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Mad Musical Geniuses

Music | By Matthew for the The Top 13 on May 19, 2010

The American entertainer Oscar Levant once said, "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have crossed that line." Such has been the case for many artists both before and after his time. History recalls many brilliant musicians - as far back as 18th century-born violinist Niccolo Paganini - who have been famously portrayed as having gone off of the deep end. The modern era of pop and rock music has certainly had its share of mad geniuses as well, and we're ranking them today based on their contribution to music as well as the degree of their psychosis. Here are the Top 13 singers, songwriters, producers, and musicians who marched to the beat of a different drummer.

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Brian Wilson


Brian Wilson

The Beach Boys

Born with an innate gift for harmony and composition, this Beach Boys mastermind would eventually develop and be overwhelmed by his own inner demons. Whether it was a result of the abuse of his father, a reaction to too many psychedelic drugs, or just a combination of factors, the already eccentric Wilson eventually fell into a dark place from which he may never fully return. He spent most of the 1970s and 1980s holed up in his bedroom, gorging himself on food and drugs, and listening to the torturous voices in his head. Wilson was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fortunately, he has enjoyed a comeback this century, particularly with his critically acclaimed 2004 album Smile.

Syd Barrett


Syd Barrett

Pink Floyd

A man whose story is as strange as it is sad, Barrett was the original frontman for Pink Floyd. He recorded two albums with the band before leaving amidst speculation of mental illness. Though he managed to later produce two fine solo records and had a short stint in a band called Stars, the remainder of his life would be spent in self-imposed exile, living with his elderly mother, tending to his garden and occasionally riding around town on his bicycle. A diabetic, he died of pancreatic cancer in 2006.

Daniel Johnston


Daniel Johnston

Bipolar and schizophrenic, this Texan singer-songwriter's story is one of tragedy, triumph, oddity and, of course, great music. A true master of the DIY punk ethic, he also boasts a discography filled with songs that are at once catchy and sad, and are often compared to the work of his musical idols, the Beatles. A stranger-than-fiction life of legendary mental illness has come close to but has never quite overshadowed his gift for musicianship. For an essential overview of his story, look no further than the excellent 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Roky Erickson


Roky Erickson

13th Floor Elevators

Another Texan, this Austin-born singer-songwriter made his mark on the musical world as co-founder of the legendary garage band, the 13th Floor Elevators. The band's fame was short-lived, however, as the singer was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic in 1968. Though most of the next three decades of his life were marred by mental illness, shock therapy and failed escape attempts, Erickson finally found his muse again and has been enjoying a fruitful career revival since 1995. This year, he released True Love Cast Out All Evil, an excellent album on which fellow Austinites Okkervil River serve as his backing band.

Sly Stone


Sly Stone

Sly & the Family Stone

The artist born Sylvester Stewart would cross genres and break barriers as the front man of the legendary band Sly and The Family Stone. His success was accompanied by a history of eccentricity, seclusion, and mysterious behavior. Though he led his band to become one of the most influential groups of the 1960s and 1970s, personal problems that speculators attribute to mental instability and drug use diminished the band and kept him out of the spotlight for decades. Sporadic recent appearances by Stone include a strange tribute performance at the 2006 Grammy Awards and a disastrous 2010 Coachella appearance.

James Brown


James Brown

The late, great Godfather of Soul is one of the most celebrated musicians of any era. He was also a famously eccentric, foul-tempered, and downright strange man. Though he became famous for his gritty soul songs and inimitable dance style, he would also become legendary for – among other things – a lengthy criminal history that included high-speed police chases, bizarre interview appearances and the dictatorial leadership of his band.

Phil Spector


Phil Spector

Probably the first superstar producer of the rock era, the "Wall Of Sound" inventor would eventually become a casualty of his own tendency towards madness. Known as a pioneer behind the mixing board in the 1960s, he would later become notorious for his obsessive producing style, often forcing artists to play the same chord literally for up to 12 hours until he was happy with the sound. He eventually became known for his obsession with guns, which would catch up with him in 2009 when he was convicted and sentenced to prison for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.

