This excerpt from 1976 is set inside the Intensive Psychiatric Care Unit of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, where I'd been sectioned after a violent breakdown in November 1987. Although surrounded by other patients, I'm consumed by loneliness, trapped inside depression. Then an occupational therapy session sparks long-dormant memories... of punk... and Iggy...
I spend most of my time in the lounge, passive smoking hundreds of cigarettes. Beyond a galaxy of fag burns on the carpet tiles, the focal point is the TV. After the evening meal, chairs are arranged in rows before this altar. Although I watch for hours, news reports and drama plots just wash over me, like the shimmering backdrop beyond a goldfish bowl.
Sportscene does stand out on what must be Saturday. I overhear a nurse chatting during the highlights of Celtic’s 4-0 trouncing of Dunfermline. He was there, in the Jungle. Andy Walker showing how to take penalties. Twice. Frank McAvennie scoring his fifth since joining from West Ham in October. He mentions McAvennie being the club’s record signing. Three-quarters of a million. Souness approached him at last year’s World Cup in Mexico. Wanted him to be Rangers first Catholic signing to signal his bold new direction.
Obviously, Macca knocked the fucking Huns back. Signing a token Uncle Tam’s not going to stop the legions singing The Sash.
Later, a nurse plonks himself down. Winks at me. Jangles his keys. All the staff carry keychains for this locked ward. But his subtle clinking is code. This is how the staff communicate without any of us understanding. I watch him swap the bunch of keys to his other hand. When his keys are delved into a pocket, it’s the cue for another nurse to stand up. Yawn and stretch. Exit.
What messages are being relayed? The longer they keep me trapped in here, the more chance of me cracking their code.
The chairs have been stacked against the walls. A teenage girl places a bulky cassette player onto the carpet. Smiles at the nine patients, introduces herself as Susan, an occupational therapist. For this morning’s keep-fit session we’ve to follow her movements and she’ll allow us plenty of opportunities for breathers. She pokes a button. I recognise Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical.’
I can’t remember when I last paid attention to music. A chasm opened during the summer. After being passionate about the subject, buying albums and singles, playing in bands that performed gigs, recorded demos and albums, even being broadcast on Radio 1 and Radio Forth, I lost all interest. Despite an enthusiasm coursing throughout my teens and into my 20s, I became more comfortable with silence.
It dawns on me this cheesy song, with its dance-lite beat, insipid lyrics but catchy melodies, is the first time I’ve listened to music for months. Closing my eyes, Olivia’s voice implores there’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally.
Lust is such a prevailing undercurrent of pop music yet individual songs have always been vilified by the Mary Whitehouses of this world. Typified by the BBC banning Gang of Four’s rubbers you hide, or Frankie Goes To Hollywood when Holly Johnson sang about avoiding coming.
While the eradication of sexual desire from my own radar has been an obvious symptom of my depression, I now recall how Anne used to say one ex, Louise reminded her of Olivia Newton-John, especially when she dyed her hair peroxide. That notion does spark long-suppressed emotions. Puts me in mind of another song entitled ‘Physical’ that was way more intense. By Adam and the Ants.
Long before Adam’s chart-topping, swashbuckling shtick, sporting the hussar tunic worn by David Hemmings in The Charge of the Light Brigade, he was reviled by the music press. Prompted to write ‘Press Darlings’ in reply. He was supposed to be a punk but refused to tow what had now become the conformist, anti-establishment line. Ignoring anarchy, fascism and boredom, his songs celebrated bondage, sadomasochism, dominance and submission. Ant music for sex people.
I snigger at everyone following Susan’s lead. Gyrating from side to side. Stretching. Straining to touch toes. Groaning at the unfamiliar muscle strains. Hesitant about participating, I step forward. Now we’re marching on the spot. I stomp my feet up and down.
You can’t help but laugh at the incongruous way we express our love of music by dancing. Moving to the beat. From Polynesian villages to Detroit house clubs to a locked psychiatric unit, the way music inspires self-expression with synchronised movement is one of the most wonderful human instincts.
