Jim Marcus (Die Warzau, Go Fight) shares his memories of friend and fellow Chicagoan and musician Jamie Duffy and offers some insights into the artistic and creative mindset.
I can’t tell you exactly when I first met Jamie Duffy because, for a while, it kept happening over and over again – one night, at Metro, backstage, at one of our shows, he stood by the dressing room door asking quick, excited questions about the routing of the samplers onstage. I don’t know how he got there and, honestly, 10 minutes later, it didn’t matter. He was fascinated. How did we trigger drums? Did we have to reload the samplers between songs? Why did that guy almost cut my head off with a chainsaw near the end of the show?
Actually, that last one was a really good question and I wondered it myself.
He just fit in. He belonged there. It was a loud club full of crazed half drunk fuckers scrambling to slam their heads into the guy in front of them to see the band. It was bad for your health, bad for your hearing, bad for your soul.
But he belonged there.
And maybe it was a couple weeks before that when I ran into him at Chicago Trax recording studio. Here he was Porgy, a second engineer in a world where everybody got a nickname immediately and was judged by how fast they made that word mean something. It was probably only a few weeks later when that word meant something. Some sessions just worked and some didn’t. The difference between a session that resulted in something brilliant and loud and one that ended up with tapes scattered everywhere and nothing to show for it was frequently Porgy.
He learned quickly and just did things. If he didn’t know how to do something, he jumped in and did it, bullshitting his way past the five minutes it took him to learn. If the engineer requested something stupid, he stood up and did it, pruning the stupid along the way. It was that simple.
The studio environment is completely different from the club environment. The chaos is completely controlled. It has to be. In the club, you listen with “big ears.” You try and get the form of the music and you recognize that sloppy is part of the live experience. The songs move by you quickly, like a train. You try to avoid being hit by that train and you paint the sides of it in broad strokes so that the people watching from the side think it’s quite a nice train. You know they can’t look too hard at any one car. Jamie belonged there. No one could conduct that train better than he could. I say this completely without fear of contradiction.
But in the studio, you listen with “little ears.” You know that every mistake you leave in the mix will annoy people for decades. You paint with the most delicate brush you can, slivering the differences between volumes, EQs, effects, over and over. You listen to the track hundreds of times, often making nearly inconsequential changes and frequently reversing them on the next pass. You bus the track to a different room and listen, record it and take it out to your car, and finally, blast it and listen from the other room. It is exhausting and anally retentive and sears your ears with a resolute wash of sameness until at the end you’re not really sure what anything sounds like anymore.
But he was at home there too. He belonged.
From then on he was in the right sessions for him to be in. Maybe that’s me projecting, but he was right where he should have been. Trax was the recording center of the Chicago industrial world at the time and it was a center that seemed focused on what was real. People showed up in the middle of the night to sing on friends’ albums, despite what their individual labels may have said about it, and no one really talked about money. Remixes were things people did as trades – favors even. It was about the music.
Just like Jamie, we thought our job was to prune the stupid; to remove the crap, eliminate what didn’t work. We were all sculptors, chiseling away at everything that didn’t work, everything boring; and leaving behind what was new, loud, amazing. We would cut the stone like no one ever had before. We were all, in one way or another, on the same team.
15 years later, I could walk up to Jamie in a club and say, “We have a show booked,” and he would look at me and start asking what we needed for inputs. In his head, he would start putting the right questions together to make sure we could chip away at the stupid, chisel away at the bad to get at a great show. He would ask every question and propose smart things…
…every question except “how much does this pay?”
He didn’t ask it ever; not then and not when he showed up, like a living tornado… except tornadoes leave upended mobile homes and dead witches in their wake. His tornado left DI boxes, cables, and order in its wake. It chipped away at the stupid, no matter what the venue was. It eliminated the boring. He did it then, he did it on his records, his own live shows. Hell, Jamie chipped away at the boring when he showed up at NEO to hang out. It’s just what he did.
Before I go any further, it’s important to me to say that no matter what kind of music I ever make, I will still be proud to say I am a member of the Chicago industrial community. And it’s because of people like Jamie, people like Chris Connelly, people like Brittany Bindrim, Paul Barker, William Tucker, Jason Novak, Jared Louche (honorary Chicagoan), people who make the world more interesting; people who make ideas better and don’t stop to ask how much you are about to pay them for it. I am proud to say that these are my people…
… In every way…
…which is where the problem comes in.
