Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Guardian: Readers Recommend: Songs About Mental Illness

Dorian Lynskey
Friday February 29, 2008
The Guardian

In pop music, there is "crazy" and then there is crazy. "Crazy" is Patsy Cline, Beyoncé, Aerosmith, Prince. "Crazy" is fun. Crazy, on the other hand, is Syd Barrett, slipping through the looking glass; or David Bowie's half-brother Terry, whose schizophrenia inspired songs such as Jump They Say; or Daniel Johnston, whose manic depression turns his fans into uneasy voyeurs. Crazy can produce great songwriting, but more often destroys it. Any song that engages with mental illness is to some extent discomfiting, either because it is too flippant or because it is all too real.

Things are going to get heavy, so let's start light. Annie Ross's Twisted, later covered by Joni Mitchell and Bette Midler, is a spirited riposte to the head-shrinkers: "My analyst told me that I was right out of my head/ I said dear doctor, I think that it's you instead." Californian punks Suicidal Tendencies make the same point with rather less elegance and rather more splenetic guitars. "I'm not crazy! You're the one who's crazy!" yelps Mike Muir, crazily.

Before LSD took off, the major threat to garage-rock bands' mental wellbeing appeared to be sexual frustration. If they had got more satisfaction, they might not have turned their amps up so loud, so let's hear it for thwarted libido. On their only hit, the Count Five seethe and fidget, fit to explode.

Though heavy metal later became rusted by cliche, Black Sabbath's Paranoid sounds genuinely unhinged. "I tell you to enjoy life/ I wish I could but it's too late," Ozzy yowls. Mind Playing Tricks On Me is gangsta rap at its most psychologically astute, cracking open the shell of thuggish bravado to reveal young men maddened by paranoia and guilt.

Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox and his mother both spent long periods on antidepressants. Take Pills flushes them away ("I don't want for us to take pills any more") with music that has a woozy, narcotic allure of its own. Choking intensity wracks Tindersticks' 4.48 Psychosis, named after the last play Sarah Kane wrote before hanging herself in 1999. 4.48am was when Kane's manic depression would regularly snap her awake.

Prior to making music, Kevin Coyne was a psychiatric nurse, so he knew better than to treat mental illness lightly. The House On the Hill has the same dishevelled lope as Neil Young's Tonight's the Night: the sound of someone coming undone while asking, "Who on earth will ever understand I'm really trying?"

Finally, two examples of unvarnished autobiography. Kristin Hersh wrote The Letter about her bipolar disorder during her Throwing Muses days, then shelved it because it made her feel sick. A decade later, a friend finally persuaded her to record it. A brave decision - it's distressing to hear, let alone to sing. When Dory Previn was ditched by André for Mia Farrow, she was institutionalised (not for the first time) and wrote songs as therapy. Although Previn's playful phrasing and country twang sweeten the pill a little, the spoken-word coda is indescribably disturbing. Quick, listen to Twisted again.

This week's playlist

1 Twisted Annie Ross
2 Institutionalized Suicidal Tendencies
3 Psychotic Reaction The Count Five
4 Paranoid Black Sabbath
5 Mind Playing Tricks on Me The Geto Boys
6 Take Pills Panda Bear
7 4.48 Psychosis Tindersticks
8 House on the Hill Kevin Coyne
9 The Letter Kristin Hersh
10 Mr Whisper Dory Previn

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