Going Mad pt 2… Madmen

There’s probably quite a high correlation between music and mental health. Certainly creative types are prone to mood swings, often it’s what makes them creative, throw in factors such as unconventional lifestyles and drink and drugs and it’s not surprising that a lot of musicians have fluctuating mental health. In the 70’s various big names, to pick a few at random, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies and David Bowie appeared to be ‘loosing it’ a bit. Others like Nick Drake and Keith Moon lost their lives in overdoses of the very drugs that were supposed to be helping them.

To thin the list out considerably here are 4 people all British, who in the 70’s became ill enough to see the inside of a mental institution.

Syd Barrett

Everyone knows the Syd stories, how at the height of his fame somehow lost the plot. Once the creative force of Pink Floyd Syd had become withdrawn and would often just play a few notes onstage. Dave Gilmour was drafted in to assist onstage but one day the band just decided not to pick him up for the gig and carry on without him. Flatmate keyboard player Rick Wright was then in the awkward position of having to tell Barrett he was popping out for cigarettes whenever he had a gig.

At one point some of his colleagues has allegedly gone to RD Laing (see last weeks post) for help and played him a tape of Syd. Laing had apparently called him incurable which if it was true but have been one of the shoddiest diagnoses in psychiatric history although I’m sure far worse have been made.

Certainly, Barrett became a very different person after taking quite a lot of LSD, he was always cited as a cautionary tale to potential astral travellers. What is on dispute is the actual nature of any mental changes. Roger Waters states he is convinced Barrett was schizophrenic and spent the next decade writing songs about it. It must be said though that Waters isn’t a psychiatrist and it seems like no one who is or was a psychiatrist agreed with him. Barrett did spend some time in some sort of psychiatric institution and did have some therapy sessions but was never treated for mental health with drugs.

Barrett just really lost interest in music and returned to live in his mother’s house in Cambridge where he continued to live a low-key lifestyle painting and gardening. Luckily, he had a supportive lifestyle and a financial cushion from Pink Floyd royalties. He dies at the age of 60 but his later life sounds pretty happy

Peter Green

Unlike Syd Barrett there seems a fair consensus that Green had Schizophrenia and presumably still does. Like Barrett Green came from a close supportive family who continued to support him after his withdrawal from music. It must be said that early Fleetwood Mac was hardly a bastion of good mental health but most close to him pinpoint the change in Green to an LSD episode in Germany.

Green undoubtedly received treatment as an inpatient including electro convulsive therapy. Like a lot of Schizophrenic people he took a long time to get stabilized but he also continued to make music off and on although really the spark had gone. His later band the Splinter Group made quite a few albums but it appears that it was quite an effort to get Green ready for participation in music. Maybe that some of the tragedy of Green’s situation was that he couldn’t really leave music behind because every time he was well enough there were plenty of people wanting to get him back in the studio and on the road which isn’t the healthiest of environments for someone struggling with their mental health.

On a positive note Green is the only person here who is alive today, mental health takes its toll physically, not least due to the side effects of medication .

Robert Calvert

If there could have been any band which was the antithesis of a bad mental health environment surely it must have been Hawkwind. It’s surprising therefore that Calvert was an occasional member . Being Bi Polar he could be incredibly creative. Calvert is all over the bands finest album, the live Space Ritual with vocals, spoken word and general conception of the project. He was the nearest the band had to a frontman and he reappeared as such on the band’s later 70’s renaissance record Quark Strangeness and Charm. In between music he was sometimes disabled by his mental health, on occasions being admitted or sectioned to institutions. Despite this he was fiercely creative and with a number of collaborators made a couple of solo records (basically concept albums) as well as writing poetry and plays. One reasons he’s not that well known is that he died of a heart attack aged 43.

Viv Stanshall

Like Calvert, with whom he collaborated in the 70’s, Stanshall was incredibly creative but relatively unfocused. Unsuited to the rigors of band membership he had quite the Bonzos at the end of the 60’s. Allegedly he shaved all his hair off on Christmas Day before coming down to the family dinner (how many of us have felt like that?) It was a sign that something was wrong and he was soon hospitalized with what most of us would call a nervous breakdown.

From then on it was a slow and fluctuating downhill struggle. Quite what his mental health issues were have never been clear but the situation had been exacerbated by doctors prescribing him Valium for anxiety and his dependence on that, often with alcohol meant that Stanshall was mentally and creatively all over the place.

For a long while he kept going with appearances on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, a few solo albums and his greatest work Rawlinson’s End. Stanshall was incredibly creative but kind of lacked the focus needed to turn that creativity into success and inevitably that creativity was blunted with drink drugs and mental health. By the 90’s he was living in a small flat in Muswell Hill and becoming one of the regular collection of crazy people walking the streets of North London.

He died in a fire at his flat in 1995.

In the 70’s mental health services were even worse than they are today, drug and alcohol services were in their infancy. Community treatment was relatively minor and inpatient treatment far more widespread, there was help but it was patchy and preventative treatment was unheard of. Going into hospital was a last straw and it wasn’t always easy to get out again. Eccentricity was encouraged but with the likes of Viv Stanshall and Syd Barrett it disguised some serious mental health issues for a very long time.

In the world of music however these ‘madmen’ had an opportunity to express themselves and the world is a better and richer place for them having shared their creativity with us.

This entry was posted in memories of 70s, mental health, rock music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Going Mad pt 2… Madmen

  1. Aphoristical says:

    Bowie’s flirtation with nazism was pretty alarming.

    Liked by 1 person

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