The fine line – What goes on in the mind of the Mad artist?
The science fiction writer, Philip K Dick said: “The world we actually have does not meet my standards”
Shine on, you crazy diamond
“He didn’t seem to have to search for a melody, or for a word…the just seemed to be there; they seemed to come very easily for him.” David Gilmour recounted in describing the process of producing Syd Barrett’s solo album “The Madcap Laughs”. The album was recorded shortly after it became apparent that Barrett was no longer able to handle the responsibilities of being the lead singer and songwriter for the band “the Pink Floyd”. For ten years, Barrett created a darkly playful and complicated sound that initiated psychedelic rock. Yet until the symptoms of the insidious disease manifested themselves in mysterious and confounding, and ultimately debilitating ways, Barrett was able to tap into a resource few people could ever imagine.
The genius that was able to piece together zeitgeist, blues and his own vision created a sound that continues profoundly to influence rock and roll, and its accompanying visionary journeys into the unconscious that characterize much of its imagery. Towards the end of his run, in 1967 Barrett and “the” Pink Floyd recorded the album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” – in retrospect the showpiece of this short career that features the hit “See Emily play”. On this album is a groovy trip of great genius – Lucifer Sam. “Lucifer Sam, Si-Am cat…Something I can’t explain”. Always by his side, nonetheless. To you and I an innocuous furry friend, but to a man whose genius is inching towards insanity, he sees the creature having forced himself into the psyche and had become the right side of the unwilling victim. What seems like a cocky frighter of a stylish drug companion is actually a slim glimpse into a mind that was beginning to turn in onto itself.
The line between genius and insanity has been well discussed, documented and analyzed and yet still remains elusive to comprehend. Even more so when that insanity is schizophrenia – a devastating illness that often kicks in at the time when a young artistic genius is discovering the magnitude of his talent. Like Barrett, perhaps it comes to them with flowing ease – no effort, no writers block no lack of ideas – entirely original. What is the process? What does it feel like? It has been said that the schizophrenic brain does not discern between right an left hemisphere, therefore those churning wheels up there pick quickly elements and make associations without being bogged down by the gateways of rational thought.
Chimes of Madness
It seems the work of the psychotic genius reaches a peak of great creative brilliance, then begins to take a turn for the odd. Think about “Wind Chimes” by Brian Wilson. Released as part of “Smiley Smile”, the album that followed the 24 year old’s masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. It sounds like the Beach Boys – there the familiar vocal harmony – almost acapella but for a spare, long organ notes, a kalimba and some type of Australian tubular percussion instrument. The harmony seems like it was added after the fact, after Brian haphazardly grabbed a tape recorder whilst looking out at the wind chimes, perhaps he was half asleep perhaps drunk. his vocals seem to betray one or the other. Listening closely, the harmony has nothing to do with the Beach Boys. It is his own voice – sped, layered, slowed – He muses about his wind chimes in high-pitched, lazy observance. The trippy bliss is jarringly shattered by what sounds like the appearance of a reanimated corpse in a low-budget shocker illustrated by a horn section. But this is soon forgotten and the acapella self-harmony, musing on the wind chimes “tinkling” resumes, then fades. “Wind Chimes” is no less brilliant in its innovation than his arrangements on “Pet Sounds”, but it any linear influence or reference to the bricks-and-mortar socio-cultural world is severed. The spontaneity remains, but it is not longer grounded in the world of others. That world no longer met his standards.
Two brothers, one talent, two fates
As teenagers, Charles Crumb, Robert’s young brother appeared once to have a comparable potential of talent as the later iconic older Crumb. Through their teenage years, they expounded on the anthropomorphic animal hijinks kids comics of the 50’s. But gradually, the younger Crumb’s work became increasingly methodical and at the same time more meaningless. He would concentrate on folds in clothing and skin of the characters, to the point that they became the most important aspect of the work and he sacrificed the story completely. By the time the illness manifested, he was filling page after page with drawings of folds and repetitive patterns that emulated comic book lettering.
Ebbing the flow
A friend of mine is an aging and very talented musician. Of late, she is attempting to write one last musical. This one is for children and her partner is a young man with schizophrenia. The ideas ran wild and, she was greatly appreciative of uninhibited flow of ideas of her talented collaborator. There was a catch, though. It seems the dear chap loved characters – lots and lots of characters. The story had hardly started (involving a muskrat, a bear a frog and a squirrel), when he decided what the narrative really needed was a princess, a talking choo-choo, and two goats. She found it impossible to get him to concentrate on developing dialog between any two or three characters. Once they had written as simple four-line exchange, the fellow’s explosive creativity compelled him to bring in a new character to sing each new line. Soon, almost every lyric had its own character. Fortunately for her, he took numerous smoking breaks during the courses of which she was able to whittle down the charachters. With kind cajoling, and and an overall acceptance of his quirks and assurance of appreciation of his talent, they compromised on 15. He got to keep one goat and the princess. To her, the sacrifice of some coherence was worth the infusion of vibrant originality. By treating him with respect, rather than resistance the resulting compromise was, by their estimation, a successful collaboration.
Another advantage is he has a wonderful singing voice.
The featured image above is by early 20th century Louis Wain, and obviously depicts the evolution of his work.