Dead Rock Star Essays

DEAD ROCK STARS: A CULMINATION OF MY LIFE

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The Dead Rock Stars in many ways is the perfect culmination of my art. These dead guys and gals are both intensely personal and universal. They are representative of visionary artists, of people who feel too much, and whose intense desire to create and express didn’t always jive with the constraints of the “normal” world. They interrogate the whole idea of “normal” and they put heart before logic. Because of that, they have left us with a tremendous legacy of music, lyrics, and feelings that should be able to reach anyone.

As a girl, I spent many hours in my room listening to records and drawing with pens. I did this throughout my childhood. Music and art were my number one retreat. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom because I was frequently sentenced there for days on end, you know, “on restriction.”

I left home at age fifteen and spent my entire teen years on the streets just trying to survive. When I came out of it alive, I needed somewhere to channel my experiences, the life I lived, the things I survived, the intense traumas embedded inside me. I decided to put them into art.

I am a self-taught artist who has always used art as a major place to put my internal experiences of the world as well as my tremendous sense of empathy for the people I see around me – those who struggle, those who are barely getting by, those who didn’t make it.

By all accounts, I shouldn’t have made it, given the life I lived. But I did. And ever since I have put my experiences and feelings into art. I started by making large scale paintings, but when I became a mom who works a full time job, I had to rethink my art. I went back to my point of origin – pen on paper, and Pen Noise was born along with my daughter. Throughout my life, making art has literally kept me alive.

The Dead Rock Stars didn’t make it, but their music lives on. They had tremendous gifts which they left us with. Their music still allows us to transcend this world. If we let ourselves go, we may be able to touch them out there somewhere in the heavens.

I only draw Dead Rock Stars that somehow strike a deeply human chord inside me, whether personal or attached to something in the external world that makes me feel deeply. I feel for their spirits. I feel for the people they left behind. I feel for every single person who has listened to one of their songs and touched the untouchable, and for those who have felt the things that can only be expressed in music and art.

I see my Dead Rock Stars both as individual pieces and as one cohesive piece of work that I have put together in the time I have between working and parenting. They accumulate and grow. Their collective energy is joined en masse to provide an explosive accumulation of humanity at its most frail, most expressive, and most visionary.

BEARING THAT WEIGHT: REFLECTIONS ON MY DEAD ROCK STAR PROJECT

different colors made of tears

different colors made of tears

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recently realized I drew my very first dead rock star less than a month after my dad died when Lou Reed died. I drew it as part of my Headlines series, and then I wrote a piece on Lou Reed in which largely talked about heroin addiction and the appeal and collateral toll of opiates. I didn’t think about it at the time, but tackling Lou Reed’s death and heroin right on the heels of my dad’s death was probably an unconscious cry for me not being able to deal with the pain I had endured during my dad’s life and the severance of my traumatic bond to my dad.

Certainly on some unconscious level, I was probably remembering when my brother Kevin died of a heroin overdose. The police contacted my dad at work to let him know they found my brother’s body, so that’s how we learned that Kevin had been lying dead for days with a needle in his arm. When my dad came home from work that day, he walked into his house where I was waiting with my mom, and the very first words that came out of his mouth were: “What do you want to do? Bury or cremate him?” It was like taking a hammer to my heart writing those words. How could he be so insensitive? In retrospect, I’m thinking that maybe that’s how my dad was dealing with the shock.

Then the coroner arrived. He told us my brother’s remains were “unviewable” because he had decomposed so badly before he was found. Then he gave my mom a ziplock baggie with my brother’s few belongings – a wallet, a ring, some guitar picks.

Certainly all that was playing in the back of my head when I drew Lou Reed and was in the throes of grief over my dad’s death, when I sat with his dead body for hours until they wheeled it away to cremate it; when I gathered as many of his belongings as I could; when I tried to distance myself from the pain, sometimes through very destructive ways like self-medicating with prescription opiates, falling into my old addictive patterns of escape. It was ugly, and it led to two very ugly years.

During those two years, I started a whole new series of Pen Noise – Dead Rock Stars. In retrospect, I’m wondering if it was somehow my own unconscious primal cry, from the bowels of my being, from my whole history. I grew up with rock, lost a brother to heroin and rock, and have always felt a tremendous kinship with the fallen idols of rock. My dad’s death triggered all that hopelessness, the lifetime of struggles, the multiple near-deaths, and the rock and roll soundtrack that accompanied it. So maybe my Dead Rock Star project was a plea for life and a cry for death at the same time. There were so many times these past two years when I really thought I could not make it and had reached the end of my rope.

