Max Bemis, the 21-year-old leader of emo band Say Anything, seemed to be having a banner year. His group's 2004 indie- label debut, ...Is a Real Boy, had been enthusiastically received by its target audience, and a rabid Say Anything fan base was growing. The buzz was intense enough to attract the attention of J Records (whose chief, Clive Davis, is said to love Say Anything), and the label signed the group earlier this year.
In October, J was set to put out an expanded version of Boy to coincide with Say Anything's first-ever headlining tour. All systems were go and a dramatic launch seemed imminent.
Then, without warning, came the announcement that the tour had been canceled and the album's release pushed back indefinitely. Internet rumors began flying. Bemis' emotionally raw songs had always bespoken a fragile psyche on a perpetual high-tension wire, and fans began to wonder if some terrible fate had befallen their hero. What was the real story?
The answer finally came in a posting from the artist himself on Say Anything's website. In it, Bemis revealed that he was diagnosed several years ago with bipolar disorder and had suffered a particularly nasty manic episode early in October after he stopped taking his medications. The artist writes of the harrowing experience, ''I stayed up two nights and thought over the course of the day that I was: a) dead, b) in hell, c)...a junkie on the street...I'm not going to get into it, but I ended up freestyle rapping on a corner in Brooklyn and getting karate kicked in the chest,'' before winding up in a psychiatric ward in Brooklyn. He has since been transferred to a Texas clinic specializing in the treatment of mental illness, where he is expected to remain until early or mid-December.
His hospitalization was a significant blow to J's promotional plans. ''We had some meetings to restrategize our approach,'' says Matt Shay, J's vice president of marketing/A&R, who says the label knew of Bemis' mental condition when it signed him.
''The tour had been a big part of our plans,'' continues Shay. ''We're still hopeful that Max is going to come out of the hospital and be able to deal with the pressures of the road.'' Shay says Say Anything's album release date has now been pushed back to Feb. 28. ''I still think this is just the beginning of what's going to be a really long partnership between us.''
Randy Nichols, Bemis' manager, took on his client knowing about his illness, based on his belief in Say Anything's musical strengths. ''People have asked me, Why would you want to manage a guy who has all these problems? I tell them that I want to be sure there are more Say Anything albums in the future.''
Bemis is hardly the first bipolar musician out there; Daniel Johnston, the acclaimed singer-songwriter profiled in the recent documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, is a fellow sufferer. ''There have been claims that some of Daniel's so-called genius in music and art comes from the fact that he's bipolar,'' says his manager and father, Bill Johnston. ''I don't know whether that's true, but I do know that medication is crucial in treating bipolar illness.''