Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Quiet Sun

In the history of rock music there have been several musicians whose mental illnesses have severely impaired their careers. Immediately one thinks of the troubled lives of the late Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, of Roky Erikson of the 13th Floor Elevators, of British jazz-rock pioneer Graham Bond, of Derek and the Dominos’ Jim Gordon, and of Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, the latter the subject of a recently issued documentary. Many legendary rockers have suffered from depression—Nick Drake, perhaps Kurt Cobain—and many have sought treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Of course, these sorts of maladies are not peculiar to rock musicians (although one site wants to suggest that there is a connection between rock music and mental instability, as if there were a cause-effect relationship), but rather an instance of the statistical probability that some members of the general population who suffer from mental illness may become rock musicians. Whether the entertainment industry in general—“Show Biz”—has a statistical higher probability of having sociopaths (and psychotics) than the general population as part of its membership is not a subject I feel competent to discuss; if there has been a study done exploring this subject, I would love to read it. I suspect that such a research project would be fraught with problems, however.

I do think, however, that because they are in Show Biz, these individuals as a consequence are more visible to the general population. It is therefore interesting that an article in today’s Los Angeles Times about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson foregrounds his fragile psyche and his “psychological torment.” The article appears as part of the publicity apparatus employed to promote the 66-year-old Wilson’s new album, That Lucky Old Sun. The press seems to view each new Brian Wilson album as a significant achievement, an arduous hurdle for the troubled artist whose “storied masterwork Smile, the long-abandoned Beach Boys project . . . plunged him into an abyss of psychological torment,” that is, initiated his professional decline at the height of his popular success. Hence it seems impossible to discuss Brian Wilson without invoking the Romantic myth of the tortured artist. Most certainly his latest album doesn’t carry with it the heavy mythology of Smile, and hence isn’t likely to have that album’s impact. But it is certainly a happy occasion to learn that one of rock’s great mythologists—who almost single-handedly created the myth of Southern California as a place of expenditure without consequence, of endless of fun and sun—is still at work and seemingly content with the way his life has turned out. His example is a counter-myth to one of rock's most cherished (and Romantic) myths, the self-destructive artist.

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