Column - Positive thinking. Why Bruce Springsteen & Passion Pit are right to be frank about mental health
When The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, king of the powerful anthem, the rousing chorus and the hail-fellow-well-met-personality admitted in a recent New Yorker profile that his successes have been driven by a most troubling triumverate of "pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred" it was surprising to say the least.
Later last month we found ourselves taken aback by the directness and honesty of Passion Pit who when postponing a series of tour dates explained : "We need to postpone our upcoming weekday shows in order for Michael [Angelakos, vocalist] to continue to improve his mental health and complete a procedure that week".
Where one would expect in the first instance that superhero Springsteen, though his songwriting suggests a sensitive and perceptive man, may perhaps be immune to such potentially crippling conditions and in the second instance that any young band would use the "nervous exhaustion" line and mask the truth of their singer's condition, both these developments demonstrate a strong step in the right direction in terms of dealing with mental health issues in music.
There are too many human beings lost to depression in musical history and we don't even need to begin to name names. Consider for a moment your favourite lost icon, your dead hero. Consider the torment they went through, the years of unbearable anguish before their lives were taken either by their own hand or other equally unfortunate circumstances. When we think of these people are we just seeing images on T-shirts, hearing tragic words in song? In other words, are we celebrating them while ignoring the agony they went through?
One of the clearest cases of severe mental illness in modern rock music has to be that of the beautiful and tortured Manic Street Preachers member Richey Edwards. Though Edwards' fate is still to be conclusively determined we know that during his public life he not only refused to mask his self-debasement and horrifying depression but also, perhaps to a dangerous degree, used them as a form of flagellating self-celebration. People I grew up with wanted to be him. Some took to self-harming and bulimic behaviour, as well as eyeliner and poetry, in an attempt to be closer to their angelic saviour. Edwards being open about his mental health was undoubtedly a good thing - perhaps the way it was communicated or the way we chose to receive it was not.
In the case of Daniel Johnston, a life long sufferer of both schizophrenia and manic depression, his illnesses and sometimes evident lack of self-awareness are often bandied around as terms of underground credibility and cool. His very sickness is what appeals to some people, regardless of his work. I used to have an acquaintance who tells a brutally offensive story about assisting Mr Johnston at a festival buffet as he had become extremely confused. It's a tale told with an air of "Oh my God! He's so mad!" that is more than bitter to swallow. This is another example of how mental health in the arts should never be treated - as cutesy trivia.
Ultimately aside from the 27 club, aside from the more famous examples used here there are people like Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous losing their lives to a terrible illness week in and week out. The number of unknown musicians suffering in the same way is obviously unrecorded and unknowable. Yes, of course unhappiness has informed some of the great lyricists, black moods conjouring some of the most memorable music of our time - but mental illness is an illness and why would we want people we admire to suffer?
Springsteen's honesty and Angelakos' straightforwardness is a new and refreshing approach to musical mental health. The Boss has, he says, overcome his issues through years of therapy while the Passion Pit frontman is clearly taking a proactive approach to recovery. These are bold and positive moves. Without glamourising or hiding, both parties are bringing the facts to the world's attention, normalizing a stigmatized problem and hopefully helping to put an end to the growing list of names that should need never be added to again.
Michael James Hall @michaeljamesh
11:03 AM | 06/08/2012
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