This was a post that I had plans to write for a long time. I wanted to talk about disabled musicians and musicians who have suffered from mental illnesses, but it’s one that I want to be careful about covering because I always strive to talk about all these topics responsibly. I never want to reduce people to their identities. People have entire stories and you can’t reduce people to a label. Disability is something that is rarely, if ever, talked about in diversity talks. Why is it an afterthought, or even worse, not even a thought in people’s heads? Is it that people don’t know how to talk about it? Is it that people take being able bodied or mentally healthy for granted?
Mental health is something that isn’t easy to talk about. For a long time, I have had depression. If my depression were a person, it would now be old enough to vote, and I guess old enough to drink in all of Canada now. Make it stop! I know from experience that when I’m not feeling good, no one knows exactly what to say. Even I had to learn how to truly be there for my friends. I even made a short video about it that I’ll share below. You might find it useful. I made it nearly 3 years ago when I was not in a good place and wanted to vent my feelings. If anything, writing and classic rock are the reasons I’m still not dead.
After five years of writing this blog, I feel like I’ve gained a lot of perspective and finally have the ability to word things right and cover disability and mental illness in a responsible and respectful way and not speaking over others. This post is just going to talk about the realities, not glorifying or diminishing disability/mental illness, not inspiration porn.
I just wanted to write something for people to read and know that there’s a musician they can relate to. I know that I relate to quite a few on this list. Some people on this list, you’ll definitely know about their disabilities/mental health issues, while others may come as a surprise. That’s what I always do on this blog. Share the well known stories and mix in a few new stories that you may not be aware of. I always want you to feel like you’ve learnt something new.
Who counts as having a disability?
I always had difficulty deciding whether or not to identify myself with having a disability. Most people’s ideas of disability are the obvious ones that affect everyday functioning: the ones of a mobility or sensory nature. Like people who use wheelchairs, canes, and walkers. Or people who are deaf or blind (although these can be invisible disabilities too, like a deaf person who wears discrete hearing aids). These are more obvious to people so of course, these will be talked about a lot more than say more invisible disabilities that one cannot see. Things like autism, arthritis, epilepsy, learning disabilities, chronic pain, and even various medical and mental health conditions count. Disability really is more than meets the eye. If it affects your health and everyday functioning, then it can be considered a disability.
And that’s the difficulty. I have multiple things that throw me under the disabled umbrella: on the autism spectrum, anxiety, depression, a history of eating disorders, and an impaired sense of smell. If you ask any person with a disability who has tried applying for benefits or tried looking into it, they’ll say it’s a dehumanising process and it’s painful and invalidating to get a rejection. “You’re not disabled enough for XYZ”. Disabled enough? What does that mean? The people at the welfare office act like they’re Jesus, they’ll touch your forehead and declare you fit to work even though nothing has changed.
Autism affects a lot of things in my day to day life: socialising is like pulling teeth, sometimes I can’t handle crowded places with loud noises and bright lights, and my motor skills are quite poor. For example, I cannot safely or efficiently use a knife to cut vegetables and fruit and my handwriting is so poor that I’ve had to sit exams on a computer, but at least I can type fast.
Keep in mind that not everyone who may fit under the disabled umbrella identifies as disabled. But most people at some point in their life end up with a disability, often in old age. Don’t be ableist. Don’t make assumptions. Just be kind.
Content Warning: For some of these musicians, mental health difficulties will be talked about and I know this is a sensitive topic, so tread with caution. The triggering topics include eating disorders and suicidal thoughts and attempts. If you are affected by these topics, please reach out to local organisations and people who are supportive to you.
Of course, some obvious musicians like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles will not be talked about in this blog post because they’ve been talked about to death – I’ll link to blog posts with their stories, click on their names. We know their stories and I’ve talked about them before.
The main focus here is on musicians you may not have realised were disabled or lesser told stories. All information posted here is stuff information is known to the public, so no musicians will be outed. I will post links to sources and when possible. Since I am not a doctor, I can’t make any diagnoses, so any that are mentioned are ones that the musicians have mentioned themselves or people close to the musicians have mentioned. No self-diagnosed musicians or musicians people believe to be autistic will be included. You can’t diagnose people posthumously. This is not an exhaustive list, but a list of rock stars whose stories I found interesting.
