Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

Do mad geniuses make great music because of their illness, or despite it?

when a musician’s charming psychosis devolves into profound mental illness — the symbiotic relationship between vision and lunacy collapses like a black hole.


No one really disputes the correlation between rock music and insanity. At this point, people assume that most unconventional rock performers are either authentically crazy (Ozzy Osbourne, Daniel Johnston), preoccupied with seeming crazy (Prince, Iggy Pop) or trapped somewhere in between (Axl Rose, Courtney Love). Most of the time, there is no cultural penalty for mentally unstable behavior. Very often, a disconnect from reality is perceived as creativity; musical geniuses are expected to be mildly insane. The problem is that when this cliché reaches its inevitable conclusion — when a musician’s charming psychosis devolves into profound mental illness — the symbiotic relationship between vision and lunacy collapses like a black hole.

Syd Barrett is remembered for lots of things: he named Pink Floyd (originally casting the band as the Pink Floyd Sound), he wrote most of the band’s debut album and he inspired the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” seven years after being jettisoned from the group. He was a painter and a psychedelic pioneer, and his disaffected, hyper-British vocal delivery has influenced singers who’ve never even heard his records. But the main thing Barrett is remembered for is losing his mind during the late 1960s; when he finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer last July, it felt as if he had already been dead for 35 years. For more than three decades, the progenitor of a band that eventually sold more than 200 million albums lived in Cambridge, England, with his mother, content to ignore modernity and focus on gardening.

“He functions on a totally different plane of logic,” David Gilmour once told the British journalist Nick Kent. Gilmour replaced Barrett in Pink Floyd but still tried to produce some of Syd’s ill-fated solo work in 1970; they had been friends as teenagers. “Some people will claim, ‘Well, yeah, man, he’s on a higher cosmic level,’ but basically there’s something drastically wrong,” Gilmour said. “It wasn’t just the drugs.” In a subsequent interview with The National Post, Gilmour wondered if the strobe lights used in Floyd’s stage show might have prompted some kind of photo-epilepsy. For whatever reason, Barrett mentally disappeared; the person who envisioned “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” the first Pink Floyd album, had been replaced by a disinterested clone, a man who preferred to stare into nothingness while repeating the same guitar note ad nauseam, regardless of what song the rest of the band happened to be playing. Syd Barrett broke, and he never got fixed.

Brian Wilson broke, too (several times). Unlike Barrett, he did get fixed; unfortunately, that process made things worse. Wilson spent half of the 1960s writing flawless pop symphonies and inventing, with the other Beach Boys, the modern notion of California; he spent the other half dropping acid, playing piano in a sandbox and losing his mind. (The fact that his father had physically and psychologically abused him for years probably didn’t help.) His meaningful involvement with the Beach Boys was over by 1969, partly because he refused to climb out of bed. In 1975, his desperate wife enlisted the help of a therapist named Eugene Landy.

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