Rock ‘n’ roll mythology is filled with stories of madness. Most of these tales are less about mental instability and more an example of what happens when fame, fortune and indulgences in various forms guide the behaviours of the young.
There are, however, a number of legitimately mad men (and women) who have shaped popular music as we know it. These artists are part of a time-honoured fraternity of great and influential artists who have either been driven by or driven to new levels of madness as a result of their artistic endeavours. Consider these three ‘Vans’: Ludwig van Beethoven allegedly suffered from bipolar disorder which many believe helped him fuel his creativity. Vincent Van Gough spent years in a French insane asylum battling depression and severe mood swings. And finally, Eddie Van Halen…wel,l he may just be part genius/part alcoholic but he certainly has had his moments of instability.
Sometimes you have to wonder what came first…the madness or the music. In the case of Brian Wilson, founding member and creative force behind The Beach Boys, it’s hard to say. Wilson had a self-described difficult childhood, growing up with a brooding and abusive father, but that only made him more determined to please his dad and drive his band to great success. Even the early years of The Beach Boys, Wilson was shy, introverted and much more comfortable behind the scenes creating the surf sounds and harmonies.
It wasn’t until he was 25 years-old that Wilson first recalls hearing voices in his head. Voices that caused the baby-faced musical genius to retreat to the studio and turn to drugs to help fuel his creativity and turn down the negativity in his head. The battle that must have been raging in his mind as he created the beautiful melodies, and textured vocals on Pet Sounds while the demons in his mind, likely versions of his father, called in to question his abilities as a musician and producer. So, deeper and deeper Wilson withdrew in to the studio, no longer touring with his band, but instead building sandboxes around his piano and having musicians wear fire helmets during the infamous Smile session in 1966/67. It is believed that part of the reason Wilson abandoned the original Smile project is because he felt the track “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’, an instrumental inspired by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was evil and filled with demons that had originally haunted one of his earliest LSD trips that featured death by fire.
From there, Wilson retreated from the studio and basically from life. He experienced a nervous breakdown that led to spending close to three years lying in his bed in a drug-induced daze – famously documented by Barenaked Ladies in their song “Brian Wilson” and later actually covered by Wilson and his touring band. Somehow, after decades of withdrawal, therapy and an eventual diagnosis or schizoaffective disorder that manifests itself in the form of auditory hallucinations, Wilson resurfaced and even completed the Smile project and most recently reunited with The Beach Boys.
In addition to being driven to please his father and address the voices in his head, Wilson also says he felt tremendous pressure to compete with the output of The Beatles and also outdo his musical idol, 60’s producer extraordinaire, Phil Spector. Spector is known for creating the Wall of Sound production technique and pioneering the girl group sound of the 60’s. He aimed to create little rock ‘n’ roll symphonies by using the best session musicians available, a core group of players which became known as The Wrecking Crew, and who not by coincidence also played on Pet Sounds and Smile for Wilson.
After producing some of the biggest hits of the 60’s for artists such as The Ronettes, Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, and even The Beatles’ Let It Be, Spector, always known in the industry as a bit of a temperamental person, all but disappeared. While Spector has left a tremendous musical legacy and a production style that has been imitated by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Brian Wilson, his antics outside of the studio are what he most might be remembered for.
There are stories of Spector holding The Ramones hostage in his house while working on the 1980 album End Of The Century. And of course, there is the fact that Spector is currently serving 19 years in prison for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson who was shot by Spector likely while trying to leave his home. Spector showed up to his trial with various ridiculous wigs and hairstyles that would have made an insanity plea far more believable then his defence that the shooting was an accident.
Regardless of the madness behind the musical abilities of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, one can’t deny that like other great and likely insane artists in history, they have left an indomitable mark on pop music and history.