Musician, heal thyself

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.

A student counselor today, Hipple, who also teaches one class, offers his services free to any student who wants to make an appointment. Although he describes himself as "not musical," he does like music, and found the renowned music school's student body to his liking. "I'm a generalist as to whom I see, anyone except little kids," he says. "I like working with creative people, and that's all counseling really is--helping people think through their problems and come up with new ways of dealing with them." Hipple estimates that roughly a quarter of his clients these days are musicians, and is fascinated by the obstacles facing people who seek to express themselves musically. "It's a tough, competitive business," he says, "and the environment is one of constant stress; there are so many casualties."

Hipple, who describes his own musical tastes as eclectic and claims most recently to have sampled cajun, WRR (the city-run classical station at 101.1 FM), KTSU (UNT's mostly jazz station, 88.1 FM), and country music, identified through his interactions with musicians a number of factors that work counter to healthy, happy music-making lives. There's a strong drive for perfection--retake after retake, practice after practice--paired with quite a bit of criticism. "From the beginning, musicians' learning sets a focus on weaknesses and mistakes. In life, you need a ratio of strokes to kicks of about three to one; you rarely find that in music." With all the repetition, boredom is a constant danger, and musicians are more often than not in an atmosphere that's permeated with alcohol. "The stage is set for problems," Hipple says, adding that clubs are often noisier and smokier than any factory.

In fact, for a multi-billion-dollar business, the music industry lags far behind its less hip brethren. "The trend in most of American business has been to talk more and more, and they spend a lot of money working on communication," Hipple says. Musicians, however, are "so used to making music that when they get with others, they often don't have the tools for problem solving, talking things out, and taking care of business that the rest of us do."

There are other problems. Musicians' schedules are out of sync with virtually everybody else's, incorporating working nights, weekends, and holidays. "When they're younger, it's not much of a problem," Hipple says. "But as you get older, get married, and start a family, it gets to be more stressful." Since coming to UNT, Hipple has counseled musicians of every stripe, from classical and jazz to country and rock--"lots of different musicians with lots of different problems," as he says. Until four or five years ago, his experience was mostly with individuals, but then he started working on a model that could be used with entire groups and has slowly been codifying it. The results, together with his survey, were first publicized in late 1996.

In his papers and articles on this subject--bearing titles like "Taking Care of Yourself Personally and Professionally" and "Staying Sane in the Music Business"--Hipple sets about identifying problems such as drug and alcohol addictions and performance anxiety and proposing solutions, but many of the issues he tackles are more nuts-and-bolts: "Keeping a Band On Track," "Living Life with a Non-musician," "Getting Ready for the Road." Like his "The Business of Making Music," which contains hints like "set outcome goals" and "outline process goals," much of his work in this area focuses on strategies familiar to anyone who's ever taken a course in business communication--setting goals, establishing time frames for attaining them, setting up lines of authority and accountability for completing tasks, the importance of feedback--but applied to the musician's environment (load in/outs, going on the road or into the studio, contracts) with impressive specificity.

Much of this has to do with his contact with the eclectic Denton band Brave Combo, with whom Hipple has worked on and off on a private basis for the last five years, talking with them and going to practices and shows.

The band had seen other therapists before they ran into Hipple. "We just had issues that we couldn't address or resolve on our own," says Combo frontman Carl Finch as he sets up his equipment in the band's downtown Denton rehearsal space. "John is great, and he's very good at what he does, but it takes the right group of people. I wouldn't necessarily recommend therapy for every band."

Turner Scott Van Blarcum, however, doesn't recommend it for any band, and his views are fairly typical of rock musicians. The snarling leader of Dallas punkers Pump'n Ethyl, a band whose songs bear titles like "Too Punk to Fuck" and "Jesus was a Homo," Van Blarcum takes a dim view of any and all attempts to organize or "straighten out" music. "Psychoanalyzing rock 'n' roll, huh? Ha-ha, what a fucking joke," he fairly spits. "They've just conceived another way of making a buck off of music. Christ, you've got club owners, promoters, record company fucks, booking agents, the IRS--and now Sigmund-fucking-Freud wants a cut." The obstreperous punk--a Deep Ellum scenester familiar to most as the big "scary-looking guy" with a mohawk that allows the blue-ink skulls floating about his scalp to be seen more clearly--refuses to consider Hipple's work seriously for even a second.

"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."

