The God of Hellfire Will See You Now

The God of Hellfire Will See You Now

by Matt Wolff
How often does a proto-Goth heavy metal rock star become a psychotherapist?
Filed Under: Art Therapy, Humor


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The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

On a number of occasions in the late 1960s, an exceptionally gangly gentleman made up in skeleton face paint would affix what has been described as a metal plate to the top of his head with a leather strap and commence singing a song called “Fire” to assembled crowds in a dark, cramped Paris nightclub. The song begins with the spoken/shouted intro, “I am the God of Hellfire and I bring you…FIRE!” The key to making this routine particularly dangerous (rather than just slightly odd) was the fact that the plate, probably more of a shallow bowl, contained gasoline, which would be set aflame as the performer took the stage. The showman in question would cavort about the stage in an approximation of a cross between a witch doctor’s contortions and the popular ’60s novelty dance, the Frug. Not surprisingly, his ill-designed headgear would tip and spill varying amounts of flaming liquid on his body and brightly-colored stage costume, turning the already smoky club even more so. Fortunately for him, his bandmates quickly became adept at performing as an ad hoc fire brigade.

the sort of person who would behave in such a manner might be more likely to be a recipient of psychotherapy rather than a provider
While the DSM may not have a particular diagnosis for such behavior (yet), a casual observer might be forgiven for assuming that the sort of person who would behave in such a manner might be more likely to be a recipient of psychotherapy rather than a provider. The fact that in this instance the reverse is true provides one of the more interesting chapters in the annals of mental health practice. Arthur Brown, the pop singer who gave new meaning to the term “smoldering stage presence,” followed a long and unusual path from performing rock and roll in the psychedelic sixties to performing psychotherapy in the early 1990s in Texas.

Brown was born in England on June 24, 1942. Like many artistically inclined young Englishmen of his generation, Brown went away to college and ended up in a band. But unlike ersatz “art” students Mick Jagger and John Lennon, despite his keen interest in music, Brown stayed the course and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

Soon after, music became his full-time vocation, and his band, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, released their eponymous debut album in 1968. Their single, the aforementioned “Fire,” reached number 1 in the UK charts and number 2 in the States. Their failure to follow up this initial success marks Brown and company as one of the benighted breed popular culture terms “One-Hit Wonders.” Despite their lack of chart success, Brown, with his band and later as a solo artist, continued to work steadily well into the 1970s. His greatest contribution to music history, however, may be the influence he wielded through his choice of material and stage persona. Brown may today be viewed as a clear link on the continuum from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the 1950s to artists like Alice Cooper in the 1970s and Marilyn Manson today. You may or may not have heard of Brown or his most famous song, but his Goth-before-Goth-was-cool style has influenced just about every bombastic and excessively theatrical heavy metal/progressive rock act you’ve ever seen.

By 1980, his career as a musician was at such a low ebb that Brown and his then-wife decided to make a fresh start in America. They chose as their destination “the live music capital of the world,” Austin, Texas. Willie Nelson had famously retreated there for similar reasons a decade earlier with productive results, and Brown found amiable company in a number of other expatriates from the world of rock stardom. Brown kept at the music but soon found himself working as journeyman carpenter and the proprietor of a house painting business. While the work was rewarding enough financially, it did little to satisfy the creative muse. Brown found himself ready for another change but unsure what it was to be.

From Rockstar to Masters Student

Then in 1989, Vincent Crane, former keyboardist in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Brown’s longtime friend and bandmate, lost his long battle with bipolar illness, committing suicide. Whether this tragedy was the catalyst for Brown’s next move is open to speculation. But not long after returning to Texas from the funeral in Britain, Brown enrolled in the Masters in Counseling program at Southwest Texas State University (today known as Texas State University).

Such an endeavor may seem to be a truly unexpected left turn in the life of an avant-garde artiste. However, there were portents aplenty in Brown’s past which indicated an interest in helping others and exploring personal growth. In a period when it seemed almost de rigueur for pop stars to explore Eastern religion, Brown took a shine to Sufism. Other religions had been a fascination as well, as he studied formally and informally with everyone from practicing Druids to priests of the Greek Orthodox Church. Moreover, Brown seems to have delved deeply into the primordial soup of the ’70s self-actualization/encounter ethos, taking a self-guided tour of the “Me” decade. A trip to Israel during the Yom Kippur War to entertain wounded soldiers (presumably he spared them the flaming hat) inspired in him a keen interest in the healing properties of music.

Brown seems even then to have seen himself as able to provide a cure for the ills of modern society
But perhaps the biggest giveaway to his future career was the b-side of “Fire,” a song called “Rest Cure.” While the term is now archaic, it refers to a discreet stay in a sanitarium of the sort described by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson”—a getaway to nice, quiet facility to collect one’s nerves. The lyrics reveal that Brown seems even then to have seen himself as able to provide a cure for the ills of modern society.