Maybe drawing Dead Rock Stars both helped me exorcise my demons while also fanning the flames to keep them alive. Maybe part of me didn’t want to let go. Maybe I have been processing the trauma of my dad’s death and my life and the quagmire of my life bundled with the mess who was my dad on an unconscious level.

Drawing all these people who were lost in life and then lost life to drugs to alcohol to suicide and to the weight of their own existence helped me put a face on all the things I have been battling my whole life and which came to the surface in a fury these past two years.

These Dead Rock Stars were people who found it impossible to navigate the world. Often, they only felt they could make it through self-medication, and sometimes the only way out was suicide.

I have always had a hard time navigating the world. You don’t live through the shit I lived through and find yourself comfortable amongst the land of the living. It doesn’t happen, though I am trying to allow myself to let it happen. I should not have lived, by any standards. I should have been killed on the streets. I should have died of an overdose. I should have suicided. Yet I made it. I even made it through these last two years when there were many times when I barely made it.

My dad broke me on so many levels, but as he broke me, he shored me up. He beat me down just to teach me how to fight for myself and stand up. It was a conundrum, one which I have yet to figure out.

My dad was the impenetrable man of steel. The blue collar iron worker who always held his shit together even when he was a stone cold alcoholic. If he could survive, I could survive, right? So when he died, I lost my point of reference for survival. Survival is very hard work, and my dad was my infrastructure even while being the man who broke me, so when he was pulled out from under me, I collapsed on every single level. I gave up my will to live, but I kept holding onto threads. Thankfully a handful of friends knew how dire my situation was and they helped coach me through some of my darkest hours, or I may not be here today to write this.

These past two years I felt worn to the bone, like I had lost all my strength, depleted my resources, and could no longer keep up the fight. My single point of return was my Dead Rock Star project.

Perhaps this project was my way of creating an ode to myself as I struggled within the narrow margin between life and death. I have always felt like I lived in that finely defined space, but always managed to keep one foot on the side of the living. These past two years, I almost lost my footing. It was too much. The weight of my life. The weight of all of those who I have lost. To my death as a young girl, when I had to “kill myself” symbolically only to live. It has taken me decades to try to resurrect the girl and woman who I truly am. I’m like some kind of Lazarus rising from the dead, and it has not been easy to be both living and dead. There is a reason Bride of Frankenstein is my icon. I am such a mess of mismatched badly sutured pieces. It is time to fully occupy the land of the living.

So I have spent two years drawing Dead Rock Stars both in an attempt to stay alive and also somehow escape into death while being alive. But to move beyond myself, these faces are faces of everyone people have lost to drugs, alcohol, suicide and tragedy. They are portraits of people who are still alive and, like myself, struggle with the weight of their own existence. I am not alone by a long shot. I am not ashamed to write these things because they are universal.

Many people fight with the choice between life and death. Sometimes we don’t even have a choice. We fight to live. We surrender and die. There is no clear line.
My Dead Rock Stars are not supposed to be accurate portraits. They are excavations of human struggle. They are legacies of my history and the history of the times when I have lived. Perhaps I shouldn’t even call them dead rock stars.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and music was a huge part of my childhood. It helped form who I am. But music has always been a soundtrack to my life, and especially to my struggles. Some of the dead rock stars I have drawn come from the later years in my life. Townes Van Zandt, Elliott Smith, Amy Winehouse, and Kurt Cobain all signify chapters of my life and parts of my existence. These Dead Rock Stars are like pieces of a puzzle that make myself. I have assigned my pain to their songs. I have spent hours dancing, singing, crying and drawing to their music. They are representative of the legacy of my own survival and my many brushes with death, both literal and spiritual.

I have been deeply interconnected to these dead artists, but so has every other person with a creative heart and a sensitive vision who absorbs the pain in the world. These aren’t just portraits of individuals. These aren’t just self-portraits. They are portraits of a universal struggle that many, many people can identify with. Open your hearts and let them in.

So yeah dead rock stars are the subject, but they are not really what or who I am actually drawing I am drawing human experience. I am drawing life struggles. I am drawing the tragic portrait of what they were combined with a sympathetic vision of what they could have become had they lived. I am drawing their living spirits even when I call them Dead Stars. I am drawing every living spirit skirting the line of death.

Yes, these are face of individuals who bore a very heavy weight. But most people bear heavy weight. Truth.

