Most of us musicians tend to fall somewhere between “slightly off,” “crazy,” and “bat-shit crazy.”
American sculptor/artist Augustus
Saint-Gaudens said, “What garlic
is to cooking, insanity is to art.” For
the past 40 years, scientific studies
have found an unusually high rate of
mental illness among highly creative
individuals. Of course, this comes as
no surprise to Premier Guitar readers.
Most of us suspect musicians tend to
fall somewhere between “slightly off,”
“crazy,” and “bat-shit crazy.”
Where you fall on this spectrum may depend on your latent inhibition, an unconscious mental process that works as a filtering device, constantly screening out sensory information we do not need. At all times, our brains are deluged with data. Latent inhibition dumps the least important data before it even becomes available for consideration.
In the October 19, 2003 Toronto Star, Jay Ingram reported:
What makes latent inhibition interesting is that certain people have less of it — that is, they admit more information into their brains, information that other brains might deem unimportant. Two such groups of humans are schizophrenics and highly creative individuals.
In layman’s terms, “normal” minds tend to work with a linear focus, whereas the crazy and creative minds tend to ponder data from far-left field. I’m not saying we are collectively a bunch of Sylvia Plaths and Vincent van Goghs, but upon honest assessment, most of us would be hard pressed to make a convincing argument that musicians are not a tad bonkers.
Spotting the obvious nuts is easy. But let’s examine some “normal” musicians—take, say, Eric Johnson. Though I’ve never met him, Eric Johnson seems about as sane as musicians get. He’s good looking, articulate, well dressed, intelligent, looks like he bathes regularly, and isn’t dogged by public scandals or embarrassing arrests—clearly not a nut-job. He’s a brilliant, creative player who seems like the perfect example of creative/non-crazy.
Or at least that’s what I thought until I saw the photo of his pedalboard in the November 2010 Premier Guitar. Johnson’s pedalboard looks like it was built by a homeless guy off his meds. There’s stuff haphazardly scattered about at weird, arbitrary angles on an insanely large sheet of plywood. (Seriously, he only uses eight or nine pedals, but his pedalboard is made out of a sheet of plywood big enough to make a skate ramp.) He stacks his Tube Driver precariously on what looks like a chunk of a 4x4 fence post, sometimes even double-stacking two separate boards under the pedal.
Then there’s his cables: A bowl of pasta looks more orderly then the long, tangled mass of wires Eric has strewn all over his plywood mess. And while we are on the subject, have you noticed the Radio Shack cables? Are you kidding me? The manufacturers of the world’s best quality cables would happily give him anything he could want, yet he chooses Radio Shack cables! Speaking of Radio Shack, how about the cheap, old power-strip? That’s got to be noisy, with no real surge protection, no power regulation—just a clunky line of short-prone outlets.
It’s such a strange paradox that a genius player like Eric Johnson, so precise and perfect, has such a sloppy- looking rig. Perhaps, like many of us, he switches pedals around so often that he’s given up on making it look orderly. Or maybe his approach is one part science, one part superstition: the setup ritual and weird gear serves as his talisman, his own strange mojo bag that gives him his magic powers. It works because he thinks it works. That’s not an uncommon thought process with musicians. Take Lenny Kravitz as another example.
Kravitz—who you may have seen on TNT’s 2010-2011 NBA promo spots—is a model Rock Star citizen. No public impropriety, an amicable split with the incredibly beautiful Lisa Bonet, nothing odd. We expect Lenny to be a bit funky, but when it comes to recording, esse es loco. The guy has spent much of his career recording though an old analog API board and onto a 3M 16-track tape machine just so he can bump it back and forth to lose clarity . . . er, I mean to give it “vintage warmth,” then he dumps it to Pro Tools. Effectively, Lenny goes to great trouble and expense to have all the disadvantages of tape, while simultaneously enjoying the expense and disadvantage of digital recording. I’m guessing this is a dog-whistle-type approach—something that Lenny hears but that the rest of the world wouldn’t even notice.
I have many faults in my system, too. Decency prevents me from writing about most of them, but my current semi-innocuous glitch is my obsession with owning a 1950s Les Paul. I made the mistake of test-driving one two months ago. It sounded terrible, had a broken neck, bad re-fin, played like an old truck, and would require a second mortgage on my house. Yet, awake or asleep, I’m constantly imagining myself owning this heinous, incredibly expensive guitar. I’ve slept in hour increments the last four days because I’m obsessively searching Craigslist and eBay for the nonexistent, affordable ’50s-era LP. What makes this even more odd is that I’m a Tele man.
To be clear (and to avoid litigation), I’m not suggesting that many of you are loony tunes and need to seek help or consider medication. I’m suggesting that many musicians have hit the brain lottery and wound up with creativity and control. Not to get all Darwinian on you, but the majority of advances in any species can be traced to physical/ chemical abnormalities. Many musicians, as normal as they seem, probably live with a latent inhibition function that is similar to that of a person who is non compos mentis (that is, not of sound mind). But this is when faulty wiring is a blessing and not a curse—a relaxed latent inhibition may be responsible for Surrealism, rock ’n’ roll, Edgar Allan Poe, and so many other things that make this crazy world of ours so rich and beautiful.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville-based guitarist who works primarily in TV and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger.