What Happened To All The Musical Misfits?

It’s rock ‘n’ roll, so anything goes right? Well no, not for disabled people it would seem. Ever since I first attempted the ‘Smooth Criminal’ dance in my front room aged 8 I have gawped at my musical idols in wonder, deep down secretly wishing there was someone just a bit like me on stage.

You see, I always wanted to dance like Michael Jackson, and when that failed, play guitar like James Dean Bradfield or sing like Beth Ditto, but I was born with one leg much shorter than the other – which seemed to push that career choice way out of reach before I’d even attempted one note.

Being on stage didn’t seem open to people like me. It was hit home good and proper when I auditioned for the school nativity play only to be told by a teacher that I couldn’t be one of the angels because “have you ever seen an angel with one shorter leg?” Ouch.

Not to get too jargon-heavy, I was born with a rare combination of short bones, bones missing entirely and all sorts of weird medical freakery that made my right leg short, but entirely unique. I really wish they’d call it Camilla Pia syndrome, but sadly no-one from the healthcare profession has offered thus far.

Now, admittedly their most recent records have been a bit cack, but I remember reading somewhere in the full throes of my teenage Weezer crush that Rivers Cuomo was born with one leg shorter than the other too, and that was, in a funny way, a real strength. I was always desperate to ask him whether having a raised shoe meant he was mistaken for a goth or an obsessive Spice Girls fan like I constantly was. And did he have difficulty standing for a long time at gigs and getting up onto the death-traps that some venues call stages?

By this point, I was totally over mainstream pop and had turned to the ‘dark side’ of alternative music to find more fellow oddballs. It was the 90s, and indie seemed to be choc-full of them; from Jarvis Cocker to Paul Draper and Nicky Wire. While obviously not disabled, these were all one-of-a-kind, iconic weirdos who never fitted in until they got on stage. They were powerful role models, in that they thrived on their outsider-ness, using it as a strength.

Where are the inspiring freaks and misfits in 2009? The current scene, by contrast, feels weirdly conformist and generic. Bat For Lashes? She’s fashionably ‘quirky’, not a genuine oddball, so it doesn’t ring true.

I wonder if there’s a parallel, in fact, between this lack of inspiring oddballs in music, and the puzzling absence of songwriters willing to sing about disability. Because it’s not as if there aren’t artists out there with physical impairments. There’s Britain’s first disabled punk band Heavy Load, for example, Ladyhawke who has Asperger Syndrome, Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson of Sigur Rós who is blind in one eye and Thom Yorke ,who was born with one eye fixed shut. Yet hardly any of them ever actually sing or write songs about their imperfections explicitly.

Why? I’ve got to mention Ian Dury here, who was a pretty awesome example of someone who became a legend despite being left crippled by childhood polio, and fought back against what he saw as patronising, pitying attitudes with uncompromising 1981 track ‘Spasticus Autisticus’.

Apart from Dury, though, I’ve only ever heard one musician speak up directly about his experiences as a disabled rock boy, and more specifically the shamefully real problem of wheelchair users not actually being able to get in to many venues as punters – and that was Mystery Jets’ Blaine Harrison, writing about his spina bifida in a column for NME about a year or so ago.

Why is this sort of candour so rare? I have a request. You see, I want more disabled people to feel like becoming a musician is totally possible, because it is. If we can have equal opportunities in blood-sucking corporations, why not also the music industry? I urge the more musical of you to do something. Write about it, sing about it, talk about it. Lots. Don’t force me to put down the pen and pick up a guitar. Seriously, you should hear my version of ‘Karma Police’…