John Bottomley’s difficult legacy
There was an ominous silence in the music community last week around the news that veteran singer-songwriter John Bottomley had died. While friends and family wrote brief Facebook updates referring to his sudden death at the early age of 50, there were no details. Emails flew, and everyone was asking everyone else in hushed tones if they knew anything more. Frankly, we all feared the worst.
Yesterday, a press release from the Bottomley family confirmed what the silence had suggested: that Bottomley took his own life. And now we must make sense of the mixed messages of his difficult legacy.
I didn’t know John Bottomley, but I loved his work. I once walked into a hat shop in Victoria, B.C. and was immediately so taken by his voice on the stereo, I had to ask who, and what, I was listening to. It was Bottomley’s masterful album, Songpoet, and that happened to be the day of the CD release. I couldn’t make the concert, so I cajoled the staff into selling me the store play copy. John and I later shared a laugh over that at the Shelter Valley Folk Festival – apparently the hat store girls had passed on the story.
Bottomley’s unique voice, his gift for lyrics, and his extraordinary imagery made him a formidable talent. He was a recognized success in a world where recognition is hard to come by. He’d won a Juno, for Most Promising Male Vocalist in 1992, and had a top 10 hit with “You Lose, You Gain” from Blackberry (produced by John Whynot & Colin Linden) in 1995. His output was sporadic, but frequently brilliant. He was known and loved for the greatness of his art. To outside eyes, it must have appeared John Bottomley was living the dream.
Indeed, his latest album was The Healing Dream, and the lyrics of the title track are now haunting:
I still feel the thorn
I still feel the sting
Help me now I need the healing dream
A dream, of course, can be a nightmare for the dreamer. And what we now know, tragically, and too late, is that Bottomley’s dream had a nightmare side. The demon of depression dogged his heels, it seems, and we are all left to try to make sense of the outcome.
In our community, depression is almost an occupational hazard. Of course depression can strike anyone, in any profession – but the arts offer the possibility of gleaning something from the gift of sensitivity, so perhaps the sensitive spirits among us gravitate to creative work.
Whatever the case, we must all deal with our demons. At Roots Music Canada, depression is part of our lives and we have to work constantly to manage its effects, on ourselves and each other and our loved ones. We deeply admire and support the work of our friend and guiding light, Shelagh Rogers, who’s made public her own struggles with depression and has advocated tirelessly for mental health.
It’s not for us to say what anyone else’s legacy will, or should be. John Bottomley leaves an amazing body of work, superb songs that would be the envy of any aspiring artist. We fervently hope that he also leaves a message to his fellow travelers, those for whom sensitivity of spirit has become more burden than gift.
As artists we strive to be honest in our work; we must be equally honest in our lives.
We must speak our truth. We must share our pain and the pain in the world.
And we must get the help we need when we need it.
John Bottomley’s funeral will take place Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Church of Our Lady in Guelph.
Photo credit: johnbottomley.net