I read that sentiment in a medical journal. It referenced the mental health of selected jazz musicians (who were meant to represent all musicians for the sake of the article). The power punch of the thesis involved (and was in my opinion, limited by) the listing of social disorders belonging to a handful of famed artists. The point the author made seemed founded in environmental elements for me, so I had a hard time not having violent thoughts as I found myself angered- but still falling under the audacious spell of their proposition. The fact that my ire was raised probably means that I, myself, am an unstable creative type, but I can think of several worse personalities to have. So.. what of it? The holes in the argument are huge, and I'm sick of presuming I'm crazy, because the beast of opposition prevails. And if you must know I privately maintain that the constructs of Society, in general, are totally fucked up.
So, I started to wonder, "Is any aspect of the musician vs. mental health issue genetic or the product of a learned response?" (nature vs. nurture).I understand the difference between the opposing scientific beliefs, but I was unable to glean a comprehensive conclusion from the article. The author only spoke about one tiny piece of art history – Jazz is, after all, a speck in time. An incredibly important one, no doubt, but what of the rest? What kind of people were the musicians in the dark ages? Was it only the rich cavemen who had spare skins to beat on and were capable of feeding their families and still got the kinky girls? Or were they all burnouts?
There are a countless number of artists who fell into depressing environments. Miles Davis, James Brown, Tina Turner, Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson- just to name a few. And I didn't even have to leave the continent for that list, because I'd never make it back to my point before I found a new injustice. It would appear though, that regardless of whatever "mental problems" or social disorders that musicians have suffered, they aren't the members of society running around murdering people. That's what armies do. And, for the most part, mortality by occupation sees most musicians dying from heart failure like everyone else, with maybe an extra helping of drug overdoses, vehicular accidents, suicides and other causes. I jump to cause of death, because it's a natural stepping stone in the pursuit of defining the roots of casualty within the framework of musician vs. the world. And I don't think I am being dramatic.
What I started to unravel, as I looked further into the suggestion that musicians and artists were luckless, sensation seeking nihilists (who were deviant sufferers by extension of their craft alone) and were therefore prone to the "seedy" life, didn't really surprise me. As I departed the present day and started tripping over the carcasses of Harpsichords, I found myself weeding through tangled fields of music record, naming the typical Room 101 Masters as stable examples of how a musician should behave. Try as I might, I could find hardly anything on criminal activity or victimization of our classically-composing Forebearers. I was hoping for some Syphilitic duels or an execution by the King. Nothing! This doesn't mean that crime wasn't rampant among these guys. It just means that I didn't find it or History hasn't documented or preserved it for some reason.
Paganini, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Brahm, Wagner, Strauss, Chaikovsky, Bellini, Rossini, Monteverdi, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Paganini, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Philip Glass, Ravi Shankar, Irving Berlin, Ernest Hogan, Fats Waller ... all had parents who were either musical instructors or had their child studying as early as 2. They were either well off or dropped off at some private orphanage that created prodigies. Our "Masters" were bred in golden cages, and these dynamic show dogs became the base of our musical cheer ladder. They probably didn't even want the job, except that their 20 brothers and sisters needed to eat. My partner in music crime, Jonathan, says that Gesualdo wrote weird far-out stuff for his time and was also independently wealthy. To which I say, was he the exception to the rule then? The tradition of selectively cultivating artists continues today, but because Art isn't taken as seriously in our modern world culture (i.e.:no strong presence in curriculums), our "show dogs" are treated as the sickly shadow of their original progenitors. This obviously isn't fair, but until we replace the elitist literary idiots at Macmillan Industries and other Text Book publishing houses, children are always going to think that they have to write overtures from an incubator to be taken seriously. And while I'm rearranging the face of our history books, little girls need to start seeing pictures of women in those books too... The good and the bad of it.