"All that emphasis on burning out and fading away," McCrea says, "is just fucking luxury, a cartoon-style version of human suffering and victory. It's dressing us up like clowns, and it's dorky, passe, and not even practical."

"How much pain do we owe the audience?" asks Brave Combo woodwind guy Jeffrey Barnes.

Even though both performers and audience have an aversion to framing music in terms of product--and might dis Brave Combo for adopting the ways of "the Man"--the band's approach is a good deal more subversive than it at first appears. "We've always removed ourselves from the industry--tried to avoid it altogether--because they're only in it for the quick kill," Finch explains. "We go after niche marketing, and try to build on our fan base. We do everything ourselves--booking, managing--and for us to do that, the business side demands that everybody be communicating effectively. There's no way to avoid it, so you might as well be efficient and mature in your approach."

There's also no doubt in Finch's mind that the time the band spends with Hipple is well invested. "I don't want to say that without him there'd be no band," Finch says. "But I do know that he's taught us an awful lot about effectively being in a band. It's been easier."

"As much as he's helped us ease interpersonal friction, where he's really helped us is in getting organized as a business," Cripps adds. He points to the wall behind him, where a dry-erase board hangs. "He made us get that. We were doing everything ourselves, but from a musician's point of view. He told us how to have a meeting: Come in, write what you want to talk about on the board, set a time limit, and stay on the topic being discussed. Before, we'd get sidetracked and end up talking about old issues."

"Being in a band is like having four or five neurotic spouses," Barnes says. "It's a difficult thing to keep going."

"The band becomes so integrated with the rest of your life that issues with the band spill over into your family life," Cripps says, then adds with a laugh: "The medication he gives us is dynamite."

Although counselors are not psychiatrists and therefore can't prescribe drugs, Hipple has been helpful in that area, too. "After he met me, he thought I might have ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder]," says Barnes, who has so many colorful knick-knacks and tchotchkes hanging from his bandanna and woven into his hair that he looks a bit like a walking Christmas tree. "Sure enough, I did, and he gave the me the name of someone who got me on some medication that helps me stay on track."

Like any good therapist, Hipple's ultimate job is his own obsolescence. "He's got us trained," Cripps says. "We're getting better and better at doing this ourselves, and actually, we haven't been to see him in quite a while."

"The big thing we learned," Finch explains, "and the thing I think every person and every team or marriage should know, is that when something comes up, confront it. Go ahead and deal with it, because it won't ever get any easier or any better."

Despite his success with Brave Combo, Hipple allows that there's still a lot of work to be done. "Prevention is a hard sell," he says. "That's why business and industry have been putting so much money into it the last 20 years. Right now, as a counselor, when people come to me, they already know they have a problem." What he sees as the challenge of the future is the planting of "a little seed" that can grow into a new paradigm for musical or artistic heroes. While this generation still looks to the romance of the old burn-out-and-fade-away school (ironically enough, Neil Young, the man who brought that phrase into rock vernacular with Rust Never Sleeps, has done neither, remaining a vibrant and interesting artist), perhaps the next one will look to groups like Brave Combo and use them as models for a more functional and rewarding approach to their music.

"The next generation will know--just like they do now in industry--that one of the ways you can improve production is by making the workers happier," Hipple says. Although McCrea talked with the Dallas Observer before Hipple, the Cake singer's line of thought runs parallel to the psychologist's. "There's nothing wrong with musicians making a decent living," he said.

Hipple's goal is to help develop that next generation, and the derision of the likes of Turner Scott Van Blarcum is not going to dissuade him. "What I'd say to the doubters is, let me sit in on some of your gigs and rehearsals, and I bet there are some things I could help you with," Hipple says. "Because you're doing all of this--having meetings, setting goals, communicating--whether you know it or not and whether you're doing it right or wrong. You can't work up a song or decide on a set list without it."

"What I'd give anything to be able to do," Hipple continues, "is to go to different record companies and do day- or half-day-long training sessions with the A&R [Artist and Repertoire, field agents responsible for finding and developing new talent] people who are out there working with bands and watching them. If they had the ability to see these problems and could talk to the band about doing something about it--instead of just letting it go and then covering it up--it would be a lot better for the musicians. You have consultants for almost every other aspect of the music business--how to walk, talk, act, what to wear--except this."

