the power of music
I caught an item on BBC Breakfast this morning about a fantastic initiative to reconnect dementia sufferers with access to the music they once appreciated. An App now allows relatives to help family members tap into long-cherished songs from an extensive back-catalogue. This particularly highlighted the fact many of the subjects are British but also of international descent - first-generation Indian, Persian, Pakistani and a host of other countries - where having to learn English in the often distant past has hampered their ability to stay connected as their minds have faded in the present.
I’m thinking of my own father, Allen, who finally passed in 2014, aged 92, after a series of strokes in 2013. When he was recovering but gradually failing with symptoms of dementia, wheelchair-bound, partially-blind and struggling to work the TV remote, his love of music was always there. We'd ask him to name the PM (David Cameron at the time, which he sometimes remembered, sometimes not). Towards the end he could still recall the names of faces in an old school photo from the 1930s. But he also relished listening to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on YouTube, along with some some of his less-likely tastes: he loved Jean-Jacques Burnel's 'Ozymandias'!
When I popped round to visit, I’d often find him playing his moothie or electronic keyboard while the girls from his care team sang along.
Leo Tolstoy: “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” Jack Kerouac: “The only truth is music.”
the power of football and community
June 2009 saw the launch of the Scottish Football Reminiscence Project, an initial yearlong project, aimed to provide reminiscence therapy (through old match programmes, and images of famous players, team line-ups and actions shots) to give inspiration to people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
“Studies into the effectiveness of the initial work, funded by Museums Galleries Scotland and in collaboration with Alzheimer Scotland, Culture & Sport Glasgow, the Scottish Library & Information Council and Glasgow Caledonian University, suggested the project produced beneficial results and consequently the materials continue to be made available to interested parties.
That particular instance was centred on fans of the Easter Road club, but since one-in-three will be affected it goes without saying that this awful degenerative disease transcends football loyalties.
Although suicide is an appaling fact of life that can strike any given day out of 365, it’s always worthy to set aside a specific date that will give the subject the focus it deserves.
Every one of us will know of somebody in our immediate social circle whose life has ended prematurely, and so needlessly. I lost a close member of my own family fairly recently. Aged 30.
According to the Office of National Statistics, “suicide is a significant national social issue in the UK. In 2018 there were 6,507 registered deaths by suicide in the UK, equating to an average of 18 suicides per day. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the country.”
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the country.
Too often, when someone takes their own life, the act comes completely out of the blue. Loved ones left behind are bereft, unable to grasp the magnitude of what has just happened. A key reason for this is that one of depression’s most insidious symptoms is denial, the putting on of a brave face. Why? There are any number of reasons. The human mind is so complex, and we try coping with stress, anxiety or depression in a myriad different ways. Too many end up feeling they're losing or have lost that battle. You would think simply divulging this to someone would be straightforward. But people are reluctant to admit to something that might be regarded as a failing. Mental health remains heavily stigmatised. Anyone experiencing psychiatric trauma might prefer silence to alarming their family. Many individuals are isolated or marginalised - the homeless, those coping with poverty and other social issues such as drug addiction, prisoners, and the mentally ill. And despite the prevalence of professional help available in 2020, actually reaching out for this can seem a huge step, especially to someone who is no longer able to think rationally.
Describing negative thoughts is never, ever straightforward. We’re all quick to articulate mood swings, either verbally or by our actions. But depressive illness is not a mood swing. One of the most overwhelming aspects of anyone having locked themselves into this mindset is the reluctance to look outwards at all.
One night in November 1987, when my own biopolar cycle was at its lowest ebb and my delusions were hurtling out of control, the ultimate poisonous thought did, fleetingly, seep into my head. I remember lying there in the grey dawn filtering through my bedroom curtains after long hours of insomnia and paranoia, and reaching for the glass of water by my bed, contemplating slicing into my wrists, then thrusting it against the wall.
Fortunately it was a half-pint tumbler made of sturdy glass and merely took a chunk out of the woodchip. If it had splintered, would I have lacerated my skin? The fact the deranged moment dissipated so quickly makes me think: no. The urge was delusional, just like the other time during my protracted breakdown when I was a passenger in my dad’s car and unbuckled my seatbelt, mesmerised at the tarmac careering past at 60 mph. The thought was noxious, but short-lived. In my own experience, my delusional mind was haywire, a jumble of crazed thoughts continually superseded by different, equally deranged fantasies. The hapless souls who climb the 287 steps of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, there to be captured in the phone cameras of mouth-breathing spectators before the arrival of the police and negotiators, must have adopted an unfathomable resolve: as I’d thought of going through with my own impulses, I was snapped out of it when the glass made a dent in the wall, probably startling my next-door neighbours.
