Opinion / 15 January 2019

//…than to fade away//

In the US, 115 people die from overdose every day

//The king is gone but he’s not forgotten//

 Our heroes used to die young. Before Jimi Hendrix or Janice Joplin, I remember feeling a kind of awe about my childhood hero, John Belushi's fatal drug overdose. I was 8. But, beyond being sad about the loss of my Blues Brother idol, it was almost as if his death proved his significance. His greatness demanded his sacrifice to drugs and a lifestyle beyond the ordinariness on my end of the record player and TV. Belushi's star was too bright; he was a cheeseburger-slinging, Rubber Biscuit singing, samurai slicing madman to me. He was hilarious, dangerous, and inspiring. Belushi was rock 'n' roll. I say all this only to say that our Rock 'n' Roll heroes were the form of our aspirations, they found the boundaries of acceptable social norms and showed us how to laugh at them or otherwise give them the finger. This seemed to demand sacrificing your body in the service of social transgression—cuz, fuck it if I'm stuck in this dreary world. And their deaths by overdose were proof that they were spirits not meant for this condition. They were instead some celestial body that couldn't be possessed by my (and my parents’) mundane planet of workaday drudgery, teetotaler morality (mostly devoted to preserving the workaday drudgery), and polite conversation. Rock 'n' roll conveyed an impatience with the mundane—and, therefore, humiliating—nature of everyday life and as such virtually demanded that the brilliant ones among us would die of an overdose, pushing themselves beyond the limits to glimpse what else could be. 

That is the celebrity culture I grew up with (despite—or to spite—the Drug Wars). And, many media commentators made remarks confirming my view of these celestial bodies. Like The Who’s famous line, I too used to hope I’d die before I got old. What made me furious about this culture, however, was its backlash from the boxy disembodied voice of adults, of the parents of my parents—as well as some Baby Boomers themselves—talking about how drugs and rock were destroying the social fabric. Fuck this social fabric, I suppose my teenage self would have supposed was the Rock 'n' Roll thing to say in response. And, my '60s music listening, long hair growing, skateboard riding approach to rural Southern American life, to church, to the respectable families, suggests that I was actually feeling that way. In the 7th grade, my friend John and I tried to score weed from a 9th-grader nicknamed "Skunk." I don't think I ever knew his real name. He gave us a little film canister with something weed-looking in it. And, one muggy late-spring night, when John was staying over at my house in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the power went out (as it often would up on the mountain), we decided to sleep outside on the porch playing cards (maybe?) by candlelight. And, with that candle's fire we tried to smoke that sample in a blank page from a Judy Bloom book. I'm pretty sure I inhaled. But, nothing. So, instead, I stuck to drinking for that year as my protest against not fitting in at school, my parents being too concerned with their own problems to notice, and living on a dirt road when all the action was happening in the towns and cities thirty minutes to an hour away.

//They give you this, but you pay for that//

Maybe you’re waiting for the moment where this turns into some tired reactionary screed against contemporary music culture, how much worse the world is now, blah blah… But it’s not. Instead, this is a ballad for the overdosers, burnouts, and users. Today, we’re all Belushi. We’re all dying young from new and improved speedballs. The World Health Organization records 27 million “opioid use disorders” worldwide. Presently, in the glorious USA, people constantly die early from overdoses. I’ll spare the gory details but according to government numbers over 115 people die every day of opioid overdose in the US. My great state of Ohio ranks among the highest in US opioid overdose deaths. But no one celebrates those deaths in song. No one wistfully laments that their stars were too bright for this shitty world. And, the only voices we hear are the echoes of those sad moralizing squares who talk about them as a problem. What kind of problem, do they say? The misuse of opioids alone, they lament, poses an economic burden for the country of $75 billion in treatment costs, criminal justice costs, and perhaps wickedest of all, lost productivity. Everywhere, voices clamor with piles of this hypocritical shit. What a tribute to the pall of humiliation crushing life in this country and this world. Imagine if Lorne Michaels had bewailed the amount of money the loss of Belushi would cost him? What if NBC was publicly pleading with insurance actuaries over Belushi’s future contractual income? What outrage would have ensued! To be sure, those numbers were being processed; don’t be naïve. But the public voices held to the myth of the celestial exception—that the stars among us needed a better world to thrive. Indeed, for celebrity this myth was the foundation of their business. And, out of respect for that myth they kept their bean counting private: celebrities cannot be described as mere beasts of burden, chattel whose value is calculable by a set of columns in some corporate ledger. They are stars!

//It’s better to burnout, than it is to rust//

But, former factory workers? Farmers? My dead teenage friends. They’re bigger than this stupid humiliating world too. All the while we echo those square voices who say, oh the shame, they’re dead, what a waste of a life! What a waste of money! But those human supernovae point the finger at us. How could we—the “living,” who watch all of this on our screens and shake our heads piously—tolerate a world that, as a matter of principle, wastes lives to extreme poverty, crushing debt, mass incarceration, plant closings, or worse, a stupid job? When stars die, we project our powers to the heavens and say, they were too good for us. And, when our uncles and aunties die en mass, we say the same the thing in reverse: we’re not good enough, we’re disordered, we cost somebody money. In this, in how we sound the alarm of a “Crisis,” our philosophy of society, of people, of human value is made plain: Oh, the economic burden!

In 1940, Jewish-German dissident and exiled communist, Walter Benjamin made the oft-quoted remark, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency.” Perhaps there’s some terribly clever—but also terribly sad—rebuttal to make here to Benjamin’s optimism (or pessimism?) about the twenty-first century and the interiorization of the past century’s state-sanctioned murder of revolutionaries and the idea of revolution: if they will kill us in the name of emergency, then we’ll kill ourselves to proclaim emergency. Perhaps. 

Would that be too flippant? Should we all just cut our hair, get a job, and say no to drugs, Nancy Reagan? Fuck you, Ronny and Nancy, and your public moralizing amid cocaine-pushing secret wars at home and abroad. At least that’s what my teenage self would say.

But, fuck him too.

Let me be clear. I never wanted Belushi to die. And, I really don’t want the 115 human people in the US who will die today to join him or their comrades from yesterday. But we can at least give them the same respect that we give the rich and famous. Or, better, can we realize that those stars are projections of ourselves, of our powers, of our desired futures. Let us acknowledge that we live in a dull and humiliating world that diminishes our light. That is the crisis; sound the alarm.



Clayton Rosati

, associate professor of Media Studies at Bowling Green State University, USA, writes and teaches about technology, cultural landscape, poverty, and social justice.