I went to see The Smith Street Band last night (last week), for maybe the 5th or 6th time. I will always make the effort to go and see those guys as they are wonderful humans and an awesome band but mostly because so many of their songs have connected with me on levels reserved for only a select few. And it struck me, with something Wil said last night as to possibly why : so many of us punks are damaged and need release. His exact speech was about his anxiety and depression and how the last time he was in the very same room (Audio in Glasgow) he suffered the only onstage panic attack he’s ever experienced. For reasons unconnected to the environment or the people there, these things just happen sometimes regardless of where you are. He went on to say how good it felt to now be back in the same room and feeling well again, and how his primary source of release is in his writing and performing of songs. He encouraged everyone in the room to reach out for that same release and to use creativity as a positive vehicle for change in our lives. Something I have strived to do since starting my first band 15 or so years ago. It has never felt as though it was the right time to write about this, but as I sat today thinking of my own journey and how it could have ended it very differently, I felt I now needed to. I am nervous about people reading this, but with hopes this may help some others, here goes.
I’ve never really ever considered “whats wrong with me” to be a mental health issue, but of course it is. I suppose as with many other issues I have, I just never wanted to admit what it was and put a label on it, let alone seek any help. All stemming back to the loss of my mother as a 9 year old child, I have been racked with a crippling grief since then. Deepening and evolving with every passing year, and with every further passing family member or friend. I could carry on with day to day life easy enough, but at night trying to sleep, my mind would fill with thoughts of what happens once you die. I would panic about being in a box, underground, never breathing air or seeing light again forever. Not just for a few years, until the end of time itself. I would think back the way to my earliest memory and realise that it gets to a point where there is nothing, no recollection of anything beginning or being born. So that must be what happens at the end, it all just stops, and thats it. So whats the fucking point? I thought of my mother, and every subsequent person I lost, having those fears invade them at the very end. I had to just force myself to think of anything else at all for as long as I could and eventually I would fall asleep. Most nights I would manage to fall asleep, other times I would have (and continue to have) night terrors, waking up suddenly convinced someone was in my room. I would swing wildly in the dark until I could reach a light and turn it on. I still cannot control them to this day, and although they are rare they do happen and it wrecks me to know I have scared my wife many times during them.
The biggest factor of all, and one I never ever envisioned, has been reaching milestones in my life without these people by my side. It absolutely wretched me and has played havoc with my brain. Various methods of self medicating have been explored over the years, some work sometimes, some make it worse, some have never worked. The one thing that has always helped, has done more than anything else to help, and that continues to help, is music. Beginning with listening and developing into writing and performing, I had never experienced anything like it. At first it began as a teenager with bands like Green Day, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, something connected me to the combination of the words and the noise I was hearing. It soon became apparent what the difference was between those bands and what I heard on the radio and around the home. Two things ; the subject matter and the delivery. Suddenly I could hear all these words put together that were making me feel things I had never experienced before, and this harsh delivery, so full of emotion, so desperate, longing to be heard. It burst open the walls I had put up around me and absolutely flooded into every fibre of my body. Hairs stood on end, heart began racing and pounding and my eyes welled up with water, for the first time moved by joy. I knew nothing would be the same again. In my naivety I thought that no one had ever felt as bad as I did about these things. To find I was so far from being alone was a huge milestone in my life.
I became obsessed over the next few years, from around 15-18. I just wanted to hear it all, and all at once. I bought, copied and stole anything that looked remotely similar to what I had been listening to, back when everything came as a hard copy I would trawl through liner notes and lyrics, devouring it all. I used to go through the thanks list that bands would include and write down every band I hadn’t heard of before, making them next on my list to discover. It took me in so many different directions and so many variants of “punk” that I never knew existed.
Seeing these bands playing, and the release it offered me to scream along in the crowd was so intense, I had finally found a way to get so much of this out of me.
As my collection grew, it still never completely satisfied me. I wasn’t getting EVERY answer I needed. I got plenty, sure, and discovering all of this new and exciting world had been enough to tide me over and help me suppress a lot of my mental aches and pains, but still not enough.
I had always kept diaries and journals as a young teen. I thought it would be funny to look back on as an adult and remember each day, and so that has proved! Cringingly embarrassing for the most part, there are glimmers in there of why I was really writing down my innermost thoughts and musings. I found these things very tough to talk about, so in a sense, I would talk to myself about them. Writing down the feelings that were tearing me apart internally was allowing me to make a lot of sense of them. I was realising that I could answer a lot of my own questions if I wrote about them enough. It would take me another 15 years before I would realise it was ok to talk to people about these things, but for so long it was just me and my pencil thrashing out the details and setting myself straight. I don’t like to dwell too long on thoughts of what could have happened if I had never figured this out for myself. Fuck, I came closer than I’d ever imagined to breaking point as it was, with using all my coping mechanisms, so with no outlet at all I doubt very much I would still be here today. And that will surprise a lot of folk probably, who know me and know my persona and outlook on life. That’s the ticker with a mental health issue, people can go about everyday life and function as human beings without anyone ever being aware of what is raging inside of them, threatening to implode at any time.
The more and more I was actively going to see live bands, the more I was meeting and making friends with people who were actually in bands. This was a new and exciting prospect for me. Imagine that, being IN a band, how cool would that be. But I had never picked up an instrument in my life, and I was already into my late teens, so many people in my peer group had a huge amount of experience already. Once again I felt left out and just couldn’t see a way in which I could participate. Maybe I could sing? Could I even sing? I didn’t even know. Would it even matter if I could? I had seen bands who had lone singers, some of them were pretty bad but they had fun anyway running about the stage and jumping into the crowd. I could probably do that part ok. I had seen AFI, H20, Lagwagon and The Bouncing Souls, they all had lone singers and it looked pretty cool. Fuck it, it was the only way I could participate and I wanted in so badly so I started casually mentioning to people that we should start a band. Late summer 2001, some friends and I formed Tearjerk, my first ever band. As first bands go, we did a lot of the cliched mistakes : terrible name (my fault), terrible first show, terrible first recordings and some terrible songs. But after the first year or so we started to find our feet and I started feeling more comfortable with performing. I had up until that point written pretty throw away material about girls, being a loner, hometown blues, being an awkward teen basically. The live shows were fun, but I was terribly nervous before gigs, getting blind drunk or hiding somewhere in the venue right up until it was time to play was not uncommon. I never knew what to do with my body while I was onstage so I just threw myself around the stage area, ran into the crowd, jumped on tables, bars, drumkits, speaker stacks. If there was balcony in the venue I’d try to climb it and jump off, I was pretty reckless. It became my thing and I felt accepted so I kept on doing it. I broke ribs during a gig once, fell off so many stages and hit my head off so many lighting rigs and beams. This was starting to fill in the gaps of satisfying my thirst for an outlet for all my rage, hurt and anger. This was what I had been missing.
Tearjerk developed from a snotty sneering teen punk band into a bruising hardcore punk sound pretty quickly. I discovered fast how much anger I had and what I was going to have to do to expel it from me. I was developing as a writer, I was understanding so much more about why I was so hurt and lost all of the time. We had moved home to the town in which my mother was buried, her wish was to be buried there and not in the town we lived in at the time as she feared we would spent too much time visiting her and not focus on moving on with our lives. Cruel twist of fate perhaps that we followed her down the road in the end anyway, but it happened. I spent hours on end there, sitting by her graveside chatting. Again, answering my own questions and figuring things out for myself. I would get off the bus home from work and sit with her for hours before going home, claiming to my Dad that I had stayed on late at work. I don’t know why I felt the need to lie, perhaps I knew deep down I had these issues that would maybe trouble my family if they knew, so I kept doing things privately. I wrote and wrote and wrote and built up books of my innermost, intensely personal feelings about death, despair, grief and sometimes life. None of that made it into songs however.