One type of mental illness that will not be discussed here is addiction because that list would never end and I am not qualified to talk about addiction, because I have no personal experience with it. I have never had an addiction and I’ve never helped anyone deal with theirs. With that said, let’s talk about musicians with disabilities!
Ann Wilson: stutter, panic attacks
As a child, Ann Wilson had a stutter when she was in primary and middle school, which had an effect on her confidence as a kid. On top of that, she struggled with her weight. Words just couldn’t come out. Her nightmare was reading in front of the class.
Thanks to singing though, she gained confidence and cured her stutter. When she sang the words came out so fluidly and clearly. She said in her autobiography, Kicking and Dreaming, that when she sang, it was the only time she didn’t stutter. By grade 11, she stopped stuttering.
Below, you can find a clip from an interview from The Talk, where she talks about getting over her stutter by singing.
In the mid 80s, when Heart made their comeback, Ann Wilson looked noticeably different because of weight gain. Music was even more image focused because of MTV and reviews of concerts would scrutinise the musicians’ looks, especially if they were women. Ann’s voice was as amazing as ever, but critics would fat shame her and the band and people surrounding them would single her out and blame her for the bad reviews. She was constantly hidden in music videos and Nancy became the star of the show. Eventually, Ann started suffering from panic attacks before the band were to go on stage, even though she had never had stage fright before. At times, she would freeze even onstage only getting through the show thanks to muscle memory.
Ann and Nancy do not like this era of the band because it wasn’t true to them and it was a very sexist time.
Bill Haley: blind in one eye
This 50s rock musician famous for the influential song “Rock Around The Clock” was blind in one eye. When he was four, he had an operation on his ear and the surgeon accidentally severed an optic nerve, making him blind in his left eye. To distract from his left eye, he curled a bit of his hair above his right eye and that was his gimmick.
It wasn’t easy becoming a rock star. At 15, he decided to leave the house and pursue his dreams. He would yodel with various bands to get performing experience. He became known as one of the top cowboy yodellers in the country. He started a band called The Saddlemen, which were renamed to Bill Haley and his Comets, a play on words with Halley’s Comet. It took him 15 years to become a famous rock star. They were the first rock band to play on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was 30 in this video. You can see the video below:
Bill Withers: stutter
Bill Withers got famous in the 70s with “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lovely Day”, and “Lean On Me”. He was born with a stutter and said that “people have a tendency to disregard you” when you have a stutter. Before becoming a musician, he was in the Navy and at an aircraft parts factory. While in the Navy, he got rid of his stutter, which he figured out wasn’t physical, but rather, mental.
“I realised it wasn’t physical. I figured out that my stutter — and this isn’t the case for everyone — was caused by fear of the perception of the listener. I had a much higher opinion of everyone else than I did of myself. I started doing things like imagining everybody naked — all kinds of tricks I used on myself.”
He saved up money to record a demo tape and would show up at the studio straight from his factory job, work clothes and all with a notebook of songs he wrote. He didn’t leave his day job. He knew that the music industry was fickle and didn’t believe that he could make a living from it. The album cover photo for Just As I Am was taken during his lunch break at work and his coworkers made fun of him for it. He was 32 when he got famous.
Brian May: depression, suicidal thoughts
Depression isn’t something that makes sense and people wonder how can someone so successful, so smart, so accomplished, want to die and feel worthless? 1991 was a rough year for Brian May. He lost two people very close to him, his father – who built the Red Special with him, and he lost his bandmate Freddie Mercury – which was like losing a brother. Prior to that, he was going through a divorce with his first wife, Chrissy. In the early 90s, he checked himself into a depression clinic and got the help he needed. He said that the reason he kept going was because of his three kids.
At 8:30 in this interview, he talks about how he was close to ending his life.
Brian Wilson: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, among other issues
This creative genius had a very rough life. It often seems that way, the most brilliant, creative geniuses had a really bad upbringing and a lot of personal demons. Brian Wilson suffered from mental breakdowns throughout The Beach Boys’ career. It’s possible that the root of all these problems is his troubled relationship with his dad, who would abuse him. He first suffered a nervous breakdown on a flight in 1964, just before Christmas. After that, he decided to stop touring with The Beach Boys, and wouldn’t appear on stage with them for 12 years. He said this:
“I had no choice. I was run down mentally and emotionally because I was running around, jumping on jets from one city to another on one-night stands, also producing, writing, arranging, singing, planning, teaching—to the point where I had no peace of mind and no chance to actually sit down and think or even rest.”
