On Monday, March 4, 2019 a news bulletin hit the wire, started to pop up on notifications, trend on social media platforms. The kind of bulletin that, though dwarfed by big political events or natural disasters, can pierce the emotional armour of its reader acutely.
Keith Flint, frontman and dancer for Prodigy, the longtime British dance act, was dead at age 49—by suicide.
Artists and admired public figures die frequently, but for most that hear of their deaths, they are outside the spheres of personal influence and real emotional connection. Sometimes, though, a select group of public figures hold a deep place in our hearts. Perhaps they were closely associated with a formative period in our lives, or their work, thoughts, or way of being inspired or defined a path forwards in life that ended up forming an important part of our identities.
Keith Flint was one of those public figures to me, whose death had the ability to strike on an emotional level. His death coming by suicide hit, too: though after a string of revered public figures dying unexpectedly by self-inflicted means in recent years—Philip Seymour Hoffman (2014), Robin Williams (2014), and Anthony Bourdain (2018) come to mind without pause for thought—, maybe it shouldn’t have.
It should be obvious by now that even ridiculously talented individuals, who in meaningful ways reached the summit of their chosen field, lived a life rich with incredible experiences, and who often seem as mentally robust as they are affable and contented in public, can privately be just as subject to self-destructive impulses and mental health issues as those with more obvious and visible scars. The brain can make it tricky to process that simple fact, though.
Prodigy, from the release of Music for the Jilted Generation in 1994, were the closest thing I had to a cultural touchstone of my time I could unambiguously identify with. They never really "fit" into any particular movement. Though they have borrowed from and/or participated in, cultures like rave, punk, electronic, and Britpop, they were never really defined cleanly by any of them.
They have always been a singular act, and transcendent—defined by something more abstract: a spirit and ethos of rebellion, non-conformance, individualism, righteous anger. Aggressively creative and unapologetically offensive. They could stir up a frenzy, but it always felt like there was a positive energy underneath it, driving it. And they have always expressed themselves as much visually—through video, dance, and self-image—as they have musically.
Keith Flint was the most recognisable visual of that ethos: buzzing with frenetic energy on stage alongside Maxim, snarling over Liam Howlett’s soundscapes. Inflating himself with a kind of musical rage and fury to be channeled into explosive artistic expression.
With Keith, the fact his performance was a deliberate artistic construction seemed pronounced. Performing live, when the set ended and the band took their bows, Flint's palpable manifestation of rage and energy disappeared and a smile as kind as it was genuine lifted on his face, searching out into the audience looking for friends and kindred spirits.
From interviews we can surmise that Keith, alongside his preternatural ability to generate awesome, soul-shaking energies under the spotlight, was also emotionally vulnerable—at least in some ways, at some times. With the kind of personality that greets strangers with kindness and compassion by default, this kind of vulnerability comes with the territory.
He had some history of substance abuse, which seemed to kick off around the time of a creative lull after the success of The Fat of The Land, and some amount of drugs were found in his system after his death (alcohol, cocaine, and codeine), but weren't found to be the cause of his death. He had also just completed a 5K run two days before his death, and was photographed at the event looking fit and healthy.
He had a troubled relationship with his father, who he spent most of his life estranged from, but he seemed to have resolutely closed the chapter on that part of his life, and was the better for it:
I opened that door and [my father] let me down again, so I rung him and said, ‘You will never see me again. You will never speak to me again. And if I see you, I will beat you.’ From that moment on, I was a man and I was free.
He had also touched on the idea of suicide in interview:
I’ve always had this thing inside me that, when I’m done, I’ll kill myself. I swear to God that’s not suicidal – it’s definitely a positive thing. The moment I start shitting the bed is when you’ll see me on the front of a bus.
But it was quickly followed up in the same interview with a counter-balancing tone. Running a 5K race isn't what you'd take as an indicator of having got to the point of "shitting the bed."
Newspaper reports mentioned various personal factoids, none of which seemed very convincing.
The truth is, as much as we can go "searching for clues" to explain why Keith Flint killed himself, as if looking for a simple story to attach to the event to make sense of it, the kinds of simple explanations that thinking turns up are always going to be simplistic when it comes to depression and suicide.
The real causal factors are likely complex, and also in some ways also more mundane, or at least less salacious. Depression manifests itself out of an infinite number of combinations of variables in the lives of those who suffer it, and there is always the potential of a “perfect storm” scenario, potentially from a variety of small things that can act as complex triggers feeding into big internal narratives and battles both old and new, and knocking out the pillars that usually allow building a shade, a counter perspective against the destructive stories depression likes to tell those who suffer from it.
Rather than trying to decode suicide as if a puzzle that can be solved after the fact, piecing together interviews and tabloid newspaper reports, which often amounts to little more than the generation of some kind of blame, it seems better to protect the highlights of the person who died, and use the tragedy of their death to shine a simple light on the important of mental health awareness.
What is true is that Keith Flint lived a full life, inspired millions, and experienced a true bond and love with the people he took his journey with.
From a 2015 interview with Matt Blake:
I think I’m very generous of spirit with the people I love, but I can also be a very selfish person too. I’ve grown up knowing nobody is going to look after me, so if I don’t, who is? I’m not frightened of who I am; I just want to look back and know that I’ve lived what I consider a fulfilled life. That’s all. Happy days.
From the same interview:
And here we are now, sitting with Keith in this London studio, five albums and 26 years since he and Liam first met in that muddy Essex field – two lost boys drawn together by a shared love of hardcore and a burning problem with authority. “I think Liam is the only person I’ve ever loved,” says Keith, with genuine affection. “He and Maxim have actually taken time to get to know who I am. It’s probably to do with not having a good family background. The band became my family.”
Rest In Peace, Firestarter.