An Exclusive Extract from James Rhodes' Fire on All Sides
"Music is a life-saving, life-enhancing, staggeringly profound phenomenon. Even more so because it is entirely inexplicable – as elusive to reason and logic as it is imbued with comfort and a sense of the miraculous."
In a frank and brutally honest introduction to his new book, Fire on All Sides, musician James Rhodes discusses why he chose to share his own experiences of living with depression and anxiety and the ways in which music can provide a unique, life-changing roadmap to learning to navigate our world and ourselves.
Readers are advised that this extract contains adult themes and language.
Advisory Warnings and Listening Materials:
This book is not a memoir. Because I’ve already written one of those. This book is a journal that I kept while on tour. It’s all here as I wrote it down at the time, rather than a more sanitised (sensible?), hindsight-friendly version. A tour journal may sound as if it’s going to be little more than
a slightly dull, perhaps somewhat indulgent travel diary that I kept as I flew around the world exploring its most beautiful cities, playing the piano in stunning concert halls, discussing my creative process and eating incredible food. But bear with me.
Because yes, it’s about those things – including the self-indulgent crap because it’s me and I’m a narcissistic asshole – but it’s more about the often searing pain and Herculean effort that goes with simply enduring and existing in this world for someone as ill-equipped in basic life skills as I am. As, to a greater or lesser extent, I believe we all are.
This book is about fantasy, fury, fucking and fire. Fire everywhere. In my brain, behind my eyes, in my chest.
Fire on all sides.
It’s a book about music. About love. About hatred. About imperfection. Finally, maybe, it’s a book about feeling OK with yourself.
For those of you who don’t know me, I was physically abused when I was a kid. My PE teacher raped me from ages six to ten. If you fancy a little light reading, you can find out more in my memoir Instrumental. It describes the catastrophically chaotic aftermath of the effect of such abuse: drug addiction, psychotic breaks, suicide attempts and mental institutions. And it talks a lot about classical music, my reason for being. You’ll find it in the comedy section.
While I’m hoping desperately that those of you who are still reading this haven’t experienced child rape, I’m assuming the vast majority will have experienced trauma of some kind either directly or indirectly. Divorce, abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, death, disease, poverty, Love Island. Take your pick; life is full of choices. And I’m also assuming that many, most, all of you know what depression and anxiety feel like. The sheer weight of those shackles, the quiet heroism of simply getting up, getting dressed and out of the house. How it makes day-to-day living excruciatingly difficult. The stress of having to behave the way people want you to behave because there are expectations, because showing your true self would be career or social suicide.
It’s a game a lot of us play all the time – the game of making it look like everything is OK, that you know your shit and you’re quite capable of adulting. As the singer Elliott Smith said before he killed himself, ‘Everybody is [inconsistent]. Everybody pretends like they’re more coherent so that other people can pretend that they understand them better. That’s what you have to do. If everybody really acted like how they felt all the time, it would be total madness.’
I pretend a lot.
This book is not about who I am. It is about how I am. How, perhaps, we all are. The fact that I am a father, pianist, writer, ex-husband, Pisces, idiot is irrelevant. It is the how that is important. I’m convinced that how we endure and function in today’s world is not only vastly more interesting than our job titles and bank balances and Instagram updates, but also something that brings us closer together at a time when so many things are pushing us apart. When the world in which we live seems to promise so much and yet deliver so little, admitting to our own imperfections and fragilities has the ability to unite us all in a way that is miraculous.
I’ve tried, with the best possible motives, to share with you all of the ugliness and rawness that’s within me, because, even if I occasionally come across like an oversharer on a catastrophic first date, I think it’s deeply important for us to see and be seen as we really, truly are. The nasty stuff is particularly evident when I’m touring, when travel, tiredness, pressure, stress, criticism and self-hatred are all amplified and come together in one horrible, sticky mess. I’m also starting from a very low point: still bruised from the consequences of a horrifying legal battle over the publication of my first book and in the process of divorcing. So there’s a lot of introspection, insomnia and anger. Really quite a lot of anger because, well, there’s a lot to be angry about.
For pretty much every second of every day for the last thirty-five-plus years my head has told me, in varied, imaginative and extravagant ways, that I’m no good. And that is what’s at the heart of everything that is painful in my life: my mind and what it tells me.
And boy does it tell me stuff.
I have a thousand voices in there, an infinite amount of conjecture, projection, imagined slights, debates, discussions, fights. Oftentimes all at once. There is a breathtakingly fucked-up abuse of power here. My mind – my warped, broken, perspectivelacking, biased, out of control mind – has, for decades, been given carte blanche to dictate and regulate my entire outlook on life. It turns out I am completely unequipped to define my own reality. Forget the normal, rational triggers that we all react to – hostility, criticism, rejection, heartache, pain. In my case, when my head isn’t quite right, if someone looks at me funny, doesn’t reply to an email fast enough, uses vaguely aggressive language in a text, unfollows me on Twitter, brings me the wrong food order in a restaurant, I want to kill or be killed. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Look around you – we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, splashing about in the same paddling pool of crazy.
