Mark Linkous, A Flawed Hero

Anyone who's suffered from a mental illness will tell you that they spend a lot of time and emotional energy saying "no" to all the wrong impulses. No, life isn't as hopelessly gloomy as you think. No, there isn't more anguish than joy in the world. No, your life isn't without value or purpose. This past Saturday, in the middle of the afternoon, on the first beautifully sunny day the eastern half of the U.S. has seen in ages, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse said "yes" to the worst possible impulse and took his own life. He shot himself in the heart, with a gun he owned, in an alley behind a friend's house in Knoxville, Tenn. He was 47.

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Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse

For longtime fans of Sparklehorse, news that Mark Linkous had committed suicide probably didn't come as a complete surprise. His songs, though beautifully produced and even life-affirming at times, were often consumed by darkness and pain. He battled drug use and depression, and spent much of the past decade living as a recluse. But in recent years, it seemed Linkous had fought off whatever demons haunted him. He toured with a new album in 2007. He built a new studio and entered a period of prolific collaboration, working with all-star casts on last year's Dark Night of the Soul and In the Fishtank. According to his publicist, Linkous was in the process of completing a new Sparklehorse album for release later this year. So for me, his death was a tremendous, utterly heartbreaking shock.

Life rarely makes much sense. It unfolds mysteriously, evolves and often erupts in wildly unpredictable ways that rattle our nerves. In its ugliest moments — and, sure, in its beautiful ones, too — we turn to artists to help us sort through our wriggling tangle of emotions, because they possess that special voice needed to articulate and illuminate what's otherwise a baffling maze of conflicting thoughts. For many people, myself included, Mark Linkous was one of those voices. His music and poetry was like life itself: It was sad and beautiful. For some, it was simply good craft, offering a brilliantly rendered view of both human suffering and our capacity for love. For others all too familiar with the music's most sorrowful moments, it offered intimate companionship; a voice that said, "You are not alone."

The death of Mark Linkous comes just two months after singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt committed suicide, leaving puzzled fans of both artists to wonder how such tragedies could happen, or how they could have been prevented. It's hard to comprehend how someone you rely on to make sense of the world could do something so senseless. In some ways, it feels like betrayal. But both were clearly in the grip of something they couldn't control. For many, depression is a terminal illness like any other.

Neither Vic Chesnutt nor Mark Linkous were terribly successful commercially. They never drew legions of screaming fans, won a Grammy or had a gold record. But both could reach into the hearts and minds of those fortunate enough to hear their music and leave them with the belief that they were common friends. I'll selfishly miss the prospect of new Vic Chesnutt and Sparklehorse records in the coming years, though there are likely to be posthumous releases. But more than anything, I'll miss the comfort of knowing they're out there, soldiering on and making their way in the world. They were our flawed heroes. They were survivors. And the world is a little lonelier without them.