While struggling with his mental health, he recorded one of the best albums of the 60s, the brilliance that is Pet Sounds, considered the band’s best work. However, he suffering from hallucinations and became paranoid and antisocial. As the 60s went on, his mental health spiralled and got even worse, he was doing more and more drugs, and binge eating. The band cancelled their Monterey Pop Festival appearance and their album, Smile, which is considered the best unreleased album of all time.
He checked into mental hospital for a time and had this quack therapist Eugene Landy control his life from the mid 70s to 1992. Like Britney Spears, he was in a conservatorship and there was a lengthy legal battle related to that. In the end, Brian Wilson was freed and Eugene Landy lost his licence to practise psychology.
In a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, Brian Wilson said that he wanted to warn people about the dangers of drugs with his memoir, I Am Brian Wilson:
“I want people to realise that drugs can be very detrimental and dangerous. I talk a lot about my bad experiences on drugs in the book for that reason.”
Captain Beefheart: multiple sclerosis
This singer-songwriter known for his work with The Magic Band made some really unique music that mixed together blues, free jazz, and avant-garde with rock. He was active in music in the 60s and 70s, but retired in 1982 and didn’t make very many appearances since retiring. He turned to painting and making sculptures, which actually made him more money than he made in music. By the early 90s, he was in a wheelchair. He died in 2010 of complications related to MS.
Curtis Mayfield: paralysed, diabetic
Curtis Mayfield wasn’t always disabled and disabilities can really come at any point in life. Anyone can become disabled, either through an illness or an accident. In Curtis Mayfield’s case, he spent the last decade of his life in a wheelchair after an accident where lighting equipment fell on top of him during a concert in Brooklyn, breaking his neck and leaving him paralysed from the neck down. His family said the concert promoters were negligent and didn’t properly secure the equipment. The concert was outdoors and there was a gust of wind and the organisers let it go even though there were gusts of wind and rain. He could never play guitar or walk again. He worried about his family because with him being disabled, he couldn’t play concerts anymore and he didn’t want his kids to live in poverty like he grew up in, in the projects in Chicago. His right leg was amputated because of complications from diabetes. He died in 1999 at the age of 57.
David Byrne: Asperger’s
He first said in 2009 that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s and in this interview with the BBC he talks about it:
Diana Ross: anorexia
Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness. Recovery is not as simple as just eat a cheeseburger and help yourself to a pint of ice cream. Diana Ross was known for her tiny frame and is considered one of the most iconic singers of the 60s. The truth though is that she wasn’t just skinny, she was underweight. Even before the MTV era, the music business was all about image and you could never be skinny or pretty enough. Berry Gordy was tough on all the female Motown singers. He gave Florence Ballard a lot of crap for her weight even thought she wasn’t overweight and he pressured Diana Ross to get skinnier and skinnier and she developed an eating disorder. In 1967, she collapsed at a concert in Boston.
One of the more surprising ones on this list, Donovan got polio at the age of 3, a few years before there was a vaccine. He was left with a limp. As a kid, he liked to stay active by swimming and even going for a jog. The silver lining for him is that he had a lot of time to get into hobbies like reading, poetry, and writing songs. His dad would often read poetry at bedtime and that sparked an interest for him in writing his own poems and songs. He had to wear a brace to support his leg as a child and he was sometimes bullied for it, which was tough, but he had supportive parents.
Here’s a quote from him:
“Having had polio never held me back as I got older. Although having one leg smaller than the other isn’t much fun I could always get about without any trouble. Luckily in the music industry everyone was only interested in my singing and playing and not the size of my legs.”
“Despite having polio as a child I’ve had a rather charmed life. It hasn’t ever stopped me doing what I have done and is part of who I am.”
Neil Young and Joni Mitchell also had polio during childhood. Sometimes Joni Mitchell experiences fatigue, weakness, painful joints, and difficulty swallowing. Point is, we have vaccines now, please vaccinate your kids. Neil Young had to learn how to walk again.
Edgar and Johnny Winter: albinism
These two brothers started performing blues music from a young age, appearing on local TV shows and recording music professionally. Johnny Winter was known for his guitar playing, considered one of the best blues rock guitarists of all time, and produced three Grammy-winning albums for Muddy Waters, a dream come true for him. Rolling Stone said this about Johnny Winter:
“If you can imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues guitar you have ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter.”
Edgar Winter is a multi-instrumentalist who can play guitar and saxophone, but mostly is known for his keyboard playing. Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” are classic rock radio staples. On his albinism and playing music, Edgar Winter said this:
“Growing up, music became my own private escape world. I couldn’t see well enough to play sports. So [the albinism] separated me in a sense. Music was something I could do. But it was internalised. My brother Johnny, on the other hand, was more ambitious and he really had that dream of being a rock star. He was Johnny Cool, with the shades and the guitar; I was the weird kid that played all the other instruments.”
Albinism is a condition where the body produces no pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes and it can affect a person’s vision and make them more susceptible to skin cancer. Johnny Winter was cross-eyed.
Elton John: bulimia
One of the things I learnt in Rocketman was that Elton John was bulimic in the 70s. He ended up going to rehab in the early 90s, but it wasn’t easy finding a clinic that would treat him.
Here’s a quote from him about his struggles with food:
“I was bulimic for six years. It was all through being paranoid about my weight but not able to stop eating. So in the end I’d gorge, then make myself sick. For breakfast I’d have a fry-up, followed by 20 pots of cockles and then a tub of ice cream, so I’d throw it all up. I never stood still. I was always rushing, always thinking about the next thing. If I was eating a curry, I couldn’t wait to throw it up so that I could have the next one.”
Frank Sinatra: OCD
After Frank Sinatra’s death, his wife, Barbara revealed that he had OCD and was very obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness, taking up to 12 showers a day and compulsively washing his hands.
Frankie Valli: hearing loss
Quite a few rock musicians have developed hearing loss and tinnitus, like Ozzy Osbourne, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Pete Townshend, Paul Stanley, and Danny Elfman. In the late 60s, Frankie Valli started developing otosclerosis, which is an incurable ear disease caused by a buildup of calcium deposits. For over a decade, he didn’t get help for it and the problem got worse and worse to the point where he couldn’t hear himself sing and he had to sing from memory to get through live performances. Singing with hearing loss for him was like singing in a vacuum. In 1980, he finally got an operation to restore his hearing, but it was difficult finding a specialist who would treat him. He got most of his hearing back and could perform like he used to once again!
Gary Numan: Asperger’s
Gary Numan, known for the hits “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric”, has Asperger’s. He was diagnosed as a child and says because of his Asperger’s he sees the world differently from everyone else and got into sci-fi and developed this sort of standoffish persona with a straight face.
On the pros and cons of having Asperger’s he said:
“Asperger’s gives you very useful gifts that other people don’t have such as concentration and obsession. When I first got into electronic music I threw myself into it deeply and I knew everything about every bit of equipment in studios I worked in. It also enables you to be slightly detached emotionally which can be useful when you’re reading bad reviews. The only downside is that I’m pretty awkward when interacting with strangers. I find being around a lot of people uncomfortable and I’m easily intimidated by the unpredictable nature of people. I’m fine doing interviews and meeting fans because all I do then is talk about me but at functions where I have to talk to people about normal things, I’m rubbish. I often talk too much and I have a problem with eye contact. When I talk to people face-to-face I count how long I’ve been looking at their eyes so I know when to look away. It’s mechanical, not natural. There are a number of little things like that which I employ.”
Ian Curtis: depression, epilepsy
Ian Curtis’s story is one of the most tragic in classic rock. He had a promising music career with Joy Division, but just as they were about to tour America, he took his life. He was only 23. His epilepsy was getting worse, with more frequent and intense seizures, as time went on and he was worried about performing. His medications gave him mood swings and he was having relationship problems. His condition was so bad that he couldn’t hold his baby out of fear he would drop her.