Psychiatrists will state, “Anything that can’t be spoken becomes a danger,” which is why communication is so important. You wouldn’t ignore a friend who was suddenly coughing up blood or had collapsed, so why wouldn’t you ask them if there were any issues when they seemed down? Again, it’s the horrible mental health stigmatisation that is at the crux of the issue.
PREVIOUS BLOGS ABOUT SUICIDE
AND ABOUT THE ONGOING STIGMITISATION:
August 30th is the birthday of legendary DJ John Peel who passed in 2004, aged 65, and would've been 81 today. I got the title for my biography, BrainBomb, from a song by Punishment of Luxury, one of the countless lesser-known bands he championed on his long-running BBC Radio 1 show.
One of the chapters in BrainBomb is entitled 'John Peel,' and deals with the way rediscovering my love of music, in particular post-punk, was so integral to my recovery after a spell of severe depression had led to me being sectioned.
The dorm light is extinguished, leaving only the orange aura highlighting the fire exit. Andy is already heavy breathing, his manic routine of pacing the ward succumbing to fatigue. I fumble for the Walkman, slotting the headphones in. I then grasp one of the cassettes Anne handed over during the evening’s visit. There are a dozen or so in a John Menzies carrier bag. As well as compiling a couple of mix tapes, she dug out some of my John Peel recordings.
As I poke the cassette into place, my mind drifts to a book about Dachau concentration camp I once browsed through in the Napier College library – a slim but powerful volume any Holocaust denier should’ve been forced to read with their eyes prised open, Clockwork Orange-style. The book covered the rise of Hitler’s cult, from Brownshirts, book pyres and ‘Kristallnacht,’ through to obscene images of children being led away to ‘showers,’ mounds of emaciated corpses and the aftermath of human guinea pigs being used in failed medical experiments. But one photograph that blew my mind depicted prisoners in their striped overalls escorting one of their own to the gallows. They were all playing instruments; some had violins, others accordions. The appalling irony. The only time the inmates would’ve heard music drifting over the horrific camp was when someone was being led to their death. Other than that brief outburst of melody, the wretched existence of the Third Reich’s brutalised prisoners would’ve been characterised by crushing silence, broken only by orders barked in an unfamiliar language, guard dogs snarling, jackboots pounding, frequent rifle cracks, a rope jerking. Music and silence. Life and death.
Around the same time I wrote a philosophy essay about music. I still recall some of the quotes I used. Leo Tolstoy: “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” Jane Austen: “Without music, life would be a blank to me.” Jack Kerouac: “The only truth is music.”
My finger jabbing ‘play’ brings me back, ready to quash the silence. After so long in a self-enforced, noiseless bubble of apathy, into the universe of possibilities, aural sensations. Sensual overload.
The hiss of the blank tape, John Peel’s voice, muffled, indistinct, but era-defining. As intrinsic a part of my formative teenage musical tastes as the music itself. I was fortunate to meet him last year and still beam thinking about the moment our paths crossed. I was making my way to a bus stop in Princes Street when I spotted him, just ahead. Catching up, I called out, "John Peel?" About turning, he nodded. We shook hands.
There, in Edinburgh city centre, John Peel and I chatted for five minutes. He was on his way to Waverley Station after watching New Order at the Playhouse. I gushed about how much I loved his radio show. This would be a spiel he must’ve heard a thousand times, but he was so self-effacing and unpretentious he just smiled modestly, engaging with me as if I was an old friend. After we parted I realised I’d forgotten to mention Little Big Dig. If I’d had a demo on me, I know he would’ve gladly accepted it, probably giving it a listen during his journey. Championing new music is in his DNA.
If the dark, the yin, is represented by Stiff Little Fingers’ songs of barbed wire and Armalite rifles, The Undertones are the yang, the light, enthusing about excitement and first crushes. Teenage Kicks.
Fittingly, the compilation commences with his avuncular tones introducing The Undertones, then the strident introductory riff to ‘Listening In,’ from a Peel session I recorded in January 1979, when listening into his show was a distraction from school in the morning. The euphoric fusion of power chords and melody, underpinned by Feargal Sharkey’s falsetto voice, the sound Peel adores and insists he wants played at his funeral. Set against the insane backdrop of ‘the Troubles,’ the Derry band provide a snapshot of joy. If the dark, the yin, is represented by Stiff Little Fingers’ songs of barbed wire and Armalite rifles, The Undertones are the yang, the light, enthusing about excitement and first crushes. Teenage Kicks.
Immediately I’m transported to my bedroom, hooked on these sounds as they are being beamed live, my homework abandoned. I harness the memory. As I bask in the beautiful punk-pop, I can see the pencil marks by the door which gauged childhood bursts in height. Amongst the posters and ticket stubs, traces of blu-tack are also visible in the white woodchip wallpaper, a ghostly constellation indicating where older posters hung.
