The music industry is like the public bar of an alehouse that helps create and sustain mental illness in its customers; and it is attached to a saloon bar designed to attract those who already suffer from it.
Carry away the empties. Brush away the wisps of torn Rizla, shredded beer mats and desiccated tobacco flakes from the table top; mop up the tacky pools of spilled wine and lager; scratch all the filthy patina away, sand off the varnish until there's just pristine wood left bare. It doesn't matter how deep down you go, you will always find entrenched (and mainly unhelpful) beliefs about madness and creativity, depression and depth, rage and authenticity, and so on.
There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but the most serious amplification factor is the kind of toleration of heavy drink and drug use among adults that is not found in many other walks of life. The culture that surrounds the production of music in the UK can feel like it is overflowing with fragile souls, and it's not uncommon to encounter people who are having full-on psychotic episodes. And sometimes these events play out with terrible consequences.
But – rules of thumb aside – I think it's important to recognise that this isn't something which should be seen as negative in every instance. There is the space for some people to prosper (creatively, emotionally and financially) in a way that simply wouldn't have been possible had they gone into teaching or bus driving.
In 2004, very early in my career as a music journalist, while working for the redoubtable Metal Hammer magazine, I interviewed Sid Wilson, Slipknot's DJ. I came away from the experience quite badly shaken when I realised how shattered his perception of reality was. It's something I was relatively intimate with myself, having had a full-on nervous breakdown at university months before being kicked off my course in 1991. As a chronic alcoholic and habitual heavy drug user, I had spent the intervening years intermittently suffering from horrendous hallucinations, fits and disturbing distortions in my perception of reality during brief periods of withdrawal. But Sid from Slipknot was something else entirely.
Quite soon into our interview I realised that something wasn't right. He measured out five teaspoons of sugar and used a small wooden stirrer to level off the surface of each one before lowering the spoon slowly into his cup of coffee. Then he stirred each measurement of sugar five times clockwise and five times anti-clockwise, counting out loud as he did it. Even though we were indoors and it was hot he was wearing a bandana wrapped around his head and two hats on top of that. He said it helped control the flow of information pouring into his head from "back home".
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He claimed that he was an alien sent from the constellation of Orion to help save mankind and to prepare the good people of Earth for intergalactic warfare, like he was an extraterrestrial Second Coming. "I believe I am from Orion," he said, "but I am proud to be here on Earth completing this mission."
He talked to me for three hours about his belief system, which was a mixture of the rapture, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Battlefield Earth and St John's Book of Revelation. In fact, he talked to me for so long that someone had to come and get him because the band were due on stage and were waiting for him in the wings. It came as very little surprise to hear that once, while a high school drug dealer, Sid had eaten a blotter sheet of 75 tabs of LSD during one evening. He phoned me the next day apologising for not showing me the tattoo which had revealed his purpose to him. It was of the World Trade Center on fire. A tattoo he says he got done in August of 2001.
It was years before I realised that – post-formative LSD experience, at least – things had panned out for Sid very well indeed, all things considered. He was arguably living in the most congenial of worlds for someone with his outlook on life. In short: he neither wanted nor needed my sympathy.
But what about the musicians who don't have a good record deal and international fame? What happens to musicians like *Sauron V, an unknown and unsigned black metal musician from *Great Yarmouth, right at the periphery of the culture? What happens to people like him when their signals become scrambled and the new information comes flowing in faster than they can control it?
An excerpt from the audiobook of John Doran's memoir, Jolly Lad
Around the same time I interviewed Sid Wilson, one of my regular Metal Hammer jobs was writing the demos column. One day a CD-R bearing the name *Marie Antoinette, written in spiky, Slayer-style, felt tip lettering, was given to me by the magazine. The music was unbelievably basic. On one track I heard the lyrics "You're a fucking disgrace to your fucking race" and what sounded like some other throwback boot boy stuff about murdering "fags", and dashed off a bracing zero out of ten review.
A few months later, another parcel arrived at the magazine offices for me. Marie Antoinette had self-released two singles, one called "Why Don't You Stick This CD Up Your Arse John Doran, You Sarcastic Little Creep" and another with the more prosaic title "We Hate You John Doran". They were accompanied by an ominous-looking C90. The tape was part biography, part death threat and, most uncomfortably, part session in the psychiatrist's chair. Marie Antoinette were a Great Yarmouth-based punk metal band with one member, Sauron V, who sang and played guitar. The tape contained the first of very many death threats he would make against me: "You know, I've been really depressed since your review. I haven't been this depressed since the last time I was in prison for assault. I'm going to find you and break your fucking head open. I'm going to kill you."
I can't remember why I decided to review the next batch of Marie Antoinette singles in my column and give them zero out of ten, but whatever my reasoning was, it was completely faulty and I genuinely wish I hadn't. The snide trolling had the obvious effect that I knew it would, and another batch of CD singles with a cassette-recorded death threat arrived at Hammer a few weeks after publication. I wanted to review these, but luckily my editor Jamie called time on the idiocy and I was banned from mentioning them in the magazine again.
Hammer were less fortunate, though. Sauron V got it into his head that I worked – or possibly even lived – at their offices, and he started bombarding them with threatening calls; which, after a few months, always came at 9PM, when sometimes he would even use up the entire message storage capacity of the magazine telling them how much he hated me, how brilliant his band were and what he was going to do to me.