Ian Dury: polio
Lead singer of Ian Dury and The Blockheads. When he was 7, he contracted polio at a swimming pool during the 1949 polio epidemic. As a result, his left arm and leg were left paralysed and withered, so he had to walk with a cane. He went to a special school for children with disabilities before transferring to a grammar school, which he didn’t like because he was punished for not being able to memorise long tracts of poetry. He later went to art school and studied under famous pop artist, Peter Blake. He died in 2000 of cancer.
Jerry Garcia: missing finger
When Jerry Garcia was 4, his family went on a camping trip with his family and his brother was chopping wood and his right middle finger was chopped off by accident. As a kid, he liked to have a laugh by pranking kids by showing it off to gross them out. Still, he played guitar and was able to improvise on guitar for a long time during concerts. Later in life, he got diabetes and he died of a heart attack in 1995.
Joey Ramone: OCD
Joey Ramone had OCD and was hospitalised for it at least once in his life. His case was so severe, doctors told his mother he may not be able to care for himself. His OCD in a way led to his death. He had the urge to check if his door across town was closed properly and by that point in his life, his physical health was not good because he was battling cancer. He tried to stop himself, but the OCD took over and he walked across the city to close the door, but that day it was very icy and he fell and broke his hip and died three months later.
José Feliciano: blind
This Puerto Rican singer was born blind as a result of congenital glaucoma. Starting at 3 he would play music with his family, starting by playing a beat on a tin can, and later learning to play accordion and guitar. One time, when playing in Greenwich Village, his blindness caused an awkward situation where he did a Bob Dylan impersonation without realising Bob Dylan was in the audience. He had a guide dog and when performing in the UK, he was told that he couldn’t bring his guide dog with him unless the guide dog was quarantined for 6 months. He wrote a song about this incident called “No Dogs Allowed”
Karen Carpenter: anorexia
One of the first prominent celebrities known to have anorexia, Karen Carpenter struggled with it throughout her career. At the time of her death, nobody knew very much about anorexia. As a teenager, she was called fat for being 10 stone 5 lb (145 lb) so she went on a crash diet and got down to 8 stone 8 lb (120 lb). Over time, she dropped even more weight, weighing as little as 80 pounds, very underweight. There was a lot of pressure on women to maintain a thin figure, especially in music and when you’re a musician you’re going to be photographed and scrutinised and that can mess with your brain.
Often when performing, she would wear draping clothes that would hide her body. She was so malnourished that between concerts, she had no energy and would have to lie down. It got so bad that The Carpenters had to cancel a European tour in 1975. She struggled with self esteem because she didn’t have a healthy relationship with her mother, whose favourite was her brother, Richard Carpenter. She died at 32 years old from complications due to anorexia.
Keith Emerson: carpal tunnel, depression, died of suicide
Keith Emerson was considered one of the best keyboard/organ players in all of rock music. He was one of the flashiest performers and was known for doing Hendrix like things: stabbing the organ with knives, jumping on top of it, even playing on a piano that flipped in the air.
As you can imagine, when you play keyboard or even use a computer a lot because it’s part of your job, you can develop painful conditions and nerve damage: tendinitis, carpal tunnel, arthritis. In 2016, Keith Emerson shot himself, taking his life because he couldn’t take the debilitating pain anymore and he was depressed. He kept his pain a secret because if word got out, he wouldn’t be booked for concerts and musicians rely heavily on it for income because often they get screwed over in record deals.
His girlfriend, Mari Kawaguchi said:
“His right hand and arm had given him problems for years. He had an operation a few years ago to take out a bad muscle. But the pain and nerve issues in his right hand were getting worse. He had concerts coming up in Japan and even though they hired a back-up keyboard player to support him. Keith was worried. He read all the criticism online and was a sensitive soul. Last year he played concerts and people posted mean comments such as, ‘I wish he would stop playing.’ He was tormented with worry that he wouldn’t be good enough. He was planning to retire after Japan. Didn’t want to let down his fans. He was a perfectionist and the thought he wouldn’t play perfectly made him depressed, nervous and anxious.”
