I can’t recall if it’s a John Prine quote or something my Dad said, but a bit of sage advice is: “If you think getting into the music business is hard, try getting out of it.”
Something I do know my Dad has said repeatedly to me over the years though is: “Often the hardest battle you fight is between your ears.” Lord, that has proven to be true.
You ever have what I call “the hour of darkness”? It’s that liminal window that occurs, sometimes suddenly, emerging like an internal gale out of semi conscious murk. It passes, but in its eye, it can be overwhelming.
Self doubt, guilt, anxiety, a feeling of worthlessness or shame, a feeling of guilt at feeling guilt itself. Anyone who has experienced anxiety and depression knows how this goes. It’s not actually that special. A lot of us deal with it every day and most of us feel shame.
It’s called “spiraling” in psychology. In my experience, it often passes just like a quick summer thunderstorm. That said, for the majority of my whole life I’ve been on and off of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. At an early age, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and later with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. For a good deal of my adult life I’ve also self medicated with alcohol. I’m not proud – but it is a good deal about who I am.
A fair number of musicians and artists have been galvanized this year by the back-to-back suicides of David Berman and Neal Casal. I was very close with David, and while I didn’t know Neal, it actually was a wonder that our paths hadn’t yet crossed. I think a lot of us in the community, especially fellow working musicians, wondered or at least did assume something about motive, maybe because so, so many of us DO feel a kind of quiet and at times not so quiet desperation. But it’s unfair to look for motive or catalyst in either David or Neal’s passing. I think what actually does help move us collectively forward in some way is to start talking AS working artists about mental health and I’m glad for initiatives like Backline for doing just that.
No one I know in the musical community is immune to talking about how “the business’ has never been harder. Scrappy bands putting their first record out, people who are literal rock stars- I swear I have had the same conversations over the last few years. The assumed illusion of what “success” looks like has really taken on a new and genuinely bizarre irony in the age of not just Spotify, Amazon, and YouTube but also Facebook and Instagram. We as touring and working musicians aren’t just making less money but we are having to promote ourselves and our private lives in a manner that is frankly pretty disquieting.
Not many are going to sympathize with the complaints of a touring musician. And I don’t blame them. Everyday that I wake up and don’t have to go to another job feels like a gift and a miracle. Even on the days where I wake up feeling like a massive disappointment or failure, I am aware of that gift. You don’t have to go wash dishes at a restaurant, you don’t wait tables, you don’t have to deliver newspapers, you don’t have to paint houses, you don’t have to clock in at a record store- I think about everyday jobs I’ve had over the last twenty five years and while some I loved and some I hated. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t much prefer guitar being my job.
But unless you are in the eye of the storm, unless you are one of us who gets in the van or on the plane or even the train etc – and grinds it out hundreds of days a year- you not only won’t sympathize, you won’t understand. And that’s totally fine because I said, it’s the best job in the world and ninety percent of the time it doesn’t feel like a job.
There’s a strain to the road that those close to musicians understand. My partners, my immediate family, my managers, my closest friends- they’ve all suffered in some way by my long absences on the road, my mood swings, and just the general level of self absorption that comes with being an artist. I have enormous sympathy and empathy for those that are close to working artists, especially touring musicians.
I say all this because I think these realizations among the more self reflective of us bring on even more internal shame when it comes to wanting to talk about mental health, depression, etc. It’s like ‘What the hell are you complaining about, you are living the dream!’
So I think it’s just another catalyst and reason why we need to take care of each other in a friendship type of way. Not just organizing benefits and Go Fund Me drives when it gets to the crisis mode, but checking in and just asking “hey – are you ok?” Sometimes, often times, the ones among us that seem the strongest are the ones suffering internally the most. Drugs, alcohol, sometimes even suicide find their way in.
I’m not a therapist and I’m certainly not a doctor but I can be a good listener and I know what the darkness looks like. And life is beautiful, not just that- I think it’s sacred. It’s a gift. And if I believe in anything it’s that our time here on Earth is meant to make a positive difference for those around us and those unseen. We have a covenant with not just the planet but with each other as a global family. We create and share beauty hopefully- we speak truth at times where’s it difficult. But most importantly we have each others’ backs.
I am here to listen and I hope as musicians we start doing a better job of discussing the darkness before it keeps pulling more of us under. Without darkness there’s no light and there’s nothing wrong with honoring our shadows. We just don’t want them to make our decisions for us.
I remember the last email I got from David Berman. I had just gotten back to LA from a tour and was feeling mentally exhausted, like I was chasing my tail even though I should be feeling renewed and invigorated. The Purple Mountains record had come out and I sent him a note saying how proud I was of him not just for finishing the album but also having the courage to step away from the business for ten years until he felt ready again.
He wrote back and told me “You have to remember you won’t be forgotten if you take a breather.” Solid advice for any of us who just feel so tired by the up and down. As grateful as I am for the life I have – I do want to wake up everyday and figure out how to try harder and be better. And a lot of that is checking in on people and always always reminding them that acknowledging negative feelings and confronting them is the first step to dealing with them in a mature way.