Rock ‘n’ roll and mental illness: Who decides who’s mainstream and who’s “outsider” when everyone is nuts?

Posted: December 11, 2008 by ginavivinetto in Gina Vivinetto, music
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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).

Wesley Willis.

Wesley Willis.

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.

  1. Jimmy says:

    There are so many sharp knives in the artistic field. intelligent people with cool minds who can really deliver and remain sane.
    and there’s so many good ones who flip, not because they’re mad, but they might have realized they are no longer private. They wanted the limelight and the limelight never turns off. What they fought for became like insomnia, no rest for the wicked, so to speak.

  2. Josie says:

    The same industries which exploit artists with mental illness also continue to glamorize the same illnesses. We are regaled with the genius of Van Gogh with little commemoration of his agony. Teenagers are deluged with the idealization of mental suffering.
    We are swayed to consider suffering a necessary part of the creative process, and insanity an extreme version of that process. We are told happiness doesn’t produce art as valid as pain. And of course, there are the legions of us (regretfully, I include myself in this group) who rescue the ill/addicted/wild child, perhaps too because of cultural influence.
    While I do believe that every culture needs jesters and fools, I don’t believe that we need Johnsons and Willis’s to capture a certain truth.
    Great essay, Gina.

  3. Meanwhile, Americans elect someone like George W.Bush to destroy them along with the rest of the world (of course, he got alot of help from his friend Dick Cheney, someone no sane person would ever throw a tea party with, never mind a hunting one). Go figure.

    But you have reminded me. I once got into a huge, practically physical, fight with Sonic Youth- or maybe it was just Lee Ranaldo– when they brought Daniel Johnston, uninvited, to a show we once did, which featured a long night and a fairly bizarre cast of characters/artists including Public Enemy, who have probably never appeared in the same room before or since, and I can guarantee you, attempting to interview him was probably a piece of cake compared to trying to get him off the stage. Although it’s really too bad I did not have my wits about me, I realized now I tragically missed probably the only photo op anyone might ever have to get Flavor Flav and Daniel Johnston in the same frame. Definitely an odder couple than Flav and the ex-Stallonian babe he somehow managed to leverage a whole ‘nother career, not to mention a “reality” show out of, or any Rock of Love that’s been spun off from it.

    Come to think of it, it’s no wonder they call them spin-offs, ’cause they are merely symptoms of a world– that between horrible TV shows and even nuttier news of banks and industries who need to be bailed out when their derivative and hedge fund schemes fail or their hideous, over expensive, fuel-inefficient cars don’t sell–has completely spun out of control.

    So who IS crazy now?

  4. Lauren says:

    This is an excellent article, but I just wanted to make a slight correction: asperger syndrome (AS) is not a disease or a mental disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar, rather it is a neurobiological condition that has parallels to autism. I know because I work with kids with high functioning autism/AS, and was actually misdiagnosed with it when I was 17. It was instead confirmed that I had bipolar (lucky me). I knew that I didn’t have something like autism because I’m way too socially perceptive, and I can read nonverbal communication and facial expressions. People with autism/AS can’t do this. And I don’t have any of the characteristics of autism/AS. I think that the only reason I was diagnosed in the first place was because of characteristics of my ADHD (problems with organization, hyperactive, easily distracted) and the fact that it takes me a little longer to learn new things. But that’s just me; we all learn things at different rates. And some of us may take longer to acquire new things, but that doesn’t mean we’re autistic. You have to have a whole complex of characteristics in order to be autistic, and primary among them is the inability to read nonverbal communication. There’s no such thing as an autistic person who is adept at reading social cues; that’s the defining feature of autism/AS.

    As to the craig nicholls thing, I’m more inclined to believe he has bipolar as opposed to AS. People with AS tend to be nonviolent, in fact often their problem is that they aren’t aggressive enough to fend for themselves. This, added to the fact that they cannot read nonverbal social cues, contributes to the fact that they are often victimized.

    Sorry for rambling, but I just wanted to elucidate that. It’s very easy to misconstrue Asperger Syndrome for a disease or a mental illness; it’s not a very well-understood condition. Psychiatrists themselves don’t even know what it is. It’s one of the most mysterious conditions out there besides schizophrenia.

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