Rock and Roll Book Club: Ten music writers on mental health

Sean McPherson reads DMC's memoir
Sean McPherson reads DMC's memoir (Jay Gabler/MPR)

As Mental Health Month begins, we're looking back at how ten past picks for the Rock and Roll Book Club have engaged mental health issues. As part of Minnesota Public Radio's Call to Mind initiative, P.O.S and Lydia Liza will be at Bauhaus Brew Labs this Saturday for performances and, with Local Show host Andrea Swensson, on-stage conversations.

Click on the title of each book for the full review.

Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy

Like a Wilco song, Jeff Tweedy's memoir breezes past, but is full of moments of acute insight, wry humor, and surprising poignancy. In one of the book's innumerable stories about what life is like when you're indie-rock famous (at the Grammys, one of Puff Daddy's guests mistook Tweedy for an usher), Tweedy writes that his big hook-up for opiates was a pharmacy employee who was a fan.

"I gave him tickets to Wilco shows, but I never knew if he came," writes Tweedy. "He was obviously addicted to pills, too." A rehab stint helped Tweedy buck his habit, but the mental-health issues he was managing have remained challenging every day.

Lonely Boy by Steve Jones

"Because as much as the Sex Pistols couldn't have existed without John — or Malcolm, or Cookie, or Glen, or even Sid — it was my s--t upbringing that got the ball rolling," wrote Steve Jones, guitarist for the English rock band the Sex Pistols. The book Lonely Boy chronicles his exhaustive journey — fueled by alcohol, drugs, thievery, and sex — to rock bottom and back. It starts with his fascination with stardom and the desire to be one of those people who "have it all sorted," and it ends with a 12-step program and a painful lesson on how to acknowledge feelings without using drugs to drown them out.

"The main difference between group therapy and being in a band," he writes, "is that in group therapy everyone's trying to help each other."

The Most Beautiful by Mayte Garcia

Growing up watching her parents experience infidelity (on both of their parts) and carrying the weight of being sexually harassed by a "family friend," Prince's first wife Mayte Gracia turned to one thing for solace. "Throughout that terrible year, I danced, and when I danced, I was untouchable," Garcia wrote in The Most Beautiful, a personal story of her life with Prince. "Dance was my secret power, my doorway to another dimension where there was only beauty, only music, only love." It was her dancing and similar childhood experience of witnessing the "psychological warfare between parents" that bonded Prince and Garcia.

Together, Garcia and Prince had a son who died at birth. She told Jill Riley and Brian Oake that her book has helped her connect with other parents who have lost pregnancies. "I just have had women come to me and tell me they can relate to this, because miscarriage happens to a lot of women and it is something that should be talked about. [Talking to me] is kind of their way of sharing and expelling this pain, so for me it's been beyond cathartic and I'm happy that I shared it."

My Own Devices by Dessa

Dessa's love for the one she calls "X" in her memoir, My Own Devices, hurled her into a long era of chronic heartache. "On tour, I smiled on stage and cried backstage," she recounts. "Hiding in the women's room of a club somewhere in America, my feet pulled up on the toilet seat, I could cry undiscovered for a long time." While this rollercoaster of being in a complicated relationship is not the only thing that she includes in her story, it is what she says got her to pursue neurofeedback as a form of therapy. Amidst the story of her attempt to "fall out of love," Dessa also tells of her "hypomanic episode" at 23 years old. "I was diagnosed with something called cyclothymia, which I conceptualized as a kid sister to bipolar disorder," she describes in the later chapters of her book.

"I don't subscribe to the idea that grief is sanctimonious, that anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Dessa told Andrea Swensson. "I think sometimes a lot of things that don't kill you leave you seriously compromised and weaker. But to say okay, is this a resource that I can burn for heat? Or turn into a song, or some way render fuel for a bigger ambition?"

I Am Brian Wilson, by Brian Wilson and Ben Greenman

Life began in southern California for Brian Wilson, where he was raised by a father who frightened and beat him. Wilson's memoir also describes his coping with loss when his brothers Dennis and Carl, both core members of the Beach Boys band, passed away. "My body was filled with drugs and alcohol, and my brain was filled with bad ideas," Wilson wrote. "Back then, like I said, mental illness wasn't treated in a straightforward way. People wouldn't even admit that it existed."

