I watched a BBC documentary a few weeks back about the therapeutic powers of music – apart from the fact it had Alan Yentob fronting it, it was a great bit of TV. A guy with acute Tourette’s syndrome controlled it by drumming, another guy with acute autism played piano like a god. There were brain scans of Alan Yentob while he listened to his favourite piece of music, showing his brain flooded with blood. Another guy who’d been struck by lightning and suddenly become obsessed with music played piano at a classical recital (although the ‘healing’ side of the deal fell down a bit in his case, since his obsession with music had resulted in the breakdown of his marriage. Or perhaps his marriage needed to break down to make his life better in the long term. Who knows.) Some attempts were made to analyse the power of music in scientific terms, but beyond demonstrating that it did have power, the show didn’t really penetrate the mystery very far.
I’ve been experiencing the healing power of music myself in the last few weeks, after life took a lurch towards the unexpected, and heaped a sudden cold dollop of misfortune upon my head, which I’m not going to moan about here. Instead I want to tell you about how being a musician has made it easier to cope with. When you’re going through a rough patch your friends try to offer up strategies that will make you feel better: get drunk, chainsmoke, gorge on chocolate, etc. I have actually, perversely, completely given up smoking (at last), find myself barely able to down more than a single glass of wine, and can’t summon up any enthusiasm for chocolate, which tastes like dust and ashes in my mouth. But what my musician and cabaret friends have done for me is book me in for loads of extra gigs, and this is the thing that really has done the trick. Maybe it’s because singing and playing takes you outside of yourself. Maybe it’s because it’s a visceral, not a cerebral, experience, playing music, so it quietens the chatter of your brain. Maybe music is a sort of meditation – but a collective rather than a solitary meditation. You tune in to the other people in the band and you get into a groove with them, then just let it carry you along; like floating down a stream. Or maybe it’s got more to do with the audience – being listened to, being appreciated, being loved for what you’re doing. Even though it’s not really you they’re into but the thing you’re projecting – the fantasy you’re creating for them. Or maybe getting dolled up in the false eyelashes, the red lipstick and the heels is like donning armour, and I feel safer inside there.
I know I’m not the only one who has this experience of stepping on stage and putting life’s shit on hold for the duration of the performance. In fact, the more shit my bandmates are going through, the more incredible the performances they pull out of the hat. Witness Miss Honey Mink, prostrated by cold and flu and so poorly she can hardly walk, flounce onstage and scintillate for 20 minutes without having to blow her nose once. Sir Fitzroy Callow holds a throat infection in abeyance to bathe us in the honeyed tones of his trombone with a performance of greater subtlety, sensitivity and wit than ever. Bobby Fresh arrives at the gig crackling with stress after a day of living hell at the office only to bounce and skip his way across the drumkit with that mischievous lightness of touch that is all his own. And Connie Vanderlay – she’s the most astonishing of them all. There was a time, a few years ago, when life had floored her completely, and a few moments before we were due onstage she was in pieces – then she stepped onto the stage, sat down at the keyboard and played the most transporting and life-affirmingly bright piano part I had ever heard. At the time I felt guilty for asking her to gig on through a life crisis, but now I’ve been on the other side of it, I think my policy when any musician friend is going through a rough patch will be to drag them onstage as often as possible. And even if they’re not a musician, I’m going to give them a ukelele – or even a kazoo – and make them play it until they feel better.