By Gina Vivinetto
I read a recent article about The Vines canceling their tour because of frontman Craig Nicholls‘ deteriorating mental health. Nicholls was diagnosed with Aspergers in 2004 after his behavior had grown increasingly erratic and violent, but it looks like he’s getting even worse.
For the record, I’m not sure Aspergers makes you act manic and out-of-control– Nicholls attacked a photographer among other things– but admittedly I don’t know an awful lot about the disease. Still, it sounds to me like Nicholls is suffering from full-blown bipolar disorder. Or schizophrenia.
Which brings up of a subject I find interesting: the notion of “outsider artists” in rock ‘n’ roll. There have been endless debates about artists like Daniel Johnston, whom I attempted to interview in 2003, a schizophrenic and bipolar musician whose behavior is often dangerous and combative – Johnston was once arrested for attacking his friend with a lead pipe because he believed him to be the devil, and also the late Wesley Wills, a schizophrenic black man who grew up in Chicago foster homes and later recorded childlike songs about Batman that white indie rockers adored. (Willis died in 2003 of chronic leukemia. He was 40).
There is ample footage of both men, Johnston in the acclaimed 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Willis in the 2003 documentary The Daddy of Rock ‘N’ Roll, where cameras followed him around as he talked to himself. (Another documentary was released about him this year).
I think it’s worth repeating that Willis sang his goofy songs to mostly white audiences, often college-age frat boys who were happy to oblige Willis when he asked them to bash their heads into his. Willis enjoyed head butts from fans so much, he walked around with a permanent knot on his forehead. For many reasons (which include the nefarious history of race relations in the United States), this image bothers me.
For as long as “outsider musicians” have been involved in the industry, critics have asked the question: is it okay to profit off these people? Or are we exploiting them?
Certainly, there are red flags that these artists have not always been taken care of by their management. Despite his indie rock cult stardom, Wesley Willis, who recorded over 1,000 songs and played to huge sell-out crowds, died with a total life savings of $300.
Where is Willis’ money? That question has still never been sufficiently answered.
Even more interesting to me is the criteria for an outsider artist. Which mentally ill musicians – and there are plenty – are to be considered outsider? Why are musicians like Brian Wilson and the late Kurt Cobain, no strangers to the manic and the depressive, considered mainstream artists when others are relegated to the musical looney bin?
Where does Britney Spears, who had the world’s most public nervous breakdown, fit into all of this?
The world monitored Britney’s bizarre behavior for all of 2007 and 2008. And now it’s acceptable to push her lucrative ass back on the road? Why? Because an untold amount of people make their living off her performances?
Britney attacked a car with an umbrella. She shaved her head as the paparazzi snapped pictures. Shouldn’t Britney be the Queen of the Outsider Artists?
That question would be easier to answer if Brit were not in such elite company. Many of the biggest musical stars of the last 20 years have suffered from mental illness (including bipolar disorder and depression): Spears, Cobain, Axl Rose, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor and I’ll leave it up to you to diagnose Madonna and Prince.
This is nothing new. The connection between creativity and mental illness has been written about for years.
But the music biz is not just about creativity, it’s a business. Like it or not, Britney Spears and Daniel Johnston, Kurt Cobain and Craig Nicholls, crazy as they may be, are products that we buy.
I don’t know how to determine who’s well enough to be in the industry and who’s not. Or which damaged people should be marketed as such and which should not.
But I applaud the decision made by The Vines’ members and management and I hope in the future, others reflect on it. Craig Nicholls may be a product, but he’s a person first.