Michael Jackson latest case of an artist with inner demons
By Tony Hicks
Contra Costa Times
Michael Jackson's death is just another reminder of how artistic ability seems closely linked to eccentricity, often with detrimental results.
Drug use, strange public behavior, seclusion, violence, alcoholism, mental illness — all are factors in the lives of so many musicians, actors, writers and other creative artists whose work forms the basis of our pop culture. It raises questions about whether great artistic drive and substance abuse or other forms of mental troubles are somehow related.
"Scientists are discovering more all the time about brain chemistry and creativity," says sociologist and author B.J. Gallagher. "Highly creative people have more finely tuned nervous systems, which makes them high-strung and neurotic. Their brains are wired a little differently. They're more prone to ADD, bi-polar, depression and other difficult mental states. They turn to drugs, alcohol or activities to ease their pain."
The question then becomes how much do these issues affect their artistic drive, or are caused by it.
Would Ernest Hemingway have been the compelling, adventurous writer if he didn't struggle with inner demons? Would Kurt Cobain have written such vivid, introspective music without the personal struggles? Would John Belushi have created the endless stream of hilarious characters and comedy routines without drugs and alcohol? Would Jackson have written such electrifying music without his tortured early years resulting in an obsessive search for childhood as an adult? And was his apparently debilitating habit for prescription drugs part of this?
Looking for answers
It's not idle speculation. Doctors and scientists have long studied whether immersing oneself intensely in art can help bring on substance abuse and/or mental illness, or whether an artistic brain somehow is naturally pulled toward these kinds of problems.
"(Artists) have bigger appetites — an extra energy," says Eric Maisel, a Walnut Creek-based family therapist, creativity coach and author of more than 30 books, mostly focused on creativity. "They don't want to drive 60, they want to drive 100. That energy can go into eating a million peanuts, like Orson Welles, or into writing 'War and Peace.'"
Although there's no real way to determine what percentage of great artists have battled substance abuse, mental illness or other demons (for one thing, you'd have to do the impossible and define both "addiction" and "great art"), the idea of the tortured creative genius is far from just a stereotype.
"There are almost no non-addicted musicians who have created revolutionary change in music," says Doug Thorburn, an author of four books on alcohol and drug addiction. "Addiction usually comes first."
Plenty of examples back up Thorburn's assertion. For instance, the creative explosion of Jazz in the 1950s was lead by artists as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, all of whom had drug problems. Parker and Coltrane died relatively young after years of drug abuse stretching back to before they were famous.
By most accounts, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Bob Marley, Eddie Van Halen, Cobain, Eminem, members of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Metallica, and many others who heavily influenced their art used drugs and/or alcohol regularly during their creative peak. In many cases, careers were derailed or interrupted or lives were cut short.
But what's debatable is how substance problems were related to the creative genius these artists displayed. And the situation's not universal. It's not clear that Elvis Presley, for example, used drugs until his later years. Although the Beatles were regular users during their later, most creative years, they didn't sample serious drugs until they'd already become the biggest band in the world. Jackson didn't fit the profile of an addict until he'd already changed pop music, although his eccentric lifestyle became an issue fairly early in his solo career.
For every Syd Barrett — the Pink Floyd singer, songwriter and musician whose career was rapidly fueled and destroyed by drug-induced mental illness — there were groundbreaking acts such as Prince, Madonna and U2 who did not have reputations for serious substance abuse or personal problems, even if they were eccentric.
"Creative people live in a heightened reality," says Gallagher. "The good times feel extra good and the bad times feel extra bad. However, there are plenty of creative people who find other, healthier ways to deal with their emotions."
Good with bad
For some artists, the bigger the success, the bigger the problems they face — less freedom, more demands and expectations, external pressures, media exposure. They become more public but, ironically, more isolated.
"Creative people manufacture big ideas; that has the effect of getting their words out there," Maisel says. "But the negative effect is pressure pushing them toward mania. They're also cutting themselves off from other people."
That isolation can fuel addiction and other mental issues, says Anne Paris, a psychologist and author, whose book "Standing at Water's Edge," is meant to help artists get into a creative flow.
"They need relationships with others," says Paris. "When people don't have that support to enter that state, they turn to drugs and alcohol to help immerse themselves (in their art). Ultimately, it's self-destructive. It takes them further away from creativity. Unfortunately for a lot of people, it turns into addiction."
Even for artists not prone to mental and substance-abuse troubles, celebrity itself can drive them there, especially when they don't meet expectations. "There's an emotional brutality," she says. "Having people reject your work is emotionally brutal."
Then there's the entertainment industry itself, which tends to forgive chemical abuse and bizarre behavior if the artist is successful enough.
Then there are the enablers. As shown in Michael Jackson's case, having money and fame means more access to doctors and other people more than willing to give you what you want, even if it's bad for you. Officials in Los Angeles are probing several doctors who might have prescribed Jackson dangerous prescription drugs, although the case has not yet been termed a criminal investigation.
Enabling is almost expected in the entertainment world, says Eugene Foley, president of Foley Entertainment, a music industry consulting firm.
"In corporate America, the person would be encouraged to seek medical help. In the music industry, people often seem to accept someone's quirks and to not let it interfere with their work as best as possible. The stereotype of the crazy genius is commonplace."
Sometimes just the job of creating and performing can be hazardous.
"In people who are bi-polar, the creative process itself mimics depression," says Maisel. "You sink into your work, it gets harder and harder, then you're done and you're elated. When bands perform, there's tons of adrenaline for two hours. Then they have to eventually come down, and they do that through drugs, or drink, or sex ... whatever. There's a dozen reasons why creative people are more prone to addiction. The biggest is appetite. When there's a big appetite, it's hard to accept (normalcy)."
The biggest question perhaps is if anything can be done about the seeming connection artists/entertainers and self-destructive behavior.
The entertainment industry seems to have a better idea of how to protect its investments. Thanks to the spread of paparazzi culture, artists' signs of trouble come to light quickly, and there's a growing rehab industry to help people before they go the way of Coltrane, Parker, Morrison, Brian Jones and Cobain.
There are far more examples of artists successfully overcoming problems — the members of Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen, as well as Eminem, to name a few — so there's hope for those following in their troubled footsteps.
"I've seen people clean up their lives after (hitting bottom)," says Foley. "Once their addiction interfered with the creative process, that was the final straw. These particular folks needed their music much more than they needed to be drunk or high."
Tony Hicks can be reached at email@example.com.