Peter Green


Peter Green

Fleetwood Mac

This guitar legend and Fleetwood Mac founder influenced greats ranging from Jimmy Page to BB King. But Green also spent years binging on LSD and was in and out of mental hospitals, growing his fingernails bizarrely long (as you can see in the clip below). Though he still struggles to balance his psychological problems with the creativity-blocking medications he must take, Green continues to be a revered and often underrated guitar hero.

Anton Newcombe


Anton Newcombe

The Brian Jonestown Massacre

The lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre is just as famous for his combative and scary personality – captured perfectly in the documentary film Dig! – as he is for his music. A perfect example of madness and musicianship combined, Newcombe is an insanely prolific writer who claims to be able to play more than 80 different instruments. He's famously aggressive (having gotten in fights with both bandmates and fans), notoriously drug-addicted, and undeniably talented.

Ike Turner


Ike Turner

Ike & Tina Turner Revue

Though not a certified madman per se, the former husband of Tina Turner undoubtedly had inner and outward struggles that veered towards madness. His life was tarnished by a history of drug use, horrific spousal abuse, infidelity, and prison. But the man was also a brilliant songwriter and arranger who, despite his low-profile death in 2007, left an indelible influence on rock and soul music.

Gary Wilson


Gary Wilson

Known for his bizarre and theatrical stage performances, in 1977, Wilson recorded his first album, You Think You Really Know Me. He would not make another one until 2003. But in the years that passed in between, he gained a cult following for his strange onstage behavior, reclusive persona, and that one beloved album. After disappearing altogether in the 1980s and 1990s, he was thought to be dead by many. In the early 2000s, Wilson was found working part-time at an adult theater by a record label on the hunt for him. Both his legacy and recording career were given new life.

Wesley Willis


Wesley Willis

The Wesley Willis Fiasco

Much can be said about the legendary Chicago artist, a 6-foot-plus, 300-pound man who had chronic schizophrenia and pounded out bizarre, often hilariously vulgar songs on a Casio-like keyboard. What cannot be denied is that there has never been anybody else like him. He is thought to have released over 50 albums and recorded more than a thousand songs, titles of which include "Shoot Me In The Ass," "Suck a Polar Bear's Dick," and "Alanis Morissette." He died in 2003 while suffering from leukemia, a cult icon to the public, and a rock legend in (at least) his own mind.

Jeff Mangum


Jeff Mangum

Neutral Milk Hotel

As the creative force behind indie legends Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum led the outfit to record two albums, including the 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Not long after that album's release, Magnum disbanded the group and disappeared from the public eye for most of the next decade. Perhaps it was the high expectations that caused him to turn his back on fame, or maybe it was just his state of mind (he once said he spent a year writing songs in a "haunted closet"). Either way, he remains legendary for both his talent and his mystery. Mangum recently gave a rare live performance in New York City, but a full comeback tour is not expected.

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Comments Leave a comment

tloveisready ★★

The difference in the definition of the term "musical genius" from your #1 to your #3 is VAST. Were Wilson and Johnston both nutso? Yes, but clearly only one of them is actually a musical genius. This list hits a lot of high notes, but it's also totally off the mark in several places (hearing wesley willis sing Osama Bin Laden and then Mangum sing ITAOTS highlights this vast and unforgivable disparity).

6:06 AM   May 19, 2010

stillathreat ★★

The introduction says they ranked it based on a combination of just how much of a genius the guy was and just how crazy he was. So Willis might not be nearly as much of a musical genius, but might be much crazier...I think that's how it works.

6:39 AM   May 19, 2010

jason ★★

Nobody really knows if Mangum is crazy or just has some anxiety issues or whatever. Wesley Willis, on the other hand, was certifiably crazy. I think that's why he's above Mangum. But point taken, this isn't exact science.

7:58 AM   May 19, 2010

ajay ★★

Nothing we know about Mangum actually suggests that he's crazy. Not wanting to be in the limelight is incredibly normal, while being able to enjoy celebrity status is kinda messed up.

