Songs About Mental Illness
Mental Illness Impacts Many
Mental Illness has a tremendous impact on countless individuals. If we are not affected directly we know someone who is close to us who are. We all have our own way of coping with the impact. For musicians who are affected, it is only natural for them to write and sing songs about it. Because of that it should be no surprise that numerous songs have been written about mental illness.
The songs written tackle the subject of mental illness from a variety of different angles. The songwriter might be addressing their own bout, they might be addressing an inflicted love one, or they may be commenting on the issue of mental illness in a more broad sense.
In many ways music is a coping mechanism. At times the impact of music is partly based on the ability of a songwriter to articulate our own feelings. For example during my teenage struggles with anger and depression the lyrics of Kurt Cobain and others resonated with me. In the same way songs about mental illness can provide an emotional outlet to those that are grappling with similar issues.
Right now we will consider 12 songs about mental illness. The list is chronological, not numerical.
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Yer Blues - The Beatles
Appearing on The Beatles' 1968 self titled album (most commonly referred to as The White Album), "Yer Blues" just may be the darkest song The Beatles ever recorded. The song contained references to suicide and it was written at a time when John Lennon was grappling with many inner demons. This song is one of the most gut wrenching and most bluesy songs that The Beatles ever recorded.
"The eagle picks my eye
The worm he licks my bones
I feel so suicidal
Just like Dylan's Mr. Jones
Lonely wanna die
If I ain't dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why."
Yer Blues by The Beatles (Video)
Fire and Rain - James Taylor
"Fire and Rain" is from James Taylor's 1970 album Sweet Baby James. It is one of those songs that are often misinterpreted. Instead of being taken literal, the imagery is figurative and it represents different aspects of mental illness. In a number of interviews Taylor has indicated that the song partly dealt with the suicide of a close friend (Suzanne Schnerr) and it partly dealt with his own bouts with depression and drug addiction. The song also references his few stints in mental institutions. For example the fire refers to shock therapy while the rain refers to the shower that follows.
One of the most misinterpreted lines of the song "flying machines in pieces on the ground" did not refer to a literal plane crash which killed a close friend (the Suzanne referred to in the song lyrics) has some have thought. Instead it is a reference to the depression that Taylor was experiencing after his first band The Flying Machine broke up.
It is one of those few song songs that are both dark and brooding and hopeful at the same time.
Fire and Rain by James Taylor (Video)
The Needle and the Damage Done - Neil Young
"The Needle and the Damage Done" made its first appearance on the 1972 Harvest album. The song was recorded live at a January 30th, 1971 concert at UCLA. The song dealt with the heroin addiction of his friend and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. Shortly after recording the song Danny Whitten died on November 18th, 1972 at the young age of 29. He died from a lethal combination of Valium (which he took for his arthritis) and alcohol (which he was taking to try to overcome his heroin addiction). You can tell from the mournful nature of the song that it pained Neil to watch his friend descent into addiction.
"I hit the city and
I lost my band
I watched the needle
take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done."
This is not the first time that Neil addressed the perils of heroin addiction in his songs; it was a subject that he revisited on multiple occasions. Most notably he addressed the subject on his 1975 album Tonight's The Night, which addresses his grief over the heroin death of both Whitten and his roadie Bruce Berry. This is especially highlighted with the title track of that album.
The Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young (Video)
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Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
It was really hard just selecting one song about mental illness from Pink Floyd, because it was a subject that the band has addressed on numerous occasions. That being said I opted for the title track of their 1975 album, Wish You Were Here. "Wish You Were Here" dealt with Roger Waters feelings of alienation from other people. Along with his feelings of alienation it also references the mental breakdown of original lead singer of Pink Floyd Syd Barrett. Through the lyrics Waters relates with Barrett and he also feels the void of being isolated from his friend.
"We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here."
"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" from the same album is also about Barrett. Interestingly during the recording of Wish You Were Here the reclusive Barrett made a surprise appearance in the studio and he observed the band record the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond". Shortly after that Barrett went back into seclusion again, where he cut himself off from contact from the outside world right up until his death on July 7th, 2006.
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd (Video)
Schizophrenia - Sonic Youth
"Schizophrenia" is from Sonic Youth's 1987 album Sister. The album took its inspiration from acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Dick is a fascinating individual who grappled with many mental disorders, including schizophrenia. The song lyrics do address the delusions and paranoia which are commonly associated with schizophrenia. The change of dynamic in the song also adds poignancy to the subject matter.
"I went away to see an old friend of mine
His sister came over she was out of her mind
She said Jesus had a twin who knew nothing about sin
She was laughing like crazy at the trouble I'm in"
Schizophrenia by Sonic Youth (Video)
Grey Walls - Richard Thompson
This somewhat overlooked gem is from Thompson's 1991 album Rumor and Sigh. Trying to do the research on the song, there is no indicators whether or not "Grey Walls" is about anyone in particular. That being said, by this point in his career Thompson was avoiding autobiographical songs, and instead was composing fictional narratives and character sketches. Regardless, the song obviously deals with mental illness and the female protagonist in the song is committed to a mental institution. The song also addresses the agony of watching a love one's mental decline. The song lyrics also address the issue of self harm.
