“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”
This joke, popularised by Alan Moore’s 1986 novel Watchmen, became something of a trending twitter topic following Robin Williams suicide in 2014, as people grappled with the idea of a widely adored comic genius driven to take his own life. The idea of William’s internal struggle as a contrast to his wonderfully fun output became part of a conversation about the invisibility of mental health issues. Robin Williams’ life’s work alleviated people through laughter, meanwhile his dark turmoil played out in private. Two weeks since the loss of sheer goodness that was Scott Hutchison, and I can’t stop thinking of a sad clown antitheses. Scott’s own struggles were in many respects, public property. His lyrics provided an empathetic crutch for his audience to lean on through a fine tuned combination of wry self-depreciation and vulnerability laid bare. His death is a particularly devastating one when his work is bound up with so many people’s pain. Frightened Rabbit’s songs provided an invaluable beacon of okay-ness for male vulnerability against a current of detached masculine ‘unfeeling’. Scott built a career around exposing his shortcomings, insecurities, and fears: such sincerity was difficult to come by – especially in the primarily male noughties indie scene – but evidently desperately in demand. In an interview earlier this year at Google Talks Scott mentioned that he felt himself ‘seep into their lives’ when people stumbled across the songs in their two week periods of despair, following shattering break ups and the likes. While he does say that this isn’t a negative thing, for people to ‘project their lives onto something that I’ve made’, and as such feel like they know him through listening to his music, there is a suggestion of an accompanying burden to this. Here arises the sad clown analogy. It is something he admitted ‘had to take a little step back from’ at one point due to the draining nature of performing as a kind of heartbreak hotel. In March, I stood some three metres away from Scott Hutchison as he led me back through the entire Midnight Organ Fight track list with what looked to be assured ease. For myself, and I imagine for an entire accumulated Frightened Rabbit fanbase who scrambled to get tickets for what turned out to be his final tour, this was a most opportune form of bittersweet nostalgia. Something about basking in previous woes attached to that album from a place of distance, paired with the novelty of knowing every aching word, certainly appealed. That sense of distance is essential though, something that I think has maybe always existed no matter how close you could feel to those songs. Being on the listening end, I was able to visit that depth of emotion to soothe myself in times of feeling ‘a lot’, whereas I now find myself wondering if Scott the deliverer was dangling himself over the edge for more than a decade producing them, living in a pain that we were all dipping our toes in.
Scott was acutely aware of this generation’s consumptive tendencies, both material and sexual, and beneath the more glaring personal aches his lyrics worked to expose the emptiness of that mentality. In a recent interview he revealed Things to be his personal favourite Frightened Rabbit song. It is a transcendent swelling of a track which deals with a kind of existential shedding of material attachments. Striking a well versed tone of morbidity, the lyrics are rife with visions of funeral attire and death, but there is catharsis here. Things glimpses a need to look beyond anything that could be physically fulfilling: he talks of shedding not only the ‘pointless artifacts’, but the flesh and bones, too. Scott’s lyrics are fixated with bodies, and not just awkwardly intertwining them in songs like The Twist, but wrecking and deconstructing them. His own physique served as a site of self-destruction countless times as he considered the sabotaging effects of emotion, as he constantly used tangible physical pain as a means of reflecting mental states. In those lyrics and so many others, we find someone searching for wholeness and clarity through material frugality, something connective through physical abandonment.
Now, in the wake of his death, there are all the inevitable questions and conversations that come after it’s too late. I question potential personal repercussions of revisiting a fairly devastating album written by a decade-ago-self – an album which propelled a career but also became its inescapable shadow in some ways – to sellout crowds ten years on, and the whole thing seems conflict wrought. It verges on sensationalism, though, raising altogether cliché tortured artist questions about whether Scott felt like he had to be at his worst to be at his best, and if talking about itis ever enough. It would seem not. It is yet another tragic case where we can form no answers without some level of assumption, and the questions and conversations seem futile compared to the tragic outcome. Scott took on the weighty work of allowing himself to be a vessel for other people’s pain through creative experimentation with his own emotional depths, and that is undoubtedly a dark and difficult artistic identity to have bound up with your own. It is a devastating thing to consider that perhaps he never saw a way out for himself through any of it, but those parts of himself that he did choose to share were loved and heard because he was able to transform pain into that connective ‘thing’. The only thing left certain is an overwhelming amount of love for Scott from people who feel helped by him. That he was able to inspire that level of affective response through lyrics is an untouchable testament to his authenticity and talent. Scott’s grasp of words was such that he was so aware of their being blunt instruments for describing feeling that he was able to perform genius with them anyway, and his songs demonstrate the cogency of a blunt instrument delivering a blow to the head.