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Schizophrenic Guitar Player

Schizophrenic Guitar Player28 May 2010 Last updated at 21:32 ET
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Performance Review
Daniel Johnston at Bimbo's
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By Suzanne Kleid | Aug 24, 2007
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Probably the most commonly asked small-talk question on the shiny dance floor of the always-classy Bimbo's 365 Club Wednesday (August 22, 2007) night was, "Have you seen the movie?" The Devil And Daniel Johnston, the 2004 documentary, has done for Johnston's career what the "Pink Moon" Volkswagen ad did for Nick Drake. It turned him from a cult figure into a universally beloved one, it turned your secret favorite undiscovered genius into everyone's favorite undiscovered genius. Johnston's name used to be like the password that gained you access to the secret club. Either you knew the words to every song, or you'd never heard of him. Luckily for Daniel, he didn't die at age 24 like Nick Drake did. He is alive and (more or less) well, kept stable with medication, obese and gray and living with his parents in suburban Waller, Texas.

If you've seen the movie, you already know the major plot points in the Daniel Johnston legend. Raised in a tight-knit fundamentalist Christian family in West Virginia, Johnston eventually he ended up in Austin, Texas, got a job at McDonald's, and charmed his way into a role as pet of the early '90s Austin music scene by handing out cassette tapes he recorded in his parents' basement and his brother's garage. He even managed to hustle his way onto MTV. But along with his tremendous (if untutored) talent as a songwriter, Daniel had an uncontrolled, florid bipolar disorder that often blossomed into full-blown psychosis. Over the years he beat a friend over the head with a pipe, crashed his father's small airplane, terrified an old lady so bad she jumped out a window, and had a total freakout during a trip to New York City, such that Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth was compelled to drive around New Jersey looking for him, and found him on the side of the road, raving about Satan in the pouring rain.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, Daniel is not only stable, he's on tour. I had expected to see an audience of aging gen-Xers in the Bimbo's crowd, but they were nowhere in evidence. Everyplace I looked was 22-year-olds in skinny jeans. Opening for Daniel was the Ohsees, a local outfit headed up by the multitalented John Dwyer, formerly of the Coachwhips. Dwyer announced that they had a new drummer, and it was his 21st birthday.

There was a long interval between the Ohsees leaving the stage and Johnston's entrance. The skinny-jeaned, art-schoolish crowd got restless, chanting "Dan-iel! Dan-iel!" for a good few minutes. Eventually he shambled out, and the cheers were rapturous. Dressed in a gray long-sleeved t-shirt tucked into his sweatpants ("SWEATPANTS?" yelled a kid standing near me, sounding actually offended), Daniel did what he does best. In his cracked high tenor, much more cracked and scratchy than it once was, Daniel sang about love and heartbreak and god and the devil, hunched around the microphone so that it almost seemed he didn't know or care that any of us were even there. He played the first few songs on an odd little square wooden electric guitar that had the tuning pegs in the body itself, in recesses above and below the strings. His guitar playing, never his strongest suit, was especially wobbly this evening. After a few numbers, another guitarist, Brett Hartenbach, played while Daniel just sang. The reason for this became clear: his hands were shaking. My armchair psychiatry "degree" leads me to think that the tremor is a side effect of anti-psychotic meds.

In old footage, Johnston always looked and sounded about sixteen, skinny with brown curly hair and wild sad eyes. Now that he's so overweight and gray and palsied, I had to keep reminding myself that he's only 46. He looks ten years older, at least. But there was nothing diminished about his spirit or the power of his music, and the art-school kid crowd was right there with him. The resurgent love for Daniel Johnston's music does not appear, as I'd feared, to come out of an ironic it's-great-because-it's-terrible thing. They were loving him because he is utterly authentic, free of artifice, expressing out loud a kind of adolescent turmoil that saner people hide at all costs. "Mean girls give pleasure/it's my greatest treasure," went his opening number. "All of your problems are probably fake/and she tastes just like ice cream and cake."

