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My Giant Steps: A Journey Featuring Mental Illness And Recovery (With Music And Words)

Reflections From A Recovering Mental Patient

I proudly present to you this playlist: a musical collage, personal but relevant to many, accompanied by commentary and clickable links. I hope it will help you and maybe inspire you – as well as promoting great music, of course!

(Note: I'm not a fan of trigger warnings but feel free to skip parts of this if you find some of the music or commentary challenging.)

No title sums up many of the problems of the modern era quite like that of the playlist’s opener, ‘Virtual Insanity’, especially given the emergence of stranger-than-fiction videos like this. Meanwhile, despite being written in the Eighties and enjoying a single release in 2003, ‘Bad Day’ by R.E.M. remains relevant. Lines like “Please don’t take a picture” and “Save my own ass, screw these guys” are reminiscent of unstable, illiberal and self-centred politics in post-Brexit Britain and contemporary America, both of which hark back to another era despite an uncertain future. Sadly, I was certainly not the only one suffering from a low mood and anxiety this year.

While the songs referred to above may be, despite their social and political commentary, personal works of art that are personally affecting to audiences, it could be argued that the following two pieces of music go even deeper. Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ speaks on not just anxiety but hopelessness to amazing effect. The title of ‘Voices’ by Alice In Chains could simply be about negative self-talk, something common if not universal. However, the track might speak about stranger phenomena, such as  some of my symptoms which are apparently psychotic and, in the past, meant I stayed in hospital several times. Regardless of the words exact meaning(s), they, alongside those of Linkin Park’s ‘By Myself’, reflect well some of my own thoughts as well as those of many other people, surely.

The beautiful Lou Reed composition ‘Candy Says’, performed by his band The Velvet Underground, speaks on “endless revisions” and dislike, or even hatred, for one’s “body and all that it requires”, speaking in these ways to a shallow and perfectionist age full of both narcissism and self-hatred, achieving such relevance despite being written in the Sixties. Next on the playlist  are ‘Given Up’ and ‘Breaking the Habit’ by Linkin Park, as well as ‘Slip Out the Back’ from the album The Rising Tied by Fort Minor (a side-project of Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda). Those songs are – like, one might argue, ‘Candy Says’ – the epitome of despairing lyricism. My own suicidal feelings of the past, which were unjustifiable but somehow convincing at the time, are seemingly reflected in the songs mentioned in this paragraph, although thankfully I feel much better now.

The 2017 song ‘One More Light’ by Linkin Park was performed, hauntingly, shortly after Chris Cornell’s death and not long before that of Linkin Park’s own Chester Bennington, to whom tributes were paid at a music-packed ceremony in September. The title track from the band’s most recent album speaks on the devastating effect of a death on those who knew the deceased and is, despite its sadness, life-affirming as well as being death-conscious.

Helplessness Blues’ by Fleet Foxes seems to be about existential crises or the like and the struggle to define one’s identity in the world. The song’s questions and uncertainty, with those of John Lennon’s ‘How?’ speak to the trouble many mentally ill people, including myself, have after a period of illness or a breakdown, and the consequent scepticism and anxiety. That latter track by Lennon also helps, alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Soul to Squeeze’, to demonstrate how difficult recovery can be for the mentally ill.

One of the more optimistic songs on this list, R.E.M.’s ‘Uberlin’ splits the day into different steps to complete. This is similar to the way in which one might split a journey on the Berlin U-Bahn transport system, which is referenced in the song, into stops at different stations. Breaking days or challenges down in order to tackle them piece by piece is a good method for the mentally ill (or anyone) to use, and so could be telling oneself, “I will make it through the night” as Michael Stipe sings here.

Time Won’t Wait’ by Jamiroquai is also encouraging, although it is worth noting that, despite the helpfulness of being reminded that “you just can’t stop the clock”, Jamiroquai’s call to action should probably be tempered with sometimes following the example set by the singer of ‘Soul To Squeeze’: sometimes you “gotta take it slow” in order to find “peace of mind”. Likewise, I would not always apply R.E.M.’s lyric “Enjoy yourself with no regrets” to every situation, but the general message in ‘Supernatural Superserious’ (a title which could have sometimes been my nickname in the past) is welcome. It reminds the listener that “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget or disguise”, but that we should enjoy ourselves anyway, especially since it is often true that “fantasies are wrapped up in travesties”.