Klaus Voormann: dyslexia
This artist and musician is known for his work with The Beatles – designing the Revolver album cover, which won him a Grammy and playing bass for Manfred Mann from 1966-1969. He discussed his dyslexia on the programme Talking Germany on DW. He also talks about working with The Beatles, playing bass later in life, and being a vegetarian – a lifestyle he maintained since he lived with George Harrison. If you want to skip to the part where he talks about dyslexia, timestamp is 7:55. He said he had no idea until adulthood he had dyslexia. In school he had difficulty reading music. He also mentioned there’s a taboo in Germany related to having dyslexia, like people don’t believe that you can have difficulty reading.
Lou Reed: dyslexia
An amazing songwriter and English major who had dyslexia. Of his dyslexia he said:
“I’ve always had trouble reading anything with long paragraphs. I’m a little dyslexic, and I reverse things. I thought I was unemployable,”
Marty Balin: autism
Marty Balin was one of the lead singers and songwriters of Jefferson Airplane. Not only was he a great musician, he also loved painting.
He advocated for autism awareness and even promoted films about autism.
Nick Drake: depression
Nick Drake was a musician who only got recognised after his death. He recorded three albums of beautiful, poetic, haunting songs and took his life at the age of 26. In the later years of his life, he suffered from depression. He was always shy and introverted and only ever gave one interview and a few live performances. However, his sister, Gabrielle, wanted everyone to know that Nick Drake shouldn’t be reduced to depression and she wrote a book telling the story of his life.
Here’s what Gabrielle Drake thought would have become of her brother had he lived to see the popularity of his music:
“I think he’d have become more esoteric. I don’t believe he’d necessarily have stayed in this world of popular music. Had he not failed, had he realised how much he was really on the brink of success it probably wouldn’t have satisfied him to go on doing that. And I don’t believe that he could have coped with the adulation of fans for very long. I don’t think so.”
Nicky Hopkins: Crohn’s disease
Nicky Hopkins is a name you may not know, but he was one of the most in demand session musicians in London and played with pretty much every British band you can think of in the 60s. The scene’s busiest pianist. Bill Wyman called him the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll piano player in the world”. Musicians often thought he was American because of his Fats Domino and Little Richard like style
Because he had Crohn’s disease, he couldn’t join a band, so he made the best of the situation and worked as a session piano player for most of his career. He was a member of a few bands like Cyril Davies’ R&B All-Stars, Jeff Beck Group, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Jerry Garcia Band, but health problems made it difficult to tour. He had to leave the R&B All-Stars in 1963 because he had to go to hospital for a series of operations, which nearly took his life and left him bed ridden for a year and a half.
Being a session musician really is a thankless job and sadly, he never received royalties for the bulk of his work as session musicians were freelancers, hired hands. His piano playing really made the songs what they are.
Ozzy Osbourne: ADD and dyslexia
The Prince of Darkness said this about his ADD and dyslexia in this interview with GQ:
“I am terribly dyslexic and have attention deficit disorder, so I have to carry a tape recorder everywhere I go. Also, if I get a melody in my head, I have to record it straight away. There are times when I lie in bed at night and I go, “Fucking hell, that’s a great melody.” I can hear the ﬁnished thing in my head. I hear concertos, fucking violins and everything!
He has said that the positives of having dyslexia is that he is very creative.
Peter Tork: Asperger’s
Sometime in the 2000s, Peter Tork was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Here are a couple quotes from a 2008 interview with a British newspaper:
“But one thing I have discovered in recent years is that I suffer from Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism.
“There is a fanaticism and obsessiveness about me and my actions that appear to bear this out.”
Paul Stanley: microtia
The Kiss rhythm guitarist was born with a deformity called microtia to his right ear and didn’t get surgery to fix it until he was 30. Because of this deformity, he was deaf in his right ear and couldn’t tell what direction a sound was coming from, had trouble deciphering words in a noisy environment, and he was bullied in school. He turned to music and art and loved watching American Bandstand as a kid and started playing guitar when he was 13. He also had an interest in the graphic arts and considered pursuing that, but ultimately picked music.
Ray Davies: bipolar, attempted suicide
At the age of 11 or 12, Ray Davies would be taken to “the clinic” for counselling as they would say in the 50s, according to his brother, Dave. Back in those days there was even more of a stigma of mental illnesses so people would use coded language. In those days, if you had depression, you kinda just put up with it because going to a psychologist was seen as weakness and that you must be really crazy.
