Creativity, Communal Experience and Mental Health

(written in 2015)

I’ve recently had the good fortune to become part of the musical community of Madrid and to encounter a group of fun, interesting and creative people. Like me, they appear to be curious, sensitive, restless and occasionally troubled souls, searching for the elusive and using performance as a way to simultaneously attempt to find some way to these untapped emotions while having enormous fun at the same time. Creativity is a strange process, often identified as allowing yourself to be a vessel through which it flows, as referenced in Julia Cameron’s enormously instructive book, ‘The Artist’s Way’. John Cleese gave a great speech about this (see link below), describing how the creative person needs to be able to be a child and to enter a space where anything is possible while being able later to put it together into something cohesive rather than leaving it as simply a rash of ideas. If the vessel idea may seem somewhat pretentious to some, and there is certainly a craftsman element to the creation of an original work or a reinterpretation of an existing one, there is undoubtedly some magic in the creation of something that is wholly yours with that mysterious element of not knowing how and why you came up with what you did.

 

Anyone who knows me for more than 30 seconds soon learns that I’m a fully-fledged Beatles devotee (see previous blog post ‘The Beatles And A Mass of Humanity’), and they had some interesting experiences and perspectives on this subject. Paul McCartney, if he is to be believed, woke up with the tune of his most successful song ‘Yesterday’ in his head, taking it round to friends to play them the melody to see if it was something that was already out there in the musical ether and later wondering at some point whether he should really be taking the credit for something he’d apparently dreamed. John Lennon characteristically saw creativity and fame in psychoanalytical terms, stating ‘I’m only famous because of my repression. I only made it because I had a stronger drive to say ‘look Mummy, Daddy, now will you love me?’’, the implication being that the more desperate the need for deprived love, the harder the drive is to turn the expression of it into a potential career and gain the love and respect of millions of people. George Harrison dryly and concisely commented that ‘songwriting is like going to confession’. And Ringo? I believe he’s an underrated and highly creative drummer but he took a full 4 years just to write ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ so I have to discount him on this particular subject!!

 

John Lennon’s comments hint at the well-known idea of the ‘tortured artist’, whose soul cannot rest until he’s purged himself of the overwhelming feelings that inhabit and haunt his being and are making him/her unhappy. This is far too big a subject to go into in a brief blog post, but it is probably true in some cases though like many things in our society, reduced over time to a well-worn cliché. What I can say with conviction is that a great deal of the songwriters and general writers I’ve ever known seem to be bonded by a certain eccentricity and the implicit shared experience of being considered outcasts in the glorious ‘straight society’ into which most of us are born. Don’t kid yourself or buy into the propaganda that society is ‘liberal’. The atmosphere in most schools (and perhaps homes) is archly conservative, without much deviation from accepted norms needed for behaviour to be deemed unacceptable and for the perpetrator to be an outcast. The faux-outrage of news anchors and journalists to what are considered vague controversies in the real world encourages and shapes this conservatism.

 

So what of performance? Well, it’s a rush of adrenalin hard to match, and the first experience of putting yourself up on that stage to express yourself in front of others is surely never to be forgotten. I used to suffer from terrible nerves when playing in my first band, and I was only playing bass rather than being the one that the audience focused on. That magic moment when you hit the first note of the first song and the nerves clear was always the one worth all the nervous energy expended beforehand. I’ve previously written in full about the recollections of a certain Welsh drummer when he was struck by nerves at his band’s first big concert and the phenomenon of nerves themselves (see ‘The Way of The Nervous Official’), but in short there is a tremendous vulnerability involved, perhaps even more in acoustic performance, which is very often solo and which has an intimacy and purity hard to match in any other situation, as well as a physical closeness to the audience. Physical tiredness often accompanies nerves, as the body struggles to deal with the energy required to fend off the excess adrenalin. Personally, my nerves disappeared as  a musical performer after I had the far more terrifying ordeal of acting in a full-length Shakespeare play in the glamorous environs of a hall in Baron’s Court, West London with a captive audience of around 80 (I think the jury’s out on whether it’s scarier to perform in front of a small or large audience).  The play was ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, one of The Bard’s earliest and dullest, and I stood in the wings, physically shaking like a leaf, trying to remember my cues and trying to remember to put some emotion into it beyond just remembering my lines and getting through it. Our director had helpfully told us that ‘it’s better if you learn the lines well but not too well, as the risk element will improve your performance’ (while simultaneously shredding your nervous system, thanks for that!!). The huge upside of this experience was that performing songs became incredibly easy in comparison and is something that a seasoned performer generally finds more comfortable than other pursuits (stand-up comedy being another example of a remarkably difficult and nerve-racking art form). In performance, you give of yourself and you hope that the audience appreciates your efforts even if they don’t quite understand them.

