Bob Dylan on Madness

Bob Dylan2As some of you may know, Bob Dylan has a show called “Theme Time Radio Hour.” As the title suggests, each episode is centered on a theme. He begins his episode on madness as follows:

“Let me ask you a few questions, friends. Are you disinterested in work or family life? Do you suffer from sleep disruption? Have you had significant changes in appetite? Have you had paranoid thoughts? Thoughts of grandeur or invincibility? Any feelings of persistent anxiety or perhaps panic attacks? Are you hearing voices or seeing people who are not there? Do you have thoughts of dying? Do you exhibit strong or violent anger? Do you have the inability to pursue a normal life, normal activities or normal relationships? Well, I’m no doctor, but perhaps you’re mad as a hatter; crazy as a loon. Have you lost your morals? Are your bats in the belfry? Maybe you’re nutty as a fruitcake? Crazy as a coot? Taxed in the head? Bunkers? Bananas? Deranged? Are you crackers or daffy? Unhinged or loco? Not all there or all around the bend? Maybe you’re cuckoo or buggy or simply non compos mentis? Do you talk to yourself? Do you ever binge out on food? Do you swing suddenly from one mood to another? Do vague acquaintances treat you as though they know you far better than you would expect?

Allan Ginsberg

Allan Ginsberg

“Allan Ginsberg once said that he had seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. Now for the next hour we’ll be providing the sound track. We’re going to look at madness, insanity, and craziness.”

Introducing his theme in this way may seem like quite a mouthful for Bob, but he manages to carry it off rather well.  There is deep, dungeon-like music in the background, and he varies his voice in a manner that is full of concern and dramatic interest.  Besides, if you think Bob’s description of his theme is lengthy, take a gander at the latest American Psychiatric Association’s description of a related topic.  In its book titled Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, over 900 pages are consumed describing various “mental disorders.”

name callingThe theme of “madness” is relevant to this blog’s theme because when people seek to insult others, we commonly hear words like, “You’re mad,” “You’re crazy,” “You have a mental disorder,” and “You’re mentally ill.” Negative consequences often flow from such name calling. Individuals flinging these efforts to insult often become less respected by those who are their targets. Those who are their targets sometimes end up having less respect for themselves. From here, conflicts can escalate, leading to losing friends, problems at work, and even violence.

I have been writing a series of posts that deal with these “You’re Crazy” types of events (see, for example, “Name Calling by Psychiatrists: Is it Time to Put a Stop to it?” and “Psychiatric Name Calling: Is it Helpful?“). These earlier posts seek to point out that such name calling is way too broad when we want to provide helpful feedback.  Instead, providing in a friendly, supportive manner a specific description of what you prefer the person to be doing to improve is usually a wiser course of action.

practiceAlthough I believe reading each of these earlier posts can be helpful, to change really entrenched habits often requires a more extended campaign. I therefore, from time to time, have been bringing up these ideas so that people might give them some additional thought and practice.

This week we’ll utilize Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show to bring these issues before you. His show is readily available on the internet, and the particular show of interest for us is episode 90. I heartily encourage you to check it out.

Dylan’s First Madness Song

Bob introduces the first song for his show on madness as follows:

“If craziness was a country, this would be the national anthem. Here’s Patsy Cline in a little number written by Willie Nelson–“Crazy.”

Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline

Patsy’s beautiful voice, accompanied by gentle piano riffs, drifts into its melancholy words–“I’m crazy, I’m crazy, for being so lonely. I’m crazy, I’m crazy for being so blue.”

The song goes on from here to weave the sad story of a woman calling herself crazy for loving a man whom she knows will soon be leaving her. She feels she’s crazy for worrying when he’ll leave, and crazy for trying, and crazy for crying, and crazy for loving this man.

Here we learn of just one type of experience that falls under the enormous umbrella of madness.

Connecting Madness With Genius

As the song phases out, Bob begins to tell us that according to Aristotle, “No excellent mind is without a tincture of madness,” a position with which Bob heartily agrees.  He declares that “There is a thin line between genius and madness.” Defending this, he introduces us to several individuals who had been declared mad by some, and yet achieved at impressive levels in many valued fields.  Thus, he tells us about the brilliant writer, Ernest Hemingway:

Earnest Hemingway

Earnest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, for example, was convinced that people were out to assassinate him. His wife, Mary, tricked him into a mental hospital by telling him it was to treat his high blood pressure.  He got shock therapy and maybe a dozen other treatments. It didn’t help. It left him more paranoid, delusional and depressed. He was afraid that his wife would put him away again, which many people believe is what led him to take his own life with a shotgun in July of ’61.” 

Bob then tells us about the great jazz musician, Charlie Mingus:

Charlie Mingus

Charlie Mingus

“Charlie Mingus spent some time away, although he later claimed he only had gone in to get papers declaring he was incompetent to get out of a contract with [the gangster]Joey Gallo.  Whatever the reason, he spent some time in Bellevue and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.”

After this, Bob tells us the story of two more jazz greats–Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. Both at times were troubled by demons.

