Ther­apy helps in a cri­sis. But when it comes to lessons in life, mu­sic has most of the an­swers

The Observer Magazine - - Self & Wellbeing - Words TED KESSLER

When my mar­riage dis­solved a decade ago, I went to a cog­ni­tive ther­a­pist to see if I could make sense of it. I sat in a small room with a kindly old lady who was not my mother, but who may as well have been, as we dis­cussed love and sex as best we could. Al­though de­liv­er­ing my opin­ion about what had hap­pened out loud with­out shout­ing was an en­joy­able re­lief, I can’t say I truly learned much. We de­cided I wasn’t such a bad per­son. We de­cided my ex-wife wasn’t a bad per­son ei­ther. Then I paid my £60 and ar­ranged to re­turn the fol­low­ing week.

Even­tu­ally, I stopped mak­ing those ar­range­ments to re­turn. What was I learn­ing there, in those meet­ings, that I hadn’t heard a thou­sand times al­ready lis­ten­ing to Pain in My Heart by Otis Red­ding, Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Di­vi­sion, or You Can Leave, But it’s Go­ing to Cost You by Marvin Gaye? I hadn’t spent my en­tire teens in my bed­room with the door closed play­ing records, to not have those hard-won in­sights to fall back upon in times of ro­man­tic trou­ble. Ther­apy helps lift the weight from your chest, which is use­ful in times of cri­sis. But mu­sic can il­lu­mi­nate the way for­ward.

Mid­way through my se­cond month of liv­ing in my friend’s spare room in Shep­herd’s Bush, I was given King­dom of Rust by Doves to re­view. In my height­ened state of emo­tional emer­gency, I quickly imag­ined that it was a con­cept al­bum about the end of a long-term re­la­tion­ship. “My God, it takes an ocean of trust in the king­dom of rust,” ran the cho­rus of the ti­tle track. It was as if it had been writ­ten for me. Soon af­ter, I in­ter­viewed Doves’ chief song­writer Jimi Good­win and straight­away told him my the­ory about his new songs. He was taken aback. I ex­plained my cir­cum­stances. “Ah, sorry to hear that,” he replied, “but we’ve all been there. The songs can share the bur­den.” For the next few weeks, King­dom of Rust ac­com­pa­nied me ev­ery­where, point­ing my gaze to­wards the hori­zon in a way that cog­ni­tive ther­apy never quite man­aged. Cheaper, too.

Noel Gal­lagher fa­mously sang that lis­ten­ers of Oa­sis should not put their life in the hands of a rock’n’roll band. I fun­da­men­tally dis­agree. Ev­ery­thing good in my life has been rec­om­mended to me by my mu­si­cal he­roes. My moral com­pass has been set al­most en­tirely by pop stars. No teacher, no in­sti­tu­tion, no writer (OK, maybe some writ­ers, ac­tu­ally) has had the same im­pact upon me as rock stars. Who forged your di­rec­tion in life? Your par­ents? School? Your peers? Maybe it was a re­li­gious call­ing, or even a po­lit­i­cal party. If so, it’s not too late to re­think your choice and in­vest in mu­si­cians in­stead.

I drew ev­ery­thing I be­lieve in, ini­tially, from Paul Weller, lead singer with the Jam. He changed my life, for­ever. The Lon­don I grew up in the late 1970s was grim: the rub­bish piled up, the Na­tional Front daubed their ini­tials upon school walls, Thatcher snatched our milk. But Weller rocked up with vi­sions of so­cial utopia at­tached to the kind of cho­rus that any id­iot 11-yearold could re­mem­ber. His clothes were fan­tas­tic. He was pic­tured read­ing Alan Sil­li­toe and Ge­orge Or­well. He pro­claimed that his fans should in­ves­ti­gate an ar­ray of soul, reg­gae, funk and 60s beat records.