In July 1973, he attempted suicide at a concert, walking off stage, told everyone he was done with music, and overdosed. The band’s road manager saw he was acting strangely and rushed him to hospital, saving his life. Weeks before, his first marriage fell apart and his first wife, Rasa, took their daughters with her and the band were on the decline, not at their peak anymore. Shortly after the suicide attempt he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Rick Allen: amputated arm
The Def Leppard drummer lost his left arm after getting into a car accident in 1984. While in the car with his girlfriend, trying to pass another car at high speed, he lost control of his car and was thrown out of it because his seatbelt wasn’t properly fastened. Doctors tried to reattach his arm, but because it got infected, they had to re-amputate it. For almost two years, Def Leppard took a hiatus from performing. In the meantime, Rick Allen was getting used to playing drums with a specially designed electronic drum kit. In 1987, the band released their most successful album, Hysteria, which had multiple hits: “Animal”, “Hysteria”, and “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. Rick Allen came up with the title of the album, inspired by the media hysteria in the coverage of his tragic accident. It was a long-awaited album, recorded over a period of 3 years.
Rick Allen struggled with his mental health after the accident and said this in an interview:
“I remember coming around in the hospital and then realising what had happened to me after the accident, and honestly, I wanted to disappear. I didn’t wanna do this anymore. And then I started getting these letters from all over the world… I got encouragement from everywhere — from my family, from the guys [in the band], from people all over the world. And I don’t know what happened, but I discovered the power of the human spirit and just said, ‘You know what? I can do this.’”
Robert Wyatt: paralysed from the waist down
Robert Wyatt is an important part of the Canterbury scene in the bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole. Initially he played on a drum kit, but that all changed in 1973 when he was at Gilli Smyth’s birthday party at and was a little too drunk and fell out the fourth floor window of Lady June’s house. He survived, but he was paralysed permanently and has to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. That year, Pink Floyd held some benefit concerts for Robert Wyatt at the Rainbow Theatre, raising £10,000 for him. Robert Wyatt considered the accident a wakeup call for him because by that time, he was an alcoholic and had he kept going, his lifestyle would have taken his life. After the accident, he released solo music and learnt to play different instruments like trumpet and guitar and played drums in a different style, without the use of his feet kind of like how the jazz players would do it.
Ronnie Lane: multiple sclerosis
Multiple Sclerosis is a disability that runs in Ronnie Lane’s family. Both his mother and brother had it too. As a child, Ronnie was told that he may not get it because MS isn’t necessarily inherited, but it turned out that in the late 70s, he would end up diagnosed with MS. The Small Faces were a band that were ripped off by their record label and therefore the band members didn’t have a lot of money. Treatments for MS weren’t cheap, but Ronnie Lane got help from Fred Sessler, a business associate of The Rolling Stones. He underwent a controversial therapy in America that he thought helped him, but suddenly he couldn’t get the therapy anymore and he had to go back to London, but he ended up moving to the US in the mid 80s. By that time, rock star friends like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page helped raise money for his treatment and for an organisation called ARMS: Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis, but there were problems with that charity and money mysteriously disappeared. Eventually though, he was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t support his own head. He died in 1997 and tragically, never got to see royalties from The Small Faces’ music. He was an incredibly talented songwriter and he and his band definitely deserved a lot better.
Syd Barrett: unknown
Syd Barrett’s story is another tragic story in classic rock and one of the most mysterious rock stars. I really couldn’t write a post about mental illness and rock and roll without talking about Syd Barrett. Very little is known because he was a private person who never gave interviews after leaving the music industry for a private life.
He was a founding member of Pink Floyd and the band’s original leader in the band’s early psychedelic days in the 60s. Like Brian Wilson, his mental health and behaviour became more and more unstable as time went on and he had to stop touring. Except in Syd’s case it was worse, he had no choice but to leave the band, and unfortunately he never returned to music after he recorded two solo albums in the early 70s. Some fans didn’t understand that Syd wanted his own space and they would track him down to his mother’s house in Cambridge, harassing him.
