For this article, Rock Out Stand Out’s Jacob takes a look at depictions of mental health problems in rock and metal music. In particular, he looks at Devin Townsend song Why? and classic PINK FLOYD album The Wall.
This Saturday the 10th is World Mental Health Day. So I thought it would be interesting to look at two things that are almost analogues to each other in terms of mental health. Why? seems to be an examination of anxiety. The Wall is based on addictions, depression and isolation. Rock and metal have a long history of talking about mental health issues, sometimes it’s for the shock value, sometimes it is for comedic effect and sometimes it is for the catharsis of the songwriter.
Content warning: There will be discussion of substance abuse, child abuse, and suicide.
DEVIN TOWNSEND is an artist with a cross genre appeal who is most notable for his work in the acts STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, CASUALTIES OF COOL, THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT and THE DEVIN TOWNSEND BAND. He rose to fame as a member of the guitarist STEVE VAI’s band for which he performed vocals, this was a largely unique role for TOWNSEND who has later gone on to make his name as an innovative and legendary guitarist as well as his acclaim as a singer. He has made no secret of his struggles with anxiety, bi-polar disorder and his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse. In an interview with the music website Loudwire on their YouTube channel he says:
“TOWNSEND: I was diagnosed as being bi-polar in about ’98 during the time I was doing infinity.
Loudwire: Wikipedia says ’97 by the way
TOWNSEND: Might have been. I think it’s ’98. It is ’98 so x on that one. But I think, um, what I ended up discovering was once we had kids and once I got sober about 10 years ago I started going to a psychiatrist under the assumption that perhaps the diagnosis of bi-polar was not entirely accurate. Perhaps it was more to do with the fact that I’d never done drugs before. And then I started doing a ton of drugs. And so I came off of the anti-psychotic meds and alcohol and everything about 2007 and has been since strangely fine. So I think that when I had attempted to do so under the assumption that with Alien it might have been something other than a true diagnosis. The thing I neglected to realise at that time is that if you’re gonna stop taking your anti-psychotic meds it should number one) be under the guidance of a professional. Number two) I shouldn’t be drinking and smoking weed all the time.
So I kind of flipped out during Alien as a result of all of these things colliding and, uh, the result was a psychologically very unhealthy album. But one that was articulated very accurately and I think that’s where my pride in that record comes.”
On the 12th of April 2018 he posted on Twitter:
The following year he released the well regarded album Empath which has been described by GardensTale, a contributor for the website Angry Metal Guy as “…the most Devin album Devin ever recorded.” And indeed it really encapsulates a lot of what TOWNSEND as an artist is about, the blend of disparate genres and emotions or as his Facebook team said:
“On this album Devin has decided to see what would happen if all the styles that make up his current interests were finally represented in one place. To finally shake the fear of expectation, and just do what it is he was meant to do creatively, EMPATH, true to the name, is about allowing the audience a feeling for a variety of musical emotions. The musical dynamics represented on this single album are broad, challenging, and immense. To approach this sort of work with a long history of what makes heavy music ‘heavy’, allows this to be done with a type of power rarely heard”
In the run up to the albums release, they released a number of singles as is typical of an album’s marketing campaign but the last single from the album Why? was released six months later in September of 2019. The song was accompanied by a light hearted animated music video and as of writing sits at over 500,000 views on YouTube. What’s curious about this song is the seeming disconnect between the instrumentation and the sentiment. I interpret it as being conversation with himself or at least a version of himself. He is the ‘Darling’ being referred to, a scared, somewhat lesser version of himself and here’s why I think that.
“Darling are you feeling alright? You look rather pale
And all our friends are, all our friends are watching us
(I wanna go home)”
This sounds very much like a form of social anxiety, note the lyrics in brackets, he’s not saying “you want to go home” but instead referring to himself. He repeats this sentiment after the next verse with “Let me go home” again referring to himself and not the ‘other’.
It’s important to note that for this line TOWNSEND changes the delivery from a predominantly balladic nature to growling instead. Indication to the listener that this sentiment is now much more oppressive and insistent.
“Why run away? Why, why, why?
Darling are you seeing inside?
The wolves are alive and all our faith is, all our faith is wrong”
I think this is referring to the inner turmoil, the attempt to rationalise against the flight or fight response of a panic attack. The third line sounds to me as if he’s doubting his initial assumption of the people and circumstances he finds himself surrounded by. The wolves are alive, I take to mean that he assumed that the situation was much safer originally.
“And all we’re feeling slowly comes unravelled
And all we’re fearing, comes to pull us under”
It’s a feeling that’s pretty common when mental illness starts to get on top of you, that feeling of unravelling and it quickly becomes an awful lot of fear that acts as a massive weight upon you and stops you from functioning as you would normally want to.
In essence he is trying to fight against the negative thoughts he’s having and reassure himself that it will be ok. I know from experience that in the midst of a severe anxiety attack it feels like your mind is trying to pull itself apart in order to reason out what is happening around you.
