Musician, heal thyself

A Denton shrink plumbs the murky psyches of self-destructive rock artists and concludes they don't have to die young, drunk, and depressed

Davy Jones liked to party. Hell, everybody in Austin did back in the early '80s, and if you weren't careful, your days could disappear into a haze of pot, noxious stimulants, beer, and pills that invoked such a hellbroth of effect and counter-effect that you might think yourself sober--at least until you fell laughing hysterically down the stairs.

When Jones showed up with his band the Hickoids at a local club to open for popular cowpunk outfit Rank and File, his tattered state of mind earned him a furious dressing-down from the headliners' notoriously prickly brother team, Chip and Tony Kinman. Abashed, Jones could but hang his head, lifting it only to gape in amazement not long thereafter when Chip and Tony got into an instrument-flinging, set-ending fistfight over song selection.

Another tale is told of a gig played by the True Believers, interestingly enough, a band that contained several members of Rank and File. The group had a bass player with an unfortunate predilection for opiates. The band did its best to help out, or at least tolerate, their errant member, but one day--prior to a gig--he was impossible to locate. He was AWOL for the loading-in and setting up of equipment, and he was absent for the sound check. He didn't show up, in fact, until immediately before the band was supposed to go onstage, when he announced that he had, um...ah...misplaced his instrument and amplifier. Could the band get him another one?

Closer to home and on a more recent note, innovative Dallas weird-o-rama producer Matt Castille of the Vas Deferens Organization was working with a performance-artist band heavy on psychedelic drum bombast named Coprolingus. Although Castille admits in retrospect that the name should have been a tip-off, he thought things were going swimmingly. "They were really excited because they felt like I understood them and could help them," says Castille, who often works with bands who interest him on the cheap or even for free. The playing was inspired, but when Castille stepped out of his control room and into the performance space, something assailed his nostrils. What was that smell? He looked at the band. Could a person really get himself to smell that horrible?

"I couldn't believe it--I was stunned," Castille says of his discovery that the source of the odor wasn't unwashed music fug, but feces strewn about by one over-stimulated member of the band. "The band had erected a plastic tepee around their stuff for when they do their rituals and everything, but still. Eric [Lumbleau, Castille's partner in VDO] is very, um, germ-aware, and he freaked out."

The overexcited "artist"--who earlier had spent two hours masked and babble-singing into a microphone on the sidewalk outside the studio, his utterances recorded for future use--was ejected. Unfortunately, that cast a pall over the evening, and indeed--for a while--the entire creative relationship. "The last we heard of that guy," Castille says, "he was hitchhiking to Austin in a thunderstorm, wearing only his underwear and a turban he'd made himself."

But hey, that's rock 'n' roll--soul-crushing defeats, madness, best-laid plans going awry all over the place, and whirling vortices of bullshit--right? Besides, what are you gonna do?

The answer to that question--for members of Denton's Brave Combo and several other area musicians--is see Dr. John Hipple, an associate professor of counseling at the University of North Texas with a growing reputation for serving the specialized emotional-health needs of rock, pop, and jazz musicians.

Hipple acknowledges that making music--particularly for a living--often is a rough row to hoe. But he doesn't think it has to be that way. Even if it often is: In a survey of Dallas-Fort Worth-area rock and pop musicians conducted last year by Hipple and colleague Dr. Kris Chesky, 115 artists taken from union rosters and solicited during performances in clubs were asked about the quality of their lives. Nearly 38 percent had experienced some sort of performance-related pain; 36.6 percent reported hearing loss; and one-fifth of those surveyed reported depression or anxiety. A quarter drink before performing, and almost 42 percent drink while performing. Not surprisingly, 22 percent report having blackout episodes.

Of the respondents--a population with a mean age of 39 and 84 percent male, 87 percent white, and 53 percent married--74 percent said they would consider seeing a therapist; more than half of those polled said they considered their problems either untreatable or not serious enough for such a step.

"Music is a high-risk occupation," Hipple says in his office in the Student Union on the UNT campus. He is 57 but looks younger, and his voice and manner have those soothing attributes of a professional counselor--body language and eye contact expertly delivered to put you at ease--that make some people suspicious or nervous. After chatting with him a while, though, definite sincerity emerges.

"I've always been a counselor," he says, "and I've always enjoyed helping people and working with them." Hipple, a father of two, got his doctoral degree in counseling from the University of Iowa in 1970. A number of different positions followed, but Hipple found himself in Portland, Oregon, where the cool, damp climate so aggravated his wife Lee's allergies that in 1977, they moved someplace where it would be both hot and relatively dry--Denton, Texas, and North Texas State University, as UNT was then known.

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