Sparklehorse: Mental Health And The Mythology Of Being Miserable

I was probably about 21, maybe 22. I was sitting in my apartment in San Francisco, smoking a clove cigarette – indoors – and drinking vodka- alone. I knew that neither of these vices were healthy, but just by imbibing in them, I felt closer to the idols that adorned my walls: Ian Curtis, Sylvia Plath, Jean-Michel Basquiat, River Phoenix.

I did not know it at the time, but I was suffering from deep, dark mental health issues. My 24/7 playlist of The Smiths and Joy Division – only occasionally broken up with some early Morrissey solo stuff – should have been a clue that things were not right. But I had been brought up in the sub-conscious, consumer-driven culture that to be an artist, to be free of societal norms – you had to suffer.

To be authentic – to MEAN what you were professing – whether that be through visual art, written word or music – you, too, had to be feeling utterly hopeless, sick and living barely on the parameters of everyday functioning existence, holding on by broken bloody nails to any sort of ‘normalcy.’ Looking back, I realize that I was almost hell bent on my own destruction, whether that be through drugs, drinking, or just stupid, dangerous behaviour. (My Aunt may read this, so I won’t divulge too much about that here.) But this all seemed socially acceptable as I had been weaned on a constant diet of holding such demise as the ultimate in expression – a sort of Velveteen Rabbit test of the REALNESS of both artistic credibility and value.

In some ways, suicide was held up as the paramount expression of achievement. People still say of Kurt Cobain’s death that ‘it’ – life – was ‘too much’ for him, that even the reprieve afforded by the outlet of music was not enough. The equation is set – he MUST have REALLY REALLY MEANT what he wrote and sang – in seeming contrast to all other artists who write of uncomfortable emotions and do not kill themselves or suffer from such unparallel mental anguish.

Death only helped validate the importance of this ‘real’ art, and hold such figure up – no, not in life, when they needed all of the support, love, and care we could offer – but in death, as a martyred simulacrum of wasted talent and untapped potential.

March 6th marks ten years since singer-songwriter Mark Linkous, known professionally as Sparklehorse, took his own life by shooting himself in the heart. The manner of his death dovetail with the all too familiar narrative perpetuated of other artists – of literally destroying, by his own hands, the very bodily mechanism that keeps the beat of life, that same unspoken but screaming idea of emotional overload one again held up as the heavy, unsurmountable mantle of true creatives.

Sparklehorse’s Solo Albums

The haunting, vacuous quality of his four solo albums are tinged with melancholy, their production sharing a gritty shadow of despair. In retrospect, it may be easy to see these as illustrations of the agony Linkous held inside. However, it is easier and more convenient to focus on the familiar peaks and valleys of rock n roll: the reverential reviews of his first 1995 release Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot which placed Linkous as a critical (if not chart topping) darling. With production of the album by Cracker frontman David Lowry and a European tour with break out band Radiohead, Linkous seemed poised to rise up from his Richmond, Virginia indie scene to international stardom. Every piece seemed poised for this route to glowing success, much like the shining motorcycle that the band name is based on.

An ‘Incident’ in 1996

At the moment when he should be celebrating his accomplishments, Linkous was clearly unwell. While on tour in London shortly after the album’s release, the artist retired to his hotel room and consumed an array of drugs, including anti-depressants, alcohol, heroin, and Valium. By the time he was found, he had been unconscious with his legs pinned behind him for over fourteen hours, causing a potassium build up that made his heart stop for several minutes. Eventually revived, he almost lost his lower extremities, had to use a wheelchair for six months following the ordeal, and was on kidney dialysis for acute failure.

When asked in a 2006 interview if the ‘incident’ in 1996 was ‘an act of rock star hedonism,’ Linkous revealed that he didn’t ‘really remember’ imbibing in the almost fatal cocktail, though did admit to having a ‘heroin problem for a long time.’ Illustrating the very Velveteen Rabbit fascination of floundering mental health intertwined with dedicated artistry, the journalist goes onto to ask Linkous if it bothered him to have ‘people constantly associate things like overdoses and chemical imbalances with you?’

The inclusion of this question underscores the importance press and culture have put on perpetual despair and self-ruination being somehow imperative as it bolsters the credibility of the artistic output. Linkous’s brush with death and continued proactivity align him with the familiar Byronic hero that has fascinated popular culture for centuries. Linkous’s reply, confiding that, ‘For a while there every journalist, whether it was on paper or live on the fucking radio, would ask me about my accident’ stresses this idea. He seems to shrug off the past though, concluding, ‘People just have a natural sense of morbidity, and I try not to fault people for that.’

The same interview goes on to say to Linkous that surely he can ‘eke out a living doing Sparklehorse?’ Linkous goes on to tell a story about opening for R.E.M., and not wanting to ever play stadiums. This near brush with death combined with the venerated seeming abhorrence to ‘selling out’ – e.g. making a decent living or beyond as an artist – are almost celebrated and held up as further validation of credibility – not as a man who clearly needs help. Yet Linkous himself illustrates the very constraints of living on such a financial edge, with basic ‘luxuries’ like visits to a medical professional for anything but the most life threatening situation being out of reach. When asked if he craves being famous, the only positive Linkous identifies is the better and more economic access to health care, saying, ‘I wish that things were easier in my life—there’s a lot to be said for going to the dentist whenever you want.’

