The news that LA art scenester Mike Kelly just topped himself led me to wonder whether in ten years time he’d make anyone’s list of best ever anti-art suicides. Was his death a resolute ‘NO’ to capitalist exploitation? Or was it as tedious and pathetic as the suicide of Kurt Cobain? I’ll leave you to judge that one and give you instead my top 10 suicides. Since Kelly founded the bands Destroy All Monsters (who I saw in London in the late-seventies after he’d left the group) and Poetics (with John Miller and Tony Oursler), I’m including musicians in this alongside those involved in more visual and literary forms of anti-art.
1. Ray Johnson – a pop and correspondence anti-artist. Ray makes number one in my list because although I never met him, I did have a very minor correspondence with Johnson about 25 years ago. So there’s a small personal connection and we all know nepotism rules in the art and anti-art world. ‘New York’s most famous unknown artist’ drowned himself off Long Island in 1995 – some say it was a final work of performance art.
2. Ann Quin – a 1960s British experimental novelist who did many things before and better than her now more famous contemporary B. S. Johnson (he topped himself by slitting his wrists while lying in a warm bath shortly after Quin’s summer 1973 death). Although Quinn’s first novel Berg (1964) made an impact, by the time she drowned herself, her critical stock had dwindled. Like Ray Johnson, she swam out to sea – but into the English Channel from Brighton’s Palace Pier, rather than the North Atlantic.
3. Arthur Cravan – was a dadaist who specialised in boasting and reinventing himself. Among other stunts, he fought world boxing champion Jack Johnson drunk, and was quickly knocked out. In 1918 Cravan disappeared sailing a boat in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico and is presumed to have drowned. His rather ambiguous suicide set the tone for the deaths of later artists such as Bas Jan Ader (who was lost at sea in the North Atlantic in 1975). For me death at sea is the best way to go (it’s oceanic), but having given you three of these I’ll move on to lesser forms of suicide.
4. Donny Hathaway – is probably best known for his duets with Roberta Flack but his solo work constitutes some of the classiest soul made in the 1970s. Despite success as a singer and songwriter, Hathaway demonstrated to the likes of Herman Brood that the best way to end it all is by throwing yourself into the street from the glittering heights of an exclusive hotel. In Hathaway’s case this was from floor 15 of the Essex House Hotel in New York. Hathaway appears to have been suffering from schizophrenia before his death. His funeral was conducted by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
5. Jacques Vaché – was a friend of Andre Breton and thus French surrealism’s most famous suicide. He didn’t really do much but maintain an attitude of indifference and disdain towards the world. Vaché killed himself by taking an overdose of opium, and thus blazed a trail for punk rockers like Darby Crash of Los Angeles band The Germs (who deliberately took an overdose of heroin in 1980).
6. Graham Bond – was in at the start of the British blues boom of the 1960s, but he is inevitably included here because he appeared in Gonks Go Beat, an unbelievably bad British movie that Mike Kelly saw on late-night TV somewhere and wanted to see again because he couldn’t quite believe what he’d been viewing. Via a mutual friend I was asked if I could help Kelly locate this item (this was before it was reissued on DVD). I found a bootleg version and passed on the information about where and how to buy it. Returning to Bond, his career basically spiralled downhill from the late-sixties onwards with this decline fuelled by drink, drugs and involvement in the occult. I picked up a typical story about Bond looking for money when I interviewed one time New English Library (NEL) editor Laurence James back in the 1990s, although I don’t seem to have included it in the published version of my conversation. Bond turned up at the NEL offices one day demanding money because somehow a photograph of him had found its way into a Hells Angels magazine published by the company (who’d thought this was a picture of a hells angel and had not realised it was in fact an image of a musician). Bond pretended to be outraged and claimed this mishap would ruin his public reputation. James gave Bond a few quid and the musician went away a happy man because he’d scored enough money to buy whatever drugs he needed that day. In 1974 Bond did the decent thing and jumped in front of a tube train at Finsbury Park Station in north London.
7. Herman Brood – is well known for songs like 1978’s Rock & Roll Junkie (which includes the line: “and when I do my suicide for you I hope you miss me too…”). in later life this Dutch rocker swapped pop excess for a career as a not particularly interesting painter. Sick from prolonged drug use and unable to kick his habit, in 2001 Brood leapt to his death from the rooftop of the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel. When I heard about this the first thought that popped into my head was that I’d thought Brood’s leather jeans looked ugly and uncool when I’ d seen him perform with his band Wild Romance in London in the late-seventies.
8. Adrian Borland – is someone I almost have a personal connection to, since he knew a number of my friends. In the late-eighties I spotted Borland posing outside a London rock venue. He was once in a seriously obscure band called Rat Poison (with a friend of mine in fact) although he later falsely claimed his first group was The Outsiders. As far as I’m aware Rat Poison only ever played one gig at New Malden Town Hall (in south west London). When I came across Borland he was obviously waiting to be recognised, and he gave me a huge smile as I walked over to him. “I know you!” I said before pausing dramatically. “You was in Rat Poison!” Borland’s jaw dropped, he’d lost his rock star composure but eventually managed to blurt: “I’m Adrian Borland. I’ve gone solo now but I used to be in The Sound.” “Never heard of ’em mate!” I shot back before stomping off leaving my victim completely bemused. When Borland ended it all by jumping in front of a train in 1999 I wasn’t surprised – he seemed to have been in the rock business for the wrong reasons. He was more interested in fame than music and that was bound to result in him becoming very frustrated. Of course, Borland only makes this list because I like to flatter myself I made a small contribution towards his death!
9. Wendy O. Williams – was the singer in the dire American hardcore punk/metal band The Plasmatics. I always liked the idea of Williams far more than the music her band made. She’d started her career in the entertainment business by performing in sex shows, and never really moved away from that since she was usually topless on stage. Frustrated at her inability to break into the mainstream, in 1998 Williams went into the woods near her home and blew her brains out with a gun.
10. Guy Debord – this lettriste and situationist claimed that he wrote less than most writers but drank more than most drinkers. Little surprise then that in 1994 Debord shot himself because he could no longer bear the pain of the illnesses brought on by his excessive consumption of alcohol. Debord only limps in at number 10 because a more interesting dadaist suicide appears to be a completely fictional character. Julien Torma allegedly wandered ill-clad into the Tyrolian mountains at the age of 30 to end it all, and was never seen again. I like to laugh along with Torma’s aphorism: “Perfection is mediocrity. Only excess is beautiful.” Debord by way of contrast, seems to have taken this absurd joke seriously.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!