Musicians and Mental Ilness, Part One: Robert Calvert

 

My nerves are made of steel/And my eyes are eagle-sharp/And what would freak the average man/Does not affect my heart

Robert Calvert, ‘The Right Stuff’

 

It requires a lyricist of no little verve to weave references to Palestinian terrorist cell Black September and the medieval Islamic sect of Assassins into a popular song (albeit one in which Simon House’s violin, rather than an electric guitar, is the lead instrument), in the process rhyming “petrodollar” with “petrol d’Allah” to form an incongruously sprightly refrain. Robert Calvert was such a writer. The audacious wordplay of that song, and of its companions on the wryly named Quark, Strangeness and Charm LP, is characteristic of the remarkable lyrics he penned for Hawkwind between 1972 and 1979, a role that expanded to see him become the group’s primary singer and a theatrical focal point of its concerts. That he vied for the post with Michael Moorcock, winner of numerous literary prizes including the 1977 Guardian Fiction Award, is an indication of the singularity of his input. The present author, Mark Conlon, has been an admirer of Dave Brock’s ever-mutating crew of progressive rockers – or, as John Lydon among others would argue apropos the early Hawkwind, proto-punks – for more than three decades. Their discography, in the years since the band coalesced in 1969 in the hippie enclaves of Ladbroke Grove, has ramified almost beyond calculation, but I think a substantial proportion of listeners would agree with me that the Calvert-dominated period yielded the greatest dividend of astounding sounds and amazing music (to plagiarize the title of an album from that time). In addition to his tenure in Hawkwind, Calvert pursued a distinctive solo career that continued into the 1980s, notably with an album, Freq, centred on the heroism and sorrow of the British miners’ strike. He suffered a fatal heart attack on 14 August 1988 at the tragically early age of 43.

According to his own testimony, Robert Calvert was labelled as schizophrenic in his youth, but doctors subsequently rescinded the diagnosis. In 1972, he was assessed as having bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it was then more commonly known, and sectioned under the Mental Health Act. (As a consequence, he was prevented from rerecording a lacklustre vocal part for a forthcoming single, the lyrics of which, with their deadpan portrayal of a humble bicycle as cosmic time machine, he’d based loosely on Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical drolleries. ‘Silver Machine’ ended up being sung by Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister, Hawkwind’s bass guitarist, and its commercial success was the first rung on the ladder of stardom for the gravel-voiced hellraiser, who hails from the same Potteries town, Burslem, as our group’s David Sweetsur.) It has been postulated that Calvert’s psychological troubles stemmed from his inability, due to a defective eardrum, to fulfil his boyhood ambition of becoming a Royal Air Force pilot, a failure, as this analysis interprets it, that spurred him on to bursts of frenetic activity in diverse fields – he was a novelist, playwright and iambic pentameter-phobic poet as well as a musician – separated by interludes of lassitude and depression. More straightforwardly, whatever their longstanding origin, they may have been exacerbated by the demands placed on him by a heavy touring schedule, and by the psychic energy he invested in an array of bizarre stage characters. In December of 1972, for example, Hawkwind taped concerts in Brixton and Liverpool for a live album issued the next year as the double LP Space Ritual, with the recently liberated Calvert declaiming his poetry between the musical numbers: heavy amplification, a psychedelic light show and a general ambience claimed to constitute “88 minutes of brain damage” can scarcely have been in line with the recommendations of the poet’s psychiatrist.