It’s A Wonderful Life

Linkous’s 2001 album is called It’s A Wonderful Life, the album and title track contrasting harshly and heartbreakingly to the singer’s own battles with depression and self-doubt (we included it among the 35 saddest albums of all time), some of which he later confided was brought on with an inability to even pay his rent – an all too familiar disconnect between financial viability and creative ingenuity, begging the question of does it really, actually pay – ‘eke out a living’ – to be innovative, reflective and make art for art’s sake – the very bedrock of authenticity. This celebrated struggle underpins some of the greatest work by Linkous (and others); the audience the beneficiary of their miserableness.

By 2009, Linkous had collaborated and performed with a variety of icons, including Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, and PJ Harvey. The Danger Mouse / David Lynch / Linkous collaboration Dark Night Of The Soul showcased how powerful and complicated the singer could be.

Things seemed to be going in a positive direction in 2010, with Linkous in the process of moving to Knoxville and putting the finishing touches on a new album. The despair and hopelessness of the past appeared – from the outside – to have dissipated with an exciting array of potential projects and possibilities opening up for the artist.

It is not clear why or what happened specifically to Linkous on March 6th, when, after years of uncertainty, everything seemed to at last be lining up for him. Maybe actually finally seeing success was overwhelming, the struggle often attributed to Cobain. But more likely, a systematic failure for available, affordable, accessible resources to be on offer and an honest, open shame-free environment to identify and address mental health issues are at least partially to blame for the isolation that Linkous must have felt. However, for every click on a link and every hanging of a poster of a dead star, we, too, paint a vulgar picture.


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13 Comments
  • Mar 19,2020 at 23:49

    Do you really mean to describe Mark’s music as “vacuous”? It’s not a compliment. Ephemeral, perhaps? Diaphanous?

  • Mar 14,2020 at 04:37

    Thank you for raising the issue of artists angst. It seems art is the product of mental illness, at least mental misery and suffering. Too many musicians are left to wallow in their misery. Amy Winehouse comes to mind. When her alcoholism spiraled out of control her enablers ignored her drinking onstage to get magic performances. The old rock videos of live performances show the graphic on-stage benders with the likes of Joe Cocker swigging spirits. Joe survived to live a sober life but many perished including Bon Scott and Jimi Henrix also from alcohol overdoses. Elton John and Eric Clapton survived their alcohol and drug dependence and have publicised their hope that other musicians can learn to live and flourish without needing substances. We all need to be aware of the destructive influence substances have caused to our musical heroes. Many I am sure would have lived longer and led more productive lives without drug dependence.

  • Mar 11,2020 at 22:14

    Great post.
    I saw him in Verona Italy a long time ago.

  • Mar 10,2020 at 17:28

    Wow. This was beautiful. Thank you. ❤️

  • Mar 8,2020 at 20:04

    I first saw Sparklehorse open for Mazzy Star in London in 1995 and they were amazing. I saw them a year or so later fronting their own show at the Garage in Islington and he was in his wheelchair. Maybe he was when playing w/Mazzy too? I can’t remember, but I do remember them being so good that I took notice and bought “Viva”. I saw them one more time after that and then sadly never again. My three Sparklehorse ticket stubs are in a collage w/other ticket stubs just to help my hazy memories of years past. I’m thankful for the music he left behind, which will always be here for us and those who never had the opportunity to see him live.

  • Mar 7,2020 at 23:37

    That wasn’t Linkous’ first life, nor will it be his last. Regardless of what you believe, reincarnation is the way it works, and I can say this as someone who has come to understand this through intensive research and academic work in theology. Quit going to Wikipedia, Rational Wiki, or any other anonymously edited Wiki bullshit. Read the works of the great philosophers. Check out Dr. Ian Stevenson (University of Virginia). Linkous is doing just fine, and if you don’t believe me, just ask for him when you get to the afterlife.

  • Mar 7,2020 at 22:16

    Decent article. Would have appreciated a link to a crisis resource like the suicide prevention line in case a reader needed help.

  • Mar 7,2020 at 19:28

    This is a fine article. I know many want to focus and celebrate his music, but this writing shifts toward the real problems Mark, and countless other people, face with mental health issues. I for one am glad that is where the article moves to. Many of us face these issues alone, and either because of the stigma in our society, lack of access to appropriate resources, or lack of understanding and support, we struggle alone. Thank you for reminding us that even those we admire are human, have problems, and we should count ourselves lucky if we have a support system to help us on our way; not everyone does. Look out for and help your friends and family.

  • Mar 7,2020 at 19:13

    I know the intentions here are good, but with all due respect from one Sparklehorse fan to another, I’m beyond frustrated by the emphasis on the tragedy of Linkous’s death rather than the endurance of his music, which I should hope we don’t enjoy as voyeurs to his “miserableness” but instead because it’s amazing and timeless–and not just for the fragile beauty people always talk about, but also because it rocks and is at its core life-affirming. Yes, it’s been ten years. How about we start celebrating his birthday (September 9) from here on out instead?

  • Mar 7,2020 at 11:22

    Two of my favourite albums, Viva….. And Wonderful life.

    March 6th is my bday and it is always bittersweet bti see something about one if my favourite artists pop up each year, but thank you for the article.

  • Mar 6,2020 at 22:12

    Thanks for this article. Happy to be still alive…

  • Mar 6,2020 at 21:24

    A great article Jennifer; scary it has been 10 years since he passed.

    I saw him play several times in Europe & was always amazing. Everyone should have at least one Sparklehorse record at home.

  • Mar 6,2020 at 14:39

    Painful, poignant and powerful. Beautifully written. Will keep an eye out for other articles by this writer. Thank you.

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