Some people deride rock music as a low form of culture, but rock music is universal. It is a primal scream of outrage, of love, of transcendence, of horror, and of human struggle. And it speaks to the masses. It is not elitist. It tells simple truths through chords and lyrics that can tear walls down. Rock should not be treated any less than or any greater than any other art form. Those who create it and performed it for the public suffer for their art on many levels. They become whores to the industry. Casualties to capital. Public icons who have to forfeit their individual identity to meet the needs that the public demands of them. They become fractured, split, and broken. This creates a schizophrenic life. A life that can be almost unbearable. Musicians often start by doing what they love, but then their love becomes corrupt and coopted by the market. They are packaged and sold for profit. Those lose track of themselves, and these fractured exploited visionaries end up on blank sheets of white paper. Their images drawn in cheap ass ballpoint pen as I put my face into their face and into your face. We are all casualties of the market. Some just made some amazing music before they bit the bullet.

BRINGING BACK THE DEAD

Cryin' won't help you, Prayin' won't do you no good

Cryin’ won’t help you,
Prayin’ won’t do you no good

A few people have asked me why I chose DEAD rock stars for my current Pen Noise project. Certainly there are plenty of living rock stars, and ones that I like for that matter. So why did I choose dead rock stars and where am I going when I’m drawing these guys?

I guess I’ll use posting my latest entry into my Dead Rock Star collection to think about how I would answer that question because eventually I am putting a couple of books of these fuckers together, and I’m going to need to have something to say about them.

Not that I can just pull something out of my hat. The whole project kinda started by accident. First when I decided to draw Lou Reed after he died and then when I decided to draw Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of this death.

In all honesty, Lou Reed never meant much to me, but his song Heroin on VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO is the best musical simulation of getting high on heroin ever. I like listening to it because I like the way it makes me feel. Fuck it feels good. I wrote about that extensively in this article for CounterPunch.

Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, he is a kindred soul. I saw him perform many times, and I always knew he was not meant for this world. Tender soul as threadbare as his green sweater. I feel that man. Even when he’s dead. He had IT, and IT for the record is very difficult to live with. So many of my Dead Rock Stars had IT, and IT eventually killed them. Whether drug overdoses, suicide or liver disease from a life of pouring poison into their bodies, these guys and girls died from not being able to cope.

But their music somehow helped me cope or marked a big memory in my life. I can’t draw just any old dead rock star. They have to be ones that resonate for me personally. Some of them aren’t even stars. I’ve drawn Elliott Smith and Townes Van Zant as well as Jimi Hendrix and Ian Curtis. I still need to draw another BETTER big Ian, and I’ll never get tired of drawing Kurt. And Jimi, well he deserves a few more rounds.

When I put the book together that is going to go with my art show, each drawing will have an accompanying letter that I write to the dead artist. The letters will take any kind of format. Some will be sincere reflections on the music. Others may be descriptive stories from my life and why their music is memorable and important. Some might be lists. Some poems. Some songs. I have no idea. I’ll listen to music and let it show me the way.

I think part of me chose to draw Dead Rock Stars to commemorate my life, the fact that I actually am alive and not dead even though I grew up in the rock and roll generation of death, death and more death. Yeah, I remember when Charlie Manson massacred Sharon Tate to the soundtrack of Helter Skelter.

Certainly there were any number of times when I could have and really should have died . . . but I didn’t. At one point in my twenties, I was literally brought back from the dead. I’ll be honest with you. There are many times I think I see the ghost of the Dead Me, and I wonder why the Living Me is here.

I have buried my share of overdoses and suicides, all of which were somehow connected to music. I grew up in the Rock N Roll generation, and music has always been tremendously important to me. When I was a girl I listened to soul and Motown, but both my older brothers played electric guitar, and I had a lot of firsts to the soundtrack of rock.

Later in life I reclaimed rock n roll as mine. It is mine. When I’m done writing this, I’m going to go pound some rock on my electric guitar. For all my punk rock teen ragings, at my heart I am a Rock N Roll girl. I fucking love rock. And I love its ability to spin truths through music. It’s its own kind of philosophy. The philosophy of rock. The philosophy of people. The philosophy that just about anyone can understand if they give it a chance. Love. Death. The dark highway of life. It’s all in rock n roll.

I often feel like a ghost. I survived. Right. But part of me somehow is always dead and killed off. So when I draw these dead rock stars, I think part of me literally gets inside their skin. I know the stories of these dead rock stars. Found with needles in their arms, choking on their own vomit, face down in swimming pools, or hanging from the ceiling. All those bodies are floating in a sea of words and music. Lyrics truer than most poems. Electric guitar, bass, the thudding heartbeat of pounding drums.

I spent a lot of my life around musicians. I grew up in a family of musicians. I like being around musicians. For the most part, when they are playing their instruments, they are the most comfortable in life. Life with music instead of words can be a pretty awesome thing. I am learning to communicate through guitar, and I have to tell you, it is damn liberating. But sometimes I never want to stop and come back down to the reality of everyday life. Everyday life is hard when you have IT.