I have a number of filters in my mind’s eye that skew the entire world both inside and out. I see black when the rest of the world swears to me that it’s pink. I can look at my life on paper and see that, rationally, it’s exceptional. It is filled to the brim with love, prosperity, friendship, talent, opportunity, the expectation of good. And yet when I inhabit that life and witness it through my own head with its myriad filters, I am, frustratingly, in a self-built prison and can see no way out. Ninety per cent of my thoughts are designed to stop me from enjoying almost every aspect of my life and to keep me unhappy, unhealthy and unsettled. It’s become excruciating.
Worst of all, although I know it’s a lot to do with my past and the fact that I’ve had approximately eighteen different mental health diagnoses, I don’t know why it happens or how to stop it. It’s like having the Reservoir Dogs crew stuck in my mind and on the rampage 24/7. I inhabit some weird fantasy world, a place that’s detached from reality as much as possible, where everything is cause for anxiety and panic and where, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary, my mind insists that living in a fantasy world like this, even such a shitty, noisy one, is better than acknowledging and accepting the happier reality of my existence.
It’s a drug, you know, fantasy; Freud thought it was a defence, Klein a projection and Jung, well, thank fuck for Jung. He thought it was healthy – a pathway to creativity. I don’t know what’s true any more. But what I do know is that, for all the negative effects (dissociation, memory loss, avoidance, fucked-up relationships, anger, loneliness, isolation), fantasy is also what helps keep me alive. It’s there for soothing and creating. A comfort blanket. And it almost invariably uses music as its backbone.
Ever since I was a kid I knew what music meant. I felt how it tunnelled into me, underneath words and reason, and made everything better. There is nothing more universal than music and the inner worlds it grants us access to. Music is, for me and for all of us, an entirely natural language more powerful, believable and authentic than words.
I’m saying it again because it’s worth repeating a second – even a hundred – times: there is nothing more universal than music. It’s why E.M. Forster said music was ‘the deepest of the Arts, deep beneath the Arts’. It transcends language and culture and wealth and religion, and burrows deep inside us beneath all the shit. Ironically, as it expresses itself within us in that non-verbal, hidden part of ourselves, it allows us to express ourselves better on the outside. One of life’s great gifts is that we are all born fluent in a second language. This language, music, is our birthright. Music is a life-saving, life-enhancing, staggeringly profound phenomenon. Even more so because it is entirely inexplicable – as elusive to reason and logic as it is imbued with comfort and a sense of the miraculous.
And while everyone from north London to Goa is eating their raw food, browsing the ‘self-development’ section on Amazon and having their caffeine enemas in an attempt to get some meaning injected into their lives, the biggest revelation to me is that these guys – Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov and the rest – invented mindfulness. You don’t need a squadron of bald, commando monks tying you down in a forest and chanting at you to find inner peace and meaning, you just need to learn how to shut the fuck up, plug in some decent headphones and escape into yourself while listening to the most immortal music ever written.
So yes, amongst other things, this book is also about the music that I love. Classical music.
Every time I write that phrase, I feel an apology coming on. The (entirely undeserved) reputation it has got (thanks to so many of the people who inhabit that rarefied world and are so fiercely intent on preserving it for a certain ‘type’ of person) now makes saying you listen to it and enjoy it seem almost like a confession. But I will confess happily. Because this music, this immortal, genius, timeless, magical music that keeps me balanced and able to function, is everything to me. And listening to it, reading about it, playing it may not be a definitive cure, but it sure as fuck supersedes all the myriad other methods I have tried over the years to help calm me down and lift me up. And there have been a lot of other methods.
It’s no coincidence that the specific pieces I write about in this book are mostly all about fantasy. There are two big works by Chopin that both have the word ‘fantasy’ in the title – pieces of music that belong almost to a dream world, where Chopin is able to find some semblance of control over his external world through music, even if in reality that world is falling apart; a late Beethoven sonata that reveals a hidden, profoundly deep inner world and has an almost religious fantasy feel to it; shorter works by Bach and Rachmaninov and Gluck that are all, for me, essentially about escaping reality and immersing ourselves in another dimension.
These are the pieces I played at every concert during the fivemonth tour I did in 2016. And given that, this journal largely involves either:
A traditional self-help book (which this most certainly is not) would prescribe regular affirmations for someone with my particular brand of crazy. Positive statements that we’re meant to repeat out loud throughout the day, usually while standing in front of a mirror. ‘Mirror-work’, they call it. The problem being that – somewhat obviously, I feel – genuinely happy people do not stand in front of their mirrors yelling about how happy they are. And no, affirmations don’t purify the mind or activate the brain’s reward centre, or anything like that. All they do is remind us of how appallingly we’re falling short of impossible standards. They sound for the most part like vomit is coming out of our mouths rather than actual words. I’ve put some typical ones at the start of each chapter for you to mull over. And then I’ve translated them into normal. These translations are, I hope, slightly more realistic and authentic, even if they’re not always pretty.
They’re there because they’re true and they reflect honestly how I was feeling at that time; that’s the only way I think I can jettison the wild, quite mad ramblings of my mind – get them out in the open and meet and greet them head-on.
One last thing: I encourage you – beg you, even – to download, stream, even buy, some of the music I write about in this book. Watch YouTube videos, buy a Lang Lang CD*, go on Spotify, stream/download my recording of these tour pieces if I ever manage to record it. I don’t care who you listen to playing these compositions; I just want you to hear them.
They might, just might, change your inner world forever.
*Don’t buy a Lang Lang CD