The straights and the squares, the sane and the stable have always been fascinated by the mad, bad and the dangerous to know. Insanity ‘gets the best of’ the best of us at times, and the artists and musicians tend to fly closer to that crazy energy than most of the rest of us. Call it sensitivity, call it a curse, call it mental illness, call it freedom. I don’t really care what you call it, as long as ya keep ya distance and are careful with that axe, Eugene!
We don’t really think of our favorite acid rockers, those trippy hippy lightshow boys of Pink Floyd, as being out and out psychos, but they have their moments, right the way through their career. To be frank, though crackhead energy is all good n’ aggro, the jones for the smack makes the most mild mannered nodder into a fiend, and …well…no there is nothing I can say about the wallpaper pickers and tongue-outta-mouth droolers aka benzo-animals, but if summoning the psycho is the order of the day, there is no drug quite like LSD. Get right into that psyche, fall into the dark deep pool of the ID and the Ego, and the monster crawls right out of The Wall and into reality.
Add some booze and coke to the acid mix, and we get ‘one of my turns’. Whether this is inspired by Syd, or another member of the band, or any one of the psycho hotel room wreckers – I am looking at you Keith Moon – of their social milieu, doesn’t really matter. It is a perfect little rock and roll vignette of psychotic breakdown and disassociative distructo-freak bad behavior. Even in their more hippy trippy days, the Floyd could get crazy bad on us, and have to croak into the mic, various warnings for Eugene and his axe….But then we all know that Roger liked to call David Gilmour the ‘Killer’….He probably means the guitar…but the sheer threatening Dr Who like grumble of the track has probably inspired more than a few bad trips amongst Meddle listeners over the years.
Every genre seems to spawn its psycho behaviors, and there is nothing quite so disturbing as country song writer, Leon Payne’s 1968 song Psycho, which was put out first by Eddie Noaks, in an inexplicable move. It lived in relative obscurity until Jack Kittel took it on in 1973, and never really came out of its closet until Elvis Costello took it from disturbing to punk in one gloriously well thought out sardonic sneer of a cover.
I despite Elvis Costello’s cover of the Leon Payne / Eddie Noack country curiosity being one of those things of rare beauty that occasionally rock and roll throws up into the airwaves, grabbing us round the neck tighter than than the Psycho grabbed Johnny’s pup round the neck, I had to put the Beasts of Bourbon version up there. It is visually disturbing, with Tex Perkins putting in a fabulously bestial performance. Tex rides the line between the sweet vocals, the gentle innocence and the unknowing confusion, and the cutely sneering wondering about why his mama won’t get up. This is as much a theatrical performance as a musical one. Tex, with his widow’s peak hairdo, looking like the Werewolf of Darwin, if not of London, makes for an endearingly knowing psycho. It is my favorite version, despite the fact that Elvis Costello nailed that song before Tex and the Beasts of Bourbon got a hold of it. Stirring stuff!
Payne who wrote this nuggest of psycho gold, clearly took inspiration from the 1960 movie of the same name. It has the same mama issues, the same blank-out psycho zone out episodes that take out everyone within the psycho’s reach, including his mother dearest in the final verse. It takes a particular kind of crazy to record this song and not have the audience turning off mentally and physically. I have much the same reaction to Porter Wagoner’s performances. From The Rubber Room, which deals with being locked up in the sanitorium in order to avoid nasty little incidents like the Psycho boy’s puppy strangling matricidal, serial killer spree… to The Carroll County Accident, which is not about a psycho, but is so maudlin that it takes a psycho to sing it! I find him utterly unlistenable. There is always a sweet Johnny or Mary Sue dying in a house fire or in a car wreck and Porter chugging along as if he is singing about the green grass of home or little doogies that need to git along, instead of loss, death, pain and destruction. Psychobilly at its unlistenable finest!
Dylan and his Motorpsycho Nightmare, is a humorous folk narrative prequel to the Bates Motel horror show, that details a grand escape from the daughter and her murderously protective farmer daddy, instead of the ‘mother dearest’ of the movie, though Mother does make an appearance.
