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Music of the mad.
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Robot Emperor
Robot Emperor
751 posts

Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 02:48
Treading on egg shells here and I apologise in advance for any unsympathetic terms I may use through ignorance.

Been reading about “art brut” or “outsider art” - being art created outside the boundaries of official culture, specifically art by the insane or institutionalised or those who are estranged from society at large. The term is used in relation to painting, illustration and sculpture and is characterised by “extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.” Its very oddness renders it transcendental. Those considered as having produced art brut include Louis Wain and his sinister psychedelic cats (yowza, there’s a band name), the fantastic A.G Rizzoli and Martin Ramirez (really, look these guys up if you had never heard of them like me. Astonishing).

Anyway started thinking about the art brut of music, those who created a great album through the extreme mental state they were in, and if the cult of the mentally ill artist is a positive thing or if it became another lazy cliché. An affectation.

I have never been comfortable with the Sid Barrett solo albums, they sound to me like a private tragedy - a desperately sad and lonely cry from a tortured mind. I find nothing transcendental here but know many are deeply attached to these albums. By contrast Oar by Skip Spence, from arguably a similar place, I do consider a great work of art and that its greatness comes from Skips problems. It does not feel voyeuristic as Skip seems to be a cipher, a conduit to another world I will never see (god willing frankly).

Others would include Captain Beefheart and Kevin Coyne - both could be considered as belonging in the established definition of art brut (Coyne seems to have spent most of his time on paintings of teddy bears). With Beefheart, I never got Trout Mask Replica. Remove that and how odd is his legacy? Not questioning its genius but sometimes think that everything he did is coloured by the existence of TMR. It changes our perception of his work.

Now the faux practitioners, those who I feel attempt to add mystique to their work by adopting the trappings of the troubled (sorry, had a bit of a smoke). Tom Waits. Isn’t he just an actor? Got bored (and now embarrassed) with the whole Kerouac thing and has been pretending to be Beefheart ever since? I even like some of his later albums but that thought is always lurking at the back of my mind. Which has now gone blank. Legions of these lurking in metal and goth etc. Your nominations please.

Eno is an odd one. The arch theoretician, I think his first solo albums were an attempt to create this by design, by strategy. Even down to the musicians he used.

So anything you consider to be the art brut (or outsider art) of music? Or even everything you like? Did anything great come from Brians sandpit? Or did his problems strangle his gifts? Etc, etc.
9541 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 09:32
Hmmm, did you ever hear the two volumes of Songs in the Key of Z? Good collection of things like that. I could put more on that list, like Jandek, Daniel Johnson, I guess Wesley Willis even though his talent was questionable at best...
Squid Tempest
Squid Tempest
8733 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 10:06
Thought provoking post. I haven't got any answers (as yet), but it has made me ponder.
3107 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 10:14
Ooh. As soon as I saw the title, I thought of art brut.

Not sure I could name too many. Eric Satie springs to mind.

Mental illness doesn't necessarily seem to disbar musicians from mainstream success. Michael Jackson being the obvious example.
The Sea Cat
The Sea Cat
3608 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 10:36
Forgive me for mentioning the obvious, but I think Nick Drake would count. A sense of separateness and longing, plus rejection, especially in Pink Moon. Brian's acid overload and childhood abuse problems makes Pet Sounds the beautiful thing it is. People who refer to it's lyrical niavety in places are missing the point. That deliberate naivety is an essential part of its beauty.

I've not heard Oar yet, but I keep meaning to get it. As for Syd, I love the two solo albums, Barrett in particular. Side 2 of Madcap has some raw psychological pain on some tracks that I find hard to take. I first heard Syd solo when I was 12, and I was completely unaware of his mental health difficulties. I just loved the sense of a unique inner world. I still do. There's a lot of fun and humour in there too.

John Cale's 'Music For A New Society' would definitely count, where he was at headwise. Same with a quite a few of his individual songs.
John Fahey 'Legend Of Blind Joe Death' would be another.

Would a change of mental state seen as positive count for the artist? John Coltrane's mystic awakening created a sonic explosion that alienated a lot of Jazz heads. He stayed outside from then on.

Excellent thread, by the way. It's got me thinking as well.
Dog 3000
Dog 3000
4611 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 11:01
Yes it's a chin-scratcher. First reaction brain dump:

The Shaggs jump to mind -- not particularly "mad" just "outsider artists" (there is an "unhip teens trying to figure out a hip world" vibe there -- which is not mental illness, but I feel like there is a lot of mental and emotional anguish under the "happy" surface of that record.)

