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

"That musicians' survey--who the hell did he survey?" Van Blarcum asks with a sneer. "A bunch of upper-middle-class college junkies? A bunch of weak, pathetic hippies? I looked at this and just about laughed my ass off. It reminded me of the Unabomber's manifesto. I understand his point; I just think that he's full of shit. I don't believe in shrinks and doctors; I'm more worried about toxic waste in our air and the United States sending millions of dollars to Mexico for rifles, grenades, and helicopters to be used against the Zapatistas. It just kills me...in our own country with all these problems, these doctors and scientists are more concerned with a bunch of scumbag wannabes?" He snaps his finger suddenly and leans forward to make a point. "How much money does this guy make, anyway?" (Actually, Hipple collects a salary as a member of UNT's faculty and sees students for free. He also has what he describes as a "limited" private practice, "maybe eight to 10 people--or couples or whatever--a week," he says, admitting that "while I'm not wealthy, I do like to get paid.")

Turner is resolute in his disdain, turning aside with derisive laughter any attempts to argue what he calls Hipple's "sex, drugs, and Geritol" point. Music, he says, "is about having fun, freedom of expression, and slagging the United States federal government. If it's too loud, wear earplugs. Do you think that [famous whacked-out NYC shock-rocker] G.G. Allin's career would've gone as far if he hadn't stuck a microphone up his ass or shit on the crowd? Nobody would've gone to see him. As the Lizard King Jim Morrison said, 'I don't know about you, but I'm getting my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.'"

With the mention of Allin and Morrison, another of the music business' traps approaches: the expectations of the audience. "We talk about performance as 'playing,'" Hipple says. "Consumers don't see a musician as really working; he's being paid to have fun, and the stereotype is that the musician works differently than the rest of us, on inspiration and experience."

John McCrea, leader of the popular Sacramento band Cake, which has satirized the indulgences of rock with the song "Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle," echoes Hipple's thoughts. "A lot of people want things from their musicians," says McCrea, who has called rock stars the "hood ornaments of a vampiric spectator culture," and notes that we look to music as a way of asserting our own individuality. "Teenagers rebelling against their parents want them to have this reckless abandon, to use drugs and destroy themselves. They don't want musicians to think about money or career or other earthly concerns like sanity and health. The musicians become symbols, but they're still people--and they explode and/or die, because you can't go on like that forever."

Exploding and/or dying has been getting a lot of attention lately with the increased emphasis on drug and alcohol abuse in the music industry. The most discussed and attended--as well as most contentious--panel at this year's South by Southwest music conference was the panel on just that subject, complete with angry, stomping exits, yelling, and accusations by many that the music industry is more interested in covering up the signs of substance abuse than addressing the causes. As if to answer such a charge, more organizations are assuming a higher profile: MAP, the Musicians' Assistance Program, which aids addicted musicians and was started by jazz musician Buddy Arnold, a recovering junkie; and MusiCares, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences anti-addiction effort--which is taking a more preventive approach. Part of the rationale is purely economic: Artists are resources, money makers that have to be maintained and protected, even from themselves. Face it: If Kurt Cobain had been a manufacturing engineer who had brought his company millions of dollars in revenue and then OD'd on pills and alcohol, he'd have been slapped into rehab quicker than you could say Nevermind.

Interestingly, the very same two names that Van Blarcum mentioned pop up again, invoked by Carl Finch in a discussion of artists and expectations. "Rock stars have always been there to define the limits," Finch declares. "Jim Morrison showed us how far you could go without having to spend a lot of time in jail, and G.G. Allin defined the limits [of self-destructive behavior], and if you're not going that far, it's not even news."

"Besides," adds Combo percussionist Joe Cripps, "once you've had somebody you care about go through those kinds of things, it's not as attractive. We can't afford that attitude, anyway. We do this for a living. A lot of those people don't--it's extracurricular for them. They have a day job, and they can get off work, practice, drink hard, and fight, and it's OK. That's cool for a while, but as you get older it's less image and more whatever it takes to make it work."

Cripps says he's discussed Hipple's work with many musicians "and every one of them has said, 'That sounds like a good idea.' Music is a way of life for me, and I don't want to have a tortured life, especially if it's to live up to some 14-year-old kid's idea of what's it's all about."

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