Moving on, John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, the only instrumental in this playlist, arguably represents my recovery process, since it takes a great deal of skill to accomplish amid high tempos that resemble the chaos of life, as well as requiring assistance from others: even Coltrane could not play every instrument simultaneously. Audioslave’s ‘Nothing Left to Say But Goodbye’ and Linkin Park’s ‘What I’ve Done’ are also about giant steps, ones striding away from old habits, with a highlight being Bennington’s line, “As I clean this slate with the hands of uncertainty”, indicating that recovery or redemption is often a rocky road. That said, the sound of Chris Cornell of Audioslave shouting repeatedly on ‘What You Are’ the words, “Now I’m free…”, though probably in the context of ending a relationship with a person, can still be seen as very encouraging for those struggling to leave certain harmful symptoms or habits behind, even when one considers the “uncertainty” mentioned earlier.

Another great source of inspiration for me is ‘Walk’ by Foo Fighters, which is metaphorically about “learning to walk again” and “talk again”, things I have had to do in a way because of struggles with something that might be selective mutism or perhaps a condition similar to it. R.E.M’s ‘Every Day Is Yours to Win’ is another excellent, optimistic song which comes with the realistic qualifier, “It’s not all cherry pie”. ‘Iridescent’ by Linkin Park concludes the playlist, offering even more advice for those for whom “failure’s all… [they’ve] known”. The band’s wisdom is, “Remember all the sadness and frustration and let it go”. I guess that a benefit to making playlists or commentary like I have here is that completing such a project allows you to do just that.

If you have been affected by any of the themes spoken about in this article, it might help to speak to the charity Samaritans, either by a UK- or Ireland-based phone or by contacting them from anywhere via email. They have often helped me by listening.


Fantastic Negrito, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

  • Published in Live

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito’s Friday night performance at Glasgow’s prestigious Royal Concert Hall began in the same celebratory manner that the last two years has offered up for the artist whose real name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz. Dressed to impress in his Hamilton grey tartan trews and waistcoat and joined on stage only by keyboardist LJ Holoman for tonight’s show, as the lights dim and illuminate the duo, it’s apparent that it’s going to be an intimate affair.

It’s therefore fitting that he also shares with us the darkest moment of his life just before his set opener. Having spent almost 4 months in a coma after a serious car accident, the first words he heard spoken when he awoke from it were that of his Mother which inspired Xavier to return to the music business and write ‘Night Has Turned To Day’.

Despite the omission of the full band Xavier and LJ manage to get the crowd - who are predominantly here to see the headliner Chris Cornell - on their side immediately with his hand claps, repetition of the opening line and a discharge of sheer soul that a lot of modern black roots music fails to find.

It’s a track that is a pivotal point in his past as is the follow up ‘An Honest Man’. Having once cut a shady figure on the streets of Oakland in his younger years, he dedicates it to the brotherhood of men in the crowd, to join in his repentance as he later admits that he is a "self recovering narcissist".

It’s quite the haunting sound as bass walks on his guitar throughout the song are embellished with low hums and LJ’s piano creates an overall gothic-blues atmospheric nature to it. With the crowd firmly on his side by this point Fantastic Negrito decides to up the ante once more and takes the opportunity to have the crowd eating from the palm of his hand.

Announcing that he’s about to perform a remake of Lead Belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ with added verses, it quietly falls on deaf ears to the largely grungy demographic who then let out a huge cheer as they recognise it from Nirvana’s MTV unplugged set. 

As someone who has a new-found lease on life and is also known in his close quarters as the patron saint of second chances, Xavier never misses a heartbeat to try and inspire those around him. Twenty years ago, he had signed a multi-million pound record deal and was on the same roster as Prince whom he paid homage to. “Another crazy brother who learnt to take chances” and telling the crowd that “everyone in this room is an artist, it’s our time, go home and create, the world needs you”.

What no-one could expect was that what had forgone was a warm up for the undoubted moments of the evening. The unreleased ‘Rant Rushmore’ received a standing ovation from a crowd that had been in their seats throughout. It’s a song that levels itself to find the next great place to go. It has a soul-funk verse before transposing to some of the most melodic gospel we’ve heard that culminates into a blues rock middle 8. One can only hope that it will appear on his forthcoming album Last Days Of Oakland released in early June.

With the job almost done it was time to close out with ‘Lost In A Crowd’, a track that beat 7000 entries in NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. With so many entries you could imagine that it might have been a close affair but NPR put that correct when they told us that it was “the clear winner”. The extended jam over Xavier’s ad-libbing showed why LJ Holoman had played with the likes Dr. Dre, Joss Stone and Nas

Fantastic Negrito is neither lost in that company, exuding elegance, craftsmanship and showmanship that sets him apart from his other contemporaries. The endorsement from Chris Cornell speaks for itself. The slight surprise was maybe the omission of his two lead singles from the forthcoming album, but having to spoke with him after the show; he told us the decision was simply down to not having the full band with him. After treating me to a few acapella lines from the tracks, he shared that he expects to be back with the full band in September. That will whet the appetite for the hundreds of new fans that he made that night.

Last Days Of Oakland is available from amazon & iTunes.

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