Loneliness, Redemption and Road Rage
Finding Meaning in the Limbo-Life of a Touring Musician
“John…John…JOHNNNNN.” That is the sound of the road calling me in a low, tarmac-breathed whisper. Yes, in the quiet patches between lengthy UK tours with my band, I find myself longing for the joyful chaos of road life and feeling the itch to get back out there and share music with people in the flesh. So, in the in-between times I often book myself a handful of small solo gigs in pubs and bars around the country, partly to keep myself afloat financially, and also to try and stay ‘match fit’ for touring. I was forced to cancel several of these at the end of 2016 due to a lengthy period of illness, and when I emerged from my cocoon of convalescence I felt full of energy and excitement to get back out on the road and show everyone my sexy new butterfly wings. Scribbling a string of solo dates in the calendar in the lead up to spring, I gleefully envisaged my now-healthy self visiting unfamiliar cities, testing out new songs, meeting new people every day and reaffirming myself as a living, creating creature of the big wide world. What I didn’t envisage was that venturing out into that big wide world might actually plummet me to the depths of despair on a lonely stretch of road, somewhere in the badlands of southwest England.
By the time I arrived at my first gig the excitement for this adventure had already evaporated. During the arduous five-hour journey across the country an accumulation of minute grievances had piled up into a stinking mound of ‘mood faeces’ inside my brain. The solitude of the slow crawl across congested roads left me open to absorbing all kinds of everyday awfulness in a way that I normally wouldn’t. The periodic torrents of bad world news spewing out from the radio, the wandering mind finding darkness and doubts in every cranny, a stranger shouting at me aggressively over the phone; these ordinarily petty nuisances stacked up in my chest throughout the journey. My sense of perspective vanishing as it often does on vast stretches of motorway, I promptly decided that the universe despised me and wanted to blizzard all its bad energy into my face, and that I should take this very personally indeed.
The first gig was poorly attended. I felt distracted and downtrodden. I did my best to connect with the songs and engage with the small audience. At one point an unimpressed lady called out ‘play something happy.’ This would normally amuse me or inspire me to dig out the saddest of my melancholy little songs and dedicate it to her, but I’d already sunk down too far into myself and assumed the role of the tragic victim of my own bad day. I wrapped up the gig, packed up as quickly as I could and gloomily skulked off to a cheap and grimy B&B to indulge in some delicious self-pity until morning.
The following day I drove on to the next gig, anxious it would be just as badly attended and that I would take nothing positive from this whole experience. The world seemed cold and grey and I felt like giving up and going home to hibernate until spring, ‘like the worthless-little-rodent-man I am,’ I thought. This may seem melodramatic, and it is, because emotions are amplified in the hyper-reality of road life. You’re out there exposing your open chest to the elements because you believe you have something worth sharing with the world, something fragile and very personal that you’ve constructed with care and love. When that’s met with hostility – or worse, indifference – you need the sort of resilience and self-belief that it’s not always possible to summon up in weaker moments. And so you consider giving up, and then someone angrily honks their car horn at you at a roundabout and you lose it and shout at no-one in-particular ‘I AM DRIVING MY BLOODY VEHICLE HERE, YOU ABSOLUTE PLUM.’
At the end of another long drive I arrived at the venue and bumbled grumpily through the usual routine of unloading the gear and soundchecking. I then snuck off to a corner and was scrawling down a set list in my notebook, wondering how I was going to bring my thoughts into focus for the next two hours, when a man approached me and said hello. I recognised him straight away from previous gigs, he’d seen me and the band play a few times and I’d always had a nice chat with him after shows. I thanked him for coming, told him I was about to go and start the gig, and he asked if I had a spare moment as he wanted to just quickly tell me something. I listened as he spoke whilst tears welled up in his eyes. He said he’d had an extremely difficult couple of years some time ago that had caused him a great deal of pain, and that one of my songs, Day is Golden, had unlocked a lot of grief in him from that time. With great dignity and not a shred of awkwardness he looked me in the eye and described how hearing that song for the first time, and listening to it several times since, had been profoundly healing for him. He said he was thinking of emailing me this message, but he felt it was important to tell me in person. He then wished me luck for the gig and went to take his seat with his friend.
With some relief I saw that the room had filled with people whilst I’d been hiding in my corner. The audience was warm, attentive, at times pleasantly rowdy and then pin-drop silent. That rare thing happened where it feels as though every atom in the room has united in a mission to help draw the songs out of you. I played through almost every song I could remember how to play. I sang until my throat was raw, I thumped away at the piano and made two of my fingers bleed (that’s about as rock and roll as it gets for me, folks). It was the most life-affirming gig I’ve done in months. Nights like this are a testament to the transformative, healing power of the act of sharing music with people face to face, in a small room in a pub, you and the audience building throughout the night a feeling of unity and togetherness that we can so easily forget exists amidst our own day to day struggles.
The world can seem like a dark place to live some days and if you’re anything like me it’s all too easy to retreat into yourself to hide or brew up feelings of bitterness and helplessness. So many of us are overwhelmed by the impenetrable complexity of life; the dark forces at work behind our leaders, corporations, the media, celebrity culture, not to mention our own personal struggles and holding on to some sense of self in the middle of the storm. So much of what we are confronted with in every waking moment seems to be there to fracture the bonds in our communities, pit us against one another, create isolation, and perpetuate a seemingly widespread hatred that in reality is only harboured by a minority of individuals on planet Earth. We are all of us dealing with such a never-ending tangle of emotions and impulses, many of us just trying to keep it together from one moment to the next.
If we can find ways of staying mindful of this each time we set foot out into the big wide world, despite whatever chaos waits to meet us, we don’t need to actively seek out moments of honest, genuine human connection, because they simply happen. Sharing music with people is one way of keeping this tiny flame alight for me personally, as this small trial recounted here reminded me. But it’s just one way, and there are so many others that I see people practicing daily, sometimes without even knowing it. In these tiny moments of real connection lies the essence of the love for humankind, and it’s here in these moments that we continue to fight the good fight as human beings, slowly deconstructing the myth of the fragmented world and building our own sense of community and connectedness from within. To borrow the words of a much larger-brained man than I, Freud once wrote in a letter to his friend Romain Rolland: ‘I myself have always advocated the love for mankind not out of sentimentality or idealism but for sober, economic reasons: because in the face of our own instinctual drives and the world as it is I was compelled to consider this love as indispensible for the preservation of the human species as, say, technology.’
On my long drive home I tried to work out what had so suddenly lifted my mood in what the man had said to me about Day is Golden. Rather than any kind of self-congratulatory ego-stroke I might have taken from such comments about my songs in younger, stupider days, it was the sudden spark of real human connection and shared experience that revived me. If you write songs to communicate something you feel is important, you want that line of communication to stretch further over your own horizon than you can possibly imagine, branching outwards as far as it can like an electric current and very occasionally boomeranging back to light up a dark patch along your own path. In less than thirty seconds this man had brought back into focus for me the real meaning behind travelling to share music with people, a meaning that far outweighs the small pains of congested roads, sleepless nights and stale sandwiches munched in the limbo of a service-station car park.
I must remember to thank him in person next time I see him.