Johnston and Hartenbach played favorites off his classic early cassettes, including the oft-covered "Walking The Cow," and "Almost Got Hit By A Truck." He'd sing the first line and the audience would roar in recognition. His between-song patter didn't disappoint. "We went out for a spaghetti dinner, and it was the best spaghetti dinner I ever ate," he announced. Later he talked about a dream he'd had about a man sentenced to death for attempting suicide. "And in the dream the man was ME!" he said. "I woke up and I didn't know what to think." In the middle of an astonishing rendition of "Living Life" ("Hold me like a mother would/like I always knew somebody should/even though tomorrow don't look that good") my companion for the evening turned to me and said "Oh my god, he's ripping my heart in half!" It was a sentiment you could hear echoed around the room.

After Hartenbach left the stage, Daniel sat at the piano, and played just a couple songs. "Would you follow me anywhere?" he sang. "Are you entertained by deep despair?" Then the Ohsees returned and backed him for the rest of the night. They did their best to follow him, but it's like trying to outbox the heavyweight champ. The 21-year-old drummer was no match for Daniel Johnston. The king of songs of pain was being backed by a band of ice-cream-and-cake kids, and as much as I like the Ohsees on their own (and I do!) I just wanted them to turn their amps down and get out of his way.

Daniel is very much alive, obviously, but I can never shake the feeling that he is enjoying a sort of posthumous career. A tribute album released a few years back was called The Late Great Daniel Johnston. One of his signature songs is "Casper The Friendly Ghost," about a lonely guy who becomes beloved -- only after he drowns in a wishing well. "You can't buy respect, the librarian said/but everyone respects the dead," he sang. "And so the legend grew/and all his friends spread the news/he's Casper, the friendly ghost."

After a fast rendition of "Rock This Town," it was all over. Maybe other members of the crowd felt, as I did, that they were seeing something they never thought they'd get to see, and may never get to see again. The sold-out, packed house stomped and cheered and clapped as long as possible, but Johnston never came back for an encore. Between each song, all night, someone was yelling, "We love you, Daniel." You could tell they meant it.

Hi How Are You?
Daniel Johnston on Murder Drugs

Creative minds 'mimic schizophrenia'
By Michelle Roberts Health reporter, BBC News
Salvador Dali Artist Salvador Dali is known for his surreal paintings and eccentric personality

Creativity is akin to insanity, say scientists who have been studying how the mind works.

Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia.

Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.

It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to "think outside the box", say experts from Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

In some people, it leads to mental illness.

But rather than a clear division, experts suspect a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits but few negative symptoms.
Art and suffering

Some of the world's leading artists, writers and theorists have also had mental illnesses - the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and American mathematician John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind) to name just two.

Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Thalamus The thalamus channels thoughts

Similarly, people who have mental illness in their family have a higher chance of being creative.

Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen believes his findings could help explain why.

He looked at the brain's dopamine (D2) receptor genes which experts believe govern divergent thought.

He found highly creative people who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus - as do people with schizophrenia.

The thalamus serves as a relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.

"Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus," said Professor Ullen.
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It's like looking at a shattered mirror”

Mark Millard UK psychologist

He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.

This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.

Schizophrenics share this same ability to make novel associations. But in schizophrenia, it results in bizarre and disturbing thoughts.

UK psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society Mark Millard said the overlap with mental illness might explain the motivation and determination creative people share.

"Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives them on to make changes.

"Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It's like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way.

"There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work. Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd."
Continue reading the main story

Writer Virginia Woolf
Painter Vincent van Gogh
Painter Salvador Dali
Painter Edvard Munch
Composer Robert Schumann
Mathematician John Nash
Pianist David Helfgott

He said businesses have already recognised and capitalised on this knowledge.

Some companies have "skunk works" - secure, secret laboratories for their highly creative staff where they can freely experiment without disrupting the daily business.

Chartered psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon says an ability to "suspend disbelief" is one way of looking at creativity.

"When you suspend disbelief you are prepared to believe anything and this opens up the scope for seeing more possibilities.

"Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us. Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as 'mentally ill'."

He works as an executive coach helping people to be more creative in their problem solving behaviour and thinking styles.

"The result is typically a significant rise in their well being, so as opposed to creativity being associated with mental illness it becomes associated with good mental health."
More on This Story
Related stories

Did LSD change Britain? 01 MAY 2008, MAGAZINE
ADHD triggers 'creative genius' 04 FEBRUARY 2010, HEALTH
A beautiful mind 10 OCTOBER 2007, MAGAZINE

MedWire News Strong depression and anxiety covariation in bipolar disorder - 8 hrs ago
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Related Internet links

Karolinska Institute
British Psychological Society

Around the BBC

Headroom: Understanding Schizophrenia

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In between stays at mental institutions for schizophrenia, Powell left behind a remarkable legacy. Sadly, he hasn’t received the same widespread admiration that his close friend Thelonious Monk secured. But to true fans of the jazz genre, Powell is revered.