Eno -- a calculating sort who probably wishes he could "naturally make crazy music", and I guess you could say all his theories/techniques are meant to get the head into that non-rational state when creating music. (There was also that "untrained orchestra" he recorded with, Somethingorother Sinfonia?)

Beefheart -- a unique character, definitely eccentric through and through. Actually TMR may not be as weird as the follow-up "Lick My Decals Off"! There were really only 2 records where he wasn't "being quite weird" (from 1974 when he signed up with some promoters who tried to "mainstream" him -- in retrospect proving how deeply weird he really was.)

Tom Waits -- I agree he strikes me as an "actor playing mad" and not "actually mad." I had him pegged as nothing BUT a Beefheart imitator on first exposure. Nowdays I think his best stuff is those first few "drunken jazz crooner" albums (and even then have to wonder, was he really even that drunk or was it also an act? And then, does it even matter as long as it's a "good act"?)

Art Jackson -- allegedly behind the mysterious "Gout" album, and did another strange one called "Your Exotic Prince." Definitely an outsider, but I know nothing about what motivated his art.

Ornette Coleman -- kinda like Beefheart's twin/predecesor from the Jazz scene. Also has that weird "alien guru" thing when interviewed. Answers questions with questions -- like he can't understand the basic premise of "your primitive human society" or something.

Sun Ra -- very outside, very wacky, but also a put-on artist (crazy or "crazy like a fox"?) His music ranges from extremely composed and delicate to "everybody go crazy and make noise like you were children who don't know how to play an instrument." Recorded tapes and tapes for decades with no hope or plan of getting the music released. There was some kind of "mania" that drove him I think (he certainly wasn't in it for the chicks & money!) The Arkestra also used a fair number of "non-professional" musicians (Ra had trouble paying & keeping anyone who was "too good".)

Anal Magic feat. Rev. Dwight Frizzel -- with a name like that how could you miss? Seems to have been a "band" of artsy types who mostly didn't bother to learn their instruments. I think Frizzel is mainly a video or computers guy (he's a college instructor last I checked.)

Armand Schaubroeck -- another one who's not "mad", but went through some heavy shit and used music as therapy. His debut was a self-released TRIPLE album that tells the tale of how he got sentenced to juvie for stealing change from a bowling alley! (True story.) "Ratfucker" is absolute mind-rot set to beats and melodies (I'm not sure I want to think about where some of that stuff came from! Fiction I hope!)

Lou Reed/Velvets -- not "mad" but on lots of drugs and self-loathing (or something?) "Street Hassle" is pretty fucked up in every way possible. Side two of "WL/WH" -- yikes!!

Sly Stone -- total genius and not a "naive" music maker, but "There's a Riot Going On" taps some deep vein of crazy. That record freaks me right out! I can only assume the artist was very freaked out when he was making it. (PS -- I saw an ad for a new 2011 Sly album, I guess it's finally going to happen! A new Sly record is kind of like "Neil Young Archives" -- promised for so long you begin to think it's just a myth.)
6761 posts

Edited Aug 17, 2011, 11:28
Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 11:03
Robot Emperor wrote:
I have never been comfortable with the Sid Barrett solo albums, they sound to me like a private tragedy - a desperately sad and lonely cry from a tortured mind. I find nothing transcendental here but know many are deeply attached to these albums.

I am with you on that and I know some people would make the same argument about "Oar" and even the later Nick Drake recordings.

It's all in the ears of the listener of course but that can be clouded by biographical knowledge. There are probably thousands of wonderful, beautiful, frightening or frighteningly beautiful records that were made by people who carry themselves as fully functioning healthy people who suffered deeply in private. And, as you say, there are a lot of liars (you say actors) out there and I would extend that category to the many whose rock n roll shtick is based squarely on a (manufactured) perception that the extremes of excessive use of drugs and alcohol can be sustainable for years at a time and even form the basis for a successful life as an artist and as a human being. Myth making of the most damaging kind. Most long term addicts I have come across in rock are liars, bores and bullies rather than seers or shaman and very few civilians have the support and infrastructure that a rock star has at his or her disposal.

