American Culture

ArtSunday: Let the musicians die

Every once in awhile I come across unrelated stories that somehow associate themselves in my mind. Take these, for instance:

First, I hope you saw Lex’s tribute to Starchild (given name, Gary Shider), he of P-Funk fame. As Lex notes, Shider experienced problems where the cost of fighting the cancer that killed him was concerned.

Second, another American music icon, Alex Chilton, passed away earlier this year. A interview with his wife revealed that “at least twice in the week before his fatal heart attack, Chilton experienced shortness of breath and chills while cutting grass. But he did not seek medical attention, Kersting said, in part because he had no health insurance.”

Third, a Future of Music Coalition study released in May found that 33% of musicians responding to a nationwide survey said they have no health insurance. That’s nearly double the national average of 17%. Among the uninsured, 86% said they lack coverage because they can’t afford it. These numbers are actually an improvement over the group’s 2002 study, which found that 44% were uninsured (vs. 14% of the general population).

Fourth, powerful Christian organizations continue to oppose healthcare reform for a variety of reasons, ranging from the conviction that blastocysts have more rights than living, suffering human beings to the canard that “freedom” has something to do with supporting private, for-profit interests.

Finally, this headline arrived yesterday, courtesy of Reuters: US scores dead last again in healthcare study. The lead paragraph sums it up nicely:

Americans spend twice as much as residents of other developed countries on healthcare, but get lower quality, less efficiency and have the least equitable system, according to a report released on Wednesday.

There are a number of narratives one could probably craft from these data points. An obvious one would lead us into a rant on the condition of our healthcare situation here in the greatest nation on Earth. But you’ve heard that one a thousand times in the last year alone and odds are your mind is made up. I’m not going to work up the lather needed for A) a good sermon to the choir, or B) a tree falling in the forest.

I suppose if you did some research into the life and times of artists like Chilton (and perhaps Jay Bennett) you could maybe generate a morality tale on the virtues of taking better care of yourself and perhaps devoting more of your money to your health and less to things that compromise your health. Still, there are so many out there who have illnesses that aren’t the result of a decadent rock ‘n roll lifestyle that the story is one you’d have to be pretty cold and myopic to invest in too deeply.

The narrative that I’m pondering begins a little closer to home, though. If you know me or have read my writing for any length of time you probably know that Don Dixon is one of my musical heroes, and he has been since I was in college and he was still with Arrogance. For years I bought his music, played it to death, and when I was DJing I spun it for whatever audience happened to be within earshot. I didn’t know Don personally, but we had a number of mutual friends and acquaintances, and I finally asked one of them (I think it was Jeffrey Dean Foster) to introduce us. This resulted in one of the best interviews I’ve ever had the privilege of conducting, and also in my making a new friend. Turns out Don is as great a person as he is a musician and producer.

Then Don encountered some medical and financial issues. Here’s his explanation of what went down.

I had good coverage as an AFTRA member but the requirements to qualify kept increasing and my income through the union didn’t keep up. I ran through my COBRA and didn’t find any insurance I could afford.

I had a heart attack and got to the hospital in time to be saved but the cost was massive and even with the generosity of hundreds of people all over the world, I was unable to keep from going bankrupt. In defense of the hospital, they knew I wasn’t covered when they admitted me and saved my life with no guarantee of payment. I was having a heart attack and dying…had they sent me some where else, I wouldn’t have made it.

We are slowly digging our way out of this financial situation…

So, musicians have a hard time coming by insurance. Sometimes they die as a result. My friend nearly became one of them. Our healthcare system is the worst in the developed world. Because here in America, we have settled on a system (and constructed rhetoric to sanctify it) that places a very low priority on the lives of those whose art enriches our culture in ways that are vitally important to the spiritual life of the nation.

I know, I know – it’s not that we’ve made a decision that it’s okay for musicians, per se, to drop dead if they can’t afford coverage. It’s people in general, and musicians happen to be a slightly more vulnerable and visible subset of the overall population.

But as a guy who grew up enraptured by music, mesmerized by visual art, entranced by the power of literature, I can’t help finding something especially tragic in the bargain that the American artist has to strike with society. Our nation has never been anything but anti-intellectual, and that lack of concern, if not open disdain for pure knowledge is paralleled by a leveling in how we value the creative side of the brain. Arts and music education has decreased by more than 50%. Federal policies, in redefining the public interest as “what the public is interested in,” have helped gut the very idea of art as an ennobling force. These dynamics have corroded the assumption that there is such a thing as beauty apart from consumer value, such a thing as excellence that’s fundamentally distinct from mere entertainment.

