Friday, August 18, 2006

Maybe You're Crazy, Just Like Me

“Always, no sometimes, think it’s me/But you know I know
when it’s a dream
--“Strawberry Fields Forever”

At least since rock and roll’s beginnings, many have feared the mental health consequences of popular music. In the 50s, Southern ministers raged against the frenzied demands of “the beat,” while the Alabama White Citizens Council warned that the music would drive white children “down to the level of the Negro.” (We might like to think this is behind us, but I can assure you, as an English teacher in the 21st century, I still read student essays that try to build a causal link between syncopated rhythms and behavioral problems, and the source articles my students still manage to find show that the ideas of groups like the Alabama White Citizens Council are alive and well.)

In the 1980s and 90s, many tried to laugh off the alarm the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) first sounded over the dangers of masturbation in Prince lyrics, but it forecast Tipper Gore’s appointment as Bill Clinton’s Mental Health Advisor. And the truly scary reality should not be overlooked that Tipper Gore reached that position in the Clinton administration through nearly a decade of building alliances with the likes of my neighboring state’s Missouri Project Rock, a group with links to neo-Nazis and record burners nationwide. While the overt racism of record burners tends to be kept in the closet today, the hysteria continues to smolder and our society, to some significant degree, condones it.

After all, the psychological dangers of rock music received academic and New York Times bestseller list approval with the success of Professor Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. In an oft-anthologized chapter from that book, “Music,” Bloom writes, “Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” In an essay chock full of hysterical reverie, Bloom asks, “And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music.” Considering the similarity of these fears expressed by an academically credentialed and bestselling author in the 1990s to the most repugnant racial fears expressed in the past, it is hard to see that we’ve made much progress.

The truth is far more complex than rock and rap haters want it to be. Any fan of popular music knows the music indulges the irrational, even the unhinged. That’s part of what we love about it. Perhaps more than any other art form, music manages to capture altered states of mind and allow us to indulge in them, wallow in them, be energized by them and be cleansed by them.

So many of what Paul McCartney famously called “silly love songs” are about various stages of madness. A song like “She Drives Me Crazy,” by the 80s British pop group Fine Young Cannibals almost makes sexual frustration sound fun, while songs like Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy” get at just how fragile our minds can be in the throes of love. Anyone whose been through heartbreak knows it’s no euphemism to call it a kind of madness, and the stalker mentality of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” or the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life” captures a dangerous frame of mind we might not ever openly admit to, but we sing along.

Movies have repeatedly made use of this unhinged quality in obsessive love songs suggesting dimensions of insanity lurking beneath the surface of normal social relations—particularly memorable examples including the taunting horns and manic laughter of Screamin’s Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” which continuously rang from Eva’s boombox in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, or the more unsettling Dean Stockwell lip sync of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet. What these songs and our love of them acknowledge is the fine, fine line between love and psychosis.

And that psychosis can be as sensual and exciting as Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or as bleak as his “Manic Depression” or as deadly as “Hey Joe.” Psychedelic textures can offer a sort of child-like comfort food in songs like the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” or they can be as agitated and unhinged as Paul McCartney sounds in “I’m Down” or “Helter Skelter” or as downright creepy (or is it just goofy? another fine line…) as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Often, the individual psyche is linked to some sort of larger unease as in Jackson Browne’s attempts to name the resignation of the post-60s era with “The Pretender” or its cost in “Running on Empty.” The train, the very symbol of the community’s ride to the Promised Land born out of the Great Migration and evoked again and again in songs like The Impressions “People Get Ready” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” could also tell the stories of what happens when no one’s (or at least no one benevolent) is at the controls in songs like Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” or Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”

A community going mad can be a joyous sound, as in Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” or it can be reflected by that voice from the streets in Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s groundbreaking rap “The Message”—“Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose me head.” Or, perhaps the most chilling of all, it can be heard in the very real voice of President Ronald Reagan, thinking he’s off mic, making a joke that the Soviet Union was now illegal and the bombs were on the way—a tape looped, stretched, compressed and remixed into perhaps the most chilling dance single of all time, Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’s “Five Minutes.”

To admit that music finds inspiration in the crazier aspects of what it is to be human, on one level, simply draws connections with other art, like that of Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Van Gogh. More importantly, in the case of all of these art forms, the willingness to take our fears head on, to the point of empathizing with what scares us, is one of art’s greatest strengths. Perhaps the most significant point to be made here though is that the irrational in music has everything to do with characteristics that make this particular form of art uniquely magical. Maybe that’s the power we most fear.

Shaman since prehistory have made use of music’s mind/body connection to heal and cure the sick. In the middle ages, the tarantella folk song developed as a dance cure for spider venom. In 1619, physician Robert Fludd wrote History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm theorizing that music’s healing qualities came from a link music forges between the universe and the individual. After World War II, the first music therapy programs developed, in part, because of breakthroughs reaching veterans who responded to no other treatment.