Rita, the crazed homicidal daughter of the song who is described as looking like she ‘stepped out of the dolce vita’ appears while Dylan is sleeping, having bargained a nights rest at the farm, …and asks Dylan if he wants to take a shower, in a caper movie slapstick scene to rival any 1960s populist offering.
Dylan’s little nods to the movie, such as describing Rita as looking ‘just like Tony Perkins’ – the actor who played the Psycho in the Hitchcock movie, in a bit of role reversal shenanigans, are married to an off the cuff ad libbed feel which employs a seat of the pants clumsy rhyme scheme that links…er…shower with shower…
Dylan uses the song to bemoan the loss of freedom of speech, and the reds under the bed hysteria of he McCarthy era, finds himself in deep water with the farmer – the archetypcal redneck, and the FBI who uses the farmer for their information, finds himself in need of something to sy which will distrat the shotgun toting daddy and his homicidal – or perhaps horny daughter (after being warned off her by her father) and comes up with a line that will get him in even greater trouble: “I like Fidel Castro and his beard”.
It works as a distraction technique, bringing the red peril into the story with considerable aplomb. Rita’s mother on the ‘hill’, and Rita’s job in the motel, all pale into significance compared to the murderous Rita’s father suspecting Dylan to be a durty little commie. “Without freedom of speech we might all be in the swamp” – declares Dylan, despite now being in even greater trouble for his silly little funny throwaway line. Authoritarians rarely have much of a sense of humor. It is a little awkward, a little forced, but at least fun…which is more than I can say for the wide eyed gulping and wincing induced by Leon Panye’s Psycho (pain – cool name for the writer of the song about a serial spree killer).
No Psycho song list is complete without Warren Zevon. His Werewolves of London will ‘tear your heart out Jim!”, but nothing can compare to his excitable boy, who commits the rape and murder of a girl he likes at school, rubs ‘pot roast all over his chest’ and the digs up little Susie and goes for a necrophiliac grand finale. It is a foot tapping, infectiously glorious little number…with the delivery being perhaps even crazier than the sentiment. Owing a lot to Payne’s Psycho, it is perhaps not a forerunner in the cause of new psycho material, but a fresh take on the ‘excitable boy’ theme.
Riders on the Storm might take the award for my favorite Psycho song of all time. Nothing quite compares to playing this driving down the highway, crossing the mountain passes in a storm, the rain effect of the song mixing with the threat of hydroplaning off the cliff side and into whatever gully, gulf or stream is rushing a few thousand foot below. The threatening minor key, the absolutely gorgeous keys of Ray M. It is musical and lyrical perfection. “Like a dog without a bone, an actor all alone”, Jim sets us up for the realization that the road might not be as safe as we were hoping. A sweet family, going on vacation. A hitchhiker with murderous intentions, his ‘brain, squirming like a toad’. Exhortations to ‘let your children play’. All of this adds up to a sense of deep unease with the world around, a healthy distrust. Riders On the Storm is as much PSA as it is rock and roll brilliance. Trust no one. Careful of hitchhikers and watch out for the storm.
My favorite psycho had a favorite song. Keith Moon and his engine of destruction, aka brandy and champagne. For every crazed hissy fit, there is a pair of eyes with sadness behind them. Or at least as long as we are talking psychotic red hot anger, not sociopathic numbness….Before he died, he sent me a link to this song with a note saying ‘Tears. There is nothing sadder than this’. Humanizing mental illness, sympathy for the devil, call it what you will. “My love is vengence that’s never free’ sings Roger. The sense of isolation, the pushing outside of the self of pain and blaming others. The self pity and the lost dreams, the sense of inability to control actions, is both scary and magnetic. The break at 2.25, where the move to violence, the plea for mercy, the begging for help when ‘something evil’ is swallowed, overwhelms the sadness and the victimhood of the yearningly devastating reality of being ‘the bad man behind blue eyes.’
