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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.


Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney By Howard Sounes

  • Published in Books


For the best part of the past fifty years, Paul McCartney has been one of the world’s best known musicians. From the chart friendly pop of The Beatles’ early music to the more experimental nature of their later work, he has led and informed many musical trends. The music that he wrote with John Lennon is timeless, and continues to work its magic on successive generations, and a lot is already known about his life. The musical successes and other artistic endeavours are well-known, as is the deep well of tragedy that has run through his life; starting with the early death of his mother when he was just 15, to the tragic early deaths of his Beatles colleagues Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, and George Harrison, and the death of his beloved wife Linda, who was so important both as McCartney’s muse and as a member of Wings. So what does Howard Sounes’ biography offer that similar works do not?

Fristly, the book is the most up-to-date of McCartney’s other biographies and is the first to include details of McCartney’s ill fated marriage to Heather Mills. Additionally, the book also takes apart the Beatles myth, and includes details of the deep resentments that led to the collapse of the band. It also examines Lennon and McCartney’s relationship, revealing how their friendship was broken when the Beatles split up, but had started to heal by the time that Mark Chapman’s actions on December 8th 1980 tragically intervened.

The book is also interesting in tackling McCartney’s life from the beginning, and over its over 600 page span covers key events from McCartney’s early life, such as his promising talent in Art and for intellectual pursuits before music became his over-riding passion, the first fateful meeting with John Lennon, and auditioning for The Quarrymen. It also takes in the hot and sweaty nights in Hamburg nightclubs, the band honing their act with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, before they found the missing ingredient in drummer Ringo Starr. Then comes the description of The Beatles taking over the world with the help of manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin, how their sound and songwriting changed the three minute pop song format, all leading up to their acrimonious split in 1970, which left behind a lasting legacy of timeless creativity. The book also looks at McCartney’s second great band Wings, which was never given the credit it deserved, no doubt because of its leader’s previous band’s success, in addition to McCartney’s successful solo career, and his collaborations with such heavyweight figures as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

Sounes is celebrated for his definitive work on Bob Dylan, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, and Fab shows a similar attention to detail. The tome took more than two years of investigative work, and Sounes spoke to more than 200 people who had access to McCartney in all of the areas of his life, from family members, to studio engineers and producers. What is revealed is not always the thumbs aloft smiley Beatle that McCartney was in the 1960’s: he is shown to be deeply caring about people, but ruthless when it comes to money and his legacy.

The family life that McCartney developed with Linda, adopted daughter Heather, and children Mary, Stella, James, and Beatrice is well documented, making clear his desire to raise his children to respect the natural world, to know the importance of money, and to make their own contributions to the world, in spite of their world-famous family name.

All in all, though, this book is about the music, and McCartney has produced a lot of it — from 'Hey Jude', 'A Day in the Life', 'Eleanor Rigby', 'I Saw Her Standing There', 'The Long and Winding Road', 'Yesterday', and a catalogue of other songs written with The Beatles, to hits with Wings, such as 'Jet', 'Band on the Run', and 'Silly Love Songs', to solo works such as ‘Pipes of Peace’, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and ‘We All Stand Together’ and the three albums that he recorded under the name of The Fireman, which show McCartney’s interest in ambient and techno music styles.

The book ends with a description of McCartney performing in front of a sold-out audience in Germany, in front of some of the people who had supported his early career in the city, and it reveals a certain circular arc to the McCartney tale. Here we see the only surviving Beatle still playing the songs of his youth that had an impact on all of our youths — whether we came to the music first, second, third or fourth generation listeners — and carrying the load lightly, with evident enjoyment. Thanks to Sounes, we learn that Paul McCartney is not quite as the myth would have us believe: while he is no saint, he has left the world a legacy of fine music, and taught us a lesson in how to mature in the public eye without losing too much of himself along the way.

Harper Collins, 650pp, ISBN 978-0007293193

Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney is available now from amazon and  iTunes.


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