In this context, it’s all the more significant to note that rock and roll itself shares its roots with another 20th Century phenomena, the charismatic movement that originated in the Pentecostal church. Both originated in and first appealed to the poor across racial lines, and rock and roll’s taboo dance moves have more than a glancing connection to charismatic behavior--yielding to the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, waving, jumping, swooning, laughing, crying and rolling on the floor. Not incidentally, these very behaviors associated with being hit by the Holy Spirit are also linked, both psychologically and spiritually, with healing. And, like myself, I assume most music fans have anecdotal evidence of sickness that has been staved and pain that has dissipated, at least temporarily, because of music.

The majority of anecdotes I have with music’s healing powers are so banal they would hardly be worth mentioning, if there weren’t so many of them. On more occasions than I’ve even thought about counting, I’ve been determined to stay the night in bed on cold medicine to shake off some illness that’s been draining me at work, and friends or obligations that come with being a music journalist have pulled me out of the house and down to a club until 1 or 2:00 a.m.. Now the effects depended a great deal on how exciting a band I heard, but if I got caught up in the music and really enjoyed a set, chances are my symptoms (despite the smoky bar among other things) would all but disappear during the evening and be lessened the next day.

But the personal experience I find most relevant here speaks to the specifics of both the psychological therapy offered by music as well as the reasons for at least one musical genre. One night, the farthest down I’d ever been, broke and suffering that old back pain as well as the heartbreak of a failed marriage and two subsequent relationships, in a state of mind where all I wanted to do was sit on my porch swing and wait for sunrise because I couldn’t think of what else to do with myself, in this lowest of low states, music was the one thing that reached me.

I had spent months in a state of mind where a romantic subplot (I mean, literally, something like the mostly-cooled embers that glowed between Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss) would drive me to change the channel, and then one night a persistent (downright annoying) friend dragged me out to a blues club, and I learned something extraordinarily valuable about music in general and the blues in particular. As I listened to this middle-aged musician named Kool Aid play guitar and sing with only nine good fingers, I realized his was the first talk of love in months that I hadn’t found physically painful. Early in the evening, not more than a drink under my belt, I was up and dancing with a woman in the club.

I realized then crucial piece of the truth Craig Werner voices when he defines the blues impulse in A Change is Gonna Come. He writes, “The process consists of (1) fingering the jagged grain of your brutal experience; (2) finding a near-tragic, near-comic voice to express that experience; and (3) reaffirming your existence.” He concludes, “You sing the blues so you can live to sing the blues again. A lot of times the blues are mostly about finding the energy to keep moving. That’s why they’re such great party music and that’s why you hear them echoing through rock and through rap.”

This is everyday American spiritual and physical therapy. That blues club was the kind of club that exists in black neighborhoods throughout America—with more older patrons than younger, engaging in a weekly ritual of community bonding and revitalization. Kool-Aid and his band knew the blues not as some definition in a textbook but as a part of the fabric of their lives, and so their blues play list moved easily from the work of such canonical blues greats as B.B. King to down-home staples by Z.Z. Hill and radio hits by the likes of Bobby Brown and Prince. And the only reason I found myself dancing that night was the encouragement of one of those great women who bus stop and electric slide at those shows week in and week out, as much a part of the ritual as the musicians on stage. She pulled me up out of my chair, saying “Now, Danny, you are going to dance,” because she knew that’s what I (perhaps we) needed to do.

What we were practicing is what professor Christopher Small calls “musicking” in his book Music for the Common Tongue. Small argues that the making of music is a social action, involving both the artist and the audience, and that the process makes healing connections within the community involved in that act of “musicking” and between that community and the world around it. That woman lay hands on me and healed me that night by drawing me more deeply into the musicking. It’s easy to imagine the music called on her to take that action just as it called on me to respond.

What the blues and musicking illustrate here is the way music helps us to overcome our subjective sickness. By confronting madness head on, music massages what Stephen King calls our “phobic pressure points” and helps us to feel what we might not want to feel and gain objective distance on what we might not be able to otherwise see. Without making great unsupportable claims, perhaps it is enough to say that music helps us see that our subjective horrors are not simply our own but part of the human experience.

As a society, the madness expressed in raps like “The Message” or even the Geto Boyz “Mind of a Lunatic” help us to identify larger symptoms of our shared sickness. Hearing ourselves in the songs, we begin to gain an objective picture of the private fault lines that run just under the veneer of an ordered society. Through what Howard Zinn calls a “plurality of subjectivities” we reach for the sanest vision imaginable--one that reconciles our secret selves with our public selves, our weaknesses with our strengths and our subjective limitations with an objective grasp of possibility. And all of this can happen with a lean back and snap of the fingers—the mind and body connected in healing exercise, the community together on the dance floor in some semblance of what a free and open society might some day mean.

(from Monsters, Marx and Music)

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