It seems doubtful, however, that Van Blarcum and Hipple will ever sit down and talk. "Hey, doc," the tattooed punk says after another gale of laughter. "Psychoanalyze this: Fuck off."

Hipple is undeterred by the stereotypical rebel attitudes. A speaker on musician's health issues at SXSW for the last several years, he notes that "each year there are a few more people out there in the audience. It's just a little groundswell. But this year I've been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Bluegrass Music Association. A record company executive saw me at SXSW and mentioned my name." Hipple is also encouraged by the fact that this year's Grammy Awards had a non-alcoholic area backstage in addition to the ceremony's famed Green Room.

Although money has been put aside since the time of Handel to provide for musicians who experienced health problems (England's Royal Society for Musicians), it wasn't until about 15 years ago that much thought was given to musicians' well-being in America. That was when Drs. Alice Brandfonbrener and Richard Lederman started the Chicago-based Medical Program for Performing Artists and co-edited the definitive textbook on the issues involved, the Textbook of Performing Arts Medicine.

Like the Royal Society, however, Brandfonbrener and Lederman's efforts centered on classical musicians. Spearheaded by Drs. Benjamin Cohen and David Shrader, deans of the UNT Health Center and College of Music respectively, plans have been under way for the last several years in Denton to expand this academic and scientific investigation in order to include all musicians, be they classical artists, rockers, jazz players, or marchers in a college or high school band.

"We have very little information on the world of musicians," says Dr. Kris Chesky, the director of UNT's Center for Musicians' Education who helped Hipple with last year's musicians' survey. Chesky, 38, is a Berklee-trained trumpet player who discovered a passion for scientific investigation into music therapy and education when he attended UNT to get his master's degree in music.

"We don't see anything before the fact of needing treatment, and then only those with the awareness--not to mention the resources and money--to travel to Chicago, or Cleveland, or New York get the specialized treatment they need," Chesky says. "When someone comes to me, I don't even know where to refer them, let alone being able to tell them something like 'Oh, the way you're practicing is wrong, the way you're holding your instrument is wrong, or you need to rest for this amount of time in between practicing.' We train so many musicians here, and right now, when they leave this place there's nothing.

"Look at sports: Every aspect of what an athlete does has been analyzed, and we know how what they do affects their back, their ankles, or their wrists. Or their attitudes. And we know how to address those things. That's what makes this so important, and that's why, over the last two years, there's really been an intense effort in developing a similar vision for musicians."

Chesky notes that in the past, work like Hipple's has gone on outside of UNT's College of Music (Hipple technically works for UNT's Counseling and Testing Center). "What if we looked at musicians before they got hurt, and before they had problems?" he asks, echoing Hipple's sentiments. "What if we were to understand the transitions that led to having problems and the variables that affect them--aren't we in the perfect place to do that at UNT?

"We're pooling our resources," Chesky adds, describing the work that he says is right on the edge of being given an official, institutional, fundable (through a mixture of public and private donations) existence. It's work that will combine not only the efforts of UNT's Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the College of Music, but also those of the University's Department of Speech and Hearing Science as well as the work of other experts like Dr. George Kondraske, professor of electrical and biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, whose work centers on the physical aspects of playing. Drs. Cohen and Shrader--pioneers in this entire area--have agreed to make themselves available as advisors and consultants.

Chesky says he looks forward to a day when a musician "can talk to a doctor and say, 'Wow, you're doing a study on pulmonary capacity? I'm a trumpet player--I want to hear this,'" building "a general awareness of the ways in which science can actually impact not only how we think about health and health problems, but how a musician actually plays."

"Right now we're reaching out, but to people who have already been affected," Hipple concurs. "The next step is to get to them before they have problems."

Perhaps the day will arrive when musicians will enjoy the same resources and options as someone working in a factory or office and not have to rely on their fans' perception of them for reward or rescue. Although this might seem to be the first step toward the Wal-Mart-ification of music, within "the Man"'s methods are the seeds of a more subtle revolution, possibilities for independence that Brave Combo has already seen and to which John McCrea--in his recent article on musicians and audience expectation for the (unrelated) music magazine Cake--referred to when he wrote, "If...musicians weren't so willing to provide faux-rebellion, leather-jacket tattoo rebellion, then perhaps there could be more actual rebellion."

And more actual music.

The internet address for the UNT musician survey is http://www.scs.unt.edu/surveys/msurvey/index.html.

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Matt Weitz