How a 19th-century list of “ailments” that could get you sent to the nuthouse perfectly describes modern musicians.
Last summer my wife and I took two of our boys on a road trip through eight or nine states from the Midwest eastward. As always, we chose a sort of hazily defined destination based on a few ideas for major activities, and then hit the road and played it by ear with secondary attractions along the way—deciding which towns to stay the night in and which sites to hit the next day as the hours unfolded and new ideas were discovered via online searches. Historic sites and natural wonders usually comprise a lot of the stops, as do museums, great restaurants, and maybe even a go-kart park or two. We’re up for just about anything, really.
Because our family is kind of weird (and proud of it), one of the main destinations this time around was the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a National Historic Landmark built in Weston, West Virginia, in 1858 and in use until 1994.
Weston is pretty rural, and the economy isn’t the greatest, so the sprawling, multi-level asylum is pretty run down due to lack of funding. Even so, they still offer a variety of tours that are fascinating, enlightening, and disturbing in equal measure. I took a lot of photos, most of which are obviously fraught with the bleakness of miserable human beings—mostly women and children—living in a darker time.
One of the photos, however, does offer a dose of humor. It’s a shot of a poster from the asylum’s gift shop that lists reasons why one supposedly could have been admitted to the institution between the years of 1864 and 1889. I have some doubts about its historical veracity, but if the ridiculous conditions it mentions really were seen as justifiable cause for incarceration, being so far removed from the backwardness of those times at least makes them a little easier to laugh at—albeit wryly.
Among the head-scratcher reasons for dropping off someone you didn’t want around anymore were bullshit excuses like amenorrhea (absence of a menstrual cycle in an otherwise healthy woman), asthma, “bad company,” “bad habits & political excitement,” and “bad whiskey.” Only four lines in, and already you can smell the misogyny like so much raw sewage! See, a significant portion of TALA residents were perfectly sane wives and mothers unfortunate enough to be living at a time when women were essentially the property of their husbands or fathers. Wife serving ya shit booze and gettin’ uppity about all that suffrage nonsense? Ship ’er off to the loony bin—that’ll show ’er!
Looking back over the catalog of “ailments,” it strikes me as being far more apt as a list of reasons for kicking a deadbeat or meathead out of your band: “Pecuniary losses,” “indigestion,” “laziness,” and “liver and social disease”? In other words, douchebag blew all the gas money on booze, groupies, and awful burritos while the rest of the band was loading out. Aka, “lead singer disease.”
Or how about “domestic affliction,” “egotism,” and “feebleness of intellect.” Sounds like a drummer I know.
Then there’s “deranged masturbation” (not to be confused with “suppressed masturbation”), “sexual derangement,” “seduction and disappointment,” and “imaginary female problems”—which, let’s face it, could be ascribed to any jam band in its entirety.
And how about “parents were cousins,” “religious excitement,” “superstitious,” and “shooting of daughter”—that’s your garden-variety bluegrass band, right?
And finally, there’s the catchall description for all musicians: “immoral life,” “business nerves,” “remorse,” “severe labor,” and “medicine to prevent conception.”But at least today we can just willingly lock ourselves up in smelly, run-down vans, crap hotels, or basement sanctuaries to confront our demons.