Then there was a comic writer:

Mad MagazineOne man that was no stranger to madness was Bill Gates. He was the editor of E. C. Comics. He had a series of horror comics in the ’50s, but then he was targeted by the government who said that his comics were ruining the morals of America’s young people. He was supposed to water down all of his books.  He had one humor comic he called “Mad.” He changed it to a magazine so it wouldn’t be subjected to the comics’ code of authority. It became a huge hit and generations of kids got their first lessons on comedy from the usual gang of idiots that he assembled.  He never sold advertising in the magazine while he was alive and there were no sacred cows.  Bill Gates, madman of free speech.” 

Bob soon moves on to the story of a hell of a fine baseball player:

Jimmy PiersallOne guy that was accused of cracking up was Jimmy Piersall. He became a professional baseball player at 18, signing with the Boston Red Sox in ’48.  On May 24, 1952, just before the game against the New York Yankees, he got into a fist fight with Yankee infielder, Billy Martin. After that, he scuffled with his teammate, Mickey McDermott. The final straw came when Jimmy Piersall spanked the four-year old son of his teammate, Burnt Stevens during a game in the Red Sox clubhouse. The four-year old had tried to tweek his nose and poured lemonade down his shirt. You can see Jimmy’s position–Boy, you need a spanking. There were a number of incidences like this and he was sent down to the minor leagues.  He got into a lot of trouble down in the minor leagues, and spent some time in the West Borough State Hospital. He was diagnosed with manic depression, but he still returned to baseball by the opening of the ’53 season. And get this, he finished ninth in the voting for the MVP award, and the next year he was the Sox’s regular center fielder.”

Feeling That We Are Crazy Is A Common Experience

crazy sayingIn addition to describing these individuals who were thought to be mad by some and yet achieved greatness in various valued arenas, Bob provides diverse examples of regular Joes and Jills who displayed behaviors that were viewed as crazy by either themselves or others. These examples touch a chord in the listener because they illustrate experiences that are pretty close to what we have all experienced at different points in our lives.

Thus, the show’s take away lesson, as I see it, is that if you catch yourself calling yourself names such as “crazy” note that many of the most talented people have had similar experiences.  Note, as well, that such criticism is too vague to be helpful. Learn to become more aware of these thoughts, to stand back and simply observe them passing through your mind–“Oh, there I go again calling myself mad.’  In time, you will come to a point at which you will formulate some more specific approach to make improvements in your life. jack_meditatingThe practice of meditation can help you to learn this skill.

If you are tempted to call someone else these types of names, remember that such names are way too vague, encompassing thousands of unusual and usual experiences.  For criticism to be truly helpful, it is usually best to craft a statement that avoids name calling and statements about what someone did wrong, and instead provides specific suggestions for what the target of the criticism can do to improve.  If you can not come up with such a statement right away, perhaps it would be best to delay the criticism until you have some time for your creative impulses to come up with something better than “You’re a crazy, mentally ill fool!”

Although these are my take away lessons for today’s post, let’s end with how the more poetic Bob Dylan ends his madness show:

Charles Bukowski“Time flies when you’re talking crazy, and we gotta get out of here.  But before we do I want to leave you with the words of the man who is the voice of the barroom, poet of the gutter, and Shakespeare of the alleyway. Here’s a poem by Charles Bukowski called “Some People.”

some people never go crazy.
me, sometimes I’ll lie down behind the couch
for 3 or 4 days.
they’ll find me there.
it’s Cherub, they’ll say, and
they pour wine down my throat
rub my chest
sprinkle me with oils.
then, I’ll rise with a roar,
rant, rage –
curse them and the universe
as I send them scattering over the
I’ll feel much better,
sit down to toast and eggs,
hum a little tune,
suddenly become as lovable as a
overfed whale.
some people never go crazy.
what truly horrible lives
they must lead.”


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.




A Conversation About Unsolicited Criticism
Bob Dylan On Fools

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Hemingway was actually followed by the FBI as was revealed by freedom of information…so his feelings of being followed were true..because of his time in Cuba,,, but no one listened to him.
    How we cause one another to suffer, with out listening , with out believing.

  2. Hi Julie Huntington, much thanks for the information about Hemingway and the FBI. I’m intrigued and plan to learn more about what happened. The involvement of the FBI in a number of cases that have been brought to life in recent years (Martin Luther King, John Lennon, etc.) seems to me a great injustice.

  3. Hey there. I like this post a lot. For starters, Bob Dylan is a killer DJ. As well I really like the idea about how it isn’t particularly helpful if we criticize ourselves or others by using words like crazy or mentally ill or whatever. Clearly expressing what in particular is the issue seems far more constructive. It is interesting to notice my own self talk where I’ll call myself crazy or an idiot when I act in a certain way I’m not happy about. This is just running myself down and is in no way productive. Instead, lately I have been trying to take the point in the blog post to heart and to change my self talk into something far more constructive: by speaking to myself as lovingly as possible and by clearly expressing to myself what I could have done better. This has been very helpful to me and is much more comfortable than the typical habit of calling myself names.

    • Hi Jack B. Nimble,
      Love your comment. I think it is hugely important for all of us to hear how people are putting these ideas into practice. Much thanks!

Write Your Comment

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>