19th Nervous Breakdown

My goodness, The Rolling Stones are getting on a bit, aren’t they? Mr. Jagger is fast approaching his 65th birthday and lithe and lissome in performance he may well still be but he now looks, well, frankly… old. Very old. I was looking at some of the publicity pics for the new Martin Scorsese movie, ‘Shine A Light’, which documents in a ‘Last Waltz-ish’ manner an intimate (by their standards) Stones gig in 2006 at the Beacon Theatre in New York and lumme! Charlie looks younger than Mick and Keith! Ronnie is, well, very much the new boy (after nearly 30 years!) and still resembles an animatronic guitar playin’ crow. However, by all accounts, from critics young and old, the film is a revelation, stripping the old rockers of their stadium pretensions and letting them explore and inhabit their incredible songs, that mythic English take on the blues, nurtured in the Dartford delta and filtered through the expanding consciousness of 1960’s youth culture. I shall very much look forward to seeing it, and kudos to them for refusing the anti-ageing benefits of the surgeon’s knife…

Yet more Stones. I recently rediscovered (Thank you I-Pod! Thank you Ani!) ‘Exile on Main Street’, pretty much the bee’s knee’s of their recorded oeuvre, which led me to then revisit one of their great lost albums, the much maligned ‘Goats Head Soup’. I find it pretty hard to have a favourite Stones album as that honour changes according to the mood I’m in, but I would have to say that if push came to shove etc, etc, I would probably grab ‘Goats’ (and ‘Exile’… oh, and pass me ‘Let it Bleed’, thanks!) as I leapt for the lifeboats as my boat went down. Critics dismissed it as a rag-bag of half baked ideas that pales against its immediate illustrious predecessor, but as I recall they didn’t much like that at the time either. I was sick (German Measles, as I recall) the day ‘Goats Head Soup’ was released, a late August Monday in 1973, so dispatched my long-suffering dad to the record shop to buy it and Alice Cooper’s ‘Muscle of Love’. He was secretly very amused by Alice Cooper, and had shown (for him) an inordinate amount of interest in the ‘Killer’ album (‘She’s a bit rough looking, isn’t she? I’d hang myself too if I heard a racket like that all the time..’ etc etc) I would love to be able to chew the fat with him now on our diverse musical tastes… we had so much more in common than either of us would admit to. Big Tom and the Mainliners, anyone? I remember that no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get track one side two (‘Silver Train’) to play without skipping (even with a couple of pennies sellotaped to the tone arm) so when I finally got the album on CD about ten years ago it took me weeks to get used to the version without the jumps… aaah, the joy of vinyl. The sleeve insert was also a pretty gruesome picture of a cauldron of the aforesaid soup, and included some sepia tinted photographs of the Stones and entourage… come to think of it, it wasn’t the best outer sleeve of a Stone’s album either (‘oh, gawd, do we ‘ave to ‘ave our pictures taken? Soft focus? Awlright lets wrap our ‘eads in some yellow chiffon. Yeah, that’s what I said – chiffon…c’mon Charlie, smile fawgawdsakes!’) but the music, the music was simply excellent. Adventurous, well played, and covering so many of the sonic bases they had touched as they hurtled through the 60’s, yet the album is still remembered by most as the spawning ground of ‘Angie’, which critics largely ridiculed as the Stones going ‘soft’…

I have to say that ‘Angie’ is not my favourite track by any stretch – it’s very pretty, and hearkens back to the ‘As Tears Go By’ baroque pop that they did so well in the 60’s, and it has a chord sequence that is a joy to play on the acoustic guitar (muso alert!), but it is rather… how can I say this without being too dismissive… fluffy. Yes, fluffy. There. Now, that’s that out of the way, lets carry on. The rest is pretty much a joy all the way. Mostly recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, the influence of reggae is all over the album. I’m sorry, that’s a lie. Reggae doesn’t really bubble to the musical surface until the next album, ‘it’s only Rock ‘n’ Roll’, but the feel, the laid back ambiance that they were recording in permeates the grooves. It’s a sticky, lazy feel, right from the drawn out spindly voodoo guitars and clavinet of ‘Dancing with Mr. D’ that opens to the Chuck Berry-behind-the-beat-isms of ‘Star Star’ that close side two. There’s the hazy shimmer of ‘Can You Feel The Music’ drawing us back into the summer of Satanic Majesty, the living in the city funkiness of ‘Heartbreaker’ and the ‘tour de force des arbres’ that is ‘100 Years Ago’, a song about a walk in the woods. Yes, you did read that correctly. The drugged up misogynists and cocaine jet setters wrote and performed a truly wonderful song about going for a walk in the woods. It also contains the immortal advice by which I seem to live my life… ‘don’cha think, it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…’ prophetic words from the Peter Pan of rock ‘n’ roll. The other ballads are also particularly stunning, ‘Winter’ is full of startlingly beautiful imagery where ‘the lights on all the Christmas trees go out’, ‘Coming Down Again’ sees Keith in tender mode and singing like the choirboy he was. Words don’t really do this album justice. If you don’t know it and have even a passing interest in the Rolling Stones, please seek out and listen. If you don’t like them, then nothing I think or say or write is going to change your mind.

Enough music for the moment, let us now turn our gaze onto… mental illness. Wah-hay! Now there’s an exciting subject… Ani tried to persuade me the other night that I should spend one valuable hour and twenty minutes of my life watching a movie called ‘Numb’. Starring Matthew Perry. Excuse me? Isn’t that…Chandler? From ‘Friends’? I leapt the banister and sprinted for the front door, but too late, the highly trained Dobermans positioned either side of the gate in the razor wire fencing surrounding our Phnom Penh estate snapped at my knee tendons and I sank to the ground sobbing. I was then dragged back into the house by our smiling but sadistic guard (you would be surprised at how much of this is true) strapped into a leather chair, wrists and ankles bound with straps, and my eyelids forced open with eyelash curlers (much as Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, my Droogies…) before the aforesaid moving picture was played for me.

It’s actually really good and quite funny, if mental health issues can really be described as funny. It’s about facing the problem of ‘depersonalisation’, which apparently is now gaining acceptance as an actual mental condition. In essence, it’s the feeling that you are not really ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ may be, that you are somehow removed from your surroundings and are not ‘in’ your body, or as I like to call it (and I will not charge you $200 an hour for this diagnosis) ‘living in cloud cuckoo land’. A good example (here comes music again) would be the great David Byrne – ‘Once in a Lifetime’ exhibits all the traits that constitute the depersonalized (‘I ask myself – How did I get here?’). Sufferers tend to have particular obsessions and are not very good at interpersonal relationships. As I watched and laughed (inwardly – didn’t want to give A the impression I was actually enjoying this) it gradually dawned on me that there were many behavioural similarities between the character and me (oh no! I’m like Chandler from ‘Friends’ – I always thought I was more like a cross between Phoebe and Joey! Not that I ever watched it…). Next day I did a little more research on the internet and… yes, I’m ticking quite a few of those boxes… It is at once alarming to realize that I may well be suffering from this syndrome, as I often feel very removed from reality (or deliberately try and remove myself from reality) but strangely comforting that it seems I am clearly not alone. There are many, many of the depersonalised out there, living in strange lands and inside bodies that they do not really know or understand… The journey back should be very interesting…

Last words come (again) from someone who was comfortably numb long before it was fashionable.

‘It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
and I’m most obliged to you for m-making it clear
that I’m not here…

…and what exactly is a dream
…and what exactly is a joke?’

Syd Barrett ‘Jugband Blues’

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