In the doorway, I spot two nuns nodding to the beat. I’ve no idea how often nuns visit the ward, but one patient has RFC inked into his neck. I wait for the inevitable reaction as he snaps out of exercising to utter something poisonous. He’s too busy jogging on the spot.
The more immediate concern for Susan is Martha, who has materialised behind the nuns in her dressing-gown. Her agitated speech rises above the music. Appreciating her furious four-letter outbursts against God would faze the most dutiful of his servants, a nurse ushers her away. I feel a weird irony performing star jumps in front of nuns, stretching my limbs like St Andrew’s crucifixion. When Susan tells us to take five, a tall bloke approaches me. Someone new to the ward. A nurse or a fresh patient? He answers this by asking if I think I’m Jesus Christ. When I tell him I’m many things, but not the Messiah, he pats my shoulder. Tells me this is just as well. Because he’s Jesus Christ.
A balding guy in a shapeless cardigan overhears. Demands to know if my inquisitor just claimed to be Jesus. When this is affirmed, he announces he is God. The lad shakes his hand with exuberance. Hiya, Dad!
We resume jumping on the spot. Closing my eyes, I’m reminded of pogoing. Taken back to my youth.
Clouds is rammed with tousle-haired kids. Clothes spraypainted. Festooned with pins and chains. My white T-shirt, the one I wore to PE last year, marker-penned with band names.
BUZZCOCKS. DEAD BOYS. THE CORTINAS. JOHNNY THUNDERS AND THE HEARTBREAKERS. EATER. MENACE. CRISIS. ATV. ULTRAVOX! THE SAINTS. WIRE. THE FREEZE. SCARS. GEN X. CHELSEA. THE CLASH. 999.
The heat has plastered its cotton to my skin. My Harrington is tied around my waist, revealing ANTZ: ANTMUSIC FOR SEXPEOPLE daubed across my shoulder blades. The Ants’ London gigs draw cult followers wearing fetish gear, PVC masks, reflecting their song titles: ‘Beat My Guest,’ ‘Whip in My Valise,’ ‘Rubber People.’ Does fantasising about Servalan from Blake’s 7 in her black leather uniforms make me a sex person?
The lights cut. A pregnant pause. Everyone craning towards the stage. Before me, two punkettes, brunette and peroxide blonde. Arms linked. Perfume potent, an intoxicating aphrodisiac. Hair sculpted with egg whites into Statue of Liberty spikes, like Adam Ant’s onetime collaborator and occasional backing singer, Jordan. The blonde in a torn blouse. The brunette a fishnet vest revealing her bra. Homage to The Slits. Unlike the rock bands I’ve seen with my schoolmate Kenny, Blue Oyster Cult and Judas Priest, where the audiences were overwhelmingly denim-clad lads, there are hordes of female fans in this seething mass. Ensuring a frisson of sexual tension courses through this thrilling new music scene.
Thinking of Kenny makes me chuckle. We have frequent debates about the merits of this new wave compared to the boring old farts he still champions. The last time he was round, we arsed a half-bottle of Smirnoff. In the finest spirit of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’ he was leaping around my bedroom to The Vibrators’ live B-side, Stiff Little Fingers.
Prescient. A roar from the front, gathering momentum until everyone is cheering, whistling. The stage lights ignite, revealing Stiff Little Fingers. In a gruff Belfast brogue encapsulating fury at the decades of mindless sectarian violence instigated by the partitioning of their homeland, Jake Burns barks, Inflammable material planted in my head, it’s a suspect device that’s left two thousand dead!
They’re so fast. I throw myself into the melee, leaping up and down, the pricks near the front launching salvos of spit. Through the confusion, I glimpse one of the schoolmates I came in with but lost, Ross. He started a band last year. The Accidents. Earlier they touched base with the lad who’s going to be their new guitarist, Graham. He’s a chef in Goldberg’s. His hair is dyed green. I clock several green barnets bouncing in the middle of all this.
Although I’ve got school in the morning I don’t care. An uncertain future might be yawning before me but there’s nothing beyond this moment, and the music’s passion and energy.
Susan presses ‘stop.’ Like everyone else I’m breathless, my heart thumping. I’m visualising the flat-line of my depression starting to pulse again. Tightening my fists, I savour this heartbeat. My life’s relentless drum. I imagine this as the rhythm of so many songs I’ve long forgotten; the records and tapes that have been gathering dust in my bedroom for months.
