An Outsider on the Inside: Was Badfinger’s Pete Ham’s Unique Talent As an Artist the Real Reason He Took His Life?
“I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better.” And an accusatory blast toward Badfinger’s business manager, Stan Polley, with Ham writing: “P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”
excerpts from Pete Ham’s suicide note
I recently had the pleasure of being able to exchange a few quick notes with Dan Matovina who, through the writing of his book “Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger,” is considered to be the leading authority on the Welsh band who at one point in the early 70s was being heralded as the heir apparent to the Beatles.
This comparison was of course more than just a fanciful contemplation by the band’s fans as Badfinger actually had a very close working relationship with the Fab Four. In fact, their first hit “Come And Get It” (which was written and produced by Paul McCartney) was recorded on the Apple record label.
All of this of course is available through Matovina’s well-research and highly entertaining book, in which a revision the author has told me is due to come out at a yet to be specified future date.
Now you may wonder why I have chosen to write about a band from the early seventies, who strung together four consecutive worldwide hit songs in 1970-71. The answer is simple. I was moved by a video of their appearance on Midnight Special on March 2nd, 1973 when they played the song No Matter What.
Now while Dan has indicated that he would be open to being a guest on the PI Window when the revised version of his book is released, a discussion that I am very much looking forward to having, I could not help but wonder what besides the well documented challenges the band faced, especially as a result of their business dealings with American businessman Stan Polley, could perhaps shed some additional light on the rise and fall of such a talented and promising group.
After all, and like a Buddy Holly or a Jim Croce whose premature deaths leave us to wonder what might have been, it is not every day that a band is called the heir apparent to one of the greatest (if not the greatest) musical groups in history. I know, I will probably be broadsided with endless e-mails suggesting that while great, there are other groups that are perhaps more worthy of the “greatest” moniker, but that is a discussion for another day. The point is simply this; beyond what we already know, what happened and why?
This is when the reference to the fact that Ham had shown growing signs of mental illness in the months leading up to his suicide, including burning cigarettes out on his hands and arms offered perhaps a different look in the context of what Claire Maree wrote in her October 10, 2006 article Melody & Mental Illness: The Outsider Musician & Artist.
While we could talk about the fact that Ham appeared to suffer from deliberate self-harm “DSH” which experts link to a condition known as “dopamine receptor supersensitivity” resulting from early childhood abuse in which there were negligent parent-child interactions (including minimal touch, talk, and play), that may actually altered neurons that process dopamine in the brain, what is equally compelling is the frequency in which this occurs within the music industry.
Even though there does not appear to be a definitive study of the correlation between mental illness and the music industry beyond anecdotal and/or empirical observations such as those cited with the 2007 film series Mad For Music, where it was suggested that people with experience of mental illness often have a special relationship with music, there is nonetheless an indisputable heritage of evidence that such a tie exists within the artistic community. This is one of the reasons why Maree’s 2007 article is so fascinating.
Outsider music, which is a form of outsider art Maree would write, was a concept attributed in 1945 to Jean Dubuffet’s creation of the term art brut, that was used to describe the visual artworks created by artists considered ‘mad’ or ‘insane’, spiritually compelled to create, or simply people working completely outside of the mainstream art world (Peiry, 2001).
According to Maree, it was Robert Cardinal’s use of the actual term outsider art that broadened its application to those in the music world as well as other forms of artistic endeavor. Even though people like Dubuffet, who have written extensively on the subject of outsider art and artists, contend that mental illness is not a prerequisite for inclusion in this group, many outsider artists or musicians, including some of the most successful and well known of them, do suffer from mental illness or have conditions which affect them behaviourally or psychologically (Morris, 2004).
Referring to what she called prolific artists such as Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, who was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys California sound, as perfect examples of outsider musicians, the convergence or perhaps collision of musical genius and mental illness is controversial. An area upon which Maree adeptly touched when she talked about the documentary “The Devil & Daniel Johnston.”
Profiling the life and music of outsider musician and artist Daniel Johnston, whose creative talents were applauded by the likes of Kurt Cobain – who himself committed suicide on April 5th. 1994, the question of whether Johnston’s struggles elevated his music to a much higher level than it would have achieved in the absence of a mental illness is up for debate.
Certainly from the artists perspective, and as it relates to their creative process, a vast majority do in fact attribute their success to the very mental illness that keeps them precariously close to the edge. In fact, it is worth noting that many artists who suffer from mental illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder often times refuse to take their medication as they fear that it will stifle or mute their creative abilities.
Within this framework of the outsider artist concept, one could of course reasonably argue that given his propensity, especially during the angst ridden months prior to his death, to burn himself, that Ham had suffered with mental illness for the better part of his life. Again, and taking into account the pathology of inflicting self-harm, it would not be unreasonable to assume that he had struggled with this affliction since perhaps his teens.
While research shows that there is not a direct link between DSH and suicide, studies do tend to indicate that there is a higher rate of suicides amongst those that suffer from the disorder. So even though there is no doubt that the financial woes caused by Polley’s avarice, which as a result stifled the band’s ability to make and play music – perhaps cutting off an important release for Ham, was an acute contributing factor, Ham’s very real vulnerability as a result of DSH placed him at the precarious edge of tragedy.
But here’s the thing, even though Pete Ham was likely a member of the outsider musician fraternity, there is no disputing the fact that his immense talents superseded his emotional and mental struggles to the point of rendering them irrelevant when you take into account the enormity of his all too brief contribution to the music world.
Dan Matovina’s Book: