On 20th April 2018 – just over three weeks ago – news broke that Tim Bergling (aka Avicii- Swedish EDM Music Producer and DJ), had died suddenly in Muscat, Oman. In no time at all, the press was awash with theories as to what might have happened (Bergling had suffered with some well-documented health issues in previous years) as is always the case when one so talented, dies so young. Then – a few days later – came the news that Bergling’s death was actually suicide and what has since followed (in the media) is nothing short of a ghoulish, narrow and downright one-sided perspective of his life – and ultimately, death.
So, what is a forty-eight year old woman doing getting so riled up about all this you might ask? Well, firstly as a child whose musical tastes were largely formed in the eighties; I have more than a healthy appreciation for EDM, which has its feet planted firmly in that era. Bands such as Depeche Mode (commonly acknowledged as the Godfathers of modern dance/house music), Devo and Kraftwerk formed much of the well-worn vinyl in our household and I’ve always maintained that the truly great EDM anthems are modern-day symphonies.
Prodigiously talented; Avicii first came to my attention in 2012 (by which time and despite being just 22, he’d already been producing EDM music for a number of years) with his track Silhouettes, which was mixed into a Podcast I’d downloaded. Whilst Le7els was arguably his “anthem”, for me, Silhouettes was simply his most beautiful track and I played it non-stop that summer. A perfect mix of introspection and positivity.
Straight ahead on the path we have before us
Day by day, soon the change will come
Don’t you know we took a big step forward
Just lead the way and we pull the trigger
From that point on, whenever a dance track appeared on my Spotify play list and that I couldn’t get out of my head…….one look at the producer – yep, it’s Avicii again. It kind of became a bit of a private and standing joke with myself. However, as a busy grown-up, I didn’t really pay too much attention to following Avicii on social media and the like. Consequently, when the Volvo “Feeling Good” ad aired on British TV in 2015 and featuring Tim Bergling himself; I got quite the surprise. He did not look at all how I expected him to….. not one iota. Now, don’t ask me why exactly but I had Avicii pegged as this slick, thirty-something euro- dude with a mouth full of capped white teeth. All glossy, ripped and larger than life. What I did not expect was Tim with his gangly awkward gait, backwards baseball cap and boyish good-looks. “So that’s Avicii”? I though to myself “Blimey”…
But there was something else in that face too, wasn’t there? Despite the obvious youthfulness; there was an other-wordliness about Tim Bergling. That certain quality you can’t quite put your finger on but you know is there – just by looking at them. An old soul, if you will.
So his death came as a big shock to me and the way he died, an even bigger one. In the aftermath of the news, I managed to watch (it’s since been pulled from most streaming services) True Stories, the documentary filmed by Levan Tsikurishvili and which follows Tim over a six year period – shortly before Le7els breaks and up to the point he retired from touring in 2016. The film documents his brutal touring schedule, the impact this has on both his mental and physical health and his subsequent decision to retire from playing DJ sets altogether. It culminates in the inevitable break from his management – who he felt pushed him too hard to gig and didn’t ultimately support him when he wanted to stop the money-spinning Avicii touring juggernaut.
All in all, it’s a shockingly honest portrayal of his life on the road as a ‘Superstar DJ’ (when actually as someone who viewed himself firstly and foremostly as a music producer; this label was never an easy one) and not something many stars would be at all keen to share with their fans. Several scenes are highly uncomfortable to watch, in fact. None more so than where he’s just been released from his hospital bed and so that he can complete the Australian leg of his tour. Ashen and gaunt, Tim is shown practically slumped in the back of a limo, eyes lolling up into his skull whilst a member of his management team pushes him to do a ‘phone interview – “to let everyone know you’re okay”. Clearly, he is anything but.
But you see, there’s no vanity with Tim and I therefore defy anyone to watch the film and not be just a tiny bit charmed by this amazing young man. In other rockumentaries, I’ve always been aware that I’m watching a star – someone I ultimately can’t relate to – whereas Tim is totally believable. When he meets industry luminaries such as Chris Martin (who tells him how talented he is) and Madonna; he doesn’t turn into some star-struck sycophant – he’s just Tim. In True Stories, you feel like you’re watching a friend and consequently it makes his journey, your journey too. You feel his highs, you feel his lows and it makes for compulsive viewing.
Part of the documentary deals with his hospitalisation for pancreatitis (and latterly a gall-bladder operation), brought about by the pace of his schedule and the party lifestyle you find yourself in as a DJ (whether you like it or not). Bergling is frank about his overuse and reliance on alcohol, to deal with his anxiety and keep up with the sheer pace of his schedule. Torn in not wanting to let anyone down (fans, management and as a perfectionist, himself) we see the very real mental struggle he goes through; in actually finally allowing himself to put his own welfare first and get off the rats’ wheel of an existence he’s been living.