I had the perfect social and political distraction to focus my writings on for the band, Tony Blair and George Bush Jnr were about to take us into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq. I had become actively political for the first time in my life due to my outrage at this situation, I was reading Chomsky and attending protests. Our songs reflected this and I loved how I could now justify my fury at live shows by giving little speeches before songs explaining what they were about. Yet I still lay alone each night and obsessed over death and dying and what was the point in dragging on the inevitable?
I let the odd glimpse of personal subject material drip out with Tearjerk, but not much. Once the band ended around 2005/6 I was pretty distraught. I had done so much, and grown so much in that band, what was I gonna do now? I had lost my outlet and already felt uneasy at that prospect.
I kept writing and my influences kept changing. Mike (guitarist in TJ) and I knew we wanted to keep playing somehow so we started writing some songs just the 2 of us and his acoustic guitar. We eventually decided that we didn’t actually need anyone else to be able to perform these songs so we set out writing a set that worked with me on vocals and Mike playing his acoustic. Pretty unusual set up, but it worked for us and folk seemed to like it. We called the project 15 Minutes, in reference to a Broadways song of the same name. The whole idea being you can sit and let your life dwindle away 15 minutes at a time or you can pick up what you have and do something with it. We did what we could with what we had.
I definitely let a lot more personal material through the net this time. It felt right. We had recently lost another friend, Graham Motion from the band Allergo, in tragic circumstances. Graham loved Tearjerk and it absolutely delighted me to see him down the front singing along when we played. It was going to feel surreal to never experience that again. Something clicked and I needed to start singing about some of these personal experiences or it was going to consume me. I wrote songs about losing my mother, one about all the things I wished I’d been able to tell my Dad, we also made a song out of the first words I wrote down after hearing Graham had passed. I burst into tears onstage a few time playing some of these songs, but fuck it, I wasn’t hiding anymore. This was me, and these songs meant a lot to me and I was gonna get them out of me with all the fire that put them there in the first place. I figured people would appreciate not being bullshitted by another band so we gave it as it came, raw and unfiltered. I have always insisted, in all of my bands, that I need to write all the words. It needs to come from me because I am the one delivering it and I need to believe in what I’m singing. The most important part of playing live, for me, has always been to do it was the utmost sincerity. When I’m up there I need to be bleeding out those words and I couldn’t give a fuck what it sounds like, so long as we mean every word and feel every note. This is my therapy and it means too much to me to fake it or go through the motions. It wont happen.
Lachance are my current active band. In many ways its the band I always wanted to be in, sound wise. Its the perfect mix of all the things I love about punk rock and in terms of writing words for Lachance, I’ve come full circle almost and am the closest I ever have been to filling that void I’ve always had. I have learned the most important lesson yet about my writing, I can take a bad situation or memory and make it better. I have been able to tap into the very essence of why I began writing in the first place, to give myself some answers and some direction in my life. All these years of hurt and confusion have dug some deep wounds into me and in turn, I am now comfortable including songs that open up these scars and let them breathe. I don’t feel suffocated anymore, I don’t feel as though I need to hide anything about what Im scared of, what I worry about and what I lie awake and cry about sometimes. I have learned that writing about these things naturally leads me to a far more positive mindset, it confirms to me that the issue is present but it can be addressed. It should be talked about openly and if it is, its generally far easier to come to a positive conclusion. A much preferred outcome over letting it fester for years and play havoc with your mental state. A lot of the Lachance subject material is openly about my struggles over the years but each song generally concludes with an overall feeling of hope rather than despair. And thats the piece I have always been missing. I still feel hopeless from time to time but with my writing, I have managed to address so many of the questions I didn’t have answers for at the start of my musical journey. I am far more able to deal with bouts of anxiety, and far more equipped to keep my mind from wandering down the dark paths it used to. Even though our band is not terribly active, I still have it as my outlet, I know it is still there and that is a massive comfort. I am very like that as a person and friend, I don’t need to see you everyday, so long as I know you are still there if I need you, I’m good with that. Our latest release “Sunrise” is a culmination of some of the songs I had always wanted to get out there from my notebooks. It feels wonderful to know it is out there in the world now and that people seem to be enjoying it. To finally have pretty much fully opened the door and let the world in feels like a huge turning point for me. To feel comfortable enough to even write this piece, and let go of all these secrets is testament again to the ground that has been covered since this process began. Im at the point now where I realise I have come through this experience and that speaking about it now, may actually do some good and possibly even help someone else. I would wish for nothing more. Without a shadow of any doubt, the catharsis I gained through music, gigs, writing, recording and performing where it is socially accepted to be able to scream my lungs out and beat my heart with my first, has literally changed and saved my life. It has taken me from a scared and nervous boy, constantly worried about how my time on earth would end to being able to stand in a room full of people and sing songs about how music has made me better.
