Sunday, 30 March 2008

What do you make of this one then?

I woke up in the early hours of Friday morning having had yet another vivid dream, and I recall thinking: this is brilliant, I must blog it. Come Friday daytime, and could I remember it? No.

Still, at the risk of this becoming a dream blog, I'll share the one with you that I can remember from last night. It centred around a rabbit, and we (whoever "we" were) had managed to attach a webcam to its collar - probably a reference to this - so that we could monitor its activities for some purpose that now escapes me. What we hadn't banked on however was that the rabbit somehow ended up in New York, so after what apparently was a long journey by boat, we kept receiving images of the skyline and the harbour.

Even more bizarrely, the rabbit managed to somehow lodge itself in front of the windscreen of a taxi cab, so we received lots of images of a by turns bemused/amused New York taxi driver: firstly through the windscreen, but also close-up as he seemed to try to remove the rabbit from his car bonnet. The rabbit was obviously steadfast in its determination to stay right where it was though since we continued to get images of the driver through the windscreen.

Back in the control room, we were perplexed as to how the rabbit had ended up in New York, but we decided we'd make the best of it and follow its progress anyway until we could find some way of bringing it back.

Funny old place, the subconscious.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Tidying up

I think it's probably not surprising that in the aftermath of the events described in the previous post, I've been having a lot of vivid dreams: some intriguing, some disturbing. The main part of one of last night's dreams that I recall was walking past a building which turned out to be a university for teaching people how to accost someone with a gun. I found out because as I walked past there was a gap through which I heard a noise and when I looked, I glimpsed all these people in what looked like a gym. They were rehearsing moves for knocking someone to the floor and then pointing the gun at their head.

Don't ask, because I don't know: and that's but one of many scenarios that have been generated in the depths of my subconscious mind this week. I think it must be part of the process of my brain unwinding after all the hopes, anxieties and excitement leading up to last Friday.

Mind you, I think it's also because my sleeping mind has actually had some space in which to project all this imagery, so quelled was it by voluminous quantities of post-gig alcohol over the weekend. Not that I got trashed, it was just that there was plenty of time in which drinking could be done at a steady pace.

Well I'm having an easy, quiet week. I feel in a way like I've finished reading a novel - here's a pause while I let it all sink in, and also while I notice the absence of the activity of reading it day in, day out. But it should soon be time to pick another one up and to start anew. More than one person commented on the infectious energy in my last post: it would be self-defeating of me not to make sure that this kind of thing remains prominent amongst my activities again from now on.

It should be achievable: there was, for a while, a disruptive, negative force in my life. Amongst other things I allowed it to divert me from what creativity I possess, and I remained for a long time feeling unable to get back into such habits. As I've noted before, thematic to an extent in this blog has been the effort to change this: and since that disruptive force is no longer there, except for the residual memories, then it's up to me to make sure I don't forget how last Friday (and the process leading up to it) made me feel.

Sunday, 23 March 2008


On Friday, I was up and out early: to go into town and meet a very tired and jetlagged namesake (who shall, as previously posted, be referred to as troUSers) who had flown in from the States.

It still felt novel meeting him again: it always seems to have been the case that I bump into someone I know in town when I'm on my way to the station to get him, and Friday morning was no exception. The friend said to me, what are you up to then?, to which I replied along the lines of, well, I'm just about to meet up with someone who's got the same name as me and who has flown in from half way across the planet, AND we're playing on the same stage tonight.....long story.

We took a cab back to my flat, I popped out to the shops to get some milk, meanwhile troUSers immediately fell into an obviously much-needed deep sleep and remained that way for the next four hours. Which was fine in any case, it meant I had time to make a few last-minute musical adjustments on my laptop, and to let my latent OCD tendencies come to the fore as I sat and checked (and rechecked) my leads, connections and various bits of equipment.

Now, when I first agreed to do this gig, it was quite a (much-needed) step outside of my comfort zone. Firstly, I needed to do a lot of work to ensure that I had enough music ready to actually play in the first place. Secondly, the last time I did a live performance was the first time I'd done it on my own and I was incredibly nervous - I drank large and equal amounts of beer and water, and spent a lot of time pacing up and down. Thirdly, when I sent confirmation to troUSers that I would be playing, he made a suggestion.

We should do a collaboration!

This was a great but verrrrrrry scary idea: it would involve elements of risk and of things potentially going wrong, since it would mean we wouldn't really have any time to rehearse. I emailed him, what do you have in mind?.

He asked me if I could build up some beats and loops based on a track on his album, and see if we could make it into quite an epic.