He signed off his fan let­ters with the ad­vice that we should “stay cool, clean and hard”. I soaked it all up and his max­ims be­came the foun­da­tions upon which the rest of my life was built. I still dress a bit like he did in 1983. Other great teach­ers fol­lowed. Kevin Row­land of Dexys Mid­night Run­ners made me se­ri­ously con­sider Irish pol­i­tics and woolly hats in a way I may not have oth­er­wise. Mark E Smith of the Fall opened my eyes to the power of lat­eral think­ing and the su­per­nat­u­ral. Chuck D of Pub­lic En­emy high­lighted how the lives of AfroAmer­i­cans had not, in fact, dra­mat­i­cally im­proved since the civil rights move­ments. Siouxsie Sioux lifted up the man­i­cured car­pets of sub­ur­ban homes to show us what scur­ried be­neath. And on and on and on…

All had their own dis­tinct philoso­phies, ex­pe­ri­ences and in­flu­ences, and all were avail­able to down­load di­rectly into the brain via their mu­sic and, es­pe­cially, their in­ter­views, which I de­voured. As a pre-teen,

I signed up to mu­sic as a way of life with such re­li­gious fer­vour that I de­ter­mined my love of it, and be­lief in the teach­ings of my he­roes, would see me through all my life choices. More than that, it would guide them.

I left school at 17 be­cause I be­lieved, with­out any tan­gi­ble qualification be­yond an O-level in French, that I would one day earn my liv­ing writ­ing and that the last place I was go­ing to fur­ther that am­bi­tion was at school. This clearly id­i­otic be­lief was iron-clad, though, and in­debted to my book­ish, sin­gle-minded mu­si­cal dropout he­roes: Mark E Smith, Lawrence from Felt, etc.

In the mean­time, I needed to pay the rent, but also to be im­mersed in mu­sic. When I fi­nally man­aged to se­cure it, I viewed my full-time job at Our Price Records as the

‘Paul Weller changed my life with his vi­sions of so­cial utopia’

equiv­a­lent of en­try to one of the best uni­ver­si­ties. There I was able to spend eight hours a day sur­rounded by thou­sands of records I’d never heard, and also or­der in any­thing newly re­leased I’d read about in the press. I met like-minds, too, as my col­leagues were of­ten sim­i­larly adrift in mu­sic. We knew the job was fi­nite, but that our loy­alty to mu­sic and mu­si­cians was for­ever. We were hope­less lif­ers.

Even­tu­ally I had to grad­u­ate from Our Price, but where to? With no nat­u­ral – or un­nat­u­ral – mu­si­cal abil­ity of my own, the only place I could re­ally con­trib­ute was by doc­u­ment­ing the work of mu­si­cians: those who can record and tour, those who can’t be­come mu­sic jour­nal­ists. And so now, as ed­i­tor of mu­sic mag­a­zine

Q, I am drawn to meth­ods that can de­liver the lessons that have been learned by rock stars. A few months ago we started to talk about a book that col­lated all of the wis­dom we’d col­lected from pop stars down the years. Edit­ing The Ten Com­mand­ments: The Rock Star’s Guide to Life was like an in­tense course in self­help, taught by Iggy Pop, Ste­vie Nicks, Ice-T and 47 other pop stars.

Yes, there are lots of ex­am­ples of mu­si­cians act­ing self­ishly and stupidly. They can be pompous, greedy, vain hyp­ocrites. But their in­sights have never let me down in the way that all in­sti­tu­tions at some point have, in the way that I have let my­self down.

School failed me, mar­riage failed me – or rather, I failed them – and no job is for life. I am a strong ad­vo­cate of ther­apy in mo­ments of crises, but have found it frus­trat­ingly opaque as a nav­i­ga­tional tool when not ne­go­ti­at­ing emo­tional emer­gency: tell me what to do! The wis­dom in song, though, the in­sights of mu­si­cians… that light never goes out. As min­d­ex­pand­ing as books, film and art can be, as tightly as you can hold those to you, they have not shaped my tastes, my pol­i­tics, my world­view, my wardrobe as con­sis­tently as watch­ing the Spe­cials on Top of The Pops in 1979. I re­main lost in mu­sic, and glad to be in that trap. ■

The Ten Com­mand­ments: the Rock Star’s Guide to Life edited by Ted Kessler is pub­lished by Cor­sair, £9.99.

To or­der a copy for £8.79. go to guardian­book­

‘Rock stars can be self­ish and stupid, but they never let me down’

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