 

Performing original songs usually not known well by the audience and performing songs of familiarity are 2 very distinct things, and not considering myself a serious songwriter, I like to merge the 2, usually ending with something upbeat and familiar as a kind of reward to the audience for listening through the unfamiliar (I apply this to myself, not as a general rule, and I know many songwriters whose material is very easy on the ear on first listening and beyond). Where communal experience comes into it is the sheer joy of singing and playing together, and we have to thank the songwriters who created these instantly memorable songs for inadvertently creating these wonderful moments. I had an experience of this last week at a rockabilly jam session in Madrid. Having 8 or 9 players with guitars, banjos, mandolins and harmonica and multiple voices was uplifting for everyone, and after the regular session was over, some of us continued for a couple more hours, finding common ground and songs between us and having the whole of the small bar involved and singing along. To reference the Beatles one more time (only one more, I promise!), it reminded me a little of the famous performance of ‘Hey Jude’ on the David Frost show in 1968 (see link below) where people of various colours and creeds all joined the band for the 4-minute ‘na, na, na, na-na-na-na’ extended finale, all packed into a tight space just as we were last week.

 

Finally, I’ve long been interested in mental health and wellbeing, having studied Psychology at college, read a number of books on the subject and had my own occasional brushes with the dark side. Depression has become a very overused word and it has been glamourised in many ways, making it seem cool to be unhappy and making the person seem deep and spiritual because they don’t smile a lot. I don’t dismiss this entirely, and I don’t mean to make light of people’s problems and the difficulties of simply living life itself (Bob Dylan’s autobiography ‘Chronicles’ quotes one of his relatives telling him ‘try not to judge too harshly, life is a struggle for everyone’), but I have an uncle who’s been clinically depressed for over 30 years and needs a cocktail of drugs to lead the simplest of lives so I think some perspective is required. The distinction that needs to be made is between having an actual illness and simply having sustained bouts of negative moods for whatever reason. For the latter, there are solutions that don’t require therapy or medication, such as meditation (and even just simple deep breathing), exercise (including remarkably effective holistic pursuits like yoga), dietary changes (reduction or elimination of processed sugar and alcohol being a good start), minimal exposure to television, media and general fear propaganda (including advertising, which is all about making you feel bad about yourself to sell you products, either blatantly or subtly) and even just a decision to make yourself feel better. The television and media issue is relevant here too because allowing yourself to be exposed to them means letting someone else shape your reality and effectively make your decisions for you, taking away self-empowerment.

 

I say to people who are unhappy- do you stretch your body? do you eat nutritious food?, do you have moments of peace and reflection?, do you watch a lot of television?, do you exercise?, do you wish to be positive or do you indulge yourself, perhaps feeling yourself a ‘sensitive artist’ and so entitled to feel bad? Perhaps most importantly, do you allow yourself to feel tremendous pressure to be happy in social situations even when you’re not and would much rather tell someone about it? I’m not judging because until relatively recently I would have answered no to most of those and yes to the last one, but it is a remarkably liberating feeling to suddenly decide not to fear others and what they might think and to realise how much unnecessary stress is self-imposed (Bob Dylan- ‘you lose yourself, you reappear, you suddenly find you’ve got nothing to fear’). I recently read an interesting theory from author Robert Greene that humans had so much to fear for such a long time in the days of hunting and gathering, with the constant threat of starving or being killed by other humans or wild animals, that when we emerged and found the (relatively) comfortable existence we have now, we couldn’t turn off the fear mechanism so instead started created our own ones instead!

 

Tying this back to performance and communal experiences, the conclusion I’ve reached in terms of the way to achieve happiness and wellbeing is that while all of the above strategies for improving mood are effective, the most important thing is people, positive relationships and shared experiences. ‘Connection’ is another word that has been clichéd, particularly in the self-help industry, which seems to have reduced wisdom and the possibility of self-improvement to glossy, easy-to-read oversimplifications, but it is real. My biography can be summed up very simply. I was a happy, outgoing and confident kid who, through circumstances and bad decisions, retreated into his shell and became antisocial and distrustful for an enormous amount of time before gradually digging himself out of it to try to give people and life more of a chance. In my humble opinion, trying to connect to other people or to creative expression is a source of great joy that should be a constant in everyone’s lives.

 

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