Of course, after all that serious talk we are in need of a bit of levity, and Talking Heads is ready and willing to provide it with a danceable bubbly little number called Psycho Killer. Scary name for a song without teeth nor bite, let alone an axe or a clenched fist. Bubblegum punk-pop, real Blondie stuff without any malice or threat. Empty words, a perfectly stylized delivery. Sing-a-long-able chorus. These guys are just playing, blowing off some steam. I don’t believe them for a second of the song. Put these pissants in the same room as a raging Keith Moon and watch ’em ‘run run run run run away’.…Blah…The French posturing just makes ’em sound like twats. they “hate people when they are not polite’. Sheesh. Scarily dull stuff…Weak sauce. In fact I hate myself for including them. Sorry.
OK…here are some real crazy kids to wipe away the bad taste of those Talking Heads bunnies. Between Joey’s real life struggles with his mental health, experiences being locked up, and the fact he allegedly dated women he met while he was locked up in the psychiatric unit. The brutality of mental health ‘treatment’, the fact that the mentally unwell have been tortured with everything from lobotomies, heavy chemical coshes in the form of brutal psych meds, stigmatism in society, inhumane treatment and ridicule, combine to make a very disturbing punk diatribe against ‘Psycho Therapy’. The damaged and tortured inmates being let out of their prison in the final scene of the music video, the terrible conditions, the loss of humane treatment leading to people getting more unwell, not better, has not yet been fixed by society. The mentally ill are just now locked up in prisons instead. There is no effort to help people, just censure and injure and hope they ‘go away’. Trust Joey to allow for incisive social commentary! The Ramones get the award for the most thoughtful, insightful and sensitive track. ..not only that..as usual, the boys rock hard. ONETWOTHREEFOUR! Gabba Gabba hey!
No psycho track list is complete without the Pixies and wondering where the heck their minds went. The sheer insanity of using hard drugs to calm a troubled mind and soul, the cotton and the spoon, sucking up the best medicine any psycho boy or grrrl could wish for, disappearing into the mainline, down into the floor, curtains closing, “swimming in the carribean’ warmness of the dope-dream, under the surface, heading towards the light, being reborn into the putrid horror of the shooting galleries and the dives. “Try this trick and spin it!” sing The Pixies, “where is my mind!” they wonder….and so do I. See ya in the ER, boys….
I could not let this list go without Kanye West’s psycho song, I Thought About Killing You. Classic narcissistic rage. Kanye declares, unwisely and scarily that he thought about killing ‘her’ – (presumably Kim K), and thought about killing himself, in a murder suicide pact. Not only this, Kanye appears absolutely aware that this is inappropriate, but still he did the song and put it out on his 2018 album Ye.
The storytelling of the previous songs has bled through into something more personal in this more modern iteration. Eminem first did this kinda domestic violence as entertainment shtick, also about a woman called Kim. The song is so disturbing that I can only imagine Dr Dre’s reaction to hearing Eminem lay this down over one of his perfect beats. The line between cathartic release, threat, domestic violence and entertainment blurred in a worrying way. To be frank, after this, I am very glad that both Kim’s got away from their respective husbands. Listen at your own risk. This is triggering, male entitled rage at its most horrifying. Even the Beatles got in on the act with Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, another inane offering from the mop tops, devoid of any artistic, moralistic, or social merit. It is just plain old boring, a tuneful ditty that rivals Psycho Killer in mundane misogynistic cruelty. I never did like Lennon.
After all that crazy, there is nothing for it, but to wonder why, to sympathize, empathize and delcare that ‘we are never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy’…Seal puts the humanity and the reason back into the insanity. This is a song of solidarity, kindness, caring and in the final reckoning, the realization that getting a little crazy might be the only way out of this mess humanity has got itself into. There are psychos and then there are the glorious artists and lovers, the risk takers and the empaths, the sanctified insane. It might look crazy, but instead it is just thinking out of the box. Seal providing method to the madness.
After all, like Patsy Cline points out she is ‘crazy for feeling so lonely’, ‘crazy for feeling so blue’. The crazy kids, in love. The craziness of that hot desperation of adoration, that is not assured reciprocation. It is all crazy, and crazy is so beautiful, so tender, so hopeful and so doomed. There is no poetry in sanity.
Perhaps that is the trick, to stop the crazy before it takes over into rage, to embrace the insanity while it provides fuel for the creative fire, and not let it tip over into hurting others with the flame that burns too brightly.