"Cigarette burns down her arm, said she tried to do herself harm
Tied her arms in the back, trussed her up like a sack
Oh behind grey walls, somewhere there's a soul
Behind grey walls, she's out of control
She's crying out for help, no-one can hear
O Lord have pity on her"
Grey Walls by Richard Thompson (Video)
Lithium - Nirvana
"Lithium" is from Nirvana's 1991 landmark album, Nevermind. The song's title is a reference to the Karl Marx's statement concerning religion being the "opium of the people". The song is about a man whose girlfriend died and has a response to his depression he turns to religion to help him from committing suicide. Kurt Cobain also acknowledged that the song lyrics also draw on some of his own personal struggles. Concerning religion has a coping mechanism for mental illness, Kurt Cobain made the following statement in the 1993 Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana "I've always felt that some people should have religion in their lives . . . That's fine. If it's going to save someone, it's okay. And the person in ['Lithium'] needed it."
"Broke our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I'm not scared, light my candles
In a daze 'cause I've found God"
Kurt Cobain himself struggled with different aspects of mental illness which were quite often expressed in his lyrics. On April 5, 1994 he lost the battle when he died at the age of 27.
Lithium by Nirvana (Video)
Brian Wilson - Barenaked Ladies
"Brain Wilson" received its first wide release on Barenaked Ladies 1992 debut studio album Gordon (but it was included on their 1991 self titled indie cassette, which went platinum in Canada). The songs narrative speaks of an individual whose life resembles that of Brian Wilson.
"Lying in bed
Just like Brian Wilson did
Well I am
Lying in bed
Just like Brian Wilson did"
Brian Wilson, the creative genius behind The Beach Boys, had experienced well publicized bouts with mental illness. Wilson's mental condition first started to deteriorate in 1967 when he started to suffer anxiety attacks due to the pressure of trying to create the album, Smile. Wilson wanted Smile to be a masterpiece, and Wilson's inability to live up to his own colossal expectations lead to a nervous breakdown. The Smile project was aborted and wasn't completed until Wilson released it as a solo album in 2004. Throughout his life he would go through up and downs and he would constantly grapple with drug and food addiction. But by the 2000s Wilson mental health has stabilized and he started to experience an artistic re-emergence.
Going back to the Barenaked Ladies song, it is interesting to know that Wilson himself has been known to cover the song during concert performances. Wilson performed a 55 second portion of it, which was featured on his 2000 album, Live at the Roxy Theatre.
Brian Wilson by Barenaked Ladies (Video)
4st 7lb - Manic Street Preachers
"4st 7lb" is from the Manic Street Preachers 1994 album, The Holy Bible. Many of the songs on the album reflect the deteriorating mental condition of rhythm guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards. Edwards was diagnosed with multiple types of mental illness and he was known to regularly enage in self mutilation.
The 4 stone 7 pounds referenced in the song is considered the weight below which death becomes unavoidable for anorexics. Edwards weight had fallen to 6 stones (38 kg or 84 pounds) so the song was not fall off from his own condition. The sound sample at the beginning of the song is from a 1994 documentary on anorexia, Caraline's Story. The song masterfully chronicles an anorexics struggle with body image.
"Problem is diets not a big enough word
I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view
I want to walk in the snow
And not leave a footprint"
The Holy Bible was the last album that the Manic Street Preachers put out before Edwards disappearance on February 1st, 1995. He officially presumed dead on November 23, 2008. He was 27 years old when he disappeared.
4st 7lb by Manic Street Preachers (Video)
Climbing to the Moon - Eels
"Climbing to the Moon" is from the Eels somewhat overlooked 1998 masterpiece, Electro-Shock Blues. The Eels mastermind E (Mark Oliver Everett) wrote the majority of the songs on the album about the cancer death of his mother or the suicide of his mentally ill sister. "Climbing to the Moon" deals with E visiting his sister Elisabeth at a mental hospital just prior to her death. It is a touching and beautifully mournful narrative.
"And it's getting hard to tell where
What I am ends
And what they're making me begins"
Climbing to the Moon by Eels (Video)
Chronic Schizophrenia - Wesley Willis
"Chronic Schizophrenia" is from Wesley Wilis' 2000 album, Rush Hour. Prior to his death on August 21st, 2003, Willis recorded over a 1000 songs and has independently released over 50 albums. He has a considerable cult following and he is considered an icon of outsider music.
Willis also suffered from chronic schizophrenia, which is addressed in this song. Musically the song sounds just like every other Willis song. That being said what the song lacks in talent, it makes up for in sincerity. For Willis his music truly was an outlet to help him cope with his mental demons.
"My mind plays tricks on me every time I say something
It brings evil voices out of my head, and talks to me vulgar
Then suddenly, I started raving"
Chronic Schizophrenia by Wesley Willis (Video)
Book of James - We Are Augustines
"Book of James" is from We Are Augustines (just as a note they shorten their name to Augstines in 2013) 2011 exceptional debut album Rise Ye Sunken Ships. The album deals heavily with the suicides of lead singer Bill McCarthy's mom & brother (both who suffered from schizophrenia).
"Book of James" is the emotional centerpiece of Rise. It focuses specifically on the death of McCarthy's brother James. It is hard not to listen to the song without getting choked up.
"I guess you're either heading somewhere or ending up somewhere
cause I tried the bible, tried the bottle,
tried the needle and I tried to love people
And in the end there ain't nothing to say
And in the end there ain't nothing you can say anyway
And I stand here in my shoes, unable to move
my hat in my hands, at the bottom of the ocean"
Book of James by We Are Augustines (Video)
© 2013 CJ Baker