Given the statement released shortly after Tim’s death by his family, it’s no surprise that the media have latched onto his personal struggles, battles with industry management and previous alcohol abuse; deciding to lump him into a group of tragic musicians (Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain have been quoted as comparisons) let down by his industry and those close to him; without caring to take a wider view of him as a person. I find this disappointing and hugely disrespectful to both the memory of the Artist and to his family and friends. It’s almost as if they’ve decided Bergling was some sort of a victim, unable to stand up for himself and turning to substance abuse as a coping strategy.
Whilst there is no doubt that Tim was a humble, sensitive soul – all politeness and not wanting to appear ungrateful, given his meteoric rise to fame – there are several moments in the documentary that show a real inner steeliness and strength. In one scene he is lying in his hospital bed, questioning a line-up of doctors about the heavy-duty medications they are prescribing him. Challenging their logic (despite the volume of drugs he’s taking, he’s still in great pain) he asks why they’re taking the one drug that seems to be helping with pain management and upping his dosage of opiates, which are doing nothing, other than to make him anxious. One Doctor slinks out of the room, uncomfortable with the line of conversation. In another part of the film, having flown to Las Vegas to do a run of of ten shows; dread grips him and he realises (for his sanity) he simply cannot do them. Despite some truly head-shaking protestations by his management team (“think of the money, it would be easier to do them than not do them”), Tim quietly stands his ground, makes it clear he doesn’t give a rats ass about the cash and the shows are then (begrudgingly) cancelled.
“I discovered when I started making money that I didn’t really need it. “When you have such an excess of money you don’t need, the most sensible, most human and completely obvious thing is to give to people in need.”
Tim Bergling 2013.
Away from the Avicii brand, True Stories gives us glimpses of a down to earth and optimistic man, who loves his family and friends and who just wants to walk down the street like a regular guy, without being noticed. The need to live something resembling a normal life, increasingly becomes the elephant in the room, until the point it has to be confronted. When Tim finally does this, he takes a break from touring and takes some much-needed down time. He gets a dog (Liam, who he dotes on) and takes himself, his friends and his pet on a trip across the US. Although by this point, he’s looking tired, thin and lack-lustre; you can still visibly see him decompressing.
More recently – and in the last eighteen months – a look at his Instagram feed shows a young man with a self deprecating sense of humour, who was enjoying life. All in all, Bergling looks healthy and is clearly working hard to find a semblance of balance, following the chaotic pace of the former years. Family and friends are clearly extremely important and his social media accounts give evidence to the fact he was excited to be working on (and soon to be releasing) new music.
There’s no doubt Tim was a deep thinker (you only have to listen to his lyrics to realise this) and like most super-creative types; highly sensitive. As such, the music business – with its mind boggling rotation of artists and focus on commercialism and profit – would never have been an easy environment for one so cerebral. Consequently, I’ve no doubt there were pressures, questions and perhaps even mental health challenges. But for the press to seemingly want to portray him as some tragic, tortured soul; is so one-dimensional and frankly the easy and well-worn headline grabber. It’s also unbelievably sad because it’s blatantly obvious there was so much more to him than this.
I get it. When someone so young and so talented takes their own life, we want a villain. We need someone to blame. We have to apportion responsibility somewhere and so that we can understand it – make some sense of it even. From the ex-management team, to the music industry itself and even his current girlfriend (who deep in grief found herself being trolled on social media and blamed – yes blamed – for Tim’s death), the bad guys keep a comin’.
But it’s never that simple. Human beings are complex creatures and as such, mental health and personal struggles are a complex issue too. Tim’s reason or reasons for taking his own life were personal to him and are not to be put under a microscope by the press or public and so that we can dissect them. It’s really none of our business and what’s more, it doesn’t bring the person back.
Sure, there are lessons to be learned within the True Stories documentary. Lessons around how the music industry treats its artists like commodities and how cognitive dissonance takes hold of previously rational people – once they start seeing how much money is to be earned. But for me, the biggest lessons are around what a truly good human being Tim Bergling was. At least, that’s what I’ve decided to take away from all this….
Despite his crazy talent and even crazier level of fame: despite the fact that big-time artists were queuing up for a touch of the Avicii production magic; Tim always remained down to earth, gracious, humble and polite. Someone’s son, someone’s brother and someone’s friend; we can now only imagine where his skills might have taken him next. The boy next door who just happened to be amazingly gifted and amazingly good. So whilst his music lives on in Avicii; his true legacy lives on as the man.
RIP Tim. You lived a good life. You will be missed.