This is what I need to do to keep balance. This is what helps me and allows me to make sense of intense issues. Aside from one 6 month spell with a therapist, I have managed to contain this, almost, myself, through the inspiration and exhilaration of listening to, writing, recording and performing music. I have faltered and failed along the way, many times, and I know what its like to want to die. I made a pact with myself to never ever entertain those thoughts again and not seek help immediately. The Lachance song “Spirals” is directly about this incident. It was my lowest ebb, and I got out of that hole somehow thanks to hearing a record that made me want to be alive again. I cannot begin to describe how powerful that feels. I have phenomenal support in the form of my wife. She has suffered so much of my bullshit over the years but has always encouraged me to look at things from different angles, to see another perspective and to try things I haven’t done yet. In so many aspects, I am lucky. But for every story like mine there is one that goes the other way. Just this weekend we learn again of a talented and respected punk musician who has taken their own life, tragically feeling there was no where left to turn. It made me stop and think about Wil’s words again, and how even though this young person was a writer and a performer it was not enough to stop the tide from overpowering them. Sometimes it isn’t. We need to create and nurture methods within our community where there can always be a path to reach out to if we feel hopeless. I urge you, to reach out to all your friends and family to let them know they can reach out to you if they need to. It could be the words that save a life.
Punk rock, for many, is a phase of rebellion. I knew the second I heard that explosion of noise that I would need this in my life for as long as possible. My musical tastes have grown and developed over the years but the essence of everything I latch onto remains the same. Heart, soul, passion and meaning. I met some of my best friends via the music scene. I first met my wife Gemma after a Tearjerk show when she asked me for one of our Cds. How different my life would be without it all. I urge each and every one of you, if you discover something in this life that awakens you and stirs your soul, pursue it. Make it part of your life, however you need to do it, just make it happen. If you are thinking of starting a band, do it. If you don’t think you can, you can. If you are worried how bad you will sound, don’t be. I’ll send you the first Tearjerk CD, trust me it wont be worse than that. Do it with heart, soul and passion and no one can ever hold anything against you. You do it for you, not for anyone else. If like me, you find it hard right now to speak up about what is bothering you, write it down and see if that helps. You always, ALWAYS have options, even when you think you don’t. Someone will care enough to be there for you, please know that it is absolutely fine to ask for help.
At the end of the record I played that made me want to stay alive, even if only just to hear it again at that point, there is a line that is repeated over and over again. Its impact has never left me and it is now tattooed onto my leg. Human bodies are tough and we can punish them often enough and they will quickly recover. A humans spirit can spend decades broken and not realise what it needs to heal, if you can find what you need to get better, go to it and let it in, and never be ashamed of who you are or how you got here. Because you DID get here.
We cant always make our lives seem happy all the time, just remember….
“The strength is always there”