I need to listen to them again. All of them. Every single and flip side. Every album track, from polished studio cuts to the raw recordings capturing the essence of live performances.
Somewhere inside there’s still the essence of a naïve 16-year-old punk. A disciple of Iggy Pop. Lusting for life.
I was a 25 year-old post-punk musician in Edinburgh when I suffered a severe mental breakdown. After being sectioned I spent time in the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Several weeks of treatment later, I was been discharged, but remained on anti-psychotic medication. In this excerpt from my biography, BrainBomb, I'm nursing a hangover and making my way to my doctor's for a check-up.
Strolling by the Union Canal, I cross the aqueduct above the railway. To my right the line heads towards Gorgie. Following the direction of the tracks for a few hundred yards I make out the pipes traversing the steep embankment. The railway was our favourite playground as kids. We delighted in crossing those pipes like demented tight-rope walkers. Stabbing our middle fingers at health and safety. Not to mention the Grim Reaper himself. From this vantage point I appreciate the drop from rusting metal pipe to sleepers is more than 30 feet. The notion gives me a queasy feeling. My hangover exacerbates a sense of shock delayed by several decades.
To my left a moorhen cleaves the canal’s murky waters. Against the sunlight, the water fowl appears to be swimming into flames. I smile at further reckless indifference to danger. But the light also bores into my pounding head. Last night Drew and I ended up in L’Attache until 3 a.m.
My recollections are distilled into muddy snapshots. Chatting-up numerous women, each of whom eventually saw through my superficial charm and melted into the background. Roaring conversations with Drew about the music of our youth being more passionate than the crap spilling from jukeboxes, while knowing full-well this is an argument destined to be repeated by subsequent generations ad infinitum. Some annoyingly effusive folk band. A scuffle involving a guy wearing an Ireland rugby top and two pricks who kept calling him a ‘fenian’, a disturbance Drew and I got involved in. Me explaining the Irish rugby colours represent all of Ireland, Dublin to Belfast, Baile Áth Cliath to the Shankill Road. A point Drew underscored by chinning one of the Protestant supremacists. Myself on sky blue helmet mode again later, separating Drew from another drunken prick who elbowed his way in front of two shivering young lassies at the Rutland taxi rank. Losing him outside Dario’s. Finally seeing some nurse from Orkney to the Florence Nightingale Home by the Infirmary. The phone number scrawled in eyeliner on my Marlboro packet was indecipherable this morning.
I march up the path by the Meggetland bridge which served as a boundary during childhood forays into enemy territory. Not as in actual gangland but the fantasy world my mates and I created. We were soldiers pitted against everyone from the Nazis and Japanese we imagined from Commando comics to redcoats or Daleks. That we were allowed do embark on these missions at such a vast distance from home seems incredible now, although our parents had no reason to suspect we’d ventured any further than Harrison Park for a kickabout.
Further up Colinton Road I lurch into the surgery. The waiting room is unfeasibly noisy. Seizing a National Geographic, as I study magnificent photographs of the marine wildlife flourishing around World War Two wrecks around Midway, I notice how the images quiver. In my peripheral vision, toddlers seem to be vandalising the box of toys as opposed to playing with anything. My eyes focus on the goldfish floating hypnotically among the lemonade-like bubbles of their aquarium.
When Dr Pattison pokes his head round the door to call me I murmur ‘thank fuck’ rather more loudly than is appropriate.
‘So. Time for your Lithium check again, Neil?’
‘Good, good. So how is everything in general? Keeping well?’
‘I’m fine’, I say, taking my seat. Rolling my right sleeve up. The doctor jabs in the needle. Draws blood into the syringe.
‘My word’, he says, his voice blending shock with humour.
I watch the liquid filling the Perspex container. Dr Pattison initially seemed amused. Now he fixes me with a stare over the bows of his spectacle rims. ‘Neil. You shouldn’t be mixing excessive doses of alcohol with your Lithium. That’s asking for trouble. Again.’
My blood sample looks identical to the pernod and blackcurrants I was necking a few hours ago.