Suicide Solutions

We all know the tunes that've pushed people over the edge, but Janis Ian prefers the ones that pull us back.

If even anorexics host their own Web chatrooms now, then suicidal teens must have them too. Suicide Note (at is a compendium of killing oneself, a trough of tragedy. There are bios of famous suicides, sketches, readings, trivia, counseling information, and the most morbidly fascinating section: the forum, where more than a few teenagers have allegedly left their final words.

If you follow the board weekly, you start to pick out the individual personalities: “Liz,” who doesn’t really want to die but keeps getting pulled by the idea; “Grim Reaper,” who just seems to have an interest in all things mort; and “Mark Gallow,” a sputtering, negative, self-loathing asshole who, according to the site, ended up killing himself. This happens a lot. People stop posting, and someone else on the board says they’ve committed suicide.

Some of the other posters usually scramble to support whoever has posted a final note, but they’re just as often shouted down by a coterie of users who, through their own misery, coax the person into further depths of gloom. The following note received the usual barrage of “do it, DO IT!” But, despite the bad poetry, it is heartbreaking:

I’m not insane I just cant take the pain so I’m gonna put a bullet in my brain like kurt cobain …I’m only 14 and have decided to take my life … my reasons for not wanting to go on is that my life has already been twisted and turned in a way that I cant find the path to get out except for suicide. One thing before I go 4 ever is MOM I LOVE YOU!!!!!

Deified Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain is some sort of Pied Piper on this site; his suicide note is frequently posted as a good example of things to say in your last message to loved ones. He is seen as some courageous fighter intelligent enough to kill himself and escape this mortal coil.

Strangely, the fourteen-year-old who wrote the above note was only four when Cobain killed himself, which means Cobain is a legend even outside Generation X. How many kids in high school in 1984 wanted to “die like Jimi and Janis did, man” (young, as opposed to choking on their own vomit)? Not many. That Cobain’s suicide still influences teenagers today is pretty amazing.

Janis Ian has her own influence, albeit in the other direction. Kids in the ’70s who were feeling particularly doomed also had one song to turn to: Ian’s “At Seventeen.” It was the ditty Stephen King’s Carrie probably played — that is, when her mom was away and she could pull out the demon-sound machine known as a stereo. And those of us with ravaged faces/Lacking in the social graces/Desperately remained at home/Inventing lovers on the phone/Who called to say “Come dance with me”/And murmured vague obscenities/It isn’t all it seems/At seventeen.

“It just had to do with being a teenager,” says Ian over the phone from Nashville, proud to have written a song that was the soundtrack to a lot of teary pillows. She never gets tired of hearing from people who “got through high school” to that song.

There are a few people who think that the song is some sort of a lesbian anthem, since the singer herself came out later on. But Ian says it had nothing to do with that — it was about getting through those rough years most of us face, fueled by the trust that things will get better. Life isn’t all it seems/At seventeen is another way of saying “It won’t always be this way” — the phrase counselors on suicide switchboards emphasize to the distraught young people who call.

“That’s why I love Billie Holiday so much,” Ian says. “Every song she sang had hope to it, even though there are times that life knocks you down.”

So a lot of people had “At Seventeen.” Janis Ian had Billie Holiday. Planet Clair had “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding, and of course no depressed, lonely, drunken end to a high-school party would be complete without blasting the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” about ten times straight on the ol’ bedroom headphones.

But let us not forget the kings of self-absorbed teen angst: the Smiths. An impromptu poll asking for folks’ own personal “At Seventeen” saviors prompted at least fifteen sets of Smiths lyrics: Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me, or Please please please let me let me get what I want, or that plaintive wail, I am human and I need to be loved.

Those under thirty point to Pearl Jam, Beck, and Portishead. Over forty: the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and more Smiths. One former teenager had this to say: “‘Lost in Your Eyes’ by Debbie Gibson. When that song came out, I didn’t have anyone special in my life. I was awkward-looking and had no self-esteem. When I was depressed about my lack of dating experience, I would listen to that song and dream about the day that I would be ‘lost’ in someone’s eyes. Good news is: You grow up! Now I’m cute and getting married next month!”

Hmm … interesting choice, though no one has yet collected data on the number of Camelot Music clerks who killed themselves after being forced to listen to Electric Youth all day.

If there is truth in the idea that suicidal people don’t really want to die — they just want the pain to stop — then every generation will have its own self-medicating songs. When Janis Ian plays Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday, March 20, the audience will probably be full of people who decided there would be life after high school. Needless to say, they were right.


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