I replied and - bearing in mind my initial anxieties - told him that not only would I work on it, but that I wanted him to collaborate on one of my songs as well (mentioned in an earlier post), which would be for him to do vocals on my version of Roxy Music's In Every Dream Home A Heartache.

So, fast-forwarding again to Friday afternoon, troUSers woke up at 4pm, which left just enough time for us to eat and for him to listen to the backing I'd done for his song (thankfully he loved it) and to run through Every Dream Home to get his vocal cues in the right place.

Then we were over to the venue along with a number of other friends who were also playing on the same bill and who had done the bulk of the work for arranging the event itself. Setting everything up was straightforward and, during the soundcheck, troUSers and I had a run-through of his song that we were going to perform together. This was the first time we had worked directly together on it, but it sounded good. I was playing guitar with most of the strings tuned down into a very low open tuning which meant I could also manipulate the various sounds and textures on the laptop to help build or reduce momentum based on what troUSers was singing and playing.

I thought I might be freaked out by the whole idea of being on the same stage as him, since it was such an unlikely prospect, but I realised it was absolutely fine, it felt easy and natural, and our ideas seemed to gel.

He'd also asked a friend of mine, a singer with a beautiful voice (who plays in the band who were performing on the same bill as me and troUSers), if she would share vocals on a couple of his songs: watching them perform a few verses from these songs during the soundcheck brought a real lump to my throat: a combination of two amazing voices, soaring harmonies and the very fact of them singing together for the first time and clearly delighting in the results, was a very powerful thing for me to experience.

Everything was set up and ready, we sat around and had a couple of beers: I realised though that, while I couldn't exactly say I was relaxed, then I was actually very calm and composed. We opened the doors around 8pm, and my main concern at this point was whether we would have many people coming to see us. Apparently the posters advertising the gig had drawn some interest since people were intrigued by the prospect of two musicians playing on the same bill on the basis that we had the same name, despite living in completely different parts of the world.

What was interesting was that most of the people who did turn up weren't familiar faces to me: there were a number of friends who I'd expected would be there, but it felt quite reassuring to see plenty who I didn't know at all. In a way it felt like it took the pressure off me: if I didn't know most of them, I could hardly know what their expectations were. Thankfully a good number of people did turn up (we made a profit!) and what was notable was that there was a really nice atmosphere, it was buzzing practically from the word go.

The first band went on. They explained the story behind the whole evening and how troUSers had got in touch with me all those years ago and how it had culminated in this evening - which in itself got a round of applause, so it felt like we were off to a good start. They're singer-songwriters who do very simple, beautiful and hauntingly melodic songs. They performed really well and got a great reception. After they finished (which left me half an hour before I was due to take the stage) I felt a stab of worry: musically, my stuff couldn't be more different to theirs, being largely electronic and laptop-based. Would people be receptive to it in any way, or would they vote with their feet?

I felt as though I should explain how different it was going to be, but I realised that it would seem as though I was making apologies for my music which would be quite undermining.

But. At 10pm, the allotted time, I got on stage and when the dj stopped playing I got everyone's attention. I held my camera up and said I was going to do "before and after" photographs: I told everyone to smile, I took a picture of the whole audience, and then just got on with it. I set the laptop going, adding and manipulating various sounds and textures over the beats and loops I'd pre-programmed. It's amazing how much of a confidence booster it is when you hear your own music coming through the onstage monitors at a very loud volume: it sounded good to me, the sound engineer had set everything up brilliantly, and I was able to completely relax and enjoy the moment.

The only error I made was in forgetting to take a chair on stage with me: it meant I was either standing hunched over the laptop and various other bits of equipment, or kneeling down behind it. I did remember to take a pint of beer on stage with me though, so obviously my priorities weren't completely out the window..

My first track lasted for over fifteen minutes, changing half-way through into a very mesmeric, motorik Krautrock-style piece: I thought, if people are prepared to sit through the first 5 or so minutes, then I've got them where I want them. And that's what happened. I got a great response, and people were also dancing. At the end of my own songs I invited troUSers up on stage and we did In Every Dream Home. He belted it out with his incredible voice and, being the mischievous soul that he is, he sang it with slightly different timing, just to keep me on my toes. It was spot on though and we got a rapturous reception. I then took my "after" photograph of the audience, and there are just as many people on it as were in the "before" one.

Finally, shortly after 11pm, troUSers took the stage and performed his own set. He has a penchant for unusual but finely structured melody which along with the combination of memorable and unconventional lyrics, and that voice, makes for very striking and slightly eerie songs. It was great to watch him play with the arrangements as he went along too, he has a real sense of the ebb and flow of the moment and of the response of the audience, and he tailors his performance expertly.

