Until the age of 14, the pianist James Rhodes had no formal academic musical education or dedicated mentoring. At 18, he stopped playing entirely for a decade. Since returning to the piano, Rhodes has released six albums, all of which have topped the iTunes classical charts. He has performed in venues and festivals around the world, from the Barbican, Roundhouse, and Royal Albert Hall in London to international rock festivals.
In addition to writing regularly for the major UK newspapers and regularly presenting for BBC Radio 3, Rhodes has presented TV shows for the BBC, Sky Arts, and Channel 4. His bestselling memoir, Instrumental, to be issued in the U.S. by Bloomsbury on February 7, is a brutally honest, moving, and compelling story that was almost banned until the UK Supreme Court unanimously overthrew an injunction in May 2015.
In advance of Rhodes’s performances at National Sawdust on February 4 and February 8, and his participation in a Town Hall conversation concerning music, mental health, and wellness following the latter concert, we’re happy to share with permission this eye- and ear-opening excerpt from Instrumental.
Classical music makes me hard.
I know that’s not a hugely promising opening sentence for some people. But if you scratch the word “classical,” perhaps it’s not quite so bad. Maybe it even becomes understandable. Because now, with the word “music,” we have something universal, something exciting, something intangible and immortal.
You and I are instantly connected through music. I listen to music. You listen to music. Music has infiltrated and influenced our lives as much as nature, literature, art, sport, religion, philosophy and television. It is the great unifier, the drug of choice for teenagers around the world. It provides solace, wisdom, hope and warmth and has done so for thousands of years. It is medicine for the soul. There are eighty-eight keys on a piano and within that, an entire universe.
The unassailable fact is that music has, quite literally, saved my life and, I believe, the lives of countless others. It provides company when there is none, understanding where there is confusion, comfort where there is distress, and sheer, unpolluted energy where there is a hollow shell of brokenness and fatigue.
And so wherever and whenever there is the ubiquitous, knee-jerk temptation to roll eyes and tune out at hearing or reading the phrase “classical music,” I think of the huge mistakes I’ve made in the past by lazily adopting the principle of contempt prior to investigation. And to those of you who have that reaction, I urge you, beg you, to hold on for a minute and ask yourself this:
If there were something not manufactured by government, sweat shops, Apple or Big Pharma that could automatically, consistently, unfailingly add a little more excitement, lustre, depth and strength to your life, would you be curious?
Something with no side effects, requiring no commitment, no prior knowledge, no money, just some time and maybe a decent set of headphones.
Would you be interested?
I was driven back to hospital.
It felt like all the fight had been kicked out of me. I was floppy, pliable, indifferent. Shuffling around the ward, dribbling a bit, losing a few more brain cells and memories thanks to yet another cocktail of meds. And then on a visitors’ Sunday I was called in and told someone was there to see me. Which was odd because aside from a brief, disastrous visit from Jane and Jack a few weeks previously, I’d never had a visitor before.
It was an old pal I hadn’t seen in a long time. An awkward, slightly autistic, fragile guy. A piano fanatic (we’d met because we’d both shared a mutual hard-on for Sokolov bootlegs back in the day). He’d heard I was there and wanted to offer support. And music. When he’d called to arrange the visit he’d been told that no presents other than toiletries etc were permitted (I wasn’t allowed to have things delivered to me by this stage because I’d already had knives and razors intercepted). He offered me a giant bottle of shampoo and winked at me. Out of earshot of the nurses he told me to open it up when I was alone. Which I did. And inside this emptied bottle was a tiny plastic bag. And inside the tiny plastic bag was the brand new, recently launched iPod nano. It was the size of an After eight mint. And the headphones were wrapped around it lovingly. He had filled it up with gigabytes of music. And everything changed.
Under the covers I went. Headphones on. Middle of the night. Dark and impossibly quiet. And I hit play and heard a piece by Bach that I’d not heard before. And it took me to a place of such magnificence, such surrender, hope, beauty, infinite space, it was like touching God’s face. I swear I had some kind of spiritual epiphany then and there. The piece was the Bach-Marcello Adagio – a work written for oboe and orchestra by a baroque composer called Alessandro Marcello that Bach loved so much he transcribed it for solo piano. Glenn Gould was playing his Steinway, reaching out from forty years in the past, three hundred years in the past, and letting me know that things were not only going to be OK, they were going to be absolutely fucking stellar. It felt like I’d been plugged into an electrical socket. It was one of those rare “Elvis moments” that I will never forget. It shattered me and released some kind of inner gentleness that hadn’t seen the light of day for thirty years.