Calvert’s mental state fluctuated throughout his time with Hawkwind. The group’s road manager Jeff Dexter, recalling a French tour of October 1977 in which one of Calvert’s personae was an anarchist bomber, a sort of acid-rock Ravachol, has said that the frontman became “totally convinced that the whole first row was full of the heads of the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof and everybody. He got completely carried away with that fantasy.” This episode of florid paranoia eventuated in Calvert, still wearing his onstage paramilitary garb, causing a furore by pursuing a Mercedes limousine through the streets of Paris; having caught up with the vehicle, he singlehandedly tried to overturn it before the bewildered occupants managed to speed off. He recalled the incident as being reminiscent of a scene from a Woody Allen film or Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville – which, for those fond of arcane connections, is subtitled A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution – and unconvincingly ascribed it to high spirits. The tour had to be cancelled after three dates, and Calvert was again hospitalised on his return to England. Hawkwind’s saxophonist Nik Turner elaborates that, in “up” moods of this kind, Calvert “was completely manic, with ideas flying out nineteen to the dozen – and then going off on a twenty-mile route-march in all his military costume.” Rock scribe Nick Kent, an early supporter of Hawkwind, commented that Calvert during phases of mania was “an overwhelming person” with “a seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural adrenaline… capable of flashes of brilliance.” The problem, as Kent saw it, lay in a tendency for his ideas to become “further and further out” and escape feasibility, as in a proposal for a machine that would transcribe improvised poetry for distribution to concertgoers. ‘I Hear Voices’ is a frank confession from late in Calvert’s career of the aural hallucinations that transmitted these extraordinary notions, voices described in the song as “pirates of the brain waves” perpetually speaking “in stereo with heavy FX.”

A leitmotif of this blog is that psychotic illness is in no way an automatic inhibitor of mental keenness, and Robert Calvert is surely excellent proof of that. In 1977, a book by Jacques Attali was published entitled Noise: The Political Economy of Music. It made the following claim: “Music is prophecy: its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.” Calvert’s work lends credence to Attali’s thesis. His translation into music of the science-fiction eschatologies of J.G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad and Roger Zelazny was genuinely prescient, and in spite of his bipolarity, or perhaps as a result of it, he was able to perceive with lucidity the authoritarian contours of an emerging dystopia. Where “sane” people might have taken at face value what politicians told them, Calvert fixatedly sought out information on governmental and business skullduggery. His 1974 concept album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters anticipated, in a blackly comic key, the West German Lockheed F-104G jet-fighter scandal that began to leak out to the public shortly thereafter, and was an inspiration to punk provocateur Jello Biafra. A sample of the humour: a pilot’s cockpit checklist differs from the norm in comprising such unorthodox items as Largactil and Haloperidol, neuroleptics that one surmises were prescribed to treat the songwriter’s psychosis. Calvert, unfortunately, did not live long enough to see Lockheed Martin place itself beyond satire by diversifying its sphere of operations to encompass the UK census alongside arms manufacture and provision of interrogators to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Instances of the perspicacity of Calvert’s prognoses can readily be multiplied. In a July 1977 interview with Sounds magazine, espying the omnipresent surveillance for which the “Free World” would become notorious, he asserted that Orwellian concepts of repression were outdated, stating “Big Brother is watching you is nothing to the subtle techniques that are already being used.” The booklet that accompanied 1978’s 25 Years On, essentially Calvert’s final studio disc with Hawkwind but released under the alias of Hawklords, cautioned against what later would be termed globalization through his invention of Pan Transcendental Industries, a crazed multinational entity engaged in “a wholesale megastructural rehabilitation of the globe” by means of a “policy of reduction of culture to commodity.” 1984’s Freq combines documentary recordings from picket lines with an invocation of Ned Ludd as a model for struggle against what Calvert rightly intuited as the worsening tyranny of capitalist automation and rationalization. The 1986 solo outing Test-Tube Conceived investigates issues that have become pressing in the twenty-first century, including, inter alia, technological invasion of privacy, genetic manipulation, and the implications of the then embryonic internet for diffusion of knowledge and contestation of corporate control. One is drawn to conclude that psychological abnormality, instead of distancing someone from political reality, may serve to facilitate an uncannily perceptive insight into it. Had he not died a quarter of a century ago, our bipolar seer might be tempted to declare, not without a certain grim satisfaction: welcome to the future.