I have photos of groups of people in the audience watching, utterly rapt, some smiling, completely mesmerized. My friend joined him for the two numbers that she was singing with him: it was heart-stoppingly beautiful, not to mention amazing since they'd only ever previously performed them earlier at the soundcheck.

Eventually, I was called back onto the stage for his final song. I got the right settings on the laptop and got my guitar ready. TroUSers introduced the song, but said, hang on - I'm just going to run through a plan with my namesake. He whispered in my ear, just keep it going, make it as epic as you can, and by the end of it I'm going to have everybody joining in - which was to be no mean feat given that he sings this particular song in Bulgarian!

I started the laptop, a repeating bass note, and troUSers began singing and playing over it. As his voice rose, I began triggering the various beats and loops to match the momentum that he was gaining. I then built up my guitar playing, all the time watching and listening to mirror the pace and the feel of what he was doing. Several minutes later I was thrashing out huge, deliberately dissonant open chords in d minor and he was locked into it, bellowing out his huge voice and actually managing to get people joining in. Once this was achieved we gradually lowered the momentum and drew it to a natural close.

We got an astonishingly good reception, immediate and very loud cheers and applause. Just before we left the stage, we shook hands and hugged.

Afterwards, so many people - familiar or otherwise - came up and talked about how good it was, and what an amazing atmosphere there'd been to the whole night. I couldn't agree more, and I don't see how it could possibly have been any better than it was.

This is the best thing I've done in a very long time, and I've spent so much time expressing my gratitude to the people who made it happen and who were part of it.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


I had a moment today: walking down a street on my way to see a client, in a part of town where during the daytime at least, there's a nice quiet atmosphere. The sun suddenly shone: cat-like, I just appreciated the warmth, the light and the peacefulness of that moment (and just felt like stretching out), and felt free from any of the concerns which have been exercising me of late. It lasted for maybe 20 seconds: those seconds were, however, a very welcome and timely reminder of just how nice it can be when you're able to just live in and appreciate the present.

It's also quite good to be able to reflect on the following:

  • I'm busy working on material for a live performance
  • I've sent off a job application in the post
  • Senior figures at work have vowed to talk to me about training in Art Therapy
All of those have, or are more than likely to have, their ifs and buts (not to mention a huge dollop of cynicism c/o me): but the fact that they are there, at the very least, reminds me that there is far more potential and opportunity than sometimes seems to be the case.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Diversion (2)

It feels good to be sitting in warmth and comfort, having just enjoyed the delights of a simple but tasty salad with pastrami. Whereas outside the sky is looking ever more threatening (well less a threat and more a promise I would have said, on the evidence of the previous 24 or so hours): any minute now the heavens are surely going to open and it's going to absolutely twat it down with rain (to use a meteorological term).

I managed to get out on the bike for an hour or two earlier on, and it was a welcome diversion: due to the aforementioned weather I'd all but written off the chances of going out, and was lucky to get out during a relatively prolonged dry spell. It' s not that I've a problem cycling in bad weather (though the ferocity of the gusts of wind didn't exactly add to the appeal), more the case that a lot of the places on my various cycling routes tend to get waterlogged/flooded to the point of being impassable on a road bike, which hardly makes for an enjoyable ride.

I'd forgotten about this tendency until I found myself cycling along a road which had huge puddles on it, the biggest of which was just under a foot deep (and about 25 feet long). Thankfully that was the only such obstacle today and it was easy enough to negotiate (he says blithely, not caring about the nearby house which had sandbags up against the door).

The point of all this is that the cycling has helped me to relax, it was much-needed. I had a very productive day yesterday and got a lot of work done that I needed to do regarding the music. It was also one of those times where beer helped a lot, it helped me just to concentrate and focus to the exclusion of everything else.

Today however on listening back to where I'm at with it, I felt a lot of doubt creeping in: is this/am I any good? Is it/am I ridiculous? - and so on. So I've definitely felt the benefit of a change of scenery, of doing something relatively strenuous and which doesn't exactly require much thought or self-reflection.

On the other hand the sense of urgency which I'm feeling from time to time can actually be helpful, but sometimes it's good to take a step back or a complete diversion from it all, and at least I've been able to do that today.

Saturday, 15 March 2008


It's been a busy week: some of that has been work-related and overall has been quite good. What that has meant has been more time spent doing, and less time thinking (and hence continually registering my dissatisfaction).