The world we live in isn’t really cooperative for people who feel most comfortable expressing themselves through music and poetry (which is what good rock lyrics are). Unless you are a superstar raking in the cash (and that itself becomes its own death sentence), musicians live on the outskirts inside their heads, and their heads are often very confusing places, just like the heads of other artists.

I listen to rock, and I hear my own heartbeat. The living one and the dead one. I remember the girl walking through the foggy streets of Pacifica stoned on weed and smoking my mom’s cigarettes with Jimi Hendrix’s guitar straining like white noise through the white mist rolling over the mountains. I remember buying a record player for the apartment that the Italian mob put me up in when I was fifteen and playing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here over and over. Wish you were here. The nebulous “you” of rock songs. These dead guys, they were always wishing for a “you” but they always ended back with themselves. That’s how it works.

When I was fourteen, I drowned in a bong kiss from a strange boy who I had a crush on while Led Zeppelin cranked out Black Dog. Later in life, I would come to understand that Led Zeppelin was all about sex, but when I was a fourteen year old girl opening my mouth for that bong kiss, I felt nothing but terror.

I remember going to my first rock concert and smuggling Southern Comfort and sugar cube acid into Day on the Green to see Lynyrd Skynyrd before most of them died in a plane crash. I laughed while Hells Angels beat the fuck out of a young guy at my feet. For godsakes, I have a tattoo on my upper right chest that I got when I was fifteen and actually called Free Bird.

I think I have died a million deaths in my life, and many of them happened with the soundtrack of rock music. When I was fifteen, I woke up with a corpse while a rock band practiced in the basement. My brother died with an electric guitar in one hand and a needle in another. I knocked on his door for days and could hear the needle of his record player hitting the end of the record over and over. Swoosh. Click. Swoosh. Click.

What is it about rock that fulfills a Death Wish? Or what came first – the death wish or the rock?

These dead rock stars I draw they are all angels. They were angels when they were living, and they are angels when they are dead. In many ways, they are my guardian angels. They watch over me and get me through the times when I find it difficult to breathe, when being me seems like an insurmountable task. Isn’t it ironic that these dead guys sometimes keep me alive?

This is not to say that they were “good” people by standard social definitions, but they are people who struggled. They had a desperate need to express themselves, and that need was lethal. I understand that. I do. So yeah, they are not the kind of angels spreading their wings in church on Sunday morning. But they spread their wings in the church of my heart. And I feel them beating. I do.

So maybe my Dead Rock Stars are really a catalog of angels. Just like Jimi Hendrix sung about how: “Angel came down from heaven yesterday. And she stayed here just long enough to rescue me.”

I have been rescued by these angels many times. I won’t deny that I don’t have my own share of dark moments because of my own incessant need to express myself. What do I do with all this shit inside of me that wants out? All I want to do is to create, write, make poems, music, art, anything that I could put my heart into. Where do I go when the dark closes in? Often I run through the dark listening to the music of Dead Rock Stars. Then I come home and draw them. Then I come back home. I breathe. I live.

This project is not really an exorcism, but maybe more like an exhumation. I’m bringing back the dead to celebrate life. I want to say, “Hey, maybe you are dead, but you are not forgotten. Maybe you can’t write songs or play drums and guitar now, but I am channeling you through my Cheap Ass Ballpoint Pens, and check it out. We made a new song together. One that’s scribbled on paper.”

Or something like that . . . .

DEAD ROCK STARS: DYING YOUNG AND LOOKING OLD

Good lord I feel like I'm dyin'

Good lord I feel like I’m dyin’

Yep, it’s another Dead Rock Star in Progress. As I’m drawing this guy, I realize that a lot of times I make people who died young look old. Like I’m giving them the lives they never had. This is weird because I feel like I was born old and never got to be young. I never got to be a kid. So I’m the opposite of many of my Dead Rock Stars. Now I’m old but never got to be young, and I’m drawing people who often died young and never got to be old.

As I’m working on this guy, I did have to think of the excess of White Guys in the Dead Rock Stars series, so I will need to carefully place the black and the female in the mix.

I also can only draw people who speak to me on some level. TYhis guy doesn’t necessarily speak to me, but I had correspondence with his surviving brother in California, and I read his brother’s book. I also lost a talented brother very young, so I guess he speaks to me through loss.

I’m also very interested in how American bands from the South are frequently misinterpreted as being racist when actually they are often critiquing their own whiteness and the difficulty of inheriting White Male Southern-ness. Not every white man in the South is in the KKK, and growing up poor and white ain’t no cup of tea either.

Class and race are often separated in this country. Everyone wants to put things in terms of black and white literally and figuratively. If the world was all black and white, we probably wouldn’t have good music, because shit would just be too simple.