In my mind I pin these up again: Black Sabbath’s ‘Technical Ecstasy’; Gene Simmons of Kiss, stage blood drooling from his tongue; then, my teenage musical tastes having undergone this seachange, clippings of every band from Alternative TV to Zounds, scissored from Sounds and NME.
I think about the countless hours I escaped by listening to John Peel, how the tastes of a 48-year-old Merseysider were so influential on a Scottish lad a couple of decades younger. I would wait in anticipation, fingers poised on the play/record buttons of my HiFi, safe in the knowledge he never spoke over the intro or outro of any songs, allowing perfect compilation cassettes. I’ve dozens of tapes at home, reflecting the man’s gloriously eclectic tastes: punk, post-punk, reggae, metal, industrial, dance, electronica, soul, hip-hop, indie… every type of pop music from dream pop, psychedelic pop, and African pop to Iggy Pop.
Next, from a session recorded in November 1978, just over nine years ago but still sounding fresh, Crisis. ‘White Youth.’ The title sounds like they could be some hideous far-right band, barking Aryan supremacist gibberish. But the sentiment is the polar opposite. Barely punk at all in its delivery, it’s subtle, dynamic, employing single notes and harmonics, not bar chords. The emphatic chorus says it all: “We are black, we are white, together we are dynamite.”
Peel’s voiceover states: “Well, I must say that of all the contemporary varieties of rock music, it’s this basic and direct variety that I like the best myself.”
If there was ever a film made of my bipolar life, I've just created my own soundtrack. I skimmed over my biography BrainBomb, listed all the bands/singers I've namechecked, then popped them into a free Wordcloud generator. This is what came out:
I caught 'It's a Kind of a Funny Story' on Netflix last night, a decent enough movie set in a psychiatric unit.
Starring Keir Gilchrist (Craig), Emma Roberts (Noelle), Zach Galifianakis (Bobby), it's an occasionally bittersweet comedy based on Ned Vizzini’s novel - recognised as a 2007 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.
The story opens with Craig contemplating jumping from Brooklyn Bridge, before checking himself into a psychiatric clinic. Because the teenage ward is undergoing renovations, he discovers his fellow patients are mostly adults – apart from Noelle, who has been self-harming.
The book got rave reviews, but although the film avoids a lot of psych ward cliches, the characters are mostly affectionate rather than disturbed. There are rarely moments of tension, and the only time staff have to react to an incident is when Bobby, having mucked up an interview for admission to a group home, starts tossing books from a shelf and has to be restrained.
There are amusing fantasy sequences. Craig reimagines singing ‘Under Pressure’ at a group music session in the bombastic style of Freddie Mercury, accompanied by patients in glam gear.
Any movie whose central theme is raising awareness about mental health issues is worthy. Some critics complained that making a comedy set in a mental institution trivializes the subject. Locked wards and medicated patients are invariably the focus of drama, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remaining the benchmark.
But in the context of a comedy as opposed to a ‘serious’ movie, it could be argued there’s a darkly humorous element about certain elements of the story. Craig starts his evening poised on a bridge parapet over traffic, only to fret about missing school in the morning because the clinic requires a mandatory one-week stay. Amongst the other patients is a Hassidic Jew who has fried his brain after dropping 100 acid tabs in one night, and complains about the least bit of noise. Another, a recluse, is only persuaded to prise himself out of his bedroom by hearing his native Egyptian music.
A Guardian review went so far as to describe the movie as ‘sickly, implausible and frankly questionable.’ Fair enough, except the screenplay is based on Ned Vizzini’s book – which is autobiographical. Vizzini was vocal about his struggles with severe depression, frequently writing and speaking about the subject. He took his own life in 2013, aged 32.
There are amusing cutaways, a familiar trope for movies based on teen books, and fantasy sequences. Craig reimagines singing ‘Under Pressure’ at a group music session in the bombastic style of Freddie Mercury, accompanied by patients in glam gear.
The end result is a feelgood movie based on mental health issues. Craig confides in the head physician, Dr Minerva, he wants to become an artist, admitting to being thankful his condition isn’t as bad as some of the other patients. In his voiceover at the conclusion, he appreciates his stay has helped him a lot, and he can look forward to getting through the rest of his life with the help of his family, friends and, of course, Noelle.
There’s also a fabulous soundtrack, including The Damned (‘Smash It Up’), Tom Robinson Band (‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’), Pharoah Sanders (‘Soledad’ – playing when Craig describes a wonderful memory to a therapist), Black Sabbath (the majestic ‘It’s Alright’) and a beautiful piano rendition of The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind,’ by Maxence Cyrin.