All the Madmen [ePub]

by Clinton Heylin

Great idea; shame about the writer.

All The Madmen is billed as an exploration of the influence of mental illness - and to a lesser extent, drugs - on the British music scene c.1968-75. Though in practice, what we get is an entwined biography of the musicians mentioned in the sub-title, with an emphasis on nervous breakdowns, plus a few digressions about R.D. Laing and a couple of short chapters on the history of madness in England at the end.

As he's a very experienced rock biographer, I would tend to assume that Clinton Heylin has mostly got his facts right, and so I did learn a bit from this book. (And also spent longer reading about Fleetwood Mac and The Who than I ever thought I would in my life.) What I will mostly take away from it is the understanding that Ray Davies had his fair share of demons, which wasn't terribly obvious from the lovely pop tunes of The Kinks; how serious and frightening Nick Drake's near-catatonic depressive state evidently was, when you read about it as an adult, not a naive 15-year-old with a stack of music papers; and what a bastard Roger Waters was. According to some, still is. I'd long found the classic 70's Pink Floyd albums to be rather chilly, detached and alien; and knowing that their guiding force was this cold-blooded, unempathic, exploitative man, it seems to make so much sense now. *shiver*

Heylin drives the narrative like a competent Mojo reporter. Or "journo"; his overuse of the latter word set my teeth on edge. He enjoys his alliterative stylistic flourishes, but half the time they turn into pratfalls. I cringed plenty of times, in the same way as I often do in looking at a review or blog post I wrote a few days earlier; it sounded potentially clever at the time, but it's actually just bad and embarrassing and needs to be edited. Given the number of typos in the book, style isn't the only thing which could have done with better subbing.

He clearly likes the music itself, but doesn't have a lot of praise for many of the people involved, which makes for an uninspiring read; surely a book like this should fill you with fascination and enthusiasm. There's quite a bit of subtle denigration of the states musicians got themselves into with drugs, for the ways their mental health issues made them a bit annoying. He too-rarely looks into what they were suffering and why, whether it's from an emotional point of view - or the reductive pathologising stance; but perhaps we should be glad he doesn't dehumanise his subjects further by labelling.

I know a few people who are passionate and knowledgeable both about the music of this era and about mental health. I expected to be recommending this book to them, but I shan't embarrass myself or bore them because they are better writers than Heylin and would have a wiser and more sympathetic approach to the psychological topics.

Rightly or wrongly, I get a whiff of stale-bedsheets laziness about this book. It's like the reasonably competent end-of-term essay dashed off overnight for a low 2:1 when more effort - or simply a different student - could have produced something of far higher, shinier quality. So frustrating because there must be people out there who could write an amazing book about this. Heylin seems to rest on the laurels of his classic rock knowledge whilst not doing anywhere enough research and thinking about psychology and mental health. He probably thought this was a clever idea for a twentieth book to churn out to his publishers, without it being a topic for which he feels deep affinity.

His brief history of madness in England alludes repeatedly to an archaic idea (mooted especially in the eighteenth century) that "too much" political liberty leads to a greater incidence of mental health problems in the population. In implying we should be glad to have put the libertine excesses of the 60's and early 70's behind us- also stopping off to criticise the excesses of punk - and that drugs were too freely available and destroyed or impeded a lot of talented musicians, he seems to be essentially agreeing with this ancient thesis without thorough and sensible discussion. Whilst I have a bit of a libertarian slant politically, I am definitely no fan of drugs on a personal level and have seen how they can mess up great people; I don't think you should write a 400 page book on a topic like this and conclude it without nuance and qualification though.Rock, as it ages, too often seems to become conservative and almost opposed to its spirit of origin, and the author of this book seems to be a case in point. More sympathetic understanding of human complexity is needed here; it shouldn't have been just another mildly snarky rock bio.

24.11.2012

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