When the world is getting you down.
And nothing is in its right place;
Your friends are letting you down.
And you can’t seem to find the right face.
All you want is me,
All you need is me to give you,
Rest cure for all your ills,
Rest cure to make the world stand still.
Rest cure and the world won’t bring you down no more.

one of his professors...was moved to suggest he find a way to blend his musical gifts with his newly minted learning
Brown was an able and ardent non-traditional student, making the 60-mile round trip from home to school each day, and he rapidly established positive relationships with classmates and professors alike. It was at a party on campus one day at which both groups mixed that Brown performed a light-hearted impromptu tune, name-checking all present. This so impressed one of his professors that she was moved to suggest he find a way to blend his musical gifts with his newly minted learning.

Brief Atypical Music Therapy

Shortly after picking up his diploma, he set up a counseling practice with a fellow alumnus to do just that. They named their venture “Healing Songs Therapy,” and in this context Brown and his cohort introduced a new therapeutic form.

Brown would then perform an original song in which he brought forth insights and reflection about things he believed he had heard in the client’s narrative
As described in various media outlets, the session began much like a normal 50-minute hour. Brown’s partner would allow the client to describe his or her concerns and issues offering feedback in the normal therapist-client interaction as Brown sat to the side of the room with notepad and guitar at hand. Following the cessation of the first portion of the session, Brown would then perform an original song in which he brought forth insights and reflection about things he believed he had heard in the client’s narrative. The client would be given an audiotape of the song and be sent on his or her way, having completed a course of what might be called Brief Atypical Music Therapy.

In 1992, not long after Healing Songs had opened up shop, a feature reporter from the Austin daily paper came to Brown and his partner ostensibly seeking help with a mild phobia of driving in rush hour highway traffic, and more to the point, for a story. Following her hour with the duo, she reported coming away with her trepidations at least somewhat alleviated, along with a personalized song on cassette which she could pop into her stereo the next time she was caught in traffic. Evidently from the snippet of lyrics she published of her seven-minute personalized “healing song,” Brown saw in her presenting problem echoes of deeper existential issues.

I have a dream that I am keeping,
And I will not let it surface,
For the fear that rules my life
Has taken me and chained me to my own
Image of reflecting everything,
That I can’t hold onto.

A certain amount of notoriety followed as the fledgling practice grew. Other news outlets across Texas began to feature stories, as did People magazine with a story entitled “The Singing Shrink.” Of these stories, the early reporter/client from Austin offered one of the few independent reviews of Brown’s new therapy technique. Most of the accounts are long on Brown’s unmistakable enthusiasm for his latest venture and favorable words from experts about the broad efficacy of more traditional forms of music therapy, but very short on any sort of objective examination of the Healing Songs modality. The rejoinder from more knowledgeable quarters (such as representatives of the duos’ alma mater) was less than favorable, however. In response to the mostly positive article in the Austin paper, a professor from the Southwest Texas counseling faculty took exception in a letter to the editor decrying the inference that the university in any way endorsed or even recognized the potential validity of Brown’s approach.

he gave up formal counseling at some point after departing Texas for a European tour with his new band
The perturbed prof seemingly didn’t need to worry so, as what might one day have developed into a new therapeutic discipline seems to have fallen by the wayside when Brown’s music career began to heat up once again, probably due in part to the sudden spate of publicity regarding his side venture. Just when Brown put aside the formal role as a budding psychotherapist is hard to ascertain. The state credentialing board offers no record of Brown ever actually obtaining licensure as a Professional Counselor or Music Therapist. However, it’s safe to assume he gave up formal counseling at some point after departing Texas for a European tour with his new band in late 1992. Given Brown’s interest in his own inner world as well as that of other human beings, it seems likely that he still, shaman-like, exerts whatever healing powers he believes are in his possession from the stage. However, office hours are a thing of the past.

In the end, one has to wonder about the great unreleased Arthur Brown album. Ballads and Poems of Fin-de-Siècle Problems of Living, it might be called, or Arthur Brown Makes Your World Not So Crazy. According to the account in People, Brown and his partner had reached a height of 20 sessions a month at the time of writing. Thus, there could well be as many as hundreds of unknown Arthur Brown compositions out there in the world. While cassette tapes are today an almost forgotten technology, surely a personalized song dealing with a deeply personal issue and written by an erstwhile rock star is the sort of thing more than just a few people might have held onto. Secreted away in junk drawers and the back of closets, they await a 21st-century John Lomax to bring them to light once more.

© 2011
Matt Wolff Matt Wolff, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in North Texas.