And now I was determined. I knew this place wasn’t the right place for me. I could not get well. Not with so many meds, so much madness, so much daytime TV and boredom. I needed to get out of there properly, once and for all. Get released, find some space, get home to my son. I needed to get well. But first I needed to show them I was well enough to leave.
And so I did. We did. That cold, ruthless, patient, clever fucker who controlled some part of my mind took charge. Happily. He was born for this shit. We started cooperating, not too quickly to make it unrealistic, nor too slowly to miss my self-imposed deadline of a Christmas release. I cried on demand, hugged my inner child, drew appropriately angry pictures in art therapy, participated in group sessions, came across with just the right amount of concern, remorse, anger, hope, contrition in my individual therapy. I sat through hearings and interviews saying the right things and then backed that up with doing the right actions. I helped others, cracked jokes with the staff, started whistling happily within earshot of the doctors, took my meds, got up early and meditated in the garden in full view of the night staff. I did everything I needed to in order to get to that Monday afternoon two months later in mid-November when they sat me down, basically told me I was a poster boy for mental health treatment, they were delighted with my progress and were very pleased to tell me I had been given the all-clear. I could leave in three days, as long as I agreed to a vigorous outpatient follow-up course and maintained my medication routine.
My grateful, solicitous, faux-humble smile was Oscar-worthy. I even included the obligatory “Are you sure I’m ready for this?” routine, voicing my concerns. I got them to actually convince me to leave. Mark Rylance would have applauded my performance. I was stupidly proud of what I’d accomplished, and three days later strutted out of that hospital, ditched my meds and went home to bed.
A quick aside about the rather nonchalant “ditched my meds” bit. Do not, under any circumstances, do that. Not ever. Imagine squeezing a giant dollop of properly homemade mayonnaise onto a piece of raw chicken, leaving it out in the sun for four or five days and then shoving the whole thing into your mouth, lying down in bed and waiting. And you will come close to what it’s like to come off psychotropic medication cold turkey.
We all have a soundtrack to our lives. Many of us have become immune, overexposed, tired and let down by it. We are assaulted by music in movies, TV shows, shopping malls, phone calls, elevators and advertisements. Quantity has long overtaken quality. More of everything is, apparently, good. And Christ, what a price we are paying for it. For every genuinely thrilling rock band, film score or contemporary composer, there are several thousand piles of shit that are thrust upon us at every opportunity. The industry behind it treats us with almost zero respect and even less trust. Success, rather than being earned, is bought, paid for, whored out and pushed onto us manipulatively and insidiously.
Among other things, I want this book to offer solutions to the watered-down, self-serving bastardisation of the classical music industry that we have been forced to embrace against our will. I hope that it also shows that the problems and potential solutions within the classical industry are applicable to a much, much wider panorama of similar issues within our whole culture in general and the arts in particular.
And woven throughout it is my life story. Because it’s a story that provides proof that music is the answer to the unanswerable. The basis for my conviction about that is that I would not exist, let alone exist productively, solidly – and, on occasion, happily – without music.
This book talks, in places, about classical music. If you have concerns about that, then just do one thing before either throwing this book away or placing it back on the shelf. Buy, steal or stream these three albums, all available on iTunes for under $10: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7 (you can buy all nine of his symphonies played by the London Symphony Orchestra on iTunes for $7.99); Bach Goldberg Variations (played on the piano by Glenn Gould and ideally the 1981 studio recording); Rachmaninov Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 (Andrei Gavrilov playing piano). Worst case, you’ve paid for them, hate them all and are out of pocket the price of a takeout. Call me an asshole on Twitter and move on. Best case, you’ve opened a door to something that will baffle, delight, thrill and shock you for the rest of your life.
During my concerts I talk about the pieces I’m playing, why I’ve chosen them, what they mean to me, the context they were written in. And in that vein I offer a soundtrack to my book. In much the same way as fancy restaurants suggest wines to accompany each course, there are pieces of music to accompany each chapter. You can access them online at http://bit.do/instrumental – they’re free, carefully chosen and important. I hope you like them.