His family however didn’t think he was mentally ill and Syd was never formally diagnosed with anything, not even schizophrenia. He spent time in a “home for lost souls” and went to a therapist for a brief period, but he and his family didn’t believe that therapy would be much benefit for him. His sister, Rosemary, said in an interview that he and his siblings were all likely on the autism spectrum and that Syd had synesthesia, a condition where more than one sense is stimulated when you receive information meant to stimulate only one sense. For example, people with synesthesia can see colours when listening to music.
He died in 2006 of pancreatic cancer. He ended up developing type 2 diabetes and that affected his health a lot in the later years.
Tony Iommi: missing fingertips
The Black Sabbath guitarist, who is considered one of the best rock guitarists of all time, lost the tips of his right middle and ring fingers in an accident at his last day of work at a sheet metal factory. After the accident, he was told he could never play guitar again, but he set to prove people wrong and found a way to play. He didn’t switch to playing right handed, but rather kept playing left handed and made thimbles for his injured fingers, used banjo strings because they had a lighter gauge, and would tune his guitar to lower pitches, creating a unique technique and shaping Black Sabbath’s big, heavy sound. The foreman of the factory played him a Django Reinhardt album and that inspired him to keep going. In the next section, you can read more about Django Reinhardt.
In this interview with Classic Rock Magazine, he says his biggest regret is losing his fingertips:
“I would have liked to have not chopped the ends of my fingers off. It became a burden. Some people say it helped me invent the kind of music I play, but I don’t know whether it did. It’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with. It affects your playing style; you can’t feel the strings, and there are certain chords I can’t play. Right at the beginning I was told by doctors: “You won’t be playing guitar.” But I believed I could do it, and I did.”
Honourable Mentions: pre-classic rock
Blind Lemon Jefferson: blind
There were many blind blues musicians, especially in the country blues subgenre like Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Terry, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Reverend Gary Davis. Some musicians would even pretend to be blind, like Bogus Ben Covington and Eddie Lang, who could see, chose a black pseudonym, Blind Willie Dunn, so he could record with Lonnie Johnson.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was the most famous and successful of the blind blues musicians and was known as the Father of the Texas Blues. He was born blind into a large family of 7 or 8 children. His parents were sharecroppers. He started playing guitar in his teens and was a street musician. Later, he met and worked with Lead Belly and he taught T-Bone Walker how to play blues guitar. In 1925 or 1926, he was taken to Chicago to record his first tracks, which were gospel songs. He died in 1929 at the age of 36.
Django Reinhardt: missing fingers
One of the most influential guitarists, he essentially invented Gypsy Jazz and was the first important European contributor to jazz guitar. His band were one of the first to play jazz with guitar as a lead instrument. Musicians inspired by Django Reinhardt include Tony Iommi, Jerry Garcia, The Allman Brothers, Denny Laine (who is also of Romani descent), Jimmy McCulloch, Charlie Byrd, Wes Montgomery, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, and more!
Django Reinhardt was born into a Manouche Romani family and his birth name was Jean, but went by Django, which comes from Romani for “I awake” or could be a nickname for Jean. He played violin from a young age and later started playing banjo-guitar and quickly learnt and made a living busking. At 17, he got married. At 18, he made his first recordings, but before the band even got a chance to get started, Django nearly lost his life in a house fire. He accidentally knocked over a candle. The flame ignited some extremely flammable celluloid and he and his wife’s caravan was engulfed in flames. Django had extensive burns on half of his body and lost his left ring finger and pinky. Doctors didn’t believe he could play guitar again, but he beat the odds and developed a technique using just two fingers for chord work. He was a very prolific musician.
Les Paul: shattered right arm and elbow, couldn’t move it
You certainly recognise this name – the man behind that famous guitar played by so many rock legends. He was one of the first to make a solid-body electric guitar. His prototype, The Log, is the inspiration behind the Gibson Les Paul. A real architect of guitars and rock music, using tape delays, overdubbing, phasing effects, and multitrack recording. What you may not know is that in 1948, he got into a near fatal car accident. Doctors couldn’t rebuild his elbow and there were two choices, either have your arm set permanently in one position or have it amputated. He chose to have his arm set at just under a right angle so he could still play guitar and it took him a year and a half to recover. In the 50s, he recorded many hits with his wife at the time, Mary Ford. They divorced in 1964.
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