I'm not saying that all musicians who were bred to play, don't deserve credit for their art. I do suggest however, that they were forced into roles by the powers that be, devastating powers that insulated them from the pain and beauty of life, and shut everyone else's pain and beauty out. I'm also not saying that we have no control over our own destinies. I am asserting the idea that we should always consider the complex environments that give us music before judging the music itself, and the bounty hunters of prodigious sound ought to spread the net some. I mean... MORE! Being incapable of separating the anthropology from the archaeology is what draws me to artists who have suffered through the production of their creations, while under more duress than others. It's too bad that billions of men and women have been not only denied access to music, but have also been robbed by all of our ancestors. Of everything they could have left, they left us with a legacy of forced agonies that we could never hope to top. But the true facts of life are bleeding all over us. I mean, shouldn't Little Johnny Leper get to be discovered as the prodigy he is before his fingers fall off? Sure that's philanthropic... but, it's mostly SMART. It's about getting more for all of us.
Since, I don't have the resources to travel the annals of all time looking for a complete and fair history covering every artist's work and their life-story, I can't make a justified conclusion about this theory that musicians are more prone to anything over another. Even though mysterious outsider artists have been flinging their blood Pollock style on cave walls forever, a large amount of historical record is based on assumptions and discriminations. Legend is highly speculative by nature, and I totally believe that the majority of our history IS legend. That was more of a sweeping emotional statement, than something I came up with using beakers and calculus, but I still believe it.
I don't have a conclusion here. Except that maybe, Class War has always been ON. You can't deny it. Stories always start out the same. Born Rich or Born Poor. So how does that figure into the general mental health of musicianship? It isn't a tidy package. Maybe when I have some time, I'll venture back to the places in history, where the crimes against the arts were even weirder. We'll ride our time machine back and spy on the punishments of creative types. We'll watch them having their skin scraped off with oyster shells and then the burning of the leftovers. Or maybe we could even sit in on one of those Gut-a-cow-and-sew-up-a-criminal-inside-to-die-in-the-rotting-carcass-at-high-noon parties, and wonder what their song meant.
I see the World as being full of scores of dead musical ghosts who never had the chance to play music. Maybe, every breath we take is the ether of a musical soul who was hung by the throat for his politics 3 thousand years ago. Maybe, every breath we let escape, is the floundering essence of cheated apparitions. I think it's easier to manage your vision today, but ghettos still remain filled with desperate children, who if given the chance could be that prodigy of this century. I am glad to be a part of this time period, where I have the opportunities I make for myself, but we have to help make BETTER opportunities for kids around us, because History is not that encouraging. And mental health is fucking relative during War time.
Nonetheless, I wondered how all of this related to, or directly affected our numbers amidst the "Mortality by Profession" charts. Because apparently, carelessly-driven, hyper-sensitive creative types can't avoid a party or a pill or any other gateway libation, that eventually sees them face down in a gutter of human disregard, slowly drained of opportunity. A mess of scribbled on napkins in their soiled pockets listing innumerable romantically charged failures.... Or so I figured. I made these two lists as I hunted for Sensationalist stories.
The first list is of some musical victims of homicide. I didn't include any Neanderthals, Highlanders, Friends to Vishnu or listings from the Ming Dynasty... (A couple of these guys weren't confirmed murders, but highly suspicious)
Blind Lemon Jefferson
John 'Jaco' Pastorius
Samuel George Jr.
In closing, I just want to say that I learned something very significant once that changed the way I look at the world of the arts forever. Still-life paintings weren't always about the skill of the artist's depiction. They were about capturing the exotic fruits that wealth could afford. When fancy pants or "dandies" would come calling, they would marvel at the fruits in the paintings that were imported from far away places and had cost a fortune. So, the art was about it's social value, and the value was in the owner's ability to afford the fruit (and so also control) the artist making the painting. You think those poor artists wanted to waste their short lives painting fruit baskets? I'm not saying every artist lived by a for-hire credo, but Money sure as fuck changes things now doesn't it? So the next time you look at a still-life, don't assume it was painted for practice. How this relates to the mental health and wellness of musicians and artists through history, is obvious I think, but needs so much more attention to respectfully work out the implications. So, I apologize if I have dragged you into my quagmire of criticism only to be unsatisfied with my conclusions.
And, I'm not saying Charles Manson was a good musician by the way, but his mother DID sell him for a pitcher of beer when he was a boy.
This "Article" was posted on Nonalignment Pact February 28th 2007.