I've also been more hectic as the date of my live performance gets ever-nearer, and apart from a couple of evenings it's meant a lot of my time has been spent busying myself working on music as described in a couple of recent posts.

It has resulted, at long last, in a lot of my thinking being much more joined-up in that respect. I had a long day being part of an interview panel midweek at work, and as the day stretched on I found myself working through ideas in my head about how to resolve a piece of music I'd gotten to a certain stage with. Usually when this happens I might get home, think "oh I'll work on that later" and never get round to it. On this particular occasion I got home and, once a few chores (like eating) were out of the way, started work on the piece in question. Within an hour or two I'd made real progress and the whole thing was taking shape.

So it's good to have that sense of fluency returning: I'm sure I've already said so in a recent post, but I think it's increased. Previously I'd been put off doing more music based around a lot of software and programming since it felt counter-intuitive, but now it feels like I'm sufficiently well-versed again in that side of things that the various processes don't present themselves as obstacles.

Now the odd thing is that the gig itself will be based around me sharing the bill with my namesake, who will be on these shores to do a short tour. Click on the link if you want to read or be reminded of the whole bizarre story about that. If all goes well, he'll be singing on one of the pieces that I'm doing (a version of Roxy Music's early and surprisingly dark/heavy "In Every Dream Home A Heartache), and I'll be providing the backing for one of his songs during his own set. It's all rather difficult to get my head round the sheer unlikeliness of it.

So: much activity remains in order for me to get things ready. In an hour or two I'll be embarking on getting another piece (hopefully) finished since it needs work to resolve it, and then more time spent refining the rest of what I'm working on. I also aim to get at least one bike ride under my belt this weekend too, as well as getting a job application form filled in. Work is going to be very busy next week, which is probably a good thing as it should help to soak up some of the adrenaline.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Card (2)

I was thinking of calling this one, Card (2) : pissing on the matches that light the fireworks of poignancy. Obviously I decided against such preposterousness.

With a little trepidation, I called in on my grandmother mid-Saturday morning (I was spending the weekend at my mother's, they live very close to each other). She looked gaunt, tired and not a little lost. Once she'd remembered which grandson I was (and other such facts), I produced the aforementioned birthday card, and asked if she would write a message in it for my mother. She did well at first though she got a little mixed up and wrote from your daughter. That was easily amended, and I promised I would pass the card on to my mother: I kept it in my bag ready to pass on this morning along with my own card and presents.

She had seemed less than aware that it was my mother's birthday weekend, I had to remind her of the day and date a couple of times.

Later that afternoon, my mother popped up to see her for a short while. When she came back down, the following conversation ensued:

mum: she's given me my birthday card.

me: no, I've still got it with me.

mum: oh?

me: it's in my bag, upstairs!

mum (laughing): where the hell has she got this card from then?

me: haven't the faintest...

If it should come to pass that she's still here when my mother has her next birthday, I'll keep this card in reserve. When I went to see her later she was much more lucid and bright than she had been in the morning, it was nice to spend the time chatting - or at times just being there - with her. I had to smile though when she asked, "am I right in thinking it's your mother's birthday sometime soon?"

Thursday, 6 March 2008


I think I made mention of my grandmother some months ago, and how amazingly independent she was as she approached the age of 92. Not so anymore, her health has been failing steadily in recent months. That would already have been the case when I wrote those words (not that I'm going to search through previous posts), but wouldn't have been all that apparent at the time. Things look different, of course, in retrospect.

So whenever my mother rings me unusually early in the morning or late in the evening, I tend to brace myself for what might follow. On one occasion recently, she called around 10pm, which is pretty much unheard of: it turned out she was stuck on a crossword clue.

She rang again the other morning however, shortly after 8am. Her first words were, "don't panic," so I was half expecting something equally trivial as the example just given. It's my mother's birthday very soon though: so she asked me if I could buy a card for my grandmother to write on and give to her. Of course, I said I would do.

I breathed a sigh of relief that it was nothing serious, and then when I thought about the conversation we'd just had - as matter of fact as it was - I just felt sad. However long my grandmother has left, I tell myself, 92 is a great age to have reached. But these little indicators of her ever-diminishing health and ability strike me as incredibly poignant each and every time.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Cheap Casio keyboards

I love them. I've been spending a lot of time with them lately. Most of the sounds that I'll be using when I play in front of an audience in the increasingly-near future have been generated from these: some pushed and pulled around to the point at which they sound entirely different, others pretty faithful to their original state. When I think about all of this, I can't help but laugh. Oh, there's usually a shiver of anxiety as well.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Back on the SSRI's (again)

SSRI's have been back in the news again, with some controversy as to their effectiveness compared to the placebo effect (to put it very vaguely).