In a recent study, a logistic regression analysis of data from 21 states finds that artists have 270% higher risk of suicide than non-artists. Male artists seem to outnumber female ones, though, in self-reported polls, and men have a higher suicide rate than women. Artists also tend to cluster in certain sociodemographic groups with high concentrations being lower middle class. This may be because of how difficult it is to make large amounts of money through art. When you control for gender and socioeconomic variables, the risk level drops to about 125%; still a significant index, but less terrifying. (1)
Some studies also suggest that the there are variations in the serotonergic system that can be associated with depression and impulsive suicides and that these variations may also be responsible for an element of risk taking that identifies high level creative and innovative people – people psychodynamically predisposed to being creative. This may be part of the extended depression cycle. (1)
But many artists experience additional conditions that can dramatically increase that number. Night Shift Depression, for example, is a condition caused by working later shifts, as many musicians do. You find yourself out of sync with the world and it’s hard to connect. In fact, many mental health experts recommend a full spectrum light box to make people feel more like they are part of the light – part of the population that lives in sunlight. This may add to the cycle as well. (1)
And interestingly, a 2001 study found that the mean age of suicides among artists was about 44, showing a very different pattern than the general population where suicide risk is higher among older people. As well, many artists tend to find their inspiration from the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. It’s not unlikely that, as a means to get there, they expose themselves to an environment where drugs and alcohol, more catalysts for depression, are common. (2)
It’s easy to look at people like Kurt Cobain and say, “You had everything; you were an idiot” and dismiss what they did. Those of us who loved Jamie can tear apart his final decision the same way. He was doing what he was good at. He was loved. There was likely no less than 200 people he could have called that morning at 5:23am that would have answered the phone and met him anywhere he liked for breakfast to talk to him. Many of those people knew that he had battled with depression in the past and that he could be bigger than life with his ups and downs. Not one of them would have begrudged him the couple hours of sleep they would have missed to make sure he was ok. But none of us got the phone call.
Jamie had no problem texting me to crack me up about how bad the band was he was mixing right now, or to give me his schedule so we could plan something, or to make a point about sound, or to help me out if he could. But I never got a call. And the people who surrounded him who were essentially his brothers and sisters; they didn’t get a call either. Neither did his mother, someone who was well known in the community as a mom who just seemed to understand what her son did and loved. Not all of us got that lucky.
None of us got a phone call.
I see musicians and other artists in our scene every day. I watch them chip away at the boring. I see them wake up and get to work at chiseling away everything that doesn’t work. And I get it. It’s sometimes a 3:00am thing, too. Wake up because you see it in your head. It’s just a little muddy. So you pull away the dull, smash everything you’ve seen before, tear down the mundane. And you hope what is left behind is great. But there are days when I walk over to the mirror and I’m the thing that has to be torn down. I’m the boring, the mundane. I’m the thing that needs to be chiseled away. There are days when I get so committed to the job of stripping away the stupid that I can’t see anything else. And at the end of that day, I’m the stupid.
I’m the thing that needs to go.
As an artist, it’s your job to see the things that need to go. And it’s part of that job to realize you aren’t there yet. It’s necessary to tear yourself down and hate what you do sometimes, hate yourself sometimes, hate it all sometimes. From that collapse is going to come something great, right?
It will if you save something.
That’s the part that I’m asking you to remember. Save something for tomorrow. Save something for the light of day. Save that piece and don’t let it go. If you feel like you need to tear yourself down, if you feel like you need to chisel away at yourself, save something… because that thing can make tomorrow more interesting. Imagine what Kurt Cobain would have done tomorrow. Imagine what Jamie would do tomorrow. Imagine what Ian Curtis would do tomorrow. Imagine what William Tucker would do tomorrow… what Jeff Ward would do tomorrow. Rozz Williams, Wendy O Williams, Jim Ellison…
If you are an artist or a fan, a musician or just someone who loves music, I don’t have any right to sit here and tell you how you feel or what you should do. I don’t have any right to tell you to put down the pills or the bottle or any other tool you are using to chisel away at the world today. But I can tell you that you are normal. I can tell you that this feeling is a part of the “artist package” we all bought at birth and it doesn’t mean you’re broken beyond repair. It just gives you something to get through to make music.
I don’t want to turn my friend into a lesson. But I also don’t want to let this opportunity go by to let him do something he would have wanted to do. If it were my life on the line or any one of a thousand of his other friends, he would want them to hear this.
Save something for tomorrow.
(1) Stack S (1996). Gender and Suicide Risk Among Artists: A Multivariate Analysis. Suicide & life-threatening behavior, 26 (4), 374-9
(2) Preti A, De Biasi F, & Miotto P (2001). Musical Creativity and Suicide. Psychological reports, 89 (3), 719-27