“So, we feel so irrelevant
We’re rolling televised
Our pride will bolt us to the ground
And the Earth itself will swallow us whole”
This includes a call back to the first verse, where you can feel the weight of everyone looking at you, but still feeling insignificant. Pride will often prevent people from going out because what happens if someone sees you struggling? Wouldn’t it feel like you would want the Earth to open up?
“We can’t think for those who’ll suffer
Darling, are you feeling alright?
Take a look at your fear
And all our fate is, all are faith in all“
This verse solidifies the idea that sometimes you just have to go for it. The following work deals with a different way of coping with that situation.
The Wall is the 1979 album by English prog-rock group PINK FLOYD, and I’ve been listening to it a lot recently. More specifically I’ve been listening from Waiting For The Worms to Outside The Wall with a lot with special attention to The Trial. It’s a legendary concept album containing themes of abuse in the British school system, the aftermath of World War II, parental abuse and isolation. The Wall it’s named after is the wall that the main character Pink builds around himself to protect himself from the harshness and abuse that he has been subjected to. This leads him to develop feelings of depression that leave him, in the album’s words questioning “Is anybody out there”. A line that is better known from the song Comfortably Numb, which is about Pink being drugged so that he can perform on stage. The drugs cause a hallucination in which he imagines himself to be a fascist dictator who commits all manner of atrocities. Afterwards, he holds a rally in London that marks the beginning of his descent into madness and then his hallucination ends. Feeling guilty for what his subconscious has shown him he enters The Trial. A conversation occurs between various parts of his psyche before the judge orders him to “tear down the wall” and he emerges Outside the Wall.
The Trial is an important track to me. On my first listen to it I was unaware of the background and took it to be “Well, those prog artists are weird at the best of times”. When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse, Out of the corner of my eye of the rock star lifestyle. I didn’t understand that behind the scenes there were pressures that are not revealed to the general public. In hindsight it makes sense why so many artists have ended up with substance abuse problems just in an effort to cope. A member of PINK FLOYD did use drugs heavily, Syd Barrett’s use of psychedelic drugs are widely speculated to be the cause of his eventual departure. David Gilmour was quoted as saying “In my opinion, his nervous breakdown would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I’ll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don’t think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it.” Barrett’s family have all largely denied any sort of pre-existing condition. His sister Rosemary Breen did say that he spent some time in Greenwoods in Essex which she described as “a home for lost souls”.
The combined experience of the band members shaped the character of Pink who ultimately finds himself in a courtroom where he is the defence, prosecution, the accused and the judge. In my own dealings with mental health, I often find myself in a similar mental space. The inability to have the simplest opinion about myself without another part of me questioning it is, at times, a cause of severe mental anguish. You feel broken, fragmented and in turmoil.
The song begins with the prosecution saying that Pink “Was caught red-handed showing feelings, Showing feelings of an almost human nature” and calling for the first witness, Pink’s schoolmaster who states that he always knew that he’d come to no good and that he could flay him into shape. The part of the brain that is identified as still wholly himself enforces the idea that he is crazy. His wife asks if he has broken any homes up lately and his mother states that he should just come home.
The judge hears the evidence claiming it to be ‘incontrovertible’. And orders that Pink’s punishment should be to tear down the wall and be judged by his peers. A fate that Pink had both intentionally and unintentionally been shielding himself from.
It’s interesting to see the difference in how these songs deal with these issues. Anxiety, which would ordinarily seem to be quite a heavy subject is given light, soaring strings and gentle piano with only a touch of harsh vocals in TOWNSEND’s track. What would ostensibly be considered a panic attack in The Trial is much more oppressive with the character’s thoughts being given harsh, abrasive voices and personalities. The schoolmaster who would have beaten him to his mother who shames him for not being in touch as often as she would like. It’s a situation I’ve often been in where you list the abuse as if it is somehow justified and that it is your fault for not employing that abuse in a useful way.
In a way The Trial is the equivalent to the late night experience of being in bed and remembering everything you’ve ever done.
Why?’s protagonist takes the leap into the unknown and braves his fears after much debating with himself but The Wall’s lead runs away as hard as he can until he’s finally forced to confront reality.
But here is the thing, sometimes you have to make a tactical retreat. The world can be loud and scary, it can be complex and frightening. You can watch yourself being worn down day after day, but you have to remember that it’s ok to take some time by yourself and rebuild.
Take time for yourself and remember that there are people out there who are willing to help you when you are ready. It’s ok to “just walk away” for as long as you need.
Words: Jacob McCrone
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression and/or anxiety, here are some helplines you can call or websites you can visit for information, help and support. Click the name of the charity or service to access their website:
Samaritans – 116 123
MIND The Mental Health Charity – 0300 123 3393
C.A.L.M (Campaign Against Living Miserably) – 0800 58 58 58