The first blog post I ever published was a couple of years ago on Frank Fisher's now-defunct site, and was written in part as a response to someone else's article about antidepressants and other treatments. Following last week's fuss, I thought it would be interesting (maybe) to dig out this article, which was intended as a measured defence of antidepressant medication.

I've taken the first couple of paragraphs out purely for reasons of context, in that they related to Frank's site and the article I was responding to. The rest of it is the same as was written and published at the time. I wonder if I still have the same opinion overall as I did then:

...I'm not a medical person so I don't claim to have in-depth, clinical knowledge of how the different groupings of antidepressants work. The main groupings are the older Tricyclics, through to Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors, and on to the more recent batch of Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (Prozac, Seroxat etc). Catchy titles, all of them.

All aim to work in their differing ways by affecting or regulating the chemistry of the brain, particularly the areas which control mood. Although I've done some reading on precisely how they achieve their intended effect, I'd say it was best summed up by a consultant psychiatrist who, during a talk on the general use of psychiatric drugs, likened it to "trying to fix a delicate clockwork mechanism with a big hammer".

With that in mind, any defence of antidepressants is going to have to be a measured one.

I'll first address a source of misconceptions, namely the media (surprise surprise). To give the newspapers their due, there has been some responsible reporting of legitimate and sometimes urgent concerns which have arisen in relation to unwanted and unforeseen effects of SSRIs. Frustratingly however, there were many media reports when drugs such as Prozac first came to
prominence, desribing them misleadingly as "happy pills" or "wonder drugs". They are neither, and such sensationalised descriptions variously serve to undermine or overstate what the drugs can actually do.

Another point of concern which may lead to antidepressants being viewed with greater mistrust, is the increasing tendency in some quarters of the pharmaceutical industry to symptomise behaviours and then develop drug treatments for them. Antidepressants may be seen as being at the thin end of this particular wedge, regardless of the status of depression as an at times very severe illness.

Let's take a look at antidepressants themselves. As with any medicine (perhaps with the exception of herbal treatments) they are a poison and can give rise to unwelcome side effects. As regards their benefits, the bottom line is that they do not constitute a cure: they are a palliative, ie they relieve symptoms.

The obvious comparison to make is with painkillers, in that they make a reasonably good job of masking pain and discomfort, but they emphatically do not treat the cause of the pain. I'm reminded also of the argument that the glass of water you drink is of greater medicinal benefit than the paracetamol you're using it to help swallow down, but that's perhaps a different

I personally don't like to take painkillers of any form. However I had two wisdom teeth out last week and can vouch for the fact that an Ibuprofen every four hours for a few days afterwards made my life a great deal more bearable and less uncomfortable, and during this time my body began to get on with the process of healing. Analagous to this is that the severe dips in mood, the intrusive, incessant and unwelcome thoughts, decrease in motor functions and the other main
characteristics of depression can be alleviated by a carefully controlled dose of an antidepressant.
By providing such respite, it may be then possible to begin to address the causes.

I'm not trying to suggest that this is going to work or even be desirable for many who find themselves in this position. My perspective, as such, is that antidepressants are not the answer but that they have their rightful place within the range of possible treatments. From my point of view problems arise when:

a) Antidepressants are overprescribed or too quickly prescribed, when other treatments may suffice or be more desirable

b) They are prescribed as the sole treatment rather than in conjunction with other treatments

c) The patient is unaware of what the antidepressant can and can't do, which in some cases may result in the false hope that their depression will be cured, or that they need not make any effort towards changes which may influence long term recovery.

While resources are likely to have an impact on some of the above, my own fortunate experience is that having a GP who listens rather than just prescribes, makes a huge difference.

If it seems as though I'm mounting a defence of antidepressants based on what they DON'T do, well, fair enough. By being aware of the various misleading claims or assumptions which are often made about them, I would say that that would be of use in making an informed and realistic choice. It hopefully (though not necessarily) follows that the onus is still firmly on taking steps towards addressing the causes of the illness, with a view towards a more sustained recovery
and the development of healthy coping strategies.

So - antidepressants don't fill the gaps in your life; they don't provide the answers; they don't cure; they don't address societal problems or the pressures that life can bring to bear on an individual. The list could go on. What they are often extremely good at however is providing relief from the various symptoms of depression. That in itself has been enough to contribute towards saving the lives of a number of people I know or have known - some individuals that I
have worked with as a mental health worker, and at least two individuals who I count as close personal friends. For me, right now, that's good enough.