Musicians with mental health problems are not immune to
some potentially troubling implications of such a construct, for
example that ‘madness’ is required for great artistic work.
The connection between mental
illness and creativity is an interesting and contentious subject. I
have explored different aspects in this blog to date. One
consideration that has not been mentioned is the possible
exploitation of those with a mental illness to generate notoriety
or sensationalise their artistic work.
excellent overview of the life of the poet Robert Lowell and
the role of mental illness in his work points to a romanticising of
mental illness by poets and critics in the US in the 1950s and
1960s, exemplified by this quote from Peter Davidson’s
in the New Poetry’:
"Madness .. can be construed—and is
by some poets—as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the
reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of
those who refrain from reaching."
While the idea may be alluring,
there are implicit dangers in such a simplification. Musicians with
mental health problems are not immune to some potentially troubling
implications of such a construct, for example that ‘madness’ is
required for great artistic work. My
last piece dealt with some of these, focusing on the troubled
life of Townes Van Zandt, who was the subject of Margaret Brown’s
compelling documentary ‘Be Here to Love Me’.
Aura of mystique
In the modern hype-driven music
world, another danger is use of an individual’s mental illness to
create an aura of mystique. Daniel Johnston, another Texan
songwriter, is also the subject of a fascinating documentary,
Devil and Daniel Johnston’ (2005). The film provides an insight
into his life and development as a creative individual. Far from
romanticising his illness however, the director does not shy away
from the more troubling effects of illness on the artist’s life,
including an incident where he caused a small plane in which he was
travelling to crash-land due to behaviour arising from a psychotic
There are also several moving
accounts of those close to him about the effects his illness had on
his life. The film was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and won the
Documentary Directing Award at the 2005 Sundance Film
Festival. It is highly recommended viewing for those interested
in music and mental health.
Johnston has certainly suffered from a severe psychotic illness
throughout his adult life, characterised by episodes of both manic
and psychotic symptoms. A somewhat disturbing feature to Johnston’s
life was the apparent lack of understanding or outright disregard
demonstrated by facets of the music industry towards Johnston’s
While he was very unwell in a
psychiatric hospital in the early 1990s, there was a race among
record companies to sign him on the back of an endorsement by Kurt
Cobain. Others do not appear to grasp just how vulnerable he may be
in the stressful environment of a live performance.
Counter to these concerns, others
from the music world have been very supportive and understanding.
Johnston’s success at continuing his creative career despite his
mental health problems may also serve as a source of inspiration
and encouragement to those experiencing similar difficulties.
Johnston’s music is certainly an
acquired taste. He has a very unusual approach to writing and
singing and his live performances can be erratic and unpredictable.
Some find his often child-like lyrics to be simplistic and his
music unsophisticated. However, others point to similar apparent
limitations in some of Neil Young’s work, which do not necessarily
lessen its emotional impact. Other still cite a quirky
inventiveness similar to the offbeat work of 90s indie groups such
as Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 Collective
There is no doubt that other
artists have taken a great interest in his work and cover versions
of his songs may provide a gateway to his music for those put off
by his own idiosyncratic delivery. Many of these are collected on
the 2004 album ‘The
Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered’ (note -
Daniel Johnston is still very much alive (and touring); like Townes
Van Zandt he appears to have used ‘Late Great’ in an album title as
a moment of black humour).
Daniel Johnston is also an artist,
with a focus on often absurdist cartoon-like imagery, and his work
has been shown in galleries in London and New York.
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