Bud Powell was one of, if not the, greatest jazz pianists we’ve ever known. Most likely, you’ve never heard of him. The man they called ”the Charlie Parker of the piano” had his career damaged by many unfortunate events. The most disheartening were at the hands of the police. At age 20, a drunken Powell was brutally beaten by cops going far beyond the acceptable call of duty. Following the incident, Powell was institutionalized for several months.

Later in life, a marijuana bust was perhaps the last straw. According to his NPR’s Jazz Profiles: “In 1951, Powell was arrested with Thelonious Monk for drug possession. Charges against Bud were dropped, but he was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a year and a half. Finally, it all caught up to Powell and his life took a turn from which he would never fully recover”.

In between stays at mental institutions for schizophrenia, Powell left behind a remarkable legacy. Sadly, he hasn’t received the same widespread admiration that his close friend Thelonious Monk secured. But to true fans of the genre, Powell is revered. All one has to do is listen to the giants of jazz speak about Bud Powell to know his significance on the form. Miles Davis himself stated, “Bud was the greatest pianist in this era”. Additionally, Bill Evans paid Powell tribute: “If I had to choose one single musician for his artistic integrity, for the incomparable originality of his creation and the grandeur of his work, it would be Bud Powell. He was in a class by himself”.

Dopamine System in Highly Creative People Similar to That Seen in Schizophrenics, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (May 19, 2010) — New research shows a possible explanation for the link between mental health and creativity. By studying receptors in the brain, researchers at Karolinska Institutet have managed to show that the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people is similar in some respects to that seen in people with schizophrenia.

High creative skills have been shown to be somewhat more common in people who have mental illness in the family. Creativity is also linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual or bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people. And now the correlation between creativity and mental health has scientific backing.

"We have studied the brain and the dopamine D2 receptors, and have shown that the dopamine system of healthy, highly creative people is similar to that found in people with schizophrenia," says associate professor Fredrik Ullén from Karolinska Institutet's Department of Women's and Children's Health, co-author of the study that appears in the journal PLoS ONE.

Just which brain mechanisms are responsible for this correlation is still something of a mystery, but Dr Ullén conjectures that the function of systems in the brain that use dopamine is significant; for example, studies have shown that dopamine receptor genes are linked to ability for divergent thought. Dr Ullén's study measured the creativity of healthy individuals using divergent psychological tests, in which the task was to find many different solutions to a problem.

"The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people," says Dr Ullén. "Schizophrenics are also known to have low D2 density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity."

The thalamus serves as a kind of relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.

"Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus," says Dr Ullén, and explains that this could a possible mechanism behind the ability of healthy highly creative people to see numerous uncommon connections in a problem-solving situation and the bizarre associations found in the mentally ill.

"Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box," says Dr Ullén about his new findings.


Doesn't the filtering of information before it gets to areas used for "cognition and reason" (or forming perceptions) sound a lot like Aldous Huxley's idea of the brain as a reducing valve? It seems that people with schizophrenic like brains as well as people on psychedelics, tend to get more information or awareness coming in without it being filtered by our normal perceptions. And in that sense, psychedelics are a way to time travel to the future (meet our future selves in hyperspace) where higher awareness and a more powerful and participatory consciousness awaits, yet has always been available and only ever will be, in the present moment.

I see it as stages of growth: archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, integral. They are various perspectives that we take on, which may not be ultimately true or real, but worldviews that seem to work. At each stage we include and recognize what we've learned as valuable, but perhaps partial and not the whole truth. This is the experience of disillusionment - seeing your world as merely a perspective, or seeing yourself as merely a character, something limited (or illusory). And the ultimate disillusionment? That nothing is real and all is perspective. The self is both obliterated and expands infinitely - egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric to kosmocentric - the Self as one with the Kosmos.

Does it do people any good to have awareness flow right past their filter mechanisms? Aren't they there for a reason? Wouldn't it make sense that the brain puts in place the very conceptual illusions necessary for one's growth and transformation?

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