The death threats stopped for a while, but when they recommenced the magazine called the police and I had to visit Marylebone CID to talk to a couple of detectives. One of them asked for a summary of what happened and for my opinion. I started: "Whatever happens, as far as I'm concerned, I don't want this guy to go to prison on my account. Whatever is wrong with him, prison hasn't worked for him in the past and I dare say it won't do now. But mainly I just don't want it on my conscience. The guy's obviously got problems."
The detective stopped me: "Oh no. It won't come to that. He's not fit to plead. He'll never get as far as trial." I must have looked confused, so he explained that some time after I had started reviewing Marie Antoinette demos in Hammer, S5 had gone round to his neighbour's house and attacked him with an ornamental samurai sword, breaking his arm in several places. It wasn't the first time he'd been sectioned and he was now detained indefinitely in a secure psychiatric hospital.
"Well, in that case, what I'd really like is for him to have his phone privileges removed," I said to the detective, who agreed that under the circumstances it probably was the wisest course of action.
When my book Jolly Lad came out last year, I included both of these stories (and several others) for two main reasons. The first was the fact that I was not very well mentally myself and I simply wanted to illustrate that there was a lot of it about. The second was because of my (not entirely original) belief that the boundaries of what constitutes madness are, to a relative degree, quite flexible, depending on certain factors such as class, gender, wealth, profession, geography, time and race, etc.
I grew up in the 1970s next door to Europe's then-largest psychiatric unit, Rainhill Hospital, and probably because of this never asked myself the romantic and visibly daft question: "Who's to say it's them who are mad? Maybe it's us who are mad…" But no, it's almost certainly not us.
However, all of my experiences as an adult slowly led me to believe that there was a sizeable grey area, not considered by either position, in which privilege played a significant role. And it seemed to me, with every passing year, that more and more of us ended up living – or scraping by – in the grey area.
Straight after the publication of my book, on the 1st of May last year, I went on a 31-date reading tour round England in the back of a van with the Norwegian blackened noise rock band Arabrot. Everything went swimmingly until we arrived in Great Yarmouth. After a gruelling 13-hour drive, we loaded into the town's only metal venue, sound-checked and nipped out to get a takeaway before the gig. I grabbed a copy of the local listings mag to flip through while we were waiting for food, and scanned that month's diary for the venue we were playing. Nestled in among all the local bands with names like Led Henge and Kurgen was a listing for excellent doom sorts, Moss. Then I noticed with some irritation that we'd been billed as John Doran and Arab Rot, as if I was fronting some kind of EDL-friendly NSBM band. And then, just below that, listed for the following night at the same venue, I saw the words Marie Antoinette.
Sometimes – just once or twice in a lifetime, by my reckoning – things happen that are so terrifying, so utterly anxiety-generating, that you reach a sweet spot of horror so complete that it is an analogue of total zen calm. I viewed the rest of my evening as if from outside of my own body. I saw myself traipsing back to the venue to perform on a stage where a man who had sent me multiple death threats was due to appear in less than 24 hours' time. I saw myself clutching sweatily onto a copy of the listings mag that he clearly read. I saw myself glancing at the advert over and over again, as if somehow, magically, my name would no longer be next to that of Marie Antoinette. I saw myself asking the venue owner if Great Yarmouth was home to two different bands of that name and then I saw myself slump slightly when the answer came back that no, there were not; that Sauron V had recently formed a new version of the band on release from hospital with local teenagers.
There is a stage beyond fight or flight: terror so pure it mimics serenity. It was in this fugue state that Arabrot and I took to the stage that night. Because I was literally above and beyond caring, I read the passage from my book about Sauron V. "Whatever happens tonight," I reasoned to myself, "will either end very badly or provide me with something else to write about."
As Arabrot's doom-ridden riffs clanged round the basement – as we filled the venue with controlled feedback and machine noise – I intoned passages about alcohol, madness, drugs and redemption. I could feel a presence in the room, a hulking solidity to the shadows at the rear of the venue by the cigarette machine where the purple pools of light gave way to the impenetrable onyx. But when the house lights came up there was no one there – either I'd imagined it or they had left. We loaded out of the venue in record time and hit the road immediately, despite the fact the main act that night, Sly and the Family Drone, are one of my favourite live bands in the whole world and I'd been looking forward to watching them play all week.
We flew down the A47 like we were clinging to a rocket, listening to Slayer albums at full volume, gabbling like a bunch of four-year-olds. We were checked into a Travelodge just outside of Leicester and fast asleep before it even turned 02:00.
Going on tour was great. One of the best experiences of my life. But still, I knew I was little more than a tourist and very soon it would be time to go home.
As a postscript I need to apologise to someone, and that person is Sauron V – what I perceived to be hateful and violent lyrical concerns notwithstanding. I've repeated my story about him as a pub anecdote many times over since our run-in, but it took the painstakingly repetitive process of editing a book and recording of an audiobook to get it through my thick skull that none of it was funny. There is nothing amusing about extreme violence, psychiatric hospitals, mental illness, obsession, depression and revenge; and I regret my role smirking at it all. In the unlikely event he's reading, I'd like to offer a sincere apology for that much at least. Arabrot and myself are planning another English tour for 2017 or 2018, and maybe it's nothing more than a ridiculous daydream, but even from my position as a middle-aged man, I can sense that there's still time left to rescue something creative from this whole horrific mess when we roll back through Great Yarmouth next time. There is always time for all of us to make things right.
*Names and locations have been changed.
The audiobook of John Doran's memoir about his recovery from alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad, which based on his Menk column for VICE, is out now. You can "pick up" a copy from Audible by clicking on this link. Otherwise, Amazon and iTunes also have it.