Friday, November 21, 2008

Suicide, the non-solution - revisiting the death of John McCollum

As the story of the broadcasted suicide of Abraham K. Biggs circles around the tubes, and as people such as myself debate the liability and responsibility for Biggs' death, it's worthwhile to revisit another suicide - one in which a song was involved.

I speak of John McCollum and the alleged link to the Ozzy Osboune song "Suicide Solution":

On the evening of October 26, 1984, nineteen year old John McCollum shot and killed himself while listening to the recorded music of rocker Ozzy Osbourne. That night, John listened repeatedly to several of Osbourne’s albums, including Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman, and Speak of the Devil. With his headphones on and the music playing, John placed a .22-caliber handgun to his head and took his life.

John’s parents filed a lawsuit in a California civil court alleging several causes of action against Osbourne and his music label, CBS Records. The central premise of each cause of action was essentially the same: the lyrics, tones, and pounding rhythm of Osbourne's music had the cumulative effect of encouraging self-destructive behavior. The McCollums asserted that CBS Records and Osbourne knowingly cultivated an audience of young people struggling with the transition into adulthood and, therefore, should have known that Osbourne's music would likely result in self-destructive behavior on the part of fans such as John....

The lawsuit focused largely on a song off the Blizzard of Ozz album entitled “Suicide Solution,"...which, according to John's parents, advocates suicide. Although John was not listening to "Suicide Solution" at the time he shot himself, he had been listening to it earlier in the evening....

The trial court dismissed the McCollum's complaint holding that the First Amendment was an absolute bar to the lawsuit. On appeal, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision holding that there was nothing in any of Osbourne's songs that could be characterized as a literal command to an immediate suicidal act, nor was it intended as such. "[M]usical lyrics and poetry," said the court, "cannot be construed to contain the requisite 'call to action' for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally.... Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are."
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