On a different note, there's a movie based on Daniel Johnston in development, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in talks to play the role. Either way, it should be awesome.

8:10 AM   May 19, 2010

tloveisready ★★

Ugh, Johnston is the worst.

8:20 AM   May 19, 2010


How is Johnston "the worst"? Have you ever listened to "Story of an Artist", "Walking the Cow" or "The Sun Shines Down on Me"? The guy wrote great songs. And I agree with those saying Mangum isn't necessarily crazy. As for Wesley Willis - isn't calling somebody genius (or even talented) pretty subjective?

12:40 PM   May 19, 2010

tloveisready ★★

I agree also that there is no evidence suggesting Mangum is "mad." And I guess you make a good point in that last sentence as well. One man's trash is another man's treasure. For the record, I have listened to at least 2 out of the 3 songs you listed and I watched the Johnston doc. I've never been impressed by anything he's done, and I'm constantly confounded that he's received as much attention as he has. I always chalk it up to the Cobain factor though because if the guy wasn't nuts and Kurt had never called attention to him, then I'm pretty certain we wouldn't be having this discussion right now because he's definitely not a musical genius in the very least sense of the term.

4:26 AM   May 20, 2010


See, the thing is, there is a difference between the consensus of a song listener, and

the consensus of a song writer, (usually)
Daniel Johnston is regarded by many song Writers, as being a musical genius. Because song

Writers know what the term implies.
20 people can take the same set of lyrics, and the same set of chords, and the result

will be very different in each case.
Daniel Johnston has an ability that is considered "genius" amongst songwriters, because

of this very issue. I'm searching for the best way to say this, but, Daniel is definitely

a musical genius, because of the way his brain comprehends, Timing; and also because of

the way his brain can do two things at once, and also because of the way his brain is

able to Focus on the value of lyric, and is able to spit something out that is of an

original nature; be it because of the actual originality of the subject matter, or be it

because of the "word twist" he utilizes.
You may not like some of the songs you have heard by Daniel Johnston. Maybe you Googled

his name, in which, you may not hear a clear example of what I'm talking about,

(according to Me)
In the beginning, I heard many songs by him that I didn't really like. (Kind of like

Dylan. He's got HUNDREDS of songs.) You may not like all of them.
Some of them may turn you off.
Me personally, I wouldn't have chosen those songs for a "New Listener"
They are fine songs,
If I was to list 10 songs for an introduction to Daniel Johnston, they would be:
-More Dead Than Alive, from More Songs of Pain.
-POW, from More Songs Of Pain.
-Like A Monkey In A Zoo, from Songs Of Pain.
-History Of Our Love, from Lost And Found.
-High Horse, from Is And Alway Was.
-Haunt, from Lost And Found.
-Grievances, from Songs Of Pain.
-Happy Soul, from Artistic Vice.
-Everlasting Love, from Lost And Found.
-An Idiots End, from More Songs Of Pain.
-Mountain Top, from Fear Yourself.
Now those are the first, well, eleven songs from my list of 170 Favorite Top Ten Daniel

Johnston Tunes.
So if you don't like any of those songs, then there's really nothing for me to convince

you of.

12:33 PM   May 23, 2010


Is this only of a certain era? Because they left of quite a few mad men. First one that comes to mind is Jim Morrison he was bat s*** crazy on and off stage, but the music that came through was pure genius. Elvis Presley is another. Sid Visious, Kurt Cobain, Gene Simmons, Jerry Garcia, The man in black, Johnny Cash, a true outlaw, and i guess i'll stop with John Lennon.

1:25 PM   Jan 04, 2012


Kralen7 if your gonna go that deep you might as well go back to Motzart, or Bach and Beatoven, their genius is that specific and remains unmatched as far as really using there brains to translate music. I mean can you name any others whom u can listen to and if u truly listen the music, the instrument there playing, and the song w/o having lyrics. You can hear the chords put together in a way that you can hear the words come through their piano or symphany. truely remarkable.

1:36 PM   Jan 04, 2012

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