In short, we don’t value art or artists. Why? My colleague, Dr. Denny, notes that how we value things is learned behavior. Where do these values come from? Well, we learn values at home and in schools. Children who grow up religious learn values in church.

As the link just above makes clear, schools are teaching less and less in the way of art and music, and in doing so are communicating an implicit lesson that these things don’t matter. Art and music are treasured in some homes, but in an anti-intellectual society we’re talking comparatively fewer than we’d hope for. Churches? I grew up Southern Baptist and the only art I ever recall being valued was music of the specifically religious sort. Other traditions are different, though – the Catholic Church has, through the centuries, been a force behind some of the most glorious art ever produced. But again, the artist needed to align with the goals of Rome, and nearly all of what we’re talking about was in Europe – the American Catholic Church has never really spawned anything like the Renaissance, has it?

Despite all this, America is capable of spectacular creative genius, especially in the popular arts, and I suppose you can note that the hardiest flowers are those that can thrive in the harshest environment. Very few of history’s Michaelangelos have emerged from the country club and the spa. By that standard, maybe you’d expect great art to arise in the places that value it the least?

And it’s not like the United States actually invented suffering for one’s art.

Still, part of me finds it exceptionally callous, cruel and self-loathing when a culture turns its back on its spiritual well-being. Matthew 16:26 says this: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? The same wisdom applies to the society as a whole. A great nation must prove its excellence in many arenas, but it’s fair to ask what value, ultimately, is a thriving economy, a world-changing science infrastructure or a dominant sporting complex if the collective being is a spiritual void.

When people die of poverty, of broad ideological indifference, when art is allowed to drop dead for want of a few dollars a month, there’s a part of me that begins to think we’re way beyond the banalities of mere politics. When our organs of “faith” are used to prop up partisan institutions that transgress every pro-human ethical and moral code in history, the question is no longer “how will we survive?”

Instead, it’s “why bother?”

I’m not going to close on that note, though. Instead, let’s take a moment to celebrate the music. This is Alex Chilton with Big Star singing “September Gurls.”

And finally, this is Don and the Jump Rabbits doing what may be my favorite Dixon song ever, “The Night That Otis Died.” We love you Don, and we’re glad you’re still with us.


Many thanks to Don Dixon for allowing me to tell his story here.

Also, thanks to Casey at the Future of Music Coalition for his help in identifying some of the resources used in this story. FMC is “a national nonprofit organization that works to ensure a diverse musical culture where artists flourish, are compensated fairly for their work, and where fans can find the music they want.” One of their initiatives is the Health Insurance Navigation Tool (HINT), which “provides informed, musician-friendly support and advice to musicians who need information about health insurance, for free.” S&R applauds the FMC and encourages any uninsured musician (or any reader who knows one) to investigate HINT and pass the word along.

Casey also blogs at The Contrarian, which is one of the best blogs I’ve discovered in the past few weeks.

Finally, thanks to Shelley, Andrea, Ann, Jim, Denny, Wendy, Wendie, Brian, Jeff, Randy, John, Sue, Mike, all my fellow Scrogues and all the rest of my family and dear friends – many of you have reason to wonder where I’ve gotten off to in recent years. I’m working hard these days on Sam 2.0, and am more grateful than you can know for your support and insight.

9 replies »

  1. Don’t musicians have something similar to the Screen Actors Guild? And if not, why not? Surely the music industry can be persuaded by major artists to start forking over a tiny bit of profits for some general fund that would take care of their own?

    Whoa, never mind. For a second there I thought I was on another planet.

  2. Hi, Wendie. Thanks for jumping in here. (For those of you don’t know Wendie, she’s a one-stop shop for music industry biz.)

    And thank you for the mafia connection. If I’m not mistaken, the term “RIAA” is derived from ancient Latin very meaning “to whack.”

  3. Thanks for a great post, Samuel. My partner is a jazz musician. We’re both still young and healthy, but thoughts about health and health insurance are never far from my mind. I appreciate you bringing these issues to light.

  4. Hi Lindsay. I don’t know all your details, but feel free to ping the FMC if the insurance issue gets to be a problem. We need more musicians and music, not less.

  5. I love what the musicians in Austin are doing — the Health Alliance For Austin Musicians There’s the AFM, but that’s for working musicians only, not composers/producers/lyricists. There’s a composer’s union forming now in Los Angeles, check out I checked the BMI and ASCAP websites — looks like they offer some kind of health care plans, not sure how comprehensive or affordable, though.

  6. It’s time for true universal health care. Medicare for All my brothers. Hopefully we’ll get there one day and we can move past this nonsense… It’s a system that would work better for everyone except for the parasites sucking huge profits out of our current system.