It wasn't until Wilson met his second wife, Melinda, that he found sustainable and effective treatment for his ongoing mental illness. For years, he was infamously mistreated by his therapist Eugene Landy...but even so, Wilson acknowledges, Landy helped him make it through some impossible days. Not getting treatment wasn't an option. After he saw the biopic Love & Mercy, Wilson's wife asked if he was okay. "I'm fine," Wilson replied. "Living it was so much worse."

Buffy Sainte-Marie by Andrea Warner

Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote many powerful protest anthems of the '60s, in addition to songs inspired by her past experience with substance abuse and assault. The authorized biography Buffy Sainte-Marie addresses the musician's lonely teen years of being bullied and her involvement with bad record contracts and bad marriages. Having survived childhood sexual abuse, a brief addiction to opioids, and an abusive relationship with a vagabond artist in 1964, Sainte-Marie helped herself and others through classic songs like "Cod'ine."

Shake It Up, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar

Shake It Up is a collection of exceptional writing by great journalists about various artists, each who have experienced their own kind of mental or physical hardships. Included are pieces on Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors who tried to cope with traumatic events and mood swings through drugs and alcohol; and Dick Clark, the American television and radio personality who had to deal with numerous health issues and depression.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Musician and actress Carrie Brownstein tells of growing up with a mother who needed to be hospitalized because of her anorexia; her appetite for attention and validation; and the struggles of managing her anxiety. "Performing gave me something to do in a given moment in a room," she says. "It was a heightened way of relating to people; I could act out feelings instead of dealing with them."

"Hunger is far from the gossipy tell-alls that we've come to expect from our musician memoirs," wrote Andrea Swensson. "Even when she's revealing intimate details about her life, like her mother's struggle with anorexia or her relationship with her Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker, she never loses focus of the purpose of the book — to investigate how and why she became a musician."

Ten Ways not to Commit Suicide by Darryl McDaniels with Darrel Dawsey

For years, a founding member of Run-D.M.C. hated waking up. "You hear me? F---ing hated it," wrote Darryl McDaniels straight-off-the-bat in his book Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide. Depression followed him since he was young. McDaniels wrote that it was the suffering in silence, isolated from everyone and anyone who might have cared about him, that was the worst for his recovery. "It is not a sign of weakness to seek help," he advised.

"I know attention in recent years has been given to how taboo the topic of mental health is among black men, but as a white man I see it in my white world too," wrote Sean McPherson about the book. "We're often afraid to work on ourselves — maybe because we're afraid of failing, but also because we're afraid of succeeding. A good coping mechanism is a scary thing to mess with. The most inspiring part of DMC's book, to me, was his honesty about his failures. He lived his life for the benefit of others, and he's not going out like that."

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Though it's clear that this memoir — seven years in the making — draws heavily on Springsteen's decades of therapy, there's no psychoanalytic unpacking of what the son carried from those cold nights with his father in a darkened New Jersey kitchen. Instead, there's a humane and patient attempt to understand who the father was.

After recounting his distinguished career, Springsteen circles back to his father, opening up about both his father's mental health issues and his own. Bruce is candid about the treatment he's received for depression, about the medication he's taking, and about the healing he's undergoing every day. His honesty about that healing, about that struggle, is part of what makes him so compelling as a musician — and, now, as an author.

"Just when I thought I was in the part of my life where I'm supposed to be cruising," Springsteen wrote, "my sixties were a rough, rough ride." He wrote about an episode of what was diagnosed as agitated depression. "I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. It feels dangerous and brings plenty of unwanted thoughts."

He was ultimately able to treat the depression with medication and support from his medical team and family. "All of this brought back the ghost of my father's mental illness and my family's history, and taunted me with the possibility that even after all I'd done, all I'd accomplished, I could fall to the same path."

By the time he was writing in recent years, Springsteen was better but acknowledged, "It's in me, chemically, genetically, whatever you want to call it, and as I've said before, I've got to watch. The only real bulwark against it was love."


The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club will be part of the Lit Crawl MN on May 11, in association with the Loft Literary Center's Wordplay festival. Rock star author Steven Hyden will read from his book Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, and then spin a few of his favorite classic rock LPs, sharing stories about the albums' origins in conversation with host Jay Gabler. This free event will take place at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.


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