Robert Calvert’s sensibility was shaped in a generational context where the espousal of “rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets” – to quote the indecorously militant slogan of leftists associated with Hawkwind, the White Panther Party – seemed for a brief moment to harbinger revolution. His first ventures of note were a Roundhouse exhibition of environmental poetry and the very Sixties-sounding Street Dada Nihilismus, he wrote for alternative publications such as Frendz and International Times, and his concerns with Reichian orgone accumulators and Angry Brigade-style urban guerrillas – the latter provocation predictably banned by the BBC – are of their time, even if, with his nonconformist suits and cropped hair, sartorially their author stood apart from it. Calvert himself provided a nostalgic elegy for the era: “We dropped out and tuned in/Spoke secret jargon/And we would not bargain/For what we had found/ In the days of the underground.” The milieu and its communitarian ethos seem impossibly remote when set against today’s sharp-elbowed corpocracy of manufactured and infinitely biddable popular musicians – a trend Calvert foresaw in his 1981 novel, Hype –  who are unlikely to follow in his footsteps by turning for subject matter to Ezra Pound and Italian Futurism, and almost all of whom are bereft of the tiniest spark of artistic madness, whether reefer-induced or otherwise. It was a soil in which the libertarian, nondiscriminatory tenets of antipsychiatry naturally took root, and it’s logical that, in a 1978 interview with New Musical Express, Calvert voiced a desire to collaborate with R.D. Laing. Concurrently in France, rock guitarist Richard Pinhas drew on the Laingian theories of Deleuze and Guattari in his science fiction-influenced band, Heldon, and I intend to make his work the topic of a future article on this blog.

To judge from the evidence of Calvert’s involvement, for its day this countercultural setting was a benign one for persons exhibiting the symptoms of mental illness. Despite his erratic conduct, which inevitably caused friction – not to speak of physical altercations – with his bandmates when it reached the extremes of brandishing swords and pistols, he was never forcibly ejected from Hawkwind. He quit when he considered the project to have run its creative course, little suspecting the venerable sonic assassins would still be plying their trade in 2013, many years after his departure for stellar regions unknown. Lemmy, on the other hand, was booted out in 1975, on the preposterous grounds that, while a member of an ensemble not exactly renowned for abstention from illicit narcotics, he had been arrested in Ontario for possession of cocaine, then set free without charge when it transpired that he’d been carrying nothing more potent than amphetamines (it proved a fortuitous sacking when he christened his new outfit Motorhead after the last song he’d written for the arbitrarily censorious space rockers). In fact, far from Calvert suffering marginalization on account of his mental instability, it would not be inaccurate to say that, in terms of personnel and musical direction, the Calvert-Brock axis came to steer the previously shambolic Hawkwind ship with a somewhat imperious hand. Dave Brock, who assumed more or less sole leadership after the breakup of the partnership, though acknowledging the challenges of coping with Calvert’s “freakouts” and insomniac hyperactivity, avers that “Bob was great to work with.” Jeff Dexter sums up the wayward genius thus: “Calvert was nuts, but he was a sweetheart.” Nor did the indefatigable polymath lack for help in making his solo records: guests ranged from Arthur Brown and Vivian Stanshall, themselves by no means unacquainted with eccentric behaviour, to Brian Eno and even Richard Wagner’s great-great grandson Adrian, who lent assistance on Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters.

The counterculture, for all its vitality, turned out not to be the nascent successor to a moribund bourgeois order prophesied by Theodore Roszak, but rather a movement whose members were easily neutralized by that which they sought to supplant. A few, like Jerry Rubin and David Horowitz, joined the ranks of the “straights” they once disparaged. Or, more precisely, this is the sad fate that befell a dismayingly large number of them. The unrepentant reprobates of Hawkwind have been more admirable than most in resisting “matured servility” – William Hazlitt’s epithet for an earlier strain of political apostasy – and in doggedly flying the flag of outsider radicalism long past the heyday of communes, free festivals and benefit gigs for the likes of Timothy Leary and the Stoke Newington Eight. At the time of writing, alas, ‘Master of the Universe’ has been tainted by its inclusion in advertising for a Ford motorcar, presumably with the sanction of the track’s composers, Dave Brock and Nik Turner. Not so much warriors on the edge of time, one fears, as men finally tempted by all too earthly rewards. It’s hard to envisage Robert Calvert assenting to such a Faustian pact with commerce – he likely would have preferred to upbraid the masters of the universe presiding over Barclays and Goldman Sachs. In this respect, I consider him typical of those with experience of psychosis, who in my view not infrequently display an ethical sensitivity surpassing that of their fellow citizens. In conclusion, I’d hazard a comparison with the Pathways group’s Sean, who not only shares a comparable psychiatric diagnosis, but is similarly blessed with both an abundant imagination and an acute sense of social justice (and, incidentally, is a musician harbouring a desire to put his keyboard skills to good use in making a progressive rock opus). Indeed, Sean owns a copy of X In Search of Space, the 1971 album featuring ‘Master of the Universe’ and a surreal literary mythologization of Hawkwind by “Captain RN Calvert” – Robert Calvert’s middle name was Newton – that was the first fruit of the poet’s contact with the band. Contrary to stubbornly extant prejudices about mental ill health, the world would be a better place if it contained, not fewer, but many more human beings of their ilk.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Seaside George
    Aug 13, 2013 @ 13:53:32

