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The "Mick Jagger of Psychiatry"?

R. D. Laing: Pop superstar (not quite).

Key points

  • A major figure in the anti-psychiatry movement inadvertently made an anti-pop record in the 1970s.
  • This marked a low point for both mental health care and popular music.

The history of pop figures trying to parlay fame in other areas into singing careers is long and largely lackluster. For every Ricky Nelson, there have been 10 Bruce Willises, Paris Hiltons, and/or William Shatners. Until Fritz Perls legendary Hot Tub Tapes (not a real thing) sees release there remains only one shambolic entry to the field of popular music by a major figure in the history of mental health clinicians: R. D. Laing's "Life Before Death" (1978).

Laing, who died in 1989, is best remembered today as a celebrity psychiatrist with a thick Scottish brogue and a contrarian view of the etiology (and even regarding the existence) of schizophrenia. He tended to come down strongly on societal rather than biological blame for whatever was going on with people experiencing psychosis. His views were expressed in a handful of books such as The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience, a million or so radio, television, and print interviews, and the fascinating 1972 documentary, Asylum.

Dubbed “the Mick Jagger of Psychiatry” (by at least one guy, one time) Laing was often treated like a pop star in his 1960s heyday and to a lesser extent until his demise in 1989. His status as a counterculture celebrity intellectual had a not-insignificant impact upon the pop culture he both influenced and was an integral part of. A perhaps apocryphal legend has Laing, after consulting directly with either Syd Barrett or members of his band Pink Floyd about Barrett’s then declining mental health, supposedly declaring Barrett beyond hope.

Since Laing often carried himself like a rock star and was treated as one there was only one thing missing from his rock and roll shrink portfolio—a record. Fortunately (depending on how you look at it) at some point someone seems to have told him he had a talent for writing verse. Publishers agreed, resulting in a few volumes of Laingian poetry, such as the one called Knots (as in reading the book may leave one’s stomach tied in). With the words already at hand, it was just a matter of time before someone would get the idea to add music.

In 1977 and 1978 Laing and reasonably prominent UK tunesmiths, Alan Blaikely and Ken Howard, collaborated on the project that came to be Laing’s one and only album, released on the Charisma label, Life Before Death. The album failed to chart, but Blaikley later trained as a psychotherapist, so that’s something.

Further details of Laing’s life may be found in various biographies, sour reminiscences of offspring, and in a 2017 movie. The album itself is today something of a hard-to-find collector’s item but is (arguably) worthy of a wider audience. There’s this clip on YouTube:

I’ll let these words from Laing’s immortal “track seven” from the album close this post:

You’ve heard it all before? That’s fine.

Reiterated truths soon sound absurd.

To be blasé is not beatitude.

It’s just your glutted tongue can’t taste the wine.

One in a million hears the blatant word

Before it echoes into platitude.

References

Silverstein, N. (1973). Two R. D. Laing Movies: “Wednesday’s Child” and “Asylum.” Film Quarterly, 26(4), 2–9. https://doi.org/10.2307/1211481

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