Anyway for me it really comes down to how exploitative the process is within each transaction between artist and audience. Main thing is are we being encouraged to get off on the artist's illness or incapacity for commercial gain of the various handlers and mediators? Syd and Roky and Brian Wilson certainly fell into that category for me at various times but not always. I can remember walking out of a Johnny Thunders show shaken at the state he was in. Brian Wilson's last UK were almost Hammer Horror material to my eyes and ears whereas the Smile shows at the RFH were joyous affairs. Personally Nick Drake may have been marketed as tragic but the music has been largely allowed to speak for itself. We haven't been encouraged to hear his music as a psychological freak show that you can visit vicariously. Charlie Parker was once "marketed" in hipster circles for his drug life (like Keef) but (unlike Keef) I haven't seen any of that in the media or first hand in the 35 years I have been listening to him. People know what killed him wasn't what made him great. Jazz has made an effort to make that division with all sorts of artists. Rock n roll hasn't yet gained that maturity.

Beefheart I think is a very good example of someone who transcends all this. Like say Joseph Beuys. I have never got the impression that CB was wheeled out to do stuff he didn't want to do or was degrading or just for the money or that he put stuff out that was addled or sub standard. That makes him a real artist in my book and a lucky one given the levels of exploitation in rock n roll.He might well be ill for all I know but his art isn't sold on that. Like Drake his art speaks for itself.

Listening to some of the many jazz singers who were recorded slurring their way through material would be another example of hte dark side. Why would anyone release that? Especially postumously when the artist has no right of reply and no chance to contextualise their own work. That to me is especially grim but not as grim as knowingly wheeling a sick person out on stage because the show (and the money) must go on even if their being there is one of the roots of their illness in the first place. Everyone involved is complicit in that. Including the fans.
2266 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 11:22
Squid Tempest wrote:
Thought provoking post. I haven't got any answers (as yet), but it has made me ponder.

^What Squid said. Great thread premise!
Hunter T Wolfe
Hunter T Wolfe
1587 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 11:23
I tend to think of mental illness as a sliding scale; rather than the world being divided into those who are "mad" and those who are "sane," everybody has their troubles, obsessions and quirks and for some it reaches a point where you can't function, or your perception of reality is so out of whack with everyone else's you just can't connect (though again, this is relative- everyone perceives things slightly differently to everyone else anyway), or you become so upset and frightened you're a danger to yourself and/or others.

Society tends to define madness as when you become a problem, and can't do your job- ie how you impact on the system, rather than how you feel inside. You can be as depressed and confused as anything, but if you keep your head down and turn up to work ever day, the system generally doesn't give a shit.

This means that "madness" in the music industry can be tolerated and even encouraged more than in other fields, because the sufferer can still be productive- indeed, it can be the source of his productivity, and/or success, and even make him a cash cow for others.

The other thing with mental illness being on a sliding scale is that all great art, in my opinion, comes from the artists' troubles, or obsessions, or megalomania- rock n' roll is ther one area where that annoying sign, "you don't have to be mad to work here- but it helps," actually applies.

Brian Eno actually often leaves me cold precisely because he's the prime proponent of the opposite attitude- that art is about process, chance, that you remove yourself from it and observe the "interesting" results.

But for me, the good stuff is wrenched from the troubled soul- the catharis of Iggy and Lydon and post-EST Lou, Jim Morrison's explorations of the subconscious and Neil Young's near-autistic howl... Nick Drake, as Sea Cat said, suffering from crippling depression but still making very crafted, articulate music... right down to the more obviously disturbing, twilight transmissions of Barrett, Daniel Johnson etc.

I know we have to be wary of romanticising mental illness as Ian B here has often warned. For me, Brian Wilson's melodic genius is made more poignant by his troubled, childlike worldview, but his problems ultimately eclipsed his talent as surely as any junkie's heroin use would.

And of course we mustn't forget Roky Erickson, whose fragile mental state and unique vision created some amazing music, but at what a cost.

Mick Farren's 'Mona, the Carnivourous Circus' is also compelling but disturbing listening.

And yeah, I agree that Tom Waits is essentially a talented fake.
Squid Tempest
Squid Tempest
8733 posts

Re: Music of the mad.
Aug 17, 2011, 11:32
IanB wrote:
Beefheart I think is a very good example of someone who transcends all this...

He might well be ill for all I know

Yes, really rather ill. Dead in fact!

Soz, couldn't resist!
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