Music Artists Who, Like Roky Erickson, Have Struggled With Mental Illness


It seemed something like a miracle back in 2005 when psychedelic-rock pioneer Roky Erickson — who plays Bell House in Brooklyn tonight — took the stage at the Austin, Texas eatery Threadgill’s, returning from decades of crippling mental illness and a hermit-like existence that had him pegged as America’s answer to Syd Barrett.

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You probably know the tale: In the ’60s, while playing with the legendary 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson gobbled enough acid to make Timothy Leary seem straight-edge. He was soon diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, and after a marijuana bust in 1969, Erickson pleaded insanity to evade 10 years in the pokey. But his sentence turned out worse: He was confined to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane — where electroshock therapy and thorazine was forced on him — for three years, further damaging his mental condition.

After his release, Erickson continued to make music and struggled mightily with his afflictions (at one point, he proclaimed he was a space alien). But with the help of family — and support from artists like the Butthole Surfers, Henry Rollins, and other admirers who refused to let the man or his work be forgotten — Erickson finally got proper medical treatment, weaned himself off anti-psychotics, and found his way back to a fairly stable, and still creative, life. That long, strange, heart-rending journey was documented in the riveting 2005 film You’re Gonna Miss Me, the release of which coincided with Erickson’s long-awaited return to the stage. His countrified 2010 comeback album True Love Cast Out All Evil — recorded with Okkervil River — is an atmospheric, uplifting marvel; tonight’s career-spanning set should be equally so.

Erickson, of course, is far from the only musician who’s dealt with debilitating mental disorders. Numerous studies have attempted to establish a connection between artistic impulses and mental illness. In 2010, extensive medical research conducted by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden determined that “the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people is similar in some respects to that seen in people with schizophrenia,” bolstering the longstanding belief among doctors and scientists that creativity is linked to a higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Here are just a few other prominent musicians who managed to create their art and garner a devoted following all the while struggling with severe mental illness:

Chicago native Wesley Willis — diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, which he termed “hell rides” – -rose from homelessness to alt-rock cult hero starting in the early ’90s, thanks to his Casio-abetted song-rants about Alanis Morissette, McDonald’s, Osama Bin Laden, and hundreds more topics. He issued several dozen recordings, and was an equally prolific visual artist as well, known for his idiosyncratic drawings of Chicago street scenes. Willis died from leukemia in 2003 at age 40.

Like Erickson, indie-folk singer-guitarist (and cartoonist) Daniel Johnston was also the subject of a compelling documentary film — 2006’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston — which detailed his battle with severe bipolar disorder (including an episode where he became hypomanic and forced his father to crash-land the small plane the pair were flying in; both walked away from the crash unharmed) and a life spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals. And, like Erickson, Johnston — who now lives under the care of his elderly parents — has managed to find enough stability these days to tour regularly behind his brilliantly skewed songbook.

Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 18, and — as he explained in a Pitchfork interview in July — spent five weeks in a Houston mental health clinic in 2009 after suffering a “dissociative psychotic reaction” at SXSW. From Pitchfork:

“It’s a constant thing — I’m on suicide watch all the time,” he says, with straightforward nonchalance, on a June evening in his Brooklyn Heights apartment. “It’s something I have a history with, so people don’t trust me. They try to take it easy with me, and I don’t like it, because I don’t want to be known as an artist that’s super volatile.” A year later, while attending Boston’s Emerson College, Angelakos attempted to take his own life: “Creativity essentially leads to suicide — where you think to cut yourself up, sit in the bathtub, and take more medication than you should.”

After canceling some shows this summer so Angelakos could receive more treatment, Passion Pit returned to the road this month.

Singer-songwriter, alt-rock icon, Throwing Muses founder, and author Kristin Hersh has been extremely candid about her severe bipolar disorder (she was initially diagnosed as schizophrenic), writing about it at length in her terrific 2010 memoir Rat Girl. Recently, Hersh has claimed that acupuncture has virtually cured her of her mental illness. From the Guardian in 2010:

“I feel like music is real and bipolar disorder is not any longer,” she says. “I hated the connection between mental illness and art. I couldn’t stand that you had to be sick in order to create beauty, or confused to create truth. It made no sense. It was a huge relief to be essentially cured.”

After a nervous breakdown — combined with substance abuse issues — that made his mental instability more and more apparent, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the late ’60s, where he underwent electroshock, lithium, and other treatments. Wilson spent much of the next two decades sequestered in his home, addicted to drugs and food, on anti-psychotic medications, and seeking various forms of therapy. Finally, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and eventually made his way back to stages and studios, finishing his long-gestating album Smile in 2004. He’s released a handful of albums since and continues to tour.

Irish songstress Sinead O’Connor has long battled bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has attempted suicide several times, most recently in January, when she overdosed on pills. In the spring, O’Connor canceled her tour dates on the advice of her doctors to continue psychiatric treatment. From Pollstar, in May:

After taking a medication called Tegretol, which O’Connor said made her bipolar symptoms worse, she said if she hadn’t called off the tour, she “might have acted on a suicidal compulsion alone in some hotel room.” She has now switched to a different medication which “seems to be helping a lot,” adding that it will be a slow process to get the levels right and recovery physically. O’Connor plans to continue making music because she says it is a gift from the Holy Spirit.

Late singer-songwriter John Denver battled severe depression for many years, which he tried to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. From a 1979 People magazine article:

A complicated and intense man (for all his onstage cheerfulness), Denver admits that his Rocky Mountain highs “have been balanced by incredible lows. When I get depressed,” he admits, “I question whether life is worth living.”

In his 1994 autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver detailed his substance abuse and revealed a suicide attempt. Denver died in a plane crash in 1997, at age 53, while flying solo off the coast of California. Some speculated that the crash was a suicide, but the NTSB determined that he lost control of the aircraft while attempting to switch fuel tanks.

Legendary Kinks frontman Ray Davies has long dealt with bipolar disorder, and has attempted suicide. From the biography Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else:

Bouts of depression have plagued Davies throughout his life, even during seemingly successful periods. In the early spring of 1966, after a string of UK and international hits, there was some talk that Davies needed help and that a temporary stay in a sanatorium might be necessary for the young but fragile and overworked rising star. Manager Robert Wace said that 1965 was “a very bad year for Ray … he was very, very unstable.” But Wace and co-manager Grenville Collins convinced the family that Ray would be secure under their watch, a duty they assumed diligently. “It is not easy being Ray Davies,” one close to him told me. “Under all the brilliance is torture. But without the torture we wouldn’t have the great art.”

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