Lost struggles

Last week, Sally Brampton walked into the sea and died. Her editorial and authorial skills were widely admired, and her death caused a lot of sadness. For a few days, mental illness amongst the famous was back in the news. I thought that the media coverage of her death was pretty appropriate in tone, but it did sometimes slip into a ‘lost a long struggle’ motif that is misleading and subtly moralising. I have written about these unhelpful tropes about mental health problems before but they just keep coming around. Ideas about the mental health of well-known people have a significant impact on public perceptions.

Like every other elderly and unsuccessful musician in the English-speaking world, I subscribe to Mojo magazine. On the whole I enjoy reading it, but it does publish an awful lot of material about the music of the 1960s. Whilst a lot of that was glorious, I would be quite pleased if we could move on.

A few weeks ago, Mojo published the latest in a long series of music press genre pieces: “Syd: the ultimate celebration”. The late Syd Barrett was the leader of Pink Floyd. He was sacked (or perhaps more accurately, unceremoniously dumped) in January 1968 after he became impossible to work with. These articles are a music magazine staple. He released his last record at the age of 24, and he gave up music completely shortly thereafter, so there is little need to search for new facts. You can trot out a load of tired 1960s ephemera and recycle quotations from old interviews with the other members of Pink Floyd.

Syd Barrett had a huge enigmatic mystique, which in part was because he was highly photogenic, and in part rested on the ambiguity over what exactly it was that made him behave so oddly and made his muse skew off in such an unusual direction. His former colleagues mythologized him in one of their best songs, ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’. My objection to the Syd legend is that it turns on the concept of the ‘acid casualty’. This is a really unhelpful way of thinking about mental health problems. According to the mythology, ‘acid casualties’ are not simply people who become unwell in the context of fame and drug use. They are bold explorers at the outer limits of human experience and creativity who have travelled so far out that their brains have been fried and they cannot find their way back. To be fair, Mojo was a bit more serious in its appraisal of Syd’s legacy (as befits a magazine that aspires to a type of journalistic scholarship, part London Review of Books, part Smash Hits) but the ‘acid casualty’ theme was still discernible.

One of my more noticed publications was Kind of Blue: creativity, mental disorder and jazz’, which was published as an editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003. It has led to many speaking engagements, right up to a seminar this February at the wonderful Leeds Music Hub. I don’t think having a mental illness or other mental health problem makes you more brave or creative than anybody else. I do think that many people are highly creative despite mental health problems, as Sally Brampton and Syd Barrett were. That is surely a real stigma buster; David Bowie adopted Syd Barrett’s vocal style because it sounded great and Sally Brampton’s editorial style was imitated because it was stylish and sold lots of magazines. They were neither inspired by psychological extremis nor permanently incapacitated. They communicated creatively with other people in ways that stood on their own merits.

There is a real issue about the mental health of musicians. Not just the big names, but the generality of gigging musicians across the country, the people I have been hanging out with for the past forty-five years.

Music communities have a structure that is very flat and egalitarian, despite the fact that the financial difference between simply getting regular work and being really successful is massive. Local music communities have an implicit ability hierarchy, which does not necessarily translate into success or money. Some people, mainly youngsters, are on the way up. Others are on the way back down. Plenty of people who have been very well known find themselves back on the same local scene that spawned them in their middle years.

The core membership of music communities consists of two main groups. The first and largest group is people like me, who have day jobs and spend much more on music-making than they could ever earn. The second group is people who make a living from music. They tend to either alternate proper tours playing alongside major artists with local gigs, or they teach an instrument and gig. Their income is insecure, they work in an environment where alcohol and drug use is all around, and there is no sick pay, or paid holiday leave, or pension. They often travel a lot, and sleep in less than luxurious conditions, such as in the back of the van or in local B&Bs. Boredom is a problem, especially the long wait to go on stage. Almost all performers get a huge buzz from performing. That is why they do it. Coming down from that particular high is quite difficult, leading to very late nights and more substance misuse. Musicians have notoriously unstable relationships, which may account for the popularity of break-up themes amongst songwriters over the age of twenty-five.

It is unlikely that anything related to creativity causes poor mental health amongst musicians, with the possible exception of a temperamental tendency towards risk taking. Musicians live in a social environment that is bad for their mental health. They find it difficult to acknowledge problems when they arise. Many have irregular peripatetic lifestyles that make it hard to secure help. None of this has anything to do with crazy diamonds or brave struggles.

The Leeds seminar was part of a mental health initiative initiative developed by musicians themselves. I was really pleased to be asked to be part of this, and I hope that I will be asked to contribute something to similar initiatives in future. It is really important that musicians themselves lead them. Communities get better assistance when they organise themselves and articulate their needs. Activities like this are one of the very best ways of overcoming stigma; not a top down put-you-straight process, but a bottom up drive for better awareness and more appropriate action.