Against Depression show. She is a psychiatric nurse and the author of "When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens", which I highly recommend.
Bev and I had been booked to go on Mancow's show to talk about the final RAD show. I figured the worst that could happen was that we got exposure, and maybe people could get the help they needed. When Bev got into town, they informed us that we had been demoted to a call-in segment, and to sit and wait by our phone that morning for them to call. So we sat, all morning, and the call never came, and we had to spend all morning listing to his sewage, listening to him rip on Cobain. I got all over the Q101 producers about that. I asked them, "How can you guys continue to call yourselves Alternative Rock Radio?" It was supposed to be about awareness and acceptance and being aggressive in our tolerance of other people. They didn't get that at all, they said it was "just another type of music." Just a product. And that's what happened to Kurt, he became a product. It killed him spiritually, and the depression killed him physically. But even after he died they sold him until no one bought it anymore.
I realized that morning in '99 that his era was over. Now it's eight years after his death, and we have Eminem. That morning I realized Alternative Rock Radio was dead too.
3AM: Let's talk about Logan's Run.
Here is some background for our readers. In 1976 when you were 14 you read the futuristic sci-fi novel Logan's Run for the first of seven times that summer, seven because you had broken your leg and was bored beyond belief. This same boredom led you to write "The Logan's Run Reference Book", a companion compendium of all things Logan. You sold the book through the Logan's Run Fan Club, receiving a two dollar royalty check for each copy. One of those checks happened to be from the author himself, William F. Nolan, and included with it was a letter that lauded your emerging talents and encouraged you to continue writing at all costs.
Cut to 26 years later and the Redline Pub on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where Tina Jens was hosting the "Twilight Tales Reading Series". She invites you to perform at the World Horror Convention, and you learn William F. Nolan had been invited to receive an award.. You dug up the old letter of encouragement and brought it to Nolan, and he remembered you, and you two have remained close friends ever since. His blurb appears on the book jacket for Unplugged.
Now, the first time I saw the film as a kid in the 70's I was very disturbed by this concept of "voluntary" suicide by all those reaching 30 years of age (21 in the book) because in their post-apocalyptic future society, their history tells them that old men once destroyed the world, and so no one is permitted to grow old. I felt this could happen, I felt it could be real. It was such a statement of the Flower generation to their elders whose finger's hovered above the Big Red Button. I felt the urge to run too, and would have been a runner if I was in that society. Was that intentional for all? What resonated so deeply with you about this story that it became a cornerstone of your work?
PMC: Well, I wasn't suicidal back then, I was just into Sci-Fi. (laughs) On a surface, as a 14 year old boy, I was attracted to the film's glitz and glamour, the flesh that that movie allowed to be seen. I was similarly intrigued by the futuristic dystopia, like that of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Soylent Green. I am forever haunted by some of the images in the 1979 Body Snatchers remake with Donald Sutherland. Logan's Run created very mixed feelings in me as well about that young, naïve, pleasure driven society (another excellent metaphor for the Flower generation). There was a part of me that said, Wow, if that's all I had to do all day long…hang around a mall doing futuristic drugs and dialing up sex dates from a public booth…getting instant laser surgery to have a new face, I thought giving up your life at 30 was a fair trade. In depth, I'd like to think that I would have ended up a runner, even before the crystal in my palm started blinking down the last days of my life. The "Runners" are the socially conscious underground that recognize how wrong this "voluntary" suicide is, many of them realizing this before their own palm crystals begin to flash, which was a powerful statement. It wasn;t just in response to imminent threat. And they also knew what the others did not or chose to deny, that the "voluntary" suicides were anything but voluntary. The story became about the self-preservation instinct in the young as metaphor for American during it's turbulent era. That's why I think it reached so many. And I think it's relevance only continues to grow.
3AM: Do you see a Rock n Roll metaphor in there, considering it was written in that era? Live fast, die young, leave a good lookin corpse behind and all that? Never trust anyone over 30, if you live that long you're lucky. If presented with a line of demarcation that says, YOU WILL NOT LIVE BEYOND THIS POINT, what happens? What happens when the romance of that notion and the reality collide?
PMC: As pertains to it's influence on my work, I think it works better for Jim Morrison than Kurt Cobain. Morrison was portrayed as a Bacchanalic, Kurt was not.
3AM: In my opinion (which no one wants) Morrison was a drunken oaf who benefited from frequent peyote trips. Cobain was everything Morrison was not, and should be remembered as such. They were vastly different.
PMC: Right, and what Logan's Run says is that when childhood ends, you have two choices: You can grow-up, or you can die. What's it gonna be?