    Brilliant piece, so very well written. Your words do justice to a great but troubled man.

    Reply

  2. Oz Hardwick.
    Oct 30, 2013 @ 16:55:31

    Very astute & fitting.

    Reply

  3. Starfighter Pilot
    Oct 30, 2013 @ 18:18:55

    Nicely. Captain Calvert was a true one-of-a-kind.

    Reply

  4. Andy Fricker
    Oct 31, 2013 @ 03:25:19

    Excellent article,very well written…

    Reply

  5. Jim Duff
    Oct 31, 2013 @ 20:11:32

    A true gem of an article.

    Reply

  6. Simon Hawkins
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 14:56:20

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of writing. Thank you.

    Reply

  7. Matthew Pritchard
    Sep 10, 2015 @ 17:23:30

    “One is drawn to conclude that psychological abnormality, instead of distancing someone from political reality, may serve to facilitate an uncannily perceptive insight into it.”

    ^This^

    Not only political reality, as encompassed by references to “petrodollar” when most people had never heard the term, but now throw around with abandon in relation to the West’s motivations for meddling in the middle east, but his foresight into social reality were often spookily accurate too. A track written in the mid-eighties called ‘On Line’, at a time when “personal home computer”, let alone “the internet”, might as well have been words in double Dutch for most people, started:

    “This time I showed ’em
    I plugged into my modem
    I went on line.
    Stole all their data
    think I’ll save it for later
    when I’m on line”.

    Genius/madness… a very fine line that Calvert teetered on more than most.

    Reply

  8. Johnnie Griffiths
    Jul 31, 2016 @ 14:42:22

    Very well said. Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I can totally relate to all which has been said. This is a brilliant article. I have been a life-long(almost) admirer of Bob calvert and was lucky enough to meet him in 1980 at the 100 Club in London after his show, ‘Krankshaft Caberet’. I have listened to Bob Calvert’s music over and over. He has always Astounded me… and Amazed me.
    I can’t begin to say anything more right now though.
    Just not Now. Not today.

    Reply

  9. Robert Marlow
    Nov 04, 2016 @ 02:57:50

    Well done, what an insightful piece that explores some of the motivations behind a true English genius – The Right Stuff!

    Reply

  10. Peter Cohen
    Jan 22, 2019 @ 13:03:12

    Great stuff. Someone else who has written interestingly on bipolar illness and creativity is Alan Garner in The Voice that Thunders.

    Reply

  11. James Lascko
    Jan 22, 2019 @ 15:53:49

    Very interesting and informative article! Bob Calvert was indeed ahead of his time…

    Reply

  12. Paul Eaton-Jones
    Jan 22, 2019 @ 22:12:29

    Fabulous article. Thank you for posting it. A great tribute to a great chap.

    Reply

  13. Phillip
    Jan 23, 2019 @ 00:35:41

    Calvert taught me how to be a human being. I saw him when he was up and I saw him when he was down and I saw him and tal as a musician and as a poetked with him when he was perceived to be a normal human being. Calvert was special, a gatherer of information, a political icon and a working class warrior. He was a man with a very real contact with the Hawkwind fans at the grass roots level since 1972 to the time he left. Poet, Author, Musician, Lyricist, Visionary and Prophet 🙂

    Reply

  14. John
    Jan 25, 2019 @ 08:58:31

    Thank you